As far as licence plate slogans go most states don’t strive for modesty. Oregon is Pacific Wonderland, New Mexico - Land of Enchantment, Massachusetts claims - inexplicably to the rest of the country - The Spirit of America. Put on this background Idaho’s Famous Potatoes seems very down to earth. It sounds like a no nonsense state. So we do not expect much. Apart from potatoes in every shape, form and color.
Our Lonely Planet California Trips (Regional Travel Guide) has a serious case of coastal bias: out of 68 itineraries, less then a quarter venture inland. And needless to say it doesn’t contain a trip focused on avoiding crowds in California national parks without spending a fortune. Once again we are left to create our own trip: national parks, cheap motels and fresh fruit pit stops. Time: 7 - 10 days. Distance: 1000 miles. Best time to go: April - October. Start: Palm Springs. End: Folsom.
A group of French tourists were trying to find out what chipotle is. You see - French are not like us (as in the rest of the world); they actually care what they eat. Although, if I were French, I would try to find out first why there is sand in my mashed potatoes. The result of the inquiry was awkward bordering on hilarious. There was not enough chipotle in the soup to serve as a useful hint. The waitress in surprisingly passable (for central California) French was trying to explain that it’s a type of ‘poivre’. Oh là là the French exclaimed in an unintended self-parody. The English language, for all its pride in the size of its vocabulary, is one of the few that do not have separate words for pepper corn (poivre, pieprz) and peppers (piment, papryka): the French had every right to be comically surprised. I was on the verge of testing limits of my French and of my Android wikipedia app to point out that chipotle est un type de piment. But before I could humiliate myself the French tourists switched their attentions to dessert and were trying to order le sheescake. The hilarity continued.
Another year, another turkey. One of the 90 million eaten between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. Almost one per household. Combine wingspan of all those birds is longer than the equator. If atomic bombs did’t prove that we were dealing with a superpower here, surely the logistics of raising, killing, packing, distributing and consuming this Everest of poultry has to convince the doubters. There is actually no law stating that one has to eat a turkey in November or December. At least none that we are aware of. But we don’t want to push our luck so we elected to do our yearly animal sacrifice on Thanksgiving and be done with it. We’ll have leftovers as a proof of our compliance. Not that we expect anyone checking, but just in case.
Northern part of Michigan is rural. An attractive version of rural, where agriculture takes a form of orchards and vineyards. Nestled between lakes Michigan and Huron the land has moderate climate suitable for growing temperate zone fruit. We sample local plums, late raspberries and various preserves including exotic thimbleberry. I find that I can almost forgive the irreparable change to the environment for a cherry pie (but not for cornflakes).
All the states that we have crossed so far have sections that are uninhabited. Mountains, forests, deserts and other natural obstacles stand in the way of human conquest. Not so in Iowa. Incredible 99% of land is put to a productive use. With the exception of a few cities this means agriculture. Specifically, fields of corn. In a 100 years of settlement Iowa was so successful in cultivating prairie that at the turn of the 20th century there was none left for the federal government to put its paws on and convert into a national park as it was tempted to do in other states.
I try to enjoy eating out. And in most cases I don’t have to try very hard. I am not a culinary snob. Not above enjoying a fancy dinner prepared by someone who actually knows what she is doing. I am also glad if I am offered something fresh and uncomplicated in a reasonably clean environment. When a server is nice and friendly I take it as a bonus. When he is a bit busy and forgetful I don’t let it to spoil my evening. I would be useless as a food critic since I like almost anything. You have to make an effort to disappoint me.
Fall is upon us. No more dripping sweet juice fleshy peaches from Palisade, Colorado. And those were the best peaches I’ve ever had. Something to do with cool nights and hot days. For the last month we were quite lucky with fruits and vegetables. We have discovered a nearby (8 miles away via a biking trail) farm stand in Frisco that carried local produce. Local may be a bit of a stretch: Palisade is 170 miles away. Then again, this is probably the closest place you can grow food in these mountains.
In our unskilled attempt to lead a life of debauchery we’ve ended up in Breck’s Absinthe bar. Two things need to be said right away. First: we are now officially allowed to call Breckenridge: Breck. We’ve spent more than 3 weeks here and earned that privilege. And the second: we had absolutely no idea that Absinthe bar would be actually serving - you know - absinthe. That just shows how naive we are. I’ve always thought that absinthe is something that has been drunk only in 19th century France. And even then by a fraction of a society that would have nothing to do with a good old bourgeoisie, which - for better or worse - we are now a part of.
The town of Breckenridge is high. And not just because it legalized marijuana. It’s almost 10 thousand feet (3 thousand meters) above the sea level. According to a multitude of articles about altitude sickness this is a serious elevation. As usual I chalk the alarming tone of the warnings up to American miscalculation of risk. Anything practiced by thousands people inhabiting towns of Rocky Mountains cannot be that dangerous. And this time I mean living at this altitude, not pot smoking.
There are more Texas surprises as we drive through the rugged hill country.First of all the scenery. It’s lush and green here. Maybe because it’s been a very wet year. Green hills give us an unmistakably Tuscany vibe. Especially since cowboys are still few and far between. There are canyons, vistas, serpentine roads, even mountains. There are also ranches. With deer, bison, goats and… antelopes. Altitude and wind manage to diminish obtrusive heat. For the first time since entering Florida back in May we can enjoy being outside in the middle of the day. We even go hiking in Enchanted Rock park. Half an hour climb up the mostly bare rock seems too easy and we spend another two hours hiking among opuntia and rock formations admiring, from afar, the brave souls who opted for rappelling.
