Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Midwestern Landscapes

Yesterday, Matador Nights published my scorecard for the breweries and bars Carey and I hit on our Midwestern road trip this month. But there was more to the drive than towns and cities and beers. Here are some different views:

Sunrise Point, Mt. Nebo State Park, AR. Nebo is a 1350ft tabletop with cooler temps and fewer mosquitoes than the Arkansas River valley below. The development of the state park was largely a CCC project. There's also a Sunset Point, but I liked this one better--no one else came out for the pre-6am sunrise.

Shore of Lake Michigan, Kohler-Andrae State Park, Sheboygan, WI. There's little difference in appearance between the Great Lakes and the ocean. They are massive.

Badlands National Park, SD. There was a moment on the road in Badlands--we had some cloud cover, the tan, orange, and ocher bands of eroded rock contrasting with the deep green of the prairie grass--when I thought this landscape was the most beautiful I've seen in America. This shot was taken on a trail just east of the visitors center.

Brownstone Falls, Copper Falls State Park, WI. We hiked the Doughboy's Trail (another CCC project), with views of two falls and two bridge crossings of the Bad River.

North Unit, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND. My new answer to anyone who talks shit about North Dakota. There are two units to the park, both contained within the much larger Little Missouri National Grassland and both protecting eroded-butte river valleys of the Little Missouri.

Buffalo Gap Campground, Little Missouri National Grassland, ND. Just down the Interstate from the town of Medora and the entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Highway 14A through Spearfish Canyon, Black Hills National Forest, SD. Regrettably, this shot was the best I got, as we really only drove through the Black Hills. Looking back, that was a big mistake.

Mountain biker in Badlands National Park. Another shot from the park, this one farther west and at higher elevation along the Loop Road.

Shore of Lake Superior, Ashland, WI. There wasn't much going on in Ashland, but sunset over Chequamegon Bay made up for it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Notes from American Roads

27, northern NE, midday, overcast, windy
There are no cars on Highway 27, from Pine Ridge into the Sand Hills. The road is thin and bobs with the hills. The only traveler on Highway 27 is a heavy cow. She has left the pasture and is walking, legally, down the oncoming shoulder. She swings her face toward us, an expression maybe of hesitance, apprehension in a human face, turns and continues south.

41, southwestern Arkansas, evening
I'm alone. I've been driving all day. I have listened to the news, listened to songs, kept singing the songs when the songs were done, sometimes just bass lines, guitar riffs. The sun has finally sunk far enough that there's only a daylit glow.

It's another song coming on that does it, probably Portishead, probably Roads, but I start thinking about death.

And I get that feeling like I usually do, that same feeling as when I close my eyes underwater and just float, a kind of pin-prick wave that washes through my face, every time I think, I mean think what it really means:


The Ouachita Mountains are gray forms building on the horizon to the north. I have an hour or two more of sun to find camp.

River Terrace Park, Monticello, MN, dusk
It is a spring and summer of floods. "Any site 'cept down by the river, ground's still too wet there to pitch a tent."

The old man's pickup is plastered with big letters: "Obama's plan for America is high taxes and socialism" or something. I hold myself awkwardly and feel very "city folk."

We pitch on wet grass by the playground, close enough to the Mississippi to see its flow. It's fast.

There's not much for kindling, but then we notice the drifts of tree pollen against the border of grass and pavement. It's dry, and we throw it on the fire and watch it spark and the light pick up like we'd flicked a switch.

146, East Cape Girardeau, IL, early afternoon, sun
The Mississippi runs inland for a mile or more on the IL side, covering the low ground, an elevation differential lost other times, but now clearly lined out by wet and dry, murky pools pushing at foundational rises of gas stations and barbershops. Sandbags, too. It feels like disaster tourism, but I keep looking and I'm glad I'm here.

Minot, ND, afternoon, partly cloudy
Minot is the Magic City. We drive by the zoo and it's closed, mounds of dead wood, leaves, and plastic marking the flood reach of the Souris River, probably not more than a week old. Later in the month, I'll wake up at home and hear that Minot is under 15 feet of water.

127, southern IL, getting on to evening, humid
Dips and rises in the highway, each dip a stream and a stand of trees, each stand of trees broadcasting the high-decibel screech of brood XIX cicadas. A noise that has made people insane. I cannot see their red eyes and wings, but I know there are millions.

