Monday, March 27, 2006

Highlights of, like, SLO

I'm into my cups here at the Sands in SLO, wondering whether I will ever learn to spit. Spit wine, that is; when you taste 38 wines a day, you're supposed to spit from the get-go, but somehow I've managed to take my cue from the multitudes of tourists for whom spitting was never an option.

San Luis Obispo is a college town. My tour guide, John, believes there's a missing demographic here. There's plenty of twentysomethings, and a good bit of those over forty, but the middle, being, say, 26-40, are priced out of the real estate. This might be true. I still see joggers that look like they might belong in that demographic, but far more who belong to the Cal Poly set--good looking young 'uns who eat tofu by day and drink microbrews by night.

By accident I stumbled on Bubble Gum Alley, and no matter what you might read about its history, it's just straight-up gross. Impressive and all, but ultimately, it arose the gorge. Since 1960 or some-odd, people have stuck their gumwads on the wall here, creating a long corridor of chewy horror.

But even as there's stuff to squelch your apetite, there's a good bite that'll bring it right on back.

The Big Sky Cafe does the food right. Down to the vine ripened tomato on your burger, they make the details count. I've had two meals here so far, and both satisfied me to my soul. Pictured here is the odd but delicious 'Red Flannel Turkey Hash', a mix of turkey sausage, beets and carmelized onions nestled next to a couple of perfect over-medium egglets. That's a good layer of food for a long day's wine tasting, for sure.

John, my tour guide, led me to a most interesting stop: the San Luis Fish and BBQ, where you can purchase a basket of fried fish goodness, or... a 1998 Beaux Freres Pinot Noir. Somehow, the proprietors have amassed a large, revolving inventory of older wines. They're hit and miss, but so worth checking out, if only for the sheer amazement at finding the odd, ten year old Northern Rhone.

Lots more to check out. I'll keep you abreast.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Andersen's Pea-ple Pleasin' Soup

It's usually the intrepid adventurer's wont to avoid the tourist traps, but in some cases, the tourist traps are a great reminiscence of childhood roadtrip wackiness. Remember those stops you made in the restaurants that had the big gift shop crammed full of cheap toys and novelties (which you begged for), figurines, peanut brittle, and the local "homeade" jam? And no, I don't mean the effin' Cracker Barrel, which is to these places as Wal-Mart is to the local specialty shop. I mean places that had been there since the golden age of the American Road Trip in the mid-fifties, luring weary drivers and their cranky kids in for eggs, bacon, and marble fudge. These places are a dying breed, losing their places to chain joints and Tiger Marts, or just rotting in the desert sun.

I, personally, love when I find one that's still going strong, and Andersen's is a cheesy roadside stop lover's dream. Not only do they have the requisite gift shop, but they have the kraziest specialty-of-the-house I've ever seen.
Homeade Pea Soup.

There's the all-you-can-eat Pea Soup, complete with toppings and cheese onion bread, or the Pea Soup and Sandwich, or the Pea Soup and Salad combo. I mean, they have all the other stuff, too, but c'mon, you know you want some.

Andersens mascots

Any tourist restaurant worth it's table salt simply must have its mascots. Andersen's spokes-peas are Hap-Pea and Pea-Wee, usually depicted laboring over the task of splitting the main ingredient. They're on the walls, in the gift shop as salt-and-pepper shakers (must...resist...) and, most alarmingly, awaiting your last spoon stroke on the bottom of your bowl.

As the waiter, a nice-looking young guy, set before me my platter of green goodness, I couldn't help but ask him: "Do you get sick of this color?" The look of relief that at last he was able to admit it was priceless. "Oh, God, yeah," he said. He never charged me for my extra plate of Pea Soup Toppin's...

I overheard two tables ask their servers what the other soup of the day was. WTF? Is it just that you've already had your life's portion of nummy pea-ple pleasin' soup, or what? You're one of those people who go to a Mexican restaurant and order off the 'Gringo' menu, aintcha?

The soup is pretty straightforward, and it tastes exactly like it looks. Perhaps a hint of smoky ham? Andersen's has been making this soup, most likely the same way, for over eighty years, so it's a comfort food. Once you dump all the toppin's in, it's pretty good eatin'.

