ANCHORAGE, AK / LOS ANGELES, CA / ALBUQUERQUE, NM / OGALLALA, NE / SIOUX CITY, IA / MANKATO, MN / ST. PAUL, MN / DULUTH, MN / MADISON, WI / BENTON HARBOR, MI / KNOXVILLE, TN / CHARLESTON, SC / AUGUSTA, GA / ATLANTA, GA
Locals say that the best thing about Anchorage is that it's only 20 minutes from Alaska. It's a gloomy, dusty capital with a sprawl reminiscent of Los Angeles's, so it's not great for walking. It's surrounded by mountains and water, so it makes you feel confined and wishing you could lose yourself amidst the trails or on a cruise and escape the bulky buildings and depressing malls.
It snows all winter, and the snow attracts dirt, and then the snow melts, leaving everything covered with debris. Anchorage has a bus service that Lonely Planet calls excellent but I would call virtually nonexistent based on my experience at the airport.
I arrived at 23:37, an hour after the last bus headed downtown from the airport. There was no other public transportation. This was incomprehensible to me, especially considering how many flights depart and arrive at Anchorage in the middle of the night. I've arrived at dozens of airports late at night and never had trouble catching a bus or train into the city center. But here there was just a line of taxis, their drivers ready to prey on new arrivals with no other transport options. I looked around for people to share a cab with, but no one else was heading downtown. Those not in the cab line had cars of their own. I considered staying the night at the airport, but eventually I forked over the $20 for a rip-off ride downtown.
Brian and I had reserved rooms at the Alaska Budget Motel, in a cell-block neighborhood just east of downtown. The room rate was $210 per week plus tax for a smoking room, $230 per week for a nonsmoking room - Brian and I wondered why you had to pay extra for clean air. I settled for the smoking. The room was dank and spartan with industrial carpeting, but it did have a refrigerator and cable TV that mostly worked but occasionally went out completely, usually just before Judge Judy was about to render her verdict.
The motel was run by a friendly couple with thick Asian accents - probably Japanese, perhaps Filipino - who let me borrow their old Lonely Planet Alaska guide for three days when I drove away during our days off. It was generally a peaceful place, except for one night when Brian heard an argument across the hall. The residents of one room were making too much noise, and the security officer had to quiet them down. When he had to come up a second time, he yelled at them. "You guys aren't even human! You're just animals!" Then, Brian said, the officer must have hit one of them.
"You can ask me to leave, but you can't hit me," he said.
"Yes, I can," the officer replied. "Because you're not human. You're just an - animal!"
Mobile-phone service was spotty at best - I was on Verizon's not-quite-local, not-quite-roaming "extended network" - and Internet access was absolutely out of the question. In extended-network areas in other states I could still get on-line with my phone, but not in Anchorage. The landline phone in the room was no better. The dial tone wasn't a proper dial tone but rather a long beep, like in Europe. Brian tried getting his computer to work with the phone for several hours and gave up, so I didn't even bother.
Fortunately, Brian discovered a jobs center across the street with Internet computers. You were supposed to use them for employment searches, but in practice they didn't care what you used them for. So I went in day after day to answer e-mail and check flights to the U.K. for our next European leg, all the while keeping a browser window open to the list of Alaska jobs in case the boss came by. Most of the jobs had to do with the seafood industry. I could be a salmon-roe technician for $8.42 per hour, or a fish cleaner for $9 per hour, or a seafood processor for $7.15 per hour, or a dock worker for $8.50 per hour. Or I could go all-out and apply as "Fish & Wildlife Technician II" for a whopping $2,687 per month.
Except for a few highlights and restaurants, Anchorage was a dull place that was a bother to explore on foot. Fourth Avenue downtown was pleasant enough, but Fifth Avenue was plagued by a bulky shopping mall. When will city planners learn not to infest downtown areas with unattractive malls?
The Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which I just happened to enter the Saturday it was free (I almost went in the previous day, but there were too many school groups), had a sprawling history section that began to give me an idea of the various native population groups in Alaska: the Eskimos along the coast, living primarily off the sea; the nomadic, caribou-hunting Athapaskans of the interior; the Aleuts in the archipelago; and the Northwest Coast Indians (the Tlingit and Haida). The natives have been present for 11,000 years. Europeans came in the 1600s and 1700s looking for the Northwest Passage, and from 1867 the territory was dominated by Russians, who engaged primarily in fur trading. Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, although it did not become a state for nearly a century.
Anchorage itself sprang up in 1915 as a tent city simply because an encampment was needed between Seward and Fairbanks along the railway line, which was being constructed at the time. Late in 1915, plots of land were auctioned off, and a proper city was built. The gold rush of 1900, and the subsequent construction of the railway, drew a large population to Alaska. Until a proper railway bridge was built across the Tanana River in 1923, rails were laid across the ice each winter and then removed when the river thawed in the spring. In 1968, a large supply of oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, sparking a rush to build the Alaska Pipeline down to Valdez (the northernmost ice-free port). Oil has since been the state's premier economy.
Anchorage was fine, culinarily speaking, as long as I stuck to the fish. The salmon and halibut city-wide were fantastic. Once I stepped into a restaurant called Cafe d'Amor, which I thought would be Italian, and found myself sitting down at a Philippine buffet. That was a mistake. I never had a proper dinner in Anchorage, mainly because they kept feeding us: a barbecue at Nova's parents' house, a meet-the-cast for the locals at a restaurant called Humpy's, a party at the Holiday Inn for the company. I planned to save Alaskan king crab for my last meal in Anchorage, Wednesday night before my flight.
Back in Temecula, I'd given my eight weeks' notice to the company, intending to leave the tour in mid-June, after our Bristol engagement halfway through the two-month U.K. stretch, in order to prepare for a show of mine that will be produced in New York City in August. But just before our last Anchorage performance, I was told that in fact the company no longer wanted me to go to the U.K. at all, having calculated that it would be cheaper not to fly me to the U.K. and instead to hire a British person for the whole U.K. stretch. I can't imagine how that could be true, since they still would have to pay me out all the way through Bristol anyway, but I didn't challenge it. I was ready to go home anyway.
We closed our week in Anchorage on a Sunday and were not due in Albuquerque until Friday, so I took three full days and drove around - I couldn't wait to get out of Anchorage and get lost among the nature. I'd been planning to go up to Denali National Park, a sort of do-it-yourself safari, but it wasn't the sort of thing to do alone. Besides, everyone was telling me the scenery was more spectacular to the south. So I decided to spend one night in Seward and one night in Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula.
