The Last Leg
October 19 2006
Leaving New Orleans, we began our great cannonball run northward. We got in touch with the Reisners in Nashville that morning and were able to work out a place to crash for the night in their six-week-old home in Franklin, Tennessee. Tennessee to Columbus was punctuated by a stop in Louisville, Kentucky at Lynn's Paradise Cafe. Lynn is profiled in Road Food, but we first caught wind of her while watching an episode of Bobby Flay's "Throwdown" on the Food Network. He rolled into Louisville and challenged Lynn to a breakfast cooking competition. Lynn won, and Phil ordered her winning Bourbon Ball French Toast, and it was even better in person than it looked on TV.
A couple of days in Columbus with The Wrays, and we headed to Ithaca. The weather could not have been better, the air was crisp and cool and the foliage was stunning. We picked up apples and fresh cider and stayed later than planned on Friday to take advantage of the real reason we moved back east: access to hockey games. Well, in this case, a quasi-game-scrimmage-thing, the annual Cornell Red/White game. The play was a little sloppy, but the game was a lot of fun. We spent a night in Albany, picked up some of our stuff the next morning at the storage facility, and have spent the last few days settling into our home for the next 6+ months.
October 9 2006
If you had told either Phil or Emily 6 years ago that the best meal they would find in 7,000 miles of travel would be 1) a sandwich and one that featured 2) battered shrimp, 3) cabbage, 4) mayonnaise and 5) pickles, we would have said that you were crazy on all counts. Nevertheless, that's what happened at Mother's in New Orleans where the above Po Boy was split in half and devoured. Neither of us had been to New Orleans before the hurricane last year, so it's difficult to say how what we experienced there compares to the city of old. The activities of the French Quarter on a Friday night do seem to take on a slightly spoiled quality when the streets are uncrowded and many of the stores keep hours between noon and six. The most touristy locations were open, however, and we poked through a few schlocky voodoo shops and and a constantly rotating stock of beads, t-shirts (several clever variations on sticking it to FEMA), hot sauce or cajun seasoning, and alligator toys. The next morning we waited for a table at the Cafe du Monde for beignets (good, but nothing that county fairs in upstate New York haven't been doing for years as well) and a drive-though tour through the Garden District. It was only as we were driving out of town east on the 10 that we saw the most staggering effects of Katrina. We passed miles of neighborhoods that were clearly uninhabited and homes with sections of roof and siding missing, and piles of rubble everywhere. White FEMA trailers dotted the landscape and a few hotels and restaurants on the outskirts of the city flaunted "Now Open" signs. There's clearly nothing to say about the situation that Keith Olbermann and Spike Lee haven't expressed more effectively, but it was impactful to see firsthand.
Takin' Care of Business (in a Flash)
The first thing that struck both of us when walking through Graceland was how small it is, not much larger than a typical suburban house. If your frame of reference is a 300 square foot cabin built by your father in Tupelo, Mississippi, Graceland must have seemed enormous. Compared to the McMansions of today, however, the home's excesses seem entirely limited to what's inside the structure: shag carpeted walls and ceilings; round, fur covered beds, and mirrors or velvet on every conceivable surface. If it can be embroidered with tiger stripes or bedazzled with sequins, by god, do it.
We plunked down our $54 to take the tour with a rising sense of irony, but for most of the tour-takers, this was not the case. This was a shrine for them, with Graceland the physical manifestation of the American Dream. We even got to witness a German tourist posing on the steps of the Lisa Marie (Elvis's airplane) with his slightly modernized Elvis haircut and Elvis attire, striking a jaunty-hipped pose. He wasn't there to chuckle at the TV room with three televisions, one for each broadcast station.
When we finished the tour, we both felt that it had glossed over a lot, painting Elvis has a folk hero who had died of a heart problem, but completely neglecting the years of drug abuse and debaucherous living. Some snatches of this backstory come out in Lisa Marie's interview clips on the audio tour. Her tone is oddly flat and affectless and when she speaks of her father, she talks with more warmth about Elvis the persona than she does about Elvis the father. Apparently the memories aren't all bad, however, as we learned that she stays at Graceland when she is in Memphis. When we learned from Chris and Kate Peck about the Blues Ball in town the next day and Lisa Marie's expected presence there, we immediately wondered, was she hiding upstairs during the tour? Does she wander in slippers down to the plastic-covered kitchen for coffee before the first group comes rambling through? We might be willing to go up to the Platinum admission rate for that spectacle.
Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
October 6 2006
As we made our way back across "the land of Lincoln" from South Bend to Hannibal, Missouri, we decided it would be appropriate to listen to Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation. Vowell writes about the tourist industry surrounding presidential assassinations, starting with a long chapter on Lincoln. If it can be said that someone "has a face for radio," Vowell unquestionably has a voice for written prose. It's a strange combination of high, whiny, and nasal that takes some getting used to (or, in Emily's case, it would take more miles than we are driving on this trip to push down the irritation). The writing is light and interesting, though, and a passable middle ground between our two other recent authors, Malcolm Gladwell and David Foster Wallace. Where David Foster Wallace is obsessed with minutia, often abstract, and mordantly funny, Malcolm Gladwell is overly general, straightforward to a fault, and earnest. Gladwell seems to have found the niche of trade publishing in which he distills contemporary movements in psychology or sociology into easy examples that seem both mildly surprising and to confirm common sense. Perhaps Blink was meant to be read in short stretches (in the bathroom, perhaps?), but in long doses in the car, with little distraction, the experience is something like this: "And now you have learned yet another example of thin slicing, the way that we all make snap decisions that are surprisingly correct and insightful. Now let me loop back to every other example I have offered in the book thus far, especially dwelling on the Kouros scenario I discussed for 45 minutes in the introduction." Nevertheless, we've listened to five hours out of seven so far.
Hannibal, MO, reminds me of a line Sam once offered when giving directions to the Ethiopian district on Fairfax in LA: "They aren't coy about what they're famous for." In Hannibal we ate "Mark Twain Fried Chicken" at the Mark Twain dinette, one block up from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum and the Becky Thatcher House. From there we headed along the Great River Road to St. Louis where we'll sleep in a hotel room literally in the shadow of the arch and enjoy Ted Drewe's custard, another hotly anticipated stop.
Happy Birthday to Phil
We celebrated Phil's birthday (observed) in Chicago on Tuesday. The drive from Madison, WI was only a few hours, so we had a chance to do some exploring in Chicago upon arrival. We took a Road Food recommendation for a restaurant called Ricobene's on the South Side and enjoyed breaded steak sandwiches and a soggy manifestation of "the best fries in Chicago." Our Pricelined Hyatt was right on the river with a view of the Chicago Tribune building to the north. Many of the pictures in our photostream were taken at Millenium Park, a gorgeous collection of art installations and performance spaces along Michigan Avenue. The stage is like the Hollywood Bowl on acid (although it's unclear whether or not you can bring along a picnic). For the past few years, Emily's favorite serving style has been small plates (see Orris and AOC for favorites in LA). For Phil's birthday dinner we had our first Italian small plates experience at Quartino on a recommendation from Gene Fama Jr., sampling fettuccine, risotto, and braised lamb shanks. We awoke to pouring rain on Wednesday morning and the perfect bargaining chip for Emily to engage in some nostalgia with an indoor day at the Museum of Science and Industry. As an eight-year-old girl, Emily had her mind blown by Colleen Moore's fairy castle, a massive dollhouse inspired by classic fairy tales. Nineteen years later, the castle was perhaps less overwhelming, but still impressive and evocative of childhood fancies. Then we were on to South Bend, IN for a visit with Emily's grandmother, Zelda, a wonder at 97.
October 2 2006
Before the trip we picked up Jane and Michael Stern's Road Food, but 4000 miles in we had yet to cross paths with one of the recommended restaurants. We had high hopes for the Noon Break in Cody, Wyoming but arrived at 7:30pm to find it closed for the day. We had failed to notice the critical code in which "B/L" stands for breakfast and lunch only. We turned to a local for a recommendation and ended up waiting over an hour for a decidedly uninspired meal. We redoubled our commitment to the Sterns' recommendations and found that Bob's, in Sioux Falls, offers much to write home about. The food was incredibly cheap, tasty, and a flawless execution of its genre. Emily had the above grilled cheese and hash browns and Phil ate a burger and fries. The waitress's incredulous, "Did you just take a picture of the food?," led to our exposure as road trippers. She had us sign their Road Food registry--a composition notebook a quarter filled with lines of names and comments--and told us that they didn't even realize they had gotten a glowing review in the book until a customer showed them several months after its publication. She also suggested that we share an ear of corn for dessert. Apparently one of the cooks went out to a friend's field late after work and collected bushels of their excess harvest. Back at the diner, they douse the corn in butter, wrap it in foil, and toss it in the "broaster" (this combination fryer/pressure cooker is the reputed source of their claim to fame). The final product was sweet, juicy, and the perfect substitute for the cookie we had been contemplating.
