ROSWELL’S THAT ENDS WELL

I drew open the curtains to the second story room of the Super 8, relatively luxurious compared to the stronghold of despair that had been our San Antonio motel. The Eagle Mountains stood in the near distance. The previous night’s drive from San Antonio had been one of quiet solitude. Our headlights and those of the occasional comrade the only disruption in the intense darkness on this desolate stretch of I-10. Having arrived late into the night, we had all but collapsed the moment we got to the room. Now, with the landscape illuminated, we could see we had crossed into big sky country, just 40 miles Northeast of Mexico.

Van Horn would be our last night in Texas for who knows how long, and that experience is about the sum of the town. The drive across the 2nd largest state was smooth and beautiful, and felt like a major accomplishment. The road cut down a valley, with green mountains nosing into the cloud deck on our left, easing into a floor covered in vegetation. To our right stretched terrain that looked sparse and dry by comparison, more yellows and browns than green, and far off in the distance, we could see the deep blue outline of a range of mountains. The scenery seemed to wall us in, turning the vanishing point of the road into the end of a long hallway. Aside from the car and its stereo, it was quiet, and the tiny space we occupied felt all the more inconsequential. This territory seemed poised to eat us alive. It felt hungry, but like a true opportunist, it had learned to subsist on the scraps civilization had let fall between the cracks. The houses here seemed more like interlopers than places to hang a hat.

An overcast day in a West Texas valley alongside Texas 54
Don’t pick up hitchhikers

We turned onto Texas 54, a road whose sole purpose was to connect the satellite city of Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and New Mexico beyond. No towns or turn-offs lay between Van Horn and the park and within two miles all signs of humanity had been erased. A roadrunner watched us pass from the safety of the shoulder.

Texas’s 85mph speed limit seems a clear indicator that they could not care less if people crash out here, as long as no one is inconvenienced by the possibility of having to rescue survivors. Pushing a full 100mph, we cut through the landscape swiftly, but the expanse of the vista distorted our perception, making the drive feel serene. The road curved around the Beach Mountains on our left, and the temperature dropped. The glorious morning we had enjoyed a few miles back replaced by smoke gray skies. The Baylor Mountains ahead to our right had created a valley between the two ranges which maintained its own weather system. We pulled off the road, watching dark clouds break over the Beach Mountains in waves that came crashing down the side toward the dale below.

We broke from the ranges, but a new one loomed before us, its towering peak obscured by clouds. Vegetation thinned, morphing from lush, sage greens to soft tans as the road followed the rim of a salt flat. Despite the sun’s efforts to break through the cloud cover, a light rain began to fall.

The road climbed the peak, rising above the rain, and we became enveloped by dense mist. We entered the lot of the park’s visitor’s center and were greeted by a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, empty, unwelcoming, and cloaked in heavy fog. Inside we weaved through taxidermied fauna displayed to impart the variety of life inhabiting the mountains. We accepted a trail map from a very bored looking ranger (caretaker?) and followed the walkway around the visitor’s center to the adjacent Pinery Trail.

Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The short trail cut a path through white gypsum that stretched out on either side. Juniper trees, grey and craggy, cut fingers through the thick mist. Markers pointed out soaptree yucca and a Mexican orange bush on the way to the ruins of a Butterfield Stagecoach Station. One had a quote from celebrated Pittsburgh author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, and it felt like providence seeing her words as we began our journey into untamed lands. Red-tailed hawks swooped low overhead, barely visible through opaque fog. Our hair and clothes collected tiny droplets. The worsening weather ensured we were not going to be hiking up any peaks.

“Whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth.” – Rachel Carson
A bare juniper tree in a fog-covered portion of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The fog was substantial, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We traveled to Guadalupe National Park, ascending to the edge of the clouds. The park was wreathed in mist, notching another rare moment we just happened to be right on time for. The grounds were spooky, to put it simply, compounded by the lack of fellow visitors. We took a walk to the ruins of a stagecoach mail depot, the first overland connection on the continent before being replaced by rail. It was surreal to see the hawks silently swoop in and out of the haze overhead and watch the juniper branches tremble under the light drizzle. We drove down to another part of the park and walked the floor of McKittrick Canyon for a mile or so. Here, the fog made the canyon’s ridges look as if we had been transported to the Highlands of Scotland, provided one didn’t look too hard at the flora. We were falling in love with the land, and our walk out of the gorge saw us roughing out a future trip

McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We hoped the McKittrick Canyon trail would drop us below the layer of fog. Birds circled the jutting cliffs above, their screeches echoing off the canyon walls. We descended layered stone steps into a dry creek bed where a jackrabbit was scrounging. The diversity of plant life was striking against the jutting stone backdrop. Affected by the landscape’s particular beauty, we vowed to come back to explore it more fully.

