Thursday, September 17, 2009

HOME SWEET HOME: NYC Skyline has never looked so good

All good things come to an end and this cross country trip has done just that. I spent my last night on the road in Virginia visiting with friends from NYC that moved out there last year. Had stayed in West Virginia the night before but didn’t really do much there. I think I just wanted to get home. It was a great night catching up, drinking wine, not eating much because we were laughing too much. Approaching Virginia, I fell into the same antique mall trap I did years ago when I visited an Oswego buddy, Jennifer, in Blacksburg, VA. Route 81 is dangerous. There is one on practically every exit and they just draw you in with the amount of square footage. It’s insane, overwhelming and so much fun. Bought lots for the cottage and some fun trinkets for memories.

Ended my trip up in Saugerties where it sort of started. Saw my niece’s “under 8” soccer game and spent the day rearranging things at Kippagh. I think I’ll need a few more days to process the trip and have reflections. But for now, I think the highlights were Rod in Mansfield; Mike in Decatur; Bill, Al and Carol in New Ulm; Milty in Custer State Park; Mike, Paul and Brian in South Dakota; the two bison in Yellowstone (yikes); Matt, Wendy and entourage in Five Points; Paula in Conifer, Sherry and Heather in Salina; the two friendly cops who didn’t give me tickets; the other motorist who paid for my car wash after splattering roadkill all over my Subaru; the blade sharpening mother/son duo who didn’t chop me up into bits; and catching up with Kathy and Mike in VA.

Thanks for reading. Maybe I’ll keep this up even though I’m back home and back to the ol’ job on Monday. We’ll see…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Losin' Steam: This post covers MS, AL, TN, KY and WV (woah!)

First horrible motel experience thanks to being placed right across from the housekeeping room. Now, I have sympathy for chambermaids, having been head of housekeeping at a summer hotel at the tender age of 21, but these ladies were just obnoxious. Granted, I could have written a short story about their failed relationships, incarcerated children and lack of money for rent or even smokes but I truly wanted to take full advantage of the 11:00 a.m. checkout time. Again, people share a lot around here and at a volume that easily surpasses the teens on the subway when high school lets out in New York. Corinth was nice. They had this walking and driving tour of town that took you past all the historical homes and told you all about who lived there and why they were important. It was actually kind of neat. First tour type thing I’ve done on this trip actually. It took me into the residential area, which was really nice and I found my first yard sale. I thought I would have run into many more of these on my travels but I guess because I was always in a national park or at a friend’s place on the weekend bits, I didn’t see that many.

I ventured into Borroum's Drug Store on my walk and learned from my pamphlet that it was the oldest drug store in Mississippi, still owned and run by the same family. I noticed immediately that they, too, had Golden Guys sitting and having some coffee. I asked the girls at the counter why it was that mostly men monopolized this ritual and not the ladies. They had no idea other than, “maybe the women kick them out for a few hours each day to have peace and quiet.” Could be. But these fellas were adorable like all the rest. Sitting around talking about whatever was going on in town, or with their families. Happy to be retired and enjoying each other’s company. So sweet.

I also ran into the area’s Masonic temple. It wasn’t all that but they had a thrift store and I found the coolest stinkin’ purse there. I think it will accompany my dress very well for the wedding. Cha-ching. $4 and it’s vintage. Would probably go for close to $100 in Manhattan. Easily. Did I say cha-ching already? Remember, I’m not robbing these people blind. I’m stimulating the economy one small town at a time.

Near Borroum's was the county courthouse and although no one was going in or coming out, it was Thursday so court must be in session. I went in and opened one of the doors and sat down. As in Manhattan, there aren’t windows on the doors so you can’t see what you’re about to walk into. Sure enough, it was a tiny little room and all eyes were on me, even the judge’s. A court officer immediately came up to me, not because I was doing anything wrong but simply because he figured I was lost. I explained that I worked in the courts in NYC and just wanted to observe if that was okay. That explanation made its way to the entire room in seconds, mostly because when it was relayed to the judge, everyone could hear. I think my living room is bigger than this courtroom. There wasn’t much going on. Just motions and hearings so I wasn’t going to waste precious time listening to stuff that I can see back home. But it was still neat to go in and ruffle up some feathers.

Before leaving Mississippi, I saw in the distance, the words “falafel” and “kebab” and had to investigate. This was literally my first discovery of anything Middle Eastern on my entire journey. Granted, I wasn’t necessarily seeking it out but this was a sight for sore eyes. I immediately drove over to this little “house” by itself beside a department store parking lot. I instantly thought, ‘Oh good. I can ask this guy what he thinks of all the Christian stuff all over public grounds.’ I walked up and he opened his “ORDER” window and asked if he could help me. I ordered a chicken kebab and a Vimto, “a raspberry drink you can’t get here.” Uh, no duh. You can’t even get good Chinese here so I’d assume a soft drink with Arabic writing on it is hard to locate too. I introduced myself as being from New York and being thrilled to see an eatery serving this type of food. I asked him where he was from and he immediately started listing New York, New Orleans which was nice and all but I meant ‘where are you from originally?’ He said Jordan. So I asked if he’d mind me asking a personal question. He shook his head. “How do you feel about all of the Christian billboards and radio programming here?” He said it was a very nice place to raise a family and that he himself is Christian. Oy vey! I felt like a heel. Not that I was putting it down but I still felt bad to have brought it up as if it was an annoyance (which it sort of is to me, but that’s beside the point). I think I’m just so utterly curious to know how it feels as someone of another religion to live in an area that bombards its residents with Christian-centric messages at every corner, on every station, at all times of the day. That’s all. I guess I will have to ponder this alone or find a Southern States/Midwest Support Group for Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Atheists, etc.

Okay, forget that, guess what happened next? I’m leaving Mississippi and I see this huge sign off the side of the road, “INSIDE FLEA MARKET,” and there’s this warehouse-lookin’ building with the door open. I pull over and go in. Now, I did see the “Mower Blades Sharpened” sign at the door but for some unknown reason, it didn’t even phase me. I entered a mess but those are sometimes the types of sales that you find a gem among trash. And sure enough, I found one of those 60s sunburst wood/chrome clocks on the floor, cobwebs and all. Awesome, I thought. But then I looked to the end of the room through this pass-through window and saw what appeared to be the scariest looking man with missing teeth and spooky eyes and they were following my every move. Ick! I think he asked me if I needed help with anything but his mumbling was hard to comprehend let alone pay attention to when faced with such a sight. I hate to be so mean but when his mother came out from the back, also sans-dentures, I thought I would die. Had I just walked into Alabama’s version of the Bates Hotel, except that she was alive and kickin’? So I asked how much the clock was and sure enough, it wasn’t theirs so they had to call someone to find out which prolonged my stay in this godforsaken place and gave Junior ample opportunity to tinker with my car out front and make me have to stay the night. Okay, I’m going overboard here but if you had seen this guy, you would have been on board with my exaggeration. It turned out to be a whoppin’ $5 so I said, “I’ll take it!” Gave her the cash and was on my way. Phew! Survived that one.

Driving through Alabama, I also saw a young girl driving a beat-up hearse. It was still primarily black but it had some purple bits on the right side. Not sure if she was a fan of Six Feet Under or just got a hand-me-down from her pops who ran the local funeral home but I started thinking, not a bad idea. With all the garbage picking I do (furniture finds and the like), it might be a good choice for my next set of wheels. Mine of course would have to be painted hot pink. I would have contemplated a light pink but then I saw this Escalade that color and did not like it one bit. Apparently, if you sell enough Mary Kay, they give you one of those beauties. Well, I’m sure the teen hearse driver has lots of friends in rural Alabama. Poor thing. I hope she finds her other tortured souls on St. Mark’s Place real soon.

Not so strange but not an ego-booster either, I came across two young men in Athens, Alabama who mistook me for (1) their teacher at college and (2) their own mother! This was two different boys but needless to say, I won’t be wearing my hair up ever again! Huh? I just realized, maybe his mother was a teacher at the college. Whatever, who cares. Athens was nice enough but nothing exciting to report there. This is the point in my trip where I started to lose steam: wasn’t as willing to strike up conversations with folks, didn’t enjoy driving long distances anymore and wanted to be around people who I could understand the first time around. This is the same point (3 week mark) where I started getting homesick when I was in Southeast Asia back in March. NOTE TO SELF: Only make vacations that are 3 weeks or less next time.

