Sunday, October 25, 2009

Route 66 to Albuquerque

The interpretive center in Chandler OK is a remarkable attempt to introduce the Route 66 experience to tourists who may not have an extensive background in the myths and legends of the “mother road”. Run, it seems, as a business, this Route 66 Museum provides you with a motel type experience, courtesy, we were told, of a German who volunteered his conceptual support. Visitors can lie back on white beds and look upwards to a TV taste of both past and present along the historic route. Two local photographers’ work depicts remnants of Americana. There was also a veterans’ hall that I assume functions on memorial days. It houses a 1940s type police car and a tribute to the local fallen.

There wasn’t a suggestions box in the foyer, so I venture this comment now: where is the Woody Guthrie/Chuck Berry/Rolling Stones soundtrack and/or visual installation? Europeans, like, I venture, Americans, think of Route 66 as a mixture of dust bowl migrants heading to California for its “pastures of plenty”, and, more often probably, rhythm and blues blasting from gleaming chrome Chevies. This is how I would like our road trip to have been conducted, that combined with at least a portion of Hunter S Thompson’s trunk when he was en route to Vegas. The former at least is what I think the punters need some of at the interpretive center. I should add that it may be that the dust bowl heroes get a look in at the Museum of National Pioneers down the road in Chandler, which sadly we didn’t have time to visit.

That night we crossed into Kansas (Ks) and found ourselves in Hutchinson, an intersection on what proved to be a major detour south-west. The Lone Star restaurant, a Texan style steak house with great music, young and attractive staff, draught local beer, oh and excellent steaks, saw a conversion on the road to Denver and little more than the inspiration of Neil Young’s song Albuquerque to lead us to the decision to head to New Mexico via Route 66. Poor sleep sadly took the edge off the feeling the next morning. We drove through heavy storms before the layered clouds that had darkened the skies finally cleared and we crossed the Ok border again before reaching Texas itself, or at least a north west corner of it. There we found a comfortable redoubt at the lesser-known motel chain, Rodeway Inn. One floor only and no internal doors. The manager had got out of east Africa in the early 70s, hoping for a better life in the UK before ending up managing this pleasant if a little overpriced motel. The next day we entered Albuquerque (ABQ) to the sound of The Who’s Live at Leeds. In (almost) the words of the Neil Young song of the same name, we had hired a car, were moments away, and had the means at least to get in the mood. The University Lodge – an independently owned motel run by a genial Indian – was our first stop, up on Nob Hill, the smarter end of Central Avenue, ABQ near the University of New Mexico whose partisans dominate this part of town. On the ground floor at a two level motel we were risking disturbance, but the room had a pleasing feel and a welcome bathroom window looking out on the street. However an hour listening to a guy punishing the bed above us and exhausting his girlfriend’s (?) repertoire of excitable noises in the middle of the night, followed by a car horn repeatedly going off outside our window, and then a full-on Mexican moan fest about domestic woes obliged us to seek better accommodation.

That day we hiked near the Sandia mountain, whose often snow topped peaks are an omnipresent part of the city’s backdrop. Exhausted and dehydrated after foolishly packing insufficient water supplies, we checked in to “The Imperial”, another independently owned motel at the other end of Central Avenue, in the Downtown area. Despite getting an upstairs room next door to a store room, depression hit me as I spotted the dreaded and previously unsuspected internal connecting door, source of many a negative motel experience for me. More importantly the area had a bit of a badlands feel as a majority of the motel guests didn’t have cars and my hired Chevy Impala seemed to get undue attention. The fact that the manager spoke to you through a glass screen and made you sign for the (non functioning) remote didn’t help my confidence. Unwashed and still dehydrated we headed for a drink and found the splendid Malone’s, dark with a huge circular bar, great service and a cool 80s soundtrack (sic). We knew that we should have split for dinner elsewhere but could not resist yet another pint of Sam Adams on draught to chase down an in house burger (surprisingly good) served at the bar. The place was popular but this was 9 o’clock on a Friday night and we had plenty of room to get full and thorough attention and a lot more than elbow room. In any British town at this time on Friday night there would be scrum at the bar of an indifferent venue with impersonal service. We finally got out and discovered an excellent micro brewery bar (Chama River). Four pints on, we headed back to The Imperial and the promise of a number on the balcony of the badlands. We surveyed the scene of drunks and suspicious parked up vehicles in the neighbouring lot, and a weird mixture of other guests passing us as we took in the scene. I faded out before the morning-after beckoned. Immobilism was relieved by the tender mercies of The Standard Diner (, an excellent recreation of a deco-style eatery built in 1947. The walls were covered with the work of local artists and photographers, and the diner served good food and coffee with a kick – a rare US experience. At the record store, “Natural Sound & Vision” on Central, I splurged on bargain vinyl at $3 a time and, for a while, my long time addiction was satiated.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The caravan moves on

