Friday, September 6, 2013

Odyssey America

Listen up, sons and daughters. My peoples be collecting PhD's like bitches be catchin' feelings, nah'm saying. Like dudes be stackin' 'em tall as if they going out of style, ya hear? Like the rest of us are at some point going to be living under freeway overpasses, rubbing up against each other all inappropriate-like to generate body or whatever; meanwhile, my boys gon' be laid up posh as fuck burning their least favorite diplomas and dissertations in the fire places of their respective regency rooms or some shit.

Anyway, ya boy don't personally do much on the vacationing/traveling/globe-trotting front. In fact, very rarely will you find me operating outside a 10-mile radius from Carlton Manner. Doing a legitimate cross-country road trip has been something I've wanted to do forever, though. So when the resident scholar of Adelanto, CA managed to land that ass into the Duke English Lit Anti-American Studies graduate program (thereby increasing the ethnic diversity of the school, city and state something like 10-fold), I jumped at the opportunity to send the guy off properly and experience some of America's finer parts in the process. The following more or less make up my observations as they came to me along the way.

No one has ever thought twice about packing up and moving from the High Desert. The place is one of the most truly wondrous, man-made shitholes on this planet. However, most of the people lucky enough to escape this cesspool don't do so on a belly full of one of the best breakfasts they ever had. Mine was a meal known affectionately as huevos a caballo: cheese enchiladas stacked to the ceiling, homemade ranchero sauce, sour cream, crowned with two eggs served over medium. Señora Gonzalez did work, and while I was not worthy I was insanely grateful. For the first fifteen minute stint to the Interstate, I felt at least some mild apprehension. I felt like I should have at least stayed for seconds. Then I saw a couple leather-skinned lifers haggling over the dregs of a Popov handle on the side of Palmdale Road at 7 AM. I was like fuck it and bounced.

Like I said, I don't get out much. I've been east of the Rockies exactly three times in my life and beyond the Mississippi River exactly once. Sheltered-ass white kids thinking they're 'bout to spread them wings have been known to get 'em clipped shortly after takeoff. When the moms blew up the celly before I was even halfway to the county dump (which more or less doubles as the High Desert's "Thanks For Visiting" prompt), I realized I was not the exception to the rule.

Nah, b.

There's legitimate reason for concern, though. A lot of people die in transit between VV and LV(see: #1 and #6). It's not too difficult to see why. As anyone who's blown through a long weekend chasing that sweet Vegas prostitute nectar can attest, this particular stretch of Fifteen Freeway blows pretty hard in both directions. When you're rollin' out, it's the only thing standing between you and the promised land. When you're headed back in, well.. you know... you're typically all tore the fuck up and whatnot. There's not much to keep your attention along the way, either. First you get to Barstow, which, aside from being the part of the High Desert everyone in the High Desert shits on and feels superior to, is also home to the first Del Taco. So cool, right? But calm down, because then it's another hour or so before you reach Baker, official capital of BFN and home to one "notable" "attraction" - a landmark conveniently visible from the freeway.

The wold's tallest thermometer. Also: myriad meth labs.

After breezing through another fifty miles of Joshua trees and desert juniper, the Golden State finally yields to, well, the Silver State... a transition that is more symbolically apt than the Mojave Desert trek might suggest. For, though it's difficult and uncomfortable to imagine, as increasingly forlorn as the towns become, the closer they trend toward the Nevada's new normal. I don't know if it's because I was riding with the long haul in mind or because it was the first time I'd driven this stretch of highway without the taste of vomit in my mouth, but damn it if it didn't seem half as horrible as it usually does. Appreciate it while you can.

You know, Nevada really doesn't get the credit that it deserves. Were it not for its adjacency to Arizona, it'd be easier to realize exactly how fucked up a state it really is. Seriously, Nevada is damned awful. This is the state that made Sharon Angle a recognizable name and near senator, for Christ's sake. It's earned and faithfully maintained it's reputation as a perennial stronghold for our nation's unemployed. It hosts a hippie burnout and drug addict conclave every year near its northern border. Driving into Nevada, it's not difficult to see why we used it as a nuclear wasteland for basically all of the last century. Most of the state and its inhabitants look like we never stopped. I kind of wish we hadn't.

Anyway, your first encounter with Dirty Harry's territory is Primm, Nevada, more commonly known as State Line because it straddles the state line. Obviously. Primm is just a drag net, a Las Vegas-lite for people who've already blown their spending money on the speeding ticket(s) they earned en route or those that want one last chance to win back their daughter's college fund before having to show face in California. State Line is almost always for emergency situations only.

This is because Nevada's main event comes but thirty minutes down the way. Before you can even reconsider your decision not to stop at State Line, you scale one last semi-hill and it's revealed in a distant soft focus. The desert death heat reverberates off the asphalt and nearly renders it a part of the mountainous backdrop. Is it a mirage? Or is that The Mirage?

Las Vegas should not be a real place in the real world, but I'm really glad it is. Nowhere else is a city such a symbol. As much as Paris embodies love or Philly brotherhood, Vegas is depravity. Sweet, sweet depravity in all its form and function. Like anyone that's read Lord of the Flies and is still up in the air as to whether humans are naturally good or not must look no further before laying to rest any faith in the former. A desert island of debauchery that tolerates encourages the kind of behavior you wouldn't want anyone you know to know you're into? A safe haven for inner-demons and illicit longings that's far, far from the workplace rumor mill? What a fucking concept, right? And don't think it just got that way by happenstance. The City of Las Vegas has actively branded itself as the black hole of secrets for lechers and sorority sisters alike, offering a chance to sow them wild or forbidden oats in a place where no one will ever find out (or rightly judge you once they have).

Things to do in Nevada before you die:
  •     Deficate at the Wynn or Encore. Seriously, them enchiladas gotta go somewhere, you know?

By design, I didn't see so much as a single slot machine in Sin City. I steered way clear in fear of falling victim to any unforeseen weakness that had beset so many farsighted travelers before me. If you've ever inadvertently driven off the strip and into North Las Vegas you'll have realized that it is A) possibly the most depressingly downtrodden, shanty-filled shithole in the shadow of unmitigated intemperance anywhere in the world and B) filled with burned out tweakers that long ago blew it all try'na big time with the big shots. I kept that in the back of my mind as we rolled in and never strayed from our one original objective.

I had waited. I had waited a long time under the undue, caffeine-induced gastrointestinal tension. Like I had to go somewhere near Barstow but held out for better non-truck-stop prospects down the line. I even waited past Primm. Soon as I saw the Vegas skyline, I knew I'd made the right decision. The only question remaining was which esteemed establishment would be victimized. We opted for the Wynn because it's Action-approved, obviously. We caught ol' Stevie sleeping in the city that never does, self-parking the ride and B-lining to the first dude's room we could find on the main-level mall.

I'll be honest, I recoiled a little bit even in the face of what were, admittedly, high expectations. Like, yo, look at all this marble! And that freshly waxed tile! And what is that like a Van Gogh out there beyond the final pisser? My bathroom game had come up, for sure. I mean a Circus Circus-staying dude like myself had no business even being allowed on the premises, let alone into the poo palace. Yet, I faced not an ounce of early-morning opposition and was free to carry out my business in peace. What more could a man want? It was glorious.

Rejuvenated, I was readyset for the rest of Nevada in all its unremarkable glory. The small, retiree town of Mesquite was the only other thing that broke up brownscape. It was surprisingly lush, a real diamond in the rough with what appeared to be more public golf courses than actual people to play on them. The city motto was something like "Escape, Momentarily".. whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean. There were, of course, at least another handful of casinos in Mesquite, because if it were not abundantly clear by this point, the "great" state of Nevada has fully committed to generating all it's earnings from one of two revenue streams, the breakdown of which is depicted in the graphic below. (You'll notice there are no proceeds from state income tax. Like I said, you can't squeeze blood from a jobless turnip or whatever.)

It's highly recommended to all you youngbluds out there that you invest in some modicum of patience and self-restraint. Otherwise, you could be in for a long one.

Because God built America with my vacation in mind, he exhibited true benevolence and used the I-15 to bisect Arizona's northwest corner. I probably could have fit my time spent in Arizona onto a Vine video. Like I was seriously subject to Sheriff Joe's rule for a a skant thirty minutes, and that's only because I spent most of it stuck in one lane behind a truck going uphill. Nevertheless, the terrain was actually somewhat scenic with several big winds through some old carbon cliffs. It wasn't as ballin' as the Grand Canyon, but I was feelin' it, for sure. However, I was also cautiously aware of the fact that I had no cell service and, thus, little chance of surviving any sort of serious injury by auto collision. So, I definitely kept my eyes on the road and my hands upon the wheel. Ain't nobody trying to die in Arizona. That's for goddamn sure.

That goddamn truck.

Because I was not exposed to its triple-digits or denizens, I can state without equivocation that this was the best time I've ever had in Arizona. Onward.

Advice for Arizona:

Utah houses some pretty cool stuff. It's home to America's dead sea and Zion National Park, undoubtedly one of the most staggeringly beautiful places in this country. According to their motto and interstate insignia, there're apparently also lots of beehives. Not that anyone would know or care, though. Most Americans, abiding by our long-standing, deep-rooted national tradition of not knowing things about America, can tell you exactly one thing about the state of Utah, and that's that it's where storks drop all the Mormon babies.

