Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Back Home

Dhar was up long before the rest of us. He took the time to wander around the neighbourhood, spooking my neighbours. Then he took the time to tell my father what mechanical difficulties we had. At around 09:00, Stefan, Rebecca, and I crawled out of the van and started to the mission of cleaning up the mess 10,000 kilometres had left.

Our first problem was with our pressure sprayer — it was broken. This meant about an hour of strenuous scrubbing to try and get as many of the bug splats off as possible. We also plugged in the vacuum and went over every last scrap of carpet and fabric inside. The sink and burners were cleaned, any possessions removed, and Dhar’s car packed. By noon the mission was complete.

Showers were not the order of the day, those came only after the van was washed. Even then Dhar opted to wait until he was home himself. Thus Dhar, Rebecca, and Stefan filed into Dhar’s Probe and vanished down the street. I immediately jumped in the shower. I was home.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960503.23

Day 13

It has finally ended. The Behemoth was washed this morning, Rebecca and Stef had showers (alone – a rarity in the last while), and then Dhar took them on their last leg home. I proceeded to get my pictures developed, and recant the trip to my family and friends.

Tomorrow I must return to reality, something I’m not looking too forward to. But life must go on. Another road trip to P.E.I. may come up this summer, but that’ll be another story…

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio

By morning the rain had stopped, leaving cool damp weather in its wake. We stirred shortly after 08:30, all of us awake in a relatively short period of time. Our first surprise was to open the curtains and find that we were the only ones left in the entire campground. We didn’t know what time the others had left, but we had slept through all of them. It was fortuitous on our side — no waiting for showers, and it allowed Stefan to sneak into the women’s washroom with Rebecca.

Horse Cave was the only KOA office I didn’t go into. Thus the last postcards I had sent were from Memphis the day before. Stefan cleared up the charges with the KOA while we packed away our gear and prepared for the morning trip. Once we had the financial portions squared away, all we had to do was pull up to the pumping station and dump the grey water tank.

I must have been extremely irritating that morning, my incessant suggestions to go to Mammoth Cave must have severely worn away the levels of patience in my companions. But I won. Exiting the campground, we turned south on I-65 for about 12 miles until we reached the exit for Mammoth Cave National Park, for a lengthy drive westward.

I had this odd preconception that the cave entrance would be somewhere near the Interstate, or at least the road into the park would be a fairly major one. I came to the conclusion after driving for 15 minutes that spelunking wasn’t as high on most tourists’ lists as it was on mine. Impatience soon gave away to anticipation as we pulled into the large (and mostly deserted) parking lot.

We grabbed what gear we thought necessary, and changed into clothes more suitable for the environment we were to experience. If nothing else, our visit to the Cave of the Winds had taught us that caves are cool places, and sandals aren’t the most appropriate footwear. Oddly enough, our lessons were learned differently by each of us: I wore shoes, a long sleeved shirt, and shorts; Rebecca and Stefan wore jeans, t-shirts, and sandals; Dhar wore jeans, t-shirt, and shoes. Each of us would complain about our choice of clothes during our voyage beneath the surface of the Earth.

We walked across the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center to buy a tour ticket. Just outside the stone and wood building were a series of wood and plastic signs listing the tour options. There were four options available to us: a short 45-minute tour, two 2-hour tours, and a six hour extravaganza. We opted for one of the two tours, one that would give us the greatest view of the underground cave system.

Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world, with over 336 miles (560 kilometres) of charted passageways. The route we decided on barely scratched the surface of massive cavern, only a measly couple of miles. It was the longest distance covered in a two-hour tour. I had read a great deal about Mammoth Cave, mostly about the local stories about it and surrounding caves, such as Crystal Cave and Onyx Cave. But today’s tour would be about the largest, Mammoth Cave.

We walked in through the main entrance and walked over to the ticket booths. Only two of the half-dozen wickets were open, a sure sign of the pre-tourist season. We were two minutes too late, or so I thought. We very hastily bought our tickets, got very rudimentary instructions from the wicket clerk, then darted out the doors, hung a right, and charged down a path until we saw a large group of people with two National Park guides leading the way. We quietly joined at the end of the group.

We seemed to have not missed anything, the guide at the front of the group was starting to tell the story of how the cave was formed, pointing to the geological structure of the area (mostly limestone, almost a prerequisite for forming a cave), the type of climate in south-central Kentucky, and the cave’s location to larger bodies of water. The guide also introduced himself (alas, I cannot remember his name) and his partner whom I believe was named Bill.

Upon finding the group, we had started to walk into a ravine. The ravine had a path built in the middle of the floor for tour groups to gain easier access to the cave entrances. Our destination was called the Historic Entrance, and was the nearest to the Visitor’s Center. There were a few other entrances to the cave (probably because accessing those areas would require a several hour round-trip trek through the cave’s winding passages to get there), which appeared to be mostly elevators.

We arrived at a large depression in the ground (possibly a shallow sinkhole), with a staircase running down the edge of the depression to the floor. Just before we started to descend, our more talkative guide (in fact, he was the only one who spoke during the entire two hours — I think Bill was there only so our primary guide never had to stop talking to turn the lights on and off, or keep an eye on the people in the rear) told everyone to “give your tickets to the most responsible person in your group, and then have her give them to me”. Unlike others in the tour group, we already knew who the most responsible person was.

There were also a couple basic rules: stay with the group, and don’t remove anything from the cave. This included dirt, rocks, cave crickets, bats, fish, and retired Park Rangers. (Another dose of dry wit from our guide.)

And so we started down the stairs, slippery with wear and water, which continually dripped from the upper lip of the hole. At the bottom we encountered a large steel bar gate covering the entrance. This was assumedly to keep unguided visitors from getting hopelessly lost inside (which was not an impossibility). The floor inside was dirt, but very tightly packed from millions of feet walking over it. Along the right side of the passageway was a tube of some kind, buried partly in the floor. About halfway down the 300 foot hall was scientific equipment, measuring the speed of the wind and its temperature.

Like most large caves, Mammoth Cave “breathed” with the seasons. During the summer it exhaled and during the winter it inhaled. Winter having ended, the cave was beginning to exhale. The breeze was surprisingly stiff, about 10 km/h. It was also fairly cool. The inside of the cave was 54 degrees Fahrenheit (about 12 degrees Celsius), which almost immediately started my leg hairs to stand on end. I should have worn my jeans.

We arrived at the first room on the tour, which I believe was called Grand Central Station or The Rotunda. Either way, the room was huge: at least 500 feet in diametre and 50 feet tall. Small lights (compared to the rest of the structure) gave off a slight glow which illuminated enough of the cave to see without flashlights or other extra lighting. The room was almost circular, with two large hallways extending further into the rock. The ceiling was domed in steps, formed when parts of the ceiling collapsed. The floor of the room was mostly dirt, but had several holes dug into it, like those of an archeological site.

There was good reason for the holes. Our guide (I’ll leave Bill out of the picture, since he really didn’t do much) started into the history of the cave, covering the first few million years in about thirty seconds. The human history started with the Native Indians, who used to come into the cave to collect minerals such as gypsum. Then with the arrival of the Revolutionary War, the cave came into use again because it could provide the one thing the American colonies needed to defeat the British: salt peter.

Long, straight trees were cut down and bored out with a long drill to form tubes. One end of the tubes was tapered, then butted with the flat end of another tube. This process was repeated over and over again until a long wooden pipe ran from outside the Historic Entrance to the middle of the room we were standing in. (This was the tube that we saw walking into the cave, still preserved in its location even after 200 years.) The water was used to leech the sodium nitrate from the soil, which was then dried out, collected, and hauled by cart to the surface. The sodium nitrate was then converted to potassium nitrate, which when mixed with charcoal and sulfur, became gunpowder.

Our guide then told us that many historians believe that a huge amount of minerals were extracted from the cave during the Revolutionary War, something on the order of several thousand tons. I simply couldn’t fathom that amount of material being removed, and still seeing so much matter remaining. Our guide however, had his own theory — that amount was significantly lower.

He explained that the mine (as it was referred to) existed for seven years from 1776 to 1783. During that time, it was possible to have extract the amount of material that the historians claimed was removed. The guide’s theory was based on accounts of several cave-ins, and massive tremors that kept just about everyone out for nearly four years. The amount of nitrates that could have been removed was therefore significantly lower.

At that time, he indicated the holes in the floor of the room. The were remnants of the original mines left behind by the slaves and their overseers. The water tank that had once stood over them had since been destroyed. An iron railing around the holes kept people from walking into the pits.

Finishing his speech, the guide then led us down the left hallway. The tunnel was about 50 feet in diametre, and dimly lit. The geologic history of the cave was covered in substantially more detail, including the past three cave-ins. I suddenly wondered just how stable the cave was, not wanting to be crushed under 20 tons of falling rock. But I wasn’t too keen on frightening anyone and kept my thoughts to myself.

After a couple of stops and a long winding walk, we came to a small set of displays showing a few of the artifacts found in the cave. These included sandals and reed torches the Native Indians had used to explore the cave. Sadly, the original specimens were no longer available, due to theft which either led to the items being stolen or put away for safe keeping.

It was then to pass around the Giant’s Coffin and into the cave requisite Fat Man’s Misery / Tall Man’s Agony. A short, narrow passageway that only a kid could love. This was a long one too, winding around until we entered into a keyhole-shaped tunnel, eventually landing us in another largish room. We were told that the restrooms we would see were mirages. Either lack of funding or broken equipment led to the toilets being taken out of service.

This room was a crossroads for the cave. Here we could go up into the “upper” regions of that area of the cave, or go down to the lower areas where the cave fish and cave crickets lived. (Dhar had caught a brief glimpse of one in the dim light as we staggered through the previous passageway.) The room had been discovered about a century earlier by a black slave, who was a professional tour guide in the cave. He had entered the room from the same route as us, but the bottom of the keyhole had been filled in with rocks and debris at the time. The same slave had mapped most of the cave within an hour’s walk of the Historic Entrance.

Another requisite of cave visitation soon arrived upon us: the lights were turned off. Urban dwellers can never know the feeling of having two of your senses shut off completely. When the lights go out, there is total blackness. An unlit night sky in the middle of the densest forest doesn’t even come close to the darkness achieved at 300 feet below the surface. It’s chillingly silent too, no-one spoke … I don’t think many breathed. For a full minute we were left in the isolation, and it’s a feeling not soon forgotten.

With the lights back on a moment later, we continued into the upper regions of the cave. Up there it was much wetter than the other areas of the cave we had been in. Small streams flowed along the sides of the tunnels, heavy dripping echoed from all around, even the air felt damp.

After a while we found ourselves in one of the showcase areas of the cave. Here was Bottomless Pit (in reality only a couple hundred feet, but with the lights off you’d never know), which we walked over on a catwalk. It was a long way to the bottom, at which we could see a light green pool of water. I tried to take a picture, but didn’t leave the exposure on long enough.

We then entered Mammoth Dome, a room so tall it couldn’t have fit lengthwise in The Rotunda. Water fell constantly from the ceiling — everyone got a little wet regardless of where they stood. Flowstone coated the walls and created a few large formations at the rear of the room. From there we climbed a huge steel tower (erected when the cave came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service), and exited through a tunnel at the top of the room.

From there we walked through a few passageways until we entered another large tunnel, about the same size as the one we had gone down near the beginning of the tour. To our left was intense darkness, and a sign warning visitors not to wander down the tunnel without a guide. The path was rigged with motion sensors, used either to turn on the lights or warn Security.

We headed right and continued along a long bend until we found ourselves in the right tunnel leading from The Rotunda. Here our guide thanked us for following the rules, and leaving the Park Rangers where we found them. We crossed the dirt floor of the immense room and went out through the entrance tunnel. I attempted to take an exposure picture of The Rotunda, but my lack of a tripod didn’t make for a clear picture.

As we reached the cave entrance, a small bat joined the exodus. No bigger than a baseball glove (wingspan and all), the little fledermaus couldn’t get out through the steel bars without veering away and into the exiting group. A few people yelped in fright and tried to back away. I tried to get a good look at it without interrupting its flight plan. But soon we were in the warmth of the sun, and heading back to the ravine path.

Once again our guide thanked us for the tour, we thanked him and Bill for their time. The guide suggested that he and Bill would be glad to share some stories of the cave if someone bought them lunch. I considered it for a moment, thinking of all the interesting information we could dig out of them. Instead the four of us returned to the Behemoth.

It was time for lunch, and we were starving. We were out of breakfast food, and were about to polish off the last of all the food we had. We circled around the parking lot until we found one of the park roadways, then drove along until we found an open picnic site. Only two other vehicles were in the vicinity: one other family having lunch, and a few workmen renovating the washrooms nearby.

It was lunch time. The barbeque came out to cook hot dogs, and the stove inside the van was turned on to cook the macaroni and cheese. It would be a fairly simple meal: President’s Choice White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, and a few hot dogs to go along. It wasn’t quite as basic as Kraft Dinner and wieners, but came reasonably close to being typical student fare.

That was assuming of course, that one recognized it as such. But Dhar wasn’t a typical student. Dhar had never had anything like Kraft Dinner before. I stood there in silent awe. I had met a person who had never eaten something I would eat for weeks on end because it was the cheapest thing I knew of.

Our lunch was nothing special, and we treated it no different than any other. The pot of macaroni and cheese quickly vanished, and the last of the hot dogs were eaten. When we were finished, the last of our food was gone. From then on, we would have to buy the rest of our meals. We cleaned the area up, disposing of the waste, packed up the barbeque, cleaned the dishes, and hit the road.

Returning to the I-65, we entered the northbound lanes with Dhar behind the wheel. Next stop: we didn’t know. After Graceland, we had started to play the trip more by ear. Mammoth Cave had never been a suggestion until we had entered Mississippi State. Having left our last destination, we had no formal idea of where we were going, only that it was in the general direction of home.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960502.145

Day 12

The KOA was deserted when we woke up this morning. We then ventured to Mammoth Cave. Much more “natural” than Cave of the Winds – where the floors were cement, you couldn’t tell. It was cold inside, only 54 degrees F at best.

Last night we had a long chat about a great many things, mostly about sex and relationships.

We’re currently on our way north towards home. Don’t know where we’re stopping next. Forgot to send Kathryn a postcard from Horse Cave / Mammoth Cave. Oh well…

Hard to believe this trip is ending so soon. I don’t want to go back to life. I want to stay here where I don’t have responsibility except for myself.

A sure sign of a good vacation is how much you don’t want to go home. None of us really wanted to. If we had the choice, I think we would’ve kept rolling as far as our credit limits would’ve allowed. Nevertheless, deep inside we were responsible and we knew that as much as we didn’t want to go, home was were we had to be. Maybe not so much with Dhar and I, but Eric and Thea were expecting their parents to return home from their trek across America.

Around 16:00 we arrived in the Louisville area. Here we had to switch Interstates so we could continue in the proper direction. This necessitated a shift from I-65 to I-265, then to I-71. We stayed on I-71 for almost another two hours before arriving at I-75, which took us due north into Cincinnati, Ohio at around 18:00.

I am a child of the 70’s — I grew up watching WKRP In Cincinnati. I remembered the opening theme, where the camera pans through the downtown core along one of the highways. It looked a little too urbanized, but it was my only impression of Cincinnati. I always had a desire to one day see the city, and try to spot the building that broadcasted Doctor Johnny Fever to the world (or at least the Greater Cincinnati area).

Alas, it was not to be. The I-75 crossed to what looked like the west side of the city, and revealed nothing. We continued up I-75 until we reached I-275. By this point we’d figured out that we needed to be on I-71 again, which took us in a more northeasterly direction, more appropriate for our triumphant return to the Great White North. We traveled east on I-275 for six miles until joining up with I-71 to head northeast.

About an hour after leaving the Greater Cincinnati area, our stomachs began to growl profusely again. It seemed time to feed the monsters within. Luckily for us, we were in a 30 mile stretch in the middle of southern Ohio that had no places to stop and buy dinner. We came across our salvation at a Shoney’s in Jeffersonville.

Americans seemed to be obsessed with restaurant chains that mimic home cooking. I’ve been to several, and for some strange reason they all have pluralized names. We pulled up, tried to make ourselves look as presentable as possible, then sauntered in for our repast. Just inside the door awaited luscious desserts all waiting to be sampled. But sugar wasn’t high on my priority list at the time, I was more interested in something solid.

We were led to a table by the hostess, and greeted by our waitress Christina a few moments later. It was now 19:30, and if nothing else the sounds emanating from our abdomens indicated that if we didn’t receive sustenance soon, we would start eating the table.

Dhar seemed to have his head stuck in New Orleans, he ordered the seafood trio to calm his nerves. Likewise with Rebecca, who didn’t seem to get enough blackened red fish at Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon, she opted for the blackened cod. Stefan went for the charbroiled chicken, and I for an eight ounce sirloin steak. All of us took the salad bar option, we knew that no matter what we would get our money’s worth there.

For the next 10 minutes we gorged ourselves on salads of all kinds. Then our entrees appeared. I couldn’t believe the speed at which our meals had arrived. I hadn’t had enough time to eat the second salad! I’ll tell you something: Shoney’s doesn’t sacrifice quality for their speed — our meals were delicious. (Mind you, if the last meal was macaroni and cheese, nearly anything from a restaurant will be delicious.)

It took less time to eat our entrees than it took us to park, make sure we weren’t disgusting, climb out of the van, and come into the restaurant. When Christina returned to ask what we thought of our meals, I caught the look of stifled astonishment to the speed our eating habits. Dessert went substantially slower, and only Rebecca and I indulged ourselves in that.

Rebecca wanted coffee. I don’t think she’d had coffee since the Perkins we went to in Kansas. She actually shook a little when she started drinking it, but soon the look of a devoted caffeine addict crossed her face and she slipped into her own little coffee coma. My kick at the cat came with an Oreo Cookie Sundae. This manifestation of evil was so loaded with sugar, I was wired until we reached Cleveland.

At 20:00, we were back on board the Behemoth and heading northeast towards New York State. We could’ve saved some time and money by taking I-75 through Toledo and around the west end of Lake Erie. That would have not only returned us to Canada (and ultimately, home) much sooner, but avoided the toll booths in New York. But Niagara Falls was now on the agenda, no matter what time we got there. And so we drove.

Sometime around 23:00 to 00:00 (and deep inside Ohio), we had to stop for gas … the Behemoth was running low. Wherever we were, it wasn’t heavily populated — we hadn’t seen much other than tree silhouettes for the past hour. We pulled into the cheapest station on the off-ramp and promptly set about refilling our tanks. I made a quick escape into the station to get some snack foods.

Dhar was having a conversation with some of the local teens when I returned, two men and a slightly younger woman. They were at least 16 years old (looked closer to 18), as they were driving a Jeep pickup truck. I ignored the initial banter and climbed in through the side door to put my loot in the fridge to keep cool.

The two men disappeared into the station store a moment later, and the woman came over to view the Behemoth. I quickly became interested in the conversation again. We invited her in, and asked her to excuse the general mess we had inside. She was just short of amazed at the vehicle we had in our possession. She was even more amazed when she found out whereabouts we had been in the last 11 days. She commented that she and her friends had similar aspirations, but didn’t know how they were going to go about doing it.

Soon the two men returned to the truck, and the woman bounced out after them. Almost immediately Stefan and Rebecca jumped into the back, declaring that it was someone else’s turn to drive. Still wired from the Oreo Sundae, I volunteered and climbed behind the wheel. A moment later we were back on the I-71 heading for home.

We had come to the realization that we were only five hours from home, and there wasn’t really anything along the way that we just had to see. It was a quick decision to make a last push for home. Even then, we still wouldn’t arrive until almost daybreak.

About 30 miles outside Cleveland we broke from I-71 to I-271 to skirt around the outer edges of the city, eventually picking up I-90 on the eastern side. This took us along the south shore of Lake Erie through the rest of Ohio, into the 47 mile stretch of I-90 as it went through Pennsylvania, finally turning into the New York State Thruway once we crossed the state line.

Despite the short distance we had to cover, Pennsylvania was a long state, due entirely to the conversation I had with Rebecca. I have no recollection how we got onto the topic, but we entered into a heated debate about definition. For those of you just joining us, Rebecca is an educated expert in women’s studies and sexuality. I’m an English major. Differences were bound to exist.

We got onto a discussion of Freud (as in Dr. Sigmund, obsessed with possessing his mother). I personally don’t think very highly of Freud, I think he spent too much time relating everything to sex. (I don’t think he got laid very often.) Rebecca told me of one of Freud’s theories that said children are very sexual beings. At first I thought she said “sensual”, which I partly agreed to. “Sexual” on the other hand, I completely objected to that.

Again, I repeat that I’m an English major. Hence, I know and follow dictionary meanings. I have this kooky perception that keeps me from inventing new definitions for words — otherwise our language gets too unwieldy and difficult to use (as if it already isn’t). “Sensual” I can understand because the word applies to the senses: kids touch and eat everything in sight, regardless of what it is. “Sexual” I disagree with because according to my dictionaries (mental and Random House) give no indication of definition outside of that pertaining to sex. In my opinion, children do not have, nor should participate in, sex.

But I remind you, this is solely my opinion. Rebecca was all for using “sexual” as an adjective for children, comparing it with “sensual”. This she got from Freud. Again, I don’t think too highly of Freud. I think he needed to use a dictionary more often.

New York was long and boring. The I-90 through New York is much like several Interstates that run through the middle of other states: there’s nothing on either side but trees. A little over an hour after entering the state, the Buffalo city limits sign whipped by our windows. What little exhaustion had started to creep into my system suddenly fled as the goal of our day rapidly appeared. It was after 03:00 and I’d been driving for over seven hours … the sight of home only made me want to drive all the more.

We hit our first toll just after seeing the city limits sign. I griped about it silently, tossed in the toll, then sped on to the interchange for the I-190. Less than a quarter-mile into the I-190, another toll and another gripe. We headed due west until the I-190 curved north again to the Peace Bridge off-ramp. We entered the bridge toll area and drove up to one of the non-truck gates. All but the truck gate were closed for the night. We hastily backed up, crossed a few lanes, and scooted up to the truck booth. We paid our toll, and crossed the bridge to freedom.

Upon entering New York State, we had taken the precaution of figuring out exactly how much stuff we had bought while on the trip. Dhar had won by a landslide, easily bringing back more stuff than the rest of us combined. But we were all under our personal limits. When we reached customs on the Canada side of the bridge, we were ready for any question.

“Good evening,” said the Customs clerk. He was a man in his 30’s, with a black mustache and hair.

“‘Evening!” I replied, a little too cheerily.

“Where are you folks coming from?” he asked.

“All over the United States. Just finishing a 12 day tour.”

“I see. Everyone in there Canadian?”

“Yessir!”

“Who’s all in there?”

“Uh, me, her, him, and him!”

(Okay, so we were ready for all the questions except who we were. Let’s face it, after that long together, I think just about anyone would have a tough time figuring out who they were.)

“Names?” The clerk wasn’t amused at my blunder. We quickly dug out our birth certificates and drivers licenses.

“Anything to declare?”

“Nope!”

“Welcome home.”

We were home. Almost immediately I felt like someone had just put a warm wool Hudson’s Bay blanket around me and handed me a cup of hot maple syrup. We drove onto the QEW and started towards Oakville. We drove to Highway 420, which we then took to downtown Niagara Falls so we could get a look at the Falls, even though it was 04:00 in the morning. Along the way we stopped at a Country Time donut shop to grab a quick snack. It was such a relief to taste a Canadian donut again (even if it wasn’t from Tim Horton’s).

Downtown Niagara Falls was utterly dead. The entire time we were there, I only saw one other car on the road (not counting the two cop cars, those were expected). The night lights on the Falls were off, I had assumed they stayed on all night. Much to my disappointment, they didn’t. All we could see was a dark wall, the mist in the air, and water on the road where the mist fell. We made two passes and headed back out to the QEW.

This part I could nearly do in my sleep. I hadn’t driven it too many times, but the route was very familiar to me. We passed over the Welland Canal, through St. Catherines, through Grimsby (which many of my friends testify that it’s a gateway to another dimension), past Hamilton, over the Burlington Skyway, through Burlington, and into Oakville.

As we neared the off-ramp for Trafalgar Road, I suddenly came to the shocking realization that I didn’t have a house key. We would have to sleep in the Behemoth one more night. I pulled onto Trafalgar Road, and headed south to Cornwall Road. I took this east to Maplegrove Road, then south again to Devon Road. East briefly to Pinehurst Road, south to Gatestone Avenue, and parked right behind my father’s van at 05:45. We quickly unpacked the sleeping bags and passed out.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Arriving at a quarter to five in the morning, we have finally ended our tour around the continent. Unfortunately we must still camp a night as I do not have the house keys.The border crossing was interesting – when asked who was in the van, I replied: “Me, her, him, and him.” But we had no other problems. We even saw some of the Falls. It’s good to be home.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, Kentucky

Little kids sounded the morning knell, much like how an air raid siren warns of impending disaster. I’m not suggesting that we had a bad day, but it’s not exactly the way I’d wanted to start it off. Our waking patterns were reestablished that morning: Dhar first, soon followed by me, then Rebecca, and Stefan some time later. The morning was not nearly as cool as the night had been, the sun had come out and started warming the air.

In the daylight we got our first good look at the camp. It was similar to the one we had stayed at in Colorado Springs: no attempts to spruce it up at all. But this particular KOA didn’t even have the beauty of nature to fall back on. There was no creek, no view of mountains, no feeling of isolation. A Days Inn lay between us and Elvis Presley Boulevard, and a high wooden fence was erected behind us.

The morning shower ritual was enacted, our regular runs to the KOA office for postcard duties and post-registration performed, all pretty much to schedule and rhythm. Except the post-registration. That particular KOA wasn’t a very well-managed one. The esthetics of the camp were obviously not of any concern, nor was the fair treatment of the guests. We had parked in a site that had no hook-ups of any kind, thus we were supposed to pay only for a site of that type. However, so the staff claimed, we had an RV, which automatically meant we had to pay for a hook-up site. Stefan did not give into that kind of logic, and argued with them for at fifteen minutes before they finally caved in and charged us only for a basic site. It became brutally obvious that the KOA had only been built to service visitors to Graceland, with no concern for anything other than profit.

Our breakfast was the last of the donuts. Still cold, still sticky-sweet, they were still good. The plan of the day was simple: visit Graceland, and cover more distance heading home. Stefan and I had originally not wanted to be home too early, but Stefan had also said he wanted to be home on the Saturday (it was a Wednesday on that date) so we also wanted to make sure that we were within striking distance of home.

Hitting the road took only a few minutes that morning — not having to unhook the Behemoth from the utilities takes a great deal of time off your clock. We turned right to head further south on Elvis Presley Boulevard. In only a few moments we had arrived at the Home of the King. On our left was the legendary estate, on our right the visitor’s parking and other museums that were parts of the Graceland tour.

The parking lot had only a quarter of the 300+ spots filled. For us, this was a good sign because it meant that once again we had skirted the crowds — a big plus for Dhar. As we headed to what we assumed was the main entrance, we passed a few people wearing Elvis t-shirts heading towards their vehicle. We were entering a dimension beyond sight and sound … just around that bend: The Elvis Zone.