Desperately hungry, we stopped outside Carlsbad for some truly tragic burritos (why would anyone place the fillings on the outside?), and a good dose of tacky administered in the form bar stools that morphed the sitter’s ass into that of a horse’s, then headed to the caves for their nightly Bat Flight program. We made our way down sloping ramps to the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave. A ranger was dutifully employing bat facts to entertain the small crowd that had resiliently assembled in the rain (Their 1200 species make up 20% of the world’s classified mammals!). She finished her presentation, warning everyone to speak in whispers and step softly. Indeed, the amphitheater magnified even the softest sounds. They began exiting the cave in choreographed movements, forming a pod as they circled the mouth, increasing in number. Then they would swoop up in a single mass and fly off into one direction or the next, while another cloud began the process at the mouth below.

A bar stool made to look like the rear of a horse
The Cactus Cafe’s most redeeming attribute

The drive down and out of the fog took us into New Mexico in short order, where we arrived at Carlsbad National Park. We were too late for the cavern, but had already consigned that for the future trip we had just discussed, so we were more than happy to watch our second bat colony emergence of the trip. The bats emerged in seemingly endless waves from the mouth of the cavern into the wet, grey, early dusk, flapping off towards the Pecos River in search of food. It is difficult for me to conceive approaching these things in such an exuberant and curious manner, let alone doing them, were it not for a partner at least as game as I. Rather than counting my pipe dreams for yet another year in Pittsburgh, I am continually fortunate to relay the Kurt Vonnegut adage to Y: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

We watched until the cold and an unattended, stomping child got the better of us, making it to the car just as the sky let loose. The rain became torrential, pummeling the car in waves. A truck came up fast behind us on the unlit road, barely making us out in time to swerve into the next lane. Shaken by the close call, we stopped for provisions. Russell’s Reserve whiskey was insolently on sale and we grabbed a six-pack of white spiced ale from an outfit in Albuquerque. A local behind us in line voiced his approval of our beer selection, then immediately negated it by suggesting we visit the local Buffalo Wild Wings. We headed to the motel, eager to warm up with a little aid from American hero Jim Russell.

The foul weather had scrapped our plans for camping for the night, so we took advantage of the opportunity to tackle some writing rather than be hunched and defeated, cornered in a tent in soggy wilderness. I enjoy camping and the outdoors, but given the option to avoid precipitation, it’s only the more lunatic fringe of the outdoor type that will relish pulling out their rain gear. We happily booked two nights in Roswell and celebrated life just a hair too hard that evening, aided by some whiskey and delicious beer from the Marble Brewery.

I awoke to a confidently smiling Y and the smell of Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers, which effectively kickstarted my hungover ass. We drove into downtown Roswell, the main drag festooned with aliens of every shape and shade; even the streetlights are made to look like the heads of the infamous Greys (or Greens, depending on how deep your rabbit hole goes). The International UFO Museum was the perfect cross-section of conspiracy theories and history, along with a hefty dose of self-aware, grade-A American camp. Worth every penny of the $5 a head. While I don’t wholly ascribe to the vast array of sinister plots and theories that circle Roswell like tired, ancient buzzards, it’s fairly obvious the government covered something up and continues to do so today. If you believe the government of this United States of America hasn’t ever lied to its people, you’re an absolute nincompoop.

Public Art Commemorating Elizabeth Garrett in Roswell, New Mexico
“Okay, it’s to the tune of “Smoke on the Water”, on three…”

Given our similar threshold for consumption, I assumed J wouldn’t be faring well when I woke unable to string a thought together. A persistent throbbing made sleep implausible and I went to procure some food. JBCs working hard to right our wrongs, we were able to get it together enough to head downtown to indulge in some kitsch at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The front windows had been painted to commemorate its 70th Anniversary. One window had been painted with “1947-2017”, the years of its occupancy, the other touted its “25 years of continued success.” I guess the first 45 didn’t go so well.

