Reflecting on the Road to Glaciers

I have thought a lot lately about my trip, with friends Chrissy and Shane, to Glacier National Park in July, which I haven’t yet written about. The majesty of Glacier is overwhelming to behold, transporting visitors to a place that feels much further away than it appears on any map. With time, my recollections about the park have evolved from a numb grasp of its ancient beauty to a more serene appreciation.

Glacier National Park is located in Northern Montana along the Canadian border, far from cities and sustained only by quiet towns offering at most one bar, one gas station, and a hotel. In unparalleled contrast to the entrance into the Great Smokey Mountains there are no overly commercialized hotels and dinner shows offering cheap entertainment to park visitors.

We arrived on a drowsy and frigid night after a full day of travel from Yellowstone. After passing Helena, few convenience stores, gas stations, or restaurants offered respite from our journey. We entered from the East into the park, a relatively remote and unpopulated route. Landscapes stretching dozens of miles with a single farm house were a common sight on either side of the Interstate. Cows deliberately chewed their grass, alone in watching the highway traffic that clipped along too fast to completely appreciate the natural grandeur.

While planning the drive, we underestimated the distances on a map. Without giving attention to the real distance between Yellowstone and Glacier, or perhaps indulging in the  timeless continuum of the nature that only exists far away from cities, our endeavor began to appear overzealous as stars began to take hold of the sky. We had planned to camp within Glacier that night, however, our late arrival and the crispness of the frigid air easily convinced us that a hotel would be preferable.

Having decided on booking a hotel, acquiring a cellular signal was a rare luxury that allowed only a fleeting opportunity to check our distance and hotel prices. The normal tools I employed to find hotels while traveling (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Hotwire), lagged painfully separated by mountains and blackness from the nearest town.

Meanwhile, Chrissy weaved frenetically through valleys of invisible depths on a barely paved road as Shane slept fast in the backseat. We blindly raced toward a hotel we thought might have vacancies. I had called St. Mary’s Lodge near the east entrance to Glacier National Park, yet the poor reception made only every other word decipherable. Again, the time it took to travel to the hotel astounded us.

We arrived after midnight at St. Mary’s lodge, only to learn that most ‘normal’ rooms had been sold. However, as we found out, rooms were available in the basement for half the price of a regular room. Not wanting to drive further, we took the rooms.

I was too tired from the long drive to inspect the room. But, it was cold. And, being in a basement, there were no windows. I turned on the radiator and started a hot shower to add humidity. Within 15 minutes the small room became cozy enough to sleep…

The next morning at 8 AM after less than six hours of sleep, my room phone began to ring, and ring, and ring. Chrissy began calling incessantly to wake me. We had a full day of exploration within Glacier National Park to begin. As I remember, I reluctantly and venomously answered the call. Foremost in my mind was the thought of refusing to awake. I don’t usually fully awake until my first words are spoken. That day I, regrettably, remember wanting those first words to curse my friend who was insistent upon waking me. After our conversation, I slowly began to awake from a sound torpor.  As my deep dreams evanesced, reality solidified in my mind; the forthcoming adventure and exploration inside the park fortified my will to awake.

That day, the exploration began in the hotel. Chrissy and Shane’s basement room had a window for ventilation—yet, as far as we could tell, not to the outside. Through the window, a huge empty corridor stretched into darkness behind the line of rooms in the basement. The cool, dank smell of aged wood, isolation, and collecting dust exhaled through the window. The cavernous void brought morbid thoughts of what could be hiding there and of what it once was. A grand ballroom, perhaps. Yet, as manmade things decay and fall out of usefulness, the  ancient majesty that awaited outside, did not decay. It’s maturation brought more distinction and splendor. The National Park beckoned.

The Last of an Era: The Endeavor to Endeavour

Already having tried and failed once, I was determined to catch a shuttle launch in person, before the last chance came and went. The first try came in the form of a cleverly scheduled layover in Orlando after a trip to PowerShift, an environmental conference in DC. As it turned out, the planning itself was clever, but was no match for the mysterious nature of the elusive shuttle launch. My planning turned out to be in vain, as the news came that the launch of Endeavour would be delayed a few weeks. Stuck in DC, with a flight to Orlando, I was forced to book a flight home through Orlando from Washington, DC. Fortunately I was able to find a flight that would only cost me $100 extra than a direct flight home, so I was content and booked it.

