Saturday, August 30, 2008
We are riding the leading edge of danger.
Friends of California, Oregon or Washington, beware. In the coming week you may find yourself caught up in horrible storms, mudslides, earthquakes or volcanoes--it is a very dangerous time to be friends with Steve or I. Perhaps you should take a break from that for a while, or just go on vacation somewhere else till long after we've passed. Or, maybe you should take it as a sign from God that you ought to flee your homes immediately and join us. After all, Steve and I have yet to be victims of any calamity. If you stay with us, you too can avert catastrophe. As Steve says, "We are the eye of the hurricane".
Anyway, besides discovering that we are two of the four horsemen of the apocolypse, we've been enjoying ourselves. The southwest is ridiculously beautiful, and our thirteen hour ride was actually extremely pleasant. Just set the cruise to 80 and hold the wheel straight for a very very very long time. Mountains, mesas, cacti and sunsets-- I cannot get bored of these things.
In Tucson we stayed with Steve's friend Jen and her boyfriend Elliot. It was funny, Jen was friends with all of my friends before I was their friend, and she left before I became their friend. Therefore, I'd heard all about her in stories told as if she were still there, but had never actually met her, she was just some mythic character in the saga of my friends. I found the real life incarnation of her to be super pleasant, she made really good beer and coffee, and thats really all I can ask of anybody. Also while in Tucson we went to the Titan Missile Museum, a decommisioned nuclear missile silo. It was really cool and somewhat frightening. Really cool in that the engineering and logistics going into this place is flawless, they thought of everything. I have never felt safer in my life than when I was in this silo. What was frightening was learning just how real the threat of complete annhilation was, and how extremely necessary all that engineering and logic was. The place was wired for Mutually Assured Destruction. We're going to hell all right, but Russia's riding shotgun.
We left Tucson and stopped by the Sonora Desert Museum, which was way cooler than I had expected. I kinda want to go back, the place was huge, and we only got through half of it in the few hours we spent there. Its sort of like a zoo, with all the animals you'd find in the desert put on display, all the kinds of cactus and agave and such too. But it was done so sooooo well, it didn't feel like a zoo at all, it felt like you were just walking around in the desert and seeing really cool things. I recommend it if you're ever near Tucson.
From there we rode the couple hours to see Emily and Mark in their new apartment in Phoenix, and were greeted with homemade jambalaya, beer and a record player. This is why I love Emily, she knows exactly what I need in life. We hung out with them for a few hours, toured downtown Phoenix briefly, took a group picture, and then we reluctantly left.
Six hours to San Diego. The Mexican border is 500 feet to our left. The sun is setting, but if we keep driving west, the day will last a little longer. I'm still technically a hobo, I have no job and no apartment meeting me at the end of this trip, but meh.
Friday, August 29, 2008
I have to admit, I was kind of dreading the drive through western Texas, hearing all sorts of awful things from alot of people, but I actually really loved it. It was a really interesting countryside with sweeping views almost the whole time. Terrain varried from grassland praries with really neat looking trees, to total desert, to rolling desert hills, to outright mountains in the western portion of the state. It was a long drive, but incredibly easy at 80 MPH and almost totally abandoned highways. We could see rain clouds about 10 miles ahead and scattered around us so we always knew what was coming up ahead. The ability to see several hundred square miles of weather at a given time was pretty unreal. There's really no need for the weather station if you can see the weather you're likely to get for the next hour or so in the distance.
Both me and Beth put in some pretty serious marathon-esque driving shifts. We had a super classy McDonalds dinner... because there was no other food for literally 70 miles in New Mexico. And then the fun started.
First of all, eastern AZ is gorgeous. Amazing rock formations, just super raw, powerful landscape. Desert on steroids. To add to that we were driving through this just at sunset, which was absolutely beautifully accenting everything around. About 2 hours before Tucson, we started seeing some distant Thunderstorms, which was pretty neat. As we got closer, they just got more and more intense. The last 90 minutes was a show put on by nature that I will never forget. Enormous bolts of lightning individually ripping probably 5 miles or more across the sky from cloud to cloud, every 10-15 seconds or so, with the gorgeous sunset backdrop. It was just about the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life. The lightning wasn't even the normal blue tinge I am used to seeing, it was a brilliant white. Some earth shattering strikes to the ground within a mile or two of us were easily the biggest bolts I've ever seen in my life. We cranked some Riders on the Storm, Thunderstruck, and assorted epic music, and soaked it all up.
