Friday, October 22, 2010

jungle beach party

We dropped off our stuff in the little bungalow duplex and wandered back to a thatched roof restaurant. There were about eight tables, but only two had lights on above them. One was populated by four middle-aged guys from Orange County, so we seated ourselves at the other. We were completely exhausted and equally ravenous. There seemed to be only one guy working. He brought us our drinks: I had a local beer and Deb had a mango smoothie. The food was delicious, and not just because we hadn't eaten all day, it really was quite tasty. We devoured our meal and tipped generously (we think). Then we made our way back to the room with the help of our tiny flashlight and promptly passed out.

I don't know what time we woke up the next day and that was a welcome and wonderful change. We didn't have a flight to catch. We didn't have to drive 100 miles to our next destination. We didn't even have the pressure of making the most of our day. We were here for three whole nights and it was time to relax. We went to the restaurant and ordered two American breakfasts. We were still too dazed to worry about eating authentic cuisine; I wanted eggs and bacon, but mostly I wanted coffee. And really, what's most authentically Costa Rican than coffee?

Today we were going to the beach. We packed a bag and put on our brand new bathing suits. We had to make certain to pack out sandals and wear shoes because the trail to the beach stretched a mile through the rain forest. We were well-rested, we were excited to be in a new country with an exotic ecosystem, we were fueled by bacon and coffee, and we were on our way.

We went through a gate in the fence on the edge of the resort and we were immediately enveloped by the jungle. Huge leaves bordered the trail, while others hung overhead blocking the sunlight with their giant fronds. The towering trees were wrapped haphazardly with vines and giant blue butterflies the size of birds darted through the few rays of sunlight that the thick canopy of foliage allowed. Suddenly, I saw a long upright tail moving through the brush, the end curled slightly. Was it a monkey? We'd only been in the forest for a few minutes and we already had our first large mammal sighting. As it emerged from the brush, we saw that it wasn't a monkey. It wasn't a tapir. And I was quickly running out of rainforest animals that I was familiar with. It looked like a cross between a possum, a raccoon, and a monkey. We would later learn that it was a pizote (or coati, in English). It scampered off into the jungle.

I noticed some movement on the ground and bent over to see several dozen leaf-cutter ants marching in a line across the trail. I could tell they were leaf-cutter ants because they were each carrying a huge piece of leaf. They diligently made their way from one side of the trail to the other before disappearing back into the jungle. A line of unladen ants made their way in the opposite direction, past their burdened brethren, as they headed back for more leaves. We learned to keep an eye out for such processions as they criss-crossed, back and forth, along the length of the trail. At each of the many crossings, the ants had carved out small trenches with their years of harvesting.

As we made our way through the forest, we kept our eyes open and watched our step.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

gypsy cab, plane, plane, taxi, bus, taxi

We got to JFK in record time. At one point, I think the driver was doing 80 on Atlantic Avenue, barreling down the empty black street, hitting all the lights perfectly. We had to arrive two hours prior to our departure, but I was starting to imagine the news reports about the car accident in my head. I asked him to slow down. He did so gladly and I tipped him $5. It had only taken 15 minutes from our door to the airport's curbside drop-off point—shattering all previous records.

The rest of the city was still asleep, but the airport bustled. We waited in some lines, took off our shoes, and showed some people in uniform our documents. The next thing we knew we were in Costa Rica. Deb and I tried to catch some zzzzs on our two flights and we'd maybe gotten a couple hours between us. Once we got there, we waited in some extra lines: immigration and customs. We were approved as tourists by rubber stamps and hopped into a taxi to the bus station.

In the hazy, sleepiness of the new day, the culture shock of being in another country takes on a dreamlike quality. The billboards are all in Spanish, people seem to drive differently, more aggressively, the air is thicker, and the plants are foreign and tropical. I was fading in and out as our driver manuevered through the narrow streets in the city center. There were lots of colorful, gated storefronts on both sides of our speeding taxi. We arrived at the bus station, and Deb used her mastery of the Spanish language to secure us a couple bus tickets and the next leg of today's journey.

I remember lush, green hills and getting a Coca-Cola at a small market in the mountains. After minutes turned into hours, our bus ride eventually ended. Deb got us a ride with a local cabbie who knew our destination. "You know Jack?" he asked. No, but we were keen to meet the innkeeper.

More green blurs and intermittent naps ensued. And as the last light of day was fading to grey, we climbed, at long last, out of the cab and into our little oasis of jungle paradise.

long day's journey into vegas

America is a big place. Don't let no one tell you different. Other countries, like Belgium, are very little and can be driven across in under an hour. But not America.

Not only is America big, but due to it's immenseness there are stretches where there is little to less. Homes are intermittent, towns are tiny and founded in the 1980s, and businesses close up early. 9pm on a weeknight may as well be 3am. Even the gas stations get boarded up when the sun goes down. Sure, they may have lotto, guns, ammo and beer—heck, they even have diesel. But we cannot wait until dawn for such amenities.

So we drive on, into the night, until we cross the border into Utah and find a largish town with an all-night gas station. We fuel up and make it all the way back to Las Vegas; heading straight back to the Sahara. During the drive we talked about our last big night in Vegas, but we quickly trade those plans for a cozy bed and a good night's sleep.

The next day we head out. Deb buys us breakfast at In & Out Burger while I get gas. We turn in our bug-splattered economy car and fly back to Brooklyn for our first visit home since our trip began. We thought we'd get to sleep in our own bed, but we didn't set foot in the apartment until 11pm. Then we called a cab to pick us up at 4:30am. It's better to stay up all night, showering, printing directions, and packing a fresh set of clothes, than to oversleep and miss our early morning flight to Costa Rica.

Now where did we put those passports?

book your cabin today

During our trip we've asked a lot of people to please take our picture. It's the top button on the right. It should focus automatically. Thank you so much. But the guy who took the above photo was the only one who helped direct. He took two standard shots. "That's boring," he said, "Kiss her!" We thank him for the above result.

We made our way up, found a couple chairs at the lodge, and settled in to watch the sunset. We wrote postcards and I took a series of photos in the fading light. There was a long row of chairs lined up on a large stone patio that overlooked the Canyon. The foursome of two couples next to us chatted at length about their grown kids graduating college. Our patio was bordered by two cliffside cabins on the left and an enclosed a circular room, that was part of the lodge, on the right. It was an indoor area from which to watch the canyon from comfy leather sofas, the winds held at bay with huge floor-to-ceiling windows. On the other side of the enclosure was another patio that faced west. This place got increasingly crowded as the sun sank lower and the lodge's brick facade turned golden. The place buzzed with digital cameras trying to capture the moment. I took a few picture myself and began chatting with some white-haired ladies who were on a bus tour of the southwest.

They told me about their trip and I told them about ours. They were a bit surprised by the scope our trip but very encouraging of our impromptu traveling. "Why wait until your hair is white to see the world? Do it while you're young."

When I walked back to the car to get a blanket for Deb I weaved in and out of the the tiny log cabins. Older couples sat together, smiling, and waving hello. I returned to the patio and Deb and I watched the light disappear. I asked a man who was enjoying the view from the best cabin, it's deck perched on the edge of the canyon, when he made the reservation. He told me a year-and-a-half and that it was totally worth it. So there's a travel suggestion for those who like breathtaking views and planning ahead.

We drove away and headed north in the darkness. We stopped for dinner at Jacob Lake Inn, a bustling place that was packed to the gills with customers. We sat on the corner of the counter between two older couples and we all traded travel stories while we waited for the harried waitress. Both couples were from different parts of Georgia and they told us tales of their Southwest travels and their many run-ins with European tourists.

