On the road again

The road beckons.  We bid family adios and turn Horatio’s nose north, picking up the Mother Road in Amarillo, Texas.  Dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch is ridiculous and absolutely necessary if you’re ever in Amarillo riding Route 66.

It's literally too big for my camera.

It’s literally too big for my camera.

Why?  Three reasons:

1. The vittles 

The food, though pricey, is downright delicious.

texas vittles

If you have a notion, you can step up to the 72-ounce steak challenge – if you can eat it in one sitting under an hour (plus side items), you get it free!

2. Practice your shootin’

While you wait for a table, you can shoot some stuff.

shootin

3. Show off your new boots

Nothing says “cowgirl” like a chair with horns on it.  Yee-haw!

chair with boots

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?

 

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.

SAM_3025

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.

Eclectic East Coast Eats

It’s easy to eat your way through 3,000 miles of Big Macs and Starbucks lattes.  But the road less traveled has much to offer the road tripper in gastronomic treasures and oddities.  As we trek across the U.S.A., I’ll share with you some diners and cafés worth a detour.

Paper Moon Diner, West Baltimore, Maryland

Paper Moon ain’t a diner, it’s an acid trip with hamburgers.   I don’t know what I love more about this place – the bizarrely artsy decor or the bizarrely delicious menu choices.

PaperMoon2

Only a tiny slice of the crazy. A respectable collection of Pez dispensers. Baby doll parts, Legos, army men – all of your favorite toys deconstructed and rearranged to form a nightmarish fun house.

They have BACON SHAKES, people.  Yes, you heard me — a milkshake flavored with freaking BACON.

PaperMoon8

We order the crab mac & cheese, a beautiful chicken salad, moonburger with cheese, and sweet potato fries.  The sweet potato fries are crispy pillows of pure delight.  Burger is juicy and perfect, everything is lovely.  While the prices are a bit high for diner food (about $9 – $11 for a burger), the atmosphere, service, and experience is well worth it.

PaperMoon3

 

New York Pizza, Vinton, Virginia

New York Pizza is a local treasure of my beloved Southwest Virginia – we make a pit stop in sleepy, sweet Vinton just for this restaurant.  Why?  Two reasons: the best pizza in a 100 mile radius, and the enormous plaster Jesus welcoming us with open arms in the parking lot.

ny pizza2

Prices are decent, the vibe is jukebox-casual, and the booths are teeming with locals in baseball caps sipping on Coke and Budweiser.  On nice days, you can sit on picnic tables shaded by grape vines.  Ahh…just like Italy.  Or, New York.  Whatever.  Just go with it.

ny pizza1

Pizza and Jesus.  Why ever not?

Does McDonald’s welcome you like this?  No it doesn’t.

Europe Farwell Tour Day 4: In which I ingest a questionable substance in Amsterdam

Yes, the rumours about Amsterdam are true.  The “coffeeshops” dotted on every corner heave with partakers from morning to late.  Pot smoke doesn’t just waft, it penetrates everything – by dinnertime, you are breathing about 40% air and 60% second hand pot smoke.  And the infamous Red Light District?  As it sounds – a square of several blocks teaming with sex shops, coffeeshops, and yes, ladies beckoning from red backlit windows.

It strikes me that I am the wrong demographic for Amsterdam.  I don’t care, I love it.  Wander along the canals, shimmering with golden lamplight, and try not to fall in love with this city.  No house or building is alike, and they lean whimsically – as if the city arched its spine and the buildings shifted to and fro like disjointed vertebrae.  It’s something to do with the foundations, having first been built of wood, then re-poured with cement.

Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.

Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.

We stop for tea in the courtyard of Hofje Wijs – a charming café on Zeedijk with a respectable selection of teas and coffees.

SAM_1947

Of course, the menu’s in Dutch but sprinkled with English.  White…red…green…even ‘blue tea’!  Never heard of that, let’s give it a whirl…I order something called “Opium Hill”.  Sal raises an eyebrow.

“You want to ask what’s in it?” he mummers.

“No, I’m just going to try it.”

The tea comes out in a lovely metal pot, decorated in leaves that look like…marijuana.

“Um…”  Sal nudges me, “you sure you don’t want to ask?”

I pour a bit into the teacup.  It has a golden colour – not blue at all.  I take a cautious sniff.  It smells like tea.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say with confidence I no longer feel.  “Besides, I don’t think you drink weed.”

Sal disagrees and we debate this quietly.  “They put it in brownies.  You eat brownies,” he argues.

I raise the lid of the pot.  “It looks like tea.”

He laughs, “It’s leaves!  What else is it going to look like?”

“Maybe there’s weed in your beer,” I jeer.  He’s drinking a very benign-looking beer, golden with a silky foam on the top.

I take a tiny sip – it has a light, buttery taste.  “It tastes like tea.”

Well, the only thing to do now…is wait.

Look closely at the teapot...

Look closely at the teapot…

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.