Category Archives: Travel

Waffles, Juice, and a Disappointed Old Man (2/?)

I forced myself from awake from the cozy confines of my bed in San Bernardino, and stumbled down to the continental breakfast room.  The continental breakfast room.  That disconcertingly impersonal institution of travel.  The entirety of my experiences with continental breakfast rooms would have been made only slightly palatable due to the largely superficial, if not inevitable, differences between them, had it not been for the occasional opportunity to converse with, attempt to converse with, or simply eavesdrop on, other travelers.  I recalled specifically my run in with Santa Claus in Dothan, AL, and the look of fear I inspired on an unsuspecting French woman in Page, AZ as I forced myself to remain out of a conversation between two little league umpires in San Bernardino that morning.  Both fellas were old, although only the elder was older than dirt.  The other was maybe as old as mud.  Dryish mud.

Anyhow, the conversation started innocently enough, with the guys discussing the unfortunate state of little league umpiring, and what it would undoubtedly mean for the regional tournament that was unfolding in San Bernardino that weekend.  The guys were both clearly dedicated to this thing, umpiring for little league baseball, and both cared deeply for it.  Both voiced what appeared to be heartfelt concerns over the state of the profession, and had clearly invested significantly in their involvement with umpiring.  I’m not sure who it was harder for, then, when the younger one finally implied that perhaps the older one has seen his days of adequacy at umpiring pass him by.  Almost as if in passing, the older guy was reminded by the younger of an important call he recently blew, and heard it suggested that he doesn’t have the eye that he used to.  I sort of zoned out here – it was like witnessing a break-up in public, but far more soul-crushing.  This wasn’t young people realizing they aren’t right for each other.  This was the painful recognition by a proud old man that his comrades knew about him what he also knew about himself, but was simply too proud to admit.

People watching, that tired old hobby of anyone who’s been bored in public, is more than anything an exercise in imagination.  Even if you’re lucky enough to be within earshot of a conversation, chances are good that you lack anything resembling the context necessary to put anything meaningful together.  These guys were old, were little league umpires, and one brought up a blown call by the other.  Anything else I can relay now would be conjecture, based on at best sideways glances at expressions, reflections on tones picked up through the din of the room, and mannerisms, and at worst on pure imagination.  All that being said, I left with the distinct feeling that the younger guy was in the power position in the relationship, and that the older guy was the recipient of some very disappointing news.  Call it a hunch, but the entire conversation seemed staged by the younger guy for the benefit of the organization.  Is that really something that should be taking place in a Days Inn in San Bernardino?

(An aside on terrifying a French woman in Page, AZ: She was the only person around with whom I could share my disgust after seeing a local broadcast highlight the fact that some locals did not want their children to see the President speak at their high school later that day.  You know, because he’s a terrorist and stuff.  Anyhow – I launched right into “doesn’t this make you sick?” as I gestured to the television.  Her initial, voiceless, response implied that perhaps she hadn’t seen the news story, so I gestured again to the television and repeated “doesn’t this make you sick?”  She glanced quickly at the screen, then back at me, and decided this was the time to let me know that she didn’t speak the best English.  If you’ll recall, I was suffering mightily through New Mexico withdrawal, and was in the pits of Arizona syndrome at the time.  I needed some positive human interaction to reinforce my belief that we humans aren’t all that bad, and this middle aged French woman was my only hope, so I did the best I could to explain what I was talking about.  Gesticulating mildly and speaking slowly, and aided greatly by his likeness on the television, I was able to confirm that she knew the president of the United States was Barack Obama.  My attempt, however, to convey that he was speaking locally, and that some crazy people didn’t want their children to witness this, was a complete failure.  Maybe it was the “cuckoo” finger circling the temple motion coupled with my clearly irritated tone, but she just backed away slowly, likely thinking that she was talking to some crazy American who hated the President, doubted his citizenship, and certainly didn’t care for the French.  Well, she was wrong.  Too bad I didn’t study any French.  I guess maybe I am uncivilized, after all?)

So my time in Southern California had begun with waffles, juice, and a disappointed old man, and I was ready for sunnier skies in San Diego.  I was meeting my buddy for lunch in Poway at 12:30, and had a 3:10 tee time at Torrey Pines.  A brief analysis of the maps told me I was going to be doing some pretty decent hustling, and backtracking, if I were to see downtown San Diego.  Too many people, however, had extolled the virtues of the city, and I decided that the time spent in the car would be worth it to see at least a slice of the city.  I hopped in my VW and sauntered on down Mexico way.

