Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 7 June 28, 2010 Calgary to Great Prairie Alberta

The roads are getting narrower and less and less traveled the farther up we travel the North American continent. It's mostly trucks and RV's up here. We traveled several hundred miles from Calgary to Great Prairie, a town of 50,000 and our last look at organized civilization for the next 1800 miles or so until we get to Anchorage, Alaska. There wasn't much change in the scenery during this stretch of road. A couple nice railroad bridges, rivers, and oil fields were about the only thing that broke up the monotony of the drive. Sarah was happy to see an occasional curve in the road. It wasn't all that interesting of a day, but we made it through to the Stonebridge Hotel in Grand Prairie and called it a night. It was early so we decided a good meal and a beer were in order for the evening. The hotel had a pub. We went down for a taste of the local fare.

When we walked in to the place we noticed a serious lack of females all around. Sarah was the only female besides the old waitress and a woman working the slot machines in the corner of the room. Gambling seems to be legalized almost everywhere from South Dakota west and if you find a gas station or restaurant that doesn't have gaming it is the exception rather than the rule. The lack of women told us this is trucker country. Almost everyone looked like they belonged behind the wheel of a big rig. The road worn look in the eyes and bodies told a thousand tales of life on the highways. We got a pitcher of Molson and some appetizers, since they were half off on Mondays, and watched some World Cup soccer on the big screens in the bar. I was feeling a bit worn myself, so I called it an early night and went back up to the room to play on my laptop. Sarah did the same. That's how the nights have been in the motels that have wifi. She's on her bed playing with her MacBook, I'm on mine... playing with my Macbook as well. Occasionally one of us will pull up a comedian or some funny video for the other to watch and that will spark another 20 videos as we get comedy A.D.D. and giggle into the night. Last night I looked outside at 11:30pm and it was still lit up in the western sky. You really feel the axial tilt of the planet in these parts. Man I would hate to be here in the winter when the day is 4 hours long. I guess I'll have to ask Sarah how it feels 6 months from now!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Day 6 June 27, 2010 Livingston MT to Calgary

We woke up early and looked outside. Snow capped mountain peaks were glistening in the sunshine. We totally missed them the night before on our madcap race to find a motel room anywhere on the road! We gassed up and stopped at a local place called Pop's Stand for breakfast. The food was mediocre even though the portions were enough to keep us filled for half the day. The smell of fresh pine and mountain air made its way into our nostrils and put smiles on our faces as we got back on the road for a long drive to Calgary. The valleys and rivers of the Montana Rockies were stunning. There were great big sections of the state that were barely populated and wild as could be. I was always on the lookout for wildlife as Sarah navigated the hairpin turns of interstate 15 through Beaver Head forest to the Canadian border. The rivers were dotted with a few fisherman and the clearest fresh water you could have wanted to fish. We saw the upper Missouri, the Blindman, and many other rivers with names you would recognize from old history books. We crossed the continental divide twice and passed by Glacier national park, but this time we did not stop.

We celebrated Sarah's first ever crossing into Canada with the border patrolman commenting, "That sucks." after explaining to him that she was being transferred from Puerto Rico to Kenai, Alaska for a new position in the Coast Guard. Upon gaining entry we started the long haul to Calgary, the nearest city, through the largest grain fields and flattest roads in Canada. Sarah fell asleep while I listened to music and kept my mind occupied with mileage and stupid questions in my head like, "gee I wonder how many acres that farm is? -or- I wonder what the largest grain export in Alberta is? (wheat and canola being the answer....I just looked it up!). The province is big and flat until you start reaching the Rockies again near Calgary. Sarah took notice of how bad the signage sucked in Canada. There were many times where the interstate would just turn into a town and you wouldn't know to slow down or that a big curve was coming if you weren't paying attention. We vowed not to drive at night here. The big roadkill blood stains on the highway told us another story about night driving that confirmed our decision.

We ended up at a nice hotel outside of the city and Sarah caught up on her "Bones" episodes while I went down to the gym for a workout and a swim in the pool. The pool had an indoor water slide that would shoot you out so fast you would go skipping across the water. Of course I started playing games with the couple of kids left in the pool; including a crazy water slide game we made up where we threw a nerf football inside the slide from the bottom while the next kid went flying down the twisty tube towards the bottom. They had to blindly "catch" or find the football in the tube on the way down then throw it back to us while skipping across the water. It was violent... as all good kids games are. It was after 11pm by the time I made my way back to the room for the night.

