Friday, January 23, 2009

Road Trip, Mk. 3: The long road home

(this one is just a quick copy-paste from what I wrote before passing out last night, so my apologies for the (sic) )

It’s been a long day of driving, but we’ve managed to almost make it out of California the first day out on Road Trip 2K9. We’re in Needles, California, a city renowned for occupying what would otherwise be an empty stretch of Interstate 40. It has motels, and it’s located more-or-less halfway between Walnut Creek and Albuquerque.

Hmm. I probably should provide a little backstory here. Quick summary: I used to live in California, and then (as you loyal readers already know) I drove cross-country to return to my birthright in New Hampshire. This would be the end of the story, except for the fact that I left just about all my stuff in a storage unit back in Cali. My plan was to keep it there until I could figure out how to get it back east without spending too much money in the process. No such solution presented itself until a week ago, when my girlfriend’s company laid her off. Now, due to the conveniently horrible state of the economy, we both had enough free time to fly out west (thank YOU, leftover Southwest Rapid Rewards flight), rent a truck, and haul my pile o’ crap all the way back to New Hampshire. All of this brings me and my special lady (hereinafter “April”) to our present location: Needles, California.

Our flight got in to Oakland two days ago, where California welcomed us with brilliant sun and perfect 60-degree air. I had been snowshoeing through a solid foot of fresh snow just the day before, so the change in weather was a bit of a shock. California quickly changed its ways to make us feel at home, however: by the time Wednesday morning rolled around, a massive cloud of drizzling rain had covered the state. Woo.

We Yankees are made of tougher stock, however, and managed to make do in spite of the dreary weather. Aided by a dinner of excellent sushi, a little bit of San Francisco bar-hopping, and my buddy Ryan’s DVD collection of every episode of “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” ever (including the excellent “King of Thieves” episode co-starring Bruce Campbell), we turned our stay in the Bay Area into a pleasant one. We spent the better part of the day loading up our rental truck (Penske 12-footer) yesterday, and this morning said our farewells and rode off into the rain.

California’s Central Valley is not the most pleasant place in the world, and the smog/raincloud mix that coated the valley today did little to help appearances. Along the way we learned such useful facts as:

1. The “Double-Double” at In-N-Out Burger is a truly delicious burger. Especially if you get it animal style.
2. Apparently, there is a Spanish equivalent to Bud Light’s dubious word, “Drinkabilty.” South of Fresno, we saw just that on a billboard. I think it was something like “Trubidablio.” I think. My memory is a bit hazy.
3. Bakersfield is a dirty, dirty, horrible city. Pick up your trash and show some damn self-respect, people.
4. California Route 58 through the Tehachapi mountains is an absolutely beautiful drive. As we made our way up towards Tehachapi Pass (the self-proclaimed “World Leader in Wind Energy” – the mountain ridges around the pass bristle with wind turbines), a massive rainbow domed the rocky, severe valley along which Rt. 58 climbed. I had never seen the Tehachapi mountains before, but I’m glad I have now.
5. The town of Boron, California (just off CA-58 between Mojave and Barstow) is apparently where the famed laundry detergent booster “Borax” is made. There’s even a “20 Mule Team Road” and a “Borax Visitor’s Center.” Unfortunately, it was fast approaching closing time as we passed the visitors center, so I will not be able to regale you with fun Borax facts. Sorry, everybody.
6. April is too short to drive the rental truck. She needs a booster pad (which today was a folded-up ski jacket) on the drivers’ seat in order to get high enough. I hadn’t planned on including this, but April just reminded me of it now. On the menu for tomorrow: get a seat pad!
7. I-40 between Barstow and Needles is one of the most desolate, empty, and boring roads I’ve driven across (granted, it was after dark – for all I know, we were missing beautiful desert vistas the entire way). I found myself getting excited any time that I saw a road sign approaching in the distance – and even those little bits of scenery were few and far between.

I’d like to finish this post with a special note regarding Carl’s Jr. Carl’s makes a tasty burger – this I will not dispute. However, their “Green Burrito” section of the menu is a crime against all that is good and right with food in this world. Their sad excuse for a “burrito” is a gray-brown, over-salted mush of what I can only assume used to be refried beans glooped into a stale tortilla. As I learned just too late, it’s effectively diarrhea wrapped up in a tortilla – though now that I think about it, that would probably be an improvement on its actual ingredients. It took a heavy dose of Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol to keep my digestive system from exploding out of my abdomen, “Aliens”-style, after consuming the hated “burrito.” So, in closing:

Fuck you, Carl’s Jr.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mission: Impossible*

*where the mission is: "visit Niagra Falls without spending any money."

I made the trip to Niagra yesterday, to see what all the fuss was about. Before I got to the falls, I realized something important: this place was going to be expensive. Pay-to-park lots dominated the landscape. That, and boarded-up buildings. The city of Niagra Falls, apparently, is horribly, cripplingly economically depressed. I could tell, because the Canadian side of the falls looked great. They had ferris wheels, and waterslides, and big hotels, and even a little CN-Tower-looking thing. Based on my experiences of Toronto and now Canadian Niagra Falls, I have determined that every city in Canada has a big space-needle sort of tower.

