Anchorage, recap

OK, I’m back. I’d planned on doing updates every day, and that just didn’t happen. The first half of the trip was too busy; the second half, I ran out of things to do and had no motivation to write in here.

I did upload my pictures. They are on Flickr here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmhtk2H2

Here’s a high-level bullet list of stuff I did do, mostly so I’ll remember it in ten years:

  • I went to Arctic Comic Con, mostly on a lark. I’m not a comic book fan, and I didn’t really know any of the people appearing, aside from comedian Brian Poeshn. It was their first year, and not very big, but people were happy they did get some people to show up. The convention was about the size of a large high school gym, with a dozen or two booths, mostly selling comics, but also some weird ones, like the Army was there, and someone selling hot tubs. There was also a place doing tattoos and piercings, and it was weird to hear a constant BZZZZZ as people on panels were talking. The crowd was mostly younger, and parents. Every teen with blue hair and an anime fetish within a hundred miles of Anchorage was there. Didn’t stay that long, didn’t buy or eat anything, but it was an interesting time.
  • Climbed Flattop mountain just south of town. If you need to listen to any one song while driving into snow-topped mountains, make it the song “Antarcticans Thawed” from the new Sleep album. It was maybe 30 out, everything covered in snow, and very windy, like 25mph. The trail was buried, so lots of ice, and I fell in up to my thighs a few times. Forgot gloves, broke my water bottle in the car so no drink. Absolutely beautiful on top, could see the water, the city in the distance, and all the other peaks in the area.
  • Moose Tooth pizza was a good experience. Also, very cheap.
  • Went to The Mall at Sears, which no longer has a Sears. Was shooting the outside of the mall and a security SUV rolled up on me, lights flashing. The dude came up and said “hey are you the guy from the sign company?” then started babbling on about all the old Sears signage on site. Then started to talk about the break-ins, then about how everyone’s stealing Tahoe trucks because they don’t have a chip in it. I’m in a hooded sweatshirt and freezing to death and he goes on for fifteen minutes before saying “who were you with again?” I told him I was a photographer from California and he said “sure, OK. Did you hear they’re putting a Safeway in here?”  That mall was sheer desolation. Maybe a dozen stores, the only national chains being a GNC and a Payless, both of who are on the death list. A local cell phone store. A shuttered grocery store anchor on one side, the dead Sears on the other.
  • Went to a surviving Blockbuster. This was in a John Oliver skit, which I don’t watch, but I guess he sent some Russell Crowe stuff to them, and it was not on display yet. It looked like a 2002-vintage store, trapped in amber. I bought a t-shirt, and took a few pictures.
  • The Anchorage Museum got redone and expanded since I last went, and it looks like a full reset, because I don’t remember anything. I like the new building a lot – it has a very Euro look to it, like a museum you’d see in Berlin. Not a fan of the collection, because I’m not that into Alaskan art. I know that’s horrible, I’ll leave it at that.
  • Rice Bowl is a good old-school Chinese place. When I worked in Factoria in 1995 and would find an old strip mall Chinese place and think “this shit is straight out of the Eighties,” that was Rice Bowl today. Nothing wrong with it – I loved the food, the look, and the folks were nice.
  • Had a lunch at Snow City, which never disappoints. I have this weird conspiracy theory that Snooze in Denver and Snow City in Anchorage are somehow related, and I like them both, and being in one reminds me of the other. Anyway, pancakes.
  • There’s a Japanese place (the sign actually says “oriental food”…) called Da Mi, which is on the back half of an Econo Inn, which sounds horrific, but it was great food and cheap, and had the fountain and the neon sign above the sushi bar and gave you a fried oreo with your check and the whole nine. Ate there twice.
  • I know I ate a lot, but La Cabana, great Mexican place – I didn’t think you could get good Mexican this far north, but this was on par with a few of my LA favorites, which says a lot. (Side note: I hate Bay Area Mexican food. Enough with the cilantro.)
  • Red Chair Cafe, too – good brunch. Went there three or four times.
  • Drove to Girdwood, which is about 45 minutes south. It’s a nice drive on the Seward highway, with the water from the Turnagain on your right side, the mountains in the distance, and the single line of the Alaska railway snaking past. I stopped a few times for pictures, then went to the Aleyaska resort for a hike around woods at the base of the mountains. I really wanted to ride the chair lift to the top like I did last time, but it was closed for maintenance. The hike through the woods was pretty nice, the streams running wild with the meltoff from the glaciers. There was a fair amount of packed snow/ice on the wooden bridges of the path, so it took some work to not fall down, but there was a nice elevation change, and at this point, nobody was out. I also walked through the big ski resort, which was mostly empty and sort of Shining-like in the offseason.
  • Chair 5 was a good lunch stop in Girdwood. Kobe beef sliders and onion rings really hit the spot after the hike.
  • I drove out to Talkeetna, which is about two and a half hours north, on the way to Denali State Park. It’s the town that Northern Exposure was allegedly modeled after, although it was actually shot in central Washington. The drive out actually reminded me of driving around Southwest Washington – no real views of the mountains after I hit Wasilla, just lots of tree farming. The town itself is cute, a little general store, a brewpub where I grabbed a reuben for lunch, and a lot of closed galleries and stores. (Offseason!) I walked around a lot, and looked at their small bush pilot airstrip. Found out the general store sells Mello Yello, which I haven’t seen in forever.
  • Kept seeing F-22s take off from Elmendorf AFB, which was on the horizon across from my hotel. I tried taking some pictures with a 300mm zoom, but didn’t get much. They had two accidents involving the F-22 last month, so I couldn’t believe they were out flying that much.
  • Went to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Their WW2 hanger was closed for renovation, and it was a dreary day to visit the planes outside. The two things different since last time were that they have an F-15A now (not in great shape, though) and they have an Alaska 737-200QC, which is a weird plane. It’s a 737 that has a passenger door on one side, and a cargo door on the other – basically, the whole side of the plane in front of the wing swings up. The seats are all removable, so they can reconfigure it for various ratios of cargo in the front, people in the back. They had it set up so you could go inside and look around, with half the plane configured with seats with the backs against the wall, and the front half ready to be filled up with Amazon prime boxes, fresh vegetables, and livestock. They retired this example in 2007, and their last Combi (a -400) earlier this year. (https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/fleet/combi-plane-retires/)
  • Stopped in Obsession Records, worth a visit if you’re into vinyl. My hotel was right next to Mammoth Music, which was a great guitar shop, although my luggage and my marriage could not withstand another guitar purchase. Tidal Wave Books was still hanging in, although they’re all used books now, and it seemed a little less lively than 2006. There’s an REI at the same strip mall, which was packed with gear I wanted and did not need. That REI used to be a two-story Montgomery Ward forever ago, and I could still see a few remnants of that design.
  • I expected to see a ton of dispensaries, now that weed is legal, but I didn’t see many. I don’t partake, so I don’t care that much, but I expected it to be fully lit up like Denver, and it wasn’t. The back side of the REI in the strip mall did have a place called “Dankorage” so that’s neat. There’s a street named Fireweed, and I expect that to be the name of a dispensary or a stoner metal band.
  • Flight back was uneventful. A middle seat again for ANC-SEA, but I upgraded to a window seat for SEA-OAK and the person next to me was a no-show, so I got to actually use my laptop for once.

