Ah, Kentucky

She was probably as old then as I am now, but better-preserved. A friendly smile and a big hat, a twinkle in her blue eyes, her voice with that perfect Kentucky lilt. We were in line to place our bets for the Derby. It was crowded in that line, and I moved to block people from jostling her wide-brimmed hat. Then I saw the badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck, clashing with the classic pink rose of her dress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adventure really starts long before that, when Mikie asked me if I wanted to join him and his father Mike and another man named Art at the Kentucky Derby. Mike and Art were old friends, and the Derby was a tradition for them. Usually, I think, they treated clients to the experience, but this year it was Mikie and me.

It started fairly early in the morning, at San Diego International, when my party got a warning that if we got too hammered off Bloody Mary’s we would not be allowed on the plane. (Or was that the Las Vegas Trip? I think that was the Las Vegas Trip. Never mind.)

The thing to understand about the Kentucky Derby is that, except for television, it is not a singular event. The races build up for four days or more, and the parties in town and in the infield of the track also pick up in intensity. Also important to note: certain parts of the stands cost more to sit in than others. Our section, apparently, was on the swankier side. We shared our little area with a very nice, very wealthy guy with a stunningly beautiful younger wife. There was no doubt on either side what had attracted each to the other, but it was an honest relationship, I think, and the fact they seemed to genuinely love each other was a bonus for both. They joked and laughed as he threw tickets to the concrete beneath our seats for bets he lost. My curious forensics discovered most bets in the hundreds of dollars.

His big bets he was making offshore, and he was annoyed that the cell signal at the track was getting overloaded. That’s how long ago it was.

We were staying at some Sheraton or another, which had a shuttle to the track. The place had an absolutely typical hotel bar, except this particular hotel bar had Heather. A pixie with a quick smile and an honest streak that only a great bartender can pull off. She hated mint juleps. They are labor intensive, and the asshats who drink them when they come for the Derby are the same asshats that don’t tip well.

I got on well with Heather, but Art was a charmer and Mikie has a certain something. She started spending extra time around us.

There wasn’t much in the way of actual good beer at that bar, but at one point I found myself sitting next to the only other person there who seemed to care about the taste of the beverage he was consuming. We talked for a bit; I didn’t get his name. But he was a good guy.

Perhaps it was the second night in Louisville that Mikie found the karaoke bar. It was a good bar that happened to be doing karaoke, and I perused the list and chose… Nirvana.

When I do Nirvana, it can go two ways: awesome or horrifying. There is no in-between. That night, Kurt Cobain borrowed my pipes and I was fuckin’ wailing. As far as I remember. Then suddenly POW I was on the floor trying to keep singing while not spilling too much of my beer and dudes were slam-dancing while I shouted (around laughter) “I AM STUPID, AND CONTAGIOUS! YEAH!”

Best karaoke night ever. Except maybe full-bar Bohemian Rhapsody. Or all-you-can-drink night in Las Vegas… But those are other stories. All with Mikie. So there you go.

Anyway, back in Kentucky, I was a little shaky the next morning. It was probably the day before the big day by then, and the stands were getting full and our high-roller pals were getting serious. I also learned to recognize the badges some people wore. They were the badges that would give the owners access to the winners circle if their horse won. Each badge had a number (the number of the race that day) and a name. So a badge with a big 8 and the name “No Hope” would mean that the bearer owned the horse “No Hope” that would be running in the 8th race that day.

I told you already, I was in the high-roller section.

At this point, gambling-wise, I’d been doing OK but not great. I have a system for betting on the ponies, if you can believe that. I study the racing form, do the numbers, balance risk and reward, and go place my $2 bets at the window. When I won my tiny jackpots I always left a tiny tip, so the window people were OK with me, even though I was pretty much an obstacle to the real flow of cash.

The night before the Derby tension was definitely ratcheting up at Heather’s bar. Then Mike Sr. went AWOL for a while and Mikie was losing his shit and Art was as calm and confident as ever, even as he told me stories I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have heard. I sat at the end of the bar with The Only Other Good-Beer Drinker for a while, before retiring.

It occurs to me now — I don’t remember my hotel room at all. At all. I probably shared it with Mikie. Maybe all four of us? It’s a blank. Intellectually I have to recognize that I slept at points on that trip.

Race Day. We take the shuttle to the track early, and a steady stream of mint juleps ensues. There are a lot of races that day; the track squeezing all it can out of the big crowd. I place a few bets, drink some juleps (no doubt from a big julep-vat), and study the form. I find what I’m looking for.

