black_son_of_gray's Journal

Where are you and where are you going?
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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sat Jul 14, 2018 2:13 pm

Field Report:
The deep dive through my collective "stuff" and subsequent purge is revealing some unusual stuff.

For example, for the last 12 years or so I have apparently been driving around with an unopened 1993 Coca Cola bottle in my trunk. Right next to a thoroughly melted and hideously deformed Jesus candle, a portable hammock and an answering machine.

Quick check with ebay reveals that I can get approximately nothing for anything, although if I call the candle "art"...

I am only 1/3 of the way through the trunk. Pray for me.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sat Aug 11, 2018 5:26 pm

We've completed our 3186 mile drive across the US (Maryland, W. Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California), and are now settling in as Bay Area residents. It was a pretty good trip!

Car story: A few weeks out from the trip, I took my car into the shop for an oil change. I had only driven a couple hundred miles since the last oil change, but it was still due in terms of time. While I was there, I told them of my trip and said, "If you can find anything at all that might be/become a problem, please let me know". They changed the oil, and said they couldn't find anything wrong with the car. Actually, they said it was in great shape considering its age (15 years old). I had sold my bike and its accoutrements so I commuted for the last two weeks to work by car (bleh!), and things seemed good to go.

Then on the Monday of my last week, I noticed something… peculiar? I was getting situated in the car after work when I noticed the gauges on the dash moving erratically. The temperature and fuel gauge needles would go from 0 to midway in a sudden tick, then would flip back down to 0. Even more interesting - the car was not running and the keys weren't in the ignition. So back to the shop it goes after some furious web searching. Looked like it could be many things, some no big deal, some more sinister. The shop spent a day taking out the instrument panel circuit board and cleaning it (this was the cheaper option vs buying and installing a new instrument cluster). I got a call mid-day at work from one of the guys. Paraphrasing, he said something like "Welp, we cleaned it and reinstalled it, and when we first tested it, it looked like it was fixed. But now it has come back, so we won't charge you. My advice is that you just learn to live with it." Now there is a phrase you don't want to hear just before driving down the "loneliest road in America"! To be fair, they did their best (the "ticking" of the needle was dramatically improved and didn't always happen, so it was more like a partial fix), and I appreciate their efforts (they were a fairly-priced shop that did good, honest work over the years I went to them- I commend them for that).

Long story short - the dash needles weren't an issue for the trip. Somewhere around Nevada, I did notice the engine started having a "rougher" idle*, and that may portend some other problem developing (maybe with the transmission?), but I plan to donate my car in short order because I now live in a 100% walkable location and steep hills+manual transmission= more stress than I want.

*Is it just me? After 20 years of driving a manual, I feel like I notice all the different hums, hiccups, and frequencies of the engine. Also, inexplicably, my manual car doesn't have a tachometer display, so listening is the primary way I navigate shifting. This may have turned me into a engine hypochondriac. I've found that people who have only driven automatics have a hard time/cannot sense when the engine is under strain or at high RPMs etc. I can't quite wrap my head around it, because it seems to obvious to me, but I found this to be true with multiple people.

More to come.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Sun Aug 12, 2018 9:02 pm

Trip report with some thoughts/opinions/observations from on the road peppered throughout

"There's … no prettier sight that looking back on a town you've left behind" - Townes Van Zandt
Although most of our journey was along U.S. Route 50, our path out of Maryland was on speedier Interstates. Having lived in the Maryland, DC, Virginia region for about 12 years, we felt like we had seen most of the sights we cared to see within a few hours drive, so we booked it out of town following I-70 and I-68 west out of Hagerstown, MD. Despite it being the last time I'll likely be there for a good long while (or ever), the drive here was quite normal feeling and familiar. I'd done this route at least a dozen times in the past (visiting family), and there was no hint of nostalgia or sentimentality. Also, we were both so incredibly busy up until the moment of leaving that we just didn't have any time to dwell on it or take it all in. Perhaps fittingly, this stretch of road was about as clogged and congested as any we were on for the whole trip.

W. Virginia: West Virginia is pretty straightforward when it comes to moving through space: you are either going uphill or downhill. We took a brief afternoon stop on Morgantown to stretch our legs and see what the town looked like. The downtown area was pretty dead - as most college towns are in the summer - in a sleepy and sad way that resembled when the house lights come on at 2:30am in a bar after last call. Colleges are typically surrounded by what I refer to as "college poverty" - retail areas that look a bit grimy and beater houses with couches on the porch that landlords don't want to fix up because frankly the tenants (and their destructive behaviors) aren't worth it. That being said, I was impressed at how many Middle Eastern restaurants I saw both in Morgantown and in other towns we passed through. Wasn't expecting that. Well into the hills, we also saw a single, massive black bull on the highway at a junction with another road. He seemed to be following the general flow of traffic (we were at a stoplight) and in a relaxed mood with a bouncy step. Wasn't expecting that either. Spent the night in Parkersburg, a relatively sleepy town on the banks of the Ohio river.

