Saturday, December 16, 2017

Could've Done Better

Logan's Roadhouse
8310 Interstate 40 West
Amarillo, Texas

There are three steak places within half a block along the freeway here: Saltgrass, Longhorn, and this place. Saltgrass was too busy, so the wife picked Logan (she meant Longhorn, but said Logan, and by the time I got into the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the access road, I wasn't about to try and get back; so Logan's it is.)

The wait wasn't too long, although waiting by the outside door on a frigid evening with a strong wind made for an intense 15 minutes of self-doubt.

The place was clean enough, if you allow for the obligatory peanut shells on the floor. It was loud, but not too loud; and there were enough TV screens showing college and professional football to satisfy anyone with a gambling addiction (plus one screen with local news and Wheel of Fortune, for hostages to fate). The service was prompt and pleasant, and the prices were in line with what you'd expect in a chain restaurant of this sort.

The food seemed promising on the menu. My wife went for a small steak, which she said was fine. It came with two sides: steamed broccoli and a small salad, with bleu cheese dressing that started off on the side, but by the time it reached the table it had slopped over onto the salad in copious amount, sort of defeating the "on the side" instruction.

My choice was glazed salmon and shrimp served atop rice pilaf, with broccoli and a mushroom skewer as my sides. Both the fish and shrimp were reasonably well-prepared; the salmon was slightly charred on the bottom, but not enough to detract from the overall quality. The shrimp were medium-sized but plentiful, and the glaze on both was excellent: sweet and piquant, and applied in unexpected moderation. (That's a good thing, by the way.) Unfortunately, the rice pilaf (which, incidentally, was also flavourful) was served cold and slightly undercooked -- something that I managed to get through a lifetime without experiencing in a restaurant, but have now encountered twice in two weeks. Is there a fashion trend that I'm unaware of? The broccoli was, you know, okay; the mushrooms were plain ol' white mushrooms grilled on a skewer without benefit of any oil or butter. They were overcooked on one side and undercooked on the other.

Makes me wish I'd fought the traffic after all.

THE CURMUDGEON’S RATINGS (explained, sort of, on the Curmudgeon-About-Town blog):

FOOD: 2 chili peppers (out of 5)
SERVICE: 2 1/2 chili peppers
AMBIENCE: 2 1/2 chili peppers
VALUE: 2 1/2 chili peppers

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Just Desserts?

The result of the election in Alabama yesterday caused a general sigh of relief in most of the country outside the Beltway, but for the current leadership of the Republican Party, it's probably the worst possible outcome.

We rank-and-file Republicans -- I still count myself as a member of that embarrassed band -- have long known that the party has been hijacked by angry libertarians. I'd say most of us have reacted by tut-tutting, more or less openly, and by quietly voting for Democrats more often; I know that's been my response, being not really politically involved.  But the loss of what should have been a sure Republican senate seat points up the scruples of much of the party leadership. To be sure, there were those, like Mitch McConnell, who initially criticised the party's candidate. That small clique of Republicans can at least claim to have some fundamental principles in line with the mainstream of America.

But too many -- far, far too many -- Republican office-holders in this political stageplay have demonstrated that, for them, power is everything. No sin is too reprehensible for these people to overlook where even a bit of political control is available.

Had the Party organization reacted to the (thoroughly believable) allegations against its candidate in a proper way, even at the cost of a senate seat, it would have come out of the election with a shred of integrity intact. Instead, taking its cue from the angriest people who, cynically, claim the mantle of Republicanism, the Party rallied 'round the flag-cloaked sleaze produced by that angry crowd, and lost. And now it has neither senate seat nor integrity.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

El Mariachi
1442 North Broad Street
Tazewell, Tennessee

It may be, as other reviewers on have
what's that mean?
claimed, the best Mexican food for miles around. The style is Guerrereño, which is not as familiar to me as other distinct varieties of Mexican cooking. It was good, though. The salsa -- one of the most important aspects of any meal in a Mexican restaurant -- was fair, as were the tostadas; not great, but not bad. I ordered one of the lunch-menu burritos, filled with ground beef and cheese and served with beans, rice, salad and crema. The portion was large enough to satisfy without being as large as I'd have expected for the price (which was otherwise reasonable). The beans seemed unusually light, which I found gratifying; the rice was not as highly seasoned as Mexican (or "Spanish") rice generally is. I'll put that down to the culinary style of Guerrero. The service was okay; the atmosphere was reasonably pleasant and the place seemed clean. It was well after the lunch rush, about 2pm, so I suspect the servers were feeling that I'd interrupted their down-time. On the plus side, there was Mexican music playing lightly and no sound coming from the televisions (which were showing a SEC football match; my Lord, do those teams play EVERY day? It was probably a re-run.)
El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
Pete's Place
2460 East 1st Street
Blue Ridge, Georgia

This place has a prosperous look to it, and a prosperous feel. I got there just about the time the after-church crowd from the early service starts to clog the parking lot, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that it took so long for my order to arrive. At least the waitress made it a point to refill my glass and bread basket during the wait, a courtesy not always extended by harried servers.