I got up early on Monday and spent the day driving the 127 miles to Seward. I found that a lot of sights on the way hadn't yet opened for the tourism season; there was still a threat of snow and avalanches, even in early May. After detouring several miles, I discovered that the Crow Creek Mine in Girdwood was closed. The oddly punctuated "Begich, Boggs Visitor Center" by Portage Glacier, and the parking lot by one of the hiking trails, was also closed. There were still excellent views of the glacier, however - a glacier that has been receding for over a century. In fact, there's now a substantial lake that in 1880 was covered by ice.
I liked Seward immediately. Downtown was just a few streets - the city had a population of only 2800, after all - and it was easily walkable. I'd booked a $20 stay at the Moby Dick Hostel, where I shared a room with a young man who had come to work at a Seward hotel for the summer. I had a musk-ox burger for lunch by the waterfront, and then walked around the city. The old rail car, which doubles as a tourist information center, was closed, as was the Chugach Heritage Center, where native artists can be seen at their craft in season. The red St. Peter's Episcopal Church was absolutely delightful, although I couldn't enter.
The best attraction was open, however: the Alaska SeaLife Center. Although pricy ($14) for its size, it was worth a look at some truly curious critters. I was dumbfounded by the lyre whelk, sort of half crab, half clam; the crescent gunnel, small, eel-like, and vertical; and the grunt sculpin, which had the mouth of a seahorse, the body of a pink fish, and the foot of a shrimp. It hopped along the bottom of its tank like a kangaroo. Then there was the large spot shrimp, which spends three years as a male and then three years as a female. I got to touch a 17-arm gray-pink sunflower star and see a 10-foot squid and a giant octopus. There were enormous Christmas anemones and blinding-white plumose anemones. From the observation deck, I could look into Resurrection Bay and view kittiwakes, sea lions, seals, and eagles. One exhibit highlighted the difference between Steller sea lions and harbor seals, both of which thrive in the area - seals tend to be smaller and blacker and can't walk very well. And of course there was a heart-rending exhibit on the damage done to wildlife due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
I had halibut cheeks for at the Harbor Dinner Club and then wandered around the city for a while. People were barbecuing on the beach; a full moon illuminated the snowy peaks across the bay. What a picturesque spot. Maybe I should have applied for that $7.15-per-hour job as a seafood processor after all.
I almost went to bed, but I decided to head back downtown and stop for a drink at the Yukon Bar. It looked like the kind of local hangout where I might not be welcome, but it was actually a very friendly place. I was telling the bartender that I was off from Fosse
for a few days, and then the people sitting next to me - Angie and Solomon - said that they had had some Fosse
cast members at their Anchorage restaurant a few days before. Angie had waited on them. She'd recalled how they'd tried to order drinks and had looked underage, so she'd asked for identification and they'd been unable to produce it. I couldn't identify exactly which cast members they were from that description, since practically all of the new cast is under 21.
Angie was drinking a Yukon Iced Tea, the bar's own concoction, which is so potent that they limit them to two per customer. She and Solomon were telling me about the hike they'd just finished, a few miles away. The trail hadn't been cleared for the season yet, but it was barely passable, so they'd spent a cumbersome afternoon trekking down to the lake. Angie had basically been following Solomon's footsteps, but once she stepped onto what appeared to be a firm pile of snow but in fact concealed a small crevasse. Her foot plunged through the snow and she fell into the hole. "It was up to my vagina
!" she remarked of the snow. She was clearly on her second Yukon Iced Tea.
They invited me to join them at another bar about eight miles up the highway, but I didn't feel like driving there or figuring out how to get back if I rode in their truck, so we parted. They recommended I have my final Alaskan dinner at their restaurant in Anchorage, however. They repeatedly told me what it was called, but I could never remember the whole name. It was something like Simon & Schuster on L Street. Close enough, I thought. And they had Alaskan king crab.
I wanted to hike the Exit Glacier Trail the following morning, but the access road was closed five miles out - it was still covered in snow. So I began the 167-mile drive to Homer along the Sterling Highway, which forms an arc heading west and then south.
Midday, I detoured north to the city of Kenai, which has a decent visitors' center and a historic, tiny old-town neighborhood evocative of the area's Russian history. The Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1895, had picturesque blue onion domes and lace window curtains, but it was closed. I parked in front of it and had a look around the town, which fronted an inlet where, at certain times of the year, one can see beluga whales spawning. I walked up to the visitors' center and had a look at the Russian and Eskimo artifacts. When I returned to my car, I noticed that the church seemed to be open. I walked into the small building and discovered that I was attending the open-casket funeral of John J. Cunningham. As respectfully as I could, I had a quick glimpse of the church, signed the guest book for the deceased (I was asked to and couldn't very well refuse), and left.
It took longer than expected to get to Homer. I didn't like it as much as Seward - after all, it was a megalopolis in comparison, with 4000 people. The main street was artsy, but not that attractive - a little strip-mallish for my taste. I stayed at Seaside Farm, a working farm with horses and chickens, among other creatures, where the owners operate a hostel. It's completely on the honor system. You go up to the main office, deposit $15 in an envelope, put it through the mail slot, then go around back and find a bunk for the night.
I hoped to find a good hiking trail in Homer, but people said simply that I ought to walk along the beach - at low tide, since the beach is hemmed in by cliffs and floods during high tide. I walked for an hour, after which I should have come upon a sea-otter rookery. But the beach had become rocky, and when it wasn't rocky it was sand soft enough to slow me down significantly, and three times I had to find the way across tiny streams without getting wet. I didn't find the sea otters, but I did stop at one point and gape for a few minutes at a seal that was nobly resting on a rock about fifty feet offshore. Good enough for me.
Aside from that artsy street, Pioneer Avenue, the main touristy spot was Homer Spit, a five-mile-long peninsula no wider than the road itself, which ends in a collection of wooden buildings housing charter-boat companies, restaurants, packaged-seafood stores, and souvenir shops. I dined at the Chart Room, at the very end of the Spit, and then, at sunset, drove along Skyline Drive, a windy residential road high up on a hill with magnificent views of Kachemak Bay and more snow-capped mountains. And all I could think was, These roads must be great in the snow and ice.
It was almost dark - around 23:00 six weeks before the summer solstice - as I headed along East End Road back to Seaside Farm. And that's when a moose loomed up alongside my car.
Everyone had told me I would see a moose, and yet I'd been in Alaska over a week looking for them in vain. I'd expected them to pop out of the woods along the Sterling Highway (signs on the highway indicate the number of moose that have been killed by cars during the season; it was around 300 during my trip) or as I walked along trails. I'd looked attentively and seen none. And yet here was one, grazing nonchalantly in front of the houses. I would have stopped and watched it, but there was a car behind me. And then suddenly there was another moose, lying on the grass in the distance. And then another one hobbling through a field. It seemed they were all around me, a half dozen or so, and in the twilight they looked much larger and spookier than they actually were, like big lumbering dinosaurs in a real-life video game that required me to wend my way through them as I followed the road back to the farm.
