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Kansas City

21 May

I visited Kansas City once for twoish days. I was there to audition for a game show. I was surprised at how much I liked the place. A hidden gem of a city. I’d be happy to visit again sometime. Not in the summer though. I went in June and it was very hot and very humid. Yuck. I drove down from Minneapolis on Sunday and drove back on Tuesday. I tried to plan things so I would have some free time on Sunday and Tuesday. I also had Monday afternoon free. It was an action-packed trip. I know how to take a mini-vacation. I’d be a natural at writing that “36 Hours in…” column in the New York Times. I’m even going to copy the format here to prove it.* I tend to spend a lot less time at trendy restaurants and nightspots than NYT writers. I do spend a lot more time doing stuff that’s better than that, like driving around aimlessly and walking around aimlessly. Maybe they will read this and hire me.

*But I’m not going to copy their braindead and idiotic style of travel writing. I just don’t have it in me.

SUNDAY

3:30 p.m.
1. Look at art

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in KC is a legit museum. Much more so than you would think of a museum in a mid-size Midwestern city. They have an impressive collection of Asian art* and a downright respectable European collection. When I was there they even had one of Monet’s huge water lily triptychs in on loan. The museum is laid out like so many others these days–a terrific old Beaux-Arts building and a sleek modernist addition on the back. This is hardly my favorite thing, but it works here better than most places because the two are physically separated with a tunnel between them. The look of two distinct buildings instead of one hulking mishmash is far superior. Plus there’s a really terrific garden/open space in the front dotted with sculptures. Just a really pleasant feel to the whole thing. The Nelson-Atkins people should be commended.

*I just made a quick run through those galleries. I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked, but I wasn’t about to get up super-early to drive seven hours. Not my style.

The Oldenburg/van Bruggen shuttlecocks are a nice touch

The Oldenburg/van Bruggen shuttlecocks are a nice touch

5 p.m.
2. Take a nap in your hotel room

After a day of driving and walking around a museum you deserve some rest.

7 p.m.
3. Eat at a famous barbecue restaurant

KC is famous for its barbecue. Specifically for a regional specialty–burnt ends. These are what they sound like. Charred, crispy, fatty ends of a smoked brisket. Served on a sandwich. The kind of sandwich you eat with a fork and use the bread to sop up BBQ sauce. This is a delicious food item that everyone should eat. This particular night I ate it at Gates BBQ. There are several Gates locations. I didn’t go to the original, but I’m sure the location I visited is just as good. Because it was fucking spectacular.

Yum

I enjoyed eating this

8 p.m.
4. Watch the NBA Finals in your hotel room

Just for reference, we’re in 2011. This was the final game, in which the Mavs dispatched the Heat and there was much mocking of LeBron James.

9 p.m.
5. Iron your pants for your game show audition and go to bed early

It’s important to look good and get plenty of rest.

MONDAY

9 a.m.
6. Audition for a game show

When you arrive at a nice hotel for this purpose, it’s impossible not to feel like a big shot. If only passersby knew how smart you are. If only you could stop all of them and tell them about it.

12:30 p.m.
7. Eat at a lunch counter that hasn’t changed in many decades

Town Topic Hamburgers is my kind of place. It’s old, cheap, a little run down, and has about ten seats. Really good food to boot. The kind of burgers that people who run websites about burgers gush about. 10/10.

You can tell it's good just by looking at it

You can tell it’s good just by looking at it

1 p.m.
8. Walk around for awhile

KC has a huge park complex that’s mostly dedicated to a World War I memorial. There’s a big tower in it but it was closed so I couldn’t go to the top. It’s kind of odd to think about such a big piece of real estate for a WWI memorial in a seemingly random place. And it’s apparently like the official national WWI memorial. I don’t think most Americans even know it’s there. I didn’t.

I didn't take this picture but I promise I stood on this very spot

This picture looks like it’s from the tower or maybe just the hill the tower is on I don’t know it’s hard to tell

4 p.m.
9. Drive around for awhile

KC’s pretty well-organized. They brag about having a lot of boulevards and fountains, and they should brag. It’s a really pretty urban environment. In the pretty places, at least. I swung through a bad neighborhood, same as all bad neighborhoods in non-major cities. That is, not very dense but immediately recognizable as the place where poor people live. I also went out to Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead stadium. The Royals weren’t in town. Too bad, I’d have liked to go to a game. Also too bad that the stadiums are in their own little parking lot-enclosed world, which was closed, so I couldn’t get up close. I also made a little detour to Kansas City, Kansas. I wanted to see what that was about. I also wanted to cross Kansas off the list of states I’ve visited. Check.