After gassing up and heading out we almost hit two deer in the first five minutes. I slowed down and kept my brights on. Two near misses make you a tad gun-shy and your eyes start to concoct shapes that aren't there. As I came around the bend, something seemed off about the black road, and before the shape could congeal into a recognizable object I was swerving around a big black cow nursing it's calf in the middle of road. I could see the pink udder in the darkness as we flew by, and a few details of the suckling calf. Then the tender scene disappeared in a blink and we continued into the night.

north rim v. south rim

The experience driving toward the Vermilion Cliffs was amazing, trying to take in the scope of one's surroundings. After crossing the fledgling Colorado River, the drive alongside the cliff's colorful face was awe-inspiring. Then we came to a pull-off for something called the Cliff Dwellers. The roadside was populated by giant stones the size of cars, many of them precariously balanced forever on a smaller rock. They seemed to defy logic and gravity and as I explored them close-up, dipping my head under an impossible mass that had to fall someday, I sincerely hoped they would remain upright a few moments more.

There were women selling handmade jewelry in front of one of them and the remnants of an ancient brick home built into another. It took something pretty astounding to distract from the expanse of our scenic surroundings, but the otherworldly rocks, suspended in disbelief, were worth stopping for. I said a silent prayer for Wile E. Coyote and we headed toward the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

As with the South Rim, the route to the North Rim is a straight line. One road, running north and south, that goes to the edge and back. But the area around the North Rim isn't as built up as the South Rim. The South Rim is closer to big cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix and gets a lot more visitors. The South Rim has an IMAX movie and busloads of European tourists, the North Rim has a rustic lodge surrounded by dozens of tiny log cabins, each one populated by polite retirees. And at 8,000 ft, the North Rim has 1,000 ft higher altitude than it's southern neighbor.

We parked near the cabins and walked along a narrow pathway that takes you far out onto a ledge. There were guide rails and a strong chain link fence (it would be a black eye for the parks department if too many visitors plummeted to their deaths in the canyon) so we held on tight, braced against the wind and enjoyed the view.

It's difficult to write about the Grand Canyon and try to provide a description that begins do to being there justice. You can try to do the sight justice by taking a photograph, but the results always look sad and flat by comparison. The tiny photo shares little of the experience of standing on the canyon's edge. Well, my digital camera takes little movies, so this should do the trick.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Grand Canyon in all its glory:

Monday, October 18, 2010

west to the vermillion cliffs

I woke up at 5am bathed in sweat. The heat had clicked on with a vengeance and we were fully clothed under several beds worth of blankets. I opened the front door wide and let the cold, fresh air rush in along with several more moths. I guess this was why we weren't supposed to mess with the thermostat. Tomorrow was going to include a lot of driving and I desperately needed sleep. I cursed the Anasazi, an entire Native American tribe's good name was now sullied in my mind due to this destitute, roadside flophouse. I futilely tried to fluff my filthy pillow but it just made it lumpier.

The night was long and far too short. The next day came too quickly. We drug ourselves out of our uncomfortable bed and got the hell out of there. We'd gotten pretty savvy at packing in a hurry during our first week of travel. Then we double-checked under everything, aware that if we accidentally left something behind we may have to return to this awful place.

The day was bright and beautiful and we fueled up with coffee and gas at a tribal post. Two dogs sat panting in the shade of the front porch flanking the market's front door like the New York Public Library's stoic lions: Patience and Fortitude. We hit the road. Our final destination was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. But we'd be taking an out of the way route that would send us past the Vermilion Cliffs. Traveling the Four Corners region is like navigating Middle Earth. Lots of colorfully descriptive and ominous sounding place names.

We ate at a Subway in a town called Page. Deb sat with her back to the parking lot. Halfway through the meal a bus pulled up and teenagers started pouring out, heading our way en masse. "Europeans," I whispered to Deb and nodded in the direction of the door as the tiny restaurant filled with the tour group. "Das est not eine Burger King," said one in a thick accent that I'll say was Swiss. We made a quick exit as blonde teens continued to file in and got back on the road.

We first saw the Vermilion Cliffs after the road was narrowed by high rocks on both sides. The road curved round a small bend with 30-foot canyon walls of rock on both sides. As we came out the other side we realized we were on the top of a huge mesa and could see for miles looking down across the valley floor. Across the valley, far in the distance lay the Vermilion Cliffs, and in between was the fissured floor of the valley. Within the fissure lay the Colorado River and the easternmost beginning of the Grand Canyon.

professional driver on closed course

We had spent the previous night sleeping a few hours in the car. Now Deb and I flew down the highway on the way to our reservation at the Anasazi Inn, just shy of Tuba City. I think I've failed to mention in this blog so far that Deb doesn't drive. She doesn't even have a license. This is not a problem in Brooklyn. We walk, we take the subway, we walk some more. Occasionally, we even take a cab (mostly to the airport). The walking has been a bit tricky for me lately as my knees are hurting from a lingering injury. But my problem in New York City is stairs, stairs are my nemesis. Since we've been away from NYC I haven't needed to take the stairs much as most of the country seems to be one-story. Walking seems to be good for my knees. I walk slow and deliberately and keep my eyes peeled for elevators. But I digress.

I like driving. I hate commuting, but driving on desert highways is a lot of fun. It's like living in a car commercial, the ones that warn you not to attempt such scenic by-ways. Driving such roads is less enjoyable at night namely because of all the jacked up pick-ups cresting the road's horizon and blinding you with the force of four headlights. I like to drive with my brights on and as you see the edges of an oncoming car's brights nearing the bend in the road, you dip yours and they dip theirs. It's one of the last polite exchanges left on the highway.

The other singular thing about driving down a desert highway is the sheer volume of bugs that end up on your windshield. Our Hyundai got good mileage but I'd pull over at gas stations just to scrub the bugs off the windshield. At night you could see them, moths mostly, about fifty feet out flying toward you in a slow, deliberate spiral as the car sped forward. Their fate seems inevitable, so rarely do they manage to swoop up and avoid it. The moths come spinning towards you, looming large and white before exploding on the windshield like a cheap, tiny firework. The desert is a cruel, unforgiving place.

We got to the Anasazi Inn and checked in. Our room was not in the main building that faced the highway: the standard roadside motel design, one long building split into a string of tiny rooms. We drove around back and discovered that our room was in a duplex trailer. There was a row of trailers surrounded by tall weeds. Our trailer's exterior was lit by a single bulb that was swarming with moths. Our key didn't work and we failed to take the warning and foolishly got another key. Once inside, we started taking a sad inventory of this dump. The floors were stained, the wood paneling was peeling from the walls, the pillows were dirty and lumpy, the place was freezing, and moths populated every light source.

The showerhead had about 50 holes, but only 6 of them let water through, making each one a tiny liquid laser that stung the skin. The bed's springs were worn down and the bed sloped to the middle and my feet hung over the edge. Now Deb and I ain't fancy folks, we don't require luxury accomodations, silk undergarments, or fancy fineries. But when the room costs $109, it shouldn't look like it cost $29. We thought about our fancy room in Chicago that we got for the bargain rate of $115. We covered one bed with all the comforters and ignored a handwritten sign asking us not to turn up the heat. We went to bed fully dressed, sincerely hoping we would survive till morning and not get murdered by drifters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

beneath the valley of the gods

When we were looking for a place to stay near Monument Valley, the closest town seemed to be Gouldings. But once we got there we realized that Goulding's was less of a town and more a mini-resort, an extension of an old trading post complete with an ancient storage shed that was used as John Wayne's cabin in "The Searchers." The tiny town also boasts an area high school and an airfield.

We ate lunch at their dining hall and were ravenous by the time we arrived. Deb got a Navajo Taco and I got the chili (with green chilies) and both orders came with delicious fry bread; very flaky, oily, and crisp. The enormous taco was built like a tostada and covered the whole plate. The green chili was plentiful and quite spicy. It burned with a lingering hotness that spread down the throat and required some fry bread to extinguish. We ate very little only because we hadn't eaten in so long and took the rest to go.

We headed north toward the Valley of the Gods.
(That's really fun to say. Go ahead, try it.)