On Wednesday, I took my time getting back to Anchorage, stopping and detouring on a whim. I really wanted to see a village that retained Russian character, and I noticed on a map that I could follow a dirt road, North Fork Road, for nine miles off the Sterling Highway to the village of Nikolaevsk.
It was a sunny, warm day. As I entered the village, I passed a woman dressed in Russian headgear and a dress, walking a small child. "Good morning," I said in Russian. She nodded in agreement.
I drove through the town. The main street had attractive, well-built houses, but on the back streets they turned into ramshackle buildings made of discarded materials - some even had remnants of old wooden signage that had been rebuilt as homes. It seemed the residents were into farming, but the landscape was hilly, rocky, and forested - what could be farmed here?
There was one restaurant, the Samovar Cafe, which served Russian fare and doubled as a B&B. How I wish I'd known about it beforehand - I'd certainly have stayed there! The cafe was closed, as it was midmorning. There was a pretty Russian church and an overgrown cemetery with white crosses - no names.
I parked in front of the grocery store, which was also the post office, and waited a few minutes for it to open. One other woman, caring for a child on a bicycle with training wheels, waited with me. Eventually we saw the shopkeeper coming down the road on foot: the lady I'd said hello to earlier.
The store had snacks and bottled drinks; there was little in the way of actual nourishment except for a five-pound bag of frozen Russian dumplings. Other than that, there was an assortment of Russian sewing supplies. The shopkeeper recognized me and told me a little about the town. There were about 200 people there; she had recently moved back to be with her parents. Only a couple of decades before, it had been a closed community, blocked off by a gate, and only when the gate was removed did the school come in. The older generation was Russian-speaking, but the children spoke English - Russian was dying out. Generally, people drove down to Homer or other seaside towns and participated in the fishing industry.
I returned to the Sterling Highway and continued up to Ninilchik, another originally Russian town that's lost some of its native character. This was the first place in Alaska that reminded me of towns in Greenland (for some reason I expected there to be more similarities), with its sparse streets and houses clumped together or perched on hills. There was an old Russian schoolhouse, and a path led up to a green-and-white Russian church with a graveyard. On my way down the path, a lady stopped me and asked if I wouldn't mind being paid $5 to help her move a couch from a truck into her house, where she lived with her husband and two children. The house was over a century old and had originally been located across the highway. It was going to be torn down, but they'd found a way to prop it up against a steep hillside, so now they had a historic home with a terrific view. I insisted they didn't have to pay me, but they kept re-insisting, and eventually they handed me $10; I gave back $5 and we called it a deal.
Just past Soldotna, a town big enough to require traffic lights, I stopped at Suzie's Cafe, where I had a fried-clam platter served by two friendly teens. One was a dancer; she had wanted to come to Anchorage for Fosse
but hadn't made it, and she had sustained a foot injury that prevented her from performing in her final recital. But once it healed, she was looking to move to Anchorage, to begin a dance career.
A 19-mile scenic loop road gave me a taste of the trails I'd been looking for. Every few minutes I came to a trailhead. I picked one at random that sounded pretty, the Upper Ohmer Lake Trail. It was an extremely easy walk of less than ten minutes through the woods; there was still snow on the ground, and fresh moose droppings. The trail led to a little campfire area with a tranquil atmosphere to tease the senses: choruses of birds, a light breeze, the earthy scent of the forest, and an unbelievably spectacular view of steep slopes on which trees protruded through the snow. There was still a thin layer of ice on the lake, blown swiftly by the wind and sparkling as it moved. Every few seconds, an ice sheet would run into a branch and bend it, until the branch could no longer stand the pressure and would cut through the ice, causing a ker-chink like the sound of pocket change, and returning the branch to its upright and locked position. It was the most picturesque place I saw in all of Alaska, the only place I considered truly breathtaking.
A few minutes later I stopped again, to take in another forest view of more forests and peaks. It was so splendid that I even bothered to descend a small hill and pick up someone's discarded Pepsi can and Molson bottle. I just couldn't let rubbish from a material society interrupt the natural beauty of the place.
Just before I entered the final stretch of highway toward Anchorage, I detoured 16 miles up the Hope Highway to the 200-person mining town of Hope, which was created in 1896 for the gold rush and pretty much died out afterward. The town still retains its old log cabins, such as the 100-year-old Hope Social Hall. There's a mining museum, but it wasn't open.
I headed back toward Anchorage, listening to my Ciconia and marveling for the last time at the splendid snowy mountains and the sparkling water of Turnagain Arm. For about 20 miles I was following the same van. We entered a work zone, and the speed limit dropped from 65 to 55, although it was late in the day and there was no work going on. I started to lag behind the van. As I continued to glance out at the scenery, I inadvertently accelerated. Just at that moment, Officer Malm passed me in the other direction, turned around, and fined me $82 for going 64 miles per hour in a 55 zone.
She said I was really going 69 and was giving me "a bit of a break" by recording the speed as 64. I think the actual value was somewhere in between. I couldn't deny that I'd been exceeding the 55 limit, but I couldn't help feeling I'd been the victim of some bad luck. I mean, I'd been following the same vehicle for almost a half hour, and slowed down when we entered the work zone - when the van in front of me had not - and I'd simply chosen the wrong moment to catch up.
And, regardless of the posted speed limit, I can't help feeling that this was one of those false work zones where they lower the speed limit specifically to catch drivers speeding, much as they had made traffic grind almost to a halt in every little hamlet on the way to Seward by flashing the 15-mile-per-hour school-zone lights although there were never any kids around. Where I was stopped, there were no workers present, there were no construction vehicles, and there were no barriers. The road was every bit as good in the 55-mph zone as it had been in the 65-mph zone. Officer Malm said there was indeed work going on with regard to the neighboring Alaska Railway line, and that it had been going on for a couple of years - but I began to think that Alaska maintains its no-state-income-tax, no-sales-tax policy by setting traps for drivers. In fact, Alaska has something of a reverse income tax: proceeds from the Alaska Permanent Fund are issued annually to residents.
Unfortunately, it's the last major event in a city that remains most vividly in my memory. Alaska may have had breathtaking scenery and peaceful towns, but when people ask "How was Alaska?" the event that immediately comes to mind is my being cited by a big hairy dyke named Officer Malm.
