Sunday, June 12, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 5

America, a haiku...

Well the road trip is over. I know what you’re thinking: “OMG Justin, you guys just started LOL!1! Wasn’t your last blog entry from all the way back in Santa Fe!?!?!” Well, you’re right. The last half of our trip was a whirlwind of activity - driving 10-14 hours each day, sleeping in shitty motel rooms in the middle of nowhere, and stopping at various hotspots just long enough to grab dinner and a caffeine hit. And it was all for this little guy:

That’s Abe, Lauren’s new dog and the reason for our rushed return home. We had known the whole time that he would be coming into the picture when we got back, but it wasn’t until the night of the 7th that we learned the lengths that we would have to go to in order to make it work. We were in Austin at the time, enjoying beers with our friends Sarah and Tim, when Lauren got a call from the dog shelter. As it turned out, Abe was to be transported from Chicago to Connecticut along with another group of dogs. He would be arriving at 4:00PM on the 11th, and it would be our only chance to pick him up. In other words, the race was on.

The next morning, Lauren and I got into the car with a newly revised plan. We would spend the next four days going at a breakneck pace, stopping for dinner in New Orleans, Nashville, and Washington D.C. along the way. We would ride that poor Miata with authority, surviving almost solely on beef jerky, Cliff Bars, and peanut butter & jelly. Come hell or high water, we would make it back to get that dog.

And so it was. As I write this final act of our travel blog from the comfort of my parents’ home in Wrentham, I am finally able to sit back and marvel at our success. But we aren’t done yet. I started this blog to share my experiences and thoughts on America’s varied landscape, and I intend to finish that job... via haiku.

That’s right. As our grand finale, I present to you a haiku on each of the places we visited. Without further ado:

Los Angeles
Think you're an actor?
How's bartending sound instead
Good luck being poor

Grand Canyon
So many people
Something about a canyon
Let's get out of here

Canyon De Chelly
If there were a God
This would be his greatest gift
So awesome it hurts

Santa Fe
Stupid white tourists
Love campy Indian stuff
Wolves howling at moon?!

Beautiful people
Spending all day at whole foods
Hipsters and gays too

New Orleans
Bars starving for cash
Strippers grab you by the arm
Too bad they aren't hot

Country music fest
Lots of Hicks in cowboy boots
Sing about their trucks

(Note: Nashville is actually an amazing city, second only to Austin on this trip. The people at the country music fest were mostly tourists)

Washington D.C.
Didn't meet Obama
But I'm sure he wanted to
Guess I'll forgive him

Thursday, June 9, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 4

Santa Fe and the Story of Tom

Note: I have been a bit lazy with the blog, so keep in mind that this portion of the trip actually happened a few days ago. Since the events of this story, we have already gone through Austin and are now in the New Orleans area. That will come too.

Of all of our stories so far, this one may be the most remarkable. But it requires a bit of setup.

Lauren and I have the unfortunate predicament of being poor. But when life gives you lemons, you eat the stupid lemons and you damn well like it. Such was the case when I put us up on, an open community of travel enthusiasts committed to simple notion of hospitality. There are hordes of people out there who take great pleasure in hosting wayward souls from around the world, and who were we to deny them the gift of our company?

Our search for lodging led us to a man named Tom, a frequent host of CouchSurfers with a list of glowing recommendations long enough to open his own bed-and-breakfast. He enthusiastically offered to let us stay, under the caveat that he would be hosting another traveler at the same time – which was fine with us. We arrived the afternoon of the 2nd, excited to see our new digs but at the same time feeling more than a little trepidation. The directions we had been given led us off the highway a few exits before Santa Fe, where we proceeded down a seven-mile stretch of Rt. 14 before turning down a long dirt road. It was a relatively rural area, with adobe houses scattered about in no discernable pattern. As we rounded the last bend of the thin dirt road, our final destination came into view – an unassuming adobe home with a dilapidated pickup truck in the driveway. Tom hadn’t picked up his phone, so we correctly assumed that he wasn’t around. But (coincidentally) waiting for us was the other CouchSurfer that he had mentioned, Kari, casually digging through her belongings in the trunk of a newer looking Jeep. She was thin, perhaps in her mid-thirties, with a quiet demeanor and an outfit that invoked visions of an Appalachian hippie. During our brief introduction we learned that she was an aspiring farmer from Chicago, traveling the country to learn where she wanted to settle down. Fortunately, she had been staying with Tom for a few nights and was happy to show us the ropes. After instructing us to take off our shoes, she took us through an unlocked screen door into an interior that nearly knocked us off our feet. Spacious rooms overlapped to form a wide-open layout, bathed in natural light from a back wall almost exclusively consisting of windows and broad sliding doors. White adobe walls rose into a ceiling of thick, wooden beams to create an organic look, while luxurious vegetation, stained glass, and worn musical instruments contributed to the serene ambiance. It was just as much of a temple as it was a home.