At the time, I didn’t realize that a ticket on paper could mean so much adventure to come. That is, I didn’t realize that the ticket I held, would turn out to be one of the worst flight experiences ever had by man. Aside from waking at 6am to reach Reagan National Airport in time, the flight to Orlando was pleasant. I sat next to a lovely woman looking forward to spending her vacation at Walt Disney World and the Magical World of Harry Potter. This is when the fun evaporated. I had one hour to reach my next flight.

I should have researched from which terminals my flights departed. With my last-minute ticket, I had to exit security and reenter. Normally,  I think, this would have been an inconvenient fact of life, however TSA decided that day that I was a potential terrorist. Maybe because I was wearing a sweater in the humid 80˚ Florida springtime heat, or because I looked tired, or travelling alone, or maybe because I was behind some woman that the narcotics dog took an uncanny liking to… nevertheless, I was detained.

I got to stand in a clear detention cell, as a TSA agent asked me irritating questions and swabbed my hands for explosives. 10 wasted minutes slowly passed. I was released. Now I had to run, sprint, rather, to the terminal to catch my hell-bound flight to Dallas.

That I was sitting next to the most annoying, self-important woman in America ended up being only a mild discomfort on this flight. American Airlines, all too generously, made sure my discomfort level was more than adequate. The flight was diverted from Dallas, due to thunderstorms, finally landing in Austin after 2 hours of circling Dallas in a holding pattern when we were almost out of gas. The hours on the tarmac ticked by. Two hours passed in the heat of Texas before the doors were opened to allow some fresh air to circulate the cabin alleviating the passengers gasping for clean air. Although, even as the fresh breeze rolled in, the man behind me continued to hack up a lung.

7 hours after the scheduled arrival, I landed in Dallas. Greeted by no one. No AA agents in sight, I waited in the only available line for another hour to book a flight to my last-choice airport in the LA area, LAX. Thankfully, I was able to get a flight, which meant that I wouldn’t have to spend a night stuck in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. I arrived home, finally. Tired and defeated. Although, I know this type of experience is all too common, it is hardly understated here.

NASA remained reluctant for several weeks to commit to a new launch date. As I waited, I began to prepare my car and bags for a quick departure to Kennedy Space Center. The date finally became set, one week prior to the launch, as the appropriate fixes and preparations were made to Endeavour for Monday, May 16, 2011. I left on the Thursday. I had four days to drive across country. Trying to motivate myself to leave, after the last delay was difficult. I didn’t know how long I would be gone. If NASA delayed the launch again, I would stay in Florida until the shuttle finally lifted off. I had to prepare myself for all scenarios.

I had driven across country many times before, however, never alone. My life for those few days became driving. I would wake up with the sun and drive. The first day I made it from Orange County to Deming, NM. I slept in a Walmart parking lot that night. Fearing for my life, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but I survived. Cars kept turning on and people congregating in the parking lot all night long. The experience, however, helped me to sleep in the car at rest stops and Walmarts later in this endeavor. Halfway through Texas, the next day, I desperately needed a shower after sweating through the heat. I stopped just outside of Houston at a 24 Hour Fitness to shower and get some much needed exercise. Most would never think to use their gym as a place to shower and freshen up on a road trip, but it worked out pretty well. Of course, I did have to buy a towel, shampoo and soap to shower. The drive continued through New Orleans, where I indulged on beignets, to Pensacola, FL. The launch was within reach with 1 day to go.

I arrived in Titusville, FL early Sunday afternoon. Expecting to see a large crowd of half a million observers camping out, I was surprised to find a ghost town, with one open grocery store and no open restaurants. I drove around, circling the Kennedy Space Center to find a spot closest to the shuttle with the best view. Ultimately I decided upon the first spot I found in Titusville. Across a bridge from the town, on a sandy island just before the entrance gates into the KSC. By the time I had explored all possible campsites, the sun was setting. I settled on a location off the side of the road, next to the swampy water with a clear view of the shuttle launchpad and completely surrounded by RVs filled with eager enthusiasts.