We expected a lot of things of Texas: cowboy boots, Stetson hats, big cities, oil rigs, huge ranches. But we didn’t expect Germans. We knew they settled in Pennsylvania. But it looks like they got here as well. Texas is a big state - bigger than any European country unless you count Turkey or Russia. We did of course expect Spanish. They came here first via colonies in Mexico. Later Americans started arriving through freshly purchased Louisiana. After a brief stint as an independent republic, Texas joined the Union in 1845, only to secede and join CSA 15 years later. After Civil War a new wave of immigrants from Europe started arriving and Germans were among them.
The Lonely Planet guide suggests a trip through Louisiana Cajun Country highlighting a wild and jubilant French-speaking culture punctuated by crawfish boils, all-night jam sessions and dance parties. It calls Lafayette the grooviest town in Cajun Country […], full of beautiful people, tasty Cajun cuisine, and abundance of live music. Our guide to Texas that we’ve just bought after realizing that we are about to venture into the largest state in contiguous US completely unprepared, has Port Arthur under Lively Cajun […] noted for […] its superlative seafood and its Cajun nightclubs with their fiddle music and rowdy atmosphere.
Bourbon Street swarms with green backpacks. Marked with a cross sign and a slogan we believe. Must be some cult. Yes, Lutheran teenagers are in town for National Youth Gathering - event held in New Orleans every three years and according to the press release bringing 25 thousand people. Looks like more than that from where we are standing. It is a bit surprising though. We just drove through a collection of Alabama and Mississipi towns that seem much better suited for prayer and thoughts of a better life. It’s easy to stay chaste in Thomasville, AL. It’s even easier to stay sober in Oxford, MS. There is nothing to envy in Kosciusko, MS. But New Orleans is a different matter altogether. Here young Lutherans descent on French Quater familiarizing themselves in depth with all cardinal sins. Lust, gluttony, sloth reign supreme in Vieux Carré. Hustlers invite people to barely legal gentleman’s clubs to see men/women acts. It’s impossible not to overeat. Drinks are not just accessible: they are practically required. Navigating all this is probably some kind of a boot camp. If 16 years old with their elevated hormone level survives Big Easy, you can send them to evangelize the hell out of the rest of the world.
Note to self: don’t visit Oxford, Mississippi on Sunday. The city looks dead. Bars and restaurants are closed. No sign of the lauded nightlife. It is the direct result of the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday: one of the many dry laws in the state. It may be different during the week, but we have absolutely no desire to stay and check. We owe special thanks (and the fact we didn’t go to bed hungry) to Joel Miller, chef and proprietor of ravine and his staff, for keeping it open on Sundays. And for serving such excellent local food. Especially fresh ripe tomatoes from their own garden.
It’s only about 150 miles from Thomasville to Birmingham. But I feel like we’ve travelled from Mars back to Earth. We spend one night in Sunset Inn in Thomasville and the next in Hotel Highland in Five Points district of Birmingham. In Thomasville we can’t find a place to get a decent coffee (google map suggests a place only 20 miles away). In Birmingham we stay in a designer hotel, have dinner in a stainless steel and polished concrete restaurant named Twenty Six and conclude the evening listening to Glen and Libba in the hotel bar. They play in Highland every Monday and if you are in the area don’t miss it: Libba’s voice and Glen’s guitar are quietly explosive combination. The entire neighborhood looks like Cambridge and we feel at home. The price tag is probably around half of what we would pay in Boston. We don’t even mind the temperature that refuses to fall even long after the sunset. I can’t believe it’s the same Alabama which is last in the nation by any measure (Glen’s words, not mine).
We escaped to Mobile trying to get away from Pensacola’s Blue Angel’s weekend. We don’t like crowds and it turns out that if you prefer solitude Mobile is a perfect destination. There are absolutely no people here. They probably all went to Pensacola for the weekend. Mobile has a big problem. You cannot really research it on the internet. Try googling for mobile life music or mobile restaurants or mobile night life and you’ll see what I mean. One has to wonder why city officials did not take advantage of the anti-French sentiment and change the name to something less ambivalent - may I suggest Verizon, Alabama? French are to be blamed for establishing the city here (in 1702), and christening it (after a native tribe), and naming most of the streets (after various French things and catholic saints). Later Spanish changed all the names but when the city finally was taken over by Americans they changed the names back to French. This is strange: as if Canadians took over New York and changed its name back to New Amsterdam. But in any case, the town even today is supposedly quite catholic so we expect good food and some entertainment (think New Orleans or Montreal)
It’s not easy to get to the ocean in Georgia. It’s not evident when you glance to the map but woods, wetlands and rivers make it nearly impossible to find a real beach. But the ocean must be somewhere so we traverse innumerable bridges in the effort to get there. The entire coast is not particularly hospitable: in the past marshes prevented access; nowadays it’s private islands and gated communities.
For some reason we didn’t have many chances to eat crab until recently.Boston is of course a part of the lobster empire and on multiple occasions our friends insisted that we participate in a murderous business of cooking and eating them. We lived practically next door to Barking Crab, but there are so many good options to eat out in Boston and the place had all the fixings of a tourist trap that we only tried it once.
We are merely driving through South Carolina this time. No time for more than just a cursory glance. We probably should stay longer. This is not your average state. None really is. It’s late, so we opt for a meal in a chain restaurant. As chain restaurants go, this particular one is lower upper shelf. The nice thing about chains is they are familiar. Nothing really changes anywhere. Or so we thought. The greeting lady welcomes us asking ‘two for non?’. Huh?