Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.
As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.
Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.
He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.
In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).
To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.
To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.
It might be pushing it to call Ponce de Leon a vagabond since he was a career soldier, but in terms of dreams and adventure, certainly he fits the bill as someone who not only traveled broadly, but was foolish enough to chase the fountain of youth.
Ponce de Leon was a Spanish explorer and was the first European soldier to set foot in Florida. He set up the oldest European settlement in Puerto Rico and he also found the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean . Ponce de Leon, was looking for a fabulous fountain of youth and a way to join the ranks of the truly wealthy people.
Ponce de Leon was born in Santervas, Spain, he fought against the Moors as a solider in southern Spain and he traveled on the second journey of Christopher Columbus in 1493 to Americas. But he did not return with Columbus to Spain, he stayed in Santo Domingo which is called the Dominical Republic today. That’s a pure vagabond move, Ponce.
He was the governor of Dominican province of Higuey. He heard about gold in the neighboring island of Borinquen (Puerto Rico at present) and he conquered the island and claimed it for Spain. In the process he and his men brutally killed a huge portion of the native population. Later he was appointed governor of island. He was removed from the Governorship because of his intense cruelty to the local population and keep in mind, the Spanish weren’t known to be too nice and they thought he was cruel. .
Later Ponce de Leon was handed the right to find and take Bimini Island which is called the Bahamas today. He traveled from Puerto Rico with three ships, the Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria along with 200 men. He stopped at Grand Turk Island and San Salvador, and reached the coasts of Florida in 1513.
He named the place “Pascua de Florida” which means feast of flowers because they first located land in 1513 which was a Palm Sunday. And one can assume that the flowers were blooming. Then Ponce de Leon claimed the land for Spain.
He headed south into the warm currrent Gulf Stream (thus blundering on it and losing the smallest of his ships for two days, again in vagabond fashion). While they searched for the ship,a fight broke out between men of Ponce de Leon and Native Americans. Still, they managed to ‘discover’ the Florda Keys and more…
Many people believe that Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth. In his Historia General y Natural de las Indias of 1535, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés wrote that Ponce de León was looking for the waters of Bimini to cure his aging. Most historians hold that the search for gold and the expansion of the Spanish Empire were far more imperative than the any potential search for the fountain, but they don’t understand the things that drive normal men to leave family and home in search of something remarkable. Personally, I’m certain he was looking for the fountain of youth.
Every once in a while you come across someone that inspires the hell out of you. Emma “Grandma” Gatewood is one of those people.
Grandma Gatewood was born Emma Rowena Gatewood on October 25, 1887, in Guyan Township, Ohio. and was a very able hiker who mastered the art of hiking and dedicated herself to world peace. Better known as Grandma Gatewood, Emma was the first woman in history to hike the Appalachian Trail solo, from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. She completed the 2,168-mile hike in just one season. The best part, she did it at age 67, giving her the nickname Grandma Gatewood. Grandma Gatewood was also a pioneer in ultra light backpacking, a term used to define backpacking that is done with the minimum number of things necessary to make the hike.
Grandma Gatewood’s backpack during her hike on the Appalachian Trail included an army blanket, sneakers, a raincoat and a shower curtain made of plastic. Just a look at this list is enough to show what kind of woman she was. This is the main reason she is called one of the best ultra light backpackers to have ever lived. This particular hike landed her in national attention, with mentions in Sports Illustrated and appearances on the Today Show. Why?
Because she was one kick ass old lady. She got her inspiration to go on the Appalachian Trail from a issue of National Geographic Magazine in which she saw the pictures of the trail, and assumed it would be a pleasant hike. She was later known to have told the media that it was not that pleasant after all.
Grandma Gatewood became so fond of this particular trail, she hiked it not once, but three times! The final time was at the age of 75, making her the oldest person to have hiked the Appalachian Trail. Her other hikes include a hike on the Oregon Trail, which began from Independence, Missouri and ended at Portland, Oregon, and lasted 2,000 miles. Grandma Gatewood was a person of immense energy and passion for adventure, as hiking thousands of miles is a feat some people would not even dream of! Never mind as a senior citizen.
Her last hike was at the age of 83, and took place at the Appalachian Outfitters, Oakton, Virginia. Grandma Gatewood was survived by eleven children at the time of her death, at the age of 85. The next generation includes 24 grandchildren, the one after that has 30 great-grandchildren, and the fifth generation had one great-great grandchild, at the time of her death.
Emma Goldman was a very well known female radical, especially for her role in developing the anarchist philosophy in North America and parts of Europe in early twentieth century. She was born on June 27, 1869 in Kaunas, Lithuania (then Kovno, Russia), Emma shifted to the USA in 1885, where she began her political career. She was always a caring and helping person (though notoriously rowdy), and she soon began to attract attention through her articles, editorials and other writings. She also began to speak on issues, and managed to gather large crowds wherever she went. She was especially active on women issues like birth control, ill treatment of women, etc.