Long live roadside cheese! My advice to those who, like me, really dig this kind of Americana: follow the elderly. Like moths to a flame, they'll take you to the hotspots.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

La Purisma Mission

Originally uploaded by cork demon.
Finding myself a little fatter than I was when I left Austin, I decided to get some hiking in. Just outside of Lompoc is a Mission State Park. The weather was purrrr-fect, so I stopped the car.

The founder of this sprawling Mission, Father Presidente Fermin de Lasuen, wanted to make really, really sure that the Chumash Indians understood how Holy the Holy Mother was, so he named it Mission of The Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Mary. She's not just Holy, she's the Most Holy.

The way they've reconstucted this place is amazing. I was lucky with my timing, as all of the schoolchildren were well ahead of me, so I had time to contemplate the rooms.

Yeah, I said contemplate. I'm a geek like that, I admit it. I love to visit places like this and imagine what it was like for the Missionaries, for the Soldiers stationed there and alloted tiny two room apartments for themselves and their wives and children, for the Chumash Indians, both converted and reluctant, who resided there.

This Mission was the second built; the first one, four miles to the Southeast, was destroyed in 1812 by an earthquake. Once the new one was up and running, it flourished, with over 1,000 Chumash neophytes, 20,000 head of livestock, and shops for weaving, leather and ironwork, and clay tiles.

The spread is at once idyllic and a little creepy. One building served as a cramped open room dormitory for Chumash girls who had reached the age of eleven but had not yet married. A five-ish foot wide wooden shelf wraps around the room and hosts thin straw mats and dingy pillows. Gotta keep 'em away from the soldiers while you're teaching 'em how to cook. Eeek.

In the middle of the main area is a garden full of typical Mission plantings, and a large corral with lazily grazing donkeys, horses, longhorns, and strutting turkeys. And since I'd caught up with them, screaming children. Interestingly, there's a outside bath nearby, intended to allow the Chumash to bathe and wash their clothes the way they normally would, despite the fact that the whole bathing thing was frowned upon by their Spaniard hosts. Nice touch, I guess.

This place is a great half-day walk and picnic, if you're ever in the area. I highly recommend doing the Las Zanjas Trail around the wide green field for exercise prior to checking out the main grounds, just watch out for the abundant poison oak on either side of the trail. Exploring the reproduced apartments, chapels and workshops will at the very least give you ideas for your minimalist Mission-style interior decoration project. You can have lunch with the retired tourists and pet the horseys. What else could you ask for?

Here's a clue as to my current whereabouts: Smorgaasbord. Oh, dear God, my stomach.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Corona Del Mar

There it is, in all its glory: my $18 martini, shining with the last rays of the Laguna Beach sunset.
I totally took that picture, all by myself! Doesn't it look like a travel poster? Pamper yourself in Laguna. Wrap yourself in luxury. Enjoy the finest cuisine in the most opulent surroundings money can buy.
I stayed with a friend in Corona Del Mar a few days ago. It's the Beautiful Life: waves crashing on the rocks, the smell of fresh sea air, some dickless jerk weaving in and out of traffic in his silver Carrera. Everything you could hope for. We had a great time, ate our weight in oysters and had our toes done...kinda fun to pretend you're rich for a couple days.

On my way to California, I listened to the first half of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, read by Matt Dillon. I couldn't help wonder if my little road trip was going to yield the kind of personal insight I'd hoped for. There's no miles of walking, no long inebriated conversations with hoboes, no sleeping in boxcars. I can make reservations from one Motel 6 to another without leaving my room. I'm organized, funded, and centered on a single project. Not that that's a bad thing. It's just different from what I'd thought I needed when I was a twentysomething.

Back then I had that ache to disappear for a while. To drive away from everything and everyone familiar. To wake up, as Sal Paradise did, not knowing who you are for a few minutes while you watch the light change. Once, in my late teens, I was upset by something, jumped in my car, and drove east for a couple of hours, past Dallas, past the outskirts, past everything I knew. I realized that not only was I in new territory, no one knew where I was. No one could even guess. It was a little rush. What if I kept going? Whoever it was that had pissed me off might miss me, wonder where I was, worry. I felt independent, free, and courageous. Until I ran almost ran out of gas. Then I felt like an asshole.

