The Fifty States: South Dakota to Wyoming

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The last installment in my record of impressions of the fifty states, based on a lifelong journey that ended in early October in South Dakota.

South Dakota: #50. Wind-swept prairie, which is impressive at first glance but dreary after a couple of hours. Crossed the border to a glorious sunset in early October (see photos 1 2). Froze my balls off taking those pictures. Lots of anti-abortion billboards and road kill. One porn store. I hear all the good stuff is in the western part of the state. It sure isn’t in the northeast corner.

Tennessee: A couple of trips to Memphis and environs. Beyond Beale Street and the Peabody Hotel, there’s not much to recommend about downtown. I did the obligatory pilgrimage to Graceland where I saw the most powerful display of poor taste I have ever seen. The city seems uneasy.

Texas: Dallas several times, Houston several times and one trip to Austin. I’m aware of the stereotype that Texans are a bunch of gun-toting loudmouths, but I never experienced that. The people were very friendly wherever I went. The primary gestalt of Texas is “boobs.” Dallas was (and maybe still is) the fake-boob capital of the universe and Houston is stacked with titty bars. Great Mexican and southwest food. Horrid weather. Houston in the summer is unimaginably awful. While Houston suffers from weak or nonexistent zoning laws that have created a hodgepodge of a community, Dallas is probably a bit over-organized and business-like. Still, the trip to The Sixth Floor (Texas School Book Depository) is not to be missed. Austin provides some landscape relief with small hills and more culture with the presence of the university, but the weather there is as abysmal as anywhere else in Texas.

Utah: A couple of trips to Salt Lake City. Smoggy. Not the greatest place to party. Places that don’t honor vices make me a bit uncomfortable.

Vermont: No state is more beautiful in the autumn. Driving is quite dangerous because you can’t take your eyes off the fantastically vivid colors that surround and conquer your visual field. Brattleboro’s a very nice New England town with great bookstores. Vermonters are rather colorless, though.

Virginia: Spent some time in the D.C. metro area between Alexandria and Arlington. Arlington National Cemetery was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Outside the ring road I remember green and lush and gently rolling, but I need to go back to get a better feel of the whole state and see more of the historical sites.

Washington: This is where I live now, in the Seattle area. It is beautiful every day of the year. The rain makes this a wonderful place for napping and writing. Great music, great coffee and a pretty good restaurant scene. Eastern Washington is dull farmland broken up by a few lake resorts. Spokane could easily be lifted from the ground and placed somewhere in the Midwest and I doubt anyone would notice. Tacoma has a beautiful setting and an absurd amount of crime. Olympia is one of the ugliest state capitals, which is saying a lot. Bellingham up north is a nice place to drop in during the summer. The area is dominated by passive-aggressive introverts who pretend to be nice but aren’t in the least.

West Virginia: Took a trip through the North Panhandle, stopping in Weirton and Wheeling. At the time, a lot of people were out of work, so the place was pretty dreary. Wheeling has a cute little downtown that could use a bit of sprucing up.

Wisconsin: A couple of trips to Milwaukee and a half-trip to Madison that was aborted due to a tornado warning. Milwaukee is Germanic-looking and made of brick, which is always unnerving to someone who grew up in earthquake country. Great Polish food, though. I was planning on getting my Master’s at Marquette . . . until I went to Milwaukee and couldn’t stand the humidity.

Wyoming: The overall impression was “red rock.” Traversed the entire state on my way home from Chicago, stopping in Cheyenne.

Photo Credit: Reflection: © Thorsten | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Fifty States: Massachusetts to New Jersey

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Continuing my record of impressions of the fifty states, based on a lifelong journey that ended in early October in South Dakota.

Massachusetts: Several trips to Boston, a week trolling around Cape Cod, various stops around the ring road. People may tell you, “Never drive in New York City.” My vote would be “never drive in Boston.” The hassles of triple parking and narrow streets aside, a car is pretty useless in Boston. Between the T and the city’s walkability, what’s the point? Boston is one of the more unique cities in the United States and definitely worth a visit. The mix of modern and colonial may be jarring to some but I found it curiously refreshing. Newbury Street and Faneuil Hall are great places to hang out and shop; The North End is a great place to eat and drink. Fenway Park is worth whatever price you have to pay to get in, particularly if you can snag tickets to a day game. I remember sitting behind third base at Fenway when the early morning overcast cleared and the combination of the brilliant sunshine illuminated the grass and the more traditional uniforms worn by the Sox threw me back to a time when life was simpler in America and everybody talked baseball. Fenway fans know their shit and are effusive and witty conversationalists. The Cape is also worth exploring, from Yarmouth to P-Town, where great bookstores and the cinnamon scent of the Portuguese Bakery await. My gestalt of the rest of Massachusetts is dark green, as I was there in late summer just before the leaves turned.

