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the seven signs that my platteville WI hotel is maybe a little ghetto

1. The mound view of the Mound View Inn has been obscured by a Wal Mart. mound view inn, platteville

2. Entry to the room is gained via metal key. Not even a big, blocky, old-school-but-still-of-this-generation-albeit-pre-plastic-swipey hotel key, but a regular old toothy key, a just-like-my-house-key key.

3. The dead bolt can’t be turned from the outside. Only just barely from the inside.

4. No little bottle of lotion? C’mon.

5. Flapjack pillows, two per bed, tucked into hunnert-percent polyester sheets and blankets.

6. The tag hanging from the inside doorknob reads: “MAID PLEASE HAVE THIS ROOM MADE UP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.” I.e., if you want your room cleaned, you have to execute the extra step of laying out the tag – the default is: NO SERVICE. After fortunately noticing this text this mid-afternoon, I put the tag out as I left , only to realize upon my late-night return that it was two-sided. The opposite reads: PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB.

(p.s. how I love the declarative of this sentence: “MAID!” Not an impersonal address to any and/or all maids but an irontight, hands on the back of the neck “HEY YOU! (who happens to be passing by) YEAH YOU! CHOP-CHOP WITH THIS CLEANING!”)

7. The last guest to inhabit my room covered the peephole (a peephole. in a hotel room.) with a corner of ruled eight and a half by eleven. To avoid, I suppose, being peeped from without. Though one can never be sure it wasn’t the without that he was protecting himself from casually or paranoically peeping. Third hand, could have been a she.

platteville, wi
peep me not

All of this I could happily tolerate were it not for the sadness that seeps from the walls of the long narrow unbroken hallway outside my room and pools in the murky green shadows of the compact florescent lights ensconced on the dinghy used-to-be-white walls.. Thanks to the abovementioned seven signs I am now (at last) tuned in to and – as ever – averse to the sadness that I couldn’t at first smell. Mayhaps by next time I will have learnt my lesson and will see (or hear, or smell) that whatever distance between my destination and the nearest five-star is “dudes, totes do-able.”

Washington Beaches Are State Highways

It’s true. You can drive for miles on the beach in Washington, go from town to town to town, as far as the sand will let you.


There are rules however. This taken from the Long Beach Peninsula Visitor’s Bureau website:

“All drivers and vehicles must be licensed and insured just as on any other State Highway (Sorry, no ATVs). The speed limit is 25 mph, with extra caution to be taken for other vehicles, pedestrians, sunbathers, and beach debris. The beach is patrolled frequently and all laws are strictly enforced. Reckless or careless driving is not tolerated and can result in expensive tickets and even license suspension, so please, play it safe! Parking is allowed.” (emphasis mine)

So no donuts!  This means you!


Blue Lobster

I found a very blue lobster claw on the beach in Maine. Pretty!

Courtney looked it up and as I live and breathe there is such a thing that lives and breathes. One in two to four million lobsters is blue, depending on which source you consult. That got us purty excited. It’s a genetic mutation (like redheads!) that causes the little crusty-tasty to overproduce protein that combines with carotene to make the blue.  There are also yellow lobsters (one in thirty million), two-tone or half-and-half lobsters (one in fifty million), and baddest of the bad sea-scuttling mofos, the albino lobster (one in one hundred million)

I looked at my little blue claw again later and compared it to this guy and I don’t think so. You can see around the blue that there is red, and it’s blue only in places where it looks worn. More likely than I found the the missing limb of some ancient mutated sea freak now roaming the bottoms wailing for his missing claw, I think the sun and waves just wore the red away.

