Star-aligned cars of sublime mystery

It takes us a good 20 minutes and several wrong turns to find it.  There – just ahead – something shimmers against the cold, grey sky.

We made it.

Entrance to Cadillac Ranch
Entrance to Cadillac Ranch

“I wonder what the ancients were thinking,” I shout over the wind. “What divine purpose this was serving.”

Spray cans are littered all around.  Sal picks up one and gives it a curious shake.

“I don’t know,” he says.

There are a half dozen Americana pilgrims on this sacred ground today, at 10 am on a Saturday in late October.  Our guide book says the cars are aligned in the same configuration as the Great Pyramid of Giza.  I climb on one, rubbing spray paint onto the toe of my shoe.

Its mystery is exceeded only by its sublimity.
Its mystery is exceeded only by its sublimity.

A fellow Route 66 road tripper offers to take our photo for us.  She and her husband are in their fifties or so, bundled up in identical red windbreakers.  They also lived in England for a few years.

“I wasn’t that impressed with Stonehenge,” she says.  “Every time someone came to visit, they made us go back to those rocks.”

“Have you been to Foamhenge in Virginia?” Sal asks.

She laughs.  “No.  I hear there’s a carhenge too.”

We run back to Horatio, panting from the wind and cold and mystery.  Cadillac Ranch, in that unassuming field of yellow grass, leaves us with more questions than answers.

Sal makes his mark at Cadillac Ranch
Sal makes his mark at Cadillac Ranch

Things fall apart

Our road trip is spiraling into chaos.  My cold has morphed into a nasty sinus infection.  Sal’s orderly packing of Horatio – a Tetris-inspired masterpiece – has reshuffled itself into a trashy mess.

car mess
We ran out of room for the maps. They get piled on me most of the time.

We spend precious daylight hours in a fruitless search for the giant blue whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma.  On the way out of town on 44 West, I hear a gut-churning flapping sound on the passenger side.

Sal pulls Horatio to the side of the freeway.  There’s a huge nail in the tire.  Sal attempts a patch with Fix-A-Flat, which ends with more tire flapping and pulling over again.

Within five minutes, an Oklahoma state trooper pulls up behind us.  He helps Sal sort out the assembly of our hydraulic jack and stands to the side, talking Sal through the process.

“Where are you coming from?  All the way from Virginia, hmm?  Well, if you’re driving Route 66, I hope you saw the Totem Pole.”

Ed Galloway's Totem Pole park.  Also on site - his collection of fiddles - dozens of them, unstrung and unplayed, handmade by Mr Galloway from wood around the world.
Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole park. Also on site – his collection of fiddles – dozens of them, unstrung and unplayed, handmade by Mr Galloway from wood around the world.

I assure him we have.

“Did you stop at the KuKu Burger?”

Horatio contemplates this classic Route 66 diner.
Horatio contemplates this classic Route 66 diner.

I assure him we did.

“Now, when you let the car down, ease the pressure off the jack, don’t let it slam down on you.  That’s it.”  He watches Sal install the spare tire and waits until we’re safely on the freeway before going his own way.

“Well, there are worse things than a flat,” I say as  night falls.  “It’s all part of the journey.  What a nice state trooper!”

On the border between Oklahoma and Texas, I awake from a nap to find another state trooper behind us.

“What now?” I ask between sneezes.

Sal pulls over and looks sheepishly into the rear view mirror.

“I think it’s a speeding ticket,” he sighs.

A significantly less jolly state trooper appears at the window.  “License and registration, please.”

I shuffle maps and cups out of the way to get to the glove compartment.

What have we done to displease the road trip spirits?  How can we make it right again?

Perhaps an offering of Beef Jerky?
Perhaps an offering of Beef Jerky?


A Precious Moment

Look, people, I don’t even know what to say about this next stop.  I’m just going to post these photos and do the best I can.

We found it in Carthage, Missouri.  Sal said it would be “awesome.”

Do those little guys look familiar?  Tear-drop eyes, round little faces, minimalist mouths…


It’s the Precious Moments Park & Chapel.  You heard me.  Complete with stained glass windows, angelic fountains, Biblical scenes with these figurines beaming their nose-less goodness on you from on high.  Jesus is standard-looking in all of the scenes.  He’s the only one not “precious moments-y”.  There’s no satisfactory explanation for this.