Day 5 June 26, 2010 Keystone SD to Livingston Montana

We saw so many great sights this day that we felt it was like three days wrapped into one. I'll give the highlights and then let the pictures do the talking! We started out wandering around the old wooden boardwalks of Keystone where we bought tourist junk and a bag of salt water taffy for the road. Next stop was Mt. Rushmore. Those presidents have big heads! Then we drove through the Black Hills National Forest, which was considered the center of the universe to many native tribes. It was a slow drive through one lane bridges, tunnels cut in the mountains, and big old pine trees. We kept looking for bears, but unfortunately didn't see any this day. We ventured on making stops in Custer, Crazy Horse, and Deadwood. We made a pit stop in Deadwood at the local VFW post and had a couple beers to celebrate Sarah's birthday. She is a big fan of the HBO series that was created about this old western outpost, so she told me much of the plot line and characters over our frosty brews. We roamed the old haunts of Wild Bill Hicock, Calamity Jane and the like. Sarah insisted we eat Buffalo Burgers at an old Saloon. This was a great call, and the lean Buffalo meat was delicious, especially smothered in mushrooms and swiss cheese! We heard gunshots and followed the noise down the street to a cowboy show. The day was turning out to be a fantastic adventure.

After our stop, we got on the interstate for a few hundred miles and then on to some country roads that were just fantastic. Every once in a while we would pass an old western homestead that was abandoned. The road was so beautiful and the sky so pretty that I stopped to snap a few pics. No cars and only the sounds of the light breeze blowing in the grass for miles. It gave me the chills. We were close to another gem of a sight, Devil's Tower, Wyoming, and the detour was made to see that as well.

The plains unfolded into the Grand Tetons and the base of Yellowstone National Park by sunset as we rolled further west into the evening. As the sun tucked itself behind the big mountains, Sarah screamed out, "Oh my God!!" and turned to grab the camera out of the back of the car. Behind us, the moon was rising like an orange fireball in sky. It almost looked like the sun coming up again in the east. It had to be after 10 pm by the time we saw this and it had an ethereal quality due to the fact that there was still sunlight in the sky. The further north we go, the longer the days have become and the more beautiful the skyline. It couldn't get any better.

We finally stopped for gas in Little Big Horn Montana after a few failed attempts at other exits. In this area of the world, if you don't get gas before the station closes, you are out of luck. At Little Big Horn there was some kind of celebration going on at the reservation right next to the gas station. We heard drums and chanting and singing, then we got to see a great fireworks display over the wild Montana sky. They must have planned it for Sarah's birthday! Icing on the cake.

Finding a room to crash at.... not so much! We decided to stop in Billings, the closest resemblance to a city on our route. It was getting very late and we were very tired. We had put on some hard miles this day. We saw the beckoning lights of a Holiday Inn and I promptly pulled off the exit only to make the wrong left hand turn onto the opposite on ramp heading East. Shit! There was no way we were driving another 80 miles to turn around, so I did the Puerto Rico thing and backed it up the ramp. No Vacancy.... every place we stopped in Billings was packed to the gills. It was midnight and they were hosting the Antiques Road Show in the morning. We would have to go at least 35 miles to the next exit with motels. There was a caravan of us, including a guy who had mattresses strapped to his roof speeding exit to exit trying to find a bed. It was getting crazy. We finally got a break from a sweet lady running a Super 8. She called around to RV parks, cabins and small motels in the next town and got us a room at a little mom 'n pop joint. We passed out hard for the night around 2am. Sarah was up and showered at 6:30 thinking it was 9:30 instead......oops!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day 4 June 25, 2010 Iowa to Keystone SD

We sped along the borderline of Iowa and Nebraska and eventually ended up on 90 west through the rolling plains of South Dakota. I couldn't believe how much open land there was. This trip has opened our eyes to the vastness of our country's Great Plains. Hour after hour of beautiful prairies and giant farms were the only thing the eye could see until we reached the foothills of the Rockies. Then they offered a bumpy version of the same. It was sunny and warm and the clouds were hanging lofty in the sky. Pure heaven. There were times when we were the only vehicle on the road.