Back to the story at hand. Tourism appears to be the sole source of income for people working in Niagra Falls, and they don't mess around. This was going to be a tough one. I found a more-or-less free lot after a bit, several miles downriver. Luckily, when it comes to tourist places, I like two things:
1. I like to hike.
2. I like to not pay money.*

*this is the reason why I did not actually see Mount Rushmore, despite driving right up to the damn thing. After rolling up the hill and catching glimpses of the monument, I was notified that it would cost $10 to park. Ten dollars. To spend a couple minutes looking at some big stone heads. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

So I got walking, up to the falls. And now that I've seen it --

It's nice. The falls are really big, and there's lots of water whooshing down making a cool sort of DOOOOOOOOOOOOM sound as it throws up massive clouds of mist. There were big crowds of friendly-looking Canadians on the other side of the gorge, and there was a boat down at the bottom of the falls, its engines running at full power just to hold in place in the current. There were also massive crowds of people everywhere, including a particularly foolish-looking group wearing bright yellow plastic parkas and sandals waiting in line to take an elevator to the base of the falls. I walked around, I saw the sights, and i stayed away from places that cost money. I left with the same amount of cash in my pocket as when I showed up, and that's a victory in my book.

Take that, Niagra Falls tourism industry!

I've been in Rochester, NY, the last few days, after driving over from Indiana on Sunday. What did I discover on Sunday? That Indiana is boring. I also found a real, live national park, just south of Cleveland. Cuyahoga is a pleasant park of tallgrass prairies interspersed among hardwood forests in the rolling hills of the Cuyahoga valley. It was a perfect place to get out of the car and hike around for a few hours to break up the monotony of driving from South Bend to Rochester. So that's good. The weather was also kind to me, waiting until I was done hiking to open the skies and dump massive rainstorms upon me.

Today was a "Dave discovers Rochester" day. I drove by the Kodak campus, an absolutely massive affair covering what has to be thousands of acres in Rochester. I discovered Rochester's contribution to world cuisine: the garbage plate (a collection fries, macaroni, cheese, and no fewer than two kinds of meat (hot dogs, cheeseburgers) thrown in for good measure. Said ingredients are then tossed unceremoniously into a massive pile on a plate. Or, as was the case last night, on a pizza. Delicious). And I visited the Rochester Museum.

Well, sort of. I got off to a good start, doing all sort of museum things like looking at exhibits and reading signs. Then I saw K*nex zone. It had massive bins filled with little snappy plastic pieces and wheels and gears and all sorts of fun things. Then I looked at the sign, and realized that the age limit was 3, so I couldn't go in. Then I looked at the sign more closely, and realized that 3 was the minimum age.


I spent the next two hours building a massive sort of semi-truck-looking-sort-of-thing. It was clearly more impressive than anything the 8-year olds near me could construct.

Score again.

Then I realized that I had spent the better part of the afternoon not seeing the museum, and decided the remedy this within the remaining 60 minutes I had before the museum closed. This plan worked for a few minutes, before I discovered the climbing wall. Presumably, it was an exhibit of the Taconic orogeny, showcasing the rock formations of the Rochester area. Realistically, it was a rock climbing wall. Once again, I was far superior on the climbing wall to any of the 8-year olds in the museum.

Score once more.

So, it was good fun, and I clearly established my dominance over the children of Rochester. Good times.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Time (Zone) On My Mind

Eastern Time Zone, bitches!

...The Road Trip is almost over. I passed the line sometime last night in the featureless nothing of Western Indiana. I'll be making this one short, because I've got five hours of driving until the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Let's Do This!

1. Olympics on the Tee Vee. Soccer. The Netherlands took an early 1-0 lead, but Team USA struck back in the 2nd half, scoring two big goals. They're got the lead with 5 minutes to play, and if the US can hold on this will be something of an upset. U! S! A! U! S! A!

2. Yesterday was a good day. I started off with a tasty breakfast at the Blackstone Family Diner in Green Bay, and had an extended conversation with my breakfast buddy, Jim. I hadn't meant for it to be an extended conversation, but Jim is the sort of person who will not stop talking long enough for you to make a polite exit out of the conversation. He's also apparently not too fond of black people (which unfortunately, I've found is a fairly common failing among most of the otherwise-admirable, honest folks of Small Town, America). Jim's claim to fame is that at 4'-11", he was the shortest locomotive engineer (he worked for the Green Bay Railroad) in America. So, a celebrity, I guess. I'll take what I can get.

3. Speaking of celebrities, after finally getting some internet access, I found out who signed my football! My two new favorite football players (non-New England Patriot division) are #26, Safety/Speacial Teamer Charlie Peprah, and #44, rookie Tight End Evan Moore. Both are fine, upstanding young men (largely by merit of signing my football), and-

Netherlands just tied the game in stoppage time. the final result will be a tie. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I hate the fucking Dutch. Bunch of clog-wearing, tulip-snorting windmill huggers.