Got to Jen&Elliot's place, went out and grabbed some beers at the store, came back and chatted for a long time. I'm really enjoying catching up with so many people I haven't seen in forever and meeting new ones on the way. Heard news that New Orleans is possibly going to be evacuated on Saturday, so it seems we're leaving a somewhat literal wake of destruction in our path. Once we hit Portland, I fully expect California to fall into the ocean.
But yes, today was truly our first day in the American West. And I love it. Everytime I've been in the west I have really. It's so much bigger and more dramatic and powerful than the endless sprawling uber-burbs of the Northeast. The northwest is different I know, but I think I'm going to enjoy it just as much if not more.
Got some great Texas BBQ at Willie Rays in Beaumont Texas as recommended by Beth's friend Nick who is from there. It was deeeelicious, authentic, affordable, and fast. Pretty much the perfect lunch stop. Next on to Austin via huge portions of Texas. We got into Austin and fought with the GPS to get us to a coffee shop. We then met my friend Lauren and chatted for a bit before heading out to grap some drinks and watch the famous Austin Bats. For those not in the know, Austin has the largest urban bat colony in the US(World?), and at sundown they all come out and swarm around the bridge. It was pretty neat to see, though I think it had been overhyped a little bit about how spectacular it was, but still a totally unique experience to see thousands of bats just endlessly streaming out of the bottom of this bridge.
Then we went to Stubbs, yes the one makes of that barbecue sauce you've probably seen in a store somewhere, which is also a great music club in addition to being a restaurant. We saw the Devil Makes Three who were absolutely excellent live. Tons of energy, lots of fun, great musicians all around. Might catch them in Tucson on Friday night as well, but don't know for sure. We shall see what the future holds.
Got back to Lauren's crashed on her futon pretty early, as we knew we had a super long drive ahead of us.
Checked into the only hotel stay of the trip, a holiday inn, and hit the town. Initially in search of food, we instead found cigars made by the New Orleans Cigar Factory. I had the rum soaked one and Beth had a hennesey Cognac one. They were really quite excellent. We then continued our search for food, but were quickly accosted on Bourbon street and dragged into a bar with a great live blues/rock band playing lots of hendrix/black crowes/etc. covers, and playing them really well. We discovered the horrifyingly inexpensive drink specials of bourbon street, and had to tear ourselves away and get some food before things got too rowdy. We went and found a great and mostly affordable Cajun Restaurant Pierre Antoinnes I believe, on Royal st. and stuffed our face with delicious Cat/Crawfish and Gumbo. We moseyed over to some other bars afterwards and indulged in 3 for 1 drink specials (not even happy hour! putting a huge exclamation point on how crappy Boston's lack of drink specials is). Watched some above average but not great rock band, in a pretty cool place, then got some 'To-Go' cups for walking around and drinking. Got dragged into the Jazz Emporium, which was pretty lame. Left after about 5 minutes, avoiding the crazy guy who dragged us in on the way out.
Then, we made our way down to Fritzels. A German bar, which is the oldest jazz bar in the french quarter (or so they claimed). Within 10 seconds of walking in the door, I knew I was in the right place. The band was amazing. Playing beautiful, fun, and just all around excellent straight Jazz. Drums, Piano, Upright Bass, and Trumpet/Vocals. Got some hurricanes, New Orleans' famous drink, and just soaked up the music for hours. One of the best shows I've ever seen in my life that had no cover. With the night getting late we enjoyed the stroll through Bourbon street one last time, which for a random Tuesday night at the end of August was a ridiculously hopping party. Anyplace that has multiple stores in less than a 1 mile stretch where the name is: 'HUGE ASS BEERS TO GO!', has to be pretty good. And so it was. Sleep in a real bed was a much welcomed thing.
We kept wandering and found... with no explanation at all for its existence, a huge prow of a ship in the park, again plopped down, as if flung through the sky at random and just fell there and no one decided to move it since then. An enormous concrete piece of confusion. Also, there was a giant clam shell in the park (like 10 feet high). You get the idea... it was weird.
Tried to find some authentic Nashville cooking for lunch and failed miserably by winding up at a chain roadhouse, but the food was decent enough so whatever. Went to public library, local brewery, got ripped off for parking, other tourist crap etc etc.
Then went to Opry land to see the grand ole opry, which if you don't know is the place that housed the radio station(of the same name) that 'started' country music. It was extremely depressing. The building was torn down/rebuilt in the late 60s I believe (the original is known as Ryman Auditorium, which I have heard is still an amazing venue). What was once known as an impromptu free-wheeling relaxed good time featuring musicians like Johnny Cash, Flatt&Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and countless other classic and excellent bluegrass/country/old-timey music, is now a huge commercial mega-stage with absolutely no soul, surrounded by huge malls and right next to Opryland, the largest hotel in the country. Evan had worked at Opryland as a caterer so gave us a bit of an insider's tour, which was pretty neat. The have indoor atriums that are practically jungles and everything is just enormous. It reminded me a bit of the Venetian hotel in Vegas, in that over the top, fake, touristy crap everywhere sense. Definately interesting to see, as well as a little depressing.
