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NEW BOOK OUT TODAY: Gas, Food, Wifi

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Last summer, I picked up a car in Los Angeles and drove 4,000 miles in two weeks, an epic loop out Route 66 as far as Texas, and then back up and over through Colorado and Utah and Nevada. I went to the Grand Canyon and the Cadillac Ranch and drove the Loneliest Road In America. I was determined to find out if you could find America, or at least have a great, epic American roadtrip inside of a two-week vacation.

I started writing about it just as an email to friends, then it was a blog post, then it was an essay…and almost 40k words later, I realized it was an book…which is out today!

You can buy the book, learn more, listen to a playlist or see photographs.

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Ottermania: Visiting Monterey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium

“I think I saw an otter!” I said, as we crossed over a bridge near Elkhorn Slough, on our way into Monterey. My significant other nodded indulgently. “No, seriously, I’m not making this up,” I insisted. But how would I know? It’s not like I run into otters every day or had ever seen one in the wild. But this is exactly why we were headed to Monterey.

I don’t know how I started watching sea otter videos on YouTube. It was probably just one of those links that someone put on Facebook or Twitter–”Hey, this is cute, check it out.” It definitely wasn’t from my childhood, because I never held an opinion about otters prior to the advent of readily available video on the internet. At this point, though, I’ve watched otters fostered in people’s houses and baby otters being blow dried and otters being rescued and otters doing tricks. I’ve watched people whose only job seems to be snuggling otters, otters in bathtubs, otters floating around in the ocean.

At this point, if someone I know sends me an otter video link, chances are high that I’ve already seen it. It’s relaxing. It’s cute. It’s enjoyable. It is something I am not ever going to see in the course of my day to day life, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Let’s face it: there are days where I consider myself lucky to encounter a patch of grass. (The W Hotel on Union Square used to have planters outside with small circles of green grass, and I’d detour out of my way just so I could run my hand across it.) I know, I am a tough city lady who eats gravel for breakfast and fights the dragons of the New York City subway daily. But I love these little, fuzzy otters, dammit, and they are the best stress relief ever invented.

Many of those videos originated from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, who has a world-renown sea otter program since 1984. And that’s probably when I discovered that they had a live webcam pointed at their sea otter enclosure. At this point, all I have to do is type “Monterey..” into any web browser on any computer or device that I own and it will take me to the live otter web cam page. I’ve watched them swim and play with ice and dive in and out of the round pool I started calling the ‘hot tub’. I’ve watched the daily otter enrichment activities so often that I can recite the docent’s talk almost by heart. Some people watch cats, some people watch stupid human tricks…I watch sea otters.

So when we were planning a southwestern roadtrip for this spring, and I realized we would be within shouting distance of Monterey, there was no way we weren’t going to visit the otters. I know that Monterey is a beautiful and historical city and luckily, I already visited when I was a teenager and dutifully did my John Steinbeck tourism then. Because we arrived around 11am, dumped our stuff at the hotel next to the aquarium, and went directly there, with enormous excitement and anticipation. I was going to see the otters!

The only day we could fit the aquarium in on this trip was a Saturday. I knew this likely meant we would be sharing it with thousands of people and a gazillion families and small children. So there were a couple of lines of defense: First, I bought tickets in advance on the internet, anticipating a lengthy Saturday morning line (and was 100% correct there). Second, we ate lunch at the sit-down restaurant and not in the self-service cafeteria. Third, I booked a private tour of the aquarium, which navigated us behind-the-scenes and got us around most of the enormous crowds. (It also provided the opportunity to ask as many questions as I wanted about the otters or anything else.)

But first, before I visited the exhibitions or watched a documentary or went to the gift shop to peruse otter merchandise (and there is A LOT of this in Monterey), I had to go say hello to the otters.

The otter enclosure is two floors, enclosed, with the opening on the roof deck which is only open to the trainers and staff. The view from the webcam is from above, but I quickly oriented myself to the fake rocks and the hot tub and the otters–now swimming around on the other side of the glass from me. Abby, Gidget, Rosa, and Kit (all named after Steinbeck characters!) were there, floating on their backs, diving down into the tank, hauling themselves out on the rocks, bumping into each other. I could honestly have stayed at the otter tank all day, and it’s a good thing there isn’t anything to sit on anywhere nearby or I wouldn’t have left. (I am sure this is deliberate, because I am positive I am not the only one who feels this way.)

My first impression was that they were so much bigger than I expected. This is probably because many of the videos online are of the tiny adorably fuzzy baby or younger otters. But grown otters are about 55 pounds, so we’re talking dog-sized. And these things move fast, for a 55 lb mammal with a fur coat on their backs. But they did not disappoint in person.

Then, we headed for the restaurant. I know, there are dozens of great restaurants in Monterey, but heading to one of them would have involved leaving the aquarium (and the otters) and the subsequent loss of time in the aquarium (and the otters). So we opted to eat inside the aquarium, and that ended up being a great decision. We eschewed the self-service cafeteria for the civilized sit-down section, which had less screaming children. The food and service were great, and I didn’t feel like I was paying a lot of money for crappy food just to be able to not have to leave the building.

But the real wonder is that the restaurant overlooks Monterey Bay–the aquarium is housed in an old cannery building–and when you are seated, the hostess notes the binoculars that are helpfully placed on your table. Before you think this is a cute gimmick, I will point out that we saw at least a dozen otters swimming and diving outside while we ate, and the helpful reference card attached to the binoculars noted sea birds and other animals–like whales!–that you could see while dining.

