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Tales From the Tour -- March 2004

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

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
Cincinnati's state-of-the-art airport has a carefully designed security system designed to maximize passengers' confusion, leave them totally breathless, and stir up any latent anti-Midwest feelings they may have been harboring. Arriving on the nine-hour flight from Paris, we proceeded as in any normal airport through passport control, baggage claim, and customs. In any normal city, you then exit the airport at this point and continue on your way - in our case by bus to Dayton.

But in Cincinnati, you exit the customs area, expecting the doors to lead outside, and instead you are in a dingy little room, where you are instructed to re-check your bags (to somewhere else in Cincinnati, apparently) and follow a poorly marked route. You are required to go through another metal detector, unload your computer, remove your shoes, strip down more or less to your underwear, and then spend fifteen minutes re-dressing yourself and re-assembling your carry-on luggage, all the while muttering that the next Parisian revolutionaries, after they blow up the Buddha Bar, should make their way to Cincinnati.

It then dawns on you, as you follow the corridor for the next hour and a half, that you are supposed to look for signs that say "Baggage Claim," even though you've already gone through one baggage claim. You reach a train stop - yes, a train! - and you get on the train, tired of walking, because in the three-hour trek you've already burned all the calories they fed you on the plane. You don't care where the train is going; you just want to get out of the airport. You hope that you don't need a ticket for the train.

Miraculously, the train stops at the second baggage claim, seventeen miles away from where you departed the plane, or perhaps fifty feet - for all you know you've made a huge circle. There your luggage is waiting on yet another carousel in an unsupervised area, and if you've completed the eleven-hour journey before someone walks off with all your luggage, as happened to Erica in Phoenix, you can then claim your belongings. It is no wonder, after such a trek, that when we finally left the Cincinnati airport (an hour later, having waited for a rude, anti-hippie bigot at customs to examine every pill and every pocket in one of our company's baggage, simply because he neglected to mention a two-day weekend jaunt to Amsterdam on his customs form - and the jackass found nothing illegal but confiscated a bottle of ibuprofen because our cast member didn't have a prescription for it), we saw signs saying that we were in Kentucky.

On the streets of Dayton, everyone looked destitute. Everyone walked with an awkward limp, or had a missing nose, or weighed seven hundred pounds, or was covered with burns, or looked at you funny. Actually, everyone looked at me funny. It's the only place I've been where, walking around, I was sure that everyone wanted to kill me. The room Erica and I shared at the Crowne Plaza overlooked a small park where, two years ago on a Cabaret tour, one cast member was severely beat up enough to put him out of commission for several months. He wasn't mugged; they didn't take anything - they just senselessly beat him up, in plain view of passengers waiting at a nearby bus stop. It was a day or two before I could walk through the park at all, and after that, whenever I went through at night, I continuously glanced from side to side and behind me, like an overcaffeinated owl. On Erica's first walk - three blocks up Main Street - to the Victoria Theatre, she was repeatedly hassled on the street: "Where are you going?" On our last walk back from the theatre, at the aforementioned bus stop, people stared us as they smoked crack.

Common sights in the city were similarly off kilter. Main Street was bisected into North and South sides not by Central Avenue or some similar entity, but by Third Street. The "X" on the Sixth Street sign was upside-down. The Downtowner, Dayton's monthly what's-on paper, advertised residences at a place called the Landing, predictably calling it "downtown living at it's best." The paper had a Seek & Find, and one of the items was "T-1 Line" - it's a lot easier to find terms when there are numbers stuck in the middle of them. On a pillar under the Route 35 overpass on the way to the Breakfast Club restaurant, someone had written, apostrophe included, "Alon'e What Dose It Mean To U?" The Belgian waffle at the Breakfast Club had the following menu description: "Our secret recipe was smuggled out of belgium during World War II. We are Proud to present it here for your. You'll Enjoy this Thick, Rich, Pure Egg and Butter Recipe Waffle...." Our waitress at the Breakfast Club had a lazy eye....

My family used to fly through Dayton to Flint, Michigan, on Piedmont Airlines, to visit my grandmother. I'd always known Dayton because it was the place you went to so that you could go to Flint. And once you arrive in Dayton, Flint seems like heaven.

Was I developing premature views without giving the city a chance? Here's what some careful, reliable on-line research taught me.

If you do a Google search for country's "most dangerous cities", the second entry takes you to a Dayton Business Journal article from December that repeatedly refers to, uh, "Morgan Quinto" and its annual city crime ratings. Dayton comes in seventh (the top six, according to Morgan Quitno, are Detroit, Michigan; St. Louis, Missouri; Atlanta, Georgia; Camden, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Compton, California). Our tour goes to St. Louis and Camden in the next few weeks; we've already hit Atlanta and Washington. Baltimore, which ranks eighth, we also visited last year.

Yet Dayton is the only one of these cities where I actually felt I was in a dangerous place. If you visit Washington or Baltimore, you're not likely to venture into any no-go areas. But in Dayton, all the crazy people are right there downtown, scoping you out as you exit the hotel and go on your way. At the main intersection, Third and Main, there's a main bus transfer point, usually with about thirty people loitering inside and out, not necessarily waiting for a bus or trolleybus (I do love that Dayton still has trolleybuses). As you proceed through this gauntlet, you can't help feeling as if you might get a knife in the ribs simply for walking with a purpose.

So does Dayton have anything to offer? Well, yes - in that respect it's several steps up from Melbourne, Florida, which still ranks as my least favorite tour stop. A few blocks away from the Crowne Plaza, down Fifth Street, was the Oregon District (so called because you wish you were in Oregon). It has a few interesting restaurants and some inviting pubs, and on weekend nights people set up barbecue stands on the street. The Dublin Pub served up good boxty and had, on one occasion, a good Irish band; Jay's had terrific seafood; and Thai 9 claimed to serve both Thai food and sushi and actually did both admirably. A few blocks away, in an unlikely position in a former brick grocery warehouse known as the Cannery, was a sleek bar with excellent horseradish Bloody Marys and acceptable light bites. You can see the redevelopment in the area - there's an Aveda in the same building, as well as a couple of yuppie home-furnishings stores, and a bunch more is on its way in. And right around the corner from the theatre was a decent wine bar.

Just a couple of minutes' walk from our hotel was a movie theatre called the Neon, which had just two screens and somewhat reasonably priced food, which was just a little stand inside but was called Café Amélie, which Erica and I found painfully cute after arriving from Paris. We saw Girl With a Pearl Earring, an intriguing glimpse at 17th-century Dutch life, and I just loved all the market scenes with people thrusting animals around. And we saw The Triplets of Belleville, which Erica described as akin to watching a hallucination. I don't usually go for animated flicks, but this one was so bizarre and clever as to be blissfully compelling. When we saw it, we were the only ones in the movie theater.

And if everyone outdoors looked mean, inside it was the opposite. Take the Second Street Public Market, open just three days a week. It's in a former freight building, and it now houses stalls where you can buy produce, bread, wine, Hungarian cabbage rolls, yarn, pets, and designer soap, to name just a few items. No doubt this is something the vendors just do on the side - with all the free samples they give out and the low number of clients, they can't possibly earn a living from it - and they are friendly and chatty. The snack-and-cheese seller wears suspenders and a straw hat, just as he should. Francis, the soap seller, will tell you how her friends say she looks much younger than her senior age - because of the soap. The young coffee vendor, with his long dreadlocks, moved back to Dayton to start a business and join in the city's redevelopment. In the '70s and '80s, he said, there was a lot of racial tension, which no doubt helps to explain the city's gritty, offputting, tired appearance. But things seem to be looking up.