The ticket lobby was almost deserted. In the middle of “tourist season”, this room would probably be packed with avid Elvis fans (the kind whom I wanted to avoid). Immediately on the left of the doors was a bank machine. Realizing that my $100 from Las Vegas had almost run out, I opted to make another $100 withdrawal before doing anything else.

By the time I got to the ticket wicket with my newly acquired cash, the others had already bought their tickets. When I bought mine, not only did I get a second ticket (explained in a moment), but I ended up on a different tour number! Mildly annoyed at this, I was told that the tour number really didn’t matter. I assumed that the numbering system only really came into play during the heavier visitor days.

Now for the second ticket business. We bought access to all the exhibits available, a total of five venues: the Graceland mansion, the Automobile museum, an personal items collection, a 15 minute movie about Elvis, and the Lisa Marie. Normally all these are printed on the same ticket, which has five tear-off portions. The ticket clerk made a mistake however and had to print me two tickets.

While I was purchasing my tickets, Dhar was trying to withdraw $100 from the bank machine in the lobby … without success. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t going to have any luck no matter where we went, but I figured he didn’t want to hear it. Besides, he still had a fair bit of Canadian money he could exchange at a bank.

We exited through the “front doors” (we had come in through the “side doors”) to the departure station, where a tour guide tore off the mansion ticket and handed us a pair of headphones and a small black box about the size and weight of a small car. I had thought the tour would be guided by the Graceland staff. But things were done a bit differently there — the black box was a rudimentary cassette player that took visitors on a 45 minute tour of the Graceland mansion. The idea was fairly simple: follow the cues and you’ll hear things in sync with the voices.

We boarded the small bus that would ferry us across Elvis Presley Boulevard and up to the front doors of the mansion. Just before leaving, the guide told us to turn the cassette players on. I did so, and started listening to the calming male voice that welcomed us to Graceland. I made a judgment mistake though, believing the voice asked us to keep the players off until we were inside Graceland. This put me five minutes behind everyone else for a while.

Reaching the top of the hill upon which the mansion sat, we disembarked and followed the tour guides’ directions into the house. To say the least, I wasn’t prepared for what lay within the doors. The first thing we saw upon entering was a staircase about 15 feet from the doorway. This ran up to the second level of the house, closed to visitors. (I know, “Oooooh! A staircase!” But that’s the point — it wasn’t some grand balustrade, it was just an ordinary set of stairs.)

The Voice directed us to our right, towards the Piano Room. It was so called because of the piano at the far end. (He may have been the King, but that doesn’t mean he was terribly original.) The room was about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, divided partially in the middle with a pair of brightly coloured stained glass peacock windows. The colour scheme in the room was mostly white, with several gold accents on the walls, ceiling, piano, and on the couches.

The Voice then directed us to the stairway that we had seen on our way in. We were told that Elvis used to give karate demonstrations there for his guests. For a brief flash, I honestly thought I could see Elvis doing just that. It was then that I came to know the reason why so many people return to Graceland: it’s real. Not a museum piece, not a recreation … this was how Elvis had lived, this was where his life was lived out for two decades. The decorations, the carpet, the design of the grounds … everything came from his mind, undiluted with time or renovations.

Again The Voice turned us to the left to see the Dining Room, opposite to the Piano Room. It wasn’t a very large room, maybe 20 feet square. The table had places for about half a dozen people. Two large televisions were in opposite corners of the room. The Voice suddenly gave way to Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ widow. She began to tell us about some of her memories of her life at Graceland, living with the King. She would do so several times during the tour.

I had a problem with Priscilla, but it wasn’t anything to do with her marriage to Elvis, or her current life. It was her little speeches … they were all fake. I will be one of the first to say that Priscilla isn’t the world’s foremost actress. She does wonderful dead-pan comedy, particularly next to the King of Dead-pan (Leslie Nielsen), but drama isn’t her forte. I could tell within seconds that she was reading off a script:

The Voice: Priscilla Presley tells us of her life at Graceland… (The Voice and music fades out)

Priscilla: Elvis loved having people over for dinner, usually with the guys. (Speaks reminiscently) He’d sit at the head of the table and tell some of the funniest stories you ever heard. (Laughs slightly) (Slight pause) He was kind, caring man…

This annoyed the hell out of me. I don’t know if it was Priscilla who wrote the script, or Graceland Enterprises for the purposes of the tour. Either way, it was not they method I would have used to illicit a portion of the tour from the widow of the King. The best method, in my humble opinion, would have been to take Ms. Presley on a tour of the house in the same order as visitors, and have her tell unprompted stories as she went. Edit the voice cuts later on and splice into the tour tape. The scripting of the stories nearly ruined the tour for me.

From the Dining Room we passed into the kitchen, added to the tour only after Elvis’ aunt had died a year earlier — she used to spend all her time in the kitchen. Although I had never truly thought about it before, I had an expectation of a huge kitchen with a huge fridge, giant counters for use by a team of expert chefs, coloured completely stark white and gleaming chrome.

If there is any room that speaks more about a person than any other, it’s got to be the kitchen. It was small, 10 feet wide about 20 feet long. Wooden cabinets, deep brown carpeting, and standard appliances. It was the same kitchen you could expect to see in just about anyone’s home, there wasn’t anything special about it. Stepping into this man’s kitchen, all my views of this eclectic, mysterious, phenomenal man all came crashing to the ground — Elvis was no different than anyone else, he just led a more extraordinary life than most.

Around a corner and down the stairs, we arrived in the TV Room, so named for the three televisions set into the far wall. The colour scheme was mostly yellow (my sister swore upon seeing the pictures that Elvis was colourblind), with two couches, a glass table, a wet bar, and a small ceramic monkey in the centre of the table. The TVs were the result of Elvis hearing that then-President Johnson watched two at a time.

Walking back out of the door, we crossed the staircase hall into the Pool Room. About 15 feet square, the room had only one purpose, the pool table that sat proudly in the middle. But the table wasn’t what caught my eye — it was the 2,000 feet of multi-coloured fabric that was pleated all over the walls. Gaudy to some, I actually rather liked the idea (though cleaning it must be a big problem). The Voice mentioned that a tear on the table (which I hadn’t noticed until The Voice drew my attention to it) was caused by one of the “Memphis Mafia” (how Elvis’ entourage was often referred to) .

We then exited the Pool Room through another door, passing through a small non-descript room, and up a flight of stairs into the Jungle Room. The name came from the decor of the room, which included a fountain on the left wall, deep pile green carpeting on the floor and the ceiling (oh, the styles of the 60’s and 70’s), and the most hideous-looking furniture I have ever seen in my life.

The Voice told the story of how Elvis purchased the furniture. He was apparently walking through downtown Memphis one day, and happened to see the chair and a couple of couches sitting in the display window of a furniture store. He loved them so much, he bought the entire set and had it shipped to Graceland immediately. The couch was so big the windows had to be removed to move it inside. Why he bought the set, I don’t know: the fabric alone is reason enough to worry about Elvis’ decorating sense — it’s brown and beige zebra-striped fake fur. It’s ghastly.

The Jungle Room has the fame of being the site of Elvis’ last recording session. His last album was recorded in the Jungle Room, and was released just before he died on August 16, 1977. I was five years and one month old on that day, and I remember my mother being rather shocked at the news. Being so young, the event passed by me without notice.

We then progressed out the back door into the back yard of the mansion. We walked under a large roof (where I assume Elvis parked his cars, since I couldn’t see a garage anywhere) to an office building about 100 feet away from the house. As we crossed the short expanse, The Voice told us of Elvis’ passion of driving his converted snowmobiles (becoming grass-mobiles during the spring and summer months) around the yard, which often scared his daughter Lisa-Marie half to death. Elvis also enjoyed games of firecracker tag with the Memphis Mafia, shooting roman candles at each other.

In the office (on prompting from The Voice) we watched a short news reel that had been taken in the office when Elvis had returned from his stint in the Army. The office had been his father’s, and was left almost in the same manner that it had been in when Elvis died. Adjacent to the office was a small shooting range Elvis used from time to time.

We then proceeded along another concrete path towards another building. The Voice told us of the Presley’s love of horses. Several horses were on the Graceland grounds, but no-one mentioned whether or not they were the original residents. The Graceland grounds were suitable for horses, the back yard was at least the length of a football field, and possibly the same distance in width.

The next building was a small museum, carrying visitors from The King’s humble start, right to his last performance. The first room was the beginning of it all, Elvis’ start in the early 50’s and all the trouble he got himself into with that dynamic pelvis. Misunderstanding a cue, I turned my tour cassette off and ended up having to wander about in the room much longer than I wanted to just so I could catch up (there was no “fast forward” button).

The next room was known as the “Hall of Gold”, and contained every award Elvis had ever won. Ten feet wide and 50 or 60 feet long, the blue passage glittered with gold records on both sides. At the very end of the hall was an enormous plaque Elvis had received for all the money and time he had donated to various charities in the Memphis area. Elvis was one of the last great performers who regularly gave back to his community. Today’s Gen-X musicians would never consider such deeds — they’re either too absorbed in themselves or too desperate to die.

At the end of the “Hall of Gold”, I (now separated from Dhar and from Stefan and Rebecca) entered another portion of the museum, which picked up where the first room had left off. More history of Elvis, starting with his Army uniform. Various pieces of fan mail, posters and costumes from his movies, a huge painting, the one and only Gold Lamay suit, the black leather outfit from his televised comeback special, the Eagle suit from his Hawaii concert, his karate jumpsuit and his black belt, and his police badge collection. All around was his famous “TCB” logo, stylized with a lightning bolt. It stood for: “Taking care of business in a flash.”

Then it was out the door and across another concrete pathway to another building in the yard. This was originally a racquetball / squash court, but was now another museum to his many album sales records. But the focal point of the building wasn’t the glittering wall at the far end, it was the piano that sat behind the protective glass wall. It was there that Elvis played his last song, on the evening of August 15, 1977. Feeling a little tired, he rested awhile before going to bed. The next morning Elvis was found dead, the morning he was supposed to start his next tour.

By this point I had caught up with Dhar, who had stopped his tape a while ago in hopes the rest of us would catch up. Dhar had become rather bored with the tour and had flipped the cassette tape over and rewound part of the tape (there was a “review” button), in effect fast forwarding through part of the tape. The two of us then exited through the side door and walked over to the Meditation Garden.

The Meditation Garden is the final resting place of Elvis Aaron Presley … for those who believe he’s dead. Elvis’ mother, father, and grandmother all rest there as well. There’s even a memorial plaque to Elvis’ stillborn twin brother. According to The Voice, flowers arrive continually all year long (with significant increases on Elvis’ birthday and on the anniversary of his death), and are left until the real flowers wilt and the fake ones look weather-beaten.

The tour ended at that point, and Dhar and I shared a quiet moment staring at the quiet grave. But for me, there was something more to the mansion — there was a spirit there. I don’t know if it was Elvis, or just the essence of who and what he was. But you could feel there was something there, watching you, welcoming you, wanting to tell you all there was to know, saying good-bye as you left. In the Memorial Gardens, that spirit is most strongly felt.

Rounding the swimming pool at the side of the mansion, we walked around to the front to pick up our bus back to the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. There we finally got our first good look at the house. Despite all that we had seen, it didn’t look all that different than many of the houses in my home town. It wasn’t huge, but sat on a very large lot. It looked comfortable, and undoubtedly was. It was a home someone was proud to have owned.

The bus ferried us back to the rest of the Graceland attractions. There we returned our tour cassette players, and started to view the rest of the museums. The first in our list was Elvis’ automobile collection. Elvis loved his cars — he had a lot of them.

Entering the museum (and having another ticket torn off), we walked around a corner to the first part of the collection: a series of motorcycles and tricycles Elvis once drove. While I was taking a picture, one of the other visitors decided that he would try his luck at touching a piece of Elvis … and set of the security alarm. It seemed that all the vehicles in the exhibits had a grounded security system, the slightest touch set it off. The man jerked upright, slightly shocked, and hastily walked away. A security guard rounded a corner a moment later, looked around, then went back out front.

In front of a large wall of lights that curved over-top was an Astin-Martin, the kind of car that James Bond used to drive (before he switched to a BMW). The lights bounced beautifully off the shiny black car, making an interesting view.

In the middle of the main portion of the museum was a replica drive-in theatre (complete with removed front seats from cars) where a 15 minute looping movie of the cars in Elvis’ movies played. I caught glimpses of it, but never watched the whole thing.

One of the vehicles from Elvis’ movies was the pink jeep from Blue Hawaii. It’s tacky, it’s pink, and it’s the kind of thing that seemed to prevail though many movies of that period. It was also, sadly, a fake. According to a plaque in front of it, a previous visitor had pointed out that the original jeep was either destroyed or bought by someone else, Elvis had bought a replica.

One of the most ugly cars in his collection was a Stutz Blackman, built by the Stutz Motor Company. It’s striking lines and very angled shape leads to a very displeasing car to look at — as my friend Scott put it, a very 70’s look. Like it’s name, the car was black … so black you couldn’t tell where the edges of the car were.

I think Elvis had a penchant for pink vehicles — a pink Cadillac was also on display. But not his pearl and gold Cadillac. A sign put on one side indicated that the well-known limousine was on permanent display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Then it was into a small gift shop, the theme centering around the automobile collection.

The next museum contained more items from Elvis, mostly of a more personal nature. These included Lisa Marie’s crib and baby clothes, Elvis’ desk and pens, a couple chairs, some clothes, and one of the lamps from the 70’s redecoration. According to an accompanying sign, the lamp was all that remained of the last redecoration before Elvis died: red shag carpets on the floors, walls, and ceiling; the gaudy gold lamps; essentially outrageous things that most sane people wouldn’t be caught dead with today. When Graceland had been set up for a tourist attraction, the decor was reverted to one that had been in place in the 60’s. Then it was through another gift shop.

Outside the temperature was warm, without being uncomfortable. We were all a little tired from all the walking and viewing, and above all we were hungry. But we also wanted to get through the rest of the attractions and hit the road so we could go to a bank and get Dhar some American funds.

The next stop was the movie, which was a brief history of Elvis’ early years and the philosophy of life he had. Then it was through another gift shop.

Our final stop was at the Lisa Marie, one of Elvis’ two private planes. Northwest Airlines had their grubby little fingers in this affair, setting up a mock check-in counter. You also had to pass through an Elvis Fan Detector (in the style of a normal airport metal detector). On the walls of the “pre-flight lounge” were various bits of trivia about the use of the Lisa Marie, including the details on Elvis’ notorious middle-of-the-night flight to Denver for peanut butter sandwiches.

The Lisa Marie was a Convair 880 built in 1958 by General Dynamics. Elvis bought the plane in 1975 and gave it an $800,000 dollar makeover to suit his needs. (Elvis’ second plane, a Lockheed JetStar, cost him nearly $900,000 and was less than half the size of the Convair.) Elvis named the plane after his daughter, and designated it 880EP.

Both planes are permanently grounded, the engines removed and the avionics disabled. One of the Lisa Marie’s engines sat over to one side for visitors to view. The others were donated to high schools and technical institutes to assist students in learning to build jet engines.

Dhar and I looked at the JetStar first, which Elvis called “Hound Dog Two” (the Lisa Marie was “Hound Dog One”). Compared to its much larger companion, it wasn’t worth the look. Stefan and Rebecca however, had to see for themselves. Dhar and I waited at the foot of the Lisa Marie’s stairs for Stefan and Rebecca to join us.

We climbed the steps and stepped through the forward hatch. To our left was the cockpit, shielded by a sheet of Plexiglas. To our immediate right was the forward bathroom (similarly shielded), complete with brass taps and a gold-flecked sink. Just beyond that was the first compartment. This was primarily chairs with a single coffee table on the left hand side. A TV at the side of the room repeated stories and information about that compartment of the plane. All the furniture was leather, but covered in plastic.

The next room was the conference room. This had a long conference table, surrounded by ten leather chairs. Here too all the items had plastic covers … assumedly so visitors wouldn’t destroy the valuable museum piece. Lisa Marie Presley held her seventh birthday party at that table. Just beyond the table was one of the first air-phones, which Elvis had installed for his use.

The conference room, like the other two rooms, had a large TV in it. The plane also had a videocassette player, which Elvis used to watch movies. I was really surprised (and oddly proud) to discover that Elvis and I shared a common liking of certain movies. Among his favourites were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The last compartment of the plane was Elvis’ bedroom. A queen-sized bed occupied most of the space (also covered in plastic), complete with an FAA-standard seat belt across the middle of the bed. The tail section bore the bathroom, similar but larger to the forward bathroom, and included a shower. Then it was out through the rear hatch and down the stairs to the tarmac.

We entered our last gift shop a moment later, on our way out of the Graceland attractions. As we entered into the shop from the Lisa Marie, we saw a desk to one side with a collection of cookbooks on display. They were written by Elvis’ uncle Vester. A mannequin sat behind the desk, a likeness of Uncle Vester. At least I thought it was a mannequin … until I saw it move.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. So did Dhar. For a moment, I had to stare at the sickly-looking old man to make sure that he was in fact human, and alive. Sure enough, ol’ Uncle Vester was sitting behind the desk, peddling his cookbooks to anyone who cared enough to step forward and pick up a copy. I say “cared” because you couldn’t help feel sorry for the man — you really had to wonder if he wanted to be there. I’ve seen dogs with their tails between their legs look more chipper than this poor man. He just sat there, looking blanking forward not noticing a soul, looking like he was waiting for death.

After a few minutes, we finally returned to the Behemoth and prepared to move out. As we passed by Graceland, I waved a mental good-bye, knowing that one day I would return. It was time for us to turn our view to the next task at hand. Rebecca had gone to the trouble of asking for the nearest bank so we could get Dhar’s Canadian funds changed into American. That required a further trip south to a local Savings and Loan. Dhar ran in while the rest of us waited. A few minutes later he ran back out, shaking his head.

The bank wouldn’t exchange it … rather, couldn’t exchange it. Apparently, Canadian funds were treated like funny money that far south, and your average bank couldn’t handle the transfer. (Stupid banks.) But the First National Bank of Tennessee was supposedly capable. So on the directions Dhar gave me, given to him by one of the bank clerks, we headed still further south on Elvis Presley Boulevard in search of greenbacks.

But even the First National Bank of Tennessee couldn’t do it. I couldn’t believe that we were so far from home that everyone was completely incompetent at such a simple task. But when you deal with a hundred small banks instead of a few large ones, problems happen.

Fortunately one of us was thinking that afternoon, and struck upon the idea that the airport might be able to do the exchange. We had reached the point where any idea was worth trying, so made our way north on Elvis Presley Boulevard to Winchester Road. We headed east until we found signs to point us towards Memphis International Airport’s terminal.

After enough loops and turns to get anyone hopelessly lost, I pulled up in front of the terminal, and Dhar took off to find the exchange counter. Rebecca and Stefan followed suit, although I’m not sure if they went for the same reasons as Dhar. I sat there, hoping that some ticket-happy airport cop wouldn’t decide to fulfill his quota that afternoon.

After five minutes, any fears I had were squashed when the three of them emerged from the terminal, all smiles and sunshine. It was mission accomplished, and time for us to hit the Interstate. Following more signs, more turns and bends, I eventually found our way to I-240, which would take us out to I-40, our roadway to Nashville so we could take I-65 north.

But like so many well-laid plans, we had problems … traffic. No, not rush hour traffic, construction traffic. And was it heavy! A dead snail could move faster than we did. We only needed to cover two to three miles until the traffic cleared up, but that alone took nearly 45 minutes. When the traffic did finally clear up, we gunned the engine and made some distance between us and the traffic, even though the construction zone extended nearly all the way to the I-40 turn-off.

Once we were on I-40, everything became smooth sailing. But we were hungry. All our touring that morning and into the afternoon had left us rather famished. The great discussion of what to eat engaged again, and for nearly 15 minutes we pulled for our personal choices. Finally, Rebecca’s craving for chicken won out, and we stopped just outside Jackson for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I am convinced KFC was not discovered by Colonel Sanders, but by the Devil himself. It’s the only theory that makes some sense to me. Think about it: how else can something taste so good, yet be so disgustingly greasy. Everyone I know readily admits that KFC is greasy — you can almost wring it out with your hands, if it was possible to get a grip on it. Yet everyone gets cravings for it every so often. I do, but I try not to eat the stuff because the thought of all that grease makes me sick to my stomach.

It had been nearly three years since the last time I had eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken, and my memories of that experience were none too pleasant. Yet when I stepped inside the restaurant doors, the craving started. And it got worse with every microsecond I stood waiting for someone to buy the chicken. The next thing I knew, I had bought into the bucket of chicken, and was anxiously awaiting our meal. But first we had to find a rest stop.

Just our luck: we had nearly 30 miles until the next rest stop came up. We found a nice picnic table (complete with a small roof), took out our bucket of greasy chicken, a pile of paper towels, and promptly started messily masticating our meal. I started feeling kind of ill after a while, the grease was overwhelming. I had it all over my hands and on a good portion of my face. I don’t know how I did that, but it always seemed to happen when eating KFC.

All but four pieces were eaten. I swore then and there never to eat KFC again, for fear of turning into a giant zit. We threw out the remains of our chicken saving the last four pieces for a later date. Then it was back onto the van to continue our push north.

Our plans had pretty much broken down by this point, we really didn’t have any idea where we were going. I wanted to see Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, since the route we were planning to take (the only thing we knew for certain) went right by the National Park. But what we hadn’t planned was where (if anywhere) we were going to stop. Nashville was ruled out about two minutes before we entered the city limits, we couldn’t think of any reason to stop that interested us. There we left I-40 for I-65.

After enough goading on my part, I convinced someone to stop at Horse Cave, which had the nearest KOA to Mammoth Cave National Park. This, unfortunately, meant that our next (and last, as it turned out) KOA stop would be a late check-in, which Stefan absolutely hated doing by that time. I couldn’t blame him. Trying to figure out those wretched forms at that time of night was never a good thing.

Just outside of Nashville, Rebecca got into another one of her talkative moods, and tried to strike up conversation by asking questions. Now remember what Rebecca is like. She doesn’t ask normal questions. No, she has to ask things like: “Do you love you parents?” “Who would your ideals parents be?” These were the questions that I responded to, because the earlier ones were ones I tried to avoid.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960501.175

Day 11

“I’ve been to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve been to Graceland …”

All my illusions of Elvis have been shattered. Walking through a person’s home tells a lot about a person. We didn’t get to see the red shag and gold lamp decor, but what we did see spoke volumes. I actually thought I could see him wandering about as I walked his halls. There’s a spirit there, and it’s oddly welcoming.

We traveled through the mansion listening to a pre-recorded audio tour, then onto the car museum, personal effects, a short movie, and his airplanes. I found it interesting that he and I shared a similar taste in movies.

After a rather nasty traffic jam (following a run to the airport), we stopped for KFC (a bad idea, if you ask me). Rebecca’s currently asking us questions like: “If you could be born to different parents, would you?”, and “What one thing in your life would you say defines who you are?” Next step – who knows?

Almost forgot – Elvis’ uncle Vester was waiting for us when we returned from the tour of the Lisa Marie. He was selling cook books. Never before have I seen such a sullen man.

Also discussed relationships – why is it so hard to have a simple relationship? Why do I always reach comfortable friendship so fast?

Neither Dhar, nor Stefan, nor myself had any complaints about our parents. The three of us had led childhoods we were proud of, with many fond memories and nothing we truly regretted. Rebecca’s childhood, on the other hand, wasn’t all fun and games. Her parents divorced, her father isn’t exactly what she (or I, for that matter) would call “role model material”, and she had a less-than-loving environment. This brought up the next round of questions: ideal parents.

This was a question I honestly didn’t know how to answer. All along I believed that my parents would have been an ideal choice, assuming I had the luxury of choosing the ones I wanted. They gave me freedoms most of my friends didn’t have, taught me the ways of life, tried to get me to do extracurricular activities so that I wouldn’t be socially inept. (Okay, so they went about it a little half-assed, but I still think I turned out okay … ‘course, I’m still single … I’m a geek … hmm, maybe I need to think about this a little more.)

Rebecca’s ideal parents would be Cher or Madonna, and Donald Trump. Although Rebecca didn’t have those people as her parents, in a strange way you could see it as being true. Rebecca has Cher’s independence and strength to keep going on (not to mention a healthy dose of sex appeal), but also Trump’s tenacity to get things done and not give a damn what someone else says about what she does.

I couldn’t answer Rebecca’s question about defining moments, though I did think long and hard about it. My last couple years of high school were probably the most formative for me, at least in respects to the person I am now, but no one single point took me in the ultimate direction I’m headed now. My defining points have all been like course corrections, steering me through the straits of depression, the mountains of joy, the rivers of success, and the sandy beaches full of women I’m too shy to approach.

If anything, Rebecca makes you think, whether you like it or not. Rebecca also strayed into the subject of relationships. We spent a lot of time there. Most of it was Dhar, Stefan, and I arguing the point that women are aloof, and men are stupid.

Allow me to explain: we (the men) have this perception that women send “signals” to indicate their intentions. Even I have had this happen to me, and I’ll tell you something right now: I never saw it. When men are interested in women, we become the most goofy things on the planet … but we’re obvious, kind of like tossing a cat into a dog show. But when a woman finds a man attractive, she wants the man to say something first and goes about sending these “signals” to him.

Every roommate I have ever had, and most of my male friends (who’ve had girlfriends and discussed the matter with me) have all confessed to not knowing that his girlfriend liked him until upwards of four months later. Most men would try for about two hours before giving up, then go home and jerk off. Women believe they’re easy to understand. As a man, I will testify that I will never understand women … they’re too confusing. And girls, if you want a blunt piece of advise when trying to hook that illusive man — beat him over the head with it. Men are dense, we will not notice your advances unless you make us look for them. It’s like walking into a room blindfolded and being told there’s a contact lens to be found. You need to show us where you dropped it.

Rebecca disagreed with us. From her point of view, it was women who were easy to understand, and men who were complicated. From her point of view, I could see this happening. But as a man, I can safely say there are only three things that a guy needs to keep him happy: sleep, sustenance, and sex … the 3 S’s. (The “sustenance” category comprises food, drink (including all alcoholic beverages), violent computer games, a large screen TV, and a sports car that needs constant work.) Believe me, men are not complicated. No assembly required. Batteries not needed.

Next thing I knew, I was floored with the nearly subliminal announcement that Rebecca was bisexual. I’m not sure what exactly brought that subject around, but I did have to ask a carefully worded question to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. I did.

Now don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against Rebecca, I have no different a view of her now than I did before she told me of her bisexuality … although I think I do respect her a little more now. She was very frank about it — neither positive nor negative, just another aspect of her colourful life.

With that turn of events, I dropped out of the conversation for a while, to ponder on a few things. Bisexuality has always been a topic of interest for me, although I really don’t know why. Over the years I’ve developed a few theories about it — not about blame, or why “sexually deviant” practices are “bad”, but why they occur. Most of my theories are as of yet incomplete, but I have one that I think about regularly: women are more likely to engage in homosexual situations than men.

This is not an accusation, nor is this truth … it is a theory. But it’s one I’ve based on experience and observation. (No, I have not been renting porno flicks.) Women are more in touch with themselves and their emotions. Women are raised to be caring and tender with themselves, their friends, and their families. Men, on the other hand, have historically been raised in a very aloof manner, where the only accepted form of contact has been the handshake.