Heading into Tennessee, I stopped for some BBQ at Whitt’s in Ardmore and it was yummy and cheap! I knew this was a favorite of locals because there are many of them and folks are usually lined up in their cars for the drive-in window. Got a pork sandwich with beans and sweet tea. It hit the spot alright and I needed to fill up on food and gas because I was heading out to find Nameless, Tennessee, a town I had read about in Blue Highways, a book some girl gave me when she heard that I was taking this trip. The title refers to the color of the country roads on the atlases back in the late 70s. Not quite rural roads but not interstates either. They are the type of routes I was taking in the beginning of this trip but now had no patience for the stop and go action when you enter a little town and have to go from 65 to 25 mph.

So I had Google Mapped the town and had my directions written out. They were complex because this place is in the hills of Tennessee. I won’t bore you with the details but let’s just say, these folks could care less that their little no-name town is of interest to some lunatics who read about it in a book and think it’s neat-o to drive through for shits and giggles. I went down some of the scariest roads to locate this blip on the map and for what? Not much I tell ya. But whatever, it was an experience. TIP to the next idiot: When you see Dead End signs, turn back quickly! All wasn't lost though. I did come across this spooky graveyard with an abandoned house next to it. All the headstones had the family name Lee on it and some were current. I thought that was kind of cool. The earliest was someone who was born in 1844. I didn’t enter the house because the porch was no longer and I would have fallen in and gotten eaten by the termites that were crawling all over. Gross! What struck me as funny though, when I was entering the town, were the house numbers. They were large. For example, one I saw said “11492 Martin Creek Road.” I hadn’t seen a population sign anywhere but there sure as hell were not more than 20 families in this town. You’d think that just 1, 2, 3, 4, … 20 would suffice.

Leaving Nameless, I was stupid and took what seemed to be the straightest point from A to B and that is not always the smartest thing to do in the mountainous areas. Those red or dotted lines signify gravel or winding mountain roads and I should have taken the interstate even if it would be “out of the way.” Along those nutty roads, I saw quite a few grown men and women having cans of beers on this Saturday night in the parking lots of car washes, convenient stores, etc. but all closed with overhead lights on. Did this town not even have a bar for these folks to go to? WOW. Now that’s small. It reminded me of high school when kids would hang outside of Lou’s Corner Store and drink beers and smoke. But these were people in their 30s and 40s. Shame.

Without cell service and almost on ‘E’, I kept on going and finally reached Somerset, KY, where I settled in for the night. I found a Days Inn and for a moment, my friendly, way too honest self, came back to life. The young man behind the counter was Indian and maybe I thought I’d bring up the whole Christian bombardment issue again and be successful this time, but instead, my knowledge of India sent him swooning. Minutes before, he saw that I didn’t have a ring on and asked if I was single and I stupidly said yes. Instead of handing me my key, he said there was something wrong with that door to that room so he walked me to my room and asked if he could call me sometime. I thought I would be kind by jokingly saying that I was “geographically undesirable” since he seemed so young and impressionable, but he didn’t understand that phrase. So I simply said, “oh I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend” and closed the door.

I woke up to a beautiful day in Kentucky and it was Sunday. Time for church. I promised myself that I would attend a Baptist service before I left the South and this was my only chance. I went to the First Baptist Church of Somerset off of Route 80. Let’s just say, I was extremely underdressed in my jeans and white T-shirt but it didn’t matter. The sign was right, “Everyone Welcome.” I sat in the back and observed for a while but felt a little bad, like I was at a zoo looking at the animals interact. I’ve always wanted to go to one of those gospel brunches in Harlem so I guess I thought this would be similar but it wasn’t so I left. Check, off the list. Now all I had to find was a livestock auction.

On the road, I heard that new Miley Cyrus song, “Party in the USA” for the umpteenth time and listened intently to the lyrics to see why it had been ripped to shreds on the news the prior night by conservative Christians in the South. Apparently, in addition to dancing on a pole somewhere recently, part of Miley’s song refers to going to a club and dancing. Oh no! Horrors! What is this ‘Footloose’ all over again. So what people? She didn’t say anything about downing beers in a parking lot at least. So this gave me a business idea. Now I’m sure others have come up with this before and failed but of course my idea won’t. TEEN CLUBS. Why aren’t there more of these? Is it because the fear that they will bring in alcohol or drugs or is because parents wouldn’t let their kids go? Well, I think it’s an untapped market and everyone should try to start them up in their town. Teenagers WISH they could go to bars or clubs to hang out with friends and dance and eat and drink. Why not give them a place to dance, drink juice or cola and eat overpriced snacks? Hire some bouncers that will frisk them for contraband and maybe even parental chaperones to wander around the dance floor. But at least they’ll have a safe place to hang out where their parents can pick them up from afterwards. It can be set up like Friends with Salvation Army sofas and end tables and the music can be DJ’d by some popular kid whose iPod is ‘da bomb.’ (I know, I’m so old). If anyone’s in, contact me. We could make a killing! Otherwise, they’ll all just go to house parties and the woods for keggers and get sloshed and drive home drunk. Is that a better alternative? I think not! I’m so sure my constant aloneness is getting me to formulate business plans on my long stretches of road. BTW, the Daniel Boone National Forest (in West Virginia) is stunning and even still, folks were tossing full bags from Wendy’s and McDonald’s out their car windows onto the interstate. Isn’t that unreal?!

Things I learned since I last posted: (1) Fruit of the Loom undies are made in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Walt (Something) is employee of the month. Isn’t that sweet? They put up the EOTM on the marquee thingy by the road, (2) Awana is a newish religion started in Illinois and it’s spreading to the South, (3) Folks don’t seem to have Subarus down here. I actually had a woman ask me what type of car I was driving. I guess they’re all Fords and Chevys in these parts, (4) Southern porn retailers don’t mince words. The local “adult store” in Elkton, Tennessee is called “Boobie Bungalow.” Gotta love it! (5) Peyton Law Firm in Nitro, WV wants you to know that when you are faced with a jury, choose them because they’ve “been there, done that.” Okay, not sure that came across the way they wanted it to. (6) In that same town of Nitro, overheard two men in their 40s talking about having lost their jobs but said things were looking up because “they say industry’s movin’ in soon.” I wonder who THEY is and what INDUSTRY means. But I wish them all the best, (7) saw a billboard which makes me think West Virginians prefer Wonder over the brown stuff. It read, “Whole Wheat Nutrition with the White Bread Taste.”

Staying in Beckley, WV and heading to Woodbridge, VA to see Kathy tomorrow night. Then New York-bound. Home Sweet Home.

Radio highlights: “Easy Like Sunday Morning (Lionel Ritchie), “Moondance” (Van Morrison), The Doors, “Round & Round,” “Goodnight Sweetheart Well It's Time To Go,” “Get Together” by the Young Bloods (I wish we all would all “try to love one another right now”), “99 Red Balloons” (did you know how political this song was when it came out? I didn’t but now I actually listen to lyrics I guess).

(As you can probably tell, I think I am losing steam with writing too. Sorry if this is just hard to follow. Nitey nite.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Junktique, Soul Food, Toad Suck Park and “too many foreigners”

Woke up to lots of rain, which totally does put a damper on being a wanderer. Regardless, I went to historic Morrilton’s downtown and donated my stuff to the shelter and headed to the junktique stores to fill up the car again. Junktique was a term I learned at the rest stop when I asked about where antique shops or flea markets might be along Route 40. Let’s just say, the term is accurate. There were some stores where I wasn’t sure it was an area to shop in. Kind of like that damp corner of your basement where you just don’t go anymore. Gross! But those can be the best places to find treasures because they don’t know what they have. So sure enough, I did find one piece for $4 and it was McCoy. Cha-ching! The tag said “old ashtray” but meanwhile, it’s totally a candy dish. There aren’t even those valleys for a cigarette to rest so obviously the previous owners just used it for ash. Needless to say, I will wash it thoroughly. I can see it now… all my friends reading this will now question any dish I serve things in from now on.

