Monthly Archives: July 2013

Show Me Something

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Mizz-o-ruh. It’s St. Louis, Kansas City and Missouri in the middle. I’m leaving the south behind by any definition now, and I’m going to a place where the plains stretch for miles and miles. I wanted some BBQ from KC, but will settle for a night in Joplin.

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Call Off the Hounds, Brother! The Thrilling Story of One Young Man, His Diesel Jetta, and Their Fight for Survival in the Ozarks…

I had made it to the Southern edge of the Ozark National Forest, about a 2 hours’ drive via the interstate from my destination in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  A quick analysis of the map confirmed that I could enjoy a thrilling drive through the Ozarks and would only be adding an hour to my trip!  Onward north via Arkansas Route 7 it was.  I knew I had reached a mecca for drivers when I encountered this friendly sign:

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53 miles of hills and curves!  What a wonderful few hours I had ahead of me!  The time was 7:20, and I was soldiering on, hoping to find a nice vista somewhere in the Ozarks before the sun had set.  Not more than a few miles in, I came across a stone/dirt road to my left, labeled as Pope County Route 70.  A labeled county highway, it had to be navigable, right?  I turned off onto the road, and set a comfortable cruising speed at between 17 and 20 mph.  While the road was in the middle of nowhere, and likely saw on the order of a single digit number of travelers weekly, it was in very navigable condition indeed.

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Pope County Route 70, known locally as Dare Mine Road

In just a few minutes, I encountered deer, hawks and of course all kinds of other birds and other critters of the forest.  I turned the radio off, lowered the windows a few inches, and crept on, in awe of the forest around me, and in eager anticipation of coming across a scenic view from which I could snap a stellar photo.  I still had decent, if spotty, reception, and was able to keep tabs on the Phillies game during these first few miles.  While the road was wide enough at some spots to turn around utilizing a 7 or 9 point turn, I didn’t want to backtrack.  I made sure to check out the GPS – and had a path selected.  I would continue on Dare Mine Road, taking a right on Indian Creek Road, and subsequently making a right on Silver Creek Trail.  This final road would have me back on Route 7 well within the hour.  My plan to see the Ozarks was coming to fruition.  It was not yet 7:40.

As I continued on Dare Mine Road, the conditions slowly deteriorated, but were still easily passable, as you can see from this photo, approximately 3 miles into my trip:

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I trudged further into the forest, and the deteriorating conditions continued deteriorating, giving way to portions of the roadway which were laden with rocks and boulders.  It was obvious that someone had, at some point, maintained the road, however, as this was all still passable.  I had, however, reduced my cruising speed from 17-20 in 3rd gear to 10 in 2nd gear, making occasional trips down to the single digits in first gear in order to get through particularly rocky stretches.  Another mile in, and I reached a fork in the road.  GPS indicated that I go straight, to get over to Indian Creek Road, however, that path did not appear easily cross-able.  I stopped my Jetta and embarked on foot to survey my options.

 

Choice 1:

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Choice 2:

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Several creeks converged in this area, and for me to proceed onward to Route 7, I was going to have to cross them.  Choice 1 offered a direct path across the stream which formed as two others met, yet was wider, featured places up to a foot deep, and was formed of a bed of loose rocks.  Choice 2, while necessitating that I cross 2 streams, proved far easier.  The first stream would be forded by the Jetta.  At this point of the forest, the loose rocks had not yet settled, and my tires would be gliding across far more stable rock.  The depth was similar, while the width was not nearly as daunting.  Most enticingly, however, was the paved bridge I noticed which would allow me to traverse the second, larger stream which formed up to create the stream I would have had to ford in Choice 1.

Choice 2 it was.  I plodded forward methodically, and upon making it successfully across the first stream, stopped for a triumphant photo.

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A half mile further down the road, I crossed a campground, which had been recently utilized – as there were several empty cases of Miller Lite and a few cans strewn about.  A good sign – someone else had been here, and has successfully left.

Only a few miles south of the merger with Silver Creek Trail, I proceeded cautiously, in anticipation of finding the trail shortly.  It was beginning to get dark, and I had lost reception.  Thankfully, the map app on the iPhone still works without reception, and I kept a steady eye on my little blue dot as I paced forward in the Jetta, by now proceeding at a maximum speed of 8 mph, with most travel done just above idle in first gear.

While technology was on my side, remoteness and nature were not.  The road became significantly less traverse-able with each 100 feet.  Small rocks and boulders gave way to stretches of road which were laden with rocks, elevation change, and curvature.  It became common that I would need to stop my car, get out, and survey exactly how I would proceed before doing so.  Not only did I have to contend with rocks, fallen trees were commonplace on the trail.