After about five minutes of gawking, Tom sauntered into the house, his appearance and countenance perfectly matching what I had come to expect from his CouchSurfing profile. He was in his late 50’s, with windswept grey hair, soft blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard flanking a wide smile. You could instantly tell that this was the kind of man that had never shaken a hand in his life, only hugged. After brief introductions, he offered us each a Heineken and we took seats around a long dining room table made of thick, naturally treated wood. As we sipped our beers, we took the opportunity to get to know each other a bit. Through our conversation, we learned that he had owned multiple bars and restaurants in the Santa Fe area, only recently selling them off to make a living doing construction. The house, as it turned out, was his own work. He talked about his daughters, all of whom from previous relationships, and his love of jazz and world music. The most interesting thing we learned of, however, was his sense of spirituality. He was a devout Christian unlike any other I had met – an unreserved liberal with a deep respect for the historical aspects of his faith and an attitude toward the supernatural that ranged from lighthearted amusement to downright skepticism (with the exception of his fascination with the more mystical disciplines of holistic healing). His was a joyful attitude that was both pleasantly contagious and borderline obnoxious.

The first evening of our stay was quiet and relaxing. Lauren and I went to get beer while Tom cooked us a delicious meal – pasta and scallops with fresh sausage and caprese. We sat at the dining room table where we were joined by Kari and a young woman named Nina, who was renting from him in a separate guest house that he had built on his property. Amazingly, Nina was even more bizarre than Tom - a 23 year-old healer from Vermont with a soft voice and a sense of tranquility that far exceeded her age. Together, we spent the evening listening to jazz music, sharing stories from our travels, and learning of Nina’s odd fascination with astrology and pseudo-psychology (Lauren and I secretly smirking with disbelief the entire time).

After our first night’s sleep in a real bed since the EconoLodge in Flagstaff, we headed out to explore Santa Fe. You would expect the city itself to be the coolest part of New Mexico, but it really wasn’t. While it was staggeringly beautiful with its sparklingly clean streets, open-air markets, and two-story adobe buildings, it was touristy to the point where it made you wonder if you were really just walking through a cleverly designed Disney reenactment of the real thing. Art galleries swarmed you like Starbucks stores, offering cheesy Native American crafts at prices that would make your head bleed. Meanwhile, fancy jewelry stores attempted to ensnare you with overly enthusiastic saleswomen drowning in makeup and hairspray. But once we figured out how to avoid these pitfalls by sticking to breweries and one particularly awesome gelato place, it all came together quite nicely.

That evening, Lauren and I returned to Tom’s place sporting a few hot pizzas from his old restaurant, ample beer, and a serious intent to spend our last night in style. Nina joined us at the dinner table once again, along with Tom’s 5 year-old daughter, Anja, and friend, Tim. After a number of beers we went out to the back yard, where Tom lit up his fire pit and he and Anja grabbed their guitars (Anja’s being small enough to fit in her tiny hands). They began to play some blues, Tom teaching his daughter chords along the way. There we sat, basking in the cool desert breeze and the warm glow of the fire under the vivid night sky. The next morning, Lauren and I were on the road once again.

I tell this story because I feel that there is something genuinely special about experiencing a new city in this manner – avoiding the tedium of a hotel room and making a new friend along the way. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t all rosy. Despite the fact that we had a great time with Tom, he was clearly attracted to Lauren in a way that would have made both of us uncomfortable had I not been there. He didn’t make any moves that suggested forcefulness or downright audacity, but there were plenty of those awkwardly long hugs that reeked a bit of desperation. Still, knowing what I do now, I would gladly take my chances on another CouchSurfer. There wasn’t a single moment that I felt unsafe, and we left with some trinkets for our trip that we wouldn’t have been able to get any other way: some excellent memories, a new friend, and a pretty sweet stack of jazz albums that Tom had burned for me.

Tom and Anja with their guitars.