And Dayton wasn't totally devoid of cultural attractions. The Dayton Art Institute, a moderate walk across the Great Miami River, presented an intriguing collection of art from all time periods, featuring some of the lesser-known artists. Where else will you see Peter Schöffer's 1492 woodcut print "The Burning of Emperor Otto's Wife"? Or Gerrit van Honthorst's 1621 "The Flea Hunt," featuring two onlookers spying on a madam checking a whore's body for fleas? Or Hendrick Terbrugghen's 1626 "A Boy Violinist," with the museum's wonderfully simple caption: "...this youthful violinist with his wide-open toothy smile seems less a true musician than a poor country bumpkin dressed up in fancy clothes and posed with a violin"? There was also one of the Rodin cast hands for "The Burghers of Calais," works by Daubigny, Degas, and Monet, and the photo-realistic "The Song of the Nightingale" by William Adolphe Bouguereau. The paintings were presented more in geographic then chronological succession, and one room was ominously labeled "European Art, 1350-1900" - were they really expecting to cover that in one room? - but it was a very pleasant place to spend two hours. There was a good sampling of American impressionism and works by Ohio artists: It's easy to forget, whilst making your way through the Musée d'Orsay and trying to pronounce French, Dutch, and Flemish names, that we had impressionism - and for that matter cubism and everything that followed - here in the good ol' USA. There was a splendid exhibit on paintings of 19th-century America, focusing on the themes of slavery, alcohol use at the time, the Civil War, and landscapes. And when I was done with the paintings, I headed downstairs for a quick tour of Native American baskets, a relief fragment from the 5th-century B.C. Persepolis palace, a small room captioned Japanese Kimonos of the Twentieth Century, and walls filled with Dr. Seuss-inspired drawings by Dayton Public Schools elementary-school students. An eclectic collection, yes, but one worth visiting. And not many people do: I was in the museum for an hour before I saw any other visitors.

Things bustled more at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, primarily a kids' museum where the star attractions are Ohio wildlife (animals that are unable to survive in the wild), sea creatures and creepy-crawlies such as Madagascar hissing cockroaches, an interesting space exhibit, and rooms where kids can put on clothes and practice being vets or buying groceries. Erica and I went because we'd seen ads all over town for an exhibit on baby dinosaurs. They were mechanized puppets that moved around, cocked their heads, and opened their mouths begging for food. You could control one of them with a joystick. Awfully cute, and informative - you forget, having not thought about dinosaurs for decades, that millions of years ago there were creatures 90 feet long and weighing 76,000 pounds. Each display was accompanied by a story bearing an overly philosophical moral, such as the story of two dinosaurs who couldn't coax their baby brother out of his egg, and finally they succeeded, convincing him that the world would be a better place with him in it. The moral: Eventually childhood ends and it's time to leave the nest, grow up, and be on your own.

And we thought we'd just come to see dinosaurs.

The Crowne Plaza was one of the best places we've stayed in. It wasn't fancy; it was just friendly and - aside from a maddening rule that allowed room service to operate 24 hours but you couldn't get food in the lounge after midnight (it's the same kitchen, for crying out loud) - the staff did everything they could to help us out. The hotel shuttle took us where we needed to go. The bar was friendly and served good, basic food and excellent martinis at reasonable prices, at least lower than those at most hotels, and, being on the top floor, it had splendid panoramic views of the city in all its gritty glory. There were free apples at the front desk in the afternoon and cookies in the evening. We - at least those who are members of Holiday Inn's Priority Club - got coupons for two free drinks on arrival. There was an excellent Dixieland jazz band in the bar on Wednesday nights, and on weekends another jazz band let members of our orchestra join in. In fact, this was one of the few hotels where a night in the lounge wasn't a depressing concept.

Best of all, the hotel had free high-speed Internet access in all the rooms. Since Erica left the tour yesterday (to go back to New York to design and create dance pants, which you should immediately go out and buy if you are in need of such things), and since in future cities I'd like to have my own hotel room (I'm 29, for crying out loud), I spent copious hours researching room availability and transportation among all of our future tour destinations. The specially negotiated tour rates that we're provided average around $60 per night per room - a bargain compared with the rack rates, but even that seems high to me; in fact, I've long held the notion that most hotels in the United States are overpriced. I've traveled in dozens of countries and in all of them, Scandinavia excepted, it was pretty easy to find a single room somewhere in each city for less than $30 per night. And even in Scandinavia in the high season I never paid more than about $50. And all those places had more character (even if "character" means a toilet down the hall, a bed that collapses when you jump into it, and an assortment of discarded condoms on the windowsill) than your average American hotel.

So I was looking for cheaper options, and in most cases I found them; usually, across the road or down the street from our Holiday Inn or Marriott is a Motel 6 or Super 8 where I can get my own room for around $35. I'm not looking for anything fancy; I'm just going to sleep. The Internet was the source of a plethora of deals, but it was worth shopping around. Two of my favorite sites were the reliable Expedia and the easy-to-use FastRes.com, which provides address and prices in a well-formatted grid. But sometimes one was cheaper than the other. For four days at the Rodeway Inn in Spokane, for instance, Expedia was cheaper on Thursday and Sunday but not on Friday and Saturday, so it was necessary to make three reservations: a one-nighter on Expedia, a two-nighter on FastRes, and another one-nighter on Expedia. Hopefully the hotel won't make me stay in three separate rooms! The prices were such a good deal that it was necessary to book nonrefundable rooms and pay for them on the spot. The next day, of course, I discovered that I could have saved a couple more dollars with Orbitz, which is now probably my favorite site, or its affiliated Hotwire, which lets you book a four-star hotel at two-star price. The catch? You don't know which hotel it is, or its exact address, until after you pay for it.

And I researched travel among the cities. Most of the time I'll still ride the bus with the rest of the company, but, for instance, from Akron, Ohio, to Normal, Illinois, I will take a train - or, rather, two trains. One is overnight from Akron to Chicago. I get to spend most of the day in Chicago, then catch another train to Normal, arriving - if the train is on time - just in time for our pre-show call. And from Sarasota, Florida, to Temecula, California, I will make an absurd-sounding series of connections. I'll drive from Sarasota to Fort Lauderdale, fly to Chicago, take a train to Riverside, California, and hop on a connecting Greyhound bus to Temecula. I've always wanted to take a train across the country, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

We've had a bunch of company changes lately. Four of my favorite people - Erica; Justin, our stage manager; Duane, one of our sound engineers; and Karl, our tallest cast member - voluntarily left after our Dayton gig, simply because they've gotten all they're going to out of this experience, and they've been duly replaced. One cast member, dance captain Kristina, broke her foot and will be out for several weeks. One person, in a heated moment, got into a fiery argument, said a few things that perhaps he shouldn't have, refused to sign his written notice of bad behavior, or whatever they call it, and was fired on the spot. I find it bitterly ironic that you can be summarily dismissed for blowing up one day and not signing a written warning, but that management barely raises an eyebrow if you've admitted to stealing cash from a cast member. I should go out and murder someone. I'd probably get a promotion.

But the best news is that our tenth (or so) company manager (I've lost track), Dawn Marie Bernhard, joined us for (God willing) the rest of the tour. She instantly became one of my favorite people. She's got great systems for getting everything done, she likes to plan bus trips so that we arrive in cities by 14:00, she loves sushi, she's always in a happy mood, and she can - and did, five times in succession - down an Irish car bomb (half a Guinness with a shot of Baileys) in two seconds. It took me 29, probably because the combination is so repulsive, and I enthusiastically stopped at one.

And she announced that, if we give six weeks' notice, we can find our own air transportation from city to city and be reimbursed what the company would have spent on airfare. So when the company flies from Missouri to Philadelphia for our performances in Easton, Pennsylvania, in a month, I'll fly to New York for a couple of days and it won't be all out-of-pocket. And the cost of that car-plane-train-bus thing from Florida to California will be much offset. It's possible we've always had this option, but no company manager has ever mentioned it.

On our last night in Dayton, a bunch of us went to the Pine Club (see a better-proofread Dayton Business Journal article) for an absolutely superb steak experience, matched by impeccable service. I had the "extra-heavy" filet mignon, rare, and it was outstanding - so red, smooth, and tender as to remind me of tuna sashimi. Still, it's hard to fathom a restaurant that doesn't accept credit cards - what is this, 1930? And they don't serve dessert, so we all had to go next door to Ben & Jerry's (I had their new Dublin Mudslide).

In several hours we take a bus to Cincinnati and then fly to Great Falls, Montana. If it takes over an hour just to exit the Cincinnati airport, I can only imagine how long it takes to enter it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004
Our company was booked on two separate flights from Cincinnati to Great Falls, in north central Montana. Most of the group would leave Dayton by bus at 6:00 Tuesday morning in order to catch an 8:40 Delta flight to Salt Lake, where they would change planes, arriving in Great Falls just after noon. The orchestra, however, was booked on a 16:10 flight out of Cincinnati and, after a fifty-hour layover in Salt Lake, would arrive in Great Falls sometime around Thanksgiving. Needless to say, I was not pleased. I don't believe in ever arriving in a city after dark (unless it's your home city and you're returning there after a long vacation), and I became further irked when I checked Delta's Web site and discovered that there were several other flights throughout the day that we could have taken, which would have gotten us to Great Falls earlier than our scheduled 21:51. One of these was at 8:57 in the morning, and it and its connecting flight to Great Falls each had more than a dozen seats available, according to the Web site Monday night.