So, that’s it. My general takeaway was that if you want to go do tourist stuff, go after Memorial Day, but then you’re going to pay more. If you want to ski or do snow stuff, you’ll need to go much earlier now. I was surprised skiing and snowmobiling were closed at the end of April, when they were open at the beginning of June in 2006. The strange desolation of the off-season was interesting to me, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could hack Alaska 52 weeks a year, but I don’t think I can hack my home location 52 weeks a year either. Anyway, check out the photos, and apologies in advance that I took too many.

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Anchorage

Hello from Anchorage, Alaska. I just got here last night, and my first impression is that is is really weird up here. Like Omega Man weird.

So, the trip up was fairly unremarkable. Quick flight up to Seattle, and that was unusual in that I haven’t been back to Jet City since I left in 1999. SeaTac isn’t really Seattle, and I did not recognize the inside of the airport at all. It looks like it has 100% changed, probably because Amazon is hurtling so many people through there  per day. I also never flew Alaska before, so maybe it’s a different area than I remember. I also didn’t get to leave the airport. There was just a hint of nostalgia that made me want to see more of Seattle, but I was in a rush to get from plane to plane, and I didn’t have a window seat, so I didn’t get to study the landscape on approach. Maybe I need to get up there on another trip.

The three-hour flight to Anchorage was a beast. I was in a middle seat, and the guys on either side of me were Wilford Brimley looking dudes who honestly should have been required to buy two seats. I was squished between them, and practically had to sit sideways. No computer, no iPad — I read for a bit (The Crying of Lot 49, not sure why I always re-read this on vacations. It’s a small book, I guess. Easy to carry) and played solitaire on my phone. For three hours.

When we landed, it took forever to get off the plane — lots of wheelchairs. But within the Ted Stevens International Airport, it was empty. It felt like an airport built to handle 100,000 passengers a day, and there were only twelve. And it was a long, long walk to baggage. I got my bags quick, then went down another long corridor — by myself, nobody there — and got to a Hertz counter, also with no line whatsoever. Got my keys, and there was no gate, no exit inspection, nothing. It was like the exterior of a small municipal airport, traffic-wise. Drive around the South Bend airport on a Tuesday afternoon, and that was Saturday night at ANC.

