Monday, March 16

the end is the beginning is the end

Last week my trip came to an end. I've spent the past three weeks trying to write a conclusion. On Saturday I reached a mental cliff and literally wrote "nothing" over and over again until my mind hit the bottom about ten minutes later. Safely down, I came to the realization that what I had just written was garbage and, consequently, it was banished to the folder of unfinished works. Let's try again.

When I first began my journey I had not created any grand objectives. I have long viewed the solo cross-country road trip as a kind of medieval chivalric romance where the distressed damsels and horses are replaced with the voices in my head and catalytic converters. I embarked on this quest not to "discover myself," as the tiresome cliche for the uninspired goes. Instead, while I knew some amount of acute self-awareness was inevitable, I simply wanted to experience America without a script and see where my mind dropped me off at the end.

I logged 12,554 miles on the road and visited 36 states (plus Canada so that I could avoid driving through Ohio). I reached as far north as Seattle, as far south as Daytona Beach, and touched both oceans. My car has seen the east and west termini of both Interstate 90 (Boston/Seattle) and 10 (Jacksonville/Los Angeles). I've seen mountains and canyons, deserts and swamps, and even squeezed in a trip to Jerusalem just as Jesus was about to die. Talk about great timing.

I'm repeatedly asked what my favorite part of the trip was. I don't know. I knew in advance that that question would be the most frequently asked and I still don't have an answer. Sorry. Imagine something you've always wanted to see or do. Now what happens when you see and experience said thing and that same process repeats multiple times during the course of one trip? What if each experience elicits a different reaction or emotion? How do you compare and rate a hike through the Grand Canyon on a perfect day to snowshoeing around Crater Lake during a blizzard to spending a weekend in the company of good friends?

So in the end what do I walk away with? The road was the source of both my greatest emotional highs and lows. Driving is one our greatest expressions of freedom. Every morning I would get in the car and head somewhere new, somewhere I decided to go. If the sun is out and a good song is on the radio, nothing matches the feeling of being on the open road and knowing I'm by myself doing exactly what I want to do. Conversely, there were times I faced crushing loneliness and depression. When the only meaningful social interaction you have in a week includes asking gas station attendants if you can get a receipt for pump three, you begin to drown in your thoughts. In those moments of desperation, your mind grasps for air and begins flirting with the idea of turning around and heading home. So if I stop now, I'll save money, I'll lower the chances of getting hurt, I can start looking for a job sooner...Arrgg!! Or you can do something different with your life...Keeping driving!

My other take away? Perspective. Thanks in large part to my blog and all of my notes, every moment of the trip is a fixture in my mind and on paper. However, a factor as simple as a different weather pattern could have had a dramatic impact on what was written in any of my blog entries. Bill Bryson hated Yosemite National Park, I loved it. The difference? Spring and fall separated by about twenty years. The old man in Wyoming had a different take on the economy as compared with most rational people. Tomorrow morning someone could leave Washington and follow in my exact footsteps and they would have a different experience. Heck, if I take the same trip in twenty years, my perspective will change demonstrably.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog over the past several weeks. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it (for the most part). I'm sure this site will continue in some fashion as a personal blog, I just haven't begun to think about the details yet.

Thursday, March 12

wicked pissah!!

I've been told on dozens of occasions that Massachusetts drivers are among the worst in the world. I can say, without hesitation, that is categorically false. They cannot hold a candle to drivers in Egypt, it's not even close. And after fighting through traffic in several metropolitan areas, all of which claim the worst drivers in the history of the automobile, I can tell you that Massachusetts drivers are not even the most despicable in the country.

I think people have a twisted pseudo-masochistic relationship with the traffic and drivers that populate the cities they live in. No matter what major city I am in, people complain about traffic to such a degree I almost sense an air of pride. And you always hear about how everyone else is crazy as though your friend is the only reputable driver around.

Los Angeles is pretty awful and is undeniably the worst place in the country to be stuck in traffic. However, when a thousand highways go in a thousand different directions and merge together every three miles nothing can end well.

