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Tales From the Tour -- February 2003

"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.

Friday, February 07, 2003
TOPEKA, KS / AMES, IA / CEDAR FALLS, IA / INDIANAPOLIS, IN / HUNTINGTON, WV / MUNCIE, IN / ROCKFORD, IL / LA CROSSE, WI
"Hate is NOT a Topeka Value," announced the signs posted downtown.

They may be in response to a man named Fred Phelps, an acerebral dolt who operates an extraordinarily offensive and disturbing Web site and has amassed a little merry band of brainwashed vegetables to stand around lifelessly and protest theatrical productions at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. Retired and apparently dying - imminently, God willing - from colon cancer, Phelps isn't shy about making public his hatred for gays. He wasn't there the day we were, but about 15 of his clan stood there for an hour or so before the performance, purposeless and dazed, their brains and mental energy reduced to absolute zero, holding anti-gay signs whose slogans I shall not repeat here. Most theatre patrons ignore the protesters; a few give a slight shake of the head from a distance. Certainly no one in our company thought the signs had anything to do with Topekans' popular views.

I had about an hour to check out Topeka. Downtown was a grid pattern of wide streets and unassuming buildings; the only noteworthy structure seemed to be the copper-domed State House. Also conveniently located was the jail, a massive edifice with twin brick towers ever so slightly reminiscent of Finnish castles. What was it with Kansas and jails? In Wichita the jail had been next door to City Hall. Here in Topeka it was right downtown. There was something unsettling about this, and I resolved to mind my business in Kansas lest I be handcuffed and whisked fifty paces away and into the slammer.

Liz had had to leave the tour for a few days to deal with some family business, so in Topeka began a series of performances in which the keyboard tracks were turned on. You will recall, if you have been diligently paying attention to my every word from the start, that when the keyboard tracks are on I don't play most of the show. This was a good opportunity for me to watch the show; the orchestra pit was shallow enough that I had a great view of the stage, yet not so shallow that the audience could see me standing around for most of the evening. Before the show was an indoor barbecue courtesy of the parents of one of the managers of our touring company. After the show I joined a small outing to Wal-Mart; Jim was kind enough to take us there so that we could pick up some kind of dinner provisions. I'm very fond of Wal-Mart if I happen to have a car at hand - I rather like the idea that if I wanted to, I could buy a computer, a wardrobe, and several kinds of cheese all in the same place. But on this evening the only item that lured me to purchase it was a pomelo, a sort of giant, sweet grapefruit native to Israel and Malaysia (or at least those are the only places I'd ever eaten them before).

A drive of about five hours took us to Ames, Iowa. The drive through Missouri was tedious and flat, and passed endless expanses of freshly plowed fields; but eventually we entered Iowa and the land began to undulate, and we crossed the Grand River, which lives up to its name - in the slightest possible manner - only if you have just spent several hours on a road entirely devoid of interesting scenery. I have a certain affinity for Iowa merely because Des Moines is Bill Bryson's birthplace, and as we skirted the capital I watched attentively. And Ames is the birthplace of Peter Schickele, the inventor of P.D.Q. Bach, so I looked forward to exploring the city, such as it were.

There wasn't much to explore. Main Street was just a few blocks long and flanked with empty bars and restaurants that had all stopped serving lunch by the time I got there. I found a Dollar General and entered with the intent to replace a set of plasticware that I had donated for the purpose of eating cheesecake, but I exited briskly when the cashier said I'd have to leave my backpack at the counter. This is a matter on which I am fairly unyielding; I've walked out of many a store whose employees seem to think they will take better care of my belongings than I do.

My hunger increased, but the only possibility - apart from an expensive supermarket just off Main Street - seemed to be the Great Plains Sauce & Dough Company. Great name, not great options: I'd have to either commit to eating an entire pizza or get an uninspiring meat sandwich, and they wouldn't even put their special homemade sausage on a sandwich (it was reserved exclusively for pizza). Things looked bleak until I got of Main Street and onto Lincoln Way and a sign caught my eye. It said Asia Food Store, and it pointed to the back of an unassuming building primarily used to house an insurance brokerage.

I was one of only two customers when I arrived, but presently the entire Chinese population of Ames - about six people - entered, chattering away and selecting their dinner ingredients. I got a package of boiled duck eggs, which have dark-green albumens and squishy, blackish yolks; I also got a package of sliced garlic tofu and a tin of roasted eel, which the friendly cashier opened for me using the flimsiest of contraptions and the most laborious of exertions.

I headed down Lincoln Way, past a police officer taking radar snapshots of drivers' speeds (I barely withstood the urge to ask him whether I was walking too quickly), past a man of questionable sanity and few teeth who greeted me with eyes askew (I was glad that the policeman was still nearby and that I hadn't put him off with what I thought might constitute humor), to find Stephens Auditorium. I was early for the show, so I walked a path along a stream, and then I walked it again, for it was extremely short. Following the show were two receptions: one provided at the theatre and one at our hotel, after which some of us retreated to Jalynn's room with cheesecake and watched The Iron Chef. I'd never seen it before, and, much as you might have gathered by now I have an interest in decent cuisine, you may have also surmised that I enjoyed the program considerably.

A flat and foggy ride along U.S. 20 took us part of the way to Cedar Falls, Iowa. At one point the divided highway was closed and we had to divert along the two-lane U.S. 65, though the detour signs seemed firmly established enough to suggest that the divided highway was not going to reopen. U.S. 65 took us through a number of tiny towns, such as Iowa Falls, whose municipal airport's four buildings look exactly like the surrounding farmhouses. Cross streets were few, and once in a while I'd look up and see that we were passing, for instance, 330th Street. Three hundred thirtieth? What brimming metropolis's sprawl could possibly extend this far out? It may have been Aplington, whose entrance sign proclaimed itself "North-East Iowa's Best Kept Secret."

We had two shows in Cedar Falls; in between we checked into a hotel a drive from the theatre. It was pointless to walk around unless I was in the market for a car - University Drive was one long string of dealerships - and instead I joined a few people, led by Brian, to the Grand China Buffet for dinner. I will not have a word said against the ilk of the suburban Chinese buffet. They are quick, dependable, and cheap, and while most of them (with the notable exception of the fantastic place in Lakeland) no doubt have their share of unpalatable fare, they all do at least a few dishes well. This one, for instance, had snow-crab legs, so I was happy.

The evening Cedar Falls show progressed under the cloud of a sound problem that occurred during the first number. Greg couldn't hear anything through his headset - his control box had conked out - and so, without the aid of the click, he had to provide a rhythm to Ross's demonstrably enhanced ictus. Eventually (since I wasn't playing much of the show anyway) I was able to swing my control box over toward him and give him my headphones, and eventually Duane came down and fixed the problem, but the frustration of that first number carried through the rest of the show. To calm down afterward, a few of us took to our hotel's hot tub (or luke-cold tub, as it might more aptly be called), and then we watched the South Park movie. So puerile. So irreverent. Such beautifully crafted songs. So wonderful.

Some of us had a hankering for sushi, and as we were to have the next evening off in Indianapolis we thought it might be a prudent time to satisfy our pangs. This time I planned things right: Shrouded in mist on a highway somewhere in Illinois, I called Daruma and had them fax their menu to my eFax account; then I hooked up the 7135 to the Vaio, downloaded the fax, and was eagerly drooling over their offerings several mile posts down the road. Did I mention I love my 7135?

Daruma was a 15-minute walk from our hotel through light drizzle. The outing consisted, in the order we sat around the table, of Eric, Erica, Casey, Brian, and me. We took off our shoes, sat on pillows on the floor, and had a truly scrumptious meal. I started with octopus salad and shared some lightly buttered scallops with Brian; then I moved on to a heaping chirashi bowl (a variety of sashimi over rice); and I ended with their "caterpillar roll," which had crab on the inside and eel on the outside and a whole bunch of other things, with a snippet of octopus tentacles for the caterpillar's two googly eyes. For dessert we all had green-tea ice cream: the perfect ending to a sensuous banquet.

By the time we finished the rain had picked up, and as it seemed only one of us (can you guess which?) fancied a wet walk back to the hotel, we called a cab. Determined to continue the serenity of the evening, we resolved to get some wine, and so we had the cabdriver halt briefly at the nearest liquor store, which it turns out was only two buildings from Daruma. (We had half a mind to have the driver stop at each establishment at the intersection, while one of us ran in to get something, but the joke would have been costly and a nuisance, and its mere suggestion provided nearly as much amusement as its hypothetical application.) We drank and conversed in Brian's room, and perhaps the only imperfect aspect of the evening was that we committed to only two bottles of wine; a third would have rendered the evening as perfect as one can have at a motel-like Wellesley Inn on a mud-riddled service road beneath a highway underpass in suburban Indianapolis.

The five-hour drive - it's been a week of daily long hauls - to Huntington, West Virginia, took us across northern Kentucky along the two-lane Route 9, also known as the AA Highway. Here the hills were more pronounced, and the ground was lightly dusted with snow. We snaked our way through valleys, over green streams, and past evergreens no two of which were the same size. The rocky ledges flanking the highway were coated with dribblings of ice from frozen cascades, which hung there delicately and delectably, like pastry glaze. We intersected with roads christened with astonishingly high numbers - Route 875, Route 2370, Route 3313 - that veered off recklessly and without pattern into the unknown. And the best part of the trip was that we'd get to do the whole thing in reverse the next day.

Huntington lay along the Ohio River. I checked out the old train station, as I am wont to do; joined people for lunch at Chi-Chi's; and made my way across the Robert C. Byrd Bridge into Chesapeake, Ohio. I was welcomed on the other side by a sign that said:

S    10% F
N   T
T  E U
867-4000

My Wheel of Fortune skills failed me, and I had an urge to call and buy a vowel and perhaps a few consonants as well, but I retreated back across the river, whereupon I realized that a good many of the signs in Huntington - storefronts, restaurants, churches - also had their letters missing. I headed west, intending to reach what was reportedly an old-fashioned district with antique shops, but the blocks were long and took me through the dullest of neighborhoods, so I eventually turned around.

