I get around.
I get around.
I tried to sleep in, really. I woke at 6 and forced myself to go back to sleep, but I was up again by 7am. I got coffee and went to my car, which, surprisingly, had not melted into a pool of metal and rubber after sitting in the heat all day. I got on the freeway and headed towards the Hoover Dam. Apparently, Boulder City has some kind of scam going with the state highway department, in which all the tourist traffic is routed right through the center of town.
I got to the dam at 8:45, and it was already 95 degrees. I had to wait in line outside the visitors’ center, which didn’t open until 9, thinking, this is not what i want to be doing. Finally, they let us in, passed us through a metal detector, and sold us tickets. I wanted to go right to the observation deck, but they made me go down and sit through the presentation first. I was cranky. All I wanted was to take some dam pictures and be on my way. I didn’t want to take the dam tour. I sat there, squirming, surrounded by tourist families, thinking, this is not what i want to be doing, either. I did learn a couple fun facts from the presentation, however: first of all, there’s no way a body could be buried in the dam, because of how they poured the concrete (although I choose to adhere to the theory that the mob can do anything it wants, and if it wants a body in the dam, it gets a body in the dam); second, Las Vegas gets none of its power from the Hoover Dam. So there. Some learnin’.
After they herded us cattle out of the presentation corral, I busted out of line and ran up the stairs to the observation deck. Some security guards peered at me suspiciously, but didn’t seem to have the ambition to taser me, so I got to take my photos in peace. After that, I made my way to the gift shop, the most important part of any stupid tourist attraction. I got my dam souvenirs* and was back on my way.
*I’m sorry, dam jokes make my mom laugh every single time I tell them, so I feel obligated.
Also, you may wonder at my bitterness over the Hoover Dam. I don’t know, I guess I’m not that much for public works. I didn’t like having to spend so much time and money to see something that’s basically a punchline.
I got in my car and drove across the dam into Arizona, because I wasn’t positive that I’d be driving through there on the way back, and I’d be mightily pissed if I missed a western state on my road trip. I was there long enough to make a u-turn and go back. I liked that there were clocks on either side of the dam telling us what time it was in the respective states, since Arizona has some sort of conscientious objection to daylight savings. Troublemakers.
I pointed Chico back towards Vegas and marveled at the double layer of haze over the city. There was the normal, white haziness from the heat, and below that, a thick layer of brown smog. Nice. I drove around to the north end of town and exited at Las Vegas Boulevard, so I could drive through downtown. It was all tattoo parlors, bail bonds, and wedding chapels (‘Your wedding broadcast live over the internet FREE!’). The crappy little motels had the best signs I’d ever seen, way better than anything the strip had to offer. I parked at the Stratosphere, and went in and bought a ticket for the tower. I wanted to see Las Vegas from above.
The view was impressive – not as hazy as the pictures seem – but it was painfully hot. I could only stand it for ten minutes, then went inside and down a level to the indoor observation deck. I sat and wrote for a while, then went back downstairs to the casino. The girl running the elevator told me how much it sucked to be a teenager in Las Vegas, because of the strictly-enforced 9pm curfew. She only had 2 months to go to 18, though. Then she could get to topless dancing or waitressing or prostituting or whatever it is that 18-year-old girls do for work in Vegas. I wouldn’t know, but I wished her the best anyway.
I walked from one end of the casino to the other twice. I stopped at the deli and asked about the veggie sandwich. It was cheese with whatever vegetables I wanted, as long as my selection was limited to lettuce, tomato, or onion. I couldn’t get a salad without meat because they were all pre-made. As I pondered the anemic-looking fruit salad, the woman behind the counter pointed out the veggie sandwich again and said, “Well, that’s how we do it when they want it vegetarian!” She seemed angry. I left and headed back to Roxy’s Diner, the 50s-style restaurant, because they at least had grilled cheese. I was so frustrated I wanted to cry (the combination of impatience and low blood sugar is such a bad state for me). I explained my issue to the server, and she said, “Awww, honey. Let me hook you up!” She went back to the kitchen and had them construct a very impressive grilled vegetable sandwich for me. And I loved her for it.
After lunch, I went back to my car and drove down the Strip. I saw a couple drops of water on my windshield and thought it was from a sprayer at a casino. Then I realized it was raining. 110 degrees in the middle of the desert, and it was raining. Also, it was the first time I’d really encountered any adverse weather on my entire trip. I’m lucky that way.
I found my destination about a mile from the strip on Tropicana, near the airport. As I got out of my car, I realized that the rain was doing nothing to affect the heat, it was just making it humid. The drops were drying as quickly as they hit the ground; I was surprised they weren’t hissing. The backs of my pants legs were soaked again, and I got instant chills the second I walked into the Liberace Museum.
The enthusiastic old lady in the black-sequined vest gave me a long speech about my tour options. I decided to forego the audio tour, even though it was a mere $3 extra to hear Liberace speak to me. You see, I’m the high-impact tourist. I try to see as much as possible in as little time. Tours slow me down, informational signs are a distraction. I could be halfway to Salt Lake City and Liberace would still be talking to me. So no audio tour.
The Liberace Museum was kind of great. No, really great. The first building housed his pianos and cars. The cars were incredible. Now, I was lucky enough to have experienced the platinum tour of Graceland, and I can say with absolute authority that The King’s cars had nothing on Liberace’s. They were all either covered à la mirror ball, or decked out in rhinestones. One was red, white, and blue. They were fabulous, and they must have had some kind of souped-up suspension to handle the weight of all that glitz.
[This space reserved for the photos I’d have taken if they’d have let me. You’ll just have to visit, I guess.]
The geriatric crew and I meandered through the museum, then exited and followed the Liberace Walk of Fame through the Liberace Strip Mall (gay bar, produce market, Asian grocery, and spaces for rent), to the other end of the Liberace Complex and the rest of the museum. I wasn’t sure why the place was divided in half, but maybe they just didn’t realize how much Liberace they had to show off. I went into the second museum without even having to show my Liberace Hand Stamp, which cleverly concealed my Mt. Rainier bruise. This part of the museum was a roomful of his famous outfits. Yet again, Liberace put Elvis to shame. They were so great. My favorite was the patriotic hotpants ensemble. Also, I saw the world’s largest, purest rhinestone, donated by Swarovski (it’s the store that glows blue at the Mall of America, FYI) especially for the Liberace Museum. It did them proud.
The Liberace Gift Shop didn’t disappoint, either. I bought myself an awesome book about 50s Vegas, and talked to the lady at the counter for almost 20 minutes about the museum and its similarities to Graceland. She hadn’t been, but she wished that the Elvis folks would be as philanthropic as the Liberace Trust, which donates some millions of dollars a year to charity. (Sorry, Heather, I know you love Fat Elvis, but Liberace had a fat stage, too. Give him a chance.)
