I like road trips. I take them all the time, usually by myself, with little to no planning or preparation and often under the pretense of a performance or an audition of some sort (for tax purposes.) Such was the case with my most recent road trip. I applied for and was granted an audition for a small opera company in St. Louis and I decided to use that opportunity to visit several friends throughout the Midwest. Here is a (mostly) faithful account of my travels.
Thursday – ungodly o’clock – Depart NYC
In my opinion there is no better way to start a road trip than to drag yourself out of bed after a late night out, haphazardly pack a suitcase which you only hope will contain enough underwear, load said suitcase into your aging Toyota Corolla and set out into the chilly, rain-soaked, predawn darkness, only to stop at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike fifteen minutes later because you forgot to get gas earlier in the week…at least, that’s how I like to do it.
Should I have taken these conditions as an ominous sign? Perhaps, but with a full gas tank and high hopes, I continued down the turnpike toward my Midwestern adventure.
Then my check engine light came on.
Being the cautious, responsible motorist that I am, I got off the highway at the next rest stop (Molly Pitcher, if I’m not mistaken) and popped the hood. The engine was still in there and didn’t appear to be smoking or making any sort of alarming noises, so I ignored it – only because I remembered that it came on at the exact same time last year and I assumed it was only trying to alert me to the fact that it was time for another round of regularly scheduled maintenance that I would also, almost certainly ignore. [Spoiler Alert: I was totally right and by the time I had driven two thousand miles it went away. Win!]
Anyway, I spent most of that first day driving through Pennsylvania…in the rain. It was awesome, except not really. I was so happy when I finally made it out of PA and out of the rain, I took a picture to commemorate the occasion:
[West Virginia rest stop.]
I find that the first rest stops you come to after crossing a state line are always the nicest, or maybe they just seem nicer because of the feelings of accomplishment I get every time I successfully make it through another state without being crushed by an eighteen-wheeler. Also, the first rest stops generally house those mini state police stations (at least that’s true on Route 95) so they definitely feel safer than their mid-state brethren. In any case, I was feeling pretty good about myself at that moment and decided it was time for a nap.
Not to toot my own horn, but I have taken the simple act of sleeping in one’s car and turned it into an art form. Being a professional musician, I think it very important to always be prepared for imminent homelessness, so the idea of one day having to live in my car is a very real possibility for me. With that in mind, I’ve come up with the following guidelines for all car-sleeping scenarios:
Step 1 – Lock doors and put the windows all the way up (or at least enough so that a human hand or the barrel of a gun can’t squeeze through). Safety first, friends.
Step 2 – Remove key from ignition, then put it halfway back in so as not to drain the battery. That way, if an axe murderer or a knife-wielding maniac approaches your vehicle, you won’t be caught unawares and fumbling for your keys, thus enabling a quick getaway.
Step 3 – Turn off headlights. Want to know how many times I’ve woken up from a nice long nap only to discover that my headlights are still on and my battery is dead? Not once, not twice, but three times. THREE! I am ashamed to admit that two of those times were during the same trip.
Step 4 – This step involves some preparation and probably should’ve been mentioned first, but since I don’t feel like going back and starting over…pack a pillow and blanket. This might seem like an obvious one, but I failed to do this on my first few road trips, to my detriment.
Step 5 – During daylight hours, park as far from the restrooms and vending machines as possible, preferably under a shady tree. This will help with noise control and hopefully make your car feel less like a Dutch oven. At night time, be sure to park under a street light, preferably within range of a security camera. This will hopefully prevent you from getting stabbed, or at the very least, will aid the police in their investigation of any potential stabbings. [I probably should have mentioned this step prior to the ‘remove key from the ignition’ part, but I don’t want to be a totalitarian road trip advisor. I think it’s important for every driver to develop their own personal style.]
Step 6 – Relax, recline, stretch out (if, like me, you’re only 5’5” and can comfortably do so in a small Toyota) and let the sounds of the highway lull you to sleep.
After my nap I drove a whole bunch more until I reached my first destination.