what's that mean?
Having had a conversation earlier with a guy who had just learned how to fly-fish for trout in a nearby stream, I decided it'd be a good idea to order trout. And so I did: grilled trout on a house salad. The fish was clearly fresh, marvelously so, and very nicely seasoned and perfectly grilled. If the kitchen had hewed to the wise maxim that nothing in a salad should be larger than a lady's mouth, the meal would have been perfect. That rul
e, even today, is good policy mostly honoured in the breach, but let's be honest: you cannot efficiently cut a thin slice of red onion (or just about anything else) served in a bowl atop many varied ingredients. You get inadequate support under the item you seek to cut, and just push it down into the mix, which moves aside to slop out of the bowl.
Pete's Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
Clarence's Drive-In
on the main road, near the freeway exit
Unicoi, Tennessee

I ordered the veggie omelet and a doughnut. The omelet was uninteresting; badly needed something to bind the innards, like a little cheese. The veggies were sautéed in oil and too much of it. But the doughnut was outstanding: home-made, hot from the fryer, a little sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and the doughnut hole perched on top. I won't say it made up for the omelet, but it sure helped.
what's that mean?

The coffee was good, too, and the service was down-home how-ya-doin' cheerful.
Clarence's Drive-In Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
The Egg & I
6121 Harbourside Center Loop
(a shopping center on Hull Street Road)
Midlothian, Virginia

My main gripe with chain restaurants is their tendency to dumb down the food on offer to conform to their conception of the general palate. This chain, or at least this outlet -- I've only ever been to one other, in Texas -- carries that tendency almost beyond comprehension. I ordered a dish called the Parisian Benedict, which should, from the description on the menu, have been a rich composition of flavours and textures. 'Twas not so: instead, it gave new scope to blandness, a scope near beyond comprehension. And the coffee was really bitter, too, more than even a double-dose of salt could correct.
what's that mean?

Beyond that, the ambience was pleasant and the service was good. I thought the prices were a little high, even before I'd tasted the food.
The Egg & I Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Bistro on Main
8 North Main Street
Lexington, Virginia

A very pleasant bar and restaurant on one of the main downtown streets of a charming burg. Excellent service, and interesting menu, and reasonable prices for an upscale-tending bistrot. When I looked over the lunch menu, my New Orleanian heritage kicked in and forced me to order an oyster po-boy.

what's that mean?
Many people say you shouldn't order seafood when dining inland, especially people from coastal areas. But I found the best oysters of my life in the Rocky Mountains behind Denver -- no, not THAT kind of oyster; regular oysters -- and also the most expensive. The lesson I drew from that experience is that money trumps distance. And so it is here: the oysters were excellent, the preparation was very good, and the presentation, with a nice handful of well-prepared fried potatoes and a very good coleslaw, was likewise very well done. The only upsetting thing was that the sandwich was served on a small, soft round bun, which the purist in me regards as an almost unpardonable breach of propriety. A po-boy must -- MUST, I say -- be served on a crusty baguette. If it wasn't so damned good I'd really have to mark them down for that offense. (Imagine the appropriate emoticon here.)
Bistro On Main Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
Cafe Bosna
5751 Old Hickory Boulevard
Hermitage, Tennessee

The food more than makes up for the third-world ambience and irregular service in this "European" cafe. The menu features some German, some Turkish, some Balkan dishes. I chose to start with a butternut squash soup, followed by a cabbage salad and burek. 
What's that mean?

The soup was ... Oh. My. God. Buttery. Sublime. The texture was creamy without being thick, the seasoning was deft. Absolutely top quality stuff. The cabbage salad, with a very light dressing and a few interesting other veggies thrown in for colour, was also in the top quartile of its class. The burek, a mix of ground meat and shredded potato seasoned and rolled into a long tube of phyllo, then wound into a spiral and served in a thin white sauce, was heavenly as well. 

Prices were spot on.

Cafe Bosna Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Friday, November 3, 2017

The DC Trip, Or Not

Nothin' Special

I started off on a county-counting trip today. It was originally planned as a wander through the area around the Smokey Mountains that would end in Washington DC, and so in all my notes to myself I call it the Washington Trip, or the DC Trip ... even though Washington itself dropped off the itinerary a few weeks back. The plan now is to get up to Charles City County, in Virginia, east of Richmond, and then turn west for Kentucky. If I stick to the plan, I'll finish getting all the counties in Alabama (there's only one left anyway) and Virginia (8 counties, plus some of those pesky Independent Cities, which I don't really count but will be going through anyway). That'll complete 29 of the 50 states, plus leave only 1 county in North Carolina and 7 in Tennessee. I'll also get a handful in Kentucky and a few in Georgia, but won't be close to finishing with those states.

So today was all freeway driving, from San Antonio to Bay St Louis, Mississippi, where I'm now checked into a really dilapidated motel on the "scenic" route, US 90, debating whether to go out for dinner or just snack on the Wheat Thin crackers I brought with me. Not really hungry.

I saw two things today worth mentioning. First, in the Gonzales County rest area near Seguin, Texas, a very large white spider. I tried to take a picture of it -- it was about 3" across -- but I only brought my little pocket camera on this trip, and I'd left my phone in the car, so I couldn't get a picture close-up enough to be worthwhile. I did, though, get the spider to attack a stick, which was interesting.