I drove the final 23 miles to Anchorage following the speed limit religiously. Every time the speedometer inched up from 55 to 56 I slammed on the brakes, and I looked in the rear-view mirror and watched the traffic behind me, a line of drivers all thinking, "Who is that slowpoke?" I was no longer in the mood for the Alaska king crabs I had planned to have for dinner (so you could argue that the net result of my $82 fine was only around $20, since I didn't splurge on a meal). All I could think about was how much I wanted to get the hell out of Alaska, back to a place where my phone worked and I could get on-line, and whether "hairy" should come before "big," "fat" would be redundant, or a comma was required between the adjectives.
I flew from Anchorage overnight to Seattle, and then on to Los Angeles to catch the train to Albuquerque, where I would rent a car from Alamo for my last two weeks of tour. I almost had a free car. Someone on the Internet had pointed me toward Auto Driveaway, a company that matches drivers with cars that need to be transported to certain destinations. I figured if I could pick one up in Los Angeles and deliver it anywhere on the East Coast, I could then fly home, or take the bus or train, after my Fosse
I'd visited Auto Driveaway's Los Angeles office before flying to Anchorage and filled out an application. I'd mentioned where I was going and e-mailed my schedule to the manager. He'd said to call back a few days before I was ready to leave and he'd see what cars were available. Well, when I visited the office back in April he couldn't get rid of cars to the East Coast. Then, when I'd called from Seward, he'd been out, except for one going to Deerfield Beach, Florida, which was further out of my way than I wanted to go. And when I'd called from Homer he'd been out.
Finally, I'd called from Soldotna, just before my lunch at Suzie's Cafe. I'd been gassing up at a Tesoro station and found that I was in a Verizon extended-network area specifically at the pump I'd been using. I'd moved to the fringes of the station and tried to call, but there I was officially roaming, which is very expensive. I walked around the station searching for an extended-network hot spot. There was none, except while I was contorted in one specific position adjacent to gas pump number 1. Strange.
Anyway, the guy from Auto Driveaway - this is the day before I'd have to take the car from his office in Los Angeles - said that he did indeed have a car that needed to go to the Miami area. I said great, I'd take it - not ideal, but better than paying Alamo $594. I gave him my exact dates: pickup on 6 May, delivery in Miami on 21 May. He said no go: I can only have it for eight days. Now why couldn't he have told me that in the first place?
Arriving bleary-eyed in Seattle, I was eager to make sure I could still use my phone to get on-line. This is where I learned that Verizon had turned off my service that morning. They had called me in Seward and left a message saying that my bill had been returned to them because the address was no longer valid (which doesn't make sense, as the post office should have been forwarding my mail, not sending it back), and they said I should call back and update my address within two business days to avoid an interruption of service. Well, here it was less than two business days later, and they'd already shut it off.
Needless to say, I was not happy. The customer-service person I spoke with said that eight bills - eight! - had been returned, which is nonsense, because I'd been receiving them. I asked which eight, and of course she couldn't tell me. And the bills had been paid, hadn't they, so why should they care? She turned my service back on, and I have her an updated address, which was exactly the same address as the one they've had all along. Then I strung myself out along the chairs in the terminal and slept until it was time to catch the connecting flight.
Arriving in Los Angeles, I took the subway to Union Station and happily paid $4 to have Amtrak store my suitcase and backpack while I traipsed around the city. I took the subway and bus into Beverly Hills (you don't hear that
very often) and had lunch - where else? - at Real Food Daily, that splendid vegetarian place Erica and I had tried in October, before wandering around the neighborhood and heading back into the city center. I had just enough time for a quick look around Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum, which happened to be free that day, before walking the few blocks to Union Station. The museum had a terrific history section. The first Japanese came to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations from 1868, and the territory was annexed by the United States in 1898. Once the plantation era died out, they relocated to Utah and Arizona to work on the railroad, and to California to become farmers. Of course there was a significant World War II section, describing the evacuation of heavily populated Japanese areas, the internment of Japanese, and martial law in Hawaii. And throughout is a theme of racial discrimination, much as there had been against Chinese in Vancouver.
The eastbound Southwest Chief left Los Angeles at 18:45. This was the same route I'd taken from Chicago to California a few weeks before. I found the only seat by an electric outlet again, but the armrest was blocking access to the outlet, so there was no way to use it. The reason, a conductor told me, was that they swivel the chairs out and plug a vacuum cleaner into the outlet so they can clean the train; the outlets aren't really for passenger use. But shouldn't they be? I mean, who can travel for three days and not need to recharge something?
I watched the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen
in the observation car and then went to sleep early. In the morning, I headed back to the observation car to catch the commentary given by a Native American guide between Gallup and Albuquerque - and whom should I encounter but Kevin, my blind date from dinner on the westbound train!
He still talked my ear off, but we had a good conversation, and while the guide was describing the landmarks we were passing (most of which seemed to have to do with volcanic activity and the numerous Native American casinos in the area), I let Kevin scribble down the names of restaurants I might enjoy in Albuquerque. He had lived there, after all. He scrawled his suggestions on a page of newspaper, and then he numbered them and added annotations until the page was covered with comments such as "Brewery - Kelly's
- Central Ave. - 4 blocks east of Girard - $3 for 16 oz. beers - large Greek salads - other food from Sysco, though - on Central - not
the other Kelly's on the West Side" and "Italian Food: Nana's
San Mateo NE (North of Candalaria) Split Nana's Sampler with one other person." He was happy to spew while I listened to the Native American commentary, and then we talked about housing in New York. He was hoping to move there; he was on his way there for a job interview. In total, he seemed to spend months of his life shuttling between Las Vegas and New York on the train.
In spite of an early-morning hour delay, we arrived in Albuquerque 14 minutes early, which meant I caught an earlier bus than expected to the airport to pick up my rental car. I would drive 3,646.3 miles over the next two weeks, from Albuquerque to Atlanta, a journey involving 13 states. For a fortnight, that silver Chevy Cavalier (I got to inspect all the compact cars and then select one) was my home as much as my hotel rooms were. Frequently, I didn't even bother heaving my suitcase out of the trunk when I checked in - I just unzipped it and picked out what I needed.
I had a $29.99-per-night reservation at the Motel 6, a few miles out, but there were so many cheap motels on Central Avenue, near the University of New Mexico and our performance venue, that I canceled the booking and spent some quality time seeking out the worst of the bad. Several places had signs advertising single rooms for $19.95, and one even said $17.95, but these turned out to be daily rates based on a weekly stay - whenever I tried to get those rates, I was quoted amounts around $28 including tax.
Kevin had warned me not to venture east of Carlisle, but a block east I pulled into the Nob Hill Motel as the manager was standing outside. He offered a $25-per-night rate, including tax, payable in cash. In his Mexican accent he mentioned prohibition of prostitutes and 24-hour security - which, it turned out, merely meant that if there was a problem I could wake up the guy in the corner room. He said I could have a look before committing, and I made the mistake of not doing so.
