Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Long Drive Down Part 1: Chicago to Austin


Mexico?  Why Mexico?  Are you nuts???
Well, here's the short story:  Janan and I have for years discussed living abroad for a year to give our kids (now aged 7 and 9) a glimpse of the real world and a more than just a taste of another culture.  The benefits are obvious (language skills, more open mindedness perhaps, and fun) and philosophically, the process is important.  For a nation that is now the sole "super power", the fact that only about 15% of Americans possess a passport is, well - shocking, frightening, and downright pathetic.  Given our country's pervasive role in world affairs, I personnaly think Americans have an obligation to attempt to visit and understand other parts of the world. At least until we stop demanding that they act more like us before we blow their country up.  So, with our kids at the right age, now was the time to go for it.  We love Mexico, and frankly, it's easier than somewhere else with a significantly different time zone for us to continue our daily involvement in Webster's and The Bluebird.  But what about all the violence and danger???  Well, I used to live in Humboldt Park in Chicago, and it's only a 1/2 mile from where we live now in Chicago, and frankly, I'd feel safer at a park in Juarez than I would in dozens of neighborhoods in Chicago. Oops... I promised a long story short:  we found a place to stay, a school for the kids for the year, got plane tickets for Janan and the kids, segregated a pile of our crap we needed down south that wouldn't fit in the overhead compartment, recruited a co-pilot for my 2,000+ mile drive, and tied up loose ends at home.  Off to Mexico!


Departure time.  Packed up the entire car, and I mean the entire car.  Suitcases and plastic containers of clothes, boxes of bedding, miscellaneous kids' crap, and of course my music gear which included four guitars ( a bass, a classical, an acoustic, and an electric), a new full-sized electric piano (ostensibly for Alya), mics, mic stands, cables, etc., and of course computers, a monitor, and god knows what else.  The Volvo was crammed to the bursting point, with each inch of space as carefully planned to contain something useful - much like the Space Shuttle.

Fortunately my co-pilot Barry Walsh claimed to have completed a minor in Ergonomics, "the science of saving space".  I didn't bother to comment to Barry that when he got that minor, a computer was the size of a refrigerator.  With some serious muscle, we were able to get the rear hatch slammed shut, and we were off on the road...

In brilliant fashion, with a full day of driving ahead of us, we pulled out of my garage at 5:30pm (a genius move, it being rush hour) and plunged into the parking lot known as the Dan Ryan in Chicago.  We covered a whopping 2.1 miles in the first 30 minutes, putting us on track for a 40 day drive to Austin at that rate per my calculations.  

Notice the 0 mph.

Needless to say, traffic eventually began to flow.  And after another 30 minutes in the car and all of 15 miles we had to stop, at Barry's insistence, at Calument Fisheries - a small take-out fish joint famous for its smoked fish.  

"This isn't on any travel map.  Let's get some smoked chubs."  Barry Walsh
This small dive, located right by the bridge that the Blues Brothers jumped over in their classic movie ("Our Lady of Acceleration, don't fail us now!" as Elwood said...), is literally famous:  this place actually won a James Beard award and was recently featured on Anthony Bourdain's TV show.  It was amazing, so we packed up some smoked shrimp, fried smelts, and some garlic peppercorn smoked salmon and hit the road.  No lie - I am still dreaming about the smoked salmon - it was undeniably the best smoked fish I have ever eaten in my entire life, and that was while eating it with fingers sitting jammed in a stuffed station wagon on a 100 degree day.  And the crispy fried smelts with spicy sauce were amazing too.  Barry was correct in exclaiming "We hit gold! We hit smelt gold!"

And time for a little background on Barry...
Barry is a dear friend from the very early days of Webster's Wine Bar.  In fact, Janan and I met Barry before we opened.  He was the first distributor rep we sat with to talk about the wine bar idea and to learn a few things about the Chicago wine biz.  Barry likes to say "I tried to talk them out of it."  Which is true.  He thought we were too nice and that it was too risky (or maybe he didn't think we could pull it off).  Needless to say we ignored his advice.  Barry and I went on to be very close friends with many crazy adventures over the next 8 years.  Such things as skating down to the Sox stadium (about a 10 mile round trip) the day I got my new Bauer roller blades (I literally was ringing blood out of my socks when I made it home, as Barry laughed...) or roller blading to pick up his Xmas tree one year and skating thru he city with it to his apartment (that got some good looks).  Anyway, Barry moved off to S. Cal several years ago, and after a recent visit to Chicago during which I softened him up with about 4 glasses of Southern French rosé, I convinced him to join me on this drive down to Mexico.  Alas, he could only go as far as Austin, but my plot succeeded:  I now had a co-pilot.  And the perfect one:  on many an evening in years prior, after a few glasses of wine, Barry and I had planned out a variety of fabulous road trips, including detailed consultations with maps of North America.  Nunuvit, Canada - up on Hudson Bay near the arctic circle - was high on the list, as was a Chicago to Tierra del Fuego trip (admittedly unrealistic, at least once the wine wore off).  Unfortunately, for a variety of sensible reasons, none of these journeys ever came to fruition.  So when Barry said "Tom, I'm in!" I knew he was serious.  Ten or more years late, but that didn't matter.  The long-discussed road trip was finally going to happen.   And now back to the trip...

Despite our glacial pace for the first 2 hours (we covered somewhere near a whopping 40 miles in that amount of time), we decided to forge on without interruption Champaign, IL.  Barry has a business friend who owns a wine bar there called Bacaro, so it seemed sensible to make the 5 mile detour to check it out and stretch the legs.

Working on the road.  Always working....
His friend was out of town, so we had a quick glass of Slovenian pinot gris, used the loo, and got back on the road with the intention of quickening the pace, which thus far was 127 miles in 4.5 hours.

Another hour and 60 miles or so got us to Effingham, IL, sight of the world's largest metal cross at 198 feet tall.  So we pulled over, asked for directions at a gas station from some kid who looked exactly (and I mean exactly) like a young Abe Lincoln (which led me to the conclusion that "everything in southern Illinois is either about Jesus or Abe").  So Barry literally asked the young man, "so... how do we get to that big cross...".  The kid seemed unfazed.  Must happen all the time.  So we got directions, which we really didn't need as we could have just followed all the signs to "THE CROSS" (picture an arrow beneath pointing the way...).  So we drove right up to it...

From 500 yards.  Yikes!

I'm sorry, but that thing gave me the creeps.  You could build about 50 homes for the homeless with all that material, but obviously that wasn't high on the priority list of whoever built this thing.  And I couldn't quite get my arms around whether this thing was intended to inspire piety and faith or remind everyone who's in charge down there.  (Actually I wasn't really ever in any doubt - I think we all know the answer to that question).  I was expecting it to suddenly burst into flames at any moment, and I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see a group of guys wearing pointy hoods...  So I was quite relieved when Barry got  my paranoid vibe and agreed to get the hell out of there...

The beauty of the road at night...

We finally arrived at our overnight destination of Metropolis, IL.  The humidity had to be 99%, it was after 1 am, and the temperature was somewhere in the mid 90's.  Our lovely Holiday Inn suite had all the comforts one would expect:  a perpetual aroma of damp tobacco and sheets that could only be described as "dewey".  With the AC cranked as high as it could go, the room's humidity dropped to bearable by the time we had to get up and go.  We didn't linger in our palatial room, as this town is the official home of Superman, and there were plenty of legendary sights to see:
Barry and the "Man of Steel" outside the Metropolis, IL Town Hall
Yet this town was not without controversy, as you can see:

Barry and "Big John" the grocer.
You'll notice that "Big John" is easily twice as big as Superman.  Given the knee deep "truth, justice, & American way" sentiment oozing thru the streets of this town, we were a bit stunned to find Superman playing such a clear second-fiddle to Big John.  Barry figured that was, of course, due to the fact that while Superman was a fine hero and all, Big John was a gentleman AND a grocer, responsible for feeding the masses and preserving countless lives day in and day out through the years.  Made sense to me...

And I loved this mural painted on a wall across from the Town Hall & Police Station:

This sort of thing makes me feel safe in these troubled times.  Sorry, but I had to crop out the rest of the photo - Sarah Palin in the Wonder Woman outfit with an M-50 machine gun cradled in her arms just wouldn't fit itself in the frame of my camera lens...

And getting all caught up in the spirit, we decided to try our hands at being super:

The shorts were a little binding, but it felt great to have six pack abs again...

By now it was nearly 11:00 am, and what was becoming alarmingly typical on this 1,400 mile journey was an absolute lack of progress in the first half of the day.  We were 2 hours out of our hotel room and 2 miles down the road.  And we decided that we had to stop, of course, at the nearby confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  As Barry logically pointed out, "we'll almost certainly never be here again," which I knew was the absolute truth if I had anything to say about it, so I reluctantly agreed the plan, feeling somewhat placated by the knowledge that we would at least put another 42.7 miles behind us.  But of course, we noticed a place on our way out of town that Americans surely remember for it's great significance to the history of our nation, Fort Massac, on the Ohio River smack in the middle of the city of Metropolis, IL:

Barry was disappointment to find that his theory that Fort Massac gave us the word "massacre" in English thanks to a nearby historical plaque, but he enjoyed himself at the sight none the less, as you can see above. At least until a swarm of wasps drove him rather quickly out of the fort.  About as quickly as the French gave it up, rather predictably, in 1778 without a single shot being fired.  You gotta love the French.

So we skipped out of Metropolis and Fort Massic and covered the 42 miles, 40 of which made up our only part of the trip in the state of Kentucky (we took a short cut through that fine state - really, it was a short cut).

I donned the appropriate head gear upon crossing into Kentucky...
But we weren't in Kentucky long, and pushed on to the former sight of Fort Defiance, IL (yes, back into Illinois), to the southernmost point of my great home state (and the precise point from which General Grant launched his fleet to take Vicksburg in 1863). The site today is just a mud covered finger of land sticking out to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers with, once again, thousands of wasps.  And mosquitos.  And 95 percent humidity and 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  A lovely place.  So we slopped thru the mud and dodged the bugs to take a quick look:

The Confluence of the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers
And as you can see above, it was quite a thrilling sight.  I can only imagine what colorful oaths 
General Grant must have muttered the several weeks he was stuck there swatting bugs and kicking mud off his formerly shiny boots.  We muttered an oath or two, just to maintain the continuum of our nations eloquent history, and got in the car and got the heck out of, not only this particular place, but the state of Illinois once and for all.

So we crossed the Mississippi, putting us in Missouri, and headed down 57 towards Memphis.  I'm sure you all know that any tour of Memphis is incomplete, of course, without a visit to the home of the second most important religious icon in America.  I'm referring not to the King of Kings, but of course, to just "THE KING". And his kingdom is Graceland:

What a living room!
The only man who could wear this in Tennessee and NOT get the crap kicked out him?  Elvis.
A favorite photo of the visit - a tribute all the way from Brazil.
The whole place was neon, even the grave sites...
Really, what else is there to say?
Now, it's worth mentioning that coming into Memphis from the west, the city itself could be described as a classic example of the potential failings of modern American capitalism & globalism:  shuttered manufacturing enterprises crumbling away, significant poverty, and obviously high unemployment.  But Graceland really is a miracle of sorts, or at least a true blessing (of the economic kind):  there must have been at least 300 people employed, maybe more.  And on a rainy day, we must have seen around 1,000 other people there taking the $35 tour in just the hour and a half we were there.  Amazing.  And as you can see from the next photo below, we were doubly blessed by having the King himself join us in our tour group (in a clever disguise, of course, not wanting to let his fans know that he really does live, as it succinctly says on all those bumper stickers you see):

So we did our thing and worshipped at the shrine of the swinging son of Vernon and Galdys Presley, and then took at quick drive over to Memphis' famous Beale Street:

Barry & the Sweet Potato Queen of Memphis
Our lunch spot.  Certainly was plenty of grease...
Deep fried pickles!  They know how to eat down South...
Beale Street is Memphis' well known strip of small music clubs, kitschy shops & little eateries.  We were ready for a late lunch, so Barry grabbed some a propos fried chicken and waffles while I opted for the healthier fried bologna sandwich with fried green tomatoes and fried pickles (yes, fried pickles).  Man those fried pickles were good, especially with an ice cold beer! 
The Flying Saucer, Little Rock, Arkansas
But it was time to get back on the road, as we aimed to get through the entire state of Arkansas with just one break in Little Rock for a quick bite and a beer at the Flying Saucer, which actually was a very cool bar with an amazing beer list but, predictably, lousy bar food.  Barry surmised that the name, with its alien theme, must have evolved from the obvious fact that good bars like this are an alien concept in Arkansas.  I'm buying it, because as far as I was able to tell, this one place was the only thing of interest in the entire state of Arkansas (we were, after all, in the heart of the downtown "strip" of the largest city and capitol of the state, and this was the ONLY thing worth checking out).  So, feeling fully refreshed, we hopped back in the shuttle and hit the throttle...

Five states down (IL, KY, MO, TN, AK) and only on big one left before the border...
We drove from Memphis to Texarkana (unsurprisingly, this town is on the border of Arkansas and Texas - we never did get an explanation why they decided to drop the essess from the "Arkansas" part) .  Like every city in Texas this summer, Texarkana is a nightmare of construction.  I think we saw over 100,000 of them in Texarkana and Dallas alone.  Maybe "W" is now in the orange barrel business.

Stopped somewhere in the middle of Texas outside some nameless town to grab some apparently famous beef jerky from a place called Robertson's (which I must admit was tasty as far as dried meat products are concerned), along with other various smoked meat products.  Having recently ditched the rest of the smoked salmon, we were in serious need of smoky snacks for our own pleasure and for that strong smoke aroma to mask the other inevitable scents that begin to manifest themselves after 1,000 miles of two dudes being being cramped into a small space on the road with limited breaks.

A little diversion here for a few comments on Texas:  First - fantastic people.  Genuinely friendly, well mannered, & helpful.  Second - a great place if you love guns and barbecue.  Third - probably not the best place to live if you aren't white and christian and republican (Austin excluded, of course).  Just a helpful observation.  Now back to the story...

So an hour or so into Texas we happened upon the Audie Murphy museum in the town of Greenville, an appropriately Texan tribute to America's most decorated GI from WWII:

I've read Audie's autobiography To Hell and Back more than once and highly recommend it as one of the great memoirs from the grunt's eye view of the reality of war.  But in Texas they take particular pride in Audie's honor of not only being a hero but of having killed more Germans with a rifle than any other soldier in the Allied armies.  Texas seems to enjoy memorializing vilolent death (as our visit to Dallas would soon confirm) and as Barry commented, "visiting this museum makes you want to go out and shoot some Krauts."  Fortunately, we were unarmed and well fed.  Not to diminish Audie's hereoism, but yes, one gets the sense that war is a sporting adventure down in Texas.  Oddly enough, the museum also gets double billing as the "Cotton Museum", complete with a history of the region's cotton production, notable machinery, etc. including many photos.  Strikingly absent, despite the presence of numerous African American slaves in several of the photos of cotton fields, mills, and warehouses, was a single reference to the words "slave" or "slavery".  Barry & I actually wondered if Texas may have never allowed slavery (if they did, surely they would own up to it to some degree in this museum in 2010, no?).  Well, according to Wickepedia, "The Cotton industry flourished in East Texas where enslaved labor became most widely used."  Hmmmm.  Maybe they just have short memories in Texas...  

Barry & the Cotton Museum's display of tools (without mention of who used them...)
I wanted to get to the bottom of this, but with Michigan plates and an Illinois driver's license in a state where it's legal to carry concealed firearms, I restrained myself from asking the museum staff why they had failed to mention the role of slavery in their county and decided it was best to be moving towards that tiny island of liberal thinking callled Austin (reminder: Webster's dictionary definition of liberal: "tolerant, broad-mined, favoring reform or progress".   Something we should all strive to be, no?  Alas...).  So for the second time on this trip (recall the giant cross), I was oh so happy to get back into that smoky and fishy scented Volvo wagon and get back on the road...

So we got the hell out of east Texas and rolled into Dallas.  The most somber part of the entire 1300 mile journey from to Chicago to Austin was our stop in Dallas.  Barry and I both intended to take in as much as we could from this trip and to visit sites of meaning, without constraint on what that meaning should be (historic, popluar, etc. - evident in our stops so far...), so we almost bypassed Dallas until I reminded Barry that we may want to take a quick visit to Dealey Plaza, the infamous site of JFK's assassination.  So of course, we did (FYI we agreed from the start that we both would probably never do this again in our lives nor be in these spots again, so why not do it?)  Shockingly (but not surprisingly) the site of JFK's assassination appears to be Dallas' biggest tourist attraction.  We walked amongst people speaking Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, and a few other unrecognized languages.  And the city clearly wanted the site to be a tourist attraction, complete with a painted "X marks the spot" right in the street:

Looking toward the book depository (building on the far left)
To the left in the above photo is the "grassy knoll" (not really in the photo) and the brick building to the left rear is the infamous Book Depository building, the upper right corner window of which Oswald is said to have propped his rifle and alter the course of American history.  Barry and I chatted with a gentleman selling magazines and DVDs at the site proposing a conspiracy.  Turns out it was Robert Groden - a former photographic consultant to the House Select Committee on Assassinations and a technical consultant (and actor in) Oliver Stone's film JFK.  Seems a little fishy, or maybe absurd is the better word, that with such credentials the guy is sitting in 113 degree heat (yes, 113 degrees) selling magazines and DVDs for $15.  But it really was Robert Groden, and his magazine does have actual photographs and other evidence that are still unavailable to the public. (So Barry and I,. of course, got the magazine and DVD - hey, we only pass this way once...).  Haven't watched the DVD but the magazine evidence for multiple shooters and other evidence supporting a conspiracy is quite compelling.  But anyway...

We got out of Dallas and it's blistering heat as soon as possible.  I think Barry correctly assessed the situation when he stated that "I think the reason they are all so religious down here is because it actually feels like hell outside."  I think he may have hit the nail on the head.  

So, another 2.5 hours in the car and we got to Austin.  Wow, what a cool town.  Not temperature-wise - it was hotter than two hamsters farting in a wool sock, as they say in the South.  But I mean cool as in hip - really.  Amazing live music, nice people, great food, and.... well, for Texas, that's all I needed to feel at home.  The people of Austin know it's a special place and not really part of Texas, too.  They like to say "You can see Texas from here."  We had a great time and a great brunch the next day complete with one of the best bands and female vocalist/piano players I have ever heard - all for free (the music, that is):

(She's the one to left - the dude with the hat singing was good too, but she was phenomenal...)

Then I dropped Barry off to the airport, drove 3 hours to Laredo, TX (a bit of a dump of a border town), bought a crappy map of Mexico, checked myself in to a Holiday Inn that was last renovated in the early 70s', and then spent a few hours tracking down a good web site with Mexico highway info. I was desperate for good maps and info and I was a bit paranoid - I'd heard all kinds of rumors of Mexican car jackings and corrupt police pull-overs, and I was determined to narrow the odds of mishaps as best I could.  So I ended the night with a bit of trepidation, a sense of longing and regret that the 1,650 mile journey from Chicago had come to a conclusive milestone here at the Mexican border, and missing my witty and loyal co-pilot (whom I'd taked to calling Captain Walsh).  But I knew more adventure lay ahead and I was looking forward to it.  Just not too much adventure, if you know what I mean....

Coming soon...  The Long Drive Down Part 2:  Laredo, TX to San Miguel de Allende, MX


  1. looks great tom! man, i love roadtrips! the picture from the flying saucer in little rock is EPIC.