On my way out of Arkansas, I stopped at one last town known for their antique shops, Brinkley. Unfortunately, this town also has been hit hard by the economy and doesn’t seem as booming as I’m sure it once was. I had to get gas and the strangest thing happened. I pulled up to the pump and realized that there was no gas station, just pumps. Now that’s cutting back, right? Took a turn to the left and saw this Soul Food restaurant. No one else was in there but the food looked great and I had smothered pork chop with beans and mac & cheese with cornbread and sweet tea. YUM!

I parked myself down at a table and watched The People’s Court on the big screen. This place probably used to be hoppin’ back in the day. You could tell. Shame.

And after lunch, I ventured into the last shop I saw on the strip and was met with an “Obama Sale” sign advertising 40% off everything. I wondered. Is this meant to say, “Thanks a lot Obama. Now we have to put everything on super sale” OR “Isn’t it great that Obama is President! Let’s have a sale!”

Oh and in this town, I saw a John Deere bureau. I asked the shop owner if someone would actually buy that and he rolled his eyes and said, “oh yea” but fully understood my disgust. He was as gay as the day was long so he had taste. He he.

One place I went into today had a man and woman chatting in a living room set in the front of the store. I was their only customer so it was super quiet without the typical Christian radio station blaring throughout. So I could hear their conversation and it was a doosie. The woman (owner) was telling this guy that she was “done” when it came to her daughter. She had already given her $42,000, “$18K for a house and the rest for the lawyer and cigarettes and food and stuff.” I love how cigarettes figured into the budget recollection. Anyway, I was soooo curious to find out what she did to get into a court situation but the shop didn’t have anything I was interested in so I moved on. I hope it wasn’t meth-related because I’m getting depressed hearing these constant radio addresses about the evils of meth. It’s so sad. But when I walked out and said ‘thanks’ to the couple, she hollered, “Come back and see us, k?” Everyone, and I mean everyone, says this when you leave a store or restaurant. It’s so stinkin’ cute!

Some highway/radio observations: at Exit 129 on Rt. 40 the area is called Toad Suck Park. Nice, eh? And what is up with all the torn up tires on the highway? How did the car survive that? It just blew and they left it there on the road? If someone knows what this is, do tell. Great bumper sticker on a filthy pickup that drove past me: “This vehicle is undergoing a scientific dirt test.” There was an ad on the radio today for a jeweler that is buying gold but they used an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator to say that his state was in economic distress and if you go and sell your gold at this store, you can give California the money afterwards. Now, why would an Arkansas jeweler choose this to market their gold buying deals? Who knows? But it’s especially insensitive right now due to the fires that are making the deficit even worse and the recent loss of his uncle-in-law. Oy vey! That impersonator must have cost a pretty penny to keep that spot running.

I also saw a billboard that read something like, “Use the rod on your child and you will save their life.” Underneath was a bible passage. I couldn’t get my camera out soon enough to shoot it but trust me, it was very odd to read on the interstate. Then again, I also saw an 18-wheeler drive by and on its rear was a HUGE sticker that had a bible passage. And that is on a commercial vehicle representing a company. I just find it so odd that companies are fine with putting religion and business together. But like I said, all the shops I go to have Christian music or commentators on all day long. While listening to some of the radio around here, I wondered whether they would think it was just as shocking to listen to Brian Lehrer or Leonard Lopate or NPR in general. Maybe that would sound completely maddening to them. Who knows? I did get angry though when one shock jock said that “Americans had all lost confidence in Obama.” I was like, “WHAT?!”

Checked into a motel in Corinth, Mississippi and the young man at the counter reminded me that there are still lots of folks in this country that forget that we were all foreigners here at one point. He saw my ID and asked where I was from in New York. He said he had been there and Niagara Falls. I asked if he liked NYC and sure enough, shook his head. I said, “Too many people?” and he nodded but added, “too many foreigners.” Wow. To add insult to injury, he gave me my room card and said, “Thank you ma’am.” MA’AM! What about ‘miss?’ I thought all of my kids got MISS from their Southern roots. I hate ma’am. UGH.

Just hit 5,000 miles. Crazy! Had to drive through suburban Memphis area to get to Mississippi, which by the way I keep singing the spelling of this state in my head [ok, out loud]. The housing developments there are so icky. I mean, they’re nice to some but too cookie cutter for my taste. Thank goodness I live in Queens where the architecture varies from house to house, even within a house). Variety is the spice of life I say. Oh wait, someone else must have said that first. I’m sure of it.

Off to the Waffle House for din-din. Who knows what I will find there. It’s open 24 hours though so it’s gotta be good. Right?

Radio highlights: “Open Arms,” Tina Turner, “Jump (for My Love),” “Hard Habit to Break,” “Dead or Alive” (Bon Jovi), “Open Your Heart.”

Twisters, armadillo roadkill, brassiere assistance, Obama haters and blue hair

Oklahoma is Cherokee Nation but it's also tornado nation. I drove through this state scared for my life. I had never known or been told what to do if you are in the car and there is a tornado going on nearby. No one else seemed to be phased by it but I was having flashbacks to Helen Hunt watching those twister-chasers swept up in the Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley. I saw one car pull off the road and sit under an overpass made of cement so I did the same but it was getting dark and if the storm didn’t let up soon, I didn’t want to be driving in this Armageddon in pitch black. So sans-Bill Paxton, I mustered up the courage to forge on and drove into the light. The light was Tulsa. I left the storm in my dust and found a place to bunk for the night. I had intended to stay in Muskogee, Oklahoma because I saw that name on the map and it reminded me of a song from the film “Good Morning Vietnam.” Sure enough, now armed with the Internet, it was Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee.” Yea, well, the song didn’t mention how desolate the town really was so I had to hightail it out of there and head to Sallisaw instead. This was a Cherokee Nation area and it wasn’t all that fun to hang out in but I just needed a place to rest my head after a treacherous evening of driving through hell.

I had stopped in Blackwell, Oklahoma earlier in the day and that town was a bit depressed, as are many small towns that have lost some industry and folks don’t have the money to be out shopping. But it seems that there is an oil industry there. The farms, among the grain fields, have oil pumping out of the ground. Not sure how it all works but they are scattered among the wheat grain. The scary thing about the storms here is that you can see the bolts of lightning since the area is so damn flat in all directions. If I hadn’t been driving, I would have loved to capture some of these zig zag wonders on camera. Down the road some, I think I saw what was the result of lightning hitting a field and burning it to a crisp. So sad. I can’t imagine seeing all of your hard work burned to bits in one fell swoop thanks to Mother Nature. Ugh, she can be a bitch!

Two asides: Before the storm had begun, I saw a dead armadillo on the side of the road and it reminded me of that cake in the film “Steel Magnolias” with Julia Roberts but that took place in Louisiana so they must have armadillos too. I also saw a great roadside billboard near Tulsa that read: “Bust Stop. Supporting Tulsa since 1992.” Of course you’d pull over for a bra or two after reading that stroke of advertising genius.

Upon entering Arkansas, the rest area women gave me some good tips on where to find antique or flea markets in the state along Rt. 40. She also pointed out some wineries where there are tastings daily. I had just told her I was alone since they ask for government statistics once they hand over the free map so why would she think I could get boozed up along the way? Strange. But anyhow, she was very helpful and I was off to do some more shopping in Van Buren, Russellville and Morrilton.

Van Buren was great. They had just restored their historic downtown area and Main Street was very picturesque. I discovered a lot of gems in the shops along the way but my best find was a vintage silver dress that I will be wearing to Fred and Antigoni’s wedding at the end of the month. I saw it hanging there and was in awe of it. There was no size tag since it had been handmade so I had to try it on. There was no dressing room but there was a back room of the store so I simply closed the door and guess what? IT FIT! When I was checking out at the counter, I told the very friendly shop owner that I was so excited to find it because I had previously found this neat old hat to wear but didn’t have the perfect dress to pair with it. She insisted that I send her a photo after the party so she could see how well it looked on me. How sweet is she?!