Building stadiums in out-of-the-way locations in a sea of parking lots is a dumb idea

Building stadiums in an out-of-the-way location in a sea of parking lots is a dumb idea

6 p.m.
10. Walk around more and eat a sandwich described as very good on the internet

After I parked back at my hotel, I checked out the nearby Country Club Plaza. I heard much hype about this place. Its basically a big outdoor upscaleish mall. Meh. I headed up to the Westport neighborhood, which I guess is like the hip spot in town. Hard to tell since there are a lot fewer conspicuously hip people in the Midwest than on the coasts. Stereotype confirmed. I had dinner at the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill. I might be a regular if I lived in KC. Seems like they do a good happy hour business and it was a pretty diverse crowd. Executive types and bros and families and hipsters and nondescript Midwesterners. I had a chicken panini something that’s supposed to be famous. It was really good. Pretty good beer selection too. I was fairly dehydrated from walking around a lot since it was 90 degrees or so. I had a large quantity of water instead of beer.

Cool truck bro

Cool truck bro

9 p.m.
11. Dick around in your hotel room and go to bed early

I was fucking exhausted.

TUESDAY

9 a.m.
12. Look at modern art

When you go to a small museum in a medium size city at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, you will be the only person there who isn’t part of an elementary school field trip. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is a solid museum for its size and scope. They even had a pretty good Tina Barney print. The Bridesmaids in Pink. Tina Barney is great. My favorite contemporary artist.

I love you Tina Barney

I love you Tina Barney

10:30
13. Learn about baseball history

KC is home to both the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. As much as I would have liked to hear all about the corners in KC where Charlie Parker scored heroin, I only had time for one. The NLBM was good, not great. A lot of educational material, but not a lot of artifacts. I like artifacts. I wish there had been more. It’s a rather small space, maybe that’s a consideration. I felt like a lot of it could have just been put in a book. There were a couple good video things.

11:30
14. Eat at an even more famous barbecue restaurant

My last stop was an early lunch at Arthur Bryant’s. This is probably the most famous of the local BBQ joints. And it is a joint. In a brick building. Old linoleum floors and cheap tables/chairs/silverware. Food served on trays cafeteria style. Just great. I loved it. Burnt ends weren’t as good as Gates, honestly. Better sauce though. I bought a bottle to bring home for my parents. Us Northerners aren’t used to good BBQ sauce. Thin and vinegary instead of thick and molassesy. I much prefer the former. Good BBQ is probably the best reason to move to KC or any point southeast of KC.

YES

YES

LODGING

The Holiday Inn-Country Club Plaza is the perfect place for a broke traveler cashing in frequent flyer miles. A really good location actually. Right next to the two art museums and walking distance to a lot of good stuff.

My parents came to visit last weekend

6 May

Last weekend my parents came to visit. I hadn’t seen them since I moved to California last year. They were pretty excited about the whole thing. And they should have been excited. Visiting me would be exciting for anyone. I’m going to go ahead and give a weekend recap just to give everyone a taste of what awaits you if you’re in your 60s and decide to visit me in the most exciting city in America.*

*This post might end up being really really boring.

Thursday
My parents wanted to see me, but they also wanted to see some sights, because why fly across the country if you’re not going to see some famous bridges and stuff? So on Thursday we set out for San Francisco.

First stop, the de Young museum. I should write a full review of said museum, because I know how much blog readers love reviews of museums in cities where they don’t live. It’s a pretty good museum. There was an exhibition of Dutch paintings on display, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting so good it was made into a movie. When you’re a family of Dutch descent, a display of Dutch paintings in a museum called the de Young is a no-brainer. They even had Grolsch in the museum café. We had lunch in said café. A lot better than expected. The museum’s in Golden Gate Park. There aren’t any good places to eat there. This is a shame, since SF has countless highly-regarded food trucks. Can none of them park in the park? (HA see what I did there.) There are only a couple scattered hot dog carts. Seems like a no-brainer. The de Young also has a really cool observation deck, which is only nine stories up but has a more or less unobstructed view of most of the city. Mom and Dad enjoyed that.

I think Herzog & de Meuron are the only architects allowed to design museums now

I think Herzog & de Meuron are the only architects allowed to design museums now

Adjacent to the museum is the Japanese Tea Garden. Mom and Dad were big fans. There are a lot of plants/flowers/trees in this garden. Both of my parents love plants/flowers/trees. They spent much of the weekend pointing out various kinds of plants that don’t grow in Minnesota. That seemed like their favorite part of the trip sometimes.