The Keith Albee Theatre, once a movie house, had a hole in the stage, debris raining from the ceiling, and not enough power to fuel our sound system, which was therefore run off of a generator in the parking lot. (I had visions of mice and hamsters turning a wheel for the two-hour show to create electricity, possibly resulting in a change of key if their pace was not constant.) Here the orchestra pit was right in front of the audience, and, with Liz not being back and it looking rather obvious if I rarely had my hands on the keyboard, Ross had me turn the volume down and pretend to play the whole show, which I did with charming energy, if I do say so myself. But any shortcomings of the theatre were more than compensated for by the party thrown for us at Savannah's, which - once the food arrived an hour into the festivities - provided a welcome and energetic finale to the evening.

Then on to Muncie, Indiana, a drab little city on the surface, until you found its hidden secrets and heard a few whistles from passing trains. Casey and I were on a quest for a decent lunch place, a daunting task; there was the hotel restaurant, but I was put off by high prices and a blatantly errant apostrophe on the menu. At the advice of two passersby we headed into Vera Mae's Bistro, and presently Greg and Eric joined us. The lunch menu was enticing; the dinner menu looked fantastic but alas was not yet available - and I had a tasty, if slightly cool, order of palacsinta (filled Hungarian pancakes, not unlike moussaka) and their specialty dessert, whiskey-spiked bread pudding. Vera Mae's was expanding into the building next door, where there was a smattering of variegated paintings on display; down the street was another art gallery at which we called for a few minutes.

I then circumnavigated the town by myself for a while, a walk that took me past the Meeks Mortuary ("Since 1844") and, curiously across the street, the offices of American Pest Control ("All Our Patients Die"). No, there didn't seem to be much of interest in Muncie, until I noticed that I was standing on East Washington Street in front of a sign proclaiming the entrance to the Emily Kimbrough Historic District (the famous author once lived there). The houses on this street were indeed pretty, mostly turn-of-the-20th-century dwellings with strikingly varied architectural styles.

The pit at Emens Auditorium was so deep - you could have sunk an ocean liner in it - that I couldn't see the stage, and so I read a lot of Bill Bryson during the first act. (I'm now onto Notes From a Small Island, his stories from a trip through Britain, which to my delight he accomplished on public transportation.) Liz made it back in time for the second act; it was good to be playing the whole show again. A couple of blocks from our hotel was an intriguing bar called Heorot, which looked as if it hadn't changed a bit since 1880 (and on this evening it was open-mike night, where some of us were treated to the sounds of a guitarist who may not have tuned his strings since 1880). Rustic and welcoming, with a smoldering fire and wooden benches, it was a pleasant place to while away an hour or two.

Yet another five-hour trip, with a lunch stop at a mall in Merryville, Indiana (where I consumed my pomelo and the rest of the duck eggs at the food court and explained to onlookers what they were), took us to the Best Western Clock Tower hotel in Rockford, Illinois. The lobby, to my ephemeral satisfaction, had a few old clocks in it; there in fact used to be a clock museum nearby, but according to the hotel concierge it was auctioned off three years ago. So now the hotel lobby has a bunch of pictures of the old clocks, a teasing memory of what would have provided a fascinating afternoon had I made it there in the past millennium.

For no other purpose than to be alone for a while, I slogged along the breakdown lane of Business Loop U.S. 20, which - by the tiniest of margins - edged out Interstate 90 in terms of interest and walkability. After a half-hour trudge unspeakably devoid of attractions, and in which more than once I had to walk in one of the lanes of oncoming traffic, I came upon a crossing signal and guffawed at this infinitesimal nod to pedestrian safety. By the time I'd walked for an hour I realized I was nearing downtown and already halfway to the theatre, so I called Greg to have him bring my bag on the bus with the rest of the cast, and I pressed on. The road became residential, which meant that I was now walking over people's lawns instead of in the path of cars. Occasionally I'd pass a sign saying I could turn right or left to get to a park or museum, but the signs gave no indication whether the sites were right around the corner or several hours' journey away. The most interesting thing I saw during the entire 11-kilometer hike was probably as I crossed the bridge over the Rock River, where through no voluntary effort of my own I saw a man clear his nose by holding one nostril closed with a finger and blowing the excreta onto the pavement.

However dull the walk had been, the 1920s Coronado Theatre made up for it and then some. The house was festooned with Asian-themed ornamentation - a pagoda here, a dragon there - and Mediterranean-style columns and balconies. During the performance, instead of the usual boring exit lights, there were softly lit lanterns on the balconies and twinkling stars above, and a red glow illuminated the cave-like inset housing the pagoda sculpture. (Imagine the juxtaposition of this exotic tranquility with our loudly amplified, high-tech production!) In the orchestra pit was a small organ with colorful dragons and a sensational array of stops swirling around its four manuals. The second-floor dressing rooms still had the same furnishings as in the 1920s - including Murphy beds and remnants of the old paging system - and one enthusiastic security guard generously showed a few of us the third-floor manager's apartment, which has been restored to its Art Deco style, complete with cozy sofas, an impressively tiled bathroom, an ancient refrigerator, and a little pull-out chair ensconced in the wall.

Back at the hotel after the show, we retired to Cranny's Lounge ("Delicious hor d'oueres menu"), where we were served by a bartender who oscillated between crude punchiness and perky appeal with breathtaking rapidity. There was a piano, and presently some of us attempted to get through a few selections from Songs for a New World, inasmuch as we could make out the tiny lyrics with virtually no illumination, until the lounge closed and we retreated to the couches by the lobby fireplace.

After a three-hour trip this morning we arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I was pleasantly surprised by the charm of the old town; many of downtown's colorful buildings bear the year of their erection (mostly the end of the 19th century). Eric and I had a remarkable lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant called the Elite; their leg of lamb stuffed with portobello mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and kasseri cheese won me over. I had a look around the town. Nearly everything was attractive: The homes were well-kept, and church steeples protruded every couple of blocks; once in a while an ugly building would loom up, like a bank or a gas station, as a reality check. I climbed a bridge over the almost-frozen Mississippi River and had a stunning view of the surrounding mountains, a couple of which had small cavities bitten into them. Most of the town was covered by a soft bed of snow. It reminded me a little of provincial Norway.

You'll find out about La Crosse's riveting nightlife next time.

Friday, February 14, 2003
LA CROSSE, WI / AURORA, IL / SAGINAW, MI / OKLAHOMA CITY, OK
La Crosse teemed at night. It was one Ryan's birthday, and most of us celebrated at a Cajun restaurant with a B or two in its name and possibly a geographical entity, like Brazilian Bojangles or Brazzaville Bonanza. A bowl of thick seafood gumbo appeared in front of me before I realized I wasn't hungry, so I picked at it for a while and focused my ingestion on the excessively sour margaritas. After the party I spent an hour or so meandering the streets, watching people enter and exit pubs and discos, standing by the river, trying to avoid slipping on the ice, freezing my ears off. It doesn't get any better than this.

I spent the bus ride to Aurora, Illinois, in a dreamy half-consciousness. I was vaguely aware of frosty forests and ice-choked streams and a light snowfall, and I had a bizarre dream in which I was traveling through a fictitious city. The street names in the city didn't ascend numerically, like First Street and Second Street, but grew longer as prefixes and suffixes were tacked onto the same word. The main thoroughfare was called "Establish." The next street over was "Establishment," and so on up to the last street, at the city's edge, which was "Antidisestablishmentarianism." I would have made a most incorrigible city planner.

A few hours into the ride, while about 70% of us were sleeping, someone got the bright idea to jolt everyone awake by putting on a video of the musical Starlight Express. The show, more or less, is about trains dancing around on roller skates, two of which fall in love and the rest of which assert their individuality early in the show and then have not much to do with the plot. "Cats on skates" was Casey's succinct synopsis.

I saw Starlight Express with my parents in London in 1986. It was an impressive spectacle, with all the skaters rolling around the stage and the audience. But on a bus it was pretty pointless. Basically I had the option of watching it on a small screen ninety-four rows in front of me or one only sixty-eight rows in front of me but on the other side of the bus. It was like watching ants dance around, which, you may recall, had already provided a morning's amusement for me in Melbourne, Florida.

We pulled up at the Comfort Inn in Aurora, five kilometers from downtown and on a highway indistinguishable from all the others we've been on recently. I'm pretty sick of being flung out into the middle of nowhere when there's a city of reasonable interest nearby. The next day I'd discover a similar hotel much closer to the center of things and seethe with frustration. That night we'd get our schedule for the next week, with hotel addresses, and things did not look promising: 1200 South Meridian, 2843 West Northwest Loop, 2900 IH 10. No 100 Main Street or 216 Central Avenue or anything like that. Gosh, what monotony.

One way to escape strip-mall hell, some of us have discovered, is to have a good lunch on arrival. Casey and Eric joined me in seeking a decent eatery, and we found Lorenzo's, a slightly overpriced Italian place (soft drinks were casually topped off and then each refill was insidiously added to the bill) with huge portions and an elderly waiter who spewed out the most breathtakingly complex flow chart of salad options. It went on for thirty or forty seconds and included the varieties of salad as well as the varieties of dressing, and it was never clear where one ended and the other began. Conspicuously absent from the list were the soups, which were available as alternatives to salad. But menu confusion aside, the food was excellent, and large portions meant that there was enough for dinner as well. After lunch I browsed a bit at the Cost Plus World Market, a pleasant place to linger and a good opportunity to pick up some reasonably priced wine for that night.

The Paramount Arts Center, dating from the 1930s, was attractive, though it didn't hold a candle to its counterpart in Rockford. The house walls were decorated with crystallized-looking Ionic columns, and there was a bizarre many-pointed star on the ceiling. Tony, our trumpeter, described the decor as "Renaissance meets Harry Potter." In a stairwell were posters from past performances, one of which said, "Roger McGuinn from 'The Byrd's' - Acoustic Folk Rock at It's Best." I don't mean to belabor the point (OK - yes, I do!), but the fact is that at least a dozen people must have seen the poster before it went to press, and I am flabbergasted (though increasingly less so) that not one of them knew how to punctuate. World incompetence is alarmingly impossible to overestimate.

After this first Aurora performance a bunch of us had the aforementioned wine (taken out of styrofoam cups - we're moving up!) and the aforementioned leftovers at the aforementioned Dullsville hotel.