Secondly, as I passed the junction of I-12 and I-10 near Slidell, Louisiana, with the sun setting in my rearview mirror, the full moon rose ahead of me bigger than I've ever seen it. If the full moon normally is the size of a salad bowl, this moon was the size of a charger. Huge. Absolutely huge in the thickness of the atmosphere. Soon, of course, it receded to its regular salad-bowl size as it rose, but it was stunning while it was low.

The weather reports ahead indicate I can expect clouds and light rain for the entire planned trip. Tonight I'll decide whether to stick to the plan, or head instead for Florida (7 counties remaining) and Georgia (68 counties remaining; no way I'll get all of those). But I've identified a number of things of interest on the planned route -- waterfalls and landscapes and oddities, and one museum that exerts the strongest pull on me -- so I'll probably keep to the plan despite the weather. It's not like it's going to be icy....

And we're off!

I left early from Bay St. Louis; woke up at 3:20, on the road before 4:30, having decided that no more sleep would come my way. Drove along the coast without knowing it, because of the fog and the darkness, until I saw a bench next to the road on the right, facing out to sea. I recognised the set-up, having seen it often enough in Corpus and Galveston and other places with beaches. Thought about stopping to dip my toe in the water, but decided it wasn't that exciting an idea. Got on I-10 eventually and headed off to Alabama, then up I-65 to Montgomery, where the wander really begins.

Sunrise was as glorious as moonrise had been. A bank of clouds overhead ended abruptly just to the east of my route, and the fiery colours that danced on the glowing edge of the clouds were fluorescent.

From Montgomery, I took back roads up to the town of Sylacauga, where I stopped to see a monument commemorating the survival of a local woman who was struck by a meteorite in the 1950s. While there, I fell into conversation with a local guy named Mark, who used to be a reporter for the local paper. He told me that the flap over the meteor ended up ruining the woman's marriage; her husband wanted to capitalise on it, and she didn't (or maybe the other way around), and yada yada yada they ended up getting divorced. A sad end to a surprising event. I guess it's like winning the lottery.

Gantt Marble Quarry

He also told me about a place where you could see the local marble quarry, not too far out of my way, so I grabbed a sandwich to go from a local deli and took a drive over there and had lunch al fresco. Nice.

After that, I drove up through Clay County (finishing Alabama in my county-counting) and up the scenic route that passes Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in the state.
Cheaha Mountain
I encountered only the remnants of rain all afternoon: damp pavements and a resulting 3-truck pileup on the short stretch of Interstate 20 that I took into Georgia. It was a bad wreck because one of the trucks was a tanker, and it appeared there'd been a fire involved. It was all out by the time I got there. It took me just under 2 hours to go three miles on the interstate, and as a result I didn't get as far today as I'd hoped. But it was pretty scenery all the way, and I'm hoping for more of the same tomorrow.

Hike in bear country; frustration and excitement

So my day started with a nice hike through the woods to a waterfall. I followed the directions on Roadtrippers, in a remote area of northern Georgia, which has yet to fully grasp the efficacies of road signs; but after a conversation with a forgetful local (“There’s a sign … I forget what it says, but it’s on the left. Or the right. I forget which…”) found the parking area for the trailhead. There was one other car there. As I was reading the big signs warning about feral hogs and telling you what to do when you encounter a bear, and making such an encounter seem inevitable,  two girls with big dogs came down from the trail. They said they’d come from the falls and that no one was there; so I was looking forward to having it to myself.

It was about a mile and a half hike with a lot of switchbacks, uphill and down. I picked up a rock with a sharp edge to use in case I did encounter a bear…. I don’t like the idea of bears and thought I should buy a gun. I’d stop every few yards and look around, especially behind me, for bears. Didn't see any, but it made the hike more exciting.

Fall Creek Falls
After about an hour's hike, I got to a point above the waterfall and saw an elderly couple taking selfies down below. Where had they come from? As I got to the last turning of the trail, here comes a pack of people from the opposite
direction. Turns out there’s another parking area, about 400 yards from the falls down an easy, nearly-level trail. Got into a conversation with three guys from North Carolina, visiting on their just-about-annual reunion weekend, and they offered me a ride back to my car. I couldn’t say no.

on the road to Brasstown Bald
Went on to the next planned stop, another waterfall, but this one showed up on Roadtrippers as being just a few hundred yards from the road. Drove to the spot indicated on the map; it was the parking lot of a big-box store in Blue Ridge, Georgia. No sign of a waterfall, or a trail to a waterfall. Checked Google Maps for the waterfall; it’s about an hour’s drive from where it’s shown on the Roadtrippers’ Google Map. Interesting. Well, so I didn’t see that waterfall. (This Roadtrippers misinformation made me really glad I'd made the hike to Fall Creek Falls; I'd originally thought to skip it because it's so much farther out of my way than the one that's not where it's supposed to be.) Drove on instead to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. The colours of the trees this time of year has been pretty nice ever since I got to the uplands, but along the road to the Bald they were stunning.

