Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Travels with Black Betty: the Epilogue

I'm home.

The car is still not unpacked due to constant rain, but regardless things are slowly falling back into place. I'm registering for classes this fall, taking my dog Bess for walks, and generally settling back into life in New Jersey. During my last week of the trip I was itching for home, now two and a half months don't seem nearly long enough.

I dutifully kept up with the blog in the interest of honing my writing skills, and for my effort I now have a wonderful keepsake of my journey. Some posts are better than others, to be sure. I sometimes barely had the time to edit simple typos, let alone grammar and syntax. But I do believe I achieved my goal of keeping it entertaining and informative.

I can't thank you enough for reading the blog this summer. Yes, you. If you liked what you read, tell me! If you didn't and have constructive criticism, tell me! You can leave a comment on this blog or e-mail me directly at

During my time in Australia a few years ago, I took a nine-day trip from Adelaide to Perth with Nullarbor Traveler. The members of the trip were the usual United Nations gathering of a dozen young people, with the odd addition of a 60-year-old Sydney-sider named John. He was suffering from a degenerative eye disease and was attempting to see what he could of his home country before his eyesight failed him completely. At the end of our journey, Amanda from Holland asked John if he had any words of wisdom for us. He said he was so glad we were taking advantage of traveling while still young, so that we might "get it out of our systems" before starting careers. The problem is, that trip and others only served to get it into my system, and now travel is all I want to do.

I'm going to start sounding like Po Bronson or bloody Oprah any minute now, but it's true that not enough people spend time doing what they truly want to be doing. When I stood in Abigail's kitchen in Butte, Montana at 1:30am and she asked me if I was happy, it was a pleasure to be able to realize that yes, I was happy. I was traveling and writing about it (even if I wasn't getting paid for it yet). That's exactly what I want to do.

I am equal parts amazed and disappointed that I managed to complete the Great American Roadtrip - coast to coast, border to border - and come away completely unscathed. No broken bones, flat tires, muggings or break downs of any sort can be truthfully mentioned.

On a scale of batshit crazy, 10 being a barfight with the cast of "Charles in Charge" and 1 being a quiet night at home with a Leonard Cohen album and a glass of lemonade, I'd say this trip was about a 5. Sleeping in the car and getting woken up by the police, picking up hitchhikers, chasing ghosts in Texas and taking on the Grand Canyon in one day were all pretty crazy. All those hours in Starbucks and libraries were decidedly not. At some points of the trip I felt I would sell my soul for use of the internet.

Regardless of what happened, or what I wish would have happened, the trip is mine. Mine to savor, mine to brag about, to laugh about, to regret, to remember fondly on some dark winter's day while at Rowan in the coming months.

Some people told me I'm lucky to have taken this trip. I'm not lucky. I simply found something I wanted to do and I did it.

"Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open."

The Merry Wives of Windsor
William Shakespeare

I'll leave you with a final thought, a refrain, if you will, first visited in the prologue: what is it you want from this world, and when are you going to take it?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sunset in Ocean City, New Jersey

After two and a half months, some 10,000 miles, 24 states, 3 oil changes, over a thousand pictures and probably too much beer, my travels with Black Betty concluded where they began: Ocean City, New Jersey.

The trip began with a sunrise, so it seems fitting that I'd pull into town last night in time for the sunset. I planned to sit on the beach and stare wistfully out at the Atlantic, ruminating on the events of the summer, but it was raining. A cold, relentless, heartless rainy day in August on the coast of the Atlantic. Whenever rain is concerned, I can't get the song "Raining in Baltimore" by the Counting Crows out of my head.

Instead I watched "Superbad" at the Strand 5 Theater on the boardwalk. The movie stood in heavy juxtaposition to how I was feeling.

After the movie I walked back to Black Betty parked on 7th street and climbed into the back for the last time of this trip. I lay down amidst the rope and jumper cables that I never had to use, the ginger beer I picked up in Toronto, the dirty towel, my several Nalgenes and the general mess representing life on the road.

I stared up at the ceiling, listened to the rain falling, and fell asleep. In the morning, for the first time all summer, I had nowhere to go but home.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

On language

The thing I like about the English language is the versatility it allows. The Anglosphere stretches all the way around the globe, and with such diverse speakers, the total number of words in the English language soars beyond word totals of all other languages.

The number of words in the English language is difficult to pin down, given the number of medical and technical terms, as well as word derivatives (run, ran, running, etc.). That said, scholars tend to put the total count between 500,000 and 1.5 million.

Combine such a vast vocabulary with such diverse speakers coining new words everyday, and you have expressive power.

For instance, one doesn’t have to drink beer. One can chug it, pound it, imbibe it, swill it, or, should one find oneself in the company of ruddy faced Bavarians, quaff it. But these can all be found easily in a thesaurus. If one truly masters language, one can balk at such infantile insults as ‘asshole,’ and upgrade to the wonderfully graphic “gall-faced twat.”