My body won't let me pass up a free hotel continental breakfast, so although I hadn't planned to be, I was wide awake at 8:37. Breakfast officially closed at 9:00 (on a Sunday morning!), but although I arrived five minutes late I was able to eat.

Faced with essentially two options for the morning - return to the Cost Plus World Market to browse misspelled wineries ("Jacb's Creek" was one I'd noted the previous day), or do a 5K walk downtown - I chose the latter. A sidewalk existed for a time, until it segued into a construction zone, which eventually required me to scramble across the rubble that more or less might someday constitute a bridge. When the construction zone ended, there was no more sidewalk. At one intersection a sign on a pole about the size of a fire hydrant instructed me to press the button to cross the street, but there was no corresponding pedestrian signal - just a button.

The 5K trek was every bit as drab and unstimulating as the one I'd taken in Rockford, with the exception of two Mexican supermarkets; the beautiful round-towered, terraced house at 802 East New York Street; a tethered dog who barked insolently at me and whom I told to get a life; and an imbecilic driver who made a right turn in front of me without signaling, and who - as I like to imagine it - then hove his car through a railing and plunged it into the river.

Downtown was small but pretty, with buildings of various shapes, sizes, and colors. There was a wonderful-looking eatery with the splendidly British name of Bernie's Cheerio Inn, but sadly it is no longer in business. I found myself at one point on the median of a street in which the cars were driving on the left, English-style. I investigated the intersections at each end of the block, which were strikingly lacking in signs warning you that on this particular block (only) you were supposed to drive in the wrong direction. Each time I crossed I'd first look left, right, left, right, about eleven times, and then twirl around just in case there was some hidden driveway behind me that I hadn't considered.

A river ran through downtown. I asked a perspicacious-looking security officer what the river was called (in case it was something important, like the Mississippi, or perhaps the Volga), but he didn't know. So I went around the corner and discovered a map proclaiming it the Fox River. It really was pretty, with little channels and cascades haphazardly culminating in distinct pools with water rippling off in all directions. This time of year it was partly covered with smooth ice. Bridges crossed the river every block, so you didn't have to take a sixteen-street diversion to get to the other side. And the bridges were pretty. So charmed I was by this that I generously spent the next two hours making a non-tax-deductible donation in the amount of $76 at the Hollywood Casino, for the continued betterment of the city.

There were two shows that day, at the odd times of 14:30 and 18:30. A meal was not provided for us in between (although it might have been a very nice idea), so Erica and I found a Mexican place called La Roca, with a wonderfully authentic menu. Tripe soup! Tongue platters! Brain tacos! Erica thought a "brain taco" sounded like some kind of rave drug. I decided to play it safe and had the steak ranchero.

A long drive through horizontally blowing snow took us to Saginaw, Michigan. Brian livened up the second half of the ride by showing Meet the Parents, a perfect bus-ride film that, despite certain inaccuracies (you don't need a visa for Thailand - honestly!) and the fact that there wasn't a single likeable main character, made the post-lunch segment of the trip much more enjoyable.

The theatre was across the street from the bus station, and I went to investigate whether I could get to Frankenmuth, a German-settled city about 30 kilometers away. Somehow I stumbled into the employee lounge of the local bus company (STARS, which stands for Saginaw Regional Bus Service, or whatever the equivalent is that actually works for the acronym), where a friendly bus driver or manager spouted out, over fifteen or sixteen minutes, the remarkably complex algorithm by which I could make the trip in four stages. I was helpless to recall every word, but it went something like this: "Now where's the number 6 schedule? Oh, here it is. Now, ya gonna take the number 6 from Meijer's" - as if I knew where that was - "to here. Then ya gonna get the number 5 and go to Kessels. Ya know Kessels? Then another bus, the 75, is gonna come pick you up and take you to Alpine." I figured out that meant the Alpine Truck Stop. "Then at ten o'clock there's a bus 83, see, it goes through Birch Run and then on to Frankenmuth." If I made perfect connections, I determined, the trip would take about two and a half hours, though curiously it would be only about 80 minutes to get back. I pondered all this throughout the show and barely began to parse it. I also noted that on the schedule leaflets, after admonishing you to have the correct fare, it said: "STARS drivers are not allowed to go into a passengers purse or wallet to get change." Missing punctuation aside, this was confounding. Does that mean that if I'm a sleeping passenger, I can rest assured the driver isn't going to rummage through my belongings to forage for coins so as to give change to new riders? I should certainly hope not!

It was Erica's birthday, and so after the show we headed to Hamilton Street, which was lined with pubs (by Saginaw standards - we found two of them) to celebrate. We settled in at the Hamilton Street Pub, which was a bit noisy and cacophonous due to the curious tuning of the people performing karaoke, and in which we felt more than a little conspicuous as we were clearly the only non-locals (and there were fewer than a dozen locals). But it served a purpose. On our return to the hotel, Erica and I shared a couple of beers on the crew bus. Shh, don't tell anyone - technically I'm not supposed to see the crew bus, probably because it's so much nicer than ours. They have sleeper beds with curtains, front and back lounges, a refrigerator and a microwave, and satellite TV. Granted, they often travel overnight when we're in cities for only one day (because they load out the show for three hours after the end of a performance and then have to load it in at the next venue the following morning), but I'd much rather sleep on the bus than in a hotel.

I walked around the next morning for about four minutes - that's all it took to get bored. I'd seen it all before: Circuit City, Sears, McDonald's, T.G.I. Friday's, Target. It so happened that I wasn't in the market for a computer or a washing machine or a greasy burger or a meal tasting of mayonnaise or whatever it is they sell at Target. (I've never gone into one. I'm too put off by people who insist on pronouncing it "tar-ZHAY.") I was tired of ambling along highways with no sidewalks and climbing up over embankments and traipsing through parking lots. I found a Dollar Tree (they let me in with my backpack, God bless 'em) and replaced the plastic utensils and also got a corkscrew, which really does make opening wine bottles so much easier. Thus depleted my interest in this part of Saginaw.

It might have been a dreary day indeed, but fortunately Erica wanted to go to Frankenmuth with me, though she didn't fancy doing it via a series of four buses. We rented a car and set off at about 11:30.

Frankenmuth was settled in 1845 by fifteen Bavarian missionaries who thought the Native Americans in the area could do with a little Lutheranism. As luck would have it, by the time the missionaries completed the three-month journey to the Great Lakes region, the U.S. government had already shipped most of the natives off to reservations in Arizona and such. But the settlers stayed, as the soil was good for farming and very, very good for the cultivation of the ingredients needed for beer. The city retains a lot of its German character and manages to be charming without being hokey. It's well known for its fried chicken, which really is the best in the world (the two top restaurants, Zehnder's and the Bavarian Inn, dole out 827 tons of chicken annually), and for the Bavarian Inn's glockenspiel, which chimes something vaguely melodic for about ten minutes and then narrates the story of the Pied Piper in English and German, complete with moving statues of the main characters and the rats. I'd been to Frankenmuth several times before, but not for about ten years. My memories were of warm spring days with my family, when we'd stand outside with throngs of tourists watching the Pied Piper show before having lunch, strolling the main street, and picking up some freshly made fudge for the ride back to my grandmother's place in Flint.

But Erica and I were the only ones watching on that day, probably because we were freezing our noses off and no one else would have ventured outside. There were ice sculptures on the main square, two of which caught Erica's and my attention. One was a tank, like the kind used in battle. The other seemed to have scales and claws, and it wasn't until we stepped back and saw the sign etched into the ice that we realized it was supposed to be lobster bisque.

We had a truly gargantuan repast at the Bavarian Inn, served by waitresses in frilly dirndls (now there's a good Scrabble word). In addition to the fried chicken, there were butter noodles, stuffing (which our waitress called "dressing"), applesauce, and a wonderful cranberry-apple-orange compote, to name just a few of the side dishes. After lunch we checked out a store selling elaborate cuckoo clocks, visited the Frankenmuth Historical Museum, sampled cheeses at the Cheese Haus and local wines produced by the St. Julian Winery, and returned to Saginaw, very much satisfied with the excursion.

We spent yesterday flying from Detroit to Oklahoma City by way of Houston. On the first flight I sat next to a friendly woman and we had a long chat about what it's like to be on the road in a theatrical production. She was teaching herself Spanish, so the conversation became infused with a smattering of Spanish phrases and segued into discussion of my homestays in Costa Rica and Spain and the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. It was a lovely way to pass the time, though I believe her husband thought me a trifle pretentious, which is a trifle correct.

Lyndy knew of a popular Tex-Mex place called Ted's, and so a bunch of us forked over about $1,742.50 in cab fares to get there. It was worth the expense and the long wait, however. Ted's was a festive place, and we could scarcely prepare ourselves for the onslaught of complimentary appetizers (chips, flour tortillas, cheese, salsa) and the complimentary sopapilla (fried-dough patty topped with honey) dessert. I had a dish of pork in a spicy green sauce, most of which I took back to the Lexington Suites Hotel, a wonderful place where we're staying in full-kitchen, two-bedroom apartments. After dinner some of the St. Julian pinot grigio was enjoyed by a few of us in Erica and Clista's room, a place that conjured up some haunting memories for Clista, as it turned out she had stayed in the exact same room last year on the night the hotel burned down.

Oklahoma City, says the guide in my room, sprawls out over 608.2 square miles, making it the third-largest city in the country when it comes to land area. The map I had made the streets seem walkable enough until I realized that the top of the map was North 150th Street and the bottom was South 119th Street. But we were only on South 12th. Surely downtown couldn't be that far away, I persuaded myself with reckless confidence as I headed out this morning.

Getting from 12th to the main east-west drag, Reno Avenue, didn't take long, and it took me past a plethora of enticingly cheap Tex-Mex restaurants. Once I hit Reno, however, things went a lot slower. I passed fields and industrial plants and so on, and after a time I saw that I was only at 4335 West Reno. The 3000s and 2000s passed with breathtaking laggardness. I passed under countless motorways, such as Interstate 40, Interstate 44, the Autobahn, and the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The trek reminded me of the long slog through Klaipeda, Lithuania, when I tried to find the cargo ship that would take me to Copenhagen.