There's no denying that this is a good garden

There’s no denying that this is a good garden

We then took our leave of the park and headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf. Driving through the city gave me a chance to show off my tour guide skills. I don’t want to brag, but I was a fucking great tour guide. This was the first time I had ever driven in SF, but my parents were none the wiser–they were super impressed at how well I knew my way around. The big highlight of the drive to the wharf was going down Lombard Street. This is the street that is steep and windy for a block. Right before we crested the hill to reach the top, I said, “Get ready to wave to all the tourists!” What a great quip! Because there are a LOT of idiot tourists walking up and down Lombard with cameras. There are even some in cars leaning out the windows with cameras. Luckily Mom restrained from doing that. Although she and Dad both seemed to enjoy gawking at the gawkers. And driving down the street is pretty cool, truth be told.

Fanny packs

Fanny packs

Fisherman’s Wharf is a huge touristy place. Good thing my parents were tourists! LOL! We walked from Ghirardelli Square to the actual wharf and back. Nothing too exciting, honestly. Then we walked out on one of the piers that has a really good view of the bay. Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin county, etc. SF has more places with good views than any other city I’ve been in.

When we were finished at the wharf, it was a little past 5pm. We had 8pm dinner reservations, which meant a couple hours to kill. Mom and Dad had done a lot of walking at this point, so I thought we’d drive around a bit. SF is a fun city to drive around in. We went along the water into the Presidio. I hadn’t planned on going to the GG Bridge, but that’s where we ended up. I don’t know my way around that well. Don’t tell Mom and Dad. We stopped at the GG lookout point or whatever, which was cool. They had a cross-section of a bridge cable and some other stuff. And, you’ll never guess, a spectacular view. That was a good stop. Glad I thought of it.

I bet you thought I was going to post a photo of the bridge

I bet you thought I was going to post a photo of the bridge

After we left the bridge, we drove through a couple ritzy neighborhoods into Lincoln Park. This is the site of the Legion of Honor and a nine-hole golf course. Pretty scenic. We went past the Legion of Honor and went out to the USS San Francisco Memorial. Beautiful ocean views. I was hoping to time it so we’d be there to see the sun set over the Pacific, but we were a little early. Too bad. We left the park and set out to dinner. We were still a bit early, so I took the scenic route. Down past Ocean Beach and back through GG Park. This was as close as I got to getting lost. I didn’t really know how the streets in the park worked. They’re curvy and when they spit me out of the park I was on the south side. I was totally turned around and thought I was on the north side. Oops. I figured it out when I made a turn and saw the towers of the GG Bridge where I did not expect to see them. I played the whole thing off like a champ.

Dinnertime. We ate at Chapeau!, which has an exclamation point in its name. Now we all know that chapeau means hat in French, but apparently with an exclamation point it means wow!. If they say so. Chapeau! is a really fucking good restaurant. A French waiter and everything. Dad had the cassoulet. He declared the duck contained within as the best duck he’s ever had, and he’s a man who’s eaten a lot of duck. I had a lamb shank. French toast with caramel ice cream for dessert. Highly recommended.

People who take pictures of their food at restaurants are the worst. Nevertheless, thanks to the guy on Yelp who captured the cassoulet.

People who take pictures of their food at restaurants are the worst. Nevertheless, thanks to the guy on Yelp who took this cassoulet photo.

Friday
We swung by my apartment and Mom and Dad marvelled at the backyard garden filled with flowers and fruit trees. I hustled them past the rest of the place, which is a shithole. I avoided mentioning the various manhunts that have occurred on my block since I moved here. We drove around the neighborhood a bit. I didn’t go to any actually bad parts of Oakland, but it’s hard to avoid huge tags on walls and piles of trash on curbs. I’d be interested to hear my parents’ candid thoughts about my neighborhood. I think they were expecting the worst and were pleasantly surprised.

We drove around Lake Merritt and up to Berkeley for lunch. First we stopped by Cesar Chavez Park, which is a park I like a lot. We ate at 900 Grayson, which is said to have one of the best burgers in the country, and is neither a diner, a drive-in, nor a dive. I had the burger. Very good. The brioche bun was the highlight. A little fancy for my taste. Ahn’s ¼ Pound Burger is more my style.

A+ burgers in a style similar to midwestern favorite Culver's

A+ burgers in a style similar to midwestern favorite Culver’s

Next stop, Tilden Park in Berkeley. I spend a lot of time up in the hills, and Mom and Dad wanted to see what it was all about. I decided on Tilden because there’s a nice easy trail through the eucalyptus trees. I maybe should have gone with Joaquin Miller or Redwoods, but I wanted to go to 900 Grayson and this was more on the way. I think Mom and Dad were fine with eucalyptus instead of redwoods. They’re probably the more exotic of the two. Really cool-looking. Another point for Tilden is Lake Anza, which is a really cool spot. If I thought my parents had the gas to make it to Wildcat Peak, it would have been a slam dunk afternoon. As it was, not too shabby. We drove back to Oakland through the Berkeley hills. Grizzly Peak Boulevard. We stopped at one of the lookouts on the road. Pretty good view.

