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

AUSTIN (PT II) – CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AUSTIN (PT I) – RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE

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

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

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

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

J flanked by pink dragonfruit margaritas and conversing at brunch at Picnik in Austin, Texas
Pink Dragonfruit Margaritas at Picnik

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

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

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

Spanish Moss and creek at Mayfield Park and Preserve in Austin, Texas
Mayfield Park and Preserve

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

White Peacock at Mayfield Park and Preserve in Austin, Texas
Our second white peacock sighting, at Mayfield Park and Preserve.

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

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

The skyline of Austin, Texas as viewed from the Mt. Bonnell Terrace in Covert Park
The view from Mt. Bonnell

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

Mr. Meeseeks graffiti mural at the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas
“Look at me!”

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

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

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

J using perspective to make it look as though he is holding one of the Austin, Texas Moonlight Towers in the palms of his hands
The Austin Moonlight Towers are the last light towers in the world. They stand 165 ft high and cast a glow that stretches out 1,500 ft.

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

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

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

Beia's cat, Monster, begrudgingly wearing a strawberry crochet hat
Alright Monster, you’ll only wear it when Aunt Clara visits.

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

A skull playing the saxophone graffiti mural at Hope Outdoor Gallery, Austin, Texas
“Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place.”- Banksy

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

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

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

3. A bloated, brocean pufferfish

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

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.

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.

 

THE BEST LAID PLANS

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

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

A Large Brown Fluffy Cat phoning in an attempt to be smuggled in luggage.
“I can has adventure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An attractive and defiant woman driving a truck.
“This is Black Widow, what’s your 20?”

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

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

A large, brown fluffy cat riding shotgun in a car
Moose is ready to turn this car around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lily pond at the Holden Arboretum
Lily pond at Holden Arboretum

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

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

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

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

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