A diorama of an alien in a stasis chamber at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
Exposing the great tanning bed conspiracy in Roswell, International UFO Museum and Research Center

There were scale models of aliens being experimented on and a flying saucer that lit up and spun. However, there was also surprisingly thorough coverage of sightings throughout history and the events of 1947 Roswell. I’ve never been much of a believer in little green men (though it seems undeniable that somewhere in this vast universe, other life exists), and the museum didn’t wholly convert me. However, the US government initially stated that they were in possession of a crashed alien aircraft. Then they rescinded the statement, and forced the farmer who discovered the site to do the same. Then they insisted they had found debris from a crashed weather balloon that nobody claimed to be missing. As years passed and witness accounts came out suggesting bodies had been present at the crash site, the government changed its story once more, implying they had actually seen dummies used to test paratrooper equipment. Dummies that weren’t even manufactured until two years later in 1949. I’m not definitively saying there are three aliens below ground in the CIA’s high-security facility hidden in the hills outside Roswell, but I might be more convinced there weren’t if the military lied better than a third grader without his homework.

A wood carving replica of the ancient Mayan carving purported to be an ancient astronaut at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
“Oh, no. No. No, I’m a Rocket Man. Rocket Man,” International UFO Museum and Research Center

A little research into the nearby Roswell Space Center didn’t uncover much about the vague attraction other than it cost $2. Online reviews heralded it as having “lots of room to walk around” and was “near a Subway,” (both true). We threw caution to the wind and decided to forfeit the $4. What is Roswell if not a place to embrace the unknown?

We walked up the ramp covered in alien footprints into what was, in truth, a gift shop. The admission price is for entrance to the Spacewalk. It’s a black-light masterpiece, showcasing surprisingly masterful murals and dioramas. Some are of moments in Roswell’s history, some are just general space scenes. Regardless, it was cool and entirely worth $2.

A black light painting depicting a person break dancing in the vast expanse of space
A black light experience cooler than your weird Uncle’s velvet paintings, Roswell Space Center

We walked around downtown for a bit, reveling in the absurdity of the main drag. Streetlamps are designed with black “eyes” to resemble aliens, there are life-size alien statues, storefronts hawking stuffed alien dolls, and others decorated with alien figures playing poker. J pointed out a mural adorning the window of a hairdresser’s shop in which, ironically, the aliens all had terrible hair. The female aliens had been painted a bit heavyset, and I leaned in towards J, “If they can manage interspace travel, I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten adult obesity under control.”

Green and pink aliens painted onto a window with horrible haircuts and diet issues
Diabetic footwear fashion that’s truly out of this world

We crossed the street and headed to the Roswell Space Center, which is everything a black-light laden, $2 tourist trap could ever hope to be. We obviously loved it. Ravenous from traversing the cold black of outer space, we went to Chef Todzilla’s. As usual, Y exhibited her preternatural ability to suss out great food where most would lamely drive to the nearest McDonald’s (although Roswell’s boasts an extensively done-up UFO theme). We stopped at a bar next door to wash down the delicious burgers and to plan out our camping trip to White Sands National Monument before heading back to the hotel for more writing. Roswell is a lovely place to visit, but the town is full of tragically hilarious reminders that on a Saturday night, efforts to impress on first, second or third dates were being made at places like Buffalo Wild Wings or Tia Juana’s, all but promising a steep downward trend.

We stopped for another round of burgers, because having burgers twice in a day is not a reason to pass up a place called Chef Todzilla’s Gourmet Burgers and Mobile Cuisine. It was the recently erected brick and mortar outpost of a popular food truck, and Todzilla had come by the title Chef honestly. We wondered aloud how we were the only ones there on a weekend night. After a couple of drinks, we went to take pictures in front of the famous UFO-shaped McDonald’s. We got there and saw that McDonald’s had completely diluted its interstellar weirdness by marring its spaceship edifice with the addition of a playplace. I took solace in the fact that if the kids of Roswell were going to ruin an ostentatious tourist trap with something so trivial as a playground, at least they would be enjoying it from a vantage point where they would be forced to witness the pitiful meatmarket that was the B-Dubs parking lot on a Saturday night.