It is this very reason that led me to my theory. But over the past couple of years, that theory has become more and more clouded, as new evidence begins to tarnish my well polished idea. If my theory were true, and men were aloof to one another, I wouldn’t be wondering if I’m bisexual. This is yet another theory that I have yet to put to the test. (On a similar note, I could also say that I may not be heterosexual, since I haven’t put that to the test either.)

For nearly the remainder of the distance to Bucksnort, Kentucky, I sat there debating the issues with myself. Was I what I thought I was? Could I do what I thought I might? Could I think tongue twisters and not screw them up? These were the questions that occupied me until we saw the road sign for Bucksnort.

Dhar, who was driving, and I, who was riding shotgun, nearly laughed ourselves to death. For nearly ten miles after seeing the sign we giggled, laughed, snorted, howled, and guffawed. I so desperately wanted to turn around and drive back to take a picture of the sign, just to prove that someone had the guts to name a town “Bucksnort”.

Somewhere between 21:00 and 22:00, we arrived in Horse Cave, Kentucky. It was a small, desolate looking place, the only feature that seemed noteworthy was the KOA we were looking for. It was buried about 1,000 feet from I-65 in a grove of tall pine trees. It looked rather picturesque, even though we couldn’t see the campground for the RVs — the trees were too dense.

Stefan did his thing and signed us into a spot that was right next to the KOA office, a convenience for using the bathroom. I jumped out and hooked us up, and we proceeded to make our dinner. Digging into the last of the food meant salsa and chips, and the last of the KFC (from which I abstained). The salsa jar fell over while we were eating, staining the carpet in the depressed section of the floor. A quick hosing down prevented a major disaster, but still required a hefty dose of carpet cleaner when we got home.

One of the camper spots across the driving path from us contained a couple whom we though were the campground managers. We assumed this from the woman’s vigil, staring at us to see what we were up to. After a while we drew the front curtains so we didn’t have to worry about her any longer. (Though I almost expected that action to prompt the woman to walk over to our van and start asking really stupid questions.)

We almost seemed to know what the next day would bring, and we didn’t stay up late. It was the first night since Colorado Springs that we turned in early. As we lay there, a slight rumbling of thunder rolled across the sky, quickly followed by a spring rain. I fell asleep listening to the light pattering of falling water.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Aside from a good laugh at Bucksnort (who the hell names a town Bucksnort?), we arrived at Horse Cave without incident. Tomorrow we’ll probably hit Mammoth Cave and head again towards home.

More and more I believe Dhar leads a very sheltered life. Sex is just a topic he doesn’t want to talk about … that and the letter ‘Y’ for some strange reason.

Found out Rebecca’s bisexual. Still wonder if I am – won’t know for sure for a while, but either way, [I] really don’t care. Sex is still one of those annoyingly illusive things.

More and more I think women are like the unasked question: you know there’s a solution to the question, but you’re afraid to ask because then you look stupid. Men on the other hand are like an old truth -Why? Because.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Lousiana, Oak Alley Plantation, Mississippi

Despite Dhar’s snoring, I had a fairly decent sleep that night. As was our habit, the first order of business was a shower. Dhar was one step ahead of me, something I gathered by the sound of running water from the bathroom and the empty cot in the middle of the floor.

The couch wasn’t as comfortable as I thought it would be when I had gone to bed, but I was too lazy at the time to bother setting up my cot. I had escaped the bane of all couch-sleepers — the kinked neck — a fluke in retrospect. The seats were springy enough, yet one never knows what a night of tossing a turning will bring. I did have a nasty case of “fabric face” though.

When Dhar emerged from the bathroom, I took his place and prepared to wash up for another long day. Or so went the intention … in practice my goal was a little more difficult. My shower started off okay, but less than 30 seconds into it (fortunately before I put any shampoo in my hair) the water turned ice cold. Then it flipped to scalding hot. Then back to ice cold. This pattern went on for a couple of minutes while I waited at the other end of the bathtub to see if it would stop. But the temperature fluctuations didn’t stop, and I ended up forgoing on a shower that morning. I made a feeble attempt to at least partially make up for the deficit by meticulously washing my face in the sink.

Dhar had a smile a kilometre wide when I exited the bathroom. He asked me if I liked the shower. The bastard hadn’t warned me! He’d let me wander into the shower that morning and burn my skin off while freezing my gonads. So when Stefan and Rebecca emerged from their room a few minutes later, I didn’t tell them either…

They found out quickly enough. Rebecca yipped and yelped as the water shifted from flaming to frigid. Expecting a verbal barrage when they emerged, I was rather surprised to hear only: “That shower sucks,” as they disappeared into their room. The door closed behind them and silence returned to the room.

Dhar and I set about cleaning up our mess, all the while wondering how a hotel that normally charged $150 a night for our room could have such a shitty plumbing system. I began to question the hotel, thinking that perhaps this was their doing, in revenge for the discount we were getting. Although I put the thought out of my mind (I really couldn’t see that kind of thing happening), I had nagging doubts all day long. So did we all.

The cameras came out early, I wanted to briefly become a pain-in-the-neck and take a surprise photo. Dhar had been like that for a good portion of the trip, catching us just as we were waking up, while we were driving, anytime that was awkward for the subject of the picture. But Dhar got the essence of what we were, no preparedness for the picture. On other trips I had taken, such a tactic was characteristic of me. I had lost the technique over the years, not having taken many pictures. It was time to start again.

I stood outside the bedroom door and focused my camera on the door. I didn’t know who was going to come out first so I tried to aim approximately where either Stefan or Rebecca’s head could be. I held my camera in place and starting talking with Dhar again, not looking in the direction of the closed door. After a few minutes of patient waiting, the door opened and my finger snapped down on the shutter button. It was only after I looked towards the doorway that I realized I had taken a picture of Stefan.

The plan was simple: we were going to see a plantation, specifically Oak Alley. It was just a matter of finding the place. Unfortunately we had misplaced the brochure I had obtained from the KOA office the day before. A complete search of our hotel room and Rebecca’s purse (where we believed the brochure to be) turned up nothing. Since we had to travel in that general direction anyway (that much I knew), we considered a brief stop at the KOA a good idea.

We packed all our gear together and loaded up to head downstairs and check out. Our semi-dramatic entrance less than 24 hours earlier was being played in reverse, a rag-tag team of four university students exiting from a posh hotel looking almost like we should be living in the streets. I think we all took a little pride in that, our way of telling those who’d turn their noses at us that we really didn’t give a damn.

The Behemoth was waiting when we got out to the road, one of the joys of valet service. The bags were stowed, the books stashed, the CD player returned to its place of honour, and the fridge checked to make sure it was still cold. I had made certain the day before that the 12 volt system was switched on and the fridge was set for 12 volt. The battery was nearly dead, but the fridge was cold. This meant our breakfast of donuts, leftovers from the previous day’s breakfast, weren’t too runny.

We strapped in and headed our way back to the KOA. By this time we had a pretty good feeling for driving around in New Orleans, and the maps were left on the floor. Rebecca returned to her determination to move to New Orleans. She commented that several of the homes on St. Charles Avenue would suit her nicely. (This from someone who hasn’t even paid off her school loans yet.)

I had my camera handy as I drove. The sun had finally returned to the New Orleans sky, and I was determined to get some pictures of the tree canopy over St. Charles Avenue. I also took a couple pictures of the trolleys in motion. Soon we were back at Jefferson Highway and heading west. It wasn’t long before the familiar red and yellow KOA sign appeared around a bend.

I pulled up next to the office while explaining to Rebecca approximately where I had found the Oak Alley brochure in the rack. She dove into the office and returned a heartbeat later, a white piece of glossy paper in hand. I felt a little guilty about taking another copy of the brochure from the KOA when we weren’t staying there, but we had stayed there one night before, and I somehow doubted that the KOA had to pay someone to stock their printed matter rack.

We drove along until we got to Williams Boulevard, where we turned north towards the I-10. There was a double purpose to the trip along Williams Boulevard, which appeared only a few blocks up from Jefferson Highway — our long-sought after Starvin’ Marvin. It must have appeared very strange to the staff (not to mention the patrons) to see a large camper-van pull up to the side of the road, a dark-skinned man wearing jeans dive out the side door, take a picture of the store, and dive back in the van, which promptly drives off.

The instructions were reasonably simple: get on the I-10 and travel west to exit 195. We would then travel south on a road that we didn’t know the name of, which would take us to a bridge that would cross the Mississippi River. On the other side we would find Highway 18. Heading west (or north, depending on what way you think you’re pointed), you eventually come across Oak Alley.

As I drove, Dhar and I chatted nonchalantly about anything that happened to come to mind. Stefan and Rebecca, however, were unusually quiet that morning. Too quiet. It sounds a little weird, I don’t deny it, but the lack of conversation from them was disconcerting. I couldn’t help but feel that the escape Dhar and I had pulled had crossed the lines of decency, and they were two harrumphs past annoyed. It seemed reminiscent of the silent treatment kids give to one another in punishment. Whatever the case was, it made me uneasy.

By the time we reached exit 195, Dhar and I were talking about anything just to feel somewhat normal … at least I was, I don’t know if Dhar was feeling as paranoid that morning as I. We turned down a nondescript highway towards the Mississippi River. The silence was deafening. There are times that I wish I was psychic, so I could know the thoughts of others. (At the very least, it would help with my social life — not having to guess whether or not a woman’s going to deck me simply for talking to her would be a great relief.) That morning I would have loved to know if Dhar and I would live to see the end of the day.

The map on the brochure we had wasn’t to scale. We didn’t have a clue where Oak Alley was, only that somewhere along the highway (a small two lane road) we’d stumble across the old plantation. We rounded a bend in the road, and the space to the south of us opened up. Across a small field, partially obscured by three large trees, was a large red and yellow building. It looked a little out of place, but still seemed to fit in a strange sort of manner.

It was the Laura plantation, recently opened to the public. It had been the only other plantation that the KOA manager had recommended. One of the reasons we didn’t go was that the manager had pointed out that the plantation had only just opened, and was still working out the bugs … not necessarily in the literal sense.

Just past Laura was another large bend in the road. Along the southern side was a large line of dense trees, the northern side a steep hill. A small simple sign quickly came into view: “Oak Alley Parking 500 ft.” I breathed a silent sigh of relief, I was glad we didn’t have to backtrack on our route to find the place. In a heartbeat we could look down the feature that gave the plantation its name: an alley of 28 enormous oak trees that led to the plantation house.

We pulled into the gravel driveway at the west end of the plantation lot, and traveled down the slightly winding road to the lot. We deposited the van away from most of the other cars, just so we’d have some room to maneouver when it was time to leave. The ceiling hatch was opened and the fan turned on to keep the inside cool, we grabbed whatever we thought we might need, and set off to find the main entrance.

The booth was at the north-east end of the lot. Tickets were a little more expensive than most places we had been to at that point, about $8, but the cost included a guided tour of the plantation house. We left the gravel pathways and started eastwards onto an asphalt surface that looked just wide enough to handle the Behemoth and two people on either side. We walked about 100 metres to a junction with another path that ran north-south.

We turned north towards the rear of the plantation manor. Although it wasn’t what I expected for a residence of the rich and powerful, there was something about it that looked oddly familiar … I just couldn’t put my finger on it. We walked along the path under a series of oak trees that looked very similar to those at the front of the house, but smaller in size.

As we approached the rear, we caught sight of a young African-American woman dressed in a period gown, assumedly based on the type of clothes the women house slaves wore when the plantation was in operation. She smiled and bade us a cheerful “hello”, which Dhar promptly returned for the rest of us. She was to be our tour guide, and directed us to the front of the house to wait for a bell that would alert us to the next tour of the manor house.

Around the front, the sheer size of the oak trees became very apparent. The constant growth over the years had created branches so heavy that tall metal poles supported the huge boughs, and steel rods were inserted through the trees to keep them from falling apart. The cover over the pathway that ran down the middle of the two rows of 14 trees was so complete, hardly any sunlight reached through. At the other end of the pathway was the wrought iron fence, Highway 18, and the steep hill. It wasn’t until later that we found out that the hill was one of the levees for the Mississippi River.

I walked halfway up the path and dug out my panoramic camera to catch part of the view of the front of this magnificent building. As I took the picture, that strange feeling of familiarness came over me again. I had seen that shot before somewhere, but I honestly couldn’t remember where.

Dhar was strolling through the gardens, looking at whatever he happened to come across. Stefan and Rebecca waited with many other people for the bell to ring. The bell was a large rocker bell, mounted on the east side of the house with a rope that ran to the second level. Shortly before the bell finally rung, our tour guide asked for us to sign the guest registry, a formality I hardly saw necessary. I could hardly see the banal quotes and signatures of use unless you happened to be famous.

The bell rung as I was signing, and the tour guide asked us to go to the rear of the house, where the tour would start. The tour guide walked through the middle of the house and opened the door from the inside. Stepping through the door activated a time machine that catapulted us two hundred years into the past — a past where man enslaving man was normal, electricity was unheard of, chivalry thrived, and the Mississippi River was America’s Interstate.

The house had three floors, of which we saw two (Louisiana law governing emergency fire exits prevented us from seeing the third floor). The two floors we did see both had high ceilings, anywhere from 15 to 20 feet (I’m not very good at judging heights). The plan of the floors was simple: a central hallway that ran from the front door (directly in line with the front pathway that ran between the two rows of oak trees) to the back door (directly in line with the rear pathway that ran between the two rows of smaller oak trees). (You could, in effect, see from the rear path all the way to the Mississippi River looking through the house.) At the “rear” end of the hallway was the staircase, running from almost halfway up the hall right to the rear wall.

The house was massive, although you really couldn’t tell unless you looked very hard. And I don’t mean massive in the sense of “largeness”, but in sense of strength. The architects had known that hurricanes were prone to passing through the area, and many homes were regularly destroyed by such storms. The Oak Alley plantation manor was built with five-foot thick brick walls to withstand the storms.

But even a house that massive had the amenity of windows. In fact, all the windows were strategically placed across from each other through doorways. The result was that all the windows could be opened and wind could pass straight through the house to keep it cool during the summers.

Immediately to our left (on the west side of the hallway) was a small drawing room, furnished with a couple chairs, a desk, and a few lamps. The decor looked like Sherlock Holmes’ study. The small room took up roughly a third of the usable space on the west side of the house, yet was barely 20 feet square.

Between the drawing room and the next doorway were a couple linen closets, called “hidden rooms”. Behind the shelves were rooms that hadn’t seen any light in a hundred years. One of the previous owners of Oak Alley used to hold private discussions of politics and life with his friends in the rooms … and no women were allowed. Naturally the practice led to smoking and over-drinking. Eventually his wife could take no more and had the rooms sealed.

Just to side of one of the closets was a small glass case containing some of the pages from the guest registry, some bearing gold stars indicating the celebrities who had visited the historic home. Some of Hollywood’s biggest names had walked in the same spots as we were walking, including Brad Pitt. It was when I read his name it dawned upon me where that feeling of familiarity was coming from. By now, you may also know. (For those of you who still don’t know what I’m babbling about, please allow me to enlighten you. In 1993, the Anne Rice novel Interview With The Vampire was filmed on location at Oak Alley. The opening flashbacks of the movie tell the story of Louis’ life in New Orleans, and his mansion is Oak Alley.)

The next room on the west side of the hallway was the sitting room, what we would call a living room. It filled the remaining visible two-thirds of the western side of the first floor (remember there was a hidden room). It contained a few couches, tables, and a fireplace (which to me seemed a little out of place in Louisiana). The guide explained some of the artifacts in the room, including a chaperone’s mirror and a table with a tilting top.

The chaperone’s mirror hung on the north wall, and was placed facing south. The mirror itself wasn’t flat, but curved so that someone standing out in the hallway could still see anyone in the room. It wasn’t a security device the way we use such mirrors today, but was used to keep an eye on courting couples from afar.

The tilting table was a device used by women to keep the heat of the fire from melting their makeup, which they would wear for weeks at a time. Unlike today’s synthetic powders and cremes, women of the 1800’s usually wore beeswax. This was to fill in the pockmarks left by smallpox, through which many people suffered until a cure was found.

Another interesting little detail that the guide pointed out was the abundance of clocks in the house, all which showed exactly the same time, which was wrong. They had all been stopped decades ago when the last owner of the house had died. Following an old southern custom, all the clocks in the house were stopped at the time of death for a period of a year. The plantation was sold before the year was up, and the clocks were never restarted.

Across from the sitting room was the dining room. It had the same layout as the sitting room (not counting the furniture), except for the kitchen door on the south end. In the middle of the room was a long, ornate dining table. Above it hung a large crystal chandelier. Originally the mount from which the chandelier hung was a large fan, which had since been put on display in the south-east corner of the room. The fan looked like a large wooden music stand, without the supporting pole. The fan had once sported a leather cover, and was swung from side to side by a slave child who would stand at the side of the room, pulling on a rope.

We then proceeded up the stairs to view the bedrooms. The second floor rooms followed the pattern of the first floor, two small rooms next to two larger rooms, in the ratio of 1:2 for space. The smaller rooms were for children and visiting young ladies (the young men slept outside of the manor house). Both had large beds, the south-west room was decorated in a style typically used when someone died.

The largest room was the master bedroom, in the north-west corner of the second floor. It had so much furniture and decorations, it looked rather hard to move around in it. Ropes placed across the door frames prevented anyone from entering the room.

We then exited through the north door to walk onto the balcony that ran right around the outside of the second floor of the house. The view of the grounds was much better, none of the hedges and bushes obstructed the view any longer.

After another piece of historical information (which had something to do with where the previous owners were buried, and where the current owner lived), we went back inside through the south door. The guide then ended the tour, upon which we went back down the stairs and out through the front door.

Rebecca promptly announced that she wanted a mint julep. It was Louisiana, it was a plantation, it was getting hot, and the staff were selling them at the rear of the house. I didn’t know what a mint julep was, other than it was primarily a southern cocktail of some sort, and James Bond drank one in Goldfinger. It’s mostly straight bourbon with a shot of mint syrup for flavour. It’s a devilishly simple drink, and damn strong. I had only a sip, but could taste it for hours afterwards.

While Rebecca sipped on her julep, we walked down the rear path under the 150 year-old oak trees (a bit of information we received on the tour — the trees out front were over 300 years old, and no-one really know who planted them) heading to the southern areas of the plantation. Soon we ended up at the gift shop. Nearby were the bed and breakfast bungalows.

Inside were various pictures, postcards, mugs, hats, t-shirts, cookbooks, spices … nearly everything you could think of, packed into the neat little shop without it looking cluttered. I wasn’t in the mood for purchasing anything, so I made use of the toilet instead. Rebecca bought a cookbook.

By that time, the sun was out in full force and the chill had been eradicated. Suddenly the thing to do was to sit in the middle of the vast grass lawns and lay in the warmth. This didn’t last too long though … Rebecca sat on a nest of red ants, which promptly bit her in several places on her legs. On the bright side though, the bites would have hurt a lot more if she hadn’t been drinking mint julep.

We were fairly near to the mysterious graves of the previous owners, so we wandered over a small wooden bridge to a heavily treed area, which surrounded the half dozen graves. I don’t know if we were expecting anything, because we certainly didn’t find anything out of the ordinary … at least for a cemetery. We didn’t stick around too long, and headed back to the Behemoth.

The next step was to find our way out of Louisiana, and head towards the home of the King of Rock ‘n Roll — Memphis, Tennessee. In our way was Mississippi state, and a long humid drive. The van was cool (the result of the fan), and I assumed the position of navigator while Stefan drove.

We doubled back on the route we had taken, pausing only once to take a picture of the front oak trees one last time before vanishing into the distance. By that time, I was feeling less worried about Stefan and Rebecca. Either they had given up making Dhar and I feel guilty for our actions, or they had just been a little tired and not in a talkative mood. In either case, I was glad we had returned to being yappy.

Returning to the I-10, we proceeded east to I-55, which took us north. We passed by the west end of Lake Pontchartrain, and soon were heading towards home. Although that was a goal a couple days away still.

If I had but one regret about New Orleans, it was not finding any vampires. Not that I really want to be killed by one, or turned into a demon of the night, but it was a view I got from listening to too many stories of New Orleans. Perhaps in the years to come things may change…

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960430.15

Day 10

Did I step over my bounds, and put Dhar in a bad position? This morning was oddly quiet, almost silent. I’ve been in situations where friendship is feigned instead of confronting the problem – I pray that isn’t the case here.

Dhar and I went out last night for about 2.5 hours, leaving Stef and Rebecca alone in the hotel. Dhar told me that Stef had said Rebecca would be “uncomfortable” with Dhar and I leaving them alone, yet Rebecca had made allusions to a need for privacy with Stef. This I heard about after deciding that Dhar and I needed to vacate the premises for a while – both Stef and Rebecca looked like they were about to explode – they needed some release, and tip-toeing around the issue wasn’t helping any. Dhar and I may be miserably single, but we aren’t blind to the needs of couples.

It just dawned on me that I feel fairly relaxed, for the first time in about a year. Even if the vacation were to end now, I would be pleased in the knowledge that I did something.

This morning (after sleeping in and getting scalded by the shower), we went to Oak Alley Plantation. Rebecca got drunk on a mint julep, then bitten by red ants. On to Graceland!

My parents and I have very differing view of what a vacation is. I like to be entertained, kept interested. Plunk me on a beach for a week and I’ll go insane. Most people would consider the trip we took very stressful, and I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t totally smooth-flowing (few things are). But we had accomplished so much in just 10 days that I felt a sense of achievement, which gave me my much needed feeling of relaxation. (After five years of university, you start feeling relaxed when you complete big things — it’s a learned response developed from doing essays and projects for school. Take an introductory psychology course, and you’ll understand.)

So as we crossed the state line into Mississippi, I no longer really cared what we did. We had seen almost everything I had wanted to see, and a lot more that I had never really planned on. I had no regrets about what we had done (except maybe the lack of vampires), and no worries about what was yet to come. We were heading for Memphis, and Graceland.

It was past 18:00 when we pulled into a rest stop for a toilet run. The stop was sparsely populated (I guessed not many people travel through Mississippi and stop along the way, either that or they were at some restaurant having a generic pre-fabricated dinner), mostly trucks parked in the front portion of the rest area. Aside from a car and a pick-up that came in and left, we had the rear area to ourselves.

The bathrooms were, shall we say, unique. They were the only ones we used that we would recommend replacing — there was no possible way to fix that place up enough to make it look good. Most of the inside had been covered in some kind of goop (which I didn’t want to even go near), the floors hadn’t been cleaned since the building had been erected, the windows were completely clouded (which might have been intentional, but it was hard to tell), and the only cockroach I saw had died from trying to live in that squalor. The only good point about the washroom was that the echoing made me sound like Darth Vader. Rebecca complained that the place was so bad that it even had the obligatory peephole in the women’s bathroom. Dhar mentioned that the men’s room had one too.

Instead of immediately filing back into the Behemoth and hitting the Interstate again, we decided to stay and have dinner. It was an opportunity to eat the potatoes that we had been lugging around for the past 4,000 kilometres. I dug out the barbeque, lit the burner and tossed on eight of the tubers (wrapped in aluminum foil). Stefan complained about the aluminum, claiming it caused Alzheimer’s disease if it got into your blood stream. I didn’t know where he got his fact from, but I made a mental note to look into the issue (especially since all anti-perspirants use aluminum hydroxide).

Baking potatoes is one of the most time consuming processes in cooking. (I now know how to cut the cooking time in half, but it didn’t help that dinner.) So while we waited for the potatoes to cook enough for us to eat them, we laid back and relaxed a little. Dhar broke out the bottle of Budwieser he had bought back in Fort Stockton, Texas. We had to take a picture of him sitting proudly with the over-sized bottle. Rebecca hopped into the picture for show.

Eventually the potatoes had cooked enough so that they weren’t raw … they were burned. The barbeque was an good way to cook things, but the heat wasn’t very well distributed, resulting in over- and under-cooked food at the same time (sometimes in the same piece of whatever it was you were cooking). But I hadn’t reduced them to charcoal, which made the meal at least slightly edible.

After dinner, we resumed our northerly direction towards Memphis. The trip was a fairly uneventful one … except for Rebecca’s continual attempts to strike up strange forms of conversation. (As we had crossed New Mexico, it was going through the alphabet letter-by-letter, listing off every word you could think off, and usually having a long discussion about it. ‘Sex’ was a particularly long conversation.) She excelled and coercing people to talk, though after a while Stefan and Dhar would rebel and switch topics to cars or computers. That usually had the effect of either shutting Rebecca up, or making her want to switch the topic again. I sat on the sidelines and watched the fur fly.

Rebecca wasn’t feeling too well. Our trip had been beautifully planned (though mostly by luck), we had missed nearly every major problem associated with road trips: traffic, bad weather (except in Missouri), and crowds (except in Las Vegas). The only thing we hadn’t expected was the rise in the price of gas. We also didn’t anticipate Rebecca falling under the spell of “The Curse”.

All women experience PMS in different ways. Some hardly notice it. Some have to get surgery to prevent bleeding to death. Most tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Rebecca was closer the lighter end of the scale (at least from my point of view) — she could still argue, walk around, and eat. Many of my female friends have very tough periods, with cramps taking them out of service for upwards of an entire day. But cramps are cramps, and as much as men try to think that they understand, none of us have ever had to experience them. Rebecca was visibly uncomfortable. The sooner we stopped for the night, the better.

There were two KOAs in Memphis, one of them was named “Graceland”. According to the maps I was looking at, it looked like it was right across the street from Elvis’ Graceland, which to us would be a great advantage. So we opted for the nearer of the two campgrounds.

We arrived in Memphis just after 23:00 that evening. Graceland was located in the south end of the city, so we didn’t have to spend too much time trying to navigate our way through Memphis. We exited I-55 at exit 5B, turning south onto Highway 51 … which in Memphis is known as Elvis Presley Boulevard. We drive south for about a mile before finding the KOA sign. Much to our disappointment, Graceland wasn’t across the street from the KOA, but lay about an eighth of a mile further south.

It was cool in Memphis, the air mass that had cooled off New Orleans the day before had obviously gone through Memphis on its way south. Stefan hopped out of the van and went through the rigmarole of signing all the forms, dotting his ‘T’s and crossing his ‘I’s. Even before that was done, Rebecca and Dhar set out to find the restrooms and see if they were locked. This produced who I assumed to be the KOA manager, who seemed a little peeved about us showing up at 22:15 at night.

Dhar and Rebecca appeared after a few minutes, proudly (but quietly) proclaiming the bathroom doors were unlocked. Stefan finished all the drudgery of the KOA paperwork at the same moment, and we drove the van our to our campsite for the evening. Unlike our previous sites, we had opted for a basic camping site with no hook-ups. They way we saw it, all we were interested in was sleep. No dishes, no electricity, nothing fancy at all. The fridge was nearly empty, hence nothing perishable, and could last the night on the 12 volt system.