Funnicide, I think the horses’s name was. We called him Fungicide. A long shot, but not silly. The favorite that day was Empire Maker, a fine steed, Triple-Crown whispers following in his wake. But Fungicide had the exact profile in the racing form that I looked for. Each workout better than the last. Peaking at the right time. “Fungicide’s gonna win,” I told my group. Turns out they listened.

Almost time for the big race. I was standing in line with the high rollers who don’t bet offshore over the phone. Maybe they want a souvenir ticket. Fungicide was going to win, but Empire Maker was a beast. The easiest exacta ever. I was poised to rake in dozens of dollars. Dozens!

Her hat brim brushed me and I turned around to find her smiling apologetically at me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Then someone else brushed against her hat and I used my right hand to very gently grant her space. There was another man behind her, large, probably on her payroll, but I was in the right place to do the right thing.

She gave me a little smile and we chatted a little bit, before I saw her badge. The number was 10. The Derby. She had a horse in the Derby. When I made that discovery I was neither gushing nor coy; there’s even a chance I was pretty cool. “I’m going to put a bet on him right now,” she said. “Will you?”

“Absolutely!” I said, or maybe something more suave than that. (For the record, I did put a bet on her horse to win. He did not do well.)

It’s hard to tell, actually, with a genteel Southern woman, whether she likes you or if she’s just tolerating you. In every case she will be polite. But I think… I think she liked me. Sometimes I wonder what might have been, had I protected her hat a little longer. But when it was my turn at the window I turned my back on her and that is all that ever happened.

Fungicide won. Fungicide beat out Empire Maker and won the Kentucky Derby. A titanic upset.

On the shuttle from the track back to the hotel, the mood was ugly. “Who the fuck bet on Funnicide?” someone shouted. In that angry space I just shut up.

Back at the Sheraton, things were different, too. My good-beer buddy was a celebrity; people asking for pictures with him. Everyone else was pissed off. Heather confided in us, “I may be smilin’, but it’s fake.”

“Who the fuck bet on Funnicide?” the lament came again.

“I did,” I said. “I got the Exacta.” I was more than a little proud of that. There was a some quiet around us then.

“I got the trifecta,” Art said softly, with a knowing smile. He had called the race 1-2-3. Put me right in my place. And it’s safe to say his bet was somewhat larger than mine. It paid for his trip, he told me later. Hopefully my research justified what he spent to host me there, as well.

One wave of anger after another washed through the bar, almost starting fights, but finally the last wave passed and carried with it the anger, leaving exhaustion. Good Beer Guy was still at the bar, and I sat next to him. By then I had learned that he was part of the cartel that owned Empire Maker. We didn’t say much; we just sipped our beers. “You never know,” I said at last, and he nodded. But I had known.

4

Road Trip Coming!

Draw a rough rectangle anchored in California, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington, and you have an idea the route we’ll be taking sometime early next Summer. Sound vague? It is! (Though I prefer the term “flexible”.)

There will be three of us in the vehicle — pilot, navigator, and small dog. I want to keep the miles on any given day reasonably short, stopping at many rest areas to let the small dog sniff things and for photo opportunities I’ve driven through in the past. Unfortunately that means we won’t be able so stay in any one place terribly long.

That rectangle intersects many old friends, and some of the best sights the western United States has to offer. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this trip. Those in the path of our march will be hearing from us as plans solidify.

Road Trip! Wooooo!

1

Requiem for My Travel Shirt

It was on another road trip to Kansas that I first dubbed my blue aloha shirt my Official Travel Shirt. I was wearing it for the second straight day (no sense sweating up another shirt), and I tore the breast pocket just a bit while stuffing in change from a drive-through, limiting the other occasions I could wear it.

But for driving across the United States in a convertible, it was pretty close to ideal. Light and breathable, the cotton fabric was quick to wick the sweat away from my back and provide cooling. When I put my elbow up on the door frame, the shirt would balloon up, creating a cyclone of joy across my torso. Good times.

Good times that finally came to an end on this trip. The ravages of sun, sweat, suds, and more sun began to undermine the integrity of the fabric. The dye faded and the fabric got thinner where the sun hit it most directly—on the shoulders and (rather embarrassingly) on the gut.

When packing for my latest road trip, I realized the shirt’s days were numbered. The pocket was really starting to flap in the breeze and the fabric was giving out along the shoulder seams. This was to be the shirt’s last ride. In retrospect, I should have given the shirt a dignified retirement before the trip even started; it just wasn’t fair to ask it to get me across the Nevada desert in its condition.

The first night, in Wells, Nevada, I took off the shirt to discover two bright-red patches on my shoulders:

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

By the next night in Vernal, Utah, blisters had formed, and while I waited for my car to be repaired I also tried not to ooze into my sheets too much while I slept at night.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

The shirt had given its last, and while I had other shirts along for the ride that were adequate, they were all too new and too nice to dedicate to being the new Travel Shirt (though one had good Cyclone of Joy™ action—I might have considered it were it not so dark-colored).

