Monday, July 27, 2009

Nice Tetons: A Drive through the Rockies and why America turns me on.

On the long haul between Denver and Salt Lake city along I-70, I realized two things:

1. How insignificant we all seem compared to the awe inspiring landscape we live in.
2. How incredibly in love I am with this hot, sexy, beautiful country of ours.

The mountain passes through the Rockies easily comprised some of the best driving I've ever experienced with cliffs rivers and mountain peaks that put the Alps' Bernina pass to shame. Everywhere along the way small clusters of civilization gripped the edge of the valley. Vineyards and cow pastures may have covered the walls in the Alps, but here it is clear that the mountains were still in control. Rocky outcroppings dwarfed the tractor trailers in front of me, giving a kind of immediacy to the warnings signs of "Falling Rocks" and "Avalanche". This is what the West is all about. The wide open sky and terrain mixed with the absolute power of the natural world to give a real visceral feel to opportunity and danger inherent in freedom. This really is a hot, sexy, beautiful country, but also a dangerous, crazy, and wild one. Whats not to love about that?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beers Across America

Though I may be headed west to enter the wine business, I am no stranger to good beer. Having sampled brews from all over the world, I can say with confidence that American Craft brewers are truly the finest in the world. The US is in the midst of a renaissance in brewing, with numerous representations of fine brews scattered across each of the 50 states. As part of my great cross country adventure, I decided to sample and share the beer bounty as I cross the country. While transporting a six pack of my own home brew as gifts for my couch surfing hosts, I have also been picking up six packs to represent each of the states I pass through on my way west, passing samples out as I go. I will keep track of my tasting notes and post them to my drink rating blog Bo Brothers By the Bottle in a rare blogging cross over. Stay tuned for more ratings and reviews in the future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flash back to the present

So here I am. More than six years later. Fully bearded, gainfully unemployed and a few pounds heavier than the Army would allow, punching out a blog from my childhood room in my parents’ house like the combination cliche of a TV war veteran and a stereotypical New Jersey Italian kid. This time though, it was all part of the plan. Ever since my second tour in Iraq, I dreamed of becoming a winemaker. In my off time I read the books. I absorbed volumes of information, without touching a drop of the precious juice in that dry desert. After leaving the Army, I looked past the head hunters and corporate jobs to work in a wine shop, stocking shelves, tasting, and writing. I went back to school, brushing up on my Microbiology, Botany, and Biochemistry. For years, my journey was a winding path seeming to lead anywhere but the rows of vines and cellars of the winery. Now I am at the pivotal moment when years of war, study, and travel have finally pointed me in the right direction. Tomorrow morning, I will be packing the last boxes into my VW Passat and heading to California.

For a long time I knew when this day would come. What I didn’t plan for, however, was the seemingly daunting circumstances that I would face. Unemployment in the wine producing states of California and Oregon exceed 10%. Months of fruitless job applications and talking to many wineries have only validated my suspicions that competition for seasonal winery jobs is very stiff. Now, with no job and no home, I will simply head west and see if I can make things happen. Yesterday, while going to lunch with my grandparents, I was reminded of one of my grandpas favorite phrases “Live the good life and keep the faith.” In his own words this is really about eating good food and going to church, and I am not sure he would appreciate his own advice being used to “move so far away from the family,” but I have to say it really is the perfect theme for my long journey, and always has been.

This blog will track my journey, meandering into memory, philosophy, and maybe even a bit of comedy, while I figure out how to track down my American dream in the 21st century.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How the hell did it come to this? (or A little war story to put things into perspective)

From Drop Box

I am going to start this blog the way ever real story should start. Four words in a simple phrase to denote a beginning. Four words used by men to tell war stories long before I ever had a story to tell. Four words that set any real story apart from a fairy tale, but not without leaving a bit of interpretation open to the bard:

