Syncopated Family Travel – The Arizona Painted Desert and Leaving Your Mark

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia .

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
painted desert

Where are we at? Where are we going? Soon we will all be dead, returned to the earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The vastness of Arizona stretches out all around me, home to the nameless dead. For me the sad part isn’t dying.  It’s fading away and being forgotten.  There’s something to be said about blowing your brains out in your prime and living forever, instead of rotting away in eternal obscurity. There’s something to be said about leaving your mark.

I contemplate the markings at Newspaper Rock at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Birds. Deer. Wheels. Serpents. We do not know who made the stone markings, but at least their work lives on.

ancient grafitiIn the ancient myth of Enoch, the antediluvian holy man, was instructed to write the sacred secrets of heavens and earth on both stone and clay.  If the world ended with fire, the baked clay would survive.  If the world ended by water, the stone would live on to tell his story. Written into the myth is this deep throbbing need to continue to tell our story despite all costs.

This is why I write.  This is my story.

Petrified Forest National Park is a nuclear explosion. Rock solid bits of wood litter the land landscape.  Fell trees snapped like broken bone. It’s a pretty war zone. Souvenir collecting is tempting, but condemned by more than just the weight of the petrified forest in Arizonanational park service. There is a higher power at work. Stealing bits of petrified wood carries threats of lingering curses. The information center displays letters of people who stole and lived (just barely) to tell the tale.

painted desertLesson learned: buy your petrified wood from any number of the souvenir shops dotting the nearby backroads. Five-dollars is a small price to pay to avoid a curse so bad that a gypsy would be fearful.

We eschew collecting and enjoy the curse-free vistas, bordering up against portions of the beautiful painted desert.  Here the gentle rock formations are banded with brilliant reds, purples, yellow, blues, and whites. It’s hot, vacant, beautiful.
cadillac ranch texasOur drive continues as we press back toward home, cutting through northern Texas.  Just over the border in Amarillo is the Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation.  Here mid-century Cadillacs are buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle mirroring the Great Pyramid of Giza. The sculpture is a constant work in progress.  The viewing public is encouraged to add their touch, by adorning the cars with spray-can art.   The cars are a constant evolution of graffiti tags in a crayon box of colors.

grafitti in the desertMy addition is an ancient pictograph adorning rocks and cave walls all across the globe.  This same image inexplicably appears across the American southwest, Armenia, Italy, Spain, the Alps, the Middle-East.  It appears on Newspaper Rock.  A squatting stick man, waste adorned by twin dots.  One of the humanity’s first memes.  It’s meaning lost to the ages. What was it to cause disparate cultures separate by oceans to decide to uniformly draw the same image? What was the story they wanted us to know?

Where are we at?

Where are we going?

Syncopated Family Travel – The Grand Canyon, The Rio Grande, and Grand Theft Auto

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
The Grand CanyonThe Grand Canyon is not so grand. We’re here because it is another lifetime must-see. Sure it’s massive; but perhaps too big for comfort. The natural wonder is not very approachable. Like a large mural painting, I have to step back to take in the view.  Even then I’m only getting half the picture. Can something be so overwhelming that it is underwhelming?  We stay long enough to take a few photographs to mark the visit and move on.

Williams, Arizona is our stopover.  There we find accommodations at the Canyon Motel and RV park. It’s inexpensive, but a bit on the shabby side — hobo shabby, not shabby chic. Worse, the cable is out and the Wi-Fi signal is inaccessible. We see what the town has to offer by way of entertainment. Due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon, Williams is a thriving cluster of motels and tourist dives.  Upon our visit, the main thoroughfare is blocked off to allow for an exuberant western show to be reenacted in the middle of the street.

Twisters cokeWe bypass the enthralled crowd and duck into Twisters, a kitschy diner with wall-to-wall Coca-Cola memorabilia.  The food selection is limited mainly to burgers and fries, but the old-fashioned soda counter offers a bevvy of carbonated concoctions.  The Cherry Phosphate is a delicious blend of bubbly soda water, thick cherry syrup, and maraschino cherries.  The teenage guys working the diner, offer some impromptu entertainment as I eavesdrop on their conversation.  One claims with conviction that blacks are better at sports because they have extra bone in their legs.  His coworkers nod with belief. The conversation turns to playing the video game, Grand Theft Auto and I turn to my lunch.

The next morning we continue our trek home across the American southwest.  We leave hot and dusty Arizona behind for hot and dusty New Mexico.

The Monterey Non-Smokers Motel in Albuquerque offers us comfortable accommodations for the night.  The grounds of the motel are well kept with a keen attention to detail. Attractive flower beds of colorful geraniums border the walks and the quaint sparkling blue patio pool.

Southwest HotelThe motel is located near historic old town, allowing for a nice breakfast at the Church Street Cafe before our Rio Grande experience.  This area is interesting with rustic New Mexican adobe architecture. We enjoy spicy adovada y huevos and coffee in a charming outside patio.  It would be a great place to linger for a relaxed morning, but we must quickly dash to nearby Bernalillo for our appointment with Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures.

At the Quiet Waters shop we sign multiple waivers in the event that we drown, watch a safety video of people drowning, and get outfitted with life jackets so we don’t drown.  I begin to fear for the worst until I actually lay eyes on the river.

Grand Canyon AnthonyThe Rio Grande is not so grand.  It’s a small stream compared to the rushing, muddy Mississippi back home.  On the plus side, it allows for canoeing and kayaking, something that we’d be fools to try on the mighty Mississippi!

We carefully climb into a wobbly canoe and push off down stream.  Despite being near an urban area, I feel isolated on the river.  For long stretches the only other occupants to be seen are waterfowl, lighting on and off the gently rippling water. Along the way, a small team of firefighters wave from the shore where they are keeping vigilant watch on the surrounding cottonwoods threatened by recent fires.

The change of pace serves us well as we drift slowly by a picturesque backdrop of the surrounding bosque and distant mountain range. In our mad attempt to get back home the the leisurely trip down the Rio Grande is a much needed intermission.  It’s a grand time.

Syncopated Family Travel: The Return Home on Route 66

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

syncopated_blueswallowThe return home from a trip always presents a share of mixed feelings.  On some level there is the disappointment that the excitement of new terrain is coming to an end.  On the flip side there is that draw to that familiar setting, that place of comfort, home.  I am Dorothy standing in the sparkling Emerald City of wonder, clacking my ruby heels together and longing for the black and white Kansas farm, even if it is dirty and smells like pig shit.

We plot our return through the American Southwest; venerable Route 66 is our road home.   It whips and winds through the desolate landscapes and broken towns in Arizona and New Mexico.  Every dot on the map haunts with past ghosts.  It’s like going through a nursing home and looking at the fragile skeletons.  In their dim eyes you can just catch glimmers of past lives full of adventure and glory.

syncopated_wigwamEach turn of the mother road holds shuttered motels forever locked at “no vacancy”.  In those now boarded up rooms, men and women once held each other with the thrill of new love throbbing through their wide open veins.  The neon is burned out with promises made to be broken.  Nothing last forever.  Progress is a motherfucking Interstate ripping through every good intention with the thrill of the open road.  Progress is going from point A to point B in a linear fuck you at 70 miles per hour.  It’s the destination that is important, not the landscape that is  blurring in the side gaze — definitely not the past vanishing behind. Progress is a streamlined sonofabitch.

This leg of the trip is made more poignant with the recent visit to Disney’s Carsland fresh in memory.  The film Cars was based on director John Lasseter’s own family road trip over this asphalt time machine.  As we traverse through the towns and places that inspired fictional Radiator Springs, I have a new appreciation for what I had considered one of Pixar’s lesser endeavors.  Stripped from the Hollywood trappings it is a sentimental lament to what was left behind.

syncopated_me_writing_windowIn Tucumcari, New Mexico, we check into the Historic Route 66 motel.   It doesn’t have the brilliant neon of the Blue Swallow down the road, but it makes up with it in mid-century modern style.   Parked outside is a gleaming black Cadillac.  The bright lobby inside looks like it could double as a Mad Men set.   The standout feature is a front desk counter made out of petrified wood. As we settle down, Cars happens to be playing on the television.  The Divine is really good at serving up these little coincidences to serve as signs telling our sub-conscience to wake the fuck up and pay attention.  The rooms along the motel stretch have curtain wall windows, acting as a looking glass for those who want to watch the world drive by: coming, going, always moving.

syncopated_seligman_carsRoad trips like these offer a neutral space to gaze out of life’s window.  This is us at our most conflicted: forever seeking the new, exciting future and longing for the simplicity of the past.  We want the shiny, we have a soft spot for the rusty and tarnished. We crave technicolor but long for black and white. This is our burden to bare as humans who have the sense to be able to tell past from present, to plot and plan, to remember yesterday, and hope for tomorrow. This is our shared journey through space and time.

Syncopated Family Travel: Yes, I’m a Mouseketeer at Disneyland!

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Dirty Disney MousketeerMecca. Nirvana. The Holy Land. It goes by many different names to the faithful, but for the uninitiated it is known as Disneyland. I prostrate myself at its hallowed turnstiles and I am filled with a shuddering ecstasy: one of those big bastard Pentecostal grand mals.
After numerous trips to Walt Disney World in Florida, I finally get to touch the sacred soil of the California mother park. What’s the first stop? Space Mountain? It’s a Small World? The Matterhorn? All in due time. First I pull up a stool at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel.  The bar, named after the infamous Jungle Cruise headhunter, is a piece of kitschy South Pacific heaven.

Disneyland Bar - TikibarThe interior is a cramped space festooned with exotic Polynesian decorations. Outside, luau musicians serenade people lounging around an impressive stone fireplace. The Tiki Bar is everything I love about Disney on amphetamines, it’s not a bar, it’s an experience. I’m served up a tropical drink called the Uh-Oa in what can only be described as a large tiki cereal bowl. As the skipper sets it down before me the whole bar erupts in a chant over throbbing drums: “uh-oa, uh-oa, uh-oa.” Pinches of cinnamon spark as they are flicked on a flaming sugar cube floating atop a pool of rum and fruit juices. Around me, lightning flashes, water sprays, and a volcano goes off. I take a drink and my head spins. It’s that classic wholesome Disney debauchery. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up in the middle of a magical princess orgy. If I’m unlucky I’ll end up floating in the castle moat.

Hotel room at Disneyland HotelMost likely it’ll just end with me sinking into my posh bed near the top of the Fantasy tower at the Disneyland Hotel. It’s decked with fluffy white comforters and navy blue throw pillows reading “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” The dark wood headboard lights up with a twinkling display and plays a soothing When You Wish Upon a Star. Elegance like this comes at a hefty price. In order to pay for the room we nearly had to sell our daughter as an indentured servant in the Disney college program when she turns eighteen.

Disneyland hotel president NixonIt’s worth it for the pure nostalgiagasm of the place. The hotel was opened in 1955, soon after the park opened, and today history oozes out of every crevice.  Just off the main lobby is a collection of frame photographs of visiting celebrities and dignitaries over the years, including that lying crook Nixon. Our room has a framed, black and white portrait of the master of the mouse, Walt Disney, standing under the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Outside the elaborate pool includes water slides made out of old monorails winding down underneath a vintage Disneyland sign. It’s a Disney time warp.

At Trader Sam’s I run up a serious bar tab and chat with another couple. I spotted them out of the crowd and could tell that they worshiped at the altar of Disney. We bond over the fruity drinks and our mutual love of the mouse.  They are California natives so we trade stories about the differences between the two parks.  This particular family one ups me by sharing that they had the opportunity to go to Disney’s new Aulani resort in Hawaii. How was it? “Expensive, but so worth it,” they replied with familiar ecstatic eyes.

Disneyland Small WorldAs a Disney World veteran, it is great to check out the source material. When I clear the Disneyland railroad berm I’m no longer in the middle of busy downtown Anaheim; rather, I’m transported into that happy place.  I skip through the hallowed castle. I bask in the beauty of Mary Blair’s whimsical Small World facade. I join Mr. Toad on his wild ride straight to hell. I loudly catcall to the “red head” as roguish pirates raid the Caribbean town. I never, ever stop smiling.
The Disneyland park is a historical testament to the dedication of one visionary who had invested himself in making so many people happy. It’s an amazing legacy I’m happy to pay homage to.
Disneyland Buean Vista StreetJust across the entrance plaza is the much-maligned California Adventure park. After an extensive billion dollar remodel, the park seems poised to reestablish itself. Through the gates I stroll past the art deco style buildings of Buena Vista Street, a tribute to Las Angeles circa 1923. We enjoy a fantastic meal at the new Carthay Circle Theatre restaurant. The interior of the restaurant evokes strong images of olden Hollywoodland high class.  The first floor bar is a particular treasure. Their specialty is classic cocktails served up proper. I enjoy a gin martini, chilled to perfection with an ice sphere and garnished with an olive.

Beyond is the new Carsland, which note for note recreates Radiator Springs from the animated Pixar movie Cars. When the sun goes down the area sparks to life with brilliant neon.  Life Could Be A Dream drifts romantically out of the loudspeakers. However, for all of the fun of the cartoon version, the real Route 66 awaits us, as we must soon say goodbye to the west coast and head home.

Neon at Disneyland CarslandOur days at Disney end with a viewing of The Wonderful World of Color water show.  Acrobatic fountains of water dance to sweeping music in a wild array of pulsating color. Dr. Leary would be impressed. We ignore the “you may get wet” warnings and take up a position right up front near the cascading jets. To quote the Flight of the Conchords, “I’m not crying, it’s just raining on my face.”  This is heaven.

Book Review: A Month of Italy – Rediscovering the Art of Vacation

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by author Chris Brady’s publiscist. They were starting a publicity campaign for Chris’s new book A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation and they wanted to buy ad space on Vagobond.  I asked the publicist, Doug, if he would send me over a copy of the book so I could make sure it was something I could feel good about recommending. I also offered to do a review on the condition that it be honest and unbiased.

Rediscovering the Art of VacationAt the time, I was getting ready for a trip of my own to Italy, then to Malta, San Marino, and Spain – so I didn’t have much time to sit and read it, but after going through the book on the fly and finding myself chuckling already – I figured this was just the kind of thing Vagobond readers would want to check out and agreed to the ad. As for me, I planned on giving the book a read while I was traveling in Italy. I told them that I would be more than happy to write a review of the book once I’d finished reading it – in my life though- finding the time to write a review isn’t easy and several months later – here it finally is.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book. From the beginning as Chris tries to trick his wife into taking a month long trip to Italy (only to discover that she is already way ahead of him) and then all the way through as this family man learns what it means to really dive into a country, it’s culture, it’s people, and it’s food – all while navigating the perils of bringing your entire family along for the ride.

And yet, there is much more to this book than the adventures and misadventures of an American family in Italy – instead, this book is about finding the balance in our lives between work and play – it is about the importance of taking the time to really live – and it is filled with powerful messages that every stressed out CEO or entrepreneur needs to read.  The reason? Because life is sometimes meant to be fun and sometimes it is meant to be downright silly.

Brady captures that, in particular with his take-aways and take-homes at the end of each chapter. A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation offers much more than just family vacation advice though.  For example:

If there were anything I learned from a tourist’s standpoint on this trip, it was that the best touring is done in the spaces in between. Sure Florence and Rome had been great, but much more enjoyable to me were the deserted country roads, the old men playing cards under an umbrella in a little nameless town, the forgotten spaces between the bustle. It was a metaphor for life, I was realizing. We tend to focus on the main goals, the biggest objectives: the crowded spaces. But life is perhaps lived best in the spaces in between.

The thing that most captured me as I read was the sense of how it made me feel good about the life I lead and the choices I’ve made. Chris is a hard working guy – like me. I spend a huge amount of time writing, editing, working on projects, and building a future for my wife, our daughter, and me. The thing is though, I always make sure to take the time to enjoy life too. Chris pointed out at one point that the average working American father spends an average of 37 seconds a day with their kids!!!! What?

Ultimately, this book is about Italy and more. It’s about Tuscany, food, culture, and the misadventures of travel – but, beneath the surface, this book is about the choices we make in our lives. It is about how to be more effective in our work, more loving in our families, and how to enjoy the art of our lives – both on vacation and at home.

At the core of the book is this idea of how American workaholics take one week in Italy and try to see all of it. Even a vacation is a stressed out event as they rush from one sight to the next to the next to the next. The Brady family takes a month and discovers that they have fallen into the same trap – but then, miraculously, they escape it.

While I’m not a fan of the whole traveler vs. tourist debate -which this book certainly delves into, though not as overtly as others, I do think the lessons of this book are worth sharing and worth enjoying. There is certainly something to be said for enlightened tourism  and while I don’t think that those who have traveled a lot are going to learn major lessons about how to travel from this book, I do think that the average working guy who takes his family on a trip now and then (or is planning to) will benefit from reading this. And, as I pointed out above, there are plenty of lessons about balancing work and joy – for those of us who travel for work, this might be of even more importance.

As to the rest – it’s an enjoyable story about traveling in Italy and it offers some funny stories, beautiful descriptions, and some inspiring moments. It’s a very good book and I recommend that you read it.

To find out more about the book, about Chris Brady, and about Italy – head over to A Month of Italy where you can see photos, read more reviews, check out some of the videos, and more or if you just want to grab a copy of the book and start reading, you can get that here.

Syncopated Family Travel – Los Angeles – Beaches, Bums, and Cults

Story by Anthony Mathenia  Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Los Angeles Irony?Hollywood California: swimming pools, movies stars, and a man passed out on the sidewalk with his pants down. This is what we are treated to as we take a morning drive to see LA’s famous sites. The only thing distinguishing this particular scene from New York City is that his bare ass has a nice California tan. Instinctively, we hit the door locks.

It’s a good thing as a machete wielding maniac in a hockey mask approaches our car at the next intersection. It’s startling until we realize that he is just one of many costumed tourist-trappers bilking bucks on the crowds flocking to see Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The tourists size up there hands with those of the stars impressed on the concrete, while being prayed upon by Marilyn Monroe, the Incredible Hulk, and a shitty Spiderman selling photographs. We nope it out of there and careen through the Hollywood hills for a vantage of the famous Hollywood sign. I have an interest in none of this, but today is the kid’s day and she is calling the travel stops.

Jim Jones Cult, Los AngelesThere is but one exception; I can’t visit Los Angeles without visiting the historic church at Alvarado and Hoover. In the 1970’s, this tan brick building served as Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. It’s most impressive feature is the semi circular front porch with rounded arches and fluted columns. A stately brick tower rises up over a red tiled roof. Inside, not much has changed since the Reverend Jim Jones preached here. The building still has the same burgundy church pews were the members of Jones’s cult ecstatically listened to their smooth tongued master and hoped for a better life.

After paying my respects, we leave the former cult building to go see the Cults. Coincidentally the NYC indie pop band is playing the Make Music Pasadena festival. The annual music festival takes over multiple city blocks in Pasadena. Its a great lineup on four stages and, since it is absolutely free, the cost of admission can’t be beat. In addition to fantastic music there are plenty of activities, lots of great food, and some brilliant chalk sidewalk art.

Los Angeles Music FestivalIts shoulder to shoulder as we pack in before the crowded main stage where the Cults are set to play. The crowd is diverse, but as a whole pretty laid back. A group of hispanic men with long black heavy metal hair openly smoke medical ganja and more surreptitiously pass around a gigantic bottle of Jack Daniels. Many of the young ladies around sport the nerd look with huge black glasses covering their faces. Hipsters abound, dressed in sock garters, cut off jean shorts, bandoliers, fringed vests, and rain boots. One holds a small tartan umbrella to block the blinding hot sun.

Hollywood - Here we are!“Holy shit look at this crowd,” says Cult’s guitarist Brian Oblivion, shielding his sunglass covered eyes, as he peers outward across the sweating mass of flesh. The band launches into a soiree of synth infused retro-pop. Singer Madeline Follin croons into the microphone, “I knew right then that I’d been abducted.” Guitarist Oblivion comes in with a wash of distorted electric guitar. She sways in a baby doll dress. He’s a windmill of long black hair.
The crowd erupts at the opening glockenspiel notes of “Go Outside”. It’s accompanied by a sample of Jim Jones. “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous,” his ghostly voice intones. Follin earnestly sings, “I really want to go out. I really want to go outside and see your day.” The packed crowd sings along, everyone swaying together like a salty ocean. It’s religious.

pop star Soko playing in LAA few blocks down SoKo is playing. She’s one of my daughter’s favorites who she got to meet outside of the vegan restaurant in LA. Born as Stéphanie Sokolinski, she’s a french singer with a fragile voice. The crowd is smaller at the Playhouse District Eclectic Stage, but no less enthusiastic. A guy in the audience yells something out in bad french, causing SoKo to laugh. “I love that’s the only french you know,” she said, then explained to the audience he asked her to take off her clothes.

I’m not so far removed from my childhood to remember the joy of seeing a favorite band perform. Even more, the excitement of getting to meet them. My daughter enjoys watching the show up front, as the musician works through an assortment of songs, from gentle guitars ballads to a raging punk missive while playing drums. During I Thought I Was An Alien she cackles into the microphone in high-pitched alien tongues. It’s definitely a highpoint of the trip for my kid.

LA BeachesWe end the long, sunny day with a drive to Laguna Beach to look at the ocean. It seems that LA traffic alternates between crawling at a jammed snail’s pace to race car fast. We cruise along twenty miles over the limit, trying to keep pace only to come to a dead stop. In this herky jerky fashion we make it to Laguna Beach. The area is appealing, with interesting shops, nice restaurants and quirky houses. If there are half-naked bums, they keep them well out of site.

We manage to score a parking space in a busy area near a beach side park. It’s a pretty relaxed scene. Well dressed elderly men are playing a game of bocce. A family grills out, filling the air with the savory aroma of sizzling flank steak. The beach front is pretty small, but it affords the opportunity to sit on a rock and watch the tide come in and the sun set. It’s a calm end to an energetic day.

10 Wonders of the World to Add To Your Bucketlist

The wonders of the world have been presented in various media with different listings, but there is a common agreement regarding seven of them, featuring in the “the 7 wonders of the world.”

10. Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

This is the only wonder of the ancient world that is still standing, and it is great in every aspect. Built over 20 years (2580-2560 B.C.), the pyramid held the record for the tallest man-made structure in the world (at 480.6 feet) for over 3800 years.
wonders of the world

9. Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Composing of large stones that are in a standing position, and form a circle, Stonehenge is believed to have been built around 2500 B.C. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Recent studies have led archaeologists to believe that it was used as a burial site in its time.

8. Golden Gate Bridge, USA

Completed in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel for its times and can be considered a wonder of the world. Connecting San Francisco to San Marino, the Golden Gate Bridge is considered by the Frommers Travel Guide as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed bridge in the world.”

7. Machu Picchu, Peru

The literal translation of Machu Picchu is “Old Mountain.” It is located 2430 meters above sea level on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It is believed to be a Inca site.

6. Mount Everest, Nepal

Though not man-made, the absolutely amazing peak of Mount Everest certainly deserves a place in the top 10 wonders of the world, as a natural wonder. Standing at 8848 meters tall, it is the highest peak in the world above sea level, and was first conquered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

5. Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

Certainly one of the most known structures in the world, the leaning Tower of Pisa is indeed a leaning structure, standing at 55.86 meters tall. The Tower used to lean by 5.5 degrees, but restoration work carried out between 1991 and 2000 has reduced that angle to 3.99 degrees.

4. Chichen Itza, Mexico

Meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”, Chichen Itza is a large site built by the Mayans, and consists of many stone buildings; all of which are under various stages of preservation. All structures are connected by a network of roads that were formerly paved, called sacbeob. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is monitored by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico.

3. The Coliseum, Italy

The Coliseum is a massive structure, which is actually an amphitheatre, and is the largest ever built in Italian history. The Coliseum is elliptical in shape and is capable of seating 50,000 people! Though damaged partially by massive earthquakes and stone-robbers, this marvelous feat of Roman engineering has stood to survive all the tough times, and is a must visit.

2. The Taj Mahal, India

The Taj Mahal, meaning “crown of buildings”, is a breath-taking structure made of marble, and is located in India. Built over 30 years, the Taj Mahal comprises of a dome mausoleum, and also has the shrines of its creator, the emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Begum, in whose memory the structure was actually built. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal is a symbol of iconic beauty and love.

1. The Great Wall of China, China

This structure is also one of the most famous ones in the world. Built originally to protect the northern borders of China against attacks, the Great Wall is actually a collection of walls built across centuries by many dynasties. The whole series, collectively called the Great Wall, spans 8851.8 kilometers, and is a fascinating wonder.

 

Syncopated Family Travel – Leaving Las Vegans

Story by Anthony Mathenia
Photos by Rebekah Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Mojave Desert“I’m hungry,” my daughter whines from the backseat. I can think of few things worse than traveling with a newly minted teenager, especially one that happens to be vegan.

“Food This Exit” declares another Interstate sign. However for her the options at this exit are no better than those at the last.

“You want some fries?” my wife offers.

“I’m sick of french fries,” my daughter moans.

“How about a mandarin orange?”  We have a bag of Clementines in the trunk.

“I’m sick of oranges.” Her voice is fingers on chalkboard.

I must have done something really awful in a past life. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the meatless horizon: the culinarily diverse cities of  Las Vegas and Los Angeles are coming up.

A Las Vegan's Best FriendAs we head west we make a brief side visit to the City of Sin to take my daughter to Veggee Delight. I’m a little worried as the GPS leads us through the Vegas Strip deep into the heart of Chinatown. However, the Vietnamese cafe owners are welcoming to this mid-westerner. It also seems to be popular with non-Asian locals; a few trickle in and take up seats in the tiny dining room.

Wet Noodles are funI scan the menu offering a variety of Asian dishes with fake meat: chicken, beef, pork, tuna. TUNA? I double-check that I read that right. Yes, they have a meatless tuna. I shun the “tuna”, which is barely passable in its legitimate version. My daughter orders some kind of “beef” bowl. I’m not big on fake meat, so I choose something called “wet fried vegetables with noodles”.

I take a moment to ponder the ancient, oriental mystery of how a vegetable can be both wet and fried. Service is quick and soon I am tearing into my dish as fast as my preschool chopstick skills will allow. As it turns out the “wet” is a thin sauce over some fried vegetables (carrots, snap peas, shoots) and some crispy noodles. The food is surprisingly satisfying and soon we are back on our way.

We are only miles down the road before I hear again, “I’m hungry.”

“You want an orange?”

“I’m sick of oranges.” So it goes with vegan teenagers.

Continuing southwest into California, we watch the temperature escalate: 100, 101, 102, 103 … Through the vast Mojave Desert, Joshua trees dot the crispy landscape stretching out into a shimmering, hazy horizon. It looks wet and fried.

Flore Vegan Restaurant in Los AngelesOur travel is interrupted as we are commanded off the road to a mandatory car search. State agents wave our Nissan up to a checkpoint. What are they looking for? Drugs? Booze? Illegal immigrants? “Ma’am do you have any citrus in the car?” a no-nonsense woman leans forward to ask.   My wife nervously looks at me, her eyes as wide as saucers.  Should we run for it Dukes of Hazard style?

Minutes later we are on our way again, but without our contraband in tow. California takes their citrus seriously and our illegal Clementines are not welcome in the Golden State.

“I wish I had an orange,” laments my daughter.

Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaIn L.A. we treat my daughter to another vegan meal. We arrive at Flore Vegan Cuisine on a Saturday morning while they are serving their weekend brunch. The diminutive seating area is packed with Californians enjoying a leisurely mid-morning meal and the daily newspaper.  For the diners, there is no haste to finish so we join a small line forming outside. I impatiently wonder if vegan food is worth the wait. It is. When our name is finally called we are treated to an outstanding meal, rivaling some of the best I have ever head. I order some beautiful buckwheat blueberry waffles topped with bananas. My wife enjoys a southwest scramble, a tasty tofu version of huevos rancheros.

Another Vegan Breakfast in CaliforniaMy daughter enjoys something even better than her vegan breakfast.  She delights to spot SoKo, one of her favorite musicians, out for a walk. The French actress/singer is gracious enough to pause for a cell phone picture.  She informs us that she is performing at the Make Music Pasadena festival later.

“Can we go?” my daughter begs.

When she hears my answer she responds with the usual.

“I never get anything I want.”

So it goes.

Syncopated Family Travel – Bryce Canyon Utah

Family hiking in Utah - BryceAs we near the end of our first week, traveling takes on a comfortable rhythm. Like someone training for a marathon, we grow accustomed to the long miles between stops. Packing and unpacking the car each night becomes a precise clockwork. Miles rack up and scenery swaps out again and again. Every few hours we change landscape and it’s always so new. The grass in this place is not the same as the grass in that place: the rocks, the water, all different. Hell, even the sky seems different, by nature or trick of the traveler’s eye, I’m not certain.

As we enter Utah, Salt Lake City brings a momentary rush of heavy traffic, but it quickly dissipates moving further south. A lovely orange waste flashes by our car windows; the outside air is a convection oven. Utah is a dusty Eden with so many natural wonders, it is difficult to narrow down the list to a couple of stops before we press further west to California. Our travel takes us first to the southern edge of Utah. Here Red Canyon gives us an introduction to what we can find further at Bryce Canyon National Park. The road winds through interesting red limestone formations rising above rugged ponderosa pine trees. This place is familiar, if only because the Disney Imagineers borrowed the look of the eroded spires, called hoodoos, for their popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceThe majority of travelers to Bryce tend to flock to Ruby’s Inn, a hotel that has been serving travelers for decades. It is a large complex just outside the gates to the national park, offering not just lodging, but shopping, dining, travel activities, and, of course, requisite taffy and fudge. We forgo the crowds and instead set down for the night in nearby Tropic, a small, dusty town of approximately five-hundred. We call ahead to notify the owners of Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel that we might not make it before their front desk closes for the night.

“No problem,” the friendly innkeeper says. “We’ll just leave the door to your room open and the key on the bed.”

Family hiking in Utah - BryceTropic seems to be the rare kind of place where a person can leave their doors unlocked without concern of wandering burglars or serial killers. It’s quaint and rough, just a simple stretch of a few homes, some hotels, a few restaurants, and a couple of shops set against a backdrop of grey cliffs. The Steppingstone houses eight charming, if small, rooms, uniquely decorated with homey touches like patchwork quilts on the beds. The grounds are nicely manicured featuring a rare green lawn, taking parched drinks from a flickering garden sprinkler. By the garden a traveler sits on a bench reading Camus. With such a tight schedule, I regret that I don’t have the leisure to do the same.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceOur first stop on our tour of the area is Mossy Cave Trail, a short, scenic walk situated between Tropic and Bryce Canyon proper. Through here the rippling Tropic ditch canal was carved through the arid land by farmers in 1892 to provide irrigation for crops. Along our walk we delight to view small waterfalls along the creek and above hoodoos and windows carved in sandstone. A special treat are the many colorful wildflowers that dot the landscape.

Next we take in some of the scenic outlooks of Bryce Canyon Family hiking in Utah - BryceNational Park, culminating in a stop at Sunset Point. The overlook is poorly named. Gazing out at the amphitheater positions our back toward the west, so the sun slides down, out of sight behind us. However, the diminishing evening light is supposed to make interesting shadows across the amphitheater. At the rim we join a long line of people poised with cameras gazing out at cliff faces and spires that give the impression of walls and buttresses of an alien castle. To our right, the entrance to the Navajo Loop trail catches our attention as it winds down into the amphitheater funneling into a narrow slip of rock. The lure of adventure beckons and we descend down the switchbacks and pass through a dim hallway of rock, named Wall Street. It empties out to an opening where spindly Douglas fir trees stretch upward in search of rare sunlight from the sky above.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceBy the time we reach the bottom, those inching shadows have covered the floor with deep, dense black. A terrible truth sets down upon us: we must somehow get back to the rim in the dark. Unfortunately for us, this particular trail boasts one of the most extreme elevation changes at Bryce. It’s a daunting five-hundred twenty-one feet back to the top. Climbing is a weary chore. Each step is a painful reminder of the overall lack of activity that dominates my normal life. Each labored breath mocks all those unfulfilled New Year’s promises to “eat better”, “exercise more,” “walk to the kitchen to get a beer instead of shouting at the child to do it.” Speaking of the child, she casually skips up the switchbacks, texting on her cellphone. She is soon out of sight, leaving her mother and me in the black depths of Tartarus.

We press on, sweat-soaked, bones creaking, bodies aching. Stopping. Resting. Resting. Giving up and making suicide pacts through punctuated breaths. Finally, we make it to the top.

“Geez, what took you so long,” snips my daughter as we arise like Lazarus from the pit.

The bed back at the Steppingstone is an exquisite comfort, though hard asphalt in a rat-ridden back alley would do as nicely after such a grueling workout. Too soon it is morning. With sore muscles we walk to nearby Clarke’s restaurant for breakfast. It’s good and filling and some European tourists provide unexpected entertainment as they navigate the puzzle of pancakes, butter and syrup. They quickly figure it out with great enthusiasm. Rested, sort-of, fed, definitely, we pack up the car once again, quickly, and set out eagerly to explore more of what Utah has to offer.

Syncopated Family Travel: Idaho Sucks

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

This is what passes for Art in Boise

No offense, but Idaho is a shithole. This is no mere opinion based on my brief run-in with the gem state, but it has been thoroughly fact-checked and confirmed on Urban Dictionary. We may just be spoiled from the beautiful vistas we have seen over the last few days: the rugged canyons of the Badlands, the rolling grasslands of South Dakota, the tree covered mountains of Wyoming, the colorful thermals of Yellowstone. There may be beautiful places in Idaho, but we see none of them as we drive south down the I-15. It is all farms and factories belching smoke.

The only things worth looking at are the Teton Mountains in the east beyond the vast plains of dirty nothing.

Suck my cock Idaho
Idaho sucks Cock

Our next destination is Bryce Canyon in Utah, but first we must slog through Idaho. When headlights flip on and yawns start chaining around the car, an unsettling truth weighs in: we may have to stay the night in this forsaken land. We go as far as Idaho Falls before admitting defeat and pulling off the Interstate. We should be looking for a place to stay, but with the cooler running low, we take the opportunity to restock at a Super Walmart just off the exit.

Here, the universal truth is confirmed: no matter where you travel, the people of Walmart stay the same. A case in point is a lady with an undersized silver t-shirt that makes her look like a pink pork roast wrapped in tin foil. “Sweet Thang,” proclaims the ass of her sweatpants, wide like a billboard. When you shop at Walmart, you take care to dress your very best, and I fit right in with my matted hair, scraggly travel beard, and rumpled “Pawn Star” t-shirt.

Nevertheless, there is something comforting about this little slice of American redneck heaven. As we purchase sandwich goods and beer, I can close my eyes like Dorothy Gail (also from a shitty state) and intone, “There’s no place like home.”

Our shopping complete, we look for a place to sleep. When you stay at a new hotel every night, you are gambling on things like comfort and safety. So far our choices have proved positive, but Idaho Falls is home to the Guesthouse Inn and Suites. It starts out well, with the friendly hotel clerk informing us that they have one nonsmoking room left. We eagerly snatch up the moderately priced room, believing that the hotel roulette wheel is once again being kind to us. Little do we know.

Taking our keycard, we drive around to the back of the building, where it appears that the black asphalt parking lot serves as an unofficial hotel lounge of sorts. Small groups of rough-looking men are milling about, flicking cigarettes and draining bottles of cheap beer. As I park, I look up to a second floor window, where a man in Homeless Activity Area Idaho Falls ccImage by Waterarchives on Flickra stained wifebeater is gazing down at us with a piercing stare straight out of a slasher flick. We should turn around, but it is late and it is only one night. That’s what door locks are for, I think as we haul our luggage to the back entrance, only to find that the security lock is broken.

At the door, a bald, heavily tattooed man pushes by us en route to one of the little parking lot parties. We drag our luggage up some stairs to a dimly lit hallway, which is flanked by a couple of worn cowboys.

“I fucked up that sonofabitch real good,” drawls one of the dusty men, sporting a mighty handlebar mustache.

As we squeeze past, he cracks his tattooed knuckles. Hard eyes follow the caravan as we move deeper toward our room number. Once there, it takes a few panicked swipes of my keycard before the door lock clicks open, allowing us entry. The second we open the door, we are smacked with a cloud of cigarette odor wafting out of our “nonsmoking” room. Perhaps there has been a mistake.

But like firefighters, we brave the smoke and push into the room, throwing the lock behind us. While my wife tucks her face into her shirt, I pick up the phone to call the front desk.

“Hello,” a pleasant voice on the other end of the line greets me.

“Hello, we just checked in and we are supposed to have a nonsmoking room, but this room reeks of cigarette smoke.”

“That’s a nonsmoking room; perhaps the smell is from a room down the hall.”

“I don’t see how. The hallway didn’t stink.” Perhaps this smoke passes through walls, Casper style? “There’s something else. The television is missing.” I gaze down at the unhooked coax cable limply hanging across the dresser.

a hard eyed serial killerMomentary silence at the other end of the line. “The room was just deep cleaned,” the clerk offers, not really explaining why the television is missing. “Would you like us to send up some air fresheners?”

My daughter starts coughing like a sixty-year-old with a two-pack a day habit.

“I think maybe we’ll just try some place else,” I say.

Moments later, we again move back to our car, past the hard eyes of cowboys, truckers, and potential serial killers. “What a shithole,” I say, as we cruise further down the Interstate.

Syncopated Family Travel – Yellowstone, Chinese Tourists, and God Damned Bison

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

one of the most scenic roadways in AmericaWe are up early the next morning ready to enter into one of the most emotionally thrilling experiences of my life time. We head south where the road out of Red Lodge becomes framed by stoic white capped mountains. As we ascend the switchbacks, we put the majestic soundtrack to Disney’s Soarin’ on infinite repeat. My heart swells and I bawl like a baby.

There is a reason that Beartooth Road is considered one of the most scenic drives in America. At each bend and turn in the winding road you are treated to a new spectacle. It begins with a view of the snow covered grey mountains in the distance jutting out from patches of dark green trees.

We take a moment at a pull over lot to enjoy the postcard view. The early morning air is crisp and sweet with pine and chipmunks playfully scurry about. From there we continue on up the pass. The air chills noticeably. Heaps of fresh snow are packed on the side of the road and some skiers dart down the steep slopes, disappearing out of view. At the next turn we are treated to an expanse of icy glacial lakes as we near the peak, just shy of 11,000 feet elevation.

America's National Park TreasureOur descent into Yellowstone National Park, brings us past brilliant, sparkling pools of water reflecting the picturesque mountains along side. Our entrance into Yellowstone is spectacular, wide open fields of gentle green hemmed in by tree-lines, and cut through with glittering creeks coursing over smooth stones.

The roads are lined with wildlife photographers hoisting gigantic telephoto lenses. I stop and pull out our diminutive Canon DSLR to take pictures of scampering groundhogs; I haven’t felt this inadequate since freshman year gym class. Yellowstone is a nature photographer’s wet dream.

You can’t turn around without looking at a scene straight out of a nature painting. In the park we are entertained with views of grazing bison, soaring hawks, mule deer, bull moose, brown bears, and hoards of Chinese tourists. At each stop, buses disgorge them and they trail after guides waving little flags. We follow them along the boardwalk encircling the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the park’s most famous geological features.

the hot water at YellowstoneThere, the ground belches out thick plumes of steam, through which tourists attempt to ward off the gripping stench of sulphur by tucking their faces deep into stretched souvenir t-shirts. Only their eyes are exposed gazing admirably at the rainbow palette of intense geothermal features. There are boiling pools of the most brilliant blue giving way to greens meeting edges of fire-like swirls of yellows, reds, and oranges. There are burping puddles of mud making obnoxious noises, which elicit gapes and laughters from amused onlookers. And there are Chinese —

Chinese everywhere. My wife and daughter torment me by picking out my Asian doppelgänger, a dumpy fellow with stringing hair and thick Coke bottle glasses.

There is so much to see, but with the clock swinging past
the geothermal heat at Yellowstonenoon, we decide to go and find something to nosh on. Back in the car we cruise past the thick forests, littered with thousands of fallen trees like white bones. These dead trees are a common sight around Yellowstone, knocked over by age, disease, fire, and wind.

We are enjoying our drive when suddenly out of nowhere, traffic grinds to a complete and total halt. Eventually we see the cause, a whole entire herd of bison have decided to use one lane of the two-lane road as a walking trail. My stomach growls angrily. “Run over the mother fuckers!” I road rage to the cars in front of me. They won’t.

According to the vice guide, wanton killing of animals in a national park is a definite no-no. We have to mollycoddle the bastards. Sometimes cars are able to pass them, but most edge back giving the lumbering behemoths the right of way.

the delicious but annoying bison of YellowstoneThe passing lane is blocked by cars going the opposite direction, slowing to take photographs or point and laugh at the long line of us. I learn that the average land speed of a bison on an asphalt road is between three and four miles per hour. After about an hour of painstakingly slow travel, the bison finally decide to get off the road.

We waste no time, exceeding the speed limit toward the Roosevelt Lodge restaurant. When the waitress asks me what I would like to eat. I don’t have to debate.

“One bison burger please.”

“How would you like that sir?”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” I snip.

After getting re-energized with lunch and calming down, we drive over to look at the Old Faithful geyser, another one of those lifetime must-do’s. In the packed parking lot, I pass a pickup truck, where ravens the size of small dogs are ripping the soft fleshy sides of a cooler to get at the meaty corn chips inside.

I make the mistake of walking too close and the nearest raven gives me a beady, black stink eye straight out of a Poe nightmare. “You can have the fuckin’ Fritos,” I say making a wider berth.

In the Old Faithful viewing area we find benches and await the explosion of the well known geyser. As I sit I have the opportunity to reflect on the last few days spent touring such scenic places.

Chinese Twin at YellowstoneMany of the crowd will leave, with a renewed commitment to save the planet. But, I’m not so sure the planet needs saving. This amazing place was carved by fire and ice, forces so much bigger than ourselves. Hell, just underfoot is a super volcano that packs the potential punch of a 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. When it goes it is gonna take a chunk of America with it. It strikes me as egotistical to believe that we can kill or save the earth. The planet has survived things much worse than us and beautiful places like this will probably exist long after we are killed off.

I’m lurched from my thoughts when the geyser begins to churn and the audience perks up. “Ooooh” goes the Americans. “Lalalala” goes the Chinese. The crowd erupts when Mother Nature blows her volcanic load one-hundred-and thirty two feet into the air to the delight of the cheering crowds.

As the crowds dissipate, I duck into a nearby gift shop and look for taffy.

Rome, Italy – Hostels and Boutique Hotels

As a tourist to one of the most visited cities in the world, it is a bad idea to visit without booking your hotel in advance. In addition, since there is more than a little bit of trickery and thievery in Rome, travel insurance isn’t a bad idea either.

rome boutique hotels

Arguably one of the most historic cities of the world, it has moulded so much of today’s western world culture, tradition and language. You will find this unmatched concentration of history in a city populated with modern Romans that live and work with their unequivocally Roman style. Many of the great achievements of Roman times can be admired in its streets. Who visits Rome will be astonished by its grandeur and style. Discover the Vatican museums, be wondered by the monumental Coliseum, walk along the Piazza Navona, visit the Spanish Steps and enjoy great views of St. Peter’s basilica where is housed one of the greatest artworks of human kind: The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Here are a couple of hotels that I found to be worth the price while I was in Rome and a few to avoid.

Hostels and Budget

Alesandro Palace Hostel – Near Termini Station, pretty good breakfast, free wifi and a helpful staff. Free pizza parties too.

Alessandro Palace Downtown – Free wifi and computer use, great breakfast, fun dinners and parties, great location, funky building.

Avoid Hostel Beautiful and Hotel Beautiful 2
. I got bedbugs here, no wifi, dirty bathrooms, stinky place, scary elevator, filled with creepy people when I visited.

More Rome Hostels

Luxury Hotels
Hotel Charter – This was listed as a 2 star hotel but I found it to be closer to a three star with newly remodeled bathrooms, comfy mattresses, and a very friendly staff. Free wifi, breakfast at the cafe next door was discounted, and nice little perks like delicious candies waiting for you in the room.
Hotel Montreal – 3 star hotel but 4 star treatment. Free breakfast. Be sure to request an inner courtyard room or you will get street noise. Nice place to have a drink at the end of the day.

Favorite Boutique Hotel – Ripa Hotel – Modernist comfortable hotel in the midst of classical architecture. The change between the two is nice and the comfort and service provided here is worth the cost. Four stars +.

Hotel Regina Baglioni- best five star hotel in Rome. Housed in an Art Deco palazzo on the famous Via Veneto, the elegantly furnished guestrooms and suites offer a stunning fusion of turn of the century glamour and contemporary technology. The hotel’s prime location ensuring most rooms also offer superb views of Via Veneto and the unique Roman cityscape.Mix with the local elite in the exceptional Brunello Lounge & Restaurant.

Worst hotel in Rome: Hotel Galeno. Don’t stay there, but you might want to do what I did and go there to see what an awful hotel is really like. One review said “Like a Gulag but without the friendly staff”

Syncopated Family Travel – Red Lodge Montana, GPS Disasters, and Never Turning Back

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

a shortcut from montana to wyomingWe leave Mt. Rushmore behind vowing never to return and continue northwest toward Yellowstone National Park. Entering Wyoming, the landscape changes again to sage green hills with a backdrop of dark green mountains. What can I say? This country is big and empty and beautiful.

As we head up Interstate 90, I begin to see signs urging to exit west toward Yellowstone. However, my wife insists we continue on toward Red Lodge, situated just north of the National Park across the Montana border.

We are lured by the promise of an ascent up Beartooth Pass, one of the country’s most scenic drives. Judging by our road atlas, we can continue north on I-90 until it wraps back west.

However, our GPS unit seems to know a short cut through Bighorn National Forest. We put our faith in technology, taking the suggested exit. If nothing else, a drive through of a national forest should offer better views than the Interstate.

Bighorn National ForestThe diversion begins in an outstanding matter as we navigate the narrow switchbacks climbing into higher elevation. To our right some fleet-footed pronghorn deer scamper up the rocky side of the road. We continue on through gates that close off these perilous routes during the winter. The need soon becomes clear as the outside air turns ice cold and snow dots the landscape even in summer. Things become even more dreadful in places where the weather battered roads break down.

With a rally car we might be able to make good time, but we have to move slow so as not to careen off road down into deep ragged, inclines. Our GPS continually recalculating our arrival time, pushing it later and later into the night as our fuel gauge creeps toward empty without a service station in sight. Despite our effort, Red Lodge appears as a still distant dot on the GPS display as we cross over the Montana state line. Sleep fogs over my eyes. “Turn left,” demands the GPS. I whip the car around and immediately mash the breaks.

“Road closed” warns a construction barrier. Looking past myshots from the window of the Bighorn National Monument headlight beams I see the reason; where my GPS insists there is a road there is nothing more than a roughly road-shaped dirt stretch loosely strewn with gravel extending off into pitch black night.

“Maybe we should turn back,” suggests my wife, “see if there is a hotel or something somewhere else.”

However, I’ve come too far and I’m too tired to admit defeat. I fly my civil disobedience flag and drive around the barrier. I flip on the hi-beams and hope that the road doesn’t terminate in a cliff and our trip gets cut short in some kind of Thelma and Louise tribute. I push the car further down the road, kicking up dust and gravel. I don’t have to fear for police in such a desolate place; my only concern is the road and the fuel.

The needle of the gas tank gauge is now buried on empty. We hadn’t planned on camping out; hopefully the road lasts. If not, at least we have turkey sandwiches and the last of that terrible Bud Light. The Nissan bounces up and down as we stumble over pot holes, fishtailing a bit around the curves.

My wife grips at the handle, cursing me; my daughter ignores the situation completely, zoned out in her iPod playlist. After a tense fifteen minutes the rumble subsides as the car tires clip back over onto pavement. Held breaths are forcefully expelled. My daring is rewarded because just a short time later we roll into the charming mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana.

During winter months, Red Lodge is a brilliant stay for those taking advantage of nearby skiing slopes. The town strikes the traveler as laid back, and perhaps a bit bohemian. The diminutive main street is filled with a chain of small cafes and bars, a legacy kept from the mining boom past, when the tiny town had twenty saloons. I lament that at this late hour, I’m unable to stop and close down one of them. Lodging is more of an urgent need than a gin and tonic.

We hope to stay at the Yodeler Motel, a kitschy chalet that has been in the area for over a hundred years and lovingly maintained. Unfortunately the outside neon decries “No Vacancy” leaving us looking for other arrangements. We find lodging next door at the lesser Lupine Inn.

There is a bed, but unfortunately the Internet connection is spotty leaving me to boost a signal from neighboring hotels. In our room, we spend the next hour periodically checking to see if Beartooth Road will even be open to allow passage into Yellowstone. Even in the middle of June it is iffy if the deep snow peaks will be cleared. Finally word comes from the stolen Internet, “PASS OPEN”.

 

Memory and Travel – Reflections on Bergamo and kindness to strangers


It’s funny how memory works in regards to travel. I was in Bergamo, Italy back in 2009 (and about 10 days ago but only to sleep in the airport but that’s another story) and my memory of it seemed to be perfectly clear. A very small sleepy place where I could walk from the train station to the Nuovo ostello di Bergamo in about 20 minutes. I even remembered a general map of how to get from the lower city to the upper city, where the funicular was, and how to get from the centro to the ostello.

So, last night, arriving at about 8 pm at the train station in Citta Basa – I started walking. I walked up the main boulevard past the grand square building in the area of the Sentierone and the Palace of Justice).I went by the 4 towers that housed The Health Tribunal, the Fair Curators, The Magistrate of Provisions and the Tribunal of Justice
and the famed 540 shops of the Sentierone. I strolled past the modern shops and began thinking to myself that I didn’t remember it being so…modern, so developed, so filled with luxury branded stores.

And as I kept walking for 30 minutes or so, I became less sure of where I was. At the point I remembered finding the stairs to the hostel, I found a hillside leading downward into a neighborhood instead of the ten flights of stairs leading upward that I remembered. Soon, I was in an area of closed shops and fairly modern apartment buildings. This didn’t fit with my memory at all.

I asked a few Italians if they knew where to find the Ostello di Bergamo but they didn’t speak enough English or didn’t know and then, I found a Moroccan kebob shop. They didn’t speak English either and my Italian is zero, but much to their surprise, this lost looking white guy wandered up and greeted them in Darija. My Moroccan Arabic is functional though far from fluent. Once they got over the shock of my speaking Arabic, they were very kind and interested.

They knew where the hostel was and I was far from it. One of them, Hisham, asked his boss if he could leave for a few minutes to get me started in the right direction. We chatted in Darija about family and life in Italy. He’s originally from Agadir and has actually been to Sefrou for some reason. I admit that I’m not always keen on meeting Moroccans in Morocco, but when I meet those who have left or travelled abroad, it is always an extreme pleasure. It’s something about the broadened world view and the shattering of the illusions the media puts in people’s heads. An expansive worldview makes a world of difference. The Prophet Mohammad said something like “Don’t tell me what you’ve read, tell me where you’ve travelled.”

In any event, Hisham and I were lucky to run into his Italian friend, Enzo who was waiting to pick up his girlfriend from work. Enzo speaks English and offered to drive me to the hostel. During this exchange, I was translating Arabic to English and English to Arabic – a good exercise that seemed to work.

So then, Enzo and his girlfriend drove me to the hostel which was miles from where I had ended up. Once at the hostel, I thought I remembered where the pizza place nearby was – but once again – memory failed me, so I ended up eating a frozen microwave dinner. And while I can say that my memories of the hostel being clean, bright and comfortable were right I was disappointed to recall that they require you (or at least me 2x now) to check out each day at 10am, leave your bags in the luggage room, and then check back in in the afternoon. Not ideal by any means- it makes me glad I took a day in Greece to just lounge in my hotel room.

Anyway, I’m excited to get back to Morocco but I have a full day and another night here in Bergamo. I had thought to take the train and get lunch in Switzerland, but the weather may not be cooperating – in any event there is a giant world food festival here as well as a world renowned organ music festival – so it may be best to stay here – besides the trip to Switzerland wouldn’t allow enough time to see the Alps.

 

Syncopated Family Travel – Mt. Rushmore, Sandwich Artists, and Injun Killers

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

offbeat family travelMy eyes furtively glance at the rearview mirror checking for cops as the family car edges close to forty-five miles per hour, cruising west on South Dakota Highway 44. This particular stretch of asphalt is post-apocalyptic empty and flanked on both sides by green and yellow mixed grasses as the road cuts through portions of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

My fourteen year old daughter stretches her short legs to give the car some gas as she accelerates closer to the speed limit. Early morning light floods through the windows catching the glint her subtle smile. This family road trip seemed the appropriate time to bump her into the driver’s seat.

The legal driving age in South Dakota is fourteen, so we are not exactly breaking the spirit of the law, though we lack the prerequisite forms and eye exams. I learned this from a vice guide I printed out from the dark basement below the regular Internet.

There you can find practically anything, crazy things like assassins. This particular tome of knowledge provides not just legal driving ages, but also for drinking, smoking, and other activities. It delves across the fifty-two states informing what is legal — some only barely by virtue of long forgotten laws and legal loopholes.

With each state in the union maintaining their own code of law, it can be a challenge knowing which states allow the smoking of salvia or the fucking of pets. In some places you can kill an Indian if he crosses in front of you.

Not that I endorse any such activities, but if you have the urge to get smoked up, screw your pooch, while shooting an injun, it is best to do it within the realms of the law like a good honest citizen.

This is the real fear that keeps good Libertarian men like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson from being viable presidential candidates. What one state views as a felony another simply sees as a wild Tuesday night.

Our next major destination is Yellowstone National park, with a quick bucket-list stop at Mt. Rushmore on the way. The famous sculpture is supposedly something that every God-loving American must see before they kick it.

It comes as no surprise that Mt. Rushmore started out as a mere money making scheme conceived to lure tourists to South Dakota. It’s a legacy that it is kept in tact to this day.

As we navigate the Black Hills region we pass through the small mountain town of Keystone, a terminal place kept alive by feeding on the millions of tourists that flock to see the famous sculpture. Like the corner crack dealer they seem to thrive on dealing their vile product to lobotomy eyed tourists.

Does the free world need this much salt water taffy? We should declare a war on it! Make it where the only way you can get fudge anywhere near a national park is in the ass of a drug mule.

a drive by on the first presidentMt. Rushmore itself is highway robbery of the worst kind. To get up close and personal with the chiseled presidents requires a hefty parking fee. Our annual national park pass is confederate money here. Instead we bypass the lot and hang out of the car window, wildly clicking the shutter gangsta style as we do a drive by shooting of the four presidents.

For those who don’t get suckered into the pay lot, you can pull over for free just around the corner and gaze at the hawkish profile of George Washington. Much like your favorite Hollywood action star, he’s a lot smaller in person.

We take the opportunity to snap some pictures and enjoy a picnic lunch. My wife is a sandwich artist, a true turkey club Picasso, unlike those hacks at Subway. Even though it is a pain in the ass to keep food when living out of your car, the inconvenience is worth the atmosphere.

A deer in South DakotaThe luscious backdrop of ponderosa pine trees and blocks of glittering granite is far preferable to the view of a squalid McDonald’s Play Place, ball-pit littered with dirty diapers and used needles. Not to mention the smell; I inhale the sweet aroma of the pine and it becomes clear what all of those air fresheners have been chemically aping all of my life. I’d love to figure out a way to capture it in a brown paper bag and huff it for the rest of my trip.

Nearby the Crazy Horse monument is carved in Thunderhead mountain to honor the heritage of the Lakota people, or perhaps simply as another tourist magnet. As I eat my sandwich I contemplate a new monument to capture the true spirit of America. I just need to find a suitable mountain to deface with the sculpted visages of Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and Gates.

We’ll have “God Bless America” playing out of loud speakers, fudge making, and five t-shirts for ten dollars for every man, woman, and child. I tear up just thinking about it.

Syncopated Family Travel: Wall Drug and the Dakota Badlands Food Poisoning

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

South Dakota Family TravelFrom De Smet, South Dakota, we head west toward the Dakota Badlands. The roads are pretty vacant, not seeing much traffic outside of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, which chokes the Interstate with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club.

Along Interstate 90, a regular sight is garish billboards calling on travelers to visit the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent coffee and free ice water await. Combined with the Theta-state highway hypnosis, the staccato of advertisements is eerily effective. By the time we reach Wall, South Dakota, we figure it is worth checking out.

More importantly, Wall is also a convenient launching off point to the South Dakota Badlands, just a ten-minute drive south. We check in at the Sunshine Inn, a strip motor hotel located just a couple of blocks away from the tourist area, largely taken up by the massive Wall Drugs. The Sunshine Inn is a budget motel, but the beds are comfortable and, most importantly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men season finale I’ve been eagerly awaiting.

An unlisted perk of the motel is John, the proprietor, who is helpful in suggesting travel activities. For instance, he tells us that the Badlands National Park is open twenty-four hours and overnight camping is allowed, which makes it perfect for an amorous nocturnal coupling. When we ask for a good place for dinner, John steers us away from the tourist section to the Red Rock Restaurant where the locals eat.

The Red Rock is jam packed, but we manage to score a seat. I order a country fried steak, my wife a cod sandwich, and my vegan daughter has to settle for onion rings. The complimentary salad bar is shocking in its lack of offerings. In total, it amounts to four items: iceberg lettuce, spring onions, whole radishes, and shredded carrots. Tucked under the yellowing sneeze guard are some macaroni and potato salads that look like leftovers from the grocer’s deli.

When it arrives, my country fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to preserve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pilfer some ribs from the buffet line instead.

Fed, for better or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. History tells the story of the proprietor who in 1936 attempted to revive the dying pharmacy by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. The gimmick worked, and the drug store thrived, expanding to take up several blocks today. The free ice water is allegedly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of souvenirs: magnets, t-shirts, postcards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mustaches, puzzles, tiny spoons, whoopee cushions, fudge, geodes, garden gnomes, and more.

Occasionally you emerge from the tacky goods to be confronted with some sideshow spectacle like a roaring robot T-Rex or a giant Jackelope. Each has a crowd of tourists lining up for a picture to say, “Yes, we really saw that.” We manage to fight the spirit of commerce and escape the clutches of Wall Drugs, never having found the free ice water.

With the obligatory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Badlands National Park. At the northern entrance to the park, we purchase an annual “America the Beautiful” pass. It’s pricy, but cost-effective for us because it will grant access to other places in the national park system during our travel. Just clear of the gate, the Pinnacles Overlook offers an amazing introduction of the northern area of the park.

Here striated white buttes, spires, and pinnacles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the sloping edges, juniper and yucca trees are nestled between eroded gullies. It’s a breathtaking view. My daughter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay outlooks, while my more cautious wife lingers behind to chastise our hubris.

To the west, we take a short drive over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the landscape levels out into flat grasslands. Out of our window, pronghorn deer and bison graze in the distance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watching the rodents as they scamper between their many burrowing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, signaling warnings to each other with high-pitched chatter. A lone bison lumbers toward us, and we snap some photographs, while keeping a safe distance from the shaggy, black behemoth. The park pamphlet reminds us that the bison are wild animals and capricious.

The sun begins to set as we backtrack to continue our drive to the main Badlands Loop Road, carrying us past other scenic outlooks. My stomach suddenly lurches in disagreement at our earlier meal at the Red Rock.

“Pull over,” I say to my wife, doubled over.

“Why?” she says.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

“But there’s no—”

“Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

South Dakota BadlandsThe car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the narrow shoulder. I don’t wait for it to fully stop before I leap out, grabbing some napkins. I’ll spare the details about what happens next, but it involves me defiling a national treasure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.

With the sun setting, darkness rolls over the Badlands and night fades in, casting shadows over the jagged formations. We pull over at Panorama Point and wrap ourselves in blankets as we step out into the thrusting wind to wallow in the splendor of the glittering night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vaguely aware that the Mad Men season finale is starting, but who really needs that when you have a show like this?

In the parking lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jacket. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his worldly possessions. As he nears, his flashlight settles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep solitude of the carved formations.

I think about him and lament the fact that I never took the opportunity to disengage from civilization to wander the country. In that moment, my advice to the new graduate back at the Ingalls homestead doesn’t seem all that foolhardy. I look over at my daughter with her purple hoodie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod headphones trailing down to her pocket. Perhaps we should send all of our children out into the wilderness when they come of age.They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-sizing flat screen televisions soon enough.

A gentle calmness permeates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwelcome pollution. I breathe in slowly, as if tasting the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becoming a devotee of the cult of the great outdoors, but I’ll admit that I’m starting to fall victim to Mother Nature’s love bombing.

 

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