Michelin Tires Saved My Bacon

I’d just bought a brand-new set of four Michelin Energy 205/60/16 tires for my ’99 Camry Solara on October 4.¬† This isn’t a review of the tires – see a typical review here – but if you wanted to know what brand tires I’d recommend, more than ever, my answer would be “Michelin.”

On October 19 I set off on the return leg of my monthly road trip from Phoenix to the Bay Area. There was a freeway-speed road incident on Interstate 5 — yes, yes, I and the car are fine. As far as I’m concerned, Michelin saved my bacon. As I wrote a friend,

“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”

A pickup swerved violently into my lane. I swerved to avoid collision. Hit the sand and gravel highway shoulder, started to spin out, careened across the other lane and into the median strip trying to recover, did a slow horizontal 180 without rolling (like a high-speed dodgem car), tires screaming and howling, and ended up stopped on the right shoulder – facing backwards. Not a scratch, dent, not hurt, glad to be alive. Brand new Michelins just paid for themselves.

Michelin Energy (after)

Inspecting For Damage

A big-rig pulled over to see if he could help, as did several passenger cars. Cal-Trans joined us. Witnesses said the black pick-up pulled over but then left the scene. I saw nothing else outside my own immediate situation; I was busy at the time. ūüôā

On closer inspection of the tires, the left-front had trapped roadside shoulder “straw” between the tire bead and the rim, but the bead didn’t break loose and I was able to drive the rest of the way home. The tread near the sidewall is well-scrubbed. See below for a detail photo. I have an appointment for a tire check.

Straw still stuck between bead and rim after 200 freeway miles

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Golden Age of Rail

Is the Golden Age of Rail really over for good? If the air passenger industry doesn’t reinvent itself soon, might rail again be the next really big thing?

I saw one of those grand old railroad nostalgia specials on PBS earlier this week. This one was America and the Passenger Train (Producer: Richard W. Luckin):

“This program traces the development of America’s passenger trains from 1830 to 2008 through interviews and vintage footage. Many leading experts from the railroad industry and railroad museums are interviewed – along with people who rode the 20th Century Limited, Super Chief, California Zephyr and the Daylight. Hosted by Tia Marier.”

I grew up right at the tilting-point of those great railroad days. The elegant 1920’s dining-car experiences you can watch on “Poirot” had already mostly disappeared. American rail still offered a luxury service for the well-heeled traveler right up to about 1970. And I was never “well-heeled” anyway.

But by 1970, the automobile and commercial air travel had cut so heavily into rail passenger revenues that many railroads just tossed in the towel. Some railroads hung in there for a while, feeling that even as a “loss leader” the elegance and leisure of rail travel was a great public relations boon.

It was, but it wasn’t enough. The glamor and excitement of air travel, coupled with half-day coast-to-coast travel, spelled doom for long-distance rail travel. People no longer had time to travel by train. Today, it’s theoretically possible for an executive to jet from San Francisco to New York, attend a short conference or board meeting, and jet home to San Francisco in time for dinner.

Theoretically possible, but dehumanizing. There are new barriers and obstacle courses for air travel that didn’t exist two decades ago. Add an extra hour of wait time at each airport, security checks, baggage delays, penurious overhead luggage storage, hidden extra fees for pillows, blankets, soft drinks and suitcases, a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile airline service bureaucracy, and unscheduled flight delays and cancellations. What you have is a disenchanted public and a formula for the next great revolution in travel, whatever that may be.

There’s no question airlines are feeling the pinch of fuel costs. We all are, But the industry’s troubles started way back when oil was well below $60 a barrel, not $100+ as it is today. “The economy” or not, airlines manufactured most of their own problems.

I shuttled back and forth from my Bay Area to Phoenix for over two decades. Apart from infrequent “frequent flyer” upgrades to First Class, I traveled in Steerage, or whatever euphemism they were currently applying to the cattle-car section of the main cabin. I’m only 5’8″ and 150 pounds, yet economy air seats were uncomfortably cramped even for me. I found the last several years of this to be really quite dreadful. One thing all we passengers loved to talk about was the deterioration of air service.

My long-distance rail travel was limited to an aged troop train during the Cuban Crisis, hardly illustrative of the Golden Age of rail travel. But I used and liked “light rail” a lot in the 1990’s; the SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a generally delightful experience. What I liked about it: you got on your train, traveled to your destination, and got off the train again. It’s that simple.