We had a quick and unceremonious breakfast at the UFO McDonald’s before heading off for Monjeau Point, topping off a summit over 9000 feet tall. The drive up was more than a little nerve-wracking, being on a narrow dirt road peppered with the sort of bumps and dips that make you appreciate the greedy pull gravity has on your top-heavy behemoth of a vehicle. Lulled into slightly less white-knuckle status by the sounds of Blur and the lamentations of Damon Albarn, we made it to the top, affirming that the view was indeed worth it, and we had yet to scale the tower steps. Climbing another job well done by the CCC, we nearly lost our breath in the gusting wind. The scars of previous forest blazes seemed amplified by the lush blue sky, and we scanned the horizon in all directions until the chill of elevation set in.

The Monjeau Point Fire Lookout Tower in Lincoln National Forest
The Fire Lookout Tower, Monjeau Point

The next morning we embarked on scaling Monjeau Point. Narrow, winding back roads devolved into a mix of dirt and gravel for the last 7 miles to the summit. We looked forward to utilizing the Suburban’s V8 engine, but the car slipped on the rugged road, and gravel sharply pelted its impractically low undercarriage. It seems the Chevy Suburban is neither suited for city driving nor rigorous terrain, and is merely a minivan labeled as an SUV to coddle the egos of suburbanites too insecure to stomach having lost their edge. J carefully advanced, which was made more difficult anytime a car approached on the narrow road, forcing us right to the edge of the cliff as it squeezed by. I tried to remain calm, and not to look down.

We pulled into a lot near the peak and took a moment to gather ourselves. The fire lookout tower sits 9,641ft up, at the tip of the mountain. After a quick pause to stare down a youth who had thrown a plastic bottle on the ground, we began our ascent. We stepped onto the landing, which afforded spectacular views of the Lincoln National Forest below. The sky was the majestic blue of a photo filter, and we stood planted against buffeting winds that seemed capable of pushing us over the ledge, beholding the valley’s beauty amidst the voracity of nature.

A view of Lincoln National Forest from atop Monjeau Pont's Fire Lookout Tower
A truly natural high, Monjeau Point
Two Traveling Texans

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

AUSTIN (PT II) – CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY

Our plan for the next day was simple enough, but even the most optimistic forecast held true. We parked a car over at Barton Springs in the morning, and our host, her not-quite but totally squeeze Max, Y, and I all microdosed on mushrooms and set off for a glorious walk in the woods, with the Springs as our final destination. I haven’t really dabbled in mushrooms in a long while, not since an extremely bad trip. Back then, my team consisted of not so much a team as it was a handful of selfish dinks, and the goal was nil. An action lacking intentionality should be kept in one’s pants until there is firm rationale behind the act. Additionally, there’s a great deal to be said for trust, for friendship, and for knowing when those words are just words. There are people you would do drugs with, and there are people you would not. I’m very fortunate to have left the pretenders to the team well off in the dust of the rearview.

After a brief smudging ceremony and some cleansing bell chimes, we set off for the heart of Austin. Even before we started feeling it, the day was under some sort of enchantment – just the right amount of overcast with plenty of light sprinkling out from the clouds and down below the canopy of leaves. Early on in our journey, Beia introduced us to a local who had constructed a stonework throne and small pond under a bridge, where he sat poring over a large textbook. Austin is indeed weird, but so much of it is a comfort to those deviating from a standard march time signature.

The view of the Shoal Creek from the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
The Shoal Creek Trail

With Beia off the next day, we decided to take some mushrooms, (a recurring amusement between us) and walk the few miles from her house to Barton Springs Pool. We parked a car at the pool to be available for us later, grabbed her friend, Max, and headed back to her place. After a short centering ceremony, we were off. Beia led us on a route she knew well, identifying points of interest along the way. Though we never strayed far from a major road, our path felt secluded and removed from the realities of the city. Beia shouted out toward a bridge and I turned to discover a man sitting in the water beneath it. We found he was a fixture of sorts on this trail. Beia and he had encountered each other previously, and she asked permission to bring us closer. Here, acceptably hidden by the bridges supports and high grasses, he had fashioned himself a throne of river stones. There he sat, cooly reading a university textbook. The encounter seemed less strange than one would expect from a meeting under a bridge and I left awed by his ingenuity, and his ability to keep a very expensive book dry.

A graffiti face under a bridge along the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
Bridge Troll

As we walked the trail, color and sound and smell became bolder and our smiles and laughter became constant. Emerging briefly into the paved parts of the forest, we stopped for lunch at the Death Star of Whole Foods. The movement from a depository for foodstuffs and community lynchpin to a museum of potential edibles and lifestyle choice in supermarkets is one of my least favorite developments of the 21st century. The food, however, was exactly as advertised, and being smug about how one deals with a biological imperative is a wonderful condiment.