Eucalyptus bark is wild

Eucalyptus bark is wild

I dropped Mom and Dad off at their hotel for a nap. They were pretty tired from all the walking and the time change. The time adjustment from Eastern/Central to Pacific is often underestimated. It’s tougher than most people think.

Dinner at Champa Garden. Dad suggested some kind of Asian cuisine not readily available in Minneapolis. I thought about hitting one of the good local pho joints, but there are plenty of those in Mpls and I think Mom would have been put off by the ambience of a good pho house. (Ambience is inversely proportional to the quality of the soup, generally speaking–see Oakland’s best pho pictured below.) So Champa Garden. I don’t think there are any Lao restaurants in Mpls. Maybe there are. There probably are, now that I think of it. Anyway, I like Champa Garden. It was packed. A good meal was had by all.

Sounds like "fucking" hahaha I'm 13 years old

Sounds like “fucking” hahaha I’m 12 years old

Saturday
Mom and Dad wanted to go back and see downtown SF. Dad especially wanted to ride the BART. So that was our big plan. Mom had coffee with an old friend of hers in the morning and then we set out around 11. Mom and Dad were kind of fascinated by my descriptions of eating tacos served from trucks, so that was my great idea for lunch. We got some tacos and burritos and headed out for a picnic at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.

Oakland's best park, non-hills division

Oakland’s best park, non-hills division

Middle Harbor Shoreline Park is a crazy and awesome park. It’s right in the middle of the HUGE Port of Oakland. Driving there through the shipyards, surrounded by semi trucks, is pretty intimidating. It is a great park. Great views of SF, the Bay Bridge, the abandoned Alameda Navy base, and gigantic unloading container ships. The port was more or less dead, it being Saturday, which was disappointing. It’s cool to be in the middle of the action.

After our highly successful picnic, we set out for SF once again. Dad’s plan was to get out downtown and just walk around. He and Mom were both surprised at the number of tourists. I was surprised at their surprise. We walked from the Powell Street BART station down to City Hall. We went through a couple highly sketchy Tenderloin blocks. I wanted to let Mom and Dad execute their plan of walking around, but I should have exerted more control over the route. No harm done in the end. We walked back up to Union Square. Mom wanted to do some shopping. She specifically planned to buy something for my sister. She wanted to stop at Forever 21 to do so. I am totally baffled by that impulse. She had just told me about the huge new Forever 21 at the Mall of America. Why waste your time at the one in SF? I steered her toward Uniqlo, and she bought a couple shirts.

I hear this is a cool store

I hear this is a cool store

Then we stopped at the mall on Market Street. Mom was blown away. This was maybe her favorite stop of the whole weekend. I was, again, baffled. This isn’t an especially large or impressive mall. I guess it’s just the fact that it’s downtown and is several stories tall. I don’t know. It has curving escalators and an atrium I guess.

Cool place for a bar

Cool place for a bar

Back to Oakland. We stopped and had a drink on the patio of Portal overlooking Lake Merritt. Mom and Dad were both impressed by how nice the east side of Lake Merritt is. I spend a lot of time down that way for the same reason. Dinner at Boot and Shoe Service. What an interesting and offbeat name for a restaurant! Food was good. Fancy pizzas and such on the menu. Dad had a deep-fried rabbit leg. Rabbit is a trendy thing on menus these days. Kind of an interesting phenomenon. It’s the only animal in America that I can think of that’s a) kept as a pet, b) found commonly in the wild, and c) eaten as food. When Dad was a lad, he sometimes visited his grandparents’ farm. They served rabbit that they trapped on said farm. They told the kids it was chicken because the kids, Dad included, wouldn’t eat rabbit. Now Dad spends $20 on it at a hipster restaurant. I can’t even imagine what old Wietse* would think of that.

*This is a Dutch name. Did I tell you my family is Dutch?

Overall a fun weekend. There’s a lot of good food to eat in the Bay Area. A lot of fun things to do. A lot of good views to be had. A lot of interesting vegetation. A lot of good weather if it’s snowing in late April where you live.

Houston

5 Dec

I visited Houston once. I was there for a long weekend. I stayed downtown. I saw a good portion of the city. I went out to the suburbs. I did not like Houston.

Impressive skyline

Impressive skyline

Houston is huge. It’s the fourth-largest city in the US. From looking at it, you’d think it was a pretty happening place. Downtown Houston is not happening. There are a lot of skyscrapers. There’s even a light-rail line. But there aren’t really any people out on the streets. Especially after business hours. It was kind of weird to walk around at night. I set out from the hotel to find something to do or look at or a sight to see and there wasn’t anything. Most downtowns have restaurants or shops or whatever on the first floor of skyscrapers and they try to make downtown a destination or a place where people at least don’t rush to leave after work. I didn’t really get that sense in Houston.