Is that the….?


The Sistine Chapel, yes.  I don’t even know what to say.

Henry’s Rabbit Ranch, Staunton, Illinois

The flat, sunny roads of Indiana and Illinois are dotted with rounded columns of silos, silver, sharp metal arms of windmills, and red barns.  Bright green, corn-crunching farm monsters eat their way through browning fields.


We pick up the Mother Road at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch, an iconic Route 66 attraction.  The caretaker shuffles his lunch out of the way as we open the door with a jingle.  This neatly trimmed grey-haired man, pressed check shirt and mild air seems out of place among the rusty jumble of old tractor trailers, half buried muscle cars, and live rabbits.



“Well, first things first,” he slides a well-loved guest book for us to sign.  “Where are you coming from?  Travelling Route 66?  Well, our rabbit-greeter, Destiny, is over there is taking a nap.  He’s still young, so he doesn’t sit up here for long without running around.”

There’s a well-worn cushion on the counter, where the designated rabbit-greeter sits.  The Rabbit Man chatters on in a frank Midwest accent, describing the lineage of Destiny and the other 13 rabbits.

“I don’t know if you knew this, but Destiny’s predecessor, Montana, once ran for president,” he says.

“Is that right?” I study the photo of Montana politely.

Rabbits don’t pay the bills, unfortunately.  From the Rabbit Ranch, Rabbit Man also runs a title company, sells insurance, and assists Illinois residents in applying for gun permits.

We peruse the collection of Route 66 memorabilia and well-maintained rabbits, purchase a few items, and donate some pennies to the Montana Memorial Fund.

RIP Montana
RIP Montana


Half-buried cars is a recurring theme on the Mother Road
Half-buried cars is a recurring theme on the Mother Road

“Now, make sure you go around back and see the big jack rabbit,” he advises as we take our leave.


Kentucky Fried Adventure

We turn Horatio to the Blue Ridge Parkway and back roads to close the gap between Virginia and Kentucky.  The Appalachian mountains rise and fall in their autumnal glory as the hours roll sweetly beneath our wheels.  Kentucky is smothered in morning fog; the rolling land dripping in kudzu flattens briefly into blue-green fields dotted with horses and black barns.

We pull into Corbin, Kentucky for a very special lunch stop.

The very first KFC restaurant
The very first KFC restaurant

Lunch at the Harland Saunders Café and Museum isn’t the frantic gobble-fest of a typical fast food stop.  This KFC is slow-paced, reflective, informative.  Artifacts of the Colonel’s slow saunter through history are displayed in glass cases.  Among the treasures are a “rare” Colonel Saunders Halloween mask from the 1960s, red checked tablecloth from the original restaurant, and a Czechoslovakian moose shaving mug that belonged to the Colonel’s father.


Americana at its finest.

And you can count it as a field trip, kids, because it’s an official Historic Place!

Really, Department of the Interior?  Really??
Really, Department of the Interior? Really??
Sal and the Colonel
Sal and the Colonel
Creepy squared.
Creepy squared.

OMG Rome

Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral at the Vatican is an otherworldly experience.  Straight from the hotel, we drop our bags, throw on our wrinkled Sunday best, and slip in just in time for the final service at 17:45.  We are a hushed, small crowd of pilgrims huddled on humble wooden pews, surrounded by absolute magnificence.


My eyes are hypnotized by the altar – a throne sits on a golden plume of smoke or clouds, floating under a mosaic of stained glass with a dove at the center.  As the choir begins to sing, the evening sun shines through the dove, casting a massive beam of light over our heads.  Dust lingers in the sunbeam and the notes linger in the air, then rise into the domed ceiling.


Mass, ever mysterious to me, is mystical through the Bishop’s deep and melodious voice, reverberating through this massive cathedral in Latin and Italian.  I look around the congregation of collared priests, nuns in modest habits, even a sprinkling of monks.

This is where priests and nuns go to church, I think.

“Wow” doesn’t quite cut it.

After the service, the Bishop is gracious enough to allow the crowd to take photos of the altar for a few minutes before closing up.  I look at Sal, who shakes his head.  We forgot our camera.

