Friday, June 29, 2007


I spent the night last night with Kevin in Tempe, Arizona. After gorging on pizza and beer, Kevin wanted to do a podcast with the equipment he got last winter. Of course we needed to go on a beer run first and I thought it would be a great idea to get myself a 40.

We drank and messed around on the mic's for an hour or so and God help the lonely person on the other side of the world who sits up and listens to the entire podcast.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tucson, Arizona

Due to a rather serendipitous turn of events, I ended up in Tucson for the past few nights. My ridiculously awesome sister called a friend who lived in Tucson, who was not home but whose boyfriend agreed to host me on only a few hour's notice.

Grand. Just grand.

I feel a little guilty that I managed to spend nearly two days in Tucson and barely see anything. You see, it's hot here too. Yesterday while driving around at noon my car's thermometer hit 115 and my dashboard started to smoke. Turns out the sun through the windshield was starting to fry the dust that had accumulated there. At least that's what I told myself while I panicked and threw the car at the curb faster than a nun leaving a brothel. This place does not fuck around.

So I spent much of yesterday cowering in bookshops and cafes like the pale gringo that I am, missing out on the desert museum and the mission but decidedly much happier.

Last night Drew took me to a local bar for an outdoor gathering known as "green drinks." Forty or so people from the community gathered at the tables, and we all had to introduce ourselves. These are people who need six minutes and a powerpoint presentation just to explain what they do.

"Hi, I'm a contract negotiator for the U.S. green building council..."

"Hi, I'm the solar coordinator of a sustainable development research project..."

"Hi, I'm from New Jersey. I drove here in an SUV."

Frenzied whispers overtook the crowd before they formed a lynch mob, chasing me with pitchforks and torches. Just kidding.

Drew argues that the green movement has become watered down a bit, and I can see his point. Even the most ignorant observer could note the irony of attending a green meeting which uses plastic plates, cups and silverware for the food and drink.

While the green movement is undoubtedly an important one in our society, it's interesting to note how it has been co-opted by market-savvy individuals who are only trying to sell another package. Meanwhile, the whole movement requires just as much networking as anyone on Wall Street if anything is to get done. Is this where American society has come? In order to get a rather important message across you need a detailed marketing strategy as well as an army of grant writers to procure the funds?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Tombstone, like Roswell, is one of those small American towns that one has to visit at least once, despite how hokey it all may feel. If anything, it gives the visitor a sense of just how varied American history is, and how willing people are to cash in on it.

On October 26, 1881, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday collided with a local band of cowboys in an alley next to the O.K. Corral. The fight was the culmination of years of tension between the two groups, and lasted only thirty seconds with as many as thirty shots fired. Three cowboys were killed while Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Only Wyatt Earp walked away with no injuries, and went on to live into the 1920's, which is perhaps why he remains the most famous of the bunch.

This famous, 30-second gunfight is reenacted daily at 2pm and stretched out to 30 minutes, which includes a quick lecture on gun safety, a bit of western themed tomfoolery, and lots of shooting.

The rest of the time the many actors are just paid to walk around town looking tough, I guess.

After the show I went into one of the saloons where the cowboys were gathered drinking beer and just being manly, and I sat at the bar and ordered a burger and a beer.

Tombstone's official slogan is "the town too tough to die." The words 'fun' and 'hokey' could be applied today, but just wouldn't sound as cool.

South of the border

There is an oft quoted passage from the opening pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which Robert Pirsig likens driving a car to watching tv.

"You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame."

Maybe that's why I try to drive with the window wide open, usually without the aid of music, so that all I hear is the hot air rushing past my left ear, while the desert sun scorches my left forearm and left knee.

And make no mistake about it: it's hot out here. I think about the heat here and how someone visiting from the equator might be inclined to put on a sweater, and I shudder at the hot places on earth and long for my days as a ski instructor.

I decided to visit Mexico yesterday for purely ridiculous reasons. 1, so I could say I'd been there and sound just that much more worldly should I ever need to, and 2, so I could get another stamp in my passport.

I passed through the border in Douglas, Arizona, which took all of five seconds, as there was no one in the booth. No one cared that I was coming into Mexico.

I'm told by my host here in Tucson that Agua Prieta is a decent bordertown to visit, as it is a bit more "authentic" Mexican than many of the other border towns. I drove around a bit, trying to absorb as much as I could, but the slowly dawning thought that I had no Mexican money, scant Spanish language abilities, and my car insurance would not cover me in Mexico, made me feel instantly homesick for the U.S. Also noting that this is a blog about travels around America, I decided to head back. I had been in Mexico all of ten minutes.