After we parked, I made my run to make use of the facilities. I still find it rather surprising just how little we actually stopped for toilet breaks — maybe a little over a dozen times in the entire trip (not counting stops for meals). We often managed to hold out for long periods of time. Perhaps it wasn’t so much my surprise at the entire group, but also Rebecca. I know it sounds sexist, but all my experience seems to point to women have small bladders. (And children, but we didn’t have any with us.) My mother is particularly bad. (My parents have a three month journey planned for the Behemoth starting in mid-September. I can only imagine how often they’ll be stopping.)

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

It’s about 23:20, and we’re settling in for the night. Rebecca’s got cramps, Dhar seems to be depressed about something, Stef and I don’t want to go home too early, and our site doesn’t have any hook-ups. Okay ’nuff complaining.The silence issues may have been from a simple case of exhaustion – and I seemed to the only one completely awake. I can only hope Dhar got enough sleep [last night], or I’m going to tape his mouth shut and make breathe through his nose!

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Touring New Orleans

The morning was sunny and humid, much like the day before. We awoke between 08:00 and 08:30 following a long and comfortable night’s sleep. Showers were the order of the morning, to prepare oneself for the long day ahead. We had planned to execute the steps of Rebecca’s master plan to conquer the world … starting with New Orleans. A plantation tour and a visit to the swamps were main directives.

Several RVs and campers were packing up, preparing to travel to their homes in some distant state or country. Dhar hadn’t yet returned from his venture of the night, but we knew he soon would. Vampire or not, we had all his clothes.

The shower was inviting, I felt rather invigorated. Not a particularly active morning person, I’ve found a good morning shower as effective for me as coffee is for others. However, my morning was to take a minor plunge when I returned to the van. I found, much to my horror, I was out of underwear. I had managed to stretch my week’s worth of clothing to almost nine days (remember that I two of those nine days were virtually extensions of two others, effectively making seven days), but I had finally reached the end of the line.

Dhar entered the van a moment later, carrying a small box of laundry detergent. (I hadn’t noticed the return of the Neon on my way back to the van.) The verdict seemed to be unanimous. It was laundry day. Dhar had purchased the small box of soap for everyone, which really made a lot of sense. There was no way we were going to be washing again before the trip was over, so might as well use all that we could. Dhar had already started his wash.

I gathered all my spent clothes together (already contained in plastic grocery bags) along with my towel and bathing suit. I intended to wash all the clothes I could, so for a couple of hours that morning, I wore only a t-shirt and my fleece shorts — all my underwear went in the wash. It was a bit drafty without a layer underneath, but in the warmth of south Louisiana, you really don’t notice it much.

The laundry house was about 15 metres away from the van, a short walk around a couple of nearby RVs. Entering through the east end, the room contained washing machines to the left and right of the doors, and a double bank of dryers at the opposite end. A short line of chairs rested on the right side of the room where there were less washing machines. The solitary occupant was an elderly man, undoubtedly washing his clothes.

I dumped the entire contents of the bags into a single washing machine, not bothering to separate colours. I hadn’t brought anything that hadn’t already been washed a million times — bleeding colours wasn’t really much of a concern for me. I sprinkled in a few mounds of soap, shook it into the gaps between the shirts and shorts, then throwing in a last handful for good measure. I clapped in the $1.00 washing fee (all quarters) into the pull slot and sent the industrial washer into high gear.

Figuring on about 40 minutes to wash my clothes, I took the opportunity to get a few chores done. First on my list was to call home. I had told my mother I would call when I got to Texas. Unfortunately, we had passed rather quickly through that state, and I missed my chance to report home. A phone nearby the laundry house fit the bill.

Mother still hadn’t found my health insurance, but I wasn’t too concerned by that point. She asked how the trip was going and how well we were holding out. I kept the call fairly short for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to talk too long during the day, and 2) I didn’t want to have to answer a lot of questions I’d have to answer again when I got home. (This is another reason why I write this. If you asked me how the trip was, you undoubtedly got directed here.)

As I hung up, I felt a few drops of rain fall on me. I looked up into the sky, noticing that a few clouds were beginning to fill the sky. I headed back to the van to make sure that nothing got wet. Dhar was sitting at the picnic table next to the van, writing postcards to his family. I asked him how his night had been. Trouble found Dhar yet again.

Having dropped us off, he had driven back downtown again to see what else he could do. He went into a bar (assumedly to have a drink or two) and was promptly discovered by a group of our fellow countrymen, in various states of intoxication. This wasn’t the bad part. That came about when one of the group announced, rather loudly, that Americans don’t know how to party. Dhar wanted to crawl under a rock. I would too in that situation.

I take objection to putting down the residents of any one country without good reason. Given, Americans tend to be looked down on by many Canadians for various reasons (some are rather insipid or meaningless), but that didn’t give those fools any reason to spout their mouths off like that. They, like us, were guests of our gracious hosts, and one does not want to offend one’s host. Especially if there are more of them.

Following his tangle in the bars of Bourbon Street, Dhar drove around for quite some time to use up as much gasoline as he could. In doing so he drove three-quarters of the way to Baton Rouge and back (a trip of about 120 miles). Still having well over a quarter of a tank of gas remaining, he toured New Orleans until returning to the campground.

I decided to take after Dhar and write some more postcards home. I wandered across the campground lawn, crossed the road and entered the KOA office just as Rebecca was leaving, acknowledging each other in passing. One of the male KOA staff, whom I assumed to be the manager, was looking at Rebecca as she left the building, shaking his head. He asked of me:

“Do you think that’s a natural thing, or do they do that on purpose?”

(He was referring to way women’s hips tend to swing as they walk.) I promptly answered: “With her, it’s sometimes hard to tell.” (There are many long stories that go into that statement, and none of them are going to be repeated here. Suffice to say, this was neither an insult or a “factual statement”. It was a ribbing if anything. Had Rebecca heard me, she would’ve returned the favour.) The two of us laughed a little, then I got down to business. I grabbed four postcards, trying not to spend too much time in selecting them, and bought four 40 cent stamps to get my messages home.

As I finished paying for my message medium, I started probing the man for information. We had plans to do some visiting that day, and I figured enough tourists came through the KOA in a year to make the staff reasonably knowledgeable in the right places to see. I asked the man what was the best plantation to see, and which swamp tour came most recommended.

Barely skipping a breath: “If you go to a plantation, everyone’ll ask ya which one ya went to, and everyone’ll ask if it was that one,” he said, pointing his finger to a rack of pamphlets next to the door. I had to ask for clarification as to which one he was referring to. “Oak Alley. Most famous one of all.” Following his pointing and reading the titles carefully, I found the illusive white booklet near the top. The picture on the front looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why.

As far as swamp tours were concerned, we just had to keep in mind how much we wanted to pay, how far into the swamps we were willing to go, and so on and so on. I was appraised of one particular tour guide who only did the tours at night, looking like someone who had decayed in the swamp for several years. He picked up his passengers in a hearse and took them deep into the swamp where he would scare the hell out of them. Goes to show you, people are stupid.

Taking the advise and thanking the manager for his time, I returned to the van to get ready to finish off my laundry. I figured that enough time had passed that the wash would be ready to dry. The old man was still sitting in his chair when I entered the laundry room. My machine, closest to the dryers on the right side of the room, was still going. With no visible timer built into the machine, there was no way to tell how long until it was all dry.

I left and returned a few minutes later, this time with more success. I opened the clear plastic door of one of the upper dryers (they were stacked in twos) and plopped in the 50 cent drying fee. I was about to close the door when I realized I had no fabric softener sheets. Knowing I’d end up buying more than I needed, I shut the door and dealt with slightly rough clothes for the rest of the trip.

About 40 minutes later my mostly dry clothes emerged. Like many laundromat dryers that I’d used over the years, these didn’t do a perfect job, coming just shy of where they needed to be. But dry enough for me. I packed the lot into the two grocery bags that I’d brought them out in and returned to the van to sort the lot out. The first order of business was underwear, the constant draft was becoming disconcerting. I packed the dry clothes in my backpack, and laid the slightly less dry clothes out in the diminishing sun to finish drying.

I had thought earlier the clouds were going away. But more and more poured in from the north. It looked like rain. Dhar thought so too. As if on cue, the manager appeared at our side door and pronounced exactly what we were thinking. He then suggested that we skip the swamp tours. Apparently when it rained, everything one wants to see in a swamp disappears until the sun comes back out and dries everything off.

But like Cliff Clavin, he just couldn’t stop with that one fact. He immediately jumped into how much rainfall New Orleans received in an average storm. I’d heard about the rain briefly from my friend Chris, who had visited New Orleans a few years earlier on a music trip (not unlike the one featured in [[Music Trip to Orlando, Introduction|Music Trip to Orlando]]). But we had yet to experience it…

The rain, so the man was telling us, comes like an orgasm: quick, short, hot, and wet. In fact, so much rain falls in an average rain storm that New Orleans installed a series of pumps to get the roads dried out as quickly as possible. Each of these pumps empties the equivalent of a swimming pool of water every second. (That’s about 35,000 gallons, or 133,000 litres.) There are 38 of these pumps, each generating a spout of water over 10 feet across. Needless to say, Dhar and I were duly impressed.

Stefan and Rebecca returned from the office, and everyone agreed we needed food. Normally, we would be out touring or on the road to our next destination, having eaten breakfast. But we had tapped the last of our breakfast food the day before. Stefan and Dhar volunteered to find some donuts for us to eat, and promptly drove off in the Neon.

Not long afterwards, the clouds began to start shedding some of their moisture. Not a lot of it, most just a few sprinklings, but enough to cause me to starting bringing in the towels and clothes that had been sitting in the sun. The clouds kept getting denser and denser, blocking out more and more of the sun with each passing minute. We were going to experience a New Orleans downpour, but we didn’t know when.

I informed Rebecca about the problems with seeing the swamp in the rain. She looked a little dejected, but agreed that we would be better off in sunnier conditions. This left the door open for more touring of the city. (Visiting a plantation in the rain would be just as bad as the swamp — but it would be us wanting to disappear into shelter.)

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960429.1125

Day 9

Today we’re heading for a hotel, then downtown for some fun. Did my laundry this morning, which is good ‘cuz I ran out of underwear last night. Expecting a torrential downpour today.

Dhar and Stef are off getting donuts for breakfast / lunch … brunch?

Had an interesting conversation with the manager – regarding the swinging hips of the fairer sex, he making a specific reference to Rebecca – I think only because he realized we know each other. It’s hot, it’s humid and I’ve got an acne breakout.

Checkout for us was at noon. Stefan and Dhar took a significant amount of time in returning to us with our breakfast (rapidly becoming lunch), arriving at 11:45. They claimed a great deal of trouble in finding a donut shop, eventually finding one not too far from the KOA.

On a whole, American donuts don’t quite match up to Tim Horton’s, a cornerstone of Canadian cuisine. Most tend to be rather dense, crumbly, dry, and bland. But the donuts that Dhar and Stefan found (for a surprisingly low price, only about $2) were a taste of home … with about four times the amount of sugar. Never before had I eaten a donut that made my heart palpitate from the level of sucrose. Not that I was complaining, they were damn good.

We ate hastily, not wanting to overstay our welcome at the campground. The uneaten donuts were crammed into the fridge, and we set about unhooking the Behemoth from the city utilities and preparing to hit the road. When we were ready to leave, Dhar jumped in the Neon while Stefan, Rebecca, and I drove the van.

We had decided on a hotel on the north side of the Garden District, about two miles from the French Quarter. In a map that Rebecca had taken from the KOA office the day before (the maps were free), we found a coupon for a one-night stay at the Avenue Plaza Suite Hotel and Eurovita Spa. (Long name, eh?) The usual price for the room was well over $100, but the coupon knocked the price to $50.

We pulled out onto Jefferson Highway and started heading east. Almost immediately we lost Dhar in the traffic, but in a matter of seconds he appeared just inches off our rear bumper. Actually, he appeared then disappeared as he approached our rear bumper — the Neon was so short that I couldn’t see him through the rear window.

Our view along Jefferson Highway was unimpeded by night, the “urbanness” of the area was rather plain given the city’s downtown decor. We listened to a local radio station as we drove, it was only the second time we listened to the radio since leaving home. The music was “new rock”, which is essentially a blend of rock ‘n roll and alternative styles. The radio station seemed to be populated by some rather interesting people, as was indicated by their self-promotion:

“Broadcasting live from a concrete warehouse somewhere between two cow pastures!”We drove along Jefferson Highway until we reached Carrollton Avenue. Here we turned right to head south towards the Mississippi River. Down the centre of Carrollton Avenue runs one of the lines of the famous New Orleans trolley cars. Extending over Carrollton Avenue was a spectacular canopy of trees, forming a flora tunnel. Both the trolleys and the trees ran along most of the length of Carrollton Avenue, and continued along St. Charles Avenue.

The sky above us had by now completely obscured the sun. The wind had picked up a little, and the temperature dropped. As we reached the elbow of Carrollton Avenue (where it turns into St. Charles Avenue), we saw a wall of wind come over a small hill next to the river. The wind carried leaves, small twigs, large drops of water, and the odd small animal. The Behemoth rocked slightly to the left as we turned the corner.

A moment later, the rain started. Under the continuing canopy of trees the rain wasn’t as pronounced, but when we entered one of the gaps the full force of the rain could be seen and felt. The storm we had experienced driving through Missouri was the only thing I could think of that even remotely came close to that kind of deluge.

We had a distance of about three and a half miles to cover before we arrived at the hotel. During that time we passed by some of the most awesome architecture in houses that I’d ever seen. Rebecca and Stefan came to the conclusion that they were going to move to New Orleans and live in the area. I stifled a laugh. We passed by Tulane University and Loyola University about a third of the way along St. Charles Avenue, which only strengthened Rebecca’s desire to move. She started wondering what graduate programs they had.

As we passed Jackson Avenue, our hotel appeared on the north side of the road. Parking was at a premium in the area, so we pulled into the first available side street so Rebecca and Stefan could get us checked in. I had to park in a no parking zone (next to a fire hydrant), and Dhar pulled in on the opposite side of the street.

The rain seemed to fall in millions of continuous streams, causing the streets to look like shallow rivers. I switched off the windshield wipers but kept the engine running in case I had to make a hasty exit. I stared at the flowing water, listening to the radio while waiting for the verdict to come from inside. And I waited. And waited. And waited. It took less time for me to sign into Treasure Island and have the four of us move into room.

After over 15 minutes, Stefan sprinted from around the corner of the hotel and entered the side door of the van. The hotel management hadn’t believed the coupon at first, and only after a lot of wrangling with Rebecca did they give in. I was to drive around front so we could bring all our stuff inside. Stefan then ran over to Dhar to tell him the same.

Having parked on a one-way road, I had to drive around the block until I was driving west on St. Charles Avenue, allowing me to easily pull into the front of the hotel. We made quick work of pulling all our necessary stuff out, trying to stay as dry as possible. When I went around to the rear door (where my backpack was stored), I found that the edge of the road had four inches of water coursing towards the street grating.

If we had looked a little odd walking into Treasure Island, we put a sore thumb to shame walking into the Avenue Plaza Suite Hotel. The decor was white marble, gold trim, with mahogany desks and paneling. The upper class guests frowned upon our sandals, cheap clothing, baseball caps, and backpacks as they walked outside. I felt very strange about leaving a set of keys with a valet. It wasn’t that I was afraid he’d steal anything, but it was the fact that there was no other choice than to use a valet.

The Jazz Festival over until the following weekend, the hotel was mostly deserted. Our room was on the sixth floor, St. Charles Avenue west wing, north side. The room wasn’t immense, but had two beds, a table, bathroom, kitchenette, and a TV. We unceremoniously dumped our belongings about the room, made quick use of the facilities, and prepared to return outside to start making use of our afternoon.

Stefan protested at first, not wanting to go out (he was a little damp from running around in the rain), but his better half told him to get his ass in gear before she threw something at him. The rain had brought a change in our plans, and we reverted to visiting the Aquarium of the Americas. It wasn’t the aquarium per se that we wanted to see, it was mostly the IMAX 3D movie that played there.

The Aquarium of the Americas is at the foot of Canal Street, on the river front. We found a public parking lot nearby and deposited the Neon. By this point the rain had mostly fizzled out, leaving just a few falling drops. I was now waiting for the onslaught of the sun, which from what I had heard always came out after such a storm and dried everything out.

The Aquarium building was huge. At least two American football fields in length (but probably closer to two Canadian football fields), the massive building contained both the Aquarium of the Americas and the IMAX theatre. The front of the building faced the Mississippi River, the rear faced the parking lot where we left the Neon. A long wall separated us from the Aquarium, but it ended parallel to the edge of the building anyway and wasn’t too much of a blockade.

As we rounded the wall we found more trolley tracks. I hadn’t realized that New Orleans had more than one line of trolleys. Just off to the right, flush against the wall, was an enormous steel gate about three feet thick. The gate was solid (we don’t know if it was filled with anything, but I assume it was), running the height of the wall, about 10 feet. A steel track laid into the pathway running between two sections of the wall suggested that it was closed once in a while.

At first I thought it was a security door, closed at night to prevent someone from stealing the fishes. A moment later, its real purpose dawned on me. I had forgotten we were next to the Mississippi River, the most notorious for flooding in North America. The thick walls and the gates were flood prevention devices. There were no visible signs (i.e. high water marks) that showed whether or not it had been put into use, but if history was any indication of the future, the water would soon rise.

Just past the trolley tracks we crossed a brick courtyard. Most of the brownish-red bricks had names carved into them, undoubtedly the names of the people who had donated money to fund the Aquarium’s construction and operation. We stopped briefly at a bank machine so Dhar could try and get some money (his attempts were rather unsuccessful).

As we rounded the next corner of the pseudo-rectangular building, our hopes of a peaceful visit through the complex were dashed when we found a small ocean of ankle-biters, rug rats, brats … in other words, children on field trips. Dhar slowed briefly as we walked forward. I could hear his heart beating harder as his hatred for crowds took over.

The Aquarium entrance had about ten thousand people milling around in front of it, mostly the students and teachers getting their tickets to enter. We stood patiently in line, wondering when we’d get in. Then one of the Aquarium employees yelled out that we (that being anyone waiting in line) could get tickets for both the Aquarium and the IMAX movie at the theatre box office. Even before the employee finished yelling we were half-way to the other end of the complex.

The lineup there was almost non-existant. In less than two minutes, we had our $15 tickets for the Aquarium and the IMAX movie. Our primary goal was the movie, but we had 45 minutes until that goal could be fulfilled. To fill the time in between, we opted to visit the Aquarium first. This meant we had only 40 minutes or so to see the entire attraction (our ticket didn’t allow reentry), and paying another $7 wasn’t part of our plan.

More schools had arrived while we were buying our tickets. More kids. More screaming, hyper, insolent, brutish kids. Dhar and I were beginning to feel a little claustrophobic … and we weren’t even through the doors yet.

The atrium didn’t have much to offer. A new exhibit on squids was under construction, but aside from a concrete wall, there was nothing to see. As we rounded the wall however, everything came into view … literally. The dark grey concrete wall was part of an immense tank in which several species of fish lived. Along the bottom of the tank ran a 10 foot wide transparent tube through which visitors could walk through the bottom of the tank, seeing the fish in as natural a habitat as was possible in an artificial system.

The walls must have been about a foot thick to withstand the pressure of the water and the pounding of all the kids. If some madman ever wanted to kill off all the children on the planet, all he’d have to do is create an underwater dome made of crystal, and put all the kids in the dome. They’d break it apart long before their air ran out.

I snapped a couple fuzzy pictures of rays (or skates … can’t quite tell them apart) as they floated just above the clear tube. On the other side of the 40 foot long tube was a large window, allowing a view of the tube itself.

Varieties of tropical fish, plants, eels, and what-have-you were contained in small displays around a nearly semi-circular wall on the other side. The number of kids in the immediate vicinity was enough to drive you nuts. Stefan and Rebecca were completely unfazed by all the screaming, yelling, and crying; they didn’t notice the trillions of legs and arms, moving faster than Captain Kirk on an alien sex-kitten. I guess when you deal with Eric for 18 hours a day, everything else seems calm.

Therein lay a problem: Dhar and I were ready to quickly work our way ahead of the Munchkin Convention and tour the rest of the Aquarium in relative peace. Being immune to the effects of children however, Stefan and Rebecca were keen on seeing all the exhibits. But being rational adults (you know you’re getting old when you can write “adult” about yourself and not cringe), we came to a compromise: Dhar and I would warp through the Aquarium and meet them at the IMAX theatre 15 minutes before the movie started.

In a flash, Dhar and I entered the tropics (the next area of the complex). Spiders, strange looking fish, rays (that killed more people in the Amazon than piranhas), and a few things that I didn’t recognize were scattered about. (Not literally.) But there were kids. Where the pathway curved and narrowed, they blocked the path. Dhar was about to have a heart attack — he couldn’t handle it anymore. I suggested chucking a few ankle-biters into one of tanks to give us some more room, not to mention a wee bit of enjoyment.

I suddenly stopped, coming to the realization that we were in the Amazon. Every exhibit featuring the Amazon had to have at least one tank of my favourite little fish. I started looking from side to side, briefly appearing as a much larger and hairier version of the kids we were trying to avoid. Then I saw them, tucked next to a set of stairs that ran up to a wooden catwalk. The next thing anyone near me heard was:

He’s swimming in the deep blue sea!

He’s after you, he’s after me!

He’ll eat you up, oh yes he will!

‘Cuz he’s a baaaaaad fish!

PIRAHNA! PIRAHNA! PIRAHNA! PIRAHNA!

Undoubtedly, you must be as puzzled as Dhar was. It’s completely understandable. In fact I’d be rather surprised if you did recognize this. It’s a song you’ve never heard before and probably will never hear again (unless this story somehow becomes a movie, in which case this will be a featured song in the soundtrack). It’s called “Piranha” (gee, no kidding?), and was performed by Lord Tracy, from my friend Chris’ “Albums by Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” collection. It’s a very fast paced song, sounding almost punkish in its style. And it’s hilarious.

Having explained that to Dhar, he came to the realization that I was a freak of nature. I was surprised that Stefan and Rebecca hadn’t warned Dhar ahead of time, or that he hadn’t figured that out for himself before that point of the trip.

Following my little explanation, Dhar and I promptly ran up the stairs to avoid the flood of children. There were a few running around the catwalk, but it wasn’t nearly as stuffy up there. It was also a lot more boring — there was nothing to see … except a couple of macaws hanging from a branch below us, defecating on anyone dumb enough to stand under them (such as ankle-biters). We didn’t spend long up there, winding our way over to a set of stairs and running right into Stefan and Rebecca. Our plan to get away from the crowds wasn’t working very well.

The next room had the exhibits most kids (okay, most boys) wanted to see: predatory animals. Electric fishes and eels, angler fish, and the most predatory of them all, sharks. I’ve always been fascinated by sharks, even though I’ve never been able to watch all of Jaws — scares the hell out of me. We wandered about the exhibit, seeing some of the neat things the staff had built to entertain the kids.

Aside from the obvious “petting pond” (which we avoided, mostly because the low walls couldn’t be seen through the million or so children surrounding it exclaiming their disgust at all the sliminess before thrusting their hands back in the water), the exhibit that intrigued Dhar the most was a demonstration of an electric eel’s shock. It was a simple static electricity device, generating a charge by rubbing plastic plates with a wire brush and spinning a glass bowl (I know, it sounds weird … but it works).

Kids were running over to this thing, whirling it around, burning the ends of their fingers, and then daring their friends to do the same. Dhar watched in delight as all these kids were whipping their hands around in pain. One girl came up to Dhar and asked him what the device did, and Dhar explained what it was for. Then the girl suggested that Dhar try it first, but he said that he already tried it, and that she could go ahead. The look of apprehension on the girl’s face was priceless — she didn’t seem to realize that she didn’t have to use it!

Into another short hallway we walked (now beginning to lose the sea of kids) and found a small gift shop featuring entirely shark-related merchandise. It was essentially three 10 foot tall dividers that connected to one of the permanent walls to form a booth. The Aquarium ceiling was at least another ten 10 feet above the wall, and there was no roof on the booth. There wasn’t much there of interest, save a shark-shaped oven mitt.

As we left the little stand, we swore we heard a crow. Stopping dead in our tracks, we checked to make sure we heard what we thought we heard. We heard it all right. A large raven (though not nearly as large as the ones at the Grand Canyon) was perched on the top of one of the gift shop walls, cawing away happily. Dhar and I only had a moment to wonder what the raven was doing in there when I heard a guard explain the story to a woman who had asked the same question.

When the Aquarium was being built, the raven had flown into the structure. Eventually it had become a mainstay, always in the area. When the walls and windows had finally been installed, they tried to flush the raven out, but with no luck. After a while, they just accepted the bird as a permanent resident.

The next section of the Aquarium was devoted to aquatic reproduction. Emphasis came on the rituals of the reproductive cycles, shying away from the more “dirty” aspects. Dhar and I found the quickest way through the section, claiming it was too depressing to remain in for very long. As far as we were concerned, the fish were getting it more often than we were, which put us below fish in the hierarchy of getting lucky.

We soon found ourselves above the entrance to the IMAX theatre, overlooking about a trillion kids standing in line to see the film. Dhar and I suddenly felt very compelled to find Stefan and Rebecca, or end up at the sides of the theatre (not a very nice place to be).

While Dhar backtracked to see if he could find them, I went a bit further ahead to see if somehow Rebecca and Stefan had passed us. The room I entered to contained the local biology: sturgeon, catfish, paddlefish, sawfish, gars, just about anything you’d expect to find in the New Orleans area swamps and salt-water marshes … even alligators. Well kept behind a thick panel of Plexiglas (most likely Lexan), the last remnants of dinosaurs just lay on rocks, their eyes twitching slightly.

But a good Aquarium knows how to sell itself and its attractions. Aquarium of the Americas was no exception to this rule. One of their claims to fame is a rare albino alligator. I’d never seen one before, and the tank it lay in (as nonchalantly as its brethren) allowed me to get close to the great white gator. My pictures weren’t the greatest, due in part to the tank walls and the refractive properties of the water. But I got my proof for those nay-sayers.

Next to the alligator tank I found a small sign which told the tale of a rather confused shark. Apparently a lonely male bull shark managed to get lost while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Not a terribly hard thing to do — it is a large body of water, after all. But this guy swam up the Mississippi River … to St. Louis, over 600 miles upstream in fresh water. Okay, some bull sharks live in fresh water, but the story seemed to indicate that it was a salt water shark.

Dhar reappeared, not having been able to find either Rebecca or Stefan. We thought that maybe the crowds had gotten to them after all, and had gone ahead to the theatre to meet us there. We jogged our way out of the Aquarium and down the outside of the complex to the theatre entrance. The trillion or so children were gone, undoubtedly waiting in line for seats. To make things worse, neither Stefan or Rebecca could be found. It was not looking very promising…

Dhar suggested that I wait in line while he waited for Rebecca and Stefan to appear. He couldn’t go back into the Aquarium (due to the ‘no reentry’ policy) and waited in the upper lobby. I ran down the stairs to the lower level to wait in the line.

Sure enough, the trillion or so school children were already there. If we were lucky, we would get seats in Tuktoyaktuk. About five minutes after I got in line, one of the yellow-shirted teachers (I assume it was a teacher, all the visitors from the local schools were wearing yellow shirts) called for all the students to group on the other side of the foyer. In less than a minute, there were only thirty people in our lineup. No sooner had the line decreased in size than Dhar reappeared with Stefan and Rebecca in tow.

