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Tales From the Tour -- March 2003

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

Saturday, March 08, 2003
Salt Lake City was like a slightly different country. Most of the features of a reasonably large United States city were there - a thriving university, a useful transportation system, an enticing assortment of restaurants - but slight nuances made the place seem a little foreign.

For one thing, there were the addresses. Salt Lake (nobody says "City") is laid out on a grid pattern, with the center at Temple Square and long, straight, wide streets ("wide enough for a team of four oxen and a covered wagon to turn around," according to the Salt Lake Visitors Guide) streaming out in each of the four compass directions. But most of the streets don't have proper names. Heading south from Temple Square (whose south side runs along South Temple), for instance, you have 100 South, 200 South, 300 South. An address on an east-west street will be a number and then East or West, so you get addresses like 173 West 300 South and 215 West South Temple. Locals call the streets First, Second, and Third, rather than spattering out numbers in the hundreds. I found this system quite logical and easy to follow until I found myself in a hilly residential neighborhood with A Street, B Street, C Street, etc. I might have let it be except that A, B, and C didn't correspond to 100, 200, and 300, as they should have, but rather to 200, 250, and 300. The residential area wasn't interesting enough for me to bother to figure out the conversion matrix, and I was put off from lingering by an elementary-school girl who scolded me for jaywalking. (I pretended not to hear her.)

Second were Utah's legendary liquor laws. You can be served in any restaurant as long as you order food, but to gain entry into a bar - or "private club" - you have to either be a member, purchase a two-week temporary membership for $5, or have a sponsor who's already a member. Finding a sponsor isn't difficult; in many cases the person at the door will find you a sponsor or invite you to find one yourself, and in the former case you may not even meet your sponsor. I have yet to see the point of all this, though I suppose the required memberships are a form of taxation that must benefit someone (certainly not the visitors).

Third were the views. I looked out of my tenth-floor window at the Wyndham Hotel and tried to make something of the rather drab skyline. There was a Wells Fargo bank building, and a couple of blocks away there was another Wells Fargo bank building. None of the skyscrapers seemed particularly impressive. But then I noticed the mountains - grand, majestic, snow-covered slopes less than thirty kilometers away - and suddenly I felt as if I were somewhere in the Alps, nestled in and protected by the towering peaks.

Our six-day run in Salt Lake was at the Capitol Theatre, a historic building in the heart of downtown. The show's sponsors threw us an opening-night party at a restaurant called Em's, in that hilly residential district, and I used the opportunity to tap into the locals for advice on sightseeing and restaurants. "So what is there to do here?" I asked.

They looked at each other with an amused helplessness, and one of them said sarcastically, "Well, there's Temple." Temple Square, the epicenter of the Mormon faith, was what drove the entire city. My hotel room had not only a Gideon Bible, but also a copy of the Book of Mormon. The phonebook entry for "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," with all its offices and branches, took up nineteen columns. Beyond that there wasn't much to do in the city itself, though a short drive could take one into the mountains for recreation and impressive vistas.

There were, however, good restaurants in Salt Lake, and I took notes on a few of the locals' recommendations. And by then the smoked salmon at Em's was gone, so it was time to leave. The restaurant staff gave us each a bottle of wine to take with us - each of us who asked, anyway. So much for elusive alcohol in Salt Lake.

I spent the next day, after having the city explained to me by Marveen at the visitors' center, wandering around the city. From a pedestrian's point of view, downtown did have its attractions; most of the buildings date from within a couple of decades of 1900, and many have plaques telling their stories. Quite a few, especially near the Union Pacific and Rio Grande railway stations, used to be hotels. The stations no longer serve any passengers, but I was able to go into the Union Pacific station and see the large hall and stained-glass train pictures. The Rio Grande station claimed to house the Utah State Historical Society Museum, but it was locked when I went by and no sign gave any hint as to its opening hours.

At the Tabernacle in Temple Square, free half-hour organ concerts are given daily at noon (14:00 on Sunday), and I checked out last Wednesday's. The organ has five manuals and over 11,000 pipes, and it's capable of a tremendous spectrum of sounds and volumes. The concert tested the organ's capabilities to the limits, from lush, symphonic sounds to the quiet, glistening sounds of the celeste and flute stops. And I thought it pretty terrific that no matter where you were in Salt Lake, there was always something wonderful to do at noon.

A Peruvian restaurant, Incantation, enticed me with a buffet lunch. The chef hummed to herself as she cooked, prepared everything lovingly, and chatted with me about her native city of Lima - how could I pass it up? The buffet had only four dishes, but they were all delicious; the best was the causa limeña appetizer (yellow mashed potatoes with a creamy chicken-onion-mayonnaise filling). So friendly was the staff that I stopped by again later on for a chicha morada (purple corn drink).

Marveen praised Salt Lake's library, and by chance I stumbled upon it. It really was impressive: five floors accessible by vertigo-inducing glass elevators, and newsstands, flower shops, and other stores on the ground floor. You could go up to the roof and have an impressive view of the skyline and the mountainous backdrop. It was well-laid-out and inviting, and judging by the number of high-school students there on Wednesday afternoon, they considered it a congenial place to hang out.

In the late afternoon I took a tour of Temple Square, given by two Mormon sisters (one from Washington state, one from Korea) amidst an eighteen-month volunteer program. I knew the tour would go beyond the history of the faith and the buildings, which is all I really wanted, and get a little preachy, but it didn't bother me too much. They were serious and enthusiastic; why shouldn't they try to convert me?

So the history of the faith - and the city, for that matter - is that in the mid-1800s 148 Mormon pioneers, in search of a place where they could practice their faith freely, settled in Salt Lake City. They were led by Brigham Young, whose statue stands proudly near the southeastern edge of the square, with his outstretched hand gesturing toward Zions Bank and with his back to the temple. (They don't tell you that part on the tour.) The temple took forty years to complete, and it is unfortunately not open to the public except for weddings and similar occasions.

I met Brian, Eric, and a friend of Brian's, Jim, for a sushi dinner at Benihana. I'd never thought of Benihana as a sushi place (it's noted more for its tableside samurai-style grill preparations), but it had a good all-you-can-eat deal and thereby edged out the other Japanese joints in the area, which were significantly more expensive. The sushi was perhaps not the most cutting-edge, but it fulfilled a craving.

At some point during the day I'd passed Kristauf's, a martini bar, and after much searching and inquiring after Wednesday's show I managed to find it again. Erica joined me, and eventually so did Eric. "Are you members?" a lady asked as we entered.

"No," I replied.

"Do you have a sponsor?"

"No. Can you find us some?"

"Yes. Justin will be your sponsor," she answered, gesticulating somewhere toward the back of the bar.

And with that we were in. The martini list was huge - I guess you can put any combination of liquids in a martini glass and call it a martini - and they sure knew how to make 'em right. The fruitier concoctions went down like lemonade.

After Thursday's noon organ recital (I figured I might as well go every chance I got), I took bus number 11 for a forty-five-minute trip to a Russian restaurant and mini-grocery (at 6831 South 1300 East, if you're into addresses) called Gourmet Choice. I had their special of the day, cabbage rolls filled with meat and rice, accompanied by a couple of sides and a huge slab of bread. The proprietor was from Moscow, and, curious to see why he would choose to come to Salt Lake, I asked him whether there was a large Russian population in the area.

But I never got a proper answer because at that moment a beautiful woman came in and he said, "Wonderful population." He saw me reacting to their conversation, and so it transpired that I know a smattering of Russian.

"Say something in Russian," he said in English.

"What would you like me to say?" I replied quickly in Russian, which takes about twice as many words as in English. He was amused.

I went across the street and had my hair cut (by someone named Angela Hair, believe it or not), and then walked westward to the light-rail station. I'd seen a stop called Historic Sandy, and I took a trolley there to find out what it was all about.

Sandy, a suburb just south of Salt Lake, was incorporated in 1893 and originally had an area of just one square mile (a square mile that at one point included seventeen saloons). There are a few historic buildings in the area, one of which was, at various times, a ZCMI (Mormon-run) general store and the city's fire station.

That building now houses the Sandy Museum, which is chock-full of old household items from the past century of Sandy history. Many items were dug up as the sites for new buildings were being excavated. The items include several old pianos used in meeting halls, old bank documents, television tube testers from the 1950s, a 1906 Edison wax-cylinder player, and a commemorative glass from 1947 honoring Orson Bailey, Champion Glass Carrier of the World - he is shown in a picture holding seventy-one beer glasses.

There's not much industry in Sandy itself, as most of the residents worked in the nearby mines. The most interesting other building in the area was the dry-goods store at 198 East 8760 South (it would have had a more quaint-sounding First Street address but it was swallowed up by Salt Lake's numbering system). The store, right by the train tracks, has provided products to ranches since 1911 and still looks much as it did nearly a century ago. If there's a primary industry in Sandy now, it's probably the breeding of impudent dogs - I could scarcely walk by a house in the area without provoking a noisy objection.

Historic Sandy was two stops before the end of the light-rail line, at 10000 South. I took a train to the end (when you get there an announcement is made: "The end of the line. As far as we go."), rode back into town (a largely uninteresting forty-minute trip that took me behind warehouses and the like), and got on the other light-rail line, which makes a twenty-minute journey to the University of Utah. This trip was gorgeous, as it took me up into the hills and I was able to watch the sun set behind the mountains. It also made Salt Lake the fourth city whose rail lines I've ridden completely (the others are Boston, Calcutta, and Helsinki, though the last two are short and thus require little effort).

Across the street from the Capitol Theatre was another martini bar (perhaps the other martini bar), the Red Door. It had a red door, a cozy interior with leather lounge sofas, and a bizarre sculpture consisting of a baboon (or some such creature) holding a human skeleton. Here they would not find Erica and me a sponsor, but we were welcome to find our own. We got there late, after Thursday's show, and a large group was just leaving; Erica asked one of them to sponsor us, and after we all signed our names into a book they were free to leave and we were free to stay.

Those alluring mountains lured us away on Friday - Matt, Nova, Erica, and me specifically. We rented a car (about $31 for the day - less than the bike rental in Tallahassee!) and wound our way, through splendid rock formations, to Park City, a resort town about a forty-minute drive northeast of Salt Lake. Park City hosted several of the Winter Olympics games last year, and its history as a major ski center goes back about a century. Main Street is lined with buildings of all shapes, sizes, and colors, most of which have plaques telling of prior businesses.

The town's a bit touristy, but it was a pleasant place to spend the day. We had a late breakfast of wonderful bagel sandwiches at a place that's called the Morning Ray during daylight hours and the Evening Star at night, and then spent the afternoon strolling Main Street and popping into shops and art galleries. The galleries were noteworthy - one had an exhibition of Russian impressionist paintings, another had photographs of local wildlife, another had paintings of local natural beauty and sculptures by local artists, and there were countless others that we never ventured into. My favorite painting was called "Fowl Melody." It consisted of a guy holding a fiddle and a goose gazing at him curiously, and the guy's staring back at the goose with a befuddled expression, as if to say, "Now what are you looking at?"

At various times on the street we'd pass, and pet, a large golden retriever who never seemed to be owned by anyone but looked too well-off to be a stray, and who wasted no opportunity to shed several pounds of fur onto my black jeans. We also happened upon the owl used in the movie Harry Potter and his trainer, or owner; they were hanging out in a visitors' center. So much for local fauna.

The city museum is in a building that used to be the city jail. It had exhibits on Park City's main industries - skiing and mining - and showed how the two were once nearly combined: the thousand miles of rail tunnels in one mine were used to transport skiers to a shaftway that would bring them to the top of the mountain. Sadly, the idea didn't sit well with skiers, who preferred to complete the trip above ground.