To truly savor the expressive power of the English language, however, one must consider the word "intoxicated." Off the top of my head, I can think of 20 synonyms:
  1. wasted
  2. blind
  3. pissed
  4. smashed
  5. blitzed
  6. blattoed
  7. hammered
  8. shitfaced
  9. plastered
  10. obliterated
  11. gone
  12. shitwrecked
  13. sloshed
  14. soused
  15. drunk
  16. inebriated
  17. lit
  18. tanked
  19. fucked up
  20. bent off one's face

Last night at Paul's going away party in Trout Run, Pennsylvania, I do believe I achieved all 20 states of intoxication.

Sigh... You can take the kid out of college...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The strange case of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Drive north along Rt. 61 in central Pennsylvania, and you'll zigzag in a slightly maddening fashion through small, blue collar towns built on the coal business.

Just north of Ashland, the road makes an abrubt turn to the right, making a half mile detour around an older section of Rt. 61 that now looks like this:

Follow the detour, and you soon find yourself in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Or what remains of it.

I first read about Centralia - where else? - in a book by Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and have since been fascinated. It turns out that in 1962, one of several veins of anthracite coal common in the area caught fire, and has been burning underground ever since. Having failed to contain the fire early on, the town went about its business for nearly two decades, until 1981 when a 150 foot deep sink hole opened up under a presumably alarmed 12 year old boy (he miraculously survived). National attention came Centralia's way, a government buyout was voted on and approved, and most of the town was razed.

Today Centralia is less a ghost town and more a collection of oddly configured houses situated on a large grid. Most of the streets look like this:

Roads with weeds growing in through the cracks, roads that border empty lots. The majority of residents heeded the state and federal warnings and moved out in the 80's. There are a few who remain, though...

I was half hoping to stumble upon a crazed man in his nineties living in a ramshackle tin house, defending his territory with a shot gun and a homemade doomsday button. On the contrary, I found about seven houses, each in good condition. A pool sat behind one of them. Several had satellite dishes. According to the 2000 census, there were 21 people living in Centralia at the time. The towns are so close together here in Pennsylvania that the remaining residents aren't terribly inconvenienced. Supplies can be obtained in several nearby towns only a few miles away.

There are of course the matters of unstable ground and high levels of carbon monoxide to contend with. But hey, at least it's a quiet neighborhood. And the crime rate must be pretty low to boot.

Driving across America, glimpsing into the habits and lives of my fellow Americans, the notion of home is forced upon me. There is a sense of home here that I have never felt in my own life, one that the remaining citizens of Centralia are willing to risk their health to uphold. Some stay for economic reasons, unable to afford a move elsewhere despite a government payoff, but most feel a sense of duty to a home where their parents and grandparents grew up.

I can't imagine what it must feel like to be so attached to a place that survived for over a century, and now only exists as a slight curiosity to the passing tourist.

There is barely anything left of Centralia, but somehow it holds on. And to think, Tombstone insists it's the one that's too tough to die.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New York (State)

Went hiking in the Catskills yesterday.

It was nice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Walmart

I drove through New York State yesterday with the hopes of sleeping somewhere near the Catskills so that I might get up early and go on a hike. Instead I'm at a Barnes and Noble updating the blog, but I digress.

Normally the way it works is I look on my U.S. atlas for a town in bold letters that looks like it may support a Walmart. Then I drive there and usually manage to find it right away, usually on the edge of the type of sprawl mentioned in the Hot Springs, Arkansas post. I park, hang various clothes and towels by the window to block out the light, and try to sleep.

But last night I found myself on all sides of the tracks in Binghamton, New York, looking for that familiar blue and yellow sign. I was positively all over the map, cruising through some interesting neighborhoods, eventually landing in a K-Mart parking lot where a woman kindly directed me to the Walmart eight miles out of town. I found it and was relieved. Elated even. Then just disgusted.

It's a sad day when I'm excited to be at a Walmart.

As a young 'un with liberal leanings and a fancy pants edumacation, I've almost been trained to detest Walmart. But the problem is that to many Americans, Walmart is as American as apple pie and baseball. Defame Walmart and you may as well boo Nascar, spit on the Bible and piss on Old Glory itself.

There is the usual litany of objections to Walmart's practices, such as attempting to move into towns whether the town approves or not, trying to take over the world just like McDonald's and Starbucks, and the most popular - "it's ruining the mom and pop stores of Small Town, America!"

Unfortunately, these things aren't exactly top on people's priorities. Many people don't have the luxury to stress over China's emerging economy, but instead can only worry about what is in their daily lives. Ignorance is bliss, and in our society especially, money talks. As long as Walmart continues to sell cheap plastic crap, people will buy it when "competitively priced."

The Great American Roadtrip can be an intimidating endeavor when undertaken alone, so it's odd this shift in perception that has occured. I've slept in Walmart parking lots all across America this summer, and it will never cease to be the evil face of capitalist greed in my mind, but for this trip at least, it has come to be something more. It's a symbol of safety. It's continuity through a vast landcape, it's comfort from familiarity in uncharted territory.

Funny how that works.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Niagara Falls

Until 1885, the two water falls that make up Niagara Falls - American Falls and Horshoe Falls - were privately owned, a fact that should belong in the nearby Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. For decades a fence blocked visitors' views, that is until they paid the admission.