Dollar for dollar, it's the worst place I've ever stayed. I've slept in less-congenial places - the Deeba Guest House in Calcutta, with its screaming, mammoth electric fan; the freezing Orkhon in Kharkhorin, Mongolia, with broken windows and no water or electricity; the fetid Sidhu Palace in Delhi - but paid no more than $5 a night for any of them. The Nob Hill, by all world accounts, was a rip-off.
The room smelled dank and had stains all over the carpet. The security officer from the corner room - more a handyman than anything else - brought me a flimsy, tiny piece of cloth that he called a bedspread. The plastic faucet handle fell off when I tried to turn on the shower, and I had to pry it with the utmost of finger strength. I felt every spring in the mattress. When I slept, I had my choice between the side of the sheet covered in sand and the side of the sheet with the little roaches. And my first morning I awoke to one guest's call across the parking lot: "Is that you, Bryce? Want to sell us some more pills?"
But at least the key worked.
We performed at the University of New Mexico, which abutted Central Avenue between downtown and where I was staying, Nob Hill - actually something of a trendy area, even beyond Carlisle. The best part of Albuquerque, however, was the Old Town, several miles to the west. If this were all Albuquerque was, it would have been a terrific place. It was a grassy main square surrounded by the picturesque San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793, and two-level buildings housing cafes and shops selling high-quality (if expensive) Native American and Mexican crafts.
The hemmed-in square and trees and fountains tempered the heat; beyond the Old Town, Albuquerque was sweltering. Central Avenue was the main point of interest, and fortunately, among its restaurants, it included a decent churrascaria called Tucanos - a Brazilian barbecue where they bring thousands of skewered meats around to your table until you explode. Central Avenue and its side streets by the university were the most interesting part of "new" Albuquerque; amidst copious used-book stores were thriving restaurants, including an authentic Jordanian cafe, Petra, and a 24-hour New Mexican cafeteria-style place, the Frontier House.
I did take one of Kevin's suggestions and went to Kellys (nope, no apostrophe). I got there four minutes after the kitchen closed, so I sat outside for a beer. One waitress brought a beer menu over - there were 19 specialty drafts - and then immediately asked me for my order, so I told her I needed more time. Ten minutes later I tried to catch her eye as she talked with another waitress and another table of customers. The other waitress, who had seen my appeal for an order, came by and smirked at me as she continued on her way. My waitress eventually bothered to interrupt her conversation to take my order. After that, I waited so long for it that I almost left - I was sitting outside by the sidewalk anyway - but finally the excellent beer came. With tax, the bill came to $3.41. I paid with a $20 bill and received $16.50 in change; the waitress didn't bother bringing me the last nine cents, which I let her keep as a tip.
Following our weekend in Albuquerque, I set out at 6:45 Monday morning for the two-day, 1100-mile drive to Sioux City. My goal was to do about two-thirds of the drive the first day, heading north through Colorado, spending some time in Denver, and spending the night just inside the Nebraska border.
After an hour, I drove through downtown Santa Fe, simply because I'd never been there, and enjoyed a quick look at the handsome central square dominated by the San Miguel Mission. Heading north on U.S. 285, I enjoyed views of Carson National Forest and several 10,000-foot mountain peaks.
I stopped for lunch in Leadville, which itself rests at 10,000 feet. I visited the Healy House, which was built in 1878 and was used as a boarding house for miners, railroad workers, and a schoolteacher, among others. It was certainly a spiffy place to stay, complete with musical instruments, sewing implements, individual heating stoves in each room, and paintings of the nearby mines. Also on the site is the Dexter Cabin, the home of a prominent mine investor who used the cabin to entertain friends on retreats.
North of Leadville, I drove for eight miles through the world's largest molybdenum mine. A sign on the highway encouraged me to tune my car radio to a certain station for some background on the site, and so the scenic drive was complemented by interesting information about the mine's history and the practical advantages of molybdenum, which is used to reinforce steel and reduce the combustibility of carpets.
I arrived in Denver in the late afternoon. I'd never been there, and didn't really have time to explore too much or stay for dinner, but I parked for an hour and walked up the main shopping drag, Sixteenth Street, and investigated the district around Union Station. It's made up of old warehouses, which have been turned into attractive restaurants and shops. That was Denver.
I drove for about three more hours and decided to spend the night in Ogallala, Nebraska, partly because I couldn't pronounce it and partly because a billboard 100 miles ahead on I-76 told me that Ogallala had 25 motels. One of them, the Oregon Trail Motel, advertised "Va ancy," "Sin le $28," and "ekly Rates," so I knew it would be a good choice. It was, in fact, terrific value. It was run by a friendly Mexican lady with a cute little dog, it was spotlessly clean, and my room had some surprise amenities, such as a refrigerator and a microwave and a padded toilet. There was even floral wallpaper that was clearly the result of a minute or two given over to interior design. If I'd had to stay a whole "ek" in Ogallala, I would have been happy to reside at the Oregon Trail.
Just before I checked in I'd swung around to the Crystal Palace, an attractive-looking restaurant with a Wild Wild West facade, to make sure it was open, as it seemed to be the only restaurant in town. It was just before 21:00 and the sign indicated it would be open until 22:00.
Just after I checked in, I walked back to the restaurant, arriving just as the neon "Open" sign was switched off. The bartender said there was no possible way they could serve me the slightest morsel of food. I asked about other food options.
A patron offered, "There's McDonald's and Pizza Hut -"
"I don't want any chains. I want something local," I retorted a bit more rudely than I'd intended.
Reluctantly the bartender called the Underpass, which I'd passed on the way to the motel. It was more bar than restaurant, but it did serve food. I should have gotten the Rocky Mountain oysters (which, as is well known, are not oysters at all), but I went for a cheap steak instead, accompanied by a Fat Tire draft. This was an exotic beer choice, it turned out - this was a place where your level of sophistication was determined by whether you drank your Bud Light out of a bottle or a can. Most of the 20 or so patrons' eyes were fixed on the two pool players, an old man with gray hair and an attractive woman around 30 with tight jeans and a slight beer gut (my eyes naturally fixed on the latter). Pool was taken so seriously that people applauded the impressive shots and kept track of the game on scorecards.
"Ih take the pool seriously here," I said to a man at the bar, using the noncommittal pronoun "ih," somewhere between "you," which might have sounded accusatory, and "they," which would have excluded him.
"Yeah," he replied.
And since I had run out of things to say to these people, I walked back to the Oregon Trail Motel and for some reason wished I could stay longer.