For lunch, I popped into Carol’s Café and what a great choice. Not only was the chicken fried steak divine but the conversation in this Alice-esque diner was what movies are made of. Two women waited tables but the three ladies that were finishing up their lunches at opposing booths were a hoot! One was talking about dying her hair jet black but the man that walked in with a “Van Buren Old Timers” T-shirt on said, “That’s what we call blue hair. Your hair will really turn out lookin’ blue.” Now, I was having a hard time understanding these folks. Not the content of what they were discussing but their accents were so thick that many times, I had to mull over the sentences a few times before I got the gist of it. And I am not exaggerating. The ladies were also talking to themselves. Well, not really. But they were doing that thing where they’re reading the paper, reacting to the ads and saying something aloud hoping that someone will say, “huh?”

What struck me most was how much they shared with one another in public even though they might not even be close friends. They were talking about relatives that had to see counselors due to arrests and such. One of the waitress’ pregnant teen came out from the back and started talking about how much she has to pee lately and that her boyfriend and her were going to get a place together real soon. The woman reading the paper eager for conversation appeared to be a Crawford County Volunteer for Literacy, yet her English was consistently incorrect grammatically. I was worried for those learning the King’s English from this character. But at least she was volunteering. I should not judge. I felt like I was watching an SNL skit when the discussion came to what sex the baby was and if there were any names picked out. It was a girl but if it had been a boy, it was going to be Jackson Lee. The explanation for choosing that combination was too in-depth for me to keep up with so I will spare you the details.

The meal hit the spot though and I was so glad to have interacted with these fine ladies on a rainy day in Arkansas. Everyone is so super friendly here and it seems totally genuine. No reason for it not to be I guess. When I saw that chicken fried steak was the special, I ordered it with mashed potatoes, mac & cheese. When asked if I wanted white or brown gravy though, I was stumped. I felt like there was a wrong answer in the South so I hesitated and sure enough, my waitress said, “Most folks get white.”

Down the road a bit, with a full tummy, I was in this antique flea market and the shopkeep had the most unusual exchange with her neighbor. She simply said, ‘Whadya know?” and then the other woman answered, “I don’t know nuthin’” I know that sounds odd to read but it was as if it was their typical greeting. Like ‘what’s up?’ with the answer, ‘nothing”? Who knows. But another standard that I now love saying is “will gawwwlee” when I see something I like in a store. When in Rome. And by the way, this is the same store where I saw the John Deere handbag with black feathery accents. Someone went way too far here folks.

Another shop I walked into was manned by a husband/wife team. They had to be in their 80s and were the sweetest folks around. I bought this crocheted poncho (Matthea and Cara are laughing right now because I have an actual poncho collection. I know, RIDICULOUS). The woman went into this long drawn-out monologue about how she’s been telling her daughter to come down here to see THAT poncho because she would have loved it. Mind you, clothing is not really sold here. It’s mostly old Ball jars, guns, dolls, lunch boxes, etc. So she was doing this as a way to tell the customer that they just got there in time to snag this great deal. It was sweet. She asked where I was from since my non-twang stood out like a sore thumb. I told her and she immediately said, “Oh my gosh, my daughter lives in Maine.” I had to contain my laughter at how stinkin’ sweet this lady was to think that Maine and New York are practically the same because they are both on the east coast. I guess to her in Arkansas, they are. Before I came to the counter, I had been listening to the radio program she had on in the store. It was this über-conservative radio host spewing out lies about Obama’s health care plan. Saying that he pretty much wanted senior citizens to just die already. I heard her tsk-tsk-ing and wanted so badly to say, “How could you even entertain such an insane thing?” But I refrained. Instead, I asked her what this pin that was hanging by the register meant. It had a piece of rice with initials underneath and she couldn’t recall the manufacturer’s name but informed me that Arkansas is one of the largest producers of rice for the country. That I did not know. By the way, that radio host actually told this joke on the air, “How do you know when Obama is lying about conservatives? His lips move.” Hardy-har.

On my way to Morrilton, where I stayed for the night, I saw a sign for an upcoming livestock auction. I think I want to go to one of those before I leave this part of the country. That would be interesting to say the least. Maybe I can raise my paddle right away for a steer just to participate. Only if it’s got 4 legs though. I wouldn’t want to get stuck with something too big for my Subaru. Speaking of which, “Ain’t No Junk in This Trunk” is being donated to “The Safe Place,” a domestic violence shelter for women and children. I need more room for the obscene amount of stuff I’m accumulating. I look at it this way. I am singlehandedly stimulating the economies of many small towns across America so it’s a good thing.

Radio highlights: “Don’t Be Cruel” (Bobby Brown), “When Doves Cry,” “Hurts So Good,” “All Night Long” (Lionel Ritchie), “Ghostbusters,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Separate Ways”

5-legged steer, There’s No Place Like Home, Sliders and Faux Fur

(hit 4,000 miles on my way to Kansas)

I have to admit, driving 7 hours from Denver to Salina, Kansas to visit with my friend Angie’s mom, I was expecting some level of Oz experience. I mean, who wouldn’t? Throw me a little tornado, an old lady on a bike, maybe Toto running along the highway, a hot air balloon festival. Am I going to meet a lot of Dorothys? But I got nuthin’. I passed this harvested grain field (just like the song “Wichita and the wheat fields of Kansas”), and saw a dust whirlwind so I guess I’ll have to take it or leave it. The closest I came to the wizard was seeing the Tin Man on a big billboard advertising the Oz Museum at exit 328 in Wamego.

Just an aside … heard this country song on the radio that I had to mention. (Sometimes I lapse into a trance driving such long distances and leave it on). Who knows what imbecile wrote this piece of nonsense but it was about this man buying into all the new technology, getting an HDTV with 500 channels and a cell phone even though he “doesn’t have much to say.” Now if he doesn’t have much to say, why the hell did I have to hear a song about his recent high-tech purchases? Seriously people. How does this get produced and played on the radio when there are real artists out there that can’t get signed to a record label?

Along Interstate 40, I saw a plethora of disturbing signage. I won’t get into the anti-abortion messages because they were just too overwhelming. But my favorite was the 5-legged cow at exit 70 in Oakley, Kansas. This guy Larry Farmer has a regular freak show of wildlife. I guess the old saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” Is that old if it’s only from “Field of Dreams” which was released in 1989? I think so, because on the radio the other day, they played the Fat Albert theme song and said, “If you know what this song is from, then you’re listening to the right oldies station.” I was like, “WHAT?!”

Arriving in Salina, I had my directions on a post-it note and was glancing down to follow them when I noticed the lights. Yup, pulled over again. But this time, I was innocent. The cop said I was doing 48 in a 35. Now way in hell was I going that fast on what reminded me of Route 6 back home: absolute chaos with folks coming out of store parking lots at every turn. He was on crack but I didn’t tell him that. I just gave up my documents again and he went to his squad car. Or cruiser. Whatever the hell they call those things. I saw him in my rear-view mirror writing something up so I knew I wasn’t getting away with murder this time. He came to my window and handed me a ticket that said WARNING in big red letters up top. NO FREAKING WAY. I am the luckiest leadfoot around. And then he helped me with my poorly written directions and sent me on my way. He even said I could make an illegal u-turn to get back on the main road. Hilarious!

