Monday, November 17, 2008
Most Consecutive miles driven: 1435
Most Consecutive Hours driven 22
Hot Dogs eaten: 19
S’mores eaten: 15
States visited: 13
Nights Below Freezing: 9
National and State Parks: 8
Number of “Jesus Saves” signs: 7
Mcflurries/Blizzards/Sonic Blasts eaten: 5
BBQ Restaurants: 4
Timeshare presentations sat through for free stuff: 2
BBQ Baloney sandwiches:1
Times we said “Where the fuck are we?”: Countless
Sunday, November 16, 2008
We got on the road and started haulin’ ass. 800 miles and 12 hours into our trip Mylinh decides that El Paso just isn’t the place for her. She comes up with the plan to sleep and drive in alternating shifts all the way to Tucson, AZ where we will stay with her brother-in-law for a few hours to shower and rest and then get back on the road. Essentially, she was advocating for driving almost straight back to Santa Rosa with a mere 4 hour stop in Tucson. And so she proclaimed her plan and so it was done.
At midnight I jumped behind the wheel of the car, pounded a red bull and sped down that lonely highway toward the desert. I didn’t have wings, but I did have a good time listening to soft rock from the early 1990s and local Arizona punk rock that is probably only on the radio at 4am. Jonah, Mylinh’s sister’s husband, graciously let us in his house a little before 5am and let us crash on his futon. At 8:30am the alarm went off and we cleaned up and hit that asphalt river that Eisenhower ensured would connect America and its people.
Looking back on our trip a lot of things come to mind. It was one of those months of my life that I will never forget. One of those months that I will look upon as both fun and formative, tiring and invigorating. After traveling over many different parts of the world, it was seeing and experiencing America that was missing from my travels. America in all its forms - its different cultures, different landscapes and the different sorts of people that make up this melting pot.
My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to meet more people and see more things, but that is life. We looked into the eyes of America and America looked back into us. Forever will both we and America be changed. In these historic days of presidential elections and wars and depressions, seeing America as it was meant to be seen, from a car, and meeting the people who make up America was inspiring and only increased my love of our nation.
Whether I’ll ever see B.B King in Memphis, Hank Williams Jr. at the Grand Ole’ Opry, own a farm in Kentucky or a timeshare in New Orleans is uncertain, but I know in my heart of hearts that this isn’t the last I’ve seen of America and this isn’t the last America has seen of me.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
New Orleans was OUR STOP. I mean, this is where the trip began. Not literally began, that was California, but figuratively. While sitting in a small village in Nepal, I sat there reading On the Road, and just as Dean Moriarty said to Sal Paradise “Let’s got to New Orleans,” I leaned over to Mylinh and exclaimed “how about a road trip to New Orleans.” An idea was born and like cancer it spread. The road trip to the Big Easy quickly turned into a road trip across the south; a road trip across the south quickly became a road trip across the southern states of the United States..
More than just being the climax of our trip, New Orleans was so much more – what I am talking about is a bed and a roof. After weeks of camping we were desperately seeking a padded bed and a warm night of sleep. New Orleans was also more than just a party. It was a Halloween celebration, a reunion of friends, new and old, a place to rest our head and fill our bellies.
Coincidentally, my sisters and a few of our friends were also headed down NO for Halloween. This meant lots of catching up and lots of partying. Not only that, but I peer pressured my good friend Chris into taking some time off work and partying it up for the weekend. I won’t get too much into the specifics of our partying. Every night is the same on bourbon street. Hurricane, hand grenade, hurricane, hurricane, followed my some mix of the aforementioned and 3 for 1 beers. Life was good, my head the next morning, not so much.
Halloween was a spectacle to be seen. Half naked women, slutty old ladies, and a mix of every costume you could name (nothing was too scandalous). As we sat for what was to be our first of many hurricanes, a bartender approached Chris and asked if he wanted to be in a costume contest. You see, Chris, usually not the most enthusiastic Halloween participant, had found the perfect costume. Chris is a big dude, no wait, in fact, Chris is a huge dude – 6’4”, 240 pounds. His costume, however, was a child’s Eeyore costume, which he had torn and sewn to have it fit over his head. It was like if big dopey Goliath and ripped a hole through David’s head and stuck his face through it. It was awesome.