Armed with this information, I took my chances and hopped on the bus with most of the cast at 6:00, having spent the preceding few hours in the Dayton Crowne Plaza's business center - I'd checked out of my hotel room along with Erica Monday afternoon. One of the other things I don't believe in is paying for a hotel room when I have an exceptionally early departure the next morning and there's another way to occupy my time, and I had plenty of work to do in the business center, as my music-transcription services have attracted a bunch of new clients lately.

Delta doesn't have standby any more, but for $25 they'll confirm you on an earlier same-day flight if one is available, which is well worth it. So I was able to travel with the rest of the cast on the 8:40. One passenger had a heart attack an hour into the flight and we made an emergency stop in Kansas City, where he was taken off the plane. We resumed and flew over a spectacular landscape: One minute it was houses and parking lots, and then, abruptly, we were over the snow-capped Rockies. We missed our connecting flight, but there was another two hours later. Just before we boarded, they called us all to the gate for a special announcement, as if they had a secret they didn't want passengers on other flights to hear. The announcement was that there was bad weather in Great Falls, but the pilot would try to land there; if he couldn't, he'd try in Helena; and otherwise we'd come back to Salt Lake. Well, we made it to Great Falls, where it was snowing lightly. Great Falls is nestled in just east of where the Rockies begin, and it's a hilly city. We're not talking San Francisco here, but it was hillier than the image of Montana that I had in my mind.

The company stayed at the Holiday Inn, on Tenth Avenue South; I'd booked a Super 8 a mile down the same road. It was an unattractive drag of fast food, small malls, gas stations, and casinos. Every other building, it seemed, was a casino, and they were in the gas stations and the hotels. It was all slot machines - which is just as well for me, as I've never had a desire to play the slots. (Blackjack is illegal in Montana.)

As I wheeled my suitcase down Tenth Avenue South, two people offered me a lift - a far cry from the cold stares I'd gotten in Dayton! It was a cool, clear day - it was fortunate that this was the day I was stuck with luggage, because from that evening on it would be frigid and snowing. Just before I reached the Super 8, I saw a sign saying that if I turned left and went ten more blocks to Central Avenue there was a motel where I could have a single room with a kitchenette for $24.95. So I did, and I canceled my $38.69 room at the Super 8.

Run by a friendly couple from India, the Royal Motel was everything a motel should be. My room had cheap-plywood walls, sloping floors, yellowed blinds, a small shower stall, and a bed that no doubt had seen its share of adultery. It wasn't exactly a kitchenette, though there was a full-size refrigerator. And it was an actual key instead of an electronic key card. That's all I needed, and I thought it well worth the effort to have hauled my luggage for two miles in order to pay less than half the room rate at the Holiday Inn.

And it was worth it to be on Central Avenue, which was lined with stores good for browsing. I wandered downtown that first evening and had dinner at Bert & Ernie's, where I had a hot-seafood salad, a spiced buffalo burger, and a local brew called Trout Slayer Pale Ale. I then made my way to the Holiday Inn for a poker game with a few other company members. I won forty-five cents.

The next day, I explored Central Avenue. I popped into Hobby Land, where I could have picked up some paints, yarn, model planes and trains, marabou ruffles, turkey plumage, cut-out patterns for painting patio furniture, and plastic horses (it's evidently at a shop like this that they got the animals for that heinous diorama in the Chartres cathedral). There were also used books, including juvenile literature, and when the shopkeeper caught me browsing a copy of Wendy and the Bullies (a book I liked when I was eight or so) and asked if I was finding everything OK, I hastily picked up a copy of Montana!, a fictional story set in the late 1800s. Here I learned that Montana had been part of the gold rush, just as California had, and that the Continental Divide was there - west of the Divide, water trickles down to the Pacific Ocean; east, to the Atlantic.

I realized I didn't know much about Montana. I'd done a report on the state 20 years ago in fourth grade, but all I remembered was that it was the fourth-biggest state. Since then I don't think I'd heard of it in any news story, except when I read in a Boston Globe article that the usual penalty for speeding on Montana highways was an on-the-spot $5 fine - the state's way of turning up its nose at the federal government's requirement that states impose speed limits. So much of Montana is so remote and has so little traffic that by all counts of logic speed limits are virtually unnecessary.

I continued west on Central Avenue, fighting the wind and the kind of blustery snow that finds its way into your eyes even when they're closed. There was His & Hers Coins & Stamps; an antique-book seller, where, among other things, you could find a 1930 guide to buying rare books; locally owned drug stores such as the Public Drug Company - no franchises here; several antique stores, with plenty of junk but some interesting old furniture and appliances; and the Candy Masterpiece, which sold not only scoop-it-yourself candy but also homemade fudge - lush that I am, I bought a pound and a half of it, in peanut-butter-chocolate, amaretto-chocolate, and vanilla-walnut flavors. Fudge can be hit-and-miss, but this was exceptionally smooth, fresh, and tasty. Along Central Avenue was a statue of a montanoceratops, a dinosaur that once roamed the region. I liked Great Falls - there was just enough to explore on Central, and the city was full of those wonderful old brick buildings with painted advertisements on them, like the one extolling a five-cent cigar. Some of the signs had been newly painted over, so in 60 years or so there'll be a collage of old fading signage.

I lunched at Indigo, which was as close to a New York City-style bar-lounge (albeit with its own slot-machine room, of course) as you could get in Great Falls. In fact, I sat by a photograph of the Flatiron Building and opposite a picture of two bridges and the Twin Towers. By night Indigo was a sleek martini bar, and in the afternoon they offered an interesting $15 three-course lunch with live jazz. The jazz was more a rehearsal than a performance - each song would end abruptly, as if the trio were embarrassed, and then they'd spent a few moments discussing the chord changes. One of them asked me, after this practice session, "Does the jazz go at lunch?"

I had to have him repeat it, but finally I caught on that this must be the local lingo, or perhaps his lingo uniquely, and I said, "Oh, yes, it goes."

Late in the afternoon, I ventured into the High Plains Heritage Center and paid $2 to visit the small museum of the region's history. By the early 1800s, there were a couple dozen Native American tribes in the area. Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805 and led the westward expansion of white settlers, who were lured first by the gold rush, and then by the other rich resources: coal, silver, and copper were all mined; cattle and sheep were raised; and buffalo were hunted. After the white presence was firmly established, of course, the Native Americans were moved to reservations. Communities for Native Americans were set up at places such as Fort Shaw, to the west; the Fort Shaw Indian Girls Basketball Team won the national championship in 1904. The planned city of Great Falls itself, named for a dramatic drop (500 feet in 18 miles) in the Missouri River, was founded in 1883. Power was harnessed from the rapids, earning the place the nickname "The Electric City." Today there are about 55,000 people in Great Falls.

On our second and final night in Great Falls, I almost gave up hope for something to eat after the show, but the restaurant at the O'Haire Motor Inn was serving until midnight ("The food's really good," they told me repeatedly), so I picked up fettucine with a giant piece of salmon and took it back to the Royal Motel, where I ate half of it, putting that fridge to good use and saving the rest for the next day's lunch. And yes, it really was good.

I shelled out for the $7 cab ride from the Royal Motel back to the Holiday Inn early the next morning, in order to join up with everyone else for the bus ride to Spokane. I didn't fancy a two-mile predawn trudge in the snow.

My bus partner for this year is Jen, our massage therapist. We have preassigned seats on the bus, chosen in an order based on a lottery - by some great fortune (and possibly to make up for the lousy cards I got at the poker game), Jen and I drew a low number and were able to choose a seat near the front.

It was a simply stunning seven-hour ride to Spokane. We left at seven in the morning and, after a short while, we were heading west on Montana's Route 200. Amidst copious cattle ranches, we passed small towns consisting of a general store, a post office, rusted car carcasses, and small wooden houses clumped together. One such town was Fort Shaw - if I'd blinked I'd have missed it.