visitors' center atop
Brasstown Bald

The top of Brasstown Bald was very crowded; there was a long line of cars waiting to get in, and throngs of tourists at the top. (One interesting thing about them was that about half of the foreign tourists seemed to be South Asian, and almost no East Asians; out West, it seems to be the same proportion of East Asian tourists, and no South Asians. I wonder why the difference?) Nice view from the top of the Bald. Bought a couple of fridge magnets, but the only T-shirt I liked wasn’t available in my size, or my wife’s. Plus it was overpriced, so I didn’t mind passing on it.
the view to the North from Brasstown Bald

After that, up into North Carolina, to Clay’s Corner General Store (“Home of the Possum Drop”), but it’s out of business. Drove on, got to the Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of US Highway 129 reknowned for its curves. Very popular with motorcyclists. (“Motorcycles: High Crash Area Next 30 Miles”) I was tempted to stop for the night before making the drive, because it was getting late and there'd be nothing to see in the gloaming, there'd only be the drive itself, and with a Subaru SUV instead of a zippy little roadster, the drive itself wasn't destined to be exciting. But I didn't find a decent-looking motel before I came to the Tail, so I went ahead.

I quickly caught up to a clump of cars, but the slowpoke up front let us by when he could. Caught up to another clump, and again the slowpoke let us by at the next pullout. Then caught up to another clump. This guy didn’t let us by. Instead, his car caught on fire. And it seems he had a weapon in his car. Thank God there was another vehicle between his and mine, because bullets were exploding left and right. The car in between caught two in the grill. Very exciting for a couple of minutes, then for the next three hours we waited for the fire truck to come put out the fire. By the time they did there was nothing left of the car but a burnt-out hulk.

As a result of the delay I didn’t even make it as far as Knoxville today; I had expected to get all the way into Virginia. But I have plenty of time; so much, in fact, that I may even go for that last North Carolina county. And it’s been a pretty nice trip, even exciting on occasion….

Eastern Tennessee and driving in circles

Last night, when I was looking for a motel, I went back and forth on the highway in Maryville, Tennessee, until I found one that suited. Unfortunately, when I woke up this morning and left, it was so cloudy that I couldn't tell which way was East, and I didn't remember which way I'd been heading on the highway. I turned the wrong way, stopped for breakfast, and then headed on down the highway ... in the wrong direction. After about 15 minutes I started to wonder why there weren't any signs directing me to Knoxville, so when I saw signs for highways South, I pulled over and checked the map on line and discovered my mistake. A little wasted time, spent driving in rain.

Found the highway I wanted and headed for my next planned stop. I knew what road I wanted and approximately where it was; unfortunately I never found it, and I've decided that it's because the one I wanted was the one road that didn't have a street sign; if there'd been one (and I bet there had been) it had been removed for construction. But it was a minor stop -- a memorial in a cemetery for a boat that sank at the end of the Civil War, drowning a bunch of wounded Union soldiers being sent back north.

The rain had changed to a light mist by the time I rolled out of the car in downtown Knoxville. Last night I'd checked several web sites, looking for the operating hours for the Sunsphere, a remnant of the World's Fair (who knew there'd been a World's Fair in Knoxville? Not me). Finding no information on the point, I foolishly assumed it was always open. I got there around 9AM; it opens at 11. Well, it's only 4 storeys tall, and at the bottom of a hill, so I don't imagine I missed a whole lot.

I walked up the hill to Market Square, a very pleasant space that, I reckon, is a pretty happening place on nice evenings. At that hour of the morning it was still enjoyable. And parking is convenient and fairly inexpensive -- about a dollar an hour. The Scrooge in me is gratified. It reflects favourably on the city. I took a few pictures, then headed on up the road for Rocky Top.

I'd always thought Rocky Top was a made-up place. When I saw it on the map, I thought, "Oh, I have to go there." Besides, it was on the way to the first Tennessee counties that were my objective for the day. Let me tell you, though, Rocky Top, Tennessee, ain't nuthin' worth seeing. The only good thing about that detour was that I unexpectedly found myself in Calhoun County, which lies near the city limit.

I also found out that, until recently, Rocky Top was called something else. The good people of the town changed the name a couple of years ago because ... well, because they wanted to. I suspect it's an attempt to capitalise on the image born of the bluegrass classic. (I did, though, get gas and coffee at the Rocky Top Market ... which is in another town some miles away.)

On the way to the unseen counties, I happened to pass the Appalachian Arts Craft Center. I've had extraordinarily good luck at finding well-made, attractive and interesting pieces in such places throughout Appalachia (even in West-By-God-Virginia), so I stopped in for a look. And of course I left with a beautiful and reasonably-priced ceramic bowl by a local woman named Sheila Briscoe, and with a great deal of information from the two women who staff the shop. And this evening I will spend a little time exploring the maps and brochures they offered me, on the chance that they will indicate some point of interest that I'm not already aware of along my route, or not too far out of my way.

Eastern Tennessee, like almost all of the southern Appalachians, is God's Country, and I don't mean just that there's a church at every crossroad. (There is, but that's not what I mean.) I lived in West Virginia for a time, and found it despoiled. But in Alabama, and Georgia, and Tennessee, Appalachia consists of fairly broad valleys rimmed with low hills and mountains, cut by good roads with prosperity peeking out on every side. But when I crossed into Virginia today (after another wasted hour in the rain driving in what turned out to be a big circle -- damn those absorbing audiobooks! Made me miss my turn; that, and the fact that highway signage generally follows the Georgia model, where Less Is More) I was immediately struck by the sudden decline in that feeling of beauty and comfort: at the Virginia line, the buildings alongside the road become abandoned and dilapidated; the road surface suddenly is rough, shoulders disappear; everything that, in Tennessee, was neat, even manicured, is in Virginia unkempt and trashy. I don't know why there would be such a difference in the space of an imaginary line on a map, but it was certainly noticeable.

