Tuesday, March 24, 2015


In October, I wrecked our car on one of those all-too-rare Finnish autumn days when there’s just too much sunshine.

The sky was clear, for a change, really clear, not just a lighter shade of gray. It was near sunset. We were driving west. Because of Finland’s location at 60 degrees north, sunset here at certain times of the year can last a long time. The sun just seems to sit forever on the horizon, right above the pavement if you happen to be driving in the right direction. This is why I was practically blinded when I hit a temporary barrier in a construction zone and crashed our Honda, leaving it hanging on the lip of a ditch.

A couple of weeks later we bought a used Nissan Qashqai, a smallish crossover SUV. To find ourselves unexpectedly car shopping made me think of how many cars I have owned, alone or with my wife, since the first one, a beloved light-blue VW beetle that my father and I bought from a relative for $800 ($3850 in today’s money) and an outboard boat motor.

Since I’m apparently keeping score here, the Qashqai is my ninth car. All have been either German or Japanese makes. Not a lot of diversity there, I’m afraid.

Scene of the accident. And the sun still won't go down.

Of all of these, one that I have special fondness for was my second, a compact, yellow 1974 Toyota station wagon. Although the car was small, by folding the rear seat down I could make enough room in the back to sleep in it, which I sometimes did on camping trips.

I guess you could say that in my early twenties I had a somewhat cavalier attitude toward cars and setting out on road trips. In college, I took my VW beetle twice to Florida on spring break, without the benefit (or so I recall) of bringing along a jack. I probably did have a spare tire. Can’t remember.

Luckily, I had no flats on those trips with the VW, thought I did lose a fan belt once returning from Florida, and much, much later the engine caught on fire on my way to a wedding reception. Good times.

To replace the VW, I paid $1200 ($3900 today, no outboard this time) for the yellow Toyota, and I grew even more attached to it, as it became my companion on many a road trip, both long and short.

Being young and more foolish back then, I could afford a more devil-may-care attitude toward car travel. Maybe that explains how I thought it was a good idea, in the summer of 1980, to take the Toyota on what turned out to be kind of a classic cross-country buddy road trip.

My college roommate Eddie and I had both graduated the previous year from the University of Georgia, where we had roomed with my other best friend Bob. At the time, Eddie was a newly minted high-school teacher. I was working as an unskilled technician in a university laboratory, mostly feeding fruit flies and later dismembering them.

Our friend Bob, on the other hand, had had the foresight to actually think about his future. He ended up with a degree in geology and right after graduation landed an outrageously well-paid job at a uranium mine in Grants, New Mexico.

Bob’s move to the open spaces of the American southwest gave me and Eddie the perfect excuse to undertake a trip that was adventurous, carefree and completely dumb. Dumb because my Toyota station wagon was definitely not up for a traveling across the vast stretch of America that lay beyond Alabama.

I was pretty sure the car could make it as far as New Mexico (an 1800-mile/2900-kilometer trip from Georgia). What I could not be so sure about was the trip back home. With a reckless attitude I have since lost, I figured that if worse came to worse, and the Toyota completely stopped working, we could just abandon it and take a bus home. It seemed so Kerouac.

On a long-awaited morning in June, Eddie and I set off on our journey at daybreak from my parent’s home in North Georgia. After about two hours, we had made it as far as northern Alabama when a tire blew out. This time, I did have both a jack and a spare. After buying a new tire in Birmingham, we pushed on. The trip was uneventful across the rest of Alabama and Mississippi, all the way to the KOA in Louisiana where we pitched the tent for the first night. 

(KOA is a chain of commercial campgrounds, where travelers with trailers or tents can sleep for much less than the cost of a motel room. It was our kind of place.)

Besides the blowout, the only hint of car trouble had been in Jackson, Mississippi, where I had looked under the hood to investigate a funny sound.

Everything looked fine, except the alternator (generaattori, in Finnish) was vibrating in an odd way.  Not to worry, though. The noise didn’t seem to get any worse on the drive halfway across Texas on Day Two.

Likewise, all was well as we entered New Mexico on the following day and made a crazy all-night drive from Carlsbad Caverns National Park up through the desert in inky blackness, with jackrabbits scurrying away from our headlights and lightning storms flickering in the distance, a non-stop drive that finally brought us to Bob’s house-trailer-in-the-desert at dawn on the fourth morning.

We had a fantastic couple of days in Grants, visiting lava fields, the cinder cones of extinct volcanoes, and other natural sights we didn’t have in Georgia, such as ice caves (where an accumulation of winter ice never melts, due to the superb insulation qualities of volcanic rock).

In his jeep, Bob took us up the dustiest road I’ve ever seen to the top of Mt. Taylor, an 11,305-foot (3,446-meter) extinct volcano where we found bits of turquois, presumably left as some kind of offering by the local Native Americans, for whom the mountain is scared.