Heading in to Missouri (MO) we visited Pine Woods lake. Hardly a trek, this was a chance to walk off lunch before more driving. After Big Springs later that day, where the river runs a natural shade of green, we stopped at Van Beuren, where a motel, a general store, a funeral parlor and a couple of restaurants serve the local populace and, more importantly for the local economy, the canoeists for whom MO is a greater focus than hikers. Van Beuren's avuncular owner told us that this out of season hamlet was a "party town", something hard to believe, even when the canoeists are in full pelt. He told us that the general store was the place for all culinary and libation needs. Dinner was classic southern fried, breakfast the next morning was bollocks, largely due to our own ineptness and lack of cafeine. We purchased a couple of CDs from the counter however, one of Powdermill, a rootsy MO mix with rock sensibilities and genuine musicality, authors of Trailortrash (check it out on on youtube), the other Shund, who should be renamed Shite: it has the same opening two letters and a total of five, is easier to pronounce and entirely encapsulates their oeuvre. Shund are totally local: the bass player was the shop server's nephew and the singer ran the machinery shop next door. The Shund schtik is lumpen metal and the lyrics of those whose relationship experience sounds like the equivelent of playing air guitar. The next night we stopped off in Monett (no silent t's for this town) which appeared (from our motel room) to be largely strip malls but had the distinct advantage of a Bayou, a New Orlins-style eatery right next door. Feeling ripped on a bottle of Sam Adams each, drunk chilled from the boot of the car on an empty stomach, we went on to dine in the bar and enjoyed steaks and beers. The sad part was being back in the motel room without anymore beer. However Are You Being Served on cable for the first time in 30 years was quite a hoot. We left Monett late after a slow start and a weird breakfast overseen by an Indian watchdog who menacingly studied the TV a few feet from where we trying to stuff the muffins and doughnuts into our pockets. We got to now the road from MO to OK (Oklahoma) pretty well as a few hours later we were back, wife having forgotten her wallet (stashed under the pillow in a high security move that obviously foxed both of us). For a second time we traversed the border, observing as best I could from the driver's seat Native American casinos (legal when on reservations) and an interesting arrangement of rusting tractors in a long line on a hillside. That night in Tulsa we supped beers and ate well in a Ruby Tuesday (the same sh*t we have in the UK, right?) but something wasn't quite right in Motel City, the phalanx of two story motels arranged one side of town. A bad night's sleep in the Super 8, and an impossible to fathom tourist map, led to us making a premature exit from town. Less than 24 Hours in Tulsa, as the song might have had it. We stopped off in Stroud that lunchtime, hitting the Route 66 trail, and enjoying the first of many OK themed venues, trying to milk a key part of US culture. The Rock Cafe was originally built in 1939 when the US was still sitting out the battle against fascism and The Kansan Wizard of Oz was wowing movie goers. In fact a reinvention burned down only a few years ago, but the stone building and artifacts make for a pleasant ambiance. The staff, like many Americans, are very friendly and the food was damn good. Graffiti is officially encouraged in the unisex restrooms and you can watch the cooks at work as you follow the yellow highway lines to the crapper. That night we stopped along Route 66 in Chandler, where a fairly new lazy motel owner was milking the originality of the 1930s Lincoln Motel to the extent that the wooden cabins are falling apart. I mean, do you really want an original bog seat?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Ky to MO