The drive in is surreal. Mountains in the distance, a slight chill from the 40-degree weather, and way too much open space. It’s a bizarre Twin Peaks trip. And then when you get into the outskirts of town, it feels a lot like Reno, the strange desperation of old motels turned into apartments, tattoo parlors closed for the winter (in April), and liquor stores. Then, downtown. And my stay at the Sheraton.

I dumped the car and luggage, then set out on foot to find something to eat. Anchorage has a downtown — there are normally about 300,000 people here. Most of downtown is small one and two story sprawl — you have to keep in mind the entire city was pretty much leveled in 1964. There are a dozen or so buildings taller than ten stories, almost all hotels, with I think a bank or an oil company of mirrored glass, the kind of early 80s office space you see appear when the crude starts flowing. But downtown is a lot of buildings that sort of appeared because of tourism or seasonal work at fisheries and oil fields. And it has the same density and feel as a city like South Bend, but maybe three times bigger.

I walked around, trying to find some place to eat, and it was absolutely vacant. Like, post-apocalyptic. I saw nobody on the street. Nothing was open. The tourism business doesn’t really start for another month, so a lot of small galleries and shops are still closed for the winter. And there isn’t really that much density, like not a lot of little restaurants and things.

Also, the light. It is currently daylight until about ten at night. But it’s a really bizarre daylight. I don’t know if it was the clouds or the longitude, but the daylight has a strange glow or cast to it, like you’re shooting photos with the white balance set on the wrong setting. It reminds me of what the sky looked like during the wildfires last year. It only reinforced the strangeness of the situation.

I ended up going to the Fifth Street Mall, because of course I’m going to fly thousands of miles to a mall. It’s a strange setup, a Simon mall with a JC Penney’s and a Nordstrom, but not that long of a concourse, and multiple levels (I think four). There was nobody there, except super aggressive panhandlers, and lots of security trying to get rid of them. The top floor is a large food court with windows around the perimeter, looking out to the mountains in the distance. But all the food is weird local chains, wok shops filled with MSG, and off-brand taco places that guarantee botulism. I walked back to the hotel, got room service, and went to bed at like ten, when it was still mostly daylight outside.

The plan for today is to go to the Arctic Comic Con. I’m not really a fan of comic books, and I really can’t deal with people jerking off all over themselves about the latest Marvel movie that I refuse to see. But I figure if it’s here, I should go. Cultural experience. Why not. I think the weather is supposed to be okay tomorrow, like 37 and clouds. (It’s a touch colder today.) So maybe I’ll drag the camera to the top of Flattop and get some pictures.

I should figure out where this convention is, and what I can bring. I don’t want to drag a bunch of camera gear and then find out you can’t bring it in. Also need to find out if they have corn dogs.

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49th, take two

After that last post on the Concord Mall, there was an influx of attention on it — at least three video tours, lots of threads on dead mall groups, articles in the paper about the bankruptcy, etc etc. The net result is that I spent way too much time wallowing in this nostalgia, and I’m now completely burned out on it. The obsession with trying to find old photos or watch shaky videos of dead malls is too much. I thought about going back to Indiana this summer, getting a last look at the mall before it completely died, but I remember how depressing it was to see it in 2015, and I can’t spend a week in that mindset. So, I need to let that shit go for now.

I have been scheming when to take some time off, because thanks to Agile, I’m always in the middle or the end of a release cycle, and can’t plan anything more than a week out. Thanks to a weird scheduling hiccup, I found out I’d have almost six weeks between releases, so I put in for a week off, in May. Then I had to figure out where to go.

Vegas was out — last time was too depressing for me. It’s not a great place for a solo tourist. I thought about Seattle, Denver, LA, but I’ve lived in all those places, and too many ghosts. Berlin or maybe Oslo popped in my head — Norwegian has started very cheap direct flights to Europe. But either you red-eye out or waste most of two days in multiple flights, and then you’re nine hours out-of-cycle, and by the time you get used to it, you have to turn around and leave, spend a day or two in the air, and end up lagged by half a day for your return to work. Maybe next time.

Then I started fixating on Alaska. I was there in 2006 (there’s a trip report and some pictures somewhere on here) and I liked it back then, but due to some political events a few years after that, I sort of lost interest in any future travel there. But, I’m curious again. I looked into the trips up, maybe flying into somewhere else like Juneau, but did end up finding a deal on a fare to Anchorage, along with room and car. Solo trip, no plans yet, which I need to get busy on. All I know is I’ll be hauling the camera gear up there, seeing what I can capture, and hopefully doing as much hiking as possible.