The next stop was the theater for their showing of “Luna, An Otter’s Story.” Before you snicker, the audience was split 60/40 between adults and children. But this isn’t the kind of video presentation you’d expect; instead, it’s presented with the lights on by a live narrator (an aquarium volunteer, all of whom were smart and friendly), who asked questions to engage the younger audience members and provided enough data points to engage those of us over the age of 12. I had seen much of the footage in the documentary “Otter 501,” which shows up on PBS from time to time, and is also available on YouTube. It gives the non-marine biologist a solid grounding on the history of sea otter conservation and the Aquarium’s role in it. (I could write a whole post just about the documentary, so just go watch it if you care about otters at all.)

After the screening, we quickly returned to the otter tank in order to get a good spot for the 1:30 otter enrichment. The best spot is one on the very edge, because the aquarium staffer who narrates the event will ask tall people to allow short people to get in front of them, and if you’re on the edge, you’ll have a good spot but not have to move. It will be mobbed, and there are screens, and honestly, I think the webcam gives you a better view of the feedings. It was a lot more fun to let the crowds die down and then watch the otters get back to being themselves, for lack of a better term.

You know how they say that watching fish is relaxing? Watching otters swim is relaxing times infinity.

Once the otter session was over, we visited the penguins (who mostly seemed annoyed at the enormous crowds gathered around their enclosure) and viewed some other exhibits, before returning to the entrance to meet up with the tour guide for our private tour. Now, private tours are not cheap, but you get your own tour guide and you can bring up to six people. I’ll be totally honest: I booked this because I wanted to be able to get as much otter information as I could, so when called to reserve the tour, I asked for an “otter focus,” understanding from the various documentaries that that didn’t mean I was going to get to play with the otters, as much as I might like to.

I can’t begin to stress enough how this tour was worth every penny. We saw every highlight of the aquarium and then some, both behind the scenes and in front of the tanks. Unintentionally, this was the best possible strategy on a busy summer Saturday, as the tour routed us around the crowds and away from the masses. Joe, our tour guide, was able to answer every single question we had about otters, the aquarium, otter conservation, and was an absolutely endless font of information about marine life and the aquarium and its exhibits for two and a half hours. We saw the kelp forest repeatedly, because of its importance to the aquarium and the otters especially, the deep sea exhibit, the special exhibits, the jellyfish, the octopus, the hands-on exhibits. There was literally no corner of the aquarium that we didn’t visit. I didn’t think I cared about jellyfish, but Joe coaxed me into touching one gently. There was the bucket we walked by that read “TENTACLES”. And, there was a brief, quiet tiptoe past the otter rehabilitation tanks.

By the time we were done, all I wanted to do was get a drink and sit down for a few minutes…before returning to the otter tank one more time. It was the end of the day so it was easy to walk between levels and between windows and get maximum views of the otters as they swam and floated and played and hauled out on the ‘rocks’. I would have stayed there until they kicked me out, except that I needed to get to the gift shop before it closed. There are otter shirts and earrings and pens and mugs and posters and pretty much everything you could possibly need or want from a marine mammal merchandise perspective. (And, if the aquarium doesn’t have anything to your liking, there’s a tourist t-shirt shop just down the street on Cannery Row that has even more items, including a great shirt that said “Hairy Otter” with an otter wearing glasses, as well as one reading “Plays Well With Otters” which, unfortunately, was not available in adult sizes.)

When we finally left the aquarium and returned to our room at the Intercontinental (which is, quite literally, right next door), there was a stuffed otter waiting for us on our pillow, available for purchase, with proceeds going to the aquarium.

The next morning, we woke up ridiculously early on a cold and foggy Sunday morning to head north to Elkhorn Slough in order to go kayaking. There are kayaking opportunities right in Monterey Bay, but Elkhorn Slough is a protected coastal wetland, providing more chances to actually see otters, and also not quite as intimidating a body of water as the bay to non-kayakers. I had kayaked before many times, but a very long time ago, and the SO had zero kayaking experience, and so we joined a tour led by Monterey Bay Kayaks.

There were just four other people in our group, and we were in the water by 9am, dragging our kayaks into the slough under the watchful eye of a giant group of seals. Two minutes later we were floating adjacent to a raft of male otters–our guide called it “a big otter bachelor party,” and we watched them swim and play and one floated right by, cracking open their breakfast on a rock on their chest. We saw three rafts of otters (a group of otters is actually called a raft), two baby otters, and countless seals and sea lions, all right there, in front of us, hanging out and doing their thing. Again, to a city girl, this was like paddling around in a National Geographic special, and when sea water splashed on my face, I didn’t immediately panic or worry about where I could get a tetanus shot, the way I would if East River water came within an inch of my skin.

Given that the slough is an estuarine reserve, there are rules in order to protect the animals that live there. You can’t come too close, you can’t ‘harass’ them, you can’t make them nervous, you can’t encourage them to climb on your boat or feed them. The guide was awesome and an endless font of knowledge on the marine life and ecosystem, and did a solid job in making sure we were close enough to see things but not so close as to make the animals feel threatened. We paddled for three miles and it was worth every second of it, even if the last pass through two boat docks absolutely covered in seals and sea lions barking loudly was a little unnerving, but still all kinds of awesome. I’ll take my chances against the seals vs. a subway rat any day, and despite fog and chilly water and kayaking skill deficiency, I was happier in the kayak than I would have been stuck in a tour group on a larger boat, which is your other option to tour Elkhorn Slough.

Monterey isn’t that far away from points of interest in California, and it’s not like I won’t ever be back, but I’m still glad I planned and went for Maximum Otter in this one trip. The aquarium is amazing and is, as they say, worth a detour if you’re heading for the Pacific Coast Highway or are hanging out in Northern California, even if you’re not an otter groupie like me.