Eventually we climbed up through Helena National Forest; the road peaked at the top of the Rogers Pass at 5610 feet, where we crossed the Continental Divide. It was snowing calmly, and the highway seemed slippery, but that didn't deter our bus driver from speeding - the Canadian bus, with French signs and a speedometer in kilometers, let out a beep every time he edged over 120 kilometers an hour. We wound our way through a magnificent forest, with arrow-straight pines lightly coated with snow. For a time a narrow river followed the highway. We glimpsed northwestern fauna: a bald eagle, a long-haired sheepdog, cows leading their calves, a dead elk by the road, some deer by the river.

We stopped for lunch in Kellogg, Idaho, named for Noah Kellogg, who, according to a plaque alluringly labeled "Kellogg's Jackass," stumbled upon a lead, silver, and zinc mine in 1885 when his jackass wandered two miles away. The highway exit where we stopped had just a few fast-food joints, so fortunately I still had my salmon and fettucine. And plenty of fudge.

Spokane was a pleasant place to spend four days. Most of the company stayed at the Doubletree, at the northeast corner of downtown; I stayed at the Rodeway Inn, in the southwest corner - a basic motel with a fridge and microwave in my room and make-your-own Belgian waffles at the complimentary continental breakfast. Sadly, that was the only appealing aspect of the breakfast - beyond that it was just cereal, toast, and doughnuts. Couldn't they offer some fruit?

Spokane generally follows a clear grid system and it was easy to find one's bearings. The weather was as changeable as Boston's: It was mild and sunny when we arrived, cold and windy the next day, snowy the day after that, and then mild and cloudy. It was a friendly city; in fact, it's the first city this season where the theatre has provided a hospitality table - in this case, fruit and soda were available for us at the theatre. Last year that was the norm, but it was such a novelty this year that it had the newer cast members asking, "Is that for us?"

The city was good at advertising. A music-electronics store called Dutch's advertised "Surly Staff, High Prices, Poor Selection, Terrible Quality." A "burger's" place called Fast Eddie's advertised "High Prices, Warm Beer, Lousy Food." I always seem to find that clever, and they reminded me of the "No compre aquí - Vendemos muy caro" sign in Madrid.

The Spokane River cuts through the city, gently descending through a series of rapids that can be viewed from various vantage points in Riverfront Park. The park was a pleasant place to wander, with its brisk 1909 carrousel (they spell it with the extra R) and the Centennial Trail, a riverside path that leads 30 miles east, all the way to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. And the city had its share of historic buildings - the old flour mill has been turned into restaurants, shops, and offices, as has Steam Plant Square, the old coal-processing factory.

Meals were hit-and-miss in Spokane. The best was at Thai on First, where I had a spicy seafood platter with onions and garlic; aside from that, we tended to divide our time between Shenanigan's (just behind the Doubletree) and Azteca (right next to it), mainly because they had late-night happy hours, though the food wasn't cutting-edge. There were appealing late-night spots throughout downtown, but I couldn't coax others too far from the Doubletree in the wind and snow, and I wasn't in the mood to go alone. A friend of mine from Spokane had recommended a couple of burger joints that I should have checked out, as well as an Asian cafe called the Mustard Seed, which sounded terrific but unfortunately has moved to the Northtown Mall - and on principle I just can't patronize a place that moves away from downtown and into a mall. Besides, it was too far to walk.

But I did follow her advice and picked up a copy of the Inlander, a what's-on newspaper, where I learned that a block from my hotel there would be an art exhibition featuring the works of travel photographer Linda Lowry, and that she would be present. I correctly guessed that must also mean there would be wine and cheese, and so I headed over there, chatted with her a bit, and became nostalgic after seeing her pictures of Italy and Spain. I also chatted with other guests at the exhibition, who, it turned out, were going to see Fosse. In fact, everyone I spoke to - them, the lady tending the outlet of the Caterina Winery, my friend's mother - were all going to Fosse. It was a big hit there, even though we had to pause the show briefly in our last performance because of a sound problem. It seems every week something goes wrong technically.

From Spokane, we headed to Vancouver, a 423-mile trip, on two buses - one overnight, one the next day. This was the only time I can recall where certain cast and orchestra members, if they signed up in time, were allowed to ride with the crew overnight - it's because it was a regular coach, not a fancy sleeper crew bus. I signed up immediately. Unfortunately, this option wasn't presented to us until I'd already paid for my last night at the Rodeway, and there was a fee to cancel it, so I was out $25 for a hotel room I ultimately didn't need. But it was worth it to arrive in Vancouver early, for Vancouver is one of the most picturesque cities I've ever been to. And maybe the overwhelming popularity of the overnight bus (far more people tried to sign up than there were spaces on the bus) will convince our management to make this option available more often.

And finally, some more travel planning. I now have a car rental booked for eight days in late March in Chicago, even though our tour doesn't ever go to Chicago. Let me explain.

After weeks of repeatedly checking the Amtrak Web site to make sure I could take a train on 22 March from Akron to Normal, with a morning-and-lunch stop in Chicago, I finally got around to booking the ticket - and discovered that the Chicago-to-Normal train was suddenly sold out. Just for kicks, I tried several other dates - random picks in April, May, June - and all the seats were sold out (though for $97 I could have booked a sleeper, which I thought rather extravagant for a two-hour afternoon journey). Thinking there could be something wrong with the Web site, I called Amtrak and spoke with a brassy customer-service asshole who was clearly amidst another activity, say, painful dental treatment, that she evidenly preferred over our conversation. She didn't tell me anything I couldn't learn from the Web site, and she stuck in the "Can I help you with anything else?" wrap-up query often enough that I could tell she couldn't wait to get back to her bridge work. Just to spite her, I kept the conversation going as long as I could ("Where does the train go that it's booked up until June?" - San Antonio; "Can't I just sit in the dining car for the two hours?"), but eventually I had to give up. "Thank you for your reluctant help," I said, and I hoped her dentist slipped and irreparably severed her jaw.

But the conversation made me all the more determined to find a way to keep that free half-day in Chicago, a city I like so much that I'm inclined to try to visit any time I'm, say, anywhere between Ohio and Utah. Greyhound was out: There were buses to Normal only in the mid-morning and in the evening. Eventually it dawned on me, about a third of the way through the first act of our final Spokane performance, that I'll need to be in Chicago the early morning of the 30th, since, it just so happens, I had recently booked a Chicago-to-Newark flight so that I can visit Erica in New York before our tour heads to Pennsylvania. I had planned to drive from Springfield, Missouri, to Chicago to catch this flight, and had rented a car to do just that. But it had been an expensive rental - $88 for that one-way trip. And I checked Hotwire, and I discovered that for $169, taxes included, I could rent a car in Chicago on the 22nd and have it for eight days, returning it before that flight on the 30th. So I did. And I'll drive to Normal, and then I'll follow the tour around in my car for a while - something I'd always thought might be rather interesting to do. And my cost, taking other various things into account, won't be that much more than if I only did the $88 one-day rental. And I still get my day in Chicago. So there, Amtrak.

Monday, March 29, 2004
It's hard to find anyone who doesn't fall in love with Vancouver immediately. It's a city crisscrossed by beautiful waterways, surrounded by snowy mountains, with a splendidly diverse population and a laid-back atmosphere. Even downtown, with its skyrocketing skyscraper population, remains pretty: All the new buildings are being constructed with bluish glass, making the main streets seem airier rather than contributing to a sense of confinement. And there are plenty of interesting neighborhoods to explore.

Vancouver was in the news while we were there. Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for at least the rest of the hockey season for attacking another player during the game, and pig farmer Robert Pickton was accused of hacking up people and grinding them into pork products. What better place to be for a week?

We were blessed with sunny, mild weather for seven of our eight days in Vancouver; on the eighth day it was cloudy, but not until we were ready to get on the plane for departure did the city's notorious steady rain begin. Almost every day I took in a new neighborhood, continually amazed at what the city had to offer.

A quick glance at the Lonely Planet guide to Vancouver revealed that the seediest area was near the intersection of Hastings and Main, on the fringe of Chinatown, so of course I started my explorations there. Take a walk with me down Hastings, starting at its intersection with Hamilton. Here's a collection of businesses designed to satisfy one's cannabis needs. First there's Blunt Brothers ("A Respectable Joint") where, one company member reports, you can get a sandwich and coffee and indulge. They don't sell the stuff there, but they'll make it easy to find. Next door is something called Marijuana Party Bookstore Headquarters, and then comes the New Amsterdam Cafe.