We stopped for a picnic at the original Whole Foods Market, enthralled by the urban fowl soliciting there. Aside from the common pigeons scavenging about was a bird which seemed to have learned to play maimed to garner sympathy scraps from patrons whose designs had been greater than their abilities. Everyone in our party being a member of the clean plate club, he went to spin his yarn by those with more anemic appetites.

Y hugging public art that looks like a large, blue mound on the streets of Austin, Texas
Austin is the shit.

We crossed over Ladybird Lake and paused to hit a bowl on the shore, watching the boats slip by, and nearly getting lost down a rabbit hole of conversation. The build-up of sweat we were wearing won out, and we continued on to Barton Springs. We could hear the drum circle before we could see the pool, the rhythm floating down the outflow stream along with the kayaks and floats occupied by happy, sun-drenched Austinites. Finally, we were there – a place I had drooled over in the wee hours of the night, dreaming of a new life. It’s an incredible sight to behold.

Graffiti of Pac-Man being chased by ghosts on bridge over Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas
“Computer games don’t affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music.”- Marcus Brigstocke

Beia graciously took care of our entrance fee, and after a quick trip to the changing areas, we were off to the races. We had been thoroughly warned that it was going to be cold, but that the water had a mysterious rejuvenating quality. The assessment was dead-on. The water was an icy stab from the depths at first, but felt marvelous after a few minutes. Y and I paddled into the shallow end to float and relax. I had felt so safe approaching the pool that I had left my glasses behind with our towels, something I haven’t done in a long while. I had forgotten how rewarding the experience of letting your other senses pick up the slack can be. Not being able to read faces or distinguish them gives one a weird freedom.

Beia and Max had repeatedly warned that despite the Texas sun pummeling down all afternoon, the water temperature would be bracing. I stood at the edge experimenting, dipping a toe in, and confirmed their assessment. Attempting to ease into the frigid water by degrees would require a discipline I do not possess. We jumped.

The cold hit us like a slap, seizing our breath. Winded, we bobbed up, laughing through our pants. After a few minutes of paddling, we began to acclimate. Neither J nor I being the strongest of swimmers, we decided to make our way towards shallower depths.

The sides of the pool have been carved out to create a fairly straight perimeter, the bottom has been left natural. In places the rock is gravelly, in others smooth. Algae cover the uneven limestone floor, making it slick. Dips and channels in the rock make depth unpredictable, and I was able to entertain J when startled by one such valley, I dramatically slipped below the surface with a choked cry.

We all eventually reconvened at our towel spot, the drum circle behind us still pounding away just past the crest of the hill. Everything looked and felt very primal, connected. We were, after all, enjoying the same leisure that had been enjoyed there for centuries.

As the sun crept down, Max and I overheard some bro mansplaining to reveal that ramen was a very new thing in this country. Thank god people like him exist, because if not for his piercing insight into society and all matters gastronomic and whatever else he’s assuredly an expert in, how would we know these things? Certainly not from chefs, professional or otherwise, those of Japanese heritage, Japanophiles or Maruchan Incorporated. In any case, ramen became a new topic of discussion for our little band, and it was decided we go find some of that good good. I managed to set my hair on fire attempting to hit a bong, but we’re leaving that detail out of the larger story arc.

The swim had woken a hunger in us, and after a quick pit stop to switch out of our suits, we headed to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, at Beia and Max’s urging. The line around the outside set some high expectations. J and I ordered the house’s version of a Michelada, made with Sapporo, kimchi, bonito, and a togarashi rim. I struggled with ordering a second, but refrained, determined to leave enough room to finish my ramen. The rare impulse control paying off, as we agreed the rich, unctuous broth was easily the best either of us had ever tried.

Graphic mural outside Ramen Tatsu-Yu in Austin, Texas
Ramen Tatsu-Ya

Ramen Tatsu-Ya was hands down the best ramen I’ve had, and throw in the Kimchi-lada with a togarashi salt rim, I felt like I had been canonized by my taste buds. Happy and full, we headed back to Beia’s house to chat over some beers, eventually succumbing to a content exhaustion around 1am.

While the day isn’t much on paper- breakfast, drugs, a walk, swimming, dinner, literally a very pedestrian sort of affair, it is by far my favorite single day of the trip thus far. I will always treasure it. Everything I love in this life was present in perfect amounts. The next morning saw me a little weed-groggy, which is normal for a square like me, but otherwise happy and blissfully anxiety-free.