I called Heather on my way back towards the strip and complained about my food situation. She looked up the address of a vegetarian restaurant that turned out to be a grocery, but that was fine. I was happy. I bought some snacks for the car and protein bars, and chatted with the guy behind the register about the crappy casino dining options. He agreed that it was bad, and asked where I was from. He said that the woman who owns the French Meadow Bakery in Minneapolis (one of my current favorite restaurants) stops in every time she’s in Vegas. Awesome.
I got back to my room at 2:30 and passed out on the bed. I was awakened at 3:30 by a phone call about a job. I looked at my AAA guides for Utah and Colorado, and couldn’t get excited about anything. I wrote in my journal: i think i’m done.
The storm was in full swing at that point, so I sat in the window in tshirt and underwear and watched, waiting for it to let up enough for me to go out again. The wind had picked up, and it was a full-fledged dust storm for about fifteen minutes. I watched dirt-and-trash tornadoes spiraling around the parking lot. It started raining hard. I saw a big metal garbage can (minus the contortionist, thankfully) blow over and slam against a beater car. My car was so far unscathed, but I was keeping an eye on it. I was happy that the humidity dust was getting washed off.
After it stopped raining, I got dressed and headed to Circus Circus. I went up and watched some of the performance. It was kind of a cool setup, and I liked that they put on the show for free, considering some of the crap that people paid to see in that town. I walked around the shops and checked the restaurants, as usual. The one place that looked promising was closed; I was mistaken in my assumption that everything in Vegas was open 24 hours a day. I walked back to the Stardust, and found a long line outside the one cafe I had chosen the night before. Sigh. I waited anyway, and it only took about 10 minutes. They got me in fast because I was willing to sit in the smoking section. I mean, the entire city is like one big smoking section. So why not?
The people behind me in line were from West Virginia. I knew this not because we were chatting, but because they were those kind of people. Questions/statements I overheard, many of them repeated multiple times:
– It’s 7 here, right? Or is that the time in West Virginia?
– Is this the place with the steak and lobster? I don’t want the steak and lobster.
– Is this place open?
– Is this the buffet?
– I don’t want steak and lobster. I would eat it, though.
– That girl is all lit up! Look at that! (Referring to the girl in the lobby selling flashing stuff with LED lights, à la vintage cigarette girl)
– That girl couldn’t go to school like that, though! They’d send her home for distracting other kids. (The ‘girl’ looks to be about 40. Yes, the flashing lights are distracting. Not to mention the mini-tux and fishnets.)
– If I have to eat that steak, it better be done.
I hated them.
The menu was huge. Sandwiches, entrees, a page of Chinese food, appetizers, all-day breakfast. About four viable options for me, none of them great. I decided on nachos and fruit. I rule.
– – – – –
random notes from my travel journal:
casinos at 7am are only slightly less depressing than casinos that are empty at 11pm.
i have suspicions about the bureau of land management. is their only job to sneak onto indian reservations in the middle of the night and steal the land back bit by bit?
i know i’ve said it before, but being vegetarian in las vegas is a fucking nightmare. i was better off in montana.
i got sammich juice all over my face and hands. i am classy to the end.
this is the kind of place where the servers walk around singing 50s tunes. don’t make eye contact. also, it seems to be the seat of some casino rockabilly scene. jay would hate it here.
seeing this weather here is kind of great. i know it’s a pretty rare thing.
even ‘home’ is a disorienting concept at this point. it’ll be weird to not be alone all the time. i wonder if that will feel funny. more disorientation. cool.
i’m starting to suspect that meat is some kind of religion out here.
on the way home, i’ll stop and see some sights if i feel like it, but right now, i don’t feel like it. the grand canyon doesn’t seem like such a big deal at the moment. i’ve had an overdose of natural beauty. and too many crazy cities and crazier people. so awesome, but enough to last me for a while. i kind of want to get back to my routine. it’s funny when you start craving doing dishes and laundry, right?
i feel like i’m calling home too often just for human contact. like i told heather today, i have to remind myself that there are people somewhere who care about me. also, heather is the siegfried to my roy. ha.
i think these nachos have velveeta on them. for christ’s sake.
i hurt all over. the hips aren’t great. my feet are shot, i think. they have blisters and sore spots all over them. i’m surprised it took this long, actually. i’m going to blame the insane heat for that.
i hate when i get cheese on my notebook. how am i going to live without this thing? it’s comforting to me. plus it’s my dining companion. i’ll have the fruit salad, my journal will have the nachos. extra velveeta, please.
you can play keno at the tables here. why, god, why don’t i know how to play keno?
i have to stop hunching my shoulders. i need a massage. i really just want to be in bed with someone. anyone. ha.
– – – – –
I left Vegas at 7am, iced coffee in hand. As I drove out, I noticed that the trip odometer was at exactly 5000 miles. It was in the 80s and the change was a huge relief. By the time I reached Mesquite, I had to pee. I drove by a billboard with the magic symbol on it: Starbucks. So, yes, I stopped at the Casablanca Casino to use the bathroom and get coffee. You do what you have to do.
The landscape the whole way was incredible. It was all desert scrub and mountains with red and white rock, studies in plate tectonics (see, I learned something in school). The Virgin River Gorge was beautiful, so I didn’t even mind more steep, winding grade and the 55mph speed limit. I crossed into Arizona and cursed losing an hour. I hit I-70 and was excited by the sign reading ‘Richfield’; I wanted that to mean Richfield, Minnesota, where I live. I stopped a few times to go to the bathroom. Then I stopped in Richfield to try and find coffee, but couldn’t. I was zoning out again, eating sunflower seeds to stay awake, and taking off my sunglasses so the glare would keep me alert. When I saw a sign telling me there was going to be a big stretch of nothing for 110 miles, I took that as my cue to stop.
The town I pulled off at had a couple trucker bars and a Denny’s. Beyond caring, I chose Denny’s. I got out of the car, shaking, with the cold sweats. I staggered in, got a table, and almost cried with relief when I saw that they had a gardenburger. I ordered coffee and sat and wrote. I sat there for a long time after I finished eating, too, because I was afraid I’d stand up again and realize that I was still in bad shape, and wouldn’t be able to drive. But, no, when I got up, I was fine, and I had confirmed that my problem was definitely low blood sugar. I vowed to be more careful about that in the future.
I got back on the road and make the 110-mile drive through the middle of nowhere easily. Utah is beautiful, and the landscape is really diverse. Anywhere else, it would all be national park, but there’s just so much of it, they probably couldn’t do that to the entire state. Although maybe the Mormons could get in on some of that action and convert all the visitors. It’s a win-win, really.
I crossed the Colorado border and the scenery continued. It was somewhere close to a million degrees outside, and I was dying. My pants were soaking wet again, so I devised a method in which to dry them: I cranked up the air and aimed all the blowers down towards my seat. I braced my knees against the dashboard and pushed back against the seat, to lift my ass up and allow for air circulation underneath it. Thanks to my thighs of steel, I could hold that position for miles, and it worked.