I don't think the University of Houston has any signature or iconic buildings so here's its soon-to-be-demolished football stadium

I don’t think the University of Houston has any signature or iconic buildings so here’s its soon-to-be-demolished football stadium

Most of my Houston time was spent watching softball games at the University of Houston. UH is a giant school and its campus is pretty giant and nondescript. Its a lot like every other second-tier giant state university that way. The football stadium was kind of cool. I like mid-size stadiums like that. Bad news, though. It’s being torn down. I don’t know what the new stadium is supposed to be like, but I didn’t see anything wrong with the old one. Maybe UH is trying to step up for its move to the illustrious Big East Conference. That was a joke.

I also drove past Rice University. Its stadium is a little bigger and a lot more bland. It also hosted a Super Bowl once. Look at the list of stadiums who have hosted Super Bowls. There are a lot of old college stadiums. The Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Tulane Stadium, Stanford Stadium. The Super Bowl will never be played in a place like that again. Too bad.

Just look at this shit. Not cool.

Just look at this shit. Not cool.

To me the most striking feature of Houston was its highways and highway interchanges. This is probably a bad sign for your city when visitors mostly remember your highways. Houston is a big sprawling megacity. Getting around is difficult and confusing. Most cities have some kind of beltway. Houston has two concentric beltways. When this becomes necessary its a good indicator that things have gotten out of control and maybe you should make your city denser.

Terrible urban design

Terrible urban design

I didn’t have any good food in Houston. Barbecue seems like it would be the best local food. I didn’t have any. Too bad. I did go to a Mexican or Tex-Mex or whatever restaurant. One of my traveling companions was a Houston native, and she recommended it. I don’t remember the name. Sorry. I didn’t think it was that great. It wasn’t really much different that a typical Mexican restaurant anywhere else. It wasn’t bad really, just not noteworthy. It was very busy. Packed, even. With white people and only white people. When you go to an ethnic restaurant and only white people are eating there it probably isn’t a very authentic restaurant. This is always noticeable with Mexican and any kind of Asian cuisine. I don’t doubt that there is a lot of authentic and delicious Mexican food in Houston. It’s very close to Mexico, after all. I do doubt that most white upper-middle class Houston suburbanites have any idea where to find it.

I went to a sort of upscale Mexican place in Minneapolis once with my mom. I don’t remember the name. On Nicollet Avenue somewhere close to the Convention Center. It was good. My mom loved it. It was clear that this was her idea of an authentic Mexican dining experience. I told her that I thought the food wasn’t nearly as good as my personal favorite, Taqueria Los Ocampo on the corner of Lake and Chicago. Lake and Chicago is a bit of a rough neighborhood. At least by South Minneapolis standards. I told her that Los Ocampo might not be fancy or have waiters or use real silverware, but the tacos etc. are far superior to what we were eating on Nicollet Avenue. I’ve never been to Mexico, but Los Ocampo also comes a lot closer to my understanding of traditional Mexican food (all different kinds of beef offal and that sort of thing). I think my mom was kind of floored by this. I think that would be a typical reaction for most people in her age/socioeconomic bracket.

You'd think Houston would be where La Porte or Seabrook is

You’d think Houston would be where La Porte or Seabrook is

One interesting thing about Houston is its geography. It’s very near Galveston Bay, and even has a port on the Bay. But the city is set back from the water. It seems like downtown was just plopped down in a random place. I wonder why that is. Most cities are constructed around water, and are defined geographically by said water. Not Houston. It’s almost as if the city founders consciously decided not to build their city in the place that would make the most sense. It’s hard to criticize since the city has grown so much but it feels like it could be so much more.

The suburbs of Houston are the same as the suburbs everywhere. Nothing interesting or noteworthy. The place I went is called Katy. That’s a weird name for a place.

That’s about all I have on Houston. Not very much I know. Houston didn’t make much of an impression on me. I wouldn’t recommend going to Houston.

Pittsburgh

17 Nov

Introducing a new blog feature in which I talk about different places I’ve visited.

Doesn’t this look like a fun city?

The Rust Belt has a pretty dismal reputation. A lot of people seem to think Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, etc. are all interchangeable and terrible cities. I don’t think this is true. I’ve been to Pittsburgh a couple times. I like Pittsburgh. I’d be happy to go back to Pittsburgh.

This is the Southside Flats neighborhood. I’m pretty sure there’s a Cheesecake Factory somewhere in there.

