AUSTIN (PT I) – RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE

When I was twenty-two and living in New Orleans I dodged a hurricane with a long weekend in Austin. I had been working at a restaurant on Magazine Street when we received word that it was going to make landfall. Staff was giddy. This was pre-Katrina. Every year you had five or so major hurricane warnings, and they always amounted to a bit of heavy rain and maybe some moderate flooding. You hit the grocery store (which is also the liquor store, bless you, Louisiana), park your car on the neutral ground (that grass-covered median in the center of the road), and have some friends over. Hurricane parties were de rigueur and often lasted a few days. The news was being typically hyperbolic in their presentation of the story and now the city was urging businesses to shutter for a couple. We’d all just been given a vacation.

I was headed out to join some of the staff for drinks when my friend Sarah approached asking if I’d be interested in making the 9 hour trip to Austin. A friend in the back of the house had some buddies there who would let us crash on their couch/floor. The two of them were going to leave town once he finished breaking down the kitchen from the night’s service. I went home to pack a bag and an hour later they were picking me up.

We got to the city as the day was starting, and set to taking it all in with the unlimited energy of early twenty-somethings. We day drank, saw the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, waded knee-deep at Barton Springs Pool (nobody had thought to bring a bathing suit), and ate all of the tacos. Saw something at the Alamo Draft House that none of us were sober enough to follow. The Doves happened to be playing so we went to a show. We didn’t sleep. Two days later we drove back towards New Orleans with just enough time to get our friend to his day shift. Austin had won me over.

When J and I were discussing leaving Pittsburgh, Austin had been a highly ranked prospect. Now I was excited to introduce him to the city I had been crushing on all these years. Excited to see how it had changed. Beia was just as eager to show us around. The last time I had seen her, weeks away from moving here, I had told her about my soft spot for the city. Now two years later, Austin had fully ingratiated itself to her, and she was persuading me to reconsider a move.

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Dragonfruit Margaritas at Picnik

We three woke up and went to breakfast, which was awesome. If you had told me gluten-free pancakes were to give me a food coma, I would have said fuck you. One of my sisters, Alyssa, is celiac, in a strange turn of events which is, at least in the legendarium of my family, squarely upon my young nephew’s shoulders. Believe you me, little Bennett and I have had The Talk: “Once, young one, your mother could Pong beers with the best of them, but now tis only cider she sips. But seriously, you’ve said “hi” a dozen times already, and you should brush up on your vocabulary. This schtick of yours is going to stop impressing everyone in this family five minutes ago.” In any case, Tapioca flour banana pancakes – ain’t nothing wrong with that.

We started with a late breakfast at Picnik, which is exactly the grass-fed, organic, gluten-free, cold-brewing, ashwagandha adding cliché that Austin’s detractors bemoan. It’s bright and airy, servers are informed and gracious, there are hot pink dragonfruit margaritas, breakfast foodstuffs, the coffee is amazing. If you can hate on anything after a meal there, you’re the bad roommate. Beia went home to steel herself for an evening of being hospitable and we headed out to explore the town.

We chatted a bit more after breakfast before leaving Beia to a pre-shift nap, a tradition both revered and respected amongst our people. Y had found a really quaint and lovely park to take a short and relaxing walk through before hitting a small campaign’s worth of spots in the city. The short and relaxing walk, due to our shared unrelenting and stubborn nature, became anything but. We allowed ourselves to be painted into the corner of a long and angry walk through the underbrush because reasons.

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Mayfield Park and Preserve

Mayfield Park and Preserve is a small, wooded park with a few short trails and a creek running through it. Twenty-three acres of nature tucked away in the middle of the city. However, its diminutive size was no help in preventing us from losing our way. Despite being a half hour hike, max, from the edge of the park in any direction, our arguments as to the best way out mimicked the day’s increasing barometer, eventually exploding into a blistering silence. We trudged our way through the brush, the lilting sounds of people actually enjoying one another’s company eventually piercing the stillness between us. We caught sight of a trail, made our way up a hill, and vacated the woods.

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Our second white peacock sighting, at Mayfield Park and Preserve.

A very long half hour later J and I had backed down enough to take a walk around the preserve’s ponds and garden. The appearance of two white peacocks among the muster felt like a sign to try to stop ruining each other’s day. With delicately balanced sensibilities, carefully chosen words, and the reckless optimism that neither party would shove the other over, we made our way up to the Mt. Bonnell Terrace to look down at the Colorado River cutting its way through the city.

As tempers cooled and boundaries were re-established or firmly demarcated, we managed to find a modicum of peace in the neighboring peacock gardens, where the universe reminded us we were on the trail with a few white peacocks. Which we wouldn’t really talk about for another few hours because we were still re-living our recent search for Dr. Livingstone, I presume, and way too cranky to talk metaphysics.

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The view from Mt. Bonnell

Despite the latent crank factor, we still found enjoyment in both geographic and personal surroundings with a handful of hugs at the top of Covert Park (which is anything but, amiright) and the HOPE outdoor gallery, which is a sort of graffiti playground on an abandoned industrial lot. It was inspiring to see groups of kids sprint around with spray cans and wild, creative eyes, about to engage in some victimless crimes. I was reminded of Buddhist mandalas, watching the the layers of paint develop over masterpieces, and seeing the tell-tale traces of their eventual obliteration. There was an artist off to the side, engaged in surrendering a piece of themselves to the abyss, and we both wondered how long the hard work would stay unmolested before the winds of change blew it away like so many grains of sand.

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“Look at me!”

The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a park which repurposes the foundation of a demolished structure as the canvas for large-scale graffiti murals. We arrived to swarms of young people running around, paint cans in hand. They tagged walls and expressed themselves amongst the wreckage in varying degrees of ability, but with a singular enthusiasm. It was a scene as vibrant and frenetic as the work itself and we wandered through its rubble alcoves, taking it in. The dynamic backdrop is especially photogenic and as the only space of its kind in the country, a general point of interest. A tour bus pulled up, regurgitating its contents of forty or so business-casual convention attendees onto the street. They obediently followed their guide to the park’s entrance. J and I were crestfallen at the thought of the group engulfing the park. However, the guide muttered a couple sentences about the HOPE’s history and herded his sheep back on to the bus. Off to the next sight.

Tempers more than sufficiently cooled by this point, we headed towards downtown and Commerce street to see the bat colony wake up and take flight. We parked and grabbed beers nearby, snacking on some fried green tomatoes before taking a slug of bourbon from our car bar and hoofing it up the road. The sight of the bats emerging was magnificent. Austin, more than any other major city I’ve been to, is in tune with and firmly married to nature. The hillsides are a solid and vibrant green, and the whole city is rife with native grasses, agave, and cacti. To observe a massive colony of bats take to the skies from the middle of a major American city is nothing short of pure magic, and something I never expected to see in my life.

We headed further South across the river to catch the twilight exodus of the Congress Avenue Bridge bat colony. With an hour to kill before dusk, we stopped for beers to smother any residual hostility. Then added a few shots of trunk bourbon for good measure. We followed the parade of people making their way toward the river to catch the spectacle. We waited. The bats emerged from the bridge amassed in wafting waves. They form a stream a million and a half strong, clouds of helpful little pest eradicators drifting miles in every direction. We watched for the better part of an hour until just a few floundering stragglers remained.

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The Austin Moonlight Towers are the last light towers in the world. They stand 165 ft high and cast a glow that stretches out 1,500 ft.

Afterwards, we sought out one of the Moon Towers, an old throwback to an age where electrical illumination was an animal we humans were only just beginning to yoke. Our quota of silly pictures filled, we headed to Luke’s Inside Out for some sandwiches great enough to write about, let alone eat. Jesus, were they good.

Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and arguing done right is an exhausting endeavor. Both a bit spent, we made our way to Luke’s Inside Out to indulge in the restorative powers of beer and sandwiches. Luke’s is an unassuming food truck parked between a bar and a cafe. You can have your meal delivered to either bookending establishment. Its menu is small, specializing in sandwiches that are reworked versions of Italian and Asian classics. One could be forgiven for looking at the modest setup, the sriracha aioli listed as an ingredient, the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives logo decal affixed near the order window, heralding the seal-of-approval from American cheese enthusiast and recently electrified human troll doll, Guy Fieri* himself, and think you were about to be treated to Hawaiian barbecue dusted onion rings slathered in Donkey Sauce™. One would be very wrong. Despite the appearance of 2010’s trendiest condiment and a celebrity endorsement from the man responsible for Dragon’s Breath Chili, Luke’s is putting out some badass food. Their flavors are complex, the quality of ingredients elevated, the compositions seemingly ready to burst and yet somehow managing to retain their structural integrity. If I seem wistful, it’s because I am. I yearn for that sandwich.

Not understanding what we were signing on for, we turned down Rainey Street. Driving through the horde of pre-gaming singles stumbling into their next terrible decision only highlighted the fact that we were in no mood to have any part of that. We stopped to pick up some mead and a few beers for the house and went home to enjoy them peacefully, like the old people we are unapologetically becoming. After a bit of conversation, Beia’s roommate, Monster, decided J was worthy of catering to his head-scratching needs, and with J otherwise occupied I went to bed.

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Alright Monster, you’ll only wear it when Aunt Clara visits.

We headed back to base, Y falling out cold in fairly short order, and my anxiety still hovering like an Eldritch horror in the skies of my mind. We both know this sort of adventure, this pursuit of the happiest life, isn’t easy, intellectually, but that knowledge will never change the difficulties of the hard moments. With the two of us being especially attuned to our feelings, the dry comforts of intelligence crumble to dust in short order when faced with the hot winds of raw emotion.

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“Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place.”- Banksy

*Descriptions of Guy Fieri that didn’t make it into this post:

1. An anthropomorphized Hawaiian shirt, laundered in Jägermeister, riding a crotch rocket

2. A Mountain Dew-stained albino grizzly rollerblading in a tutu

3. A bloated, brocean pufferfish

3. Your ex-roommate, Chad, who shows up after twenty years to embrace you with a tire swing full of nachos (and not the $200 he still owes you). Fucking Chad.

PETULANCE, PERSEVERANCE, AND POSSUMS OF UNUSUAL SIZE

When my parents were still young enough to delude themselves as to their levels of patience and exhaustion, they would take us camping. For a week beforehand, the house was chaotic with preparations. The day before was spent restlessly packing our gear into our bags and our bags into the car. The morning of we were somehow always running late, still cramming coolers full of food when we should have been halfway to the campground. Then they would load us five girls in the car between the supplies and we’d make our way to the Poconos to Otter Lake. Jen and myself, being the eldest, were required to help set up camp. Our tent was a three-room behemoth with twenty or so specifically shaped poles better suited to inciting frustrated expletives from my parents then providing a framework for our temporary homestead. You held up what you were told to and kept your head down.

Neither of my parents being particularly outdoorsy, it was less of a campsite and more of an outdoor resort. Sites had electricity and running water. We gathered twigs for fun but bought firewood at the camp store. Communal bathrooms had showers with hot water. We slept on air mattresses with real bedding. There were all manner of activities to keep one entertained: a beach, racquetball courts, canoes for rent, movie nights, paint-your-own pottery classes. The grounds had pet peacocks.

Even still, I dreaded it. I enjoyed the activities of course, running off unsupervised, building a fire, but my bag was always the heaviest, packed with books I’d rather be reading. I hated the hours spent securing the site and breaking it down, waking up cold having to walk to use a bathroom which had inevitably been run over by insects in the night, returning home to a week’s worth of dirty dishes and laundry. I could never understand why anyone deemed all that work worth it. As a teenager I camped once, our site mostly functioning as an adult-free place to drink. As an adult, I went on a trip a friend organized where we were picked up from the MetroNorth station in Beacon and deposited at the woods to hike into a site which had been prepared for us, food and all. That morning I had secured the cheapest sleeping bag available for the endeavor, my first, from the midtown Manhattan Kmart. So while the practically made decision to forego expensive lodging in the four corners region in favor of camping had been mine, I was less than enthusiastic about the realities of the ordeal. Two nights in Cooper Lake State Park were meant to be both a trial run for the impending, more primitive camping ahead, and an attempt at breaking up a long drive to Austin. With said sleeping bag in tow, we left Hope, literally, and crossed another state line.

However, being hit with temperatures in the upper nineties before the day had even settled in caused for some amending in our plan. We found a movie theater along the way, with a screening of It that would allow us to shelter ourselves during the worst of the afternoon’s heat. Exiting the theater with chills still running through us, we realized our choice in movie may have been a misguided one, being just a few hours from spending the night in a tent.

The drive to the campsite Y had picked was a leisurely affair, with a stop for lunch featuring brisket pizza (bless you, Texas), and another for a $5 matinee. As huge fans of horror movies, we were excited to see It. After, we were not so excited about what the night’s sleep almost assuredly promised. We continued on, eventually driving down the aptly named Farm to Market Road to Cooper Lake to set up camp.

My Father is a very well-spoken man, and given to finely crafted turns of phrase, humor and often extraneous or otherwise undesired wit. One of my favorite lessons he has distilled into verbal coinage was thus: “There are two types of people in this world. Those you would camp with, and those you would not.” I was raised to respect and enjoy the outdoors, and while those I camped with in my youth have slid into the latter category, the yearning to engage in the simple act of pitching a tent in the woods and sleeping on the ground has always stayed in the same lane. Given all of this, I was excited to share something I love with my partner, who by definition is someone I would camp with. Conversely, knowing my partner on a variety of specific and intimate levels, I found myself electrified by a vast field of trepidation. We might very well kill each other before the tent goes up, I thought to myself.

We arrived at the park as the visitor’s center was closing for the day, and having procured a map and firewood, made our way to the campgrounds to pick out our site. It being midweek in September, we had our choice, and selected one right on the lake. Smoke from the controlled burn being conducted by the rangers wafted over, and after a few attempts (and some knowledge bombs from my own personal Eagle Scout), our fire was doing just as well. With tent pitched and dinner percolating, we went to work recounting our day in our journals.

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A Stick Bug, stickin’ around.

By the time we had finished eating, the sun had set, leaving us with the undesirable task of cleaning up in the dark. Both a little annoyed by the cumbersome task, I fought through my agitation and the steady sting of mosquito bites, determined to be a good sport and accept J’s proposal of a walk. We were enveloped in a darkness so deep it was unnerving. Eventually the magnitude of the visible stars shook our salty attitudes clear, and J illustrated how to tell a star from a planet. Feeling confident in my newfound ability, I pointed out what I proclaimed to be Mars and Venus, and we grabbed my binoculars to get a better view. We retired to the tent, J passing out fairly quickly. I stayed up reading for a few hours, hoping to distract myself from the still oppressive heat and the audible movement of creatures nearby.

While there were no death-blows exchanged, the learning curve for both of us is a little complicated. The early camping trip had been planned as a sort of dry run for a later leg of the trip, and I know we’re both grateful for the practice, as it gave us the opportunity to work some of the kinks out. It also gave us the opportunity to examine the fact that both of us are composed of a great deal of interwoven kinks, many of which are stubborn and quite comfortable where they are. The official camping leg of the journey will not be the easiest part, but we’re both certainly more prepared now. As with any trial or tribulation, strength comes from passing through adversity. Like apologizing for being a dick, which feels adverse as hell.

