It comes fully kitted out with everything you need for life on the road. Yep, you could leave tomorrow!
We have been travelling around the US in a converted 1997 Ford Econoline E150 for the last six months. Our travels have come to an end and we are returning home to Australia and sadly need to sell our home on wheels before we leave.
We converted the van in May 2017, removing all the back seats and building in a double bed with plenty of storage underneath, a desk/shelf unit, an electric cooler and even a hidden safe which will fit two 15-inch Macbook pros and two iPads simultaneously. We also added a leisure battery and an inverter which we have used to charge laptops, iPads and run the cooler.
The van is a 1997 Ford Econoline 150 Club Wagon with a 4.6 Liter V8 engine. It runs great. We had the brakes and tires replaced and a new alternator, second/leisure battery and inverter (to charge our devices and run the electric cooler) installed prior to starting the trip.
The odometer stopped working in October near Seattle with 178,783 miles on it (all other gauges still working properly). We estimate it has about 185,000 miles on it based on the fuel usage that we tracked. There are a few minor things that we lived with but could be fixed: loose ground in the stereo can cause it to go silent sometimes, the power locks work most of the time but sometimes you need to use the key, and the check engine light is on but does not affect performance (we’ve had it checked).
Our first stop in Austin wasn’t quite in Austin. It was actually in Driftwood, Texas where the Salt Lick Barbecue has been serving up giant portions of smoked meats for the past 50 years.
In fact, to commemorate their 50th anniversary, they commissioned a giant Texas shaped woodcut piece from local artist and friend of the Eagleroo crew, Brian Phillips. So we ate a bunch of meat and marvelled at the piece for a bit before driving that last 30 minutes into Austin proper, where the next week would afford us a lot of good times with a lot of good friends.
The first friend we got to see was Dani, who had flown all the way from Melbourne (via Hawaii and Oregon) to spend the week in Austin with us. Slinky picked her up from the airport while I finished up some work at the local library. After work, I walked to the grocery store where they were supposedly shopping for our Thanksgiving feast. Following the trail of giggling noises, I found them ogling at the assortment of snack foods available in this country. I think Slinky has been a little let down that I haven’t always shared in her glee at the various strange foods on display as we’ve wound our way through the aisles of unfamiliar grocery stores. It was nice for her to have a fellow Aussie to commiserate with. For me, it was just nice to see my good friend after too many months. I did my best to steer them toward the checkout where the cashier seemed to have his day brightened by the duo. We took our bounty back to our AirBnB, checked in, and spent the evening catching up and sharing stories of the road.
The next day was the first Thanksgiving spent in the U.S. for two-thirds of our party. We spent the morning cooking and taking turns exploring our little corner of Austin on foot to work up an appetite. Our spread included both Turkey and Tofurky (Dani doesn’t eat meat), bourbon yams, mashed potatoes, gravy, and other beige and beige-adjacent delicacies. It was delicious and I felt very grateful indeed to spend the day with loved ones and a full belly.
Friday morning, Dani and Slinky drove the ‘roo to nearby San Antonio to stroll along the Riverwalk and tour the Alamo. I prepped them for the latter by showing them the relevant clip from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Hopefully, when the time came they pronounced “Adobe” correctly and did not inquire about the basement. In the evening, Dani and I went to the Paramount Theater to see Hayes Carll. We were blown away by his show and by the openers, Shelby Lynn and Alison Moorer, who even threw in a Nick Cave cover. The night seemed like the perfect Austin experience: great music in a beautiful historic venue. Feeling inspired we decided to make sure to play an open mic together while we were in the same city. Dani and I play together in The Cornersmiths back in Australia and I’d really been missing playing with her.
The next day, accompanied by my friend, and unofficial Austin ambassador, Natalie, we went to the Continental Club to watch Redd Volkaert perform. This has been a tradition whenever I find myself in Austin and I couldn’t wait to share it with Dani and Slinky. The band themselves would be impressive enough, but when the floor fills with two-step dancers twirling, shuffling and dipping like they were born to do it, it’s just amazing to watch. I tend to hang at the back and try to take it all in. Dani and Slinky, on the other hand, came to play. Within a few songs, Dani was chatting up a local and finding out who could show her the steps. Then she was out on the floor twirling, shuffling and dipping like she’d been doing it her whole life. And then Slinky was out there and I started to realize I might be the only person in the place that didn’t know how to two-step. Before we knew it, the band had been at it for two and a half hours. We would have gladly stuck around longer but we had a firepit to get to. On the way out, Slinky and Dani went to talk to Redd, who was on a well-earned break, and learned that he plays a big country music festival in Tamworth, Australia every year. I guess we’ll have to check it out when we’re back.
That night my friends Cynthia and Brian (who made the piece at Salt Lick) hosted us for a firepit session in their backyard. They have one of my favorite backyards. It’s situated between the house and Brian’s converted shipping container studio and every piece of furniture is colorful and vibrant. It doesn’t hurt matters that there are two awesome German Shepherds to hang out with. Our hosts spun a classic country playlist and kept us in beer, pizza, and stories all night. It had been a while since we’d sat around a firepit that wasn’t desperately needed for warmth. We tried to convince them that they need to come to Melbourne so we can repay their hospitality sometime. I hope it worked.