The early May weather is a bit of a curveball. I might catch a day or two of snow/rain, maybe high temps of about 50, lows below freezing. So it could potentially be the miserable high 40s and rain that I’ve been fighting over the last few months here. But it will be daylight most of the day. Daylight from 5am to 10pm; twilight the rest of the time, and no full darkness. I hope the place has blackout drapes like last time.

Life has otherwise been a blur of work, which I don’t want to talk about. Writing on a new project, which I also can’t talk about. Maybe I’ll get some good time on it over the break. New Apple Watch recently, went from the 1 to a 3, but no big change to talk about there, just a battery that lasts all day now.

OK, I’m now reading like nine different photography books at once, trying to get back into the swing of it before I leave. Fun.

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Maui

I spent last week in Maui, as a combination tenth-anniversary trip and Thanksgiving. Sorted through the photos, vaguely, but I’ve been too busy to get any words down on it.

Looking back, I guess I haven’t written about my previous visits there, but we went in 2013 and 2015. Pictures of the previous visits are on Flickr, but I’ve all but given up on these stupid travel updates.

The vitals: we stayed in Kapalua instead of Wailea this time, at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a bit more isolated, which is nice, but it also meant we had to drive like an hour to get anywhere. We had a kitchen, which meant I could avoid the 5000-calorie buffet every morning and make my own breakfast.

I went zip-lining, which was a first and a lot of fun. Six zips across Pu’u Kukui and the West Maui Forest Preserve took a few hours, with a bus ride on a muddy dirt road, then an uphill ATV ride up an even muddier road. The rain held out until the last zip, and then it felt like I was being pelted with rock salt. Still, awesome stuff. If you’re ever out there, Kapalua Ziplines are the folks to use.

Went to the Maui aquarium again, but it was a bit more crowded with school-holiday traffic. Ate a lot at a few different places. Didn’t go to Target. Coincidentally ended up at a dead mall connected to a Safeway, which was a truly surreal experience. I didn’t do any swimming or try to kill myself paddle-boarding like last time. Lots and lots of walking and hiking, although no volcano this time.

Anyway, pictures posted on Flickr for you to ignore: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm9FoH6E. Dragged along the DSLR and a bunch of lenses, and ended up taking twice as many pictures with my phone. Go figure.

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Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Glass Beach, etc.

I’ve been back almost a week, but here’s a quick trip report on the tail end of what I wrote about last time.

So I stayed just south of Little River. They have a town hall and post office that are in the same building as a two-pump gas station. So the whole town is basically a Marathon quick-mart, which isn’t unusual in this part of the state. I drove down to Albion, a few miles south, and it’s sort of the same thing.

If you follow the 1 north along the shore of the Pacific, it winds about three miles until you get to Mendocino. It’s a little square peninsula hanging off the highway, with about 800 people living there, and made up mostly of small galleries and shops in buildings that are from the late 1800s. The whole thing has a very New England feel to it; I don’t know if it’s the open sky, the architecture, the whaling and mermaid stuff in all the gift shops, or something about the small feel of the town. Or maybe the way the drag on Main Street only has buildings on one side, and the other faces off to a bunch of cliffs and a headland that dumps right out into a bay off the ocean.

Mendocino was a nice place to walk and look around, and my cell phone worked there, but it wasn’t entirely my trip. There’s one good non-chain grocery store, and a lot of cafes that made me nervous. I was looking at one gluten-free coffee place with sandwiches, and got sketched out by the healthiness of it, so I went outside and found a sign for a taqueria which was on the back of a building, in a space about as big as my home office. I went in and everyone eating there was a construction worker, and nobody spoke English. This was more my speed, and I got a plate of nachos with like ten pounds of carne asada and cheese, plus a bottle of Mexican Coke for like ten bucks, including tip. That was a good find.

Photography was good. (It’s mostly on Flickr, https://flic.kr/s/aHsm7woRAX) It was hard to take a bad photo, although the sun wasn’t out much, and there was a lot of fog. The fog had a certain Twin Peaks feel to it, especially when I was in the cabin, surrounded with evergreens. But for a person with bad Seasonal Affective Disorder, it wasn’t entirely ideal. It wasn’t a hundred degrees, though, which I missed this weekend as I was broiling in Oakland.

Fort Bragg is about ten miles up from Mendocino. It has nothing to do with the Army base, which is confusing at first. There’s about 7,000 people there, and a bit more of a downtown, with that midwestern street layout grid that made me think of places like Goshen or North Liberty or whatever, tree names from left to right, dead presidents or generals from top to bottom. There were a few chain places on the outskirts, like a Safeway, CVS, McDonald’s, and so forth, but the town was more local places. It still had that New England feel to me, and a lot of quirkiness. Like there was a Radio Shack, but inside a Tru-Value hardware that sold everything, and reminded me of a store in the Catskills. Or the brunch place that was inexplicably covered in Wizard of Oz memorabilia.