And who, desiring to hop BART from Oakland to San Francisco, has ever had to shop Travelocity to get the best price for a ticket? If you look at USAir quotes for a no-frills flight to Phoenix over the period of a few weeks, you’ll see what a shell game the ticket pricing racket really is. And we’re their “marks.”

Air travel has something in common with CostCo, apart from the difference that CostCo employees are polite. Sure, you can save money at a CostCo, particularly if you spend a lot there, but there’s one thing you cannot claim. No one has ever parked at a CostCo, dashed in to buy an item, and dashed back out again. That huge warehouse selection means endless corridors in a vast enclosed space, pushing carts for miles and miles “just looking” for your shopping list, and long lines at the check-outs. Airports are designed for compartmentalized efficiency. Think of a REALLY huge warehouse containing a Home Depot, CostCo, Safeway, and a Fry’s Electronics, and you have an idea of what the modern airport is really about. It is NOT designed for passenger convenience.

Call me disenchanted, disaffected, or disgruntled. For my money, the commercial airline industry can abandon interstate air passenger traffic – something it hasn’t been very good at for over 20 years – leaving it free to concentrate on air freight, the more lucrative and uncomplaining cash cow.

This is exactly what the railroads had to do half a century ago, though for different reasons. Is it too much to hope we’ve come full circle?

Would the next big thing be high-speed rail? At 220-360 mph, a bullet train will never beat a 600 mph jetliner to the destination, but when you factor in terminal delays and flight cancellations, it comes close. There are more security options, too, including disconnecting the locomotive entirely. A terrorist can’t just hijack a railroad train and crash it into a World Trade Center. If someone pulls the emergency cord, all the passengers can just get off: what are terrorists supposed to do about that? “Take me to Cuba”: not spoken on the rail lines.

You can also electrify rail lines and run them on clean renewable energy. Air traffic consumes tanker-loads of fossil fuels. Aviation will be the last  sector of the energy economy to be switched over, if ever.

Think about rail. There is just something really dangerously attractive about getting on, traveling to your destination, and just getting off again.

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Speeding Photo Enforcement

The ticket arrived in my California mailbox yesterday, from the Arizona automated traffic enforcement folks.

At first, I thought this must be some kind of bizarre mistake.

But it wasn’t. At the bottom of the citation was a front-view photo of me driving (photo arguable), and rear-view of my license plate (unquestionably me). The date and time exactly matched my California-bound departure from Phoenix. I left the house at 6:01AM on the 4th, and the picture was taken at 6:21AM, vicinity of the 10 mile post at 59th Avenue.

I do remember seeing a photo enforcement warning sign. Even though there is hardly anyone on the road that early in the morning, I figured I was driving 3mph over the limit and should be OK. The AZ limit on Interstate 10 is 75. I looked for patrol cars in the rear view mirror. Seeing none, I again assumed I was OK.

Welcome to the wonderful world of fully automated enforcement. I had read about it, but didn’t quite “get it” – this was my first encounter.

The fine was $181.50. The trouble was, this close to town, the limit was still 65.

Speeders never prosper (still image)

Speeders never prosper

There’s a web page where I was able to pay the fine and view a video of my infraction. I wasn’t able to save the video to my PC, so got a screen capture. Other vehicles in the video appeared to be traveling roughly the same speed. Recession or not, Arizona should be making a tidy little bundle on this stretch of road.

But no matter. I should have known better. Now, you can bet I will never forget this stretch of highway – which is what the fines are designed to do anyway.

And, if one were thinking of contesting the speed, it’s not measured by photometrics, or even by radar. The camera is connected to physical in-road sensors. The images are encrypted and tamper-proof. For fixing vehicular speed, it’s really a lot cheaper and more scientifically objective than a traffic cop’s citation. I don’t think one could argue successfully there was any mistake at all.

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2008 Drive to Phoenix

Drive-by shootingThis is what you get when, driving solo, you stick a point-and-shoot out the window, keeping your eyes on the road, and point, and shoot.

Eastbound on the I-210 Pasadena Freeway headed for Riverside CA and the junction of I-10, I missed a fine shot of Mt. Baldy and finally settled on these snow-capped peaks. Soon we will begin the ascent of the Tehachapis and the long descent back down into the Mojave, which is quite cool (about 79-81 degrees) this time of year.

The trip began when I departed Castro Valley at 6AM. I was going to top off the tank before getting onto the freeway, but somebody had run over a skunk by the gas station, and I thought better of stopping. It is dark this time of the morning, but you could see the faint glow of twilight off in the east. By Crow’s Landing on I-5, the sun was one solar diameter above the horizon of the San Joaquin Valley, a dark crimson orb pushing through light fog and haze.