The bridge closed two hours before and after the launch, so everyone crowded in the day before..

I was one of the first to arrive at the site, despite it already being packed. Within a few hours of setting up my tent, several others came to scope out the area next to me. I picked a perfect site, the only flat hard-packed surface for 5 yards in any direction. I had pleasant conversations with a commercial airline pilot from Bakersfield, a retired engineer who used to work on the Apollo missions, and a man from Pennsylvania who pretended he knew everything about the launch. The pilot was the most interesting. Encouraging me to take flying lessons and take air-trips instead of road-trips across the country. I think my license plate and Berkeley stickers adorning my car drew a lot of attention, as I had traveled the farthest by car.

The night passed away slowly with a couple beers from the local grocery store, canned soup heated up by my camp stove, and experimentation with night photography. The shuttle launchpad provided a wonderful background, even at night. It was lit up as a beacon to the stars, illuminating the path to be taken in a few hours by the shuttle. I had to take occasional breaks to ward off neighbors who wished to park or camp too close. One man ran over a palm tree and nearly smashed my car as he piloted his SUV over thick bush to squeeze into a space next to me.

The lighted path skyward.

I awoke early that morning to the sound of thousands of people scattered around the KSC trying to find the best spot. Realizing that my prime spot would not last long if I didn’t stake it out, I set up my camera tripod on a rock on the water. People weren’t deterred. New arrivers didn’t hesitate to trample through my campsite, just feet from my tent and set up chairs, radios, and photography equipment. They were indifferent to me explaining that I had waited overnight. Regardless, I went down to my tripod at 8:50am to prepare for the launch now just 6 minutes away.

Launch!

Competing radio broadcasts were echoing across the island. The countdown began at 8:56am. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5. [LIFTOFF] 4, 3, 2,1″ The signal delay was unexpected. The shuttle was in the air by the count of 1!  I started snapping pictures as soon as the blinding orange fire lit up the sky with a brightness shining nearly as bright as the sun.

The long shadow cast by the shuttle's exhaust.

The shuttle remained in view for 20 seconds before disappearing beyond the low cloud cover. I was at first discouraged that I had driven 2,500 miles to see the shuttle for 20 seconds, however, as fellow onlookers began to point out, a shadow from the exhaust was being cast from high above on the low clouds. Otherworldly in appearance, the shadow lasted for many moments. I’m sure seeing the shuttle disappear into the horizon, many miles above the surface, could have possibly been more exciting. Yet, the exhaust’s shadow combined with the deep roar of the launch a full minute afterwards made my imagination wander, much like when looking at black and white photos. Seeing only the reflection makes imagine reality. I was inside the shuttle while watching the exhaust through the clouds and hearing the thunder as merely an echo from where the shuttle was minutes before.

As quickly as the launch began, the shadows faded, the thunder abated, and people evaporated. Titusville was again a ghost town. I was back on the road to Miami. But with one priceless dream completed.

The Culinary Vagabond: She-Crab soup in Charleston

I am writing now, for this post and many more to follow, as a Culinary Vagabond.

My stay in Charleston included many treasures, one of them being 82 Queen. A quaint, very Southern, very Charleston restaurant. It is one of those restaurants that makes you hate yourself after you finish your meal.

Walking to the restaurant along Queen St. you pass many, many restaurants that seem as if they were out of a Civil War history book. The architecture in Charleston, in general, stops the “Northerner” in his tracks (a term Charlestonians use frequently to describe all those who are not from the Deep South) every few steps, as you pass the antebellum houses and shops.

I found this restaurant, thanks to Yelp, one of the greatest travel aids a traveler can ask for. I searched “best She-Crab soup”. Several restaurants came up, each claiming to have the best, but doing a search for reviews from local Charlestonians, this seemed to win their hearts. It won mine.

After much inner dialogue, I decided to get everything on the menu. Well, almost… Fried Peaches and Fried green tomatoes to start. She-crab soup. Crab Cakes for the main course. And Chocolate and Bourbon Pecan Pie to finish me off.