Decide fer yerselfs:


The Search For the Elusive Kai Kua aka (untranslatable Thai) aka Guay-Dtieow Kûa Gài aka Kway Teo aka Guay Tiew Kua of New England (and probably elsewhere) Abetted By a Visual Aid

Girlfriends, let’s dish:

The missus and I stopped for lunch at Ithaca, NY’s Taste of Thai Express Monday. Not wanting yet one more slightly varied permutation of ye olde staple pad thai, I ordered a dish called kai kua. I didn’t invest much hope in my straying from a well-trod path, but one bite showed me just what ol’ uncle bob (frost!) was talking about all those years ago. Oh babies. It was, how do you say in english, effing awesome? Probably the best noodle dish I have ever in my entire little life eaten ever! I vowed to have kai kua at least once a day for the rest of this trip.

However. This is not easily accomplished. The waiters at three restaurants wherein I have sought this treasure of noodly perfection have looked at me with a certain measure of puzzlement when, not seeing it on the menu, I asked if they made it, first by name, then by enumerating the ingredients.

Thai doesn’t translate very fluidly into the latin alphabet, so there are a great metric many variations of the words for the dish, the basic elements of which are: pan-fried wide noodles, chicken bits, egg, squiddy, and a savory garlic gravy.

If you want me to get all technical on your ass, it is really called something that, due to typographical limitations, wordpress will not print so I have to inelegantly post here as an image. What I now love to eat more than anything else is:


But if (unlike me) you have a hard time pronouncing that one, try one of its many nominal slurs: guay-dtieow kua gai; or kway teo; or kai kua; or guay tiew kua; or any number of other variations that you might discover eventually by visiting enough different thai restaurants. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of this nomenclature bidness until just now, so my attempts in the last two days to replicate my first experience fell a little flat.

The first of these attempts, Thai Corner in Amherst, MA, actually did know what I meant when I listed the ingredients, but it took a little tweaking. They call it Guay Tiew Kua, and after adding squid, it came out reasonably close (though a bit drier, and twice as expensive for less food) to my archetypal ideal.

The proprietrix of Thai Paradise in Portsmouth, NH last night just shook her head when I listed the ingredients. Instead I ordered a close approximation by removing the veggies and adding chx and sqd to Lad Nar aka Rad Na. And that’s what I did again today at Saeng Thai in Portland, ME. But both of these came with too much of and not the right kind of gravy.

Since they two out of three times have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ve made up a little note that I sent to my phone with all the variants of kai kua written out that I can show them when I don’t find it on the menu. Now that’s what I call a smart phone!


Kai kua look out: I’m comin’ a gitchoo.

Update: visual aid = total fail.  Thrice before a cock crowed I have asked for the elusive kai kua and thrice I have been denied. The first waiter squinted at my phone: mumble mumble chicken mumble mumble. No…… Try the pad see ew.  The second didn’t even look, just said no. The third squinted at it, his lips moving as he read, and said it’s just a list if condiments. What!? No, I said, this is supposed to be chicken, pointing at the “gai”, and this is supposed to be noodles, pointing at the “guay-dtieow” (I don’t know what the “kua” means). He shook his head. No recognition whatsoever.

I though this was going to be my ticket to comprehension but instead I was just as stuck. I though Thai was a language and Thai food had it’s conventions and with my dictionary in my hand I could order a dish in a Thai restaurant just like if I asked for spaghetti with meatballs in an Italian restaurant everyone knows what that means without me having to say spaghetti with marinara sauce and 1-inch diameter balls of breadcrumbs and meat or if I ordered a hamburger in a diner I wouldn’t just get a lonely hunk of ground beef in the middle of a plate.

Moreso, what dish is there in America that 1/4 of the people know exactly what it is and 3/4 just stare blankly at it named four slightly different ways? Even the most obscure of our dishes are enough a part of our collective food lore that if you said mountain oysters or chitterlings pretty much everyone would know what you were talking about. Okay souse. But anyone outside of New Orleans that eats pickled brains is a complete abnormality. And okay scrapple maybe, but is kai kua the Thai equivalent of all the nasty parts of a pig no one but a tiny minority of Dutch in Pennsylvania would ever eat? I’m thinking probably not.