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Coyote Run Trail

We woke the next morning feeling a little less ornery, if not entirely well rested, and decided to start the day with a hike on the Coyote Run Trail. Pondering on whether coyotes even lived around here, we scanned the trail for clues. We had both wrongfully assumed there would be a fountain near the trailhead, which was next to a picnic area, and had left our water bottles back at the site. As the sun and temperature rose, nervousness about succumbing to dehydration in the middle of the woods welled up in me. With the terrain proving a bit monotonous I asked to turn back, irritating J once more. A swim in the lake cooled us down, both figuratively and literally. With the entire beach empty but for us, the hawks and herons were cocksure, hovering nearby. We waded in the cool water watching quietly. With no one around, I indulged in a liberating nude outdoor shower and then a turn on the swings (in which I definitively swung higher than J) before returning to camp.

We made a humble lunch and J went to take a nap while I wrote, though our neighbors’ rambunctious canine seemed determined to make both difficult. J gave up the premise and rejoined me outside. We started dinner early, learning from the previous night’s mistake. With cleanup completed, J suggested going to watch the sunset at the beach, but when we got there the angle was all wrong, our view obstructed by the woods. However, we did come across a parking lot with three smallish deer scavenging its contents. Nose deep in a Kind Bar wrapper (how’s that for irony?) their presence eased my concerns about the large animals I’d heard rustling nearby the night before.

We arrived back at the site, still too early for stars, and scrambled to get what we needed from the car before being assailed by mosquitos attracted by the car’s interior light and our status as universal donors. The stillness was interrupted by stirring, and I whirled around, instantly on alert scanning the tree line. A duck quacking nearby was enough to convince J I was overreacting. I reminded him that ducks don’t go rustling through the woods, and the quacking was clearly coming from further away, at the lake’s edge. As he closed the trunk, I saw two eyes shining in the distance. “There!” I pointed. It was hard to make out, but slowly the creature was advancing toward us. J focused his flashlight and caught the mammoth possum in its beam. We moved forward, eager to get inside the tent, but the possum turned to continue his trajectory toward us. J ran at him, yelling, and he sauntered away, seeming more ruffled by the necessary change in route than afraid. Once safely inside the tent, we cracked open a bottle of peppermint vodka, the mint flavor feeling cool in the dense, sticky night. Between swigs, J informed me that despite an appearance that seemed to communicate otherwise, possums do not contract rabies.

The weather was hot and sticky, but perfect for the low-impact sport of writing. We ate simply and well, cooking over small wood fires. It felt good to build a fire, it always does. It felt even better to watch Y become more confident in manipulating the fire. The park was mostly deserted, and we had the entirety of the lake to ourselves aside from some herons and hawks when we went for a swim. At night, massive and shockingly brave opossums trolled our campsite, and in the distance, we could hear a band of coyotes sing to the stars.

We wrote a bit more, our thoughts occasionally disturbed by the melancholy howls of coyotes too distant to solve our yappy dog issue, answering our earlier question. Eventually the vodka made going to the bathroom inevitable, and I forced J to join me to keep watch. The effects of the alcohol and necessity for flashlights made the affair a decidedly ungraceful one, which we were to repeat twice more before the night was over.

We awoke the next morning to a massive spider hanging directly over the fire pit, having woven its web between trees on opposite sides of our site. Careful to duck under the silky entanglement, I went to shower as J broke down the tent. The persistent heat had ensured I never woke needing to brave the cold to use the bathroom. Showering now, noticing the dried scorpion husks trapped in the bathroom’s fluorescent lighting above me, I mused at how some things don’t change. I moved quickly and within the hour we were headed to Austin by way of Dallas.

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Bet having scorpions in the bathroom does wonders for water conservation. 

After two nights’ stay, it was time to pack up and move on to Austin, a stop we had gleefully planned since the infancy of this enterprise. Dallas, however, was on the way, and Y had found a few things there to help break up the long day’s drive. Getting into and around Dallas proved to be the beginning of slow-burning anxiety attack for me. The traffic, the roads, the Mad Max extras behind the wheel and the profusion of construction would be bad enough, but Dallas is less a city that makes sense than it is the deranged vision of a 12-year old pretending to be a city planner, mapping the bloated metropolitan area out with a schizophrenic vision-board collage of skewed crayon lines and incongruous magazine clippings and photographs. Fuck. Dallas.

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Dallas graffiti

I’ve never thought much of Dallas, a dislike for its airport being my only real opinion of it, however it was well positioned to break for lunch and it has a number of exceptional museums I was interested in examining. Once inside the city limits, we were funneled through drunkenly poured swirls of asphalt and warped streets that don’t quite match up. Navigating the melee was making me almost as prickly as J was directing me through it.

Stepping into the Nasher Sculpture Garden would have felt like entering an oasis, even without having just traversed the formidable concrete desert around it. I was unfamiliar with Tom Sachs, whose work and influences the museum was prominently displaying in the majority of its galleries. A docent alerted us to the screening times for the two Sachs films they were airing. In the interim, we toured an excellent exhibit entitled “2D/3D” which compared two works in contrasting mediums from a number of artists. The first film, entitled “Ten Bullets,” was a training manual for prospective studio assistants and showed the artist’s irreverence, humor, and left me wondering how someone of my exacting inclinations had failed to mindfully adopt knolling. The second was a reconstruction of the delicate traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony in which the customary implements were replaced with the artist’s collage-like constructs utilizing everyday objects. Many of these were displayed in the main gallery as part of Sach’s rendering of a chashitsu and its surrounding garden, complete with koi pond. The outdoor sculpture garden was an eclectic mix of modern masters, set in alcoves uniquely landscaped to best present each piece. Sach’s work was again featured. The final gallery was a selection of works from the museum’s collection favored by Sachs for their inspiration. Here the artist’s wry humor was once again illustrated in a marker exposing his reasons for electing to include five small de Kooning sculptures. Upon first seeing them, he felt so impressed that de Kooning would have the conviction to take these lumpy little shapes and proudly cast them in bronze that he couldn’t help but have respect for the man.

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The Nasher Sculpture Center Garden

The cultural offerings of the city go a long way towards redeeming the irredeemable, and The Nasher Sculpture Museum is an absolute jewel – an entire city block, a large portion of it given over to a gorgeous outdoor sculpture garden. We relished our stroll among the shadows of massive Cor-ten steel sculpture and the shade of willow trees along the burbling of fountains. The museum was featuring Tom Sachs in both the role of curator and that of an auteur. His Tea Ceremony installation was precise and mischievous, sometimes dipping more than a toe into Dada, a bricolage-laden remix of the vaunted Japanese tradition. The Sachs-curated gallery adjacent provided wonderful context to the artist and his process. Two short films, one on the Tea Ceremony, and the other, a tongue-in-cheek Employee Orientation for his studio called Ten Bullets, helped firmly affix Sachs in our minds as a new favorite.

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“My Curves Are Not Mad”, Richard Serra, 1987.

We crossed the street to view the Asian artifacts in the Crow Collection. There was a particularly impressive sculpture of a Cambodian flower, enormous in scale, fashioned of woven metal and bamboo. I saw a friend had posted a picture of a museum down the street, and after a few texts it became clear she and her husband were also in town. She agreed to take time away from teaching her 9 year old nephew how to improve upon his UNO smack talk and meet us for a beer. Over coconut beers we discussed our plans for the trip, our days at the museum, and her family, still unreachable by phone in Puerto Rico. We laughed at the idea of me camping. It was an all too brief encounter, but I was glad she got to meet J.

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“Rang Phnom Flower”, Sopheap Pich, 2015.

With some time to kill before taking advantage of the discovery that one of Y’s friends was in town for the day, we crossed the street and explored the Crow Collection of Asian Antiquities, a free museum that offered mostly Japanese and Indian artifacts, sculpture and paintings. Our imaginations sufficiently fueled and stoked, we headed across town to have a quick beer to say hello and give a now well-rehearsed synopsis of our plans. It was nice to put a name to a face, as Y’s friends are all scattered across the country.

With the sun already setting on the day, we set off on the three hour drive to Austin, where we’d be staying with my friend, Beia. I had met Beia years ago in New York, where we had been servers at the same restaurant. Our mutual appreciation for Italian wine and commiseration over our temperamental boss developed into an intimate friendship, despite infrequent visits. I was as excited for J to meet her as I was to be reunited. We arrived to her warm welcome, doing our best to ingratiate ourselves to cat of the house, Monster. Agreeing we were all starving, we walked to Hopfield’s, an adorably cozy spot where you can still order a real dinner at 11pm. When I was waiting tables in New York, I treasured places like this, where you could go out after a shift and have an actual date. We took a meandering path home, Beia taking the opportunity to walk us past lawn dragons, a cult compound, and the rest of her neighborhood eagerly embracing Austin’s reputation for individuality. Finally, we came upon her own bungalow and the comfort of an indoor bed.

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Cooper Lake State Park, Texas

We rolled into Austin a few hours after dark, where I was able to attach the name Beia to the face of our wonderful host. We grabbed a late dinner, then walked her beautiful neighborhood, bouncing from topic to topic before eventually arriving back at her house. Monster, her cat, has personality in spades, and would prove to be another animal fix for me on this journey. Not having Moose around accentuates precisely how deep the sickness goes. While I doubt I’ll ever ascend to the level of my Granma, who exclusively preferred the ugliest of cats from breeders and consistently put NPR on so her pedigreed felines would not become lonely, I do find myself realizing that not only am I repeatedly just shy of starting a conversation with my cat, but that my cat is several hundred miles away. This, of course, leads me to doubt his abilities as a mascot for Team Felicidad as well as his commitment, which is a conversation we’ll be having come December. Such a serious talk will likely occur after a lengthy effort to catch his nihilistic fuzzy ass up on all of the things in all likelihood he seriously, like, definitely just cannot even be bothered with. He’s got a lot of shit going on, obvi.

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“No, you go on ahead. I’m done for.”

I miss our fucking cat, and I will not be judged for it.

ALL IN HOT WATER

While Y and I were planning our trip, it became a ready topic of discussion while carousing with our friends. Early on, my best friend LG made it clear we should consider Hot Springs, AR as a destination and look her Moma, Margo up. LG has of course never steered me wrong, and has saved my foolish ass from any number of scrapes. We’ve worked together, broken bread together, watched each others’ pets and generally been the mean girls in the room. No, you can’t sit with us. We’re also incredibly good at getting into scrapes together when we’re unsupervised, but that’s an entirely different bottle of rye.

LG is a sweet and kind lady, and she comes by it naturally. Margo and her husband Robert’s hospitality put the rest of the South to shame. They warmly greeted us at their lake house with hugs and handshakes, two tiny dogs, some takeout barbeque and friends on the back deck, eager to hear about our big adventure. We had a lively conversation, traded stories and told jokes, forgetting how tired we were when we had pulled up to the house. Eventually, however, their friends were heading out, and we headed to bed.

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Lake Catherine

The lake house was tucked away off the main thoroughfare, nestled against Lake Catherine. We arrived, strangers, and Margo ran out to greet us with hugs. She led us through the lovely house and out onto the deck, where her husband, Rob, was waiting, entertaining Jan and Bob, another couple who lived nearby. We were given beers and introductions and set to work making friends as we watched the sun retire spectacularly from the vantage of the high bank. We talked easily over dinner, sharing stories well into the night. With fatigue gently encroaching on the party, Margo showed us around the pool house, which had been set up to receive us. The accommodations would have been just as impressive had we not spent the previous night in a roach motel, and we reveled at the thought of restful sleep. We agreed to take her up on her offer of breakfast the next morning and said our good-nights.

Sunday brunch was an unhurried affair, and as is often the case with hospitality, our host had gone to great lengths to execute it. We four were joined by a high school friend of Margo’s, and the homemade spread of biscuits, sausage, scrambled eggs, and cantaloupe were further improved by the company. We exhausted the subjects of travel, houses, and pets (Not that one can, as a pet owner, ever exhaust that topic. This could have just as easily been a blog about Moose). After some hours, with the sun high and a post-meal drowsiness setting in, we decided to further delay productivity with a few laps in the pool.

Margo made us breakfast the next morning, and after a leisurely meal and a few hours of chatting, we excused ourselves and took a dip in the pool, taking in the beautiful garden and view, truly enjoying the nicest place we were staying at for the entirety of the trip. We had the Gangster Museum on our list after seeing a sign for it on our way in, and Margo graciously offered to drive and come with us.

The museum is a real treat, full of actual surprises and dozens of original pieces of memorabilia. Hot Springs is truly an amazing slice of history and one I was only tangentially aware of. Our guide was sharp as a whip and twice as energetic, and his enthusiasm for the subject was clear even as he fed off of our own excitement. There are so many stories wrapped up in a seemingly innocuous town with 2017 lenses on- removing them reveals a rich and colorful history. Afterwards, Margo took us on a tour of the main drag, and we checked out bathhouse row and the storefronts.

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“Mr. Dillinger, we meet again.”

The Gangster Museum is a quirky attraction and did not disappoint. It details the actions of a corrupt mayor who, along with his political machine, promoted illegal gambling to take Hot Springs from a remote site of pilgrimage for the unwell to the fashionable resort town of choice for gamblers, ballplayers, and members of organized crime. Our guide’s narrative was peppered with anecdotes. He told of how Al Capone received the deep scars on the left of his face courtesy of his friend, Frank, whose younger sister he wouldn’t let alone. We had seen one of three death masks taken of John Dillinger at the Archive of the Afterlife in West Virginia. Oddly, the museum possessed a second. Surrounded by vintage tables and slots from the legendary Southern Club, we heard how a tough old madame named Maxine Temple Jones would drive new girls up and down The Strip in her convertible with the top down, as advertising. These sketches served to weave an intricate fabric of the unruly city just South of Little Rock, vivaciously disobeying the law. Also, we got to hold Tommy Guns.

These stories were supplemented by videos done in the style of late 80’s investigative journalism. They featured a local historian (sometimes awkwardly) delving into urban legend to reveal the truth behind the folklore. As we were exiting, we encountered said reporter, actually the museum’s owner. The man is obviously the authority on Hot Springs history and entertained us with tales of his work lending his expertise on such matters to Hollywood screenwriters (whom he said have a habit of largely ignoring these facts).

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Try new diet guns; all of the machismo, none of the bullets!

We headed back to the lake house for a drink and some writing, but not before we called our respective parental units. Thankfully we were both equipped with booze. I’ve never been much of a dutiful son, but as the realities of this trip and our move sank in, I realized I would need to be at least a little better to two very nice people that managed to raise 3.25 very nice tiny people into adulthood. I refuse to break down the math, I’ll let my three sisters squabble that out. Hint: I’m at least .75 of that sum. In any case, my folks, especially with housing an additional household, are still getting used to weekly phone calls. A little Wild Turkey 101 made the aftermath of our respective calls go down easier.

For dinner, Margo had made some delicious crawfish etouffee along with some of the most pleasant cornbread I’ve ever had. After, the four of us talked into the growing darkness, and Y and I finalized our exploration plans for the next day. Y spent a good portion of the evening writing inside, while I took in the sky, the swirl of the Milky Way just barely visible. Soon enough, I thought, before heading to sleep.

