A TRAVELER’S HOME BAR ON A BUDGET – INFUSIONS

Back in Pittsburgh, we maintained an extensive liquor cabinet for our home bar. Any type of classic cocktail could be stirred or shaken to life. As we began to prepare for our adventure, budget became a concern, so we would often substitute a night out with a trip to our home bar. Very little tastes as good as a perfect cocktail from your personal liquor cabinet. You’re garnishing your drinks with thrift – mischief managed, capital concerns allayed. We had never really considered what the liquor stores would look like in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador. I had assumed scads of Pisco and wonderful new world wines. That is not what the liquor stores look like.

Local liquor chain, La Taberna
The soft glow of La Taberna beckoning us forth

Even in the state of Pennsylvania, where the state-run monopoly on liquor stores is demonstrably terrible, the vast stores are a comparative cornucopia of alcoholic delights. If money were no object, then shelling out more than double for some things I could find back in the United States would find our liquor cabinet reasonably well stocked, with the noted exception of Bourbon…and Rye…and Tequila…and Mezcal. However, I used to work with alcohol and make cocktails for money. What the stores do have in great supply is Cristal Aguardiente (translation: Clear Firewater), a spirit made locally from distilled sugar cane juice. Enter the infusion.

Still life of bottles of Cristal, mango, red pepper, ginger, strawberries, and basil
Cristal, Cuenca’s finest local firewater

Infusions Are a Trick of the Trade

If you enjoy having a drink or three at home but find yourself on a budget, there’s likely a local, cheap and clear liquor that’s just begging for an infusion.

Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.

Choosing Ingredients for Your Infusion

Cuenca has some amazing open-air markets, and we frequent the closest one, Feria Libre, every few days. For around 12 dollars we have enough produce for the week. For a few dollars more, we have subjects for infusions and a few bottles of Cristal. Because you’re working with fresh produce, there’s plenty of wiggle room to find the preferred flavor for your cocktail. Here’s a couple of quick and easy infusions that will elevate your home bar and cocktail game on a budget and work with any clear spirit, whether it’s vodka, gin, tequila, rum or sweet, sweet firewater.

Infusion Recipes

Strawberry-Ginger

A dozen strawberries
1″ of peeled ginger
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the tops from the strawberries then slice into quarters. Slice the ginger into thin strips. Place the ginger and strawberries into your jar or water bottle and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. Let sit for at least 24 hours. Strain, place back into the original bottle, and store in the refrigerator.

Even though the strawberries were a little under-ripe, the infusion came out great, leaving the alcohol a light pink color, and giving it a slightly spicy ginger bite. It goes great with two parts soda water or sparkling wine.

Basil

A generous handful of basil leaves
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the stems from the herbs, then gently cut them into large chunks. Place them into the jar, cover with the spirit, then seal and put into the refrigerator. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. The infusion time on herbs is always fairly short, and should never go longer than 12 hours. Letting an infusion go too long will give the alcohol time to break down the bitter components in the herbs, which you don’t want in your drink. Generally, 6 to 8 hours will do the trick.

Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain and pour back into the original bottle and store in the refrigerator. This makes a really clean and refreshing infusion that is a perfect addition to two parts juice or soda.

Bell Pepper and Mango

1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Mango
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Clean the bell pepper by removing the stem, cutting it in half, and removing the pith and seeds from the flesh. Cut into thin strips, then dice. Bell peppers generally have a more mild flavor than a fruit subject, so to keep it in balance, we’re giving the pepper more surface area to work with. Cut the mango into cubes or long strips, removing the skin. Place the pepper and mango into your water bottle or jar and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. After 24 hours, pull your infusion, strain and pour back into the original bottle. Store in the refrigerator.

If you want a more robust flavor profile in your infusion or your cocktail, lightly roasting the pepper will do the trick. This is delicious all on its own over ice, but would be great in any number of cocktails, which we will discuss in an upcoming post.

REMEMBERING THE ALAMO CITY

I could hear J talking with the man at the door over the sound of the running shower. The man sounded emotional, his voice undeniably urgent, though not angry, my attempts to make out their words through the water’s spray proving futile. After what seemed like a lengthy exchange, J shut the motel room door, and knocked on the one to the bathroom. The bedroom’s air conditioning flooded in as he peered around the door.

“That was one of the managers. The shower is leaking into the room underneath us. They’re moving us next door.”

Fuck. “Alright, well I’m not getting out until I finish rinsing my hair. It’ll be two minutes.”

“Yeah, I told him once you were out and dressed, then we’d move.”