Getting back was not so easy, as the entry and exit points were not next to each other. It took some doing, but I found the entry point into the U.S., along with the mile long line that went with it. I waited in the line for ages while local merchants offered water, snacks, Mexican trinkets, etc. The temperature rose to 105 degrees.

A boy came up to my window and offered to clean my windshield, and I politely shook my head no. He then offered me a bottle of water from a cooler. I held up my Nalgene and said "Yo solamente tengo aguo," which doesn't quite mean "I already have water," but I think he got the point. He looked past me into my car, perhaps eyeing my digital camera on the passenger seat, then moved on. The temperature rose to 107. My window was still down.

By the time I reached the border 45 minutes later, a man tried to sing for me for money, several others had tried to clean my windshield, and the temperature had peaked at 110. After conversing with the border guard, I drove back into the United States while finally rolling up my window, silencing the world around me into a nice, comfortable, airconditioned picture. As long as I'm back in the land of couch potatoes, I may as well join them in front of the tube for awhile.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Las Cruces, New Mexico

I spent last night in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the couch of Jenn and Gillian.

Gillian is the one on top. Kinky.

Last night, lacking anything better to do on a Sunday night in Las Cruces, the three of us went to see Gillian's boyfriend's band rehearse. In a storage unit next to a Shell gas station.

The band's name is Lift Down and they play progressive hard rock. Lots of screaming. Coming from a storage unit.

Due to the noise, the band has to keep the door closed, so Gillian, Jenn and I sat on the asphalt outside trying to talk over the noise, er, music, and pausing every now and again to clap between songs.

My own private concert (albeit one I couldn't see) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I tell you, the random experiences just keep piling up, and I love it.

On national parks

I reckon America is the only place in the world where you can descend nearly a thousand feet below the surface of the earth in a cave system that outdoes the cathedrals of Europe in size and sheer grandeur... and find a damn gift shop and snack bar at the bottom.

I understand that Americans adore our conveniences, but this is taking it too far.

I later went to the White Sands National Monument, hundreds of square miles of pure sand dunes. Carved out of the dunes were dozens of miles of road, with bathrooms, picnic tables and barbecue grills interrupting the landscape everywhere.

Ruins the landscape, in my opinion.

At least I got some cool pictures.

Scenes from the road

I'm driving along Rt. 280 on my way to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The sunny landscape is giving way to a lightning storm, which I'm driving straight into.

I flick through the radio stations and come across a DJ who poses the question: "If you could have 50 lbs of anything excluding gold, money or jewels, what would it be?"

I'm driving and trying to take pictures of the lightning storm at the same time.

I silently wonder if the president, upon becoming president, immediately heads out to Area 51 to see if all the rumors about harboring aliens are true, now that he has the highest security clearance in the land.

I realize with little surprise that I no longer measure time with hours or days, but instead with distance. As in, when calling a friend, exclaiming, "Sweet bastard I haven't talked to you since Kentucky!" It's deceptive, of course. With so much happening each day, Kentucky feels like years ago.

It starts to rain.

I decide I'd pick 50lbs of something notoriously light, like feathers, just so I could have more of it.

The road can get lonely sometimes...

Saturday, June 23, 2007


I pointed the hood of my car west, surprise surprise, and headed for New Mexico, passing oil fields and miles of hot desert on my way to Roswell.

In 1947, a rancher named Mac Brazel noticed some unusual material on his ranch 75 miles outside of Roswell. A few days later it occured to him to bring his findings into town, back then an entire day's journey. The press got ahold of the story just as the military sealed off the alleged crash site, but the mania was spreading. People from all over the U.S. and soon the world started reporting UFO sightings. To this day, the U.S. government maintains it was a weather balloon that crashed during a mission over the desert.

Nowadays, the town, like any other, seeks to cash in on its history. Aliens adorn every available surface, from alien-like eyes on the lampposts, to little green alien footprints on the sidewalk, to massive big blowup aliens hanging from the many souvenir shops.

When in Texas...

I'm from New Jersey. When asked, I'll admit it without a trace of shame, but it's not something I go around advertising either. It's neither a place to be proud of or ashamed of, it's just a place to hang my hat.