-Evan, a graduate of Stamford University, was even nice enough to have a conversation with me. It's a long one, but I'll include the transcript in its entirety below:

Evan (to some little kid who kept whoring out for an autograph by yelling, among other things, that he had came all the way from Maryland to get an autograph): "You know, I'm from California"
Me (holding out football and sharpie): "Hey, I'm from California"
Evan (signing my football): "Really?"
Me: "Yeah, San Francisco"
Evan (handing back now-signed ball): "Cool."

Ladies and gentleman, my new best friend, Evan Moore.

So Charlie is a third-year backup player, and Evan is a rookie free agent, so as you football fans know it's practically GUARANTEED that both will go on to become massive superstars. Probably. Or they were just nice enough to sign my crap because everyone else was busy screaming at Donald Driver and Ryan Grant for autographs. Either way, I'm happy.

4. In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, I visited the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. Turns out the city has been a historic center of shipbuilding on the Great Lakes, among other things turning out a number of submarines that fought in the Pacific during WWII. The museum features a perfectly-maintained sub, the USS Cobia, which was built in the Electric Boat Yards in Groton, Connecticut (REPRESENT!), but otherwise is pretty much exactly the same type of sub that was built in Manitowoc. The museum features a full tour of the sub, so you can see first-hand just how cramped, claustrophobic, hot, and stinky these subs were. Those of us on the tour were in for a treat as one of the surviving veterans of the sub told us about his experience on the ship (he was a torpedo loader in the aft torpedo room), including a harrowing recounting of sitting in the completely quiet, darkened sub on the muddy floor of the sea as a Japanese destroyer rained down depth charges around the Cobia.

There's more to come here, but I want to get to the Hall of Fame before it closes tonight. So here's a quick outline of what you'll have to wait to read about:

*EDIT* I've finally gotten around to writing about the fun stuff from a few days ago. Here we go:

1. Indiana has some rather oddly-named roads. First up is an instant classic, "FANGBONER RD." But no matter how much fang or boner that can provide, it can't beat the elegant simplcity of "FAIL RD." Both are located somewhere west of South Bend along Route 20. I have decided that I need to own the "FAIL RD" sign. The next step: find a way to acquire it without doing anything illegal, Or without getting caught. Whichever is easier.

2. Indiana is a cripplingly boring state. I seriously think that the state was deliberately trying to get me out be being so horribly uninteresting. The only thing in the entire state that could even conceivably be considered an attraction would be its many fireworks stores, in particular "Krazy Kaplan's." Mr. Kaplan is so "krazy," apparently, that he offers an unprecedented "6-for-1" deal on select fireworks at his stores. And that's just special.

I found myself in Indiana because I was running from some particularly scary-looking thunderstorms, and didn't find a motel worth stopping at until I'd made it to South Bend. By this point, I had passed into the Eastern Time Zone (without knowing it; every other time I had passed to a new time zone on this trip a friendly sign was there to notify me. Not in Indiana. Yet one more way the state tried to make my trip as boring as possible), which is good. I'd been getting tired of having to do "time zone math" whenever I decided to call someone on the east coast. In any case, I had been running from the thunderstorms since I was in the state of Illinois, where I got to see the beautiful skyline of...

3. Chicago. I timed my drive perfectly, catching the Sears Tower, the Hancock Tower, and countless other skyscrapers against a backdrop of towering thunderheads, all illuminated by the setting sun. I found myself driving by (Whatever The Hell They Call It Now That It's Not Comiskey Park Anymore) Park, wondering who could be playing the White Sox that night. Turns out it was the Red Sox, as I learned when I got to a TV. Damn. At the very least, I drove past Chicago while playing Sufjan Steven's "Come on Feel the Illinoise" album, so I got to feel clever about something.

4. What time is it? MILLER TIME. While in Milwaukee, I made a point to visit the Miller brewery. I would like to stress before I continue that the brewery tour Miller offers is *FREE*, and includes free fair-sized tastings of their fine selection of beers. Emphasis here in "FREE." As opposed to "fine." But still -- "FREE." I got to see part of the Miller bottling facility, a magnificent state-of-the art conglomeration of equipment that spits out some half a million cases of beer every day. I also learned that Miller ships out forty rail cars full of beer each day, with a single rail car containing enough beer that if I were to drink one six pack of beer a day, would last me for 43 years. Clearly, I need to figure out how to get a rail car full of beer. The tour starts out with a wonderfully cheesy introductory movie, which takes every opportunity to remind you that the current time is Miller Time. My favorite scene:

(a happening-looking bar. Some dude is sitting there, enjoying a frosty bottle of Miller Lite)
Announcer: "There's a time that we like to call 'Miller Time.'"
(the guy looks over, and the camera pans to a beautiful woman, also enjoying a Miller Lite)
Announcer: "A time when the day goes from good..."
(the woman smiles at the dude)
Announcer: " great"
(the camera pans down to her cleavage)



Lambeau Leap

(A quick one from a couple days ago (8/8/08). Another one coming later this morning, once I get some coffee in me.

So I’m sitting here plugged into an RV electric box, and I figured it was time to get a little journal writin’ in. I’ll figure out how to get this bad boy onto the internet later. “Later” may come sooner than expected, as I’m not entirely sure if I’m allowed to be camping here in the Brown country fairgrounds just south of that hallowed football ground, Lambeau Field.

