The kids are back in school, so it's time to wrap this up. Instead of the original plan of writing a sixth grade–style manifesto titled "This Is What I Learned This Summer," here are five stories that happened along the way. Think of it as a Captain's Log for someone with zero nautical knowledge and a penchant for injecting himself into stories. That's it. Thanks for reading all summer.
A Based Breakfast in Berkeley
My friend Jesse was going on and on about this place called Ann's Kitchen. I really wanted to get on the road, but a good meal before a ride up the California coast from Berkeley to Oregon sounded perfect.
We were greeted by a standard breakfast spot with long-table cafeteria seating lining most of the restaurant. Standing in line, I glanced to the right and froze.
I froze because all I could see was the back of a man's head, and I knew exactly who that man was, but it didn't seem like anyone else did.
The morning trip to Monowi, Nebraska, was long overdue. Twice I'd driven through the Midwest knowing that this small town existed and twice I'd passed up the opportunity to visit. But finally, after waking up only a few hours away in Sioux City, Iowa, and headed west, I knew this was my last opportunity.
Two hours into the drive, with only a few minutes remaining until I reached my destination, a wave of nervous energy rushed through my body. I wasn't just rolling into a town, unannounced. I was rolling into her town, unannounced. I wondered how long it's been since she's seen someone? Or talked to someone?
As a series of Gran Torino–fueled front porch thoughts rushed through my brain, I drove by a sign.
That isn't "Monowi, one mile." It's "Monowi: one resident."
Deciding to return to a music festival is always a risky move. Rational decision-making tells you good times were had the first time, so why not relive that magic? But in your gut you know that without the adrenaline that comes with the new experience, it'll never quite be the same.
Unsure of which would define my upcoming experience, I boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon. The destination was Washington, D.C.'s second-annual hip-hop and EDM bonanza, the Trillectro Music Festival. For a second straight year, I was not making the journey for the music. But unlike last year, my reasons for attending were purely selfish.
Setting sail on this trip in early June, I had a plan. In addition to writing and scavenging, I would use this time on the road as an opportunity to finally get back in shape. And in order to do this properly, I was going to develop a schedule, one revolving around fitness. Stretching in the morning, playing some sport every day, post-work runs — they were all part of the plan. I was even set on purchasing a fold-up bike to have in the trunk as a nice way to see places while getting a workout.
Operation Spring Break '05 Bod was also bleeding into my editorial plans. One of my ideas was to accomplish the annual bike ride across Iowa, RAGBRAI, and if that didn't work out, to perhaps do a Tough Mudder and write about it.
The man shook his head and angrily gestured to the wall, so disgusted he could do nothing but violently sip from his 100-ounce travel mug like it was a drag from a cigarette.
He said it to a room of seven, but no one responded.
To my far left, a man sat leaning against the wall with his legs propped up on the neighboring seat. His hat covered his eyes but was slowly slipping off his face. He never slept for more than two consecutive minutes, because a loud snore would rattle his calm, but he was never awake in these brief intermissions for more than 10 seconds.
As I crumpled up the chicken scratch–filled first draft and found a new piece of paper, I realized I didn't know what to say. Arriving 10 minutes earlier at the house only to be greeted by barks from the home's dogs, I was ready to chalk up this two-hour detour through the middle of Iowa as a failure. I hadn't gotten a response to my e-mail, and now I was leaving a note on a door — a note with an unknown recipient because I didn't even know who lived here — in the hopes someone would see the note and track me down before I left the state.
But I had no interest in the house. It was what sat next door that I cared about.
This sounds like a criticism, but really it's more of an assault on my decision-making abilities.
Entering the Wisconsin Dells city limits, you may initially be puzzled as to where the theme-park-related attractions are hiding, the ones you've been told about and seen advertised for miles. As I neared a big intersection, all I saw was a Walgreens. And a Starbucks. And a Jimmy John's. And a Dunkin' Donuts. This could have been any town in America.
