Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Northern California & Oregon

I've made it as far as Omaha, a city that exists for me as a stopping point on my way to somewhere else, and this trip is no different. I plan to be back in Detroit by tomorrow, but I have such a backlog of travels to catch up on.

The drive up the coast from San Francisco to Portland was quiet, and delightful. Now that I'd successfully navigated beyond the wrecked portion of CA-1, I spent long hours driving alongside the Pacific Ocean. I was linked up with a friend of a friend for a night's rest in Trinidad, a small town north of Arcata. I was told his house was secluded- to give you an idea, here's his driveway:


I drove in late and had a fairly ridiculous time pitching my tent in his yard in the drizzling rain, to the sound of the ocean nearby. When I awoke, I finally had a full view of my camp site and the surrounding environment.


There was a trail from his backyard down to the coast, where I spent the morning on a grey, hazy day. There was something both beautiful and deeply melancholy about this misty, secluded beach.


Later on that morning, I made it out for an afternoon hike in the Redwood National Forest. From the damp, mossy undergrowth to the towering, ancient trees, this was some of the most amazing landscape I'd ever experienced. It often felt like I was walking through the forest of children's stories, where everything was otherworldly and larger than life.




The next day, I finally made it up to Portland. A city full with great friends, and a much needed respite from a month of day-to-day traveling. It's a place I knew a bit better than most of the other stops on the trip, and gave me a chance to regain my bearings. I have a lot of thoughts about this place, which can be simultaneously so strange and super-ordinary. I'll need a whole separate post to reflect on it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Drinking in Los Angeles

It's a shame that Los Angeles is such a sprawling, car-heavy city. It presents a great challenge for an adventurous drinker, trying to map out a route to hit LA's best watering holes without ending up blissfully stranded in a far corner of the city. It took discipline, but over the course of three days I managed to pop in at a handful of spots for some mind-blowing drinks without becoming marooned.

The Edison
Edison Bar, LA

This might be the most eye-poppingly gorgeous cocktail joint I've ever visited. After ducking in a relatively modest door down an alley, you descend into the wildly ornate main bar. The interior is full of shining copper and iron, with a wild metallic structure resembling a stylized blast furnace beyond the main bar. The ambiance was a bit odd. They were blasting oddly inappropriate 70's funk and the happy hour crowd was clearly more 'downtown LA' than cocktail enthusiast. I managed to sample two drinks here:

Flowers For Tito
Flowers For Tito, Edison Bar
Theia Jasmine Liquer
Tito's Vodka
St. Germain Elderflower Liquer

Not a particularly fantastic cocktail- very sweet, heavy on the St. Germain. But their happy hour special let me suck one of these down for a whopping 35 cents (makes up for the $3 I had to pay to check my umbrella, gah).

Carnivale, Edison Bar
Sagatiba Velha Aged Cahaca
Luxardo Maraschino Liquer
Orgeat syrup
Chili oil
Lime juice

Again, too sweet. The orgeat and maraschino were way too much in the front, the lime juice could have been more pronounced. But the kick of smoky spice in the back was incredible, leaving a smoky tingle on your lips long after the sip.

The cocktail list had some interesting ideas, and other bartenders around town agreed that there was a lot of thought put into designing the drink menu at this place, but the execution just felt off. It's probably worth grabbing a happy hour cocktail to check the place out and moving on.

The Varnish
Varnish, LA

Now THIS is what I'm talking about. This place is speakeasy-style, nestled in the back of Kohl's, a nondescript sandwich shop, through a door that looks like a storage closet.
The unmarked entrance to Varnish
It’s the west coast project of one of the guys behind Milk & Honey in New York, and the attention to detail shows. The place was empty when I showed up and only half-full by the time I left, but it had hands-down the friendliest bar staff of anywhere I've been so far and the simplest, most well-balanced drinks. Ooh, I get shivers just thinking about it. Check out that hand-carved ice!