My last stop for the day was at Natural Tunnel State Park, which had honor-envelopes at the gate. Pay $4 and park. It's a small park and it was almost 5PM, which, at this time of year, is almost sundown. I only had large bills and the park closes at dusk, so I just made a quick drive through to see what there was to see (I recalled thinking, on viewing the place's page on RoadTrippers, that it wasn't all that big a draw). It seems to be a few houses all decorated for Christmas, a parking lot, and a short trail to the tunnel. I decided to go on, since the smallest bill I had was a ten and I only had a few minutes before closing time.

Istanbul all over again

I have two batteries for my little pocket camera. The one that came with it is usually good for about 300 pictures, unless I use flash (which I hardly ever do); the back-up, a cheap knock-off, seldom lasts for 50 pictures. They each take several hours to charge, so I've been alternating every night.

Today, the good battery gave out after I took a bunch of pictures of dinosaurs in some guy's back yard; when I got back to the car I swapped it out for the bad battery, and that gave out after about 6 pictures. Just like when I was in Istanbul, and the AA batteries in our first digital camera died. I'm left with only memories that are hard to dredge up after a short time.

Oh, well. I think I got all the really good stuff.

My first stop this morning was for breakfast in the pouring rain in Unicoi, Tennessee, at a pleasant little diner where they make their own doughnuts. I had a mediocre veggie omelet (really wish I'd thought to ask for cheese on it) and a doughnut. The doughnut was wonderful. Served with the doughnut hole on top like a little pyramid, and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar. And still hot. I wouldn't mind being fat my whole life if it was because of doughnuts like that.

It was still raining when I got to Burnside, North Carolina, where I expected to turn off to find something called The Devil's Courthouse. Roadtrippers' Google Maps shows it as being about 8 miles south of town, where there's a state park. When I asked about it in the town, they said no, it was on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the guy there got out a Parkway map and showed me where it is, about an hour away, the other side of Asheville. That's twice that Roadtrippers' map function has lied to me on this trip. Never did before.... I will have to complain (again) to them about it.

So I went up the road to see the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which, according to Roadtrippers, is in Grandfather Mountain State Park. Except it's not: it's in Grandfather Mountain Park, a private park; the State Park is the unaccessible (except on foot) territory to the east, given to the state by the owner of Grandfather Mountain Park to ensure that it never gets developed.  And the private park wants $20 to go in to see the Mile High Swinging Bridge (which is, the gatekeepers says, actually a mile high but doesn't swing). And there's a wildlife park and some other run-of-the-mill attractions, none of which sounded like a pleasant outing in the rain, so I decided to pass on that.

Then came the dinosaurs. Some guy in the suburbs of Bluff City, Tennessee, has so consuming a love of the critters that he has devoted his substantial backyard (and I mean several acres) to a sort of nylon Jurassic Park. It's not easy to find, but when you get there you know it: the entrance looks just like a slightly downscaled version of the movie's theme park. And he has built I don't know how many life-sized dinosaurs. The quality isn't as good as those professionally-done animatronic things that tour the country's natural-history museums, where you can see 5 or 6 for $25; but they are surprisingly good, faithfully researched and plentiful. And delightful. There are a couple with moving parts, which I thought added nothing to the experience, but the rest of them are great fun (especially, of course, the T-Rex, and the Allosaurus, which I admit startled me when I came suddenly upon it as I wandered the jungle setting.

After that, I took a hike up (or rather, down) to Blue Hole Falls, which was very pretty -- the rain had stopped well before that but the path was very slippery. It's 3 waterfalls down a slope, the last about 20 feet high and falling into a blue-ish swimming hole, and a fourth waterfall providing the drain. I had it to myself. And since it's at the back of a well-settled neighbourhood of houses that give the appearance of being well-armed with long guns, I wasn't too concerned about bears this time.

Travelling on, I stopped at the world's shortest tunnel, Backbone Tunnel (about 8 feet long), then up into Virginia to see the Lincoln Theater in Marion -- supposed to be very nice, architecturally, but the outside was nothing special and the interior was closed -- and the grave of Dr Pepper, for whom the drink was named, in Rural Retreat.

And tonight, I'm sleeping in Mayberry, North Carolina, going in the morning to see Andy and Opie, and the Courthouse, and Wally's Service Station. Later I expect to pass through Mount Pilot.

(And, by the way, since my camera has no usable battery at the moment, I can't upload pictures. Check back tomorrow.)

My Luck Runs Out

Well, I guess it had to happen: sightseeing in bad weather. It was 42 when I left my motel room this morning, and I doubt that it made it to 50 all day. And it rained all morning, including during a two-and-a-half-hour hike up to Hanging Rock. Which was totally worth it.