Next we dropped in on Beth's other friend from Rochester, Mike, who was having a birthday party that night and didn't know Beth was in town. It was a good surprise, and stayed at the party for a bit and met some pretty cool kids. Took the long drive back to Christiana with visions of N'awlins ahead...
Hit the road after that, 5 hours to Nashville, or rather...Christiana, a small farm town outside of Nashville where Beth's friend Evan lives. We got took much needed showers caught up with emails and Went into the city and got a drink at a local watering hole, had some delicious Nashville BBQ Ribs, and checked out a local bluegrass jam later that night. Went home and chatted over scotch and went to bed, not in a tent for the first time of the trip!
From there, straight on to Austin to Steve's friend Lauren's place. There are two main things to do in Austin for an out of towner I think. One is to go see some live music, and the other is to see the world's largest urban bat colony, conveniently located under a bridge overlooked by a TGI Fridays. The menu had bats on it, there were bat shaped cookies, and supposedly some building nearby is shaped like a bat when viewed from above. Yes, friends, Austin is bat town USA. The colony has about 4 million individuals in it, and every day at dusk they're supposed to shoot out from under the bridge like a huge black cloud shot out a cannon. We sat and ate some chips on the TGI friday patio and waited and waited and waited. Finally, long after the sun had set, we began to see handfuls of bats fly by, no more than 4 at a time. We walked to the bridge and looked over, and could see thousands of them swarming in a circle around the bridge posts, but as long as we had waited, there never was any cloud setting of for the hill country. We walked away disappointed, but we all agreed we had never seen more bats in our lives.
From there we walked to the world famous Stubbs BBQ and concert hall to see Devil Makes Three. You should look them up if you don't know them, I describe them as Country Death Music, and Steve describes them as Alcohol Soaked Americana. They look pretty much exactly as you'd expect from those descriptions. According to some source which I don't really believe, the three of them (2 guys, 1 girl) were orphans together, worked as carnies for a while with some traveling circus, and then learned to play music. Whether thats true or not, its looks like it COULD be true, which is what really matters anyway. They were really really good. We may see them again in Tucson.
Speaking of Tucson, we're currently en route there. Its a thirteen hour drive.
God help us.
But we didn't stay in those places, we stayed in the French Quarter, and let me tell you about the French Quarter. We started out there early, walking around and checking things out, and it was all very tame, very family friendly at first. We bought cigars at a cigar factory where they were all hand-rolled, and then strolled around for a while. An indian man wearing a fake badge walked up to us and handed Steve and I citations: Steve for not smiling enough and me for being too pretty. Aw, shucks, mister. Then he demanded a ten dollar penalty from each of us as he handed us novelty hats. He said he was from Feed the Hungry. I told him I didn't have a job, and reluctantly handed my novelty hat back.
We were literally pushed into the next bar down the line, but there was a live band so we decided to stay and grab a beer. We were very surprised when the waitress came out with four beers after having only ordered two--it was buy one get one free on bud lights, which is something completely shocking to hear after having spent the last few years in puritanical Massachussetts. Imagine our shock, then, our horror, our utmost admiration when later in the night we discovered buy 1 get THREE specials. The french quarter is an excellent demonstration of how capitalism works in the consumers favor. All the bars offer the same selection, the same crowds, the same live music. The only thing they can change to compete with eachother is price. And good lord, the prices--the beer is practically given to you as you walk down the street, the to-go cups are endless and overflowing.
As the sun set, New Orleans showed its true colors. The doors that had been closed earlier in the evening were beginning to open, signs were put out. Every other shop is a burlesque, a cabaret, a strip club, advertising topless dancing, bottomless dancing, free porn, lingerie, toys-- there were families walking around with young children, I wanted to tell them to go back to their hotels, there was nothing for them here. The bar hawkers began to get more aggressive: As we walked down the middle of the street, a man rushed out, took my by the hand, dragged me into the nearest bar and sat me down at a stool, with Steve worriedly following behind. It was beginning to get insane. Still in all the bars we were pushed, pulled or lured into, we'd yet to find decent New Orleans jazz. It became a mission. Finally, having run the gauntlet of Bourbon street, we found a tiny german bar called Fritzel's, and there was playing an amazing three piece jazz outfit. We ordered hurricanes, and finally found some authenticity.