Then it happened. A slight glimpse, then a little more...What is THAT? Sarah checked the map... we knew we must make the detour. Badlands National Park. The tall spires and rugged cliffs exposed themselves slowly as we made the 20 mile drive south of the expressway, but soon enough we were upon them and our mouths dropped wide open. The eroded remnants of a long gone inland sea, these wildest of sedimentary cliffs, gulches and valleys were so beautiful and serene they almost looked fake. I could imagine the cowboys of old stampeding across the plains and coming upon this alien landscape; they must have moved cautiously through the difficult passes fearing the worst of the spirit world. We hiked a bit and climbed a bit through this hot, martian landscape. The colors on the rock layers were enchanting, especially when we reached some elevation and had the pleasure of looking out over the backdrop of plains land spreading as far as the eye could see.

While cruising through the park I noticed something down in the valley and off in the distance. We stopped to take a closer look. It was a herd of a few hundred Buffalo grazing in the prairie below. Incredible. From the same vantage point we made out a solitary mountain ram perched high on a precipice. This was a view of the real Wild West. Not a house, farm, or human in sight with land that seemed to go on forever. It was easy to fall in love with the place. We met a happy group of hippies in an old beat up conversion van and signed our names in chalk on the sides. They were drifting along, living in the van...we were slightly jealous and have been fantasizing and checking out almost every van and small RV since!

We finished the drive to the legendary Keystone town in the base of the Black Hills and found a great place to stay. The 49.99 Brand New Rooms sign drew us in even though we got whacked for much more. The ammenities were great, and we were overlooking the town and one of the president's heads at Mt. Rushmore. The tap water was superb (Sarah insisted that we remember that)! We waited until the next day to visit the park.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 3 June 24, 2010 Grand Ole Opry to Godknowswhere Iowa

What is so... continental about a continental breakfast anyway? Since when did the term define breakfast as free and having at least one or two items that don't totally gross you out before you hit the road? I'm curious. Either way, the Nashville Holiday Inn is doing it right. Eggs, sausage, fruit, cinnamon rolls bigger than my head, grits, oatmeal, and the southern staple of sausage gravy and biscuits. Mmmmm.... ready to roll! The fine meal turned into a fine tour at the original Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium. This entertainment mecca was a historic treasure find. Especially for a musician like myself and a country music fan like Sarah. We got the full tour with Buddy, who has been working the joint since 1964 officially, but has been hanging out there since he was "knee high to a grasshopper". He's a legend in the building and had stories that raised the hairs on our arms about some of the most legendary performers in showbiz. He went on and on about Johnny Cash kicking the light bulbs off the stage and the night Minnie Pearl's tag slipped from her hat with the trademark $1.98 that she kept as long as she performed. We heard stories about Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley and scores more that graced the stage during the golden years of the Opry while touring the bellows of the backstage area. It was a real thrill and it was awesome to see the building spared by the floods that have pretty much destroyed the sister club Opryland on the other side of the river. On the way out, Buddy told us he'd turn his back and let us in to a show free of charge if we ever came back. I'm thinking I might take him up on that.... I know Sarah will!

We roamed the famous haunts of Nashville that morning including the guitar shop, the poster print shop where all the famous concert posters have been made since 1879, and an excellent old fashioned malt shop where I got a creamy root beer float and Sarah got a milkshake for the road. We were ready to hit it.

The journey through Tennessee was very pleasant and of course we played classic country for most of the ride. Even after we picked up a new ipod adapter at a Target in Missouri, we still had the country music carrying us for the majority of the drive. Sarah captained the Escape through St. Louis and well into the state before we stopped for gas and a bite to eat. I took over at the helm and proceeded to roll through Ozark country with Sarah providing music education; it was a fantastic time. We stopped on a whim, at the historic town of Blackwater, Missouri, which Sarah was quick to point out has a population of 199. Not the type of place you want to be after dark.... it had a certain horror film quality to it if you looked at it that way. Otherwise, Main St looked like it hadn't been changed since 1880 and we both agreed it felt like we were in the Whistlestop town portrayed in the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes". Blackwater's City Hall looked like a boutique shop and if you didn't see the stenciling on the window, you would figure it to be as such. We got a kick out of the county jail, which looked fresh out of a western flick and we were so enamored with the cute Western setting, we stayed to watch the sunset over some cornfields at a little park on the outskirts of town. An old rottweiler provided company to us while the sun sank deep into the western sky. It was a quiet and heavenly scene.

