Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Road Trip: Nashville Nights with Lady Antebellum

I suppose it's only right to give Illinois and Kentucky their due, we did drive through these states en route to Nashville. However, I feel more compelled to break with the naming convention of previous entries (which dryly recited the states encountered on a given day) to focus on the meaty parts of the experience starting and ending with Nashville, Tennessee where tough dudes like me and my boys like to straight chill.

We met up with my brother Pete around lunchtime and convinced him to call it a day at the office and went straight to drinks and cajun food a
t the Mojo Grille in Midtown. From there ambition trickled off into a mighty relaxing afternoon at Pete's pad with his roommate, a bongo circle with all the trappings, fireworks and a Southern grill featuring pork chops, more wine than you could shake a stick at and finished off ever so perfectly with homemade peach cobbler. (Word, Katrina.)

Around, 10:30, just when it looked like red wine had sapped our motivation for good, a second wind arrived and the group somehow managed to pile into a cab bound for the Honky Tonks on Broadway.

This is another world as far as I'm concerned. One block of pure neon and rhinestone where every bar (at least on a Thursday night) features a
skilled but nameless country band singing Keith Urban cover tunes to a positive legion of mostly female fans in varying states of undress and drunk signing along to every single word. In other words, it's overwhelming and irresistible. If you bring someone here and they can't get manage to have a good time, you have cause to be deeply suspicious of either their motives or their authenticity.

So there we were witnessing crisp line dancing and quaffing pobre-chic beer like Old Style from patriotic metal cans. Life was good and things were g
etting groovier by the minute, as we worked up the line from The Stage to Tootsie's, where a curious thing happened.

Now, I'm not a disciple of country music. I enjoy it on occasion and even follow a limited range of artists, but am generally vegetarian when it comes to the rare, bleeding meat of the movement. So it came as some surprise to me when a woman at Tootsie's accused me of being 'that guy from Lady Antebellum.' This was literally the first I'd heard of such nonsense, but my accuser would not be convinced otherwise and even after I showed her my driver's license persisted with the idea that I was a famous country musician on the DL and playing coy.

'That guy from Lady Antebellum' is Charles Kelley, convincingly photoshopped in with me and Blake for comparison, and I appreciate that the sweet beards we both rock may evoke a similarity, but I'm still not totally seeing it. He may have the twangy pipes and million dollar record deals, but I'm way better looking and more fun at a party too.

My brush with a celebrity death crush was enough to convince the group that we'd better get away from the CMA celebrity-obssessed Fatal Attraction types that frequent the Honky Tonks and retire to the more laid-back environs of Midtown, more Old Style and a competitive shuffleboard table.

By 3am we were back at Pete's where we slept through breakfast and roused just before noon and took our wrecked bodies over to Fat Mo's for excellent, grease-bomb burger nourishment - heavy fuel for another day on the road.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Road Trip: Kansas and Missouri

But before we got to this happy scene depicted above, 500 miles of I-70, stretching in a mind-numbingly straight-assed line across Eastern Kansas and all of Missouri, remained to be conquered! And this was an "easy day" of the road trip.

Sweet Jesus, I thought as I rubbed the dust out of my eyes at the Best Western in Hays, Kansas at 6am. Why do I do this to myself? (Short answer here, because this is complicated and deserves deeper exploration at a later date, I must hate myself, or love to hate myself, rather.)

The free breakfast at the BW was betrayed by its price way before visual inspection commenced at 6:15am. Despite such low expectations, I was still disappointed by the spread of anemic fruit in light corn syrup, assorted single-serving Kellogg products, DIY batter-burning (or 'waffle') station, and de rigeur sweat-flavored instant coffee. Being generally tetchy , I opted for an orange juice and a cup of Activia, figuring a healthy dose of bifidus regularis might be a good counter-measure to the typically constipating force of road trip cuisine.

By 6:30am we were rolling again, edging up over 80 and settling into the familiar groove of the day before.

By 6:32am, I was stopped on the shoulder with the state of Kansas' finest processing my license and registration.