I stopped in Grand Junction to get coffee. Heather told me that both Safeway and Albertson’s had Starbucks, so I was on the lookout. I got gas, and asked the woman at the next pump where I could find one of those stores. She was really nice, gave me directions, and said her mom was born in Minnesota. I found Albertson’s, walked in, and asked the odd-looking bagboy where the restrooms were. I bought pop and fruit. At the checkout, the bagboy (who was one of a matched set, prompting the mental debate: twins or clones? Clones.) asked if I had found the bathroom OK. Ha! I went over to the Starbucks counter, and the kid there was super-nice, too, if painfully dumb. It took him three minutes to enter my order in the computer, and he kept apologizing over and over. I asked him if he knew how to get back to I-70 from there. He said no, he had just moved there recently, and he honestly didn’t even know what I-70 was. I laughed and said, “It’s the huge highway that goes to Denver!” Another guy showed up, and I asked him. He gave me really elaborate, detailed directions, even though the answer was essentially, “Drive down this road and you’ll run into it.” I was a little weirded out when I realized that everyone I had encountered in that town was really, really nice. I had to get out quick.
Before reaching the Rockies, I crossed the Colorado River. There’s this area where the interstate runs through a gigantic gorge alongside the river, and I was almost positive it was running uphill most of the way. Anyway, this section of road is a marvel of modern engineering, and I’m not even joking about that. It actually looks like it belongs there, rather than having been carved out with a lot of destruction. There are two lanes going either direction, and they’re often at different levels, one above the other. There are perfect, smooth curves, so you can set the cruise and go. There are walking and bike paths down along the river. There are cool tunnels. And the scenery is great. Also, these were the very important things I thought about while driving insane distances alone.
I saw Vail and all those big ski areas I’m sure someone cares about. I was surprised to see hardly any snow in the Rockies, considering there were elevations over 10,000 feet, whereas I had hiked in snow in Glacier at only 7000 feet. As I got into the mountains, it started raining a little, and the temperature dropped from 105 to 60. I finally got to turn off the air conditioning. I went through the Eisenhower Tunnel, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Going down the east side of the Rockies, there are a million signs for truckers, warning them about the grade, and they get funnier as you go: “Truckers, don’t be fooled! Steep downward grades ahead! Check brakes!” and “Truckers, you’re not down yet! Are your brakes cool?”
I got into Denver around 8:30. 5,700 miles. I wanted to stop for dinner, but the switch to I-76 skirted town, which was actually kind of nice. I decided to keep going to whatever exit had something promising. That ended up being around 9pm, when I saw a sign that listed a few chain restaurants and Starbucks. I pulled into Starbucks, afraid it would be closed after dinner. I went to the bathroom, and as I went up to the counter, the guy had the cash drawers out, and the woman was washing dishes. I asked him, “Are you closed?” He looked at me like I was stupid, said, “We close at 10,” and walked away. I stood there, stunned. Was it 10pm? Was I in mountain or central time? I had no idea. I asked the woman, “Are you closed? I don’t even know what time zone this is.” I must have seemed really flustered, because she looked concerned. She said no, they were open. I told her what the guy had said. I was exhausted and confused, and she probably thought I was really pissed. She very slowly and deliberately made me coffee, then put it on the counter next to my Starbucks card. I slid the card towards her, and she just looked at me and said, “Have a good night.” I told her she was very nice, and thanked her for the coffee.
I had dinner at Applebee’s, the only sit-down place in town. The food sucked, but it was food. The server sat at my table for a long time and talked about being vegetarian. She was great. In fact, everyone in Colorado was really friendly. I couldn’t figure out whether that should scare me or not.
I got back on the road, hoping to get a couple more hours of driving in. The farther I could make it, the fewer miles I’d have to drive to reach home the next day. Since I was once again in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal, I stopped at a gas station to call Heather on the payphone. While I was standing there talking, bugs were swarming around me. I had to keep stamping my feet to knock off the beetles that were climbing on my shoes.
By 11:30, I couldn’t drive anymore. About 20 minutes outside of Sterling, I saw a mouse run across the highway, and had a bizarre flashback: the last time we were driving through that area about 3 in the morning, while I was dozing in the passenger seat, Heather told me she was seeing mice running across the highway. Then she saw mice flying across the highway. Then we blew a tire. I decided to stop. So I exited and pulled into the first motel I saw, which happened to be the Travelodge. I parked in front of my room, went in, and did the first thing I usually do, strip the bed. I flipped over the pillow, and there was a big black beetle sitting happily underneath. I froze. Now, I have bug paranoia, so that wasn’t great. Our first apartment had roaches, and I will never, ever get over the emotional scars. I was pretty sure this wasn’t a roach, but my head wanted me to believe it was. It was probably one of the million beetle-y bugs from outside. Still, it was big, and it was just sitting there looking at me. I got some kleenex and tried to kill it, but it ran away. I chased it, yelling, “No no no no no!” It disappeared under the bed.
I unmade the other bed and checked all over for bugs. Then I went to get ready for a shower. While I was undressing, another smaller bug ran across the floor. I smashed it with my shoe. In the bathroom, I discovered another black beetle writhing around on its back behind the door. Sufficiently grossed out, I took a shower but didn’t wash my hair – I didn’t want to stick around long enough in the morning to redo it.
I brushed my teeth and re-checked the second bed. I left the bathroom light on because I was freaked, and wanted to be able to see the bugs before they got to me. I laid there for about 20 minutes, having visions of beetles crawling in my bed, in my shoes, into my bag. Also, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t roaches. I thought about going out to sleep in my car, but then was pissed that I would have to pay for the room. So I got dressed, grabbed my stuff, threw my sleeping bag, pillow, and blankets in the back seat of the car, and went back to the office.
There was another woman at the front desk, checking in. I said, “I can’t stay here, there are bugs all over my room.” The woman signing in stopped writing and stared for a minute, thought about it, and went back to writing. The front desk woman said, “Do you want to try a room upstairs?” I said no, I was just going to go. She printed up my refund and handed it to me without a word.
I thought about trying a different motel, but my other option was the Super 8, and I didn’t hold out much hope for that, either. I already had the creeps. Plus it was 1am and I had showered and brushed my teeth, so why pay $50 for a bed? I decided to drive on to the rest area, which I knew was within 50 miles.
I got back on the interstate, set the cruise at 80, and blasted music. I passed a town every 10 miles. It was pitch black, and reminded me of driving late at night in Montana. I kept the brights on even with oncoming traffic, because I was scared of hitting something. But I did anyway – one of those huge strips of semi tire laying on its side in the middle of the road. I didn’t even see it. It slammed loudly against the bottom of my car, and I thought I was going to be sick. I was sure I would at least have a flat tire. I shut off the stereo and listened, and everything seemed fine. No bumping, no weird noises, no alarms. After ten minutes, I reassured myself that the car was OK.
