Category Archives: Road Trip

Power Play and the Extinct Spivey

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On the highway from Kansas City to Des Moines, I am reading a collection of essays, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I find DFW touching and thought-provoking for a variety of reasons relating not only to the craft of his writing and its topical matter, but also to the tragic cult of personality surrounding him. Probably one of my more annoying traits is a penchant for artists who have committed suicide–Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath, DFW, to name a few–but I would venture to say that Wallace is, to me, in a category all his own. The front of my paperback copy reads:

“There is no writer alive more incisive and hilarious, more ruthlessly tender, when it comes to documenting the perversities of modern American life.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Sad irony of the descriptor “alive” aside, I think this perfectly encapsulates what I love about him: “ruthlessly tender”. He exposes oddities of our existence to reveal them in their barest absurdity, and yet he blames no one for the extremity of such bizarre behavior. He is one of us, too, after all. This is, of course, a bit untrue–his novel Infinite Jest tops many lists of the best novel of the century, and its genius is undeniable (if not inextricable from its “pretension” or “high-brow” level of erudition, insert whichever phrase suits you here). He often praises other geniuses in a variety of areas, and I always think, “Yes, but you are every bit as much of a genius as they are!” almost scorning his self-deprecation in light of his subject’s greatness. I realize, by the way, I am almost always referring to DFW in the present tense, which I suppose speaks to the immortality writing seems to give a person. Suppose when I say “him” I actually mean “his writing”, and am too lazy to write the whole thing out every time. Or maybe I like to imagine he is still alive, because the reality is too sad to remember.

Okay, but so, Audrey, you’re writing a travel blog and what does this have to do with your trip? I’m getting there. See, the funny thing about reading DFW is that it makes you–well, me–start to narrate things in my head the way he writes. And so today, when we embarked upon our Kansas adventure, I kept observing in the way (I felt) he might have.

What was our Kansas adventure? Originally it was going to be an art museum, a tour of Kansas City’s sculpture gardens and park fountains, and/or a tour of the Hallmark Factory. But maybe we were tired. Maybe I was cranky. Maybe it was just that we knew it was the end, and/or that the thought of taking in more history through glossy exhibits with plaques telling me why what happened should be relevant to me now made me just utterly exhausted, but none of these sounded appealing as a “last hurrah” for our exhaustive Southern expedition.

Therefore, our Kansas excursion tried to incorporate three things one or both of us love: barbecue (Jay), used books (me, and to a lesser extent Jay), and play (both of us). The barbecue I’m told was indeed good; I ate a lighter meal so that I might eat a bourbon-infused pecan pie slice… Holy cow Golden Ox you can make a pie. The book store, “Spivey’s Old Maps, Fine Art, Prints&Rare Books” [sic], was sadly way out of business; we should have looked it up more closely. It’s a real shame too–the business storefront still had its sign and I think I would have loved the place. But anyway, the play was had at Power Play Entertainment Center. Yep, Jay and I rubbed shoulders (so to speak) with all the YMCA and Bible Campers in their matching neon knee-length tee shirts, scraggly hairdos, and skinned knees at an even more McDonald’s Play Place/Discovery Zone/arcade/amusement park-type location.

…And it was SO much fun. I noticed things I definitely didn’t the last time I visited such a place: the subliminal messages everywhere to “spend more [of your parents’] money!”: the timer pressuring you to put in another token to play again, the “feed me more!” talking ticket-counter, the seductive dim overhead lighting to augment the bright lights of the games. I went in the prize room to cash in my tickets–it turns out I am an all-right Skee-Ball player!–and realized, I could easily pocket any one of these prizes, or indeed purchase them at a Rite Aid anytime I wanted. Not that I want to steal or buy a cheap trinket from a Rite Aid, but the tickets no longer had the magical power they once did for me; I remember once feeling so attached to the sense of possibility in the tickets themselves that I saved some in a jewelry box for years instead of cashing them in. That said, I still was very pleased to see I could “afford” the three metallic swirly blue, green, and purple bouncy balls with the amount of tickets Jay and I had won.