People get all creeped out by Mormonism, which is kind of understandable considering the average person's only exposure to the religion comes from the thoughtful portrayals put forth by the cast of Sister Wives. What, with the polygamy, their belated acceptance of blacks and magic underwear... That kind of conventional wisdom will overshadow all else always. I ain't saying that ain't all well and weird and all, but I also ain't getting all bent out of shape about it. You know, cultural relativism or whatever. The way I see it, if the dude Kody Brown wants to keep all his side hoes in the same casita and they're going to be cool with that sort of thing, it ain't necessarily my place to throw the c-block. But, that's just me.

Besides, I got bigger beef with Brigham's peeps, like their theocratic enforcement of morality through their notoriously juvenile drinking laws. If you every wonder what America would look like if evangelicals controlled the executive and legislative branches... look no further. No shit, you can practically cop a semi-auto at a Target or Toys-R-Us in Utah. No waiting period, neither. But good goddamn luck trying to get a drink in this piece. (I'm not saying I'd even want to, but in a state so reliably Republican, I should have the right, right?) That's malfeasance, and as if it weren't frustrating enough on its own, they have the audacity to peddle tounge-in-cheek novelty gift taunts at every gas station and truck stop passed throughout the state.

"Eat, drink & be merry - tomorrow you may be in Utah" - Hahahaha FUCK YOU!

Anyway, I digress. The first sign of civilization in Utah is the City of St. George.

St. George serves as Utah's welcome center. It's the state's softened rebuttal to the preconceptions of travelers that are trying to get in and (most likely) get the hell out. By most metrics, St. George seems rather normal. It's definitely staged to give the immediate impression that Mormons are just like the rest of us. Glance left and you'll see stacks of McMansions in one of three shades of brown. Peer right and take in the row of recognizable fast-food chains. Look left again and SWEET MARY AND JOSEPH SMITH!

High on a hill against a backdrop of authentic Utahan red rock, in a porcelain gloss whiter than the toilets at the Trump sits the oldest operating temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints. It just sits there all gothic and out-of-place as fuck to remind many the passerby exactly where they are and whose thumb they're under. It's a theme that repeats itself for the rest of the mostly-drab drive through the 45th state. As smaller, more nondescript communities fly by and run together, the sightline is always interrupted by the subtle penetration of a stone-white tower or spire.

But look, even though Utah is undoubtedly the reddest state with the bluest balls, it ain't all bad. For instance, the more rural sections of the I-15 have an 80 MPH speed limit, proving the state is at least somewhat aware of its reputation as a place no one wants to be longer than they have to. Furthermore, the back half of the march eastward on the I-70 puts on full display the natural beauty Utah so often tries to squash with blandness. About 100 miles from Colorado, the highway traverses what's known as the San Rafael Swell. Do yourself a favor and pull off, stretch your legs, consider haggling over some Native American trinkets, and stare out over the desert abyss in silence.

Click for full effect.
Further on down the road there's a turnout for a place called Moab, home to yet another gorgeous national park. You know.. in retrospect the Utah countryside as a whole is really something worth experiencing. It's beautiful, and it definitely deserves better than the jurisdictional body that governs it and the people that dwell in it. I'd personally be in favor of cordoning off and calling the whole thing a national park if it meant keeping Utahans from ruining it.

Ah, Colorado. T'was such sweet, sweet joy with which I crossed the border into its arms. I was tired. Tired of being in Utah and tired of sitting in a car with my legs stuck in a static semi-crouch. The seemingly immediate transition to mountainous climate reawakened my attention. Soon thereafter the 78 met and began to trace the Colorado River. Through bend of bay and swerve of shore, it led us the last hundred miles of Day 1 to the tiny town of Silt, CO.

There, the Papa Bear, J.A. Delaney, rocks a spot a stone's throw from the riverbank. We rolled in around at around 7 PM local time. The sun was down and was dragging the humidity with it. The weather was fucking untouchable. The old man had the CCR playing, the steaks grilling and the ice chest stocked with Silver Bullets (sidenote: When you purchase Coors Light at a liquor store in Colorado, it contains 5.0% alcohol-by-volume and you get drunk much quicker). We gorged on med-rare rib-eyes, baked beans and potato salad while we watched the river roll on by. It was a good day.

We got back at it bright and early the following morning, continuing east against an almighty early-morning glare. I just set the cruise control to forty-five and let that hangover ride, you know. In all seriousness, the two-hour trip through the Rocky Mountains is about as good as a road trip can get. While I've no doubt this is the case year-round, June, July and August are like the only months wherein chains are not required. Do with that information what you may.

A little ways into the range, there'll be a sign marking the Vail Pass Summit at just a little over 10,500 feet above sea level. You should pull off the highway, get out and take a look around. Most importantly you should take the deepest, fullest breath of air possible. Like you should fill your lungs to capacity with this shit, because it's as delicious as a breath of air can be on this planet. Realize that this was what all of America was like before white people came over and confused as Manifest Destiny our ability to replace it all with strip malls.

After you take a quick trip through the Continental Divide by way of the highest tunnel in the United States, you begin your subtly steep decent into the mile-high city, Denver, Colorado. It should come as no surprise that this is where every on-duty Colorado state trooper makes his living. Like dudes are just feastin', blowing through reams of excessive-speed citations. Only complicating matters is the fact that this is the point where you will be introduced to the practice of speed limit fluctuation, a practice continued in basically all of America east of the Rockies whereby allowed vehicular velocity shifts 5 to 15 MPH every ten miles at a minimum. It's a royal pain in the ass, but you gotta ride the breaks all the way down, lil' homies.

MINI NOM CITY: Snooze A.M. Eatery

Look, we all know that Yelp is overrun by faux foodie morons. Finding a dope spot takes a discerning eye when weeding through reviews written by either A) people that lose their shit to groupthink and are ready to reaffirm a some joint's five-star status the second they walk in the door or B) grouchy fucks with incredibly overvalued self-worth that take personal offense to ice tea being served without lemon. As a general rule, I don't factor a Yelp review into my dining decisions unless its composite sample size is less than 50 or more than 500 reviews.

Snooze Denver had like 700 reviews and 4.5 stars. That's statistically significant enough to warrant a two hour detour in the face of another twelve hours of highway hard time. However, any unwillingness I was subconsciously harboring was vanquished by the gang of people consorting around the building. There was even a beanbag toss set up storefront, so I assumed the wait was going to be egregious. Twenty minutes for two was doable, though.

Breakfast is my JAM, y'all. I will wake up early and travel a solid distance for a top-tier breakfast joint. Country kitchens, communal seating beachside diners, I'm down with just about anything so long as they're pumping out quality product. Snooze (", an A.M. Eatery") does breakfast. That's all they do. They close at 2:30 PM every day at every location, which is weird because it's nice and looks like the kind of place that could keep the cash flowing all day long. The decor is less mom-and-pop than it is urban-Jetsons, not unlike the scores of Santa Monica brunch sites sans the hipster douche nozzles that gravitate to those kinds of places.

Alright, so as I scanned the menu and the crowd, it became apparent that Snooze is popular for their assortment of variations on two classic breakfast staples: pancakes and eggs benedict. This helped to narrow my search, for sure, because everything sounded damn good on an empty stomach. The J-Train and I brought some big-boy appetites, so we tried to make a run on the menu. We ordered the chilaquiles benedict (barbacoa beef), the upstream benny (honey smoked salmon) and the pancake flight, an ingenius option that allowed us to try up to three of their pancake offerings. We rolled with the pancake of the day (poppyseed), the upsidedown pineapple cake, and the peanut butter & chocolate piece. 

Fa'real, this place is the bomb. They scored mad points wit' ya' boy not just because they're creating wildly smart breakfast food with a serious mind for cohesive, complementary flavors and ingredients, but also because they were mindful of the breakfast basics. Like you see those little hashbrown cubes behind los benedictos? Yo, those things are seasoned perfectly. Ain't nothing kill a good breakfast quicker than a lackluster starch element. Sidestep averted. Perhaps most importantly, though: this place has a fantastic cup o' joe. The coffee here is so good it's got a story behind it (one you may read all about on the tri-fold in the upper-right of the picture above). Basically, after spending a couple of years in Central- and South-America obsessing over coffee beans, dude now gets their own blend shipped up and served at the Eatery. They actually sell them for like ten-bucks-a-bag. I bought one. I'm drinking some right now at home. I wish I had an eggs benedict. Fuck.

(Nom City final notes: As shown on the menu, they will gladly prepare your egg bennies gluten free. Don't be that douche; unless you have celiac disease (and you know if you do), you're just trying to get attention. Also, Snooze has a location in the faaaaaaaabulous Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. So Cal peeps get to it.)