Pittsburgh is known for its three rivers, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. The first two meet to form the third. Downtown Pittsburgh is on the triangle created by the meeting rivers. There’s a big park right at the tip of the triangle. The park was closed for some kind of construction when I was there. Still it’s a cool geographical feature. The other thing the rivers create is cool riverfront neighborhoods all over the place. A lot of them are gentrified and lame now,* but there are still a lot of good views everywhere.

*I ate at a Cheesecake Factory in one of these neighborhoods once.

Bring your binoculars

Pittsburgh is has a lot of good sporting venues. PNC park is supposed to be one of the best baseball stadiums around. I wasn’t there during baseball season but I walked around it. I also walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which has a (not very good) view of the field. That’s a good piece of stadium design. Heinz Field is just down the road. They’re both right across the river from downtown which I like. There’s also a new hockey arena, but who cares. The old building, Mellon Arena, was awesome. It was torn down after the new one was built. A shame. It was a unique building. I staying at the Marriott across the street once and there was a Penguins preseason game. I tried to scalp a ticket, but by the time I got there the first period was over and all the scalpers had left and the ticket office was closed. Bogus. I wish I had gotten in. I was very curious about the arena’s interior and I bet Penguins fans are a good time.

Tell me this isn’t the coolest-looking arena ever. Too bad they tore it down.

I’ve spent most of my life living in cities laid out on a simple square grid. This is the ideal city layout. It’s easy to get around, neighborhoods and business districts follow a logical pattern, you always know how to get to the highway. Pittsburgh is not like this. Lots of hills. Kind of an odd layout. I was in a charter bus driving to Pittsburgh once and the driver got lost. We were driving around what seemed like a hip neighborhood and this bus driver had no clue where to go. He had a talking GPS and after every intersection it said “turn left” but he couldn’t because we were in a huge fucking bus on these tiny surface roads and then he did turn and it was too late and we were even more lost and it was dark. What a disaster. The direction problem is compounded by the rivers. There are a lot of bridges and following the highway is kind of complicated. At least it was for this bus driver. There’s a weird maze of highways downtown. The Penn Turnpike bypasses the city completely so it’s all state highways and offshoots of I-76 and 79. Could have been done better.

This is an impressive retaining wall

Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh both have interesting campuses. They’re sort of cut into the hills in places. Big urban colleges are very underrated. There should be more of them. Pitt also has an old-school fieldhouse which is the kind of venue I enjoy. The basketball team doesn’t play there anymore, which is a shame.

I think it would be a lot better for basketball than volleyball

One of the downsides of my various travels is that I haven’t had as much of a chance to sample local cuisines or do fun local things as I’d like. Lots of Applebee’s-type restaurants and bland suburban hotels on itineraries. Which sucks. Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh is famous. I’d like to eat there. The Andy Warhol Museum is also in Pittsburgh. I could have gone there I guess, but my visit would have had to be brief and I’d have needed to take cabs there and back. Hailing cabs in cities like Pittsburgh isn’t easy and calling the dispatcher isn’t quick. So that’s on my list of things to do if I’m ever there again.

Hooray for unnecessarily large train depots

Old industrial cities like Pittsburgh have a lot of cool buildings. More cities should have huge train stations and Beaux Arts skyscrapers. Walking around the city is interesting, which isn’t the case for a lot of cities. Downtown has a lot of Beaux-Arts buildings and masonry and all the other things that make you feel like you’re in a historic place. I like that feeling.

Fancy

There’s a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Squirrel Hill. Ha.

The Pittsburgh airport is not very busy and has free Wi-Fi. I can’t think of another airport with free Wi-Fi. Score one for Pittsburgh.

Road trip recap

13 Oct

When you move cross-country, the beginning of the trip is really what feels like an ending. This is the longest moving road trip I’ve taken, but not the only one. Intuitively it feels like the part of the trip that defines the new phase of your life should be showing up at the new place you’re going to live, but that’s not the case. Leaving feels like a much larger life event than arriving. When I got to Oakland it didn’t feel much different than when I got to Reno the day before.

Here is a map showing my route:

I-35 to I-80 with a little detour onto I-76 to Denver

Here is my itinerary:
Day 1: Minneapolis to Lincoln
Day 2: Lincoln to Denver
Day 3: hang out in Denver
Day 4: Denver to Salt Lake City
Day 5: hang out in Salt Lake City
Day 6: Salt Lake City to Reno
Day 7: Reno to Oakland

Here is a state by state recap:

Minnesota
I already mentioned how the start of the trip feels like an ending. Consider that point reëmphasized.* Driving out of the alley leaving my parents house was accompanied by a distinct feeling of “holy shit I’m really doing this.” Retracing a familiar route knowing it’s the last time you’re going to do it is surreal.

*On my blog I’ll be writing words like reëmphasize and coördinate with umlauts like they do in The New Yorker. I realize that’s pretentious and I don’t care.