Technically this was taken in Ohio, but coal-country nonetheless.

Ohio: Added up across various times in my life, I've spent about a decade in Ohio, and for a while it was my answer when people ask "Where are you from?" I'd never cut straight across the south of it before, though. Turns out, it is a similar but gentler experience to W. Virginia - lots of lush greenery and gently rolling hills. There are others on the road with you, but essentially no traffic - you drive however suits you, with plenty of lanes and time to negotiate others. Summertime, and the driving is easy. We spotted Amish in buggies for the first of three times on our journey (all sightings east of the Mississippi).

Southern Ohio: lots of green, not a lot of people.

At one point, perhaps as I was enjoying the scenery, I missed a turnoff and we found ourselves on another highway running parallel to our intended road. Oops. It was a happy mistake, though, because I spotted a Skyline Chili restaurant along the road and we stopped in for some Cincinnati chili (which could make an appearance here). This was to be our only fast food stop of the trip, but because of morbid fascination and the hyper-regional aspect of this "cuisine", we got ourselves a coney and a 5-way. And it was good. Cincinnati itself was an interesting drive because the road hugs the steep and winding banks of the Ohio river, so you don't really know how close in you are until BAM, there is a break in the hills and the downtown is just splayed out right there.

Before the trip, we had considered that we might spend a few hours in the big cities to take a break from driving and to get a sense of place. We abandoned this strategy at Cincinnati - the first big city we came across. For one, the logistics get ugly, as juggling the tasks of (taking the correct exits| avoiding construction| following detours| lane changes| finding parking |negotiating rush hour, which always seemed to coincide with our arrival) is more stressful than you probably want. Furthermore, through extensive discussion on more lonely stretches of highway, we both agreed that big cities tend to all be the same anyway*, and the nuances probably could not be appreciated in only a few hours. In any case, because we were less familiar with rural environments, we felt like it would be a more enlightening use of our time to explore those spaces rather than bigger cities. So we just kept on going, and soon we were out of Cincinnati and Ohio.

*Urban, suburban, and rural are different, sure. But consider the space of "urban" as a Venn diagram, with everything that a city can possibly offer as the "whole". Within this whole, you get stuff like: the arts, restaurants, regional cuisines and cultural practices, nightlife, parks, museum, etc. I contend that almost any relatively big city will cover many of these things (i.e. the subset of this city, while smaller than the whole, is still relatively large within the whole potential space), and because of that, comparisons with other cities result in very large intersections (i.e. mostly overlap of amenities) with only relatively small slivers on the edges as unique features.

Indiana: I have to admit it: southern Indiana was a not a place I would have thought would be enjoyable, but it was probably the best experience we had east of the Mississippi. Finishing up with my job and the tight deadlines of moving meant that we had a rough list of places to see and things to do, but we did not have a firm plan. This turned out to be perfect, because it allowed us to bail on lame places and explore longer in neat places. Not having time pressure helped.

So in Indiana we began winging it. We deviated north to Columbus, because it has a lot of quirky architecture and we thought we might see some of it driving around town. We saw a little from the road, but not a whole lot. Furthermore, we got stuck in traffic in the middle of town because of a slow-moving freight train (#smalltownproblems). After realizing that architecture sounds more appealing that it actually is (to us, at least), we left town. Between Columbus and Bloomington is a tiny town called Nashville, where we stayed the night. Nashville has three things going for it: 1) it has been an art colony for a long time (and continues to be one); 2) it is nestled in the middle of some really nice woods; and 3) a super-cheap but tasty Mexican restaurant (full meal for me: $7.25).

Artsy/touristy shops in Nashville, IN.

We spent an hour or so sauntering by all the little workshops and stores after dinner, with about the best summer evening weather you could ask for. The mixture of touristy kitsch and art was a little sad to me, though, because while on the one hand, these kinds of small tourist towns are probably one of the few places some artists can make it, on the other hand I got a distinct vibe of "art as consumption"*. What I mean by that is, I got the sense that the art, lovingly produced by a dedicated and skilled craftsman, serves mostly as a commemorative tchotchke of the well-to-do spending the weekend glamping (more on glamping later). The next day, after stuffing myself to an embarrassing extent at the all-you-can-eat country style breakfast**, we chose to connect back to Route 50 by taking a scenic route through the Hoosier National Forest. Lots of twists and turns, deep broad-leaf forests making an almost-dark tunnel of the two-lane road, open pastures with a soft morning mist and lots of wild animals (we even saw some turkeys). In the autumn, this sort of place must be crack to city-dwellers, as I'm sure the trees just explode with color.