In 1885 the government of Ontario stepped in and stopped the madness, but the tradition continues today in the form of parking fees. If one wishes to park within a five mile radius of the Falls, one must part with $18, $20 Canadian.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Falls, though, is the sheer lunacy it inspires in ordinary people. Take the case of 63-year-old school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. In 1901 ol' Annie became the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel. Since that time, 14 people have followed her lead, five of them dying in the act.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

North of the border

I've spent the past few nights here in Canada staying with an old college friend, Yashy.

She's the only Bates friend I've met on this trip, so it's been fun to reminisce with an old friend about the good old days of living in the Bill; wrestling in yogurt, boobytrapping the hallway outside of our JA's room, everyone in the building hitting on Yashy's roommate...

Two things stand out from my time here in Toronto: the 12th annual Toronto Festival of Beer, and watching Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" tonight in High Park.

But I must admit I'm tired. I've grown weary. I've been on the road for more than two months now, and though I often thought I could do this forever, I also have to admit that on every trip there is a time when home calls. I look forward to returning to familiar surroundings where I can process all that I've been through.

Until then, I'll try my best to pump out a few more decent posts...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Millington, Michigan

I spent Thursday taking backroads across Michigan, and due to missing the turn for state road 90, I ended up in the village of Millington. I saw this sign as I drove down Main Street:

Driving around the country on no set schedule makes it hard to remember the exact date or the given day of the week. After some quick mental calculations, I was surprised to realize that it was August 9th. I was just in time for the big party.

Millington truly is a village, with a Main Street no more than a block long, and as such the festival was little more than a few booths set up for games, some food tents, and a petting zoo.

But it was so distinctly American. The families milling about, the bored, disaffected youth trailing behind, American flags everywhere, the smell of barbecue in the air and shrieks and laughter everywhere. It made me wish I had an international friend with me who might have appreciated it on an even higher level. Small Town, America was indeed alive and well, and this only a few hours from the Canadian border.

After visiting the petting zoo, I tried my hand at one of the games. A quarter bought me three plastic rings with the object of throwing them around the necks of glass bottles set up in the middle of the booth. I hooked a coke bottle, and so I won a coke.

I then watched the local kids compete in some sort of kiddie tractor pull.

I finally decided to have dinner at the Millington Inn where I was feeling overwhelmingly American so I ordered a cheeseburger and fries as well as a house salad. The check came out to $5.94.

I finished off my tour of Millington at McKatm's Pub across the street where I sat at the bar with a Bud Light. There were three beers on tap: Bud Light, Busch, and Killians. Draught beer was served in red frat party cups, while the rest was served in cans. All of the men wore paint smeared clothes and construction boots, while the women looked like they could sweat cheeseburgers.

The women behind the bar were true barwenches. One had teased bangs a la 1987 while another had a mullet. They all had terrifically colorful dispositions. I sat and listened to the banter.

"Hey Tina, how come you don't get a bell and ring it like whenever someone gives you a tip."

Tina set the new beer in front of the man, put the extra dollar in the tip jar and said, "Ding ding. Now drink your fucking beer, Mike."

It was the greatest bar I've ever been to.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Grand Rapids, Michigan

It's a testament to a group's character when a stranger arrives in its midst and they instantly make him feel like a part of the crew. Alcohol probably helps too.

I spent the night with Matt last night in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's a student at the local college and lives in a house with two roommates. He took me on a driving tour of East Grand Rapids (where "American Pie" was filmed - got to see Yesterdog, their local hangout in the movie) and Grand Rapids itself.

Matt: "We should go to the fish ladder."

Me: "What is that, like a brewpub?"

Matt: "No, it's a ladder in the river that helps the fish swim upstream."

We never did find it, though.

Afterwards I met his friends and we did what college students do best: we drank. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind, shall we say, to get a picture of Matt himself, but at least I got a shot of his friends upon returning from the bar where we did flaming Dr. Peppers.

It was most likely my last couchsurfing experience of this trip. Really going to miss it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

At the drive-in

Consider the drive-in.

The invention of Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. of none other than Camden, New Jersey, the first drive-in opened on Admiral Wilson Boulevard on June 6th 1933, and didn't take long for the idea to catch on in other states.

In the post war prosperity of the fifties, the drive-in became a phenomenon. With money to burn and a new found love for cars, Americans had constructed some 4,000 drive-ins across America by the 1960's. Drive-ins were "passion pits," carnivals, family outings, organized chaos.

Alas, economics played a role in the drive-in's decline starting in the 70's. Land became too costly for a small business that could only operate in warm weather and starting at dusk. The advent of cable TV and VCR's also contributed to the decline, and by 1990 the number of drive-ins across America had fallen below 1,000.

Nowadays the number of closing drive-ins has slowed considerably, with many old ones being renovated and opened under new management, such as the Delsea Drive-In in Vineland, New Jersey, the only operating drive-in in the state. I can be fiercely nostalgic even for things I am too young to have experienced the first time around, which is why I have been trying to visit as many drive-ins as possible on this trip. So far I've been to them in Texas, New Mexico and Montana. Last night I went to one in Muskegon, Michigan.