As the night came on we drove some heavy miles deep into the throes of corn and dairy laden Iowa. There were times when there was nobody in front of us and not a soul behind. After midnight we had a tough time finding an exit that had available rooms. We settled for a motel that said "Motel" on the side of the road in the flattest land you ever saw. It was almost 1 am and the woman at the counter was way too alive for the time of night and she was chain smoking. This should have been a warning. The room was as clean as would be expected for what we paid, but you could smell the 40 years of smoking in the air and it kept me up all night. I was happy to get a cup of coffee in the morning and get outside. It was the first time on the trip that I woke up before Sarah!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 2 June 23, 2010 700 miles to Nashville and the heart of Music City!

We woke up this morning and drove the very long, very flat interstate 75 north towards Atlanta. Somebody - not me, but it could be Sarah - forgot their ipod hook up for the radio so we were stuck surfing the FM dial for the duration of the day. It started out cool with quite a variety of music, including about every late 70's early 80's arena rock hit ever written...ie: Boston and Journey. Then somewhere around the Georgia/Tennessee border we were commandeered by a single classic country station for well over 150 miles into Tennessee. It was a great kick when they played the oddball Bon Jovi song from the movie Young Guns. We both looked at each other with perfect ironic timing. Country music was cool since we were heading to the country western capital of the world... Nashville.

One of our stops was at a Waffle House on the side of the road somewhere near Perry Georgia. I am a virgin to the establishment so of course I ordered the double pecan waffles (pecans are grown all over the state). When they arrived I doused them in butter and syrup and wondered why the hell they weren't putting these things up north. This was after bite number one. Bite two had me solving world war and hunger. More Waffle Houses!!!! Anyway, we got to talking to our wonderful counter girl, Janet... a true southern belle. She was so warm and welcoming and had a laugh that just made your cheeks red. We started on traveling and ended up spending quite some time trading stories and having a ball. She was well traveled herself and offered us plenty of advice about the road. Don't worry Janet, we won't tell the story about you going back to NJ with bags of fireworks for your neighborhood friends! Everyone jumped in to talk to us once we told them we were headed to Alaska! It made the stop a very enjoyable memory that I will never forget. We took pictures and exchanged info and hugs before we left.

Satisfied and happy, we resumed driving... I was the driver today. The flattened roads of Florida and Georgia eventually turned into the rolling hills and mountains of Tennessee. At one point we snaked along a beautiful river bed and valley on route 24. What a beautiful state, and they keep the roads nice too. We barreled 700 miles all the way to Nashville with barely another stop, subsisting on a bag of sunflower seeds, a spit cup, and some bottled water. My gums still hurt from shucking the shells.

When we got here to Nashville we settled on the Holiday Inn Express which is conveniently located on Broadway right near the heart of "The District". The District is a couple square blocks of nothing but Country Music and Blues clubs, souvenir shops, guitar shops, poster shops and the world famous Ernest Tubbs record shop. It was great. Every establishment had big 50's style neon lights with big guitars and cowboys and all sorts of memorabilia. We stopped at Johnny's BBQ and tore up some delicious smoked pork and turkey, with beans, slaw, and all the fixings. Sarah started rebuilding her winter clothes collection by purchasing a hooded sweatshirt at one of the cooler boutiques in town. This place had hay strewn all about the floor and the woman at the counter had no teeth and smelled like alcohol. You can't make this stuff up. She asked Sarah "Why in the hell would you want to buy a sweater like this in Nashville?". Sarah told the woman she was moving to Alaska and the woman lit up like a fire engine. Her "huuuuuuusband" is from "theeeeere". Having purchased the sweater we moved on to the famous Ernest Tubbs record shop. This place reeks of music history. It still has the original tin ceilings and plank wooden floors that all the greats have walked before and after their music was sold there. Nashville is a hotbed for talented musicians.