The next day it was a straight shot on Interstate 80 eastward across Nebraska. It was a difficult drive due to two factors: wind and tumbleweed. The wind was steady from the south at around 30 miles an hour, with gusts to 50 - there were reports of funnel clouds in eastern Colorado, where I'd been the previous evening. For 270 miles, going 75 miles an hour (the legal speed limit, thank you very much), I held onto the steering wheel for dear life, as the little Cavalier always felt as if it were going to be blown off the road, through a fence, and into a herd of cows. Whenever I passed a truck, I kept having to adjust the angle of the wheel, to compensate for the blockage of wind for three seconds.
Then there was the tumbleweed - huge specimens the size of that boulder that chases Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
. They'd be hurled across the highway by the wind with no warning, and they'd be eaten up by my car. I wondered whether they could do any serious damage, and fortunately, in this instance, they did not.
Once I reached Lincoln, I went north on U.S. 77, stopping in Fremont for lunch at the Fremont House, a casual yet elegant place with good skirt steak (much better than the one I had on the Amtrak train to California) and tortilla soup. Aside from me and a table of businessmen, all the other patrons were little old ladies playing bridge.
It was not a good night in Sioux City. First and foremost, my phone stopped working. Dead. I'd perform a hard reset, take the battery out, and re-insert it, and the thing would beep at me loudly and then show a white screen. As this was clearly a hardware problem, I called Kyocera's customer service, who informed me that even though I'd been using this particular handset for only three months, my warranty had run out because I'd purchased my original phone - which I'd had to send back twice, as it kept malfunctioning as well - over a year before. So I could send this current phone back to Kyocera for repair, but it would cost a minimum of $125. I was on hold with the warranty department - using the landline phone at the Motel 6 - for some time before I had to leave for my 17:00 call for that night's show, so I would have to call back later.
I couldn't find the theatre. It was listed as half a block away on our city sheet, but it was in fact about five blocks away. Fortunately I ran into Liz on the street, who told me where the theatre was and informed me that, uh, the city sheet was also wrong about the timing of the performance and the call - I wasn't due until 17:30. So I could have stayed on the phone with Kyocera after all.
Then, just before the show, I learned that the company hotel had been changed for our engagement in Madison. I hadn't planned on staying at the company hotel anyway, but a couple months earlier I'd booked one right nearby, which would give me a chance to hang out with people after the show and not have to limit myself to one beer out of the necessity of driving back. The new company hotel was three miles away.
And all of these rather obscured the fact that as I'd been driving along the two-lane U.S. 77, a truck had passed me in the opposite direction and kicked up a stone, which had left a scratch of about a half inch on the windshield. I didn't know if it was something Alamo would care about, and in any case my credit-card company would cover it, but no doubt it would lead to endless conversations and enough paperwork to make me just wish I'd purchased the car.
So let's look at the trajectory I'd followed recently. Three weeks previously, I'd been up $163 at the Pechanga. I'd been almost assured of a free car to drive cross-country. I'd be finishing up the tour precisely on my schedule, going to the U.K. for three weeks, and then returning to my apartment in New York City. Since then, I'd lost $500, been fined $82 for speeding, been told I'd be leaving the tour three weeks earlier than expected, been forced to rent a car for almost $600 - a car that now had a scratch on the windshield, been the proud possessor of a nonfunctioning $700 phone, had my phone service needlessly turned off, and been given misinformation more times than I cared to count. I played an extremely sloppy show and didn't care a bit.
Miraculously, my phone came back to life that night. I tried pressing the buttons randomly and discovered, quite by accident, that if I held down the backlight button, the volume-down button on the side of the phone, and the reset button inside the battery case, the phone would reset itself. I think it may have just been dirty. I sprayed some air into it - using the air spray can that we use to dust off the keyboards in the orchestra - and it's been fine ever since.
And, dash it all, I made plans to triple in Madison. My reserved hotel wasn't that much cheaper than the company hotel, so for two nights I figured I'd go the super-cheap route, even if it meant sharing a room with two other people.
I never mentioned the scratch to Alamo, and I haven't heard from them since I returned the car last week.
And I was really, really ready to get back to New York City. To heck with the U.K.
And the margarita I had at Chili's in Sioux City made me very, very happy.
U.S. 60 led me northeast through Iowa, past the state's highest point (at a towering 1,670 feet), and into Minnesota. I kept detouring briefly to investigate towns that either looked sizeable on the map or had pretty names - Worthington, Heron Lake, Windom - to try to find a place for lunch, but there was nothing enticing. Then, along U.S. 60, a tavern called P.J.'s II loomed up on the right. It looked deserted, but it had a few cars in back. I went in. The few other patrons - and their dogs, waiting in the cars - were all regulars. The bartender was friendly, and I had a fine burger indeed.
I didn't have a lot of time to explore Mankato, but it did have one street with enticing establishments, including a used-book store and a Cambodian restaurant. Mankato was another "Rock Star Fosse" arena theatre - no proper stage or pit. I dined after the show at Pub 500, on that main drag, and had the two-pulled-pork-sandwiches special and a beer. This was the only place I've ever been where, after checking my New York driver's license, the bartender asked me for another piece of ID. He was appeased by a glance at my Visa card.
"We don't get many people from New York," he explained.
And with that attitude, you won't continue to, I thought.
The Twin Cities were on the way from Mankato to Duluth, so I drove for an hour and spent the night on the outskirts of Minneapolis. My good friend (and co-author of musicals, and fellow gourmand) Brian hails from St. Paul, and he gave me explicit instructions for a concise few hours in the Twin Cities.
I couldn't really explore both cities; I had to pick one. Brian described St. Paul as "the last eastern city" and Minneapolis as "the first western city," and therefore St. Paul won out, with its history, architecture, and views. Summit Avenue, Brian said, had the largest row of Victorian homes in the country.
It was indeed spectactular. Summit was a divided road, bisected by a grassy median. I started at the western end, near the college, and as I drove east and climbed up the hill, the houses became grander in size and beauty. Each was completely different from the ones on either side, and yet the neighborhood felt unified. All this culminated with the Cathedral of St. Paul, which afforded terrific views of the Minnesota senate and downtown.
Parallel to Summit was Grand Avenue, which had all the businesses. Brian recommended his favorite pastry shop, Cafe Latte, for lunch and cake. Their salads were splendid, and their turtle cake was to die for. Other high-end bakeries dotted the area, and someday I'll go back and try them all.
I didn't have much of a chance to explore Duluth, which was just as well, since there's a casino there. From what I could tell at night, it was an appealing city. A bunch of us hit up Famous Dave's for dinner after the show. Now here is a chain I can live with. Terrific ribs, reasonable prices, affordable drinks, huge portions. I'd never heard of Famous Dave's until my arrival in Sioux City, but we went in Duluth, and we would go again in Knoxville. Excellent.