You see, the western speed limits of 75mph dip down to 70mph in Kansas for no
obvious reason other than that Kansas may be hurting for revenue and the largest touch point they have with the broader GDP is I-70 itself. The traffic stream is the revenue stream. This particular cop was so eager to get his quota filled that he whipped across the grass-ditch median from the west-bound lane in a daring, Dukes of Hazzard high-speed U-turn, and nabbed me going east after a mile and half slow-speed chase. Allegedly, I was doing 81 mph and was handed a $128 ticket.

In my relatively light criminal experience, there are few things as chastenin
g as a speeding ticket, especially since it had been almost 5 years since I'd gotten one and in the interest of my insurance payments I wanted to keep it that way. So, I took the rest of Kansas like an 80-year old Sunday driver and counted no-less than a dozen more patrol cars either in the act of issuing tickets or waiting to pounce.

The sight of Kansas City, springing up on the opposite shore of the Missouri River was a welcome, as we'd find considerably less police presence in Missouri and were able to make good time crossing the state.

We stopped somewhere in the nameless middle of the state for my first taste of Sonic, so effectively advertised on the West Coast yet, sadly, few and far between. Since Sonics lack restrooms (part of the cost-minimizing business plan that let's them focus on high-concept food ideals like chili-cheese maximization), we had to retire to the McDonald's across the street and order kiddie-cones as a justification for using the john. After that we bought fireworks at one of the ubiquitious, road-side 'Pyro City' stands and were safely in St. Louis by 3pm, where we indulged in much-needed naps at Blake's friend Katie's house.

Katie roused as around 5:3o with pizza, salad and the peculiarly delicious St. Louis tradition of deep-fried ravioli. After that we drank Budweiser products (what else?) outside of Busch Stadium before going in and watching a pitching duel between the Cardinals and Giants from excellent seats along the 3rd base line courtesy of Katie's family. (Thanks Again!)

After the game we followed everyone in St. Louis out to the burbs for a little frozen custard at the world-famous Ted Drewes. At Ted Drewes it doesn't matter what you do, because you will be sucked in by the undertow of St. Louisians' surging around the place, and then serviced so quickly by the horde of teenagers in yellow t-shirts working behind the bar that you don't really remember deciding on something, let alone ordering. But it doesn't matter, you'll come out happy with something called 'concrete' that is thick enough to be served to you upside-down and resembles the high-minded, pure-bred precedesor of the Dairy Queen Blizzard (sort of the ice cream Athens to our United States, if you swap in the evolution of democracy as a allegorical trope).

Bellies full on brats, beer and frozen custard, and comfortable in the hospitality of St. Louis, we slept soundly on the second night of our journey with visions of Nashville dancing in our heads.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Road Trip: Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas

At this point, after five days thoroughly recreating in Sun Valley, the Special Lady had appointments back East with her new job and I was saddled with the responsibility of the car and our stuff, packed into the car with all the organization of a mash of sundried tomatoes, and getting said collective out to the East Coast.

Originally a daunting prospect, some 2,800 miles of solo, man-on-freeway action, was fortuitously thwarted by the welcomed (and uncoerced) intervention of Blake - my voluntary wingman who flew in from California for the chance to hit the road and man up the Interstate system one more time.

We struck out from Boise at 6am, because suddenly we had a goal - get to St. Louis, Missouri in time to catch the San Francisco Giants at the Cardinals the next evening. We were looking at almost 1,700 miles to cover in less than two days and a heroic first day was simply a requirement.

Idaho and Utah slipped by easily, under the heady fuel of enthusiasm for the opening hours on the road and nostalgic delight at the forgotten tracks on Blake's battered, old CD collection. Somehow, amid the emergent weirdness of two guys talking nonsense in the car for hours on end, the R. Kelly/Notorious B.I.G. collabo 'I'm Fucking You Tonight' from the album 'Life After Death,' became the anthem of the roadtrip. As amusing as we found this to be, it was tough to convey to people we ran into along the way. It's hard to share the sacred space of a road trip.

Wyoming was an entirely different proposition. I-80 soars over the high plains in a mostly straight line for nearly 500 miles. We stopped in Evanston on the southwestern edge of the state and made our first gastronomic mistake of the campaign - an eight taco lunchtime pigfest at Taco Time - a place which surely occupies the second to lowest rung on the fast food taco ladder, just barely outclassing Taco John's.