Chris had the added benefit at the costume contest of rolling deep. There were nine of us in all and that was plenty to make lots of noise by cheering, the sole way to win the contest. However, one formidable obstacle stood between Chris and his prize. That obstacle was a man who had clearly put much thought and effort into his costume.
His opponent, had long-ish curly hair, a purple jacket, and cigar hanging from his mouth – he was The Joker. As the Joker slid and strutted across the bar top he pulled out two switch blade knives – the ultimate detail that helped put his costume over the top. While Chris’s costume was good, this guy was great. It was an unequivocal win for the Joker, but Chris made it to the top three, which wasn’t too bad.
The night got messier and sloppier as time went on. We had more hurricanes, beers, jello shots out of plastic syringes, and ultimately wound up singing karaoke. This included about half our group (the drunker half) going up and singing “Friends in Low Places.” However, my claim to fame was putting my priest costume to use and jumping up during “Enter the Sandman” by Metallica and blessing the girl on stage during the prayer in the song. It was pretty fun and crowd screamed like crazy, but as I forgot the lyrics to later parts of the song I quickly exited stage right – my 15 seconds of fame were up. Let’s just say that at the end of the night I was glad I woke up in my bed and not on a street corner like many of the people we saw the next morning still in costume.
The following days of New Orleans were fun, but a little more low key. We walked the city, looked at art, drank Chickery coffee, ate beignets and enjoyed the elegant debauchery that is New Orleans. As we had had enough of this walking business after a couple days, Chris and I decided that we’d like to roll in style – that means on Harley’s.
We woke up early Sunday morning and headed out to get us a couple hogs on which to cruise the Louisiana countryside. Two Fatboy’s called out our names. We put our bitches on the back and painted the road with some burned rubber. The countryside was a far cry from the metropolitan tourist trap of the city. Run down or boarded up houses sat next to run down or boarded businesses that sat next to industrial centers that line the Mississippi river.
We followed the road the snakes along the Mighty Mississippi and saw more than our share of plantations and tobacco fields. The drive was sometimes scenic, sometimes ugly, but always informative. It was interesting to see another side of the south. Staying confined to cities, even those like Mobile, give you a skewed view. It makes the south look more modern and more progressive than it truly is. The backroads of Louisiana revealed a depressed economy and small town life that neither felt nor looked like Norman Rockwell.
From the drunks who stumbled along the streets as our motorcycles passed, to the man cooking on an open fire in front of his FEMA trailer to the unbelievably sweet and cute, yet pregnant (one probably led to the other) 16 year old waitress at the pizza place we found open (the only restaurant open for 50 miles). Renting the bikes was great not just to ride, but to see and see we did.
We had visited New Orleans a couple years ago, about 10 months after Katrina took place. At that time even Bourbon Street looked empty. A plethora of “for hire” signs were scattered about the city as most residents were still living in toxic FEMA housing all across the south. Today, as compared to 2 years ago, it seems as if New Orleans really has been renewed. No more boarded up restaurants, vacant buildings and FEMA trailers in downtown parking lots. While this renewal clearly hasn’t spread to the outlying countryside of the state I’m not sure that it ever did.
New Orleans was lots of fun and it definitely made me appreciate my friends new and old. They are certainly a group of people who know how to have a good time and to make sure I have one too. While most of those friends will be waiting for us in the golden state, we hope that the lost bear will find himself California dreamin – or at least on a motorcycle trip in Scotland with us in the years to come.
Friday, November 7, 2008
Montgomery was our first stop. Montgomery is a storied place. A history that encircles and comes back onto itself. A history that spans from the early days of “King Cotton,” to the civil war, to the civil rights movement.
Today, Montgomery seems like one of those southern towns that just never really got out of the 1950s. Of course Starbucks has planted itself on plenty of street corners and there are too many Wal-Marts to count, but something about the feel of the place never changed. The traffic moves slower, as if there was no reason in the world to move faster. The people speak with a slow drawl that reminds me of molasses rolling downhill.