Among the shops was an especially interesting store selling nostalgia items, such as old matchbooks and brothel tokens. Of personal interest were old Eastern Airlines playing cards for sale at $2 a pack. I used to collect airline playing cards and it never occurred to me that they might someday be worth something. I've got over a hundred decks in my parents' attic - make me a decent offer and they're yours!

We finished up our stay at an ice-cream store called Cows, or perhaps Cow's (an ice-cream cone was positioned in such a way as to suggest an apostrophe, but then again a sign spoke of "Todays Flavors," so I cannot claim understanding of the place's punctuation policy). I had an egg cream, properly made with Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup, though they put ice cream in it - a practice that was nontraditional but to which I had no objection. And with that, we drove back through the canyons to Salt Lake under brilliant sunshine.

After Friday's show a bunch of us (OK, Brian promised everyone a mention in the travelogue, so here goes, clockwise from my left: Greg, Brian, Keith, Duane, Emilee, Lindsey, Casey, Erica, Dustienne, and I) dined at the local franchise of the Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant. It was a terrific three-hour, four-course repast consisting of cheese fondue, salad, cook-your-own meat and seafood, and chocolate fondue. Special thanks go to our waiter, who meticulously explained every little menu option over a half hour or so, and whom we kept there about two hours after the restaurant's closing time.

At Marveen's recommendation, Clista, Erica, and I lunched at the Lion House Pantry, a cafeteria-style restaurant in a historic building that's part of the Temple complex. Marveen described it as home-style Utahn; they cook up three main courses daily and several sides, as well as excellent pies. I had the chicken cordon bleu (or "Gordon Blue," as the sign rechristened it), hearty soup, and cinnamon-raisin pie.

It was a two-show day, and between shows I checked out a little more of the city. I found a pleasant produce market and an overpriced fish market that advertised "Fresh Fish Daily," even though it was closed two days a week. I walked through the impersonal, generic-looking Gateway mall plaza, which connects the two old railway stations. I tried to return briefly to my hotel room, but the key didn't work; I brought it to the front desk and told the receptionist, "I am returning this worthless piece of plastic to you, because it's useless for opening hotel rooms." She asked if I was from the Fosse group - apparently all our keys had gone out. I made my usual why-not-return-to-regular-keys comment, and she laughed, apologized, and tried to steer the conversation to what it's like to work on a Broadway show. Nonplussed, I told her if it happened again I was going to demand a discount off my room rate. I don't need to hear apologies for this sort of thing. If apologies were sincere, the problem wouldn't recur. As I left the reception area I muttered, "Now I don't have time to go up to my room" - not exactly true, but perhaps it got a point across.

And I scouted out good post-show dinner spots - Erica and I were up for something on the nicer side. The best, Metropolitan, would close at 20:30, so that was out. But next door to the theatre was an enticing Scandinavian restaurant, Absolute, that had a big sign outside saying "Open for Dinner After the Show" and that opening hours on Saturdays were until 23:00.

We emerged from the evening show to find Absolute firmly locked and all the chairs stacked on the tables. One employee was inside, just about to leave; a couple of his co-workers were waiting outside. I grumbled and banged on the window in disgust.

"That wasn't necessary," said one of the co-workers.

I was in the middle of shooting back "Thank you for your candor" with the utmost sarcasm when the employee who had been inside came out. "Is something the matter?" he asked.

"We had been looking forward to a nice meal, and earlier there was a sign outside saying that you were open until eleven and after the show."

He went back inside and pulled out the handwritten part of the sign - not the part that mentioned eleven o'clock. "This is the sign that was outside before."

"There was also a sign saying that it's open until eleven."

"No, there wasn't."

"But it says, 'Open for Dinner After the Show.'"

"It means the matinee."

And therein lay the reason Salt Lake cannot be considered cosmopolitan. In any self-respecting city, "after the show" means you can get a late-night meal. I guffawed at his remark with unparalleled contempt and Erica and I went in search of greener pastures.

We found them just around the corner, at a the Globe Cafe by Moonlight, or perhaps - following the Morning Ray/Evening Star nomenclature system - it is called the Globe Cafe by day and By Moonlight at night. Whatever the case, the service was pristine and the food was absolutely splendid. We shared an appetizer of braised lamb short ribs with collard greens, matzo-meal dumplings, and a whiskey-currant sauce, and then I moved on to grilled ostrich with roasted sunchokes (never heard of 'em!), asparagus, and a golden raisin-chimayo sauce. Gastronomically fulfilled, we met Brian back at Kristauf's.

Sunday morning I got up early to go see the 3,837th broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's the oldest continual broadcast in the world - it's been going on for seventy-four years - and it features the famous 300-member choir, a symphony orchestra, and of course the celebrated organ. The program included several movements from Haydn's Creation, as well as "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel and several short pieces. The broadcast lasted a half-hour, after which we were treated to the choir's famous version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." My first memory of the song is the arrangement my chorus sang in seventh grade, which had varying tempi and a killer piano part. To my delight, this was the same version, only fully orchestrated and dazzlingly sung.

Brian's friend Jim drove us through Big Cottonwood Canyon up into the mountains, where we had planned to have brunch until we discovered the wait was too long - so we enjoyed the view and instead came back into town for lunch. And guess where we ate: at a place whose sign had proclaimed it unquestionably closed on Sundays . . . Absolute! We all started with salmon chowder, which was thick and creamy, with potatoes and vegetables and a large croquette. The only thing it lacked, oddly and disappointingly enough, was salmon. My main course was pytt i panna, a common Swedish hash with beef, pork, and potatoes. As we left I noticed that the sign outside had been changed: Instead of "Open for Dinner After the Show" it had the lunch and dinner hours explicitly handwritten in large figures.

The next stop after Salt Lake was Las Vegas; we were scheduled to leave Monday morning, arrive mid-afternoon, and have the rest of Monday and Tuesday free. I had a very strong desire to get there as soon as possible, and so I took the overnight Greyhound bus Sunday evening. The timing was perfect - it left an hour after the show and got into Las Vegas at 5:20 Monday morning. (When I told cast members I was going overnight, nearly all of them asked whether I'd be able to check into our hotel, the Boardwalk, so early in the day. As if I planned to spend the day in a hotel room!) The bus was full; I sat next to a friendly Hispanic lady and slept for most of the eight-hour journey. I awoke just before 5:00 and saw before me a trillion lights and two welcoming beacons: the tall Stratosphere hotel and the beam shooting up from the Luxor hotel - it is the brightest beam of light anywhere on Earth.

On arrival I caught bus 108 to the main resort-and-glitz drag, the Strip, and then bus 301 down the Strip. Curiously, the bus fare on most routes is $1.25 and $2 for route 301, but you can transfer free from any route to route 301, so if you're on the Strip it actually pays to walk away from the Strip, take a bus back to the Strip, and then transfer. On the 301 bus, which was fairly crowded, I sat next to a very drunk guy who rattled off questions, such as whether I was gay and where I came from. I responded to each with what I hoped was an astute and witty comment, and I believe the rest of the passengers were amused. Eventually he disembarked, and an acquaintance of his said, "He got off four stops early. He doesn't even have his hotel key."

"He's lacking a few things," I responded. And shortly thereafter it was 6:00, and I left the bus and stepped into the Boardwalk. (It's right next to the Monte Carlo.)

Ah, Las Vegas. I was there two years ago for a five-day vacation with my girlfriend at the time, Kimberly, and we'd absolutely loved it: all the hokeyness, all the glitz, all the pretense. It was like an adult playland, with splendid restaurants and teeming nightlife and something to do around the clock if you like cards, which it so happens we did. We strolled through the major hotels and marveled at how immaculate everything was. We crammed activity into as many moments as humanly possible and couldn't wait to go back a second time. Hence my haste in getting there.

If there's a slight lull in Las Vegas, it is perhaps between six and nine on a Monday morning, so I spent those hours at the Boardwalk's blackjack table. I walked away ahead $11.25 and felt very pleased. I went outside, got distracted upon seeing a posted menu of a highly recommended restaurant, and promptly tripped over a traffic-light foundation and sent myself flying. I was OK; more importantly, my 7135 was OK (I'd had it out at the time and it had escaped my grasp); the only casualty was my tube of Colgate, which I'd thoughtfully extracted from my luggage along with a toothbrush so that I could attend to some modicum of oral hygiene after leaving my bags at the Boardwalk's bell desk. Toothpaste spewed out and covered my jeans and sweater, and I probably looked a little ridiculous until I went into the Bellagio hotel to clean up.

I strolled the strip all the way up to Slots-a-Fun, which I'd read had especially good blackjack odds and low table minimums. I played single-deck for a while and went into the hole quickly - somehow I never do well at single-deck, even though I play it correctly. I walked back down the Strip to Casino Royale, where Kimberly and I had stayed; it's a friendly place, and I made a little bit of a comeback. (Bill Bryson has an interesting take on gambling: He spends a while at the slots at Caesars Palace and mechanically feeds quarters into a machine. He's down to his last quarter, and as he puts it in he looks forward to ending the game and having dinner. But gosh darn it, he wins a few more quarters. It's a considerable amount of time before he is finally able to rid himself of his last quarter and go eat.)

All of a sudden it was 15:00 and it dawned on me that I hadn't eaten since the previous night's takeout sashimi meal. I didn't want a huge meal - I'd be meeting Brian and Erica for the Mandalay Bay buffet later on - so I stepped into the Paris hotel and had a seafood crepe whilst watching a singer perform popular standards with thick vibrato. Thank goodness for that crepes place, too - it seemed the only place on the Strip where you could get a sort of half-meal for under $10.

Before going to the Mandalay Bay I played a little more at the Boardwalk, against the feistiest, funniest dealer I'd ever met. Her name was Meo and she was from Thailand, she was about five feet tall, and she had a cute arrogance that only a short woman named Meo from Thailand could get away with. "You think you can beat me? No way," she'd say.

I got 20 and asked, "Will that be enough?"

"No!" she chirped, pulling 21 and grabbing my chips.

And once I busted and she said, "You are the weakest link. Good-bye!"

I always arrange my chips in stacks of five and ten, so I can tell easily how far ahead or behind I am. Once a pile came too close to the betting circle for Meo's liking. "Keep your chips away!" she demanded, knocking all the piles over. She was hilarious. I was roaring with hysteria. And because she was so rude, I didn't feel guilty about not tipping her.

The Mandalay Bay buffet was indeed wonderful, with two kinds of crab legs and other seafood options as well as the usual Strip items of prime rib and the like. Conveniently enough, it was in the same hotel where most of our cast would later see a performance of Mamma Mia; our first company manager, Merrick, had become the company manager of that production and had arranged for us to have complimentary tickets.

With an hour to kill before the show, Erica and I stopped into the restaurant Aureole for a glass of wine. That is a nontrivial affair. All the wines are cased in a multi-story glass tower, and a woman is hoisted up and down the shaftway so that she can collect the requested bottles. It is truly a sight to see.

Also spectacular was the wine listing. I asked for a copy of it and was given a computer with a stylus. You could sort wines by region, price, and type; you could see descriptions of some of them; you could bookmark likely contenders and then review your choices. In the end I had something Spanish, but Erica and I had had so much fun just playing with the wine list that once we made our choices it was fifteen minutes before showtime and we had to down our glasses more quickly than we'd wanted to.

Mamma Mia is basically a collection of Abba hit songs fit into a contrived, and not especially compelling, plot. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - I do like Abba, and the first act was fun to watch and had few lulls. The second act, however, started with about forty minutes of songs that didn't really have much to do with the story. One ballad, "Winner Takes It All," was exceptionally beautiful, until it went into sort of a hyper-techno beat. Keep it simple, folks!