Texans don't feel quite the same way about their homestate. But we all knew that anyway.

Meet Cindy (and her horse Christian). She's a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Texan, and proudly believes Texas to be the best state in the nation. Why?

Moments after arriving at Cindy's home in Lubbock, we sat in her living room as she gave me a quick list of Texas facts, including the following:
  • Texas joined the Union under the stipulation that it could secede at any time.
  • Texas is the only state whose flag is allowed to fly as high as the American flag.
  • Her county just passed a new law allowing a homeowner to shoot an intruder for any reason.

As my surprise at Texas culture grew, Cindy appointed herself my Texas ambassador, and we made up a list of things to do during my night in Lubbock, including the following:

  • Shoot a gun.
  • Go to a rodeo.
  • Ride a horse.

She began to call in favors from her cowboy friend Doug while simultaneously planning an outing to a local club which featured an indoor rodeo ring where dancers are hit with dirt kicked up by the bull. Seriously.

Unfortunately the club had recently closed, and we soon found ourselves in a small Mexican restaurant where we spent hours discussing our travels over enchiladas and margaritas. Cindy and I couldn't be more culturally or politically different (I nearly choked when she told me a woman should never be president because they are the weaker sex), but we somehow managed to politely agree to disagree and at least found some common ground around our travels. She spent two years living and working in Italy where her mother visited, who is now writing a book about their travels entitled "Two Nuts in Italy." I've heard some of the stories that will be featured in the book, and it won't disappoint. Look for it in a year or two.

It was fun to see the goal of this trip so sharply realized, to experience the opinions and lives of the locals in order to get a better sense of this enormous country.

But my Texas ambassador wasn't finished with me yet.

There wasn't a rodeo on that night, but the next best thing was a team roping competition.

The competition consists of teams of two: a header and a heeler; one to rope the bull's horns, the other to rope the bull's back legs.

We watched for a half hour or so while I tried to get pictures, and soon Brady, the man prodding the cattle, asked why I was taking pictures. I explained that I was visiting from New Jersey.

"So how do you like the Mexican food?"

"Oh it's great."

"Yeah, I don't like all that pasta... and pizza they eat up north."


When I told him I'd never ridden a horse before, let alone been to Texas, he stared at me for a moment and said, "Heck I don't think I ever met someone like you."

Ever the ambassador, Cindy asked if there were any horses I could ride. Brady enthusiastically set me up with Dunny and showed me how to steer him and make him trot. At the camp where I used to work they would have made me wear a helmet, pants and boots, go through a few hours of instruction, etc. etc. Here I was given a few pointers and off I went, loping around the arena.

Cindy told me that Texans consider themselves Texans first and Americans second. It seems a tad cocky, to me.

"Are the people in New Jersey as nice as they are here?" Brady asked me.

"Not all of them, unfortunately."

You know what? I'll take the cockiness, the ridiculous gun laws, the slow drawl and everything else that goes with it. As long as they're as nice as Cindy and Brady, they can be as cocky as they want.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Old Lady Anson

Many years ago there was a mother who sent her children into a storm to procure food from the local store. She gave her two children a lantern and told them if they got into trouble, they should flash their lantern three times and wait for help. But the children were never seen again. It is said that the woman set out with a lantern to look for them, and to this day you can still see her light.

The drive from Abilene to Anson is 15 or so miles, and in the car with me are my couchsurfing host Melissa, and her roommate Garrett. Garrett starts making cracks about how they're really just taking me out to shoot me and take my car. I've only just met this guy today. For all I know he could be serious.

When we get to Anson, we turn down a dark, dirt road, the kind you might see in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It doesn't help that I'm in Texas right now. We drive a mile or so to a T intersection, turn around facing the way we came, and kill the engine and lights. Here Melissa tells me the story of Old Lady Anson. We are here to see her light.

Local legend has it that at this intersection, one is to flash the carlights three times, just as she instructed her children, and at the end of the road, where there is nothing but an empty cornfield, a light will appear.

I flashed my highbeams three times, and after the third time the darkness was a bit terrifying. Suddenly there came a light from the cornfield, which extinguished shortly thereafter. When it reappeared a few seconds later, it seemed brighter. Closer.

Sadly, the story ends there. The light extinguished again, and deciding we'd had enough, my hosts and I drove back to Abilene.