On Sunday, we all wondered into Austin to check out the town a bit more. We wound up at Hope Gallery, a constantly changing outdoor street art gallery. It was a beautiful day in Austin and it was good to be out and about. That night, another friend, Jesse, came over to the house armed with a 1930’s National guitar, a banjo, a cigar box tenor guitar, and an encyclopedic knowledge of music. All of these got a workout. Every time I play guitar with Jessie I wind up learning something that opens up a world of possibilities. He and Dani got along famously and really clicked playing Summertime and Dream a Little Dream together. We stayed up late and throwing songs around. I didn’t want that night to end.
On Monday, we found our open mic of choice at the Speakeasy. We were pleased to find out that the venue actually occupies a rooftop, which offered a bit more breeze than necessary but made us feel just a little more Beatle-like. You never know what you’re going to get with an open mic night. Thankfully this one really turned out to be really fun. There was an eclectic mix of styles, including soul, singer-songwriter, hip-hop, spoken word, experimental synth weirdness, a little bit of everything. We played 3 Cornersmiths songs that we know fairly well but hadn’t played together in front of people in a long time. We seemed to remember what we were doing pretty quickly and the audience was really supportive and into it. By the end of the night, we had made some new friends, heard some good tunes, and broken the fast of playing live.
We spent our final night in the capital of Texas eating pizza with our friends Natalie, Paul and Brian at Homeslice. They were doing a charity promotion with another local pizzeria that does Detroit-style deep dish pizza. Even after eating it, I’m not sure what the difference between it and Chicago-style deep dish is but I do know they are both delicious. The promotion must have been a success because there was a two-hour wait for a table. Thankfully we snagged a good waiting spot at the outside bar and the time flew by. After spending so much time with just the two of us, it was really nice to be among new and old friends shooting the breeze and sipping drinks. It was tough to say goodbye to everybody at the end of the night.
The next morning before leaving town, we had breakfast with Dani, who would embark on the marathon flight back to Melbourne later that evening. We roped her into an activity we have been doing since the beginning of the trip: capturing 4 or 5 bullet points in our big trip book about what happened each day. It’s really helpful when we go back to write these blog posts (sometimes it’s been a little while) but it’s also proven to be a good way to avoid constantly focusing on what’s next. We try to do it every couple of days but more often than not, wind up trying to recount the events of a week at a time. It’s actually harder than it sounds but having a third memory there helped. And it was a week I definitely didn’t mind strolling through the memories of one more time.
The first week was spent at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Our campsite was right in the middle of the Avenue of the Giants—a collection of some of the largest and most impressive redwoods in the world. They dominate everything about the landscape, including the light and temperature on the ground below. It being late in the season and a bit chillier than most Californians like their camping weather, we were lucky enough to have a beautiful campsite with not too many neighbors around us. Equally exciting was the decent cellular coverage, meaning we could get up and work right from the campsite. We’ve come to see that as a bit of a luxury. Aside from a couple of trips into town to experience the great indoors and charge our laptops, our week amongst the redwoods was spent soaking up the magnificent trees and trying to get enough work done to take the next week off.
Early on in the planning, we realized that driving down the coast of California was one of the big draws of the road trip and that to do it well we couldn’t try to juggle work with it. So we’d made arrangements to be on vacation that week and, with the exception of a few last minute requests, we were. It was a really nice break.
We started off working our way down the coast to Mendocino where we found an “ocean view” hotel room at reasonable rates. We didn’t get the best views of the ocean because it was still foggy but we had a nice time rubbing elbows with the locals at a packed Irish bar with corned beef and hospitality to spare.
Our hotel luck ran out in Santa Cruz, where we experienced the dinginess and potential parking lot stabiness that is at times commensurate with our budget. The bit of the town we saw seemed nice though. We had dinner at a place called Pour, which featured an entire wall of beer taps that you activate with a wristband and select whether you want a taste, a half, or a full beer. We found the experience so much better than squinting at the tap handles while an impatient bartender stares at you. And what a great way to sample a bunch of local brews without expressing your love for or starting fights with total strangers.
From Santa Cruz, we made the quick drive to Monterey. They’ve got seals and Steinbeck, so I was happy. We stayed two nights there, allowing us to catch our breath a bit and to see Pebble Beach. It’s a fine looking golf course but we opted not to fork over the $500 greens fees. Instead, we headed back to Cannery Row where we felt like our current lifestyle was more in line with the local history. Monterey also afforded us our first glimpses of that elusive sun, which would shine on us for most of the next day’s drive through Big Sur and down to Santa Barbara.
We had business to attend to in Santa Barbara. We are getting married there in a couple of months so we were eager to see the venue and get our marriage license. Luckily, both of those things could happen at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Slinky found the venue before we even started this trip. We wanted a place where her family could easily get to from L.A., the main destination for flights from Australia. When she found the Mural Room in the courthouse we knew we had found our spot. Finally getting to see it in person reinforced that decision. Adding to the good feelings, getting our marriage licence was actually one of the nicest experiences I could imagine having at a government office. The woman who guided us through the process was married to an Australian and seemed genuinely happy to be helping me join the club. We raised our right hands and swore a statement that we weren’t currently married to anybody else, after which she explained that we were not yet married, just licensed to be. This question must come up a lot because they also had it as the first item in the FAQ list she handed us.
Unmarried but sworn in, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Santa Barbara eating good food and drinking good wine as, you know, research. After all, our families will be here with us next time and we have to be able to show them around. Between meals, we toured the Mission, guided by a docent that told rambling stories and sometimes forgot what he was talking about halfway through them. I could definitely relate to him. He also had the habit of prefacing jokes by saying things like, “now I’m going to use humor here,” which should have ruined the joke more often than it did.