It took an hour and a half to reach downtown, and the reward was no more spectacular than the journey. Downtown was basically a jumble of concrete buildings of modest architectural interest. Even Main Street seemed devoid of appeal.

East of downtown was pleasant. That was Bricktown, which reminded me a bit of the Old Town in Wichita - old companies' names in fading white paint on old brick buildings that have been converted into restaurants and pubs. A canal was installed through Bricktown about ten years ago, and a sign mentioned a fountain, but I saw no such fountain and there was no water running through the canal. Still, the area seemed attractive enough.

Another pleasant area was the Heritage Hills district, a residential neighborhood west of Broadway around Northwest 15th Street, which consists largely of impressive mansions. The Overholser Mansion, built in 1903, was the first. It's open to the public, and I peered in to have a look at the fine stained glass and predictably elegant paraphernalia, but I didn't fancy waiting around 35 minutes for the next tour.

Instead, at the advice of Oklahomans on the flight yesterday, I headed up to the junction of Northwest 23rd Street and Classen Boulevard, where there are two large plazas with Vietnamese establishments. I picked one, Pho Da Cao, for lunch, and had one of those wonderfully hearty soups with vermicelli, meat, brisket fat, tendon, and tripe. Then I walked across the street to the Cao Nguyen Supermarket to pick up something for tomorrow's lunch. What I got was small and white and pasty and neatly wrapped, and goodness knows what's inside it.

I caught westbound bus 23 to take me vaguely in the direction of the hotel. For a while I listened to the bus driver's riveting conversation with a passenger regarding Cajun cuisine, until I started to doze off, only to be promptly awakened when the driver told me it was time to transfer to route 38. The two-bus trip took over an hour, but it had started to rain and it was better than walking all the way back.

After tonight's performance, I stayed in. I enjoyed the coziness of my apartment-like room at the Lexington Suites and watched late-night Jeopardy! - something I haven't been able to do since the good ol' folks at CBS in Boston had a 23:35 showing weeknights when I was in high school. I went on-line and read Bill Walsh's rant about restaurants that think a late-night sandwich menu passes for culinary gratification. (If you thought I was a pedant, read Walsh's copy-editing site.) I had the leftover Mexican food from last night and uncorked my Blue Heron white wine from St. Julian. Give me a view of the Empire State Building and the Hudson River, the comforting sounds of teeming traffic on Ninth Avenue, and the gentle pealing of the St. Michel chimes on my 1938 mantel clock, and you could almost call it home.

Friday, February 21, 2003
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK / TYLER, TX / ORANGE, TX / FORT SMITH, AR / COLBY, KS / FORT COLLINS, CO
I neglected to tell you about a truly remarkable sign I saw in the men's restroom at a truck stop somewhere in Illinois:

Pazewell County Health Department
Wash Your Hands Before Returning to Work

Step 1. Turn on water (as hot as is comfortable).
Step 2. Wet your hands.
Step 3. Add soap and lather hands, including the backs and wrists. If you handle food with your hands, wash up to your elbows.
Step 4. Wash each finger and scrub for 30 seconds. Use a fingernail brush.
Step 5. Rinse hands under running water.
Step 6. Dry hands with paper towel, air dryer, or other sanitary hand-drying device.
Step 7. Turn off water using paper towel.
Step 8. Check hands and fingernails are clean.

Accompanying each step, of course, was a wonderfully explicit cartoon depicting how the action should be carried out.

As you might imagine, I laughed out loud when I saw this. I'm as much an enthusiast as anyone when it comes to mandatory sanitary procedures for employees, but, c'mon, isn't this just a wee bit excessive? I mean, I'm not sure someone who doesn't know you have to turn on the water in order to wet your hands ought to be handling my food in any capacity.

You might also imagine the haste and whisper with which I recited all these steps into the voice recorder on my 7135, since it would no doubt be even more embarrassing to be caught in such an act in a men's room than it would to be unfamiliar with the main tenets of everyday ablution.

But where were we? Ah, yes, somewhere in the South - Oklahoma City, to be precise. We resumed our custom of early bus departures and long bus rides last Friday with a trip to Tyler, Texas. It was a fairly uneventful trip, brightened up by the stunningly bright hue of the farm grass. I hadn't seen such a vivid emerald shade outside of Ireland. Even the cattle looked unusually plush.

We approached Tyler on U.S. 69, a stretch of which claimed to have installed the first Adopt-a-Highway program in the world. There was a 120-page Tyler guide in my hotel room, but not one page provided useful information regarding sightseeing, cuisine, or nightlife. It would have been moot, anyway, since we weren't staying downtown (big surprise there) and our performance wasn't downtown either, and in any case it was raining irksomely. I joined a bus run to Wal-Mart, where I went next door (which is to say across a patch of squishy mud) to a branch of the Brookshire's supermarket chain. There I found a good deal on ready-to-eat crawfish tails, which I purchased hurriedly, as it seemed I couldn't get by any of the employees without being asked whether I was doing OK or whether I needed help or whether I had any great plans for the future or some other officiously posed question. I supplemented the tails with some hot sauce and some rather tasteless (but cheap) carrot sticks from another supermarket, and I retreated to my room to consume them and settle down for an afternoon of Jeopardy!, Pyramid, and Judge Judy.

After the show Casey and I found ourselves at the hotel bar, which no longer proffered food but had the good sense to serve us wine, and soon thereafter we were joined by Eric and our bus driver, Jim. A conversation ensued about whether NASCAR racing and other such not-so-aerobic activities should be considered sports. It was a topic of moderate interest for a few minutes, after which Casey and I spawned our own conversation over how much nicer it would be to be, for instance, on a bridge in Budapest overlooking the Danube than in a rain-soaked Radisson on the outskirts of Tyler.

The Radisson at least had a good complimentary breakfast, with pancakes and eggs and bacon. We got to enjoy this repast before setting off for Orange, Texas, a drive of about four hours along U.S. 69, past more of the emerald grass and farmland. Signs trumpeted our approach to the little town of Lufkin with remarkable enthusiasm - every few minutes we'd find out how far it was to go - but all that was of note in Lufkin seemed to be a mobile-home community called King's Row and a portable-toilet seller (or perhaps lessor) called Johnny, which advertised itself cleverly and aptly with the motto "We Are #1 in the #2 Business."

The road took us through drab and destitute areas, past run-down shacks, abandoned vehicles, and streams strewn with litter. The town of Zavalla and its vicinity were eerie. The destitution continued, and every side street seemed to point the way to a cemetery - the Poland Cemetery, the Zavalla Cemetery. Often the street names were simply named for the cemeteries they led to: Duncan Cemetery Road, Kitchens Cemetery Road. The McNeil Cemetery's approach was called Deadman Road, which I thought a little morbid. Streets that weren't named for cemeteries tended to have no names at all, just numbers (County Road 4260, Farm Road 3065, PR - whatever that is - 5200). In addition to all the cemeteries was a plethora of funeral homes and gravestones for sale along the highway.

I was glad when we made it through the morgue, so to speak, and arrived at the next major urban sprawl (Woodville, pop. 2415). And here, in this pinnacle of ghastliness, we stopped for lunch. There was a truck stop and a Subway and a Brookshire's, and to be fair there was a homey-looking lunch place, but it had already closed. I took a little walk down the road in the rain, across the Little Turkey Creek (we had already passed the Big Turkey Creek, and I can assure you the adjectives have nothing whatsoever to do with their respective sizes), but I saw nothing of interest and turned back. Fortunately I still had some crawfish tails left, and I shared them with an affable little labrador-German shepherd mix, which attached itself to our group and managed to brighten up this most dreary hour.

We arrived in Orange just an hour before we needed to leave for the theatre. I walked through a dank hallway to my equally dank room at the Holiday Inn Express. I was one of the lucky ones. Several members of our group were offered three rooms before they found any that were clean, and a couple of people weren't even able to settle into a clean room until after the performance. One was clearly bitten by a chigger of some sort, and there may have been similar feasting going on at night. The sour mood conjured up by the hotel was mitigated by a fabulous hospitality spread at the theatre - potato-cheese soup, cheese and crackers, and vegetables, served by a friendly elderly woman - which rendered my dinner needs no more than a piece of excellent carrot cake provided by the mother of the boyfriend of one of the cast members.

The drive from Orange, Texas, to Fort Smith, Arkansas, took about nine and a half hours, including an hour lunch stop. It was a pretty ride, with lots of ups and downs, along the two-lane U.S. 71; sometimes the farmland and the animals were strikingly close to the road, though they were fenced in. We took lunch at the Wal-Mart in Mena, Arkansas; the Wal-Mart had a McDonald's ("a Scottish restaurant denoted by golden arches where one can partake of patties of chateaubriand au fromage, on a roll, accompanied by delightfully seasoned pommes frites" is the description my friend Brian Vinero and I came up with), where I sat with a few cast members and had the Vietnamese dumplings from Oklahoma City. They turned out to be filled with meat and shrimp, and fortunately they had been refrigerated for most of the preceding three days; my stomach has had no objections, and certainly I've eaten less properly stored food.

In Fort Smith (not downtown, heaven forbid), we stayed at the Fifth Season Inn, and they should have stopped with the Four Seasons. My room wasn't bad - it was so close to the pool I could spit in it from my doorway - but at least one of our cast was initially given a room in a filthy corridor with dangling light fixtures, peeling plaster, and debris all over the place. It looked as if a tornado had gone through it - indeed, a tornado might have effected an improvement.

All I wanted to do was walk to the theatre, a straightforward walk of just under an hour down Free Ferry Road and then Rogers Avenue to Seventh Street. I confirmed the route with one of the hotel's front-desk employees, Ross. I made it to Free Ferry Road and walked along it for about a half-hour; it's known for its Gilded Age homes, and some of them are spectacular, with ornate mailboxes built into the stone gates, regal pillars, and the occasional duck pond. The road got its name because it used to be the route people would take to get to the free ferry across the Arkansas River. Evidently it didn't bother them that the road had no sidewalks.

Just after I got to the intersection with Rogers Avenue a car cut me off. It was Ross: He had told me the directions to the wrong theatre; the correct one was Breedlove Auditorium, at the University of Arkansas campus, a 25-minute walk in the opposite direction of where I'd been heading. Ross apologized for his mistake and drove me back to the hotel, whereupon I confirmed the new directions with the receptionist and set off again.