* Definitely a similar feeling in all the mountain towns of Colorado. Do they exist except to serve the RV-towing vacationer?
** Maybe it's worth chiming in here to say that I basically eat one breakfast every day of the year: oats with berries and nuts. In the week and a half that we were on the road, I probably ate more eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, and pastries than in the preceding decade. It actually wasn't too bad, because 1) it was usually included in the cost of lodging, and I am sure I got my money's worth, and 2) we usually weren't hungry until dinner time.

A pretty great evening and morning in south-central Indiana... then down the road to Illinois we went.

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Wed Aug 15, 2018 1:34 am

Illinois: Despite a couple hours of research spent trying to find something of interest in southern Illinois, we couldn't. It's just endless fields of grain. Maybe we missed something. We did stop briefly to stretch our legs and take in the sights of Carlyle Lake, which is the largest non-"Great" lake pertaining to the state. Here were the sights: a giant boat ramp and affiliated parking lot, picnic area, and lake-front restaurant - all completely devoid of people. No cars. Nuthin'. The restaurant was closed. Near as I can tell, there was only one boat on the lake.

Missouri: A lot more action in this state. When I was a kid, our family took an epic roadtrip to the Southwest from the Midwest, and I distinctly remember the awe that I felt when we passed through St. Louis and saw the Gateway Arch. Route 50 would have taken us around the city, but because of my nostalgic enthusiasm and desire to share such an incredible awe-inspiring visual spectacle with my SO, I decided to plunge straight through the heart of the city via interstates. Although it was a still pretty neat this time around, there is something about seeing it from the confines of an interstate in rush-hour traffic that dampens the mood. Understandably, I think SO thought it was just alright. More than any other city, traffic was heavy and intense. One interesting aspect to me was that the interstate was just suspended over the city on stilts about 3-4 stories off the ground for a good chunk of the built up area.

Maybe not as glorious as 8-year old me remembered.

Once out of St. Louis, we were a little off course - and once again decided to wing it. We ended up crossing the Missouri River and taking Missouri Route 94 towards Jefferson City along the River. This unexpectedly turned into another great scenic drive. The road winds through some of Missouri's wine country, and also follows the Katy Trail - a pretty nice 240-mile rail trail that I'd be tempted to spend a few days on if I come back to the region. We dropped into a riverfront town for a meal before heading off to Jefferson City to spend the night.

We spent the next morning exploring Jefferson City. It is a weird mix of pleasant (cute little historic downtown, sumptuously decorated capitol and governor's mansion) and unpleasant (large sections of blight one block away from downtown, crazy people wandering the streets accosting people, an infamous penitentiary turned tourist attraction??). Speaking of prisons, SO and I made a fun little game while driving through the numerous small towns on our trip: "Is it a prison or is it a high school?" The fact that we sometimes had a hard time answering that simple question speaks volumes.

The nicer side of Jefferson City.

Back on the road, we stopped in Sedalia to try some supposedly authentic Kansas City style BBQ for lunch. Honestly, the best thing there was the green beans - they were good. SO and I had a running competition of who would order the better meal at the various places we stopped. My strategy was, if a place put their name on a dish, they probably did that because it was tasty and they were proud of it.

I usually won.

We briefly stopped in Independence before driving straight across Kansas City. I don't really have anything to say about either place. Meh, they were fine. This might be the fatigue of multi-day travel talking, or the fact that it was hot that day, of the fact that the massive BBQ lunch was giving me a mild case of the meat sweats. But it's worth pointing out that up until Kansas City, many of the bigger cities looked pretty much the same, and many of the smaller cities also looked pretty much the same (regardless of if they were 1000 miles apart), and the vegetation pretty much looked the same, and the humidity was pretty uniformly high. The biggest difference seemed to be "hilly or flat".

But all of that was about the change… westward, ho!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by trailblazer » Wed Aug 15, 2018 6:54 pm

Awesome travelogue. Look forward to hearing about the West!