Every bar we walked past had a great band roaring away inside. We settled on a band that was doing a country version of "Purple Rain" and decided this might be a place for us. We grabbed a beer and watched them rip through some awesome songs, including "Peg" from Steely Dan and ...... drum roll please....... "I'll be there for you" by Bon Jovi. I guess Bon Jovi is country down here! They were an incredible band and a testament to the level of players that work here trying to get signed. The lead singer was trying to look like Keith Urban, which kind of errked Sarah but we both agreed we would love to have the keyboard player in any band we could put together. He could harmonize to a T and was playing his ass off as well. On the way back to the hotel I was stopped by a panhandler in the streets. I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff, but I always give... and I always get a good feeling when I do. This guy, named Bobby, pulled me aside and sang a beautiful song and told me to "remember that you could be entertaining the company of an Angel.... you will have many blessings coming your way". Thanks Bobby, I feel blessed already. Looking forward to day three tomorrow. I think St. Louis is our next stop.

Bad Flight.... But a Good Start! Day 1 June 22, 2010 Florida to Alaska

I hustled down to the Buffalo Airport yesterday morning for my 8:42am flight to Orlando. Direct flight, JetBlue, nice comfy plane with about a hundred passengers in it ready for a two hour jump to sunny Central Florida, let's do this. Looks like a bunch of young families headed for a summer vacation at Disney World, the mousey ears and pajama bottoms offering a dead give-away. Captain comes out to greet passengers...weird... but part of company policy and marketing I suppose, making captain seem accessible and cool. Then the coffin...I mean cabin door closes and he slips in the ominous statement of the day..."oh, by the way, we are expecting a slight bit of turbulence for part of the ride today so it may be a little bumpy at times, but we'll do our best to keep you comfortable." Translation: Hold on to your shit, try not to puke or have a heart attack and I hope you aren't thirsty because there's no fucking way we are letting the stewardesses up to serve you drinks! Within a few minutes of being airborne we were rocking and rolling in the sky like a tin can getting tossed down a street at 500 mph. Woman across from me is crying and clutching her 2 year old son. Admittedly it is a bit obnoxious, but she wasn't the only one and the concerned looks and noises coming from every other passenger onboard on was slightly unnerving.

Myself, being the slightly neourotic air passenger that I am, crank up the volume on my old school hip hop mix and pretend I'm in a bouncing night club instead of a metal tube destined for a 5 mile free fall. Meanwhile I'm watching every detail of the plane's altitude and whereabouts so I can switch on my cell phone and tell mom I love her one last time before we splat. The captain did try his best, climbing to over 40,000 feet in our small jet, flying this way and that to avoid the worst of it, but it wasn't much use. Lets just say there were a lot of people running to the bathroom to change clothes after the flight. Sad captain came out of the cabin again after the flight and had a look on his face that almost said, "I hate my job and I am sorry that I took you through that awful experience, but I needed the paycheck." My brain then replied, "I need a stiff drink."

Safe on the ground, I link up with Sarah who arrives an hour later with a big smile on her face and her entourage of luggage... guess we are going to Alaska huh! We pile ourselves and our luggage into a taxi and head over to the vehicle processing station, where Sarah picks up her 2003 Ford Escape. I walk around the vehicle and look it over a few times, first admiring the kevlar reinforced tires that will be carrying us on our 5300 mile trek across this great continent, then the stark blue paint job that looks like it hasn't been challenged by weather at all...oh yeah, it's coming from Puerto Rico, where she barely ever drove it!