So there I was… It was late March, maybe early April. I stopped keeping track of the days when we crossed the border. 2003, Iraq. A day's haul south of Baghdad, somewhere between the Karbala gap and the middle of nowhere. The Army was stuck. Camped out in the middle of the desert, blinded by the biggest sand storm in decades. The combined forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines lost track of the Medina Division, one of the premier units of Saddam’s Republican Guard. As soon as the dust cleared we were to push through the Karbala gap, in full chemical protective gear ready for the WMD attack that was “sure” to be launched. The a drive through more wasteland and on to the Euphrates River. With the main bridge sure to be blown, my platoon’s mission was to assault across the river on engineer float bridge pontoons, and secure the far side bridge area for the 3rd Infantry Division to race to Baghdad. That bridge was now loaded on a convoy of trucks behind me. Low tech boats and pontoons that could be the Army’s only hope of crossing the Euphrates. Its only defense… 1st Platoon Bravo Company 54th Engineers. My platoon.

We were dog tired from weeks of zigzagging through the desert, scrounging for parts and fuel, as we outpaced our supply lines. These guys were mostly beat from a year long deployment to Kosovo. I joined them only two months earlier, as their Platoon leader, and I barely knew what the hell I was doing. This was OJT the army way. My the first time commanding my vehicle was on the ride to the Iraqi border. My first Operations Order was the invasion. My first training mission was rehearsing the breach of the boarder defenses only 48 hours before execution. Now my platoon was the only thing standing between the Medina Division and the 3rd Infantry Division’s bridge. How the hell did it come to this?

I looked off into the haze of red dust. I imagined hearing the whir of diesel tanks cut through the wind as T80s burst through the cloud of sand only a few yards from my position. I went through how we might be able to pick a few off with AT-4s, how we might avoid the mass of shrapnel from our C4 loaded tracks detonating. Which track still had a functional radio and how to get the call out? The chance that we would survive such an attack was slim at best. How the hell did it come to this?

This is the backdrop to the lowest point in my life. Or at least the point I like to think back on for a smile when I think things are going bad. But it wasn’t the weight of the situation. I was already used to that. It wasn’t the bad food, or the fact that we were dangerously low on water. It wasn’t the fact that I spent the night prior lost in a sandstorm before having to sleep on top of a vehicle with nothing more than a poncho liner covering me. It wasn't the fear of impending chemical attack, or the pain of setting trench-foot from over used dirty socks. At this particular moment in my life I had bigger concerns. I needed to hone all my skills of balance, focus all my faculties with a Yoda like concentration, and maintain a ninja grip on my roll of toilet paper. Yes, I was shitting in a sand storm. How the hell did it come to this?

The important and unfortunate thing to know while performing these operations is that one must face into the sand storm. Reversing the position while wearing several layers of uniform and protective over garments could be disastrous. This of course exposes the individual in question to an uncomfortable kind of sand blasting. Compounding the problem, my platoons most prized, and perhaps most advanced piece of equipment was lost when a passing truck swiped our non-army issued portable toilet seat off the side of one of our vintage 1970s Armored Personnel Carriers. Not having to squat was one of the few luxuries 1st Platoon enjoyed over our sister units. Also, in a sand storm you can't dig a “cat hole,” as was Army regulation for outdoor excrement deposits, since shifting sand instantly refilled any work done with a shovel. This resulted in what we call “surface laid” munitions. Much like a land mine, miss steps were hazardous.

So there I was. Shitting in a sand storm. How the hell did it come to this? Sometimes I wonder if Abraham asked himself the same questions while making a pit stop on this way to the holy land. “Who did I piss off? What life choices did I make to get here? When will the storm stop? Where did I go wrong? How the hell did I get here? I had a perfectly good seat at my house back in Ur.” But following in the same footsteps of the patriarchs didn’t give much reprieve to the situation. Inglorious though it may have been, I was proud of my accomplishment, carefully dispensed the toilet paper into the gale force winds, and kicked extra sand over my product like a stray dog, and the low point in my life came to an end.

Its times like today, July 17th 2009, that I like to look back on that day in the desert to remind myself that life's just not that bad. That sometimes you make all the right decisions in life and you still end up caught in a sandstorm with your pants down. That you can still make it through the toughest times with a little bit of faith and a little help from your friends. That no matter how bad it gets in life I will always find a better place to go to the bathroom, maybe even with a seat.