Found the place in no time and arrived to a happy hour with two fine ladies. Any home where happy hour starts at 4:30 is great in my book. It was even accompanied with a music recital from Miles, a percussion virtuoso who lived down the street (Angie’s nephew to be more specific). At the tender age of 7, he had already mastered something I could never even slightly learn when I dated a drummer in high school for 2 years. Dinner at Gutierrez was delish (had the pork chimichanga but no pic) and the tour of town was very nice. Showed me all the hot spots I’d hit the next day on my way out of town. My biggest jaw drop was this enormous church/school that was purchased by an architect for one dollar because the congregation could no longer afford the upkeep. And he was actually living in it. You could see the light on in a few windows. This had occurred years ago but he still hadn’t done anything with the place. Gosh. If I had that place, I’d find funding to open a youth center and potentially employ so many of the people in town who had lost jobs recently. It would be an awesome space for that. There are grounds, it’s already set up as a school. Ah to dream…

After a lovely night at home with a good, but slow, Netflix, I had the best sleep of my life. One word people: Tempurpedic. In the morning, I hit Salina with full force. First stop: Cozy Inn. This place looked identical to Nick’s Hamburger Shop in Brookings, SD but of course, I had to go inside to be sure. They had the same “Buy ‘em by the sac” tagline but the interior of this place was much more authentic. It might be due to the fact that it hadn’t changed hands as often and remained in its original location since 1922. Shane, the nice man behind the counter who made me my first Cozy slider at 10 a.m. told me a bit about its history. And when he asked me where I was from, he told me about his years in Baltimore in the service when him and his buddies ventured up to New York City to see what the big deal was. They literally did a drive-by in the car because they couldn’t imagine getting out. Again, too many people. He even added that he couldn’t imagine living where you have a few feet in between buildings. Understood. He was very sweet to give me some tips on the neighboring areas to visit like Little Sweden and to be sure to stop at a cemetery to see the tombstones that say things like, “Got shot in the back at a poker game” or “fell under the tractor, survived by his wife and kids.” Pretty literal in these parts. I wonder if you had to pay by the character back in those days. Probably not.

Downtown Salina was very good to me. Not only did I get some cool shots down by the railroad of some graffiti-laden train cars but I found this retro motel that had been abandoned and had some interesting lattice work.

The antique shops were amazing and I even bought a hoochie mama faux fur jacket at the Salvation Army. The art deco buildings in this town are superb. They are a must see if you’re ever in this neck of the woods. The Municipal Waterworks building was my favorite.

Radio highlights: “Private Eyes,” George Michael, “She Bop” (Cyndi Lauper), “Rod Stewart, Mary J. Blige.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Conifer, Red Rocks and albino bison

Driving up to Conifer from downtown Denver was amazing; and to arrive at this unbelievable home filled with treasures from all over the world, a treat. It was like a museum tour going through each room, learning about the different items and the stories behind them. It reminds me of what I do when someone’s first been to my place, except that the most frequent response to “Where did you find that?” is “the garbage.”

I especially liked the story about the chandelier in the dining room. It had been in the home of the seller’s father and he was someone that played poker with the likes of Doc Holliday and Jesse James back in the day. How cool is that?!

Paula and I ventured out to tour the countryside and had an amazing brunch at this old inn, Historic Brook Forest Inn with a little spring in the back and gorgeous tiny rooms for small people above. It would be a perfect setting for a wedding. We had biscuits and gravy and Eggs Benedict. Apparently, the place crossed hands a few times and at one point, it was a hangout for Harley revelers. I can’t imagine with all the flowery fabrics and lace now, but I’m sure it was fun for hogsters too! The whole tour was an education. I learned about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program for unemployed men, focused on natural resource conservation from 1933 to 1942. I saw many of the oldest barns in Jefferson County and saw how settlement occurred in this part of the country (Paula wrote an amazing photo essay about this).

I saw an albino bull at Ron Lewis’ range, this nice man that lives near Conifer and operates a farm for folks to see wildlife and such. He also has a cool silver mine shaft in the back and gives folks that don’t want to be embalmed when they die, the opportunity to be buried in his cemetery in just a shroud and be one with the Earth. There’s also a peace memorial on the property.

Red Rocks was amazing. Paula explained all about the geologic phenomenon that is this park. The formations and inclines are stunning to observe. I can’t imagine how much fun it must be to see a show here. The amphitheatre was starting to fill up because Ween was playing the day we visited. There was much tailgating and the parking lot smelled similarly to Cervantes the other night. Paula and I had a discussion about the hippie kids and how odd it is to see them reliving or latching onto an era long gone. At the end of the drive around, we tried to find this garage sale and failed but it was not a lost trip because I got to see an incredible rainbow and Mt. Evans from the mountaintop.

We had also stopped to see a neighbors’ amazing wood carvings on his land. A dolphin, a bear, an Indian and he was working on a totem pole next.

Conifer is a little bit of heaven and I can see why Paula lives there. So remote yet so cozy and welcoming. Thanks a bunch for a great few days and I’m so glad I finally got to stay there and see the wonder of Colorado. I will definitely be back!

Radio highlights: Hall & Oates (Rich Girl), "Missing You," INXS, "Jive Talkin'," Sheila E., "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Trippy Denver

Arrived in Denver on Friday night of Labor Day weekend and met up with an old friend from high school. Hadn’t seen him in at least 20 years. We had happy hour sushi and sake and caught up briefly on the last two decades. It was a blast! A friend of his stopped by to have a drink and mention that this great band, Vinyl, would be playing at Cervantes that night and they were going to get tickets and wanted to know if we were in. Cervantes was apparently a club that used to be THE place to play on your way from anywhere east to Los Angeles. So folks like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn played there.

We first headed to some “cowboy bar” where I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck, a passerby just lookin’ for a drink on this end of the summer evening. The guys had just bought shots of whiskey, which I don’t do, so I offered mine to Charles and he accepted. He told me a little about himself. He used to be a horse wrangler and had been kicked a few too many times in the arse and had even had a few run-ins with larger game. I told him about my near-death experience and he sympathized. He had just lost his job which was why he was asking for the kindness of strangers so I gave him a fiver and apologized but we were heading out to see a band in Five Points now. We hugged and we were both on our way.

When we arrived at Cervantes, the band hadn’t yet started so my friend and I went to this speakeasy-type place that mostly (primarily) catered to African American folks. He had always wanted to check it out since it was “known” by many. We went up the stairwell and on the door was a sign that read something like, “Don’t bother coming in unless you want a drink.” In other words, this isn’t a place to people watch or simply see it for yourself. We sat down at the bar and it was just a regular little hole in the wall but I guess since there seems to be quite the color divide here, it was novel for a Denver local. For me, it’s not so far fetched for me to be a minority (white) in an all-Black bar. But whatevs.

When we went back to Cervantes, things were getting started and the band was incredible. From what my friend Sarah tells me, it sounded like a jam band. She defined that as being a band that doesn’t necessarily play a song list but more so just plays. And yes, that was this. Everyone in the room was tripping or stoned or drunk off their ass but they were the friendliest group of people I’ve ever danced in a room with. It was a sight to see, the women especially. They were dancing in their own little world. There was one woman in light blue jeans, the ones we used to covet in the late 80s, and she was getting’ down to this psychedelic rock/jazz music as if she was pole dancing to gangsta hip hop. It was hilarious! And then there was Amanda who was lovin’ life and would dance with anyone who needed a partner. She was very sweet. THEN, there was this other woman, maybe in her early 40s, high as a kite, doing the whole Woodstock waltz all over the dance floor. She didn’t really talk to many folks but didn’t need to. She was havin’ her own party in her head. I make fun but really I enjoyed watching these folks enjoy themselves. It was all very communal and fun. And although I was sober, I prefer to be in these situations. Otherwise, I may not have recalled all of this.

The unique thing that I had never seen before in a music venue was artists painting on platforms while dancing and groovin’ out to the tunes. Most of it was the black light, psychedelic-type paintings of whatever crazy thoughts were going through their heads at the moment. There was straight up painting, some airbrushing and I think I even saw some finger painting (unless that was just corrective).

After Cervantes, we went to a friend’s house to hang a bit but had to go to another friend’s house to feed her pug. That’s where we stayed and it was so comfy there. I was the designated driver of the evening (again) and it was funny. Apparently, I drove the length of downtown Denver because the paranoid folks were worried I’d forget a turn, not use my directionals or go too fast in a 30 mph section. Hilarious! At one point in the ride, we passed this guy in his car having what looked like a hissy fit. I was told to look away. LOL. But then right at the same moment, there was a man on the side of the road digging up his lawn at 3:30 in the morning as if he were going to dump a body in the hole he’d made. To this, the lovely lady in the car with me said, “And this is the landscaping district.” Best line of the night.