We left Nashville tuesday morning, and were on the road by 8 am, heading for Alabama. The previous day we'd driven into the city to see the sights, and what sights did we see? A full scale replica of the Parthenon, a bow of a ship made out of concrete with steps leading up to it, and a sculpture of a giant clam-- all presented without further explanation or flare in Nashville's Centennial park. It was raining, so we headed to the bar and were drinking by 2pm. From there we checked out the new library, because why the hell not? It was huge and beautiful, but we couldn't use the internet without a library card, so it was a futile endeavor. We got back in the car and drove to Opryland, meeting up with Evan and his girlfriend Jesse there.
Opryland is the country's largest hotel without a casino attached, and ostensibly it exists because of its proximity to the Grand Ol' Opry, but the hotel has long sinced surpassed the Opry as an attraction in its own right. The Grand Ol' Opry is a structure built to commemorate the original Grand Ol' Opry, which was a radio show that featured the hottest country acts of the day (Johnny Cash, June Carter, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, etc) and from the photographs in the museum, back in the day it looked pretty damn fun. Today the Grand Ol' Opry is a tacky looking auditorium that advertises its gift shop more than its acts, charges 15 dollars for tours (no way in hell I paid that) and hosts such shitty acts as Big n' Rich. For ultimate consumer gratification, there is a large Mall of America style mall directly adjacent to the Opry, called The Opryland Mall. The way the place is arranged, it looks like the mall was put there first, and then the Opry auditorium was added off to the side as an afterthought, as a way to draw in patriotic country-loving suckers.
Maybe I'm being harsh. I don't know why I care. I don't even like country music.
Anyway, the Opryland hotel was pretty neat, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
Monday, August 25, 2008
So we went to the bar and saw a whole lot of people that I hadn't seen in a very very long time and drank and sang loud songs. Colleen bought me two beers at the same time and tried to lure us into staying friday with promises of fresh baked cookies and more beer. Another friend tried to get us to stay till saturday afternoon so we could participate in a neighborhood-wide water pistol fight, but Steve and I, we are two rolling stones, baby. This bird you cannot chain, etcetera. We left friday morning.
We drove down through horrible traffic in NY, NJ and Delaware (Such big traffic for such a little state!!) and grabbed dinner at a shopping mall in some suburb of DC with Steve's friend. Steve had been working for Dept of Homeland Security, and his friend was working for Dept of Defense. I felt like such a Washington insider. Did you know Julia Childs was a spy? Apparently she was, and threatened to tear the nuts off some poor DoD employees unless she got some codebook. Or something like that.
We kept driving to Shenandoah Nat'l park and got there after the sun had set. It had been a 12 hour day, so we set up the tent and went to sleep. The next morning we woke up and went on a quick 5.5 mile hike. The trail didn't seem like a big deal, just a little loop near the campgrounds, but we saw THREE bears, and heard others in just that little duration. Granted, they were baby bears climbing in trees and near brooks, but baby bears--they don't travel alone. We hoped we weren't between them and their momma, so we clapped loudly and sang songs like 'Someone's in the kitchen with Dina', but changed the lyrics to 'There's a bear over there oh my God, there's a bear over there I kno-o-o-ow, there's a bear over there oh my God, please don't eat my face!'
From there we traveled south to Asheville NC where we stopped in Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co for dinner, which was mighty tasty. We then drove west to the Smoky mountains. They really are beautiful. We saw a herd of elk on our way into the park-- they are huge!! I thought they were moose with no antlers at first. We kept on into the park and set up camp with the sun still up. We started a fire, broke out my flask of whiskey and a guitar and settled in for the night. The next morning we went on another 5 mile hike, which was very easy and nice, and saw another much larger bear. They really don't seem all that scary, although apparently they'll charge from time to time. I would probably pee myself. The last mile or so of the hike was just rows and rows of old abandoned houses in the middle of the woods where old timey millionaires had their vacation homes. It was cool, like being in a ghost town.
From there it was a quick 4 hour drive to Nashville, where I am presently. Well, not exactly Nashville, we're in Christiana TN, 45 minutes away. We're staying with my friend Evan, who within the last two months decided to rent an old farmhouse in the Tennesee country side. Its a really nice place. We drove into Nashy for dinner at a sweet BBQ joint, hung out at a bar and then went to a bluegrass jam for a little bit before heading home. Today, we're just gonna hang out in Nashtown, maybe go to the Grand Ol' Opry, and then crash my friend Mike's bday party. I don't think he knows I'm here.
To be continued!
Ride to Seattle: Episode 2: New Orleans!
Breakfast was a hearty serving of oatmeal du jetboil. Broke camp fast and went to talk with a ranger about our planned hike. We got our map, and hit the trail.