I found Breedlove Auditorium, but its doors were most firmly locked. There wasn't a soul anywhere on the campus. It was like a ghost town. Frustrated, I called Erica to find out where this theatre was, as she'd spent much of the day in the theatre, loading the show in. "Oh, it's downtown," was her reply. "On Seventh Street." Ross's initial directions had been correct after all!

And so I found myself racing back to the hotel, doing that 25-minute walk in 15 minutes, to rejoin the cast for the bus ride to the theatre. Except for the pretty walk along Free Ferry Road, I'd wasted most of the afternoon, and I got to see nothing of downtown, save for the pleasant-looking Holiday Inn adjacent to the theatre, where we should have indubitably been housed from the start.

Once again, a scrumptious hospitality spread saved a rather wretched day. Here they provided us with sloppy joes, noodles, chicken, salad, and excellent chocolate-chip cookies. (This in a building where at every turn were signs telling you that no food or drink was allowed inside!) A free dinner, and a good one at that; and I managed to make it two days without spending a cent, so I suppose things could be a lot worse.

We spent two days going from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Fort Collins, Colorado. The first stretch was a ten-hour drive to Colby, Kansas, during which we halted for lunch on the outskirts of Wichita ("Instead of going into town to return to that fabulous Vietnamese restaurant?!" you are no doubt thinking incredulously). There actually were a couple of good lunch options - a barbecue place, Mexican restaurants - but I wasn't that hungry, so I found a Dillons supermarket and picked up a package of spiced bologna. It was eighty-nine cents, seventy-nine if you had a Dillons Pointless Save-a-Little-Bit card or whatever it's called. I've always looked with contempt upon supermarkets that make you procure a card in order to realize discounts. If anyone can get a card, why not just give the discounts to everyone and obviate all that paperwork and card-carrying nonsense? If something's on sale but only with a card and I don't have time to get the card, I won't buy the item. It's a form of discrimination up with which I shall not put.

Another thing I can't stand (and the list is growing) is the custom of not including taxes in displayed prices. I didn't realize Kansas was one of those places where they tax you on spiced bologna, so after a few minutes' wait in line during which I'd meticulously palmed three quarters and four pennies from the large stash in my pocket and had prepared to hand the coins to the cashier and make the swiftest of exits, I found myself faced with an eighty-four-cent bill. I wasn't willing to part with a greenback, so I started fishing for a nickel in my pocket, and of course I kept coming up with useless coins: another quarter, three more pennies. After a few moments the cashier was handing me sixteen cents and telling me to go on my way. I was puzzled.

"Don't I owe somebody money?" I asked.

"No, I've got it," replied the lady behind me in line. She'd given the cashier a dollar and told her to give me the change. Evidently she either thought I looked poor, wanted to be kind, or was fed up with the fact that it was taking me twenty-seven hours to check out. Whatever the case, it was very nice of her indeed, and I thanked her and left the store, encumbered by a bag of bologna, handfuls of change, and a Dillons card for which I will indubitably have no future use - and if by some fluke I do, I am positive I won't know where to find it.

Watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we made our way westward across Kansas. Kansas is a big state with hills that look pretty if you've just come from one of the neighboring states with no hills, but the landscape gets old quickly. One of the first signs we saw after leaving Wichita was for Colby - "Oasis on the Plains, 194 miles." The next sign advertised Goodland, Kansas, 227 miles away. There was even a sign directing you to the Best Western in Stratton, Colorado ("116 miles - Free Hot Breakfast"). When the Kansas Turnpike intersected with Route 156, a sign said, "Fort Larned National Historic Site, 82 miles" - and that short little hop, it seemed, was the only reason one would take that road. That's how the whole drive was. No advertisements for "Next Exit" or "Three Miles Ahead" - everything was hundreds of miles away, and in between, only the unvarying, unyielding fields. Settlements were twenty or thirty miles apart, and it occurred to me, as I neared the end of News from Tartary, that that's about the distance between settlements in western China. That's the distance Peter Fleming and his companion walked - or rode on some kind of animal - every day for several months. That was a seven- or eight-hour stage, and sometimes they did two stages in a day. With that in mind, it was a little easier to appreciate how even the most unassuming town - Colby, Goodland, or whatever - might once have been approached as the next welcoming beacon of civilization.

But the era of automobiles and superhighways has stripped these little towns clean of their character. We wanted to find a good restaurant in Colby to relax on our night off and celebrate Matt's birthday, and after significant research involving the use of the Yellow Pages, a trip on-line, and several consultations with the hotel staff, it was determined that of the twenty-six restaurants in Colby the only really feasible option was a place called City Limits, in the Comfort Inn. I'm a little skeptical of hotel restaurants - they tend to be bland and overpriced - and indeed I wouldn't have minded a place with a little more atmosphere. But I had a good steak dinner (which I'd had a hankering for - this was cattle country, after all), and the service and company were pleasant, and afterward we retreated to Matt's room for ice-cream cake. Later on I took a little walk into the night to gaze at the stars and ingest some fresh air. There was a large field of scruffy grass next to the hotel. I stayed there a while, enjoying the open space. If I'd had a tent I'd have pitched it in a second and hibernated there until the morning.

Morning came, and we resumed the drive to Fort Collins. We left early and got in before noon. About ninety minutes before the end of the journey we could just make out the Rocky Mountains ahead of us, and then they grew larger, with their snow streaks and white peaks. They were impressive, not in an ooh-aah-I've-never-seen-anything-like-that-before way, but in a gee-that's-a-welcome-change-from-the-plains-of-Kansas way. We sidled up to them and drove along them for the last hour of the trip. It so happened that at the time I was listening to my friend Katy Pfaffl's album, which has an appropriately invigorating song called "Mountains," though I admit the timing was at least a little forced.

Downtown Fort Collins is gorgeous, with well-preserved two- and three-story brick buildings dating from the 1880s, a lively college-driven nightlife, and enough restaurants to sustain a food connoisseur's interest for at least a week. Immersion in such cultural stimulation would inexorably have resulted in a sensory overload that I would have found unmanageable and devastating, and so I was delighted and relieved to learn that, instead of being housed in the midst of the looming and dangerous threats of these sinful temptations - in the Best Western near the Colorado State University Campus, in the Holiday Inn just south of the campus, or (God forbid!) in the Art Deco Northern Hotel right in the center of the Old Town, to name but three possibilities - we'd instead be staying in the Holiday Inn six kilometers from downtown, just off Interstate 25 and near wholesome establishments such as Denny's and Waffle House that would be unlikely to scathe our cultural chastity.

Needless to say, I hied myself downtown as quickly as I could. It was an hour's walk along Mulberry Street, a seventy-three-lane highway with multiple carriage lanes just for good measure and of course no sidewalks, though once in a while there was the usual cursory pedestrian signal, which I harrumphed at and enthusiastically ignored. I passed a couple of gun shops, where I contemplated going in and purchasing an item with which to release my rage at whatever city planner had decided that I'd be walking in right-turn lanes and ambling lopsided along steep hills. The walk was endless and drab and left me coated with sand.

Erica was already downtown, having just finished loading in the show, and so I met her for lunch. We traipsed around the Old Town, getting distracted by cute little one-of-a-kind shops, before we realized that places were starting to close for the afternoon. At 14:29:40 we headed into an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal, whose lunch buffet was due to cease in twenty seconds. They let us in, and we pigged out on the usual buffet delicacies - samosas, saag paneer, tandoori chicken - as well as shrimp curry (nice touch!) and a variety of excellent chutneys with the most vivid of hues. We then stopped in at a coffeehouse called Starry Night, a thriving place once in danger of being eaten up by the Starbucks chain, according to an article posted on the wall. Starbucks did move into the Northern Hotel, but the sensible citizens of Fort Collins still patronize Starry Night and the other local institutions, and indeed one new coffeehouse, Ardour, just opened on Wednesday. (The article went on to lament the big chains' infiltration of small towns and their resulting indistinguishability: "Taking your family for a vacation sometimes seems hardly worthwhile, when every street corner is depressingly, reassuringly, deadeningly the same." Amen to that, and hearty congratulations to the city of Fort Collins for preserving its heritage.)

My "Sing Sing Sing" piano was shipped off to Denver for repairs, so although most of the band made their presence onstage at the end of the show, I stayed in the pit, where, for astonishingly complex reasons comprehensible only to scientists, I had to play on Liz's keyboard. Something about how my pit keyboard and the onstage bandstand can't be active at the same time. After the show, I joined the cast for a party at our hotel thrown by the casting director - the Fort Collins nightlife would have to wait. I wanted to go for the briefest of walks after the party, but I'd have had to deal with Mulberry Street, so I just stood next to the road for a few moments. Greg, Ryan, and Sae La found me there, and in my vagabond-looking state I think I startled at least one of them, whereupon I forged a laugh and stammered something about trying to go for a walk but finding nowhere to go.

I took a different route downtown on Wednesday, hoping to avoid the noise and pollution of Mulberry Street. My street map indicated that I could walk along Greenfields Court, cut over to Summit View Drive, and head into town on Prospect Road. I went south on Greenfields (or Greenfield, depending on which sign you looked at), and presently came to the Random Annoying Creek. It probably has a real name, but it wasn't on my map, and it clearly existed solely to prevent me from getting away from Mulberry Street. I backtracked and cut across the next side street, past unassuming residences with only a bit more character than mobile homes, and found Summit View Drive. This took me out of my way a bit, but at least I didn't have to deal with Mulberry.

Summit View Drive lived up to its name. As I neared the intersection with Prospect there were sweeping views of the Rockies, and there was a small pasture with beautiful horses. Prospect teemed with traffic, but at least there was a somewhat level shoulder where I could walk and enjoy the view of the distant mountains and the unkempt fields and ponds that I passed. I'd planned to take Prospect all the way into town, but Erica had rounded up people for sushi and we'd agreed to meet at 13:00, so, finding myself a bit short on time, I took a shortcut along Riverside Avenue, which didn't live up to its name at all. It took me past industrial buildings and parking lots full of eighteen-wheelers. At least it was parallel to railroad tracks for a good portion of the journey.