The rest of my time in Abilene was comprised of eating my first brisket sandwich, smoking a cigar in a local shop with Melissa, walking around downtown Abilene with her friends, and best of all, going to a drive in movie. "Surf's Up." Chalk another one up for couchsurfing!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On conspiracy theories

There are people in America who believe that the Apollo moon landing of 1969 was a hoax, in fact shot in a sound studio somewhere in California.

There is the more recent speculation that the Twin Towers were felled on September 11th not by jetliners, but by explosives planted by the government.

And then there's this asshole:

The guy on the right, geniuses.

Meet Robert Groden. Photo expert, former technical advisor to several Hollywood films, conspiracy theorist. We'll come back to him.

I spent the day yesterday in the 6th Floor Museum, the museum set up in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald set up his sniper's nest.

The museum is excellent; a veritable treasure trove of information including a dozen or so newscasts from the time surrounding the event, including the murder of Oswald a few days later caught on tape.

After the museum, I walked around Dealey Plaza and took a few pictures of the book depository and the famous grassy knoll.

Walking back to the parking lot, I passed Mr. Groden's table and was naturally sucked in. Mr. Groden, it turns out, is a photo expert who has testified before government inquiries into the assassination. He's written several books on the matter, and when Oliver Stone made JFK, he served as a technical advisor. He later went on to be an expert witness in the OJ Simpson case, as well as technical advisor for the film Ruby.

And now he spends his days sitting beside graphic photos of the assassination and subsequent autopsy, expounding the various facts that discredit the lone gunman theory to anyone who will listen. People like me.

To his credit, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the very government inquiry for which he testified in the late seventies, went against the findings of the Warren Commission and claimed that it was highly probable that Oswald had not acted alone. But beyond that is anyone's guess.

To his discredit, while all formal inquiries were officially concluded in 1988, Mr. Groden continues to sit by the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza. Here is a man who has worked on major Hollywood films, sat before grand juries, yet has failed to parlay any of this reasonable success into a more comfortable means of living. Here is a man who sits and peddles his books, unwilling to let go of the past while the rest of us forge on.

After listening politely for a few minutes, I left him to go get lunch.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A brief history of Hot Springs, Arkansas

In 1803, after facilitating the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson sat and thought to himself, "Now hold on a minute... just what have I gotten myself into?" The deal had been pulled off to thwart Napolean's North American intentions, not necessarily for what actually lay within the boundaries of the purchase. So Jefferson sent parties of explorers into the unkown.

A party not connected with the famed Lewis and Clark expedition came across the natural thermal springs of what would become western Arkansas, and word quickly spread of the place where water naturally bubbles to the surface at a constant 147 degrees. By 1830 the first inn had been built, and others soon followed.

After a brief history as a rough and tumble frontier town, the place took on a more genteel air around the turn of the century when the formerly wooden bathhouses were replaced by more ornate buildings to attract the upper crust of society. Soon they came in droves. The bathhouses all competed with each other, each trying to outdo the last, and the result is Bathhouse Row, a street of wonderful structures all opposite quaint stores and restaurants. People were sent here by their physicians to cure any number of ailments, including Tuberculosis, Rheumatism and Polio.

Eventually the medical community wised up and realized sitting around in steam rooms and thermal spas wouldn't do much for a bad case of the gout, and the bathhouses hit a decline.

Then Bill Clinton became president, and a small boom hit. Hot Springs decided to cash in as the president's boyhood home, and the quaint shops on Central Ave. soon had company.

A J. Jonah Jameson type executive somewhere in Maryland grabs the phone. "Yeah, it's Duncan here in corporate. Get me Hot Springs on the phone. Yeah that's right, Arkansas. I don't care if it's 3am, I want six Shell gas stations there by the end of this week."

The Shell gas stations were followed by a Harley Davidson bike dealer, an Outback Steakhouse, a lingerie (and more!) shop, dozens of motels with names like "el Ranchero Motel" and the "Settle Inn," an Old Navy, a Starbucks, a carwash that plays oldies music, a Sonic, and so on and so forth, resulting in a terrible commercial sprawl, the likes of which I haven't even seen in Jersey.

Never to be outdone, Walmart stepped in and built a supercenter the size of an international airport. Then they encourage their employees to dole out five plastic bags even if a customer only buys eight small items.

And this is where I saw the most beautiful sunset of the trip so far, here amidst the sprawl in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Finding America

I'm sitting in a bookstore/cafe in downtown Little Rock. It's raining outside and I just realized I left my car window open a little. I slept in my car last night and will do so again tonight.