Kentucky River
Kentucky River, Varnish
Elijah Craig 12 Year Bourbon
Bols Creme de Cacao
Peach Bitters

Staggeringly delicious. Perfectly balanced, with a surprising kick from the peach bitters.

Pop Quiz
Pop Quiz, Varnish
Elijah Craig 12 Yr
Ramazzotti Amaro
Chocolate Mole bitters
Orange twist.

The combination of the Ramazzotti and the bitters in this drink lent it a darker, smoother flavor than the previous drink. Still, same characteristics: incredible balance, dangerously delicious.

Before I left, the bartender whipped me up a Penicilin, based on the standards of the original at Milk & Honey. I've had a handful of these drinks before, but this one absolutely shined. Seriously, shimmering glory in my mouth.

Can you tell I liked this bar? Yes. I did. Best in town.

Library Bar
Library Bar
Nestled in the Roosevelt Hotel on a gaudy stretch of Hollywood Avenue, this little bar feels like a mission for cocktail sophistication amidst Los Angeles' aspiring loudmouthed movers and shakers. A crew of spunky Brits were surrounding me on all sides as I drank, who were giddy as teenagers experimenting with the different flavors (“Hey! Give me one of those raspberry type ones! And maybe a strawberry type thing!”) I’d read about what this place was doing with market-driven cocktails & it didn’t disappoint: the bar itself was adorned with a beautiful array of fresh onions, peppers, fruits and herbs, and my bartender was an enthusiastic professional. I wouldn't say these were the most overwhelmingly delicious drinks I've had on the trip, but certainly the most interesting.

Cultural Lotto
Cultural Lotto
Partida Tequilla
Mescal Chichicapa
Ginger Syrup
Carmelized Honey
Red Pepper
Yellow Pepper
Serrano Pepper

This cocktail was awesome, but whoa, it was spicy. Borderline unbearably spicy. The bartender admitted he was testing out some new peppers on me, and remade the drink to take it down a notch. The result was deliciously earthy, with a fruity sweetness in the front. The tequila was unpronounced, but the mix of the mescal and the peppers worked well, with a vegetable crispness at the end. I almost felt like I was drinking something healthy.

One & Only

One & Only
Geniver Gin
Lime Juice
Agave Nectar
Curry Leaves

This was the most unfamiliar flavor combination I've ever had in a mixed drink. My mind is still reeling trying to place it. It was mellow up front, but those curry leaves gave the drink a subtle spiciness in the back that was beguilingly savory.

Harvard & Stone
Harvard & Stone

A bit off the beaten track of the Hollywood strip, the bar itself had the a scaled-down industrial look of a lot of LA bars, but felt decidedly more casual. It was refreshing to hear soul music and 60’s garage on the stereo after listening to old-timey jazz and dance music at cocktail bars across the city. There was an oddly unpleasant aroma about the place. I drank a fairly medicinal Fernet Cocktail at the bar and was ready to call it quits on this place, when I realized I’d nearly missed the boat.
Back Bar, Harvard & Stone
In the back was a tiny room packed with people and a rack of Hudson Whiskey behind the bar. The man behind the bar was Gable Erenzo, part of the father/son distilling team behind Hudson, serving up a handful of classic staples from the whiskey he made with his own hands. This bar has been bringing in distillers every night to serve cocktails made from their own stock.

I had Gable mix me up a corn whiskey Sazerac, and had a chance to chat with him about why he prefers the corn whiskey in the drink (the whiskey is a bit lighter, more mellow- gives the cocktail a bit of buoyancy). The drink itself was a Sazerac, plain and simple, delicious. On a repeat visit, I’d skip the front bar entirely and see what they’re cooking up in the back.

I've made it to Oregon and plan to descend into Portland tomorrow morning. More soon!

Monday, March 28, 2011


I'm posted up at a cafe in San Francisco. Two lovely gentleman next to me have been noodling jazz on guitar and mandolin for an hour. Hi guys!