An interesting exchange takes place when you tell people you're headed to Detroit.
While it's never the same response verbatim, it usually revolves around three general themes: "Be careful," "Why?" and "Take pictures." These would be reasonable if I were, say, headed to a zoo. When discussing a city that people still call home, they're more than a little off-putting.
Detroit was one of the first places I knew I wanted to visit when this trip's route began to take shape. I've studied cities and their planning (or the lack thereof) since college and always knew this was a place I sorely needed to see. But if you were to ask me five years ago, 10 months ago, or even a week ago why my presence in Detroit was imperative, I'm not sure I'd have a good reason.
Truth be told, it was mostly voyeuristic.
The same way we're fixated by car crashes, we're mystified by struggle. And blight. And right now, there's no city mired in more struggle than Detroit.
"So what should I do?" my friend asked over the phone.
I paused because I was officially overwhelmed with adulthood stimuli. Just minutes before he called, I was searching "How to get a P.O. box" on my phone. My friend's question was regarding his upcoming engagement proposal, and the dilemma at hand was that we both needed to get home for our good friend's father's funeral.
I offered some pros and cons on the timing of the proposal with regard to the funeral, but I didn't know what I was talking about. We were nothing but two 26-year-olds, bound together through more than 15 years of friendship, winging life, talking as if we were adults, and hoping for the best.
During daytime at the Essence festival, the convention center became the hub of activity. Situated more as an expo than anything else, brands from Walmart to McDonald's to State Farm to Coca-Cola operated massive booths, with the goal of luring people to their products by way of freebies and orchestrated line dances.
We had other plans, but things change when you're at Waffle House.
While introducing my Yankee-bred friend Graham to his first scattered, smothered, and covered experience in Albuquerque at what was allegedly the farthest-west Waffle House in America (later proven not to be true, but solid false marketing), we had some decisions to make about travel. The default was to drive to the Grand Canyon, but I wasn't fully sold on the idea.
Diving into the e-mail tip line I'd set up, I filtered for Arizona. The first e-mail that popped up, the majority of which is presented below, is from a man named Pete Campbell.
Aimlessly wandering from level to level, dealing with 100-plus-degree heat and two bags filled with dirty clothes — second floor, third floor, fifth floor, fourth floor, third floor, second floor, first floor, fifth floor, third floor — all I wanted was to find her so this ordeal could be over.
This, of course, was no one's fault but my own. In this day and age, there are so many ways to remember where you parked your car. Drop a pin. Take a picture of the car's location. Write down the parking space number and what floor you're on. Simply have a memory. I did none of these, instead going for the "park car with eyes closed, spin around 20 times, and then Men in Black flash yourself and sprint to the casino" move, which is why the following day I was left with no choice but to helplessly push the lock button on the key fob, hoping to eventually hear Brenda chirp back to alert me she's alive and well.
Twenty-five minutes later, after I canvassed seemingly every inch of the MGM Grand parking structure, she finally showed her face.
As I sat in the driver's seat, I prepared myself for what was next: something infinitely more taxing than Brendaquest. The act of plugging in a destination into my GPS is usually a moment of anticipation; once the computing is finished and an arrival time is delivered, it becomes a challenge, one that tends to be easily graspable.
Typing in "Chicago, IL" when you're in Las Vegas is different.
You're gonna need sleds if you're going to White Sands. And water. Definitely water.
Those were the kernels of wisdom offered up by the elderly woman in the gift shop at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. I'd just purchased a few NASA shirts, because the venue — home of the International Space Hall of Fame — transformed me back into the 8-year-old astronaut-in-training I once was, and our next stop in the Alamogordo, New Mexico, area was the White Sands National Monument.
I only knew of the White Sands from an e-mail that suggested if I passed through New Mexico, it was a must-see. En route to Albuquerque as I approached from the south, and at that point only 20 minutes from the park, it seemed like a quick stop for some good photos.
But then she brought up the sleds. Apparently, we needed sleds for this monument.