We had spent most of that day in Atlanta so we got into Montgomery late and headed straight to the RV Park – the only camping in a 50 mile radius. By that time we had been used to freezing cold nights (where do those hobos go for the winter?) and we were expecting another one.
I walked into the office and asked about getting a camping spot. The lady behind the counter looked up at me, and in her thick molasses drawl explained, “we ain’t set up for no tents.” As I strained to comprehend the slow words oozing from her mouth, I let her know that we have camped at many RV parks before and that any place to put our tent, including an RV site, would be fine. “You know it’s gonna freeze tonight, ya’ll aren’t gonna freeze to death on my property, are ya?” She said, almost sounding more concerned with the negative publicity two human popsicles being hauled off to the city morgue might create. I assured her that I knew the weather report and that while it was expected to be 33 degrees that night, that we had camped in and survived much colder weather. She gave me a skeptical look, but gave me a spot anyway. As I walked out she quipped, “I hope ya’ll got cozy sleeping bags.” I laughed.
The night was cold, but still not our coldest. We boiled some water for noodles and made one of my specialties – a sliced apple grilled cheese sandwich. No freezing weather could stop me from enjoying such a delicious meal. Just as we were done eating a man and his son started walking toward us. I put my hand on the knife in my pocket and said hello. He started to explain “you’sa checked in with my wife earlier tonight.” “Yes sir, I did” I said. “Well, we’re pretty worried about you freezing to death out here. I got some fire wood out back. That’d keep you pretty warm I reckon.” Mylinh and I look at each other. “Thanks so much, but I think we’ll be heading to bed soon so the fire won’t be necessary.” “Well, it’s there if ya’ll start to freeze.” “Thanks again.” He walked away clearly still worried about the dead bodies he’d have to pull out in the morning.
On the below freezing morning we scurried to put in some laundry (much to the relief of our friends we’d be seeing in a few days.) Our first stop was the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary, but as we are both fans of F. Scott it was well worth the stop. The museum is housed in the author’s old home located in a suburban district of the downtown area.
Amid other small mansions sits the unassuming house that contained the museum. The yard and house were noticeably empty and we figured correctly that the museum didn’t exactly attract swaths of visitors. In fact, the museum receives no government funding so in order to finance the place they had to subdivide the house into apartments and rent them out. Kind of sad, but after seeing the museum it was clear they didn’t have enough stuff to fill the house anyway.
Inside, it felt a little more like a Zelda museum than F. Scott. As for F. Scott’s memorabilia they had a collection of first editions, his old typewriter and some letters he wrote including one to Ernest Hemingway. Otherwise the museum had over 15 original Zelda paintings (2nd largest collection in the world) and a significant amount of Zelda’s random possessions including her paper dolls, books and letters. The museum was worth a stop if you are already in Montgomery, but I don’t think I’d make a separate trip there.
More noteworthy might be the Southern Literary Tour. An informal route that traverses all the “hotspots” of southern authors. One stop includes a trip to the courthouse in Harper Lee’s and Truman Capote’s hometown. The courthouse was replicated for the Gregory Peck film, To Kill A Mocking Bird. Every year the courthouse puts on a reenactment of the court scene from the book and movie.
On the advice of the man who ran the museum we headed to a fried chicken spot for lunch. He told us that local politicians frequent this place and to get there early. We only half believed him, but without much else to do headed there early nonetheless. The place was packed. Businessmen with suits, old ladies with blue hair, and blue collar workers with sleeveless flannels and camouflage hats filled the place. We were seated shortly after arriving and clearly needed no time pouring over the menu because all they served was fried chicken and a few sides. The fried chicken was godly. The white meat was succulent and moist. The skin crispy and tasty. The sides were over-salted and left something to be desired, but at least they did one thing right.
Next we headed on to Mobile. Mobile was a place that it seemed the modern economy had left behind. We were only spending an afternoon in the area so we decided that we’d stroll down the main boulevard to get a feel for the city. The only things along this boulevard were restaurants, bars and thrift stores. However, what was most notable was the dilapidated condition of this so-called main street. Every third business was boarded up and more than a few empty lots lined the streets.