Michigan: Several trips to the burbs surrounding Detroit. My favorite memory is sitting in the dark in a hotel room watching heat lightning ripple across the sky. My least favorite memory was a near collision while trying to land at the Detroit airport. I did not visit Detroit or any of the other major cities, so I’ll have to go back some day. The Upper Peninsula does not sound like my cup of tea.

Minnesota: Numerous trips (business and pleasure) to Minneapolis; long drives through Western Minnesota. I couldn’t care less about The Mall of America. Minneapolis is an amazing place: amazing because the people seem so happy with their lives despite what has to be the most atrocious weather in the U. S. I’ve been there when it was 4 below and I’ve been there when it was 90 with dripping humidity and everyone still acted like they were in a pretty good mood. Minneapolis has great theatre, is eminently walkable (if you’re dressed for it) and friendly bars. After experiencing severe outrage while watching a baseball game in The Metrodome, I am forever thankful that the Twins have a new ballpark. Western Minnesota is endless farmland and Route U. S. 212 is one of the most boring experiences available to the American traveler.

Mississippi: I took a day trip to Oxford and Tupelo in the early 90’s while doing a training program in Memphis. The first thing I remember is the SPLAT of bugs on my windshield as I crossed the border. As I drove further, the bug goo on the windshield mixed with cotton strands that drifted through the air to form a substance impervious to windshield wipers. I popped by the University and Faulkner’s home (even though I don’t think much of Faulkner). My general impression was one of darkness, not of skin color but of the general ambience. I also stopped in Tupelo (I’d already done Graceland) and remember the oddity of seeing only black and white people: no Asians, Hispanics, Mediterraneans. I wonder if that’s changed over the last twenty years.

Missouri: A few trips to St. Louis, a vacation in Kansas City, drives through the surrounding areas and Southwestern Missouri. I’ll take KC over St. Louis any time. Great museums, great food, fascinating neighborhoods and history. The pain of white flight seems to have hit St. Louis harder than Kansas City, leaving blocks and blocks of semi-abandoned buildings in the core. KC is trying to make downtown a living destination, and while they’re making some progress, the lack of proper public transportation will make this difficult. Southwestern Missouri is famous for fundamentalism and it shows. The place is a drag, but it’s their life and they can live it any way they want as long as they return the favor.

Montana: Drove over to Missoula and spent the night earlier this year. I’ve heard that the further east you go in Montana, the uglier it gets. I can believe it only because Western Montana is breathtakingly beautiful with its thick forests, lakes and mountains. I found the people in Montana to be some of the friendliest I’ve met (so much for gun owners being grumpy and paranoid). Missoula is a pleasant university town with some surprising street art and a pretty good restaurant scene for a city its size. I’d love to go back, even with its limited urbanity. It felt right to be there.

Nebraska: Spent a little time in Omaha and Lincoln while riding on a Greyhound from Chicago to San Francisco. All I remember is cornfields.

Nevada: I think I’ve covered this state pretty comprehensively: Elko, Reno, Carson City, Vegas. Great Basque food in Elko. Reno’s too country-western for my tastes, so I spend most of my time in Las Vegas. I think Las Vegas is the funniest place on the planet; I actually giggle a lot when I’m in Vegas. The grandiosity of the camp, the sheer outrageousness expressed by overdoing everything, the freedom to indulge one’s vices without judgment, the fabulous restaurants . . . Vegas makes me laugh. I’m aided in that mirth by the fact that I am a very conservative gambler.

New Hampshire: I hate the border with Massachusetts, designed as a tax-free shopping haven for overtaxed Bostonians. The rest of the state definitely lives up to its name as The Granite State: mountainous and rocky. The word “taciturn” was probably invented as the adjective of choice for Northern New Englanders. Portsmouth provides a welcome diversion with its Harbour Trail and some semblance of an artistic community.

