Tag Archives: Blue Highways

Seliger + Associates Hitches Up the Wagons and Heads Out to Where the Pavement Turns to Sand

We’ve more or less completed our move to sunnier climes in Tucson, AZ. This is the fourth location for Seliger + Associates in 16 and a half years in business, starting in Danville, CA, before migrating to Bellevue and then Mill Creek, WA. So it’s goodbye to coffee and mold and hello to incredible Sonoran food and unlimited mountain/desert vistas. As Neil Young said in Thresher:

It was then I knew I’d had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand

Faithful readers will remember that whenever I go on a road trip, a blog post integrating grant writing and my innate desire to see what is around the next curve follows. In preparation for the 1,700 mile drive, I read William Least Heat-Moon’s latest book-length paean to the American thirst for the open road, Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (see Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later for earlier thoughts on Least Heat-Moon’s Ur-travel essay Blue Highways).

Although we had planned to drive south on US Highways 95/395 through Oregon and California, an excellent blue highway route, our mover decided to drive like the World War II Red Ball Express down US 93 from Twin Falls, ID to Tucson—another great blue highway. He is better at his job than we are at his, so he was going to arrive before us, leaving us to the tender mercies of I-5. But all was not lost, as we were able to take CA 58 east from Bakersfield over the Tehachapis through the Mojave Desert, where we found our long lost US 95, going from Needles to Blythe on 100 miles of roller coaster two-lane highway before our own race to Tucson on I-10 through Tonopah, AZ. Least Heat-Moon would be proud. The upshot of this rambling paragraph is that, 35 years after seeing Lowell George and Little Feat perform for the birthday party of a minor LA celebrity a friend of mine knew at the celebrity’s Malibu “ranch” in 1974, I finally got to drive from Tehachapi to Tonopah, as immortalized in Little Feat’s Willin’:

I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
and you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’*

I only need to find time to drive from Tucson to Tucumcari for the circle to be complete.

This blather does have something to do with grant writing: as I have observed before, at their most basic level, grant writers are simply story tellers who often tell stories about places they have never seen. Long distance driving, preferably on blue highways, is an exceptional way to stay in touch with America—not the America of CNN or Fox News or the New York Times and Washington Post, but the America that is really being blasted by the Great Recession. As we rolled through small towns in the Central Valley and Mojave Desert, we saw endless Main Street desolation: forlorn vacant restaurants with fading “For Sale” signs, car dealers, either closed or with the few cars they had spread out across expanses of display lots with balloons tied to antennas in a sad attempt at normalcy, and, perhaps most troubling, piles of broken stuff—cars, appliances, farm equipment and mounds of unidentifiable crapola that apparently no one wants.

Perhaps no one cares enough to haul this junk away, or maybe there is no place to haul it to. Although politicians from Washington D.C. to Seattle chatter on about the “greening” of American and the importance of using resources wisely, to me it seems more like the “rusting” of America. Least Heat-Moon found the same disturbing panorama in Roads to Quoz, preventing him from seeing the scenery beyond the roadway:

Miles of abandoned buildings, of decaying house-trailers steadily vanishing under agglomerations of cast-off appliances, toys, rusted vehicles (autos, busses, riding mowers, tractors, trucks, a bulldozer, a crane, a forklift), and a plethora of cheap things.

Least Heat-Moon wrote about Oklahoma, which I discussed in the “Blue Highways” post noted above, but the junkification of rural America has worsened considerably in the last year, presumably because of the enervating effects of the recession. If any interested rural nonprofits are reading this, Project JUNC (Joint Undertaking to Negate Crap) would be a great Stimulus Bill grant concept; JUNC would train unemployed folks to pick up stuff, haul it, sort it, and recycle it. I’ll even provide a 20% discount to write the proposal because, like Least Heat-Moon, it’s hard to admire a 19th Century courthouse or church when you have to look past blocks of detritus. It pains me to see much of rural America being buried in kipple.**

I am about to write a HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP) proposal for a rural city in California, which involves rehab of vacant, foreclosed houses. Since endless newspaper stories describe how vacant houses get stripped of copper plumbing, appliances, etc., I was going to include this idea, as I usually do when writing about housing rehab, in the proposal. But my recent sojourn through rural OR, CA and AZ, gives me pause. Why would anyone bother breaking into a house to steal metal, when tons of metal are piled along rural roadways, there for the picking? This is a real world demonstration of how road trips benefit grant writers. Grant writer readers should get out of your Aerons, fire up your Prius (in my case, a BMW ragtop), and unleash your inner Kerouac by going On the Road.


* Not to worry: no weed or whites were abused on this drive—just a little wine to take the edge off after the the day’s drive after finding a motel that would take our golden retriever.

** Kipple is the accumulated junk of modern society and is best described by Philip K. Dick (one of my favorite SF writers) in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was made into the nearly perfect 1982 movie, Blade Runner. For cognoscenti of this film, Harrison Ford’s despairing Deckard is actually a replicant.