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While the above log was relatively easily removable from the path, another one a few hundred yards up began the half hour of hell that was to await.  The log was easily over a foot in diameter, and fully crossed the path.  While I am not feeble, I am far from a weight lifter, and in approaching the log, I felt the creeping specter of doubt filling my soul, as an inability to move this log likely meant that I was shacking up in my car for the evening, to either make an attack plan in the morning, or to turn around and begin the trip back.

The log was crawling with bugs, and this deep in the forest, snakes and other dangerous critters couldn’t have been far behind.  I hoped to use just one hand to somehow get the mighty trunk rolling, but was unable.  In a desperate act, I grabbed the log with both hands, grunted a grunt which would make Monica Seles proud, and lurched back as the log gave way to my strength.  I threw it over the edge of the road, and enjoyed a clear path!

A few more hundred yards of rocky, hilly terrain and a few more moved logs later, I was right at the junction of Indian Creek Road and Silver Creek Trail.  The problem, however, was that Silver Creek Trail was nowhere to be found.  Once my blue dot has passed the intersection, I parked the car, grabbed a flashlight, and walked backwards a few hundred yards in the hopes of finding a path I wasn’t able to see from behind the now fogging windshield.  No luck.

As I turned around to head back to my Jetta, for the first time on the trip, fear of the unknown and doubt that I would reach my destination had entered my mind.  In the still darkness of the forest, I walked back to my car to develop a plan B.

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My Jetta’s tail lights dimly visible in the distance as I searched in vain for Silver Creek Trail.

 

I reviewed the map, and determined that there was another trail, a few more miles up the road, which would get me back to AR Route 7.  This one was known as Gunter’s Trail, and offered me the best bet for salvation.  By this point, the road required the most delicate touch, and the torquey nature of my Jetta’s diesel engine coupled with a very short first gear in a manual transmission worked wonders.  I did stall the car a few times trying to be too gentle with some particularly rough patches, but plodded on well enough.  I had reached the point of the planet where Gunter’s Trail was to be, and to my dismay, it was not there to be found. 

At this point, my 185 mile cruising range upon entering the forest had dwindled to 110 miles, owning mainly to my primary use of first gear and slow speed of travel, and it was at this point I began taking stock of my food and water supplies.  I had 2 cups of warm yogurt, a pound of peanut butter, a half gallon of water and a liter of coke.  I would be fine if I was unable to make it out of the forest that evening and would have to turn around the next day.  In a worst case scenario, I would get stuck somewhere, have to walk to a place of the trail where I had reception (which by this point was a solid 3 or 4 miles in the opposite direction), and call AAA to get my dumb northeastern ass out of the Ozarks.  In any scenario, I had ample food and water for a brief stay in the forest, although I very much wanted to avoid that ending.

The conditions of the road had “reverse plateaued” if you will, and were not getting worse, although it was harder for them to do so.  I made it another half mile up Indian Creek Road until I got to the base of a moderate climb.  I took out the GPS again, and analyzed the route I had ahead of me:

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I was the blue dot, and I needed to get to the solid white line at the top of the image.  It was roughly 2-3 miles, but figured to be a test of both myself and my vehicle.  Typically, such curvature in the mountains is a sure fire sign of significant elevation change, massive rock formations, or both.  I wasn’t exactly sure I was going to make it up to AR 123, but I knew I was going to give it a shot.

It was around this time that I received a text message from my buddy Paul.  He was trying to negotiate a trade in our fantasy football league, and is trying to get me to give up Peyton Manning for Adrian Peterson.  A shock of shocks, I had completely ignored the phone’s capabilities as a communicator, and had been solely relying on it as a navigator for the last hour.  A sign I was near civilization!  Here in the forest, I was digging into my human past to think of surviving, while back on the East Coast, things were chugging along as normal; fantasy football was the concern, not surviving.  I decided to give Paul a call to give him the update on my shituation.  Questioning of my motives in getting this far off the path quickly gave way to hearty laughter at my light mood and reassurances that I would be okay.  Reception faded quickly, and I had to get back to the task at hand.

I proceeded at an even more methodical pace than before, navigating the turns at a walker’s pace, and being sure to be very steady on the brakes during my descents.  To my astonishment and immense relief, however, the road slowly improved in condition.  As I was nearing the highway, the amount of travel this road saw had increased, and the road miraculously became easier and easier to transverse. 