I've slowly been working my way up through California. I spent three days in Los Angeles with an old friend from Baltimore who's been working on creating incredible retro dance music for the last year (check out White Lights- debut record coming soon!!). Talk about the west coast lifestyle: when I rolled into his house, three dudes were sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and noodling on laptops, while a few more were out on this balcony, taking in the sunshine.


For a city with a reputation for sprawl and inauthenticity, I had a surprisingly wonderful time in Los Angeles. The radio is stuck in the early 90's, playing a medley of G-Funk era hip hop from Snoop & Warren G. For one of the biggest cities in America, the pace of life moved at a cozy crawl. And tacos, oh tacos galore.

My oldest friend in the world has been working her way through graduate school here, and I was able to pull her away from her studies for a trip to The Getty. What a place: a tram winds you up the side of a mountain to the grounds of the museum, which is often as breathtaking as the art it contains. The pristine white grounds and gardens feel completely detached from the city below, evoking both ancient timelessness and a futuristic utopia. We strolled through galleries of European painting and the spoils of Louis XIV's extravagant collection of furniture and tapestries, catching up on old times.

The Getty Museum, LA

Then, after a wild goose chase pursuing LA's most renown food cart (Kogi BBQ, we'll meet again), we ended up at the tar pits outside the LACMA.
Friends- tar pits!! Bubbling up in the middle of the city! It's not much to see, but a fascinating phenomena- outside the main pit, orange safety cones are haphazardly tossed over new leaks, covered with oily black crude. I meant to shoot some photos but it started to rain, leading into one of the most aggravatingly epic rush hour experiences of my life, completing a 35 minute drive in about two hours of crawl.

In terms of the character of Los Angeles: I did indeed come across a hilarious array of aspiring movers and shakers, trying to 'make a name' in the big city. But beyond that cloud of selfish aspiration, I also came across some of the most personable, thoughtful people I'd met on this trip. One doorman recognized my Michigan license, proclaimed he was from Warren and we now have plans to meet up for a drink here in San Francisco. Another bar manager took a shining to me and, despite my road-weary dishevelment, called ahead to sneak me into one of the town's glitziest rum bars, just as a gift for a pleasant conversation. A bummed cigarette turned into a night of shared cultural bewilderment with a fellow traveller from Australia. I'd like to think it was only my own openness that fostered these interactions, but they happened with a frequency- and an authenticity- that I have yet to encounter on this trip.

And oh my, the booze: I need to devote an entire separate post to some of the cocktail bars I discovered in this city. Stay tuned, discerning drinkers.


My drive to the Bay Area was marked by dizzying scenery and an epic oversight. Highway 1, the legendary coastal highway has, oddly, partially collapsed into the sea. Oops. I planned my route to dodge the closure, winding through the epic hills of California's wine county. Easily some of the most gorgeous scenery on a trip already full of inspired vistas, I came out on the coastal highway at sunset. 40 minutes up the road, I realized the closure was still ahead of me. I had to backtrack a good 50 miles to rejoin the connecting highway, another epic dead end. Along the way, I stopped at an overlook to capture some photos of the Pacific Ocean. I realized this was my first time encountering this body of water in person, and despite it being pitch black by this point in the night, I was able to capture a few 20 second exposures on my tripod.


So, remember what I said about the unfamiliarity of Phoenix? Yeah, the Bay Area makes that place look like Cleveland. I connected with an old friend from college here who has taken me through some of the most fascinatingly unfamiliar experiences of this trip. We went to a friend's house high above the hills of Berkley for a Kirtan session: sacred Indian singing, driven by harmonium (a one-armed man's accordion with a hypnotizing drone) and tabla. I was greeted with disarming warmth (oh, my midwestern stuffiness) and a cup of tea, and spent the evening repeating melodic odes to Ganesha and Vishnu with a group of twenty-odd strangers. Singing in groups is something I've spoken about with friends back home, but rarely encounter- this was an amazing experience.

