Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Pale Imitation of Home

At this point in our story, our hero (that would be me; I'm the hero) finds himself in Denver for six weeks, performing a geophysical survey for his former employer to detect unexploded ordnance on an old bombing range. Why? Because his (note the continued thinly veiled use of the third person here; our hero is, after all, a professional writer, and knows all the tricks) writing job became unstable, and, knowing that the ax was going to fall, he preemptively sought out this survey.

But that, as they say, is another story.

First, it's actually not a solid six weeks. I'll (our hero has found the use of the thinly veiled third person tiresome and has dropped it like his writing job dropped him) be flying back to Boston twice, first for the November 6th Michael Troy tribute show at The Narrows (, and then again over Thanksgiving. But still, it's a longer stint on the road than I've done since The Dry Prong Chronicles four years ago, and is all the more surprising considering that I had left my goddamned geophysics job to become a professional goddamned automotive writer!

(Sorry. Our hero appears to be having a meltdown, probably spurred by the absence of his lovely wife and his garage. He has regained his composure and is attempting to continue. He may need to buy a Z3 while he's out here in order to get the Xanax effect of top-down driving. Hey, it's Colorado. There's legal reefer. Our hero is certain he can find some new-age leech dispenser to dash him off a script for something topless.)

The work involves using a survey system that has a small side-by-site utility vehicle that tows a carbon fiber platform equipped with very accurate GPS and two kinds of metal detectors. To answer the question that constantly comes up, yes it's very safe because a) the site has already been swept of any surface unexploded ordnance (UXO), b) any UXO that's in the ground is only there because it's a dud that didn't blow up when it smacked in, which was probably nearly 70 years ago that this point, and c) ordnance items aren't land mines -- they're not sensitively fused, they're not designed to blow up if you step on them. It is very interesting work, and there is emotional and professional satisfaction using this equipment that was largely my baby and that I thought was going to be scrapped after it was mothballed for four years.

When traveling on a government contract, in addition to your salary and hotel room, you are paid a per diem for meals and incidentals. Here in Denver, that's $69/day. That sounds like a lot, and it is if you treat it carefully. Nearly every hotel you stay at has a buffet breakfast of some sort, so there's no out-of-pocket cost for breakfast. And you're in the field all day so you're not eating lunch out; typically you either take an English muffin and a banana from the breakfast buffet, or buy a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly and make sandwiches, but either way, lunch, like breakfast is at low to no cost. So it all comes down to what you spend on dinner.

Many of the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) guys who are in the field for much longer than I am regard the per diem as pay and try to bank as much of it as possible. However, when I used to do a lot of field work with a tightly-knit crew, we enjoyed going out to nice restaurants every night either to celebrate our success or drown our sorrows, and when you do that -- eat well and drink -- it's actually pretty easy to burn through most or all of the per diem.

On this trip, since I'm basically out here by myself (I'm working with two other people from another company, and I like them, but we're not best buddies sharing meals, at least not yet), and since my employment has had an, ahem, interruption, it seemed an easy decision to try and bank as much of the per diem as possible. Plus, the extended stay hotel at which we're staying not only has a little kitchenette in each room, but also has a "social" in the lobby Mondays through Wednesdays, at which there is hot food that is passable as dinner. There is also, incredibly, free beer at the "social," but I have data processing to do in the evenings, and follow as strict a no alcohol on weeknights policy as I can. And I never have alcohol in my room. That way lies madness. The line in my song "The Extended Stay Motel" ( about the vodka bottle being empty? Pure fiction. (The rest of the song? Absolutely true. That was an odd occurrence at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville NC that my field partner Ric Macneil and I could not figure out.)

That having been said, I did splurge Friday night at a sushi place with an all you can eat special that I washed down with two bottles of hot sake, and on Saturday night at a bar watching the Cubs clinch the pennant and drinking too much Left Hand Brewing's Nitro Milk Stout on tap. I'm not a freaking monk.

Once things were proceeding sufficiently smoothly in the field, the next order of business seemed to be dealing with the phone. I'd been using an antiquated iPhone 4S for years, and a combination of factors (the slow 3G speed, the diminished battery life, some cable and connector issues, and horrible performance since I made the fatal mistake of updating the operating system) was driving me crazy. I am an inveterate bargain hunter, and nearly bought a used iPhone SE on Swappa, but I hemmed and hawed long enough that the one I was looking at got sold, and I had enough questions about guarantees and SIM cards and transferring contacts that I simply went into a local Costco out here in Aurora. When I found that $20/month got me a new SE 64gig phone, plus an external lithium battery pack, plus a $50 Costco rebate card, plus they'd transfer my contacts then and there (I didn't have a laptop with me with iTunes on it), I caved. The new phone is making life a bit less frustrating.

(As an aside, the guy at the Verizon booth at Costco literally laughed when he pulled up my plan. "Five iPhone 4Ss? I haven't seen that on a plan in a couple of years!" And he didn't have the cable to hook the phone; I had to hand him the one I had in my backpack.)

While at Costco, I attempted to stock up on food for the hotel room, but the big box nature of Costco makes that a bit difficult. I don't need 30 lbs of ground beef, a case of apples, or an entire cooked ham. Even the packages of tortellini were large enough to feed the Celtics. In the end, I opted for a big package of floutas and a box of 20 individual servings of guacamole, each costing about $8.50, and fled the premises.

The next few evenings, on the way home from the survey site, I tried using my new iPhone to have Siri direct me to the nearest grocery store or supermarket, but for some reason it didn't seem to understand the concept and kept sending me to industrial produce supply houses. Finally, by chance, I drove by a Sprouts, which appears to be the Western equivalent of Whole Foods. I overpaid for a nice selection of what I often eat at home (tortillas, tomatoes, salsa, cheese, sliced turkey, canned tuna fish, and rolls), and called the hotel room stocked, at least for now.

As per my Facebook post, I use any travel an an excuse to search for vintage BMWs (the logistics of driving one home for Thanksgiving notwithstanding). I am here with a trailer that transports our survey equipment, and while I couldn't fit a whole car in it, things like spare Getrag 245 5-speed transmissions, Recaro seats, and original 2002 FPS alloys would be a slam dunk (and such things have ridden home in the trailer from prior trips). I haven't found any automotive treasures yet, but I did find an ad for an astonishingly well-priced Westerly-built Guild D25M guitar. I drove down to Colorado Springs yesterday and bought it on the spot. I had packed a cheap travel guitar in the trailer, but this one is much nicer and I'm much more likely to play it and actually write something on the trip. Plus, it made me happy.

And yes, the fact that I have now spent the "saved" per diem money twice -- first on the phone, and then on the guitar -- is not lost on me.

The actual survey site is pretty remote, about 30 minutes in by pickup truck on rutted paths, but once there it's very peaceful. We arrive before sunrise, and sometimes it's spectacular. Once the sun is up, there's a lightness and subtlety to the coloration that is very soothing on the nerves, like Van Gogh on one of his better days. The smell of sage is intoxicating. The cows find the geophysical equipment interesting. The Rockies are visible off to the west. So far the weather has been absolutely spectacular. This is not hardship.

But even with these attempts to normalize my surroundings with familiar food and musical instruments, it's all still a pale imitation of home.

But hey, give me Maire Anne, a round tail light 2002, and a place to work on it, and I'd bed right in.