Part of what makes DFW so great (I think) is that he never denies the pleasures of typically conceived “low brow” activities, never implies that he is above such “base” pleasures, or that one should feel shame for enjoying them (see, for example, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”). For my part–and I think why a lot of hipsters also love him–I find him liberating because I am inclined towards a lot of “high brow” tastes. Classical music, the Great Books, Art House films, oh, and I want to go into theater (or worse, “theatre”). Combine that  with my general disdain for popular music, and I feel like I might as well have Pretentious tattooed on my face. But reading Wallace–who undoubtedly has his share of intellectual snobbery–reminds me that everybody has their share of “guilty pleasures”, and that there’s really no need to see them as such, or pretend that I don’t have them. So, I try to emulate his attitude and fully embrace the cheesy things I like. (Some) musicals, sitcoms like Friends and Frasier, Disney movies (despite their blatant anti-feminism, the further you go back in time)… and arcades.

I will Tilt-A-Whirl and play Skee-Ball and Whack-A-Mole and Air Hockey and Ropes Course and eat cotton candy and win tickets and exchange them for bouncy balls all. day. long. [picture neon yellow sunglasses magically sliding down over my eyes] Deal with it!

So that was Kansas. Probably should go back to really see the city, but overall it was a lovely last day on the road. Next up is the three week stretch in Des Moines, Iowa, living with Jay’s family before we move to Pasadena.

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Shoshone and Shawnee

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Yesterday we went to the top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Felt more like an amusement park than a national monument… but it was cool. I also couldn’t help but notice from the model of the city they had in the waiting area that the whole thing kind of looks like the female reproduction system, giving birth to St. Louis’ Capitol building, I believe. The ponds on either side are kind of like ovaries, the park in the middle is kinda like a uterus, and the arch itself is like the Fallopian tubes. Or maybe a diaphragm? In any case, I thought it was funny.

The Arch has an entire Museum of Western Expansion in it, too (and some movie theaters playing documentaries about Lewis and Clark), which was designed in such a way that the exhibit actually expanded out from the center. Jay pointed this out; pretty cool. I again found it frustrating how little women of any sort were discussed. I suppose few women were on the expedition, if any, but Shoshone Indian Sacagawea–who played a huge role in L & C’s peaceful relations with the American Indians they encountered–was hardly mentioned. Lewis and Clark’s original diaries (reproduced in the exhibit, with spelling errors abounding) didn’t even use her name in most of the entries. I was, unsurprisingly, disappointed.

Next we went to the City Museum, a really interesting old building converted into half museum, half retro-fitted, iron-work Discovery Zone/McDonald’s Play Place. Or something. It’s difficult to describe. There’s an aquarium there, too, and a Ferris wheel on the rooftop, but we declined on those accounts. It was need, and almost felt like you were exploring an abandoned warehouse (except it was too clean and well-lit and all) but it was ridden with children. We should have guessed–it is the summer, after all–and it seems that the museum does special Friday and Saturday night sessions, which seem to be adult-only. Probably would have felt a little less silly climbing around all the tunnels if there were fewer effortlessly nimble kids flying around. That said, it was a great time. Turns out going down slides is still fun when you’re an adult.

Walked around Left Bank Books–good, standard local independent bookstore–for a while after that, then walked next door to the Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar. 75 beers on tap! I tried port for the first time (very sweet, came in a tiny glass), and had a bourbon barrel aged stout. The Jim Beam tour mentioned that once their aging barrels have been used (bourbons must meet several criteria to count as official bourbon, like having 51% of their mash being made of corn, and not reusing barrels), they’ll often sell them to scotch distilleries or breweries. The stout definitely was bourbon-y, I was delighted to find (though my Cajun shrimp stew was so spicy it was difficult to tell, at first).

Now we’re in KCK (Kansas City, Kansas; as opposed to KCMO, Kansas City, Missouri). Well, sort of. We’re actually in Shawnee Mission, KS, where our Homestead Suites is located. And if anybody needs a last-minute hotel that is only one star on Hotwire.com and is super cheap and you think it’s going to be exceedingly scary to check in after midnight (even though this blogger begrudgingly admits the 65% recommendation rate by previous customers)… then you are a lot like me. Another instance in this trip of my worrying being unnecessary (come to think of it, is worrying ever necessary?). Similar to the other day; I was concerned about showing up an hour and a half late to Ed’s house, feeling rude and worried we’d get a bad reference on CouchSurfing.org (he was kind, didn’t mind our lateness, and gave us a great reference the very next day).

