Let's go quickly...

     In the summer of 2010, a young couple sold most of their material belongings, quit their jobs in the restaurant industry, bought a cheap used car, and decided to travel the country.
     Their goal: to live in the humblest of ways, to hear the stories of their fellow Americans, to soothe their incessant wanderlust, to get the road beneath them. No matter how.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!

I live here now.  I've only lived here, this place - Irish Channel, Garden District, Uptown, New Orleans, the motherlovin' BIG EASY - for three months, but I live here.

This city is awash in afterglow now, post- Mardi Gras, post- St Patrick's Day, post- tourists washing up with the tide in their breastbaring expectations and green t-shirts a week later, their staggering and beads, their green plastic longneck cups shaped like hand-grenades carrying daiquiris through the Quarter, their chipper chatter and spring break fever and sculpted everything, their neckslung cameras and wannabe flings and overexultant participation.  They're being too nice, 'cause they don't wanna leave.
I live here, on Washington Avenue, a block from where pirates once lived, a block from the old muddy Mississippi, a block from where a black bloke got hisself shot a few days before Christmas, a week or so after I moved here, a helluva introduction.

The longtimers who live here, the cracktoothed sweepers and shouters, they sit and they judge gently the passersby.  They sit every day, they sit and they watch with their walking sticks not walking, just standing and sitting and good afternooning and wishing well for practically everyone except when they're yelling.  Oh, the longtimers can yell.  They yell at the young and the young men yell back and Washington Ave is a cacophony of well-meaning junkies and their mean grandmothers. 

The longtimers, the ones who stuck through Katrina, they see people come and go and so I'm no different.  The ones who left in the aftermath and came home, the ones who love but weren't stuck, they always say "You'll be back."  I say, "Well, there's plenty more country to see, and your bugs are fucking annoying."

I don't understand much of what Washington Ave has to say.  It's a lingo, a patois that hovers above my range of comprehension, an ultraviolet language laced with violence when children are playing in the cockroach-ridden leaves.

I live here, among the reasonless parades and bead-draped fences, palmettos and libidos, alligators and asphalt pores sweating humid sex and bourbon.  The destruction and the hope, the crowded Walmart and the skinny squirrels and the swampboats.  This is my environment, where holidays mean marching bands and random hospitality and stoic grandmothers hoping their boys come home from forty ounces of loud amplifiers and poor choices.

I live here, in the land of palmetto bugs and inhospitable weather and French-drenched history, big spiders, and I have a new proverb:  You can't walk barefoot in a city where walking with open containers is encouraged.

I can give you more advice, because I live here:  There is whiskey-drenched gypsy jazz on Frenchmen Street, as well as washboard blues, and young gun style shops, and vinyl, antiques, clarinets honking outside oysters from somewhere else because BP oil soiled theirs, there is flavor to be had, there are tugboats on the old muddy Mississippi who will honk at your picnic of cheap Malbec and funky cheese, there are shotgun houses that will make you rethink your architectural religion, and you might never love any other shrimp than Louisiana shrimp, if you're into shrimp.

I didn't live here before or during Katrina, but I can see her legacy.  I see bare frames, rotten walls, broken boards, concrete holes, bricks gone missing, and longtimers with low faces.  I walk down Washington Ave, just one street among a thousand, see the transition from artistic privileged insured cuteness to downtrodden welfare drugslinging necessity from house to house to house, and then there's the For Sale signs, and then there's the abandoned truck, and then there's the expensive newly-refurnished condo, and then there's the congregation of brownbagging unfortunates at Nick's Supermarket (slash crackhouse, slash boozepalace, slash godknowswhat), and then the adorable bistro and the Starbucks.  The tables are rickety, the sidewalk is crooked, but Miley Cyrus was there a few weeks ago. 

They love their Saints here.  They love their celebrations.  Yes, yes, yes Mardi Gras is still alive and kicking, it doesn't kick your teeth in but it kicks and scrambles and it's striving, no doubt.  WHO DAT is aloud and well.  The beads and beer keep flowing.  The party rages, the parishes rage against the dying and the blight.  The parades trudge on, and those masks they grin and glow and throw what cheap pride they've manufactured on the cheap in China to everyone who's waiting, because Oh, they're screaming THROW ME SOMETHIN' MISTAH! and New Orleans, if nothing else, will never... ever... let you down.