By anyone’s accounting, the north-south I-5 through¬†California’s great¬†Central Valley is a stark, barren drive, with the highlights being the occasional vast feedstock lots, and, as you approach Bakersfield, the alkali deposits that leach out of the fields from decades of heavy fertilization and hard water irrigation. But I like it, except for the smell of the feedlots (which was oddly absent this year). To look at the land,¬†with its white-laced¬†powdery ashen sandy soil, you would never suspect that this state manages to grow enough food to supply the state and most of the nation with an unimaginable abundance of fruit, vegetable, and beef.

Further on around Bakersfield, the land¬†projected an eery, otherworldly appearance as the “fog” thickened. Visibility was still several miles, but faded rapidly. Nearby objects appeared hazy, while distant objects revealed ghosts of disembodied appartions floating on the gloom. The fog revealed a faint trace of dirty reddish gray-brown, proof that a large component of the poor visibility was really just smog. Backlit by the¬†low winter morning¬†sun, this soup made for poor visibility and challenging driving.

A glimpse of the sky ahead of the horizon offered a truly jolting sight.¬†The gray silhouette of a¬†huge mountainscape¬†towered over the highway¬†for an instant through the haze: gray on gray. Then it disappeared, then¬†loomed above once¬†again, with hints of snow on the peaks. Signs announced “Grapevine” and “trucks use weigh station”. We began the mighty ascent to Gorman Pass. This is roughly the halfway point on the trip from the SF Bay Area to Phoenix.

I always underestimate the vastness of the LA basin, the intimidating traffic and the confusing, last-minute highway signing. I take the Pasadena Freeway at Sylmar to bypass as much of LA as possible. These freeways are engineered for commute traffic, not interstate traffic. Most people are afraid to use the HOV lanes (2 or more passengers) even on a Saturday. Traffic is skittish and can go from 75mph to a full stop in fifteen seconds. Honking motorists pass a lady on a cellphone crawling along at 35 mph in the fast lane in a brand-new SUV. I can hardly WAIT to get out of here.

You break loose of all this past Riverside. The¬†Interstate-10 reduces to two good lanes in each direction.¬†From here on out to Phoenix, truckers own the road. It’s trucks passing trucks passing trucks. With a¬†little patience, a V-6 or V-8 can zip through¬†this when breaks of¬†clear lane¬†are offered, though it’s divided freeway all the way, a smart move in my opinion. The days of¬†pulling out into the oncoming lanes and stomping it into passing gear are long gone.

The other thing I always underestimate is the vastness of the desert. There’s over 100 miles of Mojave between Riverside and Blythe, on the Colorado River. Breaking through to the “Welcome to Arizona” sign on the bridge is always cause for cheering. “Phoenix: 196 miles” seems like it’s all downhill.¬†

At 100 miles outside of Phoenix, you can see the Superstition Mountains far away on the horizon, though dimly. You can also see an obvious white hemisphere of smog enveloping Phoenix, like a geodesic dome. As you approach mile 36, you realize the traffic and the atmosphere is not that much different from the LA basin you just fled.

Two-car garageFrom this point, the commute to the garage at the house in Phoenix took as long as the trip from Blythe to the outskirts of metro Phoenix.

But it is always good to get home. Pictured in the garage are the California car (backed in) and the Arizona car. It is the only other photo I was able to take.

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Driving To Phoenix

Notes about an uneventful trip: I have done this 713 mile drive perhaps a dozen times before, but I believe this was the first time I had done it alone. Being in the driver’s seat for 9 to 11 hours isn’t new, but it took some adaptation to not having anyone except myself to talk to. And, of course, “Junior”, on duty as our Driver Bear.

It’s a lot easier to fly, but the idea here was to transport a trunkload of stuff that wasn’t being used in California, like my 5″ Maksutov telescope, to Arizona, where hopefully I will find it easy to set that up and use it on clear nights.

I brought the camera but took no photos. The weather was generally overcast and hazy. There are too few stretches where a solo driver should dare to fool with photography, and I never found a spot which shouted “pull over!”

I don’t have any problem keeping myself mentally alert on a long drive. Like Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes”, having an overactive imagination fills the hours admirably well – as long as you don’t lose track of what’s happening in the classroom. Navigation is a different issue.

I know the route: SF Bay Area 580 East to Interstate 5, south to the “Grapevine”, the mountainous approach overlooking that dirty, nasty LA basin, down into the San Fernando Valley and the 210 interchange, followed by two “switchbacks” to the horribly designed San Bernardino Freeway, and finally onto I-10 east, a straight shot into Phoenix.