New Jersey: When they tell me I only have three months to live, I’m going to spend the rest of that time eating in New Jersey diners. I’ve spent time in the urban sections both north and south and needless to say, places like Elizabeth and Camden are godawful. I’ll have to return to see the coastline and Atlantic City, something I won’t mind at all because of the diners!

Photo Credit: © Bazil8 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Fifty States: Hawaii to Maryland

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Continuing my record of impressions of the fifty states, based on a lifelong journey that ended in early October in South Dakota.

Hawaii: My sister lived there for years, but I didn’t bother to go until 2000. I spent a week tooling around Honolulu and the North Shore. In a word: bo-ring. I’ve never been a lay-on-the-beach-sipping-Mai-Tais kind of guy. As someone who finds strolling through Grand Central Station at rush hour a relaxing experience, it’s only natural that I would find tropical locales wanting. The beaches and the mountains were pretty; the food weak; the arts scene non-existent. Not my kind of place. I will say that the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor was a very memorable experience.

Idaho: Three trips, two to Coeur D’Alene and one to Pocatello. The Idaho panhandle is quite beautiful. The white supremacists must have been hiding on my trips because I never saw any indication they existed. Not a lot of diversity in this state, however. Coeur D’Alene is a lovely town that needs to upgrade its restaurant and performing arts scenes. Pocatello has a rather dowdy downtown and stunningly blue skies. I hear Moscow is the place to go for music, so I’ll probably drive over in the next couple of years.

Illinois: Numerous trips to Chicago and environs, plus one drive through Southern Illinois. Chicago is a world unto itself, a vibrant and diverse metropolis with a great big city feel. My first walk through the city happened right after I got out of college and remains one of my favorite memories. I was walking up Michigan Avenue immersing myself in the sights and sounds and people when an old man with a Central European accent noticed my ga-ga expression, stopped and said, “It’s life!” and flung his arm out as if he were introducing me to the city. The Chicago Art Institute is a great museum, and yes, I did Wrigley but I liked Fenway better. Southern Illinois is farmland that has no connection to Chicago except they’re contained by lines on a map.

Indiana: As you may have divined from Ringing True, I spent a lot of time in Evansville—an entire winter, to be exact. I was doing a leadership training program for a company there and wound up living in a cabin on the CEO’s estate from January through March. At the time, my home was in San Francisco, so Evansville was a major culture shock. The one place downtown that served espresso was only open 10 to 2 weekdays. The restaurants were all American bland, even the Italian and Chinese places. What they called sourdough bread was white bread flavored with vinegar. In spite of that, I grew to love the place, a “place that time forgot.” The people were friendly without being excessively demonstrative and liked their uncomplicated lives and predictable schedules with Friday night pizza and beer. The Ohio River approached flood stage while I was there, a pretty impressive display of hydraulic power. Took some side trips to New Harmony and Newburgh; both are very pleasant little towns. The thing I remember most is going to the grocery stores at 7 pm and finding them almost totally deserted. Where were the Hoosiers? At the basketball court, of course! Towards the end of my visit I got tickets to a basketball game, a meaningless matchup between two college teams with losing records who had no chance of going to the Big Dance. That didn’t matter to the Hoosiers—once the referee tossed the ball over the opposing jumpers the place transformed into bedlam. A white-haired grandmother sitting next to me knitting before the game morphed into a screaming demon, shouting at the referees and jumping three feet into the air when her team scored. I am absolutely convinced she would not have hesitated to attack an opposing player with her knitting needles had she been sitting courtside. Basketball is religion to a Hoosier and high school basketball scores are usually the lead story on the late night news.

Iowa: Traversed the state in the 80’s, stopping in Davenport, Iowa City and Des Moines. My overwhelming impression is the color white: white buildings, white people surrounded by corn fields. The best thing that happened to me was meeting one woman who wound up as a pen pal for several years and another who followed me all the way to California to test my sexual prowess.

Kansas: Visited earlier this year, driving through Eastern Kansas. Omnipresent Christianity. Dropped in on Fort Scott and left wondering why they bothered to make it a historical site. Kansas didn’t leave much of an impression and I have no reason to go back at present.

Kentucky: Spent a week in Louisville attending a training course. All I remember is how frigging cold it was and that during my stay, manhole covers kept exploding and flying into the air for some reason.