Lunch was at Suehiro (located in the 1881 Reed-Dauth Block building, according to the walking guide). Seating was of the same take-off-your-shoes-and-heave-your-feet-into-a-hole-in-the-floor variety to which we'd been treated in Indianapolis. The food was excellent; they even had ankimo (monkfish pate), and the sashimi platter was well-priced and plentiful. We dispersed after lunch, and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town, reading about the old buildings (the 1881 red-brick firehouse is particularly appealing). I'd find myself retracing my steps constantly, making no significant progress in any direction, coming upon the same streets time and again, and it didn't matter, because the town was so becoming. I found a wonderful shop called The Tea Table, which had hundreds of teas from around the world, each marked in a ceramic jar, like the medicines apothecaries used to store. Samples of each tea were available for investigating and sniffing, and I spent a good bit of time giving my olfactory senses a workout. I stumbled into the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, in the Northern Hotel building, and had an amaretto truffle. I went out of my way to seek out future lunch spots and night spots. I stood by Mason Road and watched a freight train roll down the center of the street, with cars passing on both sides unprotected by a wall or buffer. I enjoyed the pleasantly cool weather and had a most salubrious afternoon.

Just before dusk, I walked south and investigated the Colorado State University campus. It was alive with happy-looking students and professors ambling home. I plunked myself down on a bench under the Newton's Corner sculpture, a large, metallic contraption that looked a little like an alien and had parts that swayed in the wind. Inscribed on the bench was a quotation from Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have been able to see farther than others, it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants." With the sun setting behind the Rockies in front of me, and the comforting sound of students shuffling past, I sat for a while and read Bill Bryson, and also checked my e-mail - an act I'm sure Newton would have approved of.

After Wednesday's show Brian, Erica, and I found the world's most perfect wine bar, Ciao Vino. Along with various wines by the glass, they served flights of three two-ounce samples. The late-night menu was ingenious: various cheeses, olives, Italian deli meats, each for $2 to $4. Then there were little flatbread sandwiches, for about the same price. Once we'd feasted on these, it was on to the desserts, and we went for the "chocolate flight" of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate. All this took place in a cozy setting enhanced by our friendly waitress, Toby, and the commendable sounds of a live jazz band playing at a volume that allowed for easy conversation. As hard as I tried, I couldn't think of a better wine bar or light-bites menu anywhere in New York City, or anywhere else for that matter. Ciao Vino may be a unique ilk.

Possible walking routes exhausted, I caught the 11:36 bus downtown yesterday morning and wandered around the Old Town once again, discovering new things, reading the plaques describing the establishments that used to inhabit the buildings. Across from Suehiro, at 218 Linden Street, for instance, was the business of Christian Phillipi, who in the late 1800s was famous for his horse harnesses. A couple of blocks away used to be the Lauterbach Cigar Factory, which doled out handmade cigars until the machine-made variety put them out of business. Then there were all the little dry-goods shops, liquor stores, and the like. Nowadays the buildings house locally owned coffeehouses, used-book stores, second-hand-clothing shops. Only the types of business have changed; the old-world charm remains.

I lunched at Nokhu, near the theatre. It was a place mainly patronized by businesspeople and by elderly ladies out for a festive luncheon. I had a delectable rock-shrimp bisque and then a smoked-duck club with brie, applewood-smoked bacon, and Asian slaw on challah (I never thought I'd use "Asian" and "challah" to describe the same menu item). Now that's a sandwich I find enticing. Nokhu was into wine flights as well, and I went for the Australia-New Zealand sampler. The Villa Maria sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, was exceptionally fragrant, as if infused with rose petals. The bill was presented in an envelope that read, "The Damage." I laughed.

It was a two-show day, with a two-hour break between performances. I didn't need a meal, but I had a hankering for ice cream, and some of the local crew recommended Walrus. Erica joined me; I had a "Saturdae" (they didn't call them sundaes) with cinnamon-chocolate ice cream topped with chocolate-chip cookie dough and Reese's peanut-butter cups. Pretty good ice cream, though I wouldn't have minded a more pronounced cinnamon flavor. We retired briefly to the underground lounge at Catacombs, an elegant restaurant with a truly sensational-looking menu that unfortunately isn't served late enough for me to indulge after the show, before proceeding back to Lincoln Center for the evening performance.

I'd amassed a group to return to Ciao Vino last night, but after the show everyone contrived bogus excuses not to go ("I'm tired," "I got up early this morning," "I have to get up early tomorrow," "I have to get up early a week from Thursday," "I have to pack," "I'm dying of Ebola"). I didn't really feel like going myself. Strike that. Yes, I did. I just didn't feel like dealing with getting back to the hotel afterward. And so I rode the bus back with everyone, whereupon we found the hotel bar closed, so there was absolutely nothing to do. I put on my coat and thought about walking back downtown - I'd have gotten there by 23:30, and then I could cab back. (I wasn't taking cabs in both directions, of course!) But in the hallway I ran into Tammy, and we chatted with Liz for a while, and in the end Erica called and was up for a game of late-night Scrabble. She took a commanding lead with REBUKERS on her first turn, but I came back at the end with RAVIOLI. Thus turned an uninspiring evening into a night of intellectual stimulation.

But tonight I'm going back to Ciao Vino, gosh darn it, whether I have Ebola or not.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
FORT COLLINS, CO / COLORADO SPRINGS, CO / PUEBLO, CO / FARMINGTON, NM / SALT LAKE CITY, UT
I awoke on Friday after the most troubling nightmare of my life. I was supposed to take care of my parents' golden retriever, Bo, who for some reason was staying alone for a week in the apartment of cabaret producer Sandi Durell. After three days I realized I hadn't fed or walked Bo, and I rushed up to Sandi's apartment, whereupon I was scolded by a neighbor complaining that Bo had been whimpering. Bo was OK, but I was deeply saddened by the thought that I would ever neglect him.

Erica, it turned out, had a similar dream about shirking responsibility. She had been charged with babysitting a few kids and instead had left them alone in the house and gone out for the evening. She returned to the house late at night, drunk, to face the kids' parents.

And with these startlingly coincidental stories to recount, we boarded the 11:36 bus Friday morning to head back to downtown Fort Collins for our final full day.

Before lunch we popped into the Fort Collins Food Co-op, one of those places where everything is organic, whatever that means, and where you can get loose, dry pasta by the pound, fill your own jugs of olive oil, and purchase things like chocolate-ginger-banana morsels and peanut-butter-tofu-cranberry treats. I still need to be sold on such places. I don't yet understand why I should pay $2.09 for Annie's Homegrown Totally Natural Radiatore Pasta with SunDried Tomato & Basil Sauce or $2.70 for Papadini Hi-Protein Pure Lentil Bean Pasta when I can buy a package of Ronzoni for forty cents and add my own seasonings. But Erica was happy to shell out $5.41 for three ounces of Avalon Certified 76% Organic Therapeutic Lavender Deodorant, and claims to like it very much, so I suppose such products have their following.

The yuppie offerings continued over our lunch at Thai Pepper, where I had a passable, though not especially spicy or fragrant, pork-and-vegetables meal. Near our table was a brochure called Energy Medicine Arts: Spiritual Technology for Healing and Ascension. In it were advertised various yoga and Reiki courses, as well as spiritual-healing and past-life-therapy sessions. One person offered DNA reprogramming, either in person or by phone. Erica and I were dumbfounded. By phone? I thought about whipping out my 7135, punching in some access codes, and downloading the genetic material necessary to make me a little taller and prevent me from ever growing facial hair again, but I was too immersed in my Thai meal.

Inspired by talk of such salubrious self-indulgences, we stopped in at Namaste, a salon offering services such as an Aromatherapy Lymphatic Massage, an Oxygenation Fresh Air Facial, and an Alpha Blend Maximum Exfoliating Peel. I don't yet understand all of this either - give me a bag of wasabi-roasted peas and send me on a walk of even mild interest or aesthetic appeal, and that's therapy enough, and much cheaper - but Erica was up for a little cleansing herself, and while she spent an hour enjoying a Bee Pollen Ginseng Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini Wax and a Swedish Meatballs and Dill-Smoked Aquavit-Infused Gravlax Massage, or whatever they were, I had a long walk around the exterior buildings of the Colorado State University campus. I learned, upon passing by a Parshall flume (which measures water flow), that CSU is known internationally for water-related research, owing in part to Elwood Mead, who implemented the first irrigation-engineering instruction in any American college. I walked along Isotope Drive and past a pub called Avogadro's Number - only in a college setting!

Suitably exfoliated, Erica was in the mood for ice cream, and so was I. This time we checked out Cold Stone, whose gimmick is that it blends all your toppings into your ice cream by sort of kneading the mixture all together. One employee said this was a novel idea, though the folks at White Mountain Creamery in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, did it way back in the 1980s. I had amaretto ice cream with black cherries, macadamia nuts, and cookie dough mixed in. Not bad, though - as at Walrus - I wished the amaretto flavor had been stronger. The truth is, I'm spoiled living in New York City, where one ice-cream shop - Cones - indubitably has the best ice cream in the world outside of Argentina. Cones is a no-frills place - you can't get a sundae or a banana split or anything like that - but the ice cream is super-rich and super-fresh and super-tasty.

Before heading onstage for "Sing Sing Sing" at our final Fort Collins performance, I called ahead to a place called Jay's Bistro and ordered a Platter Royale and a Mixed Grill Trilogy. Lured by a splendid menu, I'd gone into Jay's twice over the previous couple of days to find out how late they served dinner. They'd been somewhat vague - the dining room closed at 21:30 but it was up to the chef what delicacies might be available in the jazz lounge after that - and so I wanted to get them thinking about my meal long before the late-night menu kicked into place.