The streets were surprisingly quiet after the show - it was only a little after 1:00. I went to the New York, New York hotel and found dueling pianos in a piano bar, so I stayed there for a while and watched and listened. The pianists were competent and the crowd enthusiastic. When they finished, I returned to the Boardwalk, where I found our bus driver, Jim, getting hundreds of dollars ahead at blackjack. I joined him for a while (my wagers were considerably smaller than his) and climbed $21 further out of the hole.

The next morning the cards were especially unkind. I lost a bundle at the Boardwalk and at Casino Royale, and decided not to play for a while. It was 11:24 in the morning, and I was standing outside Harrah's, which is right next to Casino Royale. Piped music was emanating from the Harrah's speakers, and I realized it was the same song Kimberly and I had heard over and over again two years ago, when we wasted most of a morning waiting for a bus to come take us on a full-day tour of attractions in the surrounding countryside. (The bus never showed up - they had made our reservation for the wrong day - but after a long phone call and much complaining they took us on the half-day Hoover Dam tour free of charge, so all was rectified.)

And at that moment - 11:24 on Tuesday - I suddenly disliked Las Vegas. There wasn't anything remotely real about it. Everything was contrived. You could walk through Paris or the Venetian or New York, New York, but it didn't feel like being in those cities. They all had the same overpriced stores, or at least the same types of stores, and they all had the same tourists, and they all had the sounds of slot machines chiming away in C major. Everything was immaculately polished and refined; there was nothing fresh or spontaneous.

And there was no place to eat lunch on the Strip. All the restaurants were either chain franchises, fancy spots that served only dinner, or fancy spots that charged $20 for a sandwich and salad. The buffets weren't too expensive, but I wasn't that hungry. There was OK ethnic food, but it was toned down and the restaurants were owned by corporations, not family-run businesses where the chef hums to herself and chats with you about her hometown.

And Las Vegas is without question the most singularly obnoxious city to try to walk around in. The Strip has narrow sidewalks packed with incompetently slow tourists and annoying people trying to give you flyers. At major intersections you can't continue along the Strip without going many paces out of your way, ascending an escalator, crossing a bridge, entering a building, and - if you are fortunate enough - finding the escalator down. You'll never get that far, though, because you have to enter the building through one of those pointless automatic revolving doors, and no doubt some acerebral father has allowed his mealy-mouthed kid to press the "geezers and invalids" button that makes it move at roughly the speed of continental drift. So you're traveling at about ten paces per hour, but your body's in fifth gear, and it is only the fear of spending your next few years in a Nevada prison that makes you refrain from knocking father and kid over and smashing the glass of the automatic door.

I made my way north on the Strip, giving don't-you-dare-mess-with-me glares to the flyer guys and deliberately and methodically thwarting every attempt by the city planners to make me follow the deviant and devious sidewalk paths. In front of the Sahara I walked on the street side of the railing, with one foot on the curb and one foot just barely cutting into the rightmost lane of traffic. (The previous day I'd walked on the other side, and I'd foolishly followed the detour signs around a construction zone instead of walking in the street. The signs led me through a shopping mall. Can you believe that? Here I'd come to Las Vegas and found myself, through no will of my own, sprinting through Macy's and Nordstrom's, or maybe it was Needless Markups, just to walk along a street. I vowed never to let such a silly thing happen again.)

And I called Kimberly. "Remind me why I like Las Vegas," I said.

"Because . . . there's . . . lots to do and lots of gambling . . .," started her no-nonsense, hint-of-humor reply. I might have taken a break from the cards, but there should have been lots to do. Why couldn't I be seduced by it, as I had been before?

As she put it, quite rightly, the novelty had worn off. Two years ago I'd been impressed by all the glamour, and we'd found it pleasurable to stroll through the Forum Shops arcade at Caesars Palace and walk over the canals at the Venetian and gawk at the ritz of the Bellagio. But I suppose after you've done all that once, there is no need to do it again. You know what it's all about, and you start thinking about a trip to actual Rome or Venice. And since you've done it, you just want to walk past it. But you can't, because it takes about ten minutes just to walk past one casino-hotel, and in any case the sidewalk leads you inside. So once inside, you look briefly at a blackjack table before realizing that you don't feel like being in C major and would rather be outdoors, even though it's impossible to progress any substantial distance, and so you try to find your way out. But you can't, because all the routes lead you in, and there are no signs directing you to the exit. In desperation you ask someone, who points you to a door at the back of a room you've just circled thirty times in vain.

I also think, in retrospect, that maybe I shouldn't have gone off so quickly on my own. Las Vegas is no doubt more fun if you're coupled or in a group. It's easy to feel pathetic whiling away an hour by yourself at an impersonal cafe hidden in a mega-hotel, but get together a group for a showy meal or even a simple stroll and it's much more palatable. Fortunately I had dinner plans with a few others that night at Marrakech, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant well off the Strip - though even Marrakech toned down the flavors of one of the more appealing dishes to suit the bland tastes of American restaurant-goers, according to the Frommer's guide.

I remember reading somewhere - it may well also have been in the Frommer's guide - that everybody who goes to Las Vegas stays on the Strip the first time and then stays downtown on subsequent trips. Downtown is much less pristine, a little dirty, a little seedy. That's where the locals go. And that's where I walked now, for I knew I'd find it much more likeable.

Immediately after turning off the Strip onto Main Street I found a Thai supermarket, run by a Thai, and my opinion of the city improved immensely. I browsed exotic produce and packaged products, and I purchased a can of coconut juice, if only to show my appreciation that the store was there at all. Farther up Main Street I stopped into the Gamblers General Store, a warehouse of all things gaming-related. Of note were antique slot machines selling for several thousand dollars. Some had amusing quotations printed over the spinning fruit icons, such as "The world's your oyster divided by 3 billion" - which gives you an idea of the population in 1941, when that particular machine was made.

On a side street I saw a little Polynesian cafe called the Turning Point, and I took it as a sign that if I had lunch there my spirits (and perhaps the luck of the draw) would instantly improve. The place was run by two Samoans who doled out reasonably priced, traditional Samoan fare. There was even a flyer in Samoan on the counter. I had a huge plate of turkey tails and taro; nodded with a combination of compassion and disdain at a crackhead who spewed out gibberish to me for about five minutes and exited without ever getting anything to eat; and decided, after hearing another customer's story about how her car had been vandalized and she'd be out at least $200 to get it repaired, that my life could be a lot worse.

And by golly, the cards did improve. I entered the Las Vegas Club, which advertised especially liberal blackjack rules, and, loath to withdraw cash and commit to a significant session, pulled out most of my remaining cash - three fives and five ones - and bought $20 in chips. (Have you ever seen anyone start a long blackjack session by putting one-dollar bills on the table?) Three of the special rules did benefit me: A blackjack with two cards of the same suit paid 2 to 1; you could double down on any two, three, or four cards; and any six-card hand totaling 21 or less was automatically a winner. The only drawback was that a non-suited blackjack paid even money instead of the usual 3 to 2, but it so happens that most of my blackjacks were suited anyway. I took the Las Vegas Club for $54.

I then played for a while at the Four Queens, breaking even precisely, and began the hour stroll back to the Strip. It was nearing sunset, and the city was more provocative. I detoured off the Strip to the Rio hotel, which has an impressive wine cellar - you can buy wines dating back to the 1850s if you have $12,000 to spare - and one of the best views of the Strip, on the 51st-floor Voodoo Lounge. Resisting the urge to have one of the Voodoo's wonderful martinis (I had to be ahead to do that), I stood on the balcony and gazed out over the huge Strip resorts, which two years ago had loomed large and awesome. But now even they seemed toylike and unimpressive.

I dined with Erica, Tammy, and Tammy's friend at Marrakech, which was every bit as wonderful as it had been two years ago. It's a small, cozy, velvety room, and the scrumptious six-course $28 meal - scampi, lentil soup, hummus and salad, lamb kebab, cornish hen with couscous, and fruit b'stilla - is good value. And we were all wowed by the belly dancer, who was able to undulate her body and vibrate her belly with remarkable control.

We left Las Vegas early Wednesday (if there's anything good to be said for my losses, it's that I got $15 comped off my room bill at the Boardwalk), bound for Fresno, California. I slept much of the ride but fortunately awoke to see the rolling green pastures and farm cattle along California's Route 58. We arrived in Fresno in the mid-afternoon, and I had an unremarkable Chinese buffet lunch.

Ah, Fresno. When my uncle read about our isolated, unstimulating hotel in Fort Collins, he said I should be grateful that they were preparing me for Fresno. Dave called it "the armpit of the state" and then revised his opinion to make it "the asshole of the state." Billboards on the highway approach said, "Don't Trash Fresno" - it was an anti-littering campaign, but perhaps there was an underlying secondary meaning. We stayed some distance away from downtown, at a Best Western that wins the Not Enough Electric Outlets Award by a landslide. I had to unplug a lamp and the television in order to charge my laptop and my phone. It's a good thing Greg didn't have a computer too.

We performed in the large William Saroyan Theatre, whose lettering was more reminiscent of that of an airline terminal. There didn't seem to be many dinner options near the Best Western after the show, but I walked a little distance along the road and found the Pizza Pit. They were just closing up, but they were friendly and made me a hot beef hero.

The next day we had an afternoon rehearsal to bring, among other things, Michael into the lead male position - Rodrick is leaving in a couple of weeks. I didn't have to stay through the whole rehearsal, so I remained downtown until everyone else was done and checked out the city. It didn't seem as bad as everyone had made it to be. I impulsively headed in the general direction of the largest building around, and in doing so I found a dusty pedestrian street, the Fulton Mall. It was lined with Mexican restaurants and second-hand stores. I got a large, cheap tamale from a street vendor and ate it slowly as I watched people of all ages on the street: little kids with their fathers, young adults chattering in Spanish, elderly men with fuzzy beards who have probably sat on the same benches for decades. It had a sense of welcoming community, and some of the turn-of-the-20th-century buildings were ornately engraved. This wasn't bad at all.

The most noteworthy edifice was the stately 1894 brick water tower. It's 100 feet tall and, when it was in operation, it held 250,000 gallons of water. For a few years after that, it was the building in which the city repaired parking meters. (Well, they have to do it somewhere, don't they?) Now it's a visitors' center, and I went inside and saw one of the old water pipes and also a steam whistle, which used to be blown at noon daily and was the means by which Fresno residents would synchronize their clocks.

Ross and I had an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Bobby Salazar's; the steak fajitas were huge and reasonably priced, and there was enough for a late-night snack. That was Fresno.

We departed Fresno yesterday morning for Reno, led not by Dave, our company manager, but by Gregory, our tour general manager. Dave will not be continuing with us. That's too bad - I'd grown to like him a lot - but I guess people named Dave just don't last on this tour. Gregory will be with us for a couple of days, and then we'll be on to our fourth company manager.

The former stretch of the trip to Reno was monotonous, the latter mountainous. Between Sacramento and Reno Interstate 80 pulls you up and up and up, slowly and painstakingly, like a funicular railway, to the Donner Pass. Snow-covered mountains are strewn haphazardly on both sides of you, with arrow-straight evergreens protruding through the snow. The Amtrak line winds its way along the side of a mountain, and if you're lucky - as we were - you see a train go by. Near the top, marked by a sign showing the elevation at 7,239 feet, you suddenly see Donner Lake under you, tranquil and untouched, glistening under the sun's rays. This is the very definition of scintillating. And then the highway sets you down again gently, the trees disappear, and suddenly you're in Reno.