Thursday – 8:30pm – Arrive Cincinnati, OH
The first stop on my trip was my friend Hilary’s apartment, which is located in one of the many…how should I say… questionable neighborhoods in Cincinnati. It was pouring rain when I arrived, but I still took the time to unload pretty much everything in my car because in Hil’s hood break-ins are less the exception than the rule.
By the time I schlepped all my crap up the stairs and hugged it out with Hil for a while, I had just enough time to change my clothes and slap on some make-up before Hilary’s goodbye party was set to begin. [Ironic side note: that evening was the last that my friend would be spending in her Cincy apartment because the next day she was loading up a moving truck and heading to NYC to move in with me!]
The party was fun, but after staying up much of the night before and driving all day in the rain with only a short nap to break up the monotony, I was dead on my feet. I stayed up long enough to socialize a bit and help devour the largest pizza I’d ever seen (known in Univ. of Cincy circles as the ‘Bearcat’) then promptly fell asleep on the couch. That is, until Hilary’s friends (who are all totally awesome) decided that it was the perfect time to disassemble her behemoth of an entertainment center…at 1AM. I thought about helping, but mostly I just stayed out of the way until I couldn’t bear to be awake any longer and retired to Hilary’s room.
Friday – Morning – A taste of Cincy
Since it was so dark and rainy when I arrived the previous evening, I hadn’t really gotten a good look at my surroundings, so it was with much anticipation that I stepped out onto Hilary’s second story balcony, high atop a hill, overlooking the city to admire the view. Now, this wasn’t my first time in Cincinnati (it was my third visit) and it wasn’t even my first time staying in the ghetto in Cincinnati (also my third time), but there’s still nothing that adequately prepares you for that first glimpse of a failing American city on a cold, wet, gray morning.
[Crack House Row – If you look really closely, you can see that most of the windows are either burned out or boarded up!]
[Close up of Construction Vehicle Graveyard. Not pictured – Soiled Mattress Alley.]
Unbeknownst to me at the time, these images would pretty much set the tone for the next few days of my trip.
On an unrelated note, here is a picture of me and Hil looking rather haggard the morning after her party.
[At first I was sure that this picture was proof that I must be a vampire and that my pasty, white luminescence is simply overwhelming Hilary’s normally healthy complexion. Actually, as it turns out, I’m just too technologically inept to work the flash properly on my iPhone camera. Go figure.]
Then we headed out to a local greasy spoon for breakfast.
[Ever had goetta? It’s delicious.]
Some people like to visit landmark-y, touristy type places when they travel. Not me! I want to go where the locals are eating/hanging/living. I want to see the seamy underbelly of a city when I travel and luckily for me, my friends are usually happy to oblige. Though in Hilary’s case, due to the fact that she lived in the crappy part of Cincinnati anyway, she didn’t really have a choice.
I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the rest of that morning (assuming I haven’t done so already) by describing every last detail of the diner with its faux-wood paneling, orange laminate counter tops and mismatched coffee mugs…but I couldn’t resist posting this one picture of our waitress. She was very nice and though her posture and expression in this photo are reminiscent of Gollum in LOTR, this is not meant to be a mean-spirited comparison to Andy Serkis (who is awesome btw,) I just like to take note of things that I don’t normally get to see at home.
[Case in point – if you look closely you’ll see that our waitress is wearing a metallic blue scrunchie. This accessory has become all but extinct in the northeast, unless worn ironically by hipsters.]
When we got back to the apartment and I had checked (yet again) that my car hadn’t been broken into, I actually practiced for a while. You know, singing, like for my audition and stuff. Despite the fact that I was exhausted and full of goetta, I didn’t sound too bad.
Shortly thereafter I loaded the car, including some stuff Hil wanted me to bring back to NY, and I set off.
Friday – late afternoon-ish – Arrive St. Louis
In St. Louis I was visiting my dear friend and former roommate, Ethan. I always enjoy my time spent with Ethan because he is a fun foodie and shares my love of kitsch. Such was his enthusiasm upon my arrival that before I even had a chance to get out of the car we were headed to the historic Crown Candy in North St. Louis for a bite to eat.
[It may not look like much, but Crown Candy is a great little diner/candy store. Perhaps you recognize it from the St. Louis episode of Man vs. Food?]