We come back the next morning and the queue is an endless snake of camera-studded tourists.  It’s a totally different experience in the cathedral.  The altar is darkened and roped off, the air is buzzing with loud voices and peppered with camera flashes instead of melodious Latin and wafting incense.

St Peter's Basilica from the outside looks more like a government building than a cathedral
St Peter’s Basilica from the outside looks more like a government building than a cathedral

We mail a postcard or two from the Vatican post office.  At the Vatican gift shop, I pick up a silver dove necklace to remind me of that stained glass, shining with mystery and loveliness.

Besides, maybe the Pope blesses these necklaces personally.  You never know.

The Basilica is also home to Michelangelo's Pieta, which is one of Sal's favorite sculptures. It's behind glass now, since some fool attacked the Virgin Mary with a hammer or something.
The Basilica is also home to Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is one of Sal’s favorite sculptures. It’s behind glass now, since some fool attacked the Virgin Mary with a hammer or something.
This structure marks the place where St Peter is *maybe* buried
This structure marks the place where St Peter is *maybe* buried

A tiny bite of Switzerland

We emerge from the train station in Lausanne, Switzerland with our bags and hike up a hill of respectable steepness to our hotel.  Dropping our bags on the floor, I rush to the window and throw open the curtains.

lausanne train

Lord, have mercy – Lausanne is drop dead gorgeous!

lausanne centre

Have you ever stepped into a postcard?  Everything – every little thing in Lausanne is beautiful, from the designer people shopping in the sunshine, to the jumble of medieval and modern architecture, to the elegant curve of fountains flowing with cool water.  The fountains are intuitively placed, little rewards for taking the time to explore Lausanne’s back streets and alleys.  We wander up, up, up towards the Notre Dam cathedral and are rewarded with spectacular views of the medieval section.  Our eyes are overwhelmed with cobbled streets, clay tiled roofs, and glimmering magic.

The Notre Dam
The Notre Dam

lausanne street

View from the Notre Dam area
View from the Notre Dam area

One word of caution to the frugal traveler – Lausanne is expensive.  We share fondue meals and buy our chocolate gifts at the grocery store instead of chocolatiers, which are glorious but outside our budget.  I recommend Globus‘ grocery section – great selection of Swiss chocolate.

Champagne fondue makes me want to cry with joy.
Champagne fondue makes me want to cry with joy.

When you’re tired of wandering, the metro is easy, clean, and will take you just about anywhere.  We spend an afternoon in Ouchy, a sweet little beachy area on the lake.  Cupped by the French Alps, the Lake Geneva is so wide, you can squint into the mist-shrouded distance and fancy yourself by the sea.  We play a bit of chess in the square (with knee-high chess pieces) and feast on Earl Grey flavoured ice cream.  Later, a glass of rose in a cafe by the shore.  I hold my glass out, enjoying the contrast of pink wine against the sparkling bluey-green water, dotted with white sails.  A live jazz band plays in the background, the breeze lifts my hair.

What can you do but grin and sigh?

lausanne water

Tour of the deceased in Paris

Our last visit to Paris, we spent 98% of our time in the The Lourve.  This time, I drag my artist companion from his museums to the catacombes de Paris to spend some quality time with France’s deceased.

It’s only 10am and the queue is already wrapped around the park!  I can’t believe how many others want to spend a beautiful summer day gawking at mounds of skulls in Paris’ underbelly.  TWO AND HALF HOURS LATER, we descend into the moist earth, winding our way down, down, down…

Ahead of us is a tunnel glowing with amber light.  I place a palm against the stone – it’s soft, cool, and moist.  The catacombs were first mines, and these stones are the building blocks of Paris.  We pass a science-y section describing the prehistoric significance of the stone and blah blah blah.  Right, where are the skulls?

Apologies for the blurriness.  Most of our photos didn't come out.  I blame ghosts for this.
Apologies for the blurriness. Most of our photos didn’t come out. I blame ghosts for this.

To enter the crypt area, you pass through an appropriately somber stone doorway.   On entering your voice, footsteps, and thoughts fall to a hush.

Skulls, knucklebones, joints, limbs – human remains are the mortar, death is the architecture of this tiny underworld.  Skulls glimmer in the low lighting, are piled in mounds, arranged to form crosses, rings, borders.

There are quotes carved into the walls, from poets, philosophers, and the Bible.  They’re in French, of course, so I can’t understand them, but  I am sure they are somber, appropriate words.

