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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Frozen Irish

Hello from a veyr frigid Northern Indiana. I am sitting in a Bruno’s pizza just north of Notre Dame, waiting on a pizza and sort of passively glancing at the fourth quarter of the Colts-Jets game. It is cold as hell here, I think in the teens, and I’ve done more ice and snow driving in the last 24 hours than I have in the last several years.  I spent a week in Milwaukee, and yesterday, drove through Chicago (with a stop in Chicago to have lunch with John Sheppard and Helen) and then zipped down the Indiana toll road to our hotel.  We’re now seeing my side of the family, and I’m also visiting various ghosts of decades ago.

The level of nostalgia isn’t as high as it has in the past.  I mean, I’ve been out of Indiana longer than I actually lived here.  And so many things have changed since I left.  Like I drove by University Park mall last night, and was astonished how much it has changed since the early 90s.  But I still see bits and pieces of the Michiana I knew way back when.  Elkhart was never a big city to me, and Chicago was my main urban center, but South Bend held wisps of big city to me, the way the downtown grid creeps between the couple of tall buildings.  Back in high school, I’d drive around South Bend, driving up Michigan and down Main, wishing I was in a real big city, in New York or Los Angeles.  And now that I’ve lived in both, it’s odd for me to be back here.

I also drove to Scottsdale Mall last night, which is no longer there.  It has been “de-malled”, torn down and replaced with Erskine Plaza, a collection of big block stores.  I can kindof see where some parts of the old mall used to be, the McDonald’s on Miami; the Kroger across the street from the mall.  But it’s weird to see the mall gone.  I never shopped there as my main choice, but when I went to IUSB, it was the closest mall, and I always ended up there on paydays.  It’s weird to be driving through a parking lot full of strip mall, knowing a giant two-story mall used to be there.

Not much else to report.  I’m coming off a cold and need some sleep…

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Hello from the land of cheese

Hello from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I am here for the week, visiting Sarah’s family, and hoping we don’t get hit with a foot and a half of snow.  We flew in on Saturday, and took a relatively painless Southwest flight to Midway airport in Chicago, where we got a rental car and drove up.  Our plan is to spend the week here, and then drive to Indiana on the 26th and visit my side of the family for a few more days, then head back in time for work on the 31st.

The flight out proved to be the first test for the Kindle.  I sat in the airport in Oakland, browsed the store a bit, and picked up the e-version of George Carlin’s latest, which is an autobiography he had worked on for years, which was completed after his death.  No problems buying it at the last second in the airport, and I got about halfway through it on the plane.  Maybe I will save a future report for the actual end-to-end experience on the thing, but I find it pretty easy to get lost in the book.  You really do forget the interface and get lost in the writing, which I guess is one of the major concerns with any non-paper reading.  Probably the only major drawback with the Kindle is there is no old-fashioned way to give someone books for Christmas.  I guess you could give them a gift card, but I’m the kind of person who always ends up with many dead trees wrapped up and under the soon-to-be-dead tree during the holidays.  There’s no easy way to get around that.

I saw this funky documentary last night called Alone in the Wilderness, which was about this dude who went to Alaska and built a cabin, with the original plan being to stay there a year, but he ended up staying for about thirty years.  The whole time, he filmed himself cutting lumber and notching logs and building a fireplace and tracking the wildlife and surviving through a -45 degree winter.  Later, his son-in-law took all of this silent film footage, added sound effects and narration, and made it into a documentary. Its good stuff, and makes me wonder if I could ever do the same out on my land.  Of course, I don’t have a bunch of trees to cut down, and I’m not right off a lake where I could fish and haul my own water.  Still, very interesting stuff.

Time to get my act together and go off to a lunch.  Had a very good pizza for lunch yesterday, that ultra-thin crust type, from Balisteri’s.  I have no particular pizza religion between thin versus thick, but I always appreciate a good specimen of either, and this was good.

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Hello from Mexico

IMG_1643I’m writing from a hotel room in Ixtapa, Mexico, where I’ve been hanging out for almost a week.  We flew down last Saturday, and fly back on Sunday.  This has been our first real vacation since our honeymoon in the Bahamas in 2007, except for long weekends, trips back to the Midwest for holidays, and the week I took off to move into our new place, and it’s been long overdue.