I walked around the state capitol building and was amused to note a replica of the Liberty Bell minus its famous crack on the east side of the building, and on the west side, an eternal flame of freedom which had ceased to burn.

Besides being the state capitol, Little Rock may now be best known for the site of the William Jefferson Clinton Library, erected in 2004, which I visited this morning, and was remarkable in its ability to stir emotion in me.

I came of age during the man's presidency. From the sixth grade to my sophomore year in college, I led my life growing ever more conscious of politics and world events, and always with President Clinton in the background. It's funny how we look at world events in comparison to our own lives. As I dutifully browsed through the multimedia displays, I would come to a display of Clinton signing this or that treaty and think, "Hey, that was the day I won the state cup, " or, "that was the day I found out I got into Bates."

It was all well done, but let's just say I wasn't walking around thinking, "Oh man, I can't wait to blog about this." It's only now, still stuck in Arkansas on a rainy day with ample time to reflect, that I feel the emotion.

What struck me this morning was the man's seeming, unconditional love for this country. It's an admirable trait in a president, one I think we can see no matter who the president is. Despite a president's power tripping, poor decisions, a legacy of infamy or obscurity, it's his love of the country that gets him (or her) to the position in the first place. Among other things, of course.

I gripe for comedic purposes, but it should be known I hold a similar love for this country, and it feels like a privilege to wander my homeland for so long and let this love be reinforced by the the good, the bad, and the ugly all put together in one unforgettable summer.

American Tune by Paul Simon

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I'm alright, I'm alright
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far a-way from home,
so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's alright, it's alright
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of theroad we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what has gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul ROSE unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the a-ge's most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


In 1836, the state of Arkansas was admitted to the union on the one condition that it refrain from complicating things by creating any worthwhile diversions. 171 years later, the good people of Arkansas have held up their end of the deal.

Refusing to spend another minute weaving my way around massive tractor trailers, I spent all day taking back roads to Little Rock. I saw nothing but old, decrepit buildings, abandoned gas stations, beat up houses and cars, all sprinkled about the thousands of acres of farmland which somehow also failed to be picturesque.

I stopped for lunch in De Witt, a town of 3,000 which has seen better days. The center of town was a square situated around the town courthouse, which brought to mind a lazy Sunday in the fifties, that heyday of Main Street, America. Couples might have spent a Sunday afternoon strolling amongst the trees outside the courthouse while kids hung out at the local drug store drinking chocolate malts. Maybe De Witt never had such a history. All I know is it's gone considerably downhill since then.

This afternoon, out of the storefronts not boarded up, the only one open was a Chinese buffet. After stuffing myself with rather questionable food, I sat out by my car to look at my map. As I did so, a car sped into the square and circled around it. Soon another one followed. And another. Within a few minutes there were six or seven of them, all driving slowly around and around.

I was more confused than the time I saw "Eyes Wide Shut."

It finally occured to me to flag one down. A red Ford Mustang pulled up to me, and its passenger side window rolled down to reveal three teenagers. When asked why they were doing laps around the courthouse, the most stoned-looking of them replied, "ain't shit else to do, man." He looked at me another second, concentrating real hard, then asked, "you got any smoke on you?"

Having nothing else to do, I joined them for a few rousing laps, and I daresay it was the highlight of my day, which says a lot about Arkansas.

But then I came across Scott, Arkansas, and suddenly the place seemed a bit nicer, afterall.


During my time in Memphis, I stayed with Kellen, a native Alaskan who moved here two and half years ago on a whim. His day job is a waiter at an upscale restaurant, but spends his free time being one hell of a photographer.

Seriously, he makes me ashamed to hold a camera, but at the same time inspires me to take my own photography a step further. Do yourself a favor and check out his website:

My first night in Memphis, Kellen and his friends took me out to a local club where we stayed till 1am. I normally hate clubs like I hate Illinois Nazis, but his friends were a wacky bunch and I actually enjoyed myself. They decided to take me out to Wild Bill's last night, a seedy blues joint where they serve nothing but beer and fried chicken. Sadly, though, they bailed on me in the end due to being too tired. Dammit people disappoint me sometimes.

1,000 bonus points to the person who can identify the movie reference above.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Interstate 40 ambles across Tennessee a solid 200 miles from Nashville to Memphis, and yesterday I spent the whole ride with Paul Simon's "Graceland" stuck in my head. "Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee I'm goin' to Graceland..." and so on and so forth. It was a long drive.

