Friday, September 30, 2011

Ridiculously Belated Road Trip Recap

Holy hell it's been some time. Some time since writing, of course, but also some time a stupidly long time since March. Just to get my writing mood going again I figured I'd finally get around to a recap of what went down during spring break. Mostly I need a break from translating a very rough chapter of the book I'm working on for my thesis. Might as well be somewhat constructive about it... The trip itself was something I personally definitely wanted to do this year, but I will say that it's something I won't be wanting to do again for a while now, at least not at the same harried driving pace. The United States is a very, very large country and it takes close to forever to cross a single state (with the exception of Indiana, bless its little heart). The overall experience was a positive one and I'm glad I did it; I'm also happy I got to see as much as we did. If anything, I can say and recommend to everyone to undertake a similar trip, even if in his or her own country. The States are so varied in topography, geography and climate (the temperature climbed almost 20ºF in one 15-minute portion of our trip through California) that even the boring parts (a.k.a. Nevada and northern Arizona and New Mexico) wind up being something to see and experience. Also, my list of favorite places now includes Colorado and California.
Now, just to be clear, the reason behind the March trip could be boiled down to two things: 1) an accessible car; 2) tacos.
In fact, if I remember correctly, the part of the conversation with my fellow graduate student and (then) future roommate, Emily, leading up to the decision went something like this:
Emily: Man I miss San Francisco. The tacos there are out of this world.
Kaija: I bet! ...Mmm. Tacos...
Emily: Tacos...
Kaija: *a few moments later* ...Wanna drive to California over spring break?
Emily: YES.
And the trip was born.

Friday, March 4
Emily and I head leave the state of New York Friday afternoon. We are excited, energized, in high spirits, and are driven by the prospect of the adventure ahead of us—but mostly by the thought of Californian tacos. Our plan is to reach San Francisco by Monday afternoon. We make it to Columbus, Ohio, in a little over 6h, where Emily is introduced to Caribou Coffee and I am introduced to a scratchy throat. We stay the night at my cousin's house just outside Columbus.

Saturday, March 5
We're on the road by 09.00 Saturday morning. It's raining, generally crappy weather wise, but we are still energetic and clock just over 13h in driving over the course of the day. The drive through the rest of Ohio is uneventful, as is the quite literal sprint across Indiana (probably my favorite state to drive through because it's over in under two hours and makes me feel as if I've accomplished something). Illinois and northern Missouri are an entirely different matter. This part of Missouri is at the tip of the Bible Belt and we see numerous road-side billboards advocating three main topics: Jesus, guns, and babies. We are unanimous in the opinion that this part of America is a scary place—we cannot drive through Missouri fast enough. The only plus is stopping to get gas and hearing some hardcore southern accents, as well as seeing a four-year-old boy in a stetson. The remainder of the drive includes a 45-minute stretch through the south-west corner of Iowa and a slightly confusing lead-in into the city of Lincoln, Nebraska. As a university city, Lincoln turns out to be not as boring as we'd expected it to be.

Sunday, March 6
Our plan to be on the road by 09.00 the next morning is shot when I wake up feeling like death. Even the thought of dragging myself out to the car makes me feel as if I'll pass out; my scratchy throat had happily incubated itself into a full-body, all-encompassing cold. An hour later I manage to get to the car and we hit the road again, but not before one last stop at a Caribou Coffee before we leave the Midwest. The state of Nebraska continues to surprise us. It's not as flat as it's made out to be and has plenty of rolling plains and eye-catching horizons. There's something inherently wholesome about it all. We drive through one area littered with ponds and reservoirs—and literally swarming with birds (which we later learned were pelicans). It would be frightening if it hadn't been so awe-inspiring. Before turning south to head toward Colorado we decide to take a 1.5h detour north to see Chimney Rock—something we and the majority of our friends recognize and know from the computer game "Oregon Trail." The rock itself is not that inspiring, but the historical information and displays in the tiny museum are. We then head back to the main highway, stop to climb a wall of cube-shaped hay bales, then cross into Colorado. The drive into Denver is anticlimactic, but relieving. After around 8h of trip time for the day we find or hotel and learn there may be a nasty blizzard hitting the city by daybreak Monday. We make alternate plans to extend our stay if necessary, citing the pending blizzard as a good reason to hit the slopes the next day and get some mileage out of our snowboards, which—obviously—we had packed along.