Not usually a fan of peaches, the Fried peaches were an oddity I had never before seen at a restaurant. I had to get them. The sugars within the peaches caramelize around the edges and gave a nice crunch each bite. The acidity was cooked away in perfection. The fried green tomatoes, were just as excellent. But no as much of a surprise for me, because I already knew how good they are. Although, the fried tomatoes here are among the best I’ve had.

Now to the reason I came here. The She Crab Soup. I am glad I didn’t look up the recipe for she-crab soup, because I might not have sought a restaurant that served it. Ignorance served me well. Look it up after you eat it! It was by far, the best soup I’ve ever had. The sherry gave it a fine biting aftertaste that complemented the creme and balanced out the fullness of the crab. The soup, along with the kindness of the Charlestonians (especially the maître d’, whose Charleston accent was so thick and welcoming) convinced me I could remain in Charleston forever… If only I could.

Being in Charleston, and having already eaten the she-crab soup, I decided I needed to try the crab cakes. Again, the perfect choice. Very crabby, in a good way.

As if I hadn’t eaten enough, I ordered the Chocolate and Bourbon pecan pie for dessert. A sucker for pecan pie, it was a must. It ranks among the top 2 pecan pies I’ve ever had, tied with the honey pecan pie at Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville, NC. Although, the bourbon in this recipe might put this pecan pie in first place.

… The ambience of 82 Queen was, to define it in a couple words, fancy and Southern. I felt like I was dining a few hundred years ago, in a well-furnished, opulent, and candlelit household adorned with the finest decorations from Europe and East Asia.

The few drawbacks of this place, for me are that trying to find the hostess kiosk to make a reservation. We had to wait for about 30 minutes as our table was prepared in the bar. Which was a pleasant time as I sipped the local Palmetto Charleston Lager. And the price was expensive. But you get what you pay for. A delicious meal, with a price. And the best (only) she-crab soup I’ve ever had.

As many opulent experiences on my travels come from the restaurants where I’ve dined, I am, at the moment, your Culinary Vagabond. <www.opulentvagabond.yelp.com>

After 52 days of travel, Finding time to think… and write

You might think in the serenity of Glacier National park or hundreds of miles away from the nearest city in Nevada or in the oppressing humidity of the Southern Summer that I’d find plenty of time to write about my adventures. Yet, it is often easier to take in the beauty and reflect. To lose myself in the moment. And write later. As such, It might be the epitome of laziness and hedonism to indulge in my travels to such an extent that I cannot even write what I am thinking. So much is lost from memory as time passes, which is my foremost regret in not chronicling my adventures more thoroughly. Memories begin tangle together like kudzu vines taking over the South. They weigh down the mind as Spanish moss on Southern Live Oak or the remaining glaciers hanging on the tops of mountains.

Finally, here I sit in Salt Lake City, at the La Quinta Inn, dividing my attention between the TV, Netflix, and my friends traveling with me, ready to write something. Finally with an hour to spend not driving, hiking, rafting, talking, or planning. Yet, I feel too exhausted from so much travel to write anything other than this rant about finding time to clear my mind.

The whirlwind of traveling in these two months passed has changed my outlook on the world in ways I cannot yet put together. I have been ‘on the road’ for 52 days out of the last two months, spending only 10 days at home, non-consecutively.

With the many long days of travel in the last two months, Travel has become more of a lifestyle than a luxury for me. Encountering new people and geography has become normal and anticipated.

It might sound trivial, but my most significant revelation from these 52 days is that the ground is still solid around the world. Among different cultures, changing landscapes, oppressive temperatures, and great misfortunes, I still have the earth upon which I can stand. I find comfort knowing that I am still me far away from home and people I know. The more I explore and wander, I find new ways of life, different and not-so-different from mine. The cowboys of the South, the ranchers of Texas, the barley and hay growers of Montana, or the libertarians of the most rural areas differ from my own background such that understanding might take a lifetime to achieve. However, puzzling and great as these differences might be, I attempt to look beyond the topical differences. Along with the ground, I am discovering that people around the world can be relied upon with the same consistency. Some don’t understand or like how I am different. Others are oblivious and depressed in their daily lives. I have encountered both in my travels. From the gracious Southern hospitality to hospitality lacking in all refinement and manners, people around the world, while differing in their ways, are generally quite kind.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have time to reflect on my travels, before the next series of adventures begin. And I hope to recall the many moments our country has shared with me. Please expect a greater frequency of posts about life at the speed limit from this opulent vagabond.