Awesome, but it could hardly prepare me for my next experience of the night: a little after midnight, I was taken to the legendary 'Essex.' The backstory on this place, 30-some years ago a man created this back yard sanctuary with strolling gardens and the most intensely heated hot tub you'll ever encounter. There's a closely-guarded code to the back gate, but those fortunate enough to know it have open access to the grounds.

The space is almost entirely unlit, with only a dim light illuminating the steaming tub. Totally silent, a dozen or so bathers were alternately relaxing in the near-scalding tub, roaming the grounds or resting on wooden planks in the gardens. After disrobing and showering, the waters of the tub are almost unbearable on first contact, so hot that merely moving a limb in the water can rekindle the pain of the heat. This isn't a long soak- five minutes in the water, 10 minutes walking or resting on the benches, watching the steam curl above your body into the trees. It's a totally self-regulated, free space, and one that works- people know it's precious, and only share the secrets of entry with worthy friends. The darkness and the steam make the whole place seem like a hazy dream, one you might be tempted to second-guess if not for the immense physical sensations of pain and relief the waters evoke.

I'm of to see San Francisco- more soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


It took me a few weeks, but I have a Flickr page up with all the photos I haven't been able to get into the blog. Enjoy!

Towns of the Southwest

The road from Albuquerque to Sedona was the most incredible drive yet. I got 40 miles off the freeway, driving through the mountains in the desert. It tacked several hours onto the drive, but it became a day of driving where the time and the distance was irrelevant- it would take as long as it took, and the scenery, changing over the hours, narrated the change in climate. From the endless, dusty, craggy mountains of the desert, down into flat, dry expanses with looming buttes, onward into pine forests in northern Arizona. At sunset I was bombing down 70 miles of straight, empty, two-lane highway over rolling hills listening to Balkan funk and Ennio Morricone's classic western scores, but nothing felt wrong on the stereo.

I hit the road into Sedona after dark. The highway leveled off, then curved straight down the side of a mountain full of switchback turns. In town, I met up with Jeremy, my Couchsurfing host for the visit. This guy was incredible- he'd been working in hotels since he was a kid, and clearly had hosting in his blood. Downtown Sedona had nothing for us, with its trinket shops, ice cream joints and crystal readings. But the landscape around the city was just as epic as we'd expected and we hiked one of the mountains in town, musing on geological history and laughing about the energy vortexes.

This town was the most new-agey place I'd ever been, and you couldn't go anywhere without folks talking about the energy vortexes around the town. Out of skeptical curiosity, we decided to look into seeing one of the dozens of psychics in town. We stopped in at the visitor's center and asked about the town's psychic reading scene. The man behind the counter was a crinkled, slouching volunteer from Illinois. He just looked blankly at us and slowly shook his head no.
"So... you don't recommend seeing a psychic?"
"Well, you seem like a couple reasonable people. It's just one way for folks to make a living, I suppose."
The universe had spoken to us- we skipped the psychics and grabbed a beer.


Two hours down the road was Phoenix, the flattest, most sprawling city I'd ever scene. But also remarkably pleasant, probably the most relaxing place I'd been yet. I met up with an old friend from high school who's in a similar place, just having quit her job and facing the uncertain future with excitement and trepidation. After a week of isolation and time with strangers, it was a blessing to have someone familiar to spend time with.
I spent a few days tagging along as she made her final rounds with the friends who had supported her since she started college. In the eight years since we'd lived in the same state, she took to yoga in a serious way and many of her friends started as acquaintances from the classes she'd been taking. The sheer glow of health in this town couldn't have been more unfamiliar from the run-down stoicism of Detroit. In the March sunshine, we took part in the daily ritual of hiking a rocky mountain in the center of town along with hundreds of other people. And after nearly a week and a half of party cities and lingering sickness, this place zapped my system back into step.