Oh, man, I had it all planned out--hitchhike to Haight-Ashbury or New York or wherever, meet all these amazing writers and intellectuals I imagined were parked on every corner who'd recognize me for the budding genius I was, take me under their wing, and feed me while I typed in a candlelit corner of someone's shoddy flat. My deep, brooding tales would enchant the most arrogant literary circles, and I'd be a sensation. Then I'd overdose on heroin and die. OMG, that would be perfect!

So anyway, I grew out of that shit, obviously. But there's still that teensy urge...I think to myself: I'm not going to call anyone all week. Let 'em miss me. Let 'em wonder where I am.

After I've relished that thought for a while, I think: I wonder how my kitties are? And I call Jerry. And then Carmie. And then Gwen. Total disappearance time: 45 minutes.

So worry not, folks. I couldn't disappear, even if I wanted to.

There's loads of photos to look at, but right now blogger's not working with me. Check out my flickr account by clicking on the Flickr flash badge below the links on the right.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Survivorwoman: Tuscon to El Cajon in 7 Hours

No breakfast. No phone coverage. No wine. No proper weather tires. I have seven hours to get from Tucson, Arizona to El Cajon, California. My name is Taj, and I'm the Survivorwoman.

All I've been allowed to take on my journey is a compact car, clothes, peanut butter, two stuffed animal companions, thirty CD's, an IPod, caffeinated aspirin, and a tankful of gas. There is no camera crew. I have to take all the photos myself.

Hour One: Highway 10

Things look pretty bleak from the get-go. The winds are fierce and the sky's threatening rain. I have a long way to go in this foreboding environment. Will I survive?

I've fashioned a backrest out of...well, a foam backrest, for support. Otherwise, my back will ache, and I could die. So far so good, cruising at around 80 mph...and if I can just get my foot up on the dash...

ARRRRGH! Suddenly the car spins out, I do a double 360 and land in the gravel. Holy sh*t. Thank God no one was driving near me. Miraculously, the car is okay, and I'm okay. Out here on the road, one little moment can bring disaster. You have got to know exactly what you're doing.

As I catch my breath, I realize that I am dangerously low on calories. It's some 2 hours until I reach the town of Yuma, AZ. I survive by munching on white cheddar rice crackers that I found stuck in between the seats.

Yuma at last! I scan the horizon for possible food sources. Unfortunately, all I see is an Applebee's. Not normally a place for proper sustenance, it may be my only hope for survival. I venture in. My worse fears are realized: a family of six children is in line in front of me. All girls, all dressed in pink. I must duck quickly into the bar...somehow, they follow me into the bar! This puts me in the precarious position of having to smoke in front of the children, which you don't want to do in an environment like this. It may cause the male of the pack to throw dirty looks my way.

I'm in a store, which is good, unfortunately, it's packed to the hilt with snowbirds. Even the self-service checkout. The trouble is, the elderly often don't know how the checkout machine works. I may be in this line for a long, long time.

While we're stopped: I have found something that will be extremely useful in maintaining my survival: this is a half-pound Hershey's Dark chocolate bar. While not truly dark chocolate, it will sustain me in this harsh environment.

Hour 4: California Border

I've been driving through intense patches of rain off and on since I began. Looks like there's more ahead. I pass the sand dunes, where local wildlife is engaged in the ritual of "dune riding".

Up in the mountains, I encounter snow. Wow. Snow is so rare in Texas, it's a real treat. Just look at that beautiful snow.

Uh, okay, well, there's a lot of snow. So much, traffic has slowed to a crawl. There must be an accident or something.

Hour 6: Cleveland National Forest

You can't see it very well, but the line of cars disappears into the distance. This'll take a while. It looks like I'm not going to make El Cajon in the allotted seven hours, but right now, my survival is all that matters.