Our apparent good luck started to sour only seconds later, when the yellow-shirted kids were let in through the doors on the opposite side of the lobby. We hoped that we would be let in first, or at least at the same time. It was a good five minutes before the doors opened and we walked into a short hallway, picked up our polarized lenses and took seats towards the back of the theatre.

What’s with the polarized lenses? Geez, I forgot to mention this was an IMAX 3D theatre, didn’t I? (How did that slip my mind?) Yes, IMAX 3D. If you’ve ever seen an IMAX movie, you know what the image quality is like, and that the sheer size of the movie makes all the world of difference when watching something you’ve never seen before. So it was fairly safe to say that when we (all of whom had seen an ordinary IMAX movie … assuming you can call an IMAX movie ‘ordinary’) heard about the 3D movie, we had to see it. (Truthfully, I can’t speak for Rebecca. But Dhar, Stefan, and myself were gung-ho enough for about 20 people.)

The process was fairly simple: the movie was filmed with a special camera that mimics the human bi-optical perspective (i.e. it has two lenses spaced about an inch and a half apart); the film is then run through a special camera that projects both images through polarized filters, which polarize one side vertically and other horizontally; the glasses block out one side of the image, allowing your brain to see two distinct images (a normal happenstance), which are pieced together in the occipital lobe of your brain, creating a three dimensional image.

Having said that, the movie was amazing. The introduction was in standard 2D, during which time the glasses were useless. But when the 3D portion started, all the hoopla (and the price of the tickets) became justified. Aquatic life was the subject of the movie, and the 3D portion started in the sea … rather, right at the surface of the sea. The water seemed to literally come right out of the screen, your eyes right at the border of air and water. It was a surreal feeling to know that you should be wet, but weren’t.

The movie made good use of perspective, having fish or other aquatic animals swim up to the camera and then swim away. A pass through a kelp forest was equally as intense. The quality of the IMAX film process led to another little feature — small particles of matter could be seen float all around you for most of the 20 – 30 minute movie. Of course nothing was so disturbing as a disgusting little sea creature that terrorized all the kids in the front rows.

Stefan, Dhar, and I spent a good deal of time looking at the technical aspects of the movie. This involved wearing the glasses upside-down, wearing the glasses backwards, not wearing the glasses, or wearing two pairs at once. Except when not wearing only one set of the lenses, you could see the 3D effect normally. Even when the lenses were backwards or upside-down, the brain could still create the proper image.

One problem we noticed with the movie was focusing. Humanity has existed in a true three dimensional environment since the day eyes were created. Focusing on a nearby item or on a mountain hundreds of kilometres away became taken for granted, we had control over the focus. But not in the movie. The focusing was done by the filming camera, so only those details that the cameraman filmed in focus remained in focus. If you tried to look deeper into the 3D image to see something else that was a bit fuzzy, it remained fuzzy. This tended to cause a lot of eye strain after a while, and both Stefan and I took our glasses off more than once during the movie to rest our eyes and avoid a brain hemorrhage.

Everyone applauded loudly when the movie ended, with good reason. It’s quite the achievement. Too bad most of them don’t know IMAX is a Canadian invention. (The company used to be based in my hometown until they moved to Toronto.)

As we left the theatre we handed in our polarized glasses, assumedly for recycling or reuse at the theatre. When we arrived back at the main floor, Rebecca ducked into the nearby gift shop to buy something for the kids. I could imagine Eric and Thea’s excitement when Rebecca and Stefan returned home — gifts from faraway lands. My sister and I were always like that when my parents returned from some corner of the Earth I haven’t yet seen. It was usually a t-shirt, but at least it was an interesting shirt.

Outside was surprisingly cool considering the rain had stopped some time earlier. According to all that I had heard of New Orleans, it should’ve been sweltering and sunny by that time. But the clouds still cast the grey gloom about the city. At least the air wasn’t dripping with humidity. It was strange weather, at least from what we had been used to since we left the Rocky Mountains, and different than we had expected in Southern Louisiana.

We returned to the Neon to drive back to the hotel. We obtained a much better view of the downtown core of New Orleans, the filtered sunshine provided much better light than the streetlamps at night. It didn’t change the fact that we still had to deal with far too many one-way roads though. But Dhar had quickly grown familiar with New Orleans, and had us back at the hotel before we could say “jambalaya”.

Upon returning however, Dhar suddenly became rather aloof again. He discussed taking the car back (we felt we didn’t need it anymore), but had some other things in mind, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. I figure that by now you’ve probably realized that this wasn’t an abnormal thing for Dhar. It was still a little disturbing though.

As Dhar sped off down a side road, we remaining three reentered the hotel. But instead of going immediately to our room, Rebecca wandered over to the front desk and asked if it was possible to change rooms. Somewhere along the line we had found out that the hotel was nearly deserted (no events were ongoing at the time to warrant a full house), and this gave Rebecca the idea that more room would be a good idea for the four of us.

Stefan wasn’t really in the arguing mode, so he boarded the elevator (partly thinking that we would quickly be following) and went up without us. The hotel manager finally gave into Rebecca’s request after a few minutes of haggling and provided her with a key to a room two doors down from ours. He said that we could have it for an extra $10.

Stefan was waiting for us when we got off on the 6th floor (he didn’t have a key), and was looking a little peeved. The new room was on the same side of the hall as our current one, but was in the corner of the building. This was one of the “suites”, having a separate bedroom with king-sized bed (and a TV), large bathroom, couch, table, full kitchenette (with a dishwasher), and a large TV in the living room. It took us only moment to decide to keep the room, which led us to transfer all our stuff from the first room to the new one.

It was now time to relax slightly. We hadn’t really had a break since the early afternoon in Las Vegas, and even that was short-lived. We turned on the TV and channel-surfed for a while. We even had both TVs going so we could watch different channels. I wisely separated myself from Stefan and Rebecca, who laid down on the bed in the separate room. Before long, the door had closed behind them.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate Supplementary

I feel lonely. I should have gone off with Dhar and get into trouble. It’s not that being alone with Stef & Rebecca is bad – don’t get me wrong, they’re good friends – but if you put [a couple] in a place where they can’t be alone, they start getting annoyingly, rather, sickeningly emotional towards each other.

I’m not uncomfortable about sex – many of my friends are very knowledgeable (and experienced) about sex. My problem stems from my current solitary status – and whenever I am reminded of this, I get depressed, irritable and downright awful. I’ll have to make sure that they get some time along tonight.

I have to envy both of them – devoted to each other, defined goals, children … and Rebecca is a sex expert! I will grant them one thing over most other couples I’ve met – they’re quiet. Don’t make me any more comfortable though.

About an hour or so later, the door opened and Rebecca emerged. Stefan had apparently gone to sleep and she didn’t want to disturb him. It was time to start thinking about our next meal. Rebecca desperately wanted to eat at one of the balconied restaurants in the French Quarter. The idea was very appealing … if only the weather would cooperate.

We started calling some of the restaurants that came recommended. All had a maximum of three people at a table (due to the width of the terraces), and all were open only if the weather permitted it. Rain had started to fall again, but only lightly. This gave us some hope of obtaining a table. But what if Dhar returned before we left? The problem was Dhar never said when he was returning (if at all), so we couldn’t plan anything to include him.

The rain increased to a steady heavy rainfall as we discussed the matter. The balconies seemed out of the picture. So we started digging through more of the restaurants to find alternatives. After a little debate over what kind of food we wanted, we decided upon the Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon. Rebecca called and made reservations at 18:30 for four, just in case Dhar reappeared. .

Stefan stumbled out of the bedroom, looking a little disheveled, but otherwise awake. He was a little surprised to find that dinner had been planned without his knowledge (or consent) … we suggested that he be awake the next time.

The next order of business was transportation. We didn’t know for certain whether or not Dhar was taking the car back (although we assumed he was). Mind you, we were also unsure of his time of return. Excluding Dhar from the grand scheme, we narrowed the choices to the trolleys or a taxi. I held out for the trolley. I’d wanted to ride one ever since I saw one on Carrollton Avenue earlier in the day.

Thus began the tidying up. Not of the room, but of ourselves. This required me to take a trip down to the hotel lobby and coerce one of the valets to let me into the van to retrieve my toiletries bag, which I had accidentally left behind. The hair was combed, the teeth brushed, and the beard shaved. A shower wasn’t terribly necessary (we hadn’t exerted ourselves enough to warrant one), so was ignored.

As we approached our moment of departure, we knew we would have to leave a note for Dhar to tell him where we were. I opted to write the note in advance, but spent most of the note telling him where I would be after sending Rebecca and Stefan home to spend some time alone. I had decided that I would get some relief by allowing them relief from us. I already knew Dhar would be in agreement (we had discussed the issue a few times before, usually when Stefan and Rebecca were sound asleep in the rear bunk). The trick was to leave it for Dhar but make sure that neither Stefan or Rebecca saw the contents.

As we entered the lobby, we went to the front desk to leave the message. I was handed an envelope, upon which we wrote Dhar’s name. I then inserted the note (despite Rebecca’s repeated requests to read it first) and sealed it. We continued to the front door and out into the early evening to catch a trolley to downtown.

We didn’t know how long we would have to wait, there was no posted schedule. According to those we had asked, the trolleys ran about every 15 minutes. That was assuming no delays anywhere along the lines. The longer we stood waiting, the more we wished we had brought along an umbrella. The rain had never completely stopped, coming and going in spurts, and the odd few drops seemed to indicate another downpour. And we had no shelter.

A vacationing couple arrived, and a short conversation ensued. Two trolley cars passed in the opposite direction, we continued to absorb more rain, and our time kept running out. The Rebecca, Stefan and I soon starting considering taking a taxi if we were to make our dinner reservation downtown. Almost as soon as that thought had come out into the open, Dhar emerged from a taxi in front of our hotel. Immediately I yelled for him not to let the cab get away, and the three of us sped across the St. Charles westbound lanes.

Having nothing else to do, Dhar decided to tag along even though he had already eaten. Our taxi driver was a local man, possessing a very Cajun accent. He was about 25 years old, and had lived in the area all his life. As he drove us along (giving us some interesting information about the city … which I’ve since forgotten), he told us of his dream: to buy a house in or near the French Quarter and rent it out during Mardi Gras for $2,000 a week.

Sounds steep? When you consider that hotel rooms are at least $100 a night (and higher in the French Quarter), and houses can sleep as many people as you can cram into them, $2,000 isn’t such a major cost. The man added he would gladly stock the fridge and supply the beer and liquor. I figured he’d still make a ton of money during that week.

When we arrived at Bourbon Street, Dhar paid the fare and we hopped out. The rains had washed the roads, much of the smell from the night before was gone (but still noticeable). All the drunks were gone too, the lack of a festival seemed to drive them off. Bourbon Street was now the domain of the tourist, soon to give way to the drunken tourist as night fell.

As we neared the Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon, we saw the Maitre D’ out front, trying to draw in early eaters. It seemed that most people tended to eat a little later in New Orleans, typically having dinner after 19:00. Ironically enough, that was when I typically had my dinner when I lived at home. But tonight we were the “early birds”, about to catch a very large worm.

The Maitre D’ spotted us as we neared, and his tirade began again. The chef was doing something special for those keen on coming out early, prepared to withstand the culinary onslaught that was about to be inflicted upon them. For nearly five minutes, with hardly a chance to catch his breath, the Maitre D’ extolled the virtues of the menu, the succulence of the food, the charm that exuded from the building itself. Then, as if on cue, we all nodded in agreement and walked in as if we had been hooked by the Maitre D’s divine skills. We promptly announced we had reservations.

The only thing that stopped the Maitre D’s chin from falling too far was the floor. For nearly a half second (which was the longest silence we heard from him) he stared at us in disbelief. To be somewhat supportive to the distraught man, I tried to cheer him up, complimenting him on his wonderful speech. He walked outside in disbelief, poking fun at the way we’d led him on when he was trying to do the same to us.

Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon was a small restaurant, having only 20 tables or so. Upscale restaurants tend not to have too large a space, and usually have a large staff. Such was the case with Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon. We had four or five people waiting on us in various roles: the Maitre D’, a wine steward, hostess, server, and probably someone else that I’ve since forgotten.

The wine was one of the first orders of the night, and that became a in-depth debate between the four of us and the wine steward. Rebecca was keen on a 1993 wine, but none was to be found. (From what I understand, 1993 was a good year — so good there’s no wine left.) To ensure we had an excellent wine as we could afford, I offered to pay for it (my logic following along similar lines that brought me to pay for the hotel room in Las Vegas).

I can’t remember the name of the wine, but it was a dry (a one or a zero) red. Not a terribly large wine drinker, I’m by no means experienced in what is good and what isn’t. But I know what I like, and I didn’t hate it.

When it came time to order, Rebecca and I opted for one of the Chef’s specials — blackened red fish. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but all I remember is asking for it nice and hot. I figured that sooner or later I’d have to eat something that was hot, if only to get the experience. Rebecca had done the same, but only after consulting with the hostess to make sure it wasn’t too hot. We weren’t the typical tourists that wandered through New Orleans, thinking hot for them was hot for a resident of the Mississippi delta. No, my friend, what’s hot for them would kill most people. Except Dhar. What Dhar considers hot could be used to generate steam in a nuclear power plant.

Stefan ordered some local specialty, but I can’t remember if it was seafood-based or chicken. Either way it was a lot tamer than the jambalaya he had the night before. Dhar, who had already eaten prior to coming out to dinner, ate precious little and only ordered an appetizer as his meal.

Despite my request for hot food, my fish wouldn’t have made Frosty the Snowman break a sweat. It was good fish, but it was lacking the spicy flavour I had been hoping for. I was tempted to return it and get something spicier, but I wasn’t feeling like an asshole that night, and quietly ate my fish.

Stefan picked up the tab for dinner (later to be recorded in the log for prosperity … and so Stefan would get some of his money back), and we returned to Bourbon Street. In the hour and a half that we had dined leisurely, what was left of the tourist population of New Orleans had descended on the French Quarter. Not all of them in the streets — many were eating, or in the various shops. But it didn’t look dead any longer.

We sauntered down the street, looking for something that would interest us. Dhar and I were hatching plans to ditch Stefan and Rebecca, in hopes the two of them would go back to the hotel early. Unfortunately, no matter what stores and whatnot we entered, the group stayed tight. We must have entered half a dozen sex shops, three or four voodoo stores, about a half-million t-shirt vendors, and a couple of artwork boutiques. But no such luck, we were still together.

After a while, one of us came to the conclusion that we needed to listen to some music. We passed by one particular club that was blaring some of the funkiest R&B that I’d heard in years … and it was live! Dhar was the first to duck in the door, the rest following on his heels. We could hardly hear ourselves, but we didn’t much care. At least until we realized that the one drink minimum cost $8.50 apiece. That, unfortunately, was after we’d already bought the damn things. I happened to notice the prices on the back wall, hidden from view.

We quickly agreed that one drink was all that place was going to get out of us, and as soon as we were done, we were gone. But we didn’t escape that establishment any further unscathed. To add injury to insult, one of the band members started making rounds of the club with half a water cooler bottle collecting tips from the audience. It wasn’t mentioned anywhere, nor was it said by anyone, but the tips were mandatory. I found the smallest bill I had and tossed it in. I was very reluctant to pay $8.50 for a drink then have to pay another dollar to leave. I only wish I could remember the name of the place so I could warn people not to go there.

We hastily left and resumed our wanderings. Down side streets and along a few alleys, all the while Rebecca was complaining about how cold it was. That much I could agree with. All I had every heard of New Orleans was how hot and humid it was there. The day before, New Orleans lived up to that reputation with every second. But as we tried our best to get lost, we shivered in temperatures that were in the low teens (Celsius) and possibly even as low as single digits.

We visited several stores, shops and boutiques before Dhar remembered that he wanted to buy a radar detector. That led us back out to Canal Street at the western edge of the French Quarter. All along the east side of Canal Street are a half dozen large electronics stores which cater to tourists of all countries. Huge camera lenses, multi-lingual radar detectors, more audio products than you could listen to in a life time … and all over-priced. Must be because of the tourists. Rather, the gullibility of the tourists and the greed of the owners.

Rebecca and I did window shopping while Dhar and Stefan haggled with the twits behind the desk at one of these shops. While they argued for a better price, I hinted to Rebecca that Dhar and I were staying out late that night, to give her and Stefan some time alone. She took a little offense to it, but I added (as humourously as possible) that the two of them were driving Dhar and I crazy.

Dhar left the place empty-handed. The prices that the stores wanted (they all seemed to have the same “high-priced” supplier) were more expensive than ones Dhar could get back home … even if the exchange rate was 1:1. Dejected and forlorn, we continued to wander our way around the city.

It didn’t take long for our topics of conversation to start swaying towards being drunk. I suppose it was in part to our earlier attempt that evening at the R&B club (thwarted due to the exorbitant price of a $0.50 drink) and constantly being passed by overly inebriated tourists. The conversation continued until we walked into a store just inside the French Quarter to purchase something highly intoxicating.

The store was like a small Wal-mart: everything you could possibly never need all under one roof. Including the illusive Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, which was what the goal of the night quickly became. In addition to the rum, we also purchased a large bottle of cranberry juice for mixing. I chose to look for something more along my lines, but struck up empty. In our following continued wanderings along Canal Street I looked in several of the smaller corner stores with about as much success.

Finally the lure of the liquor got us directed towards our awaiting hotel room. We weren’t up for the walk however, and jumped into the first taxi we came across. The driver was an older man (compared to our previous driver), in his 40’s, and a member of one of the Louisiana cultural groups: Creole, Acadian, or Cajun … I don’t know which. He hardly acknowledged our entrance into his cab, barely indicated that he understood our request, and continued his unintelligible conversation with someone over taxi’s radio.

Arriving back at the hotel, I paid the cab fare and we proceeded to our hotel room. The TV shone to life as Stefan poured out three drinks, myself abstaining. And there we sat and talked and watched TV for a couple of hours. One of our topics was the plan for the following day. Not knowing exactly how long a drive we had until we reached home, we didn’t want to stay too long in New Orleans. Stefan and Dhar both wanted to return by Saturday so they could do some work (a taboo subject to be discussing on a vacation).

Observer’s Log: Second Supplementary

New Orleans is cold. Why, I dunno. Our hotel is nice, but having Stef & Rebecca in the next [private] room is going to be interesting. I still want to go out and leave Rebecca and Stef alone for a while.

Went to the Café Rue Bourbon. Good food, but was hoping for something a tad spicier.

At a quarter after midnight, one of Stefan or Rebecca promptly announced that it was time for bed. Dhar and I took the cue to announce that we were still hungry and were going to get something eat. At first our action might have appeared rather innocent in its nature, but I quickly emphasized that we would not be back until 02:00 at the earliest. I figured that an hour and three-quarters would be sufficient enough time for whatever was needed. (For Dhar and I, it was simply to escape for a short time.)

After changing into some slightly warmer clothes, Dhar and I took the only room key and ventured out into the cool night air. Our first order of business was finding a place to eat. I vaguely remembered seeing a restaurant that featured a garlic-based menu not far from the hotel, so we decided to check it out. Alas, we were too late, it had closed almost an hour earlier.

Still hungry, but not discouraged, we turned in the direction of the French Quarter and started walking. I learned a great deal about Dhar that evening, it was kind of a “male-bonding” thing, I guess. I don’t particularly believe in “male-bonding”, I think it’s some term a female psychiatrist came up with to make men feel better about “talking”, which many don’t appear to do. My friends at home and I talk a lot, so this wasn’t something foreign to myself. It didn’t seem to be foreign to Dhar either.

One of the things I learned that night was one of the probable reasons why Dhar went off on his own so much. Unlike Stefan, Rebecca, and myself, Dhar had never had a vacation before. He had lived the first 26 years of his life in eastern Ontario, with only the odd excursion outside of his realm. With the advent of this trip, he had been exposed to the wonder of travel, the excitement of discovery, and the feeling of freedom that comes from a true road-trip. At once I understood why Dhar had gone off on his own, why he had chosen to see all that he could see — he might never see it again.

About two or three blocks from our hotel we stumbled across a little diner called The Trolley Stop, assumedly because it was next to a trolley stop. Not the fanciest looking place we’d seen, but the “Open 24 Hours” sign in the window was enough to convince us to drop in and see what we could order up.

It was almost like stepping into an episode of Cheers — there were patrons who immediately looked like regulars, and I felt like I was trying to break into a tightly knit group of friends. But the feeling didn’t last long. A few moments after stepping into the diner, a smiling waitress swooped down upon Dhar and I, and led us to a corner table. The African-American woman looked in her early 30’s, and was a classic example of a “people-person”.

Most restaurant employees are “professional”, in that they stand next to the table, intently listening to the orders, speak “properly”, and do not engage in idle conversation. This woman swung a chair around so it was backwards to the table, plopped down on the seat leaning her large arms over the back, clutching a pad and pen in one hand. She then struck up a brief conversation about what was on the menu, and asked if we liked what we’d seen of New Orleans. I guess to the well-trained eye, you can’t escape looking like a tourist.

When the topic of food rolled around, we began to ask for suggestions. We concentrated on the things we had never eaten before, and gumbo rose to the top of the list. Dhar ordered a seafood gumbo, and I ordered the chicken variety. Dhar then engaged in a debate about hot food with the waitress, denying the cook could make it hot enough for him. Lo and behold, the cook came out to support the diner’s end of the conversation. After a few minutes, the waitress winked at him and said: “We’ll take care o’ ya honey!” and laughed as they went off to concoct a gumbo that the army could use as a chemical weapon. I made sure that they understood I was keen on living that night.

To drink I ordered another Abita Turbodog, purposely asking for the bottle so I’d bring it back with me. I had every intention of showing my friends back home the label of my new favourite beer. It was just as I sort of remembered it from the night before (one Turbodog and lime daiquiri do strange things to you — I suppose I should be glad I didn’t have a margarita): cold, dark, and tasty.

Gumbo is a rather interesting dish. It’s a soup poured over a little bit of rice. It’s thick, made with vegetables, meats … just about anything you can think of … and a lot of spice. Dhar immediately took a spoonful of his bowl, swirled it around in his mouth like an experienced wine taster, the swallowed. The waitress and the cook both stared at him waiting for a verdict on the gumbo. Without a crack in his voice, he pronounced it: “good”.

But it wasn’t good enough. Dhar was looking for something that would at least make him break a sweat. Although spicy enough to burn out the sinuses of most normal people (I tasted a drop from my little finger and found it more than enough to make me choke), Dhar slurped it down like a glass of ice water. He was quick to point out that it was a very tasty dish — the flavours were intense and countered the lack of spiciness. Although not deathly hot, I had to agree that gumbo is a meal that I would eat again.

Paying our bill and leaving a nice tip for the wonderful service we received, Dhar and I resumed our trip towards the French Quarter. We still had over an hour to kill before we could go back, so we decided to see what trouble we could get into. I felt a little apprehensive about following Dhar after midnight, wondering if we’d get shot at or attacked by some freak in the shadows. Trouble seemed to follow Dhar. I just hoped trouble didn’t like me.

Along the way we passed two women and drunk man arguing with one another; a different drunk man urinating in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to our existence; a few vagrants trying to find a place to bunk down for the night; and a couple bank machines, both of which Dhar tried to use. It was at the first bank machine that I came to the realization that I had forgotten the Turbodog bottle, despite my asking Dhar to remind me.

Dhar’s luck with bank machines south of the border was dismal. Every time he tried to withdraw $100, the transaction was refused. I wondered why he was having so much difficulty, especially when my bank card neatly deposited nearly any amount I needed with only a slight wait for the CIBC’s computers to figure out where my bank account was. Then I found out that Dhar was using his Mastercard to withdraw money. I don’t like using credit cards to do that — too much of a hassle. Eventually Dhar had to settle for $20 at a time, which cost him over $4 in transaction fees each time he tried.

The business district was devoid of activity, save for the biting wind that blew through the canyons created by the skyscrapers. Dhar and I blasted through the area with the determination of the most dedicated speed-walkers. In only a few minutes we were standing on the edge of Canal Street, looking into the French Quarter.

Some had left, but the heart of the city continued to pump with life. The strip bars were still open, the bars still poured drinks, and a few restaurants still served food. On this occasion, only Dhar entered any of the establishments, which was to obtain a drink.

Having no plan other than to stay out until at least 02:00, we wasted time by walking wherever it seemed like a good idea. That brought us to the Aquarium of the Americas. But we approached it from the eastern side, from where the French Quarter met the Mississippi River. A pathway ran alongside the river, parking lots on the one side, bushes and the river on the other.

All the drinking finally got to Dhar, and he needed use of the facilities. Specifically a toilet … any toilet. Unfortunately there wasn’t any in the area, at least none that were open for use. Dhar couldn’t just whip it out and let loose on the path either — there were undercover cops around. (You can tell because they’re the ones sitting in large cars in parking lots at 01:45 in the morning.) So we kept walking until we were partially out of sight, at which time Dhar dove behind one of the bushes before he wet his pants. I kept watch for the aforementioned authorities.

Feeling a little lighter and a lot more relieved, Dhar returned to the path and we walked towards the Aquarium. It looked very different at night, all the lights were off except for a few neon signs. I wondered what the crow was doing then, and if anyone had fed it that night.

We rounded the western corner of the building and passed through the flood-wall gate, debating for a brief moment to follow the trolley tracks to see where they went. Soon we found ourselves back in the business district again, and with nothing else to do. Trouble had seemed to elude us.

All the souls of the evening realm of New Orleans that we had met on our way to the French Quarter were gone. A trolley clunked by on what I assumed to be the last run of the night (even though everything we had read indicated a much earlier stop time), heading towards our hotel. For a brief moment we contemplated taking a ride, but the extra time it would take to walk the distance we considered time well spent. The last thing you want to do is walk in on your roommates when they’re occupied.

It was after 02:30 when we arrived back at the hotel. For a fleeting moment I had this awful thought that we wouldn’t be able to get in, that the hotel locked its doors after a particular time. That was a short fear that disappeared when we saw the beaming face of the night clerk, watching the door for any activity. We smiled and said ‘hello’ as we boarded the elevator.

The lights were all off, and the room was quiet. We entered as silently as we possibly could, not a particularly easy task when the door has squeaky hinges and the toilet flushes loudly. I brushed my teeth, relieved my bladder pressure, and removed the sheets from my cot. I didn’t feel like sleeping on the cot that night, and flopped on the couch for my rest. Dhar opted for his cot.

Dhar fell asleep almost instantly, not having slept for nearly 30 hours. Unfortunately it also meant he started snoring earlier than usual. But soon I too was sleeping soundly. That is, until Dhar woke me up some two or so hours later. That I considered quite the feat — once I fall asleep, I sleep hard. The only think I know that gets me up in the middle of the night is a fire alarm. But Dhar’s snoring was so loud I woke up. I lay in amazement for a few moments before I got up and nudged Dhar awake to get him to stop.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Texas, Louisiana, New Orleans, and Bourbon Street

As a kid, I could never sleep in a moving car. I could never understand why, but the motion made me feel uneasy and I would sit there until we stopped (usually at home) before passing out. This inability to sleep in cars stayed true until I went on our tour of America. I quickly learned to shrug off that apprehension, falling asleep at a moment’s notice.