I’ve missed out on a few tourism opportunities while driving through Wisconsin; three of them passed me by in quick succession yesterday:

1. “The House On The Rock.” Apparently, it’s just what it sounds like. In any case, it featured prominently in Neil Gaiman’s excellent novel, “American Gods,” so it would have been nice to see what the real thing looked like. So it goes.
2. The Mustard Museum. This had the potential to be incredibly awesome, or hopelessly lame. Probably the latter. Still, I have to tip my hat to the man (or woman) who made their way to Wisconsin, built their museum, and said: “Fuck it. Let’s make the whole thing about mustard.”
3. I don’t know what it was, but what I did manage to read on the billboard proclaimed “60 KINDS OF CHEESE.” It doesn’t take much more than that to get me interested.

Today was a Lambeau Field day, in every possible sense. I showed up a little after 1pm and hopped on the stadium tour, which featured among other things a chance to walk down the tunnel from the locker room to the field. The very same tunnel that the players walk down before every game. The tour guide even arranged to pipe in a recording of a crowd cheering as an announcer introduced “…the GREEN BAY PACKERS!” Even in an empty stadium, it was an amazing experience. I can only imagine how it feels for a rookie to walk down that hallway as he prepares to play his first home game.

After the tour, I hit up the Packers Hall of Fame and learned all about the history of the storied franchise. What did I learn? Vince Lombardi was a badass. I also had a beer at “Curly’s Pub,” a sports bar in the stadium, and had a sandwich called the “Lambeau Leap.” It was a reuben.

And finally, because I hadn’t had enough Lambeau already, I walked over to the practice field to watch the team’s afternoon practice. Apparently, when the players make the way down to the field from the locker room, they each ride a bike provided by a local child. The kid gets to carry their helmet and run alongside the player down to the field. It’s a beautiful sight to watch these massive athletes slowly roll down the path on bikes barely capable of keeping unbroken under the weight, as very young (obvious) Packer fan runs behind them, helmet in hand, every tiny aspect of their body language screaming, “this is the greatest honor of my life!”
Not to miss out on the opportunity, I joined the kids by the field, and sharpie and hand, tried to get my football autographed. Two gentlemen were kind enough to oblige, and they may even have been players on the team! I would like to thank Mr. #26 and Mr. #44, and I’ll thank them by actual name once I actually figure out who they are. But seriously. Thanks for the autographs.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten to see NFL players up so close (if ever), and one thing struck me: I’m old. At 26, I felt like damn Methuselah looking at these kids. The Packers have one of the younger teams in the league, and considering that most of the players riding my were either rookies or in their first few years, I’d bet that the average age of the bike riders was 22. Young. But *jacked. They may have had baby faces, but these guys had guns like an NRA convention. It was an abrupt departure from the downright skinny-looking players from the 1920’s and 30’s featured in the Hall of Fame.

Well, time for some sleep. It’s an early morning tomorrow, my first taste of Lake Michigan, and quite possible a tour of the Milwaukee breweries, followed by a Milwaukee Brewers game. I hear Ben Sheets is pitching!


Friday, August 08, 2008

"Is this heaven?" "No, it's Iowa"

Another more-or-less quick one. As has become the norm on this trip, I'm harried by motel check-out deadlines whenever journal-writing time comes around.

I'm in Madison, Wisconsin, getting ready to make my way north up to Green Bay for my pilgrimage to visit Lambeau Field. From what I gather, I might even get to watch some training camp practice (minus Brett Favre, of course, but so it goes. I'm just glad that this charade is finally over and I'll have some small chance of seeing actual football news instead of the "What will Brett Favre do" circle-jerk that's taken over sports news for the past month). So that's good.

I made my way to Lucky’s Tavern in Madison last night, in wishful anticipation of watching the Patriots-Ravens preseason game. Football season, beautiful, wonderful football season, has finally returned. Unfortunately, the NFL and its television affiliates have no love for traveling preseason football devotees such as myself – although Lucky’s has one of the more advanced sports bar TV setups known to man, they weren't able to get the Pats game. As such, I had to make do with Cardinals-Saints to satisfy my football cravings, and let Mr. Internet keep me up-to-date on the Patriots.

Or not. Mr. Internet decided that it wasn't worth his time to show up at Lucky's, so I cut my losses and turned to Mr. $1 PBR draft beers for my mental, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. I attempted a little live blogging though, which lasted about ten minutes before my pizza arrived (tasty). A sampling:

Brett Favre looks freaking *weird* in a NY Jets cap. He’s not playing, but he’s on the sidelines. I’m not sure what to make of all this, but so long as the Jets lose a high draft pick for him, I’ll be happy.

…And the Browns have already hit the endzone against the Jets. A nice little out from Derek Anderson. Too bad Favre can’t play defense.

Update from my dad: Jerod Mayo is a BEAST. A man against boys out on the football field. I can't wait to see him play when I'm back in New England.

...And that's enough of that. No one wants to hear your dumb story about what happened while you were at the sports bar. This includes the other people at the sports bar. Let's move on... the title of this post. After a few days visiting my friend Becca in Iowa City (city motto: "It's surprisingly pleasant!"), I got on the road heading for Madison. With little else in the landscape besides cornfields and the occasional combine harvester chugging down the road (they are awesome), I found myself reading every sign I saw on the side of the road in a desperate attempt to break up the monotony. One such sign: "Field of Dreams Movie Site."