The only logical recourse after a first-meal like that was to heed my body's demands for relief. Thusly, I continued my eastward reign of terror on the restrooms of five-star establishments. Next on the hit list was none other than Denver's very own Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences. I paid for an hour at a public park since I didn't know how long I'd be there. Admittedly, I was a little worried that I'd be out of place, discovered and consequently kicked out. And as the only person in the lobby not wearing a jacket, I was definitely out of place. However, if my time working at a hotel has taught me anything, it's that hotel workers are trained to fear a public outburst above all else. Thus, confidence is met with immediate acquiescence. I told the bellhop at the door that I was waiting for my parents (though in actuality they have about as much business being in a Four Seasons as I do) and was approached by no one else. Wisely, the Four Seasons does not offer a restroom on the main level. Wiserly, I figured this would be the case and found one one floor up.

Lemme just say this right now. If I was spoiled at the Wynn, I was straight pampered at the Four Seasons. Obviously spotless, this bano was just fucking bananas. There was nary a urinal to be found. The stall walls were thick marble tablets that rose from the floor to the (vaulted) ceiling. The thing was legitimately soundproof. Yo, then get this, those stacks of towels next to the sink? Them things were WARM! I don't even know how that's possible! Then these people have the well-mannered audacity to offer hand lotion alongside the hand soap. Don't get me wrong; I was all kinds of thankful because I gots some sensitive skin and I hate when my hands get all dried out after I wash 'em with some harsh-ass soap. But yo, check it out: This was the Conference Room level! It ain't even the rooms, or suites, or residences! Get the fuck out of here. Honest to God(?), this has got be the best kept secret of the 1%. If the proletariat at large ever caught wind of this shit (ha), the Cold Class War would go hot as a muhfucka, mutually assured destruction be damned.

Once you leave Denver, that Rocky Mountain High wears off pretty quickly. There's actually a good amount of suburbia that blows by, but then the terrain gets really, really... flat. While this does mark the glorious return of the 80 MPH speed limit, by the time you've accelerated up to that rate it's already been changed back down to 70... or 65... or 45. In a state that is probably the truest practicioner of libertarian ideals, freedom still ain't free or really even a thing.

Since it becomes apparent less than an hour outside the capital that Denver was eastern Colorado's money shot, I'd prefer to treat the last few hundred miles of the state as if it were a part of Nebraska, for (as I soon found out) that's basically what it was.

You were for the most part magnificent, Colorado. Get high, stay high.

Nebraska and its brethren are called "the fly-over states" for a reason: they inflict a nasty, insufferable boredom that's tough to understand until you've spent a day's worth of driving caught in its dominion. Hell, at least from the air you might spot a crop circle or something to spice it up. I felt like I was stuck strapped to a chair in front of a video-simulation on loop. Nothing ever changes in Nebraska. Miles go by without the attached sense that progress is being made. The sporadic farmhouse or grain silo to the north or south always seem like they've been passed before. The fervent referencing of the global positioning system was my only savior. Though I feel all these states should be grouped together, renamed Fuckthisplace and given two senators total, I shall try to parse the particulars.

As soon as you cross into the Cornhusker State (not a promising nickname), you're greeted with something different: a minimum speed limit. It's 45 MPH. I was reflexively keen to the connotation. 

"Yeah, that's right. I got places to be. No sports bra, let's just keep it bouncin'!" I thought to myself. 

Yeah, well I thought wrong. In but a little more than a country mile, you come to the first of who-knows-how-many "construction zones." Traffic -- trucks included -- merge from two lanes to one and slow to a mandated fifty-five-mile-per-hour-slog. For five or ten miles at a time, you're subjected to this unbearable crawl before being offered the opportunity to speed up and immediately slow back down again. And again. And again. Were they trying to torture me? Were they trying to induce a reconsideration of its pastoral terrain and thereby tempt me into abandoning my travels and settling somewhere in its big empty? I don't know. All I know is rarely -- VERY rarely -- did I see anyone doing anything that I would even euphemistically call construction. I don't know how much of that stimulus money Nebraska got its hands on, but it had to have been a lot considering there were ARRA signs and traffic cones running the entire length of the I-80. It would seem, though, that they're trying to penny-pinch as much of that paper as possible by having like one fucking dude do all the work himself. It's infuriating, but you gotta stay strong, because the Nebraska Department of Roads and ever-present highway patrol are waiting at the end of every speed trap for dudes that can't hang.

Aside from the sheer dearth of topographical heterogeneity, you will know you are in Nebraska based on several other bellwethers. This is, for instance, the first time you'll be able to top off the whip with E85 ethanol fuel blend. This is where the famed Carl's Jr. to Hardee's conversion occurs. This is where you'll have the absolute worst "burger" from a McDonald's in your life. [Seriously, I take back anything negative I have ever said about Micky D's in my quarter century on earth, because it wasn't warranted. (Sidenote: How do you fuck up McDonald's anyway?? It's practically fail proof. It's basically plug-n-play, and considering it's one of the few jobs in this state not pertaining to farm work, you'd imagine the employees would show a little more pride in their craft. /soapbox)]. Lastly, Nebraska is the state where the bastardization and ill-advised blending of cultures dear to my heart goes into overdrive:

Blasphemy (n): 

I swerved across two lanes of traffic and almost killed a carload of white women to be able to see this in person. There is a place (though, probably not a person) on this earth named Carlos O'Kelly's. What the fuck is it? PanAm-Irish fusion?? Corned beef chimichangas? No. Oh, no. This is a cardinal sin of capitalism: Mexican food cooked by white people for profit. Welcome to the Midwest, where most people have never met a Mexican or actually had Mexican food. No matter, though. Senor Kelly's middle-of-Nebraska unit has like 4.5 stars on Yelp (thus illustrating my earlier point about its unreliability). I didn't try the food, but I didn't have to. I've no doubt the most authentic thing about this restaurant is the name Carlos. I did head in to scope the place out, and (shockingly enough) I saw zero brown people. That's all you need to know.

Another worst part about being in Nebraska is that it takes very little time for the dilution of standards to take effect. You will within the time spent in transit start to notice yourself embracing a skewed sense of  cool, a disjointed excitement over things to which you would otherwise never mind. Take that highway-spanning structure above, for instance. I'm still not absolutely positive as to its purpose, but I thought I saw something about it being a monument commemorating a bridge. It's pretty hideous, but it might as well have been the Golden Gate after staring out into undefined infinity for hours on end. I took like twenty pictures of this thing as it approached from off in the distance. I regret nothing, as it was one of the few, fleeting moments where the monotony was interrupted by something other than a tree.

The other was this dinosaur:

I actually had to source this from Google image search, because I failed to get it on my phone. It was staged atop the roadside burm behind a tree just large enough to conceal it on approach. Real talk/no shame, after having spent so long driving through a seemingly uninhabited double slice of America, I caught this thing in my periphery as the sun was accelerating through its downward arc and thought it was real. I yelped. Fuck me.

Actually, no, fuck Nebraska. Never visit Nebraska. There is nothing cool here. I drove through Lincoln. Shithole. I drove through Omaha. It looked like it had potential, but it was far outweighed by the desolation I had to wade through to get there. Just trust me on this. The only fun I had in Nebraska was slaughtering entire herds of buffalo on The Oregon Trail. I was seven.

White man's burden.

We infiltrated Iowa by sunset. Two hours in we pulled the ripcord and called it a day. Daddy desperately needed a drink. So, after checking into the hotel, we bit the bullet and dabbled into the depths of downtown Des Moines. It was a trip, to be sure.

Downtown Des Moines is surprisingly nice, aesthetically speaking. It's clean. It's also for the most part a ghost town. I drove by at least a handful of of places I wouldn't be ashamed to be seen in were I a resident. The problem was they were all open and damn near empty save for one or two silhouettes holding up the respective bar tops. We decided to give it a go anyway and stopped in at a place called El Bait Shop because the double-deck tap setup could be seen from outdoors. Sure enough, they had both a vast beer selection curated by someone that cared and a Pandora station by someone working at Pitchfork. This is the TSR-approved spot if you're ever for any reason stuck inside of Des Moines with the anywhere-else blues again (sidenote: try the Confluence Brewing Company brews. They're local and pretty excellent.).

There were like 4-5 more pages of this.

When The Bait Shop emptied out we followed the flow of foot traffic to a place called Mickey's. It was the only bar in the area with an outdoor patio. It was also the only "Irish Pub" on the planet that did not have Guinness on draught. But it was, for some reason, where everyone was so we rolled in and grabbed a couple 312s.

Almost immediately my boy and I were triangulated by the most rag-tag team of hoes ever assembled. Like there were some attractive womens out on the prowl, but these weren't them. There was one blonde-haired, blue-eye broad that was easily the creme of this particular crop, though that ain't necessarily saying much. Somehow, someway she managed to learn Spanish at some point in her life, so the J-Train was putting in work. Meanwhile, ya boy was taking heavy artillery fire from a close-talking chick with a black eye and some gnarly snaggletooth that was openly claiming "southside Des Moines" like it was a place that exists. I was taking one for the homie, for sure, diving on grenades left and right, collecting Purple Hearts like a muhfucka, listening to the southside broad spit me some of her husband's rhymes. We ultimately ended up at some super dive watching white chicks karaoke rap classics. I tried to get on the mic and flow but was denied access because the DJ wanted to slobber all over "Get Low" like we were in a 2003 time-warp and that shit had just come out.