We got onto Highway 261 just north of Goosenecks State Park and took the road toward the Valley of the Gods. But the sun was low in the sky and there was a massive mesa, just a mighty wall of earth, that the sun was slowly slipping behind. If we kept going we could move to higher ground and keep the day alive. The Valley of the Gods was very pretty. But with a name like that, it raises your expectations a bit high. Or perhaps it is more impressive if you see it before you experience Monument Valley. We got back on the narrowing northbound highway which soon began warning us about the road ahead.

The ominous road signs came fast and furious: No Trailers Allowed, 10% Grade, Narrow Roadway, Unpaved Sections. We were all alone on the road and sheathed in shade. Behind us, the valley glowed orange in the fading, evening light. As the pavement disappeared from beneath us, the road suddenly became very steep and we started up. I could almost hear the clicking of the rollercoaster as we climbed the roadway. The floor of the valley began to drop. Each time we'd round another hairpin corner, the valley below had sunk another 100 feet. We quickly got a sense of how high up we were and realized that the nearby edge of the gravel road was also the edge of the sheer cliff's drop. The road was all switchbacks and no guardrails, so we crept slowly upwards, hugging the inside whenever possible while trying to absorb the dizzying view.

At the top (an elevation of over 6,400 feet) we parked the car and looked out over the valley, finally able to take it all in without fear of rolling over the side. We'd been at the bottom only minutes before and it was dark. Now the sun shone brightly and we cast our long shadows over the cliff. As we drove away, I noticed the wreckage of an unlucky truck that had gone over the edge and lay mangled on a rocky ledge below. There must have been no way to retrieve the truck's shell and so it remains there as a reminder to respect the roadway.

We drove north as the sky blackened until we joined up with a bigger highway then headed back south. Along the way we stopped on the side of the road one last time to look up at the giants of Monument Valley. With the light of the moon behind them, the butte's mighty silhouettes stood out starkly against the pale night. We stood there in the darkness on the side of the highway and basked in their otherworldly beauty. How could the people who lived in this valley 200 years ago have worshipped anything else?

Deb had made us a reservation at a place we'd passed the night while heading east. So although we knew at this point that we had a place to stay, we had no idea how much we'd soon miss the comforts of our Hyundai Elantra.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

a horse with no name

The way Deb and figured it, we'd saved a bit of money by sleeping in our rental car the night before, so why not spend it on something unforgettable: a horseback ride through Monument Valley. Trouble was we only had $66 cash and it was $40 each for a half hour. We talked to a couple Navajo guides who gave tours and rather than drive all the way out and back on an ATM run, we gave them every dollar we had for a quick 20 minute ride.

We saddled up and headed toward Camel Butte, our guide leading the way, followed closely by Deb, and bringing up the rear: me on my very slow and deliberate horse. I didn't really mind the leisurely pace as I was trying to take in the scope and grandeur of our surroundings. And every time I gave the horse a little smack with the whip I found out why cowboys didn't wear Adidas warm-up pants. So slow and steady was fine with me.

As we neared the massive butte, the terrain went from gradual slope to steep incline quickly and I suddenly became very aware that I wasn't wearing a helmet. I'd taken Deb horseback riding a few years ago in Prospect Park and we'd worn helmets. But there was no time for reminiscing now as the horse made his way up the hill toward the base of the butte and I leaned forward and held on. As the horses made their way along the base of Camel Butte—a wall of rock on the right and the cliff edge on the left—Deb and I each had to do some fancy manuevering as not to get crunched by a narrow passage between two boulders. We got to the lookout at the base of the Camel and looked out.

The site of the Valley from such as unique vantage point combined with the adrenaline now coursing through my veins, combined with the lack of sleep or food, made for an almost overwhelming experience. I had one priority now: don't fall off the horse.

When I saw the cliff's edge I was certain that we'd be following it along the ridge until we found a more gradual way down. Instead we were going straight over it. The horse had done this a hundred times before. He knew the way down. I knew that. So I leaned back in the saddle, held on to the horn and talked soothingly to this slow, cautious horse that I sincerely hoped would not fall over and crush me against a rock. "You're my favorite horse," I told him, meaning every word.

When we got back I realized that I didn't have any money left to tip our guide. So I gave him my lucky $2 bill hidden within my wallet. We walked shakily away and slowly made our way out of Monument Valley. Having filled our souls with nature's majesty, we headed across the highway to fill our bellies with spicy southwestern cuisine.

big monuments & tiny snakes

We woke up tired and achy from sleeping in the car and headed to The View hotel to buy breakfast. It was a breakfast buffet that had been sitting out for hours (it was also $13). So we had some terrible coffee instead and I kept my eyes pointed at the ground as much as I could. I didn't want my memories of a place as spectacular as Monument Valley to be seen through the panoramic window of a massive gift shop. We exited slowly, got into the Hyundai, and drove down into Monument Valley. Being in the Valley is even more impressive than overlooking it and your perspective changes from the grandeur of the overall scope of the area to the reality of being surrounded by such towering, impossible rock formations.

The road into the Valley is dusty, steep, uneven, and unforgiving. But we were in a rental, and I'd gotten the insurance, so you drive deliberately and be thankful it's not raining. Part of me really wanted to get a convertible for our southwest roadtrip. The more practical part of me concluded that we'd get char-broiled by the desert sun and covered in dust the color of Burnt Sienna. Plus, all those people driving through the desert in a convertible (in movies that romanticize driving through the desert in a convertible) usually have the mob, the cops, or both in hot pursuit.

Monument Valley is a place where it is difficult to keep your camera in it's case for more than 30 seconds. Every 50 feet I was stopping the car and hopping out to take another photo of the massive mesas—the orange and red rocks against the cobalt blue sky. Every time you move the shadows change and the camera comes out again. There's almost a desperation on your part to try and get what you're seeing into the camera, to capture it for posterity.

The previous night we could only make out the faintest black shadow of the mesas against the dark, starry night. You could sense their presence, but couldn't make them out in detail. Now they were everywhere, surrounding you and dotting the horizon in every direction. Every John Ford western you ever saw, every memory of a Roadrunner cartoon suddenly flooded with personal context. Much like standing on the edge of Grand Canyon overwhelms the senses, the experience of being in Monument Valley short circuits something and your brain must rush to catch up with the sensory overload taking place.

We pull over so I can take some more pictures and we see a couple staring at something in the brush by the side of the road. There is a baby snake coiled near some brush and a thin German man with a camera is bent over at the waist, staring intently at it; his feet a safe distance away, his face inching closer. "Do you zhink it is a rattlesnake?" he asks, "I don't hear anyzhing." The snake is very small, tightly coiled, and in the shadows, but it could be a rattler so I keep my distance and advise caution. Even a small rattler has venom, right? I decide I need a photo, but the digital buzzing startles the snake and it slithers under the bush, it's tiny rattle shaking as it goes. I decide it's wiser to stay on the road, then proceed to take several dozen more photos. I drive 100 feet, then hop out to take a few more.

Deb and I decide to take the remainder of our cash (which was about $66) and see how long of a horseback ride we could get. What we didn't yet realize that it's not the length of the ride that's important; it's the angle.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

long night & morning glory

After our steak and rattlensnake dinner, we wanted to get as close as we could to Monument Valley that night. We found a small highway that started near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park and headed east. After turning onto the highway we quickly saw our first animal: a majestic buck that must've been a 10 or 12 point. He was only a few feet off the road and looked a lot like Bambi's father. Later, I had to swerve to avoid a skunk as it waddled down the white line. With some old jazz playing on the satellite radio, we took the curvy road through the arid forest, our high beams illuminating the trees and brush. We found a place to turn off, got out of the car, and gazed upward. There were more stars than either of us had ever seen in our lives.

The Milky Way was clear as day, the stars so dense and plentiful that even the familiar constellations were difficult to discern through the blanket of bright, twinkling stars. There were so many, in fact, that it made us both dizzy. You felt as though you could reach up and run your fingers through them like sparkling water. Your feet didn't feel so tethered to the ground and any second they would float free from the bounds of gravity and you'd fly away. Then we heard some strange noises and quickly got back into the car.