20 miles later, I found the rest area, right on the Colorado-Nebraska border. There were about ten cars and campers already parked there. I settled in and was comfortable, starting to doze off right away. I closed the screen on the sunroof to block the light and the sound of the rain that was just starting. I woke up a little later, cramped and drenched in sweat. I spent the next few hours flopping around, having delirious dreams. I was in California. I was in Las Vegas. I was sleeping in the desert. I’d wake up confused, remind myself where I was, and go back to the dreams again. At 5am, I had had enough; I probably got an hour of sleep. It was getting light, and the wind was blowing really, really hard. I sat up and saw tons of lightning to the southwest, heading my direction. That decided it; I was getting out of there. I ran to the bathroom, fixed my hair, and got back on the road.
– – – – –
random notes from my travel journal:
it’s 500 miles to denver, through mountains and nothing. i want to cry.
you know you’re tired when you’re thinking picking up a hitchhiker might be a good idea, so you can share driving.
why do all old ladies have the same hairstyle?
i just heard ‘never surrender’ by corey hart. wow.
i so want to be a trucker. i really, really want to make use of the runaway truck ramp, too.
‘no name, colorado.’ joke towns. ha.
– – – – –
I crossed into Nebraska, drank a Red Bull, ate a banana, and felt mostly awake. I got ahead of the huge storm, and make it to Kearney, where I stopped for breakfast. Perkins! I knew they would have oatmeal for me, and I was not disappointed. I found my way to the drive-thru espresso hut and was back on the road. In Kearney, there’s this giant memorial arch over the highway. When we drove past it in the middle of the night, it freaked me out because it was this big lit-up thing in the middle of nowhere. During the day, it wasn’t so menacing.
I was tired, but keeping myself awake with loud music. The one thing Nebraska has to offer is straight roads, so you can pretty much go 90 on autopilot. I saw a sign informing me that the road I was driving on was made of 47,000 recycled tires. Yep.
I realized along I-80 that I was in the smallest vehicle I had seen for miles. It’s the largest trucking route in the country, and although I am a trucker, I drive a very small rig. I hit ridiculous road construction from Lincoln to the Iowa side of Omaha (Nebraska thinks they’re smart by grouping all their big cities together in one place). I was a little more awake in Iowa and decided to shoot for Des Moines for lunch.
I had to stop at rest stops a few times to stretch, but managed to make it. I had a veggie burger for lunch, then stopped for what was to be my very last Starbucks visit. I drove out of Des Moines, and almost cried when I saw the signs pointing towards Minneapolis. I knew the last 250 miles were going to be the worst part of the entire trip.
I had trouble staying awake almost as soon as I got out of the city (um, ‘city’ in quotes – it’s Des Moines, Iowa, after all). I drank my coffee, then a pop. I ate sunflower seeds one at a time. I turned the music up as loud as I could stand it. I slapped myself on the thighs, hard. None of it was working. I pulled off at the exit with the gas station with the peephole in the ladies’ room (I think it’s the Kum & Go, and I’m not joking), but went to a different gas station instead. I bought three cans of Red Bull, more sunflower seeds, and pretzels. I was desperate.
Somehow, I made it to the Minnesota border. I was miserable, worried about falling asleep behind the wheel. I was making terrible time, because I kept having to stop. At almost every rest area, I’d pull off, go to the bathroom, and run around to try to wake up. It would keep me alert for 10 or 15 minutes, then I’d be groggy again. Finally, about 60 miles south of the Twin Cities, I called Heather. I begged her to keep me awake. We were both freaking out that I was that close. She kept talking, and I kept driving. I rattled off the landmarks I passed along the way. I didn’t hang up until I was a block away, and I could see her standing at the end of our driveway.
– – – – –
random notes from my travel journal:
my cd player tends to overheat after much use and doesn’t want to play cds, especially burned ones. i put one in, it thinks for 30 seconds, then spits it back out. only it’s super hot. it’s my cd toaster.
animals i have seen on this trip: goats (mountain and billy). prairie dogs. buffalo. a giant gopher. seals. birds: eagles, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, etc. otter. the usual barnyard fare. crabs being pulled from the ocean and thrown back. porcupine. a donkey painted like a zebra. llamas. kittens in a box in san juan bautista. a green parakeet in tijuana. supercolossal, possibly prehistoric bugs. fratboys in vegas.
animals i have not seen on this trip: giant squid. yak.
The last entry in my travel journal reads:
i think i lead a charmed life. i’m really glad i had this trip. it was beyond amazing. wow, it’s time to go home. and this is the last page.
– – – – –
Saturday afternoon, the day before my 30th birthday, Heather and I dragged our sleep-deprived asses to the airport and got on a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina.
No, come back! It gets better, I swear.
Our already late-night flight was delayed due to weather, so we spent four hours in Charlotte, which was exactly four more hours than we wanted to be there. I whined and fidgeted and complained until Heather told me to go away so she could read. I can say with assurance that I have seen every square inch of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, from the cigar-store Indian with giant man-breasts to the Stock Car Cafe, and every women’s room and Starbucks in between. It’s not as big an achievement as it sounds.
Finally, our plane arrived and dumped its load of crotchety old people on their way back from Vegas into the airport, many of whom got back on the flight to Miami. I spent the next two hours hearing every single detail of one such woman’s worst vacation ever. Because it was my birthday, I decided to forgo smacking her, but I’ll admit that I did consider it once or twice.
We got to Miami at 2:15am, and Alex was there waiting at the gate. He drove us to the hotel, then showed us around South Beach, which was mobbed even in the middle of the night. I ate black beans and rice and fried plantains at a little Cuban restaurant at 4am, and laughed my ass off at the old waiter, who had it out for Heather. Alex introduced me to Cuban coffee (the cortadito in particular), which was probably a huge mistake on his part, as I’ve been jonesing for it ever since. After dinner, we went to the beach, because my plan was to watch the sun rise over the ocean. I wanted my own perfect 30th birthday moment. And that’s exactly what I got.
We walked back to the hotel. Alex, who had finished a 12-hour shift at 8pm that day, headed directly to work for another 12-hour shift. Heather and I went upstairs and slept for two hours, then headed to brunch. I ate the best gardenburger in the universe. Or half of it. The thing about Miami is, it’s hot. No, you don’t understand: it’s so fucking hot. And humid. You go outside and your clothes are immediately damp, and they never, ever dry as long as you stay outdoors. So you go inside, thinking you can dry off and cool down, but that’s a huge mistake. Everyone has the air conditioning on full-blast all the time, so the second you walk in, you become cold and clammy, and every passage between inside and out is a brush with pneumonia and your potential death. So, anyway. The other thing about the heat? You don’t want to eat. You want to drink iced coffee and sugar-free smoothies all day. Or maybe that’s just me.