We're staying in downtown Reno for three days, at the Cal Neva. I intended to have a walk around the city in the afternoon, but I got only a couple of blocks before I came to the Eldorado hotel and realized that its weekly $23.99 lobster buffet was due to start in just a few minutes. How could I pass that up? I gorged myself on three lobsters, as well as raw oysters, crab legs, shrimp, creamed salmon, and a host of other things. Such a meal puts you on a food high (especially if you drink eight glasses of Pepsi), and you end the meal swaying contently and numbly, gazing with glazed eyes at the others around you, who are also swaying contently and numbly. You start moaning a little bit, and then you start humming to yourself and possibly chatting with yourself about your hometown. You get up to walk it all off, and you amble in a kind of graceful stupor, your arms outstretched, as if you're an airplane gliding through the room. And twenty minutes later you're snacking again.

We played to an incredibly vocal audience at the Pioneer Center. Some of Tammy's friends had attended, and Erica and I joined them at an inviting lounge called the Siena. Erica then wanted to try her hand at blackjack - she'd never played before - and after I gave her a thirty-second strategy course we played double-deck against two especially patient dealers. After about twelve hands Erica was up fifty cents and duly satiated for life, and she said she'd never play again. Now that's a bet I wouldn't take!

Monday, March 17, 2003
Reno had a dusty, small-town, quasi-Wild West atmosphere. There was nothing pretentious about the city. Downtown was just a few square blocks, with casinos offering good-value buffets and scruffy restaurants with hand-painted signs serving lunches and late-night meals for under $10. Passenger trains stopped several times daily, in the heart of downtown. I liked the city for these reasons alone, though no doubt it helped that the blackjack outcome was better than in Las Vegas, thanks in part to one table at the Silver Legacy - you had to search really hard for it - that let you double down even if you already held more than two cards.

Erica and I had our fill of eating on Saturday. After the matinee we checked out the buffet at the Fitzgerald's casino: not among the most spectacular buffets, but well-priced. It did, at least, have snow-crab legs and peel-and-eat shrimp, and the self-service drinks station included guava juice, which was a nice touch. And after the evening show it was back to the comfortable lounge at Siena, followed by a Vietnamese meal at Kim Son. What better snack than an enormous, cheap, bowl of spicy tripe-and-tendon-and-goodness-knows-what-else soup at 1:30 in the morning?

Sunday morning I walked along the Truckee River, which snakes its way through Nevada and downtown Reno. The sun shone brilliantly, and people were out walking their dogs along the footpath flanking the river. Mansions in various states of repair overlooked the water. Indeed, it was startling how quickly the neighborhood segued from the seediness of downtown into the family-oriented residential area just a couple of blocks away. I walked all the way to Idlewild Park. There was a duck pond, and the city government had thoughtfully made available a dispenser of disposable gloves for people to pick up after their dogs.

Sunday was another two-show day, and the two-hour break between shows presented an opportunity to try yet another buffet. (Well, why not?) This time it was the Sunday-night international buffet at Harrah's. It didn't quite get into caviar and sushi, but the pad Thai was admirable, as were the Polish sausages and the seafood options. We spent our last night in Reno seeing the movie Bringing Down the House, which was funny and fairly intelligent, and then I made back the price of the meal and the movie ticket during a long session at the Harrah's Spanish 21 table. I sat between a friendly woman named Polly and a slightly inebriated Asian man who very nearly kept falling asleep at the table. When he was awake, he was friendly too. Everyone in Reno seemed friendly.

On Monday we made the ten-hour trip from Reno to Santa Barbara, California. We crept back over the Donner Pass and I watched the scenery change in reverse: from the rocky hills of Reno to the somewhat greener peaks at the summit, overlooking Donner Lake, which was still and serene on this cloudy morning. Then we plunged into the lush forests on the California side.

I drifted into and out of consciousness as we made our way south on Route 101. For several hours we were surrounded by green hills and wineries whose vines for this year had just been planted. We stopped for lunch at a nondescript junction that was described simply as mile marker 333, but which my credit-card slip tells me is the town of Coalinga. There was a good Mexican restaurant called Cazuelas, or perhaps it was Cazuela's - the variants were equally numerous on the signs - and several of us had hearty fare in surroundings that couldn't decide between sterile diner and rustic saloon. As we approached Santa Barbara the hills became hillier and the greenery greener, and I didn't even mind a brief stop in the Gaviota Pass, amidst fresh air and the scented pines of the Santa Ynez Mountains, a half hour outside of Santa Barbara.

We arrived at the Sandman Inn just after dusk. It was warm and clear, and Brian and I walked the five miles or so to the ocean, in search of a good seafood dinner. The walk took us through Santa Barbara's stellar downtown, which had inviting eateries, outdoor cafes, and great views - in daylight hours, anyway - of the surrounding mountains. The atmosphere felt very Parisian, and I say this having never set foot on a street in Paris.

We dined, with Jen and Ryan C., who had taken a cab into town and been waiting for us for quite some time, at the Waterfront Grill. As you may deduce, it overlooked the ocean and specialized in fish dishes. I had an ahi-wasabi appetizer and splendid peppercorn-crusted halibut and thought it a little pricy, but there was really little to complain about. The others headed back to the hotel right after dinner; I wanted to check out the town a bit more. Nightlife wasn't abundant on a Monday, but I ran into Tammy and Dustienne and we had a drink in a restaurant on Stearns Wharf before taking an unbelievably expensive taxi back to the Sandman Inn.

I headed out on Tuesday morning in the vague direction of downtown, but without much of a plan. It wasn't necessary to have one, since the city and the weather were so welcoming; it was pleasant enough to wander the hilly streets aimlessly. I impulsively followed signs to the Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786 as part of a string of twenty-one Spanish missions. It was made of stone and had attractive gardens in front, but its mission had clearly changed to tourism over the years. There was a three-room gift shop and a $4 admission fee, which I found offputting. Wasn't the whole point of a mission to lure me in and get on with the preaching?

And so, after peeking through the windows at a few of the two-hundred-year-old Mexican paintings, I set off again, dutifully and mindlessly following signs to the Botanic Garden. I had no idea how far it would be, and it was farther than I expected. The walk took me up Mission Canyon Road, past beautiful parks, over a little stream, and past a house that may have been a Tibetan monastery - the gate had something inscribed in Tibetan, a sun disk was etched in chalk on the driveway, the front court had sculptures and rows of thangkas, and the back yard had rotating prayer wheels.

Eventually this beautiful, serene walk of tranquility turned into an exasperating, alienating fight with traffic. Mission Canyon Road followed a highway for a while, the sidewalks went away, and the narrow two-lane road was so hemmed in by shrubbery that there was no place to walk except in the path of cars. I came to a side street with the peaceful, music-evoking name of Andante Road. It crossed a small wooden bridge and might have been worth a detour were it not for a sign at the road's entrance that said something like, "Private Road. No Trespassing. NO Vehicles. NO Pedestrians Beyond This Point. If You Give the Most CURSORY Glance in This General Direction, You Will Be SHOT on Sight." Stunned that such a pleasant place could be ruined by such a threatening sign, I hastened on.

Thus, I arrived twenty minutes later at the Botanic Garden in a sour mood, a mood that soured further when I found out the admission price was six dollars. All I wanted was a stroll through some leafy bushes and fragrant trees, and here I was going to have to make a considerable investment of time and money. If I paid the admission fee I knew I'd feel compelled to walk all five miles of trails and go on the docent-led tour an hour and a half later, and I didn't really feel like doing all that.

Fortunately one trail on the opposite side of the street, the Ceanothus Section, was unfenced and didn't require admission. I climbed up the slope and found myself in a grove of small bushes with orange, purple, burgundy, white, and gold flowers. They were chaparral, said the informative plaque: small evergreen shrubs with tiny, firm leaves. A gold butterfly complemented the hue of the flowers. There was a dramatic view of the surrounding mountains, with their steep, forested slopes and rocky summits. I stayed for a half hour and listened to the tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh and ss-ss-ss-ss of the birds, the buzzing of flies, the rustle of rabbits and lizards scurrying beneath the bushes, and the tooting of a train whistle back in the city. There was bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. It was a setting that appealed to all the senses.

Except taste, and so I eventually found my way back to State Street, the main downtown drag. I was tired and hungry, and without much thought I plunked myself down in the outdoor seating area of Pascucci, a place that looked better than your average Italian eatery. And by golly, it was. The appetizer sampler - different kinds of bruschetta and phyllo pastry - was irresistible. The ahi-penne entree was delectable. And when you're at an outdoor cafe in Santa Barbara, all the passersby are beautiful.

A farmers' market makes its way around the region weekly, and on Tuesdays it happens to be in downtown Santa Barbara. This gave me a pleasant after-lunch stroll; one lady handed out samples of scrumptiously sweet seedless mandarins, which constituted my dessert. I walked along the beach for a while, but it turned cold and misty, so I made my way back up State Street to the Arlington Theatre for our single Santa Barbara show. It was a tiny theatre - we practically had to be hoisted into the orchestra pit by a crane, and there wasn't any hope of an onstage bandstand - but the house was pretty, with Mediterranean-style balconies and subtle lighting.

It was a short two-hour drive on Wednesday back through the Gaviota Pass to San Luis Obispo, where we were conveniently - as conveniently as it gets on this tour, anyway - situated a mile out of town. Attractive, lush peaks surrounded us. I walked into town, which was about six blocks by three blocks, the most thriving of which was Higuera Street. I had the $6 pot-pie-and-a-pint special at Z Pie, and, somehow feeling hungrier after that, got some ice cream at Cold Stone. A few minutes later I came across an inviting shop called the Old Country Deli, which made twenty different kinds of sausages, and their pistachio-infused bockwurst rounded out my food consumption for the afternoon.

We performed at California Polytechnic University, in a huge theatre at the top of Grand Avenue. The college more or less supported the town's nightlife, which was concentrated near the corner of Broad and Higuera. Erica and I tried a couple of the pubs - the Mother's Tavern, whose techno music was completely incongruous with the elegant surroundings, and the Frog & Peach, where you could buy a friend a drink and have it recorded on a blackboard so that the friend could cash in the next time he or she entered the pub - and we were by far the oldest people at either establishment.

Thursday was the Day of Bad Planning as far as the crew was concerned. Erica and I had sought to attack those alluring peaks for a picnic lunch, but she suddenly was called in at 13:00, which pretty much killed the whole day as far as any kind of excursion was concerned. And Squatch had promised cast, crew, and orchestra a barbecue at our hotel at 14:00, until we found out the hotel wouldn't let us do it there, so it was moved to the theatre at 15:30. He brought the crew over, so they could easily partake, but I'm not allowed to ride the crew bus . . . .

So with the whole day ahead of me, and the guidance of our hotel's receptionist, I hiked out to Bishop Peak alone. The sky was cloudy, and when I set out, the top of the mountain was ensconced in fog. It was a fifty-minute walk to the trailhead, and then another fifty minutes up the mountain. The trail was well-marked and began in a fenced-in clearing - the fences are part of an admirable plan to introduce native plants back into their natural habitats after years of grazing. Soon I was in a forest, and the trail wound its way up and up, with sharp switchbacks and some steep stretches. Little brown lizards scurried away at the sound of my footsteps, and I had to avoid stepping on large black beetles. Every once in a while the trees would open up, and I'd have a spectacular view of San Luis Obispo, which sprawled more than I'd realized walking around the few downtown bloks. The path was fragrant and lush and flanked by small shrubs with brightly colored flowers and firm leaves - chaparral, perhaps - among various kinds of trees. No doubt I was seeing exactly what I'd have seen if I'd forked over $6 at the Botanic Garden in Santa Barbara.