It's curious how a place can beguile you in unexpected ways. I don't long for the endless sprawling drives in Phoenix, nor does a police force that's leading the national push for aggressive immigration crackdown appeal to me. But the spirit that Phoenix's spotless weather seems to inject into its citizens was comforting.
I'm glad I was there in March. I don't think I'd fair well in May.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dispatch from the Southwest, Part 1

Again, the scarcity of a reliable internet connection on the road is plaguing me, so I'll unfortunately have to deprive you of all the incredible photographs I’ve collected over the last week of travel… but I’ve seen so much amazing stuff, I can’t keep quiet any longer!

To answer a few lingering questions after my last post- I survived my night in the desert! I wasn’t eaten alive by coyotes, but rather fell asleep to the sounds of modern country ballads echoing from some unknown campers a half mile down the road.

The next morning I woke up, dusted myself off and headed back to the Guadalupe Mountains for some backcountry camping. This place was severe- a 2,500 climb up the side of a mountain with all my camping gear, food and nearly two gallons of water on my back. By 10am I was probably a third of the way up the mountain and utterly exhausted. But slow slow progress, a lot of breaks in the sun (no shade to be had on this side of the mountain) and consuming a good deal of that water weight eventually got me to the summit, wobbly legged a little after noon.

The views, of course, were totally staggering. They say that on a perfectly clear day, the view from Hunter’s Peak is interrupted only by the curvature of the earth. I couldn’t see quite that far, but looking down across the wilds of Texas in one direction, and far into New Mexico over the other side, was one of the most breathtaking vantages of my life. I still had several miles to camp in to my site for the night, through a pine forest hidden atop a mountain surrounded by desert on all sides. I was the only soul to camp out that far on this particular day. I went to sleep at dusk, alone for at least a mile in any direction. At that height, the wind whipped through the trees with incredible ferocity. It sounded like a freeway near at hand, or a tidal wave… just me, and the stars on the highest, loneliest, most beautiful mountain in Texas.

The next morning I made my way north through New Mexico to Albuquerque. The faded glory of the roadside attractions and the brutal simplicity of life on the Indian Reservations I passed evoked the familiar tension of fascination that others feel as they gape at Detroit’s ruins. I snapped photos of the abandoned Roaring 20’s and the long-decrepit Encino Motels, but left the Navajos and Hopis to their own devices, undocumented.

Albuquerque was an odd city, carrying much of the quirk of Austin with a lot less of its charm. On my father’s recommendation, I made my way downtown for a celebratory St. Patrick’s Day beer and encountered a brilliantly odd assortment of characters. I met a suddenly drunk fellow who spends his days installing walk-in bathtubs in the homes of elderly New Mexicans, who left the bar saying “Hey man! They cut me off!! Keep it real!” with an enthusiastic thumbs up. I met a bearded fellow who told me how to take care of myself if I were to encounter coyotes, rattlesnakes, and all other sorts of hostile desert wildlife (the takeaway: you’re pretty safe at this time of year, but just get the hell out of there). I met a firefighter with a tattoo of New Orleans over his heart, who mused to me for an hour about how much me missed his youth playing saxophone in the French Quarter after school.

The next day was a long drive through New Mexico and Arizona’s back roads to Sedona. TBC!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2,661 miles: Not-quite Marfa Texas & BLM land in New Mexico

I'm sitting in my car near my campsite in New Mexico, 10 miles north of the Texas border. The early evening sun is illuminating the whispy, dry yellow brush, the gnarled green bushes and the razor-sharp, spiked plants that sparsely dot the landscape before me. As far as the eye can see.

This might be among the most remote places I've ever spent a night sleep. It's certainly the furthest out where I was still connected to the internet. The magic, the vulgarness of mobile connectivity.

