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.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Devil's Tower and Mt. Rushmore


It's happening. I'm becoming a slave to the photo-op.

Entered Wyoming yesterday...

Inside Black Betty's Captain's Quarters last night at a Walmart

Devil's Tower, used in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"

Mt. Rushmore, used in "North by Northwest"

No history lessons or attempts at creativity today, folks.

And what's with all of the movie references?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Little Bighorn

In 1876 there was one man in the United States in charge of Indian Affairs. Based on census data regarding Indian populations in the reservations nationwide, he calculated that troops responsible for enforcing reservation boundaries could expect to find warriors no more than five hundred strong.

Though Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 209 of his men perished one day that summer, leaving much doubt as to his reaction upon sighting the Indian forces, a reasonable guess might be: "WTF?!"

Initially hidden by the curves of the Little Bighorn River, the Indian encampment held between seven and eight thousand warriors, who descended upon Custer and his troops with hell's fury.

Custer, having graduated from West Point Military Academy, remembered his training and retreated to higher ground where he and his troops fashioned breastworks out of their dead horses and prepared for a last stand. It would prove to be Custer's last act on earth.

Today the hill stands as a memorial to the battle, with a visitor's center just south of the hill and the soldiers buried in a mass grave at the top. Custer's body was exhumed shortly after the battle and reinterred at West Point.

The battle site was turned into a national monument in the 1930's, but it took until 1991, by an act of Congress, to approve a memorial to the members of the five Indian nations that fought to protect their nomadic way of life. The memorial was not installed until 2003. It is still not finished.

Shakespeare in the parks

I missed out on Elvis week in Memphis by about two months. Missed the Arkansas State Beauty Pageant by three days. Missed the alien festival in Roswell by a few weeks. I missed the Iron Horse Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana by about twelve hours.

That's the problem with such a freewheeling travel schedule. Visiting these festivals takes planning, something I'm not fond of. Chancing upon them takes a bit of serendipitous luck, something that doesn't come my way too often. Until last night.

A friend in Milwaukee had e-mailed me about Montana Shakespeare in the parks, but I just assumed my travels with Black Betty would never align with their schedule. But then I pulled into Silver Gate just outside of Yellowstone, and low and behold, there they were setting up for last night's FREE show: "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

I ate dinner at a small cafe where the tatooed waiter kept calling me 'brother' ("Can I get you another beer, brother?" "No thanks, Desmond."), and the show began at 6:30.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is based around the shenanigans of Falstaff, the comedic relief character in the Henry plays, and is regarded by most scholars as one of the Bard's "lesser" plays. Trying to follow a Shakespeare play I'm not familiar with is like trying to follow, well, most Shakespeare plays, but the brilliant lead (who looked like Paul Giamatti's character in "The Illusionist") made it more than worth it.

I used to be really into theater in high school and college, which is why I still enjoy stuff like this. The closest I ever came to acting in Shakespeare, however, was auditioning for "The Spanish Tragedy," which isn't even Shakespeare but is of course an Elizabethan revenge tragedy (of course!). I pretty much stuck to modern works by the likes of Steve Martin, David Ives and Eric Bogosian.

After the play, I continued along the Beartooth Highway (US 212) and finally pulled into a picnic area for the night at Beartooth Lake. This is what I woke up to this morning:

I continued along the Beartooth Highway, winding through nervewracking switchbacks high in the Beartooth Mountains, feeling like I was driving through "The Lord of the Rings" set. I stopped for gas in Red Lodge, home of the aforementioned Iron Horse Rodeo, and was swarmed by Harleys gassing up for the long ride home. I thought about showing them my tatoo for street cred, but somehow I don't think they'd be too impressed by a feather.

1,000 bonus points if you name the TV reference in this post.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Yellowstone on a weekend in July

Anyone remotely familiar with American geography may have guessed that my next stop after Butte would be Yellowstone.
First stop was Old Faithful, naturally.

Yellowstone is home to two thirds of the world's geysers, and Old Faithful is known to be the most consistent, blowing every half hour to two hours for a minute or so at a time. The park rangers are able to predict each eruption to within ten minutes, and a thousand or so people turn out on busy days to watch them.