I live here, physically for now but my soul lives here for a bit longer.  What keeps me, it's the god-be-damned stamina of a barely Catholic swamp, who've survived whatever whatever deity threw at them, and cultivated their tiny slivers of solid ground to grow chainlinks and crawfish, to sweep sidewalks and say thank you, to pray the river gets clean and the Gulf gets clean and the gods of the water don't hit 'em no more, to keep their younguns outta jail, to keep the rich folk a'comin', to keep that Delta singin' like it used to, the song of the South, the sound of the longtimers, the longriver, the strong swamp sense of living. Forever.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cleveland and Everything After

The hills slowly gave way to an interminable flatness. Route 86 west, straight west, as the crow flies, swooping south only slightly enough to avoid driving directly into a Great Lake.
We found ourselves in Cleveland a few hours after sundown (given that the sun sets around 4.30p nowadays) and stopped at The ABC Tavern, an unpretentious hipster-slash-old regulars joint with an open kitchen and black-and-white pinups of naked women on the walls. The question of the night, via our hoarse barkeep: "Where are you guys staying tonight?" We had no idea.

You go, Cleveland, with your colorful self.

Actually, I retract that. The question of the night came from a grizzled man in a camouflage jacket and close-cropped grey hair named Paul, when he stumbled over and inquired if we would kindly watch his coat as "there's $600 worth of coke in my pocket, and I gotta piss." Paul was 86'd shortly thereafter.

We drove roughly a half-hour outside of Cleveland and inadvertently took a toll road. We've been avoiding these for two reasons: 1, the cost and 2, the scenery. However, the service plaza proved to be an excellent place to sleep. When the rainstorm hit, the monotonous pattering drowned out the turnpike traffic. When the windows fogged from our body heat, the halogen parking-lot lamps became a hazy glow. And when morning came and we got off the earliest exit, we reveled in the fact that we'd paid fifty cents for a cozy night's sleep.

"...amber waves of grain..."

Our unending oblate road continued through the remainder of Ohio and the crown of Indiana. Cornfield upon cornfield, already harvested and littered with decapitated stalks in faded hues of once-green/gold/brown, occasionally broken up by acres of tilled soil and enormous silos. The heartland. Purple clouds rested lazily on the horizon like mounds of fabric on a cold wood table.
Prairie towns led into brick-laid villages led into rustic hamlets led into... miles of nothing, interrupted by the occasional long-haul trailer or Amish buggy.

We only got the buggy! We didn't steal any souls!

And then Jen started recognizing town names, and the farmland turned into suburbs, and our westerly course abruptly veered north -- to

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fear And Loathing In Binghamton, New York

Visiting one's hometown often serves as a reminder as to why you left in the first place. Binghamton, sadly, is no exception. Sure, there were high points -- spending time with my kids, working in a kitchen again, seeing old friends... But the routines are the same. No new friends made. Nothing's changed. The spiedies don't taste quite as good as I recall. The bars are full of the same desperate, glum faces.

The typical Belmar patron on a bustling Friday night

And feeling cooped up in an area known only for being miserably overcast and spawning "The Twilight Zone", any relationship would suffer. Especially one based on nomadic, romantic adventures.
Such is the soul-sucking vampirism of this city that when Jen tearfully told me - after our umpteenth alcohol-fueled fight sparked by trivialities - that she was leaving for Chicago without me, it took almost a full day to work up the emotional wherewithal to understand I was supposed to be heartbroken.
Don't get me wrong, I was. I had to dig through the grey depression and apathetic exhaustion to find that pain, though. When I did find it (thankfully), we mended the holes and are doing pretty damn well now, thankyouverymuch.

It helps that we finally up and left Binghamton behind. If it weren't for the brilliant hospitality, patience, goodwill and energy of our dear friends at the Commune (and you know who you are), I fear that wretched city might have been the end of us. Fortunately, we narrowly escaped the Charybdis-like vortex of the Southern Tier and headed west. WEST! Literature speaks volumes of the direction's healing powers.

Apparently, these go on and on and on and on...

And it was in the vast cornfields, endless skyscapes and rolling miles beneath us that we rediscovered our wanderlust.

Next: Cleveland and Everything After

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Low Country, part 2

With very little money at our disposal as we try to save up for gas money, food, and necessities, entertainment becomes either creative or not-happening. And as Jen's been working like crazy lately between bartending at a biker bar and occasionally serving at a chain restaurant, I've mostly been sitting around watching 'Torchwood' episodes. Until our Netflix subscription ran out, anyway.
So on her day off, we agreed to get out of the house and see some local flavor.