That’ll Be The Day: Searching for Grant Writing Truths in Monument Valley

Faithful readers know of my Blue Highways post about driving to LA with my daughter following her college graduation last spring. This is my year for road trips, as I recently drove with Jake from Seattle to his new life as a English Literature Ph. D. candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I insisted on a somewhat circuitous route via Salt Lake City, eventually winding up driving on a quintessential blue highway through one of my favorite places—Monument Valley.* Many readers would immediately recognize Monument Valley because they’ve been there vicariously in endless Westerns and other movies, particularly seven films directed by John Ford. To most most of the world’s movie fans, Monument Valley is the American West. One of the most interesting aspects of visiting or staying in Monument Valley is that one hears a cacophony of languages, since it is so popular with European and other foreign tourists.**

John Ford’s greatest Western is undoubtedly The Searchers, an epic tale of single-minded determination that shows off Monument Valley in all the glory of VistaVision. I got out the commemorative DVD of The Searchers that Jake gave me a few years ago and watched it again with a fried who’d never seen it. He was impressed, as most are by the striking themes and images. John Wayne’s maniacal lead character, Ethan Edwards, spends five years tearing around Monument Valley looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, played by a young and beautiful Natalie Wood. Accompanying Ethan is Debbie’s naive, but equally determined, half-brother, Martin Pauley, played by Jeffrey Hunter.*** The movie’s tension is built around whether Ethan will kill Debbie, because of the implied “fate worse than death” she has presumably suffered at the hands of her American Indian captors, or if Martin protect her from Ethan’s wrath. I will not spoil the outcome, except to note the last scene, which is of Ethan standing alone in the doorway of the ranch house framing Monument Valley in the distance, having rejected the comforts of hearth and family for the anti-civilization of the wilderness:

This is one of the best ending images of any movie, as it establishes the otherness of the character in the best tradition of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo in The Leatherstocking Tales.

This has much to do with grant writing: throughout the movie, Ethan teaches Martin how to stick with a challenge, tossing off the most famous line of the movie, “That’ll be the day,” when confronted with suggestions that he give up, can’t possibly find Debbie, etc. Grant writers, who must persevere to complete the proposal no matter what happens, need this attitude as well. Just as for Ethan, the task is all about finding Debbie, the grant writer’s job is to complete a technically correct proposal in time to meet the deadline no matter what.

We keep harping on the importance of meeting deadlines in this blog, but this really is the heart of grant writing. So, the next time someone tells you that you’ll never finish your needs assessment, budget narrative, or attachments, just lean back in your Aeron chair like John Wayne in the saddle, and say, “That’ll be the day.” In addition, the way Ethan informally tutors Martin during The Searchers illustrates how grant writing is best learned: by hanging around an accomplished grant writer. Perhaps instead of the foolish grant writing credentials we like to poke fun at, we should start a medieval-style Grant Writing Guild in which we indenture would-be grant writers at age 12, since apprenticeship is a pretty good model for learning such obscure skills as grant writing, glass blowing, horse-shoeing and seafaring. That could lead to a great memoir entitled, “Two Years Before the RFP.”**** For more on the subject of never giving up, see Seth Grodin’s blog post, The secret of the web (hint: it’s a virtue).


* For those planning to visit Monument Valley, try to a get a room at Goulding’s Lodge, the historic inn on the Navajo Reservation that was used by John Ford and many other filmmakers as a base for operations. The Lodge has an unsurpassed view of the Valley, along with a small but engaging museum.

** Jake and I helped a Swiss crew push their rather odd looking solar powered car out of a ditch. Like John Ford, they could find no better backdrop than the Valley for showcasing their work.

*** TV cognoscenti will remember that Jeffrey Hunter was the original captain in the pilot for Star Trek.

*** I’ve never actually read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but I lived in San Pedro many years ago and this book arose endlessly in cocktail party chatter. I’m not sure anyone has actually read it in about 100 years, but I am sure I will hear from at least one devoted Dana fan.

Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later

One of my favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, an ode to the spiritual healing powers of exploring America and one’s self by driving the roads literally less traveled. From my first road trip at age 16 with my buddy Tom in his ’53 Chevy from Minneapolis north towards the Iron Range, I’ve always loved the unexpected that’s just over the next hill, around the next bend and in that sleepy town that waits at the end of the day’s drive.