Monday, March 7
Monday morning opens to a grand total of ZERO SNOW ANYWHERE in the city of Denver. WTF, weather channel? Additionally, in a surprising turn of events, Emily wakes up feeling like death. Which is odd, as it's not like we'd been sitting in the same enclosed space together for the past three days. An hour later Emily feels up to sitting in the car, but we're still stuck in Denver until almost noon, as all of the roads leading out of the city in all directions are listed on the State Transportation website as iced-over and dangerous. To kill time we find a camera shop and then a coffee shop. A little after noon we finally leave Denver. The first ski resort recommended to us ended up being approximately no where freaking near where Google Maps told us it would be. Instead of boarding we spend an hour or so driving along a narrow, winding hill/mountain-side road. Instead of being annoyed we're amazed at the views, the fog, the forests. Western Colorado is a gobsmackingly beautiful place. An hour later we're at Arapahoe Basin and find a small, semi-secluded ski and board slope. We pay our tickets and get a grand total of 30 minutes to board—turns out all the slopes in Colorado close by 16.00. This is unlike Minnesota or New York, where places are open until at least 23.00, if not 00.00 on weekends. Nonetheless we are okay with being able to say we've boarded in Colorado. The rest of the roads through Colorado are clear and gorgeous; mountains on both sides, the river winding next to the road... We make it to Grand Junction just after dark and plan to stay there because of another potential blizzard on the way. We luck out and are able to stay with some of Emily's relatives for the night. Only 6h of driving today, but we're exhausted.

Tuesday, March 8
A good night's sleep in a real house and a good breakfast later we're ready to head out for Utah. But not before taking several minutes to admire the view from Emily's relatives house—they live by the Mesa, which looks incredibly inviting in the early morning light. But we have bigger fish to fry roads to travel tacos to eat. Utah turns out to be another mind-blowing state topographically and we stop at almost every sightseeing point along the road. In Provo, Utah, we stop and visit with a friend of Emily's, then trek on to Nevada. Which is supposed to be one of the most desolate and boring states to drive through. Ever. Luckily, our Nevada stretch takes place at night, and other than a sense of mystery (it's impossible to see anything off the side of the road and all you're aware of is intermittent inclines and declines) it really does kind of suck. The day's 11h drive ends in Winnemucca, a city that truly fits its name. Especially the "mucca" part of it. At the hotel, I point and laugh at the white pick-up truck I park across from because it's covered in a thick layer of sand and dust.

Wednesday, March 9
Wednesday morning Emily feels a bit sick again, but we want to get the hell out of Winnemucca ASAP and pack up to leave. In the parking lot I stop short—I don't see my car ANYWHERE. I am convinced it has been towed or stolen, until I realize the now greyish-brown car parked across from the dirty white pick-up is mine. I become convinced Nevada is nothing but dust, unfortunate city names, and CSI: Las Vegas. The rest of Nevada no one cares about, until we hit the California border. At the border crossing we declare and are allowed to keep our celery, then make a stop in Tahoe for some fresh air and to stretch our legs. Tahoe is a bit confusing, but very lovely. As are the 10-foot snow banks and face-sized pine cones. We check out a few ski and board shops, get some coffee, and take pictures of a Jeep from Germany and a basset hound in a knit sweater. A few hours later we hit the green part of California and the car rings with sounds not unlike a hyperactive choir of teen-girl angels. We make a quick stop at a rest area to jump up and down and squeal before meeting up with a friend of mine in Alameda for dinner. Afterward we make a quick stop to see San Francisco from the inland side of the bay, then arrive at the condo of more of Emily's relatives. 7h of driving later we're back in a real-house situation and finally at our destination, and only two days later than scheduled. False-alarm blizzards and rampant colds be damned—Taco Mecca, we have arrived.

