What I Learned While I Was Gone

Sign found on a hike this fall.
Sign found on a hike this fall.

I packed up my apartment in May. I packed hastily: clothes wrapped around dishes, pens and CDs mingling with spoons and forks, Christmas lights and candles and pillowcases all tossed into a reusable grocery bag tied off at the top. When you pack up as frequently as me, you know exactly how much stuff you have. I have two skateboards, 86 records, 12 DVDs, 209 books, 8 skeins of yarn, four decks of cards, 11 N64 games—I packed it all into boxes and reusable grocery bags.

Every May, I pack up my home. I get a storage unit twenty miles to the north because I never remember to get one before all the students take them here in town. I plan to leave early so I can get into Kansas City with time to enjoy the town, but end up packing until the last minute and leave in the afternoon. I get into Kansas City after midnight, rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat to keep myself awake while sleepily singing along to whatever musical theater soundtrack I grabbed off my shelf. I sleep for a few hours and drive through Kansas in the morning. I get so sick of the soundtrack by lunch that I toss it out at a gas station in west Kansas (this is how I lost the copy of the Rent soundtrack I had signed by Anthony Rapp, rest in peace dear compact disc). I arrive in New Mexico and I go to the mountains. I go to the mountains and I don’t come back until August.

This year was different. This year I got a storage unit in town. I woke up early and grabbed Hamilton. I got into Kansas City at 6pm and ate real food, not whatever you call those gas station sausages that sit on the rollers all day. I slept for eight hours and got to New Mexico with enough time to visit friends. I went to the mountains and I didn’t come back until November. (P.S. – I still have my copy of the Hamilton soundtrack. Now to get it signed by Anthony Rapp…)

I graduated college in May, a seven-year journey with odds stacked heavily against me. Unfettered by my university schedule, regular employment, or serious relationships in Bloomington, I decided to do some soul-searching in the wilderness. That’s what I do for a few months every summer: soul-searching under the guise of employment at a youth wilderness leadership experience base. One year it was teaching astronomy, another it was playing music, then it was giving tours of an abandoned mine, and this year I directed a living history musical program—my resumé is complicated. The work I do is difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced the place, but I’ll try. I hike long distances at 9,000 ft elevation to stand on a cliff and look at trees, often alone. I climb mountains and poop on the ground and drink water from streams (away from the poop). I teach high school kids how to be independent and self-sufficient, and they teach me things like how to do the whip and nae-nae (at least, they try). The summer is filled with priceless friendships and wonderful accomplishments, and the smiles of my kids are the fruits of my labor.

This year I watched all those friends and kids leave and I stayed for the fall season. The fall is different. The fall is cold, and there are no kids. I did what I was told. I hiked where I was told. There were no exceptions. It got dark early and I spent a lot of time sleeping. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fit in with my coworkers—that happens, I turned my energy inward and continued soul-searching, albeit much more self-consciously.

At the end of the fall, I went back to Indiana because that’s the only place I know to go to. Two cars, two cats, six planes, 12,000 driving miles, and eight months later, here I am. Back in Indiana, looking for work, planning the Next Big One.

I’ve had a lot of time for soul-searching since May—there was a lot of alone time that was well suited for introspection and extrospection alike. I learned some things I’d like to share.

1. Happiness is made, not found.

Take it from someone who has bolted every time life flashes the slightest sight of bad news: you can’t run from unhappiness. After a bad relationship ended in 2012, I sold everything I owned and moved to a goat farm in northern California to live what I thought was my lifelong dream. It was warm, we were by the ocean, and there were goats—what more could a girl want? Turns out, it didn’t solve my problems. Why? Because I still had a bad work ethic, I still hated myself, I still had unresolved traumas, and no one was going to drive out to the goat farm to hand me the key to success on a silver platter. You can’t run from happiness, you can’t run to happiness. You won’t find the answers to your problems on the interstate, just like you won’t find them on a goat farm. I’ve been unhappy in 46 different states and never once thought to stop and consider the common denominator: me.

That is, until this fall. I realized that I’d been happy, I don’t know for how long, but the idea was frightening and confusing to me. I don’t know how to be happy! Yet, there I was, happy (I think). When the cold loneliness of autumn set in, I felt this eerie familiar feeling, like walking through a house I used to live in after someone else had moved in. I felt like I should be sad, but I didn’t want to be. My brain argued with my heart: “but you’re so alone! You’re so poor! It’s so cold! Trump is president! There’s no reason to be happy!” But I didn’t cave. I stayed content and made my own happiness, because I could. I realized then that, to some extent, unhappiness is also made and not found. The problems that caused my unhappiness, and my penchant for behaving like a textbook chapter on risk factors for suicide, were under control and I was living healthily and I was not unhappy. That doesn’t mean I had a blast, but hey, I didn’t die.

I know a lot of people who are still running, either toward an unknown happiness or from an unconfrontable unhappiness. I’m not running anymore, and I’m glad I stopped.

2. Community is made, not found, and it’s important.

I spent a lot of time traveling. I had a few periods of time off during my six-month employment, and did a lot of traveling in the two months post-employment. I went to Atlanta to help my mom find a new library, a new church, and a new coffee shop near her house. She’d just moved from Chicago, where she’d lived for the previous 57 years. I went to New York to see Hamilton and also saw friends, Josh Groban, and the Statue of Liberty. I went to San Diego (twice) and watched groups of surfers chat around mini-grills on the side of the 101. In between, I hung out with people on my delayed connecting flight in the Minneapolis airport. I taught a young girl how to play two chords on my mandolin in the Denver airport. I went to a super-cheesy tourist trap in Winslow, Arizona (take a guess) and took pictures of couples decked out in Harley Davidson gear. I went to a McDonald’s in every town and sat for a while, listening, just like Chris Arnade said to do. I learned that these small and sometimes temporary ad-hoc communities are the backbone of American society.

I spent most of my life thinking I was alone, friendless, unjustly disliked, thinking I just needed to keep traveling, keep moving, keep looking for the right people and the right place. This is, of course, insane. This is a function of a narrative I fed myself to externalize my self-abandonment and self-hatred. The same kind of people are everywhere, it’s just a matter of a shift in specific outlets for common interest and a shift in specific habits. Everywhere I went this year had the same kinds of people. Rural New Mexico has the same kinds of people as Los Angeles and San Diego and New York City and the suburban Chicago neighborhood I grew up in: families, people navigating office politics, people buying leeks and potatoes and onions and lunchbox baby carrots, people who do silly things with their friend groups, people who like to have Sunday football potlucks and who gather at the pub to watch the World Series. By abandoning the lie that I wasn’t worth spending time with, I’ve been able to find a temporary community everywhere I go.