It's easy to think of Yellowstone as a place infested with tourists, choking away the wildlife and ruining any hope for an escape from modern life. This is the lazy man's attitude. The trick to enjoying a place as heavily visited as Yellowstone is to leave the damn car. I know that sounds obvious, but it's amazing how few people take advantage of it.

After sleeping in my car last night in a picnic area (totally illegal but totally worth the solitude and view of the stars), I drove out to the Cascade Lake trailhead. For an hour I experienced tourbuses, traffic jams every time a bison or elk got near the road, and just general human ugliness. The moment I stepped onto the 2.5 mile trail to the lake, however, the world opened up. I spent the afternoon at Cascade Lake with about ten other people. No one else could be bothered to make the trek.

The place was so still I could easily hear the conversation of two fisherman all the way across the lake. They sounded kind of like sports commentators.

"Great day for fishing, right Dave?"

"You said it, Bob."

"Wind's really died down, huh?"

"That's right Bob."

It's funny how I complain about how lazy people are, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Just like the Grand Canyon, more room for me.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Butte, Montana

While driving to Butte, Montana, I pulled off of I-90 to use the bathroom in a general store. A cantankerous old man with a ZZ Top beard, eight fingers and only half his teeth looked at me and asked, “So what the fuck’s going on in Jersey?”

“Don’t know, haven’t been there in a month and a half.”

He looked at his small black and white TV and changed the topic. “What do you think they should do with Michael Vick?”

“Who’s that?”

He looked at me like I was putting him on, then yelled, “You stupid or something?” I wish I had had the balls to take a picture of him.

I got to Butte later that afternoon. Walking around downtown Butte is to see what towns like Roswell and Tombstone might have been had single events of American history not thrust them into the spotlight, submitting them to the fate of forcing tacky souvenirs onto ugly families and their fat ugly children for the rest of eternity. To see Butte is to see a town that history mercifully left alone. Nothing extraordinary ever happened here, which is its saving grace.

Instead the historic downtown is dotted with new casinos and old sagging buildings, such as the Iona Cafe on Main Street. What was once a grand cafe and more recently an artist's exhibition space, now sits empty while its windows play home to a local poet's work.

Yesterday I took a tour with an old man named Dave who led me around downtown while explaining its history.

In the 1860’s, gold was discovered in what would become Butte. By the 1870’s, silver was discovered. And just as the silver was running out, in 1892 copper hit the scene. During the early 20th century, Butte was the biggest city between Chicago and San Francisco.

We stopped off at the old town jail, in use from 1890 to 1971 when the feds caught wind of the horrible conditions and shut it down. In 1956 Robert Knievel spent time here for reckless driving at the same time a Mr. William Kenoffel was in his own batch of trouble. While standing in court, the judge looked at the two men and scoffed, “Well whadduya know? We’ve got an evil Knievel and an awful Kenoffel.” The name stuck, and Mr. Knievel went on to a distinguished career in death defiance, while Mr. Kenoffel most likely hung around the drunk tank for the rest of his life.

The jail was followed by a speakeasy located in the lobby of the old Rookwood Hotel. In the heyday of Prohibition, the Rookwood Speakeasy was one of a hundred of its kind in Butte. Nowadays the place is occasionally rented out for $175 a night, BYOB. I know this sounds just as tacky as the other towns I’ve mentioned, but believe me, the lack of billboards 50 miles outside of town and dozens of gift shops with Rookwood T-shirts make this place distinctly refreshing.

That’s the thing about Butte. There’s history here, but only because nobody has bothered to come in and modernize the place. For some reason, the town lies beyond the national radar, and the town is allowed to quietly go about its business. In terms of urban exploration, the town is a gem, though those days may soon come to an end as properties are starting to be bought up with plans of renovation. Dave was not fond of this.

“People make fun of Butte, say it smells, but we want people to keep making fun cuz we don’t want to turn into Bozeman – all overdeveloped, strangers coming in all the time.”

Kind of a weird statement coming from a city tourguide.

It's a tough trade off - in comes increased economic prosperity, out goes the crotchety character that makes Butte so alluring in the first place. Can a town have both without selling out to tourists and yuppies?

The pleasure of my stay in Butte was amplified by the company of one Miss Abigail, local shop owner, aspiring singer and actress, couchsurfing host.

By the time I spent five minutes with Abigail I was half in love with her. She’s the kind of girl who will fearlessly describe her childhood experience with the netherworld to a perfect stranger sitting in her living room. A quirky girl. A beautiful girl with curves that don’t quit. A girl who will sit in the morning hours with a cup of tea and let a few tears fall unabashedly down her face while quietly describing her relationship with God. The only person on this trip actually interested in seeing my pictures. And I have a lot of pictures. She's one of the most beautiful people I've ever met, and thankfully I had the balls to tell her so.

It's probably a bit clichéd for her couchsurfers to feel that way about her, but she accepts it with a graciousness that only adds to her character.

Through Abigail I met two Mormon missionaries, searched Butte’s nightlife for viable food options, settled on an old (everything in Butte is old) Chinese restaurant whose proprietor brought a portable DVD player to our table and made us watch his son’s recent fashion show in New York, and sat at a drive in watching Harry Potter through a bug splattered windshield on a starry night in Montana.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Boeing Factory

After leaving Seattle, I decided to see the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, about a half hour outside of the city.

At the Future of Flight Center, armed guards remind us five or six times that electronic equipment of any kind is strictly verboten (hence the lack of pictures for this entry), after which a hundred or so people are herded into a small movie theater. The first movie is a montage of video clips of all the various planes, jets and helicopters that Boeing produces, all set to inspirational music, as if to say, “Are we kickass or what?” The second video is a seven minute time lapse clip showing the construction of a 747 from start to finish: “No seriously, we kick ass.”

We are then divided into two groups and placed on large buses to be taken out to the main factory, the obvious pride of Boeing. The factory is the largest building by volume in the world. The building is so large it could fit 911 basketball courts or 75 football fields. It could fit all of Disneyland and still have room left over for indoor parking. It is so gargantuan, dear reader, that it has been known to generate its own weather system. And I’m not just engaging in wanton hyperbole for comic effect. These facts are all true, all provided by our perky tour guide Melody. Think Kelly Ripa after a 20 year meth addiction.

The building is truly vast, containing all the equipment to send engineers into a Dionysian rage, but the trademark clouds and rain are missing. Apparently the problem was corrected years ago by installing an air circulation system in the ceiling. Heating is provided solely by the one million lights and the busywork of the employees, while air condiitoning is provided by opening the hangar doors. Many of the site's 27,000 employees get around this building by use of company-provided bicycles. The place is truly a testament to American ingenuity.

I also learn that the practice of naming their planes 707, 737, etc, stems from the fifties when the marketing department thought it would be catchier than just 700. It was also noted that 7 is considered a lucky number in many countries.

“And in case anyone wants to buy a plane from us today, it’ll run you about $280 million. We take cash, checks and most major credit cards.”

The group politely chuckles.

The highlight of the tour is also the climax. We board the bus and are driven back to the Future of Flight Center where we huddle in the rain by a door. Melody tells us, “remember, if the plane isn’t Boeing, you shouldn’t be going,” and swings open the door to an impossibly vast gift shop that rivals its factory neighbor.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Seattle is a well known city in the northwest corner of Washington, a town that gave us Microsoft, the grunge scene, and Starbucks. Of little note to the layman, Seattle is also home to Christina Wills, a childhood friend who I haven't seen in five years.

I have to tread lightly here, lest I embarrass Christina (or myself for that matter) should she or one of her friends read this. You see, Christina was my first love back in the eighth grade. Hell, she basically introduced me to the concept of love at the plucky and complicated age of thirteen through nothing more than her amazing personality. Ok, the looks didn't hurt either. I was a teenage boy afterall.