I brought some Google Earth screen prints of the LA freeway interconnections, which look like a photomicrograph of blood vessels supplying a cancer, and things didn’t turn out that way. Anxious to avoid any more of Los Angeles than need be, I took the San Fernando 210 (past Sylmar) because I know it and we have done this before.

A real, detailed AAA map of Southern California would have been a plus here. Once again, it would have saved me an hour after I pulled off on a “Palm Springs” offramp for gas. After several miles of back road driving, I found a dumpy Shell station with Bay Area prices ($3.69/gallon for medium grade). The attendant happily told me the best way to get back onto the Interstate: west on the main drag to the light, then turn right. This dumped my into a new condo development enclave.

tourist bureau postcard of glamorous Palm SpringsHere’s a tourist bureau postcard of Palm Springs. Tasteful, ain’t it?

I noted the “main drag” is state route 111, so reasoned I could drive east until seeing an Interstate sign for route 10. Now, let me tell you, I had no idea how huge Palm Strings is. It’s as ritzy and glitzy as you’d expect, with its postcard signature desert mountain backdrop looming over the boulevard. Hitting it as I did at the tail end of lunch hour, behind a slow endless parade of Hummers, Escalades, Mercedes RV’s and Jaguars, I thought I’d never get out of town!

And Palm Springs is now connected to Palm something or other else, with commercial zoning where real business is conducted, and “affordable” $1M plus condo developments. About 24 miles of this after gassing up, I found a “I-10” sign and was back on Interstate 10 east. There’s no easy way out of Palm Springs that I could see – they really want you to spend money. I hope my purchase of a Tropicana orange drink helped. In 27 miles and an honest lost hour, I was again eastbound.

It is always a treat to drive over the legendary Colorado River, past Blythe. The remaining 200 or so miles to Phoenix include some lovely stretches of high desert, ancient eroded mountains, and evidence of the inland sea that flooded the interior here some 100-72 million years ago. At one point I noticed a 20 mile long strip of terraced sand that arguably could have been the primordial shoreline.

Thanks to my Palm Springs delay, this drive was an honest 11 hours. I was sure glad to walk into the house here in Phoenix, and “driving video arcade game” images kept replaying in my head until I finally went to bed early at 9PM.

I’ll drive back next Saturday. I hope I’ll have located that map before then, if for no other reason than to study it beforehand and just have it aboard – the point being not that you might not find you way home after so many years of doing it, but that, like flying airplanes, it pays to plan ahead and know your waypoints in advance.

And, weather conditions permitting, I plan to spend that “lost hour” at turnouts, taking pictures of the terrain I love so much.

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New York New York

New York New York, Las Vegas. Kodak DC-260 photo by Alex Forbes

A couple of weeks ago we splurged on a weekend in Las Vegas. I had really intended to note a couple of surprising and delightful things. If you visit Vegas and don’t mind a bit of a spree, we felt pampered and treated like genuinely important customers at New York New York. When we go back to Las Vegas, and we will, New York New York will be my first choice, and I’ll go further and recommend it. Here’s why.

Now, as an old Stat 101 student, gambling casinos and the luck of the draw have no fatal attraction for me. I know the odds. I’m perfectly content if I can manage to stretch a $10 roll of quarters for half an evening on the slots. As casinos go, I’d be hard pressed to say whether I actually preferred New York New York to the Luxor or to Excalibur.

New York New York, the hotel: you would of course expect the rooms to be first cabin, and they are. Service and amenities are tops. What impressed me was finding that the level of service is a couple of cuts above what you find elsewhere. From the doorman to the desk clerks on the way in, to the cashiers and employees in the in-house shops, people are genuinely glad to see and help you. They cheerfully go out of their way to assist.

At the NYNY Newsstand, which is also the local sundries resource, I had to explain that I was nursing a barbeque burn which had become an open wound, and did they have NeoSporin, Band-Aids and hydrogen peroxide? The motherly clerk actually escorted me over to the right shelf and showed me they stock all those items, explaining that her bandaids had the antibiotic built-in.

As a former retailer, I know that good service costs nothing but the paybacks are incalculable. I was hooked.

New York New York is best described as a city within itself. With four distinct side-by-side hotel buildings with countless shops, a huge full-floor casino and even a Harley-Davidson dealership (in name, at least), the idea is that you might never need to leave the hotel. Coming down the escalator into the casino, the eye catches a panorama consisting of about four indoor city blocks … the most vast indoor space I have ever seen. If this idea of never leaving still sounds confining (we caught a dinner show at Excalibur), it is nonetheless conveniently tempting.