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Re: black_son_of_gray's Journal

Post by black_son_of_gray » Thu Aug 16, 2018 7:39 pm

Kansas: After Kansas City, we shot on over to Lawrence, KS, which seems to me to be a college town that got the balance right - small enough to stay accessible and human-sized, but big enough to not to be completely dominated by the University. For example, the University was not in full session yet (at least, I don't think so), but the downtown area was not dead. On the flip side, the town wasn't dominated purely by boring chain retail - it seemed to have lively events and lots of mom-and-pops. That to me suggests the presence of an actual community.

From Lawrence to Newton (just north of Wichita) was one of the few stretches of night driving that occurred during the trip, so I can't really report on the scenic beauty of Eastern Kansas, other than that there are plenty of large bugs left in the state - and a great many found their way to my windshield*. The last stretch was a mistake, as we were both pretty tired and rolled into Newton in semi-desperate search for a hotel. This lead to the saddest of hotel stays along the way, next to a tractor tailer travel plaza at a poor representative of a chain hotel. The "continental breakfast" was, in its entirety, coffee and toast in a windowless basement. Sometimes winging it goes wrong. Oh well!

*Another night drive down rural roads in Missouri produced streaks of bug guts that haven't been fully erased, despite a full scrub and squeegee at every gas station since.

The next day was a good one with fine weather and an open road on the way out to Dodge City. Because of our evening drive, we were able to make it to Dodge City before noon. This was important to me because we were planning on doing the tourist-trap Boot Hill experience (in part to escape driving in the mid-day sun and heat) and there was going to be a good ole fashion shoot-out that my inner child did not want to miss*. As it turns out, the Boot Hill museum and rebuilt Front Street a la the Wild West glory days was actually quite an enjoyable experience, supplemented with a damned tasty apple crisp a la mode.

*Campy and unexpectedly loud, so yeah, I was satisfied.

Front Street at Boot Hill.

Here's something I didn't know about Kansas: the wind. Sitting in the shade mid-day, the wind provides a very pleasant counterbalance to the heat. During the whole trip, I had two gas pump conversations with strangers. Both were in Kansas. Both warmly wished us the best on our trip. One conversation was with an elderly guy pumping gas into his beat up truck* while is wife waited in the passenger seat. The wind was probably a constant 15-20 mph. I brought up that I never expected it to be so windy and he returned "Oh this is nothing - sometimes is gets up to 60". Sure enough, at one point we passed by an absolutely enormous wind farm, with hundreds of large turbines as far as the eye could see. It's just a shame that there isn't a bigger city around to benefit.

*Trucks! Everything on the road in the middle of the US is a truck. And frankly, I see why.

Behold! The eco-bastion that is central Kansas.

By mid-day we were actually pretty tuckered out again and were looking for a low-key evening where we could just do nothing for a while. We totally scored in Garden City, where we found a decent chain hotel for a decent price (and another cheap but tasty Mexican restaurant downtown). Here's what made it so great: the hotel seemed to be brand new, and had an indoor saltwater pool and hot tub. Ok ok, I get that most people are the opposite of excited about a hotel pool (did someone say Legionnaire's?), but it honestly looked brand new and was completely empty. So we enjoyed a pool and hot tub to ourselves for the evening, got that kind of "good, relaxed tired" that one gets from paddling around in water for a while, enjoyed cookies and coffee while watching a movie on one of the giant flatscreens in our room (there were two!), and slept like babies. Breakfast was also the best of the trip.

Here's another thing I didn't expect in Kansas: Cattle feedlots. I thought it would be endless corn and soy like southern Illinois. It wasn't, although there were a lot of fields and the main signifier of a town was the presence of a grain elevator. Dodge City has a couple of large meat processing plants*, and takes in more than 200 tractor trailers worth of cows a day (at least, according to the nice industry-sponsored video I watched at the Boot Hill museum). On the road, a sizable fraction of the semis you pass by are hauling metal cattle trailers which provide a little puff of putrid scents a few seconds after going by.

*There's just something creepy about business names like "[Insert family name] Meat Solutions". This is entirely due to the corporate-speak bullshit word "solutions".

Feedlots were a whole different story, though. You could smell them a mile away - actually, you could smell them before you could see them. No joke: there are at least twelve distinctly different smells to cow shit, and you'll get to experience them all in the couple of minutes that it takes to drive by these massive facilities. The odor blooms like a fine wine in all the wrong ways. The lots themselves are just metal pens, thousands of cows, brown-black "dirt", and a lagoon or two.

I had two burgers during the trip - one at the beginning and one at the end - and both were really tasty, but I couldn't handle beef for a few days after Kansas.

A single rinky-dink internet photo doesn't do these things justice. This facility was about 10x bigger than what you see above.

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