It took a lot of painful soul-searching to discover that I was sabotaging my friendships and communities. I was over-committing then stressing out and taking it out on those around me. There are beautiful wonderful people who I’ve completely burned bridges with because I resented them for something I couldn’t control or because I wasn’t willing/able to keep up my end of the bargain. When I left the church in 2009, I lost the greatest and safest community I’ve ever known. Without a community behind me, I’ve been floundering since then. After my alone-time this fall, I’m invigorated to get involved in my community and surround myself with it and do a trust fall into it. It takes work to stay involved and stay interested, but eventually it comes naturally. I’m ready.

3. Never be too polite to accept an offer of kindness.

I was raised in a painfully midwestern household. I learned at a young age the complicated social mechanics that lead to coming to blows over who pays the check at an extended family dine-out event. I learned how to insult an ungrateful houseguest with the quality of my mac-n-cheese casserole (use panko instead of crumbled croutons). I learned to take my shoes off every time I entered a household—this is not a barn and I’m not an animal! Most importantly I learned that, under no circumstances, am I to take anything offered to me by a host, except maybe water if I know the person really well. Likewise, under no circumstances am I to fail to offer everything short of the sole benefits of my living will to any guest that walks through my door.

You see what I’m getting at. Welcome to the pain, stress, and confusion of being from the Chicago area. There’s a club for this, we meet two or three times a week in the warm season, at Guaranteed Rate Field on 35th street.

This behavior is something I had to grow out of very quickly while traveling. When I first started traveling as a lifestyle, I was couchsurfing. People let me stay in their home…for free! I brought food, or wine, or beer, or all three, and when I left I neatly folded my dirty sheets and towels (if I allowed them to give me towels (I’ve taken many showers using a sweatshirt to dry myself)) at the end of my bed. I went through my adult life for years not knowing that my aggressive politeness was…impolite.

Until Erin. Erin was a close friend who had me over for dinner every Sunday with her family. I went, I drank water, I ate modestly, and I aggressively attempted to do dishes in spite of her best efforts to keep me away. One night, she’d had enough. “Can’t I just do something nice for you, without you feeling guilty? Sometimes it’s polite to just take what you’re offered!” This was a major event for me. Now, when someone offers something, I take it. I’m not afraid, because this is part of the trust of friendship. You’ll make you a mimosa today, and I’ll hold your hair back while you’re barfing in the bush next to the Rally’s drive-through on New Year’s Eve. That’s just how it goes. Me saying yes has made people happy, given me opportunities, and pissed off no one. And thus, my Midwestern sensibilities are satisfied.

Part of accepting offers of kindness is letting go of the notion that I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve it. We all know that’s bullshit, and it’s a deep dark spiral of pain. Accepting offers makes other people feel like they’re doing something good, and it forces me to accept that I’m worthy, I’m good enough, and someone thinks I deserve it. So that’s cool.

I was able to put this into practice pretty regularly this fall, for the first time since opening my eyes to it. I can say this: it’s a good thing.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail.

A few years ago I tried something out: a friend told me the best way to show someone you admire that you admire them is to simply tell them, unconditionally. Sometime later, I was at a concert (okay, it was the Mountain Goats) and I stood in line at the merch table to talk to the lead singer afterword. People were handing him CDs and shirts and tickets to sign, and he was doing it politely, smiling with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and moving on to the next person, completely forgetting about the previous interaction (seemingly, but who am I to personify John Darnielle (actually…)). I wanted to stand out, not for me, but because I really loved him, his music had really touched me, and it was really important to me. I put my phone away, put my CD away, and when I walked up to the table I said “thank you”. I said I loved him, and the music had touched me, and it was important to me, and I thanked him. He hugged me fiercely and thanked me back. After a brief conversation about a shared trauma, he smiled with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and we both moved on. We became Twitter acquaintances and share a special smile at shows and I think he remembers me. If he doesn’t, I still think I did the right thing.

Since then, I’ve never been afraid to ask for something, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place. It’s extremely important to be genuine. I asked my employer, off the cuff, for a rare job opportunity and I got it. I wrote the president letters about my post-college anxiety and I got a letter back. Last year I went to LA and asked some comedians I like if they wanted to meet up—they did, and I made some friends. It’s as simple as asking, and part of that is owning failure, accepting failure, and telling failure to go fuck itself.

As many times as me asking for something has been successful, asking has also been unsuccessful. Those opportunities are dust in the wind, and who cares. I’ve made mistakes, too: the goat farm, the trip to San Diego where I blew through my savings, the time I took drugs at a frat party. We all make mistakes, we all fail, but taking that lesson and relaying it into further success is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, and it’s so integral to succeeding.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted one thing—to entertain people. I’ve wanted it so bad I think about it every day. Now I’m 25 and I’m not doing that, I’m a college graduate eating tortilla chips on her couch and who’s also been too afraid to pursue her dreams for too long. No longer. This fall I thought about what I’m still afraid to ask for, what I’m afraid to fail at. Of course, it’s the thing I want the most. Too afraid to fail to even try…what’s the sense in that?

5. I still have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be.

I was sitting at McDonald’s at 9:30 AM in Sapulpa, OK, just outside of Tulsa. I’d been absorbed into a group of retirees that I’d sat next to. It was mostly elderly folks, a few “Vietnam Veteran” trucker hats, and some people my parents’ age. A few of them asked me about my travels, about my work in New Mexico, and soon I was talking about the finer details of my mental state. I told them that I have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be. A man with a salt-and-pepper mustache laughed at me. “Honey, I’m 63 and I still ain’t figured that out. When you figure it out, come back and tell the rest of us.” The ones who were listening verbalized their agreement, and I heard some stories about long and winding career paths.

I’m terrified of the future. Sometimes I’m so terrified, I think of driving into oncoming traffic or joining the army or trying to get into prison—anything to take away the pressure of having to choose for myself what to do next. I have big dreams and we live in a high-stakes world. I’m privileged to be pondering my many options from the comfort of a rental home that my mom (mostly) pays for, eating food from the generous local food pantry. I’m privileged that I have time to search for the right job, and that a career as a writer or an actor is something I can even consider pursuing without fear of starving on the streets. It’s not any less scary. Failure isn’t any less scary, no matter the stakes.