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By the time I was a mile from AR 123, the road had turned to good condition, and I was able to resume travel at a clip in the 15 mph region, provided that the road was straight and flat.  A few minutes later, I had finally reached a paved road.  Arkansas Route 123.  The savior of savior and king of kings.  As I was creeping cautiously back to the highway, I noticed a sign facing the opposite direction of Indian Creek Road.  I assumed it would read something like “Danger,” or “4 Wheel Drive Only,” or “Good Luck.”  Using the driest of senses of humor however, the sign only warned of the narrowness of the roadway:Image

It’s not the best picture, but that sign reads “One Lane Road.”  Thanks for the heads up.

The time was 9:50 and my cruising range had dwindled to 80 miles.  Fayetteville was about 100 miles away.  I quickly called Paul, and told him to “Call off the Hounds, Brother!”  I was back in familiar territory!

I had another 2 hours, largely themselves of curvy, hilly, scenic mountain roads, ahead of me, through charming mountain towns such as Jasper, AR and Kingston, AR.  I saw not a soul in these settlements, although I did pass a few inns and eateries which looked appealing, but had all long since closed for the day. 

Finally reaching the base of the Ozarks just east of Fayetteville, the odor of spent brakes wafting into the cabin, my fuel gauge was holding steady at a purported 1/32’d of a tank.  Only 20 miles to Fayetteville and fuel!  I made it with well over a gallon to spare, and fueled up, got some food and found a place to stay.

I had wanted to hike at some point, somewhere on the trip, but feel now that I have had my fill of pure, unadulterated adventure on the trip.  A lone venture into the unknown, I ended up spending 2 and a half hours and traveling about 15 miles to go about 8 miles towards my destination.  It was harrowing, exciting, frightening, and visceral, yet was probably the most alive I’ve felt yet.  I don’t want to do something so foolish again, but am so very, very glad that I did it once.

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I traveled from the white dot at the bottom middle of the screen to the green pin towards the top.  The purple line represents travel along AR routes 7 and 123, a distance of approximately 8 miles.  My path, however, was not able to be routed by any mapping app, and consisted of a drive west on the faintly labeled Dare Mine Road, followed by a trip north on Indian Creek Road.  To give you perspective on my location, consider this zoomed out view of the same area:

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The same white dot and green pin from the previous photo indicate my starting and ending points for the trip through the trails of the Ozarks.

 

I had planned on playing 2 rounds today, but will likely only get 1 in before heading up to Missouri for the evening.  No worry, as I can get Missouri and Kansas out of the way tomorrow before starting my trek to the Southwest.  The great American adventure continues!

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The Soul of the South or the Jersey Shore? (Part 1)

New Orleans has many nicknames, and I haven’t chosen to title this entry using any of them.  I found the city to be a living, breathing entity, dripping in culture and things to see, do, and take in.  The city had soul.

I had never been to New Orleans before, and nearly everything I had heard about the city, both from general sources and from the many people who made recommendations to me on what to see and do there, indicated that I was going to have a great time if I was to make it out of the city alive.  All cities are dangerous though, and I’ve been to rough areas of many cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, Rome and Shanghai.  That short list doesn’t include the dozens of other cities I have visited in which I was lucky enough to avoid the rough areas.  Bottom line is that I am no longer scared of any area of any city at any time of day.  I don’t have a gun (and don’t want one), wouldn’t know what to do with a knife and have no formal training in any type of hand to hand combat.  I’m just simply not intimidated by the horror stories that I’ve heard regarding rough parts of cities.  I’m a large young male, but not a (despite my common self-deprecation) fat one, and that fact alone acts as a protector.  Of course it is naive to have no fear, but I have yet to have even a close call in any large city, and those years of positive experiences have empowered me with a spirit of confidence when taking to a new city, even if I’m by myself.

I had to choose where to stay in New Orleans.  I had to be mindful of my wallet, as I could not afford to break the bank while I was there, either.  Saturday evening through Monday morning, however, would be acting as my first substantial break and time for rest on the trip, and I didn’t want to be driving to see everything.  I love driving and have made a point of the trip to enjoy drives, but driving, particularly in a new city, can be stressful.

With all of this in mind, I weighed all concerns and decided to go for the gold and stay somewhere in the French Quarter.  After calling numerous hotels, I finally found one that had vacancy, was not more than a block and a half from Bourbon Street, and also had a rate I could live with.  Sight unseen, I booked the hotel, and while the rate of $109 a night was higher than my daily budget, it wasn’t outrageous.  Now I could set my sights on the city.

I rolled in around 9:30-10, and immediately upon arriving at the hotel realized I had made a phenomenal decision.  Hotel St. Pierre is on Burgundy Street, just north of Bourbon Street, and well within the limits of the lively and enticing French Quarter.  I checked in in the old building, which dates back to the late 18th century (and was added to the NRHP in 1965), and to my surprise was told that I would be staying across the street.  I couldn’t have asked for a more authentic New Orleans experience with regards to the hotel.