Thursday, March 10
Thursday begins with dropping my car off at a dealership for its first 10,000 mile check-up (go big or go home). I'm amazed that the VW dealer there had no problems doing the free check-up, considering a) the car is plated in Minnesota and b) we drove from New York. The representative I talk to takes one look at my car through the window and writes "CAR WASH" in thick letters at the bottom of the receipt. Take that, Nevada! The rest of the day is fast-paced, with some light shopping (Emily used to live in San Francisco and wanted to stop at a few places, while I stood around a Crumpler shop practically drooling until I found the ideal messenger bag), meeting up for lunch (tacos) with another of Emily's friends, then a ferry trip to Sausalito, then missing the ferry and being stuck in Sausalito for around 2h, then booking it to Mission Street for a delicious (one of the most delicious, actually) snack (tacos), before Emily went off to spend time and have dinner (tacos) with family and I went to pick up the car before meeting up with some more of my friends in the city for dinner (tacos). I about die of stress from driving in downtown San Francisco, but still filter enough of my surroundings in to know it's a very colorful and exciting place.

Friday, March 11
Friday we wake up and, after breakfast (leftover tacos—duh), immediately have to decide what our course of action will be. We plan to meet up with my friends in Pismo Beach, but may have to rethink or reroute our course due to potential road closings on the coast. News of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan has just reached us, as has information that California's coast is threatened by tidal waves. We stop and have coffee with my cousin not long after leaving San Francisco, stop at a few wineries along the route to start stocking the trunk of the car, and by the time we are within an hour of Pismo my friends call and give the all-clear, saying there is little wave activity on the coast by them. We get to Pismo with enough time to catch a genuine California sunset, then head into Splash Cafe for the area's best clam chowder. We decide to continue on to Bakersfield that night to make up for the time we lost the past few days. The road to Bakersfield is—if possible—even sketchier than the road to Winnemucca, and all we know is we're driving through groves of something.

Saturday, March 12
Bakersfield is uninteresting city wise, but we drive around for a bit blasting a Hispanic mariachi radio station while we look for a post office, where the postal worker rudely reads Emily's postcards without trying to hide the fact (at least wait until your customers are gone, you creeper), then gets confused when he looks at my postcard (suck it, you fool) and sees something other than English or Spanish. The drive out of Bakersfield and east through California is also pretty cool. We find a fantastic fruit and nut depot and pile the car with bags of dried fruit, nuts, and fresh oranges. Crossing the border out of California is a sad moment, but one we quickly turn around by making a random stop in the Mojave to see if our boards work equally well on sand. Since we find gravelly hills sharp with rock and shrubbery, our boards do not, I repeat, do not work well. We drive on to Flagstaff, where we stay the night, missing the chance (and daylight) to make a detour to the Grand Canyon by a few hours. With the exception of a few interesting sandscapes, one of the only good things about Arizona is the fiery, hot-pink sunset, colors I have never before seen in nature. Around 8h of driving today.

Sunday, March 13
The rest of the drive through Arizona is uneventful and boring, and the drive through into New Mexico is like having your teeth pulled by someone who has no idea how to properly anesthetize patients or pull teeth, but is really, really enthusiastic about it nonetheless. We're drained from the knowledge that we've seen and left California, and all we have to look forward to now is the long drive home. Another element making the return trip shitty to the nth degree is Daylight Savings—not only do we lose an hour in general, but with each time zone we cross we lose another hour. Thus, when we roll into Albuquerque around what the clock on the dash says is 01.00 pre-Daylight savings California time, it's actually 03.00. And we cannot. Find. A single. Hotel. With vacancies. Anywhere. Turns out there's some high school division track competition (or something similar or entirely unrelated—high school sports are all the same to me since I graduated high school) and practically every hotel is booked solid for Sunday night. We finally luck out and find a hotel, then find out the only reason they have vacancies is because one of the local teams was disqualified (so sad for you—so when do you serve breakfast?). We are beyond tired and agitated from the horrible things Time itself is doing to us.