I have a vague idea of what I want to do next. I want to move somewhere warm, write, and act. I don’t know if I want to do it forever, or if I can do it at all. I don’t know if it’s the “right” choice, but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I feel in my heart is the right step. I hope I’m making the right decision, I hope I’m not missing out on some better life as a pharmaceutical rep. I hope I don’t end up in my 50s with no savings and no plan for retirement, and I don’t know if that’s worse than looking back and wondering “what if…” after a life of pursuing security instead of dreams. Ideally, I’d be able to pursue both. We’ll see if that’s the case.

Here’s to owning failures, saying yes, finding a supportive community and, God willing, happiness.

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Knoxville

mountain_goats-33An auspicious morning — sunny, calm, warm — turned into a grey afternoon as our planned departure time came and went. We were still scrambling to get out of town when the rain started, but our spirits were high enough to keep things going. Tennessee was a foreign land to Annie, and I’d never been to Knoxville before. We were breaking up the freshly-settled fall semester routine with a debt trip to Knoxville, TN.

This all came out of a destitute beginning to the fall semester. I spent the last penny of my summer job money on gasoline to get back home, with one month before I’d get a paycheck from my next job. I lived on freeze-dried trail meals and peanut butter packets I’d snagged from my summer job and when my car gasoline ran out, I rode my bike wherever I needed to go. When someone stole my credit card info mid-September and tried to spend $3.86 at a gas station in Louisville, they overdrafted and I had to borrow four dollars from a friend to get my bank account out of the red. I was eating free dinners at the community kitchen a couple times per week and when I couldn’t make it because of work or school, I didn’t eat.

When I woke up one morning to find my new roommate, Annie, had written “$110 for bills” on our whiteboard, my heart dropped into my stomach. There was nothing for me to give her but promises. I offered to pay Annie’s way for a weekend trip to Tennessee instead of paying her for my share of the utilities, and she was open to the idea (thank god). My paycheck deposited into my account on a Friday morning. I filled up my gas tank, bought us lunch, and we took off for Knoxville in the rain that same afternoon.

We made bad time through Louisville — construction is the bane of the road traveller. The rain broke as we broke free from the city traffic, and we soared over the rolling leafy hills of northwestern Kentucky. Light fog was settled in the valleys on either side of the highway and rivers coursed with fresh brown water. Bourbon County offered giant, pelting rain drops propelled through the air on gusts that felt like a hurricane. The hazard blinkers went on and we moved tensely past pulled-over cars occupied by people with more sense and more time. The plan was to get to a concert at 8pm in downtown Knoxville. I’d bought tickets in the Starbucks drive through back in Indiana, and I wasn’t about to lose that investment. We’d built a couple hours into our schedule for food and exploration, but between construction and weather we were slowly losing that time.

It always takes longer to get somewhere when you’re on a tight schedule.

Night fell with still an hour to go, but our spirits were high. Annie slept while I listened to an NPR station that was fading in as we approached Knoxville. We’d long-exhausted the classic time-passing methods of talking and singing along with old music. We started off discussing travel and family and boys, and before long we’d fixed American politics and expressed deeply hidden hopes and dreams. Road trips work this kind of magic if you’re willing to let it.

We arrived in Knoxville in time to run into the venue—accidentally leaving our phones charging in the car—and catch the last couple songs in the opening band’s set. Some laid back Eagles-esque country rock from dudes with long hair wearing chacos beneath their flooded chinos. The main act came on (the Mountain Goats, of course) and we cried ourselves silly, living and dying with each line.

My generation lives in a wormhole of perception, of movie moments and snappable sights that put up a wall between us and our own memories. Our technology has made us extremely self-aware, sometimes cripplingly so, to the point of dissociation. Travel is a benign inoculant to this tendency; being confronted with the nature of humanity outside the “hustle” changes one’s mind, changes one’s priorities and biases. The simple act of experiencing something, of being with one’s self or simply enjoying the company of another person, is so novel and stark. I wonder how much my own sensibility is subject to this bias, and in typical self-aware fashion, question my own enjoyment of each moment.

The concert was great. Music has the ability to transport a person just as much as a jet, just as far and with just the same psychological benefits. Experiencing it with Annie grew us and grew our friendship, as much as eight hours in a vehicle did.

We crashed at the home of some couchsurfers who were out of town, and left early in the morning. We slowly meandered through Kentucky on our way back, stopping at coffee shops and exploring desolate downtowns in the foothills of the Appalachians, talking about the future and about America, the great unfinished symphony of humanity.

It was a movie moment, and I enjoyed it.

Alone in the Woods

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Looking through photos of my summer, I see moment after moment of pure joy. Me grinning at the rim of the Rio Grande gorge. Me standing on a tree stump with my arms spread wide, Costilla Peak far behind me, bursting from the New Mexico soil. Me snuggled up and mugging for the camera with my boyfriend during a break on a rainy afternoon. My mouth wide open in surprise after my coworker unexpectedly latched himself onto my back. My camera managed to capture a meager fraction of my summer, but the joy contained in those moments overflows and fills my heart.

Today is like any other day in my life. There is worry, planning, stress, work, cooking food, cleaning dishes, routine, how will this fit into the schedule?, procrastination, solemn glances at the clock, self-punishment, unfocused thoughts buzzing around my head, and undedicated energy oozing from me in the form of thoughtless activity. This is like any other day in society. The crushing obligations, the inevitable disappointment, the deafening void of togetherness with others. It’s easy to get lost in daydreams of those long days in the backcountry, swathed in community and sun, the energy of freedom flowing fiercely through my veins. Back then, I wasn’t the worried, stressed, routined, solemn, unfocused, undedicated self that I am in the “real world”, the world of constant artificial stimulation, politics, schedules, cars, ignored text messages. It’s as if the world took the calm, joyous woman I was this summer and beat it into deformity.

But my summer mindset is still here in me, deep but not buried completely; its light shines out through the cracks of this brittle and fragile life I am being asked to lead. I remember how to have it.

I’m not content to sit idly by and watch the fat cells accumulate on my body, feel my stomach twist into an ever-permanent knot of tension, to let my teeth slowly be worn down through day after day of unconscious grinding, to let the insecurities run wild in my head.

I know these things as certain: I have a heart that beats and two legs to carry me, I am well-fed, I am healthy, and I have the love of a good man. If all else is lost, I have my dreams and my memories.