Well, I'd already gambled at Kevin Costner's casino back in South Dakota, so I figured I had to check this out. A few miles outside of Dyersville, Iowa, I found it. The red clay of the infield, the perfect green of the outfield, and an endless field of corn stretching out behind it. A father had brought his young children and was throwing them batting practice on the field. I watched the scene for a moment, and was struck by the greatest urge to play baseball I have ever felt. Finally, after crossing more than half the country, I had found a reason for lugging my baseball glove around in my car the entire trip. I waved to the dad, asked if he'd mind if I shagged fly balls in the outfield, and went out to play some baseball.

Other people arrived and left over the next few hours -- young children with gloves at bats, mothers and fathers with baseball caps for teams all over the country, even full-grown men with no gloves, no hats, and no shoes, running around in the soft outfield grass chasing down the hits. I spent the better part of the afternoon on that field, flashing the leather, running down flies, taking some swings, even pitching to a suite of children barely big enough to swing a bat. There were no teams, no score kept, no winners or losers. It was just a collection of strangers brought together by a common love of the simple pleasure of playing baseball.

I've played in championship games (ok, little league, but give me a break here), I've seen incredible professional games, and I've even gotten to see a superbowl live. And yet, I think the hours I spent on that field in Iowa will be the best sports memory I will have. There was none of the importance, none of the drama, none of the life-or-death excitement, and certainly none of the talent that I have seen in professional sports. But it had a pure, innocent joy in simply playing that I've never felt before.

And it was beautiful.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Good Ol'-Fashioned Americana

It's been all about AMERICA these last few days. Let's recap:

I hit up what may be my last national parks for this trip, Wind Cave and Badlands. After making my way through a number of cave-parks earlier in my road trips, wind cave was unlike anything else I had seen. This is mostly due to geology. I'll spare you my clumsy attempt at an explanation.

Badlands also featured large amounts of geology, with a special bonus ranger presentation on Friday night. The presentation was little more than a simple presentation showing the constellations of the night sky, but in a place like Badlands the stars take on an entirely different form. In the dark sky of rural South Dakota, the milky way makes an impossibly bright white band across the a field of millions of visible stars in the sky.

It was beautiful, etc, etc. Let's move on to something that might actually be entertaining.

Other things to see in South Dakota:

1. Minuteman National Historic landmark. During the Cold War, the US had as many as a thousand Minuteman ICBM's in launch tubes spread out across the country. A single missile could be launched within a matter of minutes, fly to just about any possible target in Russia, and vaporize a large city. South Dakota had several hundred missiles at the ready, sitting in unmarked launch stations surrounded by grazing sheep. While various ungulates were chewing their cud above, teams of air force missile technicians were sitting in underground bunkers performing the most stressful job possible and dreading receiving the coded message that could mean full-blown nuclear war. You can take a tour of the now-empty (the missiles were decommissioned in '91) silos if you so desire -- it's humbling to walk around a place that once housed the most destructive weapons ever known to man.

2. Wall Drug. It may not have thermonuclear warheads, but it does have a hell of a lot of billboards. Anyone approaching along the highway will have seen several hundred signs advertising the store, and will be forced to pull in to visit just to satisfy their curiousity, or more likely, because South Dakota is *very* flat and they're dying to do *anything* to break up the monotony of the drive. Wall Drug is the size of a Walmart, but it has grown organically -- it's clear that it was a single store downtown that bought up the adjacent buildings as it expanded and just cut doorways through the walls, creating a strange amalgamation of dozens of smaller stores that combine, Voltron-like, into the wonder and majesty that is WALL DRUG. Coffee is 5 cents, too, so that's good. Although I fear I may have overpaid, given the quality. Still... 5 cents!

3. The Corn Palace of Mitchell, SD. The city of Mitchell built the corn palace way back in 1892, the thinking being, it will be a tourist trap and put our little burg on the map, and besides, what else are we going to do with all this corn. The outer walls of the brick building (inside is a large auditorium that can serve as a theater or basketball arena) are decorated with massive, 40-foot high murals composed entirely from different-colored dried corn plants. Inside, the corn palace features photographs of the corn murals from previous years -- every year, the town commissions a local artist to design the mural and volunteers create the corn-art. The pictures provide a great picture of American history as viewed through the eyes of a small town in
the center of America.