Faithful readers will remember that in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I recalled my journey westward to California in January 1974, taking Route 66 on the way to becoming a grant writer. In mid-May, my daughter graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and I drove with her to her new public relations job in Los Angeles (this also explains the slowdown in posting over the last two weeks). We took the same route I traveled 35 years ago, picking up the path west of Topeka and traveling southwest through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on US 156/54 to reach I-40 and what is left of Route 66. A side trip to the always fascinating Grand Canyon and a couple of days later we arrived in LA, where my daughter faces the same challenges that confronted me all those years ago—where to live in the vastness of LA, learning to put up with indignities of endless traffic and trying to figure out the best place to spot stars.*

This nostalgia has a great deal to do with grant writing: just before I left for KU, we finished a proposal for a newly minted Los Angeles City program, the oddly named Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, which is the brainchild of Mayor Antonio Villarigosa. Apparently, the Mayor was shocked, shocked to discover gangs in LA** and decided to move various existing anti-gang/youth services funding from the Community Development Department (CDD) to the Mayor’s Office.

GRYD is more or less the usual rehash of counseling, mentoring, et al. It is absolutely not a stunning innovation and is extraordinarily unlikely to impact gangs or anything else in LA. The most interesting aspect of writing the proposal was the prehistoric GRYD RFP budget forms (warning: .pdf link). About two weeks after arriving in LA in 1974, I found myself writing a proposal for a nonprofit to some long-forgotten LA City youth service program. I remember staring at the cryptic budget forms and struggling to complete a “budget narrative” using a legal pad, pencil and long division. Flash forward to the GRYD RFP, which still uses the same type of budget forms that presume applicants will be using a typewriter and calculator to complete. As I drove across the West once more, I was struck by how the LA Mayor’s office has apparently not heard of Excel or even fillable Acrobat forms. In other words, not much has changed in 35 years of grant writing, even as computers and the Internet have altered so much of life.

In another example confirming the stasis in the grant world, about six months after I arrived in LA, I managed to get a better job working for then newly elected Mayor Tom Bradley in his Human Services Office, reporting Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met. At that time, Grace managed a slew of federal and state grants designed to provide various services, and I was working for one of them, the LA Volunteer Corps, which essentially did nothing. But those of us on the staff had a great time pretending to be doing something important. After about a year, the Mayor’s Office came under political pressure get out of the human services business and the Los Angeles CDD was born. I was just talking to a friend who still works at the CDD, who told me transferring youth services money from CDD to the Mayor’s Office is the start of moving a whole bunch of human services back to the Mayor’s Office. Back to the Future once again.

Returning to my road trip, I was struck by how much more empty the land had become since last I travelled this route, especially on the blue highways at the beginning. For the past 15 years, I’ve written endless proposals for dozens of clients in rural areas in which the theme is invariably along the lines of, “the jobs are gone, the family farms are dying, young people are leaving, etc.” I saw the reality of what I thought I had imagined as a typical grant writer’s myth. While the larger cities, like Dodge City, KS, Guymon, OK and Dalhart, TX, have a smattering of new fast food chains and budget hotels, the tiny dots on the blue highways have just about ceased to exist. As we entered each town, a faded and often broken billboard sadly announced an attraction that likely no longer exists. In these almost ghost towns, abandoned gas stations, motels and other empty, forlorn buildings line the road, with almost no signs of life. Vast swatches of rural America reflect the dire conditions I often portray in proposals.

If I had had more time, I would have taken a detour and driven 20 miles or so west of Guymon to see how Keyes, OK is faring. About ten years ago, we wrote a $250,000 funded Department of Education “Goals 2000” grant on behalf of Keyes Public Schools, home of the “Pirates.” With just 102 students, this probably represents the largest grant/target audience member we’ve ever written. The fun part about this proposal was the argument that the school district needed to add bilingual education because a 500,000 hog industrial farm operation was about to open and hundreds of Asian-immigrant workers were expected to follow the hogs to Keyes. Whether true or not, the Department of Education bought the story line “whole hog” and funded the proposal. I was reminded of the Keyes project because at breakfast in Dahlhart, I read the Amarillo newspaper and was startled to read a story about a “wave of killings” (three to be exact—perhaps they need a GRYD program and should call of Mayor Villaregosa for tech support), attributed to a local Asian youth gang.

The problem, according to the police, is that they and the city in general lack any staff who can speak the unnamed Asian language spoken by residents, so they were stumped for clues. Talk about a great grant proposal concept! Who would expect an Asian gang crisis in Friday Night Lights country? Perhaps, like Keyes, Amarillo is home to industrial hog operations, or, perhaps, like other so many other towns I drove through, the glimmer of hope that hogs represented to Keyes was an illusion and Keyes is slipping out of existence, one abandoned building at a time.

So, while we didn’t exactly “get our kicks on Route 66,” it was perhaps a last opportunity to spend three days alone with my daughter, as she begins her adult life, and a special chance for me to remember the 22-year old kid who found his future waiting in Los Angeles—and how short the memories of many grant making agencies are. In case you haven’t guessed, my daughter is also 22, making the trip particularly meaningful.


* Gelson’s Supermarket in Studio City on Sunday morning is still a great place to spot movie/TV stars.

** Yes, this is my movie reference to Claude Rains delightful Captain Renault being shocked to discover gambling at Rick’s in my favorite movie, Casablanca.