The other thing about Miami, or South Beach in particular, is that everyone is beautiful. Even the ugly people. The women wear outfits so insubstantial they’re pointless. Everyone is in perfect shape, only you get the feeling it has nothing to do with being healthy, just looking good. So when you’re a pasty white Minnesotan wearing wrinkly, perpetually-damp clothing and running shoes on the high-fashion streets of South Beach, you might as well be something that escaped from the zoo.
After eating and wandering and gawking and shopping, I did the next logical thing: I got a tattoo.
I don’t know, it just seems like the right thing to do when you’re newly 30, recently liberated from regular employment, and on a 36-hour last-minute trip to a place with palm trees. Here’s the result:
With my arm wrapped fashionably in blue saran wrap and masking tape, we headed up to Lincoln Road, home of no less than one billion good restaurants and some really incredible people-watching at outdoor tables.
We had a late lunch, or half of lunch. By 4pm, the heat and humidity had reached levels previously unknown to Midwesterners. As I stood up from the table, I discovered that my entire right pants leg was wet from sitting with my legs crossed. We walked back to the hotel to rest and dry off. Heather decided to take a nap, but I was too deep in lack-of-sleep (at that point, I had slept 7 hours in the past 72) and caffeine consumption to even be able to sit down. I let my clothes dry for ten minutes, then put them back on, starting to regret my decision to only wear one outfit all weekend, because the only thing worse than hot, damp, clingy clothes is cold, damp, clingy clothes.
I walked over to check out the beach during the daytime, got more iced coffee, and headed up Ocean Drive. It had started to rain, but it’s not like it made any difference in the humidity. I wandered through dinner crowds at even more nice restaurants, watched girls dancing on tables in a club, managed to limit myself to just looking in the cute shops, stood and pondered the Versace mansion, and walked. And here’s observation #3 about Miami: people don’t walk there. They stroll. They amble. They sometimes even sashay. But they don’t walk. That, coupled with narrow, crowded sidewalks, is enough to drive a girl who’s always in a rush absolutely crazy.
I went back to the hotel in time for Alex’s return. He had come over directly from work, not having slept in almost two days. He took us to dinner at a place in Coconut Grove, where we shared a bunch of food and laughed like idiots. Afterwards, he drove us back to South Beach and dropped us off at the hotel, where it was finally time to sleep.
Monday morning, I was awakened at 6am by Heather banging on the phone, trying to get it to stop ringing for our wakeup call. I finally gave in and put on a different shirt. We packed up, checked out, and got a taxi to the airport. I was a little disappointed that we were flying something as bland as US Air, considering the many colorful alternatives offered in Miami, most of which I never knew existed, stuff like ‘Jamaica, Mon’, ‘¡Airplanes Ole!’, ‘Air Ahoy’. We stopped for coffee:
Me: Do you have a coffee menu?
Impatient Snack Bar Lady: American coffee.
Me: Can I get a cappuccino?
Me: Ok, I’ll have a skim latte.
ISBL (to ISBL 2): Café con leche.
At this point, my brain slowly ground to a realization: they had Cuban coffee, too. And to switch my order at that point would undoubtedly have caused an early-morning airport snack bar disruption of monumental proportions. I accepted my un-skim latte and skulked off to the gate. We sat, I wandered, we sat some more. We got on the plane and sat. We got off the plane in Charlotte, and had lunch in the crappy, smoky ‘Cheers’-themed bar, because, unbelievably, all the other restaurant options were worse.
On the flight back to Minneapolis, I was irritated by every single person in the surrounding seats. This was mostly due to the exposed-nerve sensation caused by sleep deprivation, having to watch the US Airways videos for the fourth time in 36 hours, and the fact that the stale air dried my contacts, making me feel bug-eyed and fuzzy. The couple in the seats in front of us were eating a homemade lunch, pausing to make out every five minutes. The flight attendants (sporting festive-looking patriotic pocket bunting) were rolling the beverage cart up and down the aisle, bumping violently into the seats. Heather and I watched the first-class passengers delving into their cornucopia of gourmet snacks, then sadly accepted our dusty Snyder’s of Hanover Snaps (fat free for extra dryness!) and cups of ice.
The old women across the aisle were a portrait of courage in the face of adversity, the kind of people whose every daily activity is a struggle against their natural ineptitude. Dorothy #1 rushed on the plane in a huff right before takeoff, loudly announcing, ‘Don’t ever, ever buy e-tickets!’ As for Dorothy #2, we were over Ohio by the time she managed to buckle her seatbelt. She surrendered her Snyder’s of Hanover Snaps (fat free!) to Dorothy #1, preferring to feast on fistfuls of pills from a giant plastic organizer instead, which I had no doubt she would still be struggling with when we landed in Minneapolis.
We decided that the pilot was the same guy who flew us from Miami, since he had the same taxi-ing style: speeding around the tarmac, taking corners so fast I was surprised the wingtips weren’t touching the ground. His landings were the only time I’ve ever experienced airplane whiplash; we bounced and nearly screeched to a halt, as if the runway was only 50 feet long. He flew over the heartland of America, executing 90 degree turns and near-barrel rolls. I wasn’t sure why, but I figured it was to give us all a really good view of the cornfields we’d soon be plummeting into. Thankfully, for my 30th birthday, death decided to pass me by. Just this once.
Jay, Heather, and I decided to see what the deal was with the deep south, anyway. We definitely learned. Here’s the the map for the entire route.
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
This trip began unofficially Thursday night when Jay stepped off a plane from San Francisco. The weather had been beautiful for two weeks, but winter decided to make an appearance again especially for him. We spent Friday exploring the sights of Minneapolis, which, excluding the Mall of America, took about an hour total.
I enjoyed getting to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do as a normal resident of the Twin Cities, such as driving through Frogtown, shopping at the Mexican cowboy store, and riding the rollercoaster at the mall. And why haven’t we been to Cafe Brenda before? It was great.
We were on the road at 7:30, ready to conquer the 900-mile drive to Nashville. If the scenery in Wisconsin is less than inspiring, Illinois is ten times worse, alternating regularly between vast expanses of nothing and vast expanses of nothing with snow.
Things were looking bleak until we stopped in Metropolis. We paid homage to Superman, had dinner, and stopped at BP just long enough to get gas, determine that southern Illinois is in actuality part of Kentucky, and play ‘take-a-tract, leave-a-tract‘ in the religious flyer box at the front.
Revived and back on the road, we officially arrived in the (New) South. Heather celebrated by taking a nap in the back seat, while Jay and I convinced ourselves that, hell yes, we can make that 1300-mile drive back home from New Orleans all in one day. We’re idiots.
We dropped Jay off at his friend’s house, and headed to our hotel, which was within sight of both a Waffle House and a Cracker Barrel. Surrounded by down-home cookin’ in the country music capitol of the universe, Nashville, Tennessee. Perfect.
If you are one of those self-righteous northerners who doesn’t think the South rocks, you suck. Because you are so wrong.