Now these photos were taken the next morning, and so the aura of the unknown for me, at night, in the dark of a dark corner of the Quarter, was viscerally strong; I was in a special place.

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This is the main building of Hotel St. Pierre.  A somewhat typical building of it’s period and style, what is special about New Orleans is not the presence of this particular building, but of thousands of them.  However, I was staying across the street.  I was given a key to get through this wrought iron gate across the narrow Burgundy Street:

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After wending my way through the narrow, plant lined walkway, I came to a courtyard with a table and a few chairs and a fountain.  My cottage, however, was further on, and through another narrow pathway, water dripping from the plants above, I went.  I had reached my destination:

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My room, named the “James ‘Bubber’ Miley” cottage, is on the right.  Each cottage has it’s own name, and is entered through a small, old, wooden French Door.  Between the deadbolt, the standard lock, the security lock commonly found on the inside of hotel room doors and the two sliding locks which anchored in the floor, and ceiling, respectively, there were 5 separate ways to keep the doors closed.  Despite this abundance of protective devices, I’m fairly certain I could have pushed the door open using just a slight bit more pressure than required to open a door at McDonald’s.  This place was cool, and it was authentic.  How lucky I was to land at such an authentic New Orleans inn.  Right off the bat, I was impressed with the city.

I figured it was time for Bourbon Street, and within 5 minutes, I was there.  It was close to 11 on a Saturday night, and Bourbon Street was roaring at full bore.  My initial reaction was a tragic one; what had once likely been one of the most unique cultural treasures of our nation had been thoroughly commercialized and was destroyed by tourists.  At every turn was a “Wisconsin Frat Boy” (as my buddy Billy, whom I met Monday morning for Breakfast called them), or a couple of pruny old southerners who would be just as happy at a Buffett concert, looking to get as drunk as possible.  Movement was hindered and club music boomed from all angles.  I found what seemed to me to be an inner city boardwalk; neon lights as far as I could see, beckoning tourists to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of New Orleans.  Nearly every bar with a band had either a cover or a drink minimum, and the ominous presence of bouncers worked only to drive me onward.

After spending a few minutes just taking it all in, I saw a huge sign praising Jesus, and stumbled across some evangelical types spreading the word on Bourbon Street.  One of them, an older fat guy with a big white beard, was having a discussion with a young Asian fella from California.  I stood there and watched for a few minutes, asking questions where appropriate, and took the opportunity to stay still on Bourbon Street, and take in what was happening around me.  Nearly everyone had a drink in their hand, and nearly every reaction to the preachers was negative.  Of course, most people didn’t have any reaction, but numerous folks stood to stop and observe, always leaving with a smile on their face.  Some people yelled that God wasn’t real, others asked if the guy believed in Santa Claus, and some just took pictures.  Taking this rest, even only a brief one, was crucial though.  It slowed down my mind, and grounded me.  I had finally become “one of them,” not merely an observer, but a participant in the madness.

Now that I had entrenched myself in the Quarter, it was time to get some food.  Tradition and finer dining could wait for tomorrow if I was unable to find something authentic on Bourbon Street, and my primary goal was getting something in my gut as quickly as possible, as I was starving.  Club and club were thumping, and the finer restaurants were full and would not offer the quick service I was in need of.  After walking a few blocks, I got to a place called Bayou Burgers, and took a seat at the empty bar.  The front of the establishment was open to Bourbon Street, and a nice stool towards the street offered me both a place to eat and drink and a place to sit and watch some the activity.

I ordered something known as “The Croquer,” which was two beef patties topped with ham, swiss cheese and mustard on toasted French bread, and topped with a fried egg.  While this mass of fat, grease and flavor was cooking, I sipped down an Abita Amber, and started chatting with the barhop – nothing special about this conversation, just your basic where are you from, where should I gos turning into small talk.  My feast arrived.  I ate it.  I enjoyed it.  All the while, I kept the brews flowing – after all, I was on Bourbon Street!

Towards the end of my meal, the bar began filling up.  To my right sat down two young women and a young dude, who I found out were on a “siblings retreat” from Waco, Texas.  Their own witty term for a getaway, one of the sisters and the brother were simply accompanying their older sister to New Orleans on her trip to town for a conference.  Already half way in the bag themselves, the conversation wasn’t particularly intriguing, but was noteworthy as the older sister worked for Baylor University.  A huge smile came to my face, I remarked “Griffin! My boy – Hail to the Redskins!” and held out my hand for a high five.  This was met with a pout and a reminder that I was talking to a Texan, for whom rooting for the Redskins was verboten.  Football is serious business, and for some it’s more serious than others.  After wishing me luck on my travels and recommending some courses (they were all golfers) in areas of Texas I won’t have the opportunity to get to, they were back out in to the night.  A few more drinks later, I got one for the road, and was back out there myself.