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Drive All Night

Ever since I read about Bruce Springsteen flying out to Utah, buying a car, and driving around in the desert to take photographs with Eric Meola, I wanted to do the same thing. And then as those photos became iconic, I always wanted to visit those locations myself. I wasn’t nuts about the idea of sleeping on the hood of the car in a small town in the desert (as the legend goes), but the idea of just showing up somewhere and driving around to see what was there was undeniably attractive. I wanted to see the same things that artists I respected were inspired by.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve driven cross-country three times and been through the Utah desert and Badlands and seen a lot of the States (and the rest of the world). But that trip through Utah and the desert still loomed large in my legend. This would be stoked by the release of the Promise box set, and then Streets of Fire, Eric Meola’s most recent book of photographs. I promised myself that one day I would sit down and put it all together and try to plot out their itinerary.

That day arrived earlier this winter as I began pondering a plan for a roadtrip of my own.

Bruce and Eric started in Salt Lake City, and drove across 80 to Reno. So most of the iconic locations of these images are actually in Nevada and not in Utah, as I originally had in my mind from the bits and pieces that had been told in stories over the years. I am not going to take you through my entire research process, but just some of the highlights:

1) VALMY AUTO COURT

This has been replaced by Valmy Station – click on this link and use street view to see what it looks like today.

How do I know it’s the same place? I looked up the addresses of both the old and the new one and they are identical.

Here’s another great image of the building in the 80s, in daylight and in color, not long before they tore it down.

2) BRENDA’S CAFE

I did a lot of Googling and found a city (Lovelock, NV) and the city fit in with the basic routing of the trip. The city helped me find this photo, which gave me more context than the nighttime one taken by Meola.

So now that I knew what it looked like, I needed to somehow find an old address record. In the course of my relentless online research, I found a comment thread under a photograph in which someone who claimed to be the daughter of the original owner of Brenda’s Cafe commented that it was now a Mexican restaurant.

Then, I looked up Mexican restaurants in Lovelock, NV and using Google Street View, compared these two photos with every address until I found this location.

(You are either very impressed at this point or very frightened.)

3) THUNDER MOUNTAIN

“Along the highway there was this house….that this Indian had built from stuff he´d scavenged off the desert and out in front he had this big picture of Geronimo and over on top it said ‘Landlord’ and he had another sign, this big white sign painted in red, it said, ‘This is the land of peace, love, justice and no mercy’…it pointed down this little dirt road that said ‘Thunder Road.'”

Yep, that’s the place.

I’ve spent enough hours looking at modern photos of the place to be certain that none of the signs still exist (there was a big fire at some point), or I’d have found a way to add it to the itinerary.

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Those were the highlights. Some of the other locations, like roads with mountains in the background, were too nebulous for me to try to locate (of course I say this as the woman who trekked out through Death Valley to see a dead tree). The specific wedding chapels in Reno that Bruce posed in front of are long gone. Mark Twain’s cabin and the one room schoolhouse are reduced to boards barely holding onto each other. And some of it, you know, should be left to magic and luck and a moment. If nothing else, the research was absolutely fascinating and inspired me to put my own roadtrip together, combining many of the same elements, Route 66 and The Americans and The Grapes of Wrath and On The Road, and, just maybe, a little darkness on the edge of town.

Watch this space.

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Travel report: Omaha & Kansas City

Downtown KC

We flew the day before the show, because these days I just do not trust flying the day of the show, and overnighted in Kansas City near the airport. I started feeling flu-ish while sitting at LGA, and all I wanted to do when we arrived was go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep. We hit Waffle House and then Target in the morning (where I stocked up with about 4 different kinds of Vitamin C products, as well as drinks and snacks) before getting on the road. There was nothing exciting about the drive from KC up to Omaha up 29, a route I am familiar with from a cross-country drive in 2003. It was hot and bleak in the summer and it was grey and bleak but not cold, thankfully. (The weather the entire trip was an absolute blessing. It could have been frigid or wet and frigid and it was close to 60 most days.)

There is literally nothing on 29 between Omaha and KC. No interesting local food, no odd roadside attraction, no old diner or historical marker that is worth a stop — I looked. Yes, the Pony Express originated in St. Joseph but there was nothing kitschy or remarkable about the place that made it worth budgeting a stop in either direction. I was consuming massive hits of Vitamin C every hour on the hour; psychosomatic or not, it felt like it helped.

Omaha was predictably tiny (she says, as a snobbish big city person). We stayed downtown near the arena because it was what was available with hotel points. There were brass buffalo statues across the street from the hotel; we got there early enough, and it was nice enough (almost 60 degrees!), to warrant walking to the old market area. But the one route we took — the officially signposted route — was kind of deserted, in that “people are working in these tall office buildings but outside of lunchtime these streets are kind of empty, except for various loitering groups of unsavory folk” way. (Downtown Seattle used to be like that in the mid-90’s.)  There were multiple old office buildings with condo or loft conversion signs posted on them, which will do a lot to revitalize things; I am a big fan of adaptive reuse.

"I'm in effing OMAHA.  Look, a buffalo"

On the way to the old market, we stumbled onto a beautiful old art deco hotel. Just when I was about to go in and gawk at the glittery, tiny lobby, we saw people we recognized heading towards the entrance and beat a hasty retreat; I did not come to Omaha to stalk the E Street Band, even unintentionally, and the lobby was too small to hang out and not feel like a stalker.

The old market area was cute and had interesting shops and restaurants in multiples. (If you just relied on Chowhound, you would think that there were only two worthwhile restaurants in the city.) I had randomly picked a lunch destination just by looking around the map, but en route, we were entranced by the specials on a Tex-Mex place called Stokes Bar & Grill and decided to go in there instead. It was empty and pleasant and the food was interesting and delicious. I especially appreciated that while every 5th or 6th song on the PA was Springsteen, it was not your standard blasting-Glory-Days routine that most places go for on show day, the choices were more thoughtful.