The trail grew steeper, mistier, and, thanks to the rocks encroaching on it from both sides, narrower. Suddenly I was at the top, shrouded in fog. No longer could I see the urban sprawl and open pastures below; all I could see were the small shrubs and looming rocks at the summit. It wasn't too far-fetched to pretend that the whoosh-whoosh below was, say, the waves lapping at the shore under a hill in Scotland, rather than the traffic on Route 1. (Not far-fetched at all. I've never been to Scotland, but Erica lived there for a year and said the only thing missing that would have made the mountain convincingly Scottish was a huge flock of sheep.) There were a gentle breeze and the contrapuntal melodies of various birds. Everything - except me, no doubt - smelled fresh and invigorating. And since I'd brought a granola bar along as a snack, this time all my senses could be fulfilled.

I lingered for twenty minutes or so and then made my way back down and into town. By then I was starving and very much looking forward to our barbecue. 'Twas not to be at the hotel, but I walked the extra fifteen minutes to the theatre. Squatch cooked up a storm - burgers, chicken, sausage, and a hearty and sweet baked-beans-and-meat concoction.

There's a farmers' market in San Luis Obispo every Thursday evening. I very much wanted to check it out - it was an important enough event that they even run a free trolley service from the Monterey Street hotels - and it did not take much convincing to get Erica to come with me. It was, to my delight, much more than a farmers' market. It was more like a food festival - all the restaurants set up outdoor grills and barbecued lamb, turkey, and ribs. All of Higuera Street smelled of smoked meat. Among the food stalls were stands selling some unusual produce items - baby bok choy, pomegranate juice - and street musicians, such as one guy who operated a hand-cranked device that played piano rolls. It was very festive, and it seemed everyone in town came out for this important weekly event.

Thursday-night festivities continued in town with late-night fifty-cent drafts at the Slo Brewing Company (Slo, of course, is San Luis Obispo, an acronym that usually works until you realize that the local bus company is Slo Transit). A bunch of us wanted to partake, but there was a queue out the door and ear-splittingly loud music emanating from the building, and the potential for cheep beers was marred by a cover charge. So instead we went back to the Frog & Peach, once more a calm, friendly place, and then walked back to the hotel - my eighteenth mile of the day, I realized.

Needless to say, I was tired on Friday. We were about to take two days to get to Boise for a two-day, three-show weekend, followed by two days back to Palm Desert, California, for a six-day sit-down. On Friday we would make it as far as Winnemucca, Nevada, about two hours east of Reno. Winnemucca had occupied an infinitesimal part of my mind for about fourteen years, ever since a summer-camp friend of mine lived in Reno. That was the summer I became interested in train travel, and I perused the Amtrak timetable to see how I might get from Boston to Reno for a visit. ("Fly," my mother said.) I noticed that the train stopped at towns in Nevada with interesting names: Elko, Winnemucca, Sparks, Reno.

For the third time, we drove along Interstate 5, past the farms and wineries, and - after a lunch stop in Stockton, California, where I had surprisingly good squid in coconut curry at the Bangkok Restaurant - back over the Donner Pass. This time the pass was even more stunning thanks to a fresh bed of snow, and Donner Lake was once again actively rippling. And this time we got to see what happened to the scenery beyond Reno. It was the desert at its most spectacular. Large, craggy rocks sprouted up, with purple, green, brown, and white faces; occasionally they were dotted with little bushes. This continued pretty much all the way to Winnemucca, and it occurred to me, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Red Lion Hotel and Casino, that there had been no towns for the preceding two hours.

I didn't need to play cards to be lucky in Winnemucca, as I found a twenty-dollar bill in the parking lot as soon as we arrived. I did find myself playing at a two-dollar table late in the evening, however, with locals and dealers who all knew each other. Here a player would say to the dealer, with truck-driver drawl, "Were we married in a previous life? 'Cause you're takin' my money jus' like my wife does!" And then he'd use the same line four hands later. Nobody would say that in Las Vegas!

The band, save for Tony, dined at a Basque restaurant called Ormachea's Friday night. They served family-style meals: communal salad, soup, bread, and side dishes, and a carafe of burgundy for the table. This was in addition to the personal entrees; I had a heavily garlic-infused rack of seasoned lamb ribs. In fact, practically everything they brought out was topped with the equivalent of an entire garlic bulb. The meal certainly exceeded my expectations for Winnemucca.

We rolled through the same desert terrain Saturday morning - or so I assume; I was fast asleep - until we entered Idaho. I was surprised by how picturesque and warmly settled Idaho was. Between Marsing and Boise we passed ranches, orchards, pastures, roadside produce stands, even a winery - who'd a thunk it? - all against a backdrop of squat mountains. The houses looked slightly run-down and well-lived-in. And Boise itself (pop. 185,787, according to the sign on the highway), I would discover, was startlingly beautiful.

A well-catered sandwich lunch with inferior drink options (nothing but iced tea, water, and coffee) awaited us on arrival at the Morrison Center in Boise. The Morrison Center was part of Boise State University, and it was staffed partly by students who provided useful recommendations for diversions and cuisine, and partly by crusty old men who had been close acquaintances of Josef Stalin. The theatre had a strict no-food-or-drinks-on-the-stage policy, and every time anyone went anywhere near the stage or the orchestra pit with anything that could possibly be construed as a container of something edible or drinkable, one of them would crook a finger and croak, "You can't bring that in here!" They served no other purpose than to police our belongings. One person reportedly was reprimanded for having two coffee beans in his hand. The single exception was made for bottled water, but the theatre provided only a drinking fountain and paper cups. Pesci, one of our crew, put things into perspective - and good humor, on our part - by coming into the theatre on Sunday and setting onstage unused coffee cups and an empty pizza box on which he had written, "Kiss My Ass."

Between shows on Saturday I strolled up Capitol Boulevard for ten minutes, until I reached downtown. Capitol Boulevard - fancy this - leads to the State Capitol, a domed building with Ionic and Corinthian columns (which is pretty much how I've described every government building on this tour), fronted by an uncracked replica of the Liberty Bell. The area around Main Street was full of attractive brick and stone buildings, some of which were richly engraved with names and dates that testified to their history.

A block away from Main, Grove Street between Capitol Boulevard and Sixth Street was known as the "Basque Block." It was lined with brick buildings that used to be boarding houses and meeting houses for Basque immigrants who came to work as sheepherders. The earliest house dates from 1864, though most of the immigrants came in the early 1900s. A couple of Basque songs were etched into the sidewalk; one translated as follows: "Children, learn to speak the Basque language, to play handball well and to dance respectfully." The Basque culture and their traditions, still very much alive, were something I hadn't expected to see, and I would very much have liked to while away a couple of hours at the Basque Cultural Center or the Idaho Historical Museum, but unfortunately neither was open when I could visit.

Downtown, at least by night, is largely fueled by underdressed, over-energized Boise State University students, and Erica and I checked out a couple of the more inviting places after Saturday's evening show. Our first stop was Mosaic, a tapas-restaurant-cum-wine-bar-cum-gallery that happened to have intimate live music provided by a singer and a keyboard player. The kitchen had closed, but the wine flights were still available, and hefty they were: three almost-full glasses! Nothing from the Idaho winery was available, but the selections were certainly satisfactory. When the glasses ran dry and the music stopped, we found ourselves hungry, and we popped in at Bar Gernika, a Basque cafe that occupies one of the little buildings on Grove Street. The sheep's-cheese sampler plate and lamb sandwich au jus were more than plentiful; here the wine selection (fittingly) was a Spanish rioja, which I found pleasant and full-bodied, though it reminded Erica of cheap boxed wine that you buy off dusty supermarket shelves.

Yesterday, Sunday, was the Day of Bad Planning as far as pretty much everyone was concerned. Erica had to be at work at 8:00, which was not very many hours after the last drop of rioja was exhausted. I got to sleep in and walked the two miles downtown, thanks to the advice of the Doubletree Hotel's receptionist (who plied me with one of the hotel's excellent chocolate-chip cookies as I set out), along a tranquil path beside the Boise River. I crossed over the Friendship Bridge - how could I resist? - and set my backpack down at the theatre before heading the few blocks downtown to find a lunch spot.

There weren't many. As pretty as Boise was, and as thriving as it was at night, lunch options on a Sunday were exasperatingly few. Near the main intersection - Main Street and Capitol Boulevard - there seemed to be only a Mexican place and a pita-sandwich shop. Neither seemed to fit the bill.

Across from Mosaic, a few blocks away, I'd remembered there being a breakfast-and-lunch spot called Addie's, and that's where I headed. Addie's seemed to be something of an institution, run by and for college students, and it was a place you could go after the bars closed (it took me a while to realize that's what was meant by "Open Friday & Saturday Nights 12am - 3pm"). I had a quick chorizo-and-egg platter, accompanied by a side of pancakes, and I left full and satisfied.

We left Boise after yesterday's matinee, and that's when the bad planning continued. We had a long drive ahead of us, and someone decided we should get dinner at 17:00, before beginning the long drive. Nobody under seventy eats dinner that early, and I wasn't remotely hungry, but I figured I'd better get something in case nothing was available during or after the long drive.

Now, strolling downtown Boise and finding a good dinner place seemed a pleasant enough proposition. But the Bad Planners That Be had decreed that no, instead of staying downtown, we would head for a shopping mall on the outskirts of the city. This pretty much stole second place as the most outrageous journey of the tour (first place awaits you in the following paragraphs). I found a stand-alone, not-too-mall-ish Thai place and had tofu in a peanut sauce over broccoli and spinach, but I was hoping for creamier tofu and a thicker sauce, and the dish was adorned with fried onions, which were more a distraction than an enhancement.

Now comes the journey I've been seething about all week. The Mother of All Things Asinine. The Grand Champion of Lunacy. Forget the late departure for Atlanta, forget the late arrival in Chicago (though don't get me wrong, I won't actually forget them). This one goes down in the record books.

Somehow we have to get to Palm Desert by Tuesday. A natural stop - a ten- to twelve-hour drive from Boise - is Las Vegas, and that's where we're headed later today. But since such a long trip after a matinee show would require overtime to be paid to our bus driver, Jim, someone in the tour company's planning department - I care not to conjecture who - decided that instead we would break the journey into two stages, with an overnight stop in Salt Lake. That's right: Instead of arriving in Las Vegas at 3:00 in the morning and having a good, solid twenty-eight-hour break, we would arrive in Salt Lake at around midnight, squander money on a few hours in a Hilton (ever know what it feels like to flush $27 down the toilet?), then sleep away most of Monday on the eight-hour journey to Las Vegas. Instead of making one very long trip and being rewarded with a full day off, we'd make two moderately long trips, nearly doubling the travel time, and waste six intervening hours in a city that is beyond comatose on a Sunday night. Jim had even offered, about a week ago, to take us directly to Las Vegas, but our Salt Lake hotel bookings couldn't be canceled.

Thinking about such a preposterous agenda very nearly made me miss an important cue at our last performance. I spent much of the second act trying to imagine a city I'd be less eager to arrive in than Salt Lake late on a Sunday night. The only thing that came to mind was Lagos, Nigeria, and at least there you have the attraction of being mugged by paraplegics as you try to find a hotel room. And of course there's Melbourne, Florida, at any time of day.

But we're here now, like it or not, and since there's not much else to do, you get to listen to me complain. It's actually not that bad, or even that sleepy. I'd forgotten about the 24-hour Mexican place. I can ponder the fact that last time we stayed at the Wyndham at 215 West South Temple and now we're at the Hilton at 255 South West Temple. And when I wake, I'll get to see those mountains again. And I didn't even need a sponsor to get into my hotel room.