The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. It was a pretty drive from Duluth, along U.S. 53 and then Interstate 94. I stopped for lunch in Black River Falls, simply because it sounded pretty, and besides, it had only one restaurant, so I didn't have to spend time weighing all my options considerably.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison was having its commencement the weekend we were there, and as a result the place was pleasantly overrun with the air of spring and the youthful recklessness of partying college grads. In a decision of breathtaking brilliance, city administrators had recently - we're talking a week or two before - decided to start ripping up the main shopping and dining street, State Street, for reconstruction. Otherwise, Madison was pleasant, flanked by two lakes that had almost the same name, and dominated by the Capitol Building, out from which main streets radiated like spokes.
On State Street, I enjoyed meals at Kabul Cafe - four of us enjoyed an Afghan brunch - and downstairs, at an Ethiopian restaurant in the same building. I also wandered around the stately college buildings, joining grads and parents eating by the lake, and watching people attempting to move out of dorms.
Taylor, Katie, Christina, and I happened to be hanging out on our latter night in Madison, and I invited them to join me on the drive to Benton Harbor. There was no way to drive there without going through Chicago, so of course I planned to stop there for lunch. I took moderately scenic U.S. 14 into Chicago. There wasn't much time to explore, but I parked near the intersection of Broadway and Diversey - not quite downtown, but an area I remembered having much restaurant activity - and we had a pleasant outdoor brunch at La Creperie.
We ran into some traffic on the way to Benton Harbor. We were due at the theatre originally at 17:00, and we learned a couple of hours in advance that they had changed the call time to 16:30 in order to run a few numbers because...drum roll, please...they fired the thief! One of the new cast members had caught him rummaging through people's belongings in the dressing room, and then, apparently, he had taken someone's T-shirt and subsequently worn it in front of the company. Can you believe that? Anyway, he was finally fired, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
I had two days to get to Charleston, South Carolina (the good Charleston), from Benton Harbor. For lack of any better plans, I decided to stop in Knoxville with everyone else, though I didn't leave at 6:00 in the morning as they did. I left about three hours later.
U.S. 31 took me south through Indiana, a cop-infested state with a needless 55-mile-per-hour speed limit (it dropped from 70 to 55 when I crossed from Michigan into Indiana although there was no noticeable drop in the quality of the road). In Indianapolis, I got on I-74 eastbound, and just before the Ohio border I took scenic Route 1 south to I-275, which brought me into Kentucky. I was very, very happy to be in Kentucky, which may just be the prettiest state to drive through.
Gorgeous U.S. 127 led south through Frankfort - I barely noticed that I was driving through a capital - and then looked for a town to have lunch in. I couldn't find any suitable options, and I was feeling low on blood sugar. What I really needed was a produce stand, like the ones that had lined the highway in North Carolina. Finally, just before I collapsed into a malnourished heap at the wheel, Kountry Kupboard & Cheddar Land, a gaudily named Amish market, loomed up on the right. I picked up some cheeses, deli meats, and strawberries and at them in the car as I continued south. Perfect.
I detoured onto U.S. 150, and then onto Route 39 south, specifically so I could drive through farm towns called Crab Orchard and Dog Walk. Crab Orchard had a population of about 800 and was introduced with a sign that I'm pretty sure said "Small Town Hospitality At It's Best." If Dog Walk existed in reality, it was too small to be noticed - there was no sign announcing the town. But winding Route 39 was lovely, and in fact it had a bunch of those produce stands I'd been looking for.
I headed south on U.S. 27 and then east on Route 90, which took me through Daniel Boone National Forest. It was late afternoon and I was getting tired of being on the road, but I couldn't resist a stop at Cumberland Falls. This is one of two places in the world where moonbows occur with any predictable regularity. A moonbow is a white arc of light that appears when a full moon reflects off the mist rising from the falls. Moonbows happen in other places from time to time, but only at Cumberland Falls - and at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe - are they pretty much guaranteed during the full moon, provided the sky is clear. As it was neither dusk nor the full moon nor clear out, I didn't linger.
Including stops, I'd been driving for nearly 12 hours as I approached Knoxville on I-75. I'd hoped to meet people for dinner, but it was a bit late for that - about 20:30. If I couldn't find anyone for a gathering, there would have been no reason to stop in Knoxville at all - I could have found a motel near the forest or some such thing. In other circumstances, I might have done that, especially since we'd been to Knoxville a year before. But my tenure with Fosse
was about to end. I was in the mood for company, not solitude.
However, about a quarter-mile from the company hotel I saw Jalynn walking in the opposite direction. I had a hunch she was on the way to Famous Dave's to meet people. I called her. And suddenly I was in for a decent meal and people to share it with.
I'd just started Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods
, the granddaddy of them all, the story that had made him famous. It's his account of his trek along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. And lo and behold, the next morning I would be driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, so called because of the bluish haze caused by the numerous nutrients released into the air by the mountains' incredibly diverse plant life. I followed narrow, winding roads that gently brought me up and up, occasionally stopping at paths marked "Quiet Walkway." They were little trails that led nowhere; you could follow them for a few minutes just to get off the road and into the woods. One such trail brought me to an old cemetery, with a few headstones dating back to the early 20th century. I stopped frequently and saw few other visitors; it seemed I had the woods to myself.
When I emerged at Newfound Gap, on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, however, the parking lot was surprisingly full, and people were setting up cameras to get shots of the view. The Appalachian Trail crosses the highway at this point. Had I had a full day, I'd have made the seven-mile trek up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. I couldn't very well do that, as I was due in Charleston that evening, but I did take 15 minutes and hiked the path toward the Dome, about a quarter mile in each direction, or 1/8600 of the entire Appalachian Trail. I inspected plants, leaves, bark, and flowers, wishing I knew something about them. And for those 15 minutes I didn't see another soul.
I couldn't resist spending a few minutes driving through Gatlinburg, the resort town at the foot of the Smokies. Bryson calls it a "tacky, horrible place" in which "throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks wandered between food smells, clutching grotesque comestibles and bucket-sized soft drinks." Even early in the season it was overcrowded, with people flocking to attractions such as a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum and an aquarium. I'm not sure it was all that terrible. It was sort of like a mini-Las Vegas without the gambling. If you bought into the gaudiness, mocked it for the self-mockery that it was, and didn't take it at all seriously, you could while away an afternoon there. But I did find it striking that Gatlinburg, the parking lot at Newfound Gap, and the visitors' center at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park had been so crowded, whilst the Appalachian Trail itself had been empty.
I suddenly realized that it was almost 13:00 and I still had some distance to travel along winding roads before even entering South Carolina and getting on I-26, after which I'd still have three hours on an interstate before reaching Charleston. Abruptly I said good-bye to the winding roads and quiet pathways and booked it for I-26.