You can’t look for too long, as there are many death tourists with clicking cameras waiting for their turn.  A sign asks us not to touch the skulls.  Who needs to be TOLD these things?  I pass a skull with graffiti on it – someone wrote their initials on the shiny forehead with permanent marker.  Everything in me shudders to see this.

I don’t know what to think of the catacombs.  I don’t know how to feel as I walk past these thousands of people, jumbled all together.

I turn a corner into a tourist-free tunnel.  I call out for Sal, but my voice is muted by the stone walls.  I stand for a minute, waiting.

It’s just me and the skulls.

Nothing creepy happens.  I feel a settled sort of peace, which surprises me.

Later, when I lie in bed, I think about what it would be like to be trapped down there for a night.

I don’t fall asleep for a while.

Berlin, baby

At some point in the aftermath of war and political upheaval, someone clearly took stock of Berlin and said, “Right – let’s re-spin this thing, let’s start fresh and do this right.”  It’s creatively re-designed, with thoughtfulness that makes an urban planner type tear up a little.  The centre is very clean and walkable, with a huge leafy park, wide sidewalks, plentiful public transport.  There are solar panels on top of the bus stops to power the glowing advertisements.  In the Reichstag Building, a huge spiralling funnel covered in 360 mirrors has a tri-focus of inspiring awe, diverting rainwater, and reflecting light for the parliamentary meetings below.

*Photo courtesy of Sal
*Photo courtesy of Sal

The line between west and east Berlin has blurred over the years, but an undertone remains.  The west side centre is chock full of big name shops and is squeaky clean.  East Berlin just over the bridge (near Warschauer Str) is a bit rougher but lovable and has better graffiti.

I could spend some serious time in the Skalitrzerstrasse area, on the river side of the East Side Gallery (a strip of the Berlin Wall left standing and decorated with art).  It’s what the Brick Lane area could be if the hipster was turned down and the artsy turned up.  We have a beautiful burger at Görli Burger and wander into a half-lit hovel called Madame Claude.  It looks closed, but a waft of trip-hop music floating up from the darkened stair beckons us below.

We enter a tiny world of the absurd.  The ceiling’s a floor and vice versa – there are chairs, an umbrella stand, flower pot, and sundries mounted above our heads.  The décor is trip-boutique-grunge…some brown 70s-era eye things dot a wall; around the corner, a forest room; the ladies’ room has no water in the tap.  A very burly man with a big grey beard and a towel over his shoulders wanders around, clutching a bottle.  Some guys are saying the “F” word a lot, sprinkled in boisterous German.

A couple of musicians invite us downstairs for a “concert” of trip-hop music with “colourful sounds”, followed by a burlesque performance.  The music takes a turn towards foreboding  – organ zings and a man demanding “du kam!” or something.  Wind noises.

My beer is called “Lagerbier Hell”.  I’m in Berlin, baby, and I love it.

Yeah, me too.
Yeah, me too.

summer tapas

A long weekend in Madrid is like eating summer in glorious mini bites.

– Sitting under an umbrella, eating ice cream at Llaollao, watching impossibly tanned people walk by in their sparkling flip flops.

– Wandering for hours at night over cobbled, curving streets, stopping outside the illuminated palace, wandering around marble statues of Spanish kings.

– Churros at 3 AM, another round of drinks, laughter, stories deep into the morning.

– A little nap in the thick afternoon, a breeze lifting the curtain, music on the street blending into your siesta dreams.

– Popping into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando for some Picasso sketches and air conditioning.

– Octopus sprinkled in paprika, fried chicken dipped in cheese, charred peppers, chilly rose or a coffee; sitting under an umbrella and watching the amber light fade inside the four brick walls of the Plaza Mayor.

The night never loses its energy.  Rollerbladers roll by, lovers share a kiss, someone shouts and laughs, music wafts by from a guitar player, a lone man on a park bench.  The day is an eternity and the night even longer.  I don’t know how we get it all in, yet feel so unhurried, so bohemian and chill, at the same time.

It must be some Madrid magic.

Octopus is freaking delicious, people!
Octopus is freaking delicious, people!
Plaza de Colón
Plaza de Colón.  *Photo courtesy of Sal.