Shawnee Mission is a quiet if not completely business parky-type town. Our hotel–actually a “home stay” type place for business types, I think, no surprise–has a tiny kitchenette, and for all its lack of amenities is actually way more like an actual apartment than a hotel room. I’d take a room like this in lieu of a pool and free breakfast and free HBO anytime. Even though the bed’s only a queen! Seriously. We even have a toaster. Which I’m sure we won’t use before we check out in, like, two hours, but the sight of it is so homey. Note to self: when furnishing a home, buy a toaster almost immediately. It will (apparently, oddly enough) soothe you. Oh! And the hotel’s room is listed as costing $199. We paid far less than that.

But it brings up an interesting question. Jay has continually been surprised by my occasional… mild paranoia about safety. Like our hotel being in a deserted area by the highway (on the outskirts of a sleepy, innocent suburb) making me feel unsafe, or my worry that our Couch Surfing hosts–even when they have countless recommendations from past surfers–might secretly be ax murderers, serial killers, rapists, &c. In reality, this is pretty much impossible. A negative review on the CS website can literally slam you, and they set it up so that you can surf as cautiously as you wish. You can pay a donation to the site to have your address verified, to have people “vouch” for you (I’m not exactly sure how that’s different from a reference, though), to even have your credit and identity checked. These guys aren’t dumb. And yet, my “STRANGER DANGER!” radar, it seems, is so cautious it still balks a little, at times it needn’t do so.

Now there is nothing wrong with keeping in safety in mind when traveling–especially when most of your possessions are easily spottable in the back of your car–but I do feel a bit prone to caution overdrive. Why is this? I feel like it has to do with being raised as a female in our prone-to-overreacting culture. I don’t have much developed through on this, but it is interesting to me; I’ll have to muse on it some more.

 

Unrelated, but: a shout-out to my former-musical-theater-loving self. Over and over in my head plays a bit of “Woe is Me” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee–

My birth mother lives in Kansas, Mo
In a trailer, in a park–tornadoes!

And then the tune continues whirling dervishly* around my head for several more stanzas, whose words I know less well. Why do I remember this particular lyric? Got me. Anyway, if you don’t know this show and like musicals at all, you should look it up.

All right, time to get going. Here we go, Kansas, MO!

*I just looked up what a “whirling dervish” actually is. So I guess the song doesn’t quite make me dizzy and/or/then prophetic, but the phrase sounded so nice! I apologize if I have offended any Muslim mystics.

The Egg Roll Machine

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Jellystone National Park. Dinosaur World. Guntown Mountain Amusement Park. Horse Cave. Mammoth Cave. Diamond Cave. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Four Roses Distillery, Heaven Hill Distillery, Maker’s Mark Distillery, Wild Turkey Distillery, Woodford Reserve Distillery, Jim Beam Distillery! (Aforementioned but) Big Jim’s Boobie Bungalow.

The road into Louisville, Kentucky is ridden with attractions. Who knew in just one state–indeed of just one highway–I could visit three caves, six bourbon distilleries, many, many adult video stores, and a theme park about guns!? Why do people ever leave?

Seriously, though, Louisville was fantastic. Our host, Barry, lived in the again-reminiscent-of-Bk-but-better neighborhood of the Highlands. A little bit of Southern kitsch charm, but mostly it was just genuinely cool. Secondhand stores, record stores, a comic shop, even! (Jay was delighted; but he decided not to stop and take a look inside), dozens of restaurants, frozen yogurt, coffee shops, et cetera ad infinitum. Barry was kind enough to walk us to the main drag–Bardstown Road–and show us where we should eat and drink. This turned out to be Cafe Mimosa and Cumberland Brews. Cafe Mimosa (with the attached “Egg Roll Machine”; I guess they make a bunch of different kinds there) was very good, and the name I think is pretty great. Barry spent a few years teaching English in Japan, so he knew which Asian food was good in the neighborhood. I had a seafood soup with a buncha lobster in it–uh, score. The bar was good, too–I had mead for the first time, which I’m pretty sure is something I’ve wanted to do ever since reading Harry Potter as an eleven-year-old.