The last time I saw Christina, we were both living in Germany, I in Berlin and she in Tuebingen. I had stayed up all night at a Paul Van Dyke concert and decided to take a 6:30am train down to surprise her for her 21st birthday. I was half delirious from the lack of sleep and the thought of surprising her, and she was half drunk from a rather early start to the party. As I got to the top of the stairs to the common room of her apartment building, she was surrounded by friends. She looked at me quizzically at first, which gave way to elation. It was a look I'll never forget.

Then again, it's hard to forget a girl like Christina. Five years pass with only a handful of letters and e-mails and I still find myself itching to get to a rainy city in the northwest.

As nice as couchsurfing is, it's a great change of pace to stay with someone with whom I have an actually history. This is the girl who passed me notes in 8th grade English, who I teased for dating Matt Eckhouse, who accompanied me on my first trip to Germany in 1996.

It's amazing how far apart Christina and I have grown, which makes our reunions all the more implausible yet deeply gratifying. She is now a corporate woman working for Microsoft while I am just another twentysomething vagabond still working my way to a career. She has to beat the men away with a stick while I... ha, well let's just say I have a lot of free time most days.

Ok I'll stop gushing.

In Seattle I saw the fish market where they still throw fish like in that damn fish video we had to watch at camp a few hundred times.

I also saw the sunset over Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains from the Golden Gardens, as well as the original Starbucks.

On a side note, I remember an opening monologue by Jay Leno a few years ago in which he described a news story that Starbucks would be opening 2,300 new stores worldwide. He paused, the master of comic timing, and suddenly exasperated, yelled "WHERE!?" The answer is two blocks down the street from Christina where a new one is "coming soon," bringing Seattle's Starbucks tally to somewhere around 5,000.

I also took the ferry to Bainbridge which Christina tells me is "quintessential Seattle." Walked around Pioneer Square, ran around Green Lake, lost a pub quiz last night but gained a free T-shirt from the doorman when he found out I was from Jersey, gave out a few dozen more business cards and compared the place incessantly to Portland.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


I've decided I'm moving to Portland as soon as I can (provided I can become licensed to teach out here and can find a job close enough to the city). I drove from New Jersey to Oregon, saw countless towns and cities, environments, climates, people, attitudes, freeways, highways, etc. And nothing has yet grabbed my attention like the great city of Portland. I'm smitten. So... a year and a half left at Rowan, after which I can hopefully make my way west again.

One of the many attractions to Portland is of course the microbrewing. A few of us went to a microwbrewery whose name escapes me at the moment (no, not because I drank too much at the time). I got a "taster tray" full of eight small beers. I was in my element.

Most of my time in Portland was sharply characterized by the couchsurfing community. There was Sarah, my host, who lived in a beautiful apartment in a great neighborhood, and then all of her couchsurfing friends who I met all through the weekend.

On Friday night we grilled using the grill attached to Sarah's kitchen window.

On Saturday I met Evan from San Francisco who would be surfing with Sarah for the night. Easily one of the most interesting guys I've ever met. Used to weigh 300 lbs. and spend all his free time playing video games and drinking marshmallows and butter melted and blended into a gooey mix. One day he got fed up and literally threw his computer out the window, started exercising, and now at 22 he looks a little like Ethan Hawke.

Now he makes up the lost time in his social life by prowling the globe, hitchhiking in Macedonia, meeting beautiful women on benches in Paris, all the while promoting couchsurfing.

While Sarah and her friends went to a fashion show Saturday night, Evan and I opted for a trip to Powell's Bookstore (the only bookstore I've ever been to where they give you a map to get around), a walk around town, and finally to a bar where he tried unsuccessfully to pick up the two girls sitting next to us. Along the way he told me some of his stories, including the time he shut down Charles de Gaulle in Paris by leaving his bag unattended for three hours and was later interrogated by scary looking, beret-wearing French SWAT members.

I wish I had stories like that. The problem is, for the most part, I tend to be rather sensible and responsible (this from the guy who left his debit card in an ATM last week). But it would never occur to me to leave my bag unattended in an airport in this age of terrorism. But Evan is evidently cut from a different cloth, and that's cool.