Hour 7: Cleveland National Forest

We've moved about a quarter of a mile in the last hour. Folks are getting out of their cars to see how far the jam goes. I'm going to stay here. I have no phone coverage here, so this is going to be a serious survival challenge. My best bet is to take another caffeinated aspirin and hope for the best.

Hour 8: Cleveland National Forest

The traffic continues to move at a frighteningly slow pace. For the first time, I'm genuinely worried. We're losing daylight here, people. You'll recall I picked up a large dark chocolate bar back in Yuma. This is what will keep me from succumbing to exhaustion.

Hour 9: Cleveland National Forest

I hate to report this, but one of the worst things possible has happened. My feminine protection has sprung a leak. The traffic is headed uphill on what's basically a sheet of ice. The sleet is coming in sideways. Visibility is limited to the red tail lights in front of me. I'm out of water. I'm out of chocolate. I'm utterly exhausted. The Jeep Cherokee in front of me, spooked by the passing of another suv, has begun skidding out of control, and can't seem to maintain it's direction. Any one of these cars could hit me, or if I lose control I could also hit them, and then it's game over. At this point, it's all I can do to focus on the ice-slicked road. If my mind wanders just a tad, I could die.

Hour 10: El Cajon, California

Thank the Christ child, I've made it. Beer and a hot bath will replenish my strength. I flip on the teevee, just in time to watch Survivorman on the Discovery Channel. He's in the arctic circle or something, eating raw seal meat. What a pussy.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Bisbee, AZ: A Fortunate Diversion From The Plan

Once I'd enjoyed my stay at Bob Johnson's Colibri Vineyards in a beautiful canyon in the Chiricahuas, I had a choice either to endure another hour's worth of primitive road back to I-10, or to take Bob's advice: fuck that, take Highway 80 and stay in Bisbee. Since the sky couldn't decide whether to threaten rain or not (which would've basically trapped my wee little car), I had to abandon my plan to spend another night at the vineyards and go hiking in the monument. Well, shit. Why not take the scenic route?

Lemme testify here, that XM Satellite Radio effin' rules. All the way through the southern side of the Chiricahuas, I listened to Hank's Place--all kickass old-school C&W, all the time. And even as the love-gone-wrong songs began to do a number on my heart, the tunes were perfect for the scenery.

So I get to the outskirts of Bisbee with high expectations, only to learn that the road out of the old mining town has been closed, due to a pretty serious accident involving a propane truck. Thinking at first that I can't go any farther, I turn back, follow a road called 'Bisbee', and found this little treasure:
Buffalo Bill's Bargain Basement

You walk into this place and think, oh, cool! A funky little junk shop/coffee house. Then you catch sight of the proprietor. He's dressed like Buffalo Bill. Exactly. He looks like he just stepped straight out of the set of Deadwood, leathery skin, twitchy eyes and all. And then he offers you coffee. And asks if it's okay if he changes the music to Van Morrison. I kinda regret not taking a straight up picture of Michael (his real name), but I just couldn't ask. It seemed too...touristy.

You can see Michael up by the coffee pots

He makes a bitchin' cup o' joe, and I sit, smoke, drink my cupful, and yicky-yack with a guy who looks like Donald Sutherland on a bender. He fills me in on the Bisbee skinny, tells me I can actually go ahead and drive up to the historic part of town before I get to the road closing.
As we chat, Michael fusses endlessly with notebooks, nicknacks, and the coffee pot, stopping only to roll himself a cig.
Buffalo Bill not a fan of clowns

The place is less like a business and more like Michael's personal
museum-slash-krazier-than-shit living room. The mix is old west meets Gore Vidal meets softcore porn, and is an absolute must-see if you're ever in the area.

Desert Lust Barbie says "Hi!"

But I have yet to see all the kraziness that Bisbee has to offer. When I asked where I should lodge, Michael said "The Inn at Castle Rock. Everything else is shit." I don't know that everything else was shit, but the Inn is very cool. So long as you don't mind a somewhat disorganized innkeeper, the kitsch-tacular factor pays off.