Now is the time, before the warmth in my heart dies with the leaves, to refocus and rededicate my energy on the pure matters of life. In the loneliness and isolation I feel here in Bloomington, over 500 miles from my partner and plunging headfirst into the depths of winter, there is the opportunity to grow into the person I naturally am, the calm, joyous woman who climbed mountains and ran rivers and became wild in the Rockies this summer. I was alone in the woods then, and I am alone in the woods now. If I wish to prosper then I must open my heart to be filled with this life, such as it is.

Texas Adventures, Part 2

There is a longer entry elsewhere wrt The Great All Hail West Texas Roadtrip of 2k13, but I’d like to get some stuff down for now about what’s been happening.

I left Denton early on Wednesday morning to beat the traffic to downtown Dallas. I hit a little bit of traffic merging from the highway to the interstate, but other than that I was pretty golden. I got downtown and milled about Dealey Plaza (!!!) for a while and talked to some dude about JFK conspiracy theories. I saw the storm drain and the grassy knoll and all of the other alleged shooter locations and this dude reenacted some possible escape routes and locations that jive w/ the Zapruder tape chronology of events. There wasn’t much else I cared to see in Dallas so I bounced so as to arrive in Odessa before dark. I got off the interstate after I passed Fort Worth and began my traverse of West Texas on US-180.

twin peaks talking about my life
Twin Peaks talking about my life.

It was pretty uneventful, except for when my car broke down, which (thankfully) came with a whimper and not a bang. I broke down about 4 miles east of a town called Anson, which, as my luck would have it, was the home of West Texas Ford, and apparently the only Ford dealer within something like 100 miles. If luck is a thing that is capable of blessing people, then I am one of those people. Only by association, though — my mother is very lucky and re: genetics I am half as lucky as her, which is still pretty lucky. Unfortunately my father is unlucky and also re: genetics, well, you can figure it out. Each day is a new opportunity to discover which pole the compass is pointed to for now.

I was told that my car wouldn’t be ready until after lunch on Thursday. Okay, fine. I checked into a bargain price room on Commercial Avenue and set myself up for the night. I made the mistake of landing myself in a dry county, so I stocked myself up on Powerade and Jolly Rancher frozen ice cream treats and settled onto the bed with my guitar and my laptop. I ended up doing more television-watching than guitar playing, but I certainly thought about playing my guitar, which is worth something.

Home of bargain-priced rooms, short walk to corner store.

I slept in Thursday and had an awkward exchange with housekeeping. I am very cranky when awoken, plus I am known to sleepwalk — so let me begin this story by saying that I am not to be judged or held accountable for the things I say after you’ve woken me up, or the things I do or say while in a sleepwalking state (which happens with unfortunate regularity). Usually it’s mostly harmless stuff like poorly folding blankets in my living room, relocating my slumber to another surface, fetching items and bringing them into bed with me, etc. Once in a while I do things that are a bit more worrisome, like leaving faucets running, sitting on the toilet to pee but forgetting to take off my pajama pants or undies (which when I realize what I’m doing I always bolt awake and get really fucking pissed at myself, no pun intended), and on a few rare occasions I have verbally assaulted people. The worst part is that I either don’t remember doing these things, or have a hazy kind of dream-memory of them, where I remember doing them but I don’t remember having any control over what I’m doing. Luckily I haven’t yet done any serious damage and as far as I can tell these episodes are infrequent enough that they aren’t a cause for concern.

Anyway, housekeeping knocked on my door at 8am. Admittedly, I didn’t put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door, which obviously I should have. Housekeeping was one single girl, who doubled as the front desk receptionist. From what I could tell, the situation was that this girl is the adult daughter of the owners of the place. This recepti-housekeeper also happened to be either shy, nonverbal, or did not speak English. Whenever I talked to her or asked her questions she would, without fail, smile and look at me and nod slowly. Spanish was met with the same thing, but wide-eyed. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that she didn’t have good English skills based on her race, but it’s clear that she really did not seem to understand what was happening. Whatever the reason was. I think there was a coordinated effort of language skills and social awkwardness going on and I’ll never know the details which honestly is not going to haunt me.

So she knocked on my door just after 8am, and it took a while for me to wake up because I was sleeping deeply and I went to bed sorta late (I had to stay up late enough to download the Nashville season finale that had aired earlier that evening. OH MY GOD!!!!), so by the time I put on shorts and got to the door she had her key jammed into the lock. I opened it and said something along the lines of “Can I help you?” or “What do you need?”, perhaps a bit too familiar for her taste, maybe, I don’t know, but she sorta backed away with a look of horror on her face, then smiled a weird smile and then sorta just stared at me with this painfully passive look on her face. I asked her again if she needed anything or if I needed to do something and she DID NOT MOVE OR CHANGE EXPRESSIONS OR SAY ANYTHING. She just stood there like a fucking statue so I fastened the DO NOT DISTURB sign to the outside doorknob and shut and bolted and chained the door, then went back to sleep for three hours.

At 11 I had to be out of the room so I woke up and piled my belongings up outside. I saw the receptihousekeeper again and I said “hello” and “thank you” and “how are you” and she mostly just stared at me — I’m not even kidding, she was walking down the path while I was sorting through my belongings and I watched her walk all the way toward me, STARING AT ME AND SMILING THIS WEIRD PASSIVE SMILE THE WHOLE TIME and then stop in front of my, looking like she wanted to say something, BUT SHE SAID NOTHING. It was all kinda Stepford and weird.

I couldn’t get ahold of anyone to give me a ride to the Ford place so I just walked, it was about a mile, which was fine, but I was carrying a guitar and a backpack full of items and it was sunny so it was just sorta uncomfortable but I just accpted the fact that I was going to be sweaty and gross and resolved to take a shower asap when I arrived in Fort Davis for the evening.

After dropping my things at the Ford dealer, I walked around town a bit, explored the library, peeked into a few of the several destroyed/abandoned buildings around the downtown square (I am pretty sure they were abandoned; most of them had several public safety citations taped to the doors). The town was super dedicated to the local high school sports team in a real caricature-like way and it kinda hurt my heart to see the economic depression and the sad glass-paint odes to the local sports stars. Half the houses had signs in the front lawn boasting the last name of an athlete and the sport they played. Even worse, I went to the library and looked through the yearbooks for the past few years (which…was a pain of its own) and I saw that in the most recent yearbook (2010) the varsity football team only won three games.

Three games.