September 30 2006
For most of the trip to this point we've developed a routine of rolling into our destination in the late afternoon, setting up camp, and cooking dinner over a fire. We haven't done much of the tourist activities in the places we've visited, which we aren't lamenting, but we also haven't done much hiking. Today we went for the first real hike of the trip, a five mile walk around Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls in Grand Teton National Park.
For several days, Emily has been joking about visiting Yellowstone and Old Faithful, calling it Disney National Park. When we arrived at Old Faithful ten minutes after the last eruption, we killed the next ninety minutes catching up on postcards and writing some of these blog entries. As the benches filled around us in anticipation of the Big Event, we overheard one couple comparing the site to a replica at Disneyland, which apparently has the advantage of a shorter wait between eruptions. Two other travelers were on cell phones with their wives, instructing them to pick them out of the crowd on the constantly refreshed Old Faithful webcam. We'll confess that we made like LA sports fans in leaving 30 seconds before the end of the show in order to beat the feather-footed RV drivers out of the lot.
If Emily's one stated desire for this trip was the drive-through tree, Phil's hope was to see a moose in the wild. After spending his youth hiking through the Adirondacks, encountering moose tracks but never seeing the elusive beast, he made it a priority. Driving through the wilds of British Columbia and Alberta, he craned his neck around looking through prime moose territory, swampy lowlands purpose built for a moose. No luck. Enter Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Five minutes outside Jackson we encountered our first moose group; one bull, one cow, and two small calves, replete with an idiot with a camera inching closer and making noise, trying to get the bull to stand up. He was successful, but the professional photographer standing next to us was sure that he was in for a rude surprise.
The second set of moose were even more amazing, just chilling in a closed campground, less than 100 yards from where we spent the night. As one of the photos in our gallery shows, this was a Mooserazzi encampment, a dozen or more wildlife photographers waiting for the right light and the bull to stand up so that they could get the perfect calendar shot. It was a surreal scene, one that shattered our illusions about wildlife photography.
In the weeks before we left, Emily was hit with a perfect storm of grading, packing, and job applications, so she didn't get a chance to contact relatives in Wyoming about a possible stay. Poor planning reared its ugly head again as we drove into Jackson and passed Lewis and Clark Expeditions, only to find it closed for the day. Spending the night at Gros Ventre campgrounds, however--the same place where she stayed six years before after a Peck family reunion--was a happy coincidence that provoked fond stories of that first visit to the West.
Could we live here?
Since our situation a year from now is so up in the air, and the academic job market is such that a good job could take you anywhere in the country, we've found ourselves driving on this trip and asking "could we live here?" Tossing aside geographical and familial concerns, the question was pretty easy to answer heading up the west coast. Yes to Berkeley, a hearty yes to Seattle, yes to Vancouver. The question gets more complicated as you head inland. Take Missoula, Montana. It's scenic and has no state tax, but we were greeted by a stand in our hotel lobby selling children's books called, for example, God Made Puppies. Somehow, I imagine the latter two characteristics are related.
On Matters Geological and Auditory
September 28 2006
As we described our route to people, those familiar with the area would inevitably gush about the drive to Banff. We had found the Pacific Northwest and northern California so beautiful that halfway down the road on our arrival in Kamloops, we wondered what the big deal was. That all changed on Day 8. Leaving Kamloops for the rugged peaks and glaciated valleys of the Canadian Rockies, we realized what all the fuss was about. We ended up likening the setting to the jagged peaks of the Colorado Rockies combined with the evergreens and lakes of northern New York, but even that doesn't do it justice.
After making our trip westward five years ago with only a CD player, we're now entirely indebted to our iPod. In addition to an extensive library of music, our companions thus far have been David Sedaris and John Hodgman. The latter and his audio book The Areas of My Expertise are a near perfect expression of Phil's sense of humor. He advertises the work as the compendium of his "complete and total world knowledge," including long dissertations on hobo matters, the nine presidents who had hooks for hands, and short words used by submariners to conserve oxygen.
We had been lucky to have perfect weather through the Pacific Northwest, but our streak ended upon arriving to light showers in Banff. The rain picked up through the night; our tent held up admirably, but was a little sloppy to pack in the morning. Our car, filthy from 3000 miles on the road, got a much-needed rinse.