We had arrived in San Antonio after dark the night before. I had wanted to browse some of Austin‘s celebrated vintage stores on our way out of the city, and J had wanted to introduce me to the devilry that is the Whataburger fast food chain. We drove into an industrial area just blocks from the center of downtown. In any other city, hotels in this proximity to the center would be fashionable and elegant. However, here there sat a row of small, dilapidated motels, unloved for what seemed like some time now. These buildings, teal and rust and avocado, had once been someone’s pride. Now they bore the logos of budget brands with name recognition.

“You’re both from Pennsylvania? What are you doing here?” J explained our road trip to the night attendant as she passed back our driver’s licenses. He enthusiastically recounted his previous trips to the city with obvious excitement to be back. “I’ve always liked Austin better than San Antonio,” she said. A glowing recommendation. “I’m from there, Austin. I moved here two years ago, but San Antonio’s alright.” Nice save.

They waded through the now well-tread territory of why and how we were doing what we were. J mentioned we’d be camping once we made it further West. “Camping, really? I mean you look…” she pointed at J. “But you,” then at me, “you do not look like the type who goes camping.” I suppose working as a night desk attendant at run-down motel affords one the opportunity to see a lot. People in hospitality often learn how to read others with astonishing precision. As a waiter, I would regularly compete in a game. When a new table of guests arrived we would all take bets as to what they were going to order before anyone had spoken with them. I was exceptional at it. I confessed her observation had been perceptive, and we shared a laugh over her keen insight.

On our way to our room we walked past some of the motel’s other guests, who were quietly smoking or finding privacy outside on their phones. Once inside the room, I looked at J, “People definitely live here.” I dropped onto the bed.

“Oh fuck yeah they do.”

One of the biggest luxuries on long road trips is staying in a place for multiple nights. You get to sleep in, you can leave out your toiletries. Now the novelty of the shitty motel was wearing thin as I hurriedly scrubbed conditioner out of my hair and packed my things for the haul a door down.

We slept harder than usual, likely because we actually gave ourselves time to do so. When you’re on a free-wheeling cross-country adventure, your boss is your lust for life, which sometimes makes you the idiot, if not a stooge to the raw power of the fun house you live in. While the play for sympathy is surely DOA, I would hope the sentiment hastens a trip to the record collection. While we hadn’t planned on lingering in our hotel room that long, it did set us up for the optimal time to go to The Esquire Tavern, my absolute favorite bar on the planet.

J in front of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
J and his happy place, The Esquire Tavern

I came across Esquire years ago on my first night in San Antonio, there for the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. If you haven’t been to SACC, it’s an incredible time, especially if you’re working behind the scenes to make it happen with a killer platoon of bartenders from around the country. A small group of said bartenders had just met for the first time and we were excited to have a bit of fun before we got to work in the coming days. We were led to the Esquire, where we came upon one of the more bizarre scenes I’ve encountered. Just down the street from the bar in the alcove in front of a hot dog shop that had clearly seen better days, let alone nights, two police officers were arguing over what was obviously a body under a sheet, quibbling like two children:

“No, you touch it.”

“No way, I touched the last one.”

This went on for few minutes or so, and after we had stretched our rubber necks long enough, we went inside to discuss and watch the eventual flash of ambulance lights in the front window. “Welcome to San Antonio” became the joke of the evening over some amazing drinks and burgeoning friendships. Over the next three years, Esquire became the spot I would enthusiastically start and emotionally end my time in San Antonio with, along with plenty of stops in between.

The weather was looking grim, but you couldn’t tell from J’s warm disposition. He spiritedly told stories while we crossed the square, pointing out buildings he had been in while working SACC, vividly recounting an epic party where a number of sloshed attendees stumbling in the street had almost gotten the whole event shut down. He noted the vivid and historic Aztec Theater, a(nother) Whataburger whose practice of being open all night facilitated some inebriated hijinks, and other places of note, all building up to his favorite bar, The Esquire Tavern.

As Y and I walked from the hotel, I gave a gibbering and nonsensical tour of the small corner of the city I would inhabit once a year. I had a refreshed appreciation for the city’s art-deco meets Latin architecture, and excitedly pointed out discoveries old and new to Y. I dribbled anecdotes, noted small changes and the lack of change, until we came upon Esquire from the Riverwalk side. Its corner lot neighbor had been brought down to rubble, and rounding the corner, the hot dog shop was long gone. Esquire itself, however, was of course blissfully intact. We had arrived an hour or so before the happy hour I’m always pleasantly surprised by, and well before any crowd developed. The fried bologna sandwich was also blissfully intact, which had been my aim since I knew San Antonio was on the trip. I was happy to soak the place in- just about every bartender worth their salt in San Antonio has worked at Esquire at one point, and everything about it represents an ideal of what I would try and build someday, were I still in the game, as the kids say.