The VW was running on fumes, and I would need to procure some fuel before arriving to downtown.  Prior to this expedition, I had no problems finding diesel anywhere on the trip.  Of all the myths and pseudo-myths out there surrounding diesel fuel, the lack of its availability is one of the most easily countered; the yellowish-greenish gunk is everywhere.  Everywhere except San Diego, I began to think, as I took exit after exit from the interstate, only to be shockingly disappointed in the lack of diesel fuel in the stations.  Surely all these tractor trailers ran on diesel, no?  I was beginning to think that I had time traveled to a magical land where trucks were motivated down the roadway using smiles and rainbows instead of dead dinosaurs, when I made my exit onto Mira Misa Boulevard – a seemingly main thoroughfare in the northern part of San Diego, and one which should certainly have several locations to get some diesel.

A few miles down the road, however, and I still hadn’t come across the nectar of the efficiency gods despite my having passed a dozen fuel stations.  I guess it was time to break down and ask someone where I could get diesel.  I was stopped at a red light just about the time I had come to this finality, and to my delight, a “get two birds stoned at once” opportunity presented itself under my nose.  A San Diego police officer was harassing a homeless man who had settled at the base of a telephone pole on the northwestern corner of the intersection.  Brilliant!  Ask the cop where to get some diesel, and in the confused back and forth of a northeasterner and the local cop, the homeless guy would certainly have time to make a speedy and undetected getaway!  Everything appeared to be coming up Milhouse!  I pulled over, rolled down the passenger side window and hollered out at the cop “Hey – where can I get some diesel?”  As if his role was something other than to serve or protect, he angrily, condescendingly, and ignorantly blurted out “I don’t know!  Don’t you have a phone?  Find it on there!” and went back to haranguing the poor dude who fell through the cracks of a society held together by the likes of himself.  Don’t municipalities alert their officers to such basics as the profound lack of locations at which diesel fuel may be purchased?  I guess not.  This is one of 3 run-ins I have had with police in a major American city (Chicago and Washington, D.C.), and while I would love to do the comparo-contrasto now, I’ve already been far too pedantic and tangential in this entry as it were.  Some other time.  I drove a few more miles, finally found some diesel, and was back on my way to downtown, my best efforts at helping a brother out thwarted.

I made it to the Gaslamp District, put half my savings in a meter, donned my Flyers knit beanie (complete with an orange and black fuzzy ball on top), grabbed my lap top, and set out in search of the most bohemian coffee shop I could find.  My decision to take the beanie on the trip was a pretty easy one – the hat is simply dope.  Just so happened that it was a brisk morning in the low 60’s, and the hat’s dopeness could also be matched by practicality on this morning, so on it went.  Anyhow, I’d obviously never been to San Diego or the Gaslamp District before.  Hopes of finding anything bohemian there were perhaps not entirely misplaced, but for a first timer with just a few hours to spend, my definition of bohemian quickly deteriorated into simply somewhere with Wi-Fi…

 

 

While I initially felt guilty at not keeping up with the blog while on the trip, the last few entries have put those feelings to rest.  As the stresses on my time and body while on the trip accumulated, it was inevitable that details and reflection would be passed over for mere pragmatism in the entries.  That’s not what I envisioned in the blog, and I’m glad I never let it get entirely to that point.  There is, of course, value in the “I played here, drove there, ate here and took a shit there,” but I obviously find there to be more value in the small delights of travel, and of being alone out there in the great big world.  California is going to take me tens of thousands of words to get through – and that’s okay.  Enjoy…

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Pseudo-Vagrancy in the California Republic (1/?)

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This is the McDonald’s by the Interstate in Barstow, California.  It was somewhere in the vicinity of 10:00 in the evening, and I was, more than anything, comforted, as I saw those golden arches on the horizon as I rolled into town.  Sure, I was exhausted (I had woken up in Las Vegas, played 18 in Boulder City, driven to and checked out the Hoover Dam, driven to Oatman, had a few pints with the locals and meandered West – a busy day), and tired (All of this nonsense began at 8ish? in the AM, and the thought of a nap at this point on the trip was but a dream.  A wishful dream.), but more than anything, I was comforted.  As I already intellectually knew, but now came to value through cold, hard experience, McDonald’s exists as far more than a restaurant, vis a vis the weary traveler.  A haven for the vagabond, the rest stops in themselves are littered across our fair nation, and indeed the world, as deteriorated Big Mac boxes are littered across the parking lot across from Wrigley Field, and they really offer the traveler anything they might need beyond a place to sleep (although I suspect that sleeping in your car in the parking lot would be quite feasible at any given McDonald’s).  A cheap bite to eat and a quick and cheap cup of coffee, tea or soda are likely the first things that come to mind.  However, the value of hunting down a McDonald’s goes deeper than mere sustenance.  Clean, public restrooms are in every store, and I am thoroughly convinced it is a policy of corporate for employees to simply look the other way when someone is clearly stepping foot in the restaurant merely to take a shit.  Fast, accessible internet is also available in nearly every restaurant as well, and although I always bought a cup of coffee or a tea when I was planning to sit down and write for 2 hours, I’m not entirely sure it would be overly taboo to plop down in a corner and suck up that bandwidth.  Yes, the faux-vagabond of the 21st century can do far, far worse than bouncing from McDonald’s to McDonald’s, and as my stops under the golden arches accumulated, I slowly started feeling all warm and fuzzy inside when I finally saw them again – I was nearly always in need of some of the amenities offered within.

