Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stay Tuned for Special Announcement

I usually avoid writing about personal matters - anything except my Netflix queue and sometimes cocktails. But if you want to hear what Mrs. Spenser and I have been up to lately, check out the part of this post "below the fold", where it says "Read More".

If you don't care about that, let me recommend to you Jeeves and Wooster: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a TV series adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's immortal tales. If all you know of Laurie is House, you should really see this other side of him. These are the roles that he and partner Fry were born to inhabit.
The Simpsons are going to Tallahassee!

Now, here's what we've been up to, and why I haven't been updating this blog so often. A while ago, Mrs. Spenser was accepted to a PhD program at Florida State U. in Tallahassee. So last Weds. we packed up the car a few of her clothes, her pet rat Bootsy, and set off for Tallahassee.

Day 1 - We planned for 8-9 hours of driving/day, mostly on Rt. 40. We set off early in the morning to miss the Bay area traffic. We took Rt. 5 down to the Bakersfield area, where we got lost. We turned off at the 58, but then got got stuck on the 99. We recovered by taking Rt. 223, Bear Mtn. Road through Arvin, then over what we assume was Bear Mountain to get back on the 58. Although this cost us some time, it was actually quite lovely. This was one theme of the journey - all detours lead to good experiences.

We had lunch Day 1 at the Apple Shed in Tehachapi CA. Tehachapi seemed like a nice CA country town, a place where grandparents could take the youngsters into town for ice cream and some sightseeing. The Apple Shed was the kind of place they might have lunch and some pie.

It was infernally hot when we got out of the air-conditioned car - that was another theme of the trip: It was always either hot or air conditioned. We couldn't leave the rat in the car when we stopped, so we had to smuggle him into every restaurant along the way.

The big excitement in Tehachapi was a wildfire that was burning homes in the area. We had heard about a So. Cal. wildfire, but didn't know it was going on in Tehachapi. The waitresses all crowded around a window at one point - Governer Arnold was passing by, going to visit the fire.

From Tehachapi, we headed into the great Mohave Desert, picking up Rt. 40 in Barstow. Rt. 40 more or less parallels the old Rt. 66, famed in song and TV show. Fortunately, I don't know enough lyrics to sing this song the whole trip, but I recognize town after town from it.

The desert is lovely, and not really as forbidding as I expected. Generally, I don't like dry climates, but maybe it had been a wet year - there seemed to be plenty of greenery, albeit of the hardier, pricklier variety. We drove through Boron, home of 20-mule team Borax. We took a rest stop somewhere in the Mojave - profoundly hot.

The 40 takes a jog south around the pointy tip of Nevada and crosses into AZ. There we stopped for our first night, in Kingman AZ at the Hilltop Motel. I had chosen the Hilltop mainly for it's old-school neon sign. It also had a great cactus garden.

Kingman is pretty rundown, but clearly gets some Rt. 66 tourism. The main drag (Andy Devine Ave!) is old Rt. 66, with a museum, some rundown diners and establishments catering to bikers. Mrs. Spenser was enchanted by the giant railroad engine in the locomotive park - steam engine #3759 - a monster with wheels over 8 ft in diameter. 

We had dinner that night at Dambar Steakhouse, a short walk from the motel (the other reason I chose the Hilltop). It caters to locals and tourists alike, cowboys and bikers. It was fun and noisy (in the bar anyway - the dining rooms seemed to be pretty dead). The food wasn't great, but good enough, and we had a good time.

Day 2 - We woke up early and struck out for Flagstaff AZ. We didn't even take time for coffee, since there didn't seem to be many good options in Kingman. Again, the scenery was beautiful - purple hills, a few dry lakes, sage and other desert plants all around.

Flagstaff seems like a nice college town. We headed for the center of it all, twin coffee shops Macy's and La Bellavia. These are quintessential college coffeeshops with pierced and tattooed baristas, mismatched heavy wooden furniture, posters and photos all over, separated by a laundramat. We picked Macy's, for no special reason, and smuggled in the rat's cage in a grocery bag. It was filled mostly with college women back from their morning runs. I liked Flagstaff.

My plan was to have a late lunch at El Rancho Hotel in Gallup NM - a funky old place where the stars used to stay when making cowboy movies. But just outside of Winslow AZ (like in the Eagles song), in fact, right at the Hibbard Rd exit, our front left tire more or less disintegrated. We pulled off and called AAA, then started to make sure we could get to the spare, etc. By the time the tow truck arrived, we had already changed the tire. Sorry!

We made our way to the next town, Holbrook, to get a real tire (not the mini-donut spare). Future Tire didn't have our size and kindly directed us to Goodyear across the street, where they helped us out in a jiffy. Furthermore, attached to the garage was a little Mexican joint called "Jalapeno Poppers". I had some tacos, and Mrs. S had the eponymous poppers. We ate outside, again with the rat at our side hidden in a bag. Holbrook looked pretty down on its luck, but the people were great and we found a Mexican place we never would have found without the flat, so (cost and time aside) it wasn't a bad experience.