Our first stop was Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery north of Charleston. The monks here maintain several acres of public garden as part of their tradition, and while they offer daily tours (which we missed) they generally seclude themselves. We only saw one monk running the gift shop.
There was a small garden directly beside the gift shop, with a walkway that led to the abbey - until we were stopped by this polite little sign.

Alongside the shell-and-sand driveway on the way into the larger gardens, the monks had carved scriptural scenes into enormous tree trunks. The detail wasn't great, but the ambition was memorable. I chuckled at the mental image of a robed monk with safety goggles and a chainsaw, hacking away at a helicopter-sized oak stump.

The gardens hug the Cooper River, and since this region is at sea level it feels as if the river could swell and swallow the entire countryside on a whim's notice. But it won't, because it's a peaceable river. In fact, I think the whole garden joined the monks in their vows of silence and contemplation.
We wandered through a lush, hushed labyrinth thick with native grasses and seeding plants. Butterflies and grasshoppers swirled and jumped and we walked, walked, walked around paths that waved and tucked in on themselves in a weirdly mystical fashion. If I ever settle down long enough to have a yard of any sort, I want a labyrinth like this.

After Mepkin Abbey, we drove down the road to Strawberry Chapel. Built in 1725, it borders the now-nonexistent town of Childesbury and still holds annual services. Why anyone would want to worship in this dilapidated and utterly eerie chapel is beyond me.
Surrounded by a Confederate-era cemetery -- and "cemetery" is a loose description, as most of the gravesites are scattered apparently aimlessly in random clusters -- it's not surprising that this area has its own ghost story.
According to legend, the granddaughter of James Child (founder of Childesbury in 1707) was boarding with a French schoolmaster in 1748. That May, the seven-year-old Catherine Chicken got homesick and ran away. The schoolmaster, fearing severe retribution due to Catherine's prestigious family ties, went looking for her and found her on a road near Cooper River, near Strawberry Chapel. As punishment for her indolence, he tied her securely to a tombstone and left her there overnight.
A slave from Strawberry Plantation stumbled across her while walking through the chapel grounds and, finding a small white girl cold and unconscious, ran back to tell his master. The French schoolmaster was summarily run out of Childesbury. Catherine was forever traumatized. Later photographs of her, even as an adult, show sunken eyes and a faraway, distant look. After she died, locals reported hearing the tortured sobs of a young girl in the burial grounds of Strawberry Chapel.
The spirit of Mistress Chicken cannot rest.

Next: I have no idea.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Low Country, Part 1

Charleston, SC, is Jen's hometown. We arrived almost a week ago, and the first thing Jen insisted on doing was visiting her old water hole, the Icehouse.
As you can see, the liquor bottles are mounted upside down. These inverted racks cover the entire ceiling behind the bar (I'm estimating somewhere around 200 bottles), and the bartender uses a long glass tube to press up on a mechanism that releases the liquor, it flows down the tube, and into a shotglass. Genius!

The sky here is different. Bigger, somehow. Further away. The clouds look like they're practically in outer space. The heat is searing, the sunlight is almost audible. My skin crackled the first time I stepped out of the car.

Our first few days we spent exploring -- wandering through downtown Charleston, admiring the colonial architecture and meandering around Folly Beach. We visited an old cemetery, which has always been an interesting place for both of us. In fact, I don't think we've been in a city yet without examining its burial grounds. Not sure what that says about us.

Some girls playing on a sweltering day in the Charleston Pier fountain:

We're at a point in our journey now where our saved funds are low, almost nonexistent. Finding entertainment becomes a challenge, as does the next meal. Thankfully, Jen's ex- Serena has been remarkably gracious about us sleeping on her couch. Despite two other roommates and an extra dog, it's been quite nice. They're wonderful girls, great company, and deserving of thanks.

Free entertainment - stellar graffiti behind an old plaza near Folly Beach:

And of course, Angel Oak. I cannot express how completely magical this place is. The site itself claims the tree is about 400 years old, but Wikipedia puts it at ~1500 years old. Regardless, this off-the-beaten-path wonder of nature completely silenced us. It's Tolkeinesque in its grandeur and mystery. The twisting roots, the branches laying against the earth, the sheer immensity of it made us feel like we were in a natural cathedral. Hushed and humbled.