Then this happened. I realized I might have actually driven into a 2003 time-warp.
(Snaggletooth immediately pictured).

The following morning I was treated to the subtle charms of the state's capital. The Des Moines River flowed quiescently through downtown; the state capitol loomed in the background. There were bikers and pedestrians out en masse. You could almost confuse this place as somewhere you'd consider living.

That is until, about a half-step outside the city limits, you're confronted with a stern reminder that this is still Iowa. Oh, how I'd been so quick to forget.

My Jesus died on a cross on a billboard in Iowa.

How Barack Hussein Obama won Iowa twice in a row will never make sense to me. In fact, how and why has the Democratic Party carried Iowa in every election since 1988 save for George W's 2004 campaign? There is so very little empirical evidence supporting this sort of outcome. A survey of Iowan everything stipulates very strongly it should be a sure-thing Red State. There was Crucifixion Jesus which, while shocking at 7AM, was still just outside the "big city" and, therefore, undoubtedly tame. (You know it gets worse nearer Iowa's nether regions.) There was also a NASCAR track in a place I legitimately confused as the middle of nowhere and at least three separate, overlapping AM frequencies carrying the Rush Limbaugh Show at the same time. OH! and if you like corn, let me assure you there was also just an absolute shit-ton of that stuff, too. I'm talking stalks for days and days. In fact, until you've been, you can never fully appreciate the skill with which Iowa was so beautifully typified on The West Wing (here and here and here).

The only other glimmer of hope in the Hawkeye State is emitted from the Home of the Hawkeyes, Iowa City, Iowa. While Des Moines was a'ight and all, Iowa City is where you want to be if you're a landlocked, semi-cultured twenty-something. It boasts a quaint but promising downtown scene, some super official old-ass buildings and a seemingly endless supply of midwestern white women, if that's your thing.

If steamy, midnight trucker sex is your thing, Iowa's got that covered, too.

Caaaandy Cane.

This is the Mississippi River. I'd never seen it before.

Mark Twain wuz hear.

America's femoral artery is a big ol' wide som'bitch. I Pauly-D-fist-pumped all the way across, because its other side marked our official departure from Iowa and the former Louisiana Territory in general. When we arrived in the Land of Lincoln we were both halfway to Chicago and halfway through Kanye West's discography, though I honestly can't remember if that was the product of forethought or maximum celestial entropy. Any which way you cut it, it could only be net positive.

IL (North Side) Chicago:
It's possible to take I-10 and -20 from the Inland Empire straight on through to North Carolina. In fact, Google recommends this route, though only because it's not the one subsequently driving through Arizona, Texas and, most frightening of all, the Deep South. Beyond our aim of avoiding the true armpit of America, though, we took our fucked up, parabolic shitstorm of a detour with the express intent of passing through and passing time in Chicago. Since it's the only part of Illinois I really remember, it's the only part I'll speak of.

And when I say Chicago, I should note that I'm speaking specifically about the five-seventysevenths that make up its North Side. Since two days is a disgracefully short amount of time to try to take in a city as legitimately baller as Chicago, my goal was to pick one spot and absorb as much of the realness as possible. I didn't want to see The Bean or the Chicago Theatre or the other touristy shit that has been photodocumented to death by my more worldly, travel-savy friends on Facebook. I was less interested in seeing or being seen in front of landmarks than I was in experiencing whatever cultural aspect I could unearth.

North Side Chicago is home to the Cubbies and a disproportionate number of post-collegiate white people. The northern edges of the Windy City are smoothed out, without question. While there is active, lively debate amongst Chicagoans as to whether this delegitimizes its authenticity, for my money there ain't no better. So as to avoid making this a post within a post, I'ma try to hit you with the do's and don't's as I think of them. And to serve as a reference, everything I did and ate in the North Side occurred in an area defined in the map below.

Chicago shooting map, Jan-Jun 2013. Credit: Chicago Tribune

DO: Learn where the fuck you are. Seriously. As soon as you check in to wherever you chose to stay, find a map digital or otherwise and memorize your cross streets and something notable nearby. Write 'em on your arm if you have to. Take false comfort in your fully-charged smartphone if you wish, but know you're doing so at your own peril. For when you burn through your battery life try'na Instagram yourself like #BadBitchAlert, you're going to be all alone in a big city. Your Kenyan cabby won't give a fuck about you. He gon' pretend like he never heard the letters G, P or S. He gon' drive that ass all around, criss-crossing North Clark St. like he running a side operation trafficking fuckmeat in and out of the north side. So when you finally pull the chute at forty dollars fare and get out at the midpoint of the ten-mile trek back to your hotel, you're going to march off in the direction your internal compass is telling you is north. You'll be undeterred by recognizable buildings on the side of the street they shouldn't be. At the behest of your homie you'll stop and ask for directions, but you'll mistakenly flag down a crackhead (and you will know she's a crackhead because she'll look like the one from Breaking Bad that crushed her man's dome under an ATM machine in Season 2), and after she tells you you've been walking over a mile in the wrong direction, you'll discount her advice on account of her being a crackhead. Shortly thereafter, about another half-mile down the road, you will accept the fact that you are lost and have a full-blown breakdown in front of God and everyone. Don't be like me, know where the fuck you're staying.

DON'T: Stay in Evanston. My meltdown was my own doing. In an attempt to spend less on shelter and more on hooch, I stayed outside Chicago proper. Though it meant being out of the way, I thought the savings would offset the inconvenience. I'ma tell you straight up that it ain't worth the nonsense. Chicago cab drivers don't really know shit about Evanston and aren't all that jazzed to cart your ass out that way. It was a pretty severe handcuffing, and most of the money we saved went right back into transportation to and from the hotel, anyway. Your freedom is well worth the $50/night difference. Save yourself the hassle. Stay centrally-located, and stay happy.

DON'T: Take cabs (unless absolutely necessary). The cost of cabs would have made me a lot more upset if I wasn't hammered every time I had to utilize one. I still don't know how much I spent stuck in traffic on Lake Shore and North Sheridan, but I know it was a lot. I kept hoping I was hopping into Cash Cab so I could win some of my money back, but it never happened. It doesn't matter how far you're going, you're lookin' at losing a Jackson, minimum. Dudes are slow to get to your destination and quick to cop a 'tude come time to tip. The City of Chicago offers a much more preferable alternative, a top-notch public transportation system that I learned to use on our second day. It'll get you to within walking distance of whatever you're trying to do, and Google Maps makes navigating the shuttle schedule a breeze. If you're trying to get around after 2AM, you'll have to bite the yellow bullet. But otherwise, avoid the bullshit and maybe squeeze in a little extra shut-eye.

This dude does right and avoids the bullshit.

DO: Eat at Kuma's Corner (or Kuma's, Too) - I pruposefully did not eat when I woke up in and drove through the rest of Iowa. I wanted to remain pure, to save myself for the Chi. If you consult Guy Fierri's fat map, you'll understand why. Chicago is Nom City, and I had intentions of blazing a trail right through the damn thing. Kuma's was recommended to us by the homie's homegirl, who served as our initial Chicago contact. The endorsement was so absurdly on point. Kuma's is a low-lit, burger-centric gastropub. They're pumping out some of the most thoughtfully-constructed, manly meat-stacks I've ever seen, and they're naming them after metal bands. We were starving, so we went HAM on the order. We started with the jalapeno poppers and the build-your-own mac & cheese (with garlic and prosciutto). The poppers were loaded with flavor, but while the chorizo in the creme cheese stuffing added a little heat, they would have been complimented perfectly if the jalapenos were actually jalapenos (though this is indicative of a larger theme in the Midwest where "spicy" is loosely translated into "some spice detectable" --  so, if given the option, always order everything spicy). The mac'n'chee was served in a man-sized bowl and was beautifully crusted. The saltiness of the prosciutto managed not to be overshadowed by the exorbitant amount of cheese binding it all together. It was one hell of an appetizer course, so large that three bites into the Goatsnake and Metallica, respectively, we had to tap out. They were the best burgers I'd had in a good while, and I could have finished my halves, but I also could have done nothing for the rest of the night. We boxed them, took them back to the hotel (after my big league bitch fit), and tore into them Hasslehoff style when we got back from the bar. Though they were room temp, they were exactly what my body wanted at the time.

(Sidenote: the beer selection here is legit and super local. The service is superb, too. I tested the young lady assigned to us as to the origin of one of the featured breweries on the menu, and she put me in my place.)

DO: Find a 4AM bar and drink there. The low point in the whole trip came when we got back to our room, burgers in hand and mascara running all down my cheeks, only to see the number "3:39" glowing bright green on the alarm clock. I wanted to cry all over again. The only reason I pitched a tantrum an hour earlier was because I wanted to go out and drink (no need for a debate or discussion -- I have a problem). I'd heard of these mythical after-hours establishments earlier in the day and was definitely intrigued. The only thing that kept me going as we tramped through the streets of south Evanston was the prospect of salvaging the night to at least some degree. When I was finally able to turn my phone back in and saw it was only 1:30 in the morning, I became awash in optimism.