I don’t know exactly when I succumbed to the ravaging of Mr. Sandman, but I do know that I did get a little sleep that night. The night was hot and muggy so I slept in my clothes. In a rare event, I managed to sleep in the rear bunk, since Stefan was driving and Rebecca was (also in a rare event) awake. As with school-buses that pass over bumps in the road, the rear end of the Behemoth tended to fling anyone in the rear in a slightly vertical motion. I was bounced around once in a while, but after a while I didn’t seem to notice or care.

When I awoke, Rebecca was sleeping in the depression in the floor, her head resting on the extra seat cushion from the rear bench. It was still very dark out, but I could tell that the desert had been replaced with trees which now lined the sides of the Interstate. Carefully stepping my way over Rebecca, I made my way to one of the forward seats. It turned out I had awaken at a very appropriate time, about 20 miles outside of San Antonio. It was nearly 05:00, and the early morning traffic was nonexistent.

The City of San Antonio seemed to come from a transformation of the forest, from trees to steel, glass, and concrete. Street lights appeared and soon we found ourselves in a bustling, albeit sleeping, city. Our primary goal was to find The Alamo. It was marked on our maps, providing an approximate location. Having no maps of San Antonio, we would have to guess our way in finding its exact location.

The I-10 came in from a roughly north direction. From there, we turned briefly onto I-35 heading west until we got to I-37, and resumed a southerly direction. After only about a mile into I-37, we got off at the Houston Street off-ramp listing The Alamo. Unfortunately the markings disappeared once we arrived at street level.

Everyone ended up navigating, trying to find some indication that would show us The Alamo. We went up and down nearly every street, road, avenue, and boulevard in the general vicinity of The Alamo before someone got the idea of following a large wall around to see what it was. To our luck, the wall that we had seen a half dozen times in our search happened to be the outer wall of The Alamo.

All the pictures and movie scenes that I had seen in my years never gave an impression of The Alamo sitting in the heart of San Antonio. From the surrounding streets you couldn’t see the mission building, the main building of The Alamo, and the part everyone recognizes. We pulled up at the main entrance of the complex while Dhar ran out and took a picture. As it turns out, all he got was a doorway through The Alamo’s walls, it was impossible to see anything past the hall.

Dhar returned to the van, and we drove off. Disrespectful as it was, I couldn’t help but find everything that The Alamo stood for (in a metaphorical sense) rather laughable. The American view that defeat is not an option is something I simply cannot fathom. 187 people were massacred when Santa Ana’s forces laid siege to the mission fortress, and Americans now view the defenders as heroes. I seem to have this rather odd view that they were too damn stubborn to realize they were hopelessly outnumbered, and would be better off retreating to return with more soldiers.

But the defeat at The Alamo wouldn’t be the last for America, though they would seldom admit to it. Take Vietnam for example: for more years than was necessary, the United States led the “fight for democracy” in Vietnam, afraid that the incursion of Red Chinese might somehow affect American freedom on the other side of the Pacific. After hundreds of thousands of American causalities (a.k.a. deaths), someone finally realized the situation was hopeless. (You’ll note that the stubbornness hadn’t gone away in the 160 some-odd years since The Alamo.) When American troops finally pulled out, the action was labeled as a “strategic withdrawal”. Sometimes they just don’t know when to quit.

Stefan pulled back onto Houston Street and headed back to the I-37. A few traffic lights and a couple side streets, and we were heading north back to the I-35 and then to the I-10, which would take us to Houston. Our navigation there was the worst we had to that point (but wouldn’t be the worst overall), we even managed to take the long route out of San Antonio — we should have taken the I-37 south to the I-10 where it swung from north-south to east-west, saving about 10 miles.

Not far out of San Antonio, Stefan called it quits for driving and abdicated the throne to Dhar. I in turn took over as navigator as Stefan hopped in bed with Rebecca for some sleep. Dhar and I chatted a while as we drove, I found out that Stefan had managed to run into as many deer in Texas as we had found rabbits in New Mexico. I couldn’t help but laugh, but it explained why Stefan seemed a little strung out while we were trying to find The Alamo.

But I quickly realized that I hadn’t received as much sleep as I thought I had. All that driving I had done the day before (or earlier that evening, depending on your point of view) had hit me harder than previously acknowledged. My eyes started sagging, my thoughts clouded over, my muscles gave out, and before I knew it, I was waking up with a stiff neck. When I awoke, Dhar started laughing at me, apparently my bobbing head had become a source of entertainment for him as he drove.

We drove until Dhar got tired, which seemed unusual for our resident vampire. So I took over driving again, just as dawn was beginning to crack. I figured I had enough sleep during our initial stint on the I-10 to make it through the day. I was wrong. Dhar passed out after only 15 minutes or so, and it wasn’t long before I felt my judgment clouding and my eyelids became very heavy. I wasn’t very far off from falling asleep. As Dhar put it, I needed to have my clock reset with the rising sun.

But the rising sun was hidden behind a thick haze, and my eyes never set upon the restorative powers of the sun’s rays — I was getting more sleepy by the second. With what few mental faculties I had left, I managed to convince myself to pull over at the next rest stop and transfer the power to someone else before I lost control and killed the lot of us in a fiery blaze of glory. Luckily, a rest stop appeared before I dozed off behind the wheel.

I pulled up to the side, behind several semi-trailers (whose drivers were undoubtedly doing the same thing I was about to do) and came to the gentlest stop the van had yet performed. No-one woke up. Not in the mood to waken anyone, I put the gear in park, turned off the engine, tilted my chair back, and went one-to-one with the sleep fairy and lost in a first-round knockout.

I have no idea how long I slept, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour. I didn’t seem to sleep too deeply either, for when Stefan woke up and promptly asked where we were, I immediately replied that I didn’t have a clue and only stopped to prevent us from dying in a head-on collision when I fell asleep while driving. Stefan accepted the logic without question.

Having only marginally more sleep than I, Stefan took over driving for the next little while. (Remember that Stefan slept through the Roswell to Fort Stockton stretch.) By that time, I was more or less awake, and sat behind Stefan while we continued our easterly direction. We drove until around 10:00, when Stefan and I could no longer withstand our stomachs’ calls to breakfast. Luckily, just east of Houston we came across our favourite eating place, the International House Of Pancakes.

We barely beat the bible-thumper crowd, arriving only about 10 to 20 minutes before an onslaught of well-dressed Texans appeared for post-worship brunch. When we entered, we must have looked quite the sight — disheveled, tired, hungry, and not smelling at all like roses. We were seated all the same (right under an air conditioning vent) and serviced no different than anyone else. Ya gotta love them Texans!

Texans are a nice bunch, but not as personable as those in Las Vegas. The service wasn’t poor, but it was like comparing a $150,000 Mercedes-Benz to a $15,000 Chrysler. Both may be good cars, but the Chrysler comes off a lot worse if you drove the Mercedes first.

We gorged ourselves on sustenance, much to the chagrin of the Texans. Every so often I managed to catch a glimpse of someone staring at all the plates, glasses, bowls and pots scattered about our small table. Large families didn’t have as much food as the four of us did, and it was Stefan and I who seemed to eat the most (though Stefan could out-eat me any day of the week).

When we exited the restaurant, we realized just how much humidity there was. The Gulf of Mexico was now less than 100 miles from us, and its effects could be easily felt. I knew that as we got nearer to Louisiana, and closer to the gulf, the more uncomfortable it would get. The van’s air conditioner was beginning to look like a good idea, even though we had ruled its use out much earlier because it sucked up a lot of gasoline.

Louisiana would become Rebecca’s domain during our trip. Here she seemed to gain total control over the rest of us, we didn’t really argue with her declarations. Her first declaration was that we were visiting a plantation and going on a swamp tour. I hadn’t really planned on that (I hadn’t planned on anything), but as far as I was concerned, it was something to do.

Her next declaration was that we weren’t going to be taking the Interstate all the way to New Orleans, our Louisiana destination. Instead we would follow the coastal highways, overlooking the swamps, bayous, marshes, and the Gulf of Mexico. My efficiency instinct kicked in again, and I tried to persuade the group that the Interstate would be a much better route. After some discussion, we compromised and agreed to take the Interstate half of the way, and the more major highways the rest of the distance. This compromise came to being mostly after I pointed out that some of the highways Rebecca wanted to travel didn’t exist any more (courtesy of past hurricanes).

Shortly before noon, we crossed from Texas into Louisiana. Seemingly almost immediately, the humidity rose. No longer was it the sticky mass of air we had been traveling through, it was virtually like swimming. If it were any higher, we could have drowned not having come close to the sea. Perspiration couldn’t evaporate — it actually attracted more moisture out of the air. It was hideous.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960428.12

Day 8

Nevada was hot. Louisiana is humid. We’re sweating to death here. We’ve pretty much shot through Texas, although that took about 12 hours to do. We stopped once to see the Alamo, at about 5 in the morning.And so we head for New Orleans, where we intend to relax for a while.

It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that we all love control, we all get along really well.

After two hours of humid torture, we reached Lafayette. We left the relative comfort of the Interstate and entered onto Highway 90. If you want to see things off-the-beaten-track, you need to take roads that make no sense. Highway 90 is just such a road. According to the map, it wiggles all over hell and half of creation before worming its way to New Orleans. The route easily adds on an extra hour or more to the trip, but the sights are something to behold (though not nearly to the degree of going through Colorado).

There’s nothing particular special about the route, you travel through a lot of towns (both small and large), through several bayous and swamps, over canals, passing by centuries-old plantations. But any typical tourist route never uncovers these things. Louisiana is a country unto itself, containing a history and culture that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. You can’t understand it unless you’ve seen how the people live and work. New Orleans is a melange of that culture, but the individual flavours are something to experience.

But too much of a good thing soon becomes rather dull, and by the time we reached Houma, about 35 miles from New Orleans, we were all beginning to think the Interstate wasn’t such a bad idea. I resumed by post behind the wheel, and allowed myself to concentrate on the driving rather than super-saturate myself on the landscape. About 25 miles later, we finally found the I-310.

The I-310 was part of the I-10. American Interstates are brilliant examples of traffic control — they take an Interstate (say, the I-10) and when it hits a city, they divide it in several places and tack on a third number to indicate a branch or detoured route of that Interstate. Some of these detours go completely around a city, forming a huge ring. Toronto needed something like that about 10 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since.

Like most of the Interstates in the New Orleans area, the I-310 was raised above the swamps. (What is it with humanity building cities on swamps?) The highway was pieced together in sections about 50 feet in length. Each section was slightly bowed, creating slight peaks at the seams. The result was a constant thump-bob motion for the entire trip into New Orleans. If the peaks were a little higher, someone might have gotten seasick.

Along both sides of the Interstate were tall swamp trees (don’t ask me the species, the only vegetation I’m familiar with in swamps are Spanish moss and mangrove trees), creating a beautiful wall of deep green. The blue sky above us, the white concrete in front, and the green to the sides made the final stretch into New Orleans seem like scene out of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was easy to figure out, Dhar was the Tin Man (he had the brains, and two encounters of the dangerous kind pretty much eliminated him from the Lion round), Stefan was the Lion (again, the brains were there), and I the Scarecrow (with reasons following soon). One thing was certain — we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Almost without warning, the swamps parted and we found ourselves surrounded with civilization once again. Thus began the next major issue for us to decide: where to stay. There were two KOAs in New Orleans, west and east of the city centre. We read the descriptions, viewed the maps and checked out the features of each. It took a bit of debate, but we decided that the east KOA would provide us with the best facilities.

Little did we know that the east KOA was over 45 minutes from the side of New Orleans that we were entering from. We cruised through seven miles of non-descript urbanization before the I-10 curved south towards the downtown core. At this point, unbeknownst to us, was the I-610 which provided a shortcut through the eight mile ‘U’ shaped loop of the I-10. This I would have liked to have known about, since I was to become rather frustrated with the distance we were traveling.

The loop took us at its most southerly point past the Superdome, then passing about a mile or so northwest of the French Quarter. Along the route we got several good looks at the above ground cemeteries which are well-known in New Orleans. There were several reasons for the above-ground burials, varying from problems with the Black Plague, to level of the water table under the soil (which is mostly marshy in that area of the Mississippi delta). No matter what the reason, it’s still trï ¿ ½s creepy.

We drove further and further away from downtown, and I began to wonder just how close this KOA was to the French Quarter, as the ad in the KOA guidebook claimed. Then before us came a causeway across the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain, a lake north of New Orleans. The causeway is over eight miles long, yet it isn’t the record holder. That goes to a sister causeway over the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, which is over 23 miles across.

We exited the I-10 at Slidell, and headed east on either Highway 190 or a side road, I can’t remember which, until we reached the New Orleans East KOA campground. It was a beautiful campground, surrounded and speckled with huge deciduous trees, casting shade all over the area. I was immediately surprised to see all the tents and RVs, and wondered what the devil was going on. To that point in the trip, we had managed to avoid all the tourists and traffic … a sudden burst like that was most disturbing.

Despite the incessant pressure in my bladder, I held fast behind the wheel while Stefan and Rebecca (quickly joined by Dhar) ran inside the office to see if we could get a camping spot for the night. It seemed to take far too long to acquire the information we needed, but eventually Dhar appeared to inform me that the camp was totally full, and the New Orleans West KOA had only a couple slots left. I told Dhar to make sure one of those slots was reserved before we hauled our asses back nearly 50 miles to the other side of the city.

As our luck had it, we had arrived on a very auspicious day — the last day of the New Orleans Jazz Festival … the last day for that particular weekend, that is. The Festival would resume the following Friday night. It explained why all the camping spots were taken, and it was our good fortune that a spot could still be found at the other KOA.

Good fortune or not, I was getting really grumpy. I was tired and annoyed that we had to travel another half hour before I could take a whiz. Okay, not entirely true, but that was the way I viewed it. Furthermore, I was especially pissed off at the description for the New Orleans East KOA. It had said that it had the “easiest access to the French Quarter”. This meant a shuttle bus to downtown New Orleans. We were under the impression you could walk there. In essence the ad didn’t lie, but when we found out the shuttle only ran when there was enough interest to warrant a trip, the grey area between a lie and a truth suddenly got a lot thinner.

And so we doubled back on our route, crossing over the seemingly endless causeway, missing the I-610 shortcut due to a lack of knowledge, viewing the Superdome from a different direction, and finally arriving at Williams Boulevard about a half hour later. Here we turned south until we reached Jefferson Highway (nothing more than a four-lane city thoroughfare). We headed east along the Highway for about a mile or so before finding the KOA on the north side of the road.

The New Orleans West KOA wasn’t nearly as nice as the East KOA, but it had two things the East KOA didn’t have: a regular shuttlebus and a space for us to park. We didn’t ever use the shuttlebus, but the fact that it was there was of some importance to us. Stefan ran in and got us checked in fairly swiftly. Arriving at 19:00 gave us the rare opportunity to make normal registration.

Unfortunately, the only spot left that had both water and electricity also had sewage, which we didn’t need (nor could we reach with such a short waste hose). We parked and immediately set about having a swim and a shower before figuring out what we were to do with the rest of the day. This meant a quick run to the toilet for myself before my bladder emptied onto my shorts.

Having quieted the call of nature, I proceeded to make my way towards the pool. I was, admittedly, a little distracted as I left the washroom. This KOA had a very interesting arrangement for the washrooms and the showers. A long hallway running the width of the building provided access to all the facilities. Entering from the west side, the men’s washroom was immediately to the left, the women’s washroom further down on the left, and a half dozen doors were on the right. These doors were the showers, and there was no distinction between male and female.

Two of the showers were in use. I stood there for a moment, knowing full well I had heard Stefan, Rebecca, and Dhar come in through the outer door. Then, in the second shower from the outer door, I heard two voices … Rebecca and Stefan. I shook my head, laughed to myself, and proceeded towards the pool.

The pool was already populated by a large German woman and two young children, a boy and a girl. I paid them no attention (they politely reciprocated) and promptly fell ungracefully into the pool. Instantly half the stress that had built up over the course of the previous 24 hours vanished in an instant. I swam two lengths, and then bobbed in the shallow end.

A few minutes later, I was joined by Rebecca and Stefan, having finished their bathing. They had decided to have a shower before entering the pool, worried more about the grime they had than the chlorine smell they would take out with them. I was opting to get rid of both of the elements with my shower.

Dhar appeared, fully dressed (he didn’t seem to like water very much), and announced he was renting a car. The bus would arrive shortly and he would return with transportation. This action of his worried me a fair bit: were we disturbing him in some manner?, was I disturbing him in some manner? I didn’t know whether or not I was the only one a bit puzzled by the whole fiasco, so I just kept my big mouth shut.

The three of us just floated in the cool water, allowing us the break we needed in an otherwise hectic trip. Already we knew that we were traveling far too quickly, and for once I agreed with several other people that we weren’t taking enough time to do the trip properly. But as far as we were concerned, it was a taste of America, and we could tell where the best places to go when we went down the next time.

A few times Stefan got stuck on his sentences, which I found a tad peculiar. After Stefan managed to sort himself out, he explained that he had been listening to the German woman speak to the children. Being German by birth and raised with the German language, Stefan’s ears were trained to listen for the familiar tongue. Still speaking it with his parents, Stefan also regularly uses German. While well naturalized for Canada, Stefan still stumbles when his brain tries to shift gears from English to German.

Ten minutes after falling ungracefully into the pool, I forced myself out to have my shower. I walked the short distance to the front of the KOA office and went in the washroom door. For no particular reason, I walked into the second shower stall and prepared to clean myself. In the left hand corner of the room, next to the door, was a used yellow condom.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a used condom, it probably won’t be the last. For a moment, I wondered if it was Stefan and Rebecca’s. I stared, half of me wanting to see if it was still warm, the rest of me yelling at the other half for thinking of something so repulsive. I immediately felt a little annoyed that someone would leave it sitting there, and I refused to believe that Stefan and Rebecca would be so inconsiderate.

I then started feeling very alone. I was a single guy. I’d been that way over 23 years. I’d never been on a real “date”, never kissed a girl, never done anything that would suggest a “social life” of any kind. Most of the time, when the subject came up, it became a big joke for me. “Oh don’t worry ’bout me,” I’d tell employers when they asked insane deadlines of me, “I don’t have a social life to screw up.” Everyone would laugh and I’d get down to work.

But there I was. Naked, and staring at a recently used condom. I still find it amazing at how a little piece of latex rubber can make a guy feel so damned insecure. I started questioning myself — why was it I couldn’t “pick up”? Too shy? Maybe. Too forward? Possibly. Too weird? Definitely. Too intense? That was the claim from several of my close friends. The only problem there for me is: how do I act any other way?

I thought about that discarded prophylactic throughout most of my shower. For some totally morbid but known reason, I wanted so badly to know where it came from. As I left the shower room, I started to put the thought out of my head. We had things to do that night, and I didn’t want something as depressing as old memories of opportunities lost dwelling on my mind.

I returned directly to the van, where Stefan and Rebecca had already gone, and proceeded to find out what we were doing for the rest of the night. Dhar hadn’t yet returned from the car rental agency, so the three of us took the initial planning steps: visit the French Quarter. Planning took about ten seconds.

At a little after 20:00, Dhar returned with his rented blue Chrysler Neon. Dhar hated it. But the Neon was the only car left in the lot that fit Dhar’s requirements. A dedicated driver, Dhar was quick to point out all the flaws in the car: the transmission was like a “tin box”, closing the doors only sounded good with the windows up, the construction seemed flaky, and so on and so on and so on… I found out later that for fun, Dhar would rent cars on the weekends and drive them around. I took this to mean that Dhar knew his automobiles.

Dhar seemed up for the trip downtown, but I will admit he didn’t seem too chipper. We filed into the Neon, Dhar and I in front, Rebecca and Stefan in back, and we went to see how long we could drive before getting hopelessly lost. The first thing we noticed about the Neon was how low it sat. The Behemoth received its name in part from its size — we could see over most vehicles on the road. In the Neon, we suddenly felt very vulnerable because every vehicle was taller than ours.

We drove east on Jefferson Highway, which by that point was part of Highway 90. Exiting from Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans), we entered New Orleans proper and the road became Claiborne Avenue. We followed the road around and through several areas of houses and industry before finding our way to the I-10 again. We drove along it briefly before exiting at Canal Street to head south into downtown.

Here was our second dismal job of navigating. Rebecca (the “most responsible” person on the trip) was guiding us using a couple of maps we had brought along. However, Stefan became frustrated when we began to get lost in all the one-way roads. (Dhar and I were reading off road signs as we drove.) What ensued was a small argument before we finally figured out that Canondelet Street became Bourbon Street when it crossed Canal Street. (Got that?) This was after a few very hasty (and probably illegal) U-turns Dhar managed to pull when we weren’t looking. This countered a suggestion given to us by one of the KOA staff — if you missed a left-hand turn in downtown, pull three right turns to get you where you wanted to go … pulling a left-hand turn would get you a nice fat traffic ticket (you could hardly ever turn left into a one-way road down there).

After what seemed an eternity, we entered the fabled French Quarter. It was teeming with Jazz Festival revelers, most of them quite inebriated. As I would comment later on in that evening, I had never in my life seen so many drunken people before in my life. As I would also add, following that statement: “When in Rome…”

Dhar drove down several roads and alleys before we found the parking garage of the Omni Royal Hotel. Dhar picked up the tab for the parking (he also picked up the tab for the car rental), and we began to wander about the mythical French Quarter.

The French Quarter dated back to the founding of New Orleans in 1718. Many of the brick and plaster buildings still possessed French architectural styles of the period. When the Spaniards took over in 1762, they brought their style to the area as well, leaving their mark in the ornate lace terraces that still overlook the streets. A post-Spanish addition are porcelain plaques pasted to the walls of buildings on street corners bearing the Spanish names of the streets.

Hunger was the driving force for us. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning, and we were well beyond peckish. (Stefan and I were downright famished.) Finding Bourbon Street, we wandered down its length looking for a suitable establishment to dine at. The selection of restaurants was overwhelming. Lined on either side of the street (which was a pedestrian street for about a half mile) were either restaurants, hotels, bars, or small shops. In the street was about half the tourists in New Orleans, in various states of drunkenness.

It took me a minute to realize that we were really walking on Bourbon Street. All I had ever heard of the famed road came back to me in a sudden flood, and for a moment I felt a little disappointed. It wasn’t the Bourbon Street I had pictured in my mind. I guess I should blame my vivid imagination for that. Most of my views came from Sting’s Moon Over Bourbon Street from his The Dreams of Blue Turtles album. I expected cobblestone roads, gas light lamps, a near constant haze about the streets, dingy little shops and music halls mixed in with small French eateries.

What we got were a few high-rise buildings near Canal Street, a well-paved road, concrete sidewalks, fairly large and clean stores, bars and, restaurants, and completely clear air — almost the opposite of what I had in mind. One thing that did stand out was the smell — decaying garbage and vomit. Pretty much what you’d expect from a heavily used and abused area of the city.

The first restaurant we tried was a more upscale place, which turned people away by politely stating there was a 45 minute wait. This prompted us to walk further east. Oyster bars were prevalent throughout the French Quarter, which I ruled out as a possibility — there’s no way in hell they were going to get me to eat a raw oyster. And I wasn’t too keen on having Stefan and Rebecca load up on aphrodisiacs with me sleeping 10 feet away from them.

Eventually we found a hip little joint called Remoulade. Slightly away from most of the boozers in the road, the little restaurant gave us a little bit of shelter from the storm. I was still a little apprehensive of the place, but in retrospect I was apprehensive about the entire French Quarter. Like Las Vegas, it was a new experience that required a little bit of adjustment for me. It wasn’t long before I felt at home there.

Our table was closer to the back of the restaurant, but we still had an excellent view of the entire restaurant (complete with pictures of their all-seafood cartoon band) and Bourbon Street. Authentic Naw’lins (say it aloud, say it proud, and you’ll discover the “proper” pronunciation of the fair city) cuisine was the order of the night: Jambalaya for Stefan, Shrimp Creole for Dhar, Red Beans for Rebecca, and Blackened Chicken for yours truly. The drinks came quickly too — gin fizz, planters punch, and a long island iced tea.

Not personally fond of mixed drinks, I flipped through the list of beers. Not finding anything that particular thrilled me, I asked the waitress what she recommended. It was then I heard of Abita Turbodog. I had never heard of anything like that before in my life. Mind you, I had only been drinking since late on December 31, 1995 so my experience in beer wasn’t too in-depth. A little more than curious about the name, I asked what it was. All she had to say was “dark beer” to whet my interest.

To this day, I have not had as fine a beer as Abita Turbodog. When the waitress said it was a dark beer, she wasn’t kidding. The only beverage I’ve had that comes close is Guinness. But that’s a stout, and has a much more bitter taste. Turbodog was dark, strong, and smooth. It was a damn good beer, and I’m disappointed that Abita doesn’t ship the stuff up here.

The food arrived not long after we had our drinks. I couldn’t help but stare at the immense pile of orangey-brown rice, shrimp, and vegetables that made jambalaya. Suddenly gathering up enough guts (probably in part to the high alcoholic content of the beer), I asked Stefan if I could snitch one of his shrimp.

To this day my parents testify that when I was a wee babe, I stuffed anything and everything in my mouth. If it was edible (and in a few cases that wasn’t even necessary), I ate it. As I got older, I started hating things. For a while, there was very little I would willingly eat. I still don’t like olives, mushrooms, or liver. Of seafood, I only ate fish. That is, until I was tricked into eating linguini with clams. Since then I’ve also tried cooked oysters (in a stir-fry) and squid. But a shrimp seemed beyond my ability. They just looked too creepy crawly to eat … kinda like eating a large beetle.

Nevertheless, I stared at the small orange and white curl, opened my mouth, and tossed the sucker in before I could have a second thought. I chewed on it a moment, swallowed, took a swig of beer to counter the sudden burst of fire in my mouth from the Cajun spice in the jambalaya, and announced that it was bearable. I suddenly realized that when my family found out, I’d never hear the end of it. (My sister especially took fun in bugging me about my little experiment.)

The only complaint of our dinner was Dhar’s long island iced tea — it was brutally strong. Being a gentlemen, he swallowed the rest of it without much ado and ordered something different … a lime daiquiri.

Our meal completed without dessert, there was nothing there that really appealed to me. Of course I was beginning to feel the effects of the beer by that point, which probably affected my judgment. Correction: I know it affected my judgment. Having finished the beer and debating on buying another, the others tried to convince me to have a mixed drink. I had already forgotten the adage: “Beer then liquor, never sicker” so I had nothing else to hold me back in my decision (the rest of my higher logic functions having taken a nose dive after the Turbodog).

And so arrived another lime daiquiri. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but the taste was something else. I like tart food and drink, so something sour usually appeals to me. I sucked back that alcoholic slushie like it was nothing more than a lime-flavoured ice cone. That was my second bad move for the night (the first having given in to having a mixed drink).

Having only started drinking anything alcoholic at New Year’s left me with a decidedly significant disadvantage — I had no tolerance for booze. I would feel a buzz after only one beer. After two I started feeling numbness in my face. After three I couldn’t feel my nose. After four I couldn’t walk properly. After five I was a lost cause and needed to be protected (though usually from myself). After one strong beer and a lime daiquiri, I was at the three beer mark.