The Getty Drive-In is one of the best drive-ins I've ever been to. I pay $4 for a double feature ("The Simpsons Movie" and "Live Free or Die Hard"), and drive in to a large circle with four screens on the outer edges and a concession stand in the middle. As I walk up to the concession stand, industrial fans set into the walls blast the warm smell of cotton candy and popcorn at me. In the arcade there is the 1988 arcade game for the original Die Hard. I play several rounds but never make it very far. No matter, I'm immensely happy for the whole experience.

And the best part? It's the only drive-in I've been to that still uses the window speakers that you attach to the door of your car. Kids shriek and chase each other with glow sticks, people sit on lawn chairs and the hoods of their cars, and I lean back in Black Betty's cockpit to watch two great summer flicks.

I don't leave the drive-in until 2am, and I drive out to the shore of Lake Michigan to park for the night. I awake two hours later to a flashlight shining in my face. The flashlight is being held by a police officer.

He is extremely friendly and asks to run my license, and then he'll let me stay the rest of the night.

"Unless you're some crazy killer from New Jersey. You're not, are you?"

"Uh, no."

He runs the license and returns it through the slit in the car window a few moments later.

"Ok, you're all set. Have a good night and enjoy your time in Michigan."

"Thank you officer. I will."

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Chicago, part deux

Chicago hit me the way Portland did: I completely, unexpectedly fell in love with it. I could spend weeks there going to shows, sporting events, bars, restaurants, etc. But as I keep telling myself on this roadtrip, I can't see everything. Three days will have to last me for now.

I spent those three days at Annika's place, a friend from IES Berlin '01. She was an excellent tourguide, pointing out facts and anecdotes about architecture, public spaces, neighborhoods, etc. that I never would have discovered on my own. She spoke reverentially of the demigod Richard M. Daly, who apparently has done wonders for the city during his tenure as mayor.

All told, she's probably the most sophisticated person I know.

Which is why I wish I hadn't said "see you in the funny pages" when I left this morning. I blame it on the early hour (6:30am), but really? That's the best I can come up with? Who knows if I'll ever see this girl again and that is the last thing I'll ever have said to her?

Every yin needs its yang, I suppose.

I'll close this post with two more pictures of the Windy City.

Atop the Sears Tower, tallest building in North America

Annika with our deep dish pizza at the original Pizzeria Uno (we had to wait an hour in the rain for this).

Art school for the dilettante

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday.

Try to guess the movie from the following four pictures of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte":

My real reason for visiting the Institute, though, was to see a specific painting: Edward Hopper's 1942 painting "Nighthawks."

The painting captures a feeling of solitude I've felt a thousand times all across the world; that even in the presence of others, loneliness can still be entrenching. Sometimes I am grateful for the solitude, other times I am not. So it's the man by himself at the counter that always gets to me. It makes me wonder what kind of solitude this man is experiencing, or if he would even consider it such.

The painting is the only one I know of that makes me wish I could talk to the painter behind it, to really find out what went through his head as he painted it.

I should mention that I don't generally visit art museums with a specific painting in mind, but rather to wander around and feel cultured. But "Nighthawks" is one the of the few paintings I know that actually speaks to me, and I was excited to finally see it.

Imagine my surprise, then, to wander the hall of American Modernism and find that my favorite painting, the one I could finally stand inches away from, the one invoked in Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There... was in Boston for the summer.

In its place I found this:


Monday, August 6, 2007

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

Chicago is legendary for its theater, so I knew I had to see something while here, be it sketch comedy, improv, full length drama, etc. Fortunately Annika decided to take me to the Neo Futurists, home of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Chicago's longest running show still in production.

It's a show based on a gimmick, but like most gimmicks, it tends to work. Case in point: the neo futurists have been putting on this show since December 2, 1988, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The show is a frenetic presentation of thirty original "plays" in one hour or less, with company members berating the audience, leaping, climbing ladders, throwing candy around the room, and inviting the audience to fingerpaint on sheets of paper in the play entitled "Art Party," among other things. It's highly interactive and a seriously fun experience. Each week they take out a handful of old plays and replace them with fresh ones, creating a completely new show within a few weeks. "If you've seen the show once, you've seen it once," as they tell us.

Out of the thirty plays, some are purely random for the sake of being random, like they stumbled into the prop room of a two bit magic show and decided to see what material they could glean from the objects. Others are poignant pieces, others are silly, others aren't more than five seconds long.

In play #17, "Assault and Cupcake," the entire company assaults two audience members in the front row with water guns for a good twenty seconds, after which one actor sheepishly presents them with a cupcake.

In play #30, "It's hard to be us," two actors stand and shout in rapid fire delivery to opposite sides of the theater.


And so on...

Before the show, one of the actors approached Annika and me and asked us our full names, resulting in my favorite play of the evening, Play #3, "This is Your Life! Brought to you by Google." An actor asked Annika to stand up as he read out facts about her that he'd found on Google, then posted her picture on the back wall where it remained for the rest of the show.