On the way back we hit two record stores, Drastic Plastic (which had a great name and fun t-shirts but not much more than that) and Homer’s, right across the street, which had a great selection of used and new CD’s and used vinyl. We did a little damage there, and felt like we had contributed appropriately to the local economy.

It was quite a novelty to be able to walk to the venue. I enjoy taking public transportation to shows, but it is rare that I get to actually walk there. It reduces stress at such an exponential level I wonder why I do not do this more often. (It was a reason I would have paid extra for a hotel near Hyde Park had it been difficult to find one, because I did not want to add transit stress to a very long day.)

Post-show food is always a problem. We try to eat a late lunch and carry snacks but GA makes food difficult. What we define as “late” is not what the rest of America defines as “late”. Short of getting into the car and heading to a Perkins or a Denny’s on the outskirts of town, we were coming up empty handed until I found the Localmotive food truck, which parks in the Old Market and is open until 2:30am, and prides itself on sourcing local ingredients. Frankly, they could have deep fried everything, we would have been happy to have it. Post-show, we beat a frigid and rapid path to the food truck (unintentionally through what is downtown Omaha’s great scenic viewpoint) and waited in a brief line with drunk people (who suddenly lost the ability to read a signboard and order food in an efficient manner) before doing the same back to the hotel.

Scenic downtown Omaha LOL

This was my first real trip to Omaha (I’d only driven through before), and so I couldn’t leave the city without making a trip to the Saddle Creek Shop to pick up a Desaparacidos shirt (since the revived band is not making it to New York, at least not right now) and a cute tote bag for $5. They have a tiny museum with some historical artifacts of various Saddle Creek artists. Then we reversed ourselves back down 29 (with one stop for gas at a truck stop who had a mini-fridge full of homemade pie; I was almost tempted) and back to Kansas City proper.

An early afternoon arrival at KC tempted us with a nap, since we had been up late filing reports for Backstreets and brucespringsteen.net, but instead we decided to seize the off-hour moment and head into Kansas for a very early dinner of barbeque at Oklahoma Joe’s. When it said “original gas station location” we did not realize that it would still be an actual, working gas station! Miracle of miracles, there was no line (and all of the signage telling people how to line up, and where, made us grateful) but it would have been worth waiting in any line that existed for this food. (This was our second time in KC so we had already done the Gates and Arthur Bryant’s pilgrimages, as well as visits to the ballpark and the Negro Leagues Museum.)

Oklahoma joe's

On show day, we walked from the hotel to an amazing brunch destination called Succotash; it seemed like a short walk on the map, but was actually uphill (and we couldn’t have driven because there was a marathon that morning and we were on the marathon route). In the Zagat tradition, this place would be worth a detour. It only does brunch but it does brunch at an incredibly high level. I was grateful for the large selection of fresh squeezed juice and ordered something with carrot and spinach and ginger and a bunch of other good-for-me things to keep whatever nasties in my system far, far away.

Thank you, Kansas City, for being civilized enough to have multiple post-show truly late night food options, including one that was walking distance from the arena. The bar in the Power & Light District (more adaptive reuse!) wasn’t haute cuisine but we could at least have a beer and see our friends before heading back to the hotel to file reports.

On Sunday, we did not bolt early like everyone else seemed to, but slept in and then decided to skip brunch in favor of more barbeque. LC’s is known as the place for burnt ends, and are open on Sundays when the football or baseball teams are playing at home. It was the opposite direction from the airport, but well worth every minute of the drive. If you go, just order one plate of burnt ends, and one side, because they will feed four people, easily. (We did not need both fried okra and fried spicy green beans. Oh, and cole slaw.)

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There is nothing near the Kansas City airport and it is one of the tiniest airports I have ever been in; it was originally designed to offer the shortest distance from the driveway to the gate, which quickly became impractical post 9/11. There are also almost no food options in the airport, so we stopped at an Italian deli near the farmer’s market for a sandwich (just one – only one – and the smallest one they sold) to take back on the plane. I would have slept had it not been the worst plane flight ever, but that always seems to matter less on the way home.

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HOW TO SEE ASBURY PARK IN AN HOUR OR TWO [WITHOUT A CAR OR A TOUR GUIDE]

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[Written primarily for my European friends heading to the U.S. next week for the shows at the Meadowlands.]

I know everyone loves traipsing around Asbury Park with organized tours. You might think that it is complicated or difficult or even a little scary to visit Asbury Park on your own, but nothing could be further than the truth. You do not need a car, you just need time, since the train (which leaves from Penn Station on 33rd Street in Manhattan) takes a little while. It’s not a bad train ride, but not particularly interesting or scenic. You’ll change at Long Branch. Once you get to Asbury Park, everything is walkable and it’s perfectly safe.

Note: it’s a little tricky to take public transportation down and see a show at the Stone Pony unless you’re willing to leave the show before it’s over, especially on a weeknight. Otherwise you’ll be stuck paying for a hotel room or trying to find somewhere to sit all night (and there isn’t anywhere I’d recommend that you do that). At least now there are hotels that you’d feel safe sleeping in.

You can find fares and timetables at http://www.njtransit.com/. I also recommend you follow along via Google Maps right here: http://goo.gl/maps/4ylzb

Walk down Cookman towards the ocean. The beauty parlor that Bruce lived above was somewhere in that first block on the south side of the street. There’s a lot more commerce these days, although I am sad that Mr. Fashion [“If Mr. Fashion don’t make it, Southside don’t wear it!] commemorated by Bruce in his roll call of participating AP merchants during the 2003 Christmas Shows) is gone. If you need a bite to eat, get it on this stretch of Cookman.