Tales From the Fifty

I began typing this post in Montgomery, Alabama… I am now sitting in New Orleans, LA, as I am writing this introduction… but this post began to write itself 25 years ago, when I first opened my eyes in California. Then 23 years ago, when I first traveled outside of California to Tennessee and Kentucky at the age of 2. After countless adventures within and outside of the United States, I visited my 50th state, South Carolina, 3 days ago. These are a few short tales from each of the 50.

Alabama is a state of emotional extremes. In Mobile, an aspiring jeweler and college student ignored a red light and wrecked the front end of my beloved car. On the civil rights trail in Montgomery, emotion overcame me as I stood where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first sermons and where Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat.

 

Some @$$ ran a red light, hit me, and lied about it so I would get blamed for the accident.


 

Alaska never let the sun set as I watched from the cruise ship balcony.

Arizona dazzled me with its natural beauty and heard my protests in front of the Capitol about their discriminatory immigration bill.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, the childhood home of President Clinton, burned my mouth with hot natural spring water from a drinking fountain.

California gave me life.

Denver, Colorado failed to sink Molly Brown, her memory now serving the most delicious chocolate cake at the Brown Palace.

New Haven, Connecticut gave me a taste of Ivy League life, walking through the Yale campus.

Wilmington, Delaware breathed fresh air into my starving lungs, as I ran outside from the back of the New-York-bound bus to escape the fermenting excrement breaching the bathroom door.

Washington, DC calls on my heart to return.

Miami, Florida taught me caribbean Spanish, as I wandered it’s colorful streets and wide beaches. The Kennedy Space Center lifted all the observers of Endeavour’s last launch into space for just a few seconds.

Georgia poured hot rain during my tour of Savannah.

Hawaii enjoyed my High School band’s performance during my freshman year aboard the USS Missouri.

Idaho came and went too quickly along I-90

Chicago, Illinois would frighten any traveler afraid of heights atop it’s highest skyscraper, looking down through the clear glass balcony at the 115th story.

Indianapolis, Indiana, with it’s many snow-covered church spires, froze my eyelids shut for the night at a La Quinta Inn. 

Clinton, Iowa, my grandfather’s hometown, surprised me with towering bluffs holding back the Mississippi and rolling hills blanketed with corn—Iowa is not flat. 

Manhattan, Kansas has not seen anyone insane enough make a snow angel in a bathing suit, since.

Mammoth Caves NP, Kentucky intrigued me for so long, my mother thought I had gotten lost in the largest cave system’s labyrinth and reported me missing to the park ranger.

New Orleans, Louisiana fed my stomach with beignets, my eyes with a uniqueness only NOLA has to offer, and my ears with live dixieland jazz.

Maine caught fresh lobster just for me.

Maryland hosted a Paul McCartney concert during my time in DC and introduced me to Qdoba Mexican Grill.

Provincetown, Massachusetts sent shivers down my spine as I felt the presence of Pilgrims at the site where they first discovered freshwater on the North American continent.

Detroit, Michigan welcomed me back to the United States from Ontario, Canada with White Castle sliders.

Minneapolis, Minnesota scared and surprised me with size of the Mall of America.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi taught me a song about “Pea bread” on the cassette for the self-guided tour.

St. Louis, Missouri welcomed me to the Western frontier as I walked underneath the Gateway Arch.

Missoula, Montana disappointed me greatly by ending the “Testicle Festival” one week before I arrived.

Chimney Rock, Nebraska looked more like an “Elk Penis”, as the Native American’s called it.

Area 51, Nevada, in my quest for the ‘truth’, threatened to shoot me if I stepped any closer to the gates.

New Hampshire froze a each lake and each snow-covered tree in the White Mountains along the Kancamagus Highway.