On this evening however, it wasn’t food, drink, the bathroom or the internet that I sought, but merely a trip outside of the car, to stretch the old legs and plot out exactly what I was going to do for the rest of the evening.  Upon entering the old re-purposed train station, my feeling of having been comforted quickly deteriorated into an overwhelming drowsiness.  I stumbled through the store as in a stupor, and decided that I should get something to keep me up for the remainder of however long my evening would be.  Historically, I had opted for a sweet tea – filled with sugar and caffeine, and plenty of ice to gnaw on once I sucked down the sweet nectar.  In my zombie like trance however, I decided it was as good a time as any to use my monopoly game piece on a free McFlurry!  ICE CREAM AT NIGHT WHEN YOU ARE TIRED!

I slumped over on an old waiting bench near the old boarding platform, and dug out my phone to determine what the next step was going to be.  I was meeting a friend the next day for lunch in San Diego, from which I was a 3 hours’ drive north.  I didn’t like the prospect of waking up only to drive for 3 more hours before meeting my buddy – I would surely not see any more of San Diego than the restaurant where we’d be going had I stopped for the night in Barstow… I was going to plod onward.  My cup of ice cream was ready, and I was back to the road, no more awake, nor with the ammunition to become so, than I was before I entered.

I was on the road no more than ten minutes  (about 8 of which were spent eating ice cream) before I recognized that I was simply not going to make it all the way to San Diego – I was just too tired.  As I rolled through Victorville, I envisioned a heroic path all the way down to Temecula, or perhaps even Escondido.  Hell, I would basically be in San Diego at that point!  If you question my choice of the word “heroic” in the sentence two prior, I get you.  I really do.  My defense is simply that your goals change vastly when you have been on the road for four weeks, are still on the road, and are delusionally tired – getting to an impossibly far away destination seems like the struggle of a lifetime, and each minute is spent counting down the tenths of a mile until you can tick one off and exclaim to yourself “only 83 more to go!”  Having given up on San Diego, Temecula or Escondido seemed brilliant – get there, and enjoy essentially the entire morning in San Diego.

I was still entertaining these thoughts of grandeur when I, as if on autopilot, took the first exit listing a Days Inn in San Bernardino.  What was I doing?  San Bernardino!  I was still two hours north of San Diego!  My brain fought valiantly against my body, attempting in vain to compel my arms to turn the VW around and trudge on south, but by this point my muscles had coordinated a structured and powerful mutiny against my brain.  “Rest!”  They screamed.

So there I was, in San Bernardino, still north of even Los Angeles, and I was stopping for the night.  I groggily checked in, and took only my travel box to my room – no computer, no extra clothing.  Just a box with some toiletries I wouldn’t use in the morning.  Just a box that had drawn the laughter of many, and had stood with me as a pillar of stability during my travels.

For all that my dreams had promised me of California, here I was – miles from the coast, and miles from the sunny tranquility of what I had hoped would be the locale of my first evening in the Republic.  “Sometimes,” I reasoned, “you’re the pseudo-vagrant, and sometimes, as tonight, Alex, you really are the 21st century vagabond.”  I don’t even remember hitting the bed.

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Oh dirty Jers, You’re Still Number 2 In My Heart

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In a world’s first, I was up and active before my folks, both of them, down here at the shore. Not that I was up terribly early, but we only got in from a long day in Philly around 12:30, and, well, they are slowly creeping towards old age. They like to sleep in if they can, which increasingly means waking up at 8 if given the justification and the chance.

So yeah, I was up early, and I decided to go for a walk. Wasn’t sure if I was going to stay on the Boardwalk or head “down the beach.” It’s “roar to the shore” weekend, and while most of the bikes will be leaving later, as I made my half block saunter up to the boardwalk, the occasional growl of a hog was the only artificial auditory interruption to the otherwise serene morning. Seagulls cawing, a cool wind blowing off the ocean, and the only tertiary artificial sounds of the hum of the city, themselves so unchanged over time that they lull you into thinking they, too, were the result of anything other than human.