It took me a while to locate Andy & Opie. I'd looked at the layout of the town on a map, and that's usually enough, but this phobia that Southeasterners have about signage very nearly defeated me. Seems to me that, if you want people to find things in your town, you'd put up signs that name the streets; you'd have signs indicating which directions things are; you'd maybe even say helpful things like "No Return Access This Exit". And if you have a street that is known by several names, like Main Street and Route 89 and US Hwy 615, or whatever, you'd use those names consistently.

Well, folks round here feel differently, I reckon.

Andy & Opie
Anyway, I tracked it down.

Then I went off in search of the grave of Chang & Eng, the original Siamese twins. Should that be "graves"? They're both in the same hole in the ground; is it a plural hole? I don't know. Anyway, they married sisters and somehow contrived to have 21 children between them, a fact that, once learned, inspires endless speculation as to technique and mechanics. My Roadtrippers app, exhibiting the idiosyncratic unreliability that has come to characterise it on this trip, carefully led me to a dead end in a middle-class subdivision south of White Plains, North Carolina. It even showed a cemetery at the end of the road, with a particular point highlighted. There was no cemetery there, just a wall of shrubbery.

Fortunately, other websites supplied more useful information, and I located the grave about 3 miles north of where I was.

Then I remembered that I'd also wanted to see Wally's Service Station and the Mayberry Courthouse back in Mount Airy; so I drove back to town and easily found them. The courthouse was nothing like the "real" Mayberry Court House on the outside, being just a red-brick building with a silly little portico added; but inside some effort had been made to dress the space up like what you see on TV. Nowhere near as big a space as on the TV show, but then, they don't need room for old-fashioned TV cameras. And Wally's Service Station was just an old service station, which I suppose is about as authentic as you could expect. What really sold it, though, was the 1961 Ford Galaxie squad car with the whip antenna parked out front (used for tours of the town, and in fact the driver -- not Wally; I asked -- took a family from Alabama for a spin as I was leaving).

From there, I drove through the town of Pilot Mountain (the "Mount Pilot" that Sheriff Andy Taylor was always running over too), and followed the highways to Hanging Rock State Park.

I say "followed the highways"; actually, I saw a sign for the park as I left Pilot Mountain, but that was the last sign I saw for it until I arrived, miles and miles and several changes of road later, at a large sign that said "VADE MECUM Hanging Rock State Park." There was a gate across the driveway with a sign saying the trails were only open, like, one day a month. I figured there must be another entrance, so I got back on the road and went on. There were several small roads coming in from that side of the highway, and after a few miles I came to a residential area, whereupon I decided that there was no more park up that way. So I went back to Vade Mecum (whatever that is; I never found out), and the gate was open! So I went in.

A sign said All Visitors Must Register, so I pulled off at the Visitors' Center, but decided, First Things First, there's a bathroom. It was locked. As I was trying the knob, a white Parks Dept truck pulled into the parking lot and they guy driving rolled his window down. I asked him if he had a key and he said, No, actually, the park's not open. I said I was going to step around the back of the bathroom building and he said he had to wait for me because he had to close the gate behind me. We got into a little discussion and he said the main part of the park was some distance away, but that he was going there and I could follow him. So I did, who knows how far, and sure enough, there is a regular ol' state park on up the road.

The rain had died down by then, but it was still cold and foggy. I found the visitors' center (harder than you'd think, in that fog) and the ranger told me the fog wouldn't be lifting for a couple of hours, and that I could hike up to Hanging Rock but I wouldn't see anything. I went anyway.

the fog lifts
The path starts off as a broad paved surface wide enough for three wheelchairs to travel abreast. Then the pavement ends, but it's still a wide, even path. Then it gets a little narrower and a little steeper, then it's slippery big rocks and mud and hanging onto trees to keep from falling off the cliff next to the trail. And then you're at a point where the trail turns sharply to the right. I happened to glance up at that point and actually said "Oh, my God!" out loud. A hundred feet above me, or more, the fog lifted slightly and the Hanging Rock loomed out of it like Smaug before he has precisely located his upcoming meal.

That's about where the hard part of the trail starts.

At the top, the view was what you'd expect: projecting rocks with nothing beyond but fog.

Still, it was a nice hike, enough of an exertion that I had to take my jacket off to cool down (then put it right back on, because it was 40 degrees and wet and I only had a T-shirt on).

And that was the end of the interesting part of my day. I checked into a motel early tonight, like 4:30, because I won't be in a town of any size for the next several hours' driving, and it was already almost dark. Plus I lucked into a real bargain: I'm in a one-bedroom apartment, complete with kitchen, living room and bathroom for $68 inclusive. It's the most expensive room I've had so far on this trip, but only by a dollar, and it's very nice. Maybe my luck hasn't been all bad today.

(Oh, and all the dinosaur pics, along with all the others, are now available on line. Click here to see them.)