The lazy road was made almost entirely of twists and turns and it was quite pleasant to drive leisurely, without aggressive headlights constantly blinding you in the rearview mirror. Even when we connected to a more major roadway, we pretty much were the only ones out driving. By 1am, I was exhausted and we pulled over at the first motel we found in Tuba City. Not only were they full, all the area motels were full. Apparently, the southwest is a popular destination for European tourists who travel in huge buses and take up every room in the place. We loaded up on coffee and headed to the next town but with the same result. By now, we were only an hour to Monument Valley.

The reality was setting in that we might be sleeping in our car that night and we figured if it came to that then why not drive into Monument Valley itself and wake up with a view. The moon had already slipped behind the horizon for the night and it was pitch black with nothing but stars to guide us. When we arrived at the valley we started turning off onto side roads looking for the area's famous monoliths against the horizon. Sometimes we could make out their slightly darker silhouettes against the black sky, but the red dirt roads were rough and always seemed to lead to lonely private residences. After about an hour of u-turns and double-backs Deb suggested we try the new hotel overlooking the Valley. I was skeptical, but we were out of options. They too were full (and I'm certain we wouldn't have been able to afford such a place anyway) but the woman at the counter could not have been nicer. Not only did she say we could sleep in our car in a darkened portion off their parking lot, she also gave us water and offered us pillows. Such hospitality at a time like that is a rare gift. We slowly pulled into a gravel area behind the now familiar tour buses which had plagued our route, made ourselves as comfortable as one can be in a Hyundai Sonata and went to sleep. It was 4am.

I awoke a few hours later with a sliver of sun in my eyes and shivered in the now chilly car. As my eyes adjusted I could see something amazing out the window. I tried to wake up Deborah so she could see what I was seeing, but she was having none of it. So I got out of the car and walked to the nearby cliff edge. There was Monument Valley in all its glory, the mesas, the buttes, and the spires of the American West as far as the eye could see. The valley floor had a greenish hue from the many spots of desert plant life and the three massive, signature rocks silhouetted against the blue and orange of the morning sky. The sun barely peeking over the horizon and was further obscured by one of the the three mittens (huge vertical mesas rising out of the ground with a separated sliver of rock on one side to give it its namesake shape). Their red orange coloring was subtle and tempered by the shadowy backlighting of the fragile sunlight, but their shapes were clear as day.

I stood alone on the cliff and looked down at them from my high vantage point. It was one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen in my life and suddenly all the extra driving and dusty dead end roads of the long night behind us were more than worth it. It was freezing, but I stood there as long as I could, taking in the spectacle of one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. The sun continued its morning arc and I snapped a few pictures to capture a taste of the sight. But photos cannot capture the encompassing glory of such a moment, they can only help remind us of how lucky we once were to experience it.

I got back into the car as quietly as I could, covered my face with a t-shirt, and went back to sleep. It was going to be a great day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

driving, steaks

The drive to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas is not very scenic; long stretches of rocky desert, dotted with a few gas stations which are few and far between. Not the type of place you'd want to break down. We only made a quick stop at a Starbucks to use their free Wi-Fi and load up on coffee (Deb needed to follow up on some hotel reservations and I posted a prewritten blog entry). Other than that we drove and drove, and drove some more, trying to get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in time to see the sunset. We passed some interesting rock formations around Kingman, AZ and there was the occasional scenic expanse, but it's a dull, flat drive east.

The Hoover Dam drained an hour from our day as the security line crept ever so slowly toward the famed dam. The inspection was a visual one and I totally understand the need for a security presence, but it stole our daylight and we didn't have time to see the dam thing. The new bridge that they are building is quite spectacular and quite impressed both of us. It's a new engineering marvel built to carry the traffic flow once they stop allowing traffic to cross over the old one.

By the time we took the left turn, heading north to the rim, the sun was threatening low in the sky. We weren't the only travelers trying to make the sunset over the canyon and the drivers starting becoming reckless. One particular asshole in a white Mustang put everyone's lives at risk by passing on double yellows and following way too close. As a New Yorker, the only time I drive is when we rent a car during a trip. I've forgotten what it's like to drive on a daily basis; the commuting, the gridlock, the inconsideration of other drivers, and the dangers they represent. When I drive I fall back on what my severe Driver's Ed teacher taught me twenty years ago, among them: how to parallel park, not turning your wheels while waiting to make a left turn, and, most importantly, leaving one car length between you and the vehicle in front of you for every 10 miles an hour. So when I'm going 70 mph and I can't see the license plate of the car right behind me I tend to get nervous and then I get angry.

Luckily, we survived the other drivers, but unluckily the sun slipped behind the horizon just as we paid the $25 entrance fee. By the time we parked, the twilight was fading fast and then we got trapped behind a maze of chain link construction fences. We missed the golden glow we'd been hoping for but we sat near the edge and took in the awesome expanse as the canyon faded from hazy grey to hazier dark grey. We knew we'd see it again on the way back but it was disappointing to drive for six hours and miss it by mere minutes. When we started back toward the car it had gotten quite dark and the sliver of a moon provided little illuminative guidance. We wandered in circles and even mistakenly tried to break into a Kia that looked a lot like our car in the gathering darkness.

We left the park and went to a nearby steakhouse: The Yippee-Ei-O Steakhouse. It was filled with European tourists and us. We ordered a steak to split and added an appetizer that helped fulfill our "foods of the region" goal: rattlesnake. The thin strips of snakemeat were wrapped in a doughy breading and fried. I've heard all my life that rattlesnake tastes a lot like chicken but I found it more like wiry, overcooked calamari. It was fun to try but it's not going to replace mozzarella sticks or jalapeno poppers on the T.G.I.F. apps menu anytime soon. The rest of the food was surprisingly tasty, especially the biscuits with prickly pear jelly (another local tasty treat). The steak was well done—we eat ours medium rare, so I mean that in the pejorative sense. But it suffered slightly in comparison to the beefy perfection we'd experienced at L.A.'s Musso & Frank's a few nights prior. We paid our bill and departed, driving into the long night ahead. With no clue how long the night was going to be...

happenings in vegas

After a quick dip in the Sahara pool (which closes at 5pm for some reason) we returned to our 22nd floor room to enjoy the view and prepare for our night on the town. We'd failed to pack any nightlife duds into our tiny backpacks, so we decided to go Vegas casual. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the comfort of the room and the promise of "Hitch" on TBS, but the next thing we knew we were cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard in our snazzy, rented Hyundai Sonata. It was Saturday night and The Strip was packed to the gills, as we cruised at barely a half mile an hour, heading toward the New York-New York Casino at the opposite end.

While stopped a red light, I happened to glance over at the car to the right and saw a woman performing oral sex on her male companion. I know, I know, a clandestine BJ in Sin City, it hardly bears mention. But here's the twist: the woman was driving while the man relaxed in the passenger seat, one hand on her head and the other casually holding a drink, his elbow leaned on his open window. I told Deb to glance over to 3 o'clock and we both spied with amusement, waiting to see if they'd beat the light. They did not and she got the tap when the light turned green. We lost them in the intersection and never found out what became of those crazy kids. Speaking of kids, they were everywhere. And while I'm not saying that parents who drag their young children down Las Vegas Boulevard late on a Saturday night are bad parents; I really don't know what else to call them.

After almost an hour we had made it nearly halfway and I turned off the strip in disgust. First mistakenly venturing into a valet parking section, then making it to Frank Sinatra Boulevard, which ran parallel to the Strip, but was utterly void of traffic. We hit New York-New York (note the hyphen: New York-New York is a registered trademark, I guess they couldn't copyright the comma). Deb was keen on seeing it—and who wouldn't want to see a miniature version of the city they live in complete with slot machines? Vegas has Paris, Rome, Venice, and Monte Carlo, but no Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., or Dallas/Ft. Worth-themed casinos.