Just some beautiful woman I met in Santa Fe. Note: the breweries there were awesome.

A wedding procession leading through the park... with MARIACHIS!

The sunset leaving Santa Fe. While you can't see it here, it was blood red due to forest fires come up from California and Arizona. Just freakishly beautiful.

Friday, June 3, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 3

Mind the Gaps

I’ve been to a number of places in my life – India, Australia, Italy, Aruba, Rhode Island – but Arizona was the first time I felt that I was truly on a different planet. It’s like Mars, only less hospitable and with fewer people. But it’s as beautiful as it is foreign, and that’s saying a lot.

It was an uninspiring start to this leg of the trip. We had high hopes of leaving L.A. bright and early, making the 9-hour drive to the Grand Canyon in time to set up a tent at a nearby campsite before dark. A foolish plan, as it turned out. By the time the sun set we were still hours away, leaving us no choice but to set up shop at an EconoLodge in Flagstaff – proud home of a Chile’s and a Casa Bonita. It was a 2-hour drive from the Grand Canyon, meaning we would have to cut our stay there short if we wanted to make it to Canyon De Chelly in time to camp out the next night. Luckily, that wasn’t so difficult. The Grand Canyon was grand… and then we left. There were tour buses, a massive visitor’s center, a tollbooth that charged a $25 entrance fee (made out of wooden logs so as to look organic), and a canyon tucked in there somewhere. It wasn’t until afterwards that things got interesting.

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Canyon De Chelly was many things: beautiful, remote, educational, and a bit depressing. We took the scenic route, a largely uninhabited road going straight through the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations. There was magic in the mere thought of trespassing through these magnificent lands, hallowed by the presence of those who had lived with the Earth, and who dared to stand up against the white man’s promise of jager-bombs and reality TV shows. But that magic was quickly tempered by the bittersweet reality of things. These reservations were hardly luxurious. Amenities were scarce, and for every gas station (truly an oasis in Arizona) there were many more pairs of mangy dogs engaged in life-or-death battles over scraps left by passing cars. But at the same time, there was something inspirational about this group of people so content in their sovereignty and isolation. These are not the Native Americans you read about in your history textbooks. While the spiritual mystique of these lands may have dwindled, the ability of their residents to remain both modern and completely homogenous at the same time is nothing short of a miracle.

As we arrived at Canyon De Chelly that evening, it became immediately apparent that this wasn't the bustling hive of tour buses and rascal scooters that the Grand Canyon had turned out to be. Instead, we found ourselves in the quiet town of Chinle – a tiny Navajo hamlet at the base of the Canyon rim. Our lodging for the night was a local campsite, where, because of the Navajo nation’s attitude toward alcohol, we had to be extra shifty-eyed about our remorseless drinking. But damned if we were going to be caught dead camping without our copy of Kung Fu Panda and a bottle of $6 table wine.

We awoke that morning with high spirits, eager for a day spent at Canyon De Chelly. The site, as we had come to learn, was the home of numerous Anasazi cities built directly into the canyon walls roughly 1,100 years ago. It is a 700-foot drop into a stunning valley of lush forests and shockingly fertile farmland, still occupied by Navajo tribespeople who utilize the land in much the same way as it was used so long ago (with the exception of the tourist influence). Simply put, it was one of the most incredible things I have ever had the gift of seeing. Strict restrictions placed on sightseers helped to preserve billions of years of geological history, as well as thousands of years of cultural history, in their purest form. Most of the canyon was only viewable from the top of the rim, stretching across 15 miles of well-preserved road. Each bend of the canyon gave way to a completely unique view featuring expertly engineered Anasazi cities built high up into the canyon walls, gently-shifting sandstone adorned with the markings of careful erosion and brightly colored lichen, and tiny ranches occupied by the region’s current residents. And a 1.5 mile hike down to the base of the canyon (the only area where tourists are allowed to enter unguided) made the visit physically exhausting as well as visually inspiring. Were I a more spiritual man, I'd swear there was something mystical about that place.

And with that, I leave you with some breathtaking photo evidence:

The Grand Canyon. Yay.
A Navajo craft fair found on the side of the road. We had to stop.
Spider Rock in Canyon De Chelly. Met a really cool Navajo guy named Crek (pronounced Craik) who lives down here.
Ruins at the bottom of Canyon De Chelly. Built in A.D. 900, it is by far the oldest man-made structure I have ever seen.