Actually, I was a little past the three beer mark. I’d lost some of my coordination, but oddly enough I could still feel most of my face (although it was well numbed). We worked our way back into the street to mingle with the rest of the drunks and wandered around Bourbon Street. I had wished two things almost immediately: 1) that we had arrived a day earlier to catch some of the Jazz Festival, and 2) that I could come back again with my more musically-oriented friends (who lived for that kind of thing). I’m not saying that Stefan, Dhar, and Rebecca were bad company, just different.

Now here’s where my memory gets a tad on the cloudy side. I don’t know exactly what we did after we left Remoulade. All I truly remember was it wasn’t even 22:00 when we reentered Bourbon Street. We wandered in one (possibly several) directions, looking in stores, bumping into people, and watching some of the oddest behaviour I’d ever seen.

Take this little game for example: usually occurring at Mardi Gras, this little erotic game involves women exposing their breasts to men, in return for beaded necklaces. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Where do I sign up? I had to admit, I was shocked. All these years of the National Organization for Women cramming down our throats that women are equals, not objects and blah blah blah blah blah. I had accepted all that hot air when I was knee-high to a dust mite! This little act was sending NOW’s work back 30 years.

Rebecca was particularly interested in the game (she’d heard of it from a friend of hers, who had participated when she had visited New Orleans), watching the spectacle with keen interest. (I guess this is what sex experts do when they see something sexual. I guess this would also apply to men, who look anyway.) For a brief moment, I actually thought that Rebecca was about to join in the fun. For a brief moment I hoped that she would, if only to see the expression of utter horror on Stefan’s face.

Voodoo shops are creepy places, and the French Quarter’s got a few of them. Whether or not the proprietors believe in the religion or not is hard to say, but the signs pasted all around the store seem to indicate as such. Jars of shrunken … things, voodoo dolls, potions, powders, wands, rubber chickens (don’t ask me), and a lot of stuff I wasn’t too comfortable looking at, let alone buying them.

Sex shops abounded in the area, with probable reason. Naturally, tagging along with a sex expert, we had to do some field research. I swear Rebecca sounded like a school girl, giggling at some of the things she hadn’t seen before. Most of the stuff was old hat for her, she rifled through the clutter like she had intimate knowledge of what the stuff was. Dhar couldn’t bear being those stores very long, and would quietly leave, waiting for us either on the street or in another store nearby.

The other streets near Bourbon street weren’t spared our perusal. Heaven only knows how long we stumbled around … rather, I stumbled around … until we arrived at the foot of Orleans Avenue. In front of us was St. Anthony’s Garden, and just past that the St. Louis Cathedral. At night there’s not a heck of a lot to see, except for a statue.

A simple pose of Jesus Christ with his arms extended. In front of the statue was a bright white light, which when shone at the statue formed an enormous shadow on the front of the cathedral. It was a powerful image, and one that didn’t escape my camera lens. If I ever return to New Orleans, I intend to retake that picture having had a little more practice at night shots.

We walked hardly a block before we spotted a store where all the merchandise sported a blue dog. I, still under the influence, muttered quite loudly: “What’s with the blue dog?!” We were quickly answered by passing African-American man (also under the influence) who told us the history behind the dog. It was apparently the pet of the owner, also an artist, who began painting a blue likeness of the dog. The locals seemed to like it, and eventually the dog became local lore. Go figure…

From there we found the building in which the Louisiana Purchase was signed. But I neither remember what the name of the building was nor where it was in the French Quarter. We milled around for a few moments and then headed to Canal Street. We walked up Canal Street back towards Bourbon Street, Dhar and Stefan stopping several times at the closed electronics shops (it was a Sunday, after all). Dhar was keen (bordering on desperate) to buy a new radar detector for his car.

I never really understood the reasoning for a radar detector. Unless you happen to be a professional race car driver, I don’t see any reason why you should speed excessively. Driving 20 km/h over the speed limit I don’t consider excessive (seeing as all Canadians seem to do that), but most people buying a radar detector tend to travel much faster than that.

Following more wandering, we eventually found our way back to the parking garage where we left the car. While we waited for the valet to retrieve our vehicle (it was a posh French Quarter hotel, after all), I got a good look around. The most interesting feature of the garage was the lift (you couldn’t quite call it an elevator). It was a vertical conveyor belt that ran to the upper levels of the garage. Every eight feet or so was a platform that stuck out about a foot. Valets would stand on the platform and be carried upwards. The device was devilishly simple, and judging by the motor running it, also very old. Not terribly safe either, one false move and you could lose a arm or leg … even a head.

The blue Neon reappearing from the depths (or in our case, heights), we filed back into the car and tried to find our way home. I don’t know who was navigating (Dhar was driving), but we ended up on a road heading east. Not the proper direction, you say? Correctimundo! We came to the same conclusion when we found the oil refinery. Somehow we got turned around and drove in the opposite direction. That mystery solved, Dhar turned around and got us going the right way.

I don’t know exactly what route we took, but I think it’s safe to say we didn’t take the Interstate. Eventually we found our way back to Jefferson Highway (why do I keep wanting to type ‘Jefferson Airplane’?) which ultimately led us back home to the Behemoth. It was past midnight by the time we got in, and most of the campground had settled in for the night. A few stragglers from the Jazz Festival were still up.

Dhar pulled up in front of the van, and three of us filed out. Dhar then pulled out and drove off, explaining that he wasn’t tired and wanted to see more of the city. He had pre-purchased his gasoline, and wanted to use as much of it as possible. So he said. If I had been a little more sober, I might have been a little more concerned. But by that time, I was a little more focused on going to sleep.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate Supplementary

Despite a strong beer (#23) and my first lime margarita, I’m able to write this. Tonight I experienced the French Quarter. Somehow, I had a totally different idea of Bourbon Street than what we found. I ate a shrimp and actually like it – my parents will be freaked. Dhar went off on us again – it must be nice to be a vampire…More and more I hate being single. I need only watch Stef and Rebecca to see what I’m missing. It’s become truly sad when the “jokes” I make are based in truth.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Roswell, New Mexico, and Texas

The morning was cool, but not uncomfortable. Dhar had slept in the navigator’s chair again, but for once wasn’t awake before me. Not having relieved myself the night before, my bladder was now rather tight feeling, the call of nature was screaming in my eardrums. As quietly as possible, I climbed out of the van (possible only because Dhar wasn’t blocking the side doors) and hiked down to the KOA Office.

The KOA office was a fairly large two-storey building. The front was the office itself, facing the road. At the back of the office were the men’s and women’s washrooms and a pool (also closed for the season). I found this closure rather interesting considering the camp looked rather full, and the limited facilities were sure to cause problems.

I first went to the washroom door to see if it was locked during the day. As I reached it, the door swung open and one of the other KOA guests left. I shoved my foot in the door and headed directly to the urinal. Feeling less pressured and bit lighter, I went around to the other side of the building to find the office.

A husband and wife team ran the camp, the wife sounding like an immigrant from England. I politely asked for the washroom combination so the others could get in when they woke up. I explained that we had arrived during the night, and hadn’t had a chance to use the facilities yet. (Which was essentially true.) The woman understood completely and provided me with the important information.

By the time I got back the others were rising. It was shower time. I grabbed my things and headed off to cleanse myself of several hundred miles of grime. The showers were best described as “weird”: they had all the necessary fixtures, with cinder block dividers between the three stalls. No, that isn’t the strange part. Unlike all the other places we stopped, the dividers didn’t extend all the way to the wall, leaving a foot-wide gap and allowing one person to see into the adjacent stall.

Hello? Who on earth would do something like that? More importantly, why?

I took the middle stall (for no particular reason), and was joined on either side by Stefan and Dhar about five minutes later. All three of us joked about the rather odd construction of the showers. Cleaned and dried, I headed back to the van to carry out the rest of the morning’s duties. These included emptying and refilling the fresh water tanks (the newness of the plastic tended to lend a rather unpleasant taste), getting the seats back in their original positions, and buying more postcards to send home.

Albuquerque isn’t exactly the garden spot of New Mexico, but it’s a nice place (I just wouldn’t want to live there). Trees and small plants gave some shade within the campgrounds (although not a tenth as nice as the campground in Las Vegas, but better than the ones in Colorado), amidst the wilting and dried out grass. But the grass next to the van would look nice within a week or so of us leaving, the additional water would help replenish the moisture.

A knock at one of the doors announced the arrival of one of the KOA staff. He informed us that we moved during the night, to which I vehemently (but politely) insisted we hadn’t. After a brief explanation of what happened when we arrived, the middle-aged and overweight man apologized, suggesting that someone else had created some confusion, and went off to find out who.

This was only the first encounter of less-than-average intelligence at that KOA that morning. I don’t know if it was just the staff, or if it was the result of living in New Mexico. Either way, there were some seriously intelligence impaired people working there.

My next encounter was buying postcards. That in itself wasn’t so bad, but when I got around to buying stamps things went to hell in the proverbial hand-basket. Everywhere else we had been had required $0.40 to send a postcard to Canada. Yet for some reason the English woman insisted that the cost was $0.50. I assumed one of two things: 1) Because of Albuquerque’s remoteness, the cost was slightly higher, or 2) The cost had gone up in the past couple of days. I pretty much ruled out the second possibility, since Americans would have a fit over a 10 cent increase in postage. The first possibility wasn’t particular plausible either as far as I was concerned, but an extra $0.40 overall wasn’t going to destroy my budget.

As it turns out, the stamps were supposed to cost $0.40, as Rebecca found out when she bought stamps about a half hour later. (The woman would later apologize for her mistake.) But I wasn’t the only one to have to deal with all the strange goings-on that morning. When Stefan went in to get the late check-in squared away, he also had to deal with what appeared to be a rash of moronic behaviour. Some of the aforementioned demeanor was the result of a guest leaving the campground and returning to a different spot, messing up all the scheduling and reservations, and pissing off a motorhome arriving for its reservation.

Breakfast that morning was oranges and the last of our fruity loops (the equally as sugary Kellogg’s knock-off). Having four people crammed around the table in the back of the van was not a wise idea — there was hardly any elbow room, virtually no leg room, and if you had to get out you were pretty much screwed unless you were the last person in.

We wasted little time, and pulled out just before 11:00. On directions from the KOA clerks (surprisingly accurate ones), we traveled north along Juan Tabo Boulevard to find the Valvoline lube shop, about a mile or so north of the I-40. Stefan’s keen eyesight picked it out at a fair distance, and soon enough we were parked around the back waiting our turn in line.

There seemed to be a large number of people wanting to change their oil that morning. I had hoped for a simple drive-in, drive-out spending all of about 20 minutes. Unfortunately there were two cars ahead of us in both bays, meaning that at best we were there for at least 40 minutes. So we sat back, listened to the radio, and waited.

One of the oil jockeys came out after a few minutes and had me fill out some information about the van. This necessitated a quick flip through the owner’s manual to make sure I got the information correct. Another jockey had an elderly man in a pickup truck and us switch sides to keep the order of first-come, first-serve in perfect shape.

Dhar and Rebecca went off to find coffee and camera film. I needed film, and asked Dhar to grab some for me, and I’d pay him back later. To keep in check with the film I had used so far, I asked for Kodak film, preferably 400 ASA. I got my 400 ASA, but it was Fuji instead. I don’t mind Fuji film, but I’ve always believed Fuji film takes different pictures than Kodak film.

Only moments following Rebecca and Dhar’s return to the van our turn came for an oil change. Guided by one of the half-dozen high school dropouts (or so their appearance seemed to be) that ran the place, although in a very professional manner, I drove the Behemoth into place over one of the massive oil changing pits. There seemed to be almost a military manner about the way business was carried out: precise motions, strong team dependence, and a curious habit of repeating yelled orders so that every employee was aware of what was going on even if that employee wasn’t directly involved.

The hood was popped as the oil pan plug was pulled. If there is such a thing as an automotive enema, I’m certain the Behemoth received one. At first we were all in the van, but almost immediately Stefan and Dhar climbed out to watch the lube jockeys go through their steps.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960427.1175

Day 7

We hit Albuquerque late last night and actually managed to sleep in for a change – 8:45 to be specific. Three hours later, we’re now changing oil. After that, we’re getting abducted by aliens. We might get to San Antonio tonight.

My father was very specific about the type of oil that was used in any of our family vehicles — always 15W40 grade. Neither Stefan or Dhar (acknowledged automotive fanatics) could understand it, neither did any of the lube jockeys. To be honest, I never did either. All I knew is that the oil my dad usually put in was made for diesel engines and was excellent at keeping the carbon levels low.

But in the heat of the south, 15W40 is hardly ever used. The most popular grades were literally kept on tap — three gas pump-style hoses provided quick and easy access to refills. Our rather odd order had to be yelled down to the storage area (although yelled all over the garage at the same time, as if in disbelief that some yahoo was actually ordering such a thick oil), and five quart bottles had to be tossed up.

Everything that moved was greased. Every fluid level was checked. The filters were changed. While we waited for the last of the bottles to be filled, one of the station’s employees struck up conversation (almost unavoidable when you’re driving a motorhome with Ontario license plates). Mostly where we had been and where we were going — standard fare for us by that point. Then he asked us who we thought was going to win the Stanley Cup that year.

Although I immediately answered: “I haven’t a clue!”, it took me only a moment to realize the irony of the situation. Here I was, a devout Canadian, from what many believe to be the true home of ice hockey, and I don’t follow what many would call our national pastime. (As a side note — hockey is so popular that the theme for CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada has been repeatedly recommended as our new national anthem, mostly because O Canada doesn’t sound good at hockey games.) I was in a state where the only ice they probably saw was floating in drinks, yet they eagerly watched hockey.

I guess I’ve always had this odd objection to warm climates taking a liking to ice hockey. I have this peculiar train-of-thought that says places like Dallas, Miami, and Los Angeles should never be allowed to have a hockey team, especially when needy cold places like Quebec City are more deserving. In my opinion, any place that doesn’t see snow for more than two months of the year should not be allowed to have an ice hockey team. Yes, I know that proper conditions can easily be maintained in arenas, but that’s beside the point. It’s the principle of the matter. Ice is nice.

Anyway, a few minutes later and a $25 charge to my VISA card, we hit the road to see if we could get abducted by aliens. Our major destination of the day was Roswell, about 200 miles south-east of Albuquerque.

For those of you not familiar with the name Roswell, you probably don’t follow UFO lore. In 1947 newspaper headlines touted the crash of an unidentified flying object — the first, and most certainly not the last (though probably the most credible) report of any such incident from 1947 to the present day. Theories abound as to what happened. Some, like the US Army, contend that the object was a weather balloon. Others think it was one of the number “black projects” the United States government ran (and still run). But X-Files diehards (referred to as X-Philes … pun intended, I assume) and UFO-ologists believe that the object was a spacecraft of some kind. Many reports also seemed to indicate that passengers were recovered from the ship. But this much is known: the government denies anything other than a weather balloon crashed outside Roswell.

Mind you, until 1995 the United States government also denied the existence of Area 51, a not-so-secret Air Force base at Groom Lake in Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. This is despite many photographs and video, Russian satellite photos, and large groups of people who go to the site to watch “black projects” go through their paces. Many in-the-know also believe the crashed UFO and some fully-functional UFOs are stationed at the Groom Lake facility.

I resumed my stint behind the wheel, and we pulled back onto the I-40. This time we headed west again for brief time, until we picked up the I-25 going south. This was by far the easiest and the fastest route, taking about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach Socorro. From there we would take Highway 380 to Roswell. Socorro was also known for some rather interesting activities in the night sky, all denied by the government, of course.

Despite the general lack of just about anything interesting in New Mexico, we managed to find a few objects and places that put the state in my “Strange Places To Visit” category (reports of UFOs aside). For starters, there’s the prison warning signs along the road. We missed the first one we passed, I barely got a good look at it. But we pulled over at the next one we found so I could get a good picture of it:

Do not pick up hitchhikers. Prison facilities.Never before had I seen anything like that. I haven’t seen anything like that out of New Mexico ever since. Along that same stretch of the I-25, I also saw a VW Bug. Remember them? Yes, I know that’s not impressive, and I totally agree. The fact that this VW had an enormous pair of bull horns mounted to the roof completely amazed me. Not only did they look absolutely ludicrous on the tiny vehicle, they must’ve constituted a safety hazard in the event of a car crash.

The desert opened before us very quickly, leaving only the brown and beige vastness to see. The only break in the monotony was the Rio Grande, which the I-25 ran along side. On the banks of the mighty river stood luscious trees and large bushes. The vegetation seemed to form an impenetrable wall, preventing the harsh conditions of the New Mexico wasteland from harming the delicate life giver.

When we turned east onto Highway 380, that little slice of green quickly disappeared behind us. I expected us to start crossing through sandy desert at that point, but was surprised to find many low hills and shallow valleys rippled the land before us. The only indication that we were in or at least very near a desert were a few signs that warned of sandstorms in the area.

But perhaps the most serious sign that we saw was for the White Sands Missile Range. More secretive government work, yes, but not the most significant reason … at least not for me. I knew that somewhere to the south of Highway 380 was the location of the infamous Trinity Site. There, in the early hours of July 16, 1945, humanity decided to try to beat God at His own game and crack the atom. For a brief instant the sky became brighter than day, and the nuclear age began.

I wanted to see the site. But the AAA TourBook indicated that only two tours were made each year: one at the beginning of April, and one at the beginning of October. The Trinity Site is in the northern end of the White Sands Missile Range, but may still be in an active fire zone. Another possibility is lingering radioactivity, fatal to prolonged repeated exposure.

New Mexico is the birthplace of Smokey the Bear. How did we find this out? We passed by the Smokey Bear Historical State Park. Several signs hinted at a monument of some kind that told the story of the Great Firestomper, but we never found it.

We stumbled across another rather interesting curiousity somewhere between Capitan and Picacho, a distance of about 29 miles. One minute we were passing through a sea of dust, sand and small dark green shrubs, the next minute we were surrounded by a basalt lava flow. All around us was a massive black bumpy patch of rock. We pulled over for a moment t get a good look at it, to make sure we weren’t seeing things.

Another reason we pulled over was to see if we could find a replacement for our lava rocks in the barbeque. The ones that were supplied with our little grill were horrible, barely large enough to keep from falling between the cracks (and sometimes not). But almost as soon as we pulled into what appeared to be a state park entrance, we saw the rules posted in large friendly letters for all to see: “Do not remove any rocks from this area.”

So we pulled back out onto the road. But I pulled out a little too quick, and the CD player slid off the “doghouse” (the “doghouse” is an extension of the engine housing into the passenger compartment, creating a large bulge between the driver and navigator) and smashed into the floor, breaking the lid off. I was a little annoyed, mostly at myself for pulling out so fast. Fortunately, Dhar the engineer fixed our music supply and returned it to working order. One thing I’ll say for Sony, their CD players will take a burning, and keep on turning.

A little under a half hour later, we entered Roswell. We didn’t know when we entered Roswell, as there weren’t any “Welcome to Roswell” signs. Less than a quarter mile after entering what I assume to be the city limits, we found ourselves in a time machine set for the 1950’s. It seemed aliens had taken over the city and prevented the citizens from building anything new.

Despite the marker of a major city on the New Mexico map, Roswell was really nothing more than a large town of some 45,000 people buried in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Highway 380 formed one of two main roads running through Roswell, the other being Highway 285. Where they crossed, the intersection almost resembled one out of a major city … only without the traffic. It was one of a small number of intersections with traffic lights.

Roswell seemed dead. There was hardly any life to the place whatsoever — virtually no moving cars, hardly any pedestrians, no animals or birds that we could see or hear. Even the vegetation looked stunted. Another temporal distortion seemed to surround the city, just like the one in Kansas, only not as severe. Even our breathing seemed to slow slightly. Little did we know that we found the home of unconcern, stoicism, and apathy.

What we were looking for, we didn’t know. Asking someone about the UFO crash would illicit one of two responses: annoyance (derived from all the other curiousity seekers’ constant badgering), or bewilderment at such a stupid question. So we simply drove along Highway 380 looking for something, anything, that might give a hint as to Roswell’s infamous past.

In a motion that was nearly suggestive of pregnancy, Rebecca declared that she wanted ice cream. I say ‘nearly’ because I was also guilty of such a declaration (even if I didn’t vocalize it), and medical science still hasn’t caused pregnancy in men. But do you think that we could find a single ice cream parlour? What it was with Southerners, I don’t know, but they seemed to have some strange aversion to cold foods.

Before we knew it, the desert reappeared. Half of us wanted to go back to Roswell, and half of us wanted to go forward. So we compromised and continued going forward for a little while. The eastern side of Roswell was certainly more scenic than the western side, but when you compare a scraggly shrub to nothing, the difference is still significant (at least in a mathematical sense). After a few minutes we stumbled across the Bottomless Lakes State Park. The arrival of the dinner hour elicited a group decision to find a place to settle down and eat, and the park seemed as good a place as any.

We turned onto the park road and started driving down its long, winding route. We drove for what seemed like endless miles. We began to wonder if the park had any lakes at all, if they had dried up like all the rivers we had seen in our travels through the dry states. Turn after turn, bend after bend, mile after mile, and nothing but some short grasses and bracken.

But as we rounded a hill after about ten minutes, a body of water came into view. It looked like there was maybe two feet of water in the deepest portion. Evaporation had left huge white and gold rings of mineral deposits where the water had one been. It probably couldn’t support any life, partly hinted at by the lack of vegetation around the pond (which was pretty much what it was by that point). The park was rapidly beginning to be known as “Lakeless Bottom”.

But we did eventually find it, about a mile away from the other lake bed. Oddly enough though, we didn’t immediately see it — it was surrounded. On the north side of the lake was a steep cliff. On the west side were trees just tall enough to shield our view. On the east and south sides was a picnic cum trailer park the state park service had erected. Unlike most of the other parks we had visited thus far (excluding the ones containing historical sites), this had a pay-for-use system … even if you only wanted to use the picnic area. We weren’t too keen on this aspect, so promptly turned around and hit the road again.

In a few minutes we found ourselves at the top of the cliff on the north side of the lake, and received our first good look. Barely larger than the other dried-up lake we had seen earlier, some 100 to 150 metres in diametre and roughly circular in size, the lake would be considered a pond in most circles. As to its claim as being bottomless, we couldn’t really tell. It was a dark lake, but even a shallow lake can look dark.

At any rate, the spot was a good place to have dinner. It was a gravel-laid lookout point for the lake next to the park road, surrounded with chain-link fencing to keep visitors from falling down the 80 metre cliff to what would probably be certain death.

I hopped out the driver’s door, flipped up the running board flap, and turned on the propane. Rebecca delegated herself to cooking dinner — spaghetti with some mighty spicy tomato sauce. While we ate, several vehicles pulled up, usually families, to look over the cliff to the tiny lake below. Several families of flies visited us directly, an annoyance we could have done without.

Just as we were finishing, a police car showed up. I began to panic. If this doesn’t say why I don’t like colouring outside the lines, I don’t know what does. I’ve been paranoid of the police for years, and I really don’t know why. I guess I was frightened that the police would come over and declare we were not supposed to be there, nail us with a large fine, and suddenly decide to search the van. In doing so they’d stumble across something that wasn’t supposed to be there, they’d confiscate the van, and I’d disappear into some deep dark prison never to see the light of day, and become the plaything for some a 230-pound rapist and mass murderer named Bubba.

Yes, my mind wanders frequently. I often worry that one day, when I’m not attentive, it will wander into the road and get squished. Then I’d be in trouble…

The cops sat there in the patrol car, looking in our general direction, then after a few moments drove off. I breathed a sigh of relief, much to the curiousity of the others, who hadn’t come close to being fazed by the presence of the long arm of the law.

The dishes and the pots were cleaned, the leftovers heaved in a nearby dumpster. While Dhar and I got the van ready to be rolled out again, Stefan and Rebecca shared a moment outside, staring into the impending sunset, into the vastness of the American south-west.

For some reason unknown to me then, and still a mystery to me now, I wanted to keep driving. It wasn’t that I hadn’t tired of driving — I actually wanted to keep driving. I don’t know why. But little argument was raised, so I resumed my position and we headed on our way out of the park. Fortunately the way out was much shorter than the way in.

Rebecca and Stefan took refuge in “their” place in the back, Dhar rode shotgun. As we reentered Roswell, Stefan came forward and asked quietly if we could keep an eye open for any place that sold ice cream. (He wanted to make sure Rebecca’s desires were fulfilled.) It was a difficult request to fill, as there were no ice cream parlours of any kind to be found.

No ice cream parlours, but that bastion of American cheap food, brusque service, and blatant commercialism happened to have a branch office in Roswell. We pulled into the McParking Lot(r), went in through the McDoors(r), and waited in the McLobby(r) so one of the under-paid McEmployees(r) with over-applied McMakeup(r) could take our McOrders(r).

Several years ago, the Canadian branches of the McFranchise(r) had switched from milk-based ice cream and milkshakes to low fat versions. This meant the ice cream was now frozen yogurt, something which I considered so artificial I was never keen on eating it. However, in a trip to TCBY a couple years following the switch, I found I didn’t mind it so much. Ever since, I’d made quick work of the McHot Fudge Sundaes(r).

What the American branches of the McFranchise(r) use, I have no clue. All I do know is that the McHot Fudge Sundae(r) certainly didn’t taste like a McHot Fudge Sundae(r). It might have been the fact that the McServer(r) had to scoop the McFudge(r) out of the McDispenser(r) when the McPump(r) broke. Her hand was coated with the chocolate goop, and said goop didn’t appear normal … at least to me.

Complaints aside, Rebecca’s craving was diminished, if not satisfied, and our mission to Roswell had come to a close. Still retaining the driver’s seat, I took us out of the McParking Lot(r) and drove to Highway 285 for our trip into Texas.

We still hadn’t quite figured out what we were going to do in Texas. One thing we had all wanted to do was find a beach on the Gulf of Mexico and spend the day soaking in the sun’s harmful rays, receiving sand mite bites, sucking in polluted salt water, and paying too much for a watered-down Coke. To do this, we were going to drive through the night until we got to Houston, at which point we would head south to the beach. I kept suggesting we visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, but received only lukewarm response. This was the extent of our planning.

First things first however, and we still had 92 miles until we even entered the Lone Star State, let alone set course for the beach. The sun was scraping the horizon as we drove south. The sunset was like nothing we had seen on the trip to that point (nor would we see anything like it during the rest of the trip). As it set, the light on the horizon showed us a landscape so flat, it looked almost like a totally calm and smooth lake — perfectly flat, save for the odd bush that created a small bump. But unlike Arizona or Kansas, the flatness didn’t bother me. It was oddly calming … though I wouldn’t want to see it every day.

With the coming of night came a better view of what was on the horizon. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Throughout most of New Mexico that we saw, and probably a good chunk of Texas, were oil wells. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound too spectacular, but as you travel down Highway 285, bright spots appear on that flat distant line. Oil wells and refineries, their lights burning through the night sky. The wind only confirmed our conclusions, the smell of petrochemicals could be easily smelled even as far as 60 miles away.