On Sunday morning some more friends came over and I labored in Sarah's tiny kitchen to make my legendary full English breakfast. We also had fruit, chocolate croissants, and of course mimosas. It was Sunday brunch done right.

There were six of us around the table, and everyone of us had met the others through couchsurfing. When the table had been set, the food cooked, the smoke cleared from the kitchen, the guests seated, the glasses raised, Evan proposed a toast:

"To couchsurfing."

"To couchsurfing."

Friday, July 13, 2007

McMenamins of Portland, Oregon

"In June 1987, McMenimans debuted its Mission Theater and Pub, an establishment that preached the merits of watching movies and drinking beer."

You had me at 'theater and pub.'

I arrived in Portland last night and was immediately taken on a whirlwind tour of Portland nightlife by my couchsurfing host, Sarah. We first hit a local art gallery with a new show opening, then to the Lucky Labrador beer hall, and finally to the Mission Theater and Pub.

I love movies. And I love beer. But both in the same building!? Elation isn't quite strong enough of a word in this case.

The Mission Theater and Pub was originally a mission, believe it or not. Swedish immigrants built the place in 1912, only to abandon it to a dockworker's union in 1954, who in turn abandoned the place in 1982. For a year in the mid 80's it was the performace space of a local acting troupe, and finally arrived at its current incarnation in 1987, thanks to the two geniuses that are Mike and Brian McMenamin.

In the 70's, The Brothers McMenamin recognized a need for a reinvention of the pub. They wanted a lighter, more fun atmosphere, away from the dark and male dominated taverns of the era. They started taking vacant spaces in the Portland area - old barley mills, theaters, even a lighthouse - and spruced them up to be more "fun and family-friendly."

Today they have renovated 54 ("and counting...") spaces in the Pacific Northwest, taking old derelict buildings and blending them with the region's fine tradition of microbreweries to form new community hotspots. These are buildings that would still stand abandoned today, or worse, would have been torn down. Instead they enjoy a new life while retaining their history.

"Along the way, we came to understand the power of art, live music and history to draw people of all backgrounds together under one roof, reinforcing a sense of community."

The Mission Theater and Pub near Sarah's apartment plays second run movies and offers a ten dollar movie, beer and burger deal on Wednesday nights. We missed "Blades of Glory" last night but managed to catch the live music. Red Jacket Mine, an alternative rock band, played first. Small Sails, an indie ambient pop band, played second. We'd both had long days and cut out during the third band's set before I could catch its name.

And then I saw it.

Is this heaven?

No, it's just Portland.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


In the summer of 2005, Rachel Spencer spent six weeks as an au pair in Paris. She had somehow struck a deal with her native Houston Chronicle to keep a blog about the experience on said newspaper's website. A book publisher saw her blog and suggested she write a book, resulting in a pseudo-poetic look at modern day Paris known to a few readers as Au Paris: True Tales of an American Nanny in Paris. I've read the book, and it's nothing to write home about, but the story is no doubt an inspiration to keep up my own blog. I highly doubt publishers will be banging down my door anytime soon, but hell, you never know.

I need to build up a larger readership of course, which is why I've started leaving my business card just about everywhere, including at the table when I eat at a sit-down restaurant. I just hope the waitresses don't think I'm propositioning them.

Some people have suggested I write a book about my travels this summer, which makes me laugh because as much as I'd like the same good fortune as Miss Spencer, I don't think I'm quite at a level of style and ability to fill two hundred or so pages. That and the cross country trip, as mentioned, has been written to death. I'd need an angle, something even better than couchsurfing my way across. I once read a book called The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific about the author's two years spent on an equatorial atoll. I also read a book called How to Avoid Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals about the author's attempt to spring her Latin lover from a Columbian jail. These are stories worth telling, worth filling up the bookshelves with. A twenty-something's jaunt through America, by comparison, lacks the oomph that creates good travel writing.

And then I found out about The Frugal Traveler. I've known about him since leaving Kentucky when my sister pointed out that we had both written stories around the same time about the same exact thing: Kentucky bourbon. The difference is I am writing on blogger.com, while he is writing for The New York Freaking Times. I've been reluctant to tell you about him, because lord knows the guy has enough readers already.