Louisiana: We vacationed in New Orleans pre-Katrina. I gained five pounds during my stay. New Orleans and Las Vegas are really the only two places in America where people can still let go. The French Quarter is a kick and has excellent shopping. Sure, it’s a bit touristy in spots, but the tourists are having a good time like everyone else. The Garden District, with homes that have somehow survived years of humidity and the unrelenting pressure of tree roots, is a must-see. We cleared the dance floor one night in a Bourbon Street bar while dancing to a cover band doing Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes . . . my love and I get pretty intense on the dance floor. Sort of like fucking with our clothes on, standing up.

Maine: Spent four days in bed & breakfasts on a New England fall trip. Portland is a pretty cool city, but I found the rest of the state wanting in terms of hospitality and warmth. Stayed in Bar Harbor, Ogunquit and another place whose name escapes me. Traveled over from Vermont and New Hampshire and found a town called Rumford that looked lovely from inside the car but once you left your hermetically sealed environment the horrid smell of a paper mill knocked you on your ass.

Maryland: Two visits to Baltimore. The first was part of a D. C. trip; I wanted to see the Orioles. On the second trip, I happened to arrive on a day when the city was the hottest place on the planet. It was extraordinarily frustrating to stand next to the water at Harborview and not feel one scintilla of relief. As such, I don’t have firm impression of either Baltimore or Maryland except I know I will never go there in the summer again.

Photo Credit: © N.l | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Fifty States: Alabama to Georgia

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Without much intention of doing so until I hit #45 (North Carolina), I recently completed a journey stretched out over several years through the fifty states. I saw about half of them thanks to business trips that I often extended to take advantage of the opportunity to make a business trip un-boring. Several others were vacation destinations, and a few fall into the category of “What the hell—,” like traveling to Alaska in January to watch the Super Bowl on television.

I’m happy to report that America is still a very diverse country, despite the same-o, same-o shopping malls everywhere and the irritating über-presence of Wal-Mart. Mississippi is still very different than California which is very different than Indiana and so on.

For the most part, Americans are still friendly people, despite the noise of the political and ideological divides. I found the friendliest people in Montana, Indiana, Alaska and North Carolina; the chilliest in the New England states, Oregon and Washington state.

I live in Washington at the present time, and it certainly isn’t for the social opportunities.

The states where I remember the experiences of greatest natural beauty were California, Montana, Vermont and anywhere in the Midwest during a thunderstorm. That said, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a vacation to “be in nature.” I’ll take big cities over nature any time. I’m passionately interested in how people live, think, feel and choose, and you don’t find that many people in the middle of nowhere (though when you do find people in the middle of nowhere, they are often very unique and interesting).

What follows are my impressions of the states, based on my experience, however limited (although I never counted changing planes as a visit). I spent a lot of time in some states, maybe an afternoon or an evening in others. I’ve seen parts of some states and may very well have missed the best parts. My journey was opportunistic and rarely planned, so there are gaps. I will preface my impressions of each state with a brief summary of the experience so you can take my observations in context.

Often I’ve heard people say things like, “Texas? Yecch!” I don’t think there is a single state in the union that deserves blanket praise or scorn; the states themselves contain varying degrees of diversity. You can’t base your impression of the state of New York based on a weekend in Manhattan any more that you can say that everyone in Texas is a flaming liberal because you spent a few hours in Austin.

I’ll go through the fifty states and the District of Columbia in alphabetical order, 10 per post (this one has 11 because I’ve included D. C.). Here goes!

Alabama: I visited Anniston with a friend on a day trip from Atlanta in 1995. Anniston was the closest city of any historical significance; one of the buses carrying the Freedom Riders was burned back in 1961. We arrived about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and the streets were completely deserted, like the town’s inhabitants had been sucked up by an invisible death ray. Of course, they were all in church. To kill the time we found a flea market outside of town and I bought a pair of rusted wire cutters from a big fat Bubba with three teeth (Pair uh snips? Two bucks!) Afterwards we went back into town and everyone was having iced tea on their front porches, the whites on one side of town and the blacks on the other.