Monday, March 31, 2003
We spent a glorious week in Palm Springs, California, followed by a week galavanting about the Pacific Northwest. But first, another half day in Las Vegas.

I liked Las Vegas better this time, because I had plans. In the late evening some of us would see the Cirque du Soleil's show "O," and before that, the newly formed Seafood Buffet Club - which is to say Brian, Erica, and I - would gorge ourselves at the Rio, which offered lobster tails among its array.

We arrived in the early afternoon, thanks to the cast and orchestra's unanimous decision to eschew the scheduled lunch stop in favor of being someplace worthwhile. I spent a few hours racking up a modest lead - about the value of a seafood buffet, it so happens - at Casino Royale, and then I took the free shuttle from Harrah's to the Rio.

Erica met me a half hour early for a drink at the Voodoo Lounge. It takes about twenty minutes to decide on a drink there, partially because their specialty cocktails are so terrific that you have to read the menu three or four times, and partially because the lighting is so dim - you're reading by the feeblest of candlelight - that to make your way through it even once requires considerable effort. But that's part of the atmosphere; I wouldn't have it any other way. All the drink descriptions sound pretty much the same - thirty or forty different liqueurs blended with tropical fruit juices and topped with a maraschino cherry - and since you therefore can't go wrong, it's a matter of studying the selections and figuring out how right you can go. I settled on something called a Tropical Trance; it was excellent, and I can remember nothing about the ingredients other than that they included thirty or forty liqueurs, a bunch of juices, and a cherry.

The Rio's seafood buffet outdoes all others in Las Vegas. The lobster tails were small - you could down them in one bite - but unlimited, so who cares? Then there were crayfish, various kinds of salmon, peel-and-eat shrimp, even raw oysters and sashimi. We lingered considerably longer than I thought we would and exited with moans of contentment. Erica and I descended a flight for a flight at the Wine Cellar before meeting the others at "O." I had the sauvignon blanc flight (my winnings weren't quite enough to go for the specialty of the day, a 1945 port going for $100 a glass) and discovered that I can now pick out a Marlborough sauvignon blanc from a lineup of three, a feat that really doesn't amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

"O" has been playing at the Bellagio for years and is probably the hottest ticket in the city. The name comes from the French eau (a handy vowel dump in Scrabble, by the way), and as you might expect, water features prominently. Around sixty performers twirl their nimble hearts out for nearly two hours, accompanied by very appealing Eastern European folk music. Through some connection we were able to snare house seats, and while we still had to shell out $121 a pop, we were viewing from the best location in the theatre (row J in section 103, if you're keeping track).

I was duly impressed by the performance, but not nearly to the point of oohing and aahing at every little scene and calling it the best thing I'd ever witnessed, as some people - many, in fact - claimed it to be. It was extremely beautiful to watch: The onstage lake morphed into various shapes and sizes against a changing backdrop that was sometimes a forest and sometimes a pirates' isle and sometimes other things, without much rhyme or reason why it would be one or another. Every acrobatic stunt by the performers was done with the utmost grace and precision, and it was truly a spectacle to see so many people moving in tandem. But it never achieved the flurry of activity I'd been hoping for. I wanted to see sixty people whirling and flinging themselves across the stage simultaneously, at terrifying heights and with death-defying motions in mid-air. I wanted to be completely overwhelmed continuously for two hours.

But there were only three moments in the show when I thought, "Wow, that's amazing!" One was when acrobats spinning head over heels on both sides of the stage would hurl temselves to the other side with one swift slithering motion, possibly with a couple of mid-air somersaults. Another was when four contortionists spent a few minutes moseying into and out of positions that I had no hope of comprehending. A lot of the show reminded me of a performance of the Moscow circus that I saw in 1990, the second act of which was done on water, the caliber of which was similar, and the ticket price of which, if I correctly recall the prevailing black-market exchange rate at the time, was one one-hundred-sixty-ninth the cost of an "O" ticket.

I had a quick drink with Casey at the Petrossian lounge after the show, but even though it was after 1:00 I still wasn't ready to call it a night. It was 17 March, after all, and surely there would be holiday festivities worthy of my immersion. I walked around for a bit but nothing grabbed my attention, so I headed back to Casino Royale and tried to continue my earlier streak. I failed miserably, and I was barely having a good time. The dealers were grumpy and impersonal, and even the others at the table didn't seem friendly - one reason I like Casino Royale, apart from the low minimums and the fact that I tend to do well there, is that the dealers and players are always friendly. It was clearly time to stop. Just before I did I noticed two players talking in Hebrew. They were from northern Israel, and we chatted a bit. As I left we wished each other a happy holiday: It was Purim, after all.

A drive of about five hours, the last part of which took us through the scenic Virgin River Gorge, brought us to Palm Springs. We stayed at the Wyndham Hotel, a place that took me a while to warm up to. They didn't have our room keys ready, so they had to code each one individually when we arrived, and when I finally found room 3304 - not, as you might think, on the 33rd floor, but rather a long way around a meandering corridor on the third floor (the room numbers went from 3163 to 3349 and skipped most of the 3290s, except 3299, and as long as I live I will never hope - or care - to understand this system) - I discovered, not without surprise, that my key didn't work. I hurled it viciously down a stairwell and called the front desk to have them send up a working key; I wasn't about to wend my way downstairs and queue up again. A bellhop did bring up a key timely, and after three tries he got it to work. He made some kind of comment like "There you go," as if that were supposed to have restored my faith and put me in ecstasy. "Is it always going to take three tries to get in?" I asked, unimpressed. He promised to have an engineer come up to make sure the lock was working, and there were no further incidents regarding room access. But then, when we tried to check out nearly a week later, they had no idea how to split our room bills precisely in half. The receptionists looked like NASA scientists trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. It took two of us twenty-five minutes to check out, and even then, the first time they split a bill the "halves" had a differential of about eighty dollars and we had to show them why this just wasn't acceptable.

But glorious is how I described Palm Springs earlier, and glorious it turned out to be. We were only a short walk from downtown, and I spent the first afternoon checking out the place. I stopped in at the Music Box & Clock Shoppe, where a friendly woman demonstrated a few of the mechanical clocks. Some could play several different tunes; one opened up on the hour to reveal a separate spinning clock face inside; one played according to a disc with holes in it, like they might have used on old player pianos. Impressive, but more electric than I like to see - I'm more wowed by a wind-up antique clock that chimes with hammers and bells rather than plays a pre-recorded song.

There were a few good restaurants in the area, and one - the Atlas - caught my attention with a big sign announcing that all food and drinks were half off from 15:00 to 17:00. A swordfish platter over couscous with a glass of Riesling for $11 - how could I go wrong? I sat outside, watched passersby, and eavesdropped on another table's conversation in which they tried to recall the difference between sashimi and wasabi.

I rented a car from Wednesday to Saturday: There's not much to do in Palm Springs itself, I wanted to visit a friend near San Diego on Thursday, and it made it a lot easier to get to and from the theatre, an unbelievably boring thirteen-mile drive away in Palm Desert, on my own schedule. Driving around the Palm Springs-Cathedral City-Rancho Mirage-Palm Desert area is not the easiest of tasks, and every time I tried to get to and from the theatre I did it via a different incorrect route. Imagine, if you will, two parallel east-west highways, one at the top of a city map and one at the bottom. In between is what would normally be a typical gridded street scheme, but here's the catch: It's rotated 45 degrees. That means that in order to get from the western side of the city, where our hotel was, to the eastern side, where the theatre was, you either have to take a street northeast to the highway and then come back down to the southeast, go southeast and then northeast, or zigzag your way through and hope that all the streets go straight, which they don't. It always took a half hour. In fact no matter where I went in the area, no matter how far I was going, even if it was just a few blocks away, it always took a half hour.

On Wednesday Erica and I drove out to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, armed with enormous deli packages from Sherman's, which is clearly where all the retired people who normally visit Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King on Manhattan's Upper West Side dine when they take their winters in Palm Springs. The tramway was an eight-minute cable-car trip up a steep incline, over a mile vertically, that took us to the top of a mountain at 8500 feet. The views of the desert, the surrounding canyons, and the hundreds of spinning white windmills were spectacular, especially when long shadows appeared just before sunset. We sweltered in Palm Springs; at the top of the tramway there was snow. We walked a couple of the trails, which were incredibly poorly marked on the little map they give out - I should have known, when I visited the tramway's Web site and saw caption that said, "This map is not to scale as is not meant to be used when visiting, hiking or camping the this wilderness area," that cartographic accuracy was not going to be abundant. But wherever we went, it was pretty; we fought our way through the slush and wound our way through pine and fir trees, and over the little creek, before heading to the Top of the Tram cafe for hot chocolate.

Wednesday's show was not the greatest. Much of the cast had been in rehearsal for the afternoon, so perhaps they were worn out; whatever it was, the vocals were sloppy, the set movements were sloppy, and we just weren't with it. Maybe it was the war. Remember that triangle hit I added a couple of months ago? I blanked out and forgot to play it, despite Ross's conspicuous cue. (The next day, when I played it, I gave Ross a look that said, "I know I screwed this up last night, and it'll never happen again" - he got the message - and I believe the night after that he cued it a bar or two early. Oh, the irony.)

Palm Springs' nightspots weren't that plentiful, at least not during the week - but the Village Pub was inviting, with a good Mexican menu and decent margaritas and an outdoor seating area, and that's where Erica and I spent Wednesday night. It was an interesting juxtaposition of scenes: On one TV screen the Boston Celtics were losing, as they are wont to do; on another the U.S. was at war, as it seems wont to be; and inside a very white clientele was attempting to dance to live music, as it is wont to do naively.

On Thursday I drove two and a half hours in each direction to Encinitas, just north of San Diego, to visit my friend Suzanne, her husband, Marcus, and their adorable mongrel, Simcha. I saw their pictures of a New Zealand trip, we had Mexican food at El Callejon, and then we lingered on the beach for a while. For all California relies on cars, it's an exasperating state to drive through if you're not actually on an interstate. The middle sixteen million miles of the trip were on Route 79 (or "the 79," as they say in those parts), a fatiguing road that kept changing course with no more than the slightest hint of warning - I found myself backtracking through parking lots when I realized I'd gone the wrong way - and was liberally infused with irksome traffic lights and four-way-stop-sign intersections. Add to that the fact that there wasn't a single good country station on the radio. I spent much of the journey pondering the fact that they could do away with all those stop signs if Americans would simply learn to get the hang of roundabouts. But they're not willing to learn. It's not as if they understand four-way-stop-sign intersections either, though. I know this for a fact because a bad accident - splintering metal, shattered glass - occurred in front of me as I was driving home. There were two lanes in each direction on Route 79, and I was at one of those four-way-stops. I was next to another car, and the cars in front of us had just gone. The car next to me paused briefly and then shot through, without realizing that the cross traffic was entitled to a turn. The driver of the cross traffic sped out into the intersection at the same time and, when the two cars collided, got very cross indeed.

And on Friday Erica and I - you are no doubt wondering by now whether we have officially coupled up, and I am delighted to say that we have - visited Joshua Tree National Park, a vast desert expanse about an hour from Palm Springs. What curious creatures those Joshua trees are. They've got spiny bark and thick branches that shoot out geometrically from the main trunk and from each other. It's as if someone handed a kid a bunch of little cylindrical tubes that could attach together, and gave instructions to use five or six of them in each arrangement and make as many arrangements as possible. No two Joshua trees looked alike. They dotted the landscape and pierced the air with green, spiky leaves, and where there weren't trees there were massive boulders of the most awe-inspiring shapes and brown hues, usually clustered together in a breathtaking mound. All along the roadside and the trails were whitish-lavender cholla cactus, which glowed in a color spectrum of their own. And off in the distance were two snow-capped peaks. It was a view unlike any other. Here there really was a reason to gape and repeatedly gasp, "Wow, that's amazing!"

We took a two-mile hike in each direction along a trail to the Lost Horse Mine, a gold mine in operation from 1893 to 1936 and aptly named; someone really did lose a horse in these desert hills. The mine is still remarkably intact; you can see wheels and pulleys and shaftways and water basins and much of the inner workings, and as it's at the top of a hill the views are stupendous. They were even more stupendous at the top of the nearby mountain, at Keys View, which is where we lunched; Erica introduced me to the practice of tartiner, which she says is a French verb meaning "to spread things on bread." You just knew the French would have a word for that, wouldn't they? Anyway, she had somewhere acquired baguettes and olive tapenade and goat-cheese spread and Asian pears and Nutella for dessert, and what a splendid repast to have atop a rock overlooking the valleys and canyons and the sprawl of Palm Springs. It is really a pretty perfect way to eat.

According to our map, we could take the Geology Tour Road and then Berdoo Canyon Road south out of the park, a distance of about twenty dirt miles, which would lead us near Indio, to the east of Palm Desert. The map recommended that only four-wheel-drive vehicles use these roads; repeated signs said, "Road Not Maintained - Use at Your Own Risk"; and one helpfully added, "4WD Only." In our freshly tartiner'd, sunburned frames of mind, we interpreted all this to mean, "You Can Make It in Your Little Uninsured Chevy Metro - Just Drive Carefully and Don't Tell the Folks at Enterprise Rent-a-Car Where You Went."

It was slow going, but not too bad. The problem was that the road was used mostly by four-wheel-drive vehicles, so the little Metro jittered and jolted over the larger tire tracks made by previous cars. I went very slowly, weaving around small rocks. Often one side of the road was higher than the other, and the car tilted first to one side, then to the other, then back again, just barely straddling the central dirt hill as it followed the tire tracks on either side. The scenery was truly stunning. Here the Joshua trees were more plush - the kids in these parts had been given eight or nine cylinders apiece - and the rocks cast eerie shadows in the mid-afternoon sun, which shot blindingly and suffocatingly through the windshield. The road led gently downhill as we approached Berdoo Canyon, and the obstacles in the road grew more challenging. The rocks were sharply pointed, and every few minutes I wondered how many of the Metro's tires were still intact.

We went fifteen tedious miles, and then, in a series of hairpin turns at the base of the canyon, we met our match: an unsurmountable sprawl of craggy rock. There was no way around this one: There was no dirt over which we could take the car, the rocks would almost surely pierce our tires, and in any case they were so high and angled that we would certainly bottom out. I got out and walked down the next few bends in the road, to see if this was an aberration. But around the next bend things were even worse: the rocks craggier, the sprawl wider and scruffier. We had to turn back!

I turned around and started back up at about the same pace, not having realized how long we'd been on this road. It didn't hit me until Erica looked at the speedometer and said, "We have fifteen miles to go - and we're going fifteen miles an hour?!" The descent had taken an hour and a half, and it would be another hour until we got back onto a paved surface!

After a mile or so we ran into a hiker named Ron who had been asleep in the road with his bulky backpack. We'd seen him on the way down; we'd given him the remnants of a couple of bottles of water, and since he hadn't said anything like "You have three flat tires" we'd pressed on. He had hiked from Indio; he was, as far as we could tell, homeless (he had been officially living in a mission but had been sleeping outside under a tree); he had exhausted his food and water supply, which had been meager to begin with, and had no idea how far he had to go before reaching the main park areas; he had planned to find a campsite but didn't really care where he spent the night; he knew a lot about the desert's plants and was pleasant to talk to. We picked him up and took him all the way back to Palm Desert.

Since the car had made it all the way down, I figured it could make it all the way up, and I plunged forward at a reckless twenty-five miles per hour. It was actually a lot smoother going, as we were moving too fast for the previous tire tracks to make a difference. The whole round trip on the dirt surface took two hours and seventeen minutes, and we were all very happy to return to paved road. If anything good came out of the delay in leaving the park, it was that by the time we left it was about an hour before sunset, and the looming rocks and trees cast spectacular shadows over the darkened earth.

Such focused driving makes one weary, and such strong, continuous sunlight compounds the fatigue. I looked like a lobster, and that night I had my best sleep in months.

Saturday and Sunday, our last two days in Palm Springs, were two-show days, with a few noteworthy meals interspersed. On Saturday afternoon Erica and I took a walk along El Paseo, a ritzy street reminiscent of the poshest streets of Palm Beach, with beautiful people strolling by and naive men zooming around in babe-baiting convertibles. We passed a ribs place and were inspired; it was very new (the menu advertised draft beer but the spigots hadn't been turned on yet), and the menu even featured game dishes such as ostrich, alligator, and kangaroo. I'd never had kangaroo, so I tried it; it was tough but juicy.

Sunday morning the Seafood Buffet Club had brunch at the Spa Resort Casino. This buffet included various kinds of smoked whitefish, salmon, and trout, all home-cured, as well as a weird kind of giant oyster. The blintzes were also noteworthy, and who couldn't be amused by the waffles in the shapes of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs? And between shows on Sunday, the staff at the McCallum Theatre, who had been especially friendly all week, produced a wonderful dinner buffet including meatloaf, lemon chicken, and tasty desserts.

Sunday was also the Day of One Keyboard. We're supposed to have four working keyboards: the two that Liz and I use, the one Ross uses only a couple of times during the performance, and a spare. The spare has never worked. Liz's stopped working earlier in the week, so she was using Ross's. Ross's wouldn't load the proper sounds on Sunday afternoon, so I was the proud possessor of the only working keyboard. With so little in operation, they had to turn the piano tracks on, and Liz and I gave, as Ross puts it, our Oscar-winning performances: fake-playing with vigorous enthusiasm. Come to think of it, that was the very night of the Oscars. They were on and available for view (and many people were viewing them) in the theatre's green room during breaks, and every time I went in I had to withstand the urge to change the channel. Is there anything more boring than watching celebrities talk about each other? I guess there's talking about them yourself.

We were supposed to spend Sunday night in Palm Springs and then sit on the bus for eight hours before having an afternoon and evening off in San Francisco, but Brian had the brilliant idea to rent a car, split the driving through the night, and have a full day off. We set off after Sunday's evening show, looking forward to the day ahead.

California's irksome highway stop signs and painstaking traffic patterns may be surpassed in hatefulness only by the obfuscatory signage. The directions to San Francisco should have been simple: I-10 to I-210 to I-5 to I-280. Well, we thought we had found I-210, until a tiny sign indicated - before any of us could see it - that it veered off to the right, and instead we found ourselves heading southbound on Route 57. We turned around with the intent to get back on in the other direction, but, seeing a small sign saying I-210 was straight ahead down a suburban road, we pressed forward. After a couple of miles it was clear that I-210 was nowhere in the vicinity, so we turned around. But the suburban road was partially closed in that direction, so we detoured to the right into a residential neighborhood, figuring there must be a way around. There wasn't. It dead-ended in three cul-de-sacs - we found them all and made a U-turn, groaning, in each one - and there was no outlet to a parallel street. Back to the suburban road it was. Could we detour to the left? No: The road was sealed off by a gate. Exasperated, we moved the barriers where the road was closed; they weren't working on it anyway, there was no problem with it, and there was clearly no reason for the closure other than to piss off a few innocent travelers.

It gets better. Finally we got back to Route 57 northbound, but there was no indication how to get to I-210 from there. We had to get back on either I-10 west or I-10 east and try to find the connector to I-210 again. We picked east; no I-210. We came back the other way; let's try that I-210-veering-off-to-the-right again. Hmm, the road looks strangely familiar: I-210 and Route 57 north are one and the same!

Then there was the time when, having used most of our fuel getting over the Tejon Pass, I stopped for gas. Gas prices in California these days are usually over $2 a gallon. I felt like I was looking at prices in, I don't know, forint per liter. Last time I drove for any significant length of time the dollar readout and the gallon readout were supposed to increase at roughly the same rate. So it was with bittersweet surprise that I found an Arco station with prices at $1.979 per gallon. We fueled up.

But then the entrance ramp back onto I-5 was closed, and there was no indication where to get back on. We picked a direction and followed a random road down to the next entrance. This entrance had a prominent sign saying that it would be closed from March 2003 to March 2005, but it was in fact open. . . .

I'd forgotten how beautiful San Francisco was. We arrived in the early morning and dropped the car off at Fisherman's Wharf, in the northern part of the city. Here street vendors set up little carts and sell fresh seafood at inflated prices. I started the day off with clam chowder in a sourdough-bread bowl - a pretty terrific breakfast - and walked to Ghirardelli Square, once a complex of brick buildings constituting the Pioneer Woolen Mill but now a pleasant shopping area centered around the Ghirardelli chocolate company's two eateries.

I spent the rest of the morning re-introducing myself to San Francisco's neighborhoods; I hadn't been there in about eight years, and I never really had a grasp on the city. I walked up the steep Hyde Street - my uncle used to live at Francisco and Hyde, at the steepest point of the cable-car line, and I cannot conceive of how anyone would want to deal with driving those hills daily - and enjoyed the wonderful views of the bay. I walked through posh Nob Hill, which is lined with elite restaurants, hotels, and spas (a statement I make by extrapolating from one block that contained one such restaurant, one such hotel, and one such spa). I descended Stockton Street into Union Square, which was cordoned off to thwart war protests.

And then I discovered the Tenderloin district. If I were ever to live in San Francisco, this may be where I'd have to live. It's full of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, decrepit homes with slight ornamentation testifying to their onetime elegance, and street walkers who look as if they are missing a few marbles. There's a beautiful children's playground across the street from an adult-entertainment establishment. A Chinese restaurant claimed to be closed, but when I peered inside it was teeming with pool players. The air is filled with the aroma of spices from all different countries, and of the sweet Turkish tobacco emanating from one shop. I felt a certain satisfaction in that each time I thought I could consider living there, I'd pass a restaurant with a review saying, "This place is worth a stop, even though it's in the Tenderloin district."

I met Erica for lunch in San Francisco's sprawling, hilly Chinatown. We'd planned all along to have dim sum, but after walking each street sixty or seventy times, not quite hitting upon just the right place - one was too clean, one didn't have any Asian diners, one didn't have the food rolling around on carts - we found ourselves in front of a Vietnamese place and decided that would hit the spot. A long post-lunch walk brought us to Japantown, where we browsed in a Japanese supermarket, gaped at quintessentially Japanese plastic food advertising a restaurant's menu options, and enjoyed a mango under a pagoda sculpture.

We split for the night: she to stay with a college friend, I to stay with my college roommate Brett (also a friend, come to that). Brett lives in the Mission neighborhood, home to San Francisco's mission, which looks suspiciously like those in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Dolores Park, a large grassy area, affords terrific views of the city's hills and the bay, and it's a gathering spot for the neighborhood's friendliest dogs. There are two main parallel streets: Valencia, the trendy street with electic cafes and boutiques (we dined on tasty tapas at Ramblas and finished up the evening with crepes at Ti Couz), and Mission, the down-to-earth Hispanic street with hole-in-the-wall Mexican places and discount shopping. Colorful murals abound. The streets bustle. Litter crowds the sidewalks. Maybe this is where I would live.