The Hot Springs for which the town is named are actually part of Hot Springs National Park. I had wanted to hike the Gulpha Gorge Trail, a steep black diamond path a tenderfoot like myself only felt confident in completing because the entire trip, out and back, clocked in at under a mile. By the time we had parked it was after noon and upwards of 90 degrees. A sign at the Gulpha Gorge Trailhead warned of the intensity of the hike back up from the gorge. J eyed my enthusiasm for physical exertion suspiciously, then vetoed the plan for a longer, but more serene route. My annoyance at missing out on the good views subsided as we came upon the site of a recent controlled burn. Meant to assist undergrowth in flourishing, the area was now patchy with both char and green, butterflies and silky milkweed fibers eerily floating along the trail in an enchanting dance. And J’s instincts had once again proved right. The easy trail had us sweating by completion and we were glad to catch our breaths with a shaded picnic, winsomely provided by Margo.

The night before, Margo had made us a picnic lunch to take with us on our sortie. Thusly armed with carrot sticks, celery, hummus, grapes, cheeses and crackers, we set out for the pinnacle of Hot Springs Mountain, looking to take in some nature. Our hike, while beautiful, was cut short due to Sol doing an impression of the Angry Sun Level from Super Mario Brothers 3. Our stroll left us more than adequately soaked in sweat, and we cooled off beneath the evergreens of the picnic area, watching the hawks slowly wheel over the valley below us.

After lunch, we drove down the mountain into downtown to see the guided tour at the Fordyce Bathhouse, the National Park’s headquarters. The tour, as with all our experiences with the National Park System, was humorous, illuminating and entertaining as hell. The history at play vis-a-vis the bathhouses and the foundation of Hot Springs itself dovetailed beautifully into the knowledge bombs from the day before at the Gangster Museum.

The Fordyce Bathhouse itself was beautiful, and no expense was spared in its construction. Italian marble, multiple massive stained glass windows overhead and the best technology of the time. The added bonus of the restored therapy and exercise devices from over 100 years ago was a special treat, and one I was excited to share with Fourth, one of my sisters, who is an Athletic Trainer.

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The Fordyce Bathhouse

The park’s visitor’s center is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse, an opus of Italian marble and stained glass which was unrivaled in its day, and still damn arresting. Mr. Fordyce, a railroad tycoon, is largely credited with creating the city. His railroad from Little Rock to the town’s center eliminated the previous trip by stagecoach, an exhausting excursion of a day and a half. Having come to the springs to help recover from worsening injuries acquired during the Civil War, he not only built the lavish bathhouse, but the town itself, constructing hotels, restaurants, theatres, and clubs to entertain those traveling to the springs. Touring the facilities we learned how “taking the baths” had been a prescribed act, meant to cure a number of ailments. The hot water was lowered to a tolerable temperature then administered any number of ways through the most cutting-edge torture devices. After a twenty-minute bath one might be subjected to alternating steam and ice rooms, a needle shower (so called for the thin, focused streams of cold water which pummeled the patient from all sides), an electric massage, or even an enema. After being packed in hot towels then left to cool, your treatment would be complete. It was typical for a patient to be prescribed twenty-one of these treatments, to be administered over the course of two weeks. Hardly your typical spa day.

I had previously imagined these prescriptions had been misguided medicine at best, scams at worst. However, the tour shone light on how many of the procedures were similar to currently used treatments, just done without the benefit of modern mechanics. Bathhouses were the first institutions to employ machines that used weights to create standardized resistance, the precursor to physical therapy. Much of the knowledge that contributed to an understanding of germs, advancing sterilization practices in medicine, came about from bathhouse staff doctors bringing their methodology of working clean to hospitals.

The Fordyce, built to serve as the crown jewel of these institutions, was also in possession of a myriad of fashionable comforts. The gymnasium and music room where wealthy patrons had congregated have been restored, displaying the elegant artifacts that would have been present for their diversions. A bronze fountain of explorer Hernando de Soto receiving the gift of the springs from a Native American girl sits in the men’s bathhall. A hole was dug in the basement and encircled by local quartz, enabling the bathhouse’s affluent patrons to view the springs’ waters running the creek below, and I mused at how Fordyce had even gilded a hole in the ground.

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Youth and Beauty Brigade Training Facility, circa 1920s

We walked for a bit exploring Central Avenue and the Promenade which ran parallel to it, providing elevated views of the town below. We settled at the Superior Bathhouse, a converted brewery, where we sampled a considerable number of their offerings, agreeing they accurately earned their superlative name. Wanting to peek into the lobby of the famed Arlington Hotel, we made our way down the street, bypassing a shop boasting Florida’s finest tropically flavored wine which was, thankfully, closed for the day. The Arlington’s lobby was as grand as rumored, with round settees, globe lighting, and art deco ironwork decorating the windows. A stage and bar sat at opposite ends, each decorated with murals depicting vibrant jungle scenes. Though lovely, we both noted that even an establishment of the Arlington’s stature wasn’t immune to having to pervert its embellished decor by outfitting its bar with the ever more obligatory flat screen television.

We explored the Promenade afterward, working up a powerful thirst, which we had already planned on slaking at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Even as the world’s only brewery to utilize a thermal spring, I’m not sure they needed the extra help. We sampled close to half of the extensive lineup along with some solid snacking and left exceedingly happy. Hot Springs begged a bit more exploring, and we were happy to oblige, but our appetites slowly got the better of us. As we headed back to our car, we found a pair of fellow travelers in need of a jump. After we completed the mission, Y put it best: “We’ve been so fortunate, obviously you help that person.”

We have indeed been lucky, nearly two weeks into this adventure. We filled our water bottles with spring water at one of the many public fountains, then headed to Taco Mama for a late dinner, excited to try one of the many Mexican restaurants in what’s clearly a strong Latino community in Hot Springs. We weren’t let down, and their lengua was the best I’ve ever had. We returned to our hosts’ lake house to retell the day and make the first farewells, taking a starlit swim in the pool afterward.

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Taco Mama

Having worked up a proper appetite, we decided to try one of the Mexican restaurants we had noticed on our drive with Margo the previous day. We rolled up to Taco Mama to find a black Cadillac parked at its entrance. The color-changing lights with which it was rigged accentuated the dapperly-dressed skeleton couple occupying the front seat. Somehow, the chorizo chimichanga and lengua tacos managed to surpass that incredible marketing. With Margo scheduled to be at work when we departed the next day, we headed back to enjoy our hosts’ conversation one last time.

After some laundry and packing, we bid farewell to Robert and the dogs, heading back to Hot Springs for some centennial-style bathing. We had already chosen the Buckstaff Baths (one of only two original houses in operation) after some research, and after our tour at the Fordyce the day before, where they let us know the Buckstaff had never fixed what was never broke, we were eagerly anticipating to do it up like Victorians. We both opted for a simple bath, which was anything but. Back in winter, a friend of Y’s had graciously given her a weekend for two they had won at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, one of the best resorts in PA, complete with a spa day. I kept thinking they were going to kick our restaurant working asses out in the middle of the night, and it was definitely the nicest hotel either of us has or will likely ever stay in. For us, the experience at Buckstaff, while a little rough and ready, was every bit as relaxing and wonderful. We lazed on the front porch for a spell afterward, before agreeing that we were positively ravenous.

We said our goodbyes and headed back to the Strip, fervent for our own turns to “take the baths.” Our tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse had largely readied us for what to expect at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, an institution that has been continuously providing their services in the same way since their inception, and I was glad for the preparation. We both opted for the basic bath services (no enemas for us) and made our way to our gendered undressing rooms. My attendant wrapped me in a sheet, then brought me to my bath. She was efficient and practiced, if a bit brusque, wrapping me in hot towels and moving me from sauna, to sitz bath, to shower with a perfunctory manner that relayed her experience. My expectations having been set by our ranger’s comprehensive explanation, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience, but could see how someone entering the situation blindly might find the treatment a little wham bam thank you, ma’am. Indeed, one of the three women I entered with opted to end her session within minutes of it beginning (The other, sporting a black eye, seemed unfazed by our attendant’s gruff temperament). Muscles loosened and mind a bit fuzzy, I leisurely dressed and made my way to the porch to sit in the sun while I waited for J.

We headed across the street to the Ohio Club, a former haunt of Major Leaguers with swollen livers and alias-toting gangsters alike, and had a very solid meal in one of the most gorgeous bars I’ve been in. They don’t make them or carve them like that anymore. On our way out, I reminded Y that the storefront hawking mango wine was indeed on our list, and I had not forgotten. The man running the counter seemed as surprised as we were that we had entered, and we settled into selecting a flight of ‘wine that finally tastes good’. We elected White Peach, Guava, Carrot (which was labeled 40k) and sparkling Grapefruit as our flavor delegates. Guava is crushable, especially if you’re me or a 16-year old pregaming junior prom. White Peach, not as refined, totally acceptable for the band camp sibling. Grapefruit belongs in all mimosas, all the time. Truth be told, a little Fee’s Grapefruit Bitters and a squich of simple syrup will get you the same pony, but the Veruca Salts of this world will not be denied. The only one that didn’t make it out of the FlavorDome was Carrot, which our purveyor described as ‘different’ and ‘buttery’.

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“Gettin’ real tired of your shit, Chad.”

Voracious appetites in tow, we crossed Central Avenue and entered the Ohio Club, a bar and grill occupying the space the gambling parlor of the same name had once operated in. The bartender was pushing the feature, a Southwestern patty melt, with the robust intensity of a frat boy doling out trashcan punch, and I was only too happy to oblige. After a phenomenal (as promised) sandwich and a few beers, I felt sated enough to accept my obligation and conceded in accompanying J to taste tropical wine.

There were a ridiculous number of wines on display, and with flights of four available for the bargain price of $12, we each picked two and steeled ourselves. I have no one to blame but myself for subjecting me to carrot wine, an oddly herbal concoction and hands down the worst shot I’ve thrown back in years. The salesman, woefully misreading his audience, asked my opinion on it, to which I spurted, “Unusual.” He countered with a pitch about how it was really buttery. Being too polite to not spare this guy, who seemed even less thrilled than I was to be there, I reaffirmed his findings, saying that though true, my preference tended to veer away from buttery varietals. Safely outside, J asked how I could indulge him with a straight face, but that poor guy hardly needed me shitting on his product to feel bad about being there.

We left Hot Springs, talking of future trips and friends who would love visiting, and rumbled into Hope, AR, specifically to do nothing except write and relax in air conditioning and watch Rick and Morty. A constant topic of conversation of the past week or so reared its head again in the evening. One of the truly striking things about Hot Springs and the South, in general, was a very specific reverence for history. From the refurbished distilleries of Kentucky to the neon-swatched streets of Nashville, it’s palpable. Where so many places in my part of the country sadly exist only in photographs, for some reason the past in the South seems much more vibrant and alive, more in tune with people’s daily lives. That’s not to say the past is always something beautiful, and those statues honoring those who fought to subjugate belong well off public land and tucked in a museum at best, but even with the ugliest parts of the South’s history, even that seems front and center as a constant dialogue. The very real and very bloody history, one that keeps repeating, has, in its overarching presence, made the cities at the very least, much more open, honest and realistic. To put it in the crass terms of a restaurant worker, I’ve never seen so many brown faces in the front of the house. That’s not how things worked in Pittsburgh, in any case. I really love the South. I certainly haven’t seen all of it, nor have I seen the ugliest part of it, I’m sure, but the natural impulse towards kindness and the reverence and respect for history are traits that don’t flourish so easily in the North. While I am excited for the journey Westward, into a different milieu, I know I will have dreams of the easy way in which I felt at home here, being so far from home, being truly homeless, despite that, I was made to feel as if I belonged wherever I went.

CHAINS AND THINGS

Not knowing when we would be summoned to the repair shop to trade the car for a check, we got an early start to the day. Our four young hosts were on the couch recovering from the previous night’s house party. They sat huddled over their respective laptops, faces twisted in scowls. We interrupted their concentration with our goodbyes. Looking up, they asked if they could ask us a question about credit (namely, what it was). We did our best to illuminate them, gave them a few websites to guide them, and shut the door on what will probably be the last bong hit either of us will ever be offered.

We went to the auto shop to transfer our personal belongings from the old ride to Maus, the sarcastic name I had bequeathed upon our gargantuan rental during a mildly hysterical episode. Possessions transferred and tow truck still an hour out, we went to squeeze in breakfast beers and tacos at the nearby Edley’s. The inventive barbeque joint had been our last stop on our previous trip to Nashville, and we had foolishly been too food-stoned from the night before to truly enjoy its splendor. This time we came with appetites prepared. The brisket tacos and grits casserole are just stupid. We got the call that the tow truck was at the shop as we were finishing and headed back to complete the handoff. Check in hand, we headed towards Memphis. As we pulled onto the highway J told me to say goodbye.

“Bye Nashville. You’re cool.”

“No, to the car.”

I shrugged and we laughed.

In the morning we drove to the auto shop to finish packing up Maus, the new whip, then headed over to Edley’s for just one more hit, man, just one more, to wait for a call from the proud new owners of a dead-ass car and get the show on the road. Just as we finished lunch and I was only a sip into my second beer, our journey beckoned us forth, and within short order, we were on the road towards Memphis. We stopped at the Crystal Grotto, which was the perfect intersection of Christian folk-art and weirdness, and I’m always a sucker for kooky displays housed in cemeteries. The Allegheny Cemetery back in Pittsburgh, with its shark, obelisks, tombs and sphinxes, will be sorely missed, but luckily, there are deceased person farms all across this great land of ours.

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Star Trek called up from the 1960s. They want their props back.

I had asked J to pick out a pit stop or two on the way to our hotel to break up the monotony of the drive down Music Highway. He often says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” The Crystal Shrine Grotto is a bedazzled, man-made cave celebrating the life of Jesus through diorama. Anything but monotonous, it looks more like the town hall of a hobbit village than a commissioned art installation. It sits in the middle of Memphis Memorial Cemetery surrounded by equally bizarre cement over-sized trees and toadstools and a small pond with well-fed koi swimming about. We explored its quartz-covered depths for a bit, taking in the absurdity of it all. J signed the guestbook.

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…and he may live to regret it.

Our next stop was The Pyramid on the bank of the Mississippi. Initially an event space created as a nod to the city’s Egyptian namesake, the 32 floor glass monstrosity is now repurposed as a Bass Pro Shop megastore. Upon entering this sanctuary to the pursuits of the amateur sportsmen, one steps into a lodge style foyer with taxidermy, vintage fishing memorabilia, and a two-story fireplace. That room then opens onto a massive atrium housing a bowling alley, shooting range, laser arcade, archery range, saltwater fishtank, fudge shop, bar, restaurant, and candle store (for Mrs. Sportsman, presumably). For a price, the world’s tallest freestanding elevator takes visitors to the roof where there is another restaurant and an observation deck. Flocks of stuffed birds hang in the air. Fake trees weep spanish moss over four lakes filled with fish, and yes, the namesake bass are in attendance. There is even a hotel, should you feel the need to have your masculinity reaffirmed overnight. And littered between all this is every piece of hunting, boating, camping, and fishing equipment one can imagine. It was hard not to be impressed as I watched Bass manipulate men into buying their way into a designer lifestyle in a way that surpasses even the best women’s advertising. My only lament is for all the miserable wives receiving apple spice candles for their anniversaries.