I reached a point where I normally do when I get incredibly bored and need to go to a big city or a large museum or something. I’m not a social person, and can’t meet strangers on a vacation, so I fall into an isolation funk when I’m on a trip alone. And in a big city, my defense is to lose myself in the masses of people. It’s why Vegas is ideal for me. But here, there was none of that, which caused a real problem for me.

One day I got the idea to take the US 20 inland and go to Willits, which is about four or five thousand people. That drive, from the 1 on the shore to the 101 running through the meat of the state, is brutal. It’s about thirty miles, but with no traffic, it takes at least an hour. It’s all switchback turns and quick elevation changes in a deep forest of redwoods, which is beautiful, but not the place you want to be when weekend warriors are tooling around in RVs. Also, temperature changes galore: I left the house when it was 55 degrees. By the time I got to Fort Bragg and took a right, it was 75. In Willits, it was just about 100. I thought Willits might be interesting, but it was a bit of a bust. There was a pretty walkable downtown that looked desolated, and a cluster of chain fast food right off the highway on-ramps. I went to a McDonald’s and sat at a table next to a woman about fifteen years younger than me who was with her grandchildren, and was pregnant. So, yeah.

Point Cabrillo lighthouse was a nice walk in the middle of nowhere — went on a day when the sky was almost black with rain, a sheet of dark gray overhead, but the desolation in the park was amazing. I also went to Glass Beach a few times. It had magnificent cliffs and coves, great walking alone there. It used to be a garbage dump, and now the waves have turned the broken bottles into pebbles of bright colored glass over the last century. It sits next to what used to be a large lumber yard that went bust a decade or two ago. It’s amazing to see nature taking back the entire area, reversing the years of damage done to it.

So, it was a nice break. Didn’t write as much as I’d thought, but that happens. I think I got a dozen pictures I really liked, and didn’t buy any books I didn’t need. Also didn’t get badly sunburned, which is a first for an ocean stay, so I’ll take it.

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KONCAST Episode 5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

In this episode, I talk to author John Sheppard about planes, trains, and automobiles – no, not the movie, but actual forms of travel.

We discuss: Taking Amtrak across the country; Denver’s weed money revitalization; the painted deserts of Nevada; the subways of NYC, DC, and LA; flying space-available on the C-5 galaxy; skydiving in Vegas; flying gliders and small planes; filming locations of the show Lost; the agonies of the Florida to midwest family drive; Coastal Florida versus Cracker Florida; and Jon’s East to West vs West to East roadtrips.

Links from this episode:

– Paragraph Line: www.paragraphline.com

– Jon Konrath: www.rumored.com

– John Sheppard: www.johnlsheppard.com

– John’s Amtrak trip photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/midamericabymini/sets/72157683545951874

– Sons of the Pioneers – Ghost Riders in the Sky https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMqKv7BOg_s

– Jon’s acrobatic plane lesson in Vegas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EY9MAAsHTY

– The Idaho silver mine disaster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunshine_Mine_(Idaho)

– The Project GNOME nuclear test site: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16910
Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast

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Little River

I am in a cabin in Little River, CA. This has nothing to do with the Little River Band, who is apparently from Australia. (I had to go look this up.)

Not sure why exactly I’m here. I wanted to bug out of town for a few days, and didn’t want to end up back in Vegas. Didn’t want to go somewhere that involved flying, partly so I could use my own car instead of renting one, and partly because I assumed the second I bought plane tickets, some work disaster would require me to cancel.

I’ve never been to this part of the state before. I guess I’ve driven on I-80 to Reno, and that’s technically further north than this. But this is the other side of the state, on the water.  California is huge, and I’ve never spent any time outside of SF/LA/SD, so here I am.

My original thought was that I would drive up to Astoria, Oregon. I visited there in 1997, and I liked it a lot. But it’s a long drive, maybe 12 or 14 hours. And there’s the issue of ghosts, and I don’t know that I want to deal with that. I don’t mean the paranormal. I mean, I visited there with someone, and I’d probably spend the whole trip thinking about twenty years ago, which isn’t good.

The cabin is weird. There are maybe a half-dozen buildings from the late 40s, divided in half. They are all themed with various retro themes. Mine is “read” and it is filled with books and pictures of libraries. There’s also a tiny kitchenette, which I’ve been using extensively, and a woodburning stove, which I will not touch. I’d either burn down the cabin, or release a lethal storm of allergens into my room.

The drive up here was easy, maybe three hours. Take the 580 over the bridge, past Uncle Charlie’s old place at San Quentin, then the 101 north for a while. I guess I have been to Santa Rosa — there’s a big air museum there. After Cloverdale, you get on 128 and cut west across the state, all the way to the 1 on the shore. That drive on the 128 is pretty crazy — lots of twists and switchbacks and steep drops and rises and dips in elevation. There’s also an insane amount of redwoods there, thick forests of them, completely blocking the light. You can drive for an hour with no cell reception whatsoever, something strange in this day.