From Santa Barbara, we headed south to catch up with my friends Joe and Marcia in Glendora. Getting there meant trading in the beauty of the now visible California coastline for the glacial progress of L.A. freeways. Before pointing the Roo inland, we took a stroll down Santa Monica Pier, where we saw the sign marking the end of Route 66. While our trip has not followed much of the famous route, we had seen the other end of it when we were in Chicago. Seeing this sign put into perspective just how long it’s been since we started this journey. I couldn’t help feeling really lucky that we’ve had the chance to take this amazing trip. Then I got annoyed at how many people were on the pier and the ridiculous volumes that the buskers were overdriving their amps to.
A few hours later we were through the L.A. traffic and enjoying dinner with Joe and Marcia. It’s been five years since I worked with Joe. While we’ve kept in touch, it’s been a long time since we occupied the same space. I was really glad we got to. After dinner we had a drink back at their place and compared travel, work and how did you two meet stories. It was a lovely evening.
The next morning we were off again, this time to Temecula. It was our last stop in California and our final day of vacation. I was glad to spend it with my friends Carrie and Brian who live there. I was eager for Carrie and Sarah to meet because, in many ways, Carrie is responsible for Sarah and I meeting. It was Carrie who approached me about the job that took me to Australia in the first place. Besides, I had a feeling they’d hit it off. They did. We had lunch at a local winery overlooking the peaceful hills outside of Temecula and then headed back to their place to hang out. We gave them a little tour of the van. It was fun to show off our setup and it gave me another little flash that we’ve been doing this for a while and that we’ve actually developed some skill for living on the road and organizing our lives into a small mobile space.
That night Brian made us delicious Thai lettuce wraps and Carrie (ever the bad influence) convinced us to try these jellybeans where each color is either something nice like strawberry banana or something disgusting like rotten fish. Slinky downed like five good ones in a row. I had one. It was a disturbingly realistic vomit flavor. I have now retired from that game with a 0-1 record.
As we pulled out of Temecula and pointed the Roo toward Arizona, I took the opportunity to do one last time what I’d done on a near daily basis for the past two weeks. I put on the theme song from the O.C. and we belted along, “California, California, here we come!” And there we went.
The first time I remember hearing of Seattle was on the Brady Bunch.
Alice was sneaking off and pretending to go visit a relative in Seattle. The city was just a device so one of the kids could misunderstand and think that Alice was going to see somebody named Attle. She was actually feeling unappreciated for all that she did and needed a little space. But that’s really none of my business.
Coming off of our week in Yellowstone via one night stays in Bozeman and Spokane, Seattle felt very big and densely populated. Slinky had secured us a great little budget hotel with a kitchenette that allowed us to cook for ourselves—a boon to both budget and health. Our room even offered views of the Space Needle, which was only a ten-minute walk through the Seattle Center.
The weather was meant to be nice for the first half of the week before turning to the drizzle that pretty much defines the town. So, we decided to take the obligatory ride up to the top of the Space Needle on our first full day in town. While buying tickets, we saw a sign for a city pass that would allow us access to five different sites over the course of the week. Since we were interested in a couple of the other attractions, we opted for the pass and were issued with little booklets containing tickets to each attraction. Up we went to the observation platform where we could view the city we’d spend the next week exploring. By the end of it, we actually used up every ticket in the book.
Between working in the mornings and turning into full-on tourists in the afternoons, our days stayed pretty jammed. Also moving into Pacific Time while working for a client in the UK caused some hellishly early meetings for me. On the upside, Slinky found herself in much better alignment with her clients in Australia. The shift allowed a nice little window between noon and four to go out and soak up Seattle.
Our trusty tickets took us on an hour-long harbour tour of the Emerald City, during which we learned about the Edgewater hotel, which juts out over the water and where fans, undaunted by security, had swum to the hotel when they found out the Beatles were staying there. We also learned that the Seattle Aquarium (for which our booklet held tickets) had both sea otters and river otters so we made a mad dash there to see them along with sea lions and a couple of giant octopuses. Among the first things we encountered in the museum were tanks where we were invited to touch the invertebrates and feel there little invertebrate reactions. Hopefully, we weren’t just one more chapter in their nightmare existence of lacking bones and constantly being poked by people.
We used another afternoon window to visit Chihuly’s Garden and Glass exhibit. Dale Chihuly is a glass blowing artist resident to Seattle who creates these giant and magnificent works containing hundreds, if not thousands, of glass blown shapes. The light and color in the place were amazing, but truly remarkable is the sheer scale of everything he did.
We also toured around Pike Place Market a bit, where Slinky got to see the famous fish throwing. During our wander of the market, we gave thought to visit the original Starbucks but deemed the line a little too long. Slinky had been threatening to try her first ever pumpkin spiced latte at the original location but it wasn’t happening that afternoon.
We saved my favorite ticket in the city passbook for our last full day in the Emerald City. The Museum of Popular Culture, or MoPOP, was formerly the Experience Music Project (actually MoPOP is the museum’s fifth name since it opened in 2000). What they lack in moniker-decisiveness, the make up for in, well, everything else. In addition to the regular exhibits of legendary guitars and fun interactive displays, the museum hosted exhibits on Jim Henson, Horror Movies, Fantasy, Sci-fi, and Star Trek. Highlights for me include Woodie Guthrie’s guitar, in which he scratched “this machine kills fascists,” a booth in the Henson exhibit where you get to make your own muppet character and the bridge from the starship enterprise.