We started the day at Bongo Java, the coffeehouse that was blessed a few years back with the Nun Bun, a cinnamon roll that looks miraculously like the Mother Theresa. It’s displayed proudly at their front counter.
The coffee was awesome. The guy making it was awesome. The group meditation on the third floor was pretty awesome, too. I bought the first of many t-shirts, and we hung out, leaving many tracts behind.
We saw the Parthenon, then went into downtown Nashville to ‘the District’. It’s teeming with BBQ restaurants, country bars, and tacky souvenir shops. I demanded we begin our tour here:
Words cannot describe the glory that is the Charlie Daniels museum, so you’ll have to go see it yourself. I left with not one but two copies of the Dukes of Hazzard 1982 18-Month Action Calendar. Score!!
We shopped for western wear and dumb postcards, then went to the Wildhorse Saloon for lunch. It was there that I had my first initiation into being a Southerner: I learned to line-dance. Not just any line-dance, either, the ‘Oh Baby’. Don’t pretend you’re not jealous.
After I stopped laughing long enough to be able to drive, we headed over to Katy K’s Ranch Dressing. This was probably the hardest part of the trip for me, as Katy was selling pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted to buy. It was so very hard to choose between the coolest country getups in the world and having to declare personal bankruptcy. I walked out with a cowgirl shirt and black cat sneakers, along with a ton of souvenirs for the people unfortunate enough to not be on the roadtrip with us. She was out of the black leather creepers with red mudflap girls embroidered on the tops, but she’ll email when they’re back in stock. Whew. Katy gave us the name of a good restaurant for lunch; we gave her a road trip tract.
In the evening, we went to Jay’s friend Erin’s for awesome vegan food. We hung out, ate a lot, then headed back to the hotel in the country wonderland. I admit that maybe I had a little trouble sleeping, knowing that the next day would be our trip to the Jack Daniels Distillery, and my fateful meeting with Goose.
We arrived in Lynchburg, Tennessee at 10am for a date with destiny. The place was the Jack Daniels’ Distillery, and Randy ‘Goose’ Baxter was to be our guide. We’ve only been talking about him for more than six months, so there were a lot of expectations to be fulfilled. I’m happy to report that Goose met and exceeded them all.
Post-distillery, we raced back to Nashville for lunch, then got on the road to Memphis. It’s a 200-mile drive, but the lack of tacky roadside scenery, and the fact that we had driven 75 miles to Lynchburg and back, made it seem like a lot more. Luckily, Jay isn’t afraid to share his opinion about Tennessee drivers (“What would Jesus do? He’d signal!!”), and this kept us amused along the way.
We checked into the Heartbreak Hotel, right next door to Graceland. The hotel wasn’t too different than any other, except that it featured photos of Elvis over the beds, in place of the usual pastel garden scenes. We headed downtown to Beale Street, and Elvis’ very own restaurant. Lest Jay try to deny it later, here is photodocumentary evidence that he did, in fact, eat a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich:
Memphis is a little unclear on the tourism thing, though. Beale Street was almost completely deserted by 10pm. The stores were closed, and the bars featured live blues and jazz bands playing to empty rooms. It was kind of depressing. We headed back to the hotel bar, the Jungle Room, and hung out until scared away by the crazy locals.
Stay tuned. ‘Scared away by crazy locals’ may be a theme here.
Day four of the roadtrip began with Jay running (healthy) while Heather and I circled Memphis in search of espresso (unhealthy). No one should be that happy to find a Starbucks, but there it is. We were thrilled.
We walked next door to Graceland and bought tickets for the Platinum Tour, which entitled us to see not only the estate, but also Elvis’ cars and airplanes and some other rooms full of tacky bedazzled crap (as if Graceland itself didn’t have enough of that already). I mean, so much Elvis we wanted to puke (except for Heather, who couldn’t get enough). Graceland sort of reminded me of the House on the Rock, only about ten times bigger. And it’s by no means palatial, it’s basically just your average larger suburban home with its own graveyard. Not only that, it’s in a shitty neighborhood full of pawn shops and those places that cash your paycheck in advance. What does that say about Elvis’ effect on property values? I don’t want to think about it.
Right before reached the gravesite, our audio tour herded us into a large room where all the glory that is/was Elvis culminated. The walls were covered in gold records, and mannequins sported the most glorious of his Liberace-esque jumpsuits. A huge monitor played his final concert, ‘Aloha from Hawaii’. At this point, I realized that I had already seen that concert no less than ten times since I had arrived in Memphis, not even 24 hours before. How was that possible? Everywhere we went, Fat Elvis was sweating and crooning at us in much-larger-than-lifesize. It was enough to give me nightmares.
Then we saw the gravesite. It’s not exactly proof that Elvis is dead, but it’s good enough for me.
We went to lunch, then to Sun Studios. The rockabilly hipsters running the place thought they were way too cool for the rest of us, so the lack of enthusiasm on the tour was kind of a drag. However, I did hold the microphone Elvis used, and I stood in a room where Johnny Cash once stood. Did you ever notice how un-Elvis the Man in Black is? It’s comforting in a way.
Funny thing is, there’s not that much to do in Memphis. As I already mentioned, Beale Street isn’t great. There’s only so much BBQ that a human being can consume, especially when you’re not that into BBQ. So we took the logical next step, which was to visit the world’s largest putt-putt. It was there that we met Jeff Manager.
That night around 10pm, while waiting for our food at Isaac Hayes’ restaurant (uh-huh, you know it) and watching old Prince videos on overhead monitors, Jay and Heather convinced me to go call Jeff Manager and ask him to find us a real bar in Memphis. So I did. Jeff said he’d meet us after work at 1am at this place called Metro, across the street from an abandoned Sears building. So, fine. We went back to the hotel for a while, at which point Jay decided to stay while we went out. Heather and I found the bar easily, tried to park safely away from the homeless people peeing on the Sears building, and went inside. The moment I stepped in the door, a big shirtless guy grabbed me and yelled, “dance with me!!” And that moment, Heather and I found ourselves at gay karaoke in Memphis.
We stayed until 3am, and had an awesome time. Jeff sang two songs, high-kicked, pranced, and did the splits while we sat with his friend and friend’s boyfriend and laughed and cheered him on. We heard stories of putt-putt drama and life in Memphis. I admit that I had a hometown moment singing along with Purple Rain. Afterwards, we drove back to the hotel and I climbed into bed while Heather showered. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Jay asking, “You’re not going to sleep in your clothes, are you?”
I woke up feeling the pain of too much time spent in the car, and way too much of Elvis’ home-cooked goodness. I wanted to get out and stretch, so I decided to go for a walk down Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was a beautiful day outside, and I was having a moment. I spent a lot of time lingering at the front gates of Graceland, reading the graffiti and peering over the wall at the distant gravesite, until Heather called and asked where the hell I was. They were packed and ready to go.