Then on a Saturday afternoon, as Bob left for another week of working the night shift in the mines, Eddie and I continued our trip, heading further west for the Grand Canyon and ultimately Las Vegas. As it turned out, we were already pushing our luck. 

We were about 80 miles into the drive, some 20 miles past Gallup along the path of the famed Route 66. We had just crossed the state line into Arizona, happily humming past colorful sandstone cliffs right out of a Roadrunner cartoon, when the Toyota’s alternator fell off.

Immediately, we knew something was wrong. I pulled over on the shoulder of the road for a look. The metal arm that had held the alternator in position was broken, the alternator itself was sitting at the bottom of the engine, and shreds of the fan belt were everywhere.

As luck would have it, we were within sight of an Arizona weighing station, where I figured I could find a pay phone. Looking back, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when I didn’t carry a cell phone with me everywhere. No one did. 

As I walked up to the weighing station office, I was amazed to see that one of the rigs parked in front had license plates from my home county in Georgia. I still can’t get over this coincidence after all these years. My home county had a population of about 10,000, most of whom were not truckers, yet here one was.

Inside the office, I asked the drivers waiting to clear their paperwork which of them was from Ellijay, Georgia. I didn’t know the poor guy at all, but since we were practically neighbors he probably felt he had no choice but to help this clueless kid from back home. 

After looking at my engine, he realized that our only chance was to head back into Gallup and have the alternator fitted back on. He explained to us two uninformed motorists that it’s actually possible to drive without a working alternator, but you can’t go far without a belt to run the fan, especially in Arizona in summer.

This Good Samaritan trucker took some nylon cord we had among our camping gear and jerry-rigged a belt that would run the fan well enough to get us the twenty miles back into Gallup without having to be towed. I gave him ten-dollars for his trouble, but knowing how valuable time is for truckers, I’m sure it wasn’t nearly enough. We parted ways and limped back into Gallup.

“We don’t work on no damn foreign cars,” was the response we got at the first service station we came to. Checking the yellow pages at a phone booth, we managed to find the only place in town willing to work on non-American cars. It was just closing for the night. There was nothing to do but check into a motel and wait for morning.

We were there bright and early, just as the owner was opening up. He was a crusty transplant from back East with a colorful and profane way of expressing himself. I remember saying to Eddie, “Looks like we got a hard ass.”

In between pumping gas and making politically incorrect comments about the local Native Americans, he welded the alternator back onto the broken metal arm and replaced the fan belt.

The only problem with this quick-and-dirty repair job was that once the new belt was on, its tension couldn’t be adjusted since the alternator was welded firmly in place. There was no way, if needed, to move the alternator back and forth to tighten the belt. No problem. The whole thing only cost 40 dollars, the belt was tight enough at the moment, and the alternator was working again. We were back on the road by noon.

We spent two days camping near the Grand Canyon, soaking in the scenery and getting sunburned. As we aimed the Toyota toward Las Vegas, there was only one unsettling development. The fan belt had started to screech, at first just a little, but then louder and louder as we crossed Hoover Dam and neared Sin City.

By the time we hit the Las Vegas strip, there was a full-fledged banshee scream coming from under the hood. The sound was worrisome – not to mention annoying to our fellow campers at the Las Vegas KOA as we screeched our way to our tent-site after midnight, returning from watching the over-the-top “Hallelujah Hollywood!” topless review at the MGM Grand.

Clearly, this wasn’t good. The screeching would drive us crazy before we ever got back to Georgia. But I had a plan. I noticed that by pushing the metal arm down just a little the belt tightened enough to stop the noise.

At a hardware store, I bought some metal wire and needle-nose pliers. The next morning, I slipped under the car and attempted to pull the metal arm down by looping the wire tightly around it and one of the engine supports.

It didn’t work. The wire was too stiff – I couldn’t make it taut enough to hold the arm in place. Then I had another idea. I tried instead using a bit of the same nylon cord we had used for the makeshift fan belt. I ran a loop of the cord from the metal arm to the engine support. Then, using a piece of wood that happened to be lying on the ground next to me, I twisted the loop in the middle, like a turnbuckle.

That worked, but only if the piece of wood stayed in place. By taking a second piece of cord, I was able to also tie down the stick well enough to make the whole cockamamie thing function. We drove out of the KOA later that day without a hint of screeching. 

We still use the same improvised nylon-cord-and-stick turnbuckle system 
to straighten up our fruit trees. 

That was as far west as we went. From Las Vegas we started a meandering trip home through southern Utah, the four-corners country of Monument Valley – where Eddie and I planned to stop by the side of the road and do our infamous impersonations of John Wayne – and then up into Colorado. At least, that was the plan.