New Jersey greedily took my money on the turnpikes and on bridges.

The Very Large Array, New Mexico destroyed the autofocus on my new camera with smoke and ash from the raging fires in Arizona. Roswell, New Mexico helped me discover the ‘truth’.

In front of the VLA antenna maintenance building. These antennas are HUGE!

New York, New York refused to let me see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, because Bill and Hilary Clinton’s black SUV approached Times Square from the same street we did.

Great Smoky Mountains NP, North Carolina offered countless overlooks and many miles of winding roads through the Appalachian mountains, which look blue as they approach the horizon. Kill Devil Hills taught me how to fly where the Wright Brothers made their first flight, changing the world forever.

 

Fargo, North Dakota stole my debit card information at a gas pump, leaving me with no money for the rest of my trip.

Ohio has never seen anyone play the air guitar so well to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine”.

Oklahoma narcotics officers assumed two young men with beards from California would have drugs in their car; and Oklahoma welcomed me to Carrie Underwood’s hometown, Checotah

Astoria, Oregon welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River and began my own trip to retrace their journey westward.

Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, a nearly deserted town, offered little more than a large acorn-shaped statue to commemorate “Pennsylvania’s Roswell” UFO crash in 1965.

Providence, Rhode Island, home of Brown University, failed to provide a glimpse of Emma Watson as I roamed the campus.

South Carolina fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting all 50 states on June 22, 2011.
 

South Dakota‘s rolling Black Hills inspired me with their natural serenity and brought American history to life with their manmade side.

Tennessee enchanted me with beautiful women and beautiful music.

Texas must have highways that wind around in circles; no state can require so many hours to cross.

Utah horrified me with a talking psychedelic 20-foot tall Jesus in the Mormon Temple Visitor Center.

Vermont watched just on the other side of the border as Quebecois border guards searched my car.

Virginia‘s history is America’s history; from Jamestown to Appomattox, from Richmond to the Pentagon, it seems everything happened in Virginia.

Seattle, Washington is the city of sunshine, for me, at least.

West Virginia provided safe passage through the Appalachians.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin convinced me of it’s reputation for beer and cheese.

Wyoming threw a whiteout blizzard at me, driving down I-25, causing me to drive just off the road into a snow bank.

The Beginning…

Country Music Culture Shock: The Misplaced Cowboy

Gold records at the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame

“I don’t want to be a cowboy. I’ve never ridden a horse. I don’t own a truck. I would only put on a cowboy hat to see how dumb I look.” ~ Those of us I-like-every-type-of-music-except-for-Country people have probably also said something along those lines at some point.

Driving into Nashville (the home of Country music), lush broad-leafed trees carpet the rolling hills. As I drove in, my worldview encountered a problem. A shock. A Country Music Culture Shock…

Having traveled the South extensively before, the green, miserably humid climate wasn’t much of a surprise on it’s own. But, leaving Memphis, the home of Blues and Rock and Roll I prepared myself mentally for the shift in genres between the two cities. I began to think of what Country is…

Being from California and closer to the Southwestern US, I normally associate Country with people in a huge truck and cowboy hat. Or, I think of rural areas and industrial agriculture, like the Central Valley of California or the Great Plains. However, for me, Country music is set in the desert, in the West, with more cowboy hats and cactuses than trees. I think of John Wayne and Gene Autry. I imagine modern Country singers in the same way. Probably because they dress like wannabe, misplaced cowboys.

Taking in the landscape of Tennessee on the way to Nashville, I was understandably surprised to find no similarities in the environment between the Cowboy’s homeland and the South… Yet, here was Country music on every radio station, Western wear advertised on billboards, every man wearing a cowboy hat, and every man and every woman in a truck. This is Nashville? This is the “Country”? Someone has to be lying to themselves!

Okay. So, everyone knows that real cowboys don’t exist anymore in the U.S. The golden age of the cowboy effectively ended when Joseph Glidden patented modern barbed wire, forever restricting the open ranges of the cowboy to private ranches. The cowboys’ relevance to getting cattle to production declined very quickly. But the culture and wardrobe remained. Not only did it remain, it grew. Stories of the Wild West captivated millions long after the last cowboy was gone.