4. The Song of Hiawatha Pageant. This isn't actually in South Dakota, but instead in Pipestone, Minnesota (which is about 5 miles from the Dakota border, so close enough). I had stopped by to see the Pipestone National Monument (having no idea of what it was, other than hey, it's along my route), and upon arriving was corraled into a field where volunteers were directing cars to park. Turns out I had showed up, less than an hour before it was set to begin, the final performance of the summer of the Song of Hiawatha Pageant. Every summer since 1948, this small town had put on the pageant, in which a narrator read of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" as a cast of hundreds of actors pantomimed the actions of the story. The "stage" encompassed a small lake and the surrounding ground, featuring fights ending with the loser being thrown into the lake, lots of bonfires, and assorted pyrotechnics including a fire-breathing snake. The cadence of the poem is beautiful, and the colors of the performance are fantastic, but the ending pissed me off. The poem tells the legend of Hiawatha, a great hero of Native American folklore and mythology, and after he performs countless quests and brings wisdom to his people, the poem ends with a couple Christian Missionaries showing up and Hiawatha telling his people to follow their teachings. The idea that this is the final and greatest act of Hiawatha struck me as, well, insultingly racist, and after the entire poem focusing entirely on purely native legends, the ending seemed tacked-on and out-of-place. Apparently it is from the original poem, however, so it looks like Longfellow was the racist dick who couldn't help telling indian legends without cramming on some schlock about how european religion and culture was better and "saved" the natives. Nice job there, Henry.

I've also now gotten the full tour of Minneapolis and St Paul, the Twin Cities of Minnesota. My tour included all the sights: the new I-35 bridge being built over the Mississippi River to replace the one that collapsed last year (reinforced concrete box girder design -- it's a real beaut!), the Mall of America (it's really, really, really big. Also, they have a rollercoaster inside. And considering that weather in Minnesota is either *balls cold in the winter* or *crazy humid in the summer,* I can see how the climate-controlled mall is such a draw), the Hubert H. Humprey Metrodome (I got to see a Twins game, and after watching him make a couple of beautiful stops up the middle and banging out a triple up the right-field line, I have decided that Nick Punto is my new Favorite Second Baseman Who Is Not Dustin Pedroia), and the SCIENCE MUSEUM (because I do love my science. Among other things, it features the "Museum of Questionable Medical Devices," a sort of tribute to quackery, and a mummy (unidentified) from ancient Egypt that, according to the museum, was purchased by a St Paul couple in 1925 during a vacation in Egypt. Ah, those were better days -- back when you could take a cruise over to Egypt, see the pyramids, ride a camel, and then go to the bazaar and buy yourself a mummy). I also got my first taste of Ethiopian cuisine, which is delicious and is eaten entirely with your hands. I don't even think they have a single fork in the entire building. Also, Ethiopian beer is tasty.

Time now to head back out on the road, get my oil changed, and visit Iowa and Wisconsin. There's some Milwaukee brewery tours in my future, you can bet on that.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Dances With Aces

A quick one this morning, before I head south ti Wind Caves NP and a little hiking in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I'm in Deadwood, SD this morning -- I crashed here yesterday for some well-needed hotel time, and now I'm rested and ready to go. Deadwood is a classic wild west mining boomtown from the last century, and the city council has made sure to keep it that way (or more accurately, to keep it looking that way while making it as tourist- and family- friendly as possible). I'm pretty sure I drove through a gunfight yesterday afternoon by accident. whoops.

So as a "wild west" town, Deadwood has GAMBLING. Obviously. I made my way downtown last night to grab some dinner and see the sights, and wandered into a door marked "sports bar* - upstairs."

*"Sports Bar" in Deadwood here means "a bar that's still covered in slot machines like every other bar here, but we're got more than one TV. We have two TV's, although the screen on one of them is pretty funny. Also, we only have basic cable, so don't expect to get to see your favorite team play. You're going to watch whatever the hell we can pick up, and you're going to like it." Deadwood could use a little work on the concept.

Turns out, the place - "Midnight Star" - was owned by Kevin Costner. I figured this out after a couple beers, noting that the walls were coated in pictures of Kevin and various costumes from his movies, and the fact that the menu said in huge letters "KEVIN COSTNER'S." I pick up on things quick like that.

After a couple beers and a steak (note to Kevin: improve your presentation. It's steak. Don't just plop a little chunk on a big empty white plate. Spill some juices around there. And who the hell are you to not have mashed potatoes as an option on the side?), I decided, hey, Kevin has made a big investment here -- I should hep him out. So I bought some chips and tried my hand at the blackjack table. Because Kevin needs the money.

I managed to crawl my way back to break even, left a couple chips to tip the dealer, and headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. Enjoy your money, Kevin -- you earned it.

(I really, really, wanted to fill this post with bad puns involving Kevin Costner's movies. But I'm in a hurry here, and I'm not feeling the magic this morning. Waterworld.)



Thursday, July 31, 2008

Farewell to the Rockies

*Note: this is more or less a post composed from my notes of the past week. The last notes were frantically made as I watched my laptop battery creep down to a mere 3% after transferring the latest batch of photos from my camera. Let's see how good my memory is, shall we?

But first, a couple items from yesterday:

I crossed the continental divide a while back in Glacier NP. Then in Yellowstone, I apparently crossed back. Then back again. Then back. The ridges were pretty small, and it was difficult to tell precisely what was going on, but the net effect placed me back on the Pacific side of the divide. So yesterday, driving east on US Route 26 from Grand Teton NP, I crossed the divide for one grand, final time. To celebrate the occasion, I took a whiz behind a tree. On the western side of the divide, of course; this would be my last opportunity to mark my territory west of the continental divide for a long time. So if you happen to live west of the divide, just a little reminder: you're on my property now. I tagged it.