Three days out of Las Vegas, with southern Utah behind us, we were in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona and just about to turn toward Tuba City on the way to Colorado, when the alternator light came on and stayed on. 

We decided this was not good and aborted the trip to Monument Valley. Instead, we decided to rush back to New Mexico and let our trusty mechanic in Gallup take a look. We stopped only once at the Petrified Forest National Park visitor center to take one more look at a cute female ranger we had noticed on the trip out. Hey, we were in our twenties.

In Gallup, the mechanic’s assessment was that the alternator was kaput. Since I didn’t want to spend any more money for repairs on this trip, the only advice he could give us was to avoid using the headlights by driving only during daytime. We decided to do this all the way back to Georgia. 

We crashed (in the sense of stopping to sleep) once more at Bob’s in Grants before starting the epic flight home. Despite having to have the battery charged at least once, in Oklahoma, the daylight driving strategy worked. Mostly. The main problem was that we were limited as to where we could stop for the night, since we always had find a place well before sundown.

At first that seemed like just a small inconvenience. On the first day, we made it as far as the KOA in Amarillo, Texas, before darkness overtook us. So far, so good. The following day, we were nearing Memphis when twilight forced us to start using our headlights and stop for the night with no KOA on the horizon. We’d have to shell out money for a motel.

The lone motel at the first exit we came to had no vacancy. We continued on to the next exit, draining precious electricity for the headlights. Here, just on the outskirts of Memphis, there were several motels. No problem, we thought. If only that were true. We were surprised to find they were all full up, even the Holiday Inn, which was a bit upscale for KOA campers such as ourselves. 

The receptionist at the Holiday Inn told us there was a big square-dancing convention in Memphis, and we wouldn’t have much better luck further down the road since practically every place along the way was full.

It didn’t matter anyway. It was already too dark. We couldn’t risk going any further to look for a place. We had to stay put. We spent the night trying to sleep sitting in the car in an out of way spot in the motel the parking lot.

After spending two weeks in the dry heat of the arid Southwest, the humidity of Dixie was hard to get used again. Keeping the car windows rolled up was suffocating, but keeping them open invited the Mississippi River mosquitoes to join us inside. And those are big mosquitoes.

All night long, we were rolling the windows up or down, depending on what was the source of our misery at the moment -- the heat or the bugs.

As soon as there was a hint of daylight, we took off. In a small town in Tennessee, after we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer, we parked on the street to take a nap, giving rise to some suspicious looks from the few locals out early on a Sunday morning.

We made it through Tennessee as in a trance. At a rest area only about 60 miles from home, the battery died, and the two of us had to push the car back out of the parking spot (running over my foot, in the process), then across the rest area in order to jump it off. 

It was a once-of-a-lifetime trip – maybe for good reason. Bob didn’t stay much longer in Grants. Eddie became a pastor. We never talked about another drive cross-country.

I got a new alternator put on the Toyota and took it on a similar trip West a couple of years later. This time it was with my future wife, who christened the car “Yrjö”, the Finnish name for George and a slang term for vomit. She said it was the color that inspired her.

Me and Yrjö, Independence Pass, Colorado, June 1982.

On that trip we traveled across the southern tier of the US, all the way to California, braved Tijuana traffic for a couple of hours, wound our way up the Big Sur coast to San Francisco and then headed back east toward Georgia. We stopped in Las Vegas, but only to cool off after traveling through Death Valley without air-conditioning.

Yrjö finally did make it to Monument Valley and into Colorado on that trip. The only time I had to tinker under the hood was to remove the air filter cover to help (so I figured) coax the car over 12,095-foot Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies. I would say two cross-country trips for a car that old and poorly maintained ain’t bad.

Anyway, that was a different era. Today’s cars are too complicated for most laypeople to tinker with. We get ours serviced regularly, by pros. I don’t anticipate ever again having to resort to using a nylon cord and a stick in some kind of slapdash repair job. Or, for that matter, to take to the road without the benefit of a jack in the car. 

But, you never know. I just recently realized that the Qashqai didn't come with a one -- or even a spare tire. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bag Limits

Back in September, California announced a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, the first state in the union to do so. Amen to that! This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. I hate those bags.

I say, “announced a ban”, because the ban, which was to go into effect in July, has since been put on hold due a campaign by a lobby group, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA). I can only assume the “Progressive” was added to the group’s name for the sheer irony of it. Thanks to the group’s “progressive” efforts, California’s ban will have to survive a statewide referendum in 2016 before it can be enforced.

I can boast a little professional pride when it comes to placing groceries in bags. As a teenager, I had an after school job at the local Thrifttown grocery store in my small hometown in North Georgia. I was a bag boy, and a shelf-stocker, and a floor-mopper. You get the picture. 