End of the Road

Today I reached the figurative end of the road. About 9:30 this morning I arrived in Charles City County, Virginia, the farthest point of this trip (since I've dropped DC from the route), and started back for home. The morning was spent driving on back roads through Cumberland and Amelia counties, the afternoon almost entirely on freeways. (Historical note: Amelia Courthouse Station is where, on the day General Lee decided he had no choice but to surrender his army, confederate railway engineers ran four supply trains back and forth, trying to keep their loads from being captured by Union soldiers who had torn up the tracks behind and in front of the station. Eventually they realized they couldn't get away, but apparently they were just having a high ol' time running the trains and slamming on the brakes.) It rained lightly the entire day until, just before the West Virginia line, I went through a tunnel and came out into what reminded me of Churchill's "broad sunlit uplands": blue sky, fall foliage, low mountains. Gorgeous.

It didn't last. In the space of half an hour I was standing atop East Mountain, in forty degree weather with a thirty mile an hour wind, looking down on the uninteresting town of Bluefield, West Virginia, where I used to supervise three employees.  Got back in the car and drove until nightfall. Tomorrow I figure I have about 8 to 10 hours, depending on stops, before arriving at Nashville, where I plan to spend 2 nights so I can see a car museum and whatever other sights the city has to offer. Then it's home, by way of Dallas.

I only took two pictures today, one of the "Coffee Pot House" in Buena Vista, Virginia, and one a panorama of Bluefield. I'm not even going to bother hooking the camera up to upload them.

Heading Homeward

OK, so, first, here are the pictures from yesterday:
Coffee Pot House

Bluefield, WV, from East Mtn Overlook
You can see why I wasn't in any hurry to upload them.

The Coffee Pot House is the home of an artist, a sculptor who uses the local black-and-white limestone, along with more exotic rock, to sculpt various artworks and craft items. The stuff available for sale at his home isn't his best stuff; it seemed evenly divided between kitschy things like candle holders and utilitarian things like holders (poorly sized) for solar yard lights. But he had pictures of better works, all of which are already sold except for three in a gallery in nearby Lexington. I went into Lexington afterwards and saw them in one of the galleries I went into. They're elegant carvings of the sort you might see in the lobby of a white-shoe law firm.

So I was up early this morning and on the road before sunup, driving in fog through the last two counties of Virginia and into Kentucky. Reminded me of my time in West Virginia, where no matter where you're going, you're on a winding two-lane road behind a coal truck.

I only made two planned stops. I forgot to stop at Chained Rock, outside Pineville, Kentucky, because I couldn't remember what the mark I'd made on the map was for, and with absolutely no cell service I couldn't check my Roadtrippers app to see. Too bad. Well, it was still dark then, anyway.
Cumberland Falls

But I did stop to see Cumberland Falls, the second-largest in the eastern part of the US. Mostly famous for its "moonbow" -- it's the only waterfall in North America that produces a white arc of light during a full moon -- it's been a resort area since the 19th Century, when people rode four hours in jolt-carts over bad roads from the railway station to get there. Now it's an easy drive behind any coal truck.
Natural Arch, Kentucky

My other stop was at Natural Arch. There was a trail down to the bottom, but I didn't walk it because of the warnings about bears and because I could see it perfectly well from the overlook. And because I want to get home.

I also made an unplanned stop at Old Mulkey Meeting House, the oldest standing log church in Kentucky, built in 1798. It was, according to the recorded narrative (which scared the crap out of me when it started up in the dark church; it, as well as the lights, is on a motion sensor, but the audio comes on first) important in the Great Awakening. (I wonder why they don't count the log church in Bourbon County where the Disciples of Christ sect was born? That building, a much smaller log cabin, was built a few years before 1798, I think. And it's still standing, although now encased in a brick building.)
Old Mulkey Meetinghouse
Tompkinsville, Kentucky

So now I'm in Nashville, thinking perforce of the opening lines of the Paul Simon song, Duncan.

Luckily, she's not a screamer.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Trip to Lake Havasu

We just got back from Lake Havasu, where we held a memorial in remembrance of my father in law, Ben, who died last year.

I didn't take very many pictures, but the few I did take are posted now on Google Photos. Click on the picture below to see them.

Lake Havasu, near Parker Dam

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Pretty. Dull.

My friend Kirby and I did a little wandering around Iowa for a couple of days this past week. There are a couple of dozen counties in the northwestern part of that state that I'd never been to before, and we had just enough free time to drive over there (from Wisconsin), cruise through them all, and head back (to Wisconsin).

Impressions are that (a) the people there are of the friendly sort; (b) the countryside is pretty, even with all the fields lying bare awaiting the planting of crops; and (c) there is no reason on earth, beyond making a living, to be there.

Here are all the things I spotted in 24 counties that were worth stopping to take a picture of:

There seems to be a local tradition of painting big rocks with patriotic themes. These two pictures are of the Lyon County "Freedom Rock."

And these three are of the Clay County "Freedom Rock."

In Britt, Iowa, we stumbled across the National Hobo Museum, located here because it's where the hobos hold their annual convention. I didn't even know there was such a group.

The next few pictures were taken inside.
hobo symbols
racks of exhibits
drink holder

We drove out to this mound expecting it to be an Indian mound; it's not, as the sign explains. The area is operated as a wildlife refuge by a group called the Osceola County Conservation Board, which is either not really a governmental entity, or else indulges in an un-American mingling of church and state.

Somewhere along the road we came to one of those outdoor Heritage Parks; I forget where. It was closed, so this is the only photo I could get. This bit of folk art appears to be old farm machinery piled up and welded together to form a sculpture.