Went to Lexington VA with our friends on Monday on a visit combining an important health treatment with thorough examination of that town’s thrift stores. The latter enabled my wife and I to kit ourselves out with warmer clothes as fall marches on. Driving back to Frankfort we took in the beauty of the surrounding scenery, including some Kentucky farmsteads and a country store selling overwhelming cake. Time passed all too quickly before we had to be on the way again as we approached the one third mark of our trip. Leaving Frankfort we journeyed to the south eastern part of the state, stopping off at Mammoth Caves where we experienced a small slice of some 350 miles of chartered cave networks since this national park was opened in the 30s. A tribute to the CCC, the conservation corps founded under FDR’s New Deal, was opined by the impressive forest ranger on the bus as we headed to one of the caves. Tired, I was lifted by his articulacy and natural authority. When he heard we were “from England” he told us to apologise to the Queen for what he was doing to “her language”. I was too slow to reply, as I should have done, that he speaks far better English than her as his speech is coherent and he enunciates his vowels whereas her Anglo-Germano-artisto pedigree makes many of her vowels hard to decipher. We left the caves and headed for Puduka, famous for little other than state incentives for artists to gentrify its poorer parts. On arrival we headed for a focal part of a city that appears to have only poorer parts, the Salvation Army Center. In the US these are de facto welfare centers where good value clothing and sometimes social services are on hand. Paduka was no exception and we took advantage of the former before somehow heading right out of town earlier than intended. Row upon row of strip malls and dead motels passed us by before we realised we had exited the city. We washed up through pleasant and increasingly flatter terrain in Missouri (MO). The lesser known town of Russelville beckoned us to its liquor store, gas station and Econo Lodge. All of these were fine, though I am not eating another Mexican until California. They are never hot and rarely serve beer let alone margaritas.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rattlesnake jazz

From Elkton we joined the Shenandoah national park via the Sky Line drive (Virginia) off of which we hiked a series of trails, some arduous, some not. An identity shift seemed to occur as we got the pleasure Align Centerout of spending a serious amount of bucks on hiking paraphernalia at the Rock Lands camping shop. Such an investment required justification of the outlay. It was as if these two middle aged and relatively novice hikers were over reaching themselves in a bid to justify the expenditure. The first day we must have hiked for around three to 4 hours and had to turn back from completion of the White Oak Trail as dusk fell and we wondered about our stamina for getting back up the incline. One of the earliest sights on our first day was as above (Stony Man Trail), as we took in the beauty of the mountains which then became shrouded in cloud. The next day a combination of a wrong turn and ambition saw us hike for a total of 5.5 hours as combined two trails and nearly wiped ourselves out climbing up and down steep and rocky trails. Some had glorious vistas, others were more the pleasure of the walk through woodland with deer and chipmunks a constant feature.
One such trail saw us reach an impressive waterfall where a rattle snake made a surprise landing at my feet and lay inert. Assuming its rapid path from above my head to my feet was the result of it being either dead or severely under the weather, I didn’t panic. My wife, more concerned than me, expressed the urgency of the situation which sent me into a belated and perhaps risky skedaddle as I scuttled away at some speed. However the snake seemed content just to hang in the water before bizarrely shooting down stream. The weird thing is that I am more bothered about the people walking towards us on a trail and whether we will have to talk, then I was about the rattlesnake.