Going east on Hastings, past Cambie Street, you pass an eyesore of ramshackle buildings, some already boarded up and abandoned, some whose time will come soon. Next comes a collection of old, dilapidated hotels, many of which are still functioning - one sign on a door into the Balmoral Hotel (or "Bal," depending on how many neon lights are working) was for "Ladies & Escorts Only." The smell of pot pervades the air. The people you pass on the street are no less colorful: There's the guy crouching on the sidewalk, too drugged up to stand; there's the bruised guy who looks as if he's been beaten with a cane; there's the guy swinging a cane violently. And then there are the women, with stalky, bare legs, and you can't tell whether it's because they're prostitutes or because they can't afford any leg cover. This is a city where marijuana and prostitution, if not officially legal, are at least accepted practice - but for some reason everyone obeys the pedestrian crossing lights.

Finally you reach the corner of Hastings and Main, where loiterers gather on the steps of the public library. In front of you (east), and to the right (south), are all the Chinese establishments, and here the stores and sidewalks are filled with the pungent aroma of dried fruits, herbs, and fungi. On every block there's at least one place where you can scoop out dried mango or ginseng or an oddly shaped mushroom and use it as an antidote for whatever ails you - or simply eat it as a snack. I've always found these items much too intensely flavored for my taste.

On this first day, I headed to an upstairs restaurant called the Garden Villa for dim sum. It was commendable, though I had a better selection later in the week, when I walked out past Chinatown to the Pink Pearl. The Pink Pearl was one of those enormous places where the servers roll large numbers of carts around, and sometimes they'll plunge an order of Chinese broccoli into a pot of boiling water in a cart and cook it right at your table, or ladle you a bowl of congee. This may also have been the first dim sum place I've been to where the servers tell you in English what they have without being prompted - usually you have to get their attention first, and then try to interpret their monosyllabic explanations.

The Chinese came to Vancouver mainly in two waves, I learned at the two-room museum at the Chinese Cultural Center. The first, smaller, wave came in 1858, when gold was discovered along the Fraser River - the California gold rush had ended and people headed north in droves. Then, in the 1880s, more than 17,000 workers were contracted from China to build Canada's railway, which made Vancouver the country's main western port from 1885 onward. That same year, a $50-per-person tax on Chinese immigrants (raised gradually to $500) split up families, as men came across the Pacific, leaving their families behind. Until just after World War II, when Chinese immigrant soldiers showed their allegiance to Canada, Chinese Canadians were denied citizenship and the right to vote; excluded from professions such as accountants, lawyers, and doctors; and subject to frequent discrimination. A 1923 law banning nearly all Chinese from living in Canada was not repealed until 1947.

The smaller room of the museum is the Chinese Canadian Military Museum - the only one of its kind, a sign proclaims, and I'm inclined to believe it. Here stories are told of the numerous Chinese Canadians who fought for Canada in World War II, such as William Gun Chong, who, enraged after witnessing a Japanese patrol kill a Canadian soldier in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, took up arms for Canada against the Japanese. He walked 300 kilometers to China, surviving on raw potatoes that he dug up along the way. He became a spy and rescuer, carrying medical supplies to soldiers in need.

At the corner of Pender Street and Shanghai Alley is Vancouver's - and the world's - narrowest building. Only 1.8 meters wide, it was built in 1913 by Chang Toy (known popularly as Sam Kee) when the city widened Pender Street, taking over most of Chang Toy's land plot. Left with just a sliver, he built the Sam Kee Building as an act of defiance.

Over the next few days, I explored the southern part of the city, across False Creek from downtown. It reminded me of Los Angeles. East-west Fourth Avenue and Broadway both had much to explore, as did north-south Cambie Street, Main Street, and Granville Street - but the distances were so far that it was hard work exploring without a car. The areas were lively residential neighborhoods, with plenty of enticing ethnic restaurants (every block in Vancouver, it seems, has at least two sushi bars and two Chinese eateries) and, uh, Starbucks. One source states that Vancouver has 87 Starbucks outlets. It's unnerving to walk for miles, with the intent to discover the uniqueness of a city's neighborhoods, and then find out that they all look the same because of the abundance of Starbucks franchises.

The Vancouver Museum was smallish and overpriced - $10 Canadian was the posted rate, and that didn't even include the 7% tax. The history of the area, I learned, began with Captain James Cook and George Vancouver's encounters with the natives in the late 1700s and continued with the westward movement of the fur trade (they'd run out of beavers in the east) in 1849, when Vancouver Island was colonized. What is now the city of Vancouver was settled in 1862, and the primary industry was timber - the area was home to a large fir and cedar forest. Sawmills, notably the Hastings Sawmill, sprung up. And then of course the gold rush brought the Chinese and others, and the railway arrived in 1887.

But I'd been hoping to find out what happened to the native population. What happened to them? The main history exhibit was constructed from 1968 to 1984, and a sign notes, "The exhibit starts with the history of European exploration of the coast, with little mention of the people who have lived here for 10,000 years. In the 1960s, it was common for museum workers to think of First Nations history as totally separate from Euro-Canadian history." Well, it's 40 years later. Isn't it time to expand the exhibit?

So Vancouver isn't blessed with too many wonderful museums, though I admit I never made it out to the Museum of Anthropology, which probably had the prehistory I was looking for. On Granville Island, which I reached on foot by walking over it on a bridge and then having to follow the exit ramp around for 15 minutes, I could have gone into the building housing the Model Trains Museum, the Model Ships Museum, and the Sport Fishing Museum. I walked by it several times. But then I realized that I have little interest in sport fishing or model ships, and though I love a good train ride, I've realized that model trains pretty much strip out everything appealing about train travel: the segues of the scenery, the gentle rocking of the cars on the tracks, the chance collection - for better or worse - of passengers, the fun of stocking up on food and then snacking throughout the journey, the research of schedules and fares and points of interest. So I skipped this building and instead focused my energy on the touristy, mallish, but still useful Granville Public Market. The central hall has stalls bursting with produce, sausages, cheeses, and other cooking ingredients; the food court seemed a bit contrived, but I was happy to take my pierogies outside, gaze across the creek at the downtown skyline, and watch a gull attempt to devour a starfish.

The "SoMa" district, South Main Street, is the newest trendy area, and so one day I stopped at the Green Room, a friendly cafe of the everything-organic variety, for a fresh-fruit shake before continuing on the long walk to 49th and Main. This is the Indian neighborhood, and so I picked up some spicy snacks and some cakey sweets, which you serve yourself with tongs.

Downtown, my favorite neighborhood was Yaletown, a district of old warehouses that have been converted into boutiques, upscale restaurants, and martini bars. Only slightly less appealing was Gastown (named for "Gassy Jack" Deighton, known for his long-winded stories), with its famous steam clock, and I took a beautiful walk around the island-like Stanley Park, which is mostly bordered by the harbor, is crisscrossed with tranquil trails amidst a forest, and contains a couple of lakes. I sat down by Beaver Lake and, taking in its grassy stalks, the ducks, the forest, and the wispy clouds overhead, I felt I was looking at one of the paintings at the Musée d'Orsay.

Almost every meal in Vancouver was a spectacular experience. The best was at Kitto, which specialized in sushi and robata, small portions of barbecued meat, seafood, or vegetables. Top on the list was the black cod, sort of a sweeter version of smoked sable. The salmon neck, salmon belly, and squid were also splendid, and the price was a bargain. The second-best meal (though not by much) was at a seafood place called Monk's, where I had a pistachio-crusted sea bass with a mango-caramel glaze. Monk's was accessed via a little unlit dinghy, run by a guy who charged $2 Canadian for the three-minute crossing. And I got my fill of raw oysters at Rodney's Oyster Bar - my favorites were the Blye Island oysters, with deep shells and full of rich flavor.