We went back out and hit up some place called Frank's. It wasn't the best place in the world, but it was the first that was open. Most importantly, it was filled with native Chicagoans (as I feel most of these 4AMers probably are). We shot the shit with a couple dudes celebrating a homie's passing the Illinois bar. They were Freudian slipping all over the place and might have been trying to bang us but nevertheless provided to us some invaluable real talk.

Lessons learned from locals in Chicago:
  • Never take cabs in the city. Only take The L. (This one came a little late). 
  • Navigating the streets and stops in Chicago is actually pretty easy, since many of them are numbered. If you are white and you find yourself in an area with numbered streets, you need to turn the fuck around and return from whence you came.
  • Wrigleyville is mostly filled with idiots and morally compromised women, but everyone should experience it at least once before they die. It was already on the menu, but we were reassured.
  • If you want dish pizza and you fuck with anywhere other than a place called Pequod's, you done fucked up. Especially avoid Lou Malnati's unless you're a romantic tourist fuck.
I never did get any of the guys' names. For all I know, they might not have even had names. They might have been angels sent down to protect the sanctity of our road trip. Anyway, we pounded a good number of pints and called it a night, determined to heed their advice and learn from our own mistakes.

DO: Eat at Pequod's. The archangel from Frank's was actually the second person/entity to recommend Pequod's, so I knew it was a must have. J-Train's homegirl was the first to do so, and she joined us the following afternoon when we hit it up. Pequod's is decked out in about as much Blackhawks garb and memorabilia as you'd expect from any self-respecting local pizza joint. It's also apparently named after Ahab's boat in Moby Dick. (Normally, this isn't something I'd know being that I've only read the Great Illustrated Classics version, but I was lunching with a couple English majors and you know those people just cannot keep that sort of shit to themselves). Anyway, I'm not usually big on dish pizza. The cheese-to-crust ratio approaches too close to infinity for my liking, though there's a strong possibility this is due to a failed interpretation by California-based operations. Pequod's nails it. The cheese is deep, but the crust is thick. I went with the standard pepperoni (loaded with chili flakes). My dude went straight AWOL with pineapple, garlic and anchovies. (Hate if you want, but that shit is life-alteringly good.) Best of all, though, Pequod's runs probably the best lunch special I've ever seen. For less than $5 you get a personal pan pizza with one topping and (AND) a crisp-ass Bud Light to wash it down! The beer itself is normally $5. So, depending on which way you want to look at it, you're getting either a pizza or a beer for free for lunch. That's so solid.

DO: Eat at Al's Beef. Al's Beef is simply legendary, and I don't use that word lightly. It's been profiled on the Travel Channel, Food Network, and a million magazines. Bobby Flay gives props. Adam Richman pays homage. Before we even set sail, a Chitown ex-pat told me it was the only thing I could not forgo. And now I know why. Al's Beef is, for all intents and purposes, Chicago's own In-N-Out. That should give you some perspective. First, 'bout the only place to find one of these is in Illinois and, really, not too far outside Chicago. For some fucking reason they just put one in San Jose, and (for more obvious reasons) they're opening one in Las Vegas soon. Dining at either of these is probably a lot like getting a Double-Double in Dallas, so I'll never do it. Secondly, though the menu might timidly suggest otherwise, there is only one thing you will ever order here: the Italian beef sandwich. Whether you want a large, medium, or small Al, you will get an Al or you will have wasted your time and earned the disdain of anyone within earshot.

However mildly capable I may be with words, in this instance they all seem inadequate. You gotta see this sandwich in action.

I don't care who you are or what bullshit diet you are on. You need this in your body, and at some point in your life you need to make the pilgrimage to Chicago to get one. During the whole week, this is the only place I ate at twice. It was simply so fucking amazing I had to hit it up on our way out of town. That being said, I do have some suggestions. First of all, don't even fuck with the mild peppers. Go giardiniera or gtfo. Secondly, during my first visit I was under the impression that the addition of cheese for fifty cents would somehow make it less authentic. I was wrong, but even if I weren't, it's imperative that you add provolone to this piece. It just takes it to a whole 'nother level in terms of taste and sheer, unmanageable messiness. Lastly, while devouring my own sandwich, I overheard another customer ordering hers. When questioned as to whether she wanted her sandwich "wet" (aka dipped in the au jus), she responded in the affirmative but added an emphasized qualifier. She ordered it "soaking" wet. I don't know if this changes anything, but I have to believe it can only make it better.

DON'T: Be afraid to ask people for help/directions/etc. Chicago is a big, big city (obviously). Big cities (read: LA, San Francisco, etc) are usually full of dickheads. Like the kind of people that'll grab they nuts or overies and feed a "PSH bitch plz" just as soon as you think about asking them where the fuck the freeway's at. Like some pretentious, heshen dirtball with a plaid flannel, a summertime beanie and the audacity to treat you like you're the piece of shit for giving him the what's-up head thrust after you've accidentally locked eyes. Fuck those guys and their tendency to flock to and ruin basically any urban area (especially Portland). Fortunately they're all but absent in Chicago. Everyone in the North Side is real as fuck and nice as hell. This stands true for even the public transportation employees that exhibited immense amounts of patience when my sheltered ass was holding up the ticket line trying to figure out where the hell I was going. Same goes for every single baseball fan I passed while walking to the stadium decked out in Dodgers gear. (One dude even pulled over near the sidewalk to within shouting distance / shooting range and, after I'd braced for the fury, simply hollered his condolences for my team's tough-luck loss the night before.) These are honest to God(?) real, Midwestern people. I almost felt bad for talking shit on all the ones living in Nebraska and Iowa. Almost.

DO: Go to Wrigley Field and catch a Cubs' game.

This one's a no-brainer. Whether or not you care about or can even stand the game of baseball, you should at some point in your life catch nine innings at the second oldest professional sports stadium in the country. Opened in 1914, Wrigley is by this point almost more museum or national historical landmark than ballpark. Aesthetically, it's undergone only one major change since the Wilson Administration -- the addition of lights in 1988. I mean the thing's still got a hand-operated scoreboard in center field!

Because it's ancient, Wrigley Field has comparatively few seats, and since it wasn't crammed into an already crowded, established downtown, optimizing sight lines was more important than saving space. Accordingly, there ain't a bad seat in the house, and no matter which you sit in, you're at least temporarily overtaken by the realization that it has held some ten-thousand other asses over ten decades. I found it a pretty awesome and overwhelming feeling that never quite faded.

If you're ever going to go, you should try to do so before this October when the Cubs again fail to make the playoffs and management puts a significant kink in Wrigley's old-time vibe via the neon comforts of technology. Regardless of when you go, you should sit in the bleachers with the people. The drunk, loudmouth, broke-ass people. As is written just this side of the ivy-laden outfield fence, bleacher fans are the best in the world, and nowhere is that claim better exemplified than Wrigley. If you're cheering for the Cubbies, you'll be treated like family. If you're repping the away team, you'll be treated the same. The shit talk comes with amiable undertones. You'll shoot the shit with real ass people and make drunk plans to meet up and party afterward.

The only crime in The Friendly Confines is catching a home run hit by the visiting team and opting not to throw it back. Shit's a capital offense, too, y'all. And should you offend so rich a tradition (as did the dude that caught Yasiel Puig's 9th-inning bomb on August 1st), just know that you shall feel the immediate scorn of forty-thousand plus. You will become the game. You will be booed mercilessly and overseen by a security detail until you relent. But once you do give in and hurl the hated souvenir back to the field of play, you'll be cheered like it never happened. When I walked into Wrigley I thought it's what I wanted to happen to me, but after I saw it ensue in person I was glad it didn't. It's not because I couldn't handle the hate. I've probably earned that many haters in Riverside alone. It was more that I could not actively provoke so many people that'd done nothing but show me warmth and kindness all night.

The Doyers won 6-to-4, but I kind of didn't care. It was a great game with great people, and the outcome really seemed secondary.

DO: Party in Wrigleyville before and after said Cubs' game. Wrigley is completely encompassed by places to get plastered. There are bars and clubs and taverns and pubs about as far as the eye can see. Being that the Chicago Cubs are their obvious benefactors, it's hardly surprising that they're almost all baseball-themed to at least some degree.

If you're going to a Cubs' game, you might as well make a day of it. Get there early and survey the scene. Mind map the postgame plan. Grab a drink at The Cubby Bear catty-corner from Wrigley's front entrance and famous sign. Don't stay there, though. The Cubby Bear is the tourist trap of West Addison. It looks like your average upscale sports bar de jour, like a Yard House or something. It's overtly apparent that it does at some point get poppin', because there are like five yoked out monsters in orange t-shirts guarding the front gate. I rolled in and seriously saw more Dodgers fans than anything else, so I closed out after one round.

From there we hit up Murphy's Bleachers on the polar opposite end of the stadium, out behind dead center and across the street from that ultra-creepy Harry Caray statue. This is the spot, for sure. It's got a comfortable tavern feel and twenty or thirty delicious, local craft beers on tap. (As a general rule, I fucks with just about any place carrying Founders brew). The fans that file in know their baseball, and the ladies backing the bar are much friendlier than their looks or workload would imply or necessitate. Of all the bars in Wrigleyville, Murphy's Bleachers was without question the one I'd go out of my way to frequent even during the offseason. It's the perfect pregame venue.