Louisville itself is a little less hip, naturally, but no less interesting to explore. We ended up taking a glance at the Actors Theater of Louisville, the beautiful Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the gargantuan Humana building, the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Science Center… but we didn’t go inside anywhere except The Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum. I don’t watch much baseball anymore, but I did love to play softball as a kid. Going through the tour of how they make the wooden bats was interesting, and we got to keep a nub from the bunch of ends they cut off after they finish sanding the bats. Also got one of those tiny souvenir bats complimentary with the tour. Not sure what I’m going to do with mine, but we found it funny that the tour guide specified: “If you’re going on a plane with these, make sure you put them in your checked luggage. The TSA counts this as a weapon.” I’m now picturing several tiny children with tiny bats trying to hurt a plane pilot, or something. Probably possible, but I’m guessing pretty unlikely.

The museum itself was okay, a little kid-oriented, but it should be. I found a little alcove where you could watch mini film clips about this or that topic in baseball. One was “Baseball and the Presidency,” another was “Bringing in a New Generation”, or something, about the passing on of the tradition of the sport from father to son… the one thing I remember was Ken Griffey’s face in the stands when Ken Griffey, Jr. made it into the 500 club. Like Sanya Richards-Ross’s parents when she won the gold for the 400m, it was just the best thing ever. In my opinion. I could watch happy parents in the stands all day long (except for Michael Phelps’ mom, for some reason. She bugs me. Why is that?) The video also had an anecdote about some parents of a now-MLB player. The mom was concerned that her sons were ruining her front yard by playing baseball in it all the time. Her dad just said, “We’re raising boys, not lawns.” I thought that was great.

From there we backtracked a little to the Jim Beam Distillery. Didn’t do the whole bourbon trail–guess that’s on the list for next time–but just the one was pretty neat. Got to step through one of the big warehouses where they age their bourbon in barrels, and it smelled amazing in there. Also got to taste a bit of their Knob Creek and Black Label bourbons afterwards. Quite a nice way to spend an afternoon!

Jay has pointed out that 1.8 million is both the number of bats Louisville Slugger makes every year, and the number of barrels Jim Beam has aging at any time. Cool. In any case, from there we got on the road to St. Louis, which we are about to explore today. Away we go!

Meet Me in St. Lou-ee, Lou-ee…

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In the city with the (way) enormous(er than I ever would have guessed) Arch: St. Louis, Missouri, having just hooked up with another Couch Surfing host. I really mean no offense to Britta in Charleston, Kat(ie) in Savannah, Dan in Nashville, or Barry in Louisville; they were all very kind, very generous, and interesting people to have met along our trip.

But… Ed in St. Louis is a dream. Or, well, really, his home is. Jay and I have the whole basement (including Murphy bed with Tempur-pedic mattress, full bathroom, full bar and living room, two TVs!) to ourselves, I’ve already swum in his pool, he has an adorable dog named Cooper… seriously, if you’re in St. Louis and in need of a place to stay, look this guy up. But you better book in advance; his several bedrooms are booked through September already!  His home seems a work in progress; wallpaper here and cabinet fixtures there are still incomplete, but overall this place is a gem. Clearly Ed has money to spare, and I can’t help but think, “What a great way to put disposable income to use!” Of course, there are probably good charities out there, and hobbies to cultivate, and things to acquire and collect, but I am starting to see the appeal of being a host. Because Couch Surfing (for many, I know some feel differently about this) often functions literally like a free hostel–Ed’s term for his place, actually–with the amount of “amenities” more variable and up to the host’s prerogative, hosting is at once personal but not too much so: a real-live-human connection, but without the invasion of privacy (provided that your guests aren’t assholes, which, hopefully, we are not). I can see how it really appeals to some people, both as an act of philanthropy and of entertainment/self-interest. Many of our hosts say they love meeting people they never would have otherwise by hosting. Ed told us he hosted a family of six last night. He said he probably wouldn’t do that again, but he can always sleep tonight.