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Stranger than Fiction

Not satisfied with the day’s kooky quotient, we decided to stop at the Pyramid, a former failed event space, now given over to the Bass Pro Shop in what is a bizarre glamping lifestyle Disney-esque experience. We had a beer in the restaurant bar, which was sandwiched by two undersea-themed bowling alleys, then marveled at the shoals of fish entombed within, idly swishing in their concrete ponds or massive salt-water aquariums. Upon leaving, we both felt a little more nihilistic than usual, but the crossing of the Mississippi was a major milestone for the trip, and we were happy to get to the hotel.

Though we were done courting weirdness for the day, it wasn’t done with us. West Memphis, as it turns out, is not in Tennessee at all, but rather a piss stop of a town just on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi. Understandings were reached regarding budget on this trip, and J and I had no illusions about the quality of the establishments we would be staying in, but having to slide your identification under bullet-proof glass to check-in is never a good omen. The floors were sticky, every surface chipped. The door had obviously been kicked in at some point. We had both gotten little sleep the night before, and were careful to be kind, tip-toeing around the lack of accommodations and utter despair that hung heavy in the room. After running the air conditioner for a little while, we were able to ignore the antiseptic smell. Overheated and exhausted, we laid on the bed, not wanting to pierce the silence with our hot breath. J picked up his phone then looked over. Shattering our polite pretense, he mused, “They have wifi, but I don’t want any of my devices to get VD.”

Our hotel was in West Memphis, which we were not aware was the approximate location of thousands of dead and/or dying dreams. The hotel room itself was clearly the scene of some sort of unsolved mystery at worst, and a culmination of several poor life decisions at best. The door jamb was battered and cracked, while the door frame had clearly been bashed in. Shoddy repairs to the whole mess made it damn near impossible to shut the door, which I was more than happy to do, because after leaving the bubble of foul weather back East, it had gotten proper hot.

After some relaxation to allow the sun to seriously knock it off already, we ventured into Midtown Memphis and had some really tasty pizza at Aldo’s. Like the mature, responsible and exhausted adults we were, we skipped a nightcap and headed straight home, both now carrying two full-term Tennessee food babies. Experiences like this are why we both sympathize with what the sheer effort of pregnancy must entail and also why we want nothing to do with it whatsoever.

We woke up to a 90 degree day, making my uniform of all black everything less than ideal. After parking the car downtown, we took the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island. The much-lauded park was not a green space, but a miniature of the Mississippi River, stretching half a mile, with length, width, and depth to scale. The model included watersheds, lakes that form during times of flooding, estuaries, and cities of importance along its banks. J and I were blown away by the detail and took time to inspect the intricacies, meandering the length despite the merciless heat.

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The mighty Mississippi, to scale

In the morning, we left the former crime scene for Mud Island to see the mighty Mississippi in all its glory. It was pure serendipity to discover a flowing, scale topographical model of Old Man River in the park, and we happily walked the half mile along its banks from start to finish, ending in New Orleans, prompting stories from Y, who had lived there for 5 years. We walked back across the pedestrian bridge and moved the car to Beale Street.

The obligatory tour of Beale Street was performed, its revelers mostly subdued given the heat and hour, but for a dancing band of young adults boisterously bounding to Christian pop in the street. Our hunger fighting through the heat, we walked past the more offensive tourist traps boasting alcoholic slushies and pressed on until stumbling upon Lew’s Blue Note. The place had the lived-in confidence of a dive that’s been doing the thing too long to care if it’s cool, down to the put-out bartender. I’m sure it’s fun as hell at night, when bands play.

It was off-season and during the day, so Beale was a decidedly much tamer affair than the absolutely perfect shitshow it seemed capable of. Lew’s Blew Note, near the end of the drag, was just the type of dive for us, and we hung out in the air-conditioning eating fried catfish, before taking our draft beers to go, which is always a sign of a town that knows how to have a good time. We had already vowed to return and take the town for a proper spin in the future, as our dance card for this trip was overbooked. We’ll see you next time, Stax Museum.

The Civil Rights Museum was staying on our list, however, and it was next. Neither of us were totally aware that it was housed in the now-converted Lorraine Motel. Neither of us were totally aware of how the museum was going to affect us. The museum itself is masterfully done and thorough in its depiction and retelling of slavery and racial injustice in North America from the first colony up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was and will remain a great deal to unpack. After leaving and sharing silence for a time, we began to discuss the various points at which we lost it. Surrounded in the museum as we were by so many who were alive at the time, or even there, if the exhibits didn’t elicit a swell of pain, the overheard anecdotes and stories made certain we were indeed human.

We decided to take in the National Civil Rights Museum before attending dinner in Hot Springs, where the family of a friend had generously offered to host us. The museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, was congested and dense with information. J and I took it in individually, except to point out a fact or photograph here and there. I was amazed by the depth of my ignorance, and delved into exhibits on Diane Nash, the Montgomery bus boycotts, and the predominance of segregation still exhibited in city housing. Still more arresting was the insight gleaned from snippets of overheard conversation. A woman confiding to her friend that she could only work in the storeroom when she was first hired as a clerk at Woolworth’s. Another pulling her grandson toward the photos of the 14 year old girls killed in Birmingham, stroking their sepia faces, uttering, “Those beautiful little girls.” Turning, she explained how they had been in Sunday school, same as him, when their church had been bombed.

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The Lorraine Motel

The few hours we had allotted wasn’t long enough to see everything in the museum’s immense collection, however the graphic nature of the material left us too emotional to absorb much more. We vowed to return. Raw and drained, we quietly made our way back to the car. After some reflection, we both commented on how infuriated we were at how much of this history, especially the more gruesome aspects, had been either glossed over or completely omitted from our history texts. We have done a poor job of commemorating these events, and they are only 50 or 60 years old. I am astonished and despondent that there are those who think that as a society, we should all just get over it. Unthinkable wrongs were committed. Someone who is 70 now was an adult during this time, an active participant for or against civil rights. How can a nation get past 300 years of slavery and sanctioned inequality when our politicians, superiors, pastors, and grandparents all came of age believing their value, indeed their humanity, was hereditary?

As a white male, I can only say that the experience was as powerfully humbling as it was inspiring; I can only hope that put in the shoes of the time that I would have been one of those doing the right thing. It was beautiful to see some white faces on the wall depicting those arrested during the Freedom Rides, but the stakes for them were very different, and what remains are the questions left by the majority who stood by, or worse yet, were among those beating, jeering, and killing. Where did those who tacitly approve go, what did they teach their children, what is it in people that makes these unconscionable acts of hatred linger and repeat?

It is a great deal to comprehend, to wrestle with, and the experience has sunk deep into my bones. If my life serves any purpose, may it be to help push the scales of justice towards an equality shared by all. After the somber and weighty afternoon, the walk back to Beale Street in the hot sun seemed to stretch and pull long in the heat. We arrived back at the car, took a few deep breaths, and continued our journey, crossing the Mississippi for the last time and heading West.

ZEN AND THE ART OF WHISKEY MANAGEMENT

It was cold and drizzling, and as the Uber pulled in to the gravel lot I had managed to glide the car into the night before, I saw the plot had become wetlands with my automotive paperweight mired in the middle. Again, we called AAA. While waiting, we repeated how exceptionally lucky we had been that the malfunction hadn’t caused an accident, that the car died so close to our desired destination, that this didn’t happen in the midday heat of rural Arizona. We decided regardless of its condition (J still believing it might be fixed, me certain it couldn’t be), we would sell the car.

Space phone in hand, I got to work securing the cheapest rental through any permutation of dates and rental locations available. It being the week of Nashville’s Food and Wine Festival, that turned out to be an SUV at a facility adjacent to the cheap repair shop we were towing the car to, instead of a hatchback from the airport. While we sat, the gentleman who owned the used car lot next door sauntered over. I prepared myself for a scolding, worried he might be angry at us for parking on his property. He leaned over the muddy pool surrounding us to ask if we were alright and if we had anyone coming to help. After assuring him we did, he left, only to return minutes later with bottles of water. If you’re going to break down, the South is a good place to do it.

The thick soup of post-Irma weather mixed with the tears of Texas cast Nashville under a solid slab of gloom, which seemed appropriate while we waited for the carcass of our former vehicle to be towed away. The owner of the used car lot adjacent to the abandoned lot we left the car in the night before checked in on us, and brought us waters about twenty minutes later. I am constantly impressed by the ease with which Southerners exhibit kindness. Even our tow driver, who was more than a little racist, had more cold water and blind stabs at humor for us.

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First day of the rest of Two by Tour’s life, last day for this heap.

After the previous evening, the tow truck’s timely response came as a surprise. The driver acted like the good-natured, wise-cracking, good ol’ boy reductive Northerners tend to expect from the South. It was a warm blanket, given the circumstances. However, minutes later he started divulging anecdotes about his interactions with telemarketers, who were all idiot foreign scammers he thought Trump was supposed to have sent back to their own countries by now. I’m always surprised when white men are so daft as to overlook both my ethnicity and gender, making me privy to these kinds of confidences. Annoyed, I struggled to keep my tone in check for the ten minutes I needed his help, all but omitting myself from the exchange. J is just as angered as I by this sort of nonsense, yet somehow always manages to find some diplomatic thing to say to divert the conversation with grace. This time was no different.

The auto shop gave a pretty quick field diagnosis along with a discount for the rental place next door. Rental vehicles were in generally short supply, and we had already happened to make a reservation next door, being that it was the cheapest game in town. The cheapest game in town, by some cruel twist of fate, also gave us the biggest damn car in town. We switched from a Lexus RX to a Chevy Suburban, which we named Maus. Poor Lexus never even managed to get a nickname.

We dropped off the car at the shop and walked over to pick up our rental. The lot, at what turned out to be a combination Avis/U-haul repository, was sparse. A small black Japanese SUV near the back seemed a likely contender to be our new ride. The agent placed our key, tag facing him, on the desk. I read the word Subaru, upside down, and sighed, relieved. Immediately realizing rental car companies do not carry Subarus, I took another look. As I did, the agent pointed over my shoulder, “The white one, over there.”

I beheld the imperious white Chevy Suburban and was immediately dejected. The closer I got, the more frantic panic overtook my self-pity. This car was massive, the same length as the U-haul parked beside it. Carpool a soccer team, chauffeur a prom, single-handedly cause global warming immense. I took a few breaths, steadied myself, and marched back in to politely demand an exchange. The desk agent apologized, saying all he had was that or a sad looking minivan. Depressed by the idea of six weeks in a minivan, I made my way back over to the car. I sat in the driver’s seat. This thing was excessive. I was sure it would certainly get worse mileage than the much older vehicle we had been driving. It would be impossible to park. I had been prepared for the Lexus to crap out, had contingency plans at the ready, but this was too much.

J, trying not to look at me as though I were being irrationally dramatic, attempted to soothe my worries. It was brand new, had stereo advancements beyond a finicky cd player, fully functional air conditioning. He found it even miraculously got the same mileage as my old junker. I looked inside at the slick new interior and tried to accept this fate. I admitted I probably wouldn’t drive a car this nice for another ten years and collected myself. (Turns out, Chevy knows its market, and any fears I had about parking or maneuvering the titanic vehicle were unfounded. That thing is basically idiot-proof. It has a rear camera, side sensors, automatic lights and wipers. It buzzes your seat when you’re riding someone’s tail, though it doesn’t buy you a drink first. You can’t even lock your keys in the car. So much for survival of the fittest.)

However, this moment of Zen came after a test drive about town and lunch at Pinewood Social, a bowling alley/bar/artisanal coffee shop hybrid that is basically the restaurant version of an Anthropologie. With it’s large, airy floor plan, comfortably outfitted alcoves, tongue-in-cheek design elements, and no standing room policy, it is both aspirational and welcoming. It’s the type of thoroughly curated, yet relaxed hipster scene I’d find intolerably phony, were it not executed so solidly. It was sitting here, enjoying my immaculate french dip sandwich, that I was able to finally get my tits straight, with much patience from J.

We spent the afternoon in the Gulch after an epic lunch at Pinewood Social, featuring a beef tongue reuben. We hung out at Party Fowl for beers then got more of the same at the Jackalope Brewery a few doors down. Despite the weather and a total Bro-tel of an AirBnB run by four twenty-somethings (who were as genuinely nice as they were bro-y doofuses) that was inaccessible at the moment because reasons, we were starting to feel some good vibes seep into our cynical bones.

My mood improved, we drove to the Gulch to sample some beers at Party Fowl, where we fell in love with a watermelon gose, then headed to Jackalope, a local brewery, we’d missed our last time in these parts. Their brews deserve every bit of the hype they receive, and they were served by a disinterested young woman who was answering the conversations directed towards her with lack of eye contact and monosyllabic retorts that reminded me of my own magnetic temperament during my (short-lived) stints behind the bar.

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Hattie B’s, an instant mood enhancer

The night before we had been too glad to arrive at our AirBnB to care that our hosts were a house of stoner twenty-somethings who had no garbage cans, kept their shoes in crates in the kitchen, and named their Netflix account DJ Freshy Fresh. After returning to our man-child cave lodgings to not find the promised key under the doormat (they hadn’t a spare for us), we decided to make the best of it with some emotional eating at Hattie B’s. The line moved quickly and we were glad for it, as the smell wafting from the kitchen had readied us for some of the best hot chicken (or fried chicken, for that matter) I’ve had. Their spice blend is nuanced and the oil seeped into the white bread below, absolving it of its formerly superfluous status. The collards and mac and cheese were exactly the comforting fare the day required and we left ready to move on to the big guns and headed across the street in search of whiskey.

We grabbed dinner at Hattie B’s and had the best hot chicken yet and some truly excellent sides. For dessert we popped across the street to investigate Wendell Smith’s, one of Nashville’s countless adorably neon-festooned old school spots. The combination bar/restaurant/liquor store was past service for the former two, but we grabbed a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 and two airplane bottles of Apple Pie Moonshine. The clerk put me on my heels by sermonizing a sort of ad-hoc, here’s-your-booze-invocation, then calling me out for thinking he didn’t know “alternative” music (his emphasis, not mine) when he pointed out my Deerhunter shirt. After checking my ID, he proceeded to shit all over PA for its lack of contribution to the musical canon, before we both started in about Ohio, lamenting that no one from there knows shit about shit, despite sizable contributions to music. Southern hospitality. It’s no myth.

I wandered while J got to work sorting out our bourbon needs, and stumbled into a conversation about apple pie moonshine. I took notice as the clerk pulled two, shot-sized mason jars from behind the counter. Like a child peering into a pet store window, I knew I must have this adorable booze. I convinced J to add two to our purchase, and we settled up. The cashier complimented him on his Deerhunter t-shirt. J started to tell him about the show we had recently seen, when he was good-naturedly cutoff with a, “I know a thing or two about alternative music, young man.” He proceeded to rail off a list of bands, both iconic and obscure, who were underappreciated by their hometowns of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. The ribbing was damn entertaining, and as we headed home to enjoy our whiskey, we laughed at the idea that he most definitely had been the DJ of his college radio station.

 

Cheers!