I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, and driving south on I-35 is kind of odd. I’ve only done it a couple of times, so even fifteen minutes or so from Minneapolis it feels totally foreign. I’ve seen road signs pointing toward Albert Lea hundreds of times in my life. I’ve never been there or met anyone from there. Actually driving through it is a surprisingly jarring experience.

Hey I’ve driven on this highway!

Iowa
Driving through Iowa is boring. That’s all there is to it. To Iowa’s credit, Des Moines is unexpectedly large (not in the sense of being actually large, just in the sense of exceeding expectations). They have a couple tall buildings and a beltway and everything. I’ve been to Des Moines once. All I remember is a bland suburban subdivision and getting lost on the way to a soccer game. I definitely recall taping ankles on the moving bus. I probably stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott or something. A lot of those trips blend together. That might make for some interesting blog reading. Stay tuned. So anyway Des Moines seemed like an OK town. Not great, but not the kind of backwater you might think.

Other than Des Moines there wasn’t much in Iowa on my route. A lot of corn. A lot of cows. I did see something that I feel obliged to pass along. You may be familiar with Barilla brand pasta. It has positioned itself as a fairly upscale brand; it’s one of the more expensive brands of regular white flour pasta you encounter at your local supermarket. This image is what greets you at their official website:

Well I guess I’ll cancel my Italian vacation then

While driving through Iowa, I passed a complex of grain silos bearing the Barilla logo. That’s right, when you eat Barilla pasta, you aren’t discovering Italy–you’re discovering Iowa. You are BUSTED Barilla pasta.

Nebraska
Nebraska is a lot like Iowa. Corn etc. I stayed overnight in Lincoln at a Rodeway Inn. This was not a nice place to stay. There were sketchy characters in the parking lot leaning against a pickup truck drinking beer. I like to think they were meth dealers. I got to Lincoln in the early afternoon so I had the chance to do some sightseeing. Jealous? There are two sights to see in Lincoln: the State Capitol building and the University of Nebraska campus. I was there on a Sunday so I don’t think the Capitol was open. Cool building though. I also walked around campus a bit. It was hot as fuck so this wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. Like upper 90s. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that kind of heat anymore. The campus was like most other nondescript large state university campuses.

The real attraction in Lincoln is Memorial Stadium. I went into the main lobby and there was only one guy there (this was a Sunday, remember). He was pretty friendly for a security guard, and let me in to walk around a bit. There were a bunch of offices and athlete lounges and stuff in the stadium. I think this is pretty common, and it always strikes me as odd. Don’t they have a better place to put this shit? I was in West Virginia’s basketball arena once, and they have the whole PE department in the concourse. Classrooms, offices, everything. Not what I am used to from my undergraduate experience. From the field the stadium feels a bit unbalanced. They have a crazy amount of seating in the end zones and not enough on the sidelines.

They’re adding a matching giant press box on the right sideline

Colorado
I thought Colorado would be all mountains all the time. That’s not really how it works. It’s more like driving up a gentle hill for several hours and then seeing a sign with some crazy elevation level. East of Denver things seemed pretty barren. Nebraska-esque even. I spent a day in Denver, which I enjoyed. One thing about Denver is that there’s a Six Flags practically downtown. Bizarre. I went to the Denver Art Museum, which had a pretty good collection. Not great. It’s one of the museums that’s been renovated/expanded recently and has gotten a lot of publicity for the architecture. I wish museum architecture wasn’t such a thing. I’ve been to a few of these museums in the last couple of years, and to be honest, it doesn’t add much to my appreciation of the art. I can see how it’s important as a matter of civic pride though. Especially for those second-tier American cities like Denver. Having a signature building like a museum is something to put on brochures and brag about to out-of-towners.

Just look at that roller coaster

Wyoming
Wyoming is a more interesting state to drive through than Nebraska or Iowa simply because of the landscape. Its nice to have some hills to look at, and sometimes the road curves or there are bridges and tunnels to keep things interesting. I stopped at a Burger King in Wyoming. That was the only thing I did there.

In general, I tried to eat at interesting local restaurants on this trip. That isn’t always possible on the interstate. I think that I stopped at McDonald’s at least once every day I was driving. And the thing is, I didn’t have a burger or fries there once. It’s easy for me to see how McDonald’s maintains its position as market leader. It isn’t about being better than other fast-food restaurants, it’s about familiarity and convenience. Even in the vast expanse of the west, McDonald’s is probably the most common sight on the freeway. I would try to start driving by 7am every day. Then I’d stop at McDonald’s for breakfast/coffee between 9 and 10am. The food is always the same. I’ve eaten at countless different McDonald’s (McDonalds’? McDonald’ses? Writing this paragraph has been a nightmare) in my life, and there is never a change in quality. That’s not to say that the food is good, just that it’s always the same. There’s value in that. Especially in a strange place. McDonald’s should be commended. I would also frequently stop in the afternoon just for a Coke. Getting off the freeway and driving through at McDonald’s is much more convenient than stopping at a gas station. And you can get any drink for $1. Do you know how much drinks cost at gas stations? It’s ludicrous.

