Friday, June 13, 2014

The Trip West, Part One

Taos, NM –  two weeks on the road. Optimists headed West (it's what Americans do, non?) in search of something like a raison d'etre. It's a Boomer phenom, sad but true.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)

We left Maine early afternoon, an hour and a half behind schedule, after settling the T and the kitties in the Wendy House Chez Marcel, headed for New Jersey, to Bel and Marry's (our new nickname for that delightful crew). It was smooth sailing down the interstates to arrive Friday night for too brief a visit. Our plan was a good one: having rented a house in a funky, semi-chic (read:”safe”) area of Albuquerque in advance, we figured... four days on the road, then we can chill out; we were absolutely Destination Oriented.  Philly our next stop, a night in the B and B in West Philly I call the Funeral Parlor, an unfair moniker as the two fellas who run it are delightful. The ambience is just, well,  emphatically Victorian, complete with piped organ music. But the large garden is a welcome respite from the city's hot summer bustle; the hospitality first rate. After a brief (too brief, always)  visit with number One Son and friend, the Sunday morning farmers' market at Second and ? and a quart of deeevine strawberries to carry us through, we headed west.

So far so good, but two rather serious accidents just as we got outside the city on the PA Turnpike funneled us off the interstate into a maze of inadequate signage and an hour delay as we headed toward Pottstown and a road that seemed to go nowhere we wanted to be. But, Surprise! An hour off course there was the sign for I 81 south! We were saved, proceeding south into rural Virginia where the eye relaxes on rolling green hills, the Appalachian Range through the sweet Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains to our left, veiled in a blue hue – a result of isoprene gas they release in the atmosphere that hazes them in that unusual color. Black cattle graze lazily across the soft hills, creamy in the afternoon light; the countryside rolls off in the distance through farms as far as the eye can see, freshly rolled hay strewn over fields of wandering horses, their equine splendor graces the richly endowed countryside of Winchester County. 

The Holiday Inn Express in Christiansburg (back in the land of Sweet Tea) is the hands down winner in "Best Bed" category of the four HIs we stayed in along the route West.  But where to eat? 
This is the important decision for me when I travel. If you've followed my blog at all over the last few years, you know this already. We consulted the desk clerk (a useful habit in Europe, but generally a non-starter in the US, I find,  outside New York, as most of them are young and rarely an inhabitant of where the hotel is located). We drove to the "best place in town" according to urbanspoon, yelp, and the like, a supposedly "French" place,  shells  of decrepit toilets greeted us in the parking lot, messy abandoned tables on the 'verandah', and virtually no one inside or out. I scarfed a menu from under the abandoned reception lectern; we voted an emphatic NO. Following other online recommendations, we found a mall restaurant, Mexican, figuring that might work, Nooooo. Noisy and the usual crappy chips and salsa to start, Margarita glasses the size of your head, and chirping, perky wait staff, too perky for tired travelers. In despair poor P got his first taste of Cracker Barrel’s uninspiring menu, it was just across from our hotel; we simply caved. Where anyone ever got the notion floating a massive slab of colby cheese, like you'd serve, say, with apple pie, is appropriate laid across a sea of iceberg lettuce and chipped chicken like a small raft, is anyone's guess. I wondered what I was expected to do with the thing. Do I cut it up, so to fork up bits with my lettuce? Am I expected to pick it up like a slice of toast?  I do like that they serve breakfast all day, and the gift shop is like a quick cheap and fairly harmless acid trip on the way out. 

Our bed was fabulously comfy, the size of a small island. Four stars.

The next morning we carried on South 81. A road sign indicated an upcoming town called Damascus. I couldn't help but wonder, what life changing experience prompted someone to call a town that back in the day? The curvature of land smoothed somewhat, hills powdered with white blossoms I couldn't identify (at 70 mph, I shouldn’t be expected to). Whatever caramel grasses carpeted the fields looked so soft and inviting a brief lie down crossed my mind. Hillsides wild with daisies, tinier than those in Maine, distributed perfectly equidistant from one another, tiny profuse dots everywhere.

We stopped briefly in Wytheville, for LO! a Starbucks sign doth loom! (a rarity on this trip) where we enjoyed a quick latte and a rice crispy treat, just a morning snack doncha know. Carrying on P pointed out that it's often hard to tell the difference between prisons and schools. This comment was made quite innocently, without agenda, and I had to acknowledge his point, based on what we were seeing. 

We just HAD to stop in Blountville, TN, for genealogical reasons. A charming town, but what with the Ten Commandments so prominent at the Courthouse, and really, all over town and all, I'm not sure I'd want to live there.  You gotta learn to read the signs.... If there's one thing I've learned living in Maine it's that if they call a state "Vacationland" you might want to limit your stays there to vacations – living there might not work out all that well – weather-wise, for one. New Mexico, for example, calls itself the "Land of Enchantment".  Would one want to live in a state of perpetual enchantment? A sort of continuous Holly Golightly mental state? Might that become a bit tiresome? (A guy in the bar here warned us it's really Land of Entrenchment, and frankly it DOES feel a bit like that, but more on that later.)