The hiking in the Shenandoah was great but the accommodation and eating situation was of a different order. A kind of hikers and campers’ theme park, Sky Land (as in the Sky Line drive) offered cabins in the woods originally constructed in 1902 when the site was first opened to the “well to do” as the description inside our tiny cabin put it. The place was very quaint and the surrounding mountains sublime, but something told me that the well to do of the turn of the previous century would not have spent the best part of the night listening to children who hadn’t been put to bed til 10 crying and moaning before the dulcet tones of Dad coughing his guts up in the early morning light finally ended my futile attempts at rest. We got ourselves moved out of there to more modern motel style accommodation which made us feel a whole lot better.
When we exited the Shenandoah and took on the southerly Blue Ridge Mountain trail we divided our time between the easier hikes off the parkway and exits for the evening into cheaper motel type accommodation. Using the latter you don’t feel like you’re paying through the nose for just a sometimes questionable rest spot. You also get to explore small towns like Buena Vista where we took in a local Mexican restaurant, and the Meadows of Dan, barely a village but with a great name and a great diner that provided healthy dinner and breakfast the next day. We exited the trail having visited the Blue Ridge Music Center where an impromptu double bill of bluegrass moved us with its almost innocent beauty. Older singer and guitar player Willard Gaillard had teamed up with younger banjo and guitar player Scott Freeman. Scott was quite a virtuoso player and a less confident but pleasant singer. Later reading made me think about banjo techniques and his use of claw hammer and finger pickin seemingly came right out of the banjo styles brought by slaves from western Africa, and specifically western sudan and Senegal. This barely appreciated aspect of the history of so called white country (and for that matter the “country” style pre blues music of black men in the Appalachians singing in English of life’s troubles accompanying themselves with a banjo and a fiddle) is documented in a highly recommended thesis on the subject available from the music center. African Banjo Echos in Appalachia by Cecelia Conway gives transcribed and pieced together oral histories of African American “country” musicians of the so called pre blues era. The guide in the music center had by her own admission genned up on the history and disparate roots of country as developed in Va. The exhibits there told a story of local musicians and the first country 78s from the 1920s when “hill billy” was first applied to white singers (as opposed to purveyors of “race” music) before the 1940s arrival of “blue grass”.

Inspired by our conversations there we drove on heading towards Kentucky where we are as I write this. Our friends have a house in the old state capital Frankfort, a quaint town of 23,000 where we discovered a wonderful book shop (Poor Richards) where we spent several hours browsing (and purchasing) second hand books, where later we returned for a gig featuring John Pope, a blues and jazz piano stylist, Matt “Zip” Irvin on tenor sax, and a double bass player Owen Reynolds. He though was the only professional musician, John being a piano technician by day and Dr Zip being a professor at EKU. On arrival we hadn’t expected much and, despite the venue, were not excited about what we mistakenly thought would be a sober coffee shop situation. When we walked in we became 45% of the audience (and much of the rest seemed connected to the venue) and sat right down near the band for what was akin to a private audience. The tunes veered between old and more modern jazz standards (MoonRiver, a Buddy Bolden song and a song about Buddy Bolden, Mose Allison etc), trad blues songs and some more contemporary or off the trail numbers such as a self penned instrumental by John (presently nameless to me), a cover of Billy Bragg’s musical interpretation of a lyric penned by Woody Guthrie about a town known to Zip - Winston, Salem - a theatrical style piece (Hail Mary) by Pamplemousse, and an adaptation of a Basque folk tune about being a tree. It was a great night, where it felt wonderful to chat with relatively local musicians and to throw out the odd comment between numbers. We returned to the porch before retiring pretty light headed well past 1 am. Earlier our friends’ friend’s daughter, who is house sitting in their absence, had come back from a work shift to check on the dogs accompanied by her friend and we semi embarrassedly told of (some of) our evening’s fun. It was as if the roles had reversed.