I had walked a block or two north on the boardwalk, and after looking down at the ocean, a solid three quarter’s of a mile away over that world renown brown jersey shore muck interspersed with the occasional pocket of sand, decided I would stay there. After all, the boardwalk has been the defining attraction of the south jersey shore all these years. People do go on the beach, but no one comes here for the beach.

Roller coasters were being tested on the piers, and the rare business owner was chaining open their store front- this place would be open today, at least to some degree. It’s only September 8, and the equinox, so painfully visible on the horizon, is still a few weeks away. It is still summer, even if the glorious season of life is in it’s tragic death throes. The kids are back at school though, and the few who have visited Wildwood this weekend are decidedly local, more so than usual. A guy with white hair passed me on his bike. He was wearing a tattered old TO Eagles jersey. Far from classy, yet eternally optimistic and earnest. This is Philly.

It was a morning to birth art, and while I was not properly equipped for the task, I took some photos anyway. I made it another block before I encountered what a professional photographer might dare dream of. As I dabble, however, in the written word, allow me to describe the scene. Don’t worry, my desire for brevity is as acute as yours- I’m writing this from my phone.

An older middle aged woman was sitting by her lonesome on a bench on the boardwalk, back to the ocean. She was enjoying a breakfast of a few donuts and a cup of coffee which she had procured at the Dunkin Donuts across the way. Sun shining, breeze blowing… Take that sentimental feeling I hope to have given rise to earlier in the entry and apply it liberally. Not more than 10 feet away stood a line and stately seagull, patiently waiting for just a morsel of dough. Standing at attention, still as the night, gaze fixed on his purveyor of sustenance, this seagull commanded both respect and empathy. I stopped for a minute to observe the situation and enjoyed a chuckle. The woman recognized what caught my attention, and looked right back at that seagull and said, squarely, “no.”

If the beginning of this, uhhh, vignette, was the stuff of a photographer’s dreams, the next minute was the videographer’s wet dream. Not more than a second after her denial of the stately lone seagull, my friend was fiercely attacked by another lone seagull. Flying over her left shoulder with the determination and recklessness of a kamikaze pilot, this seagull picked that donut right out of her hand, knocking it to the ground in a fury of lawlessness.

Within half a second, I had offered my condolences. She assured me this was standard fare here, and seemed only slightly perturbed that her otherwise peaceful morning had been interrupted. In that half second, the entirety of the south jersey seagull syndicate had been notified of the bounty, and was en route to the scene. My fellow human had gotten up and was about to leave, when I was promptly shit on by one of these mongrels.

We could both only laugh. I limped out something along the lines of “these damn birds. Snagging your donut, shitting all over me. They got us.”

“Yeah they did. Lets get out of here.”

I turned around and headed back south, she to the north. Upon my return to the condo, I washed that acerbic mixture from my arm, shirt and cap and began my day anew. My folks are stirring and the coffee I made is ready.

My stroll on the boardwalk lasted but ten minutes. In that tiny sliver of day, I encountered both breathtaking beauty and the helplessness and agony of defenseless defeat. It’s just another morning in New Jersey.

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The Center of the World. The Cradle of Freedom.

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We’ve got a world city, we brew Yuengling, and we’re the snack food capital of the world. The 16th century is only an hour from that world city, and the 1950s are only another hour from there. Time travelers welcome. Seriously now, Lebanon, where I grew up, is an hour from Philly, 2 from DC and 3 from New York City. The beach was 3 hours away, while the mountains were 5 minutes away. Great golf, sunsets that never seemed to last quite long enough, and a full four seasons. I’ve always had tremendous amounts of Pennsylvania Pride; you can take the kid out of Pennsylvania, but you can’t take the Pennsylvania out of the kid. It’s good to be back here in the center of the world.

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Northeastern Middle America

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A lot of true blue East Coasters will have you believe that middle America starts in Ohio. The state has more cities over 100,000 than PA, NY, NJ and all of NE individually have. No. This is the core of the former industrial center of the world. Some of the values may be wholesome, but this is about as raw as America gets.

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The True North, Strong and Free

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Canada is a great place. Hamlike bacon, moose, hockey, maple syrup. All kidding aside, it’s a forward thinking, progressive nation with a similar, but charmingly distinct culture from our own. Their fairways will be open to me.

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Proud and Strong

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No city is more maligned than Detroit, and all of Michigan bears the weight. Don’t trust what you hear. This is a state full of strong people and gorgeous views with phenomenal public universities and an eye towards the future.

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