House cocktail in front of a wall of mezcal at The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
The Esquire Tavern’s stunning wall of mezcal

The Esquire’s bar is the longest in Texas, running from the front door to a back dining room which faces out onto the Riverwalk. It still being early afternoon, we were one of just a few guests there. J had been talking about their deviled eggs (with pickled pink peppercorns!) since the last time he came back from San Antonio, and his infatuation seemed appropriate once I was able to corroborate the evidence. I could pretend I ordered the Jalapeños Rellenitos because I hadn’t had breakfast and needed a base before going to town on the beautiful, mezcal-lined back wall, but truthfully, I am a monster who is powerless against even the cheapest bar’s frozen, store-bought jalapeño poppers. These were, obviously, far superior. We worked our way around a number of exquisite house cocktails. Ready for more substantial fare, I ordered a fried green tomato BLT. It arrived twice the anticipated size on gratuitously buttered Texas toast. I don’t usually suffer from an inability to finish my food. Having four younger siblings, my parents quickly lost their patience for finicky eaters, and clearing my plate is instilled in the very fiber of my being. However, halfway through I needed a breather. I attempted to spur on digestion with one of the aforementioned mezcal’s, but after an hour, I conceded I would have to tap out and begrudgingly gave up my plate. I’m looking forward to a rematch.

The Alamo in San Antonio
“And Pedro is working on an adobe. Can you say that with me?”

The movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure imbued people of my generation with a mythical draw to see the Alamo. J warned me that it was actually quite small, despite the proportions it had occupied in my childhood imagination. I was actually unaware that it was a mission, or that it was right smack in the middle of downtown. It sits peacefully amongst the newer buildings, stoic and handsome like the old stone church it is. We managed to refrain from asking to see the basement.

View of the San Antonio Riverwalk
The Riverwalk

Anyone who visits San Antonio will return home insisting you must see the Riverwalk. Trust that it’s more impressive than they have expressed. Set one story below street level, the stone walkway runs 15 miles along both banks of the San Antonio River. The water creates an oasis from the Texas heat, cooling the channel noticeably from the city mere feet above. The winding walkway is singular in its beauty, with each section incorporating distinct design elements. Colored tiles line stairways and create intricate mosaics. Public art installations abound. Ponds, gardens, and waterfalls give each stretch a secluded, personal feel. Uniquely fashioned alcoves and benches, a gazebo, and a grotto all provided seating, and promoted enjoyment of the scenery along the length we walked.

One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk in San Antonio
One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk

The rain went from undecided to considerable to torrential and we took cover under a bridge. Blue Box, another of J’s beloved spots in the restored Pearl complex, was just a half mile away. We attempted to wait out the worst of it, resisting boarding the uninhabited police boat docked nearby in an uncommon moment of maturity. Eventually we tired of waiting for the weather’s cooperation and went for it.

Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk
Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk

After an exceedingly indulgent meal, we set off down the river, despite the rain, enjoying the solitude and serenity of the Riverwalk. Thoroughly soaked, we eventually arrived at Blue Box, another favorite old haunt and one of the earliest bars in the Pearl, a well-executed redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery’s original footprint. We enjoyed more than a fair share of tequila and beer, doing a shot or two with the bartender. Even after years of drinking in bars and a decade working the stick, living in a small city where knowing the bartender is a dubious comfort and fact of life, there’s nothing quite so expressive and beautiful as a bartender quietly asking if you’d like to share a nip with them. Especially when they’ve never met you before, and definitely after they know they’ll never see you again. Bonus points for not outing us as service (or ex-service, as it were), because that type of shot is easy like the second Death Star destroying a Mon Calamari Cruiser at the Battle of Endor.

The Pearl in San Antonio
The Pearl

The Pearl gorgeously utilizes old buildings into a large shopping and dining compound, with Blue Box at its far end. We entered the bar, hair and clothes dripping, to find it was somehow still happy hour. We noticed the concurrent tequila shot specials and decided to add a few to our beers, just to warm up. Then grabbed another round just as happy hour was ending. Perhaps it was our bad example, perhaps it was the crowd’s behavior, but the bartender seemed inspired to have a shot of his own and asked us if we’d like to join him. Drinking alone is by no means anything to be ashamed of, but there’s something irrefutably celebratory about taking shots. They don’t need to be fussy or end in slamming glassware on the bar (in fact, they shouldn’t), but they’re always improved by company. After years of working in the service industry, the tradition of sharing a little nip to take the edge off is very much ingrained in us, and we were happy to oblige. As the crowd in the cocktail bar started shifting into aggravating bros ordering Lone Star Lights and vodka tonics, we knew it was time to move on. We gladly accepted one more tequila for the road and got an Uber back to the motel.