As we left the store giggling, we got a message from the Bro-tel that we’d be able to get inside, finally. Perched on a rickety mattress on the floor, we drank our dessert, watched Bojack Horseman and sipped 101. We had gotten the all-clear for our Hot Springs, AR plans, and despite some of the next day being taken up with car hassles, things were looking up. After a morning of making arrangements for the recently deceased, we headed to Arnold’s for more of the same amazing food. Arnold’s legendary dessert game delivered with the best pecan pie either of us had ever had. Y’s theory of good food and weather translating to friendly, good-natured people continues to hold up.

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The (other) Parthenon

After spending the better part of an hour using my manager voice to secure the car’s transfer and pickup the following day, we celebrated with a light meat and three lunch at Arnold’s, where we were schooled by both the fried green tomatoes and pecan pie. I had little interest in seeing the reproduction of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, finding it a bit gauche and out of place, but after behaving like a brat the previous day, I figured I owed J one. The structure was built for the Nashville Centennial, and was so favored by the city, they worked to make it a permanent fixture. The building houses four museums. The first, an anthropological chronicle of the Nashville Centennial through photographs and various mementos, was made more personal by the use of two narratives, one an African American lawyer and father attending the celebration with his family, the second, a white woman artist there with her daughter. These differing accounts peppered throughout did an immaculate job of showing the unsettling ways in which the event would have been experienced by minority groups. The exhibit further showed its dedication to an honest retelling of an ignoble history by addressing the racism promoted at attractions such as the Mexican and Chinese Villages, or by the separation of African Americans in the Negro Building. The hypocrisy of women attending lectures on suffrage and employment in the Women’s Building while being surrounded by displays meant to appeal to their domestic nature, was also discussed.

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Statue of Athena at the Nashville Parthenon

The second gallery housed a gift of 63 paintings, mostly landscapes, showcasing American painters. The third featured cheeky paintings by a Tennessee native flaunting the state’s many symbols. However the main attraction was the reproduction itself. The statue of Athena residing there is breathtaking, and a docent sensing our interest pointed out that in Greece, the wide, shallow channel before her would have been filled with water and reflected the statue’s gold brilliantly. He then took us around back to show off the engineering that allows a single Y or J to open and shut the largest doors in the world. He confided that in order to place them in their hinges without scratching the marble floor installed beneath them, a sheet of ice had been placed between the two. Fascinating was a series of models detailing how a local husband and wife team of sculptors had reproduced the elaborate scenes on the friezes through a laborious process of first casting the artifacts, then using clay to build up the missing portions of the statues on to the casts, using these composites to create a cohesive mold, and finally casting once more from this mold.

Happy and increasingly hopeful about our joint enterprise, we set off for the Nashville Parthenon. The building itself is breathtaking, but the story behind it and the Centennial Exposition of 1897 that originally brought it to Nashville is what makes it truly stirring. Our luck with guides and/or docents persisted, and we were both shown that we could each single-handedly move the largest bronze door in the world (at a whopping 7.5 tons) when a guide took us under his wing. As we walked around the perimeter of the building there was a man playing an ocarina. A fucking ocarina. Which provided a lovely lilting soundtrack to our stroll of Centennial Park, a remnant of the 1897 event.

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Ancestral Modern Aboriginal Art at the KMAC

The last time we had been in Nashville we had failed to budget our time wisely and ended up only seeing half of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and ironically, this time around only half of the gallery space was on display. We gladly paid the half-price admission and took in the exhibit of Aboriginal contemporary art, which left us both inspired to create and put our hands on some paint or pencils. The more I learn and witness the common threads in the shamanistic beliefs of the world, the more I am amazed by the simple truths they weave.

The Ancestral Modern exhibit on Aboriginal art at the Frist proved equally unexpected. I had harbored a vague notion of beautifully repetitive patterns like those found in Native American crafts, however here was sophisticated, emotive, modern art with an arresting use of color and movement. I found the paintings on bark particularly affecting, as the history behind it. Traditionally, the painted bark would have been tied together in a cylinder, once more forming a hollow “tree”, then used to house the bones of the deceased so that in time, they may be left out to return to the earth. Featured artist Emily Kan Kngwarray, had not picked up a brush before she was 80, then went on to create over a thousand canvases in the 8 years before she passed. I found her work as compelling as her story.

 

“Anooralya (Wild Yam Dreaming)”, Emily Kam Kngwarray, 1995.

After the exhibit, we headed to Broadway for some traditional BBQ. Finding parking to be, as the kids say, a clusterfuck, due to multiple events, we parked gratis across the river right next to the stadium and enjoyed a walk over the Cumberland River on a converted rail bridge towards the swirl of neon and music. We found our quarry at Martin’s, which was epic and definitely worth the extra few blocks’ walk off the main drag.

Nashville, Tennessee

With downtown being a tangle of traffic, we parked across from Titans’ Stadium and used the pedestrian bridge to cross the Cumberland River. The sun setting and the city lights mirrored on the water, it was a vivid scene. We indulged in entirely too much smoked meat at Martin’s, then headed to HQ to drink exceptional beers while trying not to embarrass ourselves in pinball. After a few heated matches, an unforgettable chai porter, and a triumphant team offensive against zombie aliens, we wrestled ourselves away from Nashville’s unquestionable charm and bid the city goodnight.

For a nightcap we went to Headquarters. We discovered on our last trip to Nashville that there was everything to love about an arcade bar and dj spot with a solid beer list. In just an hour or so, we had saved the planet from aliens, killed centipedes, discovered we were terrible at slinging beer (at least in 8-bit) and beaten the tar out of each other. We also shared in the ritual cocktail of rage, jubilation, and violence that is pinball, bowing our heads in woeful defeat before the angry gods of Flippers, Tilts and Drains. Full of good food and another batch of fond memories, we walked back across the footbridge under the faint stars in neon haze and went home.

So much to learn you have, young Padawan.

 

THE LIGHT AT THE END OF A TUNNEL

Louisville is a proper Southern town with a proper Southern drinking culture, and as two people who enjoy that kind of amusement, J and I were happy to spend the next day partaking. Bardstown Road is a sort of thoroughfare for establishments both divey and high-end, and feeling there was no better way to get a feel for the city in our limited time, we embraced the variety with gusto and our credit cards in tow.

After some quick research, it was decided our base would be sandwiches from the Morris Deli, an unassuming packaged liquor shop with a limited deli counter. Though small, it was no afterthought. Four employees were on hand to manage the volume. The tables all being full, we went to take two stools at the high counter, directly across from the employees composing sandwiches. One met J’s gaze as we pulled the stools away, and sensing a possible faux pas, J implored, “Cool if we sit here?”

“Gravity works there the same as anywhere.”

When you work in restaurants you develop a respect for surliness delivered without actual insult. It’s a craft. And I chortled (as did J, once he got over the shock) at the decidedly un-southern hospitality.

Our sandwiches arrived, pulled pork for J, shredded pork and lamb for me, undressed on plain white buns, looking like sloppy joe’s on small paper plates. However, any initial impressions regarding the sandwich’s understated appearance gave way the moment I tried it. Any chef worth his salt will tell you it’s way more impressive to convert something meager into something incredible with technique, seasoning, and a ton of time then to make a great dish using components of superior quality. This sort of humble cooking exists everywhere, in small towns and home kitchens, unnoticed by Eater and the foodie horde. It doesn’t advertise. It doesn’t photograph well. J’s sandwich was equally stellar and we kept offering bites with the uncharitable hope to be able to taste each other’s pick again.

Y had planned a fairly thorough march down the Bardstown corridor for the day, so we began by building the base at the Morris Deli and hashing out some logistics, then arguing about the same. We took ourselves and the mostly good-natured difference of opinions over to Bambi Bar, and by the time we had a beer or two and a nip of Buffalo Trace, the difference of opinion had been discovered to largely have been a series of poor communications. We left ready for action and enjoyed the walk almost as much as the regionally-appropriate accents on the talking walk signals.

I ogled the game systems at the Hideaway Saloon, our next stop, but gaming is a cold-weather pursuit, and certainly not one I’m going to subject a novice to while on vacation. I will, however, add that Y has routinely destroyed me at Tekken. Which is whatever, I was a Nintendo kid. Talk to me about them Hadoukens. Cumberland Brews was next, and we sampled 6 of the 10 beers on deck, which were all stellar. Next, Nowhere, decidedly a less chaotic place from the last time I saw it (at around 1am) was the perfect place for Y to exorcise the hiccup demon that had been bounding up and down her spine for the last hour.

Exorcisms are laborious affairs, and an appetite had been worked up, so we walked across the street to Taco Luchador, where they execute tacos with French Revolution precision. The sweet potato fries with mole are so good you will likely soil your pants. Because sometimes gravity meets excitement and it’s a hilarious summer rom-com romp. More than fully sated, we staggered off to the Holy Grale for some dank-ass sour beer. Pacific Ocean Blue has to be one of the coolest and weirdest beers I’ve ever had.

Foundation laid, we strode the few blocks to Bambi, because when you want to day drink on a Monday, you want to start somewhere where nobody will judge you. The camouflage upholstered booths, coarse regulars, and fine whiskey selection were a welcoming avenue into our desired state of intoxication. Banana bread beers at Hideaway came courtesy of a black-eyed bartender (though whether he lost a fight with another human or a staircase, I didn’t ask). Cumberland Brewery’s beers were as distinctive as the attractive handblown glass handles on their taps. At Nowhere Bar, I drank a fantastic sour ale, which was wholly eclipsed by the relief of finally expelling hiccups that had seized me for the better part of an hour. After a quick belly refill of tacos and mole sweet potato fries at El Taco Luchador, we were back at it with craft sours at Holy Grail, where my hiccups reemerged. After ridding myself once more with a quart or so of water, I pleaded with J to bow out of our last stop at Highlands Tap Room due to overconsumption. He answered said plea with two car bombs. I consider this a dirty move and contest his victory.

Our finishing move for the evening was a carbomb, a competition I hope Y will never concede my superiority in, because they’re so damn fun and victory tastes so damn sweet. We knew we were gonna be sluggish in the morning, but the news went down as easy as the drinks. Surprisingly, we managed to get our shit together in fairly short order the next day, and went to the KMAC and saw a wonderful exhibit called Victory Over the Sun, which was a timely theme given the recent eclipse. The standout was a short film called “Steven” by Nick Doyle, along with some props/pieces from the film.

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“Eradicate”, Mel Bochner, 2017.

We dragged ourselves out of bed the next day and were in surprisingly good shape by the time we hit up the KMAC museum. It was featuring an exhibit entitled Victory Over The Sun, both a literal reference to the recent solar eclipse as well as a figurative rumination on things being repressed, covered up, or censored. Though small, the exhibit was profound. After grabbing lunch at Main Eatery, a perfectly executed sandwich shop with a jovial owner taking orders and doling out whip-smart humor, we headed toward Mammoth Caves, hoping to reach the park in time for the last tour of the day.

Upon arrival, a park ranger informed us on the available tours and gave us his recommendations. After a few minutes of being confused as to why he was suggesting tours that had already begun, we came to realize we had crossed time zones. Spoiler alert, this is not the last time this occurrence would come as a surprise.

We left Louisville and set off for the Mammoth Cave, the largest mapped cave system on earth, which had me a little leery, as I tend to get claustrophobic easily. The doubts proved unfounded, and it was an amazing experience. The cave is so naturally and perfectly quiet that it demands reflection on the power and persistence of time that formed those passages. Everyone on the tour seemed hypnotized with the same reverence for the truly alien place. I would absolutely do a tour of the cave system again in a heartbeat.

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The Rotunda of the Mammoth Cave

The perfect dark our guide subjected us to was terrifying at first, but after reaching out for a familiar hand, it took on a different shape and felt peaceful. Being so brave, I treated myself to strawberry ice cream afterwards while we waited out a rainstorm. The rain cleared, and we headed back to the Interstate, pausing for photo-ops at spots in Cave City, a series of roadside attractions just off the highway in varying states of functionality.

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Hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth, still cracking jokes

We opted for the long, dully-named historic tour, based solely on the ranger’s adamant advocacy. It was anything but. Before we had even left the visitor’s center, our guide, Darren, was making bawdy jokes and cheekily preparing us for the physical aptitude necessary to complete the two-hour tour. His enthusiasm for the subject matter created a communal interest within the group. We were drawn in not only by the magnificence of the scale of what we were seeing, but of the accounts of Native Americans, miners, ministers, slave guides, and tourists who had all scaled these depths before us. It was inspiring, and we listened with rapt attention. Upon emerging out into a thunderous storm, we left the magic of the mythos behind, running up the trailway toward cover. After a last look around the visitor’s center, we began the hour and a half drive to Nashville.

The road back to I-65 would lead us through Cave City, a town of souvenir shops, amusements, and roadside attractions built up to fleece cave tourists of a few more dollars. I was on alert, my marveling eyes orbs. Here was Americana in all its glory. Mini-golf courses, a haunted village, bumper cars, a life-size dinosaur park, and shops hawking geodes had all sprung up around the park’s exit. Houses positioned on the main drag promoted hand-maid birdhouses and antiques. We passed an ominous looking abandoned go-kart track, a cart still left on the tarmac, now serving as a planter to the vegetation which had quietly taken over. J pulled aside so I could inspect it further, but I was reluctant to get too close as groundhogs had overrun the lot.

I was distracted, on my phone, when J first mentioned his annoyance at the ticking. Picking up my head I acknowledged the muscle car ahead of us, still exhibiting temporary plates, whose owner was clearly stretching its legs to see what it could do. Careless driving, I thought, but didn’t even notice the ticking with the music on. I grunted, addressing the remark, and turned my attention back to the phone. Seventeen miles from our destination, the ticking finally broke through my oblivion and I knew, the engine. “That’s us, pull off at the next stop.” Seconds later there was a grinding, some sputtering. I urgently commanded, “Pull over, now.” J crossed two lanes and reduced our speed from 75 to 0 in less than a quarter-mile, setting us to rest on the shoulder. We looked at each other and I took his hand.

I called AAA. As the owner of an eighteen year old rust box with 235,000 miles, a gas cap that needs to be hit just so to open, and windows that only stay up when locked, I have some experience in calling for backup.

“Are you safe?” the voice on the other end asked. Each car speeding by in the near lane created a backdraft, rocking the car with its suction.

“Not really. we’re on the shoulder of I-65.”

“I’ll make you a priority.”

Location information was exchanged. The promise of a tow-truck within a half-hour allowed relief to trickle in, mirroring the storm outside. We were 1500 miles away from needing an oil change. Perhaps there was a leak, a crack in a gasket. We would get it towed to the nearest gas station three miles away to look it over and go from there. Flashers on, we obediently waited. And waited.

An hour later I received a call. The original tow company was backed up, and a second had been dispatched. They would be arriving in twenty minutes. I thanked the operator for the update and conveyed our new status to J. As minutes dragged on, I tormented myself skimming “engine ticking” search results. The data was not comforting. Though J optimistically suggested the car might be fixable, I remained unconvinced.

With dusk turning to dark and the weather worsening, the steady stream of cars whizzing nearby was leaving me irritated, edgy. I had to pee. I kept replaying the cautionary advice I had heard somewhere I now couldn’t place about not leaving your car when stranded on a busy road. My back was in knots. We got another call. The tow truck would be there in twenty minutes.