Freeways simply don't exist within San Francisco’s city limits, which means the only way to get downtown is via side streets or the God-awful mass transit system. Interstate 5 is only road connecting the entire Seattle-Olympia thoroughfare, ergo a disaster waiting to happen. One initially thinks Chicago drivers are terrible until you see the potholes stretching off into the horizon, potholes whose only purpose in life is to: 1) wreck your car; or 2) wreck two cars when you swerve into your neighbor's lane trying to avoid a pothole. Boston drivers refuse to abandon the left lane no matter how fast they are driving, which is a constant 70 mph on freeways and dirt roads alike. Washington, DC is the extreme of passiveness. People would much rather stop in the middle of the road than engage in risky, overly aggressive behavior such as merging or changing lanes.

Where was I going with this? Ah yes, I didn't find drivers in Boston to be particularly intimidating. I did, however, find many of the people to be a tad aggressive. I had a great time wandering through downtown Boston for a day. I walked along the Freedom Trail, took in a reenactment of the Boston Massacre, and stuffed myself with many local delicacies (Chowda and Boston Scrod to name a few). Just to give you an idea of how seriously Bostonians take their history, the reenactment was put on by the Boston Massacre Historical Society. An entire group was formed and money was spent in honor of an event that lasted maybe ten minutes.

The sheer number of young men who appeared to be on some type of steroid, wore Red Sox caps backwards and were just itching for a fight caught me off guard. On multiple occasions a group of guys would purposefully make eye contact with me, no doubt hoping I would commit some heinous act worthy of a beating. It's no wonder the British sent troops to quell the citizens in 1768. Two hundred and fifty years later Bostonians half expect lobster-backed limeys to show up and over-tax their Venti Mocha Lattes from Starbucks.

Bostonians could just be jealous of New Yorkers. While the city possesses hardly any sports teams worth paying money to see, New York City boasts infinitely more of everything, including the worst drivers in the country. I am an aggressive-defensive driver hybrid who is rarely frightened by lunatics on the road; however, the brazen disregard for the law and the safety of pedestrians exhibited by New Yorkers sometimes surprise me.

I stopped in New York City for an evening to visit with friends and play beer roulette and trivial pursuit. It was relaxing and a fitting conclusion to my trip. After weeks on the road and countless sights, people, and sleepless nights, I arrived in New York City, the city that never sleeps, and spent the night on a couch playing board games.

I suppose all that's left now is a conclusion.

Tuesday, March 10

ann's arbor

Ann Arbor is the college town's college town. Even my USA travel book states that if you want to experience the quintessential American college town, Ann Arbor is the place to be. Madison, Wisconsin is a close second.

I have lived most of my life in Ann Arbor, yet I never really appreciated or cared much about the city until my first days at the University of Michigan. I attribute much of that aloofness to four years of private high school thirty miles away in Detroit. However, Michigan athletics is the elixir to cure all apathy. And for all you Michigan haters out there, no, I don't plan to wax philosophical and use awful cliches to idolize the city or depict my journey from naive high schooler to reservist and then God of the Michigan Marching Band. I'll save that for my memoirs which I am currently co-writing with Miley Cyrus.

My parents have lived in the same house in Ann Arbor since what seems like the beginning of time. Actually I think I was in third grade, but same difference. Even though I moved out of that blue colonial-style residence when I left for college in 1999, I find myself reverting back to childhood tendencies whenever I am in town for a couple of days. There are the typical complaints such as: "Mom! What's for dinner?" and "Why is there never any food in this house?" Then there are the more quirky habits, one of which I just noticed this past week when my travels took me to Ann Arbor.

Growing up, the bathroom I shared with my siblings never had a lock on the door (until my dad installed one at the behest of my sister, AFTER the boys had already left for college). There were a set of drawers next to the door that, when opened, would effectively block the door, rendering useless any mischievous attempts to break in. For years these drawers were our bathroom lock.

This past week, every time I went to take a shower, I found myself opening the drawer to block the door. Keep in mind neither my brother nor sister were even home. And I didn't even bother to use the lock. Some habits die hard.

The few days I spent in Ann Arbor were relaxing, a break from the whirlwind of Park City and Chicago. I mostly just slept, wrote, read and had dinner with my parents. The one exception was Thursday night when I met a friend at a restaurant in town for a few beers and delicious curry fries.

On Friday, I got back in the car. I had planned to stop in New York City, but at the last minute I changed my plans and continued north to Boston.

Monday, March 9

the bucket list

The following is the final product of some musing that began before my trip did. I'll have an update on my status tomorrow.

No one has ever heard of Alain de Botton with the exception of his mother and the few newspaper book reviewers whose quotes adorn the back of his books. If you know who he is I’m wildly impressed. De Botton was raised a spoiled rich kid in Britain, but dropped out of a Ph.D program at Harvard to pursue his passion: the writing, fiction and non-fiction, on the philosophy of everyday life.

A South African fellow introduced me to de Botton’s The Art of Travel while I was stumbling along the Inca Trail in Peru with an even clumsier friend--who happens to be a surgical resident. The book is a fascinating and nontraditional look at the psychology of travel and uses the lives and works of artists and writers to examine five ideas: 1) departure and the overlooked beauty found waiting at the airport watching planes take off, or taking a cab through a shanty town en route to a five-star resort; 2) motive and why we seek to go places other than our own backyard; 3) a comparison of cityscapes and countryscapes; 4) art and how it captures beauty and opens one’s eyes to landscapes viewed through another’s perspective; and 5) return, an interesting perspective on Frenchman Xavier de Maistre’s extensive travels in his own bedroom. Needless to say, de Botton's travelogue provided me with some of the self-insight I needed to realize what I was missing through my travels. 

I am constantly looking to improve my lot upon this planet and that includes my approach to travel. In years past I've found that instead of truly enjoying and capturing the beauty and culture of places I visited, I was merely taking pictures and checking names off of a bucket list. My trips that produced the most vivid memories involved an emotional high, whether it was physical pain or laughter: an experience that pseudo-traumatizes the subconscious. For example, hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or sitting around drinking beer and playing cards with some locals in a backwater town in Peru. One can easily take a car or plane to every worthwhile destination on the map, but the most rewarding experiences come when you get of your car and leave the comfort of the known. Pack up your stuff and hike alone into the wilderness or strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

All too often people view travel as the proverbial notch-on-the-bedpost. We must go to as many places as possible just so we can brag to friends about our travels by updating a world map on Facebook or posting gaggles of pictures on Flickr. American culture propagates this absurdity by publishing books on the 50 Places You Must See Before You Die or the 1001 Beautiful Cities/Canyons/Churches You’re Freakin’ Crazy Not to Visit. Before you know it, a generation of kids is traveling the globe without ever developing any type of relationship with the places they rush to visit.

Novelists create characters that represent an amalgam of people they know. During my summer abroad in Egypt, our group was often graced with the presence of a girl whose character perfectly embodies everything that is wrong with travel culture. Everyday I got to hear: “Ok, so last year I went to Turkey and it was like so beautiful and this year I’m going to Jordan and then two days later my parents are chartering a plane to fly me to Peru because the little girls in their native dresses are like soooo cute!” That might not be so terrible in and of itself, but her posse of girls would only eat only at the Euro Café, a hipster joint for Egyptian college kids who need wi-fi and croissants to avoid eating local cuisine with their fellow poverty-stricken countrymen. As if!

She also thought it a terrible idea to try and learn a few words of Arabic since we were only going to be in Egypt for two months. She is the reason foreigners think Americans are assholes.

I understand it’s easy to throw some of that back in my face. Yes, I ate at the Euro Café once, and during the past month I’ve not had time to enjoy some places as much as I would have liked. Now this is partially due to my blog, but at every stop I take time to examine my thoughts for what each place means to me. Descriptions and metaphors, yes, but I also search for peculiar flaws in seemingly invincible rock, the perfect angle to capture an image, or I try to walk in the shoes of people whose experiences long predate my own. I eat the house special at restaurants recommended by locals and try to get the latest gossip from the waitresses. Sometimes I just sit on the ground among a grove of trees listening to and feeling the breeze as the dense pines mute the faraway beckoning of civilization.