In the Breeding Grounds for Cornell Hockey
We treated ourselves to a pricelined hotel room in Vancouver on Sunday night, and since it was only a few hours from Seattle, we were able to see some of the city. After living in Los Angeles, every city we have visited so far has felt compact and walkable. Leaving Vancouver, we entered the parade of hockey towns. Following Cornell hockey religiously means that in the offseason Phil keeps tabs on college hockey recruiting, a hotbed of which is southern British Columbia. Once mythical places like Burnaby (home of the Express) Salmon Arm (the Silverbacks) and Kamloops (the Jr. Blazers) were now real. We had wanted to make it to Nanaimo for a Clippers game to cheer on future Cornell freshmen Joe and Mike Devin, but the BCHL schedule and ours didn't mesh.
Monday night we camped on Tonkwa Lake, just south of Kamloops. While Patrick's Point in northern California still ranks as our favorite spot so far, this campground was worth recommending. The individual sites lacked privacy, but the setting along the bank of the lake boasted an amazing view and the near-constant sound of salmon jumping out of the water. The other dominant sound in the area were the moos of a cattle herd we encountered along the road—a somewhat incongruous combination.
On Saturday, we caught up with email and photo posting at a Tully's coffee shop in downtown Seattle, one of the 6,473,986 coffee shops in Seattle proper. We bought lunch at Pike's Place market and sat by the water, where Phil had the last pork bao he's likely to eat for the next 5,000 miles. Josh Muhlfelder and his wife, Amelia, hosted us for the evening and let us hang out with their absolutely adorable six month old twins, James and Gavin. Josh treated us to a walking tour of his neighborhood and it served as further illustration of how skewed our sense of home affordability has become. A $450,000 bungalow in Seattle seems perfectly reasonable.
The "Original" Drive-Thru Tree
September 25 2006
For some reason, Emily's one goal for tacky activities on the trip was to drive through a giant tree. As of day 3, mission accomplished. The tree itself was smaller than expected and the experience of driving through was tempered somewhat by the constant checking of side mirrors against the danger of rubbing against the sides of the opening. The first time Emily drove through, she found herself the subject of several photographers on the other side, which only increased the DeLillo-esque "Most Photographed Barn in the World" quality of the day. We paid $5 for the pleasure of the the drive which meant that, by god, we were going to get our money's worth in pictures, tiny videos from the Pentax, and driving through the tree multiple times to ensure the best of the former. The actual original tree has been damaged and is no longer safe for passage, so this tree has taken its place as the "original."
Patrick's Point Campground
September 23 2006
We spent the night Thursday at a near-perfect campground maybe 50 miles from the Oregon border. Our campsite was up on that cliffside, with an awesome breeze blowing in from the ocean all night. We can't recommend it highly enough.
A bit off-color
The following exchange we had upon pulling up to the above 50ft tall statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox is a bit off-color, but was too funny to exclude.
Emily: "They even included a pair of giant testicles."
Phil: pause. "Oh, you mean on the bull."
No . . . Sleep . . . 'Til . . . Newcomb!
September 21 2006
It took 6.5 hours for the movers to load our stuff onto the truck on Monday and about the same amount of time the following day for us to leave the smoggy environs of LA for the crystal cold of Yosemite, 5000 feet above sea level. Along the I-5 we drove through an extensive patch of brush fire that turned the sky a creepy orange-grey and left a smell of smoke over the next 100 miles.
Our stay in Yosemite itself was brief. We popped out of the car for some quick oohs and ahhs in the Valley before arriving at the campsite around 5:30. After some grilled steak over the firepit, we settled in for a very cold night and a small taste of home in the form of a Prison Break episode on the laptop.
Tuesday we shuttled between friends in the Bay Area, meeting Amy Lee for lunch in Berkeley and Andy, Ami, Gordon, and Leonard in Palo Alto.
August 9 2006
Emily got a Charlotte Newcombe dissertation fellowship. Phil's leaving Dimensional and plans to do a little consulting. We're leaving LA and taking a one month road trip all around the United States (and Canada), landing us back on the east coast. Our proposed route is above; if you're near our route, we'd love to see you, and, if not, we'd appreciate suggestions on what to see, where to go, what to eat, etc. We'll spend the winter up at Phil's parents' place in Newcomb, NY and then try to spend part of the spring in Europe. After that, who knows where we'll be?