NATIONAL PARKS ARE COUNTING ON US ALL TO THINK RESPONSIBLY

The American National Parks offer inspiring, singular sights and experiences to over 300 million visitors a year. Sweeping vistas, historical relevance, and undisrupted natural beauty have secured these sites as powerful magnets for travelers the world over, and in this age of globalization, it’s easier than ever to inhabit spaces previously only explored from the window of a postcard. The mission of the National Parks is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” However the parks draw an endless stream of tourists, not all of whom visit with the mission of the NPS in mind. In addition, courageous Rangers and park employees are dealing with an onslaught of disasters both political and natural, as well as consistently and precipitously low funding. A proposed fare hike aims to combat the challenges confronting our national parks by increasing fares in seventeen of the most popular parks during peak visitation times, causing many to question if raising the price of admission would prevent lower-income citizens from experiencing our nation’s natural resources. How do we enjoy these parks while preserving the ideal they were built upon? How do we best keep these lands accessible while ensuring the NPS is able to carry out its mission to protect them for future generations?

Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park

Dollars and Sense

Many people are upset about the proposed rate hikes at some of the major parks, and they should be. Part of the gift that Theodore Roosevelt envisioned was that the wealth preserved in our national parks could be shared by all. It can be pretty easy to decry any rate hikes as going against this aim. The sad fact is that the National Parks Service has been criminally underfunded for decades, the victim of political gamesmanship and buzzwords, when in reality, the NPS funding level of around $3 billion doesn’t even come close to filling a maintenance backlog of over 4 times that. In fact, the United States gives more than that $3 billion in military aid to Israel alone, a developed nation in its own right, with its own nuclear arsenal. Without delving too deep into the indefensible politics of the underfunded United States Parks system, and the predilection of old white men for expensive military toys, the rate hikes are a matter of survival and preservation.

The outcry exhibited over fare increases seems legitimate because in some cases, the entry fees would be more than doubled. However, concerns of the parks becoming exclusive playgrounds for the rich are unfounded and shortsighted. Take, for example, Zion National Park, whose $30 per car rate would increase to $70 under the new proposal (80% to benefit that park, and 20% to benefit parks where no entry fee is charged). A $40 increase only seems extravagant before factoring in that admission prices are for seven consecutive days and a car constitutes any recreational vehicle with fifteen or adults or less (children under fifteen years of age are free). Compare that to a family of four visiting Disneyland for just five days. The cheapest tickets would run you $1190, and another $100 for parking.

Archways of Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose, San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Yet even this point is moot, because the NPS offers annual passes to its properties at an absurd discount. If you’re in the Early Bird Special crowd, they basically throw them at you, charging you but once for a lifetime pass and helping you enjoy the golden years while they last. You’ve earned it, somehow, greyhairs, so you do you. For the rest of us, $80 will get you a year’s worth of access to over 2,000 National Parks, Monuments, Forests, Grasslands, Recreation Areas, and Wildlife Refuges, as well as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some state forest programs recognize the America the Beautiful Pass as well. It covers entry and parking for a car of up to fifteen, or four adults on foot or bike, and campsites are often substantially discounted for pass holders. Our pass paid for itself almost immediately.

Wotan's Throne, Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim
Wotan’s Throne, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim

Overcrowding is Damaging These Delicate Places (And is a Serious Killjoy)

The legendary majesty of our national parks and monuments attracts a dizzying number of tourists, and rightfully so. Their natural wonders are breathtaking, and preserved for a reason. With each passing year it becomes easier to find out about their quiet corners and hidden gems. Places that were once only known to rangers, guides, and locals now have their own blog posts and Instagram hashtags. Zion National Park now has 30 miles of routes forged by visitors veering off-trail. Industrial tourism is not just becoming an impediment to enjoying a vacation, but a real danger to these delicate ecosystems.