But my absolute favorite part of the museum is the sound lab where banks of instruments are hooked up to consoles that give you mini-lessons and allow you to jam with strangers. They’re even organized into these little-windowed cubicles so you don’t realize you’re going to jam with a stranger until you are in place holding the instrument. I saw so many brief flashes of horror followed by smiles of pure joy in the fifteen minutes we spent in the room. And Slinky learned Louie Louie on guitar.
The museum closed at 5:00 pm and they were serious about that deadline so we sort of sprinted through a few exhibits that we would have liked to have spent more time in. I could spend a couple of hours in their gift shop alone. We capped our week off with wood-fired pizza at the Masonry and a nightcap at Tin Lizzy, a prohibition themed bar where I accidentally left without my credit card. Thankfully the same venue hosted breakfast for our hotel so I got it back nearly as quickly as I realized it was gone. Hopefully, those 10 nervous minutes will help me remember to take the thing with me next time.
Before we left town on Saturday, we decided to take one last stroll down to Pike Place Market so Slinky could get that Pumpkin Spice Latte from the original Starbucks. The weekend line we encountered made the weekday line seem almost reasonable. I mean it wasn’t anywhere near reasonable given there are 15 Starbucks within a quarter-mile radius of the place. Which is why, 90 seconds after glimpsing the line, Slinky was experiencing her first pumpkin spice latte from the not-quite-first Starbucks. Based on her reaction, I don’t guess the pumpkin spice craze is going to catch on Down Under.
Our first stop on the way in to Nashville was the Loveless Motel, which dishes up southern cuisine prepared in all manners from fried to deep fried. It was on Slinky’s dad’s must do list and I must say I’m glad we did. It was like Mecca for beige food enthusiasts such as myself. Even the biscuits were served with sorghum, which the waitress explained was best mixed with butter to achieve maximum beigeness. As I waddled out to the van, I swore to myself I’d go for a run the next day. But first we had business to attend to at the Grand Ole Opry.
Relocated from its original location at the Ryman Auditorium to a roomier venue out in the burbs, the Opry has hosted legends of country music since 1925, including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and about a hundred others. There is a circle in the center of the stage cut from the original stage so that performers literally get to stand in the footsteps of their heroes. The whole place had a great feel to it and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Well, normally there wouldn’t be anyway. As soon as we sat down, a man in a comically large cowboy hat took the seat right in front of Slinky’s dad, Andrew. I have to admit that my respect for him grew as I watched him tap the guy on the shoulder and ask him to remove his hat. I worried about being involved in an international incident but the guy, perhaps then noticing that he was the only one wearing a view-blocking hat, took it off and placed it in his lap. Thus Andrew got to enjoy great sets by the likes of Del McCoury Band and Vince Gill unobstructed. I think he asked the guy to put his hat back on during Rascal Flatts.
We continued to soak up more Nashville music goodness over the next couple of days at various sites up and down Broadway. It was fun to have Andrew and Tom along for that part of the ride. Andrew has spent more time in Nashville than I have and between his suggestions and Slinky’s mastery of internet research, Tom and I got to kind of go along for the ride.
Our country music indoctrination culminated in a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was a boys’ trip to the museum as Slinky was feeling a little worse for the wear by then and possibly had had her fill of lap steel guitar. Having started off leg one of the trip with a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, it seemed like good symmetry to spend our last day of leg one at its country counterpart. I can’t say enough good things about the museum. I find it mind-blowing that one building houses the telecaster that Charlie Daniels played on Nashville Skyline, the Bandit’s Trans-Am, and Gram Parson’s Nudie suit. If none of those things mean anything to you, I still suggest a trip. Not to out anybody but there was a member of our group whose response the mention of Willie Nelson was “who?” and he still enjoyed it.
As we left the museum, the rain that would soon spur tornados and cause flooding across Nashville started to fall. It rained hard enough that evening that we drove the tenth of a mile to dinner and didn’t feel the slightest bit lazy about it. The rain continued on through the night and stayed with us for the entire drive back to Indianapolis the next day. Our caravan had to stick pretty close together to not lose sight of one another.
Our country music theme followed us through the rain to Indianapolis as well. A couple of hours after pulling into town, we were at the Melody Inn for Hillbilly Happy Hour with Rick Dodd and the Dickrods, a band I helped form and still feel like part of even living in a different country. They put on a really great show that made it even sweeter to be back in Indy. I even got to join them on stage for a few songs that I did my best to not mess up. It really did feel like a storybook homecoming.
I, for one, was excited to be in one place for a few weeks as we ramped up for part two of the trip. Slinky on the other hand barely had time to catch her breath before she was on a plane back to Melbourne to visit the rest of her family, meet with clients, and renew her visa status. Tom and Andrew headed to New York for the U.S. Open after a couple of days. I don’t think anybody wore cowboy hats in front of them there
Upon arrival in Charleston, South Carolina, we checked into our campsite at James Island and set up our shelter in the blistering heat. I was still carrying around a little of the cold I’d picked up in Savannah and the heat made the task miserable. I don’t think Slinky was having much more fun dealing with me than I was having being me. Eventually we got all set up and headed into town, vowing to return to camp to cook this pork tenderloin we’d picked up at the store on the way in.