My last night in Austin lived up to the reliably exhilarating, exhausting pace set by the days before it. Rachel sent me word that Quintron & Miss Pussycat, one of my favorite bands from New Orleans (who, incidentally, I didn't have a chance to catch while I was down there) were playing a free show at SXSW, sponsored by Etsy. It could not have been more appropriate for the event, or to wrap up my live music consumption for awhile: they did a puppet show about shielding powerful, secret pizza recipes from the police. Miss Pussycat wore a green dress with a line from shoulder to hip of footlong pink fringe (which Rachel intends to imitate- I'm holding you to it). We walked back to food cart heaven, where the homemade ice cream sandwich lady had previously gushed about serving ice cream to Elvis Costello that day and ate amazing Thai food, then got some 'pork buns' in the some delicious, inexplicably smooth and squishy puffed pasty. Then I got on my bike, wound the 10 miles back to home base and got ready to hit western Texas.

While my drive into Austin felt more like an extension of Louisiana's swampy greenery than I'd expected, the drive out quickly opened up to rolling brown hills, polka-dotted with bushes and crooked trees before opening up to long, dry expanses of empty horizon and occasional, momentous rocky bluffs. I drove through oil country, where the only sign of civilization were small oil wells, endlessly bopping their humanoid metal heads up and down to extract Texas crude from the depths of the barren landscape. It was a long drive, but also my first stretch since Michigan-Chicago that I was totally alone on the road. I took my time, wandering up lonely highways that had been recommended back home, liberally napping in rest areas (my sinuses were still bothering me quite a bit, affecting my ear to the point that much of yesterday's drive had no soundtrack- ouch.

My loose destination for the night had been Marfa Texas, a small western Texas backwater that in recent years has sprouted as an arts mecca and a vacation destination. I made it into town around 9:30pm, and bore witness to the first major miscalculation of my trip. I knew this place was small, but I had no idea how small. Two main roads, a smattering of high end hotels and restaurants surrounded by desert. Since I'd been feeling rotten I gave myself to spring for a hotel, but hadn't wagered how difficult this would be. Nothing was available in town. After a dozen-odd calls, nothing within 30 miles. I couldn't believe it, on a Monday night in March... then i realized this is a resort town, and it's Spring Break for half the country.

Uggg. After all the luck and resourcefulness on this trip, I'd bit off more than I could chew. A lesson well learned- I can test my luck once I'm established in a place, but don't bank everything on a rural little hamlet completely sight unseen. I slunk my tail between my legs, turned around and headed back to Fort Stockton, nearly an hour back up the road. I slept more soundly than any other night on this trip.

After 10+ hours of rest, I woke up this morning to a delightfully unpleasant experience: the congestion in my chest breaking up!! Ah, to be back on the road to wellness. Which is a blessing, since I intended to go off into the wilderness by the day's end. I picked up some supplies at the local Wal-Mart (a cringingly welcomed surprise when you're in the middle of nowhere, on the way to the middle of nowhere) and hit the road towards the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

A few nights before, I ran into a rugged looking fellow named JD at dusk in line for a restroom. He was on a trip as well, headed towards a job at Carlsbad Caverns. Two minutes of small talk turned into a half hour of him giving me the ins and outs of every national park from Texas to California. And one of the few he absolutely INSISTED I check out was Guadalupe. Sounds good, it's on my way, here we go...

After a relatively light day on the road (~3 hours) I made it to the entrance of the park, to be informed that the last sights for the night had been rented. The man at the park was a stout old man of 80 with thick spectacles and an enormous, pocked nose. "Well what now?" I asked.\
"BLM Land," he replied flatly. Ah, I'd been looking forward to this moment. Big swaths of New Mexico, Utah and California are all government owned, and a lot are open to free camping as long as you know where to look. I headed up the highway, keeping an eye for tents in the distance, and gates without a 'No Trespassing' sign.  After 20 minutes I saw some tents dotting a hill and pulled through a gate, down a dusty two track lane, down about a mile to a hilltop hidden from the freeway. I parked my car and set up camp about 300 yards back from the path.  Nothing in any direction, no potable water for 20 miles, total back country camping (of course, supported by a car, a laptop and bluegrass on the stereo).

The sun's setting.  I'm going to try and post this via my cell phone's internet connection, head towards camp with a book and get to sleep early, to hit Guadalupe again at dawn.