Having the perfect weather for a pursuit is a luxury when traveling, so the next morning we headed off to Hamilton Pool Preserve despite the dove gray sky. The preserve includes a waterfall-fed natural pool created when the dome over an underground river collapsed. It is said to get crowded, and I hoped turning up on a Monday with unfavorable skies would allow us to have some space. We drove through gently rolling gray hills, feeling very far from the city we’d left. A “Don’t Mess With Texas” sign educated us as to the reason for the pristine preservation of the surrounding country. It warned of a maximum of $2000 in fines and 180 days in jail for a littering offense. Turns out everything really is bigger in Texas.

We planned on hitting the Hamilton Pool for some more swimming, and our serendipitous double date continued on as we drove out into Hill country. Hill country, if you’ve never been, is as magical and alluring as Kentucky, but the peaks of elevation are generally strikingly bald, aside from patches of brush, cypress, oak, and juniper. The scenic drive, at least for a moment, seemed just that, when due to a change in policy and some pretty elementary poor online-presence management, we weren’t allowed in without a reservation we didn’t know we needed to have. The age we live in.

As we turned into the preserve we were greeted by a park ranger holding a clipboard. She asked for the name on our reservation, a reservation we didn’t have. We attempted to feel out any sympathetic tendencies, but it became clear she was immune to our plight. Having myself found out about the pool through a Google search, I felt unqualified to lament the effects of industrialized tourism for too long. Beia suggested Pedernales Falls State Park a half hour away and we were off.

Beia, J, and Max exploring the limestone steps that make up the Pedernales Falls while the Pedernales River is low
Exploring the falls at Pedernales State Park

Signs at the entrance to the falls disclose their violence. They warn to remain attentive, listening for the sound of rushing water. To not turn one’s back on them. We walked through a thicket of knotty black trees encircled by a ghostly mist, the trail opening onto a vista overlooking the falls below. The river was low, the water collected in serene pools which burbled into the ones below. We went down to explore. A light rain was starting, and though it lasted just moments, it spurred a mass desertion amongst the park’s other patrons. We climbed the ridges solitarily, quietly inspecting the landscape. The slopes of smooth rock betrayed the river’s true nature, worn soft by years of force and pressure. A cast of hawks began circling above, agitated and growing in number. Another storm loomed overhead. As the fat drops began to fall we hastened for the car, retiring back to the house to relax before dinner.

J sitting on a rock watching the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
J watching the falls cascading down the limestone steps at Pedernales Falls State Park.
Potholes in the bedrock of the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
The river was low enough to explore the potholes in the bedrock at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Thankfully, Beia pulled a great backup plan out, and we headed to Pedernales Falls, one of Texas’ many state parks. The falls, much like the Falls of the Ohio, were markedly restrained and peaceful. We walked the smooth stone and examined the potholes, deep undercuts and slowly whirling eddies of the low-lying river, imagining the fierce wall of water it would become during the rainy season. We all made wishes on some river mollusk shells, tossed them back into the Pedernales and walked up the hill and through the deathly still juniper and cypress forest back to the car.

An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.
An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Solid downtime happened before getting ready for dinner at Uchiko. While Y and I had, for the most part, agreed that this was not a journey of gustatory delights, at least not expensive ones, we always planned for exceptions and having both Beia and Max’s seal of approval and enthusiasm for where they worked was more than enough to hook us. We could not have asked for a better meal, nor better people to share it with. The restaurant is doing everything on such an inspiring level, I even felt the tug of my most recent past life.

As someone hailing from a fairly ruined freshwater ecosystem, and an area that is largely landlocked, great sushi is a rare treat I have only experienced a few times. This was one of those times, made even more special by the menu’s unorthodox approach. For example, and without spoiling anything, I’ve never seen gruyere cheese on the menu at an Asian forward concept, let alone cheese that’s been gussied up and thrown through an iSi siphon. The meal was impressive, to say the least, with service on point from amazing aperitivo cocktails down to the rewarding dessert. To be clear, we rarely, if ever, order dessert. Full confession – yes, dessert is a thing we do, but it’s usually a nip of spirits or a round or three at a dive bar for the finishing move. It’s not that we don’t trust the pastry chef (I find them to be the most inspiring chefs in the kitchen, more often than not), it’s that when we dine out, we are focused replenishing our requisite parts, being salt and spirit. We may or may not already be as sweet as our body chemistry allows. In any case, it was to be an evening for the best of all worlds, including dessert, and our next stop was just as stellar as our meal.