So the search begins, but clothing like this isn’t just found on a shelf, it’s discovered through adversity. It is the product of miles, and the grace with which it handles them. It is sun, and sunscreen, and sweat and wind and time and groping in the pocket for the toll ticket. It is the stop at a rest area with a gentle pit bull going to her new home. It is the discovery of a new road, the onset of a sudden rainstorm, the knowing glance from another convertible driver, the pause on a deserted road at night to hear the chirping of the crickets.

It is the stories. The new shirt will have a lot of catching up to do.

1

Remember me?

You would think that damn near forty-eight hours on a train would lead to a burst of blogging activity. I would have thought so myself. But no, I spent the time reading instead. It was pleasant. Then I got back to town and while I had collected some interesting stories on the road, I just wasn’t inspired to write about them.

Perhaps someday I’ll tell you about Charlie, the deep, gravelly-voiced dark-black (Barry White after 10,000 packs) man shorter than me from Louisiana who sat next to me from Los Angeles to San Jose, who was once stabbed in the neck by a random asshole and probably would have killed said asshole if he hadn’t passed out from blood loss first. That’s the way he tells it anyway. At the trial the prosecutor asked Charlie, “what do you think we should do with this man?” “Give him to me,” Charlie said. According to him, that broke up the courtroom. Charlie was all about making sure his grandchildren didn’t get into the same shit he did. He was all right. But man, he liked to talk.

I took refuge from Charlie in the window car (Lounge car? Observation car?) that sat atop the train bar. From Santa Barbara well north a pair of guides in forest green uniforms spoke through a makeshift little PA system, telling us about the history of the places we rolled through. It was pretty cool, actually. Figs, rockets, railroad lore, and pretty scenery. Between lectures I read a novel by a guy who is not afraid to kill people you like. Maybe more on that later.

But I’ve been back now a couple of weeks and then some, and I haven’t even checked in on my favorite blogs. I’m in a twilight place, with an intimidating literary to-do list, and I’m pretty much frozen. I check Facebook more than I ever have before, clearly a sign of the apocalypse. I even retweeted something yesterday. (Spelling checker does not object to retweeted. I’m not sure how I feel about that.)

So, now I feel the need to reconnect. I’ll start with my favorite comics, then go and read the blog episodes I’ve missed, and leave comments that are far past stale.

And here at MR&HBI, I’ve got some ideas. Not new ideas, but ideas. We’ll see.

Summer Camp!

Today will be a day of Automobiles, Coaches, and Trains, in that order. Stopping off in New Mexico to hang with (a whole lot of) family, then heading on to Kansas to be a writer for a while. Man do I need that.

The good news is that I may have the time to reinvigorate this blog, and post some more creative stuff, at least for a little while. I’m going to miss my sweetie something fierce, though.

More from the road (electricity permitting)!

A Day of Many Miles

The day broke clear and didn’t waste any time warming up. After a not-terribly-satisfying breakfast and a fuel stop, I climbed onto Interstate 40 and headed west, west, west.

I wonder, on that stretch of Interstate between Albuquerque and Winslow, how many people are enticed these days by “The World’s Tallest Teepee” (a rigid, multi-story structure), or “The World’s Longest Map of US Rte 66”, which is painted on a wall of a curio shop. How many people spontaneously decide to buy a hunting knife, or a bit of petrified wood? Not as many these days, I suspect, as cars get ever more comfortable and the excuses to climb out and stretch one’s legs get less enticing.

I certainly wasn’t a candidate to stop this time. I wanted to put some miles behind me, the more the better. As I rolled along somewhere east of Flagstaff I saw a sign that did catch my eye. “Fresh jerky 227 miles ahead.” Bison was listed, and I think elk as well. By my calculations that put the jerky store somewhere around Kingman.

Although I have to say that I’ve never visited the much-hyped ice caves or gone underground on any of the mine tours. One of these days… On I drove, stopping only for fuel and beverages.

I never found the jerky store. By the time I got to Kingman I was occupied with the Big Decision. North, past Hoover Dam, through Las Vegas, and on up to Beatty to cross into California high in the Sierras, or west, through Needles to Barstow, to drive up the central valley.

In favor of north: 1) There’s a new bridge to keep the damn terrorists off the damn dam. I bet it’s pretty cool. 2) two-lane highways. 3) Far, far more scenic. 4) A chance to relive another trip with a buddy and two chihuahuas, getting kicked out of a casino in Vegas, followed by a night in Beatty, and my one and only pass through Trona, CA (a hellish place when it’s windy, which I gather is most of the time).