I drive with the windows down b/c there's no AC and it's always better with the windows down, even though it lets the humidity in and my skin is buttered with oil and salt, and the western sun burns my arm hanging out the window. I drive with the windows down and the cicadas are almost loud enough to cover the radio.

2, western ND, early afternoon, hot
A ways past Minot, North Dakota farm country turns hilly, amassed green bumps topped with grayish-white weathered stones. It looks like Britain, without the sheep.

We listen to a podcast about psychedelics, about new scientific experiments. Terminal cancer patients were dosed with psilocybin. They listened to music, they cried. They went home and talked with their mothers and lovers and friends. They came back to debrief, said how it made them feel that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY. Months later, they died.

We listen in silence.

155, E Texas, afternoon, bright
I am hours into my road trip. The sun is still high but starting to shift southwest. There's a farm on the right of the road, two horses halfway up a little slope. They're facing each other, standing shoulder to shoulder. Necks pigtailed together.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Food Revolts, Argentina

I did not like the food in Argentina.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I was ill prepared.

I did not expect to find spice eschewed to the point that black pepper is unavailable at most restaurants. I did not realize the Italian heritage of Buenos Aires would manifest as freezer gnocchi and the worst pizza in the world. I did not think a country with a 5,000km coastline would neglect seafood, or that the steaks I ate would, rather than "blowing my mind," be indistinguishable from the meat I occasionally consume in the States (disclaimer: I am not the best judge of steak). I did not know most baked goods would be either sickly sweet or stuffed with deli ham.

Why was I ill prepared?

There is a hype on Argentine cuisine. It is prevalent among foreign travelers in South America. "The food is awesome." "The steak is amazing." This is repeated by backpackers both coming from and heading to Argentina. Within the tourist-trail culture of the continent, it is common knowledge.

I bought in. I was disappointed.

In one silly way, this disappointment made me feel superior. It was fun to imagine myself the minority, the underdog, the holder of on-the-ground, unadulterated TRUTH, standing with objectivity against a horde of hype and hyperbole.

But feeling superior also made me feel like an asshole. And my disappointment put me at odds with my friends. It made me question my tastes, worry that maybe I was, to quote a comment from one of my Matador articles, "some sort of nerd that just hates normal stuff." Worse, it made me question why I had come to Argentina at all, and whether I had any right to be there.

Over the last few weeks, I learned I am not the only normal-hating nerd out there. Andrea and John of inspiringtravellers.com and Ayngelina of Bacon is Magic recently rated Argentine food a "meh." This is the only negativity I have seen the travel blog world bestow on Argentine cuisine (with the exception of Tom Gates' pizza, of course).

Why are these posts appearing now? Is the hype thinning? Is there a food revolt sparking among travelers in Argentina? Are nerds multiplying?

I don't know.

When I read these posts, I say FINALLY out loud. But then I feel that same urge of dissent, that pride of the underdog, pulling me towards an about-face. Not a full 180...the truth is, though, I didn't hate 100% of the things I put in my stomach in Argentina.

So in the interest of honesty--and maybe a little guilt--after several paragraphs of cuisine-culture bashing, I've come to a very different focus with this post: what I enjoyed, food-wise, during my months in Buenos Aires. Some of it is even Argentine.

* medialunas and mate - Most afternoons, my wife and I would leave our 10th-floor apartment with a termo and a canister of mate, walk to the corner bakery and pick up a pair of medialunas, and continue to Bosque de Palermo where we'd eat and drink by the pond. The sweet glaze of the croissant was cut nicely by the bitterness of the unfiltered tea.
* Barrio Chino - Once I discovered you can buy Mexican salsa at the grocery stores in Chinatown, my outlook on BsAs started improving. Some of the Asian restaurants here are good too. There's also a Koreatown around Carabobo south of 25 de Mayo.
* animal guts - Americans are a world minority in that we forgo the non-flesh parts of our meat animals. The oily, acrid smell and taste of intestines is the only way in which the Argentine parrilla reminded me of the Korean 고깃집. Sweetbreads was a new favorite for me.
* random (non-buffet) veggie restaurants - There were a few: Bio comes to mind, as does Buenos Aires Verde.