“America”: the main NYNY captive eating establishment turned out to be the biggest surprise. Perhaps I am too jaundiced and cynical. Red, white and blue everywhere (even employee neckties), veiled exploitative references to the sometimes overly reflexive patriotism associated with “911”, a gigantic cafeteria-style seating arrangement, floor walkers with wireless headsets … is this a formula for cafeteria-style service?

The place is huge. They can seat 200, easily. Service is not “fast” but we found it very reliable, AND it is faster than other restaurants we patronize. Once they connect with the customer, they stay connected and they deliver great food and service.

The servers are animated, intelligent, personable and friendly. The menus offer a greater variety than Carrows. The food, it turns out, is fantastic and served piping hot. Floor walkers come by to make sure everything is OK. At first I cynically assumed this was the same thing as you get elsewhere, a meaningless show of concern where no intent at followup is actually intended. At “America”, they follow up. The headsets are a great idea.

We ate there three times. All three times were a delightful dining experience. The last time, at breakfast, a different employee singled us out of a crowd of perhaps 150. I noticed her name badge was brass and had the word “Manager” on it. She stopped by to make sure our breakfast was everything we hoped for (it was wonderful), and to thank us for our repeat business. In other words, she knew which of her customers were returning patrons!

You would expect all this at the “Top Of The Mark” (Mark Hopkins) on Nob Hill … but we didn’t expect it in Las Vegas. We’ll be back, and we’ll look no further than New York New York as our home for the duration of our stay there.

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Return from Phoenix


Here are the kind of personal stats the whole world could give a rat about: Our return trip to the Bay Area was via LA and the infamous I-210 and Grapevine, considerably shorter on the return trip, at 10.6 hours and 710 miles.

We didn’t measure the longer route via Flagstaff on the way down, but I am guessing it added about 80 miles to the round trip. Calling that 1500 miles round trip, we spent $158.63 on 62.393G gasoline, for a both-way fuel economy of 24.04 mpg. The car is a 1999 Toyota Camry Solara.

Average price of gasoline was $2.542 overall, with the cheapest gas being in Phoenix itself (Circle K, $2.339), and the most expensive $2.999 (Shell, Needles).

Leaving Phoenix at 6AM Saturday morning got us across the desert by 10AM, out of weekday LA traffic, and in front door at 4:40. Various freeway splits and mergers between I-210 and other major freeways are poorly marked out and little time is available to prepare. If you don’t already know you need to be in the right hand lanes of 10 to end up on the 210, and then the left hand lanes to not end up going to Riverside, and then in the right 3 lanes to merge to I-5 (say, have I got all that right for sure?): you’ll never get there. We always make it somehow.

But it can be exciting when 400 speeding cars jam on their brakes and switch 3 or 4 lanes of braking traffic at the last minute before hitting the Y in the freeway.

With generous stops for stretch breaks, fuel and even a sandwich, and a driver rotation, we found the return trip overall less draining and more pleasant, though not of course as post-card scenic. At least we saw proper real pine trees in Flagstaff.

In the roughly 200 miles from mountain pass to mountain pass that is the LA basin, once you descend into the smog from the San Bernardino Pass, you are engulfed in it until you reach Gorman and swoop down into the dry clear agricultural valley of I-5. You always drive by beautiful landmark Mt. Baldy approaching Sylmar and the San Fernando Valley, but we never saw that mountain this trip.

All in all, then, we surprised ourselves with the discovery that the drive could be fairly pleasant and reasonably quick if the LA route is taken yet planned and timed carefully. I like the desert and barren open spaces, so am at no loss of things to look at through Arizona, the Mojave and the continuous long, irrigated, dusty farming corridor between LA and the Bay Area.

The photo was taken on I-10 about an hour or so west of Phoenix.

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Driving to Phoenix

We loaded some stuff in the car that’s too big or otherwise inappropriate for airport security. Included is a 10″ reflector telescope and mount that just barely fits in the car at all. Also, a sharp new pair of Long’s Drugs 4″ barbershop scissors I wanted for trimming.

The drive is from the SF Bay Area to Phoenix. Our best time is 9 hours; our longest, about 12. This time we tried a new “long route”. Total time was about 13.5 hours but this included a 1-hour delay on account of a traffic accident that backed up traffic in highway 17 north of Phoenix for 20 miles.
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