As for me, as a guest, I really have enjoyed getting to know these cities (albeit briefly, too briefly in the case of some) from the inside-out, if you will. Our first introduction to these cities have all been the homes of our hosts, and so have been a little on the outskirts/”suburbs” of the metropolis itself, and our ventures downtown have felt therefore much more genuine–like the way a local would do it.

All this reminds me I have completely glossed over Louisville, which certainly gives the city less credit than it deserves. Up next: a backtrack to Kentucky!

Big Jim’s…

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Boobie Bungalow. Yep, that was the name of the adult video store–one of several we’ve now passed on Interstate 65–between Montgomery and Nashville. I had forgotten about it before, but our drive into Louisville (to be discussed in a later post) was again dotted with “ADULT” billboards, and I couldn’t let it go unmentioned.

But where was I? Oh yes, couch surfing in east Nashville. We got into Nashville proper in the morning, and it was rather awesome. I had expected to dislike the country music capital, honestly. I’m a self-proclaimed country music hater–well, “hate” may be a little strong, but I usually visibly cringe at the slightest hint of a twang, or a Taylor Swift song lyric (or both: yeesh!). But the place had this charm about it–flashing lights and hints of music and cowboy boots sold everywhere.

The Country Music Hall of Fame was enormous and beautiful, though I have to say my favorite parts were not really part of the Hall itself. I loved a) the congenially-looking man playing ragtime on a grand piano in the grandiose, open lobby area, and b) the weekly demonstration they were offering. In a small mini auditorium, virtuosic mandolin player Bob Grant played “tunes” for us, while explaining how the mandolin worked, where it came from, &c. Ladies and gentlemen, trust me on this: the mandolin sounds fucking gorgeous. I would like to play one. Or, at least, get some recordings of mandolin solos ASAP and so live vicariously through them. The instrument is double strung, but with the same notes as a violin, and strummed like a guitar. It game from Italy, but has evolved a lot since then, in terms of its usage in American music. Bob Monroe–the inventor of bluegrass, apparently–played a mandolin that the Hall of Fame bought for over a million dollars. What?!

It also can play a lot of different roles in a band: the melody, since any fiddle tune can be played on it; the guitar “filler”, since chords can be strummed on it; and the bass line–in bluegrass, since there aren’t any drums, the mandolin and upright bass team up to act like snare and kick drums, respectively. Also, it looks awesome. The body of it looks (to me) like the profile of a turtle, with a little curlicue at the top, and two pointy legs at the bottom. And did I say it sounds amazing? It didn’t hurt that Bob Grant was clearly a very talented musician.

After touring the Hall, we left in search of barbecue and wound up at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Probably one of the more touristy places, but the Beatles have been in there! Come on. There was not just one but two bands playing in there–one in front, and one in back, far enough apart that it wasn’t disastrous, but it was a bit distracting. Broadway in Nashville is just teeming with honky tonks, and there was live music spilling out of every one of them. On a Sunday afternoon. Must be quite explosive on a Saturday night.

Lastly we stopped by the Parthenon in Centennial Park. It was built in 1897 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Tennessee’s statehood. Apparently Nashville is “the Athens of the South”, which inspired the only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon to be built here. We didn’t get to see the statue of Athena inside, though–guess we’ll just have to go back!

Surfing With Dan

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Finally got into Nashville last night to meet up with our next host, Dan, in his home in eastern Nashville, across the Cumberland River. This whole area–it seems to encompass a plethora of small neighborhoods, from what we can tell, is to Nashville what the hip parts of Brooklyn are to Manhattan. Except, from your correspondent’s purview, Nashville does it better. All the space for outdoor patios and beer gardens one could want, live music any night of the week, rolling hills with cute houses lining the streets in between kitschy bars and rustic-looking-but-still-fancy restaurants, coffee shops with huge slabs of wood for tables and locally grown produce markets. We ate at a cute seafood restaurant, which it turns out was actually connected to the sushi place adjacent to it. First time I’ve ordered miso soup as an appetizer to a distinctly non-Asian entree. Brought back a six pack as per our host’s request (Nashville-brewed Yazoo’s Rye Porter) for a nightcap.