A dining highlight in Frankfort was Rick Paul's "White Light Diner" (, where we ate an excellent lunch on our second day in town. The host was out of town that day but we were in good company in the small but atmospheric eatery where the locals offered good advice and kindly interest in our travels. The diner has functioned since 1943, and Rick Paul, almost a celebrity chef who has cooked for a variety of interesting personalities including Goerge Bush Senior, has made the place a source of a wide variety of southern dishes. Well worth a visit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

roadtrip photos New York and VA

US roadtrip begins

The Virginia Plan proposed delimiting federal executive power by empowering the national legislature. Virginia Plain proposed cool yet retro sophistication among lumpen glam stomp. Out here in Virginia plans are few and the hills definitely outnumber the plains. Yet these hills are the stuff of inspiration not hindrance. Walking trails among the Apalachians (pron. Apa-latch-ee-ans) we found the meaning that we had been searching for on this road movie since arriving in New Jersey over a week ago. NY - our early port of call after a brief tarry in the big apple’s perceptibly rotten neighbour NJ – had been good for drinking with an old English friend and workmate and for an insight into some of the bars and restaurants that make up his life. However the defining of what this trip will be all about would be held in abeyance until we had rented wheels in the outskirts of Trenton NJ - a blue collar rail hub. Abandoning plans to head to the nation’s capital for engagement in matters middle eastern, we headed down to Virginia via Elkton: a brief stopover in Maryland off the interstate 95. A station stop before a planned visit to Fredericksburg VA the next day, Elkton was to us no more than a cheap motel and a KFC. This though was much appreciated after a 2 nights near Time Square NY had provided the most expensive accommodation per square foot I had ever had the misfortune to pay for. The hotel though was conveniently located in walking distance to welcoming bars: one where we met our friend’s workmates, another involved an enjoyable couple of hours in the Blarney Stone or some such, where the music was on random and the punters rarely saw limeys in their drinking establishment
After our night at the Knights Inn in Elkton, the Indian cleaner peered in the window of our clearly lit room, where my wife was reading the Cecil Whig clad only in knickers and a loose top. This apparently short sighted gentleman was seeking to determine whether human life dwelled within and therefore whether he should douse down our bog with bleach or shake our sheets free of detritus. “Don’t understand English – Asian” they later revealed when I asked them not to look in our room when the presence of a car out front and illumination inside suggested we may not need his and his wife’s tender attention. Later that day we arrived in Fredericksburg – famous as the fault line of the American civil war when thousands died fighting in just a few brief days in the battle of unionism versus southern confederacy. Robert E Lee’s southern forces were eventually subdued by the Yankees fighting under the flag of a barely invented American nation, a nation to this day still struggling with the legacy not just of southern slavery but of resistance to big government – whether GOP or Democrat – if headquartered in DC. The public health care option bit the dust the day we arrived here, opposition to Obama’s plans echoing a political tradition rooted in resistance to the power of the center, itself a sound constitutional principle applied in state’s rights and the separation of powers. So today does this strain of liberalism find representation in the GOP or among Dixiecrats both defending a principle and susceptible to private health company money.

Having arrived early in Fredericksburg we checked out the fantastical wares of an antiques market where I bought a Vietnam campaign medal and resisted vinyl temptations. Along the beautiful river that snakes along the east side of town we found relation as we connected once more to the point of our journey – natural beauty taken at our own pace. I had been in this town only 18 months earlier, meeting up with an old friend from Jerusalem whose undergrads I gave a lecture to on the obscurities of Saudi foreign policy. Now I was back with my wife and more relaxed as we were here for purely social purposes and I had not come here hot foot from burying my father in England. My friend’s son is growing fast. The pleasures of fatherhood were though sometimes belied by his wistful remembrance of a former freewheeling existence around the mid east. It was great to see him and his wife again, albeit that tiredness got the better of us all before the beer had the chance of aiding recollection of old acquaintances among the would be power holders and inebriates of Palestine.

We had planned to stop over in Charlottesville the next day, an apparently pleasant student town with an artsy scene – however the arrival of the U2 travelling juggernaut pushed up the hotel rates for largely overbooked rooms. We promptly left town and holed up in nearby Waynesboro where I descended into a deep depression as the focus of the trip became lost on an auspicious anniversary – the birthday of my dead father. Salvation was thankfully found among the warmth of the occupants of the nearby strip mall of which Little Caesar’s (Little Hitlers?) and a flooded laundrette proved particularly appealing.