Our hotel was the Rosedale on Robson, an all-suite hotel with full kitchenettes; I roomed temporarily with one of our Ryans, he staying in the bedroom and me in the living room. The 21-story hotel had the three slowest elevators in the world, usually carrying the world's least competent passengers. The most common problem was that no one ever looked at the bright green and red arrows that indicated whether an arriving elevator was going up or down. I'd be on my way up, usually after waiting considerably in the lobby, and another passenger would get off the elevator, and then, just as the doors were closing, someone else would reopen them and ask, "Going down?" - and then there'd be several minutes of needless dialogue before we could confirm that he needn't board and we could get the doors closed again. Then there were those people who didn't fill up all the elevators as they were leaving the lobby. They'd say, "I'll wait for the next one," whereas I - waiting right behind - would have been happy to squash myself in. (That placard indicating the weight limit and passenger capacity is there for a reason, isn't it?) But no, since the guy before me didn't go, I'd have to wait too. (It reminded me a little of when you're driving, and the person in front of you stops at a yellow light that you were planning to go through.) And then there are the folks who engage in meaningless conversation ("That's a big egg," one couple said to me, as I was carrying a giant chocolate Kinder egg that Dawn Marie had given me - "Yes, it is" is all I could reply) when you think you've made it clear you're lost in thoughts of your own. And let's not even discuss those who jump on an elevator as soon as the doors open, without considering the possibility that someone might be exiting.

But as far as the rooms went, boy, what a nice place: an oven and a microwave (which I suppose is also an oven) and a fridge, and plenty of cooking supplies. Ryan and I had a terrific view. And the service was friendly. Our room had one of those comment cards, and three weeks before we arrived, C. Best of Maple Bay, British Columbia, had written on the card: "I found all services + staff that I used excellent - we had no hangers in our closet - when I asked for some this was handled in a friendly efficient manner. I will recommend the Rosedale in the future to my friends + acquaintances." The hallmark of a great housekeeping staff - and no one had even bothered to collect it.

On my last day in Vancouver, a day off, I had very specific plans. I bought a day transit pass so that I could go all over town. First I joined some people in a trip, by ferry and bus, to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a 450-foot wobbly, wooden footbridge that dangles 230 feet above a gorge, with a river flowing below - it certainly tested my acrophobia - and leads to a forest with attractive trails flanked by 500-year-old trees. Then I had lunch at an Indonesian restaurant on Broadway. In the afternoon I took the 98 B-Line bus all the way down to the suburb of Richmond, which has a large Chinese community. The Richmond Public Market bustled with an Asian food court upstairs, and downstairs consisted of an intriguing collection of stores and stalls. There was a Chinese bookstore and a parlor with youths playing the latest video games. I could go to the dried-goods store and pick up dried gecko, snake, and scorpion. I asked one meat vendor what a certain brown, bricklike specimen was, and though he didn't know enough English to explain, the lady serving it up next door told me it was pig bladder. And then there was a specialized pharmacy, where I could have cured whatever ailed me with Deep Sea Products Salmon Oil Squalenes or Shark Plus V Premium Shark Cartilage tablets (New With Bioperine, Better Absorption).

There was a huge, generic shopping mall smack in the middle of Richmond, but the side streets had Asian supermarkets and hair salons and the like, and the signs posted on property for sale all showed the names of Asian realtors. But Richmond was big and spread out, and, like Los Angeles' Chinatown, it was better explored by car. At the Richmond Museum, I read about the 20-odd islands that were combined to form Richmond, about the bridges and tunnels that connected Richmond to Vancouver and points south, and about the suburb's four town halls (the third was a two-room schoolhouse, in use until the sleek new one was opened in 2000). But there was nothing on the Asian community, and the Asian receptionist at the adjoining library could tell me nothing of that history, though she did direct me to the Richmond Web site, which I hope to get around to checking out one day.

Getting out of Vancouver was an ordeal. First, upon entering the airport, I had to find the correct form to recoup the 7% tax on my accommodation at the Rosedale. I saw one version of this form immediately upon entering the airport, and in fact they had several versions at the hotel too, but they were forms to be sent to agencies that would then forward them on to the government, taking a hefty commission. The official form could be found only at a counter in a small room behind the ticketing hall.

Then, I - and everyone - had to pay an "Airport Improvement Fee" of $10 Canadian or $8 U.S. Obviously this was reimbursed by our company - but if I'd been traveling individually I'd have been pretty miffed. Once I have an air ticket, I don't expect to have to pay anything else, unless I need a visa.

Finally, I was delayed at security by Doris Yu, who, in searching my carry-on bag, pulled out my small retractable luggage lock. "You can't take this on the plane," she said.

"Why not?"

She pulled out the cable and demonstrated how I could strangle someone. "It could be used as a restraining device."

"It's for my security," I said. "I've taken it on every trip for the past seven years. I use it to lock my bag to the plane so that no one walks off with it when I go to the bathroom." I actually did that only on my trip to India, in 1997; my security paranoia isn't quite what it used to be. But I still use it on trains and buses, and I should have the option to use it if I want to.

She called her supervisor, Elvira Potassin, and we went through much the same conversation. I said, "It's for travel. I've taken it on every trip for years."

Aptly named Elvira said, "Not from Canada to the United States."

"I did, actually. From Montreal to Los Angeles in September. It's in my passport."

"I don't believe you."

I just love being disbelieved by power-hungry idiots.

"This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," I said. I use this line a lot, and often it's an exaggeration, but this was one of a handful of situations - the time in Macon when my hotel room wouldn't lock because the key-card gizmo on the door had a drained battery comes to mind, as does the fact that we still have a known thief on this tour who hasn't yet been tied up in front of a speeding train - where I'm pretty sure I meant it.

She said she would call the airline and I could check the bag with the lock in it. My carry-on bag separates into two parts, so I accepted, but first I had to rearrange everything, to make sure the items I really wanted on the plane were in the part of the bag I would be taking on the plane. I stood there for about ten minutes, unpacking and repacking, spilling electronic gadgets all over the table and papers all over the floor. As I was finishing up, a third woman came over.

"Is this yours?" she asked, picking up the lock.

"Yes," I said.

"You can take it on the plane."

So I re-rearranged everything for another ten minutes. When I finally got to the gate, I said to Liz, who's from Ontario, "I have a problem with your country."

In Sioux Falls, I stayed at the Econo Lodge, midway between the airport and downtown, for just $26.99 per night plus tax. I visited the falls the next day. They were impressive in their layout, not their power; the largest was only about two stories high, but the water descended gently for some distance ("100 feet in 400 yards," wrote Captain James Allen in 1844) through little canals, cutting through the reddish, brick-like, erosion-resistant sandstone, Sioux quartzite, for which the region is famous. This rock was used for buildings in the area and also shipped off to other cities, contributing to the city's boom following the arrival of the railroad in 1878.

The volume of water seemed paltry. I was surprised to learn that this little stretch of the Big Sioux River had been used to drive a flour mill and, subsequently, was used for hydroelectric power. Then a plaque confirmed my suspicion: "Usually, there was too little water and too little wheat - so the Queen Bee Mill never made the amount of flour expected." It was open for only two years in the 1880s.

I ran into Jen on the street and we had lunch at a Brazilian-Mexican sports bar that served up decent feijoada. The theatre we performed in had an Imax screen, and so I attended a showing of the film on Lewis & Clark, which I felt was appropriate, as we had just been to Montana and would be heading to St. Louis. They showed the path of the Missouri through Great Falls, Montana, and it made me wish I'd made the effort to visit them, as they were a lot more impressive than those in Sioux Falls - they caused Lewis & Clark a month-long delay in their journey to the Pacific Ocean. I was the only one in the theatre.

Early the next morning, I simply walked to the airport. We flew in two groups to Cleveland, connecting in Chicago, and then took a bus on to Akron; I was in the first group. Because there was bad weather in Chicago, they had to take extra fuel in case we needed to circle or find another airport; and our group had a lot of luggage - many people had checked bags over 50 pounds and had to pay a $25 fee. My bag was 57.5 pounds, but I was able to take a few books out and put them in my carry-on bag, which brought my checked bag down to an acceptable weight but, ironically, brought my carry-on bag up to about 50 pounds, though it was never weighed.

Because of all this extra baggage and fuel, the plane was overweight, and so they had to bump a few passengers off the plane, even though there were empty seats. I and three other company members volunteered to get bumped in exchange for a $200 voucher good on a future American Airlines flight. I figured I could just take the next flight, with the rest of the company. I actually hoped I'd get bumped off that one too, as it was also overweight, and get another voucher - but they were able to bump standby passengers instead.

I came up with a great slogan for Akron: "Like Dayton, but not as nice."