Each night in Carlsbad, about an hour south of Roswell, there is a spectacle that draws huge crowds. At one of the natural entrances to the Carlsbad Caverns, millions of insect-eating bats take to the sky at sunset to feed. Seeing Carlsbad Caverns would have been an interesting addition to the day, and I so desperately wanted to see the bats. Unfortunately for me, and for all of us, the sun had fully set by the time we were less than 30 minutes from Carlsbad. No bats that night.

Or so I thought. In the New Mexico desert, even on a clear night the amount of ambient light is pretty minimal (at least from inside a vehicle). Things along the roads are pretty hard to see. As we reached the area of Carlsbad Caverns, we encountered a few fledermaus. At first it was just glimpses of the winged mice as they avoided colliding with the Behemoth. But a couple of the more adventurous types decided to settle in the roads looking for a meal. I’m not scared of bats, but when one of those suckers takes off a few feet in front as you travel at 65 mph towards it, you’re bound to be a little startled.

But nothing was nearly as nail-biting as our encounter of the fuzzy kind. Jack rabbits. Hundreds of them lined the highway. We didn’t notice them until one shot in front of the van as it crossed to the east side of the roadway. Dhar and I immediately developed rabbit radar, constantly scanning for the furry little buggers. I love nature, I don’t like driving over top of it, or smacking into it snapping vertebrae.

At first, we thought it was just one or two. But after a couple minutes, we saw hundreds of green glowing eyes peering back from the scraggly grass at the sides of the highway. If we had been characters in a Stephen King novel, I’d be scared out of my wits at the sight of all those bewitched bunnies. The odd one would hop around, but for some reason most stared at us as we drove by. I suppose it’s the old “caught in the headlights” shtick, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still creepy. I could almost hear Alfred Hitchcock’s “good evening” echo in the van.

We weren’t the only ones who knew the jack rabbits were there — we spotted a wily coyote prowling for dinner. I figured that with that many rabbits, he (or she) shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a bite to eat.

The rabbits continued to the New Mexico / Texas border, then seemed to vanish. As we crossed into our 11th state of the trip, Rebecca promptly asked if we had been abducted by aliens. According to our clocks, no time had passed. I couldn’t find any hole in my memory, nor could anyone else. We all sighed dejectedly — nobody wanted us.

Highway 285 started into a south-easterly direction once inside Texas. By this time, it was so dark the only way we knew we were in Texas was the sign welcoming us, and the dual speed limits: one for cars, and another for trucks driving at night. At first I assumed that the limits were only for the state highways, since they weren’t as well protected from animals as the Interstates. As it turned out, the limits were universal.

Then one of the possible reasons came to light — deer. In Canada, large animals are a problem when driving through the boonies at night. If you’re not careful, you can say good-bye to your car, and if you’re particularly unlucky, your life. Moose are the worst problem, they’ll demolish large buses and walk away unscathed. Deer tend to explode a little more on contact, but are capable of a great deal of damage.

We Canucks are very aware of these dangers (as a country of barely 28 million people and huge expanses of wilderness, we tend to be fairly in touch with nature), but Texans probably need to be reminded that they’re not invulnerable (as if The Alamo wasn’t enough of an explanation). Dhar and I still had our radar on full, so we felt pretty safe as we traveled towards the I-10.

I drove until we arrived in Fort Stockton, where we picked up the I-10. It was only our second sign of civilization since Carlsbad. There we filled up with fuel before continuing our trek across Texas. The Flying J gas and convenience stores were becoming a regular sight to us. We could fill up not only on gas, but also on drinks and food for our seemingly endless driving.

Most people told us that the driving would be hell, and we’d hate all the driving we were doing. To me, that wasn’t the case. Okay, Kansas and Arizona were hell, but beyond that the driving was actually fairly interesting — we were seeing parts of the continents we had never seen before. In only a week we had traveled through half a dozen different climates, each one containing a unique beauty.

Texas seemed to have a climate very different from New Mexico. At Fort Stockton, we were over 500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, yet the air was terribly sticky from the humidity. This was a new experience for me. Sure, I’d been to Florida before (see [[Music Trip to Orlando, Introduction|Music Trip to Orlando]]) and felt the ocean’s influence on the moisture in the air, but Florida is less than 200 miles wide and surrounded by massive bodies of water. Fort Stockton is very much land-locked. I never once expected the air to be so humid so far away from water. If anything, the trip was also becoming very educational.

The gas wasn’t terribly cheap, but we now knew the reasons why. I paid for the gas (having to turn over my credit card even before beginning to pump gas) while the others made use of the restrooms and purchased more supplies for the odyssey. Then it was my turn to get some sleep. I had been driving for over 10 hours that day, and I was exhausted.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Roswell was uneventful. If we did get abducted, we don’t remember. We had dinner at Bottomless Lake, which for a while we thought was Lakeless Bottom. (This was partly due to the sheer number of dry river beds we’ve seen.)Dhar and I navigated through several miles of vicious Texas jack rabbits, vampire bats, wily coyotes and a few of Bambi’s relatives on our way into Texas. We’re about 5 hours or so outside of San Antonio.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Hoover Dam and New Mexico

I awoke to a vaguely disturbing dream about sirens, manifested by emergency vehicles running up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, just in front of our 16th floor window. No sooner than my head cleared enough for me to realize I was awake that I heard a familiar whirring and buzzing, followed by a sharp shutter click and another quick whir. I suddenly realized with a bit of dread that Dhar had just taken my picture. I immediately flipped him my middle finger in response. His response was a cheery “Too late!” Stefan and Rebecca fell victim to our early-morning shutterbug a few seconds later.

We moved surprisingly quick that morning, it took half as long to get Rebecca out of bed. We were showered and ready to go downstairs less than forty-five minutes, leaving us an hour and a half before we planned to check out, at 11:30. Prior to leaving for breakfast, we made certain that we packed up all our belongings so all we would have to do is grab our bags and exit the premises. I filled out an “Express Check Out” card that I left at Registration just before breakfast, avoiding the hassle of standing in line.

Breakfast was at the buffet, after a ten minute lineup. Rebecca held our places in line while I ventured off to find a bank machine and obtain some cash. I wasn’t certain whether my card would be able to access the CIBC network properly or not, but I figured it was worth a shot. Figuring that I had spent only $100 in the first five days, I thought another $100 should get me a fair distance further. The machine spat out $100 a moment later.

It spat out a $100 bill. At first I stared at the machine, wondering what moron would fill a bank machine with such large denominations. I actually slapped my forehead when I realized that I was in a casino, where this sort of thing was normal. But $100 was too much for me to carry around as a single banknote. I asked a nearby security guard where I could break the bill into smaller denominations. His look seemed to indicate that he thought I was a moron, but he pointed at the change booth positioned conveniently behind the bank machine. I slapped my forehead again.

Returning to the buffet restaurant, I couldn’t find Rebecca, Stefan, or Dhar. The latter two appeared a moment later, having browsed a couple slot machines while I was getting money. As it turned out, Stefan was getting money too, winning $6. We ended up having to go in through the exit line to get to Rebecca. A moment later we were sitting at a booth at the back of the room, right next to the buffet tables.

There was only a momentary pause before Stefan and I laid siege to the food. At all-you-can-eat buffets, some people make repeated trips, bringing back small portions of food each time. Stefan and I subscribe to a different philosophy: repeated trips waste calories … get it all the first time. Being buffet food, I didn’t expect a gourmet-quality repast, but for a breakfast it wasn’t too bad. What our breakfast lacked in quality, the buffet made up for with variation — cereal, fruit, steak, eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, ham, hash browns … an endless sea of morning fare.

We still had 45 minutes of free time before our planned exodus, so we decided to spend the time browsing around. This effectively split the four of us up with Stefan, Rebecca, and Dhar heading to the casino floor, and myself avoiding it. I was getting over my case of Lasvegasitis, and the constant binging and chiming was beginning to grate on my nerves. I opted to do some window shopping instead.

I was determined to leave with some reminder of our stay at Treasure Island, but very little appealed to me. A few years earlier, I would’ve bought up half a store … I guess age does affect what you think is neat. At any rate, I browsed through every store in Treasure Island two or three times before visiting another store on an upper level, near the tram to Mirage and the walkway to the parking garage. There I managed to find a dark aquamarine baseball cap with a simple logo on the front.

In finding the illusive store, I also found a piece of technology that I had heard about a couple years earlier on one of the many technology shows I watched on TV. On the escalator leading to the next floor up, riders pass by a large video wall. This in itself isn’t anything extraordinary, but if you look close you’ll see directional microphones suspended from the ceiling and jutting from the walls.

Together these elements are used to create an interactive computer effect. Somewhere deep inside Treasure Island is a computer room, and in this room a performer straps himself into a movement apparatus called a “waldo”. On the video wall the performer’s movements become a computer animated cartoon pirate, the voice also supplied by the performer. The microphones pick up the voices of the escalator riders, essentially allowing the performer to have a conversation with the riders. Unfortunately the system was either no longer used, or wasn’t on during the time I was traveling up and down the escalator.

Just under 45 minutes later I was back in the room, the others waiting for my arrival. We spent little time packing up our things for our journey to the Behemoth. Returning to the lobby, we opted to go out via the parking garage instead of out the front entrance. Dhar commented on the way that the incessant tones of the slots were driving him mad. I knew exactly what he meant.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960426.115

Day 6

Leaving Las Vegas. It’s an interesting place, but only in small doses. Besides, there are a great many more things to see…

The Hoover Dam is up next, we should be in Albuquerque by tonight.

Despite the already hot temperatures, the van was actually fairly cool inside, thanks to the power of the almighty ceiling fan. We stored our gear, checked the oil, and fired up the engine. While we were waiting for the engine to warm up, I checked the battery power to see how much it had been drained in the 20 or so hours we had left it unplugged. Surprisingly, the level wasn’t terribly low.

It became fairly apparent why the level was so high when I checked the fridge … it was still set for 110 volt power. I had forgotten to change the power to 12 volt when we left the KOA the day before. I immediately set the fridge for 12 volt to keep it from getting any warmer, and prayed that what perishable food we had in there wouldn’t go bad.

That problem aside, we pulled out of the parking lot and hit the road. We traveled north on Las Vegas Boulevard to pick up with Highway 93, which would take us back to the Hoover Dam. Along the way we stopped at the Graceland Chapel so Stefan could take a picture of Dhar and Rebecca in front of it. I waited in the van since they were only gone a few minutes. That act started a rash of jokes about Dhar being married to Rebecca. Interestingly enough, the jokes didn’t seem to bug Stefan much.

And so we hit our first batch of real traffic. Like many places we had traveled through thus far, Las Vegas was doing construction work on the highway, and it was completely tying up traffic. Normally, I hate traffic. I hate it so much I now refuse to drive into Toronto unless it can’t be avoided (or I know the traffic will be light). But even though I was behind the wheel that morning, I wasn’t really bothered. About 20 minutes after entering the mess, we were clear on our way.

Nevada looks very different in the day — mostly brown and beige with a few splotches of green. Leftovers of the Rocky Mountains and its foothills give some texture to the land. Fortunately, the 30 miles from Las Vegas to the Hoover Dam go by fairly quickly.

This time Dhar and Rebecca were awake, and duly impressed with the gorge as we started to travel down the west side of the valley. Although Stefan and I got a good look at the dam some 36 hours earlier, daylight cast a whole new perspective on the massive structure.

We parked in a newly-built parking garage on the Nevada side and strolled across Highway 93 (reduced to a two lane road with a speed maximum of 15 miles an hour) to the Visitor’s Center. We immediately signed up for a tour of the dam, at a cost of five dollars apiece. At the time I considered this a reasonable price, even if the actual tour didn’t last as long as I thought it would have.

Starting at the top of the dam, we had to travel down about 600 feet to the river level. The tour group numbered about 50 to 60 people, which could be accommodated in the two immense elevators. Each of the two cars in the cylindrical shaft could carry at least 30 people, and probably closer to 50. (When you’re crammed in like sardines, trying not to grope the person next to you by accident, and ignoring the increasing heat, you tend not to notice the precise number of people in the elevator.)

At the bottom we were quickly shuffled out to the balcony of the Nevada-side generating bay. Four American football fields in length, the bay was an impressive construction. Eight massive turbine-powered generators ran the length of the bay, with a much smaller ninth generator near the front, providing power for the dam’s offices, elevators, lights and so forth.

A few minutes of speech from our tour guide (who constantly stepped over her own words and could barely be heard even with the use of a PA system), and she led us down a flight of stairs to the generator bay floor, and out a door to the outside. We were now where the water from the reservoir exited from the penstocks back into the Colorado River. Behind us was the towering dam, an awesome sight from below.

Here we were shown the transformers which took the raw power from the generators and sent it into the electrical grid. The electrical cables ran almost straight up the side of the canyon walls to towers that stood out almost on a 90 degree angle, then into Nevada. The same setup existed on the Arizona side. The wires criss-crossing the valley seemed to form an immense spider’s web. Only here, it would be the web that killed you, not the spider.

Following a quick schpeal about the transformers, the guide went on to discuss the dam itself. I already knew a fair bit from documentaries I had seen, but seeing it on TV and seeing it in reality are two totally different things. On TV, it seems like an everyday occurrence. Standing about 30 feet above the Colorado River, staring nearly 700 feet to the top of the dam is an unbelievable sight. The dam is so massive that engineers estimate that barring any major catastrophe (such as earthquake registering over 8 on the Richter scale), the dam should last about 2,000 years. Had I heard that on the documentaries, I would’ve passed it off as over-confidence. Having actually seen it, I think the estimate’s a bit low.

Dhar had been a little preoccupied with crossing the dam the first time, afraid that it might crack beneath us. Now at the bottom of the gorge, he was even more concerned. Even I was a little apprehensive. But one of the dam’s design features made Dhar all the more paranoid … it leaked. At the seams of the concrete forms, you could see the dark telltale marks of water seepage. Another tourist in our group asked about that, the tour guide promised it was designed that way.

The last stop of the tour was some 200 feet into the canyon wall. Here we were led into a room that overlooked the massive penstock pipes. These pipes came down from the intake towers in the reservoir, delivering water to the generator turbines. Some 30 or 40 feet in diametre, and using pins (rivets) that were six inches across, the pipes contained water under so much pressure that the room we stood in vibrated … and it wasn’t even directly connected to the pipe.

Here the guide told us how the water is delivered from Lake Mead to the generators, and how the water was diverted while the dam was under constructions. Another interesting fact of Hoover Dam: it has two spillways, designed to take in water in the event of a flash flood. The spillways are each large enough to contain the volume of water that goes over Niagara Falls in one second (5520 cubic metres, or about 194,940 cubic feet).

The tour thus ended. I was a little disappointed that we had seen all there was to see. I wanted to see the control room, or something else that’s usually “behind the scenes”. We were led back to the elevators to take us back to the Visitor’s Center. We opted not to see the documentary film, but decided to check out the dam for ourselves. We found our way to the Lake Mead side of the dam, where we found a gift shop. Finally I had found tacky stuff. And by tacky, I am referring to mounted heads of the illusive jackalope (a jack rabbit with antelope horns glued on for show).

I purchased a rather huge mug (the only truly tacky thing that I bought during the trip) and a rock from the canyon to give to my soon-to-be-ex-manager at a job I would quit a few days after returning home. (A very long story, summarized in that the job I was supposed to get ended up going to someone else, and I was going to be bussing tables, through no fault of my own. Thanks, but no thanks.) The rock was supposed to be from the Grand Canyon, but I had forgotten to get one. The rock here looked similar in formation (an advantage of having taken geology courses), so I figured I would at least try to pass it off. (I never did find out if she got the rock or not.)

The time came for us to hit the road again, and start gaining hours as we headed east. Stefan and Rebecca went back for the van while Dhar and I walked to Arizona, taking pictures as we went. I finished off the last of a roll of film (as did Dhar), and I took a couple pictures with my panoramic camera. Part of the way across we came by a restroom, which I desperately needed to make use of.

Most of the architecture of the dam was art deco, the style commonly used in the 1930’s, when the dam was built. Even the washrooms retained the style … the toilets actually looked like the ones installed in the 1930’s. I couldn’t help but comment on this to Dhar when I came out.

A few minutes later we stood on the Arizona side waiting for Rebecca and Stefan to drive by. They barely stopped, just long enough for us to dive in the side door before continuing on. Our next intended stop was to be in Flagstaff.

My dad had drilled into me for years that engine oil needed to be changed every 5,000 kilometres, no matter what. The Behemoth would hit the mark just outside of Flagstaff, making it the ideal place to get an oil change. But first we had to cross over three and a half hours of Arizona, and it was already 14:00 Mountain time.

We drove down to Kingman again, pausing only long enough to hop from Highway 93 to the I-40 to head east. The trip was fairly uneventful, we found various ways to amuse ourselves including playing Stefan’s favourite song, Sugar Sugar. (This was from my Saturday Morning CD, a compilation of themes from old Saturday morning cartoon shows, remade by current alternative bands.) Previously a song from the Archies, Sugar Sugar was remade by Mary Lou Lord with Semisonic. It was just as sugary-sweet as the original song (no pun intended), and just as evilly catchy. Several times Stefan would unconsciously start humming it, which led to at least one other person humming it, which lead to someone realizing that it was being hummed, which led to conscious thought and the realization that the song was actually very annoying.

We had a reasonably extensive CD collection with us, most of them from my “store”. I use the term as a result of all the chiding I received from my friends. At the time of the trip, I had in excess of 435 CDs. An impressive collection perhaps, but no more so than a few people I know who have over 1,200 CDs in addition to endless boxes of LPs and the few hundred-odd cassette tapes.

Long before my family had even bought the Behemoth, I had sent a request to Stefan and Rebecca to decide what music to listen to, sending them a list of every album I owned. I personally had no qualms about what they chose — my logic was straightforward, whatever they wanted to listen I owned anyway. After a bit of prodding I finally got a list in return that contained what I would consider “easy-listening” music. What I didn’t know was that they listened to music that was as every bit as harsh as some of the music I listened to, and we had many similarities in our likes and dislikes. In theory, I could have grabbed a bunch of CDs at random and it wouldn’t have mattered.

To give you an idea of what we did listen to, here’s the list:

1996 Grammy Nominees ABBA Aerosmith
Blue Rodeo Cirque du Soliel’s Mystère Crash Test Dummies
Enya Eurythmics Fine Young Cannibals
Great Big Sea Harry Connick Jr. Jimmy George
Led Zeppelin Monty Python Pink Floyd
Prince Pulp Fiction Soundtrack REM
Sarah MacLachlan Saturday Morning (Cartoon’s Greatest Hits) Saturday Night Fever
Spirit Of The West Stevie Ray Vaughn Sting
Supertramp Tesla The Beach Boys
The Beatles The Cranberries The Gone Jackals
The Guess Who The Police The Rolling Stones
The Tragically Hip Tom Petty Traveling Wilburys
U2 Van Halen Weird Al Yankovic
ZZ Top

There were several other CDs in the pack I brought along, but we never got a chance to listen to them. Several of the albums were chosen by me for a specific contribution to the trip: theme music. ZZ Top was included for their rendition of Viva Las Vegas. The Tragically Hip supplied New Orleans Is Sinking. REM gave us Drive. Unfortunately I had neglected to bring Sheryl Crow (Leaving Las Vegas), any Elvis albums, Paul Simon (Graceland), or Phil Collins (Take Me Home).

About a third of the way across Arizona, we realized our gasoline supply was dwindling fast. We also knew that the western end of Arizona had much higher gas prices than the eastern end. We tried our best to keep the supply running as long as we could, but soon it became all too clear that no matter what we did, we needed fuel and we needed it quickly.

We pulled off at Seligman, some tiny speck on the map, where we hoped there would be an open gas bar. We crossed to the north side of I-40, and turned east onto a small road. Turning left, we headed over to a dusty gas station, in the middle of a small dusty town. There were hardly any trees, virtually no green grass … there were hardly any people. Except for the ones driving in the replica roadsters. We’d seen a few of them earlier as we were driving, but couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many of them. When we saw the sign, it all came much clearer:

Welcome to Seligman. Birthplace of Historic Route 66. So we were on the infamous Route 66. We didn’t get any kicks … except in the ass when we saw the price of gas. But when you’re too low to know whether or not you’ll get to the next station, you don’t quibble about it. Instead we tossed in about $10, praying it would get us to our next stop. We spent only enough time in Seligman to buy the gas and record the fact that we’d been there. We then peeled rubber to get out of there — it was a little too backwater for our liking.

We arrived in Flagstaff about 19:00 that evening, which was an hour too late to get an oil change. We didn’t realize this until we had already spent a half hour searching through phone books for lube garages in the area and drove around trying to find them. Already about 150 kilometres over the 5,000 kilometre mark, I was a little apprehensive about driving any further for fear of damaging a new engine. But staying in Flagstaff overnight meant a delay in our schedule, possibly meaning we would have to sacrifice one of our planned destinations. It was four and three quarter hours from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, a distance I wasn’t too keen on traveling, but in the long run it was better for us to do so.

With some trepidation, we jumped back on I-40 and continued our eastern haul. We drove for about 40 miles before pulling into one of the Arizona rest stops, about 20 miles west of Winslow. Resting in one of the many vast endless terrains in the south-west, the rest stop intruded as little into the area as possible. The only significant structures were the washroom building and the picnic shelters.

Inhabiting one of the picnic sites, we set up our portable barbeque on one of the concrete tables and fired it up to cook the hot dogs. While we were stopped, I also took the liberty of switching the fridge over to the propane supply to try and drop the temperature. The 12 volt system was really only good for keeping the contents at a specific temperature, you needed the 110 volt supply or the propane supply to really get the fridge cold.

Our picnic site had three partial (non-contacting) walls and a flat roof, all made from poured concrete. Behind us was a small rock formation, bearing a sign to watch for scorpions and rattlesnakes. We neither saw or heard any of the dangerous beasties, but the sign wouldn’t have been there if the danger wasn’t real. After eating most of the hot dogs (a fortunate idea, preventing them from going bad), Rebecca and Dhar strolled onto the rocks to look into the setting western sun. Their report stated the view would have been much better if some schmuck hadn’t built his house next to the rest stop.

We flirted with the idea of locking up for the night and sleeping there. But my sense of rules came back into play again, and I flat-out refused to. I hated playing the asshole, but my inability to “colour outside the lines” pretty much prohibited rebellion. A long list of rules posted at the front of every rest stop prohibited camping overnight. A truck pulling an Airstream trailer wasn’t so picky, they had dropped anchor for the night and didn’t appear to be moving any time before morning.

The sun had set almost entirely by the time we pulled back onto the I-40. What light that was left cast some of the most beautiful deep red light onto the rock and sand, it looked like we were driving over an open wound in the Earth’s skin.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

So much for oil changes – by the time we got to Flagstaff all the lube shops and gas stations had closed.

We had dinner at one of the Arizona rest stops tonight. We had to be on the watch for rattlesnakes and scorpions. We didn’t see any. 280 miles to Albuquerque.

It took only a few minutes for us to get bored. Driving across Arizona was in many respects like driving across Kansas — it was so dull your brain doesn’t work properly. As such, my memory of crossing Arizona the second time is rather non-existant. Though most likely we gabbed for a good portion of the distance. Either that or Stefan and Rebecca went to sleep, Dhar drove and I rode shotgun. (It was a commonly enough done theme that I tend to forget when it was done.)

At midnight, we were possessed with a serious case of the munchies. Barely inside New Mexico, we pulled into the first major city would could find. Gallup was hardly major by our standards, a population of only 19,200, but when considered the population of New Mexico was only 1.5 million and most of the cities had less than 100,000 residents, Gallup became a fair bit more significant than in other places of the country.

We couldn’t eat anything that we were carrying with us, the only thing we had left were uncooked potatoes (and although mashed potatoes are always a welcome meal, we didn’t have any way of cooking them quickly), a little bit of salsa (which despite the fact that I don’t eat salsa, we had nothing for it to go with), and a couple boxes of President’s Choice White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner (a much fancier version of Kraft Dinner). Suffice to say, none of us were in the cooking mood.

Rebecca wanted KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), to which Dhar was objecting (with good reason). I wasn’t that hungry, so I played indifferent to the whole deal. But by the time we found a KFC, we found it had already closed. A McDonald’s lurked nearby, so we opted to buy something from there instead. The lobby looked closed, so we pulled into the drive-through and sat next to the speaker waiting for someone to take our order.

And we sat. And sat, and sat, and sat. After about ten minutes it was becoming pretty damn clear that no-one was going to take our order. A car in front of us seemed to have already given an order, and was waiting for the order to be filled. Our little lineup hadn’t gone unnoticed, more cars appeared behind us. But our patience had worn completely thin. Well pulled out of the line and drove out to the road we came in on. When we looked back as we drove off, the lights in the McDonald’s were turned off. We were none too impressed with the lack of service.

Gallup had few roads that led to interchanges with the I-40. As a result, we ended up having to drive quite a distance before finding the next interchange. But the drive wasn’t without fortune, as we found a 24 hour restaurant just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Interstate. Hunger now getting the best of us, we pulled in to obtain sustenance.

The restaurant (the name of which escapes me … c’mon, it was nothing to celebrate — if it was, I’d let you know) was one of a small chain of eateries that ran through the south-west. The general premise was, as usual, “home-cooking”. That is the single most over-used and under-achieving terms I have ever heard. This particular restaurant was sparsely populated, and even then the waitress seated us away from everyone else. Somehow, someone was tracking us and warning others of our imminent arrival.

The meals were nothing spectacular, we quickly figured out why the restaurant chain was only in three states. Dhar’s spicy chicken wasn’t, my roast beef drowned in the gravy, Rebecca’s dinner was nearly unspeakable, and Stefan’s hamburger wasn’t fit for a dog (or Stefan, for that matter). But hunger is a strange thing — you’ll eat nearly anything to calm that rumbling stomach.

About half an hour to 40 minutes later, we boarded the Behemoth, and I took over driving for the rest of the night. The temperature in New Mexico was rather chilly, so we actually ended up using the car heater for a while until we were a bit warmer. Out we pulled and hit the road once again.

The rest of the drive to Albuquerque was uneventful. Somewhere around 02:00, we pulled into New Mexico’s largest city and started searching for the KOA. Fortunately for us, the KOA Catalogue provided excellent maps for finding the often hard-to-find campgrounds. We pretty much had to drive to the opposite side of the city before getting off the I-40 to get onto Central Avenue.

As was becoming a regular occurrence, Stefan had to do a late check-in. All of us were on the verge of dropping off to sleep (Rebecca had already passed out), and the sooner that we park and slept, the better. Stefan returned in a few minutes and directed us to a slot about 200 metres from the main office, conveniently located next to the washrooms.

Dhar made an immediate run for the toilet, as we hadn’t stopped for an hour or so and his bladder was on the verge of springing a leak (pun intended). But as we quickly found out, the washrooms were closed for the season. This I found rather odd — what seasons are there in New Mexico other than summer and not-quite-as-warm-as-summer-but-better-than-winter? Nevertheless, Stefan and Dhar when hunting for the washrooms. Being too tired to care (or urinate, for that matter), I just pulled my bed out, drew most of the blinds, crawled into my sleeping bag and started to nod off.

Stefan and Dhar returned a moment or two later, reporting that the only washroom they could find had a combination lock on it, prevent us from getting in that night. Dhar ended up relieving himself on the right front tire.