Emma showed rebellion early in life, right from standing up for her when her father used to beat her. That made her father only angrier, but Emma was not one to back down. Her life was filled with constant movement from city to city and town to town. While she was still young, her family moved to Papile, a small village in the then Russian Federation, where her father ran an inn. There she witnessed her first sight of a peasant being whipped, and that began her dislike of violence that authority puts in people. Then, when she was seven, the family moved to Konigsberg, then part of Germany, where Emma had her first taste of education. The teachers there, however, were either very religious or harsh, and she could not stand either.
Her school career came to an end after a year when the family again moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where her father opened a store. The venture proved to be unsuccessful, which led to another store, and another. He could not succeed. That forced the kids to work, and Emma herself had to work many jobs, most of them menial. Emma’s interest in education was sparked, and she began to educate herself in her free time, starting with the revolution that was going on in Russia at the time. She was a quick learner, and she soon managed to know how things worked.
In 1885, at 16 years of age, Emma moved to Rochester, New York, this time not along with her father, but with her mother, and joined her elder sister in New York. She started working as a seamstress there. They were soon joined by her father and elder brother who were unable to survive the harsh conditions in Saint Petersburg. Emma started to actively take part in revolutions around her, and was allegedly involved in many high-profile incidents that occurred at the time. She started a journal, Mother Earth that was home to radicalists from all over the country. Her involvement became so severe that she was deported from the US to Russia, where she stayed till 1921. She wrote a book named “My Disillusionment in Russia” where she recounts her experiences during her stay there.
Emma left Russia in 1921 for Germany, where she found the conditions too harsh. She then moved to England, where she stayed till 1927. In 1927, she again moved to Canada, where she tried to settle but could not because of the political unrest. In 1936, she returned to the USA, having become quite a well-known figure by then. She finally moved to France in 1938, where she underwent a couple of prostate gland operations. Then she moved back to Canada, where on May 14, 1940, she took her last breath. She was buried honorably in German Waldheim Cemetery (now named Forest Home Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois, where her burial was attended by all her colleagues and well-wishers.
This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).
Today, I’m going to be introducing you to Ed Byrne. You might ask…who? Well, I would say the Ed Buryn is the godfather of vagabonding in the modern age. There are a lot of guys and gals who came before him, but his books from the 1960’s and 1970’s pretty much defined the modern act of vagabonding and have been well known and circulated in the nomadic underground since they were published.
When I started vagabonding in the late 1990’s my bibles were Ed’s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa and Vagabonding in America. It’s hard to describe the books without you seeing them, so I recommend you pick them up. They are long out of print but can still be found circulating on Ebay, Amazon, and in used bookstores and thrift shops around North America. At the moment there are two copies of the USA book and one of Europe and North Africa on Amazon, here are the links to them. First come, first serve because I’m not selling my copies!
What makes these books special? The truth is that it is Ed and his way of seeing the world, travel, and life. And just in case you are thinking that Ed is dead and gone, he’s not. In fact, in 2008 he started (but seemed to stop) blogging and you can find his blog at http://edburyn.wordpress.com/
Here is how he describes himself:
An explorer of diversity and philosopher of possibility, Ed Buryn (that’s me!) has worked as a newspaper delivery boy, aircraft radar operator, electronics technical writer, corporate manager, free-lance photographer; written several vagabonding guidebooks; and designed a major Tarot deck.
My personal mottos are: “I’ve you in eye-view” (as a photographer) and “Ed’d edited it” (as a writer). My books and photographs are explorations of the nature of human experience viewed through the lens of my own. My pics and words have been published in hundreds of books, magazines, and newspapers; and I am a two-time prizewinner in the Nikon International Photo Contest. Writing and performing poetry is a main interest of mine, and I was co-producer of the Nevada City Poets Playhouse for 8 years. Currently I am a full-time, online bookseller working from my home.
I have three grown daughters by three grown mothers and consider fatherhood to be my most important creative achievement. I live quite happily on the edge of Nevada City CA on a former goldmine.
This blog is an experiment in communication. We’ll see how it goes.
As to why Ed has influenced so many vagabonds, just check out this nugget of wisdom from Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa
“It’s up to you, that’s what’s great about being a vagabond. Once you decide that you can be a free agent, then that means you’re really free to go anywhere you like. You’re not dependent on travel agents or anybody else to make arrangements for you. You’re the one who’s going on the trip, so why not do it from the beginning? Plan it yourself; work it out yourself.”