We went downtown and stopped at A. Schwab. It’s basically an ancient five-and-dime that happens to have a decent supply of voodoo essentials. We stocked up on oils, mojo bags, enchanted powders, bizarre candles, and my favorite, St. Jude room deodorizing spray. Then we headed over to the Peabody Hotel for a spectacle that was not to be missed: the Peabody Ducks.
The Peabody Ducks lead a charmed life. They inhabit a penthouse at a swanky hotel, and twice a day, the Duckmaster herds them into the elevator. They descend to the lobby and parade down a red carpet through throngs of starstruck, camera-wielding tourists to a set of mini duck-stairs, which they regally ascend in order to pile into the overdone Italian marble fountain. They swim laps, trying to avoid the grasp of the many children who would have just a moment of their glory. They swim. They swim some more. Presumably, at some point, the Duckmaster herds them back up to their mysterious castle in the sky, but we didn’t stick around long enough to see it. Even though they are the most glamorous ducks in the universe, they’re still just ducks. And they swim in a fountain.
After a lunch infested with yuppie businesspeople talking too loudly, we decided it was high time to get the hell out of Memphis. So we did the next logical thing: we headed to Mississippi. In case you haven’t been, here’s what it looks like:
Anyway, we drove all of 30 miles to Tunica, a city built entirely of casinos and casino-related properties. In the grand tradition of riverboat gambling, the only rule about the casinos is that they have to float. So they’re on these giant barges, which have pits excavated underneath. And they float.
On the way to Tunica, sandwiched between the bland anonymity of I-55 and the gaming wonderland on the river, we passed through the town of Hernando. Obviously untouched by the wealth of the casinos, it was a good reminder that poor in the Deep South and poor in the North are two unimaginably different things.
Grand Casino has a sprawling campus consisting of a floating casino done up in five different (supposedly distinct) styles, two large hotels, an arcade, a golf course, The Willows, and acres and acres of engineered ponds and dead grass. We splurged on the nicer of the two hotels, which set us back an alarming $50. I did the dance of joy upon discovering an espresso shop in the lobby. After about 15 minutes in the room, we decided it was time to go shoot things.
The Grand Casino website describes skeet-shooting at The Willows as ‘golf with a gun’. I don’t know why this made it such a draw, since I don’t like golf, but it suggests exactly the right amount of crazy to be appealing. So Jay and I hopped our own private shuttle, got ourselves some bigass shotguns and a ‘trapper’ named Ray, and went and shot stuff.
Jay beat me by a point, but I think I did pretty well. The first time out, I hit 7 out of 8, and Ray called me Annie Oakley. That’s good enough for me. Oh, and we learned we weren’t really skeet shooting, we were shooting sporting clays. Ray explained the difference. I didn’t understand, or maybe it was the earplugs. Ray also pointed out the tallest building in the entire state of Mississippi. It’s a 13-story casino hotel.
Now, study the picture on the right closely, and remember. That’s the exact moment that Jay Patrikios became a certified Gun Nut®. After that incident, at least 30% of our conversations surrounded why he thought he should own a gun (“to shoot stuff!”), why I thought he shouldn’t, with Heather playing devil’s advocate, as usual. It wasn’t pretty.
After shootin’ stuff, we took another shuttle to the casino and had dinner. Then we watched Jay play and explain blackjack long enough that I started to figure out what was going on, and timidly joined in the game. I had four $5 chips, which I figured would be gone within minutes, and I was dreading the inevitable ridicule from the other players at the table that would drive me from the casino in tears, with a crowd of people chasing and hurling rocks. Instead, I played for at least half an hour, asking him what to do with almost every single hand, and ended up almost doubling my money. Beginner’s luck. I liked it a lot. So much that I’ll be avoiding the casino in the future, or there’ll be trouble.
We left the casino early in the morning and began the long haul through the state of Mississippi. Not wanting to miss out, I had chosen the Great River Route along Highway 61. If we were visiting the Deep South, we were really going to experience it. And how often do you get back to Mississippi? Hopefully never.
We were visiting the sites listed in Road Trip USA, our travel bible. We were in Delta Blues country, but didn’t see much evidence of musical history, apart from the crossroads where Robert Johnson is supposed to have sold his soul to the devil. In Leland, the birthplace of Jim Henson, we found a Muppets museum.
In Onward, Mississippi, the book led us to a country store on the side of the road, which bills itself as the place where the teddy bear was born. We decided to stop in and take the obligatory photo. It ended up being a good introduction to rednecks and their deep, burning hostility towards northerners. I stepped into the store, watched the two hicks at the front table turn slowly to glare at Jay, and I thought, this is the part where they say, “Y’all ain’t from around here, is you?” as the first few notes of Dueling Banjos play in the background.
We got out of there quick.
That was just a precursor to Vicksburg, however. This pretty much sums up the town:
Vicksburg is home to one beautiful, surreal attraction, however. It’s called Margaret’s Grocery. The South is full of shrines and personal tributes to Jesus, but this one beats them all.
The book told me that the grocery was run by an old preacher and his wife, and that the preacher was known to come barreling out of the store to testify to unsuspecting passers-by just like us. Jay and Heather were unaware of this, so I was hoping that he would make a showing especially for them. I was meandering slowly around the yard, photographing everything and gaping in amazement, while Heather stood nearby, asking repeatedly if we had had our tetanus shots. I was gawking at a display featuring charts about Jesus’ life with hand-scribbled notes and broken mirrors, when I heard yelling. I thought, “Awesome, it’s the preacher.” And I was so wrong. Here’s a photo I took of the crazy hick as the car went peeling away down a rural highway:
There’s not much else to be said about Mississippi except that maybe they need to move past the whole ‘War of Northern Aggression’ thing, and they’ll all be a lot happier. I know that we were happier to leave the state that afternoon, although backwater Louisiana wasn’t much better. The drive through the bayou used to be one of the most beautiful in the country, and now it’s known as the chemical corridor. It’s great. We suffered through traffic in Baton Rouge, and were relieved to finally reach our hotel in New Orleans.
Well, maybe I was a little nervous about the hotel. During my last extended phone conversation with the proprietor, he had virtually assured me that I would be killed by rednecks in Mississippi. He went into graphic detail, something about being tied to a tree, raped, etc. I laughed, and he yelled, “Why are you laughing? That’s what those people do!” So, needless to say, I was feeling a little weird about running into this guy at the hotel. Luckily, he was occupied when we arrived.
Jay and I took a walk around the Garden District that night. It was beautiful. We discovered that we were around the corner from an old cemetery and the Real World House, and right on the trolley line on St. Charles Avenue. Perfect.