It was, I must say, a fantastic repast. The Platter Royale appetizer consisted of a half-dozen raw oysters as well as shrimp and snow-crab legs, accompanied by cocktail sauce and raspberry vinegar (the vinegar worked well with the shrimp and crab, but I don't entrust anything other than cocktail sauce to a raw oyster). The Mixed Grill Trilogy - I can do no better than transcribe the menu description - was as follows: "Petite Filet on Mushroom Jus, Ostrich on Huckleberry Pinot Sauce, and Elk Medallion on Cabernet Reduction with Polenta Pancake and Cranberry Relish." Everything was perfectly cooked: the meat tender, the sauces flavorful but not overwhelming, the polenta aromatic and - it seemed - infused with rosemary. (Who ever talks about polenta?) And I realized, as I plodded tranquilly through my $17 appetizer and $27 entree and watched and listened to the excellent and impromptu jazz quartet, who I must say was having a really good time, that this was my version of the Yin-Yang Mantra Tantra Yantra Self-Cleansing Manicure or the Honey-Scented Chakra Kama Sutra Liver and Spleen Excoriating Treatment. I guess we all have our own ways of indulging ourselves.

After that, what better place to head to than Ciao Vino? This time I had the sauvignon blanc sampler, and once again the New Zealand variety - this one was from Shepards Ridge - won me over. I also had a little bowl of asiago cheese, which was accompanied by a heaping bowl of complimentary baguettes - there must have been about twenty of them - and olive oil. A jazz trio played for a little while - they wrapped it up shortly after I got there - and the pianist grinned through his entire performance, immersed energetically in the music and making a bit out of repeatedly striking one grotesquely out-of-tune key.

My waiter - not, sadly, the dazzling Toby, who wouldn't return until the next day - gave me the number for a taxi company called Shamrock. As I exited Ciao Vino I called and asked for a cab to meet me on the southeast corner of College and Mulberry, as I wanted to walk around a little and watch the drunk, jacketless college kids queue up in the freezing weather and try to get into bars. I was told the cab would take thirty to forty-five minutes, which was a little longer than I needed, but I accepted.

About twenty minutes later I rooted myself at the designated intersection. I watched college students make recklessly veering and noisy left turns and shout at each other through open windows. I scrawled out and sent an e-mail message of moderate pith and considerable heft. Eventually it dawned on me that forty-five minutes had passed, and no Shamrock cab had appeared. I called again.

No cab had been dispatched. Whoever answered the phone asked whether he was the same person I'd spoken to earlier. It did sound like him, but I answered with the obvious: "Well, if you don't recall it, then it probably wasn't you." But he did recall it after I recited our previous conversation verbatim.

He said he'd send a cab immediately but that it would take another twenty minutes. I made some kind of grunting sound and said that I was going to walk along Mulberry Street in the direction of the Holiday Inn, and that the cabbie was to drive in the same direction and find me. "So I will no longer be at College and Mulberry," I repeated as if talking to a five-year-old. "I will be heading eastbound on Mulberry, and the cab is to cruise Mulberry and look for me." It was 1:35 in the morning.

Of course I scrutinized every car that came my way, and of course no Shamrock cab ever did. I didn't really mind the walk - if the temperature had been above freezing and if Mulberry Street had been the slightest bit interesting I might have decided to walk from the start - and after a night of cultural indulgence I didn't mind saving $10. (When it comes to spending, I can oscillate between lavish and stingy with astonishing rapidity, and there's virtually no middle ground.) At least the carriage lanes had little traffic, so there was a paved, level surface; and the moon was bright, so even the unlit stretches didn't seem so desolate. I had one brief, friendly exchange with one person exiting a saloon, or perhaps it was a gangster hangout (cops took control of the place about five minutes after I passed it), but otherwise the trip was uneventful. I turbo-walked - I walk pretty fast anyway, and considerably more so when I've had a couple of drinks, and considerably more than that when I'm irked - and by 2:15 I was seeing the signs for accommodation near the Holiday Inn: the Motel 6, the Super 8, and the National 9 (somehow they skipped something with a seven).

I entered the Holiday Inn at 2:30. I thought about calling Shamrock and asking them, please, please, if it wasn't too much trouble or an inconvenience to other clients, if they could cancel my cab, as I'd already made it to my hotel without being mugged and with most of my fingers not yet frostbitten - but what would have been the point? Fort Collins had generally been good to me, and that's the memory I wanted to last.

With vast, open plains on one side, and the gently protruding Rockies on the other, we spent two hours late Saturday morning enroute to Colorado Springs. Sandwiches awaited us at the theatre, where we performed a matinee and an evening show. In between shows many people went to the Hilton, fifteen kilometers away, to check in for the night - I and a few others stayed and checked out downtown.

Colorado Springs is something of a letdown if you've just been to Fort Collins, but it did have its charms. It was Saturday, so I was in search of a decent dinner as well as potential night spots. Something with live Irish music might be good. There was one Irish place, Jack Quinn's, and I went in to investigate.

I was followed inside by a pretty, drunk black woman and her boyfriend or husband, the latter of whom went to use the restroom and the former of whom flirted with me vigorously while he was gone. "You have very clean fingernails," she said, taking me by the hand.

A strange compliment - and not necessarily a true one - but one I was prepared to accept with grace. "I don't think about them often," I replied.

"What's your sexual preference?" she asked, heaving a breast into my shoulder.

I should have said, "Someone who knows the ninety-six allowable two-letter Scrabble words and the difference between nigiri and sashimi," but instead I gave her the answer she wanted, which was "Beautiful women."

And shortly thereafter I found out that Jack Quinn's did indeed have live music, but it was rock music, not Irish music. That was criminal, I thought. You should be able to go into any Irish pub on any night and request and hear "The Fields of Athenry." I also found out that there was not much to do in Colorado Springs at night, even on a Saturday, which was probably why the pretty drunk black woman (the comma earlier was optional) had had the good sense to drink up early in the afternoon.

On a side street off Tejon, the main drag, I saw a beacon of culinary promise: a restaurant called Everest Nepal. I wasn't hungry yet - it was barely 17:00 - but I went in to check it out, and as soon as I opened the door I knew that was where I would have dinner. I was greeted by a whoosh of warm air scented by various pungent spices and something that wasn't exactly fresh. The dining room was sweltering and had two ceiling fans, one of which didn't work at all and one of which rotated listlessly and laggardly, serving no purpose. Yes, this was it. This actually reminded me of Nepal. This would be dinner.

But first I walked around for another hour or so. There wasn't much in the way of architectural interest, except for the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, with its facade carvings and stone clock tower. I found the old train station, which is now Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant, and they have commendably incorporated the railway theme. The dining rooms had names such as North Track and Pullman Lounge, and the walls were festooned with photographs of trains. In front of the station was a locomotive from the Denver & Rio Grande, which pulled the first passenger train from Denver to Ogden, Utah, in 1883.

I headed back to Everest Nepal, which was across the street from a handicrafts store called Everest Tibet - evidently one establishment had played off the other's name. Everest Nepal had some Tibetan specialties, but I stuck with pakoras and lamb korma, and had an unusually good cinnamon lassi. As soon as I ordered, an extremely overweight man came in and waddled his way into a chair at the next table. I have nothing against obese people, but whenever I see someone like that in a restaurant I suddenly feel as if I should skip the meal. So I focused my attention on the walls, on which hung colorful masks, silk banners, and pictures of the Himalayas.

As nothing downtown arrested my attention enough to make me want to hang out after the evening show, call a cab, wait an hour for it, and then hike for two hours to the Hilton, I joined everyone on the bus. Some of us went to Ross's room to watch Nightmare on Elm Street. I'd never seen it before, and I must say I found it more amusing than scary (Nancy just happens to have in her room a spare pot of freshly brewed coffee, unscented so her mother wouldn't notice, Brian pointed out). But it was worth seeing, and it was an enjoyable way to pass what would otherwise have been a dull evening.

We weren't due to leave for Pueblo until 13:00 the next afternoon. The Hilton in Colorado Springs was a long hike from anywhere, so it was pointless to try to sightsee, save for the wonderful view from the Hilton of Pikes Peak and the surrounding mountains. Some of the peaks protruded through the lowest layer of clouds and just hung there, as if suspended in mid-air.

The Hilton did have a business center with free printing and photocopying facilities, and I decided this was a good opportunity to dash out a little epistle to the friendly general manager of that Holiday Inn in Wichita. I prepared it on my laptop, turned it into an Acrobat PDF file (warning: computer geeks only for the rest of this paragraph) and thrust it onto my Web site so I could download it and print it in the business center, but to my astonishment the hotel computer didn't have Acrobat Reader. It must be the only computer in the world without Acrobat Reader. I suppose I could have left it in Word and printed it, but the whole point of using Acrobat (warning: typography fanatics only for the rest of this paragraph) was to preserve the typefaces I use. It's possible that the hotel computer had Adobe Garamond, which isn't that uncommon, but there wasn't a chance in hell that it had my header typeface, Johnston Underground. Nobody has Johnston Underground, except people who actually work for the London Underground and people who have obtained it from the London Transport Museum's gift shop. (Actually, the London Underground itself uses New Johnston, which is slightly different - the 1's have serifs, the 4's and y's are thinner, and the l's aren't quite as curly, to name a few examples. New Johnston is proprietary and I'm sure there's no possibility of my obtaining it. If you're really into this stuff, or you happen to know where I can get New Johnston, get in touch with me. You're even more a geek than I am.)

The Rockies faded away during the hour drive to Pueblo. We stayed at the Marriott, which had the only other computer in the world that doesn't have Acrobat Reader. But at least it was downtown, and some of us went in search of lunch.

Union Avenue was the main street, lined with red-brick buildings dating from the late 1800s. They've been well-preserved and some are quite colorful. It was Sunday, which meant that all of the antique shops and most of the restaurants were closed - you may extract Sunday from the week and send it where the roosters don't crow, for all I care - but we were able to lunch at Angelo's Pizza Parlor, an eatery established in 1956 and housed in the old Schlitz building. One good deal at Angelo's was a ten-inch pizza with four toppings for $7. I went for anchovies, artichoke hearts, spinach, and olives.

On the southern edge of downtown lay the 1889 train station, a magnificent, red stone structure with a three-face clock tower. Two of the clock faces had no hands and the third was inveterately stuck on a few seconds after twelve. I peered into the old waiting room, which was grand and pillared, with a large seating area and cozy-looking bar stools. It was being set up for a banquet of some sort, but I couldn't go in. I climbed up the bridge overlooking the station and could clearly see the tracks where passenger trains used to roll in, and I tried to imagine the bustle of the elegant waiting room as passengers would make their way to Platform 4 for Provo or Platform 2 for Chicago or whatever it was, while other passengers disembarked and headed into the attractive brick buildings across the street. Now the platforms have been converted into parking lots, white painted guidelines and all, and it can't be long before the tracks themselves are removed.