This place reminds me of visiting what was left of the Catskills in 1988. In the mountains, there were these little private resorts, campgrounds of cabins for single families, almost like a deconstructed motel, with every couple rooms in its own building. We stayed in one somewhere between Cairo and Freehold, a setup similar to this one. It’s probably a McMansion now. When the pre-Holiday Inn generation died off, stopped summering in the mountains, the land became too valuable. I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened here. The lack of cell phone coverage, and the remoteness to any other city may be the issue.

I’m a few miles from Mendocino, which is about 900 people. It’s mostly galleries, shops, cafes. There’s a grocery where I was able to stock up when I got here yesterday. Lots of incredible views of the Pacific. Lots of buildings from the 19th century, and all of them have these wooden water towers behind them. Something about the architecture — or maybe it’s the nautical feel, or the open space by the water — makes it feel like New England. It reminds me of some random Rhode Island village, where it’s all lighthouses and whale watching.

I think it’s about twenty minutes to Fort Bragg, which is maybe six hundred people. It has more of a downtown, although it’s only a few blocks of it. I saw the smallest Sears store I’ve ever seen, and a still-functional Radio Shack, although it was just part of a hardware store that was also a True Value. Fort Bragg is unrelated to the Army base in North Carolina – that’s probably a hundred times bigger.

So, it’s weird here. I mean, it’s really quiet. The weather is mild, cold at night, not terribly warm or sunny all day. The ocean is beautiful, but it’s rough, choppy. Beautiful colors of blue mixed with the white foam of the waves, but it’s under a canopy of gray that doesn’t want to burn off all morning.

Also, it’s odd vacationing with my car. I’m used to renting a different car, driving an anonymous white Hyundai with rental car stickers all over the interior. Strange to have my daily driver here, to see it in unfamiliar surroundings. I pulled over at a Cove, the top of a windy s-curve road with a vantage point overlooking the beach below. Took a bunch of pictures with the real camera, my dirty Toyota at the edge of the road. It reminds me of when I took my last car from Denver to LA, and stopped in the mountains of some random part of Utah, took pictures in the snow at a rest area of the mud-streaked Yaris, parked next to big rigs of interstate truckers.

I’m supposed to be writing. I’m not. I’m picking at something, but I think the grand scheme was that I’d lock myself in this cabin with a week of TV dinners and a few cases of Coke and come up with some completely new idea. And that didn’t happen. So I’m picking away at this big thing, wondering how I can deal with it, package it, finish it. Or not. I don’t know.

Was sitting on my deck and saw a deer a few hours ago. It wandered past, eating grass, maybe ten yards away. Scared the shit out of me — I’m not used to being around nature. Anyway. I’ll probably go into town tomorrow and buy a bunch of stuff I don’t need at the local bookstore. Here until Monday, so maybe I’ll get to the writing thing.

 

 

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Nashville and Memphis

I went to Nashville and Memphis last weekend, just a quick four-day getaway thing with another couple from New York.

Pictures: Nashville and Memphis

Various thoughts, because I am too lazy to write a whole entry:

  • Everything has music in Nashville. Like, if you go to get your oil changed, the 15-minute jiffy lube place is going to have a small stage with a bluegrass band playing on it, and they’re going to be totally pro. Every restaurant, hotel, gift store, bar, and tavern has performances. I don’t know the economics of being a musician in Nashville, but it felt like the last place in the world that still had a viable ecosystem for music.
  • I know nothing about country music, and it’s horrible to say this, but it all sounds the same to me. I won’t say I hate it, but in general, I don’t like 95% of it. It was like Christmas music to me: when I first hear a Christmas song (in like fucking August) it offends and irritates me. By the 50th holiday song, I pretty much have it blocked out and don’t even realize it is playing. The country music was like that for me.
  • We took the tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which confused me, because I thought the Grand Ole Opry was a place, not a show, and didn’t realize it had been at the Ryman forever. And then as we were taking the tour, I found out it’s not still at the Ryman. I should have at least skimmed Wikipedia on the plane before we landed.
  • The Johnny Cash museum had a lot of interesting artifacts, but it’s a very basic museum, a square maze in an brick building. But his house burned down in 2007, so there’s no destination to park it at. It is a convenient location, though. And well curated.
  • We walked around by all the bars and restaurants. There were a lot of bridesmaids walking around. They all looked identical.
  • It was hot. Not Vegas last year hot, but in the low 90s and humid as hell, which probably made it worse.
  • On Friday, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is in a large auditorium that looks like it was built at a ski lodge in Aspen in 1974. It’s out by a mega mall way east of town. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of hallowed history and Disney homogenization,  because they have hundreds of shows a year of top-tier country acts, but the whole thing feels like it was prefab constructed at EPCOT center.
  • The big draw the night we went was Carrie Underwood. Next was the actor who plays Deacon on the show Nashville. Lee Greenwood played the one song that I won’t even mention because it will get stuck in my head for four days, so google it. There was also some girl who was the runner-up on American Idle, and like a dozen other people.
  • The show ran like clockwork. They had a warm-up person, then MCs, then opening acts, then middlers, then the big acts. Everyone played like two songs. Every band change was flawless. Every cue was hit exactly. They finished at exactly 00:00:00.000 past the hour. They got everyone out and turned it over for the next show. It ran like a Space Shuttle launch, and they do it something like 250 times a year. That was very impressive.
  • The warm-up person and a few of the acts skewed slightly to the right in their banter. I think there was a requirement that you mentioned God or Jesus in your crowd work.
  • They also plugged their big sponsors between all acts, which were Boot Barn and Cracker Barrel.
  • Next day, we went to Franklin, which is a small town-square type place with lots of local shops, which reminded me of upstate New York towns, but with a bit more southern flare. Everyone was very nice. The place we had brunch had a stage, but no musicians playing at that moment. Lots of guitars on the walls, though.
  • We went to Carnton Plantation, which is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. We took an hour-long tour, which was pretty phenomenal. The tour guide was far too into the history of the place, but that made it even better.
  • We also went to the Parthenon, which is a full-size replica of the real one, built in Nashville for some damn reason a hundred years ago. There were food trucks. Oh, and a stage and bands.
  • We went to a steakhouse for dinner, and when I went to the restroom, the muzak was Coltrane, which sort of freaked me out after hearing new-country everywhere we went.
  • On our last night in Nashville, we went to The Bluebird Cafe, which has a long and rich history as an 80-some seat music club, and is now famous because Taylor Swift was discovered there and a fake version of it is always on the show Nashville. It is almost impossible to get tickets there now, which is a shame because you won’t see anyone “famous” but you will see some quality entertainment.
  • The night we were there: singer/songwriters Dave Berg, Tony Arata, Craig Carothers, Annie Mosher. They all sat in the round, and went around the horn, each doing a solo number. This wasn’t even really country music, as much as it was very personal poetry set to acoustic guitar, and I really, really liked it.
  • Sunday — drive to Memphis. We had a giant SUV, which was about the size of a Hummer, so it was like sitting on the couch, watching the countryside scroll past.
  • We went straight to Graceland, for the big tour. We did not know this was Elvis week. It was packed, to say the least.
  • Graceland is strange, because it’s in a really dumpy part of town, like by a Harley shop and a discount mall. I expected it to be a giant plantation like the one in Franklin, but it was just sort of crammed in a neighborhood like the kind of decay you’d find around an airport. (It is near the airport.)
  • They now give you an iPad for the tour, which starts playing and showing various screens of info as you walk around. The tour is narrated by John Stamos.
  • The Graceland mansion is not huge, and it isn’t really that extravagant. It is about ten thousand square feet, but it didn’t seem that big. If you subtracted all of the out-buildings, it felt like a very big house, but not a mansion.
  • You can’t go upstairs. You can’t see The Toilet. You do get to go through the basement, with the infamous three TVs, and you see the jungle room on the back of the house, which is a Tiki seventies wonder.
  • I admit I went for the kitsch factor, and found it all funny, but the somber mood and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans is infectious, and after seeing so many gold records and old women who show up every year for decades, you can’t help but get swept up in all of it.
  • The food at Graceland is horrific. There’s a cafe and I’m pretty sure they are just re-heating hamburgers and hot dogs from Sam’s Club in the same oil they started with in 1982.
  • We stayed in a new hotel on Beale Street. It’s a heavily gentrified area, all brand new, and it could have been Denver or Seattle or San Diego’s downtown district. Beale itself had a lot of the same bar. A lot of town was closed on Sunday.
  • We went to this hotel where they have ducks in the lobby fountain, and at 5:00, the ducks march into an elevator and up to the penthouse. I have no idea what the hell that’s about.
  • We saw the Mississippi. There is also a Bass Pro Shop that is a 40-story tall pyramid.
  • The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot, has been preserved and restored to its 1968 livery, and is now a museum. It’s really surreal there. What’s also strange is that area all pretty much looks like 1968 still.
  • Memphis was interesting, though. It’s probably got a weird, lost history that’s worth researching. There was also a lot I did not have time to see — I really wanted to go to the Gibson factory, and maybe catch a baseball game. There were also endless restaurant opportunities.
  • After we got back, there was a news cycle of Elvis stuff, because of his death, and I spent far too much time reading about it. I still am, really.