About an hour in to the hike, chit-chatting and passing time without being particularly aware of our surroundings, we heard movement off to our right about 500 feet. Big movement. My eyes then registered two brown bear cubs about 3 feet long, 50-75 pounds maybe, jump from at least 10 feet out of a tree onto the forest floor.
Beth had never seen a bear before, and me never from outside the safety of a car. It was quite a jolt, probably for the bears as well, and an immediate awakening for both of us. Coffee is nothing compared to unexpectedly realizing that you are within a stones throw of likely 3 bears. We immediately began clapping and singing songs about friendly bears very loudly. And we were mercifully not torn limb from limb, for which we were very thankful. About 40 minutes later we heard another one farther away to our left dart through the bushes, away from us(resume clapping, singing). And even once more, about 20 minutes later, after just crossing a river, Beth saw one again on the river that heard us and darted away again.
With about 1/2 mile left on our 6 mile hike, we encountered our first person of the hike. When we told him to be aware of bears, he asked us if they had charged us, as if it was no big deal at all. When we said no, he seemed unimpressed, and shrugged it off, as if he gets charged on a weekly basis by 700 pound mammals and thinks nothing of it.
For those of you that don't know, here's the general procedure for not getting killed by bears:
1) Make alot of noise, they do not want to interact with you anymore than you do them, and have very good hearing, so they will go away as soon as they hear you coming. Only real danger is surprising them or getting between cubs & mama.
2)If the bear sees you, stand very tall and try to look big. Do not yell, but you can talk very loudly and calmly. Wait for the bear to lose interest and go away.
3)If the bear is upset with you, they often will charge you. 95% of the time, they will veer off a few feet before reaching you. You must remain still, look big, and basically do nothing except pray to everything you can think of that would listen.
4) If you are actually struck down by the bear, play dead. Hopefully all you have to do is play, not become. There is basically nothing else you can do.
Luckily we never had to go past part 1.
So we made it back alive with some good stories and more or less completely out of things to say since we had just used up about every story we could think of along the 2+ hour hike to make sure that the bears could hear us. We loaded up our faithful steed, Black Betty. Dialed in Asheville, NC Pizza and Brewing Co. , turned the bluegrass up to 11, and headed south.
Traffic was thankfully a thing of the past.
Good beer, good pizza in Asheville, headed into the Great Smoky Mountains Took in the usual cheesy touristy signs that accompany small towns on the outskirts of just about every national park in the country. (MOST PHOTOGRAPHED VIEW EVER HERE! BEST CAMPGROUND IN THE SMOKIES HERE! etc.). Enjoyed the drive and views as the sun slipped over the horizon. Set up camp in Smokemont campgrounds, which was almost empty. Got some firewood from a real friendly and real southern campground employee. Got a good blazing fire going and whipped out the bourbon and the Gee-tar and jammed for awhile until exhaustion once again took over.
While at Stop & Shop the next morning gathering essential nourishment and thinking we were seconds from hitting the road, I discovered two important things. I forgot to close my tab at the Squealing Pig at the night before, and we definitely did not remember to put my bike on the car that morning.
The bike was easily remedied, the credit card, not so much at 8am on a Friday. Luckily Jared was able to pick it up a day later, and probably charge a few drinks to my card for good measure. Me and VISA will rendezvous in Austin again it seems.
The drive was deceptively smooth right into NYC, creating illusions of getting into Shenandoah National Park by 5PM. Or so said our fearless and often stupid navigator, Sally Nuvi. The GW Bridge, New Jersey Turnpike, and whatever the fuck Delaware is doing with its highways, had a very different idea.
Everyone hates New Jersey.
While Beth was driving through Baltimore, I fought with an impossibly stupid person from recreation.gov on the phone who was charged with the simple task of finding us a campsite that night. The issue made all the more difficult by her endlessly appologetic and generally pleasant demeanor, as I could not rally the energy to actually become upset with her. She assured us that every single non group campsite was completely booked that night, and the same at Great Smoky Mountains for the next night as well. After trying to explain to her how to use her own website, I conceded defeat, hung up, and decided to just show up and see what happens. Of course, at both places, both campgrounds were less than 50% occupied.
We met Jeremy, my good friend from high school for dinner just outside the DC beltway, at the Gordon Biersch brew co. Our first of many breweries to be sure. Said hi and bye to our first friendly face of the trip, and moved on south to the park.
We arrived, after 20 miles of night driving on a windy national park road, and found a spot with ease, set up camp, and immediately passed out, wondering what America has in store for us, and us for her, in the days and weeks to come.