Lubricated properly, I was far easier on Bourbon Street than I had been earlier.  The lights and sounds coalesced into a stream of sensation, and the pungent odor of stale beer, urine and garbage characteristic of the street waned in my nostrils as I ventured on towards Canal Street, the western terminus of the Quarter.  I turned around, and walked back towards my hotel on a different, less densely traveled street. 

While walking back to the hotel, I ran into some horses shackled up to the wall.  They belonged to the New Orleans PD, and stood stately and proud while waiting for their officers to return from their dinners.  In the meantime, they acted as a tourist attraction in and of themselves.  Drunk people fawning over the horses, this may have well been the Kentucky Derby.

I stopped by the horses for a few minutes, petting them and allowing them to lick my fingers, and using the opportunity to talk to passers by.  No one was from New Orleans, and no one was from the North.  I met folks from Georgia, Alabama and Texas during my equestrian adventure, and I was slowly coming to the realization that New Orleans is the primary vacation destination for the south.  The city is where the South vacations.  All of the charm from the entire region is brought to this city, itself a treasure trove of various cultures, and is unleashed on those from other areas; it’s a spectacle and an experience I recommend to anyone, specifically though to Northerners.  You will feel as if you are in a foreign land, and you will love it.

The friendly nature of the people is the same all over the South, and every group I ran into was wide eyed and eager to strike up a conversation.  Most memorable though was the Texan woman, about 40 years old, who was only able to repeatedly advise me to cut my hair.  “I love ya hon, but you gotta cut that hair!”  I heard that about 5 times in 1 minute before her mates dragged her onward to retire for the evening.

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A powerful and proud horse waiting patiently to be ridden again

I meandered my way back to my hotel, and upon eventually opening those French doors, laid myself down for the evening, all the while wondering where exactly I had come.  Had I driven to the sponge of charming Southern culture, or had I driven a few hours from Central PA to the Jersey Shore?  As I awoke Sunday morning and began New Orleans round two, the answer to my query came into clear focus.

Unfortunately, that story is going to have to wait.  I am in Russellville, Arkansas, just south of Ozark National Forest, and I have probably 2 hours of daylight left.  The drive is beckoning, and I hope to find a setting sun over a vista within the forest.  I’m off to Fayetteville for now.  New Orleans and the remainder of Louisiana coming soon…

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Borderlands

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The home of Wal-Mart, the West Memphis Three fiasco, the Ozarks and Bill Clinton, Arkansas is literally right in the middle of things. I never had an easy time categorizing the place; to the South is Louisiana, while Texas looms to the west. Missouri is to the North and Tennessee is to the East. These four states have distinct cultural identities, and while these identities are largely the result of the prominence of a certain region, I at least know what to expect, even if only naively, in those states. Here, however, I’m going in blind.

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Golf on the Gulf and Hockey in Mississippi

I’m sitting in a truck stop McDonald’s in Port Allen, Louisiana.  The cuisine of the last few days has pretty much guaranteed that this won’t be the only McDonald’s I visit in the next few hours as I matriculate my way north to Ruston for the evening.  It’s my hope that the next few restrooms don’t reek quite as mightily as this one did.

So yes, I have been to and through the Big Easy, and what a spectacular city it is.  It deserves and will receive it’s own entry at a later time.  For now, remain content knowing that, if you’ve never been to NOLA before, it is one of the most intriguing and charming cities in our country.  If you have been there before, I’m sure you don’t find that last sentence to be shocking in the least.

This entry, however, will be focused on my day trip from Pensacola, Florida to New Orleans, via Gulfport, Mississippi.  As I had mentioned, I wasn’t too fond of Pensacola, and wanted to get on the road earlier rather than later.  I woke up and made my way down to the feastatorium, and quickly munched down some sausage gravy over biscuits.  A long time favorite feast of fat guys everywhere, I fell in love with gravy and biscuits while driving train at Hersheypark.

The mere minions of the park didn’t quite have the time of day to laze around and get breakfast, but we engineers sure did.  After years of toiling away in the heat, I was given the opportunity to “drive train” the last 2 summers of my employment at HP.  Driving train meant being an engineer on the mighty and proud Dry Gulch Railroad.  Whereas the other rides employees worked several rides during their summer, we engineers only drove train.  I’m going to have to be careful, as when I start talking train, it is hard to get me off the tracks.  Just know that the engines were named Skooter and Janelle, and that they were authentic, water-boiling, steam-making, huffing, puffing steam locomotives.  We loved them, prepared them for their day, and kissed them goodnight after their hard work. 

The engine house was the center of what I am now calling Delta Gamma Rho Rho.  It was the fraternity house of the DGRR engineers, and is proudly the only fraternity I count myself a member of.  After preparing the engines for the day and taking care of the other tasks surrounding the railroad, we would go get breakfast at the cafeteria, about a quarter mile’s walk away.  We would, of course, bring it back to the E-house to munch down while listening to the radio and playing cards with the other engineers.

The normal offerings were of course eggs, bacon, ham, toast and your normal breakfast buffet items.  Biscuits and sausage gravy were not offered every day, but on those special days when they were, my buddy Justin and I were sure to load up.  The deal was simple: $1.06 after tax for 2 biscuits covered in gravy.  An unbelievable price for sure, I’m fairly certain that this slim price was the direct cause of my current fatness.

At the time, I was a beanpole, not even 170 lbs on my 6 foot frame.  That didn’t mean I didn’t have the spirit of a fatty though, and I would routinely cram 6 biscuits into the Styrofoam carrier and would ladle what seemed like a half gallon of gravy over top.  Of course, I closed the carrier as I made my way to check out.  Justin always did the exact same thing.  Unfortunately, he  had the body to match the spirit though, and he was a big dude.  The little old lady at the checkout counter would always make Justin open his carrier, revealing the massive quantity of food he intended to scarf down, and charged him the $3.18 for a triple order.  My skinniness earned me the trust of the lady though, as she always only ever charged me the $1.06 for a single order.  She saw I was getting biscuits and gravy (the buffet was in the line of sight of the register), saw I was skinny, and assumed I got 1 serving.  Justin never threw me under the bus.  What a guy.

So yes, I had encountered gravy and biscuits for the first time on the trip, and scarfed some down.  There wasn’t much gravy left in the crock pot when I took my fill, so I only took enough for a first round, and left some in there for someone else.  I was hungry afterwards though, and was in eager anticipation of round 2.  Others were also wanting some gruel, and upon the waitress bringing some out, she also announced that it would be about 10 minutes until it was hot.  I watched in amazement as hungry travelers formed a line at the crock pot, waiting for it to heat up.  Hot, cold, who gives a fuck?!  I went up there, slopped some cold gravy on my biscuits and munched!  I started a trend, and soon others were either dealing with it cold, or using the microwave to scorch their gravy.  What kind of poor souls would have waited 10 minutes for some lukewarm gravy to heat up, though?  I guess those traveling through Pensacola would.

I made my way through the remainder of the panhandle, through the panhandle of Alabama, and eventually landed in Gulfport, Mississippi around 5 on Saturday evening.  I got to Great Southern Golf Club shortly thereafter, and was ready to get 18 in on the Gulf of Mexico.  The skies looked ominous as I checked in, and the young kid checking me in asked if I planned on fighting the rain.  I told him that I checked the radar and wouldn’t have much problem, and also that I had to get the round in, given my trip.  Both he and a middle aged guy sitting there were intrigued with the trip, and told me I’d enjoy the course and play well, as it wasn’t too difficult.  A few minutes later, I was off.

The course is situated right on the Gulf of Mexico, and does offer a few nice views.  As the course is separated from the Gulf by a 4 lane highway in a fairly densely populated area, the views weren’t quite as magnificent as you may have guessed, but the warm breezes blowing in off of the Gulf reminded you where you were at, and did a wonder as far as keeping the temperature moderate.  Hole 1 heads due north, away from the Gulf, and gives you the advantage of having the wind at your back, while 18 goes right into the breeze, making a tough 18th hole even tougher.

The course was built in 1908, and, according to the scorecard, was at least influenced, partially designed or somehow had other involvement with Donald Ross.  I’m not sure if Ross had a hand in designing the course or not, but whomever did lay the place out did a nice job.  Set on a flat parcel of land laden with the sandy soil necessary for a links course and blasted frequently by the wind from the Gulf, Great Southern has great potential to be turned into as true a links course as you could find in the Americas.  As it is now, the course is in a mild state of disrepair – greens did have some large brown spots and were also a little bumpy in areas.  It had rained earlier in the day, and the fairways were soggy – I wasn’t going to be getting much, if any, roll. 

As you may have noticed, the entries, even the ones centered around golf, are beginning to feature far less discussion of my round, and more about everything else.  I trust that’s not a problem for you.  My round at Great Southern flew by, as I only encountered one other player on the course, a walker playing 2 or 3 balls, who let me through on the 8th.