Alaska: An odd combination of events led me to watch the Super Bowl in Anchorage in the dead of winter, 2006. A good friend of mine had blown the whistle on some unethical business people and, as a result, couldn’t find a job anywhere near his home. He wound up throwing everything into a severely abused pickup and rumbled his way to Anchorage to pursue a nursing degree. As it happened, my spouse had a business trip to Anchorage the week after the Super Bowl, so what the hell, let’s do it! I remember flying in over the frozen ocean and thinking we were landing on the moon. We drove through banks of piled-up snow a dozen feet high to our hotel and spent the rest of the first evening strolling through downtown Anchorage admiring ice sculptures. After the Super Bowl, we had a great dinner in a very lively restaurant, and the next day my friend took me down the peninsula to see more of the natural beauty of Alaska. The scale of things is immeasurable there; it’s as if the mountains, the ice and the stillness had all been blown up to ten times their original size. Very friendly, warm, down to earth people who felt like old souls—nothing at all like Sarah Palin.

Arizona: I’ve visited Arizona several times over the years, primarily Phoenix, Tucson and environs. During a two-month stay in Tucson,  9/11 occurred. I remember vividly the haunting stillness of the blue desert sky during the no-fly period. This is why I feel a stronger connection to Tucson than most places; it was home at a time when I had a strong need for home. I’ve been to Phoenix and environs a few times; the most enjoyable trip was going to Spring Training while staying at the Arizona Biltmore, where breakfasts like Mexican Chocolate Waffles make it my favorite breakfast spot in the world. The beauty of Arizona is in the clean lines of the mountain ranges during sunset; it’s as if they were drawn by an exceptionally fine artist with a keen eye for detail. Delightful in winter, dreadful in August (especially during a monsoon), asphalt-melting heat in June. Despite the “mañana” service that is very frustrating to a high-speed city-dweller, I prefer Tucson to Phoenix. Tucson is more friendly and has killer Mexican food in South Tucson.

Arkansas: I drove over from Memphis one afternoon, where I spent the day witnessing the poverty along the Mississippi Delta. Heart-wrenching sights of seven-to-a-shack in ragged clothes, poorly-fed, mostly black. My mother was from Arkansas, so I have some familiarity with the culture, but I probably need to go back and see more of the state to balance a rather unfavorable impression.

California: This is home state, where I lived most of my life until 10 years ago. I grew up in the Bay Area, lived a few years in the Wine Country and eventually settled in San Francisco. California is still my favorite state for its combination of natural and human beauty, to say nothing of its endless diversity. I think I’ve vacationed in all of the vacation spots from San Diego to Tahoe to Mendocino . . . you can do pretty much anything in California (except you have to drive to Vegas to smoke now that the health nazis have taken over the state). The fundamental problem with California is that there are simply too many people there and if 20 million of them decide to leave tomorrow, I’ll be on the first flight home.

Colorado: I’ve taken several trips to Denver and environs. One assignment I had involved following around a pay phone repairman as he attempted to repair all the pay phones that had been vandalized during the All-Star Game at Coors Field. I also watched a game at Coors and it was dreadful to see a batted ball carry so far off the bats of no-talent nobodies. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a strange tension in Colorado, like something is out of alignment. Denver could be a much better city than it is, but has too many rough patches. Why they put the airport a billion miles away from the city is beyond me.

Connecticut: I visited here as part of a New England vacation one autumn and for some reason I can’t remember I traveled along the part that borders Long Island Sound. I thought it was the least remarkable of the New England states and Hartford is the epitome of dull.

Delaware: Dropped in from Philly some time in the 90’s. Spent some time putzing around the countryside and had lunch somewhere in Wilmington. It didn’t leave much of an impression. Felt like a large suburb of Philly.

District of Columbia: Two visits, most recently in 2009. Did all of the sights and museums, all of which are must-see. Horrible weather, moldy carpets on the Metro, nice ball park. Too many government buildings.

Florida: Several trips to Miami and Tampa-St. Pete. Hated the humidity and the corresponding smell. The dominant impression is that Miami is blue and St. Petersburg is pink. Lots of transplants give the place a temporary feel. Great nightlife in Coconut Grove. Tampa has a great airport. No, I haven’t been to Disney World and have no intention of doing so.

Georgia: Several trips to Atlanta and environs. Ate at my first Waffle House outside of Atlanta and used 11 napkins to soak up the grease on my grilled cheese sandwich. Atlanta’s not much; the city center is kind of a drag and the metro area has expanded Silicon Valley style. I took a drive through the country north of Atlanta, which was reasonably pleasant. I do have to say that Georgia has the most beautiful women of all fifty states.

Photo Credit: © Striker77s | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos