Vagobond Travel Museum – A Random Hitch-trip on Interstate 5

The following is a true account of a hitch trip I took from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington back in the year 2000. It was included as a fictional trip in the 2009 edition of my novel Slackville Road.

I wasn’t laughing as I struggled to navigate the I-5  on-ramps in Portland. The interstate is surrounded by concrete walls that make it hard for motorists to stop and dangerous for hitchhiking.  Technically, it’s illegal to hitch on the Interstate anyway.

I walked to the last exit before the road crossed the Columbia River. I sat there nearly an hour and finally decided to catch a city bus into downtown Vancouver, WA.

After the bus dropped me off, I walked through a tunnel and over the Columbia River, thereby crossing the imaginary line that separates Washington and Oregon. The Columbia felt more impressive than the state line.

There was  a bum lying on a park bench listening to country music on tinny radio. I said hello and he began complaining about the rain as he smoked a  cigarette he mooched from me. It wasn’t raining as he laid there enjoying the smoke, but he was still complaining because that’s what bums do.

He told me a lot of the tramps had been getting their gear stolen in Vancouver. He told me he was going to Phoenix to “get where it was still warm and didn’t rain all the time.” Every bum has a dream. Bums are dreamers.

Further on through the park, I was hit up for a smoke by another tramp who told me he was called ‘The Duck’ when I introduced myself. He hit me up for change and then when I refused him, he walked with me towards the next on-ramp. He too complained about the rain and told me about the ever growing bum population in Vancouver.

Curiously, he had a huge bag of stuff he complained about too. Far more stuff than most bums carry with them.

When I asked what  he was carrying, he asked me  “Are you drunk?”

It was about 10 AM.  I told him I wasn’t. It was true. I wasn’t drunk at 10 AM.

“I am.” He seemed proud of it. Then by way of explanation he said, “I been trampin a long time. Hey, by the way, you got any cardboard?”

Again, my answer was negative. I had a sign with Seattle written on it. That was all. So I guess I lied. It was cardboard. I just didn’t have any cardboard for him.

“Well I gotta get me some so I can fly some cardboard and get me some spending money. I’m in danger of sobering up”

He was dressed all in camouflage. He was big and sort of scary.

“I gotta piss…You know, I wouldn’t be a very good tramp if I couldn’t piss and walk at the same time. “

That was pretty much the end of our time together since I started walking a bit faster as he slowed down. Suddenly I heard the splash of urine on the sidewalk. The Duck didn’t seem to mind that it was daylight or think that the couple walking behind him would mind a wet sidewalk. I walked as fast as I could to get away from that human disaster and tried not to burst out laughing as he kept cussing about the rain which was now starting to fall while he was pissing all over himself. That was the last I saw of The Duck.

I finally caught a ride from a tattoo artist who told me about his shop getting robbed and how he worked from home now. He dropped me off at a rest area.

I sat with my sign at the ramp. No one stopped for a long time. People are scared of hitchhikers now. Finally, a neatly dressed man in a v-neck sweater walked over to me. I smelt Jesus all over him. Big smile. 

“Hello, Friend. How are you today?”

I thought to myself, I don’t want to be preached to. “Praise the Lord, I’m fine.” I hoped he would leave me alone.

“I was hoping to talk to you about Christ the Redeemer.“

I lied, told him I was Christian, told him I went to Church, told him what I thought he wanted to hear, but he wouldn’t go away until I knelt down and prayed with him. Meanwhile cars were passing us by and ignoring my thumb.

“Dear Lord. Please help this man to find your salvation and forgiveness…” he began. I guess he hadn’t believed me.

“…and a ride to Bellingham,” I added. Then we went on until the Amen at which point he stood up.

“Can you give me a ride?”

“We’re packed full and we never pick up hitchhikers.”  And then he walked away. 

I felt like hitting him. I thought of doing a speaking in tongues and being possessed by God routine but didn’t have enough energy for anything like that.

To my surprise, that prayer worked, because a few minutes later he, his wife, and his five-year-old daughter made room for me to get in their car anyway. All I can think is that his wife made him do it.

Hot damn and thank you Jesus!

He called himself a planter. He had brought his family  from some Baptist church in Texas. They apparently felt that we don’t get enough of a chance to know Jesus in the godless Northwest so they were sending missionaries to save our souls. 

He said that if the Arabs and Jews find peace the world would end in 3 ½ years. That helped me understand why so many Christians stay on the side of Israel. 

They dropped me off just North of Tacoma at another rest area. My next ride was a middle class white guy driving a nice Lincoln Towncar.

He pulled over and I ran up and  got in.

“You mind if I drink while I drive?” He asked me, holding up a can of Bud.

“As long as we don’t crash,” I said, though I was already worried and considering getting out.

“I’m a state senator,” he told me. “ I help make the laws, so I can break ‘em.” He laughed. He told me that he was pretty moderate about his drinking and driving.

“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Maybe I voted for you.”

“Gordon,” he told me. “Call me Gordy.” I was pretty sure I had voted for his opponent. Maybe he was a liar though. 

Gordy dropped me off in downtown Seattle near Westlake Center.

I heard chanting and shouting down the street and walked to see what was up. Pro-Palestine protesters were demanding that the violence stop in the Middle East. Banners reading “Stop killing our Children” and “Stop Israeli Violence” flew high.There were about thirty police officers and maybe fifty protesters present. Lots of bystanders looked on. I briefly considered letting them know that the world would end in 3 ½ years if peace came, but figured they wouldn’t care if it did.

 

Vagobond Travel Museum – Foodie Paradise Around the World Part II – The Americas

Stilllife with fishWhen you travel around the world, you’re bound to find a good meal or two.  Here are some of the best meals that travelers found in North and South America. Here are some fun recommendations from some travelers we’ve come to love. 

North America:

Lorenzo Gonzalez Street food in Mexico always drives me crazy.. It is definitely my foodie paradise. Cliche or not, my favorite is tacos al pastor.

making-coffee by Jim O'DonnelJim O’Donnell of Around the World in 80 Years takes a fascinating and delicious look at Haitian Food Culture. “The kitchen that served the small group of volunteers sat under a blue earthquake tarp someone had brought from Port-au-Prince.  It was marked “People’s Republic of China” in yellow letters.  Earthquake buckets from USAID held the water.  The women worked from two tables. They had a little propane stove, several small pots, one skillet and a confusion of shiny utensils. “

Jen Pollack Bianco from My Life’s a Trip recommends La Merienda at Los Poblancos Inn – a delicious looking Albuquerque, New Mexico Eatery.

The Heirloom gazpacho was bar far the best I’ve ever had, and I’m frequent gazpacho orderer. I regret not having more food porn from this delightful meal to share with you, but I was so focused on eating that not many got taken.”

Here’s a post whereThe Global Goose explores some of the many wonderful New Orleans dishes. 

“There is a famous eatery right in the heart of the French Quarter called Cafe du Monde which seems to only sell two items, coffee and French-style donuts with powdered sugar called Beignets. What it lacks in selection it makes up in quality because these donuts are absolute melt-in-your-mouth sweet heavenly perfection. They are served warm and the powdered sugar gets absolutely everywhere as you try to get them in your mouth and they are totally worth standing in line (and there is almost always a line!).”

Heading south of  the border, Carole  Terwilliger Myers found some amazingly good eats at La Cueva del Chango Playa on the Mexican Riviera.

“Featuring a jungle garden atmosphere, this popular spot is primo for breakfast.  The menu then includes fragrant fresh papaya, fresh-squeezed juices, huevos a la Méxicana (scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, and chiles), a selection of chilaquiles (I especially like the one with pasilla salsa), molletes (like melted cheese sandwiches), and warm tortillas as well as empanadas and cappucinos. “

 

South America:

Melissa Ruttanai  tells us “The first time I had real ceviche was in the Galapagos Islands. It was super fresh and served Ecuadorian-style with popcorn and beer. Great… now I’m hungry.

Another of our friends, Manu-san Van Grieco  says that if you are heading to Argentina than you have to go to The Cordero Patagonico, in Ushuaia! Pure bliss!

And of course, what would a good travel meal be without some Guinea Pig! Our friends at Raising Miro tell us more about this pet turned delicacy.

“In the United States, this is a pet. However it is prized meat in the sacred valley. Guinea Pig is cooked over stones in special mountain herbs.”

Vagobond Travel Museum – The USA Trip

In 2009, when I returned back to the USA, my purpose was three-fold. 1) Get the necessary paperwork to work and get married in Morocco 2) Earn some money so that I could start a life in Morocco and pay for the marriage and bureaucracy in Morocco 3) Make sure that I hadn’t completely lost my mind by giving myself a little time away from the girl I had fallen in love with.

It seemed like as soon as I’d started on my way – things began to fall apart. Ultimately, I ended up connecting with old friends, having a huge falling out with my father, strengthening the relationships with my brother and my uncle,  hustling enough to get things going in Morocco, and accomplishing all three of my goals.

I’d left Hawaii, traveled across the USA by Amtrak, explored Spain and Gibraltar, crossed into Morocco, had some European adventures, hitchhiked across Canada, and now I was on my way home…to a place that didn’t feel at all like home anymore.

Here are a few posts from that time:

Bellingham

Big Bear Lake – My Childhood Home

Holcomb Valley in Big Bear Lake

Back to New York

Portland Maine

From there it was back to Morocco – which I suppose should be the content of the next Vagobond Travel Musuem.

Vagobond Travel Museum – Walking Around Oahu

walking 130 miles around OahuOahu is just one of the Hawaiian Islands but it’s the one that I call home. Back in 2008, during my last year at the University of Hawaii, I decided that it would be a good idea to walk around the entire island.  I didn’t know how long it would take or even if it could be done, but I decided that all there was to it, was to do it.  Like taking Amtrak from Coast to Coast in the USA, this was a way for me to learn more about my home. In fact, it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. 130 miles of discovery, aloha, and making myself a true kama’aina. I don’t know many people who have done this – but one thing for sure, it will bring you closer to the land and the people if you take the time to do it.

 

I created a slideshow of it: https://vagobond.com/slideshow-saturday-my-2008-walk-around-oahus-coastline-photos-from-the-ground/

and also did a combined post of all the days: https://vagobond.com/flashback-friday-my-2008-walk-around-oahus-perimeter/

 

The Plan and the Gear

Day 1 and Day 2 – Waikiki, Diamond Head, Sandy’s, Koko Crater, Koko Head, Hanauma Bay, Kahala, Aina Haina, Waimanalo

Day 3 and Day 4 – The Windward Side – Kailua to Mokapu, Mokapu and Kaneohe to Chinaman’s Hat

Day 5, Day 6 , Day 7 , Day 8  – The North Shore, The LOST set and inciident, Haleiwa, The West (Leeward Side), Pearl Harbor, Ewa Plains, and back to Honolulu

The Completion of the Circumnavigation of Oahu

 

Vagobond Travel Museum: The Amtrak Amtrek Across the USA

Back in 2008, I left Hawaii and set out on an adventure that took me across the USA by Amtrak train, I called it the Amtrek. This week, for the Vagobond Travel Museum, I bring you the collected articles and videos from that trip. The trip began in Honolulu and then went to Portland, Oregon from where I crossed the country and ended in New York City with a one way flight to Barcelona – the truth is, the trip has never ended since I’ve never gone home.

Along the way, I couch-surfed and asked my hosts the same set of questions, those videos are below and worth watching. Keep in mind, this was before couch-surfing had gone mainstream.

Here are the ten lessons I learned on that trip:

  1. The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
  2. Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
  3. Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
  4. I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
  5. I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
  6. Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
  7. It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
  8. Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
  9. Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
  10. Making the wrong friend can suck out part of your enjoyment of life and destroy a train trip – the right friends can make a boring stretch very exciting.

 

Art at the Met and Thoughts Before Leaving the USA

Exploring Chicago in the Cold

The Host Videos
Couch Questions in Hawaii

Lost. ;(

Christmas in Portland

Couch Questions in Portland

Couch Questions with MJ in Sacramento

Couch Questions in Salt Lake City

Couch QUestions in Chicago

Couch Questions in Boston

Couch Questions in Providence

Couch Questions in New York City

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 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.

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.

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: 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.

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”.

 

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.

 

Syncopated Family Travel: Channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ingalls homestead in De Smet South DakotaA travel column by Anthony Mathenia

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

On the first day, we travel northwest through Missouri, then skirt the Nebraska/Iowa border up to South Dakota. It is a long marathon of a drive, made possible by our freshness and lack of road weariness. We end up crashing for the night in Arlington, South Dakota. It’s one of those between here and barely there blips on the map kind of towns. The whole of it seems to be a hotel, a restaurant, and a gas station sitting in wide open fields of green nothing.

The desk clerk is friendly as we walk into the Arlington Inn, a small hotel with decorative call-backs to its former existence as a Super 8, circa 1989.

“Are you with the class reunion?” she asks with a wide smile.

Is there a discount? I wonder, though it would be a hard fraud to pull off in what is most probably a graduating class of the six people sitting in the lobby reminiscing over tar black coffee.

“No, we are just passing through to De Smet,” I reply.

“Oh Dee Smet,” she politely corrects my foreign tongue. “Laura Ingalls-Wilder fans, hmm?”

She has the clairvoyance to guess the purpose of our visit, though in a place like this, it isn’t exactly hard. Why else would people stop by, other than to visit the places where Laura lived and about which she wrote in her Little House books? I have no embarrassment in acknowledging that her books are among my absolute favorites. I’m also unashamed to admit that I rip off The Long Winter, in my novel Paradise Earth, with gleeful abandon.

Even without a discount, the Arlington Inn is inexpensive. During our trip, we will repeatedly challenge ourselves to stay as cheaply as possible while still retaining the luxury of a room that doesn’t look like a CSI set painted with body fluid.

After unpacking, I walk next door to the 1481 Grille to wind down with a much needed beer. I’m joined by my wife, but my daughter hangs back at the hotel. It’s probably for the best, I think, as I glance over the mile long menu. My daughter entered this world as a picky eater and spiraled into a mad vegan—the kind that doesn’t eat salad.

I order a Boulevard, a crisp wheat ale garnished with an ample lemon wedge. Drinking the cold beer, I survey the seeming regulars at the bar. Sitting next to me is a slender old woman who looks a bit like the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt. She’s enjoying a Hamm’s lager in a tall pilsner glass with a garnish of olives, a touch of tres sophistique. To her right is a dusty fellow in a camouflage hat and a sleeveless jean jacket with motor oil and Harley-Davison patches on the back. He is draining bottles of Bush Light as quickly as the bartender can twist off the caps. Somewhere between bottle four and six, he dials a buddy to negotiate the purchase of a horse saddle.

“I won’t pay less than a hundred and fourteen dollars,” he demands into his antique flip-phone, sharply pointing his finger toward the nonpresent individual on the other end of the line. I’m impressed; even inebriated, he is a master of negotiation. Satisfied at closing the deal, he snaps shut his phone and orders another Bush Light. He has less success convincing the Cryptkeeper to stick around and suck down beers with him. “Stay and have another,” he pleads.

“I can’t have another DUI,” she protests as she chomps down her beer-battered olives and slithers off of her bar stool.

“I got one of those before. It was a setup,” he says and then takes a long drink from the amber bottle.
I shouldn’t have to worry about a DUI with the convenience of a hotel just next door, but who knows what kind of small-town Barney Fife justice passes in places like this. Besides, we have another long day ahead of us. I decide to cut it off after my second beer. As we get up to leave, the man wants to know if I want to buy a horse saddle.

“It’s a steal at two-hundred forty,” he says with a sly grin, tipping bottle eight toward me.

The next morning, we head out to nearby De Smet. In the town, you can take a walking tour of a variety of locations significant in the life and books of Laura Ingalls-Wilder. Our first stop is the original Ingalls family homestead, just outside of town. It is here that the real Laura walked, not the freckle-faced, bucktoothed television version.

home of Laura Ingalls WilderNothing remains of the original 1880 homestead but the twisted, aging cottonwood trees that Pa Ingalls planted to prove up his 157.25 acre claim. Even today you can glimpse what he saw in this spot. It is quite picturesque, as the low wind rustles the prairie grass and the planted grain. Here, along the walking trails, are newly built period buildings: a school house, a dugout shelter, and a reconstruction of the Ingalls’ original claim shanty.

There is a professional “Ma” on staff, who tends a vegetable garden and the small menagerie of barnyard animals in the hay-roof barn. She gives us a tour and is a wealth of olde-tymey knowledge, like how to make lye soap and braided rugs. “If you lived in Laura’s day, you might already be married and pregnant,” she says to my unimpressed daughter. I muse at the lack of privacy in the tiny, thin-walled shanty and wonder how anyone got pregnant at all.

At a nearby workshop, we learn to make rope, corncob dolls, and twisted hay sticks, the kind that the Ingalls family burned to stay alive during the long winter of harsh blizzards when coal was depleted. The activities are overseen by a plump-faced teenager working her first summer job after graduation from high school. It’s her first week on the homestead, and already she likes it more than her previous job at Subway. I tell her I’m from the St. Louis area, and she gushes like it is an exotic, exciting place.

“I want to leave and become a film director,” she says with a careless optimism that only the young can manifest. When I ask her who her favorite director is, I’m ready to fill in the blanks from a short list. “Tim Burton,” she answers. It is embarrassingly predictable. When she laments that her family is not encouraging her to pursue her dreams, I offer that I think she would be a fool not to. It’s a reckless thing for me to advise, because I don’t think that she can actually make it, but I figure failure is a lesser evil than being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

I complete my tour by scaling the lookout tower and surveying the expansive sea of prairie grass extending miles out across the flat land toward the distant horizon. It is here that I attempt to summon the spirit of Laura Ingalls. I recently watched a documentary about comic artist/professional crazy Grant Morrison, and he claims you can conjure up the spirit of anyone.

What the hell. I attempt to clear my mind as I reach back through the ages to connect with the pioneer girl. She appears on the prairie grass below me, running with her older sister. She stops as if noticing me. I raise my hand and wave hello. She smiles and offers a tentative wave, before returning to her play. I blink and the connection is broken. The young pioneer girl fades back into time.

Little House on the Prarie - the recreation of the houseAs we leave the homestead, I latch on to a vagrant Internet signal and my phone blips as fresh e-mail funnels in. I read the first one, where the editor of my novel Happiness: How to Find It is taking me to task for my use of the word “boughten.” According to her, using archaic, nonstandard English begs bad reviews.

What she doesn’t realize is that the 19th century colloquialism is another one of my nods to Laura’s books. Will I consent to a change? I look out at the prairie, diminishing in my rear view mirror, before sending a reply. Absolutely not.

 

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