Measuring just over 6200 from the furthest back black tees, Great Southern was not overly difficult.  Not quite a pasture, there were some trees on some of the holes, and there were also some nicely utilized streams and ponds on the course.  Most notably, the 254 yard par 4 6th hole had a giant tree in the middle of the fairway.  You could either be ballsy and go over it, or hook or slice one around it – but a standard straight shot wasn’t going to get it done.  I opted for a fairway metal, and hit it 250 with a big old hook.  Unfortunately, the hook was bigger and older than I had hoped, and I was pin high 20 yards to the left of the green.  A pitch down the massively sloped green and 2 putts later, I had made my par.

En route to my 80, I played the twin par 5’s on the back -1.  There is a stream between the holes, which runs to the left on 15, and to the right on 16.  Each is about 500 yards in length, and they offer a great opportunity to make up a few strokes later in the round.  A massacred drive and stroked 6 iron had me putting for eagle on 15 from about 35 feet.  I left more than I wanted for the birdie putt, but drained it.

As I made my way back to the gulf, I again crossed the train tracks which intersect the golf course. 

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While the course is on the gulf, not all of it is in view of the water, and a great majority of the holes are played inland, with the only indication you’re by the gulf being the breeze.  Still though, those few views you do get of the gulf are magnificent.

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The view from the 4th tee at Great Southern Golf Club, with the Gulf of Mexico in the background.

I again returned to the clubhouse to find my Jetta alone amongst the parking spaces.  I found it odd that my car was all by it’s lonesome, as it was only about 7:15, and there was plenty of daylight left.  That not anyone had come out to play 9 or was only a few holes behind me finishing up 18 at that early hour was staggering.  Unlike Dogwood Lakes in Bonifay, this course was on a 4 lane highway and was in a densely populated area.  I’m finding out that golf is not as popular in the South as it is in some other regions.  Of course the amount of play at any given course is largely a function of the price, location and other factors, but I have not run into any courses in the South that get nearly the play that the courses in WNY or CePA get.  For the most part, I have walked right on to basically deserted courses.  There aren’t as many courses in the South either.  That is clearly a result of lower population, but I wonder if even still some courses have problems staying open; if they routinely get enough play to stay afloat.

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My Jetta, all alone again, in the parking lot at Great Southern

My round had ended, and I planned on dropping my cart off quickly before heading to the big easy.  As I was dropping my cart off, I noticed that the cart guy was still at the course, cleaning off some carts and getting ready to shut down for the night.  I struck up a conversation, initially letting him know that I had seen him tee off on hole 2 as he was getting a few late holes in.  A lefty, he had a silky smooth swing, and hit the ball a mile.  It was just 1 shot, but it was enough to determine that the guy was a player.  I asked him if he was good, and he “didn’t want to toot his own horn,” but did admit he was an alright player. 

When I had checked in and he and the older guy asked where I was from, my response of Buffalo prompted the older guy to mention that the kid was from Canada.  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, people move, you know?  After the round, after I had seen that he was a player, and struck up a conversation, I asked him what brought him to Gulfport, MS.  His answer did nothing to overturn stereotypes that Mississippians likely have about Canadians: he was a professional hockey player.  Gulfport has a team in the Southern Professional Hockey League, and Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn, as I found out, had played for them for several seasons before hanging them up to pursue a career as a head pro of a golf course.  He’s in the PGA program, and is working towards becoming that head pro. 

Naturally, I had a bunch of questions for the guy.  First, I wanted to know if hockey was popular at all in the South, and his answer wasn’t surprising.  The Surge played in a 9,000 seat arena, yet routinely drew less than 1,000 fans.  Those who did show up, though, were serious about it.  I happen to have worked with a girl who now lives in Gulfport, and upon his mentioning of this, memories of hoards of her facebook posts about “her Surge” came flooding back.  She’s a “hockey lady,” which is the rough equivalent of a “cat lady.”  Women, normally, but not always hags, who just fall head over heels in love with a particular hockey team.  Typically more closely aligned with a local minor league team than an NHL one, you can find groups of hockey ladies huddled together at arenas through the States and Provinces, ringing their cowbells, sporting their multiply autographed jerseys and their cheeks emblazoned with the logo of their favorite club.  A fascinating subset of American sports culture, it is my hope that a sociologist has done some research into these folks and what makes them tick.

Mark confirmed that there were hockey ladies, but was clearly more focused on golf.  We spent a solid 15 minutes discussing some of the other courses I’d played and some of the other courses in the area, as well as some options for me when I’m up in Michigan (his wife is from Michigan).  He was also very knowledgeable about the history of Great Southern, and was able to give me some insight into the changes that were made to particular holes over the years.  The course was simply ravaged after Katrina, he explained, and it’s been a long road back to where the course currently sat.  According to him, the course was in haggard condition just a few months ago, but has enjoyed significant strides this summer, and is becoming more playable by the day.  Of course, the concerns he raised were common ones; the course doesn’t have quite enough money to do everything they’d like to do, but they all feel like they are moving in the right direction.

I agreed that the layout was a nice one, and that with a little maintenance, the track could be a nice one.  He shared his stories of the days of yore, when the course was the premiere one in the area, noting the rectangular fronts of greens as a hallmark of Donald Ross design, and lamenting that the club, once private, had deteriorated mightily over the years.  Not all was lost though, as I mentioned that the course could be turned into a nice links course with just a few pot bunkers, some larger greens and heather.  Mark agreed, sharing his biggest desire for the course, which was to let the grass between the fairways grow and grow and grow.  Given that he also shared the fact that the course is only slowly regaining regular customers as the condition has improved over the last few years, I doubt that his fescue and heather will be coming anytime soon.  There are more pressing concerns for the course.

Before I took off, he inquired as to my plans, and upon hearing of my intentions to get to New Orleans by day’s end, wished me luck and advised that I stay safe in the Big Easy.  He warned that I may find the place to be spooky, but also that I’d have a great time there, provided I stayed safe.  A handshake and take care’s later, I was on my way.

Of all the people I’ve met on the trip, he was one of the more interesting.  A Canadian by birth, he now lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, about as far south as you can get.  His wife likes it there, and he finally got away from the cold.  It’s far easier to land a job as a golf pro in Mississippi than it would be in his native Toronto, and I imagine that is also paying a role in his decision to stay near Gulfport.  Whatever he does though, I hope his Ontario accent never gives way to a Southern one.  Those of the great South deserve to hear aboot the true North, strong and free, from a native in his native vernacular.

It was off to New Orleans, and a fantastic few days awaited me…

 

**********

 

A few quick stories from my travels.  I wasn’t exactly sure where to work these in, but feel they are worth sharing.

1)  While I was en route to Destin, Florida, a young couple with a few kids in the backseat asked that I roll down my window to ask directions from me.  They were initially behind me, and should have taken notice to my New York plates.  They also read the sign in my window, and should have learned that I had been all over the place in the last 2 weeks, and was almost certainly not from there.  Nevertheless, they wanted to know how to get to Panama City.  As the light had turned, I didn’t have time to get out my iPhone to confirm what I thought to be the route, and shouted out a simple “Head on down to 98, hang a left and drive.  You’ll get there soon enough.”  As it turns out, I really hope they trusted me.  I got them exactly where they were going.

2) Somewhere in New England, exactly where I have no memory of, I clogged the toilet in my hotel room.  I’m a bigger man, and I tend to make bigger poos.  I also need to wipe, and the whole conglomeration of sewage in the toilet can sometimes be too much for a low flow toilet to handle.  Normally the power of water takes care of everything, but at this hotel, it did not.  If you’re a traveler yourself, you are well aware that hotel rooms do not have plungers.  My plan was to simply leave the problem for the maid.  I know, it’s a total asshole move, but what was I to do?  Anyhow, I left it where it was overnight, and as the water was in no danger of overflowing, thought little of it.  In the morning, however, I was faced with the dilemma of my lifetime.  I had to shit immediately upon waking, and each step brought me dangerously close to disaster.  I had no time to get to the lobby, and had to use the toilet in my bathroom.  The water level was within a half inch of the top of the bowl, and flushing would not be possible.  Not only was this eventuality clear in my mind, the possibility of mid-dump overflow was also possible.  Something had to be done.  I quickly searched again, in vain, for a plunger.  One had not magically appeared over night, and I had only 1 choice left.  Looking away and gritting my teeth, I unclogged the toilet by hand.  Among the grossest things I’ve ever done, I was successful, and proceeded to take a very satisfying dump.  I bathed immediately afterward, taking particular care to wash, repeatedly, my right arm.  I’m not sure I got it all, so I washed it again.  And again.  And again.

Hope you didn’t vomit just there.  But really, what travel tale is complete without at least one bathroom adventure?

 

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Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler

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Louisiana. The place where Americans don’t irrationally hate the French. The Big Easy has beckoned, and with 2 days off, I am here. Let the good times roll!

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No Time for the Blues

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The river’s just a few miles away, and the great west awaits. The ghosts of the south lurk here, but I don’t think I’ll find any down this way. Going to play on the gulf.

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