Wack-tacular, baby

One important caveat about the town: it's not a good place to give it up to the panhandlers. According to a girl who's lived here almost all her life, there's an underbelly of meth problems here. The panhandlers, she warned, could very possibly be tweakers in search of funding for a fix. I realize this can be true of any city, but I'd still recommend shutting down the urge here. The only dollar I gave out was to a man who had trained two mice to sit on the back of a cat, who sat on the back of a dog. Check out my flickr account for that pic (there's a Flickr badge on my Cork and Demon blog).

Main Street. Kinda empty because of the closed road.

The shops and bars are...well, touristy, with a few cool spots like VaVoom and Hotlicks Bar. I ate every meal at the Prickly Pear Cafe, a little sandwich/salad joint with a love for wasabi sauces.
My new friend and I pitch back a beer at Hotlick's.

I learned from a local that the propane accident was pretty bad, although the driver had survived. But it would take twenty some-odd hours for the clean up crew to burn off all the propane. Otherwise, the highway I hope to take will be closed, and I'll have to take an alternate route. I'm gonna wait it out; the flow's telling me I need to.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Notice to Science-Haters: For a clue, go see Carlsbad Caverns

The first thing that blows you away when you tour the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns is the unfathomable amount of time it takes for single drops of mineral-laden water to form massive formations.

The second thing is that no one understands what the fuck the word 'whisper' means.

But back to the first. Why, Lord, are there people who believe that the earth was formed 10,000 years ago? That might seem like a really, really, really long time to a simple mind, but for the love of Jehosephat, we're talking about drops of water making gigantimous formations formed over rock that is already millions of years old. Drops. Of. Water. You do the math.

Do these folks visit the Caverns? Do they stand there and think "Gee, this stuff is almost as old as Jesus!"

Anticipating this, the National Park Service has provided the public with informative diagrams so that you can revel in the beauty of nature:

But still, I'm sure, Bubba Fundamentalist guffaws as his wife sheilds their children's eyes. Another mind boggler.

Now, I realize that for those of you who read this blog, making fun of said people is shooting fish in a barrel, but I just can't help wondering how you can ignore evidence like the caverns. Besides, they're frickin' beautiful! Wouldn't you rather believe that God is so all-powerful that a million-gajillion years is nothing at all?

Another pre-Jesus formation

When I was a kid, there was no conflict whatsoever in my mind with the idea that God created the world, that it took a shitload of time, and that the whole Genesis thing was, like other creation stories, passed down by humans who had only their imaginations to devise answers to such mysteries. Why do some fundamentalists feel so threatened these days that they feel they need to turn the clock back to the Dark Ages?

Awright, I'm done with the fish-shooting. I'm really glad the giddy little tot in me finally got to see the Big Room. And having done so makes me want to check out all the National Parks and Monuments. Ah, the original American Road Trip is on, baby. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Way down in the hole

On a road trip to see Gramma once, when I was about five or so, I saw a billboard that said 'Carlsbad Caverns, Next Exit (then go back 235 miles)". I didn't have any concept of what kind of distance that was, but I do now. And yesterday, I was able to fulfill my childhood dream of visiting them.

And of course, me being who I am and all, the pedestrian tour of the 'Big Room' simply would not do. I wanted to spelunk, with the hats and the gloves and the pretending that I'm a little slinky lizard, slipping through the dark squeezes.

I was advised not to attempt the Hall of the White Giant spelunking tour because of its advanced challenges, so I signed up for the more unathletic-friendly Lower Cave. Still rather strenuous, but way closer to my comfort level.

Caves for me are very soothing. Knowing that the only things crawling around down there are a few blind crickets and some random patches of bacteria makes the darkness feel calm and protective. I wondered if that's the way Jim White felt when he spent nights down there after a long day of climbing, crawling and exploring. I'd love to be able to spend the night in a cave someday and enjoy the profound quiet of age old earth, expressing itself with water and mineral formations over the millenia, with no cares whatsoever about the land above.

I highly recommend visiting the Caverns on the off season, as the summertime sometimes sees several thousand visitors a day in the Big Room. Our tour guide told us they once had to divert the Lower Cave tour when a baby in the room above was screaming so loudly that the ear-splitting echo was insufferable. On the other hand, yesterday's tours were sparsely populated, making for a much more one-with-the-cave sort o' vibe.