We walked the Strip for a while and on every corner there were crowds of immigrants wearing multi-colored "Girls! Girls! Girls!" t-shirt and handing out flyers that were tossed to the ground two steps later and littered the sidewalks like autumn leaves. I suppose those aforementioned children wandering the strip with their folks are going to have to learn about call girls sometime. Walking the strip is not like walking any other street as there are escalators and pedestrian bridges instead of crosswalks, and as someone who had recently tried to take a right turn driving, I can understand why. Vegas can be both overwhelming and dull at the same time, but I wanted Deb to see what the city had to offer so we wandered in and out of casinos, had a few drinks, and I even won $15 on a single slot pull at Ceasar's. Then we wandered back to the car and returned to the Sahara where I was eager to play some $1 blackjack.

The last time I was in Vegas I played two hands of blackjack at the Luxor at $10 each. In both hands I was showing 20, but the dealer got 21. I took that as a clear sign and gambled no more. Poor folks like me love $1 blackjack because we can spend $20 and play for at least a half hour, even with the worst of luck. I turned Andrew Jackson into 20 chips and started winning immediately. When I didn't win, I pushed, and when I lost it was usually only a buck. I even doubled-down and got the face card I needed. This was fun; the free drinks helped. Deb got bored and went to the room to nap and I kept winning. After doubling my money they shut down the table for the night and I headed up the room to retrieve Deb and do some more gambling.

Deb was in no mood to have the table games explained to her and played the slots instead. She went up ten bucks quickly, but kept playing and was reduced to her starting $5. This upset her to no end and I tried repeatedly to remind her "that's how they get you"and that she hadn't actually lost any money. We decided to call it a night before the night became the morning and Deb put one last buck into the "Sex and the City" machine and hit it big. Well, technically she hit it Charlotte and won $7 (Mr. Big would've payed out $338). We stumbled back to the room, which is the preferred way to enter a Vegas hotel room, and realized we would not be getting that early start.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

video blog #3: chicago skyline from the signature lounge

video blog #2: new orleans dixieland music

video blog #1: new orleans street music

no fear nor loathing

Despite the fact that we had no set destination and no real idea where we were going, we drove south from Los Angeles and managed to find a Motel 6 in Long Beach only 10 minutes from the airport. We bought some two for a dollar tacos from the adjacent Jack in the Box and watched the second half of "Rocky" on TBS before hitting the hay. The next morning, we finally succeeded in finding that elusive In & Out Burger for a hearty breakfast and caught our plane to Las Vegas with time to spare. A quick note about In & Out Burger: they are fucking amazing; clean, fast, friendly, and inexpensive. I counted fifteen people working with Swiss watch precision. It makes you wonder how the other fast food giants can do so much wrong and be so successful and why there aren't more In & Out Burgers around the country.

The hour-long plane ride to Vegas resembled a high school party bus on it's way to the State Championship and there was much hooting and hollering upon our arrival. We caught a tram to a shuttle bus and ended up far from the airport at a rental car place that informed us that the state of Nevada has all kinds of extra rules, regulations, and insurances required to rent a car. After panicking over the extra fees which more than doubled our quoted price and destroyed our carefully orchestrated budget, we calmly called my credit card company and found out that they did indeed cover some (if not all) of the extras.

Nevada has a "loss of use" rule that if you get into an accident of any kind and the car becomes unrentable, you must pay to rent the car for the duration of its repairs. We breathed a heavy sigh of relief and thanked the lady at the counter who must deal with customers experiencing this rollercoaster of emotions a dozen times a day. She couldn't have been nicer or more patient with our stages of disbelief, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. When it was all over I wanted to give her a big hug. It really goes to show how important the lost art of customer service truly is.

On the advice of another very friendly lady in the car rental check-out booth, we checked out The Orleans. It proved beyond our means, though it was fun to see the Vegas version of a city we'd visited only days before; it was bigger and brighter, but lacked a certain je ne c'est qua. We ended up at our originally intended destination at the far end of the strip: The Sahara. Former home of Elvis and Ann Margaret, Sinatra and Dino, and a bargain to boot. Originally, we'd planned to hit the road running and try to make the Grand Canyon by nightfall but it was getting late and we'd been pushing ourselves for days. We needed a good night's sleep and what better place to get one than a casino in Sin City.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

2001 in 2010

Musso and Frank's is a restaurant that has catered to Hollywood stars since 1919: Humphery Bogart, Edward G. Robinson; Charlie Chaplin even had his usual table where he'd dine with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The prices were a bit high for us but we couldn't help ourselves. We ordered oysters and a porterhouse to split and ordered two waters. The service was total old-school class: red jacketed waiters and attention to detail. The oysters were delicious, like eating the ocean itself (as Deb says) and the steak was sublime. I never wanted to stop eating it and with every bite I pitied vegetarians all the more. I don't know how traditional oysters and steak is to L.A., but eating in such an institution made it all the more memorable. I was disappointed that such a fantastic place was half empty during dinner on a Friday night which the trendy places we passed had lines out the door, but L.A. has always been about what's next, what's new and I was comforted by the fact the Musso and Frank's is alive and kicking.

There are two classic movie theaters within blocks of each other on Hollywood Boulevard: Mann's Chinese Theater and the Egyptian. Mann's (formerly Graumann's) has all the handprints out front but plays new releases while the Egyptian is less famous but plays the classics. The night we were there they were playing "2001: A Space Oddessy" which I've somehow never seen on the big screen. I decided to visit the lobby and they had a wonderful museumesque display of photos and models from the film in glass cases. Suddenly, people began rushing out of the theater in a panic, first a few people, then dozens more. "Call the police," someone shouted, "I already did, they're on their way," came the response. As I made my way outside with the other patrons the cops started pouring in. Turns out some guy had been ranting during the film, then became physical and started choking someone. It sounded like a drug trip gone south and we were relieved that we had opted for dinner instead of a movie.

We headed over to Mann's to check out the handprints of Hollywood stars past and present: Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Harrison Ford, R2-D2 & C3-P0. It somehow reminded me of when I saw the Last Supper in Milan not because of it's artistic importance but because all those stars had stood right where we were standing all those years ago. The Walk of Fame is like an art gallery while Mann's courtyard provides historical proof in the form of hand and footprints and in the case of Jimmy Durante a noseprint as well.

As we made our way on Hollywood Boulevard out of town we put the top back down and blasted some tunes: Sir-Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" to be exact. People stopped and stared because we were so damn hip it hurt. And even the trendiest folks waiting in line at the hottest clubs could not hide their envy.

god save the queen

We woke up in our cabin on the Queen Mary and were able to easily hear our neighbors' voices and we concluded that our late night knocks probably were not the work of ghosts. Deb was relieved and I was somewhat disappointed. We set off to explore the rest of the ship which was no less impressive, but not nearly as spooky, in the daylight. Even the engine room wasn't the least bit scary. It was however, massive, impressive,and crammed with complex steam-powered machinery that dwarfed us. It is hard to imagine a transcontinental trip lasting four days, but it's equally hard to imagine taking such a trip in the comfort and luxury not afforded by a middle seat on an 8-hour flight.

After dropping the top on our Sebring and donning our designer sunglasses (Deb found hers and I bought mine at Marshall's) we headed toward the City of Angels. Unlike many of our other destination cities we didn't really have much of an idea what we wanted to see in L.A. When I posted this quandry on facebook the suggestions I received were mostly sarcastic and while I'm sure that the Getty is very nice, we live in NYC so going to a museum isn't all that attractive. We decided to do as the Angeleans do and just drive. We drove into the city and discovered that we were the only ones with more than one person in their car as we flew by stopped traffic on the 110 in the deserted carpool lane. When the carpool lane abruptly turned into an exit, we headed toward the water and found ourselves at the Santa Monica Pier a place I remembered really enjoying when I was very young.

We're still trying to eat the traditional cuisine of each city/area that we visit, but Los Angeles proved somewhat difficult. After all, what is the food L.A. is known for: sushi? burgers? Mexican food? We'd been looking for an In and Out Burger since we landed, but to no avail. Instead we made the mistake of getting a burger on the pier at a little place called the Surf View Cafe and they were not good. The place was a ramshackle reminder of what the pier had been long before the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company moved in, and that was why I chose it. The burgers were expensive and practically inedible but the place proved the old real estate mantra of location, location, location as it was somehow still in business. Also, the place seemed to be inundated by wounded pigeons hopping around on one good leg, their injured talon tucked beneath them. If you were really lucky they hopped right up on your table. It really helped set the mood.