I thought it was pretty clever.

The show is recommended not just by Annika, and now me, but also by Fodors Chicago, though the company still tries hard to retain its alternative and quirky status. The stage sits behind old meandering hallways in a second story on the north side of Chicago, with beat up chairs in the lounge. To get in, one must roll a die, paying whatever number comes up plus seven.

All told, it was a perfect night of Chicago theater.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I got an e-mail from Annika, a friend in Chicago, with the following excerpt:

"Feel free to help yourself to anything in the apartment. There's plenty of food in the fridge, so don't be polite about using anything."

I love having friends in cities.

In Nashville I walked five miles into the downtown. In Seattle I used a bus.

This is the view from Annika's apartment:


Last night I left the camera behind and just walked around, young and at large in an enormous city.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Milwaukee did not start off well, as MapQuest let me down for the first time of this trip, perhaps due to the ungodly amount of construction on the freeways.

And then I got a parking ticket for the first time on the trip for parking overnight, even though I specifically looked for a sign banning overnight parking and found none.

I spent three nights with Kristin, a friend from IES Berlin '01-'02 who traveled with me through Scandinavia five years ago.

No, her fashion sense isn't really that bad. She's just wearing the shirt to commemorate my arrival since she got it as a joke during our time in Sweden.

One of the highlights of my time in Milwaukee was the trip to Miller Park to watch the Milwaukee Brewers play the New York Mets. The stadium was gorgeous (with a retractable roof), though our seats were so high we needed supplemental oxygen and a couple of sherpas to guide the way.

The game was back and forth for several innings until the Mets pulled ahead. In the bottom of the ninth I put on my rally hat.

That's me yelling "RALLY!" at the camera right after the Brewers hit a homerun, insisting - logically - that a rally was underway. And then the Mets went on to get three outs in a row, winning the game 12-4.

Yesterday we went to the Miller Brewing Company down in Miller Valley. It should first be noted that I don't even like Miller beer. Especially Miller Lite. Nothing irks me more than showing up at a party to see the host has splurged on two thirty racks of Miller Lite in cans. I try not to be a beer snob, but in my estimation, life is too short to drink beer out of a can.

But after seeing a regional craft brewery in St. Paul, I was interested to see how one of the largest beer producers in the United States operates. Turns out hubris is a key ingredient.

The tour starts with a movie, which in turn starts with typical inspirational music and a panning shot of a pristine Wisconsin lake at dawn. A deep voice intones, "Since the beginning, man has always longed for... Miller Time." It all goes downhill from there. The rest of the tour was also typical. "Look how great we are, using only the finest ingredients to produce the finest beer in the world," when in fact companies like Miller, Coors and Budweiser and their production of watered down swill are the reason beer lovers the world over thumb their noses at us Americans.

But then again, the tour was free, with free beer at the end, and I believe "Never turn down a free beer" should be one of the ten commandments in a beer lover's life.

Lest the reader start to assume my dedication only to lowbrow tourist attractions, I hasten to point out that we also went to the Milwaukee art museum, built just a few years ago.

But you can tell I don't have a lot to say about it, other than it boasts an impressive nineteenth century collection of German beer steins.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Leaving Minnesota

My sister Kirsten lives in the suburbs in St. Paul. Sprinklers, kids on bikes, dogs being walked, the nightly rounds of an icecream truck; pretty much everything but the white picket fences.
She lives with her boyfriend Chris in a beautiful duplex, and the two of them seem very happy, which makes me happy, because it's nice knowing my sister is happy.

But you may have guessed that middle class suburbia isn't exactly what I'm striving for, at least not at this stage of my life, and so it was also nice to put the Twin Cities behind me and get back to the open road after a five day intermission.

Not a moment too soon.

I got a text message from my friend Paul while driving through Wisconsin: "You and Black Betty ok?"

"Yeah, why?"

I had not yet heard about the I-35 bridge. I had missed it by only a few hours. I would not discover the horrible details until I reached Milwaukee that night, and so I drove on, my mind only occupied by the road.

I see a tractor trailer that doubles as a moving billboard for McDonalds. Over a picture of a Big Mac are the words "Merge at Quality and Taste." Those aren't exactly the first words that come to mind when I think of McDonalds, but hey, whatever helps you sleep at night.

I pass a billboard with a picture of a baby over the caption: "I had fingerprints seven months before I was born." There are a suprising number of similar billboards across the Plains and the Midwest.

I see signs for cheese everywhere. The classic rock radio station I'm listening to is called 92.9 the Big Cheese.

I pull off of I-94 and have dinner at an A&W stand while watching the semis roll by.

Back on the road, the Big Cheese starts playing "Free Falling" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The wind roars past my window. The asphalt sails underneath. I have myself a regular Jerry Maguire moment and think, not for the first time, "I could do this forever."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Summits and Twins

If there's a brewery around, there's a good chance I'll find it.

Went to the Summit Brewery yesterday here in St. Paul, which was founded in 1986 by a guy who was originally a chemical abuse counselor. Seriously. You can't make that up.