Elk Grazing, Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim
Elk grazing, Monument Creek Vista, Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim

While we can’t really take credit for the timing of our trip, we’re going to anyway, and advise you to follow our example. Our road trip took place during September and October, and while there were still mobs of people, to be sure, we didn’t have many problems finding a site or a serene moment. Fortunate circumstances, given that our itinerary was pulled out of thin air. Summer vacation is an easy, if not habitual, time to take a trip, but larger parks like the Grand Canyon’s South Rim or Arches are overrun during these times. If the NPS had kid-friendly anthropomorphic crows, coyotes, and rock formations wandering around places like these, it wouldn’t be out of place. There are people arriving by the busload, making these sites feel more like carnivals than parks. It makes for some interesting developments in what is, for the most part, wilderness. The South Rim had a better grocery store than most of the villages dotting the barren lands we drove through to get there. If you’re not chained to your sex fruit (babies, whatever) or have chosen not to have any, take your vacation days and go during off-peak times. The views will not be any less epic, and the experience will be that much more tranquil. If you are saddled with the fruit of your loins, one might suggest that a week on the road may be more instructive than as much time grinding through an increasingly flawed education system. The parks also have a junior ranger program that made us envious for years where we would have been young enough to qualify, and not just for the dope tiny khaki vests.

Paria River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Paria River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

When we lucked out on finding sites or dodging crowds, it was largely due to hitting the parks mid-week. The only thing more vexing than waiting for your travel partners to take the damn picture already is waiting for the endless procession of people to get the hell out of your shot. Going to a major attraction in the middle of the week will help beef up the scrapbook while keeping the heart rate down. Many of the parks have some amazing programming that happens throughout the week. While Bat Flight may be a little crowded on a Friday, on a Tuesday you’ll be able to have plenty of facetime with those heroes in khaki, the Park Rangers. Use peak days for travel or staying the night in tourist towns. Unlearn the rules of the work week. You’re on vacation, so make the calendar work for you. Use Fridays and Saturdays to recharge your batteries, set up a reservation at a restaurant and snag a margarita. The wonders of the world will be there on Monday, and you can share in Mother Earth’s sigh of relief when you hit the comparatively empty sights.

Backcountry Camping Loop, White Sands National Monument
Backcountry Camping Loop, White Sands National Monument

We encountered lucky strokes more than once on our travels, but it’s not a magic trick we’d like to repeat. The planning may seem painful, but it’s worth it. Most of the major national parks have campgrounds that can be reserved through the NPS website. Sleeping on Bureau of Land Management plots or pulled off a dirt road in a national forest is totally do-able, if you’re into roughing it. If you’d like a fire pit, maybe some water, electricity and a toilet, plan ahead and reserve a spot. There’s nothing better than being able to enjoy the day with full knowledge of where you’re going to sleep that night, and evading the ugly and silent war that unconditionally unfurls within the cars that are turned away en masse from full campgrounds.

Queen Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
Queen Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

We Want You To Have Fun, But Please Enjoy Responsibly

Unfortunately, we witnessed a number of transgressions against our parks on our travels. Some were relatively small (though I guess that’s a call for the person who has to pick up the dirty diaper) like littering, leaning on ancient ruins, or bringing your kitten on the trail (to be fair, Reggie was adorable). Some were downright criminal. We watched a man hungry for a souvenir chip away at a rock at Arches. We stopped to confront a family attempting to chop down a Joshua Tree in California, but their axe emboldened them to ignore us. When alluding to hundreds of thousands of acres, it can be tempting to dismiss the people heedlessly tromping past fences, signs, and barriers. However, the impact of the constant flow of this off-trail traffic wreaks havoc on flora and fauna alike. These attacks to the fragile environments utilize scarce funds and the time of an already understaffed team of Rangers to deal with their repercussions, resources that could be better spent in the service of anything else.

Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument
Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, and we can help them. Follow the rules posted on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in proper receptacles. They’re everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected nature. Basically, don’t be terrible.

Historic Entrance, Mammoth Cave National Park
Historic Entrance, Mammoth Cave National Park

Above all else, vote with your wallet. With politicians seemingly unwilling to listen to the consensus of the American people and properly fund the National Park Service, the NPS could use your support. The NPS is amazing at making so much happen with so little support, and is exceptionally thoughtful in designing many park elements to be wheelchair accessible, making them enjoyable for visitors of any ability. One need not be the athletic sort to find something of interest. From camping in White Sands, to exploring the history of the San Antonio Missions, to touring the world’s largest cave system at Mammoth Cave, to yes, climbing el Capitan in the Guadalupe Mountains, there are parks to suit any proclivity. Purchase an annual pass. Having one of these in your wallet makes that great American road trip that much cheaper. Purchase a park passport at any gift shop and start collecting stamps. You will be amazed at the wonders you’ll discover.