Sufficiently buzzed and unwilling to deal with the rain for round two, we called an Uber. Our driver informed us of the deep German, Czech and French roots of Texas towns, which explained the multitude of signs we had seen for Kolaches, a wonderful delicacy one expects in Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. He also explained the influence of Polka in Mexican music. Only a few days later, we would hear the very same unmistakable strains of Polka, heavily inflected with a Latin bent. As with many of our experiences in the South and Texas, our eyes were pried that much wider, and our world richer for it.

After some downtime at our hotel, which is a story unto itself, truth be told, we slithered out past the array of weird in the parking lot and down to Last Word for a nightcap. I was sad to not hit Brooklynite and way too many others, but the quiet enjoyment of a stellar bar was more than what we needed to close the night. While our night in San Antonio wasn’t expansive, it was fun and memorable, which is what the city will always be for me.

I woke early the next morning in an attempt to get some laundry done before setting off across the expanse of Texas wilderness, not knowing when we’d find the chance once we were in the country’s less inhabited parts. The cast of characters shuffling about the grounds at 8am was somehow even dodgier than the night crew had been. I returned to the laundry room to find a stocky man and his large dog, blocking the doorway with their imposing frames. “Is that your clothes in the washer, because I moved it,” he blustered. I assumed his ignorance at that being standard laundromat protocol was the result of being recently discharged from whatever relationship, facility, or relative’s house had been previously managing his laundry needs, and took pity on him. Realizing I had no intention of arguing about it, he softened and stepped aside. I moved the clothes to the dryer and walked back across the menagerie of characters to the room to finish packing.

We checked out and took a walk to get breakfast, stopping to admire the observatory of the Maverick-Carter house, a striking sight in the middle of downtown, built for real estate tycoon William H. Maverick’s much younger wife Aline. Inside Pharm Table, a vegan restaurant I had spotted walking around the previous afternoon, the atmosphere was tranquil, contradicting the motel lot in every way. We appreciated a meal that was actually nourishing, and after having our run of every flavor of housemade tea like a dieter requesting samples at an ice cream shop, went to see the San Antonio Missions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio
Mission San Juan Capistrano

Our fuel for the next day was some rad vegan food from Pharm Table. Quinoa pizza is now a thing I now know exists and want more of. Before leaving San Antonio, we hit another National Park, this one devoted to the preservation of a clutch of Spanish Missions. The history behind the region at large and the role the Missions played was interesting and compelling, to say the least. The Spanish Empire’s method of assimilation was extremely effective- convert the desperate with the promise of a future. The enduring impact the buildings had now surrounds the memorialized edifices in the form of one of the largest cities in the country, where the layers of history and culture fuse into an altogether unique pattern.

Archways of Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose

Organized, disorganized, religion does not interest me. The Spaniards built these missions as a way to sell their conquest of the new world, convincing the people of Spain they needed to bring Catholicism to the heathens here, and courting the Coahuiltecan tribes they were intruding upon with the promise of safety. The missions weren’t just churches, they were forts. But it’s hard to deny the craft involved in erecting these buildings, or the beauty of their facades and grounds. The missions are part of the National Parks System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The NPS does an exemplary job of highlighting their importance in historical context. Mission San Jose housed as many as 300 people, with homes lining the inner circumference of the fort wall. People congregated within the walls to build tools, to relax, to socialize. They were industrious, fashioning irrigation channels and a water mill. What is left out of so much of the retelling is that it was actually the Native Americans that built these structures, and while the Spaniards may have been the architects, the Native American influence is evident in the adornment throughout.

Interior Room with fireplace and Native American motif in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Native American design elements in an interior room at Mission San Jose

Even during our strolls through the grounds of the Missions, the mythical drive through West Texas was nipping at our heels. The distance is one thing, but especially for two raised in the Eastern part of the country, it’s as if you’ve suddenly taken a plunge off the continental shelf of civilization, drifting out into the deep and empty wilds. As we left San Antonio, the terrain slowly changed; the rocks multiplied, the greens intermingled with grey and diminished. Then, as darkness fell, the sensation of nothingness pervaded, at least until a bizarre fog settled in. Van Horn, nestled in mist and the quiet, implicit terror of surrounding darkness was our stop for the night, just barely into a new time zone.