We caught a distant glimpse of Fort Sumter, site of the start of the Civil War, and walked around the beautiful city for a while before stopping in for a drink at Blind Tiger, a little pub that we had read about. Once inside and sipping cocktails, we were sucked in by the reasonably priced and tasty looking dinner options. We decided to cook that tenderloin tomorrow. After all we had the campsite reserved for 4 nights. Dinner did not disappoint and we had a lovely evening decompressing and soaking up all of Charleston’s southern charm.
We both slept fitfully that night, woken up by thunder and kept up by heat. As we worked from the campsite the next morning, we started planning our getaway. By midmorning it was getting too hot to be productive from a picnic table so we headed into town to work from the library. Libraries have been our salvation on many an occasion and Charleston proved no different. We set up in the air conditioning, finished work for the morning and randomly selected a nearby deli for lunch. It was crowded with, if the name badges were any indicator, mostly local office workers. The sandwiches were delicious. We had no idea that, at that moment just down the street in another popular lunch spot, a deranged man was declaring himself “the new king of Charleston” and holding hostages at gunpoint. Blissfully unaware, we discussed what to do about the upcoming thunderstorms. It wasn’t until we were driving from lunch to the Holiday Inn Express that we’d identified as potential replacement lodging that we had any clue something was happening. Several city blocks were ringed with police cars and people were being moved off of the sidewalk. Slinky found the news about the active shooter situation on her phone as I worked my way around unfamiliar backstreets trying to reroute us.
As we checked in to the hotel, the lobby television played CNN’s coverage of the situation. One person had been shot and dozens more were held hostage. Thankfully they got the man into custody without anybody else getting hurt. We stood glued to the coverage for a while then realized weather was more pressing than news in our current situation. We rushed back to the campsite to try to get everything packed up before the rain started. We almost made it. We did manage to get the shelter packed up before it got wet, which we’ve found to be the difference maker in how our packups go. As soon as it was in the van, the drops started, at first just spitting then a little heavier. We scurried around to get the van packed up. The tenderloin was hastily chucked into the cooler.
Back at the hotel, we jammed all of the food in the tiny refrigerator, and hatched tenderloin plan c: we’d go to a park with a charcoal grill. Too tired to enact that plan immediately, we opted for a little bistro that had a fondue special on. It was an interesting little hallway of a restaurant with bar seating and a few tables in the back. A card on the bar informed us that this was a no-tipping restaurant. I have to say that one of the things I really miss about Australia is the lack of tipping. Things cost more but people make a living wage and I don’t have to do math at the end of a nice meal. Win, win. So, I was really happy to be eating fondue and not tipping. And as the clouds gathered, I was exceptionally happy about going back to sleep in a bed under a roof.
We spent Friday and Saturday strolling around Battery Park and a neighbourhood of multi-colored houses known as Rainbow Row. After taking in some of the beauty of modern day Charleston, we checked out some of the ugliness of its past. We toured the Aiken Rhett house, a faithfully preserved nineteenth century plantation. It was confronting to see the slave quarters and artefacts of that barbaric institution. Seeing the furniture and personal affects throughout the house drove home just how recently these atrocities were committed. I was glad that we went but was also happy to leave.
By the weekend, although we still had the best of intentions to cook our tenderloin, we’d submitted completely to the Charleston foodie culture. We ate bahn mi rolls at a downtown art and food market and fried pigs ears at a local brewery. Over half-price Vietnamese tacos, we discussed what to do after Charleston. We were supposed to meet up with Slinky’s dad and brother in a few days. They were headed to Memphis and we had planned to visit Alabama before meeting up in Nashville. The plan made sense at first but as we discussed it, it seemed crazy to be so close (relative to Australia anyway) and not to spend a few more days with them. So, we hatched a scheme to drive the 10 hours from Charleston to Memphis on Sunday to surprise them.
Our last night in Charleston was spent strolling through the night market and listening to the local musicians. It was a beautiful night and while we were both excited about the new plan, we were sad to be leaving. We agreed that Charleston was one of our favorite cities so far. All the same, we called it an early night so we could hit the road early the next morning. The nearest route from our hotel room to the van was through the pool area. It was there that I finally admitted defeat and, with a glance over my shoulder, deposited that well travelled, still uncooked tenderloin into the swimming pool trash can. We tried. Just not that hard.
We wanted to drive from Shenandoah to Asheville, North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Doing the whole trip would have made it a twelve hour driving day and neither of us were prepared for that. But we started out to see how far we could go. Ultimately, the Eagleroo made the decision for us, wafting an incense of vaporizing brake pads as we worked our way down hills and around corners. Fortunately, the state road we detoured to had similar beautiful views. Unfortunately, it also had the same hills and hairpins. So we made a few extra stops to let the brakes cool down and the drivers’ nerves settle.
When we finally rolled into Asheville, I was thankful to be in familiar territory and in one of my favorite places in the country. We spent the first day wandering around downtown. We stopped in at Jack of the Woods, a little bar that occupies the downstairs of the Laughing Seed Cafe and always seemed to attract a friendly clientele. Seven or eight musicians were gathered in the corner playing Irish music for the bar’s Celtic Jam night. It felt good to be back.