Walk down to the corner of Kingsley, which no one needs me to explain. The Palace used to be on your right, now it’s condos.

The Carousel house is there and may be open.

Peek into the old Casino; you can walk through part of it on the boardwalk – but be sure to pause in the area between the Casino and the first row commercial space on the boardwalk, because that’s where the Hungry Heart shot was taken.

Walk north down the boardwalk to Convention Hall and the Paramount Theater – you can’t miss it. You’ll pass the Stone Pony and Madam Marie’s.

Unfortunately, you need to be there at night to get the shot of the lit-up WELCOME TO ASBURY PARK message against the part of the Paramount that faces west.

Grab a drink at the Wonder Bar, walk up one block to Kingsley and walk back in the direction that you originally came from. The Fast Lane (where Bruce saw the Ramones) is next to Asbury Lanes on 4th Ave. (Asbury Lanes is a fun place to see a band or even to do some bowling.)

The most important place in all of Asbury Park (at least to me) is the sidewalk in front of what was the Student Prince, on Kingsley between 1st and 2nd. (It’s been a gay bar for a very long time, but I don’t know what’s there right now.) This is where I drank a toast to the Big Man the night he passed, not in front of the Stone Pony. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a brass plaque in the sidewalk here. As the story goes, Clarence walked over to the Student Prince from the Wonderbar that night as commemorated in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

Once you’re done, then just walk back to the train station along Cookman again. There you have it. Asbury Park in a nutshell.

[You could, theoretically, take a taxi to visit 10th Ave & E Street in Belmar, it’s not that far, but if you need to see that corner you might as well rent a car in the city and do Freehold too. If you do go to Belmar, I recommend having lunch at a place called Tenth Avenue Burrito. The food is pretty good, and a souvenir shirt reading TENTH AVENUE BURRITO is pretty cool. (Sorry, I know it’s in your head now.)]

[There’s also an ice cream shop called Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out on the boardwalk in Belmar.]

[Really I could go on all day.]


My book, Raise Your Hand: Adventures of an American Springsteen Fan in Europe, will be out on September 25th! You can sign up at this link if you’d like to get a note when the book is published.

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How To Drive Cross-Country By Yourself


This is written in response to Molly Templeton’s call for submissions in response to the New York Times‘ How-To issue.
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Everyone should drive cross-country at least once in their life. Driving with a friend or a car full of people, it’s a life-changing experience. But by yourself, it is a moment of reckoning. Those hours and hours and hours behind the wheel with only yourself and your iPod playlist are as transformative as round-the-world travel.

The changing landscape, the weather, the horizon, the rolling hills, the flatness, the mountains, the clouds, the sky, the grass, the desert, truck stops, street lights, bad roadside attractions; with only yourself to filter these things through, they become more profound. I drove cross-country by myself twice, and to this day I still carry the very vivid images in my head. I have only ever thought “wow, that thing about the purple mountains majesty is true” when driving cross-country. I have never seen so many trains in my life.

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You have hours to think. Hours and hours and hours. This can be good or bad, or both, often at the same time.

I have driven cross-country from Seattle to NYC three times, twice by myself (part 1 | part 2). I did this in 2003, which is almost another century in car travel given the advent of smartphones and mp3 players. While there are endless sites telling you what to see and what route to take and where to stop to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, there are some basic tenets derived from experience that I believe apply to a successful cross-country car journey.


1) Don’t rely on your GPS or your smartphone. Get a map, learn to read it, study it.

Data signal will fail you when you need it the most, on a dark rainy night when you took the wrong turn off of a detour and there is no one around to ask for directions. Get maps. Find someone with a AAA membership or just buy some. They give you context for the journey that you just don’t get by putting two points into Google Maps and asking for directions. By all means, do that, but then look at the route on a map and see if it makes sense to you, try to figure out your likely stopping points, see what’s interesting along the way. (I mourn for the demise of Expedia Streets & Trips. I still have my printout of my route filed away.)

You don’t need a GPS. It’s overkill, unless you are totally winging it, and even then, it defeats the point of totally winging it if you know exactly where you are. Get some maps.

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2) Figure out how many hours you can really drive in a day.

I took some shorter trips, like Seattle to LA, before I did the big one and figured out that I can comfortably drive for 10 hours a day, which is closer to a 12 hour day by the time you factor in stops for food, gas and bathroom. I have done 12-14 hours a day with a second driver, when I needed to make time (moving back to New York in July with no air conditioning and a cat). I once stupidly did 17 hours in a day because I couldn’t figure out a good stopping place that wasn’t so close to my final destination that I didn’t keep thinking “I should just keep driving.” (I literally fell out of the car when I pulled into my sister’s driveway and she opened the door.) It is better to factor less hours rather than more if you do not know. You can always build up to more as you go along.


3) Start early and end early.

I love to drive at night something fierce, but when I did my trip, I drove from 6 or 7 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m. I didn’t need my mom’s paranoia about truck driver serial killers to give myself nightmares about getting a flat tire at 2 in the morning along the interstate. If you drive at night, you won’t see anything except the stars, and you can’t appreciate those driving 65 mph. There is a beauty to the dawn drive anywhere, whether it’s the rays glinting off the frost on the prairie or the sun peeking out behind skyscrapers. Finishing around dinner time means you can talk to some humans and calm down before going to sleep (and even then it will feel like your body is still moving. You get used to that.) You can get up at a normal hour and drive until after dinner, but I think those are the hardest times of the day to drive. I liked beating rush hour and finishing just as it started.