The definition of a microbrewery is a brewery that sells less than 15,000 barrels of beer annually. Summit surpassed that over a decade ago and is now a regional craft brewery, with hopes of breaching the national market in the next decade.

The tour was unextraordinary in that it was like any other tour I've been on. Some rooms smelled overwhelmingly like hops while others smelled like my head was stuck in the recycling bin after a frat party.

So why go through it?

Under the three tiered law set in place after Prohibition, breweries must sell to distributors, distributors sell to the bars, restaurants and liquor stores, who in turn sell to drunken louts like yours truly. It is illegal for breweries to sell directly to the public. What does this mean for me? Charging for a tour and then giving away beer at the end is sort of like selling beer directly to the public. Some breweries are able to find ways around this, but Summit makes the tour free, and more importantly, the beer as well.


Each visitor gets three tokens that are good for one 10 oz. beer of his or her choosing. I tried the Oktoberfest, then the IPA, and straight back to the Oktoberfest. I'm longing for fall, you see.

Last night I went to see the Minnesota Twins play against the Kansas City Royals in the Minneapolis Metrodome. It was unsettling to watch a baseball game inside. My friend Tom, who went with me, tells me they're about to break ground on a new stadium nearby. It's supposed to be outdoors and will hark back to the old ballparks of yore. Philly just built a stadium like that a few years ago. It has an old timey feel with the old timey name of Citizens Bank Ballpark.

The Twins won the game 5-3, but it doesn't matter because apparently they've given up hope for the pennant this year, despite making it to the playoffs for the past few years in a row.

After the game I went back to Tom's house where we watched TV. I haven't really been watching any TV on this trip. When I saw an athlete giving a press conference, I asked, "is that Michael Vick?"

"No, that's a guy on the Minnesota Timberwolves."


Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The coldest tempertaure in the state of Minnesota was recorded at negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit only 11 years ago. The residents of Minneapolis, in response to the arctic winds that blow from the actual arctic, have built a series of tubes one story above the street, connecting one building to another. There are several of these around downtown, making the place feel not unlike those plastic tube playgrounds that people build for hamsters.

My sister and I went to the Guthrie Theater, which just moved into its new state of the art accomodations this past fall following the demolition of the original Guthrie near the sculpture garden. Located on the bank of the Mississippi River in the old mill district, the new Guthrie has a balcony that overlooks the river and old mills. My sister and I took a seat not facing the river, but facing the Guthrie, so that we could see ourselves in the reflection of the building, looking at ourselves looking at the river. It was kind of weird. So I took a picture.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Now that I'm in Minnesota for a few days, the most sedentary portion of the trip, I have time to answer a few questions that have been clogging my e-mail inbox. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.

1. Where are you now?
St. Paul, Minnesota, staying with my sister and her boyfriend.

2. What kind of car do you drive?
'99 black Ford Explorer Sport (two doors). I bought it in 2003.

3. How many miles does it have on it?
Too many. It's been nothing but good to me so far, but let's just say I can see myself coasting into Jersey in a few weeks on a wing and a prayer.

4. Why is it called Black Betty?
It's named after the coversong by Spiderbait. I listened to it a lot a few summers ago and began referring to my car as Black Betty when hitting the dashboard trying to coax it up hills. The name stuck.

5. How's the marathon training going?
Bleh... I don't want to talk about it.

6. When do you get back to Jersey?
I'm trying to make it to New York State for a friend's party on the 18th, so a few days after that. Around August 20th. I'll be sure to post a long and emotional epilogue that will be far too long and emotional for the average reader.

7. Are you having a welcome home party?
Stop by my place in Haddonfield and I'll see what I can come up with.

8. What are your plans after the trip is over?
I hope to get an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer about some aspect of the trip. I'll use the $50 they pay for a nice dinner out somewhere with Amy. Probably Applebees.

9. Which aspect of the trip will you choose to write about?
Tough call. Do I try to describe the trip as a whole while glossing over a few highlights, or do I focus in exhausting detail on one aspect?

10. And after that?
Resume work at the private school that is kind enough to give me a paycheck, start up a new semester at Rowan, plan out the next big trip.

11. So what's the next big trip?
I have two in mind, actually. Lord knows if either of these will pan out, but I'm thinking Greenland over Christmas break and the Mongol Rally in the summer of '08.

12. Will you be hosting couchsurfers when you get back, after all the couchsurfing you've done?
I hope to. I hosted one last May and that turned out to be great. The problem is that most couchsurfers who make it to my area will just stay in Philly. Who wants to come all the way out to the suburbs?

13. Have you had any bad experiences with couchsurfing?
Meeting the guy in Memphis was a little awkward. I walked up to him while he was tinkering with his lawnmower (is that what they're calling it these days?) and I stood there for about ten seconds before he thought to invite me inside. But he was still a perfectly nice guy. He never left me a reference on my couchsurfing page, though. But really, everyone has been spectacular.

14. You and the Frugal Traveler in King of the Ring, who wins?
I'm pretty spry and nimble. I'd throw down, whatever that means.