I owe many of the ideas for destinations on this trip to stories I’ve read by John Steinbeck and Bill Bryson, but de Botton’s work fundamentally changed my philosophy towards travel. Instead of simply taking pictures I try to immerse myself in and become a part of the landscape and cultures I’ve seen, even if it’s as a white Catholic guy in the middle of southern Egypt.

Thursday, March 5

this is sparta!! ha-ooh!! ha-ooh!!

*You need the latest version of QuickTime to watch the above video

Last weekend I was in Chicago and, sigh, I left the city exhausted. In fact, I had so much fun I almost developed a fever Monday night. Admittedly, my body's weakness was probably a combination of Park City and Chicago, the two of which were only three days apart.

I crashed with a college friend who is very tall, very Greek, and in law school. He only drinks Ouzo and uses big words like Galaktoboureko. My understanding of Greek is limited to shouting a quick series of letters, alpha-theta-omega-phi-psi-beta, and hoping I stumble across the spelling of a real word. He also has an attractive younger sister who we make the source of incessant shenanigans that lead to his six foot seven frame pounding us into a pulp. It's all in good fun.

While we took a walk in sub-zero temperatures to Navy Pier to see how desolate it is in the winter, we avoided the tourists spots since I have seen them all before. Instead we toured nearly every restaurant and bar in the city, including a deep dish pizzeria.

We were joined by another of my friends from school who described himself best Sunday morning after meeting a girl on the subway: "I was sitting on the subway drunk at three in the morning with two McDonald's double cheeseburgers in hand when she asked me what I did. I replied, 'I'm a doctor.'"

The three of us were together for the better part of four days in the city and the most interesting night was undoubtedly Friday. After an embarrassing game of pool--on my part at least--the bar we were in closed and we had to progress across the street. Somehow we got to playing Truth or Dare with several of my friend's law school classmates and he dared me to make out with the girl sitting behind me. I thought that was a ridiculous dare because she was a total stranger. However, never one to turn down a challenge, I tapped the girl on the shoulder, explained the situation and said that even though it was wildly inappropriate to make out, would a kiss on the cheek suffice? She said yes so the game moved on and my friend was shocked at my brazenness.

About an hour later, last call was announced and I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see the girl standing there. She proceeded to grab my head and go in for the kill. I was too stunned to really do anything except reciprocate. Everyone practically fell out of their chairs in surprise. I suppose the night ended on a good note.

On Sunday we met up with two more people on the way to a Greek restaurant. One is a friend from school who now teaches high school English in the area. I can't quite put a finger on it, but her understanding of the written word and appreciation for real literature is extremely intimidating, particularly for someone who writes prolifically. I mean like seriously, she uses Taylor Swift's Love Story as an example of how the Romeo and Juliet story so DID NOT happen. But it's such a good song!

The other is a law school classmate of my friend who, for some reason, loves Ohio State and couldn't provide me with a decent enough excuse. She also is the first female World of Warcraft player I've ever met. She obviously figured out the real way to a man's heart--well, at least the hearts of men who grew up among the video game generation.

Dinner was fantastic, but why would it not be? When you travel with a Greek giant, palate nirvana is first and foremost on their mind. The Greeks have a leg up on most ethnicities when it comes to food and crashing oil tankers into reefs while drunk. If you think about it, much of the cuisine in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and other Mediterranean countries have roots in Greece. I would assume that is due to Greek domination over much of the known world until they were beaten into submission by the Romans, then the Turks and finally the Nazis. Things have really gone downhill since Gerard Butler and Colin Ferrell fought for and ruled the region.