Monday, March 14
Seeing as we're in New Mexico, we decide it would only be logical to have tacos and like-foods for a late-ish breakfast. We are wrong. Even though we chose a family-looking restaurant that seems teeming with locals, the food kind of looks and tastes like it was removed from a small cardboard box and placed in a microwave for 2-3 minutes on "High." We make it out of New Mexico, through Amarillo in the nubbin of Texas, and into Oklahoma City by nightfall. We are greeted by incredibly hazy skies, the result of grass fires just outside the city. The drive through Oklahoma City proper is uneventful, and we find a hotel just on the other side and well away from any potential smoke or fire damage.

Tuesday, March 15
Tuesday we push through almost 11h of driving to get to Nashville, Tennessee, where we stay with another of Emily's friends for the night. We decide it's best not to dwell on Arkansas too much—we intended to drive through there as quickly and efficiently as possible, and we were successful in doing so.

Wednesday, March
In the morning we head into the outskirts of downtown Nashville to meet another friend of mine for breakfast at a sweet coffee shop, Fido. Then we hit the road again in time to call in on speaker phone to our Wednesday morning class, which we had intended to be back in time for. Oh well—at least we made the effort. The next 1.5h is spent discussing a book we'd just read with our fellow students back at the university. Except we are put on mute because of the feedback the phone was getting from the car, so we take liberties in going off on our own tangents and shouting at other drivers on the road. We stop in Kentucky at a few wineries and the Jim Beam distillery—where the air smells of sweet, sweet bourbon, and the view is pretty good, too. Though we'd initially planned on making the final stretch home in one day, we are too knackered from the trip as a whole and only make it the 7h to Columbus, where we again stay with my cousin.

Thursday, March
Feeling more slightly more rested, we take our time leaving Columbus, stopping at a Caribou Coffee downtown before driving back north. No other significant stops are made during the day—we just want to get the hell back to our homes already. Which we do.

The end. I also took somewhere around 1500 pictures I think. At least those are the ones I decided to keep.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stone Upon Stone

Oh looky-loo! In between not writing about the 2011 Road Trip and finishing up my first year of graduate school, I hacked out another book review. I'm really starting to enjoy Archipelago Press books, and while 2-2 may not seem like a telling result, it certainly means something to me!

This review was of Polish writer Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone Upon Stone, a fantastic book just under 550 pages long. Here's the beginning of the review:

" It doesn’t take that many pages to figure out that the narrator of Stone Upon Stone is a womanizing, egotistical douche bag. Through a hyperbolic and highly digressive retelling of his life (ironically centered on the construction of a tomb), main man Szymek Pietruszka makes it clear that he is known by all around him as the best drinker, fighter, singer, dancer, ladies’ man—all the men want to be him and all the women want to be with him, etc. etc. But what’s amazing is that as much as Szymek is the type of guy you’d want to elbow hard in the back of the neck “on accident,” you can’t help but feel for and even like him. In just under 600 pages of palpable rural Polish imagery and culture, author Wiesław Myśliwski shows how easy it is to take a man who has seemingly spent his life at the top of his game and break him down piece-by-piece until he has nothing left but himself and the land.

Wiesław Myśliwski (1932- ) is an award winning Polish novelist and playwright whose novels have largely not yet been translated into English (with the exception of Palace [1991, Peter Owen Ltd] and the forthcoming A Treatise on Shelling Beans [2013, Archipelago]). Stone Upon Stone (Polish original published in 1984) has been called Myśliwski’s “grand epic,” and not without reason. In addition to specializing in all things Polish countryside, Myśliwski is a master not only of invoking location, but also of creating characters. The voice of Szymek Pietruszka is so distinct and so unique that it’s almost unreal to think the English translation is, in fact, a translation. That’s not to say it’s been streamlined to fit what could be considered a more “American” ideal or standard for fiction—this book is undeniably European. It’s more like the book was originally written in English."

Click here to read the full review.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How it Feels

Since words have no place, this is an approximation of what it feels like to have completed and survived my first year of graduate school:

Wide open, expansive, free, overly pink like cotton candy and, yes, even a little fluffy.

I don't normally process or edit anything this...rosy, but it's what seemed the best at the moment. I could jump on a million trampolines for a million years, run a million miles, somersault down a million hills--fair enough, that sounds like a triathlon for people dressed in the latest trends in straight jackets--but it just feels pretty damn good. And I didn't screw up once!