After the game as the stadium empties out, Wrigleyville becomes an entirely different animal. It devolves into sheer madness. It's a bit disorienting at first. There are people everywhere walking in different directions, disregarding crosswalks and drawing the ire of whatever idiots got caught in a car on North Clark. The cops are out but only to direct the herds off the streets and into the bars. We wound up at a place next to The Cubby Bear named Sluggers (but called Sluggos). The one thing you absolutely need to know about Sluggo's is that it has fully-fucking-functional batting cages. You can seriously get loaded, step into the box and take some Puigian hacks to the roar of the partygoers. The line to take part is pretty long, but it runs alongside a bar, so it goes by pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, the downstairs bar and dance floor were going buck wild. Sardines in a tin can, to be sure. I fucked up and ordered a draft beer right when I got there and then proceeded to spill half of it on some white chick while she was grindin' on her man. My bad. I learned my lesson, though. I went on my Frank Gallagher grind and ordered Old Style tall-cans by the twos the rest of the way. We partied with another Dodger fan that looked like Andre Ethier's little brother and a group of people allegedly in town working on some movie I'll probably never see on account of it likely sucking. They were cool, though. We were fame whoring pretty hard, riding the coattails trying to meet Mila Kunis. We had to settle with starin' at her body double.

At some point I headed to the the much less crowded back bar for the umpteenth round. I heard some loud, sorority-sounding broads over my shoulder, turned and was presented with an opportunity too rich to pass up. I hesitated only long enough to ask myself "What Would Magic Johnson Do?" before I made my move and pulled out the cash stacks. Without so much as an ounce of uncertainty, I walked up to a Chicago icon and made him an offer he couldn't refuse, reaffirming a basic truth of new Dodger nation in the process. Anyone can be bought. Everyone has their price.

Cubby Bear's was $5 and 16 ounces of Old Style.

El Doyer Bear

Soon as I waded my way back to the dance floor, the DJ segued ever so smoothly into "Blurred Lines". Double-fisted, double-visioned, I raised both tall-can-hands to the ceiling in triumph, blacked out and remembered nothing that came after.

I'ma keep it straight with you. If heaven ain't like Wrigleyville, then fuck it I'm probably not interested enough to do the Lord(?)'s work on earth. It was perfect. Before we went wild at Wrigley, we had contemplated staying an extra day to see what else the Windy City had to offer. But after we arose on Friday, somehow sans hangover, we knew there was nothing we could do top it. We took The L back to the whip, grabbed one last Big Al and bounced on out that piece.

One final thing: The second day of our stay in the Windy City was the first time all week where I used a toilet or urinal that didn't flush itself for me (since I wasn't willing to waste time hunting down the Waldorf). And I fucking scoffed. Can you believe that? Ya boy went from zero to spoiled little bitch in a mere three days days flat. So shameful. Oh! and speaking of toilets, et al... Chicago is home to the largest shitwater treatment plant in the world. It serves 2,380,000 people and processes up to 1440 million gallons of waste per day during peak wet weather conditions. That equates to one million gallons of water from toilets, sinks, showers and dishwashers being treated every minute. One million gallons is about what it takes to fill two olympic-size swimming pools. Every minute. You'll pass by the plant on your way southeast out of Chicago, but it's tough to see from the Adlai Stephenson Expressway. This is a picture of it... from a plane.

And now you know.

It takes about ten minutes to reach the Pale Face State from Chicago. You sit in some traffic near the Sears Tower, you cross a bridge and BAM... back to boredom. It's an instant return to everything from which Chicago offered a reprieve. You'll fly by Indianapolis and wonder aloud whether it's a city you should be excited about. You'll check Google and realize it really isn't.

Indiana has to be the whitest state in the union. While I understand I ain't been to 'em all, I just find it impossible to believe they come any whiter. I mean have you even seen Hoosiers or anything involving Notre Dame?? Every single person I saw in Indiana looked exactly alike: exceedingly overweight, shirts tucked in, rocking New Balance tennies and white, shin-high socks. Bespectacled white faces blotched red with talk radio rage. Every single one. It was just a bunch of snowbirds and Larry Birds everywhere I looked. And I'ma stop you before you start citing Gary, Indiana, home of the Jackson 5 and yadda yadda yadda, because that ain't real Indiana. That's more Illinois than it is Indiana.

Real Indiana looks like this:

That dark blue portion? That's Indiana. That's the heart of America's heartland. Indiana's got a long history with the KKK, y'all. During the period depicted in the graphic above, over half of the Indiana General Assembly were discovered to be Klan members. Guys were rolling out of bed in the Big House and going to work in the state house, and that was alright in Indiana. Yikes. While I get that this was almost 100 years ago, I saw very little else in the state that would indicate its having undergone some tremendous amount of change during that time.

Indiana puts out the purest representation of white culture anywhere on the planet. Turns out it sucks. Turns out white culture looks a whole like like anti-culture. I realized that, until I got to and drove through Indiana, I never truely knew what white culture was or looked like. I'd always just accepted it as what ultimately was our continued adoption and subsequent watering-down of people-of-color cultures. We've been blanding out ethnic flavor in America foreeeeever (case / point). Shit, we'll probs never stop. (And why would we? We enjoy the benefits of being brown or black without, you know, having to be brown or black in America. It's a sweet deal.) However, because there ain't many minorities in Indiana (the Klan's past presence might play a role in that) white culture is left to dilute a melting pot containing only one flavor, which is of course vanilla. If you've ever added water to vanilla, you know it tastes like shit.

In fact, Indiana's taste in everything tastes like shit. They have America's fattest city (one hell of an accomplishment). Their favorite sport is, obviously, eating fried food for some reason, basketball. Their most beloved player is not their home-grown, all-time great or their most successful professional star (Holla back, Riverside!). Instead it's a dude that played four seasons and started three games in the NBA. Indiana also has the largest number of Pontiac Azteks per capita; so, either all its people are proud pioneers of poor taste, or they're all meth kingpins. Either seems entirely reasonable.

So, if bland is your new black, Indiana may just be for you.

Of course.

It had been predetermined hours earlier that no matter what, regardless of the potential consequences, we would not spend a single cent in the state of Ohio. Not one red penny. None of my post-tax paper was going to the benefit of the sad-sack Ohioan economy. No chance. If that meant I'd have to turn tricks in South Cincy at some point, then so be it. Tricks shall have been turnt. But I was set in my convictions. It's not because I'm a dick (well, not entirely because I'm a dick, anyway). And it's certainly not because Ohio don't need the money. You ever see the Goodyear blimp overheads of Cleveland? Doom and gloom for days round them parts: shuttered factories, beat-down housing tracts, super-polluted waterways. They're no doubt hungry for some that KJ stimmy.

Ohio is a state as depressing as they come. Detroit's been the bad press magnet of the region, but at least Michigan has some cool, prosperous cities. Ohio is a whole state full of Detroits. The people of Dayton, Canton, Akron, Youngstown and the like object to this vehemently, but it's true. They're all brothers in the spirit of economic abandonment and desolation. Doesn't matter which part of Ohio you're driving through, you can't escape the feeling that it's been largely forsaken by God and country. You also can't escape the amber smog shield of sadness that encapsulates every urban area.

And then there's that smell. Oh, man, that smell. Roll your window down basically anywhere in the state, and you'll catch a whiff of the Industrial Revolution's spoiled remains. It's the smell of natural resource depletion. It's the smell of accumulated manufacturing byproduct. It's the smell of a city and its people that have given up and let themselves go. If Vail, CO is the epitome of the untarnished American outdoors, Anywhere, Ohio is its antithesis. It's the endpoint of asset extraction, the field once the locusts have flown on. The jobs have left, the money's gone. All that's left are the people, the polluted air and rivers that, as Time magazine once put it, "[ooze] rather than [flow]." They also catch on fire.

Cuyahoga River, 1952

It's hard not to suspect that the decline of American manufacturing communities like those that litter Ohio is God(?)'s retribution for our parasitic destruction of the natural beauty he created and allowed us to confiscate from the Injuns. It certainly would seem fair. Buckeyes sure buy into the whole divine injustice narrative to an unhealthy degree. It's part of their uniquely constructed fantasy world wherein they are mostly immune to the constrictions of reality. In this world they believe themselves cursed, and they do not handle hardships and cosmic slights of this sort with anything in the way of grace. They'll bitch and bitch and bitch about how they've been victimized by the greed of the industrial complex, the cowardice of corporate interests, and the betrayal of LeBron James (never mind that all three kept Ohio afloat for a lot longer than they otherwise would have). They will never admit, however, to what is ultimately the central truth: that the driving factor in Ohio's shittiness is the shittiness of Ohioans.