Texas is known for its vastness. It’s second only in size to Alaska among the 50 states and larger than every country in Europe. The thing is, its vast size isn’t the trouble. What makes driving across Texas feel ceaseless is traveling for hundreds of miles uninterrupted by a town. You’re on I-10, a legitimate interstate. Google Maps shows towns every forty miles or so. This is where I take issue. Personally, I believe in order to incorporate, a town should be forced to at least have a gas station. I had been napping when J mentioned the low tank. We watched as our GPS alerted us we were passing through “town” after “town” while surrounded by nothing. Finally, we were able to obtain enough cell service to locate a gas station 15 minutes away.

Growing up on the East coast, only teenagers and morons run out of gas. The only other time I have even come close to such a crises was on a road trip down California 101. We had gone through the Avenue of the Giants to view the redwoods, and were hugging the cliffs off the Pacific Ocean as we headed to a wedding in Oakland. We were in a Mazda Miata, a car with a 10 gallon tank. As the needle slowly dropped we watched Google Maps tell us that single-digit smatterings of mobile homes and sewage tanks were towns for about two hours before finally coming upon a general store with an ancient pump outside, which a stranger had been kind enough to instruct me how to operate.

I believe difficult predicaments are meant to equip you for future calamities. I spotted the old pump as J pulled the car into the station and was glad for the preparation. I told J to wait in the car, feeling his long hair might not be well received like some cliched scene in a movie. I entered the convenience store, immediately garnering the attention of the five men sitting around a table in their hunting gear, playing cards and eating sandwiches. After discerning I was no threat (and not in season), they went back to their game and conversation. I gave the clerk my card for the gas and asked to use the restroom. She pointed past the aisles lined with animal busts and camp gear to a surprisingly hospitable bathroom. On the way back to the pump, she stopped me, asking if I needed any help with the old machine. I thanked her, assuring her I had experience with such things. She confided people passing through often didn’t, and made sure I knew my way back to the interstate before letting me leave.

This new phase of the trip promised to be decidedly introspective and a little challenging at times. Hypothetical campsites loomed ahead, plans were looser, and the emergency lifeboat of Cleveland might as well be in another country. It’s barren and lonely and all of the Hollywood tropes ever unspooled about these roads hold true sway. To our eyes, this is still very much a desolately beautiful and terrifying frontier where shit can go wrong real quick. Those natural wonders, however, are not going to see themselves. We aim to do that, and with gusto, especially if the driving does not occur at night. That shit creepy.

Arched doorways in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose
Two Traveling Texans

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.

The view of Lake Catherine from our lovely host's deck
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.

John Dillinger death mask at the Gangster Museum in Hot Springs Arkansas
“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).

J with a Tommy Gun at the Gangster Museum of America
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.

Stained glass window above the men's baths at the Fordyce Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas
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.

The gym at the Fordyce Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas
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.

A vintage car with two skeletons dressed as a couple outside a Taqueria in Hot Springs, Arekansas
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’.

Carved bust at the Ohio Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas
“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.

Outside the Crystal Shrine Grotto in Memphis, Tennessee
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.

...and he may live to regret it.
…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.

Y Being Attacked by a Bear at the Pyramid in Memphis
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.

Model of the Mississippi River on Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee
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.

The Lorraine Motel National / Civil Rights Museum
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.

A Lexus being hitched to a tow truck.
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.

A nighttime view of Hattie B's in Nashville Tennessee
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.

 

Airplane Bottles of Ole Smoky Moonshine
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.

The Nashville Parthenon
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.

Statue of Athena at the Nashville Parthenon
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.

An Aboriginal wicker fish at the KMAC
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.
“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.

The Nashville skyline at sunset with the Cumberland River in the foreground
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.

A man standing over a series of pinball tables at Headquarters in Nashville Tennessee
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.

"Eradicate", Mel Bochner, 2017.
“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.

The Rotunda of the Mammoth Cave
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.

A smiling woman walking through Fat Man's Misery in the Mammoth Cave National Park
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.

A very soaked but pleased man, enjoying a strawberry ice cream cone
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.

A sign advertising the world famous mystery hole in West Virginia
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.

The New River Gorge Bridge as seen from below
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.

The inside of a rickhouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery, filled with barrels of aging whiskey
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.

The exposed coral reef fossil bed that rests below the Falls of the Ohio River
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.

A smiling couple in front of a mural depicting landmarks of Louisville, Kentucky
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.