So it can only follow that either kai kua is as regionally specific as souse and scrapple, or there is no such thing as a collective Thai food lore and that each province carries with it it’s own set of regional specialties that don’t carry over or blend into one another and are as mutually unintelligible as Chinese dialects. That kai kua originates and largely remains in some tiny Thai backwater, or, aside from a few staples (must be everyone there eats pad thai), you are pretty much shooting craps walking into a Thai restaurant looking for a particular dish. Either way kai kua remains as elusive as poutine south of the 49th parallel.

Am I wrong or am I wrong.

Map of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

The St. Croix rental car didn’t come with a GPS — none of them did — and for a moment we sat there stunned, trying to remember how people navigated strange islands without directions beamed down from above. How do we find the hotel? I asked the rental counter attendant. Maps, she said, and handed us one. Everything suddenly seems so inscrutable.  They were speaking our language sure, but the third-world aspect of the airport (we hadn’t even gone inside, but were herded around the side and to the front where we found the Hertz counter near the parking area) and the cacophony of a steel drum welcome band plus ecstatic reunions or bon voyages or maybe a birthday party even (I couldn’t tell which, so complete with festive costumes and colorful flower bouquets were they) made the place seem suddenly very foreign, not familiar at all. The clerk pulled out a map and drew our route to the hotel. It seemed simple enough. Remember, the map said in bold at the top, to drive on the left side of the road. The driver’s shoulder should be near the shoulder of the road.

We got in the little Suzuki, rolled down the windows, and cranked the AC (best of both worlds: cool air plus the sounds and scents of the outside). I pulled out of the parking lot and absentmindedly pulled into the right lane. A woman at the gate leaned out the back of her booth and asked us where we were going. Carambola we said and she handed us a hand-drawn map with directions.  Thanks I said. Left side of the road she said.


St. Croix may be a territory of the United States, but in many ways it is nothing like them.

First Example: Crucian Assumption

Crucians (the name given the 50,000 or so residents of St. Croix) give directions based on a different set of assumptions than we do in the States. For example, if I say take a left at the third light onto Main and then at the second light take a right, I mean that you ought to take the first left on the first road, and then at the second light on Main you would take a right. Rather than this first count, second count that we’re familiar with, Crucians have an ongoing count of lights.  So that when the directions read take a left at the third light onto Main and a right after the fifth light, they meant take that left and then, after two lights, take a right. That threw us. But we got to drive a bit further down Center Line Rd which bisects the island almost completely, giving us a better idea of the lay of the island.

Second example: The Reluctant Guide

The hotel literature suggested that a hike to the tide pools might be worthwhile. This was seconded by the St. Croix Weekly, a publication written for tourists that we found everywhere on the island including our room. We asked the front desk clerk how to get there. He pulled out another hand-drawn map. These are the tennis courts here he said pointing at the map, after those a bridge on the right, then follow the trail. He pushed the map toward us as if it were as simple as that. But… I insisted, where are the tennis courts? He pointed out the window. I didn’t see any tennis courts. Follow the road. He said. Which road? I said. This one, he said, pointing at the map. You mean the road the golf carts drive on? I said. Yes, he said, that one. That long drawn-out drawing of water from an ostensibly dry well could have been avoided had he just pointed out the window and said take that road there past the tennis courts to the bridge. Okay, I think I’ve got it, I said. Oh yeah, how long does the trip take? An hour and a half to get there, he said. Ohhhhh. I smiled. That seems like important information. Yes, said my straight man, depending on how fast you walk.

This was turning into quite the interrogation. He must have been afraid of somehow incriminate himself. So, how’s the terrain? I asked. This part is steep, he said, pointing to about 80% of the map. The rest is easy. Wise guy.

Ever been to Yosemite? They have god-knows-how-many trails, all marked, and all mapped with difficulty levels and time estimates.