 

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bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.

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Various Vegas thoughts

I planned on blogging more from KonCon in Las Vegas last week, but I didn’t, because I am lazy. I probably should write a synopsis of the trip, but the TL;DR is that it was way too fucking hot – usually at or above 110 each day, and even hours after the sun set, it was still above 100. So that’s why it’s so cheap to go in July.

Someone asked me for some advice on Vegas while I was gone. I have not spent much time there in years, and everything I mentioned in my book about Vegas is largely gone. But my response to this question in an email is an interesting companion to the trip itself and my thoughts during it, so I’ll just leave this here for your amusement.

  • I waste a lot of time on this site when I am planning: http://www.lvrevealed.com/deathwatch/ – their casino reviews are decent, but I am sort of obsessed with who is rumored to get imploded in the near future.
  • If you look at a map of the strip, most of the mid-strip properties are what I’d consider first tier (Bellagio, Paris, Harrah’s, Caesars, etc), and the Wynn is north strip, but I’d group it in with those mid-strip properties. Same with Aria/City Center, which is technically south strip. It’s the newest; I’ve never stayed there, but from eating/shopping there, it’s pretty high end.
  • The south strip was the big deal maybe 10-15 years ago, and that stuff is now dated, but can be tolerable to stay there. It can be cheap, and the location is decent. So Mandalay Bay, MGM, NYNY, Luxor, Excalibur in that order. (Most of those are owned/run by the same monopoly, so they’re similar.) Tropicana got bought by Hilton and redone, so the rooms are nice, but there’s not a lot in there.An example: the Luxor is not that trendy of a property – I think it was so-so when I stayed there in like 99, and now it’s really lost its focus. It used to be Egyptian-themed, and they decided that maybe flyover rednecks aren’t into that, so they started de-theming it and ripping out the king tut stuff, but it’s still got these random stone pyramid walls in places.  But, the rooms are now ridiculously cheap, and it’s a really good location, and connected to the big mall by Mandalay Bay. So if you don’t plan on spending a lot of time in your room, it could be an option.
  • Everything north strip is shit. Everything downtown is total shit. Everything that’s not on the strip is mostly shit, unless you stumble on some deal to stay in a timeshare at Trump or something weird like that.
  • Absolutely do not stay at Hooters like I did.  I won’t go into the horror stories, but I’ve stayed at hotels in rural Mexico that were much nicer.
  • I used to never rent a car and cab it from the airport and around town. But the last few times, I’ve found an okay deal on a rental car bundled with the hotel (I think I used Expedia this time) and if you drive at least once a day, it’s usually a better deal. You can generally park at any hotel for free, or valet for almost nothing.
  • If you are driving, don’t actually drive on the strip to get north/south. Either go west to I-15, or go east to Paradise, Maryland, or Eastern.
  • Think of whatever amount of water a person would drink in a day that would be entirely excessive, and double that.
  • You can drive off the strip and buy a case of water for four bucks or whatever, or you can buy two bottles of water at a hotel for seven bucks. The problem is almost none of the hotels have a fridge. You can buy a crappy foam cooler at the grocery store and then commit to filling it with ice every other hour, but that’s a huge pain in the ass.
  • Opentable is a good way to get reservations for dinner.  There’s a surprisingly large number of high-end restaurants with decent food.
  • Every buffet is a ripoff. Wynn is almost tolerable, if you pace yourself and don’t eat all day and go in with the plan of fucking them by eating five pounds of lobster. But I made the mistake of going to the MGM buffet, and paid $35 for about $10 of Sizzler-grade food.
  • If you’re into steak, Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak at the MGM has a fairly insane three-course beef selection that is not cheap but is awesome. Or in the opposite direction, there’s the Golden Steer, which looks a little dodgy because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled, but it’s cool because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled – it’s one of those old-school places where the brat pack used to hang out.
  • Everyone associates the Grand Canyon with Vegas, but really it’s like a 4-5 hour drive each way, and easy to kill an entire day to spend a few minutes there.
  • If you are actually interested in going to Area 51/Rachel I could fill up another post with details on that.
  • If you are there and hit the wall and need to bug out and go somewhere quiet to get work done or whatever, go to UNLV. You can hide in their library and use wifi without any hassle.
  • There’s a huge Fry’s Electronics south of the strip, at a big outdoor mall right before 215. There’s a Target at Flamingo and Maryland. There’s a few Vons grocery stores (Safeway-owned, I think) on Tropicana and Flamingo.
  • Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana is worth checking out. The atomic testing museum on Flamingo is neat, but their Area 51 exhibit is pretty cheesy.
  • If you want to tour the neon graveyard, book it early.  They have limited tours and they always fill up.
  • Don’t stay at Hooters.

Thoughts?  Leave ’em in the comments.

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