We took a left at Albuquerque (the only traffic we saw the whole trip, really) to head up to Santa Fe. We had visited Santa Fe before, stayed at La Fonda, and were eager to return. We stayed at the Inn on the Paseo, a not-too-expensive B-and-B near the Plaza. It's kind of self-serve after 5:00 - they gave us the combination for the lockbox, and we got our own keys and let ourselves in. It was a nice place, but the basement rooms (like ours) seem to have some kind of rising damp - the carpet felt a little damp, as did the bedding. I'd still recommend with reservations.

We wandered downtown, and Mrs. S. went to the La Fonda giftshop, where she first encountered and started collecting Zuni fetishes. The salesman who introduced her to the form was still there, and she let him know how he changed her life, about her favorite carvers, her 50+ piece collection, etc. She thinks she kind of scared him. She picked up several new pieces.

In the meantime, I hung out in the park across the way, where they had a few bands playing. Just as I arrived they announced the next band: Hot Club of Cowtown! They often play in the Bay Area, and I'd heard them on the radio, but never got a chance to see them. It was a hoot - they are a trio - bass, guitar and fiddle, and do jazzed-up fiddle tunes, Bob Wills and pop standards (sung by the woman on fiddle). I especially liked "Ida Red" and the fiddler's cute, but not too "boop-boop-ee-oop" version of "Exactly Like You".

I wanted to have dinner at the Coyote Cafe, regardless of how over-exposed it has become. We considered the cheaper, noisier rooftop bar, but in the end, got seated at the bar overlooking the open kitchen. What a treat. I had salmon with beets and potatoes and wasabi foam, which was fine, Mrs. S. had a fish salad, which was really a kind of sashimi - raw or nearly raw wahoo, ahi and mahi-mahi with a few greens, an Asian dressing and a big chunk of wasabi rolled in sesame seeds.

But the real fun was in the cocktails. The cocktail menu read like a fever dream - we stuck with tequila concoctions and got the following:
  • Cucumber infused tequila in a frozen cucumber shot glass with a Dos Equis back
  • A margarita made with Hatch chili infused tequila (I'm going to make this for sure)
  • The Senorita: tequila and orange/lime cordial topped with a whipped lime foam
Believe me, these were some of the most tame choices.

On our way home, a couple in an SUV stopped us to ask if we knew anything about a fallen cyclist. They had spotted a young man lying in the road next to his bike. We got him out of the road, determined that he had a concussion (he didn't know who was president) and, against his wishes, called an ambulance. The couple who had sought our help were very nice - older/middle-aged like us, very warm and concerned. Sorry about the accident, dude, but thanks for introducing us to these nice folks.

Day 3 - The next morning, we were up well before the 8:00 breakfast, so I took matters into my own hands, made coffee, then got yogurt, juice and croissants out of the fridge and we had a nice morning repast on the porch. Santa Fe was the only place we stayed where it was not unbearable outside with no air conditioning.

We headed out, then remembered we needed gas. Our route back to 40 was Rt. 25 to around Las Vegas NV, then 84 to 40. The first exit we saw with a "Gas" sign was Rt 50, Glorieta. We were about 3 miles down the road when we realized we had been bait-and-switched. We checked our Google Map smartphone GPS devices, and determined that gas was indeed 2 more miles down the road, so we proceeded, got gas, and returned to 25 via the town of Pecos, on Rt 63 through Pecos National Park. So we wound up taking a 9-10 mile detour through beautiful country, and once again, could not complain in the slightest.

New Mexico continued to be lovely. Around here I said that Yosemite Valley wouldn't get a second glance in this country. Off in the distance we spotted a mountain that looked like Half Dome's prettier big sister. Along with old Rt. 66, we were also paralleling the Santa Fe/Burlington Northern line, so there were often freight trains running along side us. There were lots of opportunities to stop at trading posts, but we didn't take the time, or the effort to smuggle the rodent in.

We hit Amarillo TX for lunch. We stopped at Rudy's BBQ, a kind of nice medium between a chain and the old-style BBQ by the pound behind the filling station type of place. They gave us a taste of the brisket and turkey - we should have gone turkey, but got brisket and ribs instead. A pleasant place, good but not great BBQ.

Late that afternoon, we pull into our Sleep Inn on Enterprise Way in Oklahoma City, just off the Meridian Ave "Hospitality Corridor". There we had a visit from Mrs. Spenser's friend Spider John, who used to supply her with pet tarantulas. Now, both he and she are out of the pet spider trade, but he brought her a pet just for old time sake. Now, we had to sneak a pet rat and tarantula everywhere we went.

John couldn't come stay for dinner as he was driving down to a tandem bike race the next day, so we took his suggestion and went to South of the Border, an nearby chain Mexican place. Since it was crowded, we got a table in the bar, and had a good chain Mex dinner and several margaritas. No complaints - it was kind of fun. Like every other place we stopped, they had X Games and other extreme sports on TV. I hadn't realized that skateboarding, BMX and cage fighting had replaced basketball and baseball as America's favorite sports.