It took forever to get to Eugene, Oregon: Nine hours of tedious ups and downs along Interstate 5. I suppose if you've just come from a North Korean prison cell it was a pretty drive, but by now it was just another series of pine forests and winding mountain passes. Each pass took a half hour up and a half hour down; I was tired of it, and I wished the California highway authority had taken the Swiss approach and just bored holes through the bedrock so as to provide for a straight, flat road. The one highlight was the lunch stop at the Black Bear, a diner that served up a tasty Cajun catfish platter, spicy turkey soup, and decent apple cobbler.

Eugene was merely a stop on the way to Tacoma, Washington. I wasn't sure what to make of Eugene in the dark, though I got a smattering of historical information when I happened upon a trackside plaque testifying to a longtime woolen mill. There were a few good-looking restaurants, a surprising number of which were French. Erica and I had dinner at Cafe Zenon, where I really wanted the duck with cherry sauce - the waiter thought there was one left, then he assured me there was one left, then he said in fact it was gone - but I was perfectly happy with the Roquefort pate and the bacon-wrapped salmon.

I wasn't sure what to make of Tacoma, either. It was as hilly as San Francisco, though on a much smaller scale; it had a few good eateries, but you had to search for them; and if you were in the right place you could see Mount Rainier or Puget Sound. They're building a light-rail line through town; it's the only city I've ever been in where they're actually ripping up the street to install track. Usually it's the other way around. And supposedly the trains will be free.

Remember Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor whose works I got to see in Grand Rapids? Turns out he's a Tacoma native. A bunch of his works were on view at Tacoma's Union Station, which was in use as a station from 1911 to 1984. Now it's a U.S. courthouse, but the elegant and understated white entry hall is still open to the public. I spent a few minutes looking around on Thursday morning. Among the Chihuly works were golden mushroom-shaped sculptures at one end of the hall, deep-red reeds at the other, and a several-hundred-piece multicolored chandelier consisting of glass pinecones, pumpkins, and swirls, among other shapes. As impressive as Chihuly's works were in a gallery in Grand Rapids, they were even more spectacular in their proper setting.

From Union Station I headed over to the Tacoma Art Museum for an enticing exhibition. Residents of twelve U.S. communities were photographed and interviewed, and their pictures and accompanying audio montages told their stories. They were compelling: Timber in Montana's Yaak Valley, a community of loggers, is being depleted at an alarming rate; residents of poverty-stricken North Philadelphia are brightening up their district with colorful mosaics and murals in public parks and alleys; the organization Proyecto Azteca seeks to improve housing for Texan farmers near the Mexican border, an area currently without plumbing or electricity; Eau Claire, South Carolina, a predominantly black town with a racially ugly past, is beautifying its derelict neighborhoods and tightening into a proud community, to name just a few examples.

We drove for two hours to Bellingham, Washington, just a half hour from the Canadian border; it dawned on me that we had driven, with copious backtracking, all the way from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to northern Washington in about six weeks. We stayed in an area three or four miles out of town that was perilously close to strip-mall-and-highway land - we'd been spared such neighborhoods for quite some time - but in reality it wasn't too bad. It took me only an hour or so to get downtown, and it was well worth the walk. On the way I passed two Asian markets and picked up lunch in one of them - pork, vegetable, and red-bean buns, as well as salted duck eggs, which I was eager to bite into after the success of my duck-egg purchase in Ames, Iowa. In fact, these were raw eggs, as I would discover upon cracking one on my hotel's nightstand later that evening. The yolks were tougher than raw chicken yolks, and I had two of them as if willing them to taste better, but in the end, with no way to cook them, I was forced to abandon the rest.

Bellingham had a cute downtown, with attractive buildings, a good Belgian-pastry shop, a waterfront, and the occasional train whistle; the theatre was so small and the pit so tight the orchestra had to be lifted in with a crane and pulleys. Erica found a museum called Mindport, full of hands-on activities that make you go, "Wow, that's neat - how do they do that?" Many were of the watch-the-marbles-cascade-down-the-mechanical-ramps variety - and I can spend more time than the average person looking at such things - but some were quite thought-provoking and pleasantly simple. Among my favorites was a telephone that repeated everything you said backwards. I said something in English and, when it was played backward, I thought it sounded like Russian. So I said something in Russian, and inverted it sounded like German. So I tried German, and it sounded vaguely Swedish. And I don't speak Swedish, so I stopped there.

On Friday it was back to Eugene, this time to perform for two days. People voted, as they should have, to skip our highway lunch break and instead make a quick pit stop, but the pit stop ended up being half an hour and as a result we arrived in Eugene just after Sushi Station (a place highly recommended by those who had gone on Tuesday) stopped serving lunch. Fortunately there was good food to be had at Bamboo, part of the Fifth Street Market; Bamboo offered pan-Asian cuisine and served me a commendable Malaysian mutton dish and Erica a superb Thai curry. We headed up Pearl Street to the main part of the city and softened our palates with dessert at one of those places that look like an ice-cream parlour lifted out of the 1950s. It even had a u in "parlour," that festively serifed Wild West-style typeface, white-and-red decor that brought to mind the costumes of clowns, and a menu listing sixty ice-cream-sundae variations that all have funky names and compel you to read them methodically, after which you realize that they are all basically the same thing. I had something called a Tropical Trance, which was made with thirty or forty liqueurs, fruit juices, and a cherry. No, I didn't. But you get the idea.

Saturday was absolutely gorgeous, with resplendent sunshine and the sort of temperature in which you're comfortable no matter what you're wearing. I got out too late to walk the eighty-mile trail along the Willamette River, or however long it is, but I crossed the Peter DeFazio foot-and-bike bridge and soaked up some rays in the little park on the north bank. There was a tranquil pond, and children and dogs hobbled over the concrete squares leading to the pond's small island. Human voices were drowned out by the pleasant breeze and the honking of the pond's geese and ducks. Cherry-blossom petals scuttled through the air, carried by the breeze, their intense aroma casting an edifying and energizing spell. Red berries brightened the bushes lining the path. It was a scene that couldn't have been more perfectly scripted.

Sadly, it had to end, and I made my way through a grotesque parking lot - the change from beauty to industry couldn't have been more abrupt - and to the Hult Center. It was a two-show day; in between Erica and I finally made it to Sushi Station. There was a giant portable easel sign outside trumpeting, "Sushi Station Now Open," but when we entered we were told dinner didn't start for twenty minutes. I poked fun at this with the person in charge - "You've got a big sign out there saying, 'Now Open'!" - and when he got over the shock of being challenged with endless (but justified) sarcasm, he came back with "Uh . . . the sign is still there from last night." But eventually we got to eat. We were helpless to decide what we wanted, as the menu sprawled with Japanese specialties and the occasional Korean offering, in sizes ranging from little appetizer plates to meals in big bowls over rice and accompanied by miso soup, and on top of that there was a conveyor belt going around the sushi bar, from which you could take little dishes of sushi and rolls and be charged according to the plates' colors. We had a bunch of everything and emerged hopelessly overstuffed.

Eugene has a decent jazz bar called Jo Federigo's, and Brian and James joined me there for a while after our final Eugene performance. A quartet was playing, and it was just the right kind of jazz to unwind to - mostly-recognizable tunes with a melody. The setting was intimate, the decor bizarre: Upside-down umbrellas hung from the ceiling, and a hideous bust of a female head had a chipped nose and deadened eyes that brought to mind the Addams family.

Yesterday we performed one matinee in Olympia, but because we came from Eugene and returned to Eugene after the show, my entire impression of Olympia was based on a cursory four-block walk around the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. It seemed to be a pleasant town; in the distance I could make out the predictably domed and columned Capitol Building, and I was lucky enough to pass by the more impressive Old Capitol Building, with its imposing stone facade and cute round towers. It's now the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, whatever that means - a title seemingly unworthy of the building's grandeur. Around this building, and the attractive park across the street, were yuppie-style boutique shops, cafes, and places specializing in various forms of massage therapy. The theatre itself was arguably the dullest I'd seen yet, with nondescript audience seating in a plain ochre room, the kind of color that reminds you of high-school bathrooms.

The four-hour bus trips to and from Olympia were exasperating. We headed out early and voted to go straight there, arriving at 11:15, which would have given me the chance to explore the town a bit and perhaps have an early lunch with a certain wardrobe mistress whose company I enjoy immensely - but because the load-in was taking longer than expected, they didn't want us at the theatre until our pre-show sound check started at noon (I guess we deduce from this that one cannot arrive in Olympia without immediately going to the theatre). So we took a thirty-minute lunch stop in Tumwater, a suburb so close to Olympia I could have walked the rest of the journey. Thirty minutes is perhaps the most absurd length of time to stop for a meal. It's not long enough for a proper sit-down experience, but it's too long for a pick-up-something-quick experience. I can't complain too much, though, as Anika (yes, our sixth company manager joined us last week) reimbursed us up to $10 for our lunches. I found a Mexican buffet called El Sarape and wolfed down as many stuffed flour tortillas as I could in twenty-five minutes, and although the bill came to slightly over $10 I am fully prepared to front a seventy-cent out-of-pocket net deficit.

But I can complain about the journey back, and in fact I shall (skip this paragraph if you're not in the mood for a long, warranted rant). At the theatre, people - quite wrongly - had voted neither in favor of delaying our departure from Olympia for an hour to give us time for a proper dinner, nor in favor of going straight through to Eugene and getting there before all the restaurants closed, but rather in favor of another thirty-minute dinner stop. Given time to come to their senses, they - quite rightly - reversed their opinions and the vote was recast, and the decision was made to get to Eugene with only a "quick pit stop" at a gas station with a convenience store. Anika admonished everyone to limit the stop to fifteen minutes ("Otherwise it defeats the purpose of going straight through to Eugene"), but - just for kicks, and because I like to depress myself - I timed the pause: thirty-three minutes at the stop itself, and a forty-one-minute delay when you count the time it took to get off and on the highway. Thirty late re-entries were made onto the bus after the initial fifteen minutes were up (it's not actually thirty late people, because about a half dozen got onto the bus and then exited again before coming back for good). Many of them gave the same lame excuse as usual - that the checkout clerk was slow and incompetent - but I just don't buy it this time. I saw plenty of people milling around the store twelve minutes after we'd stopped; they weren't even close to queueing up yet. How could they not know what they wanted? Is a Chevron convenience store such a novelty, after seven months on the road, that it requires a quarter hour of pondering and perusing? And many of these are the same people who, after buying $3200 of junk food that would cost a third less in a supermarket, then whine about the fact that (1) they have no money, (2) the tour diet is unhealthy, and (3) the bus trip is taking too long. But what really mystifies me is that, at the stop itself, they don't care - or realize - that forty-one minutes of their lives are being wasted. Apparently the salubrious ambience of a Chevron station is the invigorating therapy to ensure a long, healthy life. Sorry, folks. That's forty-one minutes you don't get back. Multiply that by the number of rest stops we've taken since the tour started, and you start to feel ancient.

Being the surprisingly smart city that it is, however, Eugene kept its doors open for us. A bunch of us dined at Cafe LN, a place whose generic exterior belies the casually upscale dining room. LN stands for Lucky Noodle, and the restaurant specializes in both Asian and Italian noodle dishes and seems to do both well. I had tangy peanut curry over angel-hair pasta, followed by a dessert consisting of a poached Asian pear accompanied by Italian gelato. It's startling to see a menu with such drastically different offerings - and it's not as if they're separated; glance at the entree list and you see spaghetti and meatballs amidst spicy Asian sauces - but the idea really does seem to work.

One other thing that worked was my letter to that Wichita Holiday Inn, which I'm sure has kept you in suspense for weeks. The manager apologized for the way we were treated, refunded half my room fee, and even threw in 5000 Priority Club points - about enough for half a free night. What a guy.

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