About 45 minutes later, the car engine began tapping, and we quickly pulled off when it became worse and called AAA. Over 3 hours of twenty-minute waits later, they got us to the gas station we were aiming for, a mere three miles away. We topped off the oil, hoping that was the problem, or at least that it would get us to our AirBnB for the night, only twenty minutes away. We opted for back roads, and the tapping subsided slightly, but ten minutes down the road, the tapping cut out entirely with a short metallic rasp, and Y was suddenly driving dead stick- no brakes, no power and diminishing steering.

Forty minutes later, a full three hours after my initial call, the truck arrived. He took us the short trip to the next exit, abandoning us at the gas station in the rain. We used the bathroom, rallied, checked the oil level, bought some more. We let the engine run. It sounded bad. J proposed using back roads to tackle the last few miles to our AirBnB. There was a mechanic less than a mile away from our destination. We could bring it there in the morning. The desire to end the ordeal was too great. Exhausted, I agreed.

We trepidatiously started out on quiet state roads, almost empty now with rush hour now long gone. The engine flitted all the way, though softer now. Six miles into the campaign, there was a final hiccup as I lost brakes, transmission, and felt the steering tighten. Seeing a gravel plot on the opposite side of the road, I used all I had to pull the wheel left, veering across two lanes of oncoming traffic, drifting to a stop in the rocky patch.

While I was busy blinking and looking for a pull off, Y quickly executed a U-turn with the last oomph left in the steering column and pulled us into the front of an abandoned building on the generally desolate road, where the inertia of the dead car ground itself out into the mud. We took a breath, called an Uber and gathered up the unloseables and a few bags. We made our destination for the day 4 hours late, both of us barely speaking above a whisper.

Defeated, I let J call an Uber as I packed a few bags to take to the house. I had known the car wouldn’t last the trip. I had just thought it would hold out a bit longer. We could deal with whatever was next tomorrow. All I was accomplishing tonight was tequila consumption and sleep.

After all the missteps and tiny disasters and pure sometimes-life-is-bullshit nonsense we’ve handled together, it was another day at the office. The experience registered more like “Holy fuck, that was the luckiest series of sour notes we could have played, we could be dead,” than “Holy fuck, everything is ruined forever”. We knew the car was going to die, and dealing with it was just going to be another notch in the belt. We had planned for this, and a rental was one of the many contingencies in the budget. We refuse to be stopped. Team Felicidad does not negotiate with terrorists.

The shattered calm of the day was eventually mended by copious amounts of tequila, which fixes everything. We probably would have had better luck throwing that into the engine.

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The party line is that he earned it.

WATERWAYS AND AMERICAN HEROES

Packing up the car the next day, we were surrounded by a parade of the bleary-eyed, circling the perimeter of the hotel parking lot attending to the morning urges of their furry companions. It was acutely adorable, even for someone who purports to be immune to such things, and it roused a yearning in me for my own fluffy sidekick.

I had planned for us to visit some of West Virginia’s most scenic vistas before beginning our trek West, to Kentucky. The first of these stops was Cathedral Falls. J was still nursing a residual headache from the previous night’s indulgence, but the ability to walk right up to the falls while still in full view of the parking lot proved a painless feat well worth the payoff. The falls, though almost seven stories high, cascade gently down into a naturally concave arc of stone, and trickle towards US 60. Large boulders dot the basin below, creating easily scaled avenues around its base. A chestnut tree near the top of the falls was recklessly releasing its nuts, the hard shells dangerously ricocheting down the stone steps. One soared right past me and rolled into the underbrush of the surrounding treeline. J went to investigate the fallen nut, but found it had come to rest beside a petite, coiled snake. We shook off the shock and let the nut and snake be.

Our first stop outside of Charleston on our roundabout way to Lexington was Cathedral Falls, which was on the way to the National Park around the New River Gorge crossing. If you blink, you’ll miss the pull off for the Falls, as it’s literally tucked into the hillside along the road. As we walked back into the natural amphitheater, the space opened up into a true ornate edifice of devotion. It’s no mistake how this holy place received its moniker.

Our weather in West Virginia couldn’t have been better, which certainly helped the case that there was natural beauty just around every corner, and it’s more than a little humbling to realize that the tide of civilization has washed away a lot of these shrines, large and small. A neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I lived is called Bloomfield, labelled as such by a young George Washington as it was a vast plateau of wild flowers in bloom. It’s decidedly less captivating today, and significantly more monochromatic than anything.

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You only live once.

I had been hearing of the roadside attraction known as the “Mystery Hole” for almost as long as I had been living in Pittsburgh. It was a famously ambiguous attraction, said to be some sort of portal into a dimension in which the laws of gravity could be manipulated. Suffice it to say that the rumors are accurate, the guides charming, and the spectacle well worth the price of admittance should you find yourself in those parts.

Just up the road was an attraction Y had already primed me for, and I had been excited for the last few days to unravel the mystery of the Mystery Hole. It is certainly both of those things, and features a delightful tour that shall not be discussed, as I would never want to ruin another’s Mystery Hole.

A little further down the road was the Hawk’s Nest Vista far above the New River, one of countless park facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. We stopped to stretch our legs and take some pictures before heading to the main event for the day. We walked out to the vistas at the New River Gorge Crossing National park and wandered through the museum, but while that experience was fun, it doesn’t do the bridge justice. It’s the longest single arch span bridge in the world and the second tallest in the country, but it somehow seems unworthy of such benchmarks, surrounded as it is by greenery and lacking the usual metrics of a metro area. Thanks to the advice of one of the Rangers, we went down the gorge to the river to see the original crossing.

We diverged momentarily to view Hawk’s Nest Overlook (I firmly believe in pulling over for all overlooks), before continuing to the New River Gorge Bridge. The bridge had gained my notice by being on some ”best of” list, but I honestly couldn’t imagine being impressed by a bridge after seeing the New Orleans Causeway, New York’s Verrazano, or three years in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges. The cynic in me was silenced as the short path from the parking lot opened onto a small landing surveying the bridge and a portion of the valley below. The valley’s visibility was blocked not by poor planning in the positioning of the landing, but by almost a thousand feet of sloping Appalachian mountainside. The bridge is magnificent in scope, a marvelous testament to man’s tenacity and ingenuity, and the roar of cars crossing it thunderously reverberates against the steep sides of the gorge.

The trail leading from the landing to a lower vantage point was closed for repairs, but after probing a park ranger I learned of a way to descend the gorge, following the original roads to a small bridge at its base. We negotiated the twisted and bowed switchbacks of the narrow trail, plummeting down through five separate ecosystems, defined by elevation, before letting out onto a single lane bridge spanning the New River, which once connected the two company coal towns on its opposing banks. The views of the newer arch towering overhead were more breathtaking from the river below, and a stop meant to be a brief diversion instead occupied a few hours.

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The New River Gorge Bridge as seen from down below its span.

Driving under the bridge puts into perspective exactly how massive the enterprise really is. The drive down alone takes more than a minute, especially with stops at vistas. The floor of the gorge was the former home to a pair of long vanished coal towns, and the walk around the area and across the reconstructed original bridge crossing was fantastic. We came back up the opposite side of the gorge, marveled at the bridge some more and continued on, hitting Cam’s Ham in Huntington, WV for some unrivaled yet understated sandwiches. See also: Baller onion rings. Lexington seemed as sleepy as we were, so after some Chartreuse and soda, we went to bed ready for Louisville.

We were to spend the night in Lexington, leaving West Virginia and its clever church marquees (i.e. “Jesus wants full custody, not just a weekend visit.”). I had heard of a restaurant serving sandwiches of some note along the way. Cam’s Ham is a relic, part eatery, part Coca-Cola memorabilia museum, housed in what seems to be a still older former pizzeria. The menu is small, consisting of a number of straight-forward sandwiches which are hardly more than meat and cheese on a bun. We ordered the signature chipped ham, a regional delicacy also celebrated in Pittsburgh, as well as the fried chicken. They were aces. As a self-described authority on sandwiches, I am almost embarrassed at how blown away I was by the humble creations. Also though, that slaw.

I am a long-time Wild Turkey enthusiast and consider Jimmy Russell a national treasure. In a former life, J spent a good deal of time honing his talents behind the stick, and during this time he was given the opportunity to tour many of Kentucky’s distilleries, Wild Turkey being one of them. However, he was willing to indulge me and revisit the facilities once more with only the minor speculation that I not actually follow through with my taunt of asking Mr. Russell to sign my décolleté (I didn’t) should I see him (I did). Kentucky is beautiful country and the drive to the distillery was pictorial and pleasant. The visitor’s center is both rustic and modern, located at the edge of a cliff, and we passed the time awaiting our tour watching hawks hovering overhead. The lobby housed an engaging exhibit detailing the brand’s history, and the tour explored both the distillery and the rick houses. While my own experience in hospitality has given me occasion to visit a number of operations in my own right, it was still impressive to see how the company employs modern methods to increase efficiency while upholding their dedication to traditional quality.

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Heaven

The night was filled with bizarre (Chartreuse-fueled) dreams. The vast majority of REM was relegated to Camp Runamok, a summer camp for bartenders I’ve been lucky enough to attend in the past that features, among many, many other things, tours of Bourbon Trail distilleries, so I woke up feeling nostalgic and touchy as we headed to Wild Turkey. This of course graduated into some full-on tears when our tour hit the rick house. One of the happiest places on the planet for me is standing alongside whole clans of dreaming whiskey, watching the dust motes hover in the light and stealing some magic from the angels, who are actually pretty decent at sharing.

Despite the nips of whiskey, we were both feeling a bit combative, and I all but challenged J to pick our next venture before settling in Louisville for the night. After a few moments of searching, he directed me to the Falls of the Ohio, located just past the downtown area on the Indiana side of the river. With summer in its last desperate throes, the water was too shallow for the falls to execute their theatrics. The event proved fortuitous, as the low levels revealed a flat of fossilized coral jutting deep into the river. The beds were remnants from a time 400 million years ago when Kentucky and Indiana had rested below a tropical sea just South of the equator. Gazes downward, we silently ambled over the steps of baked flats searching for specimens.

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The Falls of the Ohio River, laid bare

After the distillery, we slipped North into Indiana to observe the Falls of the Ohio. While we expected falling water, we were delightfully surprised to discover that in late summer, the water table drops, leaving what causes the falls in broad daylight. The normally churning water of the Ohio is grinding over a whole shoal of extinct coral. Say that three times fast. It was beautiful slow summer strolling, and we took our time, hoping to spot some good finds. We finished our survey then slipped back across the river to The Silver Dollar for some of the best damn food and beer we’ve ever had. I will dream of that cheeseburger for years.

Having developed an appetite wandering the coral beds in the heat, J suggested stopping by Silver Dollar for a bite. Their patio was a welcoming enclave of string lights and wafts of smoked meat, and the house pickled sausage made me wonder why that isn’t more of a thing. Kentucky is full of smart, charming folks who don’t utilize sarcasm to convey their intelligence, as is de rigueur in the Northeast. People here tend to want to be helpful, polite. So when our waiter brought over a to-go box during the lull between consuming the first and second halves of the best damn catfish sandwich I’m likely to ever consume, I didn’t take it as a suggestion to practice moderation.

Sandwich bested and AirBnB checked into, we decided to investigate Amy Z’s, a neighborhood dive. It took moments to discern our bartender was the proprietor, and Miss Amy seemed to know how to have a good time. After introductions were made and explanations of why we were there produced, she pushed over some Manhattan flavored jell-o shots, touting her own abilities with the art form. Amy appeared to want to get drunk, and secure some company for the endeavor. We proved not all that hard to convince. Amy regaled us with stories of her favorite regulars and how she came to own the bar over shots of Fireball, darting from one anecdote to the next with only occasional cohesion. She interrupted her service of patrons to drag us outside to take our picture before the mural on the building’s rear wall, pausing to correct my awkward posture and condemn my unflattering choice of wardrobe like a bossy Southern aunt. Hours later, as we stumbled back to our room, I mentioned that Amy Z was the version of myself I could have realized had I not left New Orleans.

Our AirBnB offered a quick breather, then we ventured out into the night to Amy Z’s and had the best of possible evenings. Stories and shots and smiles flowed and that quiet corner of a bar on a Sunday was the center of the universe with every cheers. Amy Z is an American hero and an indefatigable hostess, and I’ll shoot Fireball with her any day of the year. We left smiling on the walk home, equally excited for the day we had and the campaign of drinking we had planned for the next.

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Amy Z might as well have been holding us at gunpoint. This picture was going to happen within two minutes of us walking in the door.

WEIGHING THE ANCHOR

Before leaving Ohio we still had a few missions to complete, which honestly bothered me more than it should have. While it’s no one’s fault but my own that the big dumb state has been a big dumb anchor for my exploration of this big dumb world, feeling tethered to said anchor, even after the umbilical has been cut, feels taut, drawn and strained. I was more than a little cranky about spending any extra minutes in the Heart of it All.

We took a short trip to Brandywine Falls in the Cuyahoga National Park. While the area, in general, was flecked with the gold of recall, I don’t believe I ever saw the actual Falls before. We took a gorgeous and leisurely walk through the woods; a simple forest bath after the cacophony only large families can orchestrate. Our boots got their baptism, and we strolled out past the Falls feeling fresh and foolish enough to get back in the car.

Having spent the previous week in Cleveland, Ohio’s version of a 90’s sitcom (albeit with alcohol and swear words), I wanted the first stop on our trip to be somewhere serene where J and I could peacefully reconnect and discuss our intentions for the impending journey. Nearby Cuyahoga National Park, with its tractable trails and scenic falls, seemed a likely respite for clearing our heads and breaking in the new hiking boots we had both purchased for the venture.

Forty-five minutes after saying our goodbyes, we were tallying our first national park on our scorecard, and descending the wooden walkway which led to the summit of picturesque Brandywine Falls. At one time, the falls bore a number of mills, supporting the village of Brandywine which sprung up around them. Now all that remains of Brandywine are decaying foundations and a house built by one of the mill owners, which has since been repurposed as an inn. We paused for a while to admire the falls, then traversed the trail leading down to the creek below. The shafts of afternoon sun peeked through the canopy, bathing the woods with an ethereal luster. The stream glistened in the light and we climbed down its banks to wade, noting how the current had worn away the shale in places, leaving only sandstone. We paused often, inspecting a foreboding bog, a tangled root formation, an ancient, looming tree that seemed to reign over the grove in which it grew. J showed me a felled trunk, inscribed with loops and curves, explaining they were avenues created by bugs burrowing beneath its bark.

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Two by Tour does not condone or encourage the pursuit or chasing of waterfalls.

My brother in law had recommended Jib-Jab, a hot dog shop from his neck of the woods, and only a few minutes from our Scrooge McDuckian trove of material wealth. For the love of Cthulu, get the fucking cheddar dog. Nothing else matters. Maybe dem fries doe. We locked the last few wisps of real world up along with winter coats and other things we were glad to put out of mind, then stopped at a wetlands preserve just up the road. Even in my grouch-state, an Ohio boy could appreciate the stubborn goldenrod and wildflowers left standing in the chill, hairy-backed, mouthbreathing of an incipient Fall.