Its saving grace was our hotel and the adjacent square. The Crowne Plaza was built out of 36 of the 19th-century grain silos of the Quaker Oats Company factory, and all the rooms are round. Quaker Square, connected to the hotel by a passageway, which is a good thing, because it was bloody cold while we were there, was built out of the cereal mill. The whole complex is good for browsing and dining - at the Trackside Grille you can dine in old Pullman train cars, and you can stock up on cutesy gifts such as stuffed animals and boutique cake mix at the General Store (or you can go to the General Store Annex, or even the General Store Christmas Annex). Those were even a little too cutesy for my taste, but I had a good chicken pot pie (and a not-so-good peanut-butter-chocolate pie) at the Pie Factory, where I got a 10% discount for being a Holiday Inn Priority Club member. The clerk wasn't sure how to handle the discount at the cash register, and she called her co-worker over. The co-worker fiddled with my Priority Club key card and the machine, and the first clerk, amazed, said, "How did you do that?" I assumed she was inquiring as to the mechanics of using the card to obtain the discount.

But the co-worker said, "Well, you just move the decimal point over to the left. That's how you divide by ten." The first clerk was astonished.

Apart from the hotel complex, however, there was little stimulation in Akron. I took a long walk out to the Tangier Restaurant and Cabaret to see whether we might get a good Moroccan meal there, but the name belied the menu. It's now George's Tangier Restaurant and Cabaret, and they changed the menu a couple of years ago, from Lebanese to overpriced generic, in an attempt to draw in a younger crowd. I walked a little bit along the main street - it's a college town - and found a short stretch of loungy places, but none of us could be bothered trudging there in the snow after a show. The stadium still has its countdown-to-the-new-millennium clock, for goodness' sake, showing all zeroes. A city can't get much more backward than that. (I almost had to ask, which millennium?)

As I was shuffling through the snow and shielding my face from the blustery wind in a depressing city in the country's least interesting state, Erica was visiting a friend in San Francisco, enjoying the sunshine, eating fabulously, and preparing to resume her career as a fashion designer in New York City. It was a year to the day since we'd started dating. I'd started to run out of things to think about while playing the show. And strongly and abruptly, it hit me: It's time to go home.

Instead of spending all day on the bus to Normal, Illinois, with the cast, I took an overnight train to Chicago. The train was surprisingly comfortable, with oodles of leg room, and it took freight cars and passenger cars. I slept the whole ride, awakening to eavesdrop on a passenger's mobile-phone conversation with a Sprint customer-service representative, in which she said that she would have to switch from Sprint to another carrier because Sprint keeps turning off her service due to non-payment. Well, it seems they are in agreement.

We unloaded our freight, shunting on the outskirts of Chicago, and then pulled into Union Station 50 minutes early, at 6:55 in the morning. I hung out in the station a bit - I'd counted on a little more sleep, and I wanted to wait for it to warm up a bit - and then walked downtown. It was a cold, clear day. I browsed a bit at Books-a-Million, which opens at 7:30 to accommodate passengers on early train arrivals, and then walked on the path along the lake. At one point the path dead-ended at a construction zone, and I'd have to retrace my steps a few minutes to continue.

"Sorry, the path's closed," one of the workers said.

"Why isn't there a sign?" I asked.

"There is a sign," she said, pointing to a sign a few steps before the construction zone, long after I'd have had to detour.

"How do I get over there?" I asked, pointing across the inlet.

"You go back along the path, then up the ramp and over the bridge."

"Why isn't there a sign at the ramp, so that people know to detour beforehand, and don't have to retrace their steps?"

"Well, we don't know where people are going..."

"I was just in Vancouver, and the path was closed for construction, and there was a sign three miles in advance saying it was closed. Don't you think a sign would be helpful?"

She was weakening. "Yes, I guess it would. I'll talk to my boss about it."

"Why is the path closed?"

She pointed to some machine and mentioned that if it snapped, it could cut someone's head off. "It's closed just temporarily."

"How long has it been closed?"

"About a week. It should reopen in another week."

A week! For a whole week, people have been coming to a dead end, and the company had never thought to put up a sign, and no one had thought to ask for one? Maybe that's an example of Midwestern patience, but patience is no substitute for logic.

I retraced my steps and, simply because I was nearby, headed over to Navy Pier, which people kept telling me I should visit, and of course it was just as tacky and disappointing as I'd expected, with the exception of the stained-glass museum, which was worth a stroll through. I wandered around the city until lunchtime. I'd planned on lunch in Greektown, so, as I always do, I walked up and down Halsted Street, checking out menus and prices, and, as I always do, I ended up at the Parthenon. I had egg-lemon soup and roast suckling pig.

I took the subway over to Midway Airport to pick up my rental car. Just to recap, I have a rental car for a week because I'll be driving to Chicago from Springfield, Missouri, to catch a flight to New York, and it was almost as cheap to rent it in Chicago for a week as do to a one-way rental from Springfield to Chicago for a day - and besides, the train from Chicago to Normal had been sold out. But let's face it - I've wanted to have a car on tour for a long time, especially during a stretch of medium-length bus rides. With a car, I could make my way from city to city whenever I pleased, taking scenic roads, stopping on a whim, and having lunch at small roadside restaurants rather than shopping malls. So I relished the thought of having a car for a while.

It surprised me that the people running the subway station wouldn't give change, and neither would the ticket machines. What are those people there for, if they can't sell you a ticket or make change? But Midway Airport was well-planned, and though it's large, I walked right off the subway and into the terminal and over to the Budget counter, and then went up the elevator to pick up the car from the parking lot. I never had to take a shuttle bus. Now that's good planning.

I drove two hours to Normal, checked into the Motel 6, played the show (at Illinois State University), and picked up pita, hummus, and carrots at Wal-Mart for dinner.

It was only a two-hour drive to Macomb, but I made it last most of the afternoon, taking smaller highways past ranches and cornfields. After getting off Interstate 55, I detoured briefly toward a place called Funks Grove. The road was parallel to I-55, completely straight, and devoid of other traffic. I had no idea what the speed limit was. But a red car passed me in the opposite direction, promptly turned around, and began following me, I calculated that it must be less than the 65 miles per hour I'd been going, and I took it down to 50. The red car pulled into a driveway leading to an establishment advertising "maple sirup." Later, when I came back from Funks Grove (which possibly had no proper town center, or perhaps I didn't go far enough - in any case, I got bored trying to find it), I passed the red car again, and I gave thanks that I have a more insteresting job than looking for people speeding on minor straightaways in tiny towns in rural Illinois.

U.S. 136 took me through tiny towns with a few houses, a couple of gas stations, and just a market and a post office and a few other basic establishments. In Illinois, the signs at the town entrances stated their populations, usually in round numbers. San Jose was 700. Ipava was 500. Vermont, with its one-room public library, was 801, and I thought, There's a new baby in town!

After I passed the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery Visitor Center and a sign saying "Elevator Enterance," a sign said I was approaching Havana. I decided that's where I would stop for lunch, because I was in the mood for a Cuban sandwich. I didn't find one and didn't really expect to; the name comes from the Havana Indians, who built a burial mound in what's now the town of Havana. The mound, built over the tombs of leaders buried with ceremonial and personal objects, was constructed out of 1,700,000 basketloads of earth in about the year 150. Now, it's basically just a hill. Since then, the town's history has mainly had to do with dealing with the flooding of the Illinois River. Havana also has an octagonal 50,000-gallon water tower, in use since it was constructed in 1889.

I got to Havana just as most places were closing after lunch, but the Yost Post Cafe was still open. I was the only customer apart from four men who had no doubt been there every day for the past fifty years. A fifth man, Bob - you just knew his name was Bob - came in, and they were still there when I left, and they were still there a half-hour later when I walked by. The Yost Post Cafe had walls made out of the same cheap plywood as my motel in Great Falls, and, come to think of it, the restaurant's roof was slanted as well. The bathroom had a floral wallpaper that reminded me of my grandmother's old house in rural New York, and there were similarly patterned rolls of wallpaper on a shelf, just in case they were inspired to redecorate. My waitress stood in front of me with her pen and pad, waiting to take my order, as I stared at the haphazardly scrawled specials on the board. After a few moments it dawned on her to ask, "Would ya like to see a menu?"