We hit the road and headed for the hills--Beverly, that is. Along the way we experienced a city of billboards and discovered everything the fall TV schedule had to offer via billboards that were themselves giant television screens. I decided to head up Laurel Canyon and managed to drive a triple feature in three left turns: Sunset Boulevard to Laurel Canyon to Mulholland Drive (for more information consult your Netflix account). We ended up getting lost in a maze of multi-million dollar homes each more fabulous than the last; finally finding ourselves back on Sunset headed toward Hollywood Boulevard. The only street in Los Angeles more touristy than Hollywood Boulevard is Main Street at Disneyland, but it also has some of the city's best film-related gems and I'm a sucker for the movies. We parked in front of Roddy McDowell's star and headed to dinner at the most old-school Hollywood restaurant still left: Musso and Frank's Grill.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

long beach memoirs

A friend of mine who travels a great deal recommended treating ourselves to an upgrade here and there to gild our experience. And what better town to spend a few extra dollars for a convertible than Los Angeles, birthplace of preening shallowness. We actually flew into Long Beach and had to disembark the place via a shaky ramp directly onto the jetway. It made us feel like the Beatles in 1964 despite the absence of screaming teenage girls. Actually, there was about a dozen screaming girls getting off the plane with us a high school volleyball team that we later had to sidestep in the parking lot as they were doing a "ninja poses" photo session. It was a very small airport, the kind you expect in a small city, with a single building that seemed mostly open-air. We got a Chrysler Sebring convertible (the same car Michael Scott drives on "The Office"!), put the top down, despite the darkness, and hit the road.

The first thing we noticed was the stench. Long Beach may be named after a stretch of sandy, sun-kissed shoreline, but their waterfront is densely industrial. After all they're not unloading shipping containers near Malibu. We regretted putting the top down almost immediately but persevered for the remaining miles to our destination: The Queen Mary. While researching for a place to stay we happened upon the famous boat now welded to a pier in Long Beach Harbor and the chance to sleep on a 83-year-old haunted luxury liner was too intriguing to pass up. For more information on the Queen Mary; visit you local library and use one of their free computers to google "The Queen Mary."

After checking in, We took a free shuttle bus over to a busy shopping and dining area that apparently closed at 9pm. We found the one place that stayed open late and ordered a couple burgers. It was a local bar called The Three Brothers, and had a house band trio that played classic rock covers. My favorite was their arrangement of "Desperado" that featured both a mandolin and a tenor saxophone. If I sound like I'm being sarcastic--I'm am not, they were really very good and they chatted with us afterward about their unorthodox use of horns and strings.

We returned to the boat which felt utterly deserted now that all the other guests had retired for the night. It was like a floating Overlook Hotel: serpentine, dimly lit hallways, paintings of long dead dignitaries, Art Deco accoutrements, and a palpable history around every corner. The fact that it's renowned for being haunted by the ghost of a little girl who leaves watery footprints, only added to the massive ship's ability to provoke goosebumps. There are signs around the ship that tell the stories of the ghosts that have been sighted there, and there a quite a lot of signs. I want to see a ghost in the same way that I'd like to see a UFO, so I can see it for my own eyes and know for certain the truth of their existence. That does not mean, however, that I didn't turn some corners with trepidation, expecting to see pale, twin girls or Jack Nicholson.

The ship itself is a masterpiece of engineering and design. Much of the old Art Deco stylings have remained untouched and they've kept the modern upgrades to a minimum to preserve the historical integrity of the ship's storied history. Some of the rooms have had a modern redesign but we requested one with the original Art Deco and it did not disappoint: reminders of the past are all over the place: the original toilet flusher, the knobs for hot or cold, salt or fresh water and the original socketed exhaust tubes for air-conditioning and heat. We returned to our room about 1am and that's when the knocking started. First two knocks came on one side of the narrow room and both Deb and I got chills, then two more knocks at the door. When I looked through the peephole there was no one there. Then a fifth and sixth knock on the opposite wall and by then we were both feeling creeped out. Deb made me call the front desk to find out if there were people staying in the adjacent rooms. The clerk said there were and we hoped that we were talking too loudly for our neighbors and they were trying to send us a message. I was too tired to be afraid of no ghosts, but the ordeal rattled Deb a bit more and she had some trouble sleeping that night.

boats & shows

We got up early in Chicago and headed to the roof of our fancy, boutique hotel to enjoy some deep dish, cold pizza and to take in the neck-craning view of the Hancock building. Then we headed toward the water for our architectural tour of the city's many skyscrapers from the vantage point of a boat. When I asked my friends on facebook for ideas of what to do in different cities this was the most common response for Chi-town. This was the kind of expense that we had to rationalize as a unique experience worthy of the price tag and then pay for by skimping of necessities at a later date. We knew going into this trip that we were starting off with the most expensive cities but that it would average out in a cost effective manner over the course of the trip.

We found a spot right in front and listened to a very friendly and informative woman speak to us for the next hour and a half about the history of the city and its array of towers. Only a photo essay could do it justice; my descriptions of her descriptions would not suffice. But I would highly recommend the tour to anyone interested in history, architecture, boats, or Chicago.

When the boat cruised beneath one of the city's innumerable bridges you felt like you reach up and touch it. If you were Yao Ming standing on a chair you could have injured yourself pretty badly. As the boat floated under each bridge, the cars rumbled overheard, their silhouettes visible through the lattice work of the steel-grated roadways.

I've always been a big fan of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, but unfortunately none of his buildings were featured on the tour. I used to work in the only building he designed in New York City: a terra cotta masterpiece on Bleecker Street topped by a row of heavenly angels. I asked our guide about his absence from the tour and she told me that his buildings were neither tall enough nor close enough to the river to be mentioned from a boat. I was disappointed, but happy that I was able to ask an intelligent question about architecture. It made me feel all sophisticated.

Afterwards, we wandered around the city with our remaining hours and found a lovely little park across from the Newberry Library to devour the remainder of our pizza and feed the birds. Then we headed to the airport early, which was the best idea we ever had since the TSA in Chicago is the most disorganized of any either of us had ever encountered.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

chicago knight

We emerged from the L just as the last light of the evening was disappearing and headed for our hotel. Deb had really outdone herself and found us an amazing place to stay that was just a block from the John Hancock building. I think the normal rate was more than triple what we were paying, and as long as we didn't eat any $3 M&Ms we would be okay. In a concerted effort to continue our "traditional foods of the nation tour" I asked the concierge where we could get some classic Chicago-style deep dish pizza and a place to grab a drink after. He made two recommendations: Gino's East for the pie and the Signature Lounge for a drink. One was very good and one was very very bad.

Gino's was a classic tourist trap; their current existence built on something that used to be wonderful but had been turned into a caricature of it's former self. It was not the kind of place you imagined any Chicagoans actually frequenting. We were already ravenous when we got into a line outside the restaurant and were told the wait would be twenty minutes. Our pie was delivered to us an hour and a half later. But by then our stomachs has shrunken to the size of ping-pong balls and we struggled to finish a single slice. Now the pizza itself was fantastic, but the interminable wait and horrifically bad service made it's deliciousness hard to savor. The pie was built with a layered technique that reminded me of Geology 101: a spongy crust topped with a thick layer of cheese, a layer of sausage (in one big, thin, round pattie), then topped with tomato sauce replete with peppers and onion. It made for a delicious breakfast the next morning on the roof of our hotel, and a equally delicious lunch in a nearby park. I won't bore you with all the details of our bad service (this ain't Yelp), but Deb and I share more than two decades working in multiple facets of the restaurant business and we left no tip--zero, nada, nothing.