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

After seeing a good chunk of the absolutely breathtaking terrain the National Park Service is charged with safekeeping, we’re ride or die for team khaki. Mostly we just want to hang out with Rangers and shower them with hugs and high fives. While the treasures of the Parks system belong to the American people, indeed, the world, there has to be a balance. The planet suffers enough for humanity’s hubris and greed, and once these magical places are gone, it will take a millennium for them to ever approach their current grandeur, and so much has already been lost forever. If you’ve ever been to one of these truly awesome places, you know that there can never be a dollar value affixed to the experience. For those who are angered at the thought of having these gifts placed on a higher economic shelf, that anger can be justly focused on those that make the laws of the land. Just as Roosevelt and all those after him felt a duty to the future, it is up to those on team khaki, whatever country they may hail from, to take up the mantle and do what they can to preserve the majesty left to us by our forebears.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Interested in reading more?

http://theconversation.com/americans-think-national-parks-are-worth-us-92-billion-but-we-dont-fund-them-accordingly-57617

https://skift.com/2017/12/09/record-visitation-prompts-overtourism-fears-at-zion-national-park/

Purchase an annual pass here:
https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm

 

 

Two Traveling Texans

DUNE IT WELL

I watched longingly as we sped past the world’s largest pistachio. The condition of the singular primitive, narrow road ascending Monjeau Point had meant we had to inch the Suburban along, making the fourteen-mile journey take much longer than we had anticipated. We had planned on arriving at White Sands National Monument around midday and securing one of the ten first-come campsites. Now the afternoon had gotten late, and with no backup for where we might spend the night, J was tense and pushing the speed limit. The probability of stopping for pistachio-themed attractions was nil.

Highway 70 sloped steadily downward towards the monument, and we could see the stripe of white cutting across the horizon long before we were anywhere near it. Despite our lateness we stopped for some sandwiches, not wanting to to leave our hunger at the mercy of the monument’s snack stand. A particularly humbling parking attempt at the sandwich shop caused tensions to erupt. However, we found staying angry around sandwiches difficult, and with apologies made, crossed the last few miles to the park.

As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.

Midday Sun Over White Sands National Monument
Dunes for days, White Sands National Monument

We arrived at the visitor’s center in time to nab one of the last two sites. Our situation settled for the evening, we were able to relax. Water bottles were filled and a sled and wax procured. J seemed to charm the woman running the register, and she told us where to find the best dunes for sledding. With dusk quickly approaching, we hurried to make our way to camp.

Midday sun silhouetting San Andres Mountains at White Sands National Monument
An intense midday sun silhouetting the San Andres Mountains, White Sands National Monument

The trailhead was 8 miles in, at the end of Dunes Drive. We watched a bulldozer employed in the perpetual restraint of the drifting dunes from the artery. Halfway through, the paved road gave way to hard-packed gypsum. I had conceded to purchasing my first pair of hiking boots for this trip, and was still annoyed by the considerable sum spent on such homely footwear. I was not going to dole out for a proper pack in addition. Now we began the game of Tetris that was stuffing a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, four water bottles, two jackets, clothes, snacks, our journals, phones, flashlights, a flask, and a sled in the two small backpacks J had received as swag during his tenure as a world-traveling bartender. Both being prideful, we were not about to be bested by inanimate objects.

One part exertion and two parts dogged stubbornness and we had managed the thing. Having only broken a mild sweat, we celebrated our success with the last swigs of our Russell’s Reserve. Attitudes sufficiently recalibrated, we ascended the dunes for the mile hike into the site.

We were able to lock down one of the two remaining campsites for a song thanks to our National Park Pass, and with a plastic sled and wax in hand, we shouldered our packs and started into the dunes. After a little more than a mile, we had arrived at our site, where we pitched a tent for the second time on the journey, in significantly speedier and more relaxed fashion than the first. We had enough time to take a few shots down the dunes on the sled before the sun set, and still grinning like idiot children, we watched it fall behind the mountains. The whole valley became a slowly shifting bowl of fiery watercolors, as darker and darker shades of blue and purple crept over the sky from the East.