So here we are in the true South: Let The Ma'ams Begin! I can't get enough of it, truly. And another thing: the visitor centers, those places you stop in for maps when you cross into a new state, are some of my favorite places. People are friendly, wanting to put the best face on their respective state, naturally,  and you can pee and get a new up to date map of the state you're blasting through. Noice, as we say in Joisy.

The Tennessee welcome center's ladies room stalls each had a tastefully framed and mounted item on the back of the stall door. The subject matter? A campaign against, of all things, sex trafficking. Go figure. I thought it was a cool thing for them to do, and I had no idea that was an issue in Tennessee, did you?

Bar none, THE coolest town we stopped in was 

Knoxville, TN. Now there is a cool spot. We stopped for lunch, at Bistro Cru (below), and it was top notch.  Well, when you walk in and Nona Hendrix is wailing away on the box, you just know it's gonna be good. They didn't give me any crap about making my delicious tenderloin steak and shroom sandwich into a simple gluten free entree (and btw the gluten free thing is a given on most menus out here except Cracker Barrels and rib joints), and we shared a truly fresh (locally grown) delicious salad. Service perfect, we sat outside drinking endless sweet tea, content to marvel at this nineteenth/early twentieth century downtown that is resurrecting nicely with way cool coffee wifi shops and restos, and some very arty shops and practical things as well. Impressive. I'd live there in a heartbeat, lots going on, lots still to be done, groovy empty spaces screaming potential that are coming to life, to die for architecture and lots of it.  Friendly folks. I luuuuv Knoxville.

Let's just get back on I 40 and blast past Nashville. I can't imagine the effort it might take to go there. It's another of those massive intimidating metropolises that, to my mind, just send the wrong signal if you're traveling cross country. Rolling on, a long cruise through the verdant humid hills winding past Loretta Lynn's kitchen (one has to wonder...),  huge sex shop billboards tantalizing the innocent, and radio holy rollers, virtually the entire radio dial, exclaiming against such like.  We knew it was time to find a wireless thingy for the iPod.

So we stopped for the night in Jackson, TN, just east of Memphis, at another Holiday Inn Express freshly planted near a new mall by the interstate. Such “modern sprawling villages” have no community value or meaning aside from serving the incessantly mobile American and employing a few semi-locals at low wages. But I found some nice sandals (too hot for shoes by now) and Radio Shack saved us from having to traverse Oklahoma and Texas being railed at by irate preachers.  Our Mexican supper at Tulum (the best of a paltry lot) was friendly and good. We briefly cruised the small town of Jackson five miles or so from the hotel and found little to enjoy there but the Courthouse square, dismal and empty as rain threatened. 

sends a message
 Morning: back on the road a billboard of pure poetry caught my eye that read: “Skillets, Jams and Country Hams”. Isn’t that wonderful? Say it a few times. Skillets, jams and country hams. Just rolls of the tongue. Tennessee’s corn crop was already knee-high,  glossy green fields of it wending northward as the Jackson radio preachers go on (no NPR here) admonishing folks to “get out there and vote and get some changes on the Constitution!” – like that’s something, changing that revered document, you want to do, you know, Today and quickly.  And with a paintbrush or some other crude tool.

Pentecostals, Arkansas lovin the Lord
Despite our newly acquired iPod connector, I listened, fascinated, (not to say hypnotized) by the ranting (“pre-recorded”) sermonettes pervading the soundwaves for miles.  (They call it “good news” radio, and it’s sponsored by your local Town and Country realtors.) One particularly vehement fella actually shouted, nonstop, about “how much women put up with” and “how strong” they have to be to endure,  “like the Bible sez”. One of the things they have to put up with, he clarified, is “abortion”. Say what?  I’m waiting for the “good news”.  We pass an exit consisting of nothing more than a motel (The Old South Inn) and an adjacent sex shop.  The exit road goes nowhere else.  So.. it’s folks stopping for a quick frisson, slipping furtively into a room,  and….  Hmmm.. Can we call this a Sexit? Seriously. A brief wave of carsickness ensues.

Time to check out the iPod.