While in Cleveland, I had become aware that should my dilapidated vehicle hold out long enough to cross the United States’ Southern border, I could potentially be asked to submit a copy of my title (a document safely stowed away in our storage unit) by any customs official with a tenacious inclination for adherence to international regulations. During our first attempt at delivering our effects to the storage unit, I had somehow become aware, despite my sleep-deprived stupor, of a neighboring wetlands preserve. After a quick pit stop to procure said document, I convinced J to stop and explore the grounds with me. The fields of Mill Creek Preserve spanned out from the lane, teeming with wildflowers sprouting at shoulder height. The intense yellows and oranges were dramatically set off by the purple sky of an impending storm, goading us to cut our walk short, and we reached the car just as the first heavy droplets plummeted upon us.

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Mill Creek Preserve

With the rain beginning to fall, we hopped back into the car and headed for the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We drove past, under and through coal power plants and no-horse towns, wending through the hills and mountains of West Virginia. We arrived in Wheeling at the McClure Hotel around 9, a place that clearly meant something when my part of the country didn’t have to make shit up to feel like they meant anything.

The rain persisted as we made our way towards Wheeling, West Virginia. Our path took us past sloping hillsides dotted with coal plants, their orange lights emanating a celestial luminescence in the twilight. They reminded me of the return trips home from New York as a child, my drowsy eyes canvassing the stretch of refineries along the Jersey highway – their lights reflected off the smoke billowing from their stacks, spawning a grave haze, dimly lit against the night. J and I quietly wondered at their majesty, these urban constellations.

We made our way to the McClure Hotel just as weariness began to set in. A fact heralded by my three attempts to park the car, and reaffirmed by responding with a reflexive, “You too!” when the front desk agent bade us to enjoy our stay. The McClure must have once been quite grand, but was now the cheapest room available along this leg of our route. Its expensive looking wood-paneled elevator, cut-glass lamps, and solid, heavy furniture now were cracked and worn, emitting a musty odor. A somewhat more recently placed sign in the elevator touted guests of note who had once stayed at the hotel, suggesting that it may even have been a possible rendezvous point for President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. The absurd attempt at convincing patrons of the inn’s past splendor prompted J to remark on the availability of black light tours of the Kennedy suite, eliciting laughs from us both.

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Two by Tour is officially calling bullshit.

Wheeling is very beautiful, very quiet, like an old cross-stitch missing the last few threads. We stayed in the hotel to write and plan and made some phone calls. My Father, ever-supportive, offered further congratulations for the two of us:

“What the two of you are doing, it takes balls.”

Or ovaries. Or both. Whatever.

The next day we packed back up and drove through more of the mountains majestic to New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna colony of over 100 people/families in the area. We were there to see the Palace of Gold, what was originally intended to be a home for their founding saint. He unfortunately passed before completion, but his followers continued their work and built something truly glorious.

It’s slightly dilapidated in its current condition, but restoration work was being done on every aspect of the facility and its campus as we explored. Even in its shoddier parts, it remains a beautiful act of dedication and humility by a bunch of self-taught builders who have more chops than most contractors today.

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No passport required. This is West Virginia.

A few years back I had made an outing with some friends to Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold. Believing J would be fascinated by both the craftsmanship and the spectacle of the structure, I wanted to revisit the grounds. A good deal of reconstruction had occurred since I had last been there, and members of the congregation were scattered throughout the property tending to gardens or painting portions of the facade. The recently cultivated rose garden was in full bloom, perfuming the surrounding acreage with its heady scent. We walked the perimeter, then toured the gilded palace. The structure had been outfitted with mosaic marble walkways, bedecked with intricate wood carvings and frescos, and adorned with stained glass and Swarovski crystals. Elaborately embroidered banners trimmed the interior rooms. Ceilings were lined in gold leaf. However, such opulent ornamentation in the name of a man who promoted living simply stung of hypocrisy, and my inability to reconcile that truth outweighed my appreciation for the skill exhibited. My distrustful nature further piqued by repeated nudges from members of the congregation inviting us to join the assemblage for lunch, we were persuaded to move on.

We were invited to lunch no less than three times, and it was truly striking how genuine, honest and generous the people on the campus were. Of course, jaded other J was silently squalling “CULT!” on repeat while quarter-expecting “What does this rag smell like?” from around the corner. While joking about the inherent lack of trust that seems coded into our DNA, we caught sight of a white peacock. We stopped, snapped pictures, oohed and ahhed. “That’s a fuckin good omen,” I proclaimed. We quickly looked up the symbolism. The quick read is a symbol of purity, the Divine self realized, renewal and rebirth. We agreed it was indeed a good omen. Y had the idea to get tattoos of the omen commemorating our trip. We’re excited for that hot needle bite.

Next was a brief trip to Moundville to see the Archive of the Afterlife, a kind of modern roadside attraction put together by a regional occult and weird shit expert who has Been On TV once or twice. It was everything and nothing and is well worth the trip. Or the $2.50. Icing on the cake was that it was in a room on the second floor of a nearly-condemned repurposed elementary school, complete with 80s pop culture murals still clinging to the hallway wall.

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Too late to get it autographed.

I had heard of some macabre sideshow calling itself the Archive of the Afterlife housed nearby and insisted we continue forging ahead on our tour of the eccentric. The address led us to a run-down elementary school, in which the classrooms had been overhauled into storefronts, like a makeshift strip mall. Billed as a paranormal museum, it more closely resembled the attic of a childless couple who had passed on in the house they bought as newlyweds. The collected artifacts garnered the anticipated amusement from J and I, but the real gem was the building itself. There had been no renovations made to the common areas when converting the space, and the hallways bore murals of 80’s pop icons like the California Raisins, Garfield, and A.L.F. Excitedly surveying the strangely augmented walls, my attention was drawn upward, where immense glue traps had been hung along the HVAC ducts lining the hallway’s ceiling. The thought of rodents darting along the ducts above irked me far more than anything I’d seen in the archive and I hastened back to the car.

We cruised on into Charleston and had some orgasmically good burritos at Tricky Fish. Afterwards, we hung out for a spell at the Empty Glass, taking in some truly fire cool jazz, along with the entire graduating class of 1970, which is older than my dad, who is bonafide old. Perhaps inspired by the company or the road ahead we turned in early, retelling the day and hoping for sunnier weather.

Charleston was meant to be our evening’s final destination, and by the time we breached the city, our appetites were voracious. Thankfully, the Tricky Fish, a taqueria/bar/stoner outfit, sated us with their immense, killer burritos. Bellies full, we tottered to the Empty Glass for a digestif. Part dive bar, part Elk’s lodge, the place had an inclusive vibe, a well-curated beer selection, and some truly talented jazz/funk musicians who seemed to be playing to entertain themselves as much as for the crowd. Places like this lend themselves to adventures fueled by excess, and not wanting to go down that road with the car in tow, we headed to the hotel to get soused responsibly, in our room.

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Some people may see strange birds wandering roadways, Two by Tour sees signposts.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

I am an excellent packer. When I moved from a two bedroom apartment in New Orleans to share a one bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen with my boyfriend fourteen years ago, my roommate found me laid out on the hardwood floor, 72 hours into packing, exhausted and overwhelmed. He took pity on me that day. Nursed me back to sanity. Enlightened me on how to properly place books, clothes, dishes in boxes, wisdom which had somehow eluded me until then. Ever since, I have armed myself for moving with the knowledge that it is a campaign capable of being won. I pack thoughtfully, efficiently, considering what will first be necessary when I get to my destination. I buy supplies in advance. I’ve never lost a plate.

I use this same mindfulness when packing for a trip. I pick the color palette for my wardrobe, choose two pairs of shoes, and build my outfits from there. I have often traveled with nothing more than my large purse. A useful talent when storing your entire life away but for two suitcases, meant to take you from 110 degree dessert hikes to date night in December. And after helping J make the exact same decisions a month earlier I felt ready for the task.

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“I can has adventure?”

People use all kinds of barometers to discern when a person becomes an adult. At 27 in Manhattan, I remember being horrified reading an article about a 26 year old woman’s death, and thinking I’d be wrongly referred to as a woman, should something happen to me. I have good credit, I have been responsible for people’s livelihoods, but I wasn’t to taste adulthood until the first time I hired movers.

That same move to New York, my boyfriend and I arrived in our 26 foot Uhaul to find the renovations to our apartment incomplete. Nobody had bothered to call to let us know. We spent 22 days on the floor of my father’s already cramped townhouse in Princeton, NJ before begging my family to help us move in while we double-parked the trailer on West 49th. It was a humbling experience. Insert uplifting learning from your mistakes quote here.

The true lesson about moving is that it’s always terrible. You will fight with people you love, skin your elbows, stub your toes, lose your keys, and realize what a disgusting person you are as you borrow a vacuum with the desperate hope of reclaiming some of your security deposit.That time in New York was just the first time I tried to move into an apartment that wasn’t ready for me. Once, I arrived while the tenants were still living there.

The first time you hire movers, they will be late, or early, or lose all the screws to a piece of furniture you inherited, and still it will prevent 90% of the drama you would have experienced had you bullied your friends into helping you with the pathetic bribe of pizza and beer. You will pay them what seems like an exorbitant amount of money. It will not be enough. You will put sheets on your bed, wash your face, have a drink, and realize had you not hired them you would still be dragging crap you didn’t even want your partner to keep up stairs right now, and you will never miss that money. My apartment in Pittsburgh was a converted basement, accessible through an outdoor corridor and down a flight of stairs. J and Moose had been living with me since his lease had ended a month earlier, and the walls were already lined high with the unleavable from his apartment. And so, I hired movers.

All this experience, foresight, shrewdness, all of it was to crumble under the weight of simple math. I had calculated how long it should take to pack, added four hours for optimism, and another two for tantrums and food. However, I had forgotten to add the packing for the next 6 months of your life. If packing for a week of vacation takes me 45 min, well, it’s probably better you do the math.

We had done our best to ruthlessly get rid of things we no longer needed and were taking the rest to a storage facility in Canfield, which was about halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. J’s family lives there, and so we had decided to make it our new home base in the states. The movers got there at 9am, had the truck packed by noon, and J and I kept finding one more thing to clean, pack, throw out for the next five hours. Moose was inconsolable and hid in the closet. We tried to convince him to take one last trip to the bathroom, as he can be fussy about where he goes, but figured we had to leave or risk missing the storage place closing before we could unpack it all.

The first steps began in fits and starts, even after the fits and starts fit comfortably and ended, respectively. The three of us, hunkered down in a two-vehicle caravan and armed with a pair of walkie-talkies I had from my teenage years, were ready for the day. Unfortunately, the day got away from us, and our timetable slipped into impossibility like a Dali clock. We rolled up onto the storage site well after they had closed, leaving us to find recourse in a hotel – an amazing call on Y’s part. Said amazing call turned into an incredibly scenic drive around the especially nowhere parts of PA when the trust in GPS apps rerouted us onto the turnpike. The fifteen minute trip became a fifty minute trip, and the sunset, while normally free, became a $30 dollar sunset, after all the fees and gas had been settled.

It really was a striking sunset, so much so that when we finally arrived in Cleveland the next day, my sister (Fourth) commiserated and shared the joy with us, as she had also been in an optimal location to view the solar wonder. Great minds. Great, stupid minds. When we arrived at the hotel (Red Roof Inn allows pets, which we had in hefty, brown and fuzzy supply), I realized we didn’t have a lock for all of our worldly bullshit in the truck and our soon-to-be-occupied storage locker, so it was off to Target for a lock, then off to Taco Bell for dinner. Because we classy.

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“This is Black Widow, what’s your 20?”

A month ago, I had offered to drive the 20 foot Uhaul that would be transporting all of our worldly belongings to their new home in Ohio. Mostly because I try to conquer irrational fears I have head on, but also, because I knew I’d hate it less than J. As moving day approached so did an uneasiness in my stomach, but I reasoned it was just an hour or so to the unit, and bought insurance. That night, with 36 hours under my belt and the sun setting in my face I tried to keep it together.

J and his cat-pilot, Moose, led in my massive SUV. I followed in the imposing truck behind. The vehicle was cumbersome and unwieldy, its hulking mass reluctantly lurching up hills, refusing to graduate gears, and careening wide on right turns. I struggled to keep up, cruised over a few curbs. J had suggested using walkie-talkies he had acquired during his days in the Boy Scouts to keep in touch on the drive. While initially, I had agreed merely to humor him, they proved a lot of fun. Like a teenager after a growth spurt, my lumbering awkwardness gave way, eventually finding sureness in my mammoth frame.

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Moose is ready to turn this car around.

We arrived at the storage facility, our exhaustion making us that much more eager to complete the unpacking and fast forward to a certain collapse into bed at J’s family home. It was not to be. Though the units were still accessible, the office had closed for the day, making renting one impossible. Driving the Uhaul to Cleveland, then back the next day, seemed an onerous proposition, and the gas and extra mileage would be expensive. I found a cheap motel nearby that allowed pets, booked it, and we drove off, renewed by the prospect of sleep dangling before us.

I am not one of those people who begrudge technology. When I moved to New York, I spent a good portion of time studying maps and subway routes before leaving the house to ensure I knew where I was going. The only thing worse than being lost in New York is looking like a tourist. The government may be tracking our movements through our space phones, but I’ll accept that dystopian premise in order to regularly circumvent traffic.

GPS is a wonder of modern technology, a fact I tried to recall as mine steered us increasingly further from our destination and the promise of sleep. Rerouted down toll roads in the wrong direction (the walkies, less enjoyable now), we frantically tried to reconfigure our convoy in alignment with our desired location. One spectacular sunset, fifty miles, and an hour later, we had made it to plan b. We made Moose comfortable, had some tequila, and I was cadaverous.

We watched Mad Max on the television over dinner, with Moose skulking around the twin Queen beds of the hotel room. The Taco Bell paired magnificently with the tequila we had stashed in a water bottle. Y had been feverishly packing and working like a champ for near 40 hours, and finally hit the mat after we ate. Moose and I communed while attempting to watch Rambo. A few more sips of tequila and I followed Y to bed.

The next morning I put Moose in his harness and took him for a walk. As with most cats, he’s not particularly fond of change, travel, or loud noises, and the combination had made him especially edgy. He hadn’t gone for hours and I was starting to worry about his health. He was still tense and agitated after a half hour, and we decided our best move was to commence with unpacking the truck so as to get him to J’s parents’ house, where he could be comfortable.

We relieved ourselves of our possessions, the Uhaul, and the irritable intensity that had been looming over us as we pushed through the last particulars of the move, excited to be finally headed towards Cleveland. There would be a pizza party celebrating the birth of J’s sister, Justine, already in progress by the time we arrived. Ravenous, I confided that J was going to have to cover for my appetite because I had no intention of politely declining food at any point throughout the evening. With Moose set up to conclude the cliffhanger of his gastro-intestinal episode, a set of showers for each of us, and a few more swigs of tequila, we were ready to join in the festivities.