Our first afternoon, we decided to drive out to Chimney Rock to take in the panoramic 70 mile views. This also gave me the chance to drive by the house in the woods that I shared with my friend Shutz when we lived here. I was happy to find it still there and relatively unchanged after almost twenty years. The town surrounding the house, on the other hand, had changed drastically. In the late nineties, Fairview was just a sleepy rural suburb of Asheville with a grocery store and quick access to the parkway. Now they have an acupuncturist. I’m sure I was driving Slinky crazy with the relentless ‘that didn’t use to be there.’ From Fairview, the drive to Chimney Rock offered more brake burning twists and turns but it was lovely. The sky was clouding up a bit as we paid our entrance fee and by the time we made it up to the parking lot, our sunny skies had turned grey and rain was starting to fall. Stubbornness propelled us up the 500 steps to the top of that beautiful rock and while the views that day were far less than 70 miles in any direction, it was still worth the climb.
Tuesday after work, Sarah headed off to the Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore is the main tourist attraction in Asheville. The Vanderbilt family, who seem to have built vacation houses in most of the cities we’ve been to, squandered the lion’s share of their fortune on this place. I’ve never been inside but I hear it’s glorious. It’s also $65 to tour and I have about a $40 threshold for looking at other people’s stuff. I’ll go $50 if you’re Elvis. Also, I’d made a discovery walking around the previous day that I wanted to explore a bit further: the Asheville Pinball Museum.
The Pinball Museum didn’t exist when I lived there. So when I saw it pop up on Google maps as we were scouting cafés the first day, I got a little excited. I love pinball. I had apparently been too excited to realize that the museum was closed on Tuesdays. I Charlie Brown-walked away from the pinball museum to roam around downtown for a bit. It was a strange feeling being in this place I’ve lived so long ago. This line from a James McMurtry song kept going through my head: “I woke up in a strange place I can aptly describe. Like the streets of a town where I lived when I was too young to drive.” I kept turning corners expecting to see one place but seeing another. It wasn’t just that all of those places had changed. Sometimes I turned the corner expecting to see one place and seeing another that was definitely there when I was there. It was fun but really surreal.
That evening we had one of my favorite dinners of the trip at a place called Tupelo Honey. We’d decided it was time for a date night so we splurged a bit. Dinner started with cocktails and candied bacon and kept getting better from there. Afterward we wondered over to the ironically named Asheville Yacht Club for a nightcap. Before entering, we had to purchase a $1 membership. This was not just in keeping with the yacht club theme. Any establishment that makes over 70% of its revenue from booze has to operate as a private club. This rule had confused me in the nineties and I’d assumed it had been tossed out like a Footloose ban on dancing years ago. But apparently it’s still going strong. Only one of us had to be a member so I ponied up the buck and actually got a membership card. Let me know if you’d like me to take you to my yacht club sometime. I can do that now.
Suddenly, Wednesday morning it was time to check out from our accommodations. It seemed too soon. We’d gotten accustomed to being able to stand up straight and having a kitchen table to work at. Thankfully we weren’t headed too far and we weren’t saying goodbye to Asheville just yet. After a day spent working at the library, I revisited the pinball museum. Thankfully it was open this time and it did not disappoint. All of my favorite machines sat side by side, all in perfect playing condition. When my arms and daylight both threatened to give out, we jumped back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed Southwest to Mt Pisgah Campground. We continued our tradition of reserving one campsite and then finding a better one upon arrival. We also continued our tradition of setting up and tearing down camp in the rain. This time there was a upside to the rain in that it was followed by an amazing rainbow.
After a day struggling to find signal at the campground, we decided to commute back to Asheville for our final workday before departing for Savannah. As we drove back in to town, I made a mental note that we were running low on gas and I should stop and fuel up before we started our day. Then I started thinking about breakfast and quickly discarded that mental note. Then, I parked on an incline. Five hours later when we went to move the van, it wouldn’t start. I have to say, for a 20 year old van, it has been such a solid and reliable mode of transportation that I’d almost forgotten the alternator issues that delayed us at the start of the trip. Though I was pretty sure we were just out of gas, that feeling of mechanical helplessness came rushing back. We were eager to ensure the problem was just an empty tank before mechanics started closing up shop, so Slinky found a gas station within walking distance and I headed that direction. The gas station, it turns out was only accessible by the highway and therefore not by me. On my way back I contacted AAA. Before we knew it, there was a guy pouring 5 gallons of gas into the tank. Eagleroo fired right up!
Equally as gratifying was the discovery I made walking back. I happened upon a crew setting up lighting and sound for a street stage and realized we were there for Friday after 5:00. When I lived here, it was one of my favorite things about Asheville. They’d bring in really great musicians once a month to play a free show and a good chunk of the population would show up to the party. One of my favorite gigs was Southern Culture on the Skids at Friday after 5:00.
This time it was blues master Cedric Burnside, who played a high energy, fun and downright impressive set. Engaging in an Asheville tradition and seeing some amazing music seemed like a great final night activity. It really meant a lot to get to share that with Slinky. I got to Asheville not sure how much of my fondness was, in fact, a fondness for that town and how much was fondness for a part of my life and left reassured that it really is a special place.
It’s striking how close together many of these old east coast cities are. This is certainly the case with D.C. and Baltimore, to the point where I wasn’t really sure when we left D.C. and when we entered Baltimore. I could tell when we left Baltimore and entered Catonsville, however, as the dense apartments and row houses morphed into suburban two-stories with big front yards. It wasn’t quite going from The Wire to the The Wonder Years, but not too far off. We were heading to Catonsville because that is where our friends Drummer (real name reportedly Jeremy) and Kara live with their son Matthew. He was Matty last time I visited but now, as a mature nine year old, he’s dispensed with the truncating and appending a long e sound. Take note Australia, it can be outgrown.