Mexico’s a strange place.  First, it’s strange that my didn’t-pay-attention-twenty-years-ago Spanish is somewhat functional here, and fragments of it have been coming back to me as we stumble through menus and tours.  Yes, most of the people here, especially those in the tourism-related industries (which is pretty much all of Ixtapa and Zihuantanejo) speak English.  But they also like it when you try to use Spanish, and they all seem to love trying to teach you a few words here and there en Espanol.

We’re in one of the poorest states in the country, and once you leave our hotel, you can see it.  Ixtapa’s not much more than a marina, a row of resorts, and a couple of golf courses, but Zihua is a pretty beat city.  Walking the rows of open markets and ramshackle properties, pretty much the only high tech things you will see are Coke or Corona signs.  Any feeling you may have about being the Ugly American here is quickly dissipated by the thought that at least the pesos you’re throwing out there are going to someone who needs them.

A dollar is worth 12 or almost 13 pesos.  Prices in pesos still use the dollar sign though, which first freaked me out when I picked up a room service menu and saw a can of Coke for $35.  I can’t really tell how much we’re spending or how good or bad of a deal it is, because we’re charging a lot of stuff back to the room, and there’s the whole ‘monopoly money’ factor.  Anything less than 20 pesos you get back in change will be in coins, and the paper money is very colorful with pictures of Indians and pyramids.  Also, the Banco De Mexico on the 100 peso bill is in a font that looks like the Iron Maiden logo, which is very metal.

Most days, we have been doing nothing but sitting on the beach, reading or writing.  I have crossed the 50,000 mark on this book, which means it is officially done as far as NaNoWriMo is concerned, but it’s really like 30% done, and that’s just a first draft, so don’t look for a pre-order any time soon.  We also took a long tour where we got to see a tilemaking operation in the countryside and wander through a town that had a big open market.  It was all centered around this one Catholic church that had a Jesus that looked tragic in a Faces of Death sort of way, bewildered and on his knees dragging a cross, bloodied and beaten.  Not exactly the airbrushed and toned Jesus I was used to seeing as a kid in Indiana.

We also went on a long tour yesterday on ATVs, which was a lot of fun.  It was mostly through woods and farmland, and most of the farms here grow coconuts, or raise cattle.  We also got to cruise at top speed across a wavy oceanfront.  ATVs are fun as hell, and it makes me want to buy a couple and tear up my land in Colorado to put in some kind of dirt obstacle course.

And the bad news.  First, there was an earthquake here last Sunday.  There were actually three, a 3.7, a 4.6, and a 4.2; I think we only felt the middle one.  It wasn’t much, a very quick shake that we thought was just someone next door or maybe below us, and we didn’t hear confirmation of it until the next day.

Second, we got sick.  We were both careful about what we ate and drank, and they purify everything here at the hotel, but something got us.  It was a horrible, flu-like thing where I was feverish and totally weak for about 24 hours, and then it went away.  So, Montezuma had his revenge, but a day later, I was for the most part better.

And also, on last Sunday, I was eating a piece of cake, and one of my crowns fell out.  It was my lower rear one, and it and the tooth appeared to have no damage, but there was some sensitivity, and immediately went ballistic.  “Mexican” and “Dentist” go together like “Turkish” and “Prison”.  I got an appointment the next morning with a dentist in Zihua who had an office about as clean and friendly as my last dentist in Astoria (which isn’t saying much, but it wasn’t like the dental scene in that Tom Hanks castaway movie.)  He shot me up with novacaine, cleaned everything, glued the crown back on, told me in broken English that I needed to get it redone as soon as possible (going back next week, in the US…) and then charged me roughly  $40.  No paperwork, no insurance hassles, no waivers to sign, nothing.  It was truly a “you are not in the US anymore” moment.

So here I am, the temperature double what it is back home, no rain or gloom.  No turkey yesterday, and the only football on the tube was the no-hands variety with the round ball.  Lots of pictures to upload when I get back on a real internet connection, so stay tuned.

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Back from Germany

I’m back. Pictures are at my site here, and on flickr (although I’m liking that site less and less the more I use it.) Not everything is captioned, and yes there are a lot of pictures that are blurry and fucked up. Museums with low light, no flash allowed, glass cases, and my piece of shit camera will do that.