Before I get to the cuisine (I really did not intend for this to become a food blog, but it seems food factors in no matter what I’m writing about) I want to give a quick nod to North St. Louis. This neighborhood makes Cincinnati’s Crack House Row look like a bustling metropolis. I mean, at least those structures are still standing…
[A handyman’s dream!]
Unfortunate location aside, the food was GOOD. I was pretty overwhelmed with their menu and wanted to order at least five things, but Ethan told me that I had to order the BLT – to share. I didn’t see the big deal about a BLT. I mean, I love bacon so I was cool with the idea, except I thought he was crazy for suggesting we split the sandwich. I was pretty hungry and I had never met a BLT I couldn’t conquer, but I trusted Ethan’s judgment and I’m glad I did.
The best way to sum up this dining experience was captured perfectly on the Crown Candy staff t-shirts. I tried to snap a picture of the back of our waitress’ shirt, but she was too wily and quick for me (which is pretty impressive considering she weighed at least 300lbs.) In any case, the shirt read: ‘This ain’t no health food store. Home of the heart-stopping BLT.’
Was it ever!
Ethan also tried to convince me to try the challenge featured on Man vs. Food, to drink five malts in 30 minutes…
…I declined. Even the dude from MvF couldn’t do it. He puked. Which, come to think of it, is probably why the challenge is ‘not available when busy.’ The staff would obviously need to be free to clean up all that malt-flavored vom.
Anyway, Ethan and I spent the rest of the evening hanging out, catching up and watching movies in his awesome loft apartment in downtown St. Louis. I was really glad for a quiet night. I did have an audition the next day, after all.
Saturday – afternoon – Audition time!
I sang. It was fine. Didn’t get the job. Moving on…
After my audition, Ethan took me to lunch at a cool Creole restaurant by the river. I had the pulled pork po’ boy. It was delicious and I was way too hungry to take a picture of it.
Then we spent the rest of the day house-hunting. It was a cool way to see all the different areas of the city. Plus house/apt-hunting is super fun when you’re not actually looking for yourself and there’s no stress. For one reason or another, St. Louis is full of dilapidated mansions in foreclosure. I wish I had thought to takes pictures of these places, but most of them were pretty gross and we wanted to see as many places as time would allow, so it all went by pretty quickly. The main thing I gleaned from this experience is that a relatively small amount of money will get you an awful lot of house in St. Louis, so long as you don’t mind gaping holes in your roof or outer walls threatening to cave in at any moment. Ethan did mind, so we didn’t buy any houses that day.
That night we went out with a bunch of Ethan’s engineering-type co-workers to one of those Korean karaoke places. They booked a private party room and ordered several pitchers of delicious alcohol-based blue stuff. Ethan had, of course, informed his friends that I was an opera singer, so when it was my turn to sing expectations were pretty high. [Side note: being a professional opera singer does NOT automatically make you good at karaoke, especially when you are a soprano and a vast majority of pop music repertoire has a super low range.]
Boy, did I show them. I rocked out to Sara Bareilles’ ‘Love Song’ and it was just awful. Fun though.
When karaoke time was over, we brought the party to one of E’s co-worker’s house and proceed to play drunken Rock Band for hours. I was much better at that game because you are only judged on pitch accuracy rather than beauty of sound, so I could jump up the octave every time the melody got too low for me. It may have sounded ridiculous, but I didn’t lose any points and that’s all that matters. If only real opera auditions were so simple…
Sunday – noonish – Pappy’s Smokehouse
Pappy’s Smokehouse (also featured on Man vs. Food, but not for a challenge – Adam Richman just went there to eat cause it’s so awesome) is one of my favorite places to go in St. Louis. There is always, and I mean ALWAYS a line just to get in the door. If you’re foolish enough to try to go there after say…five o’clock, they will run out of food. Because Ethan and I are not foolish, and because I had another long day of driving ahead of me, we got there right around noon.
Unlike Crown Candy, I did not have to look at the menu to decide what I wanted…
…a pulled pork Frito pie with extra Fritos. It was at this point that I realized my trip had pretty much been ‘about’ consuming pork products thus far, so I might as well go whole hog. Oh! That’s right. I just dropped a pork-related pun. Love it.