The next day I left for Ann Arbor along with one of my friends who was catching a ride back to visit family as well.

people listening

You may have noticed that I neglected to include any commentary on my time in Park City. The reason for such an exclusion? Park City is an anomaly as far as my trip is concerned. I had a great time and I got the impression everyone else did as well. The skiing was amazing, particularly considering I have never skied west of Boyne, Michigan. However, I didn't act as an observer like I have through the rest of the trip. There were no sights to see, no true adventures to be had and, quite frankly, I wanted to spend a few days not piecing stories together in my head. Further, I wouldn't want to utilize the eternity that is the Internet and tarnish any of my friends' sterling reputations. Just imagine nine friends from college on a ski trip in possession of nothing but a deck of cards and a lot of beer; you can write your own story.

Inevitably I did spend time musing about my role as a pseudo-journalist/storyteller on this trip. And while none of my thoughts were particularly interesting or worth describing here, they have made me much more aware of the people around me.

In every city, hostel, coffee shop, and National Park visitor center I happened upon, my ears were like a sponge. I tried to decipher foreign languages and looked for subjectivity within the monotonous scripted speech of a tour guide. I listened to scolding parents come within inches of strangling their children and the illiterate teenagers of the text message generation wonder out loud if Native Americans were the same as people from India since they are both referred to as Indians. And I tried not to look completely appalled as a very nice grandfather in Salt Lake City explained to me that the original settlers of North America were white and their skin was turned red after years of sin (Don't know what I'm talking about? See South Park for a history lesson).

In Nephi, Utah, I sat in a booth next to a clean cut couple who spent, at least, twenty minutes ordering food. No, it was not because they ordered everything on the menu. Instead, the wife kept asking the waitress if one item was better than the next. "Which is better, the chicken parmigiana or roast beef au jus? Or what about the cheeseburger and the Caesar salad? Which one is better? And is the draft beer better or should I get a pink lemonade?" At one point the words blurred in my head and all I could hear was my optometrist saying: "Which one is better, A or B? How about 1 or 2? Now 3 or 4?"

The guys who sat on the other side of me were the opposite extreme. Both men looked as though they had just spent the day carrying large amounts of weight through a mud pit. My back was to the filthier more tired-looking man and even though I was closer to him than his colleague across the table I couldn't understand one word he said. It was "urrg" this and "ungh" that. As far as I could tell, I was sitting next to some real, in the flesh Neanderthals. The waitress was very cute and I was worried that they were planning to club her and drag her off to their pickup truck. I planned to warn her until she forgot my hot chocolate. Tough break I guess.

Just remember, if you're at a restaurant and there is a solitary guy sitting by you who looks like a bum yet is wearing designer duds, he's probably on a cross-country road trip and hoping you'll give him some writing material.

Wednesday, March 4

the kings of corn

Before the invention of handheld video games and car DVD players, kids had to find other ways to pass time during long family road trips. Some of us had a pack of cards, others had car (miniature) versions of games like Connect Four. You could try to make a dent in your school's summer reading list, but motion sickness would inevitably end that endeavor. Many of us would simply stare mindlessly out the window with no regard to the passing sights; the only thing that kept our brains from just giving up and dying were the passionate wishes that the trip end soon.

And when, no matter how fast your dad drove, you finally resigned to the fact that you would be surrounded by cornfields forever, a billboard in the distance caught your eye: MYSTERY SPOT NEXT EXIT! WORLD'S LARGEST HORSE TURD EXIT NOW!! LAND OF GIANT LIZARDS TAKE EXIT 146 FOR A THOUSAND MILES THEN TURN LEFT!!!

For a kid bored senseless, nothing is more alluring than a billboard advertising Auntie Em's Farm of Lawn Gnomes. Consequently, lost in the excitement of possibly leaving the car for a few minutes, we would beg and plead for dad to take the next exit. While we already know what our father's response will be, we continue to pray for intercession by God and all the patron saints of useless crap until the exit has passed and we quickly return to a vegetable state. Every few hundred miles the process repeats until we either reach our destination or, miraculously, the cornfields give way to a more exciting landscape, e.g. anything.