The walk only took us an hour or so each way. We found the tennis courts, and the bridge actually had a sign that said Tide Pools, but the rest was unmarked (ok, not entirely true — one of two turns we took did have a white rag tied to a tree near it), treacherous, steep, and hot as hell. But the best part, the part they forgot to tell us about, was that the last ten minute leg of the trip required that you remove your shoes and, starting in knee-deep water, waves crashing into you all the while, climb over somewhat sheer rock surfaces to get to the pools tucked into the mountain edge. I’m not a huge sissy, but my wife is somewhat pregnant.  Plus the two cameras I brought? And the bag? And the snorkel and flippers? And my shoes around my neck? And we’re barefoot? Given all these factors I would put the difficulty level at a solid 8, which warrants, in my humble opinion, at least a mention from our guide.


We passed what must have been an expedition from a kids’ summer day camp on the way. Fifty-plus kids with three or four adults shepherding them along the trail. They were crazy to take those kids through there. Surely they lost at least one to the steep drop offs, or the places where the trail had collapsed down the hill. You miss one step and you won’t stop rolling for a good fifty feet at least, if you’re lucky enough to be able to grab one of the saplings or vines along the way. And here’s the saddest part of the story: after that hourlong walk, all those kids were allowed was to stand on the shore for half and hour. No swimming. No relief or reward after that life-threatening hike except for a view and the sound of the waves. They didn’t try to climb into the tide pools like we had (heaven-forbid they had), they just played there on the beach in the sun, in long pants and collar shirts, skipping stones into the surf.

Third example: unmarked and unmapped

Out for an exploratory drive, we decided to head toward the sole lighthouse on the island. Depending on which map you consulted, State Highway 63 would take you along the west coast of the island and get you there (other maps showed that the road ended before the lighthouse). State Highway 63 does not take you to the lighthouse. Rather, it ends abruptly at the gates of a cement plant.

cement factory

So we stopped and stared at the gates of this plant. Maybe it’s a temporary part of road construction project, like you see sometimes erected alongside big projects in the States. So do we drive through to get to the road on the other side? No, they wouldn’t have gates if that were true. That’s the best part of traveling that moment there.  Trying to overlay the map of our experience and understanding onto an unfamiliar culture and terrain. Do they match up? Is this what I know from back home or something completely unfamiliar? To the left was a two-track, unmarked, that curved up and around into the forest. In the map above, you can see it clearly labeled State Highway 78. This has to be a joke. A highway is a main road. A connector. It is marked. This was an unmarked dirt path with two ruts for wheels to follow. We didn’t ever see the turn-off for the scenic route we had wanted to eventually attempt to take to get home (I say attempt because all the maps recommended four-wheel drive for these roads) so maybe this was that road.  On the other hand, maybe it was someone’s driveway. We took it to find out. After half an hour of extremely bumpy but not necessarily 4×4-only terrain we began to feel that it was safe to assume that it might be the scenic route we had originally wanted.


How could we know?

Along this road we passed dozens of (unmarked of course) barely cleared turnoffs. In some of the better view photos we took later you can see some of these many trails that snake through the forest and connect to one another.


Who had made these roads and why? What purpose did it serve other than offering a  scenic view (somewhat scenic that is — the trees grew high on each side, obstructing all but the most famous views). Obviously some machine had to cut them out of the mountains and a good view didn’t seem to warrant so much expense and trouble. They clearly weren’t faster than taking a  longer main road.  Were they left over from the original cane farming and converted to recreational use? It’s a mystery.


National and State parks in the U.S. clearly let you know what to expect. If they don’t fence you in (or out) and prohibit you from getting too close to perils they at least warn you clearly brightly and loudly of possible dangers and difficulties. Lots of fences. Lots of signs. St. Croix is short on signs and bereft of fences. Even if it had a fence that fence would have been toppled and the trail run through it. And it would sty that way — there wouldn’t be anyone around willing to fix it. I saw a cop drive by in the opposite direction once, but I didn’t ever see a law being enforced. Littering is punishable by a fine of up to $1000, but there was trash everywhere. Empty beer bottles dotted the roadsides plentiful as weeds. There is no open container law here, one tourist-targeted info/advert publication stated plainly, and drinking and driving in St. Croix is a way of life.