The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument
The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument

The afternoon sun seared against the sand, contrasting the dunes in light and shadow. Our dark forms stretched long into the distance, a small caravan. I wondered if I’d still be pouring sand from my boots months from now. We found our site and got down to the business of setting up. The dune mocked us, putting up much more opposition against our stakes then you would expect from a pile of sand. Crisp evening winds began whipping the tent, worsening the situation. With three stakes sufficiently in the ground, we hurled our things in the tent and hoped for the best.

We weren’t anywhere near the fabled sledding dunes we had been recommended, but figuring one dune was as good as the next, decided to break in the sled. We waxed it, marched up the top of a dune, and down J went. He tossed it back up to me. I surveyed the lane he had made, then moved lower on the hill. A few attempts were enough to grasp the embarrassing depth of my chickenshittedness, and I was thankful for the excuse of the sun beginning its dip behind the mountains to call it a day.

The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument
The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument

We watched, the mountains cast in fiery corals and dusty lilacs, the sky a swirl of pigment against the gypsum dunes. Small clusters of hikers stood scattered on crests in every direction, sharing in the spectacle. It was intimate, standing quietly among these pods of strangers, and we marveled at having the opportunity.

Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument
Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

I opted to lay down for a short nap before getting back up to write. Unfortunately, my attempt devolved (or evolved, depending on how optimistic you want to be) into a small coma. I woke up fully around midnight to a brilliantly alabaster moon and a sky full of every star imaginable. I stayed awake for a while, taking a short barefoot walk out onto the now imperial violet dunes, then returned to crash out again. At 4am, I woke to find the moon had retired for the evening, and the sky was vast and luminous. Both of us unable to return to sleep, we talked and rested, excitedly rising well before the alarm went off to get ready for sunrise.

A tent set up atop a dune at sunset, the San Andres Mountains silhouetted in the background, at White Sands National Monument
Our (not quite) campsite was breathtaking, White Sands National Monument

Exhausted from the day’s mental strain, we dozed lazily. However, the moon’s brazen appearance roused me. Startled, I thought a ranger, making rounds, had directed a flashlight at our tent. I stepped outside. The moon was audaciously low in the night sky, its immodest brilliance illuminating the sand in a pure white. I watched the lights of the small city of Alamogordo, piercing against the blackness, and amused myself contorting my figure in twists and bends, torturing my moonshadow into knots.

My stargazing was disrupted by a man stumbling up the dunes. He was loaded down with supplies and winded from the hike. He surveyed the canyon between us then looked over his shoulder, calling out in a language I didn’t recognize. A woman’s voice echoed back through the night. He descended the dune and began setting up camp on the delicate interdunal region below. The moon’s intense glow provided me with a clear sightline into his awkward struggle. Moments later the woman shuffled over the ridge, out of breath and laughing. But her presence gave little support to the endeavor, and I watched in awe, their amateurish ineptitude filling me with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Eventually, they were able to secure their tent. But my bemusement turned to anger as I watched them gather brush from the preserved land to fuel a fire, which was expressly prohibited. I seethed. I wanted to shame them. However, my self-preservative instincts kicked in, rationally reminding me that I was outnumbered, unarmed, and lacking anything more refined than grunts and hand gestures to communicate with. Dejected, I went back into the tent to put the scene out of my mind, but I would definitely be telling a ranger in the morning.

We woke early, the sky still alight with stars. The moon had vacated the heavens, and in its absence, they gleamed brightly through the tent’s mesh ceiling, our whispers the only sound in the pre-dawn silence. Hours passed and I grew ever more impatient with the sun’s reluctance to get started. My excitement finally agitated J from his sleeping bag, and we set to packing.

Daybreak at White Sands National Monument
The sun slept in. White Sands National Monument

We scaled another dune, surprised by the array of tracks left by the desert’s inhabitants during the night. The lights of Alamogordo were now barely visible against the impending sunrise. Rays broke over Benson Ridge, colored fractals once again flooding the valley with a display of the sun’s talents. Almost immediately the temperature began to rise, and we were glad to be able to hike back before its power became violent. While disassembling our gear, J noticed a stake nearby. I looked it over. We had erroneously placed our tent at the wrong marker. I could probably cancel that talk with the ranger.