But was there ever a cowboy in the South? I think not.

In Nashville, I went to the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame, because every visitor should. Hoping to find answers to my questions, I spent a lot of time learning the history of Country. I felt like an idiot when the first exhibit discussed Country Western music. “Of course,” I thought, “I knew that.” The two have a long history of influence on each other, which, as I found out has little to do with the cowboy. Rather, the two share influences of life on the frontier. The “Hillbilly Music” as it was called before the term fell out of favor in the early 20th century, originated in part from the pioneers in who settled deep in Appalachia and newly opened up areas of further west, in part from the rich musical traditions of the slaves. As with all music, this was sung about life on the frontier. It became apparent, as I walked through this museum, that Western and Hillbilly instructed and informed listeners on life away from the cities.

While the hillbilly became relegated to the most reviled levels of society, the image of the cowboy flourished. Early in the 20th century, the commonalities of life on the frontiers attracted these two strands, Western and Hillbilly, together. Hillbilly, then increasingly being referred to as Country, music began to adopt the popular characteristics of Western music, and vice versa. The cowboy persona became a symbol of a way of life, despite cultural, ethnic, or geographical backgrounds. I think I now understand why the image of the cowboy is so necessarily tied with Country music.

In the process of discovery, I recalled political science texts concerning classes and groups within society. People of the same socioeconomic group from different geographical locations share more similarities than people of different socioeconomic groups in the same location. In other words, farmers and ranchers in Tennessee have more in common with farmers and ranchers in California, than do movie producers and farmers in Los Angeles.

The relative number of cowboys was small, even in their heyday. So, maybe everyone who pretends to be a cowboy is lying to themselves. But, cultural identities are constantly evolving. In the end, I would be lying to myself if I firmly maintained the view that ‘cowboys’ only exist in the West. Western and Country (Hillbilly) have been intricately fused together in modern variants of Country. Yet, as with any musical genre or cultural movement a battle rages on over the future direction. Nashville and Bakersfield long fought over how Country would sound, in the mid 20th century, eventually co-creating the sounds of today.

Today our world is hyper-connected. Ideas are shared instantly across our Earth. Yet, so often we overlook similarities and focus on differences. At home in California, I notice only differences between my own views and those of my neighbors. And they, the differences between their views and mine. I drove 2,000 miles to the (Country) Music City to find out that Nashville is strongly Democratic. 2,000 miles to realize the story Country tells is not entirely different from my own. 2,000 miles to find kind Country-loving Southerners who tip their hats (often cowboy hats), say hello to a stranger, who love my ‘foreign’ accent, and who wave happily when they see California license plates.

In my quest to understand my Country Music Culture Shock, I didn’t just learn about the misplaced cowboys in the South. I saw geographical distances and my preconceived beliefs about people and music melt away. Thank y’all Country, for teaching me we have at least as many similarities as we do differences.

So do I now like Country music more? I think so… But, at the very least, I understand it more. If I may resurrect the classical image of the Wild West cowboy: Cowboys rode to the horizon. Their range had no boundaries. They were never satisfied to remain at one place in life…

Still… I’ve never ridden a horse. I don’t own a truck. I would only put on a cowboy hat to see how dumb I look… but, if my car is my horse or truck, and the cowboy hat is purely figurative, then the definitions of “cowboy” and “Opulent Vagabond” are not so different.

Road Blocked: Through ghost towns and smoky blizzards

The intoxicating effects of beginning the day with the magnificent Sedona sunrise carried my spirit many hours through the switchbacks guarding the valley of red rocks and the miles of barren highway thereafter. Only a short ride on Interstate 40 and the ubiquitous road workers recalled the traffic and business of big city life. I plotted out the route to the Very Large Array in SW New Mexico (one of the remotest areas of the US, away from light pollution, radio noise, and Walmarts, McDonald’s and just about everything else) not knowing how close it would take us to the uncontrolled Wallow Fire in Arizona.