In the morning, driving back to our cars, I got to see a wide variety of Denver architecture. Loved Bonnie Brae Ice Cream shop on University Blvd. and fell in love with the little bungalows in the Cherry Creek neighborhood. So adorable. I want one. NOTE to friends: Denver bungalow for EO for Christmas. Thanks.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I can’t seem to exit Wyoming just yet. Maybe it's the cocktails, liquor, music and comedy!

I want to leave but it’s so massive and I decided not to go west into Idaho and south into Utah. I am heading toward Denver and then east into Kansas and so on. Leaving Dubois, I needed something to eat and stopped at Fort Something-or-other. It ended up being an Indian reservation called Wind River. It’s funny because us New Yorkers called these folks Native Americans being all PC but they seem to call themselves Indians and white folks call them that here too. Who knows? From what I could see, there weren’t any restaurants, just the convenience store that sold fast food stuff. I got a corn dog (can’t have enough of those) and some trail mix. Noticed that most of the young men in the area were dressed as if they were in a street gang in Tijuana. What’s up with that? I also passed a stinky skunk on the road and pondered whether skunks always smell the same no matter where they are. Is that a stupid Deep Thoughts-like question or is it not so bad? I mean, has the smell never evolved? Can it change based on what the skunk eats? Okay, enough about that.

On the radio, I heard that the feds in Tulsa shut down a meth lab operating out of a stairwell in a state office building. Yikes.

Later, I stopped for gas in Walcott and had to use the facilities. I walked inside and the cashier instantly pointed to the women’s room and said, “You from New York?” Affirmative. I did my business and on the way out, I asked, “Well you know where I’m from, where are you from?” Yonkers, he said. But I left there 50 years ago via Tacoma, Washington. Said he’s never been back, which was a lie. I think folks just like to say that because it announces their distaste of the east coast. So odd. He asked me what I do back in Queens and I said I worked with juvenile offenders. I’ve been alternating between that and website designer. Sure enough, the guy next to me who I thought was a rent-a-cop was indeed a correctional officer. I remembered seeing a state penitentiary on the map a few exits back. He just nodded and was on his way. Guess he didn’t want to talk shop.

Did you know that they announce hunter arrests on the radio here? They do. First and last name and city of origin. So strange. Can you imagine if they listed all the offenses each day in NYC and outed you on the radio? Unreal. I know there are police blotters in the Post but it’s just a sampling, right? Not a full list. Anyway, they also have showers at gas stations. Neat, eh? I also love how there are drive-in liquor stores. You have an itch and you don’t even have to get outta the car. Oh, and can we all start saying “Holy Mackerel” again. I heart that phrase. I heard it today and it made me giggle.

While driving through the part of Wyoming where no one lives apparently, I wondered whether Geico had a wildlife clause. What if I hit a bear or buffalo? Would that be covered? There was even an ad for a program that teaches folks how to be careful around bears that creep up on them in their yard or near their children. I never want to live in a place where I have to bring my kids to a program like this. Don’t talk to strangers should be the extent of it. One guy commented in response to the program, “they live here too I guess.”

I started getting hungry again after Rawlins so I thought I’d stop at the next exit (Sinclair) but it smelled like sewage and all my windows were closed. Therefore, I figured any eating establishment would also smell like poo. I passed on Sinclair and waited until Laramie to eat. Tried what seemed to be the only Thai restaurant in the historic area and it was awful. I got the safe dish that no one can screw up, Pad Thai. They screwed it up. I ordered it with chicken and the poultry tasted like fish and the noodles were hard. Gross! Otherwise, cute downtown area. Just don’t go to Anong’s Thai Cuisine. Yucky.

Ran into some other graffiti photogs on my way to the motel. Building's going to be demolished soon so it's a good thing they're documenting it.

Have you ever heard of the Continental Divide? I hadn’t. But it’s this line that divides one side of this continent from the other. Thus, the inventive name. Apparently, I’ve been following it all day long and the signs indicate what elevation you are at. The highest point I noticed was 9500 feet and soon after, I psychosomatically started feeling altitude sickness. I’d like to officially place blame on all of my history/social studies teachers for never fully teaching us geography. It has nothing to do with my not studying. Not only have I never heard of this line on the map that splits the continent in two, but I keep having to look at my kid’s atlas that Brynn gave me to remind myself of my potential routes. How embarrassing is that? Hand me a map of Europe, however, and I’m good.

Hit 3000 miles yesterday. Nuts!

Trade, did anyone have money on Wyoming?

Arrived in Yellowstone at about 7:00 and went straight to the first campgrounds. I was going to finally tent it. But right as I drove into the registration area, I saw the sign that said no sleeping on the ground due to a lot of bear activity. Alrighty then, so where the heck was I going to sleep, in my car? Granted, I had thought of that before leaving NYC to save on cash but now it wasn’t sounding so appetizing. I walked in anyway and asked if they could help me find a place where I could in fact “sleep on the ground.” The kind gentleman behind the counter showed me Bridge Bay 4 miles down the road so I went there instead. But not until I got something in my belly. The last I had eaten something was the corn dog and let’s just say, that didn’t fill me up. I went and got a pulled pork sandwich with fries at the Yellowstone General Store and it ain’t no real general store. It’s more like a tourist trap extravaganza. Merchandise a plenty with this cute little lunch counter in the back. All the folks that work there are from various countries around the world. I guess they have some kind of exchange program. My waitress was from the UK. Rachel was her name and you could tell that she was so tired of answering folks questions about where she was from in England because they had visited England before. Woop-di-doo! I wasn’t at all tempted to buy anything because all that stuff always turns me off. And I read somewhere, probably in Lucky magazine, that women over 30 should never wear T-shirts with words on them. Maybe because it gives men an excuse to stare at your chest? Who knows.

At Bridge Bay, there was a bit of a line to register so I listened to the questions asked so I’d be prepared once it was my turn. The folks before me were from Denver and had a popup camper on their pickup and asked to be placed as far from others as possible. I think they were on their honeymoon because the man kept saying that his woman was costing him lots of money and she would respond, “well, you married me.” I stepped up to the window and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Please place me next to a lot of people. This is my first time camping solo at a real campsite.” Sorry Mom and Dad, but Point Sebago doesn’t count. The woman asked for my information and as I recited my Woodside address, I chuckled and said, “it sounds like I live in a place like this but it’s New York City, Queens to be exact. I do have some trees outside my windows but that’s the extent of nature in the area.” I also asked if I could be near the amphitheater since I overheard another person mention that there would be a park ranger presentation there at 9:00 and it was 8:15. I was soon to be the new resident of space E233 which was easy to remember since my grandmother lived on W233 in the Bronx.

She proceeded to go through the rules and asked if I wanted any firewood and/or kindling when she came to the safety regulations pertaining to campfires. I laughed since I couldn’t imagine pulling that off in the dark (which it was now) along with getting my tent situated. After all, what would I do, warm up the beef jerky that was in my purse still? Next was the wildlife discussion. I had already seen quite a few signs about being careful on the roads and then of course the bear warning at Fishing Bridge up the road but she told me that if a bison were to park himself next to my tent, to just ignore him. Now, who on God’s green Earth would seriously be able to ignore a 2000-pound monster is they were sitting beside their flimsy tent? But she wasn’t kidding. The morning after, I saw a bison right across the way from where my tent was. Since she now knew how green I was, she asked if I had a flashlight because I’d need one to walk to the amphitheater. Check. Always had one in my car for emergencies.