We left annoyed and dropped of the remainder of the pie into our room's mini-fridge, then we headed for the Hancock building. Now in-between our hotel and the Hancock was a small black brick building with no name posted outside. Looking inside was like looking into another world: well-dress, grey-haired patrons being waited on by a small army of tuxedoed servants. It was like something out of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgousie" or "Trading Places." We entered the tall, black tower and the elevator shot us up to the 96th floor,our ears popping on the way. The view was more than breathtaking, it was dizzying, the Second City laid out before us. It made you afraid and exhilarated at once and I wanted to jump out the window and soar to the streets below like Batman. Sadly though, it reminded me of the view from The Greatest Bar in the World which stood atop one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York.

I had a local beer and Deb has a fruity cocktail. The prices were reasonable, the drinks were delicious, the view was spectacular. The night was saved.

Friday, September 10, 2010

big easy night

"New Orleans at night is so different from New Orleans during the day," remarked Deb as we drunkenly stumbled down Bourbon Street on our way to catch the old wooden trolley to our motel. We had hopped the same trolley a few hours earlier back into the heart of the French Quarter in search of Cajun cuisine.

A few weeks earlier, we had been interviewed by a reporter from NY1 about our trip and, when asked if there was a theme, Deb recalled a casual conversation we'd had about trying to sample the "traditional" foods of the cities we visited. But now that it had been on the news and was part of the public record, our half-joking concept had become a reality. It would now seem dishonest if we didn't make a point of sampling classic local foods. With that in mind, Deb snapped into research mode and found us a great destination: Acme Oyster House.

Deb and I are not drinkers. We haven't any aversion to drinking, we just don't do it very much--St. Patrick's Day, our birthdays, New Year's Eve--you know, the usual suspects. We ordered oyster shooters expecting the usual blend of shelled deliciousness and cocktail sauce, but in New Orleans they also include vodka. Not bad for only a buck-fifty. So we ordered some more. We sampled a sampler of the region's best fare: crawfish, gumbo, jambalaya, andouille sausage, plus red beans and rice. I only wished my stomach was bigger so I could have eaten more. Just writing those delectable cajun flavors is making my mouth water. We then went in search of Bananas Foster and arrived at it's supposed birthplace: Broussard's, but they we shut tight at 9:30pm. There would be no flaming bananas for us : (

During the day, the French Quarter is quiet place, but every night it is always wild shades of Mardi Gras, with the intensity determined by the number of revelers. The locals informed us how slow it was that night, but it was plenty lively for us. Every bar blared live music: zydeco, rock, torch songs, Billy Joel covers, honkytonk blues; and every strip club had a scantily-clad girl in the doorway beckoning you inside. We were lucky enough to ignore all of these oh-so-tempting options and ended up at Maison Bourbon. Inside was a a band comprised of trumpet, piano, clarinet, upright bass, and drums playing traditional dixieland jazz.

We happily settled in and upped the local flavor ante with a local beer for me and a delicious Mint Julep for Deb. The band was amazing, playing wonderful down tempo numbers mixed with traditional hits like "When the Saints go Marching In." We listened as long as possible before making our way back to our beds so we'd be sure to catch our early flight to Chicago-via-New York. New Orleans is such an unique, vibrant city with surprises around every corner. We are now considering manipulating our meticulously planned travel schedule so that we may spend just one more day in the Big Easy.

big easy day

After driving into the city tired and hungry, we made a bee line for The Clover Grill, a tiny diner on the corner of Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. A decade earlier, I spent a Friday the 13th in the Big Easy and had eaten there minutes after my arrival. It was a cramped place with a grill, a counter, a row of red stools, a handful of tables, and fantastic, greasy burgers. After we booked our flight to New Orleans I was determined to find that diner again and start Deb & I's visit off right. I googled "new orleans corner diner" and found it immediately. Not only were they still open, they were open 24/7.

We found it easily and started our futile search for parking. Our request for advice from a couple of local contractors was met with polite laughter and the advice to find a lot, which we eventually did near the waterfront. Then the long trek back to our destination began. One of the most amazing things about the French Quarter, and the areas which border it, is that the journey is all part of the destination. There is something to marvel at on every block: whether it's the non-stop parade of fascinating architecture, the colorful locals that pass by, or details like a hidden courtyard spied through a fence or a fish head sculpture at the bottom of a drainpipe.

The service at the grill was surly and distracted, but the biscuits and gravy were amazing. That particular breakfast dish is one of my favorites and very hard to find in the five boroughs (they usually try to make it fancy somehow so they can charge $14). A note on the menu advised us that if we were not served in five minutes, to wait another five; "this is not New York City." We were served slow and ate fast, eventually noticing that Deb was the only woman in the place and that the crowded tables were populated exclusively by gay men. As we left, I read a review on the wall that told "homophobes to head for the hills," I suppose living in New York makes ennures one to such things. Deb later told me that I'd been getting checked out by quite a few patrons. I was flattered.

After some good, rib-sticking grub we headed down to the banks of the Mississippi and came upon New Orlean's farmers market, which is touted as the oldest in the country. On the way we were serenaded by a shirtless man with a mic, a portable amp, and a great voice singing "New York, New York." He even changed the lyrics to include us. We gave him some money and he gave us a couple high fives that stung our hands for the next ten blocks. We went in a book store that was once William Faulkner's house on Pirate's Alley and met a lovely older woman at the tourist office who gave us all sorts of wonderful advice and free maps. The adjacent park was entirely shut down for an upcoming football kick-off party featuring the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, Taylor Swift, and Dave Matthews Band. Apparently the park had been shut down for a week. That town sure loves it's football.

Next to the farmer's market was a non-descript building that houses the Louis Armstrong National Park. It's one of only two national parks dedicated to art forms, the other is located in New York's Hudson Valley and is dedicated to the painting style born there. Inside was an older woman at a piano playing an old Ray Charles song. She chatted with us for a bit and then played a religious song which was deeply felt and very moving. Where her fingers had missed keys during Ray's song, they now came down with precision, power, and purpose as she sang about her deep, abiding love for Jesus.

Music is a way of life in New Orleans and as we made our way through the city, jazz was our near constant companion. Just as one band faded into the distance another rose up to take it's place. It spilled out of bars and restaurants, impromptu bands played on street corners and parks, each one competing for your time and attention.

After driving to our motel to shower and leave the car we hopped the streetcar back to where we'd been. But New Orleans at night is another story...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

sweet lady gumbo

It is impossible to experience all that New Orleans has to offer in one day—but we gave it our best shot.

Yesterday began at 4:45am. I (very slowly) leapt out of bed having gotten nearly three hours of sleep to find that Deb, having stayed up all night printing itineraries, had gotten none. We decided to take a cab to the airport and although it was the costly choice, even the thought of tackling the subway at that hour was daunting. Our flight took off at 7am and we arrived in New Orleans at 8:30am (thank you time difference). Deb was even able to catch a few zzzs on plane, so now were both running on nearly three hours sleep. We hopped in our rental car and hoped the combination of caffeine and adrenaline would carry us through the day.

The best thing about New Orleans is that there is simply no other place like it in America. A truly organic American city, rich in history—both modern and ancient—where reminders of the past abound on every corner. The people are laid back, friendly, and patient with tourists who are there to treat their city like a frat party. It was hot and muggy, an almost oppressive heat for anyone not used to such a climate. But since it closely resembled Brooklyn in July, we were up to the task.

Monday, September 6, 2010

the final countdown

Well, we decided against the last stoop sale today and instead focused on making lists, fine-tuning our inventory, and doing laundry. We are now all packed and ready to go. I laid out everything on a card table and checked every item of the list. My bag's not crazy heavy, but I am surprised by how much socks and underwear weigh.

We won't be carrying these packs around too, too much (except in Chicago). As New Yorkers, we figure we can suss out the Chicago transit system on foot and survive there autoless for 23-hours. We even decided to rent a car in New Orleans after we discovered that the car cost only $1 more than a one-way cab ride from the airport. It's going to be nice to drive again. But our first two cars in New Orleans and Los Angeles are just warm-ups for our big Las Vegas to Grand Canyon road trip.