We left the interstate at Holbrook, a town I remember for its many fast food restaurants and the towering mountain of coal at the Cholla Power Plant on its outskirts. A few months ago, I tried on an earlier trip to get would-be propaganda for the fight against coal. I circled the coal plant like a hungry shark, searching for a damning photo. Other than the view from the interstate, where you zip by at 75mph, the coal mountain is hidden. This time, I drove on, knowing that coal barons do their best to conceal the dirty truth of coal. And the foul burning smell of ancient death further compelled me to drive on a little faster to get far, far away.

The wide four lane Interstate, turned into a two lane highway sparsely populated by travelers. The earth was scorching at over 100˚. Rolling hills and families of cactuses passed as sand in an hourglass. The unchanging desert landscape only being interrupted by an occasional town. Each telling the same tale—Once a town, now a ghost town. Each Main St., forgotten by most long ago, offered the traveler only a dusty glimpse into the past through its cobwebbed shopfronts. The county sheriffs sit at each end, just hoping to catch a speeder. And so the few-and-far-between ghost towns passed…

I first thought it was a low-lying cloud. But it seemed drastically out of place in the cloudless Arizona sky. The rising cloud looked like a volcanic plume more than anything else. I knew volcanoes weren’t erupting in Arizona, but something told me it still meant disaster. At this point, I recalled the devastating wildfires raging across Arizona, which until then, were very far from my mind on that cloudless day. I thought they were far away in western Arizona! Looking for solutions, I frantically began a search on my phone for road closures before the fading data connection completely failed. I felt relieved as the news came in that no closures existed, as of yet, on Highway 60. The drive continued. With every mile, the smoke kept creeping closer to the road. Yet, I drove on. Miles and miles passed as the road teased the traveler by turning toward then away from the smoke, now making the blue sky gray. I maintained confidence and hope that the highway would snake around the inferno.

We approached the intersection where US-60 turns into Main St. Springerville, AZ and then continues East into New Mexico. At the edge of a gray curtain of smoke, no less than four police cars, a half dozen road workers, and a fire chief had set a barricade turning all traffic around. Springerville was less than a half of a mile away. I couldn’t see anything behind the shadowy curtain of ash falling sideways from the sky, thicker than snow during a blizzard. I asked the officer at the road block if any quick detour existed. No. We would have to drive 60 miles back to the interstate to begin a long 400 mile loop to reach the VLA, only 100 miles ahead. A hundred impassable miles.

Irritable and tired from losing an hour of sleep for the sunrise, I lost it. I was furious that I had wasted so much time trying to reach the VLA. Furious that  the AZ Department of Transportation didn’t list all the road closures due to the fire. Furious that I would have to retrace the road. Of course, now with some reflection, I’m not sure how I could have expected to drive through the dense fog of smoke. How would I breathe? How would I have seen the road? I spent just a few seconds outside while retaking the drivers seat. Even in front of the smoky curtain, ash and smoke dominated all my senses. I saw ash falling like evil snowflakes. I felt ash stinging my eyes. The smoke tasted like charcoal and smelled like matches. My heart hurt for the people behind the smoky curtain.
Intuition told me to get out. Only once before, had I been so anxious about approaching a guarded barricade. That was Area 51, Nellis Air Force Base, where signs clearly give the guards permission to shoot you, if you cross. I imagine here, outside Springerville, crossing would ultimately have ended the same way.

After hearing the officer say, “No, you’ll need to go back to the Interstate 40,” I made a U-turn, drove a safe distance, and hammered my foot down on the accelerator. The tires broke loose on the road freshly powdered with ash. Although, I doubt anyone heard over the roar of the smoky wind. So began the drive to Albuquerque. Passing another coal plant, I thought, still in an impassioned rage… Why do we burn things? Destructive, just like the wild fire. More destructive. A blizzard of death. Burning fossil fuels kills more people than wildfires…

The wild fire might not have burnt down my house or endangered my life, but even far enough away from the flames I could feel its destructive power in my own life. This long detour was caused by one thing… The Fire…easily adding $200 to the cost of the trip from the detour. And prices aren’t easily given to frustration, anger, disappointment, or time. It would take me another day and many miles to feel the full cost—the toll the fire exacted on my passage.