No tag-backs.

Ok, let's start running through these. There's a lot to get in.

1. Milk was a bad choice: I needed some snaxx for quick energy on my hikes. I thought, how about one of those big party bags of milk chocolate mini snickers bars? Guess what happens when you leave chocolate in a black car parked in the hot freaking sun. Exactly. Luckily, I used *science* to help out. Melted candy bar + pot of cold water = non-melted, albeit Dali-esque tasty candy bar. I takes what I can gets. But note to self: no more chocolate.

2. A fair trade: fire for beer. Back in Montana, I met a nice family from Oakland in the campsite next to me. They had the full-on super camp setup, but they weren't very good at making a campfire. Also, their firewood was pretty wet. I waved hi, they invited me over for a beer, and I got their fire going (pyromania does have its benefits. sometimes). As a bonus, I got to talk football with my new buddy Chris. It was good to get some serious sports talk in. Did I mention that this was at the headwaters of the Missouri? See last week's post. I'm still history buddies with Clark. And he would not have made me his bitch. So don't even think about it.

3. Why do I keep saying Yosemite when I mean Yellowstone, and vice versa? I've been doing it like crazy. No idea why.

4. Yellowstone: crowded as fuck. It was bad, really bad. This is what I get for visiting during peak tourist season. Every single pullout on the road had packed parking lots, and I had to elbow my way past fat Americans and bundles of Chinese tourists on every trail. I prefer the Chinese. They have a more polite culture, and tend to defer to my elbow-throwing. Also, they're not quite as wide, so it's easier to slide by.

5. The adventures of Bad Brad. I'm going to mix it up with a little fiction here. Despite any evidence to the contrary, this is not a real story about me. Fiction. So Bad Brad wanted to hike along the north rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but the rim road was closed for construction. Closed to vehicles *and* pedestrians. Bad Brad decided this was a foolish restriction, especially on a Sunday. He had worked as a civil engineer, and knew that road crews never worked on Sunday if they could help it. So Bad Brad jumped a couple fences, ignored a few "no entry" signs, and found himself completely alone on an abandoned road. A road especially abandoned by construction equipment (ha!). Then Brad went for a lovely hike along the rim of the canyon, enjoying a the peace and solitude that you can only get by keeping everyone else out. It was a perfect afternoon, and he couldn't have experienced it without breaking a little pointless rule. Then he smoked a doobie to celebrate.

Not bad, eh? I'm considering writing further adventures, like: Bad Brad foils a bank heist by jaywalking. The kindly old Irish cop chides him, but we know that he doesn’t mean it. Like a modern-day delinquent Hardy boy, Bad Brad will capture the imaginations of a generation.

6. Animals. There's a good deal of wildlife in Yellowstone. Whenever animals stray near the road, all the tourists stop to take pictures, creating a unique Yellowstone phenomenon: the bison traffic jam. I also got to “fight” two bears at once. (here, “fight” is taken to mean “observed from a distance"). A momma bear and her cub. She was teaching it how to forage, digging at particularly rich grubs and such. When the cub strayed to far, she'd call and it would come running back on little cub legs. Painfully cute.

7. I get freaking sick of geothermal features. Yellowstone has something like two thirds of all the geysers in the entire freaking world. This is an amazing occurence, but after a while all those fumaroles and mudpots and boiling springs tend to run together. It took me a solid morning to reach my fill, until noon, when I decided...

8. Ok, maybe geothermal features are kinda cool. Geysers! Old Faithful was better than I expected (I'd like to thank my brother for bringing my hopes down: "there's nobody, then like five minutes before it is supposed to blow, thousands of people show up out of nowhere. Maybe they were drinking martinis in the lodge. Then there's a little muddy fountain, and everyone takes pictures then leaves"), and as the first geyser I've ever seen live, it was pretty sweet. As a bonus, Castle Geyser blew about fifteen minutes later, so I got the ol' two-for-one deal on geysers. Value!

9. On to the Tetons: because “Big Titty Mountains” sounds better in French. Grand Tetons. Think about it. The mountains really are spectacular. I highly recommend seeing them.

10. Jackson Lake, or why do all my best memories of this trip involve getting clean? It's been damn hot for the past few weeks, and all this hiking gets me dirty and overheated. A dip in the lake was just what I needed. I've discovered a pattern: All my road tripping now has been during mid-summer, when the heat is at its hottest and the swimming is at its swimmingest. There are few pleasures as great as diving into a mountain lake after a day trudging up and down dusty mountain trails in the hot sun.

11. Did I just get zinged by an old dude? I tend to use poles when I hike. It makes the downhill a hell of a lot easier on my knees, and it allows me to go faster. I get in some serious miles (on average, about 10 a day), so this is a good thing. So I'm hiking down the trail from Mt Washburn, and a pass this old man and his wife. “Goin skiin down the trail, are ya?” he said as I hiked past. I replied something like, “It beats destroying my knees,” and he shot right back with “well why don’t ya get some of them kneepads?”

Zinged. damn.

BONUS: This dude was *old*. We're talking older than the park old. He was likely hiking these trails before cars. With dinosaurs and such. old.