We got a slow start to the next day and drove over to our storage site. Despite varying opinions on how Tetris was to be won, the day went by largely without incident, and after the load-in, we rejoined Moose in the car, dropped off the Uhaul and were finally off to Cleveland. We arrived just in time to see a community theater production of How I Saved Pizza Night starring my sister (LJ). It was a packed house, missing only my Father, a day out on a camping trip on the French River. We still had ten people, three dogs, five cats and way too many large personalities for one house. After a quick shower and some triage, I rattled off some pizza-aid and a massive pitcher of margaritas, which made the comedy of errors just a little more hilarious. After a shower, Y was back from the dead, and pizza, beer and tequila were on hand.

There were definitely private nips of water-bottle tequila, as the homefront was not nearly as serene as we had hoped, and moving, if you’ve never done it, sucks cocks in librarian hell, which is a special sort of hell where everything has to be organized just so then completely re-organized ad nauseum and it is absolutely the worst type of sweaty and musty boredom. Meanwhile, in the domestic animal kingdom, Moose was mostly just happy to take a shit, as he had been holding it (despite our efforts and encouragement to the contrary) for something like 27 hours. Y applauded his efforts, and I almost wish I could have been there. That’ll do, cat. That’ll do.

LJ left early in the evening with her husband to prepare for the early AM flight to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, where none of the Spanish I blasted her with would ever be needed. En realidad, era necesario. Para mi. Lo siento.

The remainder played a homebrew game my brother-in-law had brought into the household lexicon a few years back called Marbles, a sort of cross between Parcheesi and Sorry! with movement rules akin to the fine drinking game of Kings. My middle sister, Alyssa, the cocky little shit, soundly trounced us all again, even after Y had ground her ax into some whiskey. The two of us stayed up until 2 with Fourth and her boyfriend, rapping about the journey. Bespoke boyfriend and I reveled in the gift of gab together. Our respective partners’ eye rolls eventually muffled the conversation, and we slowly ventured to the quiet and heavy sleep of the gods. After a nip or two of tequila. The bedroom tequila came in handy over the next few days.

J’s family is a close-knit crew, with sizable temperments and laughs to match. Gatherings can get rowdy and games are played with an impassioned competitiveness. After somehow being decimated in Marbles (J’s sister, Aly, has a preternatural ability for the game) yet again, and the departure of the guest of honor for a trip to Mexico, things began to wind down a bit. The last of us stayed up drinking and softly chatting into the night until exhaustion consumed us once more.

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Lily pond at Holden Arboretum

Home was more than the standard hectic, and beggars can’t be choosers. We spent the next few days planning, hiding, visiting parks and eating and drinking. There was a bomb-ass Dai cucumber salad and Rainbow Trout dinner we threw together, but we were mostly doing slug impressions. We dodged hangouts with my childhood Cleveland friends, because we simply weren’t up for it. It was all we could do to take deep metaphorical breaths and prepare for liftoff. The nasty flash cold I got didn’t help, either.

The pill of this adventure is something most people balk at to begin with let alone swallow, and my family, being more or less forced into the position of accomplices, have been as understanding and empathetic as they ever have been. Which is sometimes, seemingly, not at all. The magnitude of happenings in my parents’ household (my sister and her family are there temporarily while she and her husband lock down a house after a move from the south) helped us keep perspective. Neither of us really appreciate or even trust cheerleaders, and the genuine farewell embraces and well-wishes were icing on not overstaying a welcome.

We were infinitely happy to be on our way. It was a long series of struggle cuddles and tears saying goodbye to Moose, but as a family, we’re making the right call. The little furry bastard will be pleased as punch to live somewhere we can keep the windows open 365, maybe even as much as we will.

The next week was a swirling daze of solidifying plans and tying loose ends. We tried to soak up family time with large communal dinners and a trip to the Holden Arboretum. It would be Christmas before we saw everyone again, and with each visit we seemed to be watching J’s nephew evolving into an articulate little trouble-maker through time-lapse photography. We tried to encourage Moose’s exploratory instincts and by the end of the week, he was confidently throwing the full 18 pounds of his weight around. We accepted advice, well-wishes, and said our emotional goodbyes. Fortes fortuna adiuvat.

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The view from the Kalberer Emergent Tower at Holden Arboretum is amazing, and only mildly terrifying. Mildly.

OUR STORY BEGINS IN PITTSBURGH

“If I were in Texas right now, I’d be buying a fifth at a gas station and riding a cowboy.”

I dragged my insufficiently-tractioned booties on the mat and shook snow from my recently purchased hood. Although I had lived in the Northeast for most of my life, my first winter in Pittsburgh was proving brutal. I have always considered myself tough, or at least, unlikely to whine, but Pittsburgh isn’t called the Steel City only for its manufacturing past. The people there are a tough breed. The first day it snowed I walked up to the bus stop in my winter coat and there was an old woman, knotty with age, with just an undone windbreaker, making light conversation with the stranger beside her. Now, after a week of below zero temperatures and dragging myself up the iced over hill to my apartment, pulling myself along my neighbor’s chain-link fence, I was regretting my decision to agree to Pittsburgh over Austin for an increasingly unsalvageable relationship.

The other thing about Pittsburgh is, the people have heart. So much so that if you show them your mettle, you become family. This is why, three years later, I was still in Pittsburgh, albeit with appropriate footwear. I was managing what I will not-at-all humbly refer to as the best cocktail bar in the city. The type of place where your staff is so good they can surprise even the most jaded “big city” manager with their empathy, creativity, and wit. Even still, a weekly 50 hours on my feet and another 20 at my desk, coupled with ever more increasing call-outs by support and kitchen staff was starting to take a toll, and worse, make me into the sloppy, corner-cutting boss I’d always hated. J and I had been hushedly whispering places we wanted to see some day in exhausted late night conversations since we had become partners a year earlier. And although I hadn’t been there in over 15 years, Austin kept rearing its head into our consciousness.

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Pittsburgh’s 16th Street Bridge

It was a date night; we probably slept until 2 and then slowly emerged around 4 or so. We were always dead tired, and even going out for a drink was just so much work most of the time. We had tickets for Salome and plans for Bar Marco beforehand. After the opera we went to Pirata for some of the best pina coladas ever for dessert. I poked a joke or two at Y for missing the money shot of the opera due to (fucking) exhaustion, and we both laughed about walking to the wrong venue, wandering around the unlocked said venue then finally taking an Uber to the correct venue only a minute or two after the opera started. The sweet tiki delights we had defrosting in front of us were the aid to the sparse lemons of the evening.

The bar was empty except for two middle-aged white bros, wearing the ubiquitous indoor fucking ballcap, high-fiving to an election we were both trying to avoid paying attention to, at least for the evening. The world started to feel a little more dangerous, and we hopped a car back to my place in Polish Hill, and kicked on NPR’s election coverage. My roommate Sam, Y and I drank heavily, listening to the commentators become increasingly frantic before I turned it off and walked a skewed line into the kitchen for another drink.

“Well, fuck this country. Fuck Texas, fuck this country, fuck Trump, let’s move to Argentina.”

I tend to expect the worst. November 8 approached, and a sense of unease that refused to be suppressed permeated my thoughts, regardless of the magnitude of mezcal I consumed. Hungover from the attempted circumvention, I still managed to complete my civic duty. However, I was still surprised voting that day, as it was my first time experiencing a wait to cast my ballot (though only for the line that was constituted mostly of lower income apartment dwellers) at this polling place. In addition, I had to step out of the line because I felt faint due to the heat blasting on the unusually balmy November evening (a neighbor saw me looking peaked and offered to hold my place), before I could finalize my vote.

Women live on the defensive. Arguments could be made about voter suppression, scare tactics in marketing, and party dynamics, but the truth is, that night, as I sat on a barstool in a fashionable downtown restaurant in a Northern American metropolitan area, I watched two white men high five and loudly celebrate, publicly boasting that women were going to have to learn their place, as states were called red. That night my male friends seemed surprised by what women have often suspected, that our safety is dependent on the will of the men that surround us. An increasing problem for someone who has never had any interest in dulling her intelligence to make anyone more comfortable.

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The muddy banks of the Allegheny River

A few months before, Y and I had one of The Talks people who love each other have, and we had agreed we were done with Pittsburgh, and that Texas is a beautiful place we both love and could easily find gainful employment in. In a previous life, I had plane and train tickets in my hot little hand, and I was inches away from traveling with the intent to select a neighborhood to live in during my mid-twenties, but those unused tickets just ended up being icing on a big ole failure cake. Everyone loves second chances.

With measured discourse giving way to martyrdom and histrionics at home, J and I looked south for our salvation. We both were initially drawn in by the glamour of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. However, the idea of Ecuador kept coming up – in articles in my inbox, in the clickbait titles of best of lists, and random anecdotes from convivial guests. When the universe keeps nudging an idea your way, I believe you should listen. I broached the idea with J, who, while open, was hesitant. My desire to do all of the things can sometimes result in me acting indecisive, and Buenos Aires had been always been the plan. As we talked it through, the cognizance of our limited Spanish proficiency and lack of support, financial or otherwise, made the move to South America’s New York feel daunting. J had a tarot reading coming up, at which time he wanted to discuss both options. With the cards’ decision aligning with a move to Ecuador, we were once again advancing with purpose.

Our leases were due to end in the coming summer, but beyond a toss-up between Austin and San Antonio, we hadn’t talked about it much, other than that we were committed to each other and a big change in the future. So the leap from Trump’s Amerikkka to another nation wasn’t Olympic by any stretch of the imagination. White people ruin everything.

Argentina was on the radar for me because of a raging priapism for South American literature I became afflicted with in college. For years I had been threatening anyone that would listen that I was going to teach English there someday, and, after a few particularly galling professional moments, I had become so fed up with bartending that I had made a formal request to my folks to house my ever stalwart companion, Moose Handsome Endress, Cat-at-Large (seriously, he’s like 18 pounds), in the eventuality of my departure.

Obviously, my parents, who love me very much I guess, said yes, but I’m sure rolled their eyes in the aftermath. But then, they probably do that a lot.

People who do not work in restaurants have an idea that people who do work in restaurants have a lot of freedom in their schedules. This (somewhat earned) allegory of the lazy waiter, who drinks until 2am, sleeps until noon, and is going to use that music degree and start up a band as soon as he finishes catching up on the last season of Modern Family and gets his car fixed. In reality, those of us who didn’t stop bartending after that one summer in college often drink until 4am, wake up an hour before our next shift, don’t waste money on cable, and yeah, our cars are garbage. These professionals put on a good face, give thoughtful recommendations, measure out the tempo of guests’ meals to ensure a seamless experience, deferentially answer questions, and do it all on their feet (often without a break) while working late nights, weekends, and holidays. This level of hospitality is an art form that takes years to master. If restaurant employment was unskilled, as many assume, Yelp wouldn’t exist. But being indispensable in the hospitality industry has its drawbacks. Good restaurants operate with small crews to ensure skilled labor gets paid livable wages, and that means vacation time needs to be covered by other staff members. Staff members who won’t accrue overtime by working the additional shift. And that vacation, it’s unpaid. So when the smart, innovative bar you work at closes, it’s important to take advantage of that newly amassed free time.

My dad is prone to grand gestures. Two days before New Year’s, in the midst of finalizing details for the restaurant’s New Year’s Eve service, he called to let me know he would be driving to Pittsburgh the next day to gift me the used car he had initially bought for my youngest sister ten years earlier when she was in college. I informed him that it was an exceptionally generous offer, one I wasn’t sure I needed, but begged him to wait a day so that I might procure a parking permit, insurance, and a driver’s license, before attempting to transfer the title. Forms were filed and fees paid and I had myself an exhausted looking car with 235,000 miles and two decades of experience under her belt. She broke down within two weeks. With everything else on my plate, fixing the non-essential vehicle wasn’t a priority, and it wasn’t until the bar’s last service had come and gone, months later, that I made the effort. Realizing that these repairs were merely expensive duct tape destined to tear was strangely liberating and gave me a plan. Instead of being precious about the car, why not take it out for a last trip? We could drive it into the ground, then sell it before moving. Recently I had been feeling an intense desire to visit Utah and Arizona. When I pitched the idea to J he said, “I’d like to see the Grand Canyon.”

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Roberto Clemente Bridge, aka 6th Street Bridge

In November of 2016, I was square in the middle of a year-long obligation to my post as Bar Director at Tender Bar + Kitchen, while Y was Generally Managing the same. Over the next 6 months, our planning evolved, shifted, and blossomed. It became a safe and secret garden we would hide in after being brutalized week after week by the uphill battle to keep a restaurant from failing. Spoiler alert, it failed. We certainly made the 4th quarter of the game go as long and look as good as was humanly possible, but the other three, well, we didn’t make those calls. Even when we caught the first hints of smoke and ash on the wind, our plans became a flame retardant stunt-suit to put on every time shit hit the fan, as it did with increasing regularity.

Around the New Year, Y’s father gifted her a car, and after pouring some money into it, Y felt confident in including it in our plans. I don’t know who came up with the idea to take the car cross-country, but the simple move to South America was suddenly supplemented with the cross-country journey I had never been cool enough to have. As the demise of the restaurant became closer to official, our plans had a new dimension to them. When it closed, we gladly walked out into the light at the end of the tunnel, albeit with a few tears and bittersweet moments: we were going on an Adventure. In June, a full month of warm and fuzzy post-service industry life gone by, I had my Tarot read (a birthday gift from my partner hearts hearts), and things became crystallized.

I am a huge advocate of Tarot readings, because they are a healthy and helpful method of unraveling your own intentions and they lend the perspective of someone who is a more or less neutral party. It’s therapy that makes sense, and an incredibly enjoyable act of mindful healing and introspection. Plus, those cards are badass.

My reader helped nudge me towards the realization that the original plan for Buenos Aires might be a little detrimental, but that Ecuador, something that had turned up here and there in our research, might be a more productive and nurturing environment. After a very brief discussion, we focused on Ecuador, eventually settling on Cuenca. For two acolyte speakers of Spanish in a new country, a city only slightly larger than Pittsburgh seemed a better fit than a Latin New York City sans lube. The loose plans we had been shrugging our way around in conversation with friends became the future.

With our grandiose plans in place, we were left wondering how to accommodate our house cat/land manatee, Moose. He is not as interested in new ventures as his species is portrayed to be, and taking a cat who refuses to eat a different brand of cat food on a road trip seemed quite an undertaking. We began taking him on rides. J would strap Moose into his harness and we would go on short trips. Moose would lay in J’s lap while I drove, protesting loudly at first, then more softly. Eventually, he began to take an interest in the scenery passing by. He would look out the windshield, paws boldly atop the glove compartment like a Captain looking out to sea. Then one particularly hot day in July, we went to the bank. The car’s rickety air conditioning system couldn’t match the intensity outside, and Moose’s constant pleas made it clear we couldn’t take him on a trip through the Southwest. We soberly made the decision to leave him with J’s parents, who are avid animal lovers, knowing he would be treated well until we could come claim him in a few months.

We spent the rest of our summer in Pittsburgh lining up ducks, crossing i’s, dotting t’s and filling buckets with lists. More talk of future plans and trips flowed naturally, and after more team meetings, Team Felicidad decided to pursue living the best life and manifesting the shit out of all the talk and the plans and especially the dreams. We’re keeping it all on the table. This first adventure is just the test-bed for the rest of our lives.

After a tearful (and temporary) farewell to Mr. Moose, we began our adventure in earnest.

Or Ohio. It all starts with the first step.

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Pittsburgh’s Strip District