I'd like to think that Americans can be forgiven the mistake of picturing Memphis as populated solely by Elvis impersonators and the legions of adoring fans who treat Graceland like Mecca, kind of like how most Americans think of my home state of New Jersey as nothing more than a wasteland of freeways and factories. Thankfully, neither is the case.

If Nashville is famous for the home of country, Memphis is famous for the birthplace of blues and rock and roll. Starting in the 1930's, farmers displaced by industrialization moved to the cities. In Memphis, blacks took refuge on Beale Street, a place where live music in the form of jug bands and other types became a tradition. The street became a hodge podge of styles and ideas, eventually taking shape into a new genre.

Nowadays the street continues to offer live music, but it mainly caters to tourists. Vendors hawk "big ass beers" while the mostly white crowd shuffles by in a happy stupor, much like what I suspect Bourbon Street In New Orleans is like. By night the neon signs provide a garish glow as scores of police officers show up to keep order.

It might be kind of sad if it wasn't so much damn fun. I spent hours yesterday listening to a live show in a park, clapping and laughing with the other tourists. When it got dark, I wandered up and down the street, ducking in and out of dark bars and taking in the music everywhere I stood.

This morning I went to Graceland. Graceland stands ten or so miles outside of Memphis, past used car lots, pawn shops, old motels and generally unsavory characters. Come upon Graceland, however, and the street becomes Disneyland: massive parking lots, lines for tickets, shuttle buses, and the wonderful opportunity to part with your money approximately every three feet. Parking costs $6, and with a student ID and a AAA card I was able to get the basic mansion tour for $21.25. I could barely afford to eat today.

According to Frommer's USA, Graceland is the 2nd most visited home in the United States. 1,000 bonus points to the person who can name number one on the list.

Elvis bought his mansion in 1957 at the age of 22, but remodeled in the seventies, and the result is unintential comedy. The place is hysterical and a testament to the poor tastes of the era. Or possibly just Elvis.

The "jungle room" with the green shag carpet was even better, but the lighting wasn't good enough in there.

Having been born four years after his death, I missed the hysteria over Elvis, and don't quite understand the hype today. But there's no question the man lived like - dare I say it? - a king, however garish and outlandish it all might seem to us now.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I rocked up to Nashville yesterday feeling a bit crazed from the previous four hours. A tractor trailer had blown up on I65, leaving miles of cars stuck behind it. The crafty ones cut across the median to return to the last exit and use 31W instead, which then caused severe swelling on that road as well. For the next hour or so I drove around rural Tennesse trying to tell myself to enjoy the scenery but instead growing more irate with every minute wasted, every centimeter the mercury rose. By the time the temperature hit 100 degrees I had finally made it to Nashville, just in time for rush hour traffic. On six lanes of highway. Who knew Nashville highways resembled those of L.A.?

I'm living the dream all right.

I'm spending my time in Nashville in the home of Sheri, a single mother raising a 15 year old son who is spending the summer with his father. I received his room for my stay, and I fell alseep last night under posters of Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols which belong to a boy I've never met.

Sheri also has two cats which she rescued from an animal shelter, one of which had been shot with buckshot and was a little mistrusting of humans. Naturally this is the one I accidentally stepped on.

Part of the joy of couchsurfing is the randomness it introduces. The quirks of another being are plentiful when subjected to them all at once, i.e. when thrust into someone's living space. But it's what makes traveling so much more interesting.

I came to Nashville with no real excitement or anticipation, and maybe as a result got little in return. It was just hot and full of country music. God I hate country music. But when expectations are low or nonexistent, I find the greatest rewards. Sheri, her friend and I went on a hike tonight in a forest outside of Nashville.

It was a simple four mile hike, more of a hearty evening constitutional than anything else, but provided some excellent scenery and wildlife spotting. It was quiet and pleasant and cool. It was everything Nashville was not. Which is not to say I disliked Nashville. It's just that, in this case, it's easy to see the things that outshone it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Horses and Bourbon

They say the only two reasons people come to visit Kentucky are the horses and the bourbon. Not being a raving fan of the former, I decided to indulge my alcoholic side for a bit.