And they all had these beautiful and very professional Football Player portraits with them all on one knee, their hands resting tenderly on their helmets, and faces boasting a pretty even mix of tough-guy scowls and goofy grins. There were photo collages from game nights, ALL UNDER THE HEADER “Friday Night Lights”. OH MY GOD my heart broke so hard. Even worse, though: I looked at yearbooks from the late 70s and early 80s, when those kids’ fathers would have been playing (I didn’t go so far as to cross-reference names, though now I wish I had) and apparently the varsity football team was really good at one point, receiving all-state honors and maintaining at least a 2:1 win-loss ratio for most seasons.

The library was definitely killing me softly so I didn’t stay there too long.

I ended up in an antique mall where I chatted with some lovely ladies about antiques, boots, local history, Texas, and miscellany for a few hours, until I got the call around 4:30 that my car was ready. As soon as I paid (which, let me just say, that this was by far the most expensive repair job I have EVER had on my car, and I’ve had an emergency transmission replacement) I was out of there like tupperware. I had a 6 hour drive to Fort Davis and I still had to eat dinner.

The rest of the drive was very uneventful. Apparently I scooted out of town at exactly the right time, because storms were rolling in from the northwest as I was headed southwest. I managed to skirt around some pretty angry-looking clouds (I even stopped for gas at one point and joined a group of townspeople (!!!) gawking at a wall cloud to the northeast) and I only hit a few light patches of rain.

“I am coming back to Midland / I hope you won’t mind.”

I made it through Midland (surprisingly developed — it had skyscrapers ffs, BLOOMINGTON doesn’t have skyscrapers (parking garages don’t count as skyscrapers), though Bloomington has about 30,000 fewer residents) and Odessa (ugh, talk about depressing — as a side note, I remembered my Odessa geography from the Friday Night Lights book and even though I stopped for food on the right side of town, it was sketchy as fuck and I did not even slow down enough to look twice at the place I had planned to eat. Odessa has really suffered as the Permian oil reserves have slowly been exhausted over the past few decades, it’s fucking heartbreaking, the whole town was sketch city), then got on I-20 just as daylight turned into twilight.

By the time I got off the interstate in Pecos, it was well after dark and it was increasingly clear that the food options between Odessa and New Mexico were criminally limited, so I stopped at a gas station for beer and a Lunchable (dinner of champions). Also at this point, there was a steady persistent rain sheening the streets and making the 70mph speed limit on the state highway look like a patently bad idea. I prepared myself for the two-hour drive between Pecos and Fort Davis, down a dark deer-infested state highway snaking up into the mountains of southwest Texas. Fortunately I did not encounter any deer, but I did encounter the following things in the road: a snake, two field mice, two larger mice (or rats?), a fox-like creature (it was dark, I just saw eyes), and a cat. Key point there being that I ALMOST RAN OVER A SNAKE WITH MY CAR. Add those things to the several armadillos and two turtles I saw in the middle of the road in Mississippi and I think this trip has been the most exciting safari I’ve ever been on.

I made it to Fort Davis after what seemed like forever on the winding mountain road. I checked into my room at the hotel (which is super nice and super cheap — $95/night for a pretty suite room (pun intended)), and I booked a second night since my day of hiking the Jeff Davis Mountains was clearly not going to happen what with a 6 hour drive to Carlsbad planned for the morning.

As much as it pained me, I woke up early Friday morning after only 5 hours of sleep. I gulped down some coffee and biscuits, stocked my car with water and gas, and began the two hour drive due south to the Mexican border.

When you see the Mexican border in movies and television, or you see photos of people wading through the Rio Grande en route to the golden freedom (lol) of US-America (sigh), you get this idea in your head of what to expect in south Texas. You expect this desolate wasteland with these long open expanses of desert for people to run across with border patrol SUVs tailing them. As a modern person I know to take media representations of reality with a grain of salt, which is why I was so surprised when I discovered that media vastly understated what south Texas is really like. There is desolate wasteland, yes. Once I passed the burgeoning arts town of Marfa, I did not see another hint of civilization until the border town of Presidio. It was just mountain after valley after mountain after valley, all baked yellow and dotted with bunches of flat cactus, century plant, yucca, and a number of deserty things that I could not identify — specimens not present in the high deserts of New Mexico that I’m so familiar with.

It was stunningly beautiful. I was driving down in the mid morning as the fog was lifting and the morning clouds were dissipating. The air was chilly and dry, until 11am when it became hot and dry. Out of the hazy horizon, mountains began to materialize until I realized I was surrounded by mountains as far as the eye could see — and this was Texas. Certainly Big Bend country is not a part of Texas that is well-advertised, and it’s certainly not the landscape one thinks of when one thinks of Texas.

Presidio was also a bit of a shock. The whole thing was like a strange blend of two different movie sets. The buildings were gorgeously run-down and old; it didn’t look like any new buildings had gone up at all since 1960. The culture was also amalgamous, dutifully displaying signs in English and Spanish. The place also had a dense and thriving population of palm trees with tall, thin trunks, lining the streets and stretching into the air Sunset Boulevard-style. I really wish I had spent more time exploring Presedio, or that I’d crossed into the Mexican town of Ojinaga, but alas I cut my way through town quickly and hopped onto TX-170, which runs along the Rio Grande for 60 miles from Presedio to Terlingua, through the Big Bend Ranch State Park (according to my Texas tourism guide, National Geographic has named it multiple times among the most scenic drives in the US).

I have done a lot of driving in this country, and nothing I’ve ever seen holds a candle to that drive along TX-170. I was driving at least 2/3 the speed limit at all times, just taking it in, stopping at every crest to take pictures, climbing rocks to see just these stunning vistas looking into Mexico, all framed by these magnificent desert mountains. I thought the Mexican border was all flat and boring and wastelandy, but it’s not, it’s mountainous and absolutely gorgeous and wastelandy. The Rio Grande was also surprising — it was low and barely flowing, due to the high water demands from the border towns and surrounding areas, which has given the need for diversion dams that had pretty much stagnated the water. It was all this light, cloudy blue-green-grey color and varied pretty well between narrow, shallow passages lined with trees and wide, deep areas with the water pressed right up to the rock walls on either side. I’ve seen the Rio Grande up in New Mexico, and up there it’s nothing but a four-foot-wide rapids collecting water from the peaks of the Rockies. This was a very different river, and I wish I’d had the chance to get a bit closer to it. Of course, I did not want to alert any Border Patrol agents (the highway was crawling with them) because that was a misfortune I was not ready to have befall me.