But mostly I bagged groceries. Even now, when bagging our purchases at the S-market a five-minute walk from my home in Helsinki, I’d like to think I still have some professional sense of how to go about it. Perhaps it remains sometime marinated into my being. Sadly.

Of course, things were different in the grocery-bagging business back in the 70s – mainly the “bags”. The bags that we rapidly deposited cans of tuna and packs of hamburger meat into back then were brown kraft paper sacks. This was long before the inquiry “Paper or plastic?” became part of each grocery shopping experience in America.

My impression is nowadays in the States you don’t really get a choice. You always get those smallish, flimsy plastic bags that California is now trying to ban. These are the bags so small (about 10 liters) and so flimsy that about a dozen or so are required to hold a typical shopping cart’s worth of stuff. I’ve seen bag boys (please excuse the lack of gender neutrality there) use one bag for a single box of cornflakes.

I guess American stores started using these modern-day annoyances only after I moved to Finland. I never have gotten used to it. On visits to my parents in the 90s, we would arrive from the store with ten or so bags – holding foodstuff that would easily fit into three old-style paper bags. After emptying them, we’d ball up the now-basically-useless bags and add them to the huge collection my parent had already accumulated. 

Eventually the whole giant wad of plastic was hauled off to the dump. Or maybe it was possible to return them to the store. I'm not really sure what happened to them.

There wasn’t much you could do with those bags otherwise, although on our road trips in America we have usually put a few to some to use as dirty-clothes bags. And I have used some to bundle old musty papers and other personal effects that I’ve carted back to Helsinki from my parents’ basement.

Anyway, these shopping bags are another one of those little prosaic facets of life where the differences between Finland and America are glaringly clear. And, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think the Finnish way is better.

Here, bag boys (or girls) don’t pack your 10 items or less into eight tiny, sheer bags. No, they don’t, if for no other reason than in Finland there are no bag persons, of either gender. People here bag their own groceries, and most often they bring their own bags. It works for me.

One of our many reusable shopping bags.

If you want, Finnish grocery stores do, of course, provide bags, either paper or plastic, at a small cost (19 euro cents, or 20¢ US). 

However, in my family – and based on my casual observation, this seems true for most Finns – we instead use our own, tote-like cloth shopping bags that we bring from home. We have a dozen or so such bags that we’ve used for years. I even have a small one that I keep tucked in the fleece jacket I wear three-quarters of the year (otherwise known as winter), just in case I drop into a grocery on a whim and unprepared. 

Even if I do find myself in a checkout lane without any bag of my own, I don’t mind having to buy the occasional plastic one to carry my milk, croissants, rye bread, and vanilla yogurt back home in.

The plastic bags the stores sell are of a decent strength and size (23 liters, about six US gallons), excellent for repurposing for other uses. We always need a few around the house to line our trash and compost containers. They’re the perfect size for that.

As far as I know, this system of BYOB (bring your own bag) or paying for one has simply arisen out of the Finnish way of doing things, without the need for the government doing anything.

In the States, as the example of California shows, even government action backed by the public will isn’t always enough. Polls indicate that most Californians overwhelmingly support the now-delayed ban (and will almost certainly approve it in the referendum next year). All it took to thwart that public will was some 500,000 signatures on a petition, naturally pushed for the most part by the APBA lobby group.

Luckily, over 100 California municipalities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, already have such bans in place, and the delay of the statewide ban does not affect those local policies.

Green-minded cities in my home state of Georgia might not be so lucky. 

At least two towns are considering a California-like ban on plastic shopping bags. One is Tybee Island, a tiny community on Georgia’s scenic coast. The other is Athens, the birthplace of R.E.M. and kind of a second home to me  a place still dear to my heart. 

To stop any such eco-nonsense as these two towns might be contemplating, however, Republicans in the Georgia Senate are proposing a law that would ban any Georgia city from banning bags. A ban on bans. Apparently, when it comes to plastic bags in Georgia, home rule doesn’t apply to local communities.

The rationale for the ban on bag banning (besides the obvious one of reaping benefits to the plastic bag industry) is that allowing individual cities to make up their minds about plastic bags would result in a confusing “patchwork” of regulations.

This is what I’ve been saying about federalism in the US for years. Letting California and Georgia, just like the cities of Athens and Tybee Island, enact their own laws leads to a fragmented regulatory and business environment. Better to have the same laws applied across the nation! Let Washington decide for everyone! (I’m only partly joking here.)

Still, it’s funny, or terribly sad depending on your point of view, how something as humble as a grocery bag can expose the cynical and hypocritical nature of some American politicians. 

That this could even be a political issue would probably never occur to most Finnish shoppers as they fill up a sturdy, and reusable, bag or two with something tasty for iltapala (supper). But, then again, things might just be a bit more sensible here.