From there it was a gassy, malaodorous, 85mph slog over vast, open spaces, among herds of antelope, high winds, and mile after mile of the proverbial 'Big Sky.'

By the time we turned south, the sun was getting low in the sky and the scarp of the Rocky Mountain front near Fort Collins, Colorado was backlit. We arrived in Denver a little after 8pm with the express intent of dining at Illegal Pete's, where the concept of the enormous burrito is further advanced by the so-simple-it-should-have-been-obvious step of stirring your filling ingredients together before wrapping in tortilla. This way you capture the full flavor experience in each bit and avoid the unfortunate (and now former?) inevitably of the odd biteful of sour cream or lettuce.

By 8:30 we were headed east again, but on I-70 blazing out into the Great Plains and noticed that Colorado doesn't end just outside of Denver after the nose of dogfood from the Purina plant has left the air. In fact, it goes a long fucking way east and I was starting to think, that we'd made a big mistake housing enormous burritos before needing to drive another 350 miles into the night.

I was fading fast, eyelids leaden, and beginning to hallucinate in that way particular to the weary driver. Shadows of animals and obstacles flashed on the side of the road. My reaction time and decision making were slowed by the dearth of blood in my head as Illegal Pete's product ground slowly through the GI machinery. The Classic Rock, even, wasn't having any effect.

Things were looking grim, and the decision was made to get a tin of dip at the next gas station in Goodland, Kansas. Thereafter the little wad of tobacco and fiberglass sped the nicotine to my brain and I perked right up for the long cruise into Hays, Kansas. We arrived 1am local time, thanks to the timezone crossing and settled down for 5 hours of sleep at the Best Western.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Road Trip: Idaho

Even though central Idaho's not really on the direct road to anywhere, I've broken up all of my preceding 6 cross-country roadtrips with a deliberate and prolonged pit stop in my native land. Since I left just over 10 years ago, I have found that nothing really recharges my batteries better than a visit to the central-Idaho Rockies in and around Sun Valley.

We pulled in late the day of the drive across Nevada and were treated to a lasting day in the Northern Rockies . Idaho, by dint of being in the northwest corner of the Mountain Time Zone, has extremely late evenings in the summertime, with ample light available until well after 10pm around the solstice.

Being before the 4th of July, the tourist seas
on hadn't quite kicked in and we basically had the place to oursleves. Plus which, the spring had been kind to the land with mild temperatures and more rain than the area typically sees. June, it would later turn out, was a record-setting month for Sun Valley with over 5.5 inches of rain, and we caught the margin between the bad and the good weather. The land was lush and green and the streams flowed fully.

Daily hikes from mellow (Adam's Gulch) to grueling (Pioneer Cabin via Corral Creek) were the order of the day and provided the full range of nature experiences, including the death defying when a surprise thunderstorm chased us down
hill from a 9000' ridge with uncomfortably close lighting strikes, crashing thunder, cold wind and pelting hail stones the size of grapes.

Summit Creek was perhaps the ideal blend of wild, high scenery and good weather. We got a late start, leaving Sun Valley around 4pm, which is insane if you know anything about mountain weather. But we got lucky and enjoyed blue-bird skies into the mid-evening and were the only people exploring a lush alpine valley with extensive beaver dams and excellent views of the northern end of the Pioneer range. The terrain was a little muddy in places, after the wet spring, and we were surprised by a lot of snow still clinging in the shadier parts of the trail. But all in all this is a great hike, with a gentle uphill and a great payoff for the effort.

On the way back down we surprised a cow moose who'd been grazing in the willows. She crashed out of the creek bottom like a freight train and headed up the opposite side of the ravine, stopping after about 50 yards and looking back to check us out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Road Trip: The Beard Has Power

I grew a beard for the road trip and am justifiably proud of the results of my first concerted attempt at a manly coat of facial hair.

In my view starting a new life must always begin with a transformative journey, and what better way to set out on that journey than with a fresh new look that let's everyone know you're fucking tough and ready for anything. A man is just more estimable with a beard.