I enjoyed the trip and seeing new things, but I’m so glad to be back. My main two problems were food and drink. I thought I liked German food, but it turns out that I like German food made with American ingredients. There are some real differences in the quality of food in Europe. The meat is much tougher, and the pork products are cured way more, so they have this horrid taste, like if you’ve ever had shelf-stabilized bacon in a can from a camping trip or an MRE. Vegetables are all non-GMO, non-big agra, and not that incredible. I’m sure the eurotrash contingent would disagree, but I like tomatoes that are bigger than a golf ball. What was frustrating was that there are many American chain places that use German ingredients. I went to a McDonald’s hoping for the same burger and fries I’d get back home, but the meat was tough and gamey, and the potatoes in the fries didn’t have the same magical starch composition as Idaho spuds back home, making them taste odd. If I lived in Germany, I would lose 50 pounds in the first three months, because I simply wouldn’t be able to eat fast food anymore. (In fact, I lost about five pounds since we left, but I’m sure most of that is dehydration from the plane ride.)

And not all food was horrible. On our last night, we went to a more traditional German restaurant, and I had the best damn potato soup I’ve eaten in a long time. We also went to the fancy-schmancy restaurant in the hotel one night, and I got an eight-course dinner that was pretty incredible, if not a bit weird. The best dish was a cajun scampi that was lightly fried in spices, but was as tender as baby food inside, and served with a wasabi sorbet, which sounded odd, but was incredible. The main dish was three types of ox: tongue, shoulder, and breast, done up with some kind of reduction and cooked to the point where they were almost jelly. I also tried a lot of stuff I’d normally never eat, like duck liver, caviar, mackerel, and a few others. It was a strange meal, but very memorable.

Oh, the drink part – I think Germans don’t consume as much liquid as Americans. That eight glasses of water a day thing didn’t make it over there. I can understand the lack of fascination with large soda sizes; I went to a Burger King and got a super maxi size, and the soda was like 16 ounces, which is the child-size at an American fast food place. It’s hard to even find a 12-ounce Coke, let alone the 16 or 20-ounce big plastic bottles. The most popular size was a .2 liter or .33 liter. And that’s fine, but the water sizes are even more scant. Go to an American Safeway or Kroger, and you will find a million bottles of water that are a liter, if not more. (“Sport” sized.) I never, ever saw that. They don’t serve water with meals, they don’t have drinking fountains, and the water they do have is some kind of carbonated mineral water. No Dasani, no Evian, just the stuff that tastes like it will give you lead poisoning. And I drink like ten glasses of water a day, plus three or four American-sized Cokes. After a day or two of begging and pleading at restaurants to get a second four-ounce glass of water, things got old fast.

Nice things: the mass transit. There are two types of subway (S-bahn and U-bahn), plus streetcars, busses, light rail, longer rail, and the Eurail. The subway was a bit daunting at first, but it was also odd because there are no turnstiles to stop you from entering any station. There are just little paper tickets – you buy one, then stamp it in a validator machine to show you’re riding the train now. If you get caught without a validated ticket, there’s a fine, but nobody ever checked ours. If they did this in New York, there would be 40,000 people living in each station in a matter of seconds. The stations were clean, maybe as clean as a PATH train, so not sterile, but decent. Each station has digital signs telling you where the trains are going, and when the next train will arrive. (Same with bus stops.) Let me repeat that: THERE ARE SIGNS THAT TELL YOU WHEN THE NEXT TRAIN IS ARRIVING! Not “eventually”, not “at some point”, but “in two minutes”. They could never, ever, fucking ever do this in New York. And before you ask, yes the times were accurate. Trains regularly showed up a minute before the time. I never saw one run late. Another odd thing is that subway doors don’t open or close at each stop – you press a green button on the inside or the outside to open the door, and they close automatically as the train leaves. What’s weird is you can open a door as the train is slowing down for a stop. In New York, that feature would kill about 9 people a day. The trains were very nice; the S-bahn is more long-haul, above-ground stuff, while the U-bahn is underground, but more transfers to get from point to point than a NY train. But figure in that New York City hasn’t been divided and reunited and leveled by bombs over the course of the last 50 years, so their routes can be a bit more static.

In general, people in Berlin seem to be more trusting and self-policing than what I’m used to in New York. There were many times when I saw something and wondered “why doesn’t someone just steal that shit?” Like eating at a buffet restaurant, the German approach might be “just take some food, then tell us what you ate and pay for it”, where the New York version would be “Pay for the shit before you even touch it, then go through the metal detector, pick up the food, and get the fuck out of here because we’re not running a hotel.” There were many coin-op public toilets on the street (like the kind that clean themselves between uses) and it made me wonder if they could ever do that in NYC, or if people would just put in the 75 cents and move into the bathroom and never leave.

People were largely nice, and I never got called out for being an American, and didn’t have to pretend to be a Canadian or whatever. Not everyone speaks English well, but a lot do. The main problem is that we both look German enough that people assumed we were German and would start babbling away rapid-fire into conversations with us. The other problem is that German is alien enough to me that I can’t tell if a person talking in my peripheral vision is talking to a friend, talking on a cell phone, trying to get my attention, or frantically trying to tell me to stop what I’m doing because I’m about to massively fuck something up. I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell if they are talking to me, or what the tone is. I don’t understand much Spanish, but I know enough that I can figure that out when I’m here. But it really started to make me paranoid, because I was always worried there was some small social thing that I was fucking up, like if I didn’t take off my jacket when I sat at a table, I was disgracing the owner of the restaurant and he would have to challenge me to a duel. Or whatever.

The big thing about Berlin is the wall, even though it’s largely gone. Every gift shop sells little pieces of the wall, which are probably just cinderblocks smashed up into little pieces, just like the Mt. St. Helens ashes you used to be able to buy in Washington. A lot of the former lines of the wall are now outlined by twin brick lines embedded in pavement and sidewalks. Most people envision a single, long wall, like a castle wall, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. The wall zig-zagged all over the place, and it was actually two walls: a taller one on the east side, a smaller one on the West, and a DMZ between the two. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie site, which is now a Disneyland for hucksters selling cheap shit to tourists. Want a picture with a fake army guard at the checkpoint? A bath towel? Snow globe with a piece of the wall in it? Former commie t-shirts and hats? Come on down, bring your Euros. We went to the museum there, and it was the most tacky and ghetto (no pun intended) museum I’ve seen since me and Larry went to that John Dillenger museum in Brown County a decade or so ago. So yeah, the wall is a big cottage industry. And I bought a fridge magnet, so I guess I’m just contributing to it.

I can’t even begin to describe the museums we went to, although I took some photos. The German historical museum was my favorite, and did a good job of describing German history from before christ up to present. The up-to-WWI collection was an excellent primer on the early days of Romans and Huns and Emporers and Napoleon and everything else. The 20th century part was Nazi central, with a lot more than I’d expected. They had a lot of original third reich stuff, which was interesting for a bit, but after a few rows of it, it was like watching the History Channel’s WW2 marathon on repeat for days on end. It was odd that the Treaty of Versailles was called the “treaty of shame” in all of the exhibits. It was also eerie to see a display of an engine from a British bomber that was shot down over Berlin. I’m desensitized to seeing these “spoils of war” displays in museums; it was weird to see one from the other side.

We also went to a couple of art museums, which were interesting. I don’t know a lot about art or modern art, so when I see something I think is neat, I’m not thinking “wow, what does this represent?” but rather “wow, how did he do that?” I’m more interested in large-scale modern art from the welding/carpentry/stoneworking point of view than the actual art, so maybe that doesn’t make me the best critic. But the museums were great. I saw a lot of Andy Warhol at one, Picasso at the other, and Felix Gonzales-Torres had a huge showcase at one place. I also saw a Damien Hirst in there, “The Void”, the one with all the pills. That museum also had a huge display of video-based pieces, all of them incredibly odd and interesting. Like one guy was showing the movie Psycho over a 24-hour period. Maybe I should get a video projector and start filling out grant forms.

Oh, I also saw the world’s largest model train layout. There are a bunch of blurry pictures of that in there, too.

I am sure there’s more to talk about, but I need to either take a nap or try to get started on the day…

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