I’ve known Drummer and Kara both since college. They are both awesome and awesome together so I was excited to see them both and excited for Slinky to meet Kara. She’d met Drummer earlier this Summer at Rabscuttlooza, a celebration of music, art and rabbit stories organized by our friend Dan Hawthorne. That was also, incidentally, the first time I’ve heard Drummer, whose primary instrument is oddly enough drums, perform a stellar acoustic blues set. I knew he could play but had no idea he could sing. It was good enough that I was a bit angry at him about it.
Our first night in town they prepared a feast of ribs and grilled goodness then followed it up with a campfire and s’mores. Kara and I debated how long it had been since we’d seen one another for a while. I’ve had that conversation a number of times on this trip. It’s a fun little trip down memory lane without ever having to utter, ‘Remember that one time . . .” We landed on October of 2012 for those keeping score at home. Kara then spent some time being angry at me about the color of my hair, which is not to her estimation turning gray so much as ‘getting all weird and stuff.’ I assured her that I look exactly the same as I did when we met in college. It was probably a trick of the campfire light.
Eventually the guitars came out. Then their neighbour, who is also the sousaphone player in Drummer’s band, dropped by with cigars, whiskey and a deep catalogue of John Denver songs. There was much singing and playing and passing of guitars and bottles. Slinky and Kara peeled off as they saw where this was going. When Drummer and I eventually decided to call it a night, I was actually shocked to see it was 3:30 am. Damn you, John Denver! You get me every time.
I started the next day off fuzzy and a bit jealous that Slinky had gone to bed at a far more reasonable and less booze soaked hour. Drummer drove us into the city while Kara offered some helpful tips about speed and safe following distance. The plan was to lunch on the best pizza in town. We arrived early since we had a Baltimore Orioles game to catch and wanted to beat the crowds. We stood outside the pizza place with stomachs grumbling and waited for the doors to open. They never did. Half an hour after the purported opening time, we gave up and hangrily walked to another pub that apparently brings double of whatever you order. I ordered a coke and they brought me two. So I ordered a beer.
Soon enough we were on our way to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles take on the Detroit Tigers. Between walking through the gates and finding our seats our seats, the Orioles hit three homeruns. We saw none of them. It was bizarre. We got through security, the crowd erupted. We stopped into the bathroom, the place went nuts. We ordered some drinks, pandemonium. The final score was 13-4 in the Orioles’ favor, with half of Detroit’s runs scored in the hopeless 9th inning. It wasn’t a close game but if you like watching the home team hit some dingers, it was a good place to be. As we walked out of the stadium, huge lines of patient parents and eager children were forming. We were informed that kids could run the bases after the game. Thankfully, Matthew didn’t show any more interest in those lines than the rest of us, but I kind of held my breath until they were out of sight.
We didn’t do too much touristy stuff in Baltimore. We did take a rain soaked stroll around Fells Point but spent much of that time browsing old records in a cramped little shop. After loading up on history and culture in D.C., it was nice to just visit with friends, play music, and relax.
On our third and final night in town, Drummer and Kara took us to Ships Restaurant for Maryland crabs. They were difficult to eat, completely plastered in Old Bay seasoning and, well, delicious. The waitress dumped a giant pile of them on the table in front of us. She gave us paper grocery bags in which to hide the carnage. I warned Kara that sitting across from Slinky while she’s eating crustaceans carries a similar threat level to the front row at a Gallagher show. Kara barricaded herself with menus. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to hallucinate from a sodium overdose but I do know that, right before I passed out, one of the crabs told me he was my spirit animal.
Tuesday morning, Mathew went to camp and Drummer and Kara went to work, leaving us to pack up and go. In the process we discovered a chipmunk had found his way into their screened in porch. He made it under the ping pong table where I’d recently lost a game to a nine year old and hid under the shelving unit. When we couldn’t find him, we decided to leave the screen door open so he could get out. Not wanting other chipmunks to take advantage of the open door, I affixed a ‘No Chipmunks Allowed’ post-it note. We are nothing if not thoughtful guests.
To be honest, my trepidation about visiting Washington D.C. started back in June when we visited Chicago. Walking around the corner and seeing the big dumb name of our current president on a big beautiful building just made me cringe. I knew that feeling would be magnified in D.C. but I have such fond memories attached to the city, including a 9th grade school trip where we got to roam around semi-unsupervised around the capital for 3 days. Besides, I was morbidly curious as to what it would be like now.
In addition to loving the city itself, my good friends Carlton and Kellie live in Capital Hill and had invited us to stay with them. They are some of the nicest and most fun people I know, so I was very excited to catch up with them and for Sarah to get to know them. We had switched the order of Baltimore and Washington D.C to catch them before they left to attend a wedding in Canada. I’m so glad we did. It was really great to spend time with them. Carlton and Kellie’s location provided the perfect launching pad for our museum and monument bonanza. We could work in the mornings and plunge right out into the D.C. swelter in the afternoons.