4) You don’t have to plan all your stops, but at least think about them a day in advance.

Before the days of 3G, I planned out a couple of key overnight stops and booked the motels in advance, and was somewhat spontaneous with the rest. The problem with the former is that you are committed and if you run into construction (and you will always run into construction) you then have to make time for no reason besides a motel reservation. The problem with the latter is that you will get to a town you think will be easy to find a motel and will discover that there are tour groups or a church convention and then you have to go from motel to motel to try to find something (thanks a lot, Bozeman, MT). The worst motel I ever stayed in was because I thought I could make it to Cleveland and then realized 15 minutes later it was too far for the night, and turned around to go back to Youngstown. (At least all I discovered was that $26.95 a night was just cruddy, not dangerous.)

Nowadays, when you can book a hotel from your phone and there’s wifi at McDonald’s (get a McFlurry, or one of those salad shakers) I would tell you to just look at the route for the following day and think about where you might want to stop, and figure out whether you’d need to get off at the first exit or the third exit. If you want to camp out or sleep in your car, you’ll definitely need to plan ahead somewhat. I’m not suggesting you plan out every minute of every day. Just know, a little bit, where stuff is along the way.

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5) Coolers, Ziploc bags, and provisions

My former car had no air conditioning but that didn’t stop me from driving it everywhere. I did, however, have two coolers, one in the trunk and one in the car, and two cases of water and Gatorade, which I rotated into the coolers. I would fill up the bags with ice every morning in the motel and they would last until I reached my destination; if I needed more, you can usually buy or obtain ice from a fast-food drive-through restaurant just by asking nicely outside of lunchtime rush. Having supplies in the car meant I didn’t waste time getting off the highway constantly in search of something to drink.


When I would arrive at my evening’s destination, I would find a grocery store or somewhere to get sandwiches and fruit and snacks for the next day, and keep them in the cooler. That way I could picnic at a rest stop or a truck stop and not have to eat fast food crap for lunch. I would also replenish the water and Gatorade for far cheaper than it would have been on the road.

6) Give your friends your itinerary and encourage them to call you.

Make sure someone knows the route you plan to take and that someone knows where you actually are. I don’t care if you’re tweeting things you overhear at rest stops or taking Instagram photos of the World’s Largest Cow, make sure someone can keep track of you. My friends and family called me a couple of times a day, and I usually got online when I stopped for the evening and let people know where I was. Do this. You will have enough “me” time. You will want to talk to your people.


7) Mechanical things.

Unless you are driving a rental, have your garage look at your car before you go anywhere. Hopefully you have a mechanic you trust and can say, “Pretend your son or daughter is about to drive this car cross-country. What would you fix?” If you have done regular maintenance on your vehicle it will probably be fine. If you haven’t, make sure you have a credit card and spend the money on AAA or your insurance’s roadside assistance. Even if you do have a vehicle in good shape, it will help you in case you run out of gas or lock your keys in the car or get a flat tire. Having one number to call is better than having to figure out the closest exit and then figure out which garage to call that isn’t going to rip you off (and also assuming you will have data signal wherever you break down).

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8) Talk to humans!

People who live in big cities get used to being suspicious of everyone they meet. I am not saying let your guard down completely, but sometimes people genuinely just want to have a conversation. I would talk to people in gas stations and souvenir shops and at rest areas, and I heard stories about South Dakota winters, ghost stories in Nebraska, and advice for cheaper gas down the road in Indiana. I had a AM/PM clerk insist on making me fresh coffee because I was the first person to say hello to her in three hours.

When I would get to my motel, I would ask the girls at the front desk where they would go to dinner. After they dutifully tried to sell me on the diner next door or the Red Robin, I would ask, “No, no, where do *you* go out to dinner?” and I never got a bad recommendation. I would always sit at the bar and talk to the bartender and would just have a actual conversation with another human.

(That said, I always said I was stopping at the next town or that my husband was meeting me the next day. You can take the girl out of New York City, but etc. etc. etc.)


9) The beauty of truck stops.

People (like me) who live in big cities and don’t drive out past the ambient city glow on a regular basis don’t know about truck stops. You have your Flying J and your TA and your Pilot and your Love’s, and a whole host of other smaller names. I like stopping there more than I like stopping at smaller gas stations because there is always more going on and I always feel safer. There are always more amenities, like food and clean bathrooms and interesting stuff to look at in the store, and you can take showers and do laundry at the bigger ones. (Almost all of them have wifi now, too, and I have filed stories from the road by sitting in my car more than once.) When I was researching my first road trip, many people encouraged me to camp or sleep in my car and use the truck stops for personal hygiene. I would never do it, but there was one point I considered doing my laundry since I was traveling light and things were getting gross.

10) Coffee and other stimulants

The monotony of the road will make you tired, or just bored. Cold water, loud music, opening the window, lowering the heat (if it’s winter), and coffee or energy drinks or something with sugar are going to be necessary, even if it’s not something you consume in your daily life. I used to favor this disgusting orange Mountain Dew flavor that I affectionately referred to as “Orange Death.” It was cheap and easy to get, and didn’t make me jittery like the energy drinks did. That said, I always had a can of Monster in the cooler just in case; South Dakota, although one of my favorite parts of the driver, was probably the hardest drive.

The rest of it is up to you, whether this is a drive on the super-slab (as the veteran roadtrippers call it) or secondary roads, whether you are going north or south, how many days you have to make your trip, how much you want or need to see. If you feel like doing the drive, you should do the drive. You will love it and you will hate it. Your friends and your mom will think you are crazy. But you will remember it forever, guaranteed.