I had one of their artful creations, a "Hamburger HorseShoe," which consisted of two pieces of toast (one left square and one cut into two triangles, and arranged with the two triangles pointing outward, separated by the square) topped with hamburger patties, topped with fries, topped with cheese, or cheese spray, or "cheese food." To this I added ketchup and hot sauce. It did not resemble a horseshoe by any stretch of the imagination, and it tasted exactly as you'd expect.

Our Macomb show was at Western Illinois University. When I called the theatre to ask where I should park, they told me that the theatre was actually the volleyball and basketball arena. A makeshift stage was assembled on platforms, and as there was no orchestra pit or any means to mount the onstage bandstand, the orchestra was never seen and thus did the whole show in street clothes. (We like that once in a while.) There was no "stage left" or "stage right"; it was "Home" and "Visitors."

After the show I drove immediately to St. Louis, proving, in the process, that it's extremely difficult to eat pita and hummus in the dark while driving. I'd spend three nights in St. Louis at the newly purchased house of my college roommate Orin and his fiancée, Erin ("Orin and Erin - I've heard it all," she said), with a day off and a show the second night.

Orin and Erin live on Shaw Boulevard, southwest of the city center. On my day off, we toured the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, where Orin is the music director. It's a Christian complex for all denominations, with peaceful footpaths and chapels, and a restaurant and a hotel - a nice place for a spiritual escape. And you can hear Orin play the organ.

While Orin attended a meeting, Erin took me to the Cahokia Mounds, the site of an ancient Native American city that flourished around the year 1200. As with the Rockwell mound in Havana, basically you're looking at a hill, or in this case a series of hills. But at Cahokia they've built an informative interpretive center, with reconstructions of the inhabitants' huts, tools and other artifacts found at the site, and a model of the layout of the 20,000-person city. The city had more than 120 mounds, of three types (platform, conical, and ridgetop), and serving different purposes (platform mounds were used as foundations for important buildings; the other types were for burial or to denote important places). The site also contained a surrounding fence as well as several sun calendars made from circular arrangements of posts; these have been reconstructed.

On our second day, we visited the zoo and the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, which contains paintings, sculptures, and drawings of all breeds through the centuries. Most depict dogs in pastoral or hunting scenes, but two made me laugh. Horatio H. Couldery's The President, or Paying the Bills, which shows a black Newfoundland with its eyeglasses on its desk, and with a drained expression that seems to say, "I've had enough of this." The other was Sasha Rubel's Dogs Playing Poker - in a modern twist on the familiar scene, the poker is being played on a computer.

There were short histories of famous racing dogs, such as King Buck, a black lab with the temperament of Seabiscuit, and of movie dogs, such as Toto, Lassie, and Rin Tin Tin. There's also an exhibit that pays tribute to the Beagle Brigade (those sniffers that hunt out contraband at airport baggage-claim areas) and dogs that have served the United States' army. The museum, fittingly, was way out of town in Queeny Park - Queenie was the name of my father's first dog and, for reasons I don't quite understand, is the name my cousins gave to their RV.

Orin and Erin also showed me around the thriving Central West End and U. City Loop areas, as well as downtown, which has a seedy air but, I think, is poised to become a hip neighborhood in the next few years: Many of the old brick buildings are being turned into lofts, and there's much to do. We dined at several St. Louis institutions: Uncle Bill's for big breakfasts, Crown Candy for sandwiches and milkshakes, Ted Drewes for frozen custard (essentially ice cream with egg, which makes it heavier), and Italian and Thai meals at the Hill (a historic Italian neighborhood) and an up-and-coming Asian area near their house. On our last night we checked out the blues at Beale's on Broadway. It was not the brassy black singer who usually performs on Thursday nights, but rather a band called the Nitelifes, which had a killer saxophonist.

On Friday I had a long drive of more than 300 miles from St. Louis to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I stayed on Interstate 44 westbound until Rolla and then zigzagged my way southwest, down U.S. 63, west on U.S. 60, south on Missouri Route 37, west on U.S. 62, and south on Business U.S. 71. I chose this route because U.S. 63 took me through a town called Licking (pop. 1,471), which seemed to consist primarily of the county jail and of stores in which people attempt to unload their old junk. It rained off and on for the first couple of hours, but it gradually became warm and sunny.

I had lunch at the entrance to Monett (pop. 2,168), at Ma-n-Pa's Restaurant, a little red shack (advertising "Home Cookin") on the corner of Chapel Drive and U.S. 60. The place was run by two friendly ladies in their fifties, I guessed, and it was perhaps the quickest sit-down restaurant experience I've ever had. I parked the car at 13:52, ordered at 13:56 (I had one of the specials, breaded catfish with three sides, for $3.90 plus tax), had my food at 13:58, and, after using the restroom (the toilet had a sign that said "Please Do Not Throw Paper Towels In Here Please"), was out the door at 14:13. The ladies, chattering to themselves, had been cleaning as I ate, and I was the only one in the restaurant. When I asked for the bill, the response was, "Well, I lost your ticket, but it's four dollars and sixteen cents."

Crossing into Arkansas, I came to the town of Gateway (pop. 116), and impulsively detoured three miles to the east on U.S. 62 because I saw a sign for Martin Greer's Candies. This was a winding road through mountains, a beautiful stretch; the candy store appeared suddenly on my right. I was the only customer in the store, and presumably the other car in the parking lot was that of the staff. I was greeted, to my surprise, by a Filipino woman; she was making, boxing, and pricing the candies, assisted by a woman who I assumed to be her mother. The younger woman approached me with a platter of samples, and we discussed how I happened to be there.

"This is a tourist road," she said, pointing outside to U.S. 62. In the summer, apparently, there's much more traffic, and there's lots of business - you wouldn't have known it from the looks of things on this March weekday. We talked for a while, and I bought some cream-filled chocolates and some chocolate-pecan fudge. The maple-filled chocolate may be the sweetest thing I've ever eaten, like chocolate filled with pancake syrup.

I arrived at the Motel 6 (which has no lobby because it's being renovated; I had to check in through the night slot) at about 16:30, which, coincidentally, was about the time the cast bus arrived, even though they left St. Louis 45 minutes earlier than I did and presumably didn't stop at a candy store. They apparently had gotten turned around after leaving their lunch stop and retraced their path for more than a half hour, which they then had to retrace again.

Hilly and surrounded by mountains, Fayetteville was a delightful place. It's home to one campus of the University of Arkansas, whose twin clock towers of the Old Main building (there are no clock faces, but it looks from afar as if there should be) stand sentinel over the city and are particularly pretty when illuminated at night. The university had a pleasant campus, a tradition of etching the names of graduates in the asphalt footpaths, and a building called the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science. The campus was separated from downtown by a rail track, a crumbling, defunct station (apparently now used for rock-band jam sessions, it seemed when I peered in), and a branch of the Bank of Fayetteville created out of old train cars. Downtown were beautiful old buildings, one stretch (Dickson Street) with estabishments such as an enormous used-book store, a shop specializing in quality French antiques (where you could get, for instance, an iron foot warmer used on 19th-century carriages, or a collection of 18th-century cookery), bars with live music, and restaurants with outdoor seating where you could hear the live music next door. Nestled in among all the activity were suburban-sized homes, right there downtown, attractive and convenient. And there was plenty of free parking.

Sarah went to college in Springfield, Missouri, and had a reason to get there earlier than the cast bus, so we both left in my car at 9:30 this morning. It was cool and clear, except for a brief interval of rain, as we zigzagged our way along a northeast-bound series of two-lane highways. We passed through Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a resort town, known for its hot springs, with dozens of motels offering rooms for about $35. As we left the town, a faded sign announced: "Miracle Mansion Wedding Chapel. 1-888-2-MARRY-U. Lovely Receptions. Ordained Minister." Another, more faded, sign said, "Drive Thru."

After we entered Missouri, it was a hilly, winding drive - it was odd to be on such a hilly road and yet surrounded by farms with grazing cattle.

Springfield had a small downtown area, based around a central square. Nearby was Founders Park, a collection of deliberately laid-out concrete blocks on which were fastened plaques telling the city's history. Springfield was settled and founded as a planned city from 1820 to 1850. A Civil War battle was fought nearby. The railroad arrived in 1870, albeit to a site a couple of miles north of town, and so businesses sprung up both near the original square and by the rail station. A public lynching of three black men in 1906 caused much of the black population to flee. The city has sprawled further south since World War II, with schools and shopping centers leading many out of downtown. However, the original business district is undergoing a renewal of activity.

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