You've got to go pretty far out of your way to get me to actively champion the demise of disenfranchised blue-collar workers. Like if I'm holding economic protest against capitalism's underdogs by filling up on three-fourths of a tank in Indiana just to be certain I needn't purchase gas in the next state, you know the people of that state done fucked up. Make no mistake, the people of Ohio are fucked up. Not only are they all disgruntled at life, misinformed of the world and just generally unpleasant to be around for even brief periods of time, but they walk about with this fucked up, horrendously exaggerated sense of self-importance. For instance, the nonchalance with which everyone in Ohio classifies themselves as quote-unquote East Coast is fucking alarming considering Ohio doesn't even border a state with a coastline. Considering people in the state willingly wear Crocs for comfort and fashion. Considering their chief cultural export is a superior grade of viral video star that best epitomizes this exact shittiness, albeit in a more comical fashion. (I'm looking at you, Charles Ramsey and Artis Hughes.) Like the state of Ohio doesn't even deserve to operate on Eastern Standard Time, so I honestly don't know where they get that shit.

Actually, no. Yeah, I do. The bullshit false-universe Ohioans have created for themselves exists because the rest of us as a country are guilty of feeding into it and giving them what they feel they're owed, be it our concern or the respect befitting of a state with artistic or intellectual capital. For two months every four years, we pretend to care about the strife and way of life in Ohio in hopes of appeasing its people enough not to do something reckless with their Electoral College contribution like voting for George W. Bush twice in a row. (Obviously, it's an inexact science.) We popularize ridiculous phrases like "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation" and conduct an exhaustive number of polls focused on the thoughts, feelings and opinions of Ohioans. It's done to exploit them to their fullest extent, but they don't know that, and their overblown self-regard is ultimately the byproduct of two other, very human vices: hopefulness and conceit.

I don't support such a fantasy world, and that's why I don't spend my money there. I fear it will at some point trickle down to the undercarriage of society and have some measurable impact on the lives of people who will then continue on in this fashion, their children pissing off my children just the same. Only once all faith is finally lost will Ohioans be forced to take an honest inventory of their standing in the world. Only then will they acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues and flaws.

Maybe then we'll get more great videos more often.

I gotta tip my hat to West Virginia. Somehow, some way, they caught wind we were comin' through. They apparently also heard about the informalized Worst State Along the Way contest we had running, because they got all dressed up for the ball despite the late hour. Discontent with the thought of seeing Nebraska run away with Best In Show uncontested, backwoods nation put on their ugliest face for ya boy.

As mentioned, it was late when we hit West Virginia, so I didn't even think to interpret the steep grade, frequent bends and fellow travelers in sleeveless tees as our ascent into Appalachia. My attention was too closely focused on not nodding off and wrapping the whip around a roadside pine. The first sign of something wrong came when an auto scan of local FM band returned three channels broadcasting evangelist sermons, two peddling soft-core Christian rock and one featuring classic country jams and casual references to the contributions of "colored people." The next came when we pulled off to get gas a ways past Charleston.

The first thing you'll notice when encountering your first West Virginian is the stark accent shift. It's seriously startling. I was caught off guard even though I'd been waiting the entire trip for it to happen. Until this point I'd detected only a soft drawl somewhere on our way through the midwest. Even then, it was slight and eventually became unnoticed altogether. That boonie twang, though? That shit was palpable to the point that communication became a bit of a chore, not that I was going out of my way to discuss Heidegger and Sarte in a state with fewer Bachelors' degrees than Mississippi.

And in truth that sentiment went both ways. The reverse elitism flows like the white lightning out this way. In every other state we visited, people exuded a genuine interest and enthusiasm the second they deduced we were from California. Their eyes would light up and they'd ask how many celebrities we knew or how many feet from the ocean we lived. That kind of cultural currency carried no value out in the sticks. I had to step back and remember that a sizable portion of West Virginian natives live their entire lives without ever coming off the mountain. They're proud of it, too. You could tell that, to these people, our presence was merely the confirmation of every stereotype they'd convinced themselves was true of the outside world. Two dudes in a car with California plates? Faggots. One of them is a brown boy? Terrorist and terrorist sympathizer faggots. I read that West Virginia originally became a state because they believed blacks were endowed with certain inalienable rights when Regular Virginia was like fuck equality, pick cotton! However, I certainly can't say West Va seems like a place that's still on that side of the divide. Like I had a sun tan, and that was enough to earn some super sketchy wayward stares.

I've never been looked down on by so many rotten-toothed, Duck Dynasty-looking fucks in my life. I'm halfway sure we'd have been lynched on the spot had they known we were in possession of a couple college degrees. It was weird to know they wanted me out of West Virginia as much as I wanted to be out of West Virginia.

Too bad, then, that they were making our doing so far more difficult than it needed to be.

The I-77 turnpike is the only meridian-bound route through western West Virginia, and the fine people of the state saw fit to make it a toll road, almost as if hell bent on scrounging up every last dollar we saved by not spending money in Ohio. (I figure it must be a common practice). I couldn't believe it. I mean there are some honestly breathtaking stretches of highway in this country, and the vast majority of them are toll-free. Hell, PCH traces the entire California coastline and has exactly zero tolls along its length. Yet, these hillbillies had the gall to demand I pay over 12-cents-per-mile on their strip mine strewn "superhighway"? Do these dudes even live on this planet?

West Virginia at night.

Apparently the answer is "no", because unbelievably enough, that ain't even the worst part. I wish I had a picture of the first toll booth tenant's face when I pulled up brandishing the plastic. Dude was seriously astonished. I mean I don't think he'd ever seen a debit card or a Hispanic before, and yet there he was staring at each for the first time and at the same time. He'd probably have had the same reaction had I handed him a book instead. He started jowling all over himself, nearly hyperventilating his reprimand that the toll could be paid in cash only. While I know it may come as a surprise to people from West Virginia, but we're in the year of our Lord(?) twenty-thirteen. Hookers at the point are practically accepting credit these days. I swiped my card at like four tolls in Chicago and was in and out of each in a matter of seconds, hassle free. So, I simply stared back blankly at this dude, half-glanced over my shoulder at the lengthening line behind me and asked, "The fuck I'm s'posed to do then?"

Motherfucker wrote me a ticket. Right there in front of twenty cars of people that would soon be flipping me off as they raced by, dude wrote me a ticket for the two-dollar toll and five dollar regressive technology legacy fee. To put it further in perspective, the last thing he asked me was whether I knew how to "sign on" to the internet to pay the fucking thing.

As if I had any intention of ever doing so. Just look at that preposterous pocket scalping on the bottom right. I racked up two more of those things within the same hour (since there are also apparently no ATMs in West Virginia), and it'd already been like four weeks by the time I pulled these crumpled receipts from the bottom of my backpack. So, I was already into these morons for over three Benjamins as a punishment for attempted expediency. That wasn't about to happen. Let it be known that West Virginia is leading a one state battle against innovation and technological advancement. While I recognize their right to defend the glory days to their death, their rdevolution shall never claim me as its casualty.

I will never return to West Virginia, in fear of punishment if not for pride and principle.

I remember nothing about Virginia. I didn't even know we drove through it until I reviewed our route before writing this post. We apparently there for one hour, which I feel was more than enough time for it to distinguish itself as being less shitty than its cousin-husband to the northwest. Its inability to do so is unsettling and only forces me to conclude that it, too, is a shithole. Though it does have a beach, at least, I guess.


Finally. Here at last, here at last. Thank God(?) almighty, we were here at last. Thirteen (mostly below average) states, three-point-five days on the road, over four-thousand miles of that road. Finally, North Carolina. Salvation.

Little known fact: I've been known on occasion or all-the-time to either conflate or completely confuse the two Carolinas. Their shapes, their cities, the stereotypes pertaining to either... I just mix and match them with pretty thorough disregard even though I know they are in actuality quite different. South Carolina, for instance, is where John McCain once lost a Republican primary because voters thought he had fathered a black baby. Conversely, North Carolina houses the Research Triangle, a world-renowned region of high-tech R&D anchored by three preiminent research universities within a 15-mile radius. South Carolina has a surreptitiously hot, right-wing whackjob of a governor that pals around with terrorists. North Carolina has the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. South Carolina's state-sanctioned religion is NASCAR.

North Carolina contains what is possibly the finest, most beautiful one-and-one-eighths square mile in America: the Duke University West Campus. While its eastern counterpart is nice and all, West Campus is just otherworldly. There are countless acres of placid garden and lily-covered coy ponds. There is structure after gothic structure featuring some of the most astounding stonework I've ever seen. The rec center, the student housing, the med school.. everything feels cohesive and of a decidely different time and place. Separated from the rest of Durham by a shield of dense research forest and white privilege, it's far too easy to step onto the premises and immediately feel separated from the real world and its problems, especially the forty stacks in yearly tuition paid to attend this joint. But goddamn, at least you know what that money is going toward.

Case-in-point is the Duke University Chapel, standing proud and distinguished at West Campus' center and highest point. It is the most elaborate and revered (though only the second-most cherished) part of the university and is, thusly, the finest thing ever financed by Big Tobacco. Honestly, I'd smoke the shit out of some cigarettes if it meant there'd be more monoliths like this in America. I'd smoke two at a time. I'd buy cigarettes for my friends and family on their birthdays and Christmas and make them smoke two at a time, too. Built and lit like a cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows running its length, the Chapel has a choir wing and three massive organs (the most ornate of which is shown below). Noticeably absent, however, was the dead Jesus guilt trip hanging above the altar, as the Duke Chapel is blessedly non-denominational (though Methodist by tradtition). I think I stood beneath the arches for a full five minutes before I uttered anything more substantive than "Wow".