Day 4 - We set off through Oklahoma and Arkansas. The scenery was much greener, lusher, but still damned hot. The Native American presence was very notable. Oklahoma prides itself on being Indian territory. Actually, my great-grandmother was born in Oklahoma before it was a state - just called "I.T."

My plan for lunch was Cock of the Walk, a little catfish spot on a lake in Maumelle AR, a Little Rock suburb. After a long tour through town, we discovered that it was not open for lunch. Too bad, it looked like fun. But it was still early, so we pressed on past Little Rock and over to Nick's BBQ and Catfish in Carlisle AR, just someplace we saw on billboards. They did a nice light lunch, with 2 pieces of catfish, 2 hush puppies and a side dish - a welcome relief from some of the belly-busters we'd been served. It seemed like a nice place for locals and travelers, but there was a downside - deep in Baptist country, they serve no alcohol.

In Memphis, we are supposed to leave Rt. 40 and start heading south. Due confusing instructions from Google Maps and possibly road contruction, we miss the turn off and take the bridge over the Mississippi at the giant pyramid. We bumble along south on Riverside, cross Beale St but don't visit, get re-routed for construction, etc. I guess we got to see the neighborhood "on the south side/High up on the ridge/Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge" that Chuck Berry wrote about.It has been gentrified, with expensive lofts, mini-mansions and modern architecture.

From here, we headed down 78 to Tupelo MS. We stayed in the Wingate by Wyndham just past town - not cheap, but under $100 and very comfortable - almost luxurious. For dinner, we went into Tupelo to Romie's Grocery. The place was just what I was looking for - southern cooking with a creative, sophisticated twist. It looked like a little grocery store from outside. Inside, it had low lights, table cloths with animal prints and a menu with a lot of steaks and some southern specials. I had fried shrimp and grits with sausage gravy. The creative touch was to form them into a cake, and deep fry them, so it was more of a shrimp and grits croquette. Mrs. S. had a wedge salad - nothing special (and the lettuce had some rusty spots) but the accompanying bacon was excellent, as were the bleu cheese, dressing, etc. We also had our first basket of fried dill pickles, which are damned tasty. Maybe the place didn't meet its aspirations as gourmet southern cuisine, but they were reaching for the stars. Every table in the place seemed to be someone celebrating - a big contract, a birthday surprise party, and so on.

They also had a nice bar with a few stuffed animals and a guitar from the band Nickleback (?!?) and a patio where they had live music, but probably only after sundown, because, guess what, too hot! There's also what looked like a good used bookstore across the street, but it wasn't open in the evening.

Day 5
- For our final day, we took 78 to Birmingham AL, 65 to Montgomery AL, then more or less 231/53 to cross into Florida, catch Rt. 10 and head to Tallahassee. We didn't bother to stop for lunch, just drove right on through. Troy and Dothan looked very picturesque, with some old southern style shacks by the road (probably for tourists). Marianna FL seemed like a sweet Florida town - it's funny how you the old-time Florida feeling is different from the Alabama, etc. feel.

We got to our condo about 3:00 and got unloaded, dropped off the animals and went in search of dinner. In a typical tropical afternoon thundershower, we headed for what looked like a pizza parlor, but it turned out to be a pool parlor and bar (the pizza parlor was downstairs). The Corner Pocket is a decent dive with a dozen TVs, 4-5 pool tables, 5-10 dart boards and a totally friendly bartender called Fish.They have several beers on draft and in bottles in tubs of ice and Patron in the freezer. They serve burgers and chili fries and not a lot else. When we came back the next day, we were considered almost regulars - Fish introduced us to bartender Chad - "Yesterday, they were first timers, today they are second timers." We already like it here in Tally.

So, tomorrow I fly back to California, leaving Mrs. S. to start on her doctorate. I will live as a bachelor for several weeks. In that time, film blogging will resume, but with more Guy Flicks - you know, black-and-white comedies and musicals, Bogart and Fred Astaire. I'm planning a Tyrone Power mini-marathon, so look out!

Then, in October, I'll pack up the cat and move out to Tallahassee to join my wife for 2 years, or however long it takes for her to finish her coursework. I'll put add some Chick Flicks to the mix - shirtless guys kicking butt and driving muscle cars, mostly - anything to make Mrs. Spenser happy.

I just hope the weather cools off some.


James said...

Nice Blog. Glad you both made it alright, and she is a regular!

Helen said...

Ahh Mr. Spenser... you are quite eloquent - felt like I was along on the ride. (Almost the exact reverse of my route on the move to Cal, except for your turn south at Memphis.) Give my best to the beloved Mrs. Spenser... we miss you both!!

needsmorememory said...

I almost feel as though I witnessed this entire adventure. Happy it went so well - and that Mrs. Spenser's pets have doubled since you left, and that you, Mr. Spenser, have new, cool beverage recipes which you have two years to perfect. We'll be waiting...

mr. schprock said...

Just getting around to reading this - why it took me so long I can't explain. Thanks for the trip you took us on. Your account was better than a lot of travel books I've leafed through. See you guys soon!