Or this one from Vagabonding in the USA
Travel is not just moving over the earth from one place to another in some kind of conveyance. It’s not about where you’re going or how you’re getting there. It’s not about getting away from it all, at all. In fact, more the opposite … a way of getting to it all. Travel is a metaphor for life, a way of experiencing it more intensely and self-consciously. Traveling is not so much an action as an enlightened state of consciousness, opening you to fresh experience, to fresh looks at the world and yourself in it.
What’s Ed doing today? Selling used books online from his 3 acres in Nevada City, California and attending the burning man festival every year. He’s a dedicated Tarot lover and as such, I think it proves that this brotherhood of fools (called vagabonds) come from a long lineage.
Here is another bit from Vagabonding in the USA
“Routines and habits are the Known, protecting us from the Unknown. Habits are also called home. Habits tame the raw wilderness of existence into the civilized comforts of everyday life. Unfortunately, as we all know, habits gradually domesticate all the wildness and energy out of life. So much energy gets bound up in routines and habituated patterns, keeping them alive, that your life goes dead instead. Thus, if you want to discover again the wild side of life, you have to leave “home”; you have to break or dissolve your habits in order to release the energy locked up inside them.”
This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” about the great vagabonds. It’s available as an ebook for kindle on Amazon for just $3.99. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of those characters from the past (and present).
Jack London – Prince of the Tramps
For many, all they know about Jack London is that he wrote dog stories. In fact, he did much more than that. Jack London was born January 12, 1876 and his life reads like an adventure novel.
Jack London was a passionate socialist, sometimes drunk and sometimes a prohibitionist, a sailor, a pirate, a gold prospector, a tramp, and of course, all of that makes him a vagabond.
London started out as a poor kid doing wage slavery in San Francisco but borrowed money to buy a boat and became the ‘Prince of the Oyster Pirates” before his boat sank. From there he joined the ‘Fish Patrol’ and then signed onto a schooner which took him to Japan.
Returning to the USA he again became a wage slave and then quit to become a tramp and marched across the country with unionists before getting arrested and thrown in jail for vagrancy.
To me, one of his best books is ‘The Road’ which details this period of his life. It’s also one of the hardest of his books to find.
London returned to San Francisco and attended Berkley before splitting for the gold fields of the Yukon. One would think that he spent a long time there, but six months of suffering was enough and he returned to California where he wrote his most famous books “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”
London was one of the original members of the Bohemian Club which met in the redwoods and included such figures as Ambrose Bierce and John Muir.
London started making money at writing and bought a ranch in California which became a vagabond camp of sorts from which he became a vehement socialist. (John Barleycorn).
London spent most off his life fighting against wage slavery and lived in London amongst the poorest of the poor. His book The Iron Heel, details some of what he learned and saw in this period.
Later he sank most of his fortune into building a ship called “The Snark” which he and his second wife sailed to Hawaii. When they tried to go further, the ship sank. This part of his life is detailed in Martin Eden.
On his ranch, London became an advocate of sustainable agriculture before most people ever knew what the term meant. He also began to drink more and more, which led to his sinking into awful depressions and ultimately probably to an early death.
London made many trips to Hawaii and was one of the first Californians to take up surfing. He learned the sport from the legendary Duke Kahanamoku! (Incidentally, I once met London’s grandson and great grandson on Kauai and they were typical California surfer dudes.)
Unfortunately, like many of the men of his day, Jack London had some ignorant racial views. He is often cited as a racist and the truth is that he was, but so was every other white man living at the time. London just happened to write his views and so is often singled out. He wrote some science fiction which is interesting, one is about China taking over the world by population and a war coming as a result. It seems to be a future that is coming to exist.
London died at the young age of forty years old of a morphine overdose. Some say it was suicide, but what is certain is that he was in extreme pain from illness which is why he had the morphine to begin with.
Jack London was an extraordinary vagabond.
If you’d like to write about an extraordinary vagabond, living or dead, past or present just use the contact form to let me know. You can either send me your completed article and I will publish it or you can ask me questions. Here is what I am looking for:
500 + words
An extraordinary vagabond
picture (at least one)
website (if they have one)
about the author (that’s you!)
link to your website (if you have one – but no commercial links, just personal sites please)
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.
When 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.
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.
Jim 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. “
“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.”
“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. “
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.”
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.
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:
The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
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.
Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia .
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
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.
In 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 national 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.
Lesson 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. Our 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.
My 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?
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 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.
We 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
Mecca. 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.
The 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.
Most 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.
It’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.
As 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. Just 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.
Our 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.
Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
“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.
As 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.
I 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.
Our 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.
In 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.
My 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.
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
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.
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 a 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.
Momentary 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: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
We 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.
Our 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.
There, 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 noon, 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 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.
Many 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.