Dan’s house was part of a duplex, small but homey and inhabited by a friendly host. To paint you a picture, he was in the middle of pickling a bunch of squash because his CSA had such a squash surplus (squirplus?) this summer. He gave us the house tour, which took all of forty-five seconds, perhaps thirty of which were occupied by us all admiring the one piece of expensive art he has purchased in his lifetime. It was some sort of doctored photograph of a hotel room, with a bunch of neon lights forming words, which the caption below explained were from a note found on an immigrant trying to cross the Mexico/Texas border. Clearly, this piece of art greatly touched Dan and was a huge source of pride that he was its owner.

Dan was a quiet, deeply thoughtful, always-has-a-million-projects-going-on-at-once type of guy. Apparently he hosts once or twice a week, so he’s a seasoned veteran to this business. We talked about music, about the Nashville scene, about how Jay is going to hate Caltech (based on the Caltech graduates Dan has spoken to about the place). But overall he was very kind, very generous. I can’t speak for my traveling partner, but it certainly gives this writer a sense of gladness to see further proof that this worldwide community exists (and indeed flourishes!). His paisley futon was comfortable, his central air conditioner a blessing in this damp climate. Thank you, Dan!

We’re using the internet in another cafe this morning, beautiful and spacious and containing rather delicious toast. Next: the Country Music Hall of Fame!

Montgomery the Missing

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It turns out Montgomery is empty!

Strange and kind of sad, considering all the important events that occurred there fifty years ago. We stopped in the Civil Rights Memorial exhibit this morning, and it was quite beautiful, albeit a bit of a downer. But all the streets surrounding it–the historic district, the Capitol building, the first white house of the Confederacy (apparently Jefferson Davis was inaugurated in Montgomery, and then a few months later the capital was moved to Richmond to be closer to the war front), the Rosa Parks Museum, &c: all empty. There was, literally, no one around. It was a Saturday, and perhaps it’s more bustling during the week, but even when driving around looking for some trace of a downtown community, we found none. A few tourists her and there doing the same things we were, but that was it.

Our hotel, which the map seemed to indicate was in the center of town, was actually right off the highway and surrounded by every fast food chain imaginable. I read later on Wikipedia that the city is known not only for loving chain restaurants and fast food joints, but also for having, like, all of them. If a chain exists, you’ll find it in Montgomery! In sight of our hotel: Captain D’s Seafood, Zaxby’s (featuring the return of the birthday cake milkshake and the new crispy chicken “zalad”), McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Waffle House, KFC, and a billboard for the Panera down the street.

That said, it was perhaps nice to have a short break from exploring and park our rear ends in front of a TV for a night, while the rather enormous thunderstorm broke overhead. “Waking Life” was on HBO, an interesting rotoscoped movie about philosophy and dreams and consciousness by Richard Linklater. A little Olympics, a little David Foster Wallace nonfiction read aloud; it was a nice quiet evening.

The next morning was another free breakfast, a chance to people-watch a little. Hard to say where all the guests were from–we certainly weren’t locals–but I did notice a trend: sequins. It was before nine a.m. (Oh! Also we crossed a time zone without realizing it. Hello, central standard time!), and I saw at least three women in the span of fifteen minutes walk in with rubber flip flops and a bedazzled item of clothing, whether it be jean shorts, tank top, or t-shirt.
Another trend: accents. Yes, finally we are fully immersed in the Southern accent. The thing I hadn’t counted on is it seems that I am just as–if not more than–difficult to understand to them, as they are to me! So many “Sorry, what?”s and “Excuse me?”s are exchanged in me trying to order a simple Diet Coke, you’d think we were both hard of hearing.

You’d think we’d be hitting up the Nashville scene already (this is written on the 4th at 5 or so pm) since we left Montgomery early, but surprise! Traffic jam. And so I am writing. At least, Jay pointed out, the concurrent thunderstorm was a lot easier to drive through at five mph than at 50.

The being-on-the-road bit may be getting to each of us a little bit. Tonight we’re surfing with a man in Nashville who seems very friendly and knowledgeable about the city. He’s lived in San Francisco, so his phone number is a recognizable area code! Somehow comforting to me.

Got out my cowboy boots, though, with my cutoff shorts at the ready. Bring it on, Nashville!