Nevertheless, I had a splendid drive and decided to stop for lunch around noon once I passed through and landed in the town of Terlingua. I stopped at this little pre-fab trailer with a big “BBQ” sign. The proprietor of the establishment was a man named Bobby. I talked to him while he prepared my food; he’d lived all over the world and seen endless locations and times and moments in history. He found Terlingua while on a motorcycle trip through Big Bend country, and after a few nights of camping on a ridge just outside of town, he decided to make it his home. He moved about one mile closer into town, took up residence in a small home across the street from a small trailer, spent his life savings opening a barbecue joint, and now serves the best barbecue in the state of Texas to the touristic masses.

Terlingua is an interesting little town. It can’t have more than a few hundred residents, but it apparently has three recording studios, which attract a lot of big names in the music business — big names who all find hospitality at Bobby’s Blues and BBQ. Bobby had lots of stories about folks like Willie Nelson rolling up in a pickup truck, ordering ribs, perching on a picnic table, playing songs while they wait, then eating and drinking with the laypeople. Bobby also had stories to tell about people from all over the world who find themselves indescribably attracted to Bobby’s Blues and BBQ — he claims to have met a wider variety of foreigners right there in Terlingua from inside his little trailer than he did in 6 years of living in Europe. He rattled off a long list of countries who have sent delegates to Terlingua to sample his literally world-famous BBQ (he’s been making it for decades, since he lived in the Mediterranean; he uses a mango and orange base. ?!?!).

As an aficionado and connoisseur of road food across this great country, I have yet to stumble upon a place that matches the high marks of Bobby’s Blues and BBQ in atmosphere, taste, and service. Bobby’s place is exactly what I want from my Americana, and it’s one of those rare places in this country that is 100% completely unlike anywhere else you’ve ever been. There’s no gimmick here, no irony. It’s just pure existence. It’s lovely and refreshing, and if for some godforsaken reason I find myself back in Big Bend country anytime soon, I’m going to make a pointed effort to visit Bobby again.

After my lunch experience, it was going to be hard for anything to reach the top of my Daily Awesome Experiences list but I kept an open mind. Alas the drive up Hwy 118 was extremely boring. It was almost two hours before I passed the first sign of civilization, a small and painfully dull town called Alpine (granted, I did not stop in Alpine, perhaps it had a warm gooey interesting center somewhere), and right outside of that I passed uneventfully through an immigration checkpoint. I arrived in Fort Davis in the mid-afternoon, changed for a hike, started a hike, twisted my ankle and fell down, limped my way back to my car, took one of the longest and most satisfying showers of my young life, went to dinner, met some lovely grad students from Austin who I ended up eating with, then settled into my bed with my guitar and did some songwriting while enjoying some Texas beers that I had stuck into a bucket of ice before dinner. The weather is cool and beautiful; the windows are open, blowing in a cool, fresh breeze (finally, finally, that lucid desert air that I long for so much during the muggy nights of the Midwest) and I can hear the pulsating whine of crickets. Tomorrow I head up to Carlsbad, and after that to Roswell and then to Cimarron. I think this trip has been an auspicious way to begin my stint in New Mexico this summer. I hope that despite all of the struggles I’ve had with my mental illness these past few months, that this summer is free from that struggle. As always, being on the road has mellowed me out and given me strength, and I feel ready to begin work on a good mental note. I really hope.

My plans for the next few days include Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell, and Santa Fe. I’ll update with any interesting news.

Texas Adventures, Part 1, aka, The Great All Hail West Texas Road Trip

(Originally published here in the Mountain Goats fan forum on May 27th, 2013.)

Hello y’all!! Some of you may remember me saying in a thread somewhere that I had to drive through Texas for work and I would be visiting some Mountain Goats locations. Well I did just that and now I have things to show and tell you.

As soon as I entered Texas on Monday afternoon, I put All Hail West Texas into my car’s CD changer and vowed not to remove it until I crossed the state line into New Mexico. For the most part, I held up my end of the bargain, though by the end I was kinda at the point where if I heard “Source Decay” one more time I was sure that I would decompose. The only time I listened to non-AHWT material was during the tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings. In all I’d call that dedication.

My whole point with driving through Texas was originally to follow my vow to take a different route to New Mexico every time I had to drive there for work or pleasure, which happens a couple times per year. I’d never been to the areas of the country along the I-20, so I decided to take a route down US and State highways parallel to the I-20 corridor. This would coincidentally take me along several AHWT destinations and it seemed like fate was nudging me in a particular direction, so I ran with it. Also, it seemed like a great opportunity to try to gain some insight into this album, which has haunted me ever since I first heard it.

So, Monday night I stayed in a town called Tyler in east Texas. It’s a cute little college town that I wish I’d had more time to spend getting to know, but I had one week and (I kid you not) 666 miles of Texas to traverse. I stayed in Tyler with a musician and she invited friends over and we all jammed together. They asked me if I knew how to play any songs and as I thought through my catalogue, the options were limited and I was not sure if “Best Ever Death Metal Band” would land too well. Not wanting to offend, I played “Rockin’ Rockin’ Pet Store”. Lo and behold, I discovered that a few of the people there were Mountain Goats fans. Already my time in Texas was auspicious! Imagine, meeting a Mountain Goats fan!!! In Texas!!

The next day I continued on my journey to Denton. I arrived there just as hell itself rained down from the heavens. I was certain that death was imminent, as I waited to lunch with my friend at a TGIFriday’s (tried to convince her to take me literally anywhere else but c’est la vie). I made it through alive, survived TGIFriday’s food, and drove around Denton for a bit. It’s an extremely boring town and I didn’t see much going on outside of the two colleges (University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University). I hear it’s an interesting town, so perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Anyway, I stayed that night in Lewisville, which lies between Denton and Dallas. The only thing I learned from visiting Denton: Denton is clearly not in West Texas, which for some reason never registered with me.

Wednesday morning I took off for Dallas at an ungodly early hour to make it to Dealey Plaza and miss the famed Dallas traffic. I only hit traffic during the last few minutes of my journey, which I count as a win.

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DFW Airport, to which She came on the redeye, +1. Denton, where a death metal band never settled on a name, +1. Dallas, in which blues are had, +1.

Dealey plaza was pretty cool. The tourists really did mill about, and minions flowed all about. I talked to some dudes about conspiracy theories and did some investigating of my own (I have my reasons). My conclusions are not relevant to this post so I’ll spare you.

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Milling about Dealy Plaza, +1.

After visiting a JFK museum and a holocaust museum, I hit the road outta Dallas right after the morning rush stopped. I had to make it from Dallas to Midland that day, which with my route was approximately a 6.5 hour drive without stops.

I was pretty on track, and even stopped a few times to record some songs at rest stops along US-180. About 4 hours into my trip, my fuel pump went out, about 4.5 miles east of a town called Anson. I got a tow into town and discovered I’d be stuck there overnight (and even better, it would cost me almost $1000 to get it fixed).

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West Texas, +1.

So, with no other options and a dangerously depleted repository of ca$h, I checked into a bargain-priced room on Commercial Ave. and set myself up for the night. Given that this town had a population under 2500, even the bargain-priced room was pretty okay in terms of quality, save for the dead bugs that littered just about every surface in the room (no live bugs, though, that I detected).

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I walked down to the corner store just before nightfall, but not in my bare feet because there were no sidewalks and it didn’t seem like a great idea.

Jones County was a dry county so I couldn’t purchase B&J, and I couldn’t find St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, so I made do with what I had. I purchased my sundries and when I came back I spread out my supplies on the counter by the sink…

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…and looked myself right in the eyes.

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I ducked behind the drapes when I saw the moon begin to rise…

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…gathered in my loose ends, switched off the light…

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…etc.

I decided to abandon my plans to visit Midland since I already had a nonrefundable room booked in Fort Davis. By the time I left Anson on Thursday, it was almost 5pm and I had a 6+ hour drive ahead of me, so there’s that. The drive was pretty okay. I could really feel the blues in a lot of these towns I passed through; most of these places looked just completely run-down and abandoned, with loads of boarded-up buildings and completely desolate streets. I could really feel the desolate nature of AHWT coming to life in my heart. I remember “Pink and Blue” coming on while driving through a particularly depressed town and shedding a few tears just because it all felt so futile.

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Coming back to Midland, I hope you don’t mind, +1. Not coming “back” exactly, and not using 128, -2.

I arrived in Midland just as the sky was beginning to darken. I learned the following things about Midland: 1) it’s the childhood home of George W and Laura Bush, 2) the whole town smells like cigarettes and crude oil (or cat piss, the two smell shockingly similar), and 3) Midland is a pretty big city. It has skyscrapers. It has a population of 111,147. A hundred thousand people!!! If I wasn’t pressed for time I would have spent more time there, it seemed like a lot of fun. My original plan had been to stay with a friend in Odessa, but I was pressed for time after losing a day in Anson so I couldn’t stop. I decided to just pass right through Odessa, which, in retrospect, is still too much time in Odessa. What’s wrong with Friday Night Lights-ville, you ask? Well, talk about feeling the blues. That place has seen way better days and they are far out of sight. No skyscrapers there.

By the time I neared Jeff Davis County it was raining steadily and it was pitch black. I was tired and road weary. I was sick of that stupid album. I had almost run over a snake. Things were bad and I just wanted to get to my room in the hotel in Fort Davis and sleep. I did, of course, stop to get a quick pic:

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Toyahvale, +1. Night, night comes to Texas, +1. Headed south INTO Toyahvale, not north FROM Toyahvale, -1.

At this point I can literally recite all of AHWT in my head and keep almost perfect time. I discovered this when I turned down the music to pay closer attention to the signs and found that I had kept near-perfect time from halfway through “Jeff Davis County Blues” all the way to the second verse in “Blues In Dallas”.

After a short rest, I took off at the break of dawn toward the Mexican border and Big Bend National Park to do some sightseeing. I’ve been to just about every state in this country and the most beautiful places I’ve seen goes about like this:

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona
2. Glacier National Park, Montana
3. Southwest TX
4. Oahu, Hawaii

On the road south from Fort Davis, I only passed one town (Marfa) in the entire three-hour drive to the border town of Presidio. The whole drive was just this stunning mountainous land completely free of pollution and mostly free of development and just so freaking rural, I mean, more rural than I’ve ever been and I’ve been pretty freaking rural.

Presidio was awesome, Mexico was cool, the drive along TX-170 (which runs along the Rio Grande) was kill-me-now beautiful. Am I the only one that wants to die when they see beautiful things? Because how can it get any better? Ha-ha-ha. Anyway, Big Bend National Park had a $20 entrance fee so I just drove the perimeter for a bit, then headed up to Fort Davis in the early afternoon.

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Jeff Davis County, +1. BONUS: the world shines as I cross the Jeff Davis County line, +1.

After two nights in a cheap motel / I head north from Toyahvale / switch to 285 in Pecos / head up to Red Bluff (+1). I want to mention that none of the locations he mentions in that song are actually in Jeff Davis County. Pecos (which is home to the most repulsive Travelodge I’ve ever visited and that’s saying something) and Toyahvale (which is a cool town, has a sweet state park with a giant natural freshwater pool that they call a “desert oasis”) are in Reeves County. Midland is in Midland County. Red Bluff is in Loving County. I mean, not to be a nitpick, but where does Jeff Davis County come into play here? I didn’t even see a police station in Fort Davis, except for the Texas Highway Patrol office. The only place in Jeff Davis County besides Fort Davis and the adjacent Davis Mountains State Park is Valentine, a town consisting of 172 people as of the 2000 census.

But who am I to say.

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Switch to 285 in Pecos, +1.

Red Bluff is actually not much more than a reservoir and a trailer park. I almost missed the sign on 285-N pointing me toward Red Bluff, but I took the turnoff and began a really genuinely dangerous journey to the reservoir. Now, I’ve taken my car through some pretty unforgiving terrains before, and despite the fact that my car is a 2007 Ford Focus, it’s always come out a winner. Driving down the 2 mile road to Red Bluff was the most certain I’d ever been that I’d finally written a check my car couldn’t cash. I was certain I wasn’t making it out of there. There were potholes LITERALLY BIG ENOUGH TO SWALLOW MY CAR. I drove about 7mph down the stretch of road past oil rigs and oil storage tanks and oil derrick after oil derrick. Heading in, I never saw another soul on the road besides two oil tankers that were really struggling with the terrain.

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Head up to Red Bluff, +1.

By the time I reached the above sign, I was getting base survival reactions out of my body. Everything happening on the other side of that sign screamed “NO GOOD”. Thoughts flashed through my head along the lines of “this would be the perfect place for the world’s largest meth factory or a Cartel hideout, because it’s so inaccessible” or “the government isn’t stupid enough to keep aliens in Area 51 or Roswell, they would keep them two miles down a nearly inaccessible road in west Texas and then they’d indefinitely detain any humble Mountain Goats fans that stumble upon the location on a self-discovery road trip”. I tried following the turnoff to the actual reservoir, which was 3 miles east, but a few minutes of inching down the turnoff road (inching being the fastest I felt safe traveling given the condition of the road) and I decided it wasn’t worth the hour-long drive.