In favor of west: 1) two less hours driving, even if I didn’t stop for pictures on the north route.

When decision time came, I went west. Note to Gus (I think it was Gus), while your “227 miles to jerky” sign was certainly effective for me, you might consider a second sign, a little closer to the promised land. I’m just sayin’ is all. Or maybe I just missed it.

The last 100 miles of the day as I stretched my drive from Needles to Barstow seemed as long as the entire rest of the trip. There was still plenty of daylight left, but I was ready to stop. Perhaps if my air conditioning worked things would have been different. As I pulled in to the Von’s parking lot to buy large amounts of chilled liquids I reflected that had I chosen north, I’d still have an hour to go, assuming Las Vegas rush hour didn’t add to that.

I noticed as I drove across the street to the California Inn (an excellent choice), that there was a little strip-mall bar nearby called Molly’s Pub. I showered and packed a laptop and book (in case this wasn’t a laptop sort of place), and tromped over to Molly’s. It wasn’t a laptop sort of place at all; in fact it wasn’t a book sort of place either. So I bellied up to the bar, had a large beer in a mason jar, and watched the Dodger game with glazed eyes, which kept me entertained. (For a while I sat next to a guy who used to be the mascot for the Dodgers; I was rooting for the other team on general principles. It was all good-natured, though.)

I ordered a second beer, which arrived just as the cougars showed up. My long hair kept them away for a while, but by the end of my beer I’m not sure how many sentences I had started with “My girlfriend…” It was time to quit that congenial place and catch some sleep, to dream of jerky missed and the road not taken.

2

From the Prairie to the Mountains

Kansas is hot right now. Really stinkin’ hot. When I staggered from my nice-but-not-seventy-bucks-nice hotel room in Dodge City I could already feel the heat settling down over the town like a sweaty, feverish hen spreading her damp feathers over an egg that was never going to hatch. I made a hasty decision to modify my course. Oklahoma panhandle didn’t seem like a good idea.

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure Dodge City is in Ford County.

Before I could even get out of Dodge, as they say, I needed to send a package via FedEx. The ladies running the hotel desk had no idea where I might do that, then Google lied to me. Luckily I detected the falsehood before setting out, and managed to find through the FedEx site (duh!) that a local mall had a drop box. The hotel women gave me (incorrect) directions to the mall, and after I recovered from that it only a matter of twenty minutes to find the box (or, more exactly, someone who knew where the damn thing was). I put in the package, which included a signed document accepting the terms of a full-time salaried position at Apple. Rather a momentous occasion, for all it was just sliding paper into a slot.

Then, at last, I was on my way. The course alteration mentioned earlier was to head a little more northerly, coming down to Los Alamos via Taos rather than up from Santa Fe. This got me to higher altitude sooner, and got me deeper into the rain shadow of the rocky mountains.

It was a good drive. Highway 160 through southern Kansas and into Colorado was new to me. There was one section I dubbed The Euclidian Highway, because the road was always either exactly north-south or east-west, with all corners being right angles. One of the zigs and zags took me down the north-south main street of Pritchett, Colorado, a very small, picturesque little town with brick storefronts with plate-gass display windows. A cafe sits right where you would expect it to. The plains stretch to the horizon in every direction. The only thing is, most of the stores are empty. The café is closed, and has a For Sale by Owner sign in the window.

Might be a good place to film a movie. As I drove away, it occurred to me I should take some pictures. But I didn’t. I was driving. After a few more zigs and zags the road returned to more road-like behavior, and I met the freeway at Trinidad, Colorado.

I had no idea Trinidad has such a cool downtown area. I was tempted to stop for the day and bum around for a bit. But I didn’t do that, either. My parents were expecting my arrival. (Ironically, my parents were not expecting my arrival. I put the wrong day in an email.)

From there a quick hop over Raton Pass and once more I left the Interstate behind to take highway 64 west. I drove past skinny cattle picking over utterly barren rangeland, past Cimarron and up into the mountains. That’s some good driving right there. A few raindrops hit the windshield, but not enough to make me stop and put the top up.

From Eagle Nest over and down into Taos (the usual traffic jam), across the Rio Grande at Española and up the hill to Los Alamos. The mountains above the town are still smoldering, the fire working its way through terrain too rugged to send in crews. The hills all around the town used to be heavily forested; now they are barren and rocky and coated with blackened toothpicks. Will the soil last on the mountainsides long enough to let the forests reestablish themselves? I sure don’t know. People are working hard right now to mitigate erosion.

So here I am, in the Land of Enchantment, tired from a long but never-dull journey.