We phone Cousin Tom and head north on 441 through some serious thunderstorms, ending up at the Larivey homestead an hour later in Leesburg Lakes. He's been taking care of Aunt Marie (his mother) for the past 6 months due to a long drawn out battle with cancer, and he is thrilled to be seeing us off on our voyage. When we show up, I am in for a surprise. His sister Janet, whom I've either never met or haven't seen since I was a baby, is there and we get the party started. Burgers, beer, a variety of salads and some good conversation create a bit of a scene in this sleepy little golf/retirement village and the neighbors start showing up. Gene, the big 'ole southern boy who served time in a fighter plane in WW2 is telling jokes and stories about his travels and his time in the war. Peggy shows up with Babe, the cutest little dog you ever saw, and now the party is jumping. We drink more and more beer, tell more and more stories and Tom cooks up some killer T bone steaks for dinner. Sarah looks like she's on vacation... laid back, relaxed and enjoying the moment. After killing a copious amount of alcohol we take a golf cart ride through the retirement community looking for the big gator Tom likes to visit in the evening when he's hitting a round. We never saw the gator, but we did enjoy beautiful orange hues of sunset on the glassy swamps near the course. It was a gorgeous evening and Sarah couldn't believe that the sky was still lit up at 9pm, being that she had just spent three years on the island where it is always dark by 7pm. I realize how much I miss living with my cousin. We finished up the party about 10pm and hit the sack to get a fresh start on the road in the morning.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Here, There, and Every-freakin-where!

"You are a traveler at heart. There will be many journeys." This statement, found in a fortune cookie many years ago, stares me in the face every morning when I open my refrigerator. There was a time when I lived in Derby NY that half of my diet was sustained at the local chinese take out joint. As you can imagine, I've seen a lot of cheesy fortunes in my day. This one immediately struck a chord and I carried it in my wallet for years, just recently taking it out and putting it on the fridge. Nothing could be more true about my life and personality.

Having been home from Puerto Rico for about six weeks now, I hear the faint voice of my backpack calling me from the closet.... beckoning me... "Jeremy.... Jeremy... there's soooooo many places for you to go, so many adventures to be had. Just take me along and let's go." My backpack and I are well acquainted this day and age, and like a good wife she tells me where and when to go... and makes sure I bring a toothbrush and a clean pair of underwear as well! When I ran into my mother at the bank today, she introduced me to her friend as "her Hobo son, you know the one who is always traveling all over the world.." I'm branded a Hobo. Thanks mom. The point is... I have the permanent itch to travel and lucky for me the next scratch is coming in a few weeks....

While strolling the cobblestone streets of San Juan on a fine, sunny day a few months back, my "Coastie" friend Sarah mentioned that she was getting transferred to Alaska late in the month of June. She also mentioned that she would be picking up her vehicle in Orlando Florida and driving it all the way to her new post on the complete opposite side of the North American continent over the course of a few weeks. An amazing road trip, funded by the government of course, and over 80 hours of driving.... much of it in the Canadian wilderness. Now.... if she only had somebody to help with the driving.... I could barely hold back the rapid fire response of "I'll go!", to which she responded calmly, "Ok, cool. We'll talk about it over a beer later" Friggin' military brat! She kept walking like we didn't just make plans to DRIVE TO ALASKA FROM FLORIDA! It felt like she asked if I wanted sandwich or a burger for lunch... there was hardly an emotion. She was cool as a cat all the way.

I was jumping out of my clothes with excitement. I kept imagining the long, winding highways, cities, mountains, lakes, changing geographical features... Alaska! I've never been to Alaska, or most of Canada for that matter. Most of my Canadian exploits have never passed Toronto, with the exception of a trip to whitewater raft in Ottawa many moons ago. My mind was racing with all the possibilities. Of course, there was a TON of driving involved, but I'm a road trip junkie.... the deal was sealed over a few cold Medalla's later that evening. I leave June 22nd in the morning for a direct flight to Orlando. Rock on!

The excitement doesn't stop there however. Once said road trip is complete, I will be flying home to Buffalo only to get back on the road with my mom July 7th for a trip across the US in her 20 year old, 38 foot Winnebago. Our first stop will be Cedar Point in Sandusky Ohio for 3 action packed days of roller coaster madness! Indeed we are a roller coaster family, and there is no better place in the world from what I've been told. From there we head west to such places as Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands, The Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park! Our loosely held plan is to return sometime mid-August... a gypsy woman, her Hobo son, her 9 year old son, and possibly Grandma (if she's feeling up to it). Unbelievable.

As of now, my plan is to work the end of the summer and early fall... then I'm thinking of a solo trip to India to visit all my old roommates and buddies! Who knows what will happen.... that is the exciting part! I will have lots to talk about though, that is for sure! Keeping it moving...... Jeremy

p.s. For those of you following the "Secret Psychic Life of Sammy Nichols".... I'm sorry for the lapse in writing. I will make it up to you!