The station is still used for freight, however. As luck would have it a freight train rolled in just as I was standing there, and I took a certain amount of pleasure in watching the train get uncoupled and then recoupled once a car or two had been removed. Nearby was the Pueblo Railway Museum. It was closed, but I was able to climb up onto a few of the colorful passenger cars and boxcars and peer inside.

I walked north of downtown on Union Avenue and Main Street. Here's where the nightlife, such as it were, was. The sign at Russ's Deluxe Tavern promised darts, pool, and a grumpy bartender, among other things, but it would close early. The Santa Fe Tavern had a sign saying, "Absolutely No One Under 21 Allowed During Business hours." The "Business hours" (I guess the shift key broke just before they finished the sign) stretched well past midnight, but the place was a noisy biker bar, and in any case the minors in our cast wouldn't be able to enter until the place closed. An Irish pub tantalized me by being in the process of brewing its own beer - employees were sweating it out at fermentation machines and the sweet, fresh hoppy scent wafted outside - but the pub itself was closed on Sunday.

And so, after the show, we spent a little time at the Marriott's bar, where we paid Scandinavian prices for wine before heading back to Ross's room to watch Wes Craven's New Nightmare - sort of a remake of, sort of a sequel to, the film we'd seen the previous day. I wasn't exactly captivated, probably because the film tended to spin off into hyper-sci-fi land randomly and frequently, and when anything becomes that unrealistic I can't possibly find it scary. But it did pass an evening, or early morning I should say, which gave me two and a half hours to sleep before our early-morning departure for Farmington, New Mexico. During those two and a half hours I had the second-worst nightmare of my life: The screws on my 7135 came off and I had to send it in for repairs.

We left for Farmington at 6:00 yesterday morning. I slept on and off for the first few hours, vaguely aware of an eerie, cratered landscape dotted with shrubbery. It was overcast and snowing, and there was no way to tell where the sky ended and the quasi-lunar surface began, which added to the eerieness.

Abruptly we halted for lunch at 11:15, in Bernalillo, New Mexico. We'd just turned onto U.S. 550, and there wouldn't be any food available for the last 166 miles of the trip. Here there was a Denny's, a McDonald's, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I watched most of the cast go into Denny's and sighed. I actually do think Denny's has a place in the world, but Denny's is not a lunch spot. Denny's is a place you go when it's 4:30 in the morning and you're half-drunk and you're with a bunch of people and you're waiting for a bus and you have nothing better to do than bloat your insides with a Belgian waffle even though you're not remotely hungry, like I did in Key West. But here I could certainly do better.

I walked along U.S. 550 a few minutes and came to a hand-painted sign showing a guy in a sombrero leaning against a cactus. The sign instructed me to go one block along State Road 313 (also known as Camino del Pueblo, El Camino Real National Scenic By-Way, and, alas, the legendary Route 66) to Aguilar's for "Home Style Cooking." That's what I liked about New Mexico - that things were in Spanish and home-style cooking was assumed to be Mexican. New Mexico was sort of like Mexico, but . . . newer.

The sign for Aguilar's had the apostrophe backwards, and another sign still proclaimed the building to house the long-vacated Guang Dong Chinese restaurant. I hoped the sloppiness would continue - that the restaurant would be a dirty shack, that the food would be overcooked, that the glasses would be cracked - and I was disappointed to find the place clean and bland, like a diner. There was some art hanging on the walls, but ambience there was not. I was served by a man who has never smiled but asked every four minutes whether I needed anything. I had the chile relleno dinner platter (it occurred to me that I hadn't had dinner the previous night), which actually did seem a tad overcooked, and it was very satisfying.

If it hadn't snowed, we'd have taken the road up through the Wolf Creek Pass, which would have shaved a couple of hours off the trip and would have afforded some fabulous views. But I can't complain about the scenery. U.S. 550 took us through the Zia Indian Reservation, over the Rio Grande, through the Ponderosa Valley, and past the Jemez Mountains. There were grassy dunes and looming stratified rocks with layers of reds and magentas, sometimes with a white or green patch as well. The color intensified and the weather was clear all the way through to Farmington.

We were a short drive from the theatre, but I walked and checked out the town. Main Street was really the only street of interest, and only for about a five-block stretch. The Three Rivers Eatery and Brewhouse looked promising. It brewed twelve kinds of beer with names such as Orchard Street Raspberry Wheat, Papa Bear's Golden Honey Ale, and 21st Amendment Pale Ale. You could buy a growler containing four pints for $8.50, and the food options looked pretty good. I pondered this as I continued along Main Street. I went into a Safeway and picked up two bottles of wine (discounted slightly once I procured a Safeway Carry-a-Load-of-Plastic-Around Card), as we'd be spending the next week in Salt Lake City, which more or less rivals Saudi Arabia when it comes to the availability of alcohol. As I was browsing wines, someone came up to me and asked if I'd ever considered joining the army. I said no, thank you, I was already in the services of Al Qaeda. No, I didn't. I said I was probably too old, and I took his business card, though I refused his gift of a keychain - they're not very handy for carting around hotel key cards.

Broadway ran parallel to Main Street, but it didn't have the latter's cute little storefronts. Broadway was mainly home to pawn shops, loan shops, and stores selling Native American handicrafts. I popped into one and briefly browsed sandstone paintings, kachina dolls, fetish amulets, and other little trinkets, but everything - with the possible exception of the shiny switchblades - fell into the it's-pretty-to-look-at-but-I-don't-want-it-in-my-house category, as my mother would say.

The Farmington Civic Center had a tiny stage and an infinitesimal orchestra pit accessible only through the house and down a makeshift stairway consisting of a milk crate and one of our equipment boxes. For the first time I was facing the audience - usually I'm near stage right - and seated next to the brass and reed players. I'd never watched them perform "Percussion Four," a piece in which Liz and I play keyboard percussion and everyone else picks up a slapstick or a bell or a tambourine or some such thing. I knew they played it, but I'd never been able to see it. It was like watching a miniature gamelan ensemble - everyone's hands moving methodically and mechanically, like the gears on a clock. Granted, that sensation was only for a few seconds, but it was a sight.

I might also point out, while I'm talking about the show, that there's been more than the usual amount of sickness in the cast - the long string of one-nighters and five- to ten-hour drives has taken its toll. People have had to switch around and perform pieces they don't usually perform. Last night there weren't even enough healthy people to do "Hey, Big Spender," and one line had to be cut. The result was that the show ended 3.4 seconds earlier than it would have, which meant that I got to my steak sandwich from Three Rivers, and Tammy and Brian and I got to our growler of raspberry wheat, 3.4 seconds sooner. That in itself was not a bad thing, as both concoctions were excellent: the sandwich was marinated in some kind of brandy or whiskey sauce, and the beer was smooth and sweet and fresh and aromatic.

This morning we left at 6:15 for Salt Lake City. We were going to take U.S. 6 up to Soldier Summit, a pass of over 10,000 feet, but a blizzard rendered that impossible. So we took the long way around: U.S. 191 to Interstate 70, then up U.S. 50 and Interstate 15. I slept for most of the first three hours and was dismayed to learn, when we paused at a Texaco in Monticello, Utah, to check out road conditions, that I'd missed the spectacular scenery of Canyonlands National Park.

I should point out that I generally consider sleep a waste of time. I mean, you gestate for nine months, curled up in inexorable boredom, and then suddenly you're brought into the world - a world of nearly three hundred countries and fragrant spices and Beluga caviar and fugu and Villa Maria sauvignon blanc and Tchaikovsky piano concertos and Mad About You reruns and the occasional place offering single-deck blackjack (where the dealer stands on soft 17) and the Darjeeling miniature railway and bridges overlooking the Danube, to name just a few things I appreciate - and people tell you you're supposed to spend a third of your life sleeping all that away. No, I can't do that. There'll be plenty of time for sleeping in eighty years or so. I'd give my right ventricle to be an insomniac.

I stayed awake for the remainder of the journey and was relieved to learn that I hadn't missed all the scenery. U.S. 191 was - if you'll pardon the cliche - breathtakingly picturesque. The weather cleared and we wound our way through Arches National Park, named for its rock formations. We couldn't see the arches well, but there were plenty of other stately shapes. Some rocks protruded with pillars and towers, like castles. Others were large and round and striped, like layer cakes. The bare rock swelled up on both sides of the road, walling us in, until we came to a clearing and the scenery gave way to open-faced turquoise rocks, littered with scree. Then, abruptly, the rich hues ended, and it was back to bare sand dunes.

It snowed on Interstate 70. We climbed and climbed, past grassy, snow-covered slopes dotted with little bushes. Mountains arranged themselves haphazardly and we enjoyed sweeping vistas of valleys and canyons.

When we turned onto U.S. 50, just outside of Salina, we stopped for lunch. There was a Denny's and a Subway and a Burger King and a Chinese restaurant that was no longer in business. I perused the options at Subway, as I always do, and eventually settled on what I always get, a foot-long meatball sub. We got on the bus and thirty seconds later passed a plethora of decent-looking eateries in Salina.

On Interstate 15, we were reminded of the snowy shrubbery we saw yesterday, but the hills were more pronounced, and here there was the noteworthy addition of cattle. We'd scarcely passed a house all day.

Some people had attended a screening of Jerry Springer when we were in Chicago, and it aired a few days ago, so we watched a videotape of it on the bus. The topic was "People Who Marry Their Cousins and Other Acts of Profound Irrelevance to Normal Members of the General Public" or something like that. The subject of incest sparked talk of three-armed babies and the like, and Brian had the pithiest comment of the whole show: "If you do have a daughter with three arms, she'll be able to sexually stimulate her father and her two brothers at the same time."

And during the last leg of the journey we watched an episode of Are You Hot? - The Search for America's Sexiest People, the new reality show in which judges award contestants zero to ten points for their faces, their bodies, their overall sex appeal, and the number of allowable two-letter Scrabble words they know (no, that last one was just wishful thinking). And I realized that some things are worth sleeping through.

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