After Pappy’s, I was stuffed to the gills or as my grandfather used to say, ‘I was sufficiently sufficed’ and it was time to get back in the car.
Sunday – later afternoon – Drive to Nashville
This drive was largely uneventful. It was sunny and warm and the countryside was flat and desolate.
They do have some rather attractive rest stops in Illinois though.
Sunday – night – Arrive Nashville!
In keeping with my desire to avoid tourist attractions, I asked Rebecca to take me to her favorite off the beaten path place to eat. She suggested Brown’s Diner. It’s basically a burger joint, but I was pretty porked out that point and since they generally have live music, which I love, I happily agreed.
The burgers were awesome and I had hushpuppies for the first time – yum!
While we enjoyed our burgers and beer we were treated to the musical stylings of a band whose name I can’t remember, but they were very entertaining. The lead singer was like a folksier version of Regina Spektor. Rebecca informed me that this band was playing a special breed of country/folk music called Americana. I guess it’s the subject matter of the songs has more to do with the label than any identifying musical factors. Suffice it to say, we heard a lot about what happened to daddy when the factory done got shut down.
I was kind of pooped after another day of driving, so Rebecca drove me around Nashville so that I could at least see a few of the famous places even if I didn’t feel like actually going to any of them. Here are a few of the more interesting places we went (at least, more interesting to me).
[We don’t have these in NYC!]
[This in an actual life-sized replica of the Parthenon, right in the heart of Nashville.]
We also had these awesome Mexican popsicles, Las Paletas. They are far superior to American popsicles in every way.
Monday – morning-ish – The Nash
I had a nice lie-in while Rebecca went to the gym and to work and did a number of other productive things. I mostly sat here…
[Rebecca’s balcony overlooking Nashville.]
…and started this blog. Of course I didn’t finish the blog until two months later, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. In case you don’t remember the ground rules for this blog allow me to direct you over here.
Anyway, we spent the remainder of the day lunching, shopping and doing the various other things that girls do. We went a little nuts at TJMaxx and I bought the best pair of jeans I’ve ever had on my body. Thank you RC for introducing to the miracle that are Free People Jeans!!
Monday – night – The Most Fun Ever
There is no way for me to adequately describe the fun we had that night. Sure, I could tell you about the fab Mexican place we went to where I had homemade guacamole, mouth-watering fish tacos and cold, refreshing mojitos. Then I could tell you about the nearly two hours we spent eating frozen yogurt and talking, followed by drinks at a cool bar, but I couldn’t possibly capture the essence of that evening – it was one of those magical combinations of good food, a wonderful group of people (Rebecca and I were joined by her friends Jim and Robbie) and oh so much laughter. Of course I can’t remember everything we talked about (and some stories I wouldn’t dare repeat in such a public forum) but I do remember that the topic of mustache wax figured prominently in our conversation…several times.
[See how there’s two straws in that beer? Rebecca and I had to share one cause I had to drive. I had also just discovered that neat photo app, Hipstamatic.]
Around eleven-thirty it was time to call it a night because it was a Monday and a few members of our group had to work at regular jobs in the morning. I, on the other hand, decided that it would be the perfect time to start my journey home. I’d figured out what time I would have to leave Nashville in order to make it to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia because I thought it would be a cool place to watch the sun rise. Of course, that would mean driving all night, but I was fine with that.
I remember very little of the first part of that drive, except that trying a 5-hour energy drink for the first time turned out to be an excellent idea. I drove through the whole night and made it to my intended destination just as the sun was coming up…
I also stopped in the Shenandoah Valley for a while and snapped a few more pics.
[Naturally in the middle of all that mountain beauty, on a road that has only farms and one small gas station there is a Fancy Korean Diner. Oh, how I wish they had been open.]
Surrounded by all of that beauty, I was feeling pretty great about the world. Apparently that was my first mistake. Things got kind of crappy after that…
Tuesday – Morning – Driving back to NYC
[This is me getting stuck behind a large truck hauling live poultry. It made me really sad and made my car get covered in bird poop and feathers. Super happy fun times.]