Plus his blog is much better. His stories are more in depth, he has videos, the writing is better... And to top it all off, he's also couchsurfing.

It stings a little.

But as I tell my sister, book deals notwithstanding, it's just nice to drive around my homeland and at least practice writing, practice taking pictures of life around me, even if nothing comes of it. And as she tells me, it's a trip of a lifetime, one I won't soon forget. Ah yes, that too.

I've been reading Lolita again, which in some circles is described as a "road trip book." I don't know that I would go that far, but Nabokov does have a talent for description:

"By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my best for hours on end to give her some impression of 'going places,' of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states."

"There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quicksilverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan somewhere in Kansas."

And then there's my favorite passage of all, the one that puts Lolita in my top five books of all time:

"And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad's, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night - every night, every night - the moment I feigned sleep."

When I start writing like that, then I might consider writing a book. Until then, I'll just keep reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hanging out in Oregon

Welcome to Oregon, faithful reader. Glad you could make it.

As this blog grows in popularity and finds readership around the globe (even in India, apparently), the expected fan mail has started to trickle in. I'd like to share one such note with my readers:

Dear Scott,

Love the blog. You are the love child of Mother Theresa and Babe Ruth, and your words bring me to a new plane of existence. Anyway, I'm tired of rollercoasters and need a new way to scare the crap out of myself. Any tips?


Some Asshole in Delaware

Dear Asshole,

Thank you for your kind words! And yes, I do have a tip for scaring the urine prematurely out of your bladder!

First, forget about sleeping in a well lit, safe Walmart parking lot. Instead, drive your car into the Oregon woods at night in the middle of a lightning storm. Pull off the highway into an abandoned campground where fog drifts across the road. Park in a parking lot that is so dark you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Take no comfort in the pleasant sound of falling rain, for it will only serve to mask the sound of approaching footsteps.

Sleep tight!



I drove to Crater Lake National Park today for the main reason of climbing Mt. Scott. It's not everyday you get to climb a mountain that bears your name, and I figured I should take advantage of it while here in Oregon.

Crater Lake, in the gaping hole left by the explosion of Mt. Mazama thousands of years ago, is the deepest lake in the United States and is fed solely by melting snow and rainfall, also making it one of the clearest. Unfortunately it was too overcast today to make it as spectacular as people have described it.

Mt. Scott is a satellite cone that lies just to the west of the crater rim. Its summit is just under 9,000 feet above sea level, but only a thousand or so feet above the lake.

After hiking the Grand Canyon, Mt. Scott seemed paltry at best. But it was still nice scenery and of course much cooler than the Southwest.

Redwoods National Park

The worst part about seeing something extraordinary is lacking the words to adequately describe it, and/or the technical know how to capture it on film. Yesterday I spent a few hours hiking in the Tall Trees Grove of Redwoods National Park in northern California. Nothing eloquent comes to mind.

What's to say? They're huge.

I spent awhile trying to get some more action shots by jumping over the camera, but only succeeded in filling up the lens with my butt. Here's the best pic from the bunch:

A majestic picture of me soaring amongst the Redwoods it is not. But I try. Yes, pun intended.

In the middle of the park, in the small town of Orick, California, I saw the following sign:

Lost amidst the the giants of an ancient forest, it's easy to forget how close to the coast one still is.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My first hitchhikers


Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I or – oh what the hell.

I turn Black Betty around and guide her back a half mile to the turnout at the edge of town. Sitting on the gravel at the entrance to the turnout, facing away from me, are two young hitchhikers. They smile and stick their thumbs at passing cars until it slowly dawns on them that one is approaching from behind.

“Where you guys headed?” I ask.

“North, to Eureka,” one of them replies.

The two hitchhikers are Kyle and Rachel, both 22. Rachel is quite attractive and Kyle looks like Abraham Lincoln on a good day. Once inside with the doors closed, I notice the stench of body odor. Could be an interesting ride.