Driving across America one can’t help but note the profusion of small abandoned farms. You imagine the Dust Bowl, though it’s clear many of these farms were far more recently someone’s dream of a good life. Something they worked hard to realize. I find myself wondering why someone would go to the trouble of haying a field, and then just leave the rolls of hay to rot in what could be next year’s field. What great tragedy befell them? What overwhelming case of lethargy or sloth or pure despair would cause a person to let that much hard work go to waste? Sheer survival in these vast expanses might discourage the most hearty soul. We pass a dirt road curving gracefully down and around a low hill to end in the dooryard of an abandoned wooden two room house, its roof rusting adjacent to an overgrown field plowed hopefully years ago.  You can still see the furrows. I wonder: what strange fate befell that person, to stop his plow, abandon his field, his home, his dream, and leave it to time to reclaim? What level of despair does it take to crush a person’s dreams like that? To have them throw up their hands and say “Enough! I quit!”

“Shove me in the shallow waters before I get too deep” sings the iPod.

The Mighty Mississippi
On the Isaac Hayes Memorial Highway to Memphis local NPR reports recent research on the gender naming of hurricanes reveals that folks perceive female named storms as more threatening. Now here’s something I can chew on. My mind considers the subconscious guilt of the patriarchy where women are concerned. Now there’s a juicy idea. But no, apparently folks are prone to underestimate the intensity of storms with feminine names, and so, after the fact, are left with the impression they are “worse” than masculine named storms. Well, that’ll teach ya to underestimate a woman.  Clearly haven’t read their Shakespeare. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

Memphis. Well we were thinking to grab a coffee as it was easy on easy off to downtown.  And I thought, as I had the address, I’d find my grandfather’s 1929 (good timing, gramps) café location.  It’s now a hairweaving shop on Madison. And looks pretty crap, like most of the city we saw.  Plus I paid 4 bucks for an iced tea in a crappy convenience store. When I complained (quietly) the woman said: “Evehbody get ripped off sometime.”  True enough, like now.

The mighty Mississippi River into Arkansas. Endless Arkansas. White clouds whipped to a lather mounting higher and higher as we hear radio reports of baseball size hail and tornadoes just north of us. We boogie on westward, past seriously shocking tornado remains west of Little Rock. I’m imagining a new theme park: Hunger Games.  Actually I think I heard that on the radio,  for real.

We stop for the night in Yukon, OK, just west of Oklahoma City, the Meat Capital of America.  A sad place of stockyards, masses of short-lived, harmless beasts all waiting to die for my grilling pleasure, and the endlessly repulsive homogenous commercial sprawl that is the new American landscape.

Come morning we figure we can make Albuquerque in seven hours. We’re sick of hotels and are looking forward to being in our own place at last. It’s exhausting trying to find road food as good as your own. Folks here are friendly, they always say hello., never just look away just because you’re a stranger. A gorgeous morning, the storms having passed north of us leaving endless blue sky above the flat horizon.  There will be no rain after all. Once more I think of the Dust Bowl and consider how folks decided when to hang in and when to go. It’s always the same question for Americans, it seems.
The futility of trying to capture the color and vastness of Oklahoma and Texas becomes clear and I put my wee Canon away. Instead I simply breathe it in and feel renewed. The American West. It’s something to behold.

Weirdest thing happens all across Texas: the iPod, set on shuffle, only plays Texas themed songs. Example: Sister from Texas, followed by Texas  Flood, and more Texas tunes. We both think, woooooo….

Billboards repeatedly advertising “Big Tex! Free 72 ounce steak!” for miles before it's location im Amarillo.  I try to grasp this. That is a five pound steak, people. Five pounds. Would you really want it, even if it was free? Shouldn't there be some fine print there warning of irreversible meat coma?

Oh, Look! The Happy Trails Horse Motel– a motel for horses. Only in Texas.  The vast windmill farms appear, one elegant (to my mind) answer to our nation’s energy appetite.  Windmills by the thousands cartwheeling infinitely northward as I squint to try and see where they end but can’t.

The land changes, the color of the earth intensifies to red here and there, we climb for miles into high desert as the glorious still snow capped Rockies, the Sangre de Cristos, come into view to the north. And we begin a descent, spiraling down into the flat expanse of Rio Grande valley that is the city of Albuquerque.

Like I said, we shoulda read the signs.... next time 

looking north toward the Rockies waaay far away


  1. Hey There, i haven't been able to access my email account for a couple of months due to problems with the computers here in the clubhouse,so i was sooo surprised to see that you and paul have ventured off outwest for the summer!! How Wonderful,except....... my god what a bizarre and creepy landlord she turned out to be.!!!! She's an alien Cathy, an Outer Spacer. That's why nothing made sense!!! Well Thank God you're outa there,but where are you? Where did you go??? Keep bloggin' when you can,i'll follow along. I hope the alien didn't squash yours and Pauls plans and enthusiasm too badly. Never let the evil ones win! Love you lots,tee

  2. Oh, Tee!! so nice to hear from you. Yes, we're fine! Will blog more often as I'm just catching up. So glad you're out there. What do you want for birthday??? email me list of