Up until this point I had driven almost the whole night with cruise control on. I set it about 3-5 mph above the speed limit. It worked out great and I made really good time. However, in an effort to get around the giant poop/torture mobile, I sped up. Quite a lot as it turns out. And I got pulled over by one of those douchebag cops on a motorcycle.
I’ve gotten many, many speeding tickets in my time so I started off by playing it cool, hoping the cop wouldn’t be an ass. Then I remembered that I have Massachusetts plates on my car, so unless you’re in Massachusetts there’s pretty much no hope of that happening. Then I tried the oblivious approach. ‘What? No, I had no idea how fast I was going. I was only trying to keep up with the flow of traffic.’ If I hadn’t been so sleep deprived at the time, perhaps I would’ve noticed that at seven o’clock in the morning in rural Virginia there is no traffic. As a last resort I burst out with the water works, but it was too late. He had already written the ticket and started acting all self-important saying that he ‘couldn’t possibly destroy what was now an official government document’ blah blah blah. This truly seemed to be a legitimate concern for him. I nodded my head, sniffling, and tried my best not to vomit in my mouth at this guy’s flagrant ass-hattery until he finally let me go and I drove for a really long, slow time.
Despite my return to the use of cruise control, I was hanging in pretty well, but getting really bored. The scenic portion of the drive was over and I’d run out of things to listen to on my ipod. It was at this point that I started kicking myself for forgetting to download the audio book for the fourth installment in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (Game of Thrones) series. That would’ve kept me occupied for days of driving, never mind the paltry eight or so hours I had left in my trip. But, I forgot so I was bored.
Then Pennsylvania happened…again. This time instead of endless hours of rain, the sky was a perfect blue and the sun was delightful and warm as it beat down on my car…which was parked on the highway in the middle of a terrible traffic jam. For miles and miles the traffic went unmoving. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a large section of Route 78 E was closed and I had to take a detour. That’s when things started to get ugly.
Tuesday – late afternoon – The Beginning of the End
So…as many of you know, I like to think of myself as a writer of sorts. As such, I’ve taken to keeping a small notebook and writing implement with me wherever I go so that I won’t be caught unawares when an idea pops into my head. That usually works out great for me, except I’ve noticed that I get many, if not most of my ideas when I’m really tired (oddly) or when I’m driving in the car. On this particular occasion I was both of those things so the ideas for blogs, stories, songs and wild inventions were flowing! To make sure I didn’t forget any of these wonderful ideas, I made sure to keep my trusty iPhone handy (not that I’d ever dream of leaving home without it) so I could record everything on my voice notes app.
About a month after I got home, I was syncing my iPhone to my computer and I found tons of voice memo files, rants really, that I recorded during the last half of the trip. My intention was to transcribe my notes and put them in this blog, but after listening to them I decided that I should just go ahead and post a few of the actual audio files so that you could hear the ridiculousness for yourself.
Here is an unadulterated clip of me ranting about the PA highway detour system (or lack thereof):
To better understand my ire, I should tell you that I had to drive around that section of PA highway for over an hour trying to figure out that damnable detour system – not including all the time I spent sitting in traffic, not moving at all. It took me three tries before I finally got it right, and with no help from those tiny little crap detour signs either. I had to resort to my wits and my old friend Australian Paul. (He’s the drunken Aussie who lives in my GPS and is always trying to boss me around and tell me where to go. Sometimes we get into fights, but on the whole he is generally helpful. The saddest thing is that my relationship with Paul is the longest and healthiest relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Sigh…)
In any event, I think it’s pretty clear that by this point I had no business operating a motor vehicle. And I yet I pressed on because after all, it’s not the destination that matters, but the slow, painful decent into madness that happens along the way.
This next bit was recorded near the end of the trip. I had finally gotten past the closed section of Route 78 in PA and was well on my way home. If I had to guess, I’d say I had probably made it back onto the Jersey Turnpike at this point. I vaguely remember seeing the NYC skyline far off in the distance. In this clip, I took a moment to recap the final mind-numbing, soul-crushing hours of what turned out to be a seventeen and a half hour drive. I had been awake for about 33 hours when I recorded this. Enjoy!
And I did.