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument
Sunrise, White Sands National Monument

As we waited impatiently for Helios to get out of traffic and get to work, we realized that while we had certainly shared many sunrises in the past, they were rarely shared with such participation and intentionality. We enjoyed the quiet of the sands, then basked in the almost deafening glow of the sun. Eager to get in some sledding, we broke camp and sought out the good dunes one of the ladies in the gift shop had let us in on. Scanning the candidates to the sides of the road, we pulled off and spotted a perfect, nigh-virgin, East-facing dune. Just past the Alkali Flat trail, as promised. We spent a good chunk of the morning shooting down the dune and laughing, and had our fill just as the skies began to sear with heat.

J at sunrise at White Sands National Monument
J contemplating existence – and breakfast. White Sands National Monument

We drove to the foretold sledding dunes, eager to redeem my pathetic showing from the day before. As it happens, one dune is not as good as the next. These were massive, with sharp, steep banks that ran almost perpendicular to the ground. I was terrified. Again, I made J go first. The hill was sheer, but the sand provided a good deal of traction, and he didn’t seem to go that fast. I rallied, the knowledge that this was literally, child’s play nudging me to the precipice. That ride is faster than it looks.

Y sledding at White Sands National Monument
Graceful as ever, White Sands National Monument

We exhausted our appetites for sledding and took a tour down the interdunal boardwalk. Exhibits along the walk detailed common indigenous animal tracks, educating us to the fact that beetles, lizards, birds, and even a kit fox had all sauntered past us during the night. We learned about the fragile desert crust protecting the ecosystem and the tenacity of the soaptree yucca. The yucca visible atop the dunes were actually embedded in the interdunal floor, their rapid growth enabling them to rise above the ever-changing drifts as they blow by. Eventually, the dune passes completely over, leaving the yucca exposed and unable to support its own weight, its evolved adaptability the cause of its demise.

Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, at White Sands National Monument
Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, White Sands National Monument

We returned our sledding equipment for a modest partial reimbursement before setting off for the Valley of Fires. The fires of the valley had quavered into ash well over 5,000 years prior, but the site still burned with energy. The thematic shift in color and creation of setting was not lost on us, and we marveled at the unrefined and sharp immediacy of the lava field. Even as nature had aggressively colonized the area, even evolved around it, as was the case in White Sands, there was a rawness to the land. It refused to be cowed by root, beast or weather. The paved trail we used to circuit a portion of the field was a redundant reminder that we were mere spectators.

Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Just us, an obsidian desert, and the government missile testing range for miles, Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires occupied a desolate stretch of 380, surrounded by mountains and White Sands Missile Range. On missile test days, the road is closed to traffic, making an inconvenient island of the small town of Carrizozo nearby. Its name conjured conflagrant visions, making it an irresistible stop on our way to Santa Fe, but the sentiment appeared to be an uncommon one. We had the recreation area to ourselves. The solitude compounded the majesty of the gnarled landscape. Created when Little Black Peak erupted, sending its contents 44 miles South into the Tularosa Basin, it is lined in petrified black rock 160 ft thick. The dark, craggy deposits produce a land inverse, yet equally hostile, to the one we had left.

Jagged Lava Crevice at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Exploring jagged crevices off-trail, Valley of Fires

We followed the trail over top of the rugged formations. Cacti, juniper trees, and desert brush had all whittled homes within the jagged configurations, flourishing in a land that looked, at first glance, uninhabitable. The trail’s exhibits were worn and bleached by the sun, giving them a look befitting their placement amongst the nature they were meant to describe. We accepted a marker’s urges to explore off-trail, enthusiastically scouting furrows and caves. J, perhaps feeling inspired by the harsh landscape, lobbed our water bottle back to the path. It burst in a dramatic gush, undoubtedly doubling the yearly rainfall of the splash zone. However, the arid wind was relief enough against the torrid, midday sun, and we stayed a while longer, eyeing Golden Eagles as they circled and dove overhead.

Lava layers at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
A landscape physically inverse, yet equally hostile to the one we had just left, Valley of Fires

The rest of the day was a long slog to Santa Fe, broken up only by instances of the unbroken majesty of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. It truly is absolutely beautiful here, and I can certainly see why some would gladly call it home. As much as humanity tends to despoil most of what it touches, it offers so much that I wouldn’t want to live without. I will always be glad to bask and worship in nature, but a world with many deities is altogether a more entertaining one, and both the cities and wildernesses of this world hold multitudes I constantly yearn to discover.

Y atop a dune at White Sands National Monument
Everything the light touches is Y’s. White Sands National Monument

 

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

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.

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.