Utah
If you want mountains, skip Colorado and go to Utah. Driving into Salt Lake City is impressive. The highway cuts through valleys and there are peaks and mountain lakes and streams. It’s the kind of drive where I wish I had been a passenger so I could have looked around more.

There are a lot of Mormons in Salt Lake City, which is kind of a goofy place. I walked around Temple Square some. I didn’t think it was that impressive, honestly. I could make some snarky jokes about Mormons here, but I don’t want to offend anyone since I know so many Mormons read this blog. There are four streets named “Temple”: North, South, East, and West. Confusing. I noticed that everything is closed on Sundays. Even the Vietnamese restaurant I went to. Other than the Temple there isn’t much downtown. If you drive down the main drag, it starts to look like an exurb literally ten blocks out of downtown. Unnecessarily wide, car dealers, strip malls, no pedestrians anywhere. I dropped in on the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, which was very small. I was not expecting to see contemporary art at all in SLC, so kudos to them. This was such a boring city that I ran out of things to do in my day and a half there and went to the movies. I saw Moonrise Kingdom, which I had already seen. I do not regret it. It is a great movie and I’m confident seeing it is more fun than anything else in SLC. It was also in the 90s there. I thought that high up it might be cooler. NOPE. Strike three. At least three. Probably more.

I stopped and saw the Great Salt Lake, which was almost as disappointing as SLC. The only thing on the shore are dead birds and swarms of bugs that chill on the sand and then fly away like a flock of birds when you approach. The birds don’t really decompose because of all the salt, so whatever doesn’t get eaten just stays there. Lots of bones and feathers. I wouldn’t stop there again.

The salt flats were kind of interesting, in that there isn’t really anything like it anywhere else. This was starting to get into the desert, which was eerie and kind of nerve-racking to drive through.

I also got pulled over in Utah for crossing over the far right white line on an exit ramp with my passenger side tires. This is something that every driver does on every exit ramp. Man fuck Utah.

Nevada
Last year I saw Meek’s Cutoff, which I really enjoyed. It’s about a group of families traveling west in wagons. They take a shortcut that might be a boondoggle. The movie is about their increasingly desperate situation. It stars Michelle Williams. She is Hollywood’s best actor. Highly recommended. I spent a lot of time on this trip thinking about pioneers. It’s amazing to me that people made trips longer than the one I made in covered wagons. The most amazing part is Nevada. There is nothing in Nevada. This is stereotypical one-exit-every-hundred-miles territory. I stopped and bought two liter bottles of water in case my car broke down. If that happened I would have been walking like one of the poor souls in Meek’s Cutoff. That kind of terrified me. I am not good at cars. I learned how to change a flat tire when I was fifteen but I’ve never had a flat, so I haven’t done it since then. Fifteen was a long time ago. If I had to change a tire this would be me:

 

Except on I-80 in Nevada there isn’t anyone passing by to offer tips. Thank God I made it through Nevada.

I stayed overnight in Reno. Reno is a depressing place. I stayed at the Circus Circus downtown. I was on the top floor. What a fucking high roller I am. I’d say the hotel was 15% full. On a Friday. Casino floors are sad places to me in general, and Reno’s slogan might as well be, “We’re not Las Vegas and it shows!” Everyone gambling looked like they had been there for hours without moving. I was definitely not underdressed in mesh shorts and a t-shirt. The best part of the city was recognizing things from the interstitial shots of Reno 911!  I’m not planning to go back to Reno.

Yes this is the hotel where Carrot Top threw a bunch of stuff out the window in that one episode of Reno 911!

California
The state line is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are beautiful. Just inside the state line is Donner Lake. I mentioned pioneers earlier, and the Donner Party is my go-to party when thinking about pioneers. I watched an American Experience documentary about them in high school, and I was totally riveted. It was narrated by David McCullough, who is the best narrator there is. He’s probably most famous for narrating Ken Burns’s The Civil War. He’s also the author of many books, some of which you may have heard of and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. So everyone should watch that documentary.

I pulled off the highway and drove around Donner Lake, which was kind of disappointing. It’s just another lake with vacation homes and boaters. I was hoping there would be a Donner Party museum or something. What I really wanted was to see the camp and the famous trees the party cut at the snow level that winter. That would have been cool.

That is a lot of snow

Then came the Central Valley. Then came the traffic. Then came Oakland.