When I made it back to the Red Bluff road after exiting the turnoff road, I was greeted by two big white pickup trucks. They were just sitting there by the sign. I waved at them and turned down the road back toward the highway, and they followed me. I’m not going to make any assumptions about whether or not they were intentionally following me, but I will say this: they stopped about 100 feet from the intersection with US-285, watched me turn onto the highway, then turned around to head back toward Red Bluff. I got some real bad vibes from that place and I won’t be going back ever again and I would advise anyone reading this to heed my words.

Red Bluff is just 8 miles south of the New Mexico state line. I had three days before work and no plans, and since I had no place to go, I drove up to New Mexico, and fixed my eyes on the rearview when I crossed the state line.

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Drive up to New Mexico, +1.

I actually ended up going to Carlsbad Caverns, which was cool. I was headed up to Carlsbad proper to look for a bargain-priced room, but right about that time, I heard on the radio that a line of tornadoey storm cells was headed right for Carlsbad and Roswell. Tornadoes are my biggest fear (besides allowing myself to be loved) so I did some math and if I booked it up to Roswell right at that moment, not only would I make it to the UFO Research Museum before they closed, but I’d be off the road before the storms hit. However, then I wouldn’t have time to take the first exit to 128, which meets up with US-285 several miles south of Carlsbad. If I waited in Carlsbad for the storms to pass, though, I wouldn’t be leaving until after 6 and as far as I could tell there were no vacancies in Carlsbad (being Memorial Day weekend and all), and no viable rooms in Roswell, which meant I had to drive up to Albuquerque to stay with a friend (I had to head north anyway).

So I headed up to Roswell (and snapped this picture,WARNING: CONTAINS FRIGHTENING STORMCLOUDS), learned about UFOs, then got to ABQ in time to go see a 10:00 movie.

Tonight I’m in Santa Fe and tomorrow I start work in rural northern New Mexico. I can’t yet put into words my new insights into All Hail West Texas, but as of two weeks from now I’m going to be in the mountains for almost three months with limited electricity, limited cell service, and sporadic access to internet. Also, very limited capacity to listen to recorded music, though I’ll be performing all summer. Luckily I can play many of the songs on All Hail West Texas on guitar so I may survive. The point is, I’m going to have a lot of time to do some thinking and I’m sure I’ll be able to reserve a bit of mental airtime for All Hail West Texas, and when I emerge with rifles from the haystacks at the end of summer, perhaps I’ll emerge with an essay about All Hail West Texas, so if/when that happens, everybody act surprised. If I get desperate for some Goats up in the mountains, I know for sure that I can at least entertain myself with the content between verse 2 of “Jeff Davis County Blues” and verse 2 of “Blues In Dallas” in near-perfect mental replication.

Editors note (April 3rd, 2017): I still can’t write anything about this album. I’m still scared of Red Bluff but no longer afraid of tornadoes. RIP 2007 Ford Focus.

Ray’s BBQ Shack

I’m driving in Texas, going on road-hour 8 en route from Jackson, MS to Tyler. I’ve been off the interstate since the state line, because I’m on a mission. I’m looking for a place called Ray’s BBQ Shack.

As Assoc. Justice Potter Stewart once said, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within the shorthand description of "Ray's BBQ Shack"; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."
As Assoc. Justice Potter Stewart once said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within the shorthand description of “Ray’s BBQ Shack”; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

Let me be clear: Ray’s BBQ Shack doesn’t exist in any tangible sense. Well, that’s sorta untrue because there is a place called Ray’s BBQ Shack and it’s in Houston, but I’m not talking about a literal RBBQS. Ray’s BBQ Shack is a state of mind. It’s a tier of restaurantry. RBBQS is the beautiful, perfect roadside diner that lives as-of-yet only in the realm of my fantasies.

I’m a road-food junkie to the max. I have literally wept with delight over a breakfast at an Iron Skillet in northern Wisconsin, and I change the lyrics of Tony Bennett’s classic ode to The City By The Bay to proclaim that “I left my heart at Penny’s Diner” (the one in North Platte AS OPPOSED TO THE ONE CHEYENNE). I love walking in to a trucker-friendly diner attached to a gas station, with half the town piled in while shower numbers are rattled off over the loudspeakers. I love everything about it, right down to the gag in my throat when the whites of my “over-medium” eggs run clear when I slice them open. Road food is a special slice of americana that just takes me to the place of oblivion that I love to be when I’m on the road.

Food delivers you. That’s not a tired Soviet Russia joke at all, I’m being completely serious. I should say, food delivers me. In Vicksburg, MS yesterday I went to a glorious locale called the Main Street Market Café. It was a small family-dining-room-vibed place with New Orleans jazz blaring over the speakers. It was packed to the brim with denizens of Vicksburg finishing up their Monday lunch hour and the menu boasted things like NOLA GUMBO and NICK’S CORNBREAD OF THE DAY (cornbread of the day!?!?!?). I ate the most glorious biscuits and gumbo and fried chicken my head was swimming w/ endorphins and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

But the most amazing thing about that experience (well, second to the gumbo, god damn…) was the place that that food took me. I felt The South in that moment, with the jazz and the biscuits and the thick Mississippi accents, and for a small moment my body was made of The South. I think food gives me a sense of place, which is something I hunt down with dogged perseverance as a way of life.

And that’s why I drive through vast lands, going thousands of miles out of the way to reach my “destination”. My destination is always a place, but never the final place on my list. In all the travelling I do, I’m looking for like this sense of place—a feeling, mostly, that I am in a place. To me, experiencing locations is intricately tied to the traditions, the idiosyncrasies of life there, the slang, the accent, and the food. That is what makes a place, the collection of these things, and immersing myself in them right down to picking up the accent and reading the Wikipedia article for the high school, that is how you can say “I’m been in Tyler, TX” as opposed to “I’ve been to Tyler, TX”.

Which is a pretty ridiculous semantic complication, I undertand, but it’s important to me. I find it infinitely fascinating to experience a place and let my heart be filled with its spirit. I’m not sure what created the void of place that I have inside me, but I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. As a result, I’ve travelled thousands of miles through every state, in what I consider to be the only true way to see the country: by car. Not only by car, but by non-interstate highway (not to denigrate interstate culture, which rules).

Today I’m driving from Tyler to Denton via non-interstate roads with intermediate stops along the way at any relevant food stops. I’ll keep y’all updated.