We are thoroughly policed in the U.S. We are highly directed and populated and protected and controlled. In contrast, this place truly felt like a frontier, an actual wilderness like we rarely see in the States (Highway 1 on the California coast with it’s sheer cliffs inches from the road shoulder and its cows in the road is one other place, Detroit is another — some of our old cores having become our new frontiers), especially on the scenic trails where we often encountered less than one other car an hour (a pedestrian once — miles from anywhere, a half-full 5-gallon bottle of water in his hand). Of course, anyone familiar with the area would probably feel pretty quickly like they knew the ins and outs and didn’t need the signs. After six days we felt that we had seen the grasslands and the arid region and the rain forest, driven down pretty near every main road, and been to every corner of the less-than eighty-four square miles. The map began to form and fill in in our minds.

It might begin to feel quite natural to follow common sense rather than roadside signs, a GPS, and an officer’s admonitions. Boot sense a friend calls it, common sense that comes from lived experience and a little bit of salty smarts. Boot sense comes with familiarity though, from experience, and it took six days for the place to begin to feel familiar. Prior to that, we floundered.

Example four: no script

We figured that Buck Island, a small island off the northeast cost near Christiansted would be the most tourist-infested spot and so decided to avoid it. But with all of the adventures checked off of our list and one full day remaining we asked the owner of Polly’s what we should do with our last day. Have you been to Buck Island? he asked. So we booked a tour with Big Beard’s, for the next day. The boat held over fifty but there weren’t more than twenty of us. The first segment of the tour took us to a beautiful beach where we had an hour to swim and sunbathe. The second segment was within the islands’ barrier reef. Lots of fish and coral to see, they told us.  Off by ourselves, Courtney and I saw the fish, we saw the coral, we saw a lobster and a squid and then we rounded a corner and a three foot long barracuda slid in front of us all mean-eyed and toothy. It just stared at us, and we backpedalled and swam away. Are barracudas dangerous? Obviously it was a predator. Did it attack humans? How could we know?

Back on the boat we asked one of the crew. No, they leave us alone pretty much, he said. Pretty much? I asked. Well, last year a woman was sitting on the back of the boat throwing food in for the fish and kicking her feet in the water and a barracuda came up and sank its teeth into her foot and shook for a while.  That was a mess. We had to take her to get stitches. So don’t feed the fish and shake your appendages as a rule. They’re also attracted to jewelry, it looks like the silversides they like to eat, so we tell people to leave that in the boat.

Wait. Back up. He hadn’t told us that. I had a shiny ring on, the Missus had a ring and earrings. Another girl saw a shark just now, closer in to the island, he continued with his casually spun horror fantasy where there were no consequences and life held no value. Will they eat us? I asked. Pretty much only if you have fish parts in your pockets he said, so we usually advise people to leave those behind. It was all said so nonchalantly that despite being told that we could have been barracuda snacks, it never occurred to us to skin and filet him. Like the cliffs at the tide pools, we had made it out intact, so what was the concern? A tropical cocktail of nine parts luck and one part boot sense had kept us out of harm’s way once again.

Of course, tours must prepare for tourists, who are often floundering about in total or near-total ignorance. And didn’t this company have a liability if its passengers were injured? I didn’t sign any waivers.  Or wait.  Did I?


I went home with more confidence in my inner GPS, and my sense of the world with some of its old-school unmediated integrity still intact, a sense of the world as an old playground with monkey bars that everyone breaks their legs on and concrete sculptures that everyone gets six stitches above their eyes from rather than a theme park with twohourlong ratmaze lines and wholly mediated fun and adventure. St. Croix, that is to say, is not at all child-proof.

We’d faced barracudas and stingrays and jungle paths and rocky cliffs and had found our own way there and back. More intrepid now in fact at four months pregnant than at any other time in our partnership, we came away feeling like we had made a new place our home, even if after six days of the humidity it will be years  before I ever feel like coming back.