And then, finally, this bit of folk art: Pocahontas represented as a Plains Indian.

Hard to Dislike

Texas Roadhouse
5019 Keystone Crossing
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
(just off Hwy 53, one exit north of I-94)

My main gripe about chain restaurants in general, as I've said often enough that I shouldn't have to say it again, is that their food is dumbed down to a corporate idea of what average people like. My gripe about Texas Roadhouse (a Kentucky corporation, by the way) in particular stems from an article in a San Antonio newspaper more than 20 years ago.

It was the first time I'd heard of Texas Roadhouse. I don't remember if it was in the local daily paper, or the throwaway weekly rag, or in a legal news publication. I think it was the last, but I could be wrong.

The gist of the article was this: there was a small business in a town east of San Antonio that went by the name of Texas Roadhouse. It had been around for decades, selling beer and who knows what else to the people of its small community. We call those places "ice houses". The Kentucky corporation, looking to expand into Texas, wanted the rights to the name, which, according to the article (and my own understanding of that field of law) they couldn't get without the co-operation of the little ice house. Apparently the little ice house wouldn't give up the name. (I suspect, more than remember, that piles of money were offered; I know that, were I the ice house's attorney, I'd've sure recommended selling the name for anything with six figures left of the decimal, and then using some other name. Lord knows, the people that constitute its market don't give a damn what the place is called, they just want their beer and they know where to get it. Besides, they probably just call it "the ice house" anyway.)

Anyway, the upshot of the article was about the heavy-handed browbeating legal tactics the Kentucky corporation used to force the little ice house to give up the name. I don't know now what they were, though I recall there was an extensive discussion of it (which is why I think it was probably in a legal publication), but what I have remembered all these years is the indignation I felt that such robber-baron tactics would be used by Goliath against David. As a result, I've never been to a Texas Roadhouse.

But a friend of mine was taking me to dinner and Texas Roadhouse was the place he selected. 

This place is no different from a handful of similar steak houses: it's Outback without the Ozzie theme, Logan's Roadhouse with a southwestern theme, Beau's Place with more peanut shells on the floor. There's nothing original about the concept, but I find that it's done, overall, a tad better than similar places. 

There was a wait of about 15 minutes for a table, an interval spent shelling peanuts in the waiting area by the front door before we were led through the labyrinth to our two-person booth. Drinks were ordered and quickly brought by the assigned member of the uniformly chirpy waitstaff, who without exception managed to make terminal chirpiness seem not just normal, but infectious. Orders were placed with our capable and knowledgeable waitress. A couple of people nearby had birthdays, prompting me to observe that, in the hour or less I was there, I heard the word "yee-hah" more than I have in nearly a lifetime in Texas. I felt I should be insulted by the perpetuation of simplistic stereotypes about Texas, but then I thought of everything ever said about the state and its people on The Big Bang Theory, and decided that these simplistic stereotypes are the lesser evil. 

The time we spent waiting for our food -- not a long time, especially considering the crowd in the place -- was used to shell more peanuts and plow through a tray of deliciously fattening dinner rolls served with butter laced with honey and cinnamon. 

My dinner was a rib eye, ordered medium rare, a baked potato with everything on the side, and steamed vegetables. Everything was prepared exactly as it should have been: the veggies were hot and cooked to precisely the right point, with no spritz of oil or butter to diminish their healthful attributes; the potato was perfectly cooked (and of a proper size, not one of those over-large things you get at "steak houses" patronized by broke students); all the accoutrements were served on the side, as requested, in amounts that would ensure that I would have more than enough without being made to feel wasteful; and the steak, surprise surprise, was actually medium rare and tender.

My friend ordered a rack of ribs; I tasted the sauce and found it more Kansas City than Texas. Not bad, but not authentic either. Maybe corporate research indicates that KC-style barbecue plays better in Wisconsin. 

The place was loud in a bubbly sort of family-friendly way, not uncomfortably so; it was clean, except for the peanut shells all over, for which there is a traditional exception to standards. 

The prices struck me as about right for this sort of mid-range steak house; except the price of drinks ($2.59 for a bottomless glass) is higher than it should be, though I am apparently the last person in the whole world who cares.

Texas Roadhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spring in the Midwest

The pictures I took on my recent trip to Wisconsin and St Louis are now available for viewing. There aren't a lot of them. Click here to see them.

from the Minnesota "Science" Museum
(they don't put "Science" in quotes, but they should)

I got a lot of new counties in Iowa, and finished touring the counties of Illinois (making it the 27th state completed). I've now been to more than 90% of the counties in the US. Whoopee.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Makes me wonder...

From the BBC:

Uefa has also fined Bayern Munich £2,600 after
their supporters delayed the tie at Arsenal's Emirates
stadium by throwing rolls of paper onto the pitch
in protest over ticket prices.

If they think the ticket prices are unreasonable, why are they at the match in the first place?

Friday, February 17, 2017

I'm just saying...

I came across a quote the other day, said during World War I by

Admiral John Jellicoe, about Prime Minister David Lloyd George:
Lloyd George

"He gets figures from any source and believes them
if they suit his views."

I suppose if Britain can survive Lloyd George, then we can survive Donald Trump. Hope so, anyway.