We performed in North Charleston, about nine miles from Charleston proper. Brian and I stayed in two hotels - he at La Quinta, I at the Motel 6 - a few miles further out, on the oddly named Ashley Phosphate Road. The rest of the company stayed at the Ramada Inn near the theatre.
This Ramada Inn had character. It was foul-smelling and dank, and it had a large flashing sign advertising rooms for $39, although our company was being charged almost $60. Some people had roaches in their rooms. The roof was under construction. The workers were a group of Mexicans that stayed in the hotel and spent much of their time drinking beer and harassing our female cast members, to the point that the police were called.
We were in Charleston for two nights, so I had most of a day to explore downtown. In Bryson's The Lost Continent
, Charleston is the only place he considers more becoming than Savannah. I still think I preferred Savannah, but Charleston was indeed gorgeous, and it was a shame that so many of our cast members couldn't make it downtown. This was a place with history. The southern end of King Street was lined with old homes, some dating back to the 1700s, with plaques stating who built them and who the early inhabitants were. From Waterfront Park I could see Fort Sumter. The market on Market Street was a little touristy, with trinkets I had no desire to display in my house, but the restaurants and shops on Broad Street and East End Street made me wish I had more than a day to spend there. I tried to visit the Slave Mart Museum, simply because I parked in front of it, but it wasn't due to open for another year or so. There were copious other buildings I could have explored, but it was such splendid weather I was happy enough to stroll the streets and parks at random. I had lunch at Magnolias Uptown Down South, because I liked the wordplay and because the font was the same as that on the cover of Patricia Wells's food guide to Paris. This was upscale southern cuisine: tomato bisque with crab and basil, and sauteed wahoo with spinach, a crab-artichoke topping, and an herb-potato cake.
From Charleston to Augusta, I drove along U.S. 78, which for the most part was a straightaway - sometimes I could see the road a mile ahead - surrounded by forest. One Charleston radio station, 107.5, got me almost all the way to Augusta. In addition to my country favorites, it threw in a good selection of oldies that seemed to highlight the imminent end of my touring experience: "Take This Job and Shove It" and "The Gambler" (I definitely knew it was time to walk away).
It was a good chance to reflect on the past eighteen months. Generally, I was pleased. I felt I'd performed the show acceptably, and I was satisfied with what I'd done with the travel component. In addition to the usual touring experience involving long bus rides, roommates, and cast parties in the hotel bar, I'd refined touring to its bare essentials. I'd found uniqueness in every city. I'd made my own hotel and air-travel arrangements. I'd even turned up in a city without a hotel reservation. And finally, expensive though it was, I'd gotten a car and found the theatres myself, becoming totally independent. (I'm not claiming to have been the first person to do that, but it seems rare indeed.) The only thing I hadn't done was eschew the suitcase and carry only a backpack, which would have been truly liberating. I would have done that in the U.K. had I returned there.
It really was time to go home. I wasn't getting anything (other than a paycheck) out of playing the show anymore, so the only appeal would have been the travel. But I was even starting to tire of that. Early on in tour, faced with a car and most of a day in a city as beautiful as Charleston, I would have been out by 8:00 in the morning and hitting the museums, returning diligently after the show for dinner. But by now I couldn't be bothered.
In Charleston, I'd been impressed by the shower. It was one of those corner showers - not big enough for a bath - and the nozzle had faced inward, toward the corner, so it didn't flood the floor when you turned the water on. Well, that's just great, I thought. And then I realized that if it's gotten to the point that I'm marveling at Motel 6 shower nozzles, I've definitely been on tour too long.
A week later, in New York City, I would actually hesitate before jaywalking in front of a policeman. Now I've really
been gone too long.
Still, with the exception of our acerebral kleptomaniac, I liked these people. Heck, I'd spent over a year with some of them. It dawned on me that I hadn't gotten to know the new cast members very well, and I wouldn't have minded a little more time with them. Once I returned to New York, the tour instantly seemed decades in the past, and with few exceptions I barely spared a thought for those who had gone on to Europe. Time and fate had brought us together for the tour, and time and fate had parted us at the appropriate time. They had moved on, and so had I. There was no reason to ponder the matter.
Augusta was a fascinating mishmash of old and new - a fitting if unlikely place to end a tour - and it was prettier than I expected. I found the theatre and walked up Eighth Street to Broad, which William Makepeace Thackeray had once described as a "rambling great street 2 miles long." This "nice quaint old town," as he put it, had a bit of everything. Eighth Street had a cleaner's run by a man who had clearly been there pretty much since Thackeray made his observations; a printworks contained an ancient-looking printing press; and one store's sign had just enough letters hanging on to let me know it was a clock-repair shop. Then Broad had boarded-up buildings, antique shops, rocking nightclubs, chic restaurants, and yoga centers.
The Augusta show was not a great one. The tracks crashed. The house lights came on in the middle of the performance. Drops kept getting caught on set pieces. Paul's onstage music-stand light didn't work at first, and then when it finally came on, his microphone didn't work, so the clarinet track was turned on and he had to fake playing his solo. But at least the onstage piano worked.
I played this show - my 412th and final - without much emotion. There was no sense of "Gee, this is the last time I'm going to play 'Bye Bye, Blackbird'" or "Wow, I'm done with the first act forever" or "Hmm, I should listen more closely because I'm never gonna hear this again" or even "Why are so many things going wrong?" I did feel a twinge of relief as I concluded my solo; it had gotten to the point where I knew it so well that I was on the verge of second-guessing myself and thinking, "Does it really go like that?" or conjuring up an untested fingering for a tricky passage just for the heck of it.
I didn't want any long good-byes, and I didn't have to endure any. I joined people at the bar of the Partridge Inn - a stunningly beautiful place with a large verandah and elegant rooms; I almost wished I'd stayed the night - where I waited 15 minutes for a quesadilla before being told they were out of quesadillas. Not inspired by anything else on the bar menu, I settled for a glass of sauvignon blanc, and my hunger was eventually quelled by someone's leftover pizza: the quintessential touring experience. I joined people in someone's room for a party, and then, at 1:30 in the morning, I decided it was time to go.
It was a straightforward three-hour drive across Georgia to Atlanta along Interstate 20. This was one of the few times on the tour - in my life, really - when I budgeted extra time for a trip. As I approached Atlanta, I realized I had an extra half hour to kill. Thoughts percolated in my mind regarding how to spend the time. I could drive downtown and soak up the mood of the city in the early-morning hours. I could revisit the area where we'd stayed over a year ago and see whether anything had changed. I could try to stumble upon an ethnic neighborhood for a late-night meal with locals who didn't speak my language.
But instead I thought, screw it, and had breakfast at Denny's.