So I drove over to the site, not easy to find in the pitch black even with headlights. It was more than sufficient for me since I didn’t have much else than the tent. I opened up my self-erecting tent bag and sure enough, it just popped up and was done. I had noticed on the board next to the registration lady that they were expecting a storm so I put the additional rain guard on top of the tent and secured it in all the right places. But I didn’t bother with those bendy things. I didn’t have the patience to figure out where they went and it was already resembling a tent so whatevs, as Nicole would say. I threw my sleeping bag in there and took the the flashlight with me to the amphitheater. I had no clue where the path was to get over there but I took whatever looked traveled upon. It was a cute little spot and the ranger was about to start. The presentation was entitled, “Photographing Yellowstone.” It was a series of photos from around the park that he took and he told helpful stories of safety and prime spots to shoot the sights. It was a great introduction to see what I’d be seeing in the next couple of days and what not to miss. I walked back to the site and simply went to bed. No air mattress, just me in my bag on the ground. Slept very well until 3 a.m. when it started raining. I thought, ‘please let it stop,’ since I had nothing between me and the ground, like one of those tarp things. It stopped soon after thank goodness. I woke up at 6:30 because I started to hear others waking up. Went to the restroom and came back to disassemble the tent and get on the road to start seeing the park. That was the part that wasn’t so easy. I wish I had bought the self-disassemble AND self-erecting tent. There were directions on the inside of the bag that held the tent but this NYC girl was stumped. Luckily, there was a seasoned camper next to me, a teenager on vacation with her parents from Minnesota. She did it in 4 seconds flat. She even undid it and did it again so I could watch one more time. I think I have it? I told her I was from NYC so this wasn’t so second nature to me. I think I keep using that whole “I’m from New York City” line as my “get out of stupid jail for free" card.

Had breakfast at Lake Lodge’s cafeteria and headed off to see Hayden Valley and the Mud Volcano. The volcano and caldron were already teeming with people. (Mostly seniors and European couples since school had already been in session since last week Wednesday, there weren’t many kids in the park.) The mud pots were cool, bubbling over with sulphur-smellin’ steam coming out of them. One guy said to me, “Can you imagine what the people that discovered this place must have thought when they saw this? They probably thought they were in hell.” He was so right. It smelled awful and smoke was coming out of the ground all over the place. There was a trail that went up the hill that looped around to the parking lot again but it was about a 2/3 mile “hike” and some parts were steep. I figured I might as well do it so I could get myself acclimated to doing some exercise in case there were other sights that I would HAVE to walk a lot to get to. I went up the boardwalk (which is what the ranger said last night you should always stay on) and there were these two guys from Wisconsin who were coming down and they warned me that they had just seen a herd of bison crossing the boardwalk and had to wait it out. They said they had gone already but to be careful nonetheless. I walked up over the hump to see if the coast was clear and I saw the herd they spoke of going up into the mountain with a few stragglers that were following their same path. I was about 1000 feet away at this point. Once they were all out of sight, I continued on the boardwalk trail. Right before I reached the spot where the others had crossed, two bison surprised me from the left, so I literally backed up. I had just taken my camera out to take a photo of the landscape. Granted, I was probably 500 feet away when I saw them because I remember taking a photo at full zoom. But instead of following the same path as their friends, they literally got ON the boardwalk and started heading right toward me.

Now, I don’t have cable at home so I’m not a frequent Nature Channel viewer but I did know that with bears, you’re supposed to play dead. But Mr. Ranger last night didn’t say a thing about what to do if a bison is charging you ON the approved boardwalk passageway. I was following the rules. The damn signs everywhere said to always remain at least 25 feet away from a bison. Who the hell are they kidding? That’s like 5 short people lying down one after another. I was 500 feet away and I know what that looks like because I once asked a fireman how far that was since it always says to keep that far back behind a firetruck. Now as many of you reading this know, although I’m thin, I am severely out of shape, so running was a challenge. And from what this sign says …

… USELESS since they can run three times as fast as you. And in my case, probably 6x as fast as me. But I have no death wish so I ran like crazy down the boardwalk back to the people I had just been alongside. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out of this situation alive (and I know I am an exaggerator at times but I am being completely serious). I mean, look at this photo of them coming at me.

I was only taking a photo from 500 feet at full zoom because I assumed they were going to go UP the mountain just like the others. It’s mating season after all. Didn’t they want to follow the girls? (I learned that last night at the presentation. August is mating season for bison). So luckily, once they got to the part where there were railings, they went down onto the pasture and barreled down the hill toward the parking lot. I finally stopped running and these elderly couples asked if I was okay but I was hyperventilating. Now, the last time and only other time I hyperventilated was when I hit a 10-point buck (that’s an old deer I think) on my way to my high school one evening to hook up with my mother at a PTA meeting. So there’s got to be a pattern here. I need to breath into a bag whenever large game are involved. One of the women that came to my rescue literally dumped her souvenirs on the boardwalk to give me the paper bag they came in. Soon enough, I was okay and had calmed down a bit. But I still cannot believe that these enormous animals were literally inches away from me and I wasn’t even sure if they would strike. I’m so sure my mother was worried about me going off with strange men in South Dakota. Who knew that I’d come close to meeting my demise in a national park considering all the third world countries I’ve travelled to alone. Or better yet, all my visits to jails and prisons. You’d think Rikers would be scarier than Yellowstone. I think I now know why those in middle America have guns. Yikes!

I got back in my car and headed to the next sight. Waterfalls. They were beautiful and so plentiful. The ranger last night had said that they were in full force in May and June once the snow starts melting so I wasn’t expecting a lot of water coming down but woah! Along the trail to get to the best vistas, I heard this woman say to her husband, “Oh look, there’s that poor girl who was almost gored by those bison.” And then down the hill a bit, another woman came up to me and said, “How are you doing? That was scary, right?” I nodded. “I guess you should be insulted though that they didn’t want you as their prey. Maybe too thin, not enough meat.” Then her husband chimed in, “Maybe they didn’t like white meat.” These retired folks have a lot of time on their hands to come up with these clever quips. One guy in their party asked where I was from and said, “Oh, so you’re just used to being chased by purse-snatchers, not wildlife.” So needless to say, I’m glad to be alive. I started in on this trail to another waterfall and when I stopped seeing folks around, I doubled back. No self-guided trails for me. I am definitely spooked by this experience and it wasn’t until I got cell phone service at 10 p.m. that I was able to call my mother and recount the whole ordeal and I wept like a baby. That was a good thing because I wrote all this soon after it happened and instantly went into humor mode but when I told the story to my mother, it all came back and I was seriously inches from being severely hurt or killed.

The rest of the day was spent going to the many sights in Yellowstone. One of the roads was closed for repairs, which brought on detours that added to getting around but the park was pretty much empty in comparison to the regular summer months. It was nice because there weren’t tons of people in your photos. Seeing everything is a lot of stopping and going along the roads. There are these pullouts (vista points) where folks stop to take photos and I did a lot of that, as you will see in my Flickr set. It’s a must when you are faced with such amazing views. At the same time, the roads can be pretty scary. Sometimes, there aren’t shoulders and you’re looking down at the abyss. And other times, the non-CDL-license folks who have rented from 1-800-RV4RENT are barreling around curves and have no clue what they are doing. I overheard one senior couple talking to another at one of the geysers about their RV. They never had any intention of buying a recreational vehicle before but when some friends of theirs did this trip and said they had a hard time finding places to stay with their dog, they figured this would be the best way to have the pup and have no hassles. Their 20-something daughter chimed in saying, “Yea, some life this dog has. He gets a $60,000 RV so he can come along on the family vacation and they wouldn’t even pay for my college.”

One strange observation I had today was that celebrities could totally have a laid back family vacation here. Wear stupid clothes with dumb sayings on them, a baseball cap, sunglasses and hiking boots and no one will recognize you. I saw this one woman at the Norris Geyser museum and I instantly thought she was famous because of her amazingly toned body and perfect tan and gorgeous boyfriend or husband. I heard them speaking to one another and it was a language I couldn’t quite place but from the looks of her, I figured it was Nordic. She was about 6 feet tall, blonder than blonde and perfect in every way. I asked her where they were from and she said Norway. Not knowing whether a joke would be understood, I said it anyway: “Do all women in Norway look like you, because if so, I’m never going there.” Yea, she didn’t get it. She just nodded and smiled and moved on. But this old guy behind me got it and smiled at me.