The only problem with walking around Duke in the middle of the day is that it involves walking around outside in North Carolina in the middle of the day. In the middle of summer, no less. It was like 90-degrees with a heat index closer to a quadrillion. That humidity was no joke. My body's thermoregulation capabilities were quickly pushed past breakpoint, and before I knew it I was looking all kinds of disasterous. So after I copped a Duke Lacrosse t-shirt for $14.99 at the student store (since sons was exonerated), I mostly parked that ass inside 'til the early evening.

As twilight approached, Dirty Durham cooled down considerably. The air wasn't nearly as thick or stiffling. It was warm enough for shorts and cool enough for pants. It was perfect summer night minor league baseball weather if ever there were. It can't possibly be by coincidence that the most well-known minor league ballclub in America, the Durham Bulls, make their home here. And, really, it's not. Thanks to Bull Durham (and, especially, Susan Sarandon's incredibly cougartastic performance), the Bulls are basically the only farm team with truly national recognition and appeal. The most obvious benefit of this flourished fan base was promptly apparent as I walked into the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (not to be confused with the old stadium from the movie that still stands about a mile away).

The DBAP is, without question, the absolute nicest minor league stadium in the country. I mean it's absurd. It's built of brick to blend in with the old tobacco industry buildings of Durham's downtown, a couple of which provide the outfield backdrop. The field is surrounded by seating and is meticulously manicured to perfection. There's seriously not a bad seat in the house, and it was hard to believe our seats ran us a mere $9.99-a-pop. The Bulls are currently the Triple A minor league affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and all I could think  about for three hours was how pissed the parent club's players must be after toiling and grinding it out day-after-day to reach The Bigs only to play half the season in a total dump, knowing all the while their organizational backups are playing in a ballpark as beautiful as the D-bap.

Despite being relatively cheap, minor league ball games always aim to maximize every ounce of entertainment value. There's corny fan-involvement nonsense going on between every half-inning. The food and beer options are somehow both far superior and more economical. They'll occasionally do some really outlandish shit that doesn't make a whole lot of sense but somehow seems right at the same time. All of that was on display in Durham. However, I couldn't help but be struck by a couple other overly-familiar fixtures I've always associated with minor league baseball but had assumed were exclusive to the brand I knew from my childhood, the one distinct to our trip's point of departure.

The lowly High Desert has one professional sports team, a high-A subsidiary of the Seattle Mariners known as the High Desert Mavericks (or "Mavs" for short). They play in Adelanto, CA in a stadium as tumbledown and neglected as the nothingness that immediately surrounds it. Most of the people that play for the Mavs never make it to The Show (presumably because they quit shortly after being designated for the desert), so it's doubtful that the Durham Bulls organization even knows they exist. For if they did, they'd be bringing that litigious rain.

Built but a few years after Bull Durham's unexpected success, Mavericks' Stadium was clearly influenced by the first of Costner's holy-trinity. The team installed their own caricatured bull just to the left of the right-field foul pole. It's so hokey-looking, what with it's dork-ass looking cowboy hat and sheepish smile. Compare this modest icon of my youth to the behemoth atop the DBAP's "blue monster" in left. It's slightly more stylized than the original, but it's imposing and actually makes good on its offer of free steak for all in the event it ever gets tagged with a longball.

But, eh. I mean, whatever, you could make the argument that it's a simple shout-out to the first and most famous movie about minor league culture ever made. It happens, I guess. Far more audacious, though, is my hometown home team's utter theft of the Bulls' mascot, their no-fucks-given infringement on Durham's trademark of Wool E. Bull and his (its?) likeness. Like, seriously, they didn't even try'n hide it, neither. It's the same fucking thing! They probably just bought an old, retired outfit on Ebay, threw a Stetson on the motherfucker an called it good. I mean, goddamn, the thing is named Wooly Bully! So shameless, so shameful. Had I known when I was six what I know now, I would have yanked on that fucker's tail way harder than I did.

Being that the Bulls game and ensuing fireworks display lasted longer than I'd anticipated, I was clinging to what had been a decent buzz by time we bounced. I was trying to build upon it. However, downtown Durm is where people drink and act like respectable adults at the same time. I wasn't trying to hear any of that, so we checked out the abutting town of Chapel Hill and landed at some place called The Library. (As I figured out later while reviewing my bank statement, The Library is called The Library for one specific reason: so kids can get drunk on their parents' dime under the guise of academic diligence. To an undiscerning eye, all purchases at The Library look like purchases at the library. Oops.) It was here that I stumbled upon an honest-to-God(?) game-changer. 

Yuengling is the bomb, y'all. It's the US' oldest operating brewery. I'd heard of its theoretical existence years back from a Maryland native but had since failed to get ahold of one on account of its unavailability anywhere west of Tennessee. (To give a sense of how popular it is, in 2011 it was tied with the makers of Sam Adams as the largest American-owned brewery despite the wide discrepancy in distribution.) What a damn shame, because it's really good. You ever wish there was a beer with actual flavor and depth that you could legitimately drink all day long without pissing yourself or pissing off your friends or family? Yo, that's Yuengling Traditional Lager at 4.4% ABV, lil' homies. And what'd better? Them shits is cheap, too! Like I rolled up at The Library and ordered a round of books for me and the boys. Dude tells me they were six dollars, BUT GET THIS HE MEANT FOR ALL THREE!! I was like yo don't pinch me because I'm try'na exist in this dream forever.

Thusly initiated was my downfall and the inevitable collision between me n' my boys and North Carolina's unresolved historical compunction.

During my day-and-a-half in North Carolina, I noticed one rather recurrent element of their self-image. North Carolina's got all kinds of white guilt, you guys. Like lots. Like enough for both Carolinas twice over, which is fortunate since it may be awhile still until South Carolina exhibits any. You gotta consider it a good thing considering North Carolina (despite its Atlantic shoreline) is essentially a southern state. You'd hope to see some regret or remorse for its past participation in the subjugation of an entire people.

The problem, of course, comes in its execution. Everything feels put together by a generation of people mandatorily schooled about the evils of slavery but incapable of really understanding their lasting implications. For this reason their efforts at making symbolic amends end up being impossibly awkward. For instance, the Duke campus had dozens of commemorative flags affixed to its light posts celebrating its fiftieth year of racial integration, possibly overlooking that it occurred a full nine years after Brown v. Board and the same year that even the last, most resistant holdouts finally capitulated. It's not necessarily the implication they'd likely hoped for. 

Yet, it's nowhere near as misguided as were UNC-Chapel Hill's attempts at honoring the slave laborers responsible for its very existence with the Unsung Founders Memorial, a large circular table in the middle of a quad with an inscription that reads: "The Class Of 2002 Honors The University's Unsung Founders - The People Of Color Bound And Free - Who Helped Build The Carolina That We Cherish Today." Diplomatic enough. Though, it's difficult to read or even notice the dedication after you realize it's engraved into a colossal granite slab held up by the quivering knees, splintered backs and anguished faces of countless copper statuette slaves standing barely knee-high and getting all oxidized the fuck out.

It's also tough to read when intoxicated idiot-asshole white kids augment its racist underovertones by lounging across the table looking for that opportune photo op.

This is probably how the monument should have looked to achieve the desired effect. Nameless black folk bending and breaking to build a world where whites can relax and feed each other the abundant fruits of black labor. Yo, that's what happened. That's what (I think) they're trying to apologize for. They're just terrible at it, incapable of understanding how something like the Slave Table, when considered within a regional context, could be viewed by outsiders as issuing -- and not eschewing -- bigotry. That it might be misconstrued as an attempt to intern for eternity the slaves Big Abe took away. Could they have cast my frame in copper -- or I suppose porcelain would have made more sense -- I might have obliged for the sake of factual accuracy and thematic clarity. At least it'd look more like a monument condemning racism than a racist-ass monument.

(I personally find it kind of unfair to force North Carolinians to fly the flag of forced contrition unassisted. They're clearly unclear about what they're doing. They're obviously out of their comfort zone, worrying too much about being lumped in with their bumpkin brethren by people like me -- though ultimately drawing that comparison on themselves by effectively adopting the role of regional repenter. They'd do better to proudly embrace the things that set them apart from the rest of the Confederacy, including what has to be the biggest historical difference between North and South Carolina: that the latter was the first state to secede from the Union and the former the last.)

The following day concluded my trip and was almost entirely wasted wasting about, as a full week of binge drinking and stuffing my stomach full of fat finally caught up to me. I could barely bring myself to leave my bros, but I had to get back. Back to real life, back on that grind, back to racking up more vacation time. I spent seven hours on a plane seated next to a nice kid from Albuquerque that swore to me it wasn't as much a hellhole as Breaking Bad makes it seem. I told him I thought he was full of shit and that I was glad I didn't drive through it.

Road Trip Twenty-Thirteen. JETS.

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