It turns out a bed of limestone underneath several states comes closest to the surface in Kentucky, influencing the quality of the water and thereby the quality of the grains grown and fed to the horses. The grains make the horses the fastest and strongest in the world while the water makes the bourbon the best in the world. The name bourbon comes from people referring to "that fine whiskey from Bourbon County, Kentucky," which was eventually just shortened to bourbon.

Don't say I never taught you anything.

I learned all of this today at the historic Labrot and Graham Distillery, so historic the U.S. government decided to name it a national historic landmark. Since 1994 the grounds have housed the Woodford Reserve Distillery, a company hell bent on making the world's greatest whiskey.

I also learned that whiskey, once distilled, is initially clear in color. It then gains its color and much of its flavor from the oak barrels in which it is aged.

Aren't I just smarmy as hell? You spent the day working, probably in an office, and I spent the day learning about premium whiskey from an old guy named Phil.

Life is good, eh?

Lexington, Kentucky

The sign welcoming me into Kentucky advertised the place as the birthplace of Lincoln, almost like a big "Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Illinois!"

I pulled into Lexington tired and utterly bewildered. I'd never been to Kentucky before, and suddenly here I was, alone, and with the added pleasure of having no place to stay. I drove around downtown Lexington, which took all of three minutes, drove the wrong way down a one way street, and swung into the nearest parking space when I realized my mistake. Saw this sign next to my car:

Coincidence? I think not.

I was now getting antsy as to how I was going to kill all this time before heading out in the morning. I walked into a Starbucks and asked the girl what there is to do for fun around here.

"Have you tried the Mary Todd Lincoln house?"

Of course she didn't say that. She instead told me there is nothing to do in Lexington. Being a college town, the place all but shuts down during the summer, and aside from your average horse enthusiast, tourists don't make a habit of stopping here.

Realizing I needed food like Paris Hilton needs a punch in the kidneys, I stopped into a local pub and ordered a burger. When I finished it was still only eight o'clock. Suddenly I had an idea.

"Can I get you another drink?" the bartender asked.

"I'll take one bourbon, one scotch and one beer."

I've always wanted to do that.

After walking around town for a bit, I returned to my car, brushed my teeth using a nalgene full of water, and fell alseep in my car under the watchful eye of crazy old Mrs. Lincoln.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why I love couchsurfing, or: My night in West Virginia

The cross country road trip has been written to death. That's no surprise. While I know this blog is nothing professional and may not have a large readership, I'd like to think I have at least one advantage over my fellow scribes and their pursuit of Americana.

Take Bill Bryson, for example. If you haven't read any of his books yet, stop reading this pitiful blog and go read something he's written. Neither Here Nor There, Notes From a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country... Just do it already.

For the rest of you still reading this, Bill Bryson's first travel book was The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Using his hometown in Iowa as a starting point ("I come from Des Moines, Iowa. Somebody had to" - classic), he covered nearly the whole of the continental U.S. in the late 80's. Not yet the powerhouse of travel literature that he is today, his budget only allowed him to stay in every dumpy motel he could find (while driving his mother's Chevy Vega).

Last night I stayed in West Virginia. Instead of feeling sorry for myself in some dumpy motel, I stayed in a private home at a lake community near Salem.

Built in the 1930's as a retreat for rich families in Clarksburg and Morgantown, it exists today off a busy Rt. 50. After too many hours of driving, I turned onto the access road and was hit by a peaceful lake with a hundred or so houses around its two-mile perimeter.

Wendy was my host, the fiance of Gary, the 1995 world freestyle frisbee champion who I hosted last month in Haddonfield. Gary was away in Florida, but Wendy was there, and after getting acquainted, she took me swimming (with two massive water slides and diving board!).

Afterwards we cooked dinner and ate in her gazebo, after which four of her neighbors dropped by to check out "the couchsurfer." They were fascinated with the concept. We talked over wine and ice cream for a few hours before calling it a night (in a bed that was more comfortable than my bed at home). God, I'll probably never stay in a hotel again.

Things I learned while driving through West Virginia:

  1. Highways are gloriously uncrowded, but have construction crews working every four miles.

  2. Country roads are awesome, but makes it a crazy long time to get anywhere.

  3. Looking at the map while doing 70 is not a good idea, especially when the tractor trailer in front of you starts knocking traffic cones into your path.

  4. Do not apply the windshield spray with the driver's side window open. It will shower a mixture of windshield spray and mashed up bugs in through the window.

  5. West Virginians don't like listening to the German techno version of "Country Roads."