Although Janet suggested at least 3 days in Yellowstone, I have to admit, having taken “the senior tour” and staying off the trails (which obviously take a while), I hit everything in a day. Granted, I woke up at 6:30 and left Old Faithful, my second to last sight at 6:45 p.m. but it was a good run. It was almost like that feeling when you go to Six Flags and you’re trying to get all the rides in before your folks tell you it’s time to go home.

Another hilarious overheard statement was from this young girl with her boyfriend sitting and waiting for the every 92-minute blast. She said, “Isn’t it amazing that all the roads in the park are so close to all the things we want to see!” Yea, she’s going to college.

After seeing the Grand Prismatic Spring ( from the ground, not like this aerial shot, I was back on the road, trying to leave Yellowstone and the trauma of my day. From the ground this amazing sight isn’t as colorful. I even tried to use that function on my camera that Matthea taught me once in Central Park where you can add color to pictures but it looked lame. Oh well.

Sure enough, I hit mountain road construction and it took me one hour to go 7 miles and I was starting to get tired. Stopped at the next lodging area in Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone and rented a tent cabin for the night. She warned of bears and I just ignored it because I really wanted to rest easy. Once I arrived at my site, I called my mother and went to bed.

I realized that traveling through Wyoming was going to take a while. I am now heading southeast toward Denver and plan on visiting friends there. Using Dubois, WY’s library. Another friendly, quiet place sans-wildlife. On my way here, I noticed all these ATV enthusiasts. They look like bandits with their bandanas wrapped around their faces. Scary. And there were also a bunch of cyclists along the winding, up and down mountain roads. They must be serious masochists to do that to themselves. There was even more construction getting here. The signs said, “Your Recovery Dollars at Work.” UGH! Construction in the mountains is no joke. Instead of just saying “slow down,” they have to escort you the whole way because it’s that treacherous. And based on the radio spots for the Idaho and Wyoming Meth Projects, teens talking about their addiction and quick demise, maybe an escort isn’t a bad idea. Why is meth a small town America problem and not seen as much in big cities?

Radio highlights: Didn’t have the radio on too much because I could usually only get country and as we all know, that’s not REALLY music. But I am now obsessed with Hope Waits. She’s the new Norah Jones from what the disc jockey said on KMTN. I really like her voice. Other than that, the only blast from the past I recall was “More than Words.”

Forgive me for the 200+ photos this time around. I didn’t have time to edit down. And stop your naggin’ Brynn. I know this isn’t the culinary photography trip you hoped for but if you were with me, you’d realize that following the Food Network guy’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is harder than it looks. He probably flies into each place and then rents those 50s convertibles. So I hope my roadside sandwiches and lodge cafeteria helpings have been enough for you. ☺

And for those of you that were stumped by the title of this post. My colleague Trade at WGEN started a pool on which state I would meet my demise, so I thought I’d send a little guilt his way.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Yellowstone is yonder...

After seeing the national monuments, I went back to my mountain lodge in the sky and relaxed watching some television and went to bed early. 4 a.m. ain’t regular for me either boys. (FYI, I was tame in my depiction of my night out with the guys because they’re reading this so I’ll tell y’all what really happened when I get back home – he he). Leaving Deadwood, I took a different loop around to head toward Sundance, Wyoming. Didn’t quite get to see Robert Redford and wasn’t at all cognizant from the freeway that there was even a town that celebs would trek to each winter for the film festival but Sundance seemed to be a big city so I stayed away. I ended up staying in Buffalo at this roadside motel with shoddy WiFi after having amazing flautas at Sol de Vallarta, a great Mexican restaurant in town. Bummer because I could hardly upload photos. Now, I’m in Cody, Wyoming at the library taking a break from driving since I’m almost at Yellowstone. Back in Deadwood, the guys said that the population of South Dakota practically doubles when the Sturgis Rally comes to town. I think that out here, that must be the case too because it doesn’t look like many folks live in the towns I’ve been passing through.

Got gas in Ten Sleep, WY and learned that it’s called that because the Sioux used the name towns based on how many nights of sleep it took them to get there from their home base. So neat! At that gas station, I ran into a few Golden Guys (cattle farmers) that were having their lunch together talking about selling property and having to subdivide if they went past selling 2 parcels of land. No idea what that’s about but it involved the government regulations and they weren’t too keen on the Feds interfering in their land dealings. It’s funny because back in Custer when I met Penny thru Milty, an elderly woman was getting coffee next to me and said she had just watched the entire Ted Kennedy service and Penny asked her, “You really liked him even though he was a Democrat?” She said, “of course, I grew up with them and now the legacy is finished.” I wondered whether she would just out and out not like me if she knew I was a Democrat. She already said that she never wanted to visit NYC because there were too many people. So we already didn’t have too much in common. But her hope for a next vacation was to go to Zion National Park and that sounded good to me. I know Cara would love for me to hate Republicans but I imagine I am meeting a bunch of them on this trip and they are good people, just have some different views and I’m starting to realize why.

There will always be differences when you live in a totally different environment. Like this morning… I woke up to check out at 10 a.m. and there were a bunch of young guys outside my room drinking beers and chatting. Now I would think it’s a bit early for that but who am I to judge. And for nature-surrounded folks, you’d think they’d use less Styrofoam but it’s everywhere. When you ask for food to go, it’s in a big Styrofoam tray and when you get coffee at a truck stop, Styrofoam cups. I have a thermos so I just fill that up each time. And there are runaway truck ramps here so if a truck loses its breaks on a steep incline, it can go up this gravel path and slow down to a stop hopefully. I also took notice of the lady who ran the motel I was at. Do these folks just watch TV all day long since they have to be around and near the counter all day, every day? That seems like the dullest existence personally but it may just be her cup of tea.

When I got off the road in Sundance to get a map from the Visitor Center, these two men in a van saw my plates and asked what park of New York I was from because they were from upstate. First New Yorkers I’ve met so far. From Elmira and were going hunting in Cody and beyond. Matter of fact, the passenger was drinking a beer in the van too. Whatevs. They suggested a few things for me and were very nice to invite me to their campsite for a beer later (as if I would know where that was). So wait a minute. They were going hunting and on the radio, I heard a public service announcement educating hunters visiting Cody on what a black bear versus a grizzly looks like. Now if these guys’ target is a bear, what the hell do they do with an 800-pound grizzly or black bear when it’s dead on the ground? They didn’t have a forklift on their 70s disco van. Do tell if you know. I hope they don’t just leave it there to be feasted on by Bambi and vultures. Ewww…

The countryside is so incredibly gorgeous out here that I keep stopping the car to take photos but I have to quit that or else I’ll never get anywhere. And then you take the photo and it just doesn’t express how amazing it is to see these sights and to be driving on lengths of road that are surrounded by unreal mountains and forests. Of course I’m listening to the radio the whole way and another thing I noticed about ads on the radio here is that the owners of the companies advertising often do the talking themselves rather than hiring some snazzy voiceover person. Maybe folks around here prefer hearing the guarantees from the guy himself but I keep laughing because they often have no personality on the air. They sound like a monotone Hank Hill reading everything without any enthusiasm whatsoever. Another thing I’ve heard on the radio is that the winter is going to be awful from the Rockies to the Appalachian Mountains according to the Farmer’s Almanac. I’ve seen a few of these pamphlets at antique stores and I don’t understand. Are farmers also meteorologists? Anyway, they say we’ll have to button up big time this coming winter. They even plugged Snuggies saying you should probably go out and get one. Those are the full body blanket things that everyone makes fun of, right? Oh, and I think I saw a real live vulture on the road before eating some carcass. Ewww… And, I think I want a big round red pickup truck some day. They are just neat. It has to be old though. Surprise, surprise, right?

Stopped for a corn dog and root beer at the A&W American Food drive-in and because I’m an idiot, I pulled into the wrong slot so I couldn’t press the button for a carhop. I learned that term because my lovely next door neighbor in Queens, Jennifer, used to be a carhop at an A&W back in Fairborn, Ohio. Wait til you see in my Flickr photos, the bathroom there. So odd.

Radio highlights: “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” Barry Manilow, “All out of Love,” Fleetwood Mac, “Love is a Battlefield,” “Addicted to Love.”