I once considered hitchhiking around the country myself, but given the reaction from most of my friends and family regarding the CouchSurfing Project, I think an all out intervention might be staged if I decided to hitchhike. Picking them up is the next best thing, I guess.

“You ever had any bad experiences with hitching?” I’m hoping for some wild stories of hiding in bushes and defending themselves with nail clippers or something.

“Nah, most people have been good. The worst that happens is a guy will pop a can a beer or you just know he’s all tweeked out on something.”

Kyle’s nonchalance belies the hardcore nature of his and Rachel’s travels, a trip that makes mine look like a comfortable Sunday stroll to the park. They have backpacks and gut intuition when accepting rides, and nothing more. They could reach their destination in two days or ten. They could wait two hours for a ride or two minutes. That’s badass.

“So what do you guys do when you’re not hitching?”

Kyle, in the front seat, fields this one as well. “Ah, that’s a good question. Rach, what would you say we do?” Rachel thinks a moment. Before she can answer, Kyle says, “I used to work at a boys and girls club. Mostly I think about hitching.”

Of course Rachel has dreads and loves Ani Difranco. Of course Kyle wants to be an Abe Lincoln impersonator. Of course they’re on their way to a festival and of course they sound like they’re permanently stoned. These are today’s hippies, as stereotypical as the San Francisco neighborhood I just left. They sit adrift on the edges of society, taking fate into their own hands and traveling when and where they please, not letting petty concerns like money get in the way. There’s something vaguely appealing to that.

People have often told me they’re jealous of me and/or this trip I’m taking this summer. And here I am jealous of a couple of counterculture kids from Nowhere, America. The grass is always greener… as they say.

I drive Kyle and Rachel all the way to Eureka, a coastal town in Northern California. I drop them off on Main Street downtown.

“Ok, God bless, Godspeed, peace be the journey and all that…”

“Thanks for the ride, man. You’re the best ride we’ve gotten on this trip, and we’re not just saying that like we do to all the others.”

They both heave their packs on their shoulders and walk off down Main Street to parts unknown, and I drive off in search of a Walmart parking lot.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

San Francisco

An old college friend, we’ll call her Hilary, has a friend living in San Francisco who wanted to know if I needed a place to crash.

Is “Waterworld” the worst movie in the history of cinema?


So I went from the deep suburbs of San Francisco to the city itself, and here I am staying with a friend of a friend (who we’ll call Joanna), sleeping on the carpeted dining room floor.

“Make yourself at home! Bring home three girls if you want! Any friend of Hilary’s….”

So three’s the limit, eh?

While exploring the neighborhood, I realized bringing home girls may not be so easy. This place is more flaming than… no, nothing is more flaming than this neighborhood. This is the very epicenter of the stereotype of gay San Francisco. Rainbows adorn cars, shop windows and lampposts. Bookstores sell gay porn. Lots of it. Bus stops advertise HIV awareness. A little Dachshund waddles along the sidewalk behind his two impeccably dressed masters. Another couple in their fifties wear matching jogging outfits as they huff and puff down the sidewalk. I overhear a man say "Oh Gawd, wasn't that movie just a scream?" You get the picture.

Suddenly in the minority, I might feel self conscious if gay men weren’t the only minority I could conceivably pass for. I feel less self conscious for my sexuality than I do for my obvious lack of hipness. I spend an hour in a café with a DJ spinning in the corner, and the new iPhones are too numerous to count. Ok, not really. There were five of them.

In a completely random yet somewhat related anecdote, I remember reading once that in his day, Jerry Falwell would call two congressmen and one senator every single day, just to wish them well and encourage them to keep doing “God’s work.” The Congressmen wouldn’t hear from him as often, but I imagined the poor senator hanging up the phone, knowing that in 100 days, a mere three and a half months away, he would have to put up with the same phone call all over again. It makes me wonder how the Senate felt about his passing.

For all of my ribbing and jesting, I do like this neighborhood and the city as a whole. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was spectacular, mostly due to not one but two photography exhibits. And the city is just lousy with crazies who could compete with Berlin's crazies anyday.

Yes, it's a great town, even if I never do get to see the damn bridge.