Time to add on items for the 29th as well, while I let my camera photos download. I hope this shit can finish before my battery dies…

12. Again, the Tetons are beautiful. I put in my biggest hike to date, a 20-mile ordeal up Paintbrush Canyon and around Solitude Lake. As the Tetons were my last chance to get in a serious big hike, I figured I might as well go out with a bang. It was perfect -- the weather, the sun, the snow, everything. Impossible to take a bad picture. A monkey with a disposable camera could have developed some Ansel-Adams level prints on that hike.

13. Dave's Law of Hikers: The greater the frequency of encounters with other hikers, the worse my mood becomes. If I pass other people, say, once an hour -- I'll give them a friendly smileand say hello, maybe even throwing in a “how are ya”. Once every ten five minutes or so, and I'll dispose with the pleasantries altogether, possibly even avoiding eye contact. One every two minutes, and I'll start brushing by people with the sort of body language that says "who the fuck are you to get in my way, you worthless pile if shit." Elbows may be thrown. Once a minute: I will stab you with my fucking hiking poles.

14. I do some zinging of my own: On the same hike, getting into the more frequent encounter stage, a woman passes me in the other direction. Without indicating a specific peak, she asks me, “do you know the names of these mountains?” Without missing a beat, I reply: “Grand Tetons.”

Zing, baby. Zing.

15. 20 miles is a long hike. I’m not in TFC shape these days. I must be getting old.

There's probably more, but it's been a busy week and I've been typing here for over an hour now. I've got the Devil's Tower to visit, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"-style.

Adventures to follow


Home at Teapot Dome

There's been an ass-load of stuffs going on this past week. I'm going to hit up the last couple days in this post, and then draw on my notes for adventures in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Let's do this. In reverse chronological order.

I spent last night camped out under the stars beneath Teapot Dome. This was not my plan. My plan had been, after driving clear across the state of Wyoming, to get a motel room in Casper for some well-needed shower and internet time. I went to a motel. No rooms. I went to a second motel. No rooms. I went to a third motel...

I'll say this much: never again will I underestimate the fantastic drawing power of the mighty metropolis that is CASPER, WYOMING. Apparently this city had not one but TWO conventions starting up today, and the demand was so great that every motel within a couple hour's drive of the city was booked. So no motel for Dave.

I got back on the road heading north, and reviewed my situation:
Been driving for over 8 hours? check.
Sun is going down? check.
Crazy lots of deer near the highway? check.

...Which brings us to why I found myself sleeping under the stars near Teapot Dome. And I learned some things last night:

1. When you are in a remote place like Teapot Dome, miles away from any towns, the stars are brilliant. Countless stars shone down on my little tent, and the broad sweep of the milky way made a bright white arch across the night sky.
2. When you are in a remote place like Teapot Dome, where the speed limit is 65, you learn something: Semi trucks are freaking LOUD. Like end-of-the-world, better-get-religion-fast LOUD.
3. I cannot stress this enough; Casper Wyoming is crazy popular! Also: people who go to conventions are dicks. Dicks who take up hotel rooms.
4. There's something eerie about oil drilling rigs in the light of dusk. The collection of bright lights alone surrounded by perfectly dark prairie...the unnerving scent of refining gases...the slow oscillations of the sawhorse pumps...well, I'm just glad that I'm moving on. An oil field is a sad, lonely place at night.

Other highlights from yesterday:

1. I see the National Bighorn Sheep Center. Apparently, Dubois, Wyoming, is home to the largest herd of Bighorns in the entire country...maybe even in the world. They live on and around the slopes of "Whiskey Mountain" south of the town. Sounds like a good place. Also: one of the natural predators of the Bighorn Sheep is the Golden Eagle. Seriously. This bird can pick up a freaking sheep. I'm all for the Bald Eagle; it's totally cool, and it looks really good on currency. But until it starts picking up livestock, I'm going to have to award the title of "Most Badass Bird" to the Golden Eagle.

2. Jackson Hole is too damn crowded. It's largely my fault for checking the city out during peak tourist season (late July), but still. It's as if you were to take North Conway, make it twice as big, and then smothered the whole thing in a big schmeer of fake cowboy. Not my cup of tea. The mountains nearby look like the skiing is freaking awesome, but I'm not sure if I'd be able to put up with the apres-ski scene there. Or I'd just need to have another beer.

3. The Grand Tetons are absolutely beautiful. More to come on this in my next post. These things were incredible.

4. I've finally managed to find the place where gas is at or below the national average. This morning's fill-up: $3.69/gallon (though it was 85 octane, which sort of concerns me now that I've double-checked my manual and discovered that I shouldn't put anything less than 87 in. "Regular" gas out here is 85 or 85.5 octane, and you need to pay "Plus" prices to get 87. 87 is "Regular" where I'm from. what's up with that? Why do you hate high octane gasoline, Wyoming and possibly also Montana?). Now I just need a year or so of these prices to make up for all the screwjobs I got at the pump in California (note: I fully support increased gas prices, because I see them as the only sure way to force people to start conserving gas. I just feel that I should get a discount because, well, I'm doing a road trip here. Also, I deserve special treatment. Let's go hypocrisy!)

5. There is no #5.