Having a great time, wish you were all here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Twinkle, twinkle, little Marfa Light

The Marfa Lights viewing observatory

No, the Marfa Lights aren't cars. They might be bursts of methane gas. Or maybe they're the ghosts of the Conquistadors. Whatever. The important part is they're there. And when a random group of travelers show up to see them, it's a blast.

I don't have any pictures of the lights themselves. They're too far away and buried in the calm, deep desert night for my camera. Too bad, 'cause I'd love to be able to prove I saw them. The only way you're gonna believe is to see them yourself.

I arrived about half an hour before sunset, and watched an older couple walk around the ground in an unimpressed way, then return to their RV to wait. After checking out the little trail of information stations, there wasn't much to do but take pictures of the cheeky rabbits rustling in the grass. I was messing around later with one of the squeaky mounted binoculars when a sudden salutation in a Georgian drawl scared the beejezus outta me. Thus I met Michelle and Paul, who have been traveling across the country in a bus that runs on vegetable oil.

Yeah. Vegetable oil. Used oil, in fact, that Paul gets from Chinese restaurants. He walks in and offers to haul it off for free, and the confused owner usually says yes. Paul, a nice looking guy in his twenties and a UMASS tee, has managed to modify the fuel system of this old school bus to warm up with diesel, then run on the oil. Brilliant.

What was it Michelle called herself? A literary jock? Literary dork? Anyhoo, she's the one who aptly named the bus after Don Quixote's horse. Later in the evening, after many Lone Star Longnecks, she performed a rousing spoken-word version of Carl Sandburg's Grass. Very cool moment.

So we sat at sunset, longnecks in hand, waiting for something to happen on the horizon, exchanging stories. The RV couple came out of hiding after a while, and we all sat peering into the distance between us and the Chisos mountains, trying to find little dancing balls of light. We all established the given lights---a flashing FAA tower, the actual headlights of cars, and steady lights---so we could tell them apart from the real Marfa lights. Of course, every time a car passed, we perked up, and made endless jokes about the people running around in the distance with really big flashlights.

An amusing note for Texans: did you know that the lovely observatory pictured above was funded by Clayton Williams, who lost a gubernatorial race to Ann Richards after he made a joke about rape? A female relative of his was one of the first to write about the Lights way back when. Trivia-tacular.

The area to watch, at sunset

So we're yicky-yacking, drinking, having a ball, and just as we decide that it was worth the drive to see the sunset, the lady from the RV points at three lights that have appeared in the dim post-sunset. "Nah, those are cars," says her husband, and we all agree.

Until the one in front glides straight up in the air and starts going backwards.

Yay! The show has begun!

The Marfa lights look like balls of white light that occassionally change to green or red. They pop up well above the level of the road beyond (or well below) and then disappear. They sometimes seem to wander over to the west, then show back up where they were before. Often, they'd disappear for a while, then suddenly reappear in a cluster. One light was such a little showoff, I named him 'Disco Boy'. He liked to pop out really bright white, then twinkle red and green. He appeared several times through the night. At one moment, when several people had gathered, five lights appeared in a row.

I found myself not fretting over what the hell they were. There's a lot of theories, most of them very lame. My verdict was, who cares? The lights are playful, mischievious, and a great deal of fun to watch.

Cheeky Bunny

The three of us stayed the longest, as groups or couples came and went. Michelle took the task of pointing out the lights to newcomers. I especially loved the roudy group of retirees who sang 'Redneck Mother' for us.

The Egg Roll Lovin' Tour Bus

The very last family came around midnight. The lights had called it a night about half an hour before. They had just arrived, the mother hoping to catch them before they were due at a funeral the next day. Mom and dad had sleeping children draped over their shoulder. I'm really sorry they missed them.

Turns out Michelle and Paul are on their way to Carlsbad about the same time I am. I hope to see them there. Their company, the gorgeous sunset, and all the trimmings were enough to have enjoyed the evening, even if the Marfa lights really had been cars.