On my way to Chicago, I passed a billboard near Mitchell, South Dakota that instructed me to exit and see one of the great wonders of the world: The Corn Palace. In an instant I was intrigued and dismissive. I knew the Corn Palace would be among the most utterly lame experiences of my life. On the other hand, the childish need to finally obey a roadside billboard led me to exit the interstate.

The Corn Palace is astonishingly amazing and equally ridiculous. The building serves primarily as an arena and facility for community events. However, the main attraction is the outside facade which is made of corn and other grains. Each year the extensive corn murals are removed and replaced by a local artist. This year, a mural of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the National Mall, among others, greeted my arrival.

I chose not to go inside, primarily because there was an admission fee, but also because I began to feel foolish just standing outside THE CORN PALACE, so I got in my car and left. A childhood fantasy shattered in mere minutes.

Nowadays any inquisitive mind can see the Corn Palace on its live webcam.

Updated pictures here.

Sunday, March 1

my lands are where my dead lie buried

In the summer of 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane sauntered into Deadwood, South Dakota. Among the first characters immortalized in frontier dime novels, Hickok and Jane both served stints as scouts for Custer and met while on a wagon train to Deadwood as the leader of the 7th Cavalry rode off into infamy. A few weeks later Wild Bill was shot playing poker in Saloon No. 10, the same saloon I now played blackjack in.

The Wild West conjures images of dusty one street towns in the Arizona desert, the Utah and eastern California settings of many John Wayne movies, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (If I remember correctly, Doc Holliday looked a lot like Val Kilmer). However, there are no tumbleweeds in Deadwood; no buildings and faces sculpted by years of the sun's abuse. The city rests in a gulch lost among the Black Hills, distinguished only by the dead Ponderosa Pines lining the surrounding hills. Yet Deadwood is the quintessential Wild West town, inspiring even the creation of a HBO miniseries.

Deadwood was originally an illegal camp on Lakota Indian territory during the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874. And while gambling is still the number one recreational activity, the city now caters to a less delinquent crowd: tourists and local retired folk looking to make some easy cash. I arrived the day after the yearly Mardi Gras party so the streets were mostly quiet and the bar staff greatly outnumbered the patrons.

Despite its reputation as a tourist trap, the restored 19th century Main Street, the swinging saloon doors, and the sawdust covered floors all found themselves quite to my liking. In my mind, sitting at the blackjack table with a drink in hand and chatting with some of the locals is as close as I'll get to an authentic Wild West experience. Then again I was a little drunk, which certainly is conducive to unwarranted nostalgia in places contrived to arose such feelings.

The next day I left Deadwood and drove deeper into the Black Hills. My first destination was the Crazy Horse Memorial, a literally mountain-sized monument being built in honor of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the monument in 1948 and, if completed, the sculpture will be the world's largest at 563 feet. To put things into perspective, all four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit into Crazy Horse's head.

Even with countless decades of work remaining, the sculpture is remarkable if not a bit absurd and has generated an enormous amount of controversy. The Lakota Indians view the Black Hills as sacred and many believe the creation of this monument is akin to carving up Mount Zion in the shape of a biblical character. What's more, Crazy Horse refused to be photographed and was buried where his body could never be found; surely he would not have supported the construction of such an enormity.

I headed next to Mount Rushmore in the hopes of seeing Nicholas Cage fall out of George Washington's nose. Alas, no such luck. Even Mount Rushmore lies incomplete, but it did give me a scale with which to measure how the Crazy Horse Memorial will look if finished. To be honest, Mount Rushmore is an absurdity itself and was created merely in an effort to increase tourism in the Black Hills. Don't get me wrong, the monument is impressive and sculptor Gutzon Borglum did a remarkable job with the likenesses of the four presidents, even giving the impression that Teddy Roosevelt is wearing glasses. However, it's saddening to think Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, despite having good intentions, probably commissioned the Crazy Horse Monument in retaliation to the U.S. Government's own disregard for the purity of natural resources. The Black Hills are an oasis of rolling hills and Ponderosa Pines among the flat nothingness of the Great Plains, blemished by our desire to make money and to make statement.