The best way to experience a restaurant is with someone who works there. Living in Pittsburgh the last few years hadn’t exactly presented us with an array of sushi options, so when Beia and Max suggested we accompany them to Uchiko, we didn’t hesitate. Both elegant and casual, it’s a place that hits all the marks. The drinks were flawless, the space handsome and comfortable, the service knowledgeable and attentive. Though we heard a guest outside reductively refer to it as a sushi restaurant, it really is so much more than perfect sashimi. We tried a myriad of dishes, both hot and cold, and with each new bite we were filled with a profound respect for the technique apparent, the delicate layering of flavor, the impeccable use of texture. The restaurant deserves every accolade it’s garnered.

As we progressed through our meal, various staff members stopped by our table, each asking if we would be joining the post-work karaoke festivities. The inclusion in the shift afterparty at a restaurant you do not work at is a rarity, and not to be taken lightly. Being welcoming unconditionally for an uninterrupted eight hours is taxing work, and hospitality ends when the door shuts behind the last guest. These outings are a chance for everyone to trade battle stories, to commiserate, to get as drunk as finances will allow. Pleasantries are delightfully absent. I can only credit our host’s wit and charm with granting us with admittance. By the fifth query (and third glass of wine) we were fully committed to accepting their generous invitation.

During dinner, Max and I had briefly discussed the need for and nature of digestivos, and he decided on taking us to La La’s. While I had been told it was a Christmas bar, my soul was not prepared. It is an amazing bar, full stop. If I lived in Austin, I would crave sitting at that bar the same way I do Gooski’s, Kelly’s, and Harris Grill back in Pittsburgh. The fact that The Shining was playing certainly didn’t hurt. Fernet, whiskey, and beer we all kicked back before we took the staff of Uchiko up on their gracious invitation to join them at the local karaoke lounge for their post-service Monday ritual.

Sign saying 96 days until Christmas and replica of leg lamp from the movie A Christmas Story decorations at La La's Little Nugget in Austin, Texas
La La’s Little Nugget

Max suggested La La’s Little Nugget, a Christmas bar, as a place to throw back a few shots while we waited for staff to finish the business of breaking down. La La’s is kitschy, and clever, and absurd in the best way. It’s also incredibly welcoming. We hung at the bar, trading quips and shooting whiskey with the bartender, feeling like regulars. We received word that the Uchiko crew was off the clock and headed over to join the drunken revelry.

Despite the two of us walking in directions that lead away from what kept a roof over our heads for so long, restaurant people will always be our people. The free-wheeling generosity and never-ending pursuit of laughter is a common thread that binds us together. Any invitation to that sort of gathering is both a privilege and a challenge to pay it forward. We stayed long into the concert, truly a Party in the USA, and fell asleep quickly once home, hastened by the alcohol and good cheer still coursing through our veins.

The next morning was a battle against our rebelling bodies. Breakfast, preferably in taco form, being the best ammunition for such fights, Beia advocated for Veracruz, an awesome little taco truck located adjacent to Radio Coffee. J had lovingly decorated an Underberg wrapper with hearts and stars, and after throwing back that magical tonic, I felt well enough to be in public and we went to fulfill our tortilla-wrapped destiny. Once sustenance had been ordered, I went to get us coffee. However, inside I discovered the cafe was further improved by a bar. Put straight by the beer and eggs, the short drive to San Antonio felt once again like the manageable task it was. As is my habit, I picked Beia up in an embrace. It was time to go.

The Underberg bottle that J decorated with hearts and stars
Breakfast of Champions

The next day was a struggle, not only for BAC reasons, but because we were leaving Austin. Beia could not have been a more insightful and accommodating guide, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to add to the list of guests we hope to entertain in Cuenca. The city itself, while suffused with a self-awareness one finds in Portland or the now-precious portions of Brooklyn, still maintains a ruggedly individualistic streak of weird that Hunter S. Thompson would likely approve of, even in this age of coarsening cynicism. I look forward to the happy moments of the future I know will happen in Austin. What a fantastic town. I can’t wait to come home there, someday.

Yvette lifting Beia up in a goodbye embrace
I just can’t help myself.

 

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.