Now, I'm looking for work. Jen's already got two jobs, because she's awesome like that. My favorite - in theory anyway; today's her first day and I have yet to hear how it's going - is bartending at 8am for a members-only club by a trailer park. Who goes to a bar at 8am?! (Nevermind, I probably would.) It's a biker joint, and has a tough reputation.
No worries, folks. Jen's tough as nails. Tougher, actually. Nails are afraid of her.

Fingers crossed that we can scrape together enough gas money to keep us moving!

NEXT: Further updates from The Low Country as they develop

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Maryland, aka Jen's First Camping Trip

We had every intention of driving from Binghamton straight to Virginia, camping at a halfway point, and ending up in Charleston, SC, the day after. But Pennsylvania's a big effing state, and with a couple of stops it took a few more hours than expected. We stumbled upon a random park - Cunningham State Park, Manor Area - somewhere in Maryland and after having been frustrated by Virginian campsites not answering their phones or being ridiculously expensive, we settled.
Virginia may be for lovers, but I reckon it's not for vagabonds.

Luckily the camping area was fairly deserted -- I had hoped Jen's first experience camping outside would be much like what I remembered as a child: no man-made cacophony, just acorns falling a hundred feet from above onto the glacial boulders and deep brown humus, the random scrabblings of small forest creatures, and the whispering wind scraping against the nylon exterior of our two-man tent.
Well, and Bella's insistent barking at every non-urban noise, of course...

Jen forbade me from pitching the tent or starting a fire without her. It brought a grin to this country boy's face to see her schoolgirl glee at how quickly the tent popped up, how a sleeping bag curls up, the collection of firewood. Oh, my pyromaniac girlfriend... /laugh -- She spent most of the twilight hours collecting sticks and throwing them on the fire, haphazardly, hoping for a raging flame that would light up the entire site.
Evolution fail: Looking like a stick sucks when humans look for kindling.

Night fell, and Jen convinced me that Bella could sleep in the tent. Confined in such a small space, the dog was anxious. Her first time sleeping with rocks and acorns under her back, Jen was nervous. I was ready to snore, which I suppose sounds insensitive, and I guess I'm sorry about that.
The constant thunk of tree-nuts bombing down around us started to wear on the girls. On the verge of falling deep, deep under, I heard a slightly anomalous sound and sat up quickly. I strained to listen, Jen was breathing quickly, and Bella was curled tightly into a corner. Then a jingling sound, like keys, or coins. Not a sound you normally associate with nature.

I snapped into protective mode as Jen clutched me, shivering. "What is it? What's out there?" I tried to reassure her that the odds of anyone wandering around were practically zero, but I still unzipped the door enough to call, "HELLO?" No answer.
Jen asked me to go to the car, get the stun-gun (we carry one for nonlethal protection), and after taking one look at her kneeling, shuddering silhouette I couldn't help but acquiesce. I stepped outside.
I came back into the tent, and as I was sitting down, my pockets jingled.
About sixty-three cents of terror, I reckon.

My bad.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Binghamton, NY

It's always strange going home. I think it's possibly even stranger that I still call it "home" when I haven't lived there in a year, and won't be going back anytime soon. It's where I come from.

Jen & I stayed about a week at The Commune - our tongue-in-cheek name for my friends Sean & Vicki's place, where at any given time there are 7-8 people meandering around. They are, by far, the MOST hospitable people I've ever met. Sean tried to get us to stay another week.

Technically, I'm from Warren Center, PA - about 30 mins south of Binghamton. Wednesday I drove Jen around the "bustling metropolis" of my podunk hometown, to give her a visual background to the stories she's heard over the past few months. Jen's a city girl; it was refreshing to see someone so giddy about cows, geese, open countryside, rolling hills, silence.

That night, The Commune initiated Jen into the tribe in true tree-guy fashion... by hoisting her 45' into a willow.

We took a day to spend with my kids at the Discovery Center, and the gods only know why I didn't have the presence of mind to take pictures. A 2-year old girl wearing a frog costume and pretending to buy a cartload of ice-cream at the faux grocery? I know, I'm kicking myself too.

Most nights were spent at The Commune, drinking Rolling Rock and playing various card games, curling up on our sleeping bags late at night or early in the morning. I guess that IS home, in a way, as it's how I spent most of 2009 prior to moving to Boston.

Geocaching with Sean and Las...

By the end of the week, we were all exhausted and hovering somewhere between a binge-fueled fog of haziness and the imminent hangover we all dreaded. Sean cursed my name repeatedly. It was glorious.
We were shooting for Virginia upon departure but only made it to Maryland, which is where I'll pick up on my next post.

Until then...