Now we eat, then we sleep, tomorrow we ride...

the last 24 hours

It's a big night in Prospect Heights, perhaps the biggest of the year. Tomorrow is the West Indian-American Day Parade which means that tonight is J'Ouvert (joo-VAY). J'Ouvert is the non-stop party that begins around 3am on Labor Day and goes until the parade's end around 6pm. The noise from the street below our apartment has died down considerably as most of the revelers have made their way over to the parade route on Eastern Parkway. A close friend and former neighbor of ours (who now lives in Toronto) arrived at our place about an hour after Deb's sisters had headed out of town. The three of us had dinner, then we stayed up talking and laughing until he went off into the wilds of Brooklyn for the borough's annual night of unmatched revelry.

Deb and I leave in just over 24 hours so we're staying in. She's exhausted from a weekend of stoop sales, bridal showers, and out-of-town visitors (to be fair, there was only one bridal shower, but since she also helped organize it, I'm counting it as two). I'm up typing because I haven't written an entry today and because I am still too excited to sleep. We have a lot to do tomorrow, but nothing that's make or break: little things, nuances of other, already completed things, plus laundry, and one final stoop sale. Perhaps people will stop at our stoop sale tomorrow because they saw us on the TV:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

labored day

Another stoop sale, another day closer to lift-off; less successful than last week, but it is Labor Day weekend and maybe people bought all the good stuff last week. I have no idea what people want to buy and I'm still stunned that no one wants to buy a Pink Floyd album for $5. I tried to buy an album on itunes once and they wanted twice that. Some people look at me like I'm trying to sell them 8-tracks or 78s. Am I the last person in America who isn't illegally downloading music off the internet?

I thought about lowering the price to $4, but I'm not sure that's the problem. Plus, I already sell them for $4 to anyone who asks. So if I price them at $4, I'll only get $3. Maybe I should have taken economics in college. Or maybe I should have done what my good friend Justin did and sold my cd collection in 2005. One thing is certain, however, this travel blog has had far too many entries about the psychological subtleties of stoop sales.

Friday, September 3, 2010

second city of angels

Two of Deb's sisters have arrived from down south; the bride-to-be & the maid-of-honor-to-be. My stacks of uploaded/to be uploaded/and don't want to upload cds have been squirreled away until tomorrow's stoop sale and in its place—a three-woman, clockwork, assembly-line producing tiny gift boxes for this weekend's bridal shower. Pink flowers, pink-pattered wrapping paper, and pink ribbons all working together toward a common goal.

I've been asking my facebook friends for recommendations of stuff to do in a couple of the cities we'll be visiting next week: Chicago and Los Angeles. I received a lots of great responses about the Second City: Navy Pier, architecture tours, Nick's Bar and Italian Restaurant, a jazz club called the Green Mill, a pizza place called Dijiordanos, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The responses for the City of Angels were less than enthusiastic, only a couple suggestions including: botox, the Getty Museum, and driving around. I like the driving around tip the best. Maybe we could head to Van Nuys and visit the place of my birth. Or maybe not.

we must, we must increase our blog

I have been trying to write at least one blog entry per day. And although I didn't write a post yesterday, that is quite alright because nothing really interesting happened. Today we have more exciting plans: laundry, dishes, mail sorting, cleaning, and organizing more items for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow's stoop sales.

I expect that once we leave our apartment for JFK and actually start traveling, that this travel blog is going to start really getting good. So get ready for that. Until then, please enjoy more tidbits of homestead goings-on and my meandering philosophical musings.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

abbreviated sale

Our brief stoop sale only lasted three hours but it netted us exactly $100. At this point every drip helps fill the bucket and even if we'd made $50, it would've been well worth our time. I'd been worried that our weekend stoop sale would be ill-attended since the city really clears our on Memorial and Labor Day weekends. What I failed to take into account, however, is that the city's biggest Labor Day parade, the West Indian-American Day Parade, ends only a few blocks away. So hopefully we'll get some happy, slightly tipsy post-parade foot traffic and plenty of nice folks just itching to buy my old cds.

$5 stamp

Deb and I have been going over our finances trying to figure out exactly how much money we're working with for this trip. We are definitely going to have to remain staunchly frugal, but I think the entire journey is within reach. Hopefully, our next few stoop sales can bring in a couple hundred bucks and give us a little breathing room. This weekend is Labor Day weekend and NYC is notoriously empty that weekend. So while we're certainly going to hold a couple more stoop sales, we can't rely on them being as profitable as our previous days.

To whit... I would like to remind any and all readers of this blog about our Donate button. It is a magical device by which your money can become our money with the touch of a button. Truly a marvel of modern technology. If you are so inclined, please give whatever you'd like. And lest I be accused of socialism, I renew my pledge to send a personalized postcard to anyone who donates $5 or more.

My hope is that recipients of the postcards will scan or photograph them so they can be linked to this blog somehow. I'm certain that's not too hard to do. I like sending postcards almost as much as I enjoy receiving them. They are an old school communication device, a throwback to simpler times when a postcard was a window into its point of origin. I remember getting one as a kid from my friend when his family took an epic road trip to the Grand Canyon and marveling at the photo on the front. Today we have Google image search and don't require postcards to provide such a window.

But I still find postcards a joy to receive; especially these days when the electronic nature of all personal communication has reduced most of the post to bills or ads. Emails, voicemails, texts, and IMs are invaluable for getting information to their destinations instantaneously, but a postcard is pretty and you can put it on the fridge.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scott quartet

Deb stitched together this series of photos from our Saturday stoop sale. She is a master of the photoshop arts, a dream weaver spinning her Inceptionesque web to create this mosaic parallel universe Brooklyn populated by four Scotts.

Deb and I have been discussing our travel plans and fine tuning our plans for travel. We had never planned to check bags on this trip. We always travel light, so not bringing bags to check will be easy for us. But Deb is aiming higher and I am intrigued. Can we do it with just a backpack each? And I'm not talking about big hiking backpacks, I'm talking small enough to fit in the overhead compartment.

When I was in Europe long ago, I'd arrive in a new city and plop my big backpack into a train station locker so I could roam the city unburdened. Do airports even have storage lockers anymore? For that matter, do American train stations? I know train stations in movies have them; whenever there's a mysterious key it inevitably opens a locker in a train station. And inside of that locker is a duffel bag full of money, a severed limb, or a dirty bomb, the discovery of which drives the plot into the third act.

We'd just like a square box to store our clothes and toiletries for a few hours while we walk around the city. I think we're on our own.

every trip ends in Baltimore

With just over a week before we go, it's time to make a list. Actually, it's time to make a lot of lists. We've done pretty good so far because Deb and I work well as a team. We already received my passport back from the passport maker and it took even less time that we thought. When something like that occurs, part of me wonders if we even needed to pay the extra money to expedite it and laments the fact that we delayed our international destination by a week. Then a second part of me gets annoyed and tells the first part to shut the hell up and be thankful that we have both our passports in hand and will be free to travel abroad.

I recently got a phone call from my father letting my know that, when Deb and I are in Montana, he'll have some other visitors as well. My aunt and uncle will be making their way up to Big Sky Country and my sister will be there too. My little sister is a Master Sargeant in the Air Force, a veteran of two wars, and notoriously busy as her demanding job affords her little time off. I'm very happy that she's going to be there.

So after Deb and I fly into Seattle, we're renting a car and heading due east; and upon our arrival there'll be an impromptu family reunion. If I added up the time it's been since I've seen my father, my uncle, and my aunt, the total tops 50 years. America is a such an enormous country. This never would've happened if we were all Belgian.

At the end of our 30-day ticket our last flight will be New York-to-Baltimore. We are heading down there for the wedding of Deb's oldest sister; a wedding in which Deb is a bridesmaid. So included in our 30+ days of travel, we'll have two big family events in two unique corners of the country. It promises to be interesting—families always are. We are also looking forward to seeing glaciers and eating soft-shelled crab.