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In Search of the Joshua Tree

I care a lot about visiting the various sites of rock and roll history, whether it’s the former site of the Cavern Club or the Finsbury Park Astoria or the Palladium or 213 Bowery or the bank that used to be the Fillmore East. But clearly I am close to something very much resembling insane to wake up at 6 a.m. in Las Vegas, rent a car, and head four hours into the desert to look for a dead tree.

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Yes. We went looking for The Joshua Tree.

This all started a few years ago, when I brought up a Bono quote from a Rolling Stone interview back in the day, about how they didn’t remember where the Joshua Tree that was photographed on the album was. Bono thought it was a good thing, because otherwise some fan would turn up at a concert with it: “Bono! I’ve got the tree!”

“That’s not true,” the boyfriend said. “They found the tree. It died a while ago, but the fans know where the tree is.”

Now, contrary to popular belief, the tree is not in Joshua Tree, or even in the Mojave Desert. It’s not even technically in Death Valley National Park, but rather just outside its boundaries. Thanks to the internet and the industriousness of the U2 community, within a few hours we had photographs, Google Earth screen captures and GPS coordinates at our fingertips. We just had to wait until a trip to LA or Las Vegas gave us enough time to make the trip ourselves – and this year was the year.

We watched videos and talked to people who had gone and planned and planned and planned some more. We rented a car with a GPS and satellite radio, stopped at a Starbucks on Windmill Lane (not kidding), and headed up into the mountains.

This would have been an excellent plan had the satellite radio worked, and had the GPS accepted longitude and latitude coordinates. This is a dead plant in the desert, it wasn’t like we could just enter “the Joshua tree” into the GPS and it would take us to where we wanted to go (although we ended up having data signal–of all things–and it’s now on Foursquare). So much for being sure we were absolutely in possession of the exact coordinates.

But we are not stupid. We were smart enough to have brought a RCA plug for our iPhones and the SO had even burned some emergency CD’s of a 1987 Chicago radio broadcast, just in case. He plugged the last intersection before the location of the tree into the GPS and we figured out how to reset the trip odometer on the car so we could find the location by watching mileage. We had printed out maps, we had screenshots of Google Maps on the phones.

Off into the desert we drove.

The Oceans 11 quote about still being in the middle of the fucking desert once you get out of Las Vegas becomes relevant about 15 minutes outside of town, as you head up and over actual mountains and into the middle of nowhere. Pahrump, the only town of any substance between LV and Death Valley was a blip of casinos and strip malls, and 10 minutes later we made a left turn towards Death Valley and two stop signs later had left all of that behind.

We saw wild horses. We saw a coyote crossing the road. When civilization of any size approached, you could see it miles ahead in the distance, because there was nothing else out there. We had brought water and snacks–and if I had to do it again I would have doubled the water and the snacks and brought more warm clothing, because if the car had broken down we would have been waiting a very long time for help. We never passed one law enforcement or official vehicle, and for the entire four hour drive, I never had a car in front of me. We would see cars pulled over on the side of the road and I would mentally prepare to stop and ask if they were okay, but in every single case, there was someone with a huge camera on a tripod taking advantage of the winter morning desert light.

We made a few stops to take photos and one to pay our national park admission fee, but mostly, we kept driving. I was worried about finding the tree and losing the light and so we would do any extra sightseeing on the way back. We talked about U2 driving around between Death Valley and the Mojave for three weeks 25 years ago (25 years ago the week we were there, just by coincidence), and how overwhelming all of this must have been for four guys from Ireland, where there was nothing at all like the wilderness surrounding us on all four sides.

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For me, the desert is all about the silence. I guess it’s the thing that stands out for a city girl, more than anything else. And then the light, that amazing desert light, especially in the winter. The air, even when there’s dust blowing it’s cleaner than an average city street corner. The stars at night, the true, deep black, the absence of ambient city light. The colors are muted, the horizon stretches so far ahead you have to strain to see it, no dead-ending in New Jersey at the edge of the island.

I took the wheel for the drive out and am almost sorry that I did because I couldn’t take any photographs. I kept telling the SO to take his camera out and take pictures of the things I couldn’t. I would set up the shot in my head and tell him, “Take a photo of that. Now, take a photo of that. Wait, that. Did you get that?” He set up a tiny tripod on the dashboard and filmed movies of us driving through the desert. The scenery is unbelievable, awe-inspiring, purple mountains majesty and all of that. You feel tiny and insignificant and wonder about the people crazy enough to walk through this place on foot hundreds of year ago.

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We reached our first official stopping place, Panamint Springs, a little before noon. Gas was $5.38 and we were at half a tank. We got out of the car and stretched, put $20 worth of gas in the tank, used the bathroom and their wifi, and bought some drinks before getting back on the road for what would end up being the worst part of the drive. The mountain pass before the valley before Panamint Springs was a steep grade and twisty and windy but the road was wide and felt reasonably safe. The road out of Panamint Springs felt tiny and the absence of guard rails less than comforting. (It got to the point that when we did see guard rails, we really worried.)

I started to get excited. It was close, or at least soon, and we would be there. The odometer clicked slowly towards the magic 107 mile mark. I didn’t know what it would be like to stand there and see those mountains. I saw clouds in the distance and scowled at them, mentally telling them to get lost, that they were ruining my photographs even as I was on my way there.

And then we came around a curve and sloped downward and the odometer crawled toward the 107 mile mark and I looked to my left at the mountain range shrouded in clouds and tapped the window gently saying, “There. There it is. Look. We’re here.” The SO glanced up, but back at the map, telling me to watch for the curve to the right and that there would be a dirt road on the left and I should pull over there.

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And then there was a curve to the right and the dirt road fading into the distance on the left and with a pro forma glance back and forth to make sure there was no oncoming or following traffic, I pulled off the road, stopped the car and opened the door.