15. Who was the last person you called?
What is this, a MySpace survey?

16. Where do you sleep when you're not with couchsurfers, friends or relatives?
I sleep in my car. I've stayed in a lot of Walmart parking lots because they're well lit and the Walmart is open 24 hours so I have constant access to bathrooms and water fountains. But I've also slept in several empty recreation areas as well as parked on Main Street in a few places. So far I have yet to spend a dime on accomodations anywhere in the U.S.

17. What about showering?
Ah, one of the drawbacks to sleeping in the car. I found a laundromat in Oregon with coin operated showers ($2 = 8 minutes) but other than that I've just been dirty a lot.

18. Do you psychically punish those readers who read and never leave comments?

19. I don't like Bill Bryson, are there any other travel books you can recommend?
Hang yourself right now.

I am reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, though, which is good. He called his truck Ghost Dancing.

20. Why are you doing this trip?
Read the prologue for that answer. I'm sure I'll sum some things up in the epilogue as well.

21. What kind of camera do you have?
Pentax Optio 750Z with 7 megapixels and a swivel display screen.

22. What's the capital of Senegal?

23. What's the difference between a quasar and a pulsar?
This interview is over.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Minnesota Nice

Charles Kuralt once wrote,

"Minnesotans are different from the rest of us to begin with, as I was reminded on the trip in. Minnesotans don't smoke; the Minneapolis airport was the first in the nation to ban smoking, even in bars. Minnesotans recycle; there are separate containers at the highway rest stops for cans, bottles, and plastic. Minnesotans return the grocery cart to the store. Minnesotans do not consume butterfat... Minnesotans bike with their helmets on. Minnesotans fasten their seatbelts. Minnesotans hold the door for you. Minnesotan men don't leave the toilet seat up. Minnesotans do not blow their horns at you when the light turns green; they wait for you to notice. Minnesotans are nicer than other people. The farther away from the big cities you go, the nicer they are."

Except when you go paintballing with employees of Lockheed Martin. Then they become a rather dangerous lot.

And here's a picture of me attempting another action shot, this time in front of the State Capitol:

Don't worry, I'm ok.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wet Hot American Summer

If you'd like a good example of my kind of humor, watch the movie "Wet Hot American Summer." It's in my top five movies of all time. Not many people outside of the summer camp where I used to work have ever heard of it. Except for the two guys I stayed with last night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Wade and Kris.

They both love "Wet Hot American Summer." I knew we would get along well.

When discussing how to introduce me to his friends, they decide to just mention my name casually.

Kris: "What, you don't know Scott? We've been friends with him for like three years now. Haven't you noticed him?

Wade: "He's been our roommate for the past nine months."

Kris: "Scott is my brother for god's sake. I'm kind of offended now."

One of those had-to-be-there moments, I suppose.

While watching a TV show on Animal Planet about abused dogs being rescued by the ASPCA, we got to talking about Michael Vick (I finally know who he is).

Wade: "I think as punishment they should make Michael Vick fight eight... teen Rotweilers."

Kris: "And as a weapon he's only allowed like a giant flower."

Wade: "Like a sunflower or something."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

10 years ago in Norris...

It is in this portion of the American landscape that the trip becomes less a journey into America, and more of a journey into the self.

If you buy into that kind of crap.

You see, I’ve been to South Dakota before. In fact, I reckon I’m the only American outside of South Dakota itself who can count the Mt. Rushmore State among his best childhood memories. I’m also the only American who regularly uses the word ‘reckon,’ but that’s neither here nor there.

There are some people who romanticize the summer of ’69. I tend to romanticize the summer of ’97, myself. Having been turned down for a summer study program in Germany, my mom was forced to cook up a different scheme to get me out of the house for a month. She came up with South Dakota.

I was part of a Unitarian Universalist mission trip, which sounds more holy than it was. Rather than spreading the good word of our boy Jesus, we were instead an interfaith collective with the mission of repairing houses on the reservation. We spent a month in the town of Norris living in teepees in the backyard of Russell Eagle Bear, one of the village elders.

Our group consisted of about fifteen people, including an elderly couple, a woman named Thompson who practiced wicca, a smoking hot 24 year old woman named Shana, our fearless leader Kevin who was forever driving to Mission to “get supplies,” a single, middleaged man named Mark who would curse loudly in his sleep every night, and Ben, the teenaged stoner who once came up to me after using the restroom and said, “Dude, I just got the perfect idea for a book. It’s called ‘Shit: It’s All in Your Head. The Psychological Guide to Taking a Good Shit.”

I was the youngest of the group.

Organization was not the group’s forte, nor was civility. We bickered, got impatient, and lost time on our construction projects. We had entered Norris as a whole group, but we all left at different times, never to speak with one another again. As for Ben, he was sent home early with another teenager from the group for smoking weed with the locals, adding more friction to the group.

But the time inbetween was brilliant. If Butte lies just beyond the national radar, Norris is somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy. Just as light travels more slowly in certain parts of the universe, life passes by Norris more slowly than elsewhere. It was truly a middle of nowhere town with nothing in the way of diversions save for listening to the wind blow through the grass, watching stray dogs chase grasshoppers, or talking for hours under the night sky looking for shooting stars. I don’t remember being bored during my time in Norris. It was a time before the ubiquity of cell phones, IM, Myspace accounts and even regular use of e-mail. It marked the start of the convoluted and strange path my life would take from high school to the present day. Nostalgia hits hard when I think of Norris.

I learned not only from the diversity in our own group, but also from the Oglala Sioux who were our hosts. We participated in a two hour sweat lodge ceremony, listened to talks from Russell around the campfire, and helped set up for the Sun Dance ceremony. It was, one could say, a formative experience, one that forged a sense of how different people are in the world and a respect for those differences. It is why, to this day, I get annoyed when people (myself included) try to generalize what Americans are supposed to be. We are simply too diverse.

And now it is time for me to see Norris for the first time in ten years. I should have known that an attempt to relive the past would not be a good idea. Disappointment is inevitable.

I drove to Norris yesterday and found not much has changed. There is still a beat up general store, a laundromat, an American Legion Post, a collection of thirty houses, and a school. I pull up to the Ben Looking White Memorial Hall where a couple of old, swarthy men are sitting outside in the 106 degree heat watching life drive by, the way old men the world over are wont to do. I ask them if they know a Russell Eagle Bear. An ancient language passes between them before one of them responds.

“He out at the Sun Dance grounds. Been out fifteen minutes now. You should be able to find him there.” He points to some houses off near the horizon that vibrate in the heat’s shimmer. “Follow that dirt road near them houses there, 'bout five miles back. Russell’s got a white pickup.”

I thank him and ask him, in case I don’t find him, to give Russell one of my cards. On the back I’ve written the post script “Unitarian Universalists, Summer ’97, best summer of my life!”

The dirt road puts Black Betty through the rounds while sending great plumes of dust behind me. About a mile before I reach the grounds, I wonder what exactly I’m going to say. I realize I have no proof of my stay on these lands ten years ago. I haven't even brought any of my pictures to share. While Norris played such a significant role in my youth, the residents now don’t know that. To them, I must be just another white man invading their territory.

What is it I want from Norris? What do I expect to find here? Why am I chasing a man who probably won't even remember me?

As I think about what to say, a white pickup truck speeds towards me. I wave but he does not slow down. In the split second that it takes to pass me, I recognize Russell and another man inside the truck. I turn around and try to follow them back to town, but the old men are gone from the memorial hall and Russell’s truck is not in front of his house. He has disappeared. After ten years I get only a glimpse.

I leave Norris reluctantly and drive for a ways along state highway 63 until I find a place to pullover. I sit and listen to the wind in the fields, relentlessly turning old memories over in my mind, wondering if I’ll ever make it back to Norris again. When I finally relinquish the past and head back to my car, I accidentally set off the alarm. I laugh and let it go on for a second longer than normal. There’s no one out here to hear it, you see.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rapid City, South Dakota

After making a series of wrong turns, I happened upon a small park in Rapid City that housed a small piece of the Berlin Wall. Having spent three semesters in Berlin as a college student, this naturally caught my eye. Turns out Potsdam is the sister city of Sioux Falls. Doesn't quite explain the small, outdoor museum here in Rapid City, but was interesting nonetheless. Berlin, incidentally, is sister cities with Los Angeles.

Now you're that much more prepared should you ever try out for Jeopardy.

I was on my way to Toby's place, some three hundred miles out of town it seemed, in the black hills on a ten acre property in the forest. It wasn't easy to find, and it didn't help that Toby sent me east when I should have been going west. There are moments in life I'm not proud of, and driving all around South Dakota last night like the seriously troubled man I am, cursing the sky and the heavens, looking for damn Rolling Hills Road, is not one of them. When I found it, it looked like this:

Only much darker.

It was dark by the time I got there. That's how long it took me to find the place.

Toby is taking some time off from L.A. to live at home with his parents, and turns out all three of them are some of the nicest people I've ever met. Because everyone I meet on this trip ends up being the nicest I've ever met.

As Toby explains it, there's just a natural connection between travelers. People who travel know what it's like to be on the road, arriving in a new, unfamiliar place tired, hungry and in desperate need of a shower. Because of that, hosting becomes completely natural. You've been there and can empathize, and want to lighten the weary traveler's mind a little in whatever way you can.

Toby's mother had been at a town meeting last night in which she explained to a few people that a stranger was coming to her house for the night.

"Well, what if he kills you?"

"I guess we'll find out in the morning, won't we?"

"But what if he robs you?"

"Then he probably needed it more than me."

I liked her attitude.

A forest fire had come dangerously close to their property in recent days, and many possessions still lay bagged on the floor, ready for evacuation. Over the six pack of beer I'd brought them, they told me about the whole ordeal, the heroics of the local fire company and the act of God that brought the last minute rain to save their house. We then shared stories of our travels, from roadtrips in a Nash Rambler in the 70's to riding through Europe in a friend's company car, to my own tales of couchsurfing through America.