Friday morning, I got up and decided to walk down to Rite-Aid to buy a hairdrier, since the Castle Inn was unequipped. It was the perfect day outside, if a little too humid for someone coming from a state where it was still technically winter. I walked down St. Charles Avenue, smiling at the goofy tourists on the passing streetcars and gawking at the mansions built by people who thought slavery was a really good idea. On the way back, I bought fresh strawberries from an old Cajun man selling produce out of the back of his pickup truck. It was another perfect moment.
I took Heather over to see the Real World house. It’s kind of trashed. I’m not sure what happened there, but it must’ve been a good party. It’s undergoing renovations at the moment. The second picture is taken from the window at our hotel, the one where you see the creepy lit-up suit of armor at night.
While we were walking around, Heather pointed out that the trees along St. Charles are draped not only with spanish moss, but with Mardi Gras beads. Tons of them, hanging everywhere, and on the walkways, ground into the dirt. Also, on the big suit of armor in the doorway of our hotel.
There’s a lot to be said about our hotel, by the way. First of all, it’s supposed to be haunted. The night we arrived, they told us that some people had recently brought a Ouija board, and determined that one of the ghosts (there are five) is a kid named Emily. The ghosts mostly hang out in the Bordello Room, which was next door to our room on the third floor. We stayed in the Voodoo Room, at the end of a long, blood-red hallway with lighting that never worked. The room was all gothed out in a really tacky way. It was awesome.
We went around the corner to explore the cemetery. The above-ground tombs are pretty incredible. I later discovered that this cemetery was one of the most historic in New Orleans. It was kind of surreal seeing the Goodyear Blimp hovering overhead for the NCAA tournament, though.
We ate monstrous burritos for lunch, got back in the car, and headed to Alabama. Why? Ask Jay. Anyway, the Gulf Coast was way nicer than expected. We were dreading spending more time in Mississippi, but it actually had more to offer than casinos and rednecks: it had beaches.
I wanted to lay around longer, but my Minnesotan was showing, and I was turning pink. We drove through more tacky casino country, watched for alligators in the swamps, and bought boiled peanuts from an old woman on the side of the road. Mobile was, you know, a small city in Alabama, and that’s about it. We turned around and headed back to New Orleans.
I got up even earlier than usual on Saturday, got dressed, and wandered downstairs with the intention of going around the corner to hang out at the coffee shop until Heather and Jay were ready to go. However, it was raining, and after a long chat with one of the owners about her profound lack of interest in the resident spirits, I decided to lurk around the Castle Inn and have breakfast. I started poking around the buffet, which consisted of mostly prepackaged food in a less-than-appetizing presentation: sliced cinnamon and raisin bread next to an old toaster, crusty glazed donuts, packets of grits and cold cereal, pop-tarts removed from their wrappers and arranged on a plate, anemic-looking fruit. I was about to fill my coffee mug (which I had already designated as my ‘usual’ after two days: it’s the orange one with the pumpkin face on it, in case you’re ever visiting), when the man I had been trying to avoid came barrelling out of the kitchen to admonish me. Breakfast didn’t start until 8am.
Chastized by a crazy man, I went out to the sunporch and read a book that was titled something like “Ghost-hunting for Dummies”. Then I paged through a book about psychic phenomena that was published in the 50s, and found it highly informative in a this-is-a-giant-load-of-crap sort of way. I went into the office and checked my email, verifying that my company was indeed still in business even though I was out of town. Once it was safely past 8am, I went back for my coffee, and sat down on a couch in the main room, clutching my pumpkin mug and a brown banana.
I was paging through a fascinating book about the history of the Garden District when a guy walked in, got coffee, and took a seat across the room, facing me. He sat there silently for ten or fifteen minutes, during which time I was convinced he was fixing me with his serial-killer gaze, so I was afraid to look up. I clung to the pumpkin for support. Finally, he asked me how late I had been ‘down there’ the night before. I told him we didn’t go near Bourbon Street, on account of the NCAA tournament and the hoardes of reckless fratboys. He described their night, spent pushing through drunk guys on the street, and their return to the hotel at around 3am. He said he was an amateur ghost-hunter, so he had taken out his digital camera and started snapping pictures randomly, hoping to catch some haunting activity. And he had.
Ron went upstairs for his camera, and sat and showed me all his photos. They were interesting, definitely. A lot of it could have been explained away as tricks of light and the flash, but some of it was pretty intriguing. He pointed out outlines of ghosts, even the little girl known as Emily. He was convinced. I was skeptical. I gave him my email address, hoping he’d send the photos.
After half an hour or so, I gracefully extricated myself and went upstairs. Heather and I decided to take the streetcar into the French Quarter (or the ‘Freedom Quarter’, for you dumbass patriots). Jay would drive over and meet us for tofu rancheros at the awesome vegetarian place we had discovered. It was in the mid-80s that morning, but the humidity made it stifling. Heather and I walked from one side of the French Quarter to the other, stopping in the tacky souvenir shops to pick up voodoo dolls and the like. We were a little early for brunch, so we stopped for coffee at a cafe on Decatur (not Cafe Du Monde, which was overrun with hung-over fratboys), and sat there listening to the jazz band and people-watching.
We had brunch, then headed back to the other side of the French Quarter to the Aquarium. I saw what I had come to see: jellyfish. I even witnessed jellyfish sex, even though Heather swore that they didn’t reproduce that way. But I know what I saw: dirty, raunchy jellyfish lovin’. It was hot.
We left the aquarium and once again headed back across the French Quarter. It’s only something like 13 blocks wide, but it seemed like a lot, having walked it a couple times already in the drenching humidity. We stopped at the French Market to buy fresh fruit for the trip back the next day, then walked back to the car. A huge storm was rolling in from the Gulf, and it started to pour a few minutes after we reached the car. At that point, I announced that I was officially tired. It had been a long trip.
We went back to the hotel and rested while it stormed. Later, we drove up to the fair suburb of Metairie, to the International Market, and dinner at an indian restaurant. The Taj Mahal was no less than the happiest restaurant on earth, and it was the perfect way to spend some of our last few hours in the south.
The 1,200-mile, twenty-hour drive back to Minneapolis is all kind of a blur. From the interstate, the country looks pretty much the same no matter where you are. At one point or another, we spent time in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The main differences between each region are in the number of signs informing you about God’s thoughts on abortion, and the names of the crappy roadside restaurants. In the south, it’s Shoney’s; in the north, Country Kitchen.
We had a stockpile of greasy Indian snack food, some huge mutant apples from the French Market, and we stopped regularly at truck stops to pee and buy beverages. I offered Jay a dollar to eat a packet of dill pickle Twang I bought from a gas station in Mississippi. He did. I didn’t pay up. Sucker.
Heather ended up as the driving hero, taking the last shift shortly before midnight in Madison, Wisconsin. One of us was supposed to stay awake to make sure the driver didn’t doze off, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than five minutes at a time. I think Jay was passed out most of the time in the back. But Heather came through and got us home safe. We stumbled into the house after 3am and headed straight to bed. It took me forever to get to sleep. All I could feel was the road.