“KEYS,” said the boyfriend.
We always do this when we rent a car but the special emphasis was not lost on me. We would be SOL for a very long time if we locked the keys in the car. I held them up in the air.
“NO REALLY, KEYS,” he said.
I held them up and waved them vigorously.
We assembled everything we thought we needed, went through “KEYS” one more time, shut the door and headed into the desert .

The SO took out a map and some printouts of photographs and squinted into the distance. “There,” he said, pointing at a solo, non-branched Joshua Tree plant in the distance. He held up a photo printout to get my assessment. “We start walking towards that.”

But as we reached where we were heading, we realized quickly that it was not the right place. We studied the terrain and the maps and the printouts again. (Astonishingly, I had data coverage–I couldn’t pull up Facebook on the Strip, but in the middle of nowhere Google Maps was working.) I entered the GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the location of the car. I entered another set of GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the car again.

We looked at the map one more time. The boyfriend walked over to a concrete block in the middle of nowhere but it was a sea level marker. We looked at a solo tree in the distance but it seemed too far away to be the location of the photo. They stopped at this one location because there was a tree that stood out alone and wasn’t surrounded by other ones. We considered that the solo tree in the photograph we had, adjacent to the now-dead tree, had also died. That would make things difficult without a compass or a hand-held GPS.

I started to consider the futility of this effort. I started to consider that we might not find the damn thing, after all of this. I wondered how long we would have to walk through this particular stretch of desert before the boyfriend would be willing to give up. I wondered how stubborn I myself would be about all of this. There was no way I was going to give up after coming this far. I reminded myself that we were within sight of the main road, that it was still daylight, that it wasn’t the middle of the summer, and we were not going to get lost like those Dutch tourists. The boyfriend did insist that I be within his range of sight at all times, however, and I wished I had worn my cowboy boots and not sneakers.

After a few more minutes of walking and looking at pictures and more walking, the boyfriend stopped, and pointed to two trees in the distance, down the road away from the car.
“I think we should walk this way.”
I looked in the direction he pointed in, and agreed, with the provision that there was a small rise just ahead. I wanted to get to the top of the rise, and then discuss how we would split up and do a grid search, like I was in a CSI episode, or something.
No sooner did I get to the top of the rise than I saw something, something in a color not native to the desert. It was bright green.
“Honey…” I said.
“Yeah, I see it,” he said.
We started walking briskly in that direction, and then all of a sudden, we were there.

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The green box was a plastic crate that has replaced the former “U Tube,” the PVC pipe that held the logbook for people who visited the tree. The box was full of messages and mementos and had been signed by people–some very recently–from everywhere on the planet. I was slightly humbled to see signatures from Poland and Serbia, that these people from the other side of the world would make their way out to this godforsaken place in the literal middle of nowhere.

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Speaking of dedicated, whoever created this plaque wins the ‘dedicated’ title. It wasn’t just that they made a bronze plaque for the location of the tree, it was that they had to truck out cement, a cement mixer, water, and shovels, and a couple of people to help dig the hole, form the frame, pour the cement, and then wait around for it to cure. Did they drive an ATV into the desert? Did they push a wheelbarrow in from the road? It would have taken several trips to figure the whole thing out, and even if you ‘lived nearby’ you’re still talking about 8 hour round-trips at a minimum.

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There were some people who had made signs out of wood or metal and brought them along, but aside from writing in the logbook or on the box, the popular way of marking your presence was to create something out of rocks. There was a peace sign; there were U2 logos; there was the heart-in-a-suitcase from a previous tour. I didn’t bring anything to put into the box because I disliked the idea of adding refuse to the desert, but it might have been smart if one of us had considered bringing a pen to write in the logbook (luckily there was a working pen inside the two ziplock bags holding the very wet logbook).

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The boyfriend started picking up rocks. “So, ‘dream out loud,’ or something else?”
“Dream out loud.”
“We’re going to take a picture of this and send it to our friend, and she’s going to respond, ‘You know, they’re still not going to play ‘Acrobat’.”
We laughed hard, considered that no one who wasn’t a U2 fan would find that remotely amusing, and went back to picking up rocks and positioning them in the hard winter desert ground. No soft sand in the winter.

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I am amazed that the now-dead tree is still there. I am amazed that no one has stolen it or sawn pieces off to sell on eBay or even taken a leaf or a branch. Trust me, U2 fans (just like intense fans of any band, to be fair) can be a brand of crazy I don’t even want to stand near, but yet, this site was left to exist in peace without being selfishly scavenged limb from limb. Sometimes people manage to rise to their expectations.

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We were starting to lose the light, and the clouds blew away from the mountains but were now over the sky as a whole, and it was getting to be time to start heading back. I took as many photographs as I could think of, although I now look at them and wonder why I dismissed certain angles, or why I didn’t walk back far enough to get the tree location properly positioned against the mountains. We took pictures of each other, we did the goofy thing where you hold up the iPhone with the tree and the mountains in the background. I thought about bringing a tripod but it was okay that I didn’t, because no photograph will ever show what it was like to stand there, to be there with someone who wanted to be there as much as I did, who didn’t think that it was dumb or stupid or idiotic to make this trip, to stand in the middle of the desert in December because 25 years ago, a Dutch photographer and four guys from Ireland decided they would shoot photos for their next album cover here.

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And then, almost at the same time, we decided that we were ready to leave.

The walk back to the road from the tree was infinitely easier than our walk to it (If you park at the turnout, walk back to the drainage culvert and head in from there.) and then we were back at the car and heading back towards civilization. We stopped back at Panamint Springs for lunch (recommended, mostly because there ain’t much else, folks) and use of their free wifi, and drove back