We toured around Union Station and the Mall on our first day and spent a bit of time at the American History museum. That visit was cut shorter than anticipated because the entertainment wing was closed for renovations. I was bummed we didn’t see Fonzie’s jacket or Archie Bunker’s chair but we did get to wander through the gallery of First Lady’s inaugural gowns. That was like watching a timelapse video of the fashion trends of the last two centuries. They didn’t have Melania’s dress on display yet. I was heartened by their wait-and-see approach.
The next evening, our doting hosts took us to picnic at the capitol and watch ‘The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band perform. I guess they knew Sarah would be there because they dedicated part of their set to Australian composers. As the sun set behind us, the sky behind the Washington Monument turned bright pink. I forget how pretty a city our nation’s capital is when I haven’t been there for a while.
Though they had a brutally early flight to catch, Carlton and Kellie guided us around some of their favorite memorials, including MLK, FDR, Jefferson and Lincoln. We got back to the house exhausted, thankful and feeling a little guilty that they still had to pack. I guess they kept their eyes open long enough to fill their suitcases because by the time we woke up, they were on their way to Canada, leaving us with a hand drawn map of the area, some tips on things to check out, and their bikeshare keys.
We decided to give history a rest and to check out some art at the Smithsonian Gallery of American Art. I chose the least bicycle-friendly route so by the time we got there we’d be exhilarated and filled with the will to live, just as one should be when one views art. It worked. We both really enjoyed the museum. Also it was nice to view exhibits that didn’t involve Slinky asking me history questions that I really ought to know the answer to.
That evening we met more friends, Lindsey and Chris, for dinner at their place. We had a great time catching up on old times and learning about mythology from their daughters, who are far too bright for their single-digit ages. We had such a nice time that I forgot to take any pictures. So you’ll have to take my word for it, they are beautiful people inside and out.
On Friday, Slinky and I took an actual day off of work and biked over to the White House and Ford’s theatre . The Ford’s Theater tour contains two parts: the theater where Lincoln was shot and the rooming house across the street where he actually died. The museum itself was a bit all over the place, but the talk by the ranger was informative and interesting. Even so, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open so I decided to skip the second part and cycle back to the house. Slinky, ever the better traveller, toughed out the long line.
When she went to retrieve a bike for the ride home, her key fob wouldn’t unlock one. She worked out that one of us hadn’t properly docked the bike on the last trip. Hot and stranded, she called me. Back in my air conditioned splendor, my mind flashed to the little sign on the bike that said failure to return it would result in purchasing said bike for $1000. So I quickly hung up on her. OK, that last bit didn’t happen. I called Kellie in Canada and she assured me that if it did cost them a grand that would count as both my birthday and Christmas present. She made some calls and straightened everything out while Slinky made the long walk home. I watched Crossroads with Ralph Machio on free to air television. We all made sacrifices.
Our last night in DC was spent at the sculpture garden listening to live jazz and dangling our feet in the fountain. The band’s 12 minute vamp on Donna Summers’ ‘I Will Survive’ eased the pain of leaving DC with so much left unseen and undone. I’m sure we’ll be back but it was still tough to go, to walk out the door, to turn around and not be welcome anymore.
Thankfully we weren’t going too far and had more good friends to visit with in Baltimore.
I had this moment laying in a New York City hotel room where my mind floated back to our vacant campsite in Hyde Park. I played out one scene where vandals dismantled our defenceless van. Then another where rangers, upon finding the campsite unattended for so long, assumed we had drowned in the Hudson and called out whatever underwater search and rescue team would incur the maximum amount of expense and scorn. I’m not sure where the anxiety came from but it felt entirely plausible. As our uber glided into the campsite, I was happy to find the Eagleroo just as we had left it. We had affixed three sides to the pop-up shelter so that, with the fourth covered by the van, it really was hard to tell whether it was habited or not. It was an overcast day and we decided to spend the rest of it around camp. Our relaxing day would have segued nicely into a restful night but for the tireless work of one insect who spent the entire night reminding us of the Dalai Lama’s insight: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
We were moderately excited about two things in Hyde Park: the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and FDR’s presidential library, both of which exceeded our expectations. The culinary institute operates several restaurants where students get a little work experience and patrons get a gourmet experience at sub-gourmet prices. We decided on the American Bounty restaurant which used regional produce to create American cuisine. Not only was the food delicious but we were seated right next to the window looking into the kitchen. We got to watch desserts being blowtorched and entrees plated while we tucked in to our own fare. With all of that goodness to absorb, my favorite part of the experience was still that the stick figures on the pedestrian crossing signs wore little chef hats. I’m pretty cultured.
The other opportunity to fill our heads with good stuff in Hyde Park came from the FDR presidential library. I had assumed that presidential libraries went back as far as presidents. Not so. FDR created the first presidential library and did so while he was still president. He even used part of it as his office while in Hyde Park. I’ve always found the Roosevelts fascinating and this visit increased that fascination by quite a bit. We expected to spend about an hour there. We dragged ourselves away after four. Did you know that FDR made beer legal again during prohibition? It took an act of congress to get our whiskey back but FDR ended the cruel and unusual punishment of a beer-less depression. I mean I already liked him for the New Deal and putting Woodie Guthrie on the payroll and being portrayed by Bill Murray but the beer thing really clinched it.
Other highlights from Hyde Park included a scrumptious slice of pecan pie from the Eveready Diner, taking Eagleroo to see Planet of the Apes at the drive-in, and finally getting a decent phone holder that doesn’t drop the phone under the pedals every time we hit a bump. Thanks for all of that, Hyde Park.