It was as if this once bustling center of the gulf coast was merely a ghost town. While it was a Wednesday afternoon the streets were inexplicably empty and as we walked down to the gulf port at the end of the street an eerie silence hung in the air. On the brighter side, I had a delicious coconut fudge gelato milkshake.
We regretted not being able to spend more time in these historic southern cities, but our time was little and our ambitions great. We headed on into Mississippi to camp the night in Big Biloxi State Park. We got there after dark, but the morning revealed a beautiful forest surrounding us and the Big Biloxi river a mere 50 yards from our camp site. The south, for all its faults and small town feel, has many hidden treasures and beauties. While we had discovered but a fraction of them it was just comforting knowing that no matter where in America you might find yourself, it is always amazing and it will always feel like home
We packed up quickly in the morning and headed down to the Big City. First, we were in dire need of an internet café (in order to upload the lovely prose of this here blog). We stumbled upon a hipster mecca. Tight jean clad indie rockers clicked away on their apple computers and drank cups of French pressed coffee (every cup they serve is individually French pressed). They even had a zombie-art exhibit on the walls. It was pretty awesome.
Next we headed off for Fat Matt’s BBQ. This place was hands down the best BBQ we’ve had in the south. Succulent pork ribs with meat that melted in my mouth and spicy bbq sauce that was perfectly smothered. This was all complemented by rum baked beans and cinnamon laden sweet potato soufflé. It was heavenly.
Finally, we made it downtown. Downtown Atlanta has been the most urban of the places we’ve been in the south. It has both CNN’s corporate offices and the Coca-Cola museum. We didn’t want to pay for the museum so we contented ourselves with just wandering the coke store, which was museum-like in itself. It had all sorts of replica coke artifacts for sale and every t-shirt, glass or hat you would ever want with a coke design on it. The store must’ve been designed pretty well because it made me want to spend my few remaining dollars on all sorts of needless crap. We got out of there without buying anything, but I found myself trying on a Mr. Pibb hat and telling myself it would be a great purchase. It was a low point in my life.
Next we strolled through the Centennial Olympic Park that was constructed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The park was pretty boring, but it was nice to have that nostalgic feeling reminding me when America used to actually be home to the games. Now, it’s just China and Canada and Britain, damn.
We finished off our abridged tour of the city with a stop at the CNN building. There was a tour available through the studios where they produce the shows, but we skipped it because it got too many negative reviews. The building itself was pretty cool and they had the hummer they used in Iraq War reporting on display and we got to see the world’s highest and longest escalator – woohoo!
That was it for Atlanta. We probably could’ve spent another few days there, but New Orleans was calling our name and we had too many places to visit before our Halloween date with the Big Easy.
As we crossed over from Tennessee into KY something had noticeably changed. While the South as a whole has been aesthetically pleasing, Kentucky is gorgeous. Colorful forests lined the highway and small farms were tucked within the woods. The sky was Cookie Monster-blue and the sunset Bert and Ernie-orange. We headed to Bardstown, unofficially known as the bourbon capital of the world. Luckily for us My Old Kentucky Home state park was right in town. We pulled into the park and despite being surrounded by a golf course it was perfect - piles of free wood for burning, hot showers, wooded forests separating us from the club swinging good‘ol boys. We spent the evening leisurely cooking hot dogs, drinking beer and enjoying god’s gift to man, s’mores.
The next morning we headed off toward destiny. Jim Beam was our first stop. Jim Beam and their collection of small batch bourbons (knob creek etc) is where my experience is most confined in the realm of bourbon. A bourbon distillery looked a little different than I expected.
Smoke stacks (spewing steam – maybe steamstacks) towered above big metal wearhouses. It looked more like a factory that a distillery. However, as we toured the place we soon realized that the steam just came from heating up the corn used for distillation and the warehouses were filled with charred oak barrels of aging bourbon. The tour was self-guided, which ultimately meant that we breezed through it in order to get to the tasting at the end. We got to taste all of their small batch bourbons and they were all great – some smoky, some oaky, some sweet.
After a few drinks we were feeling pretty high class (usually the more I drink the classier I feel, but the less classy I get – quite the paradox) and so we headed over to Maker’s Mark, a gentlemen’s bourbon. They had clearly put some time and money into their tour operations. It was like being at Disneyland. Their visitor’s center was housed in the 1800s era house of the original distiller and it was set up with memorabilia from the family that originated Maker’s Mark. They even had digital pictures on the wall of the family that spoke, yes, they used digital rendering to have the framed pictures say humorous things. It was quite the show.
What makes Maker’s Mark special is that instead of using rye in its distilling, it uses red wheat grain. Supposedly, this makes for a smoother, cleaner taste. In fact, about 18 times during the guided tour, our tour guide would bug-out her cartoonish eyes and flutter her jazz hands back and forth all while saying “ssmmooottthhh bourbon whiskey.” This was Disneyland for adults and she was the ultimate caricature. She had well rehearsed jokes and smiled wide. Despite being a little condescending, the tour was actually pretty good and apparently they won first place in 2007 for having the best tour of any alcohol facility in the world.
As far as I’m concerned, Maker’s Mark is just okay, but I’d rather have one of Jim Beam’s small batch bourbons any day. That was it for our bourbon tour. Sadly, most of the other distilleries were closed on Mondays. Oh well, another time.
As for Kentucky, I think it was possibly the most beautiful place we’ve visited outside of Zion. If I were to move to the rural south it would definitely be on one of the picture-esq farms dotting the hillsides of the back roads. Maybe someday I’ll come out here, write a book and open a bourbon distillery. Thor’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey has a nice ring to it.
As we raced down the country roads toward the freeway we snapped a couple pictures of Lincoln’s birthplace (i.e. log cabin), but time was a-wastin’ so we couldn’t trouble ourselves with spending any real time with Honest Abe.
Nashville itself is a hick’s wet dream. Country everywhere. The radio stations blasted twang and the sole museum of note was the Country Music Museum that housed Elvis’ gold Cadillac. We headed downtown and were immediately swept into a world of would-be, trying-to-be and never-will-be country music singers. Like in Memphis, we roamed the streets checking out the scene.
We listened as best we could to the blaring country sounds spilling out of each bar and tried to make our pick. Finally, we stumbled into a bar with rockabilly blasting. The main attraction was that it had no cover charge and $1 PBRs. What the band lacked in talent they made up for in enthusiasm. The singer, with his fur-lined jean jacket and cowboy boots pounded on his keyboard and jumped around like a Mexican bean (the jumping kind of course). He tried his best to get the crowd going with a montage of playing while standing on the bench, kicking his legs back in the air and taking a playing hiatus to climb along the rafters over the band. This all made for great entertainment, but somehow, unsurprisingly, the music suffered.
The playlist included such hits as I Walk the Line, Whisky Bent and Hellbound and what sounded like a few original numbers. We finished up our beers and decided to head to Tootsie’s – a country music bar that claimed world fame. According to some sources this is the bar where Willie Nelson got his start and where numerous up and coming country stars yearn to play. Well, the night we strolled in must’ve been an anomaly. The John-Mayer-esq douchebag standing behind the microphone was lackluster at best and condescending at worst. He was clearly some New England prep school sissy who had headed down to Vandy to make dad proud and score himself some airheaded Georgia Peach.
The music was obviously geared towards high schoolers and it was clear from his songwriting that he thought a country song’s inclusion of lyrics about whiskey, women and partying meant that the song had no need for complex emotion or folk-based storytelling – he was wrong. Shallow lyrics that include words like “beer” and “drunk” and “dog” don’t make a good country song. Needless to say we didn’t stay long. When his girlfriend came around with his tip jar she was astonished to see that I declined. I believe her exact words were “psshhaww.”
After that we headed back to our campsite and braved the cold weather once again. The next morning we headed to a farmer’s market which would’ve put many Cali markets to shame (but not Haymarket, of course). All the fruits and vegetables were locally grown and down here in the South that means melons, 15 types of apples and every vegetable you can name. The had tables with 40 different types of jelly including such concoctions as watermelon rind jelly, moonshine jelly, sweet-potato jelly and cantaloupe jelly – I’ll have to get my dad working at recreating these inspired spreads. Finally, after realizing that the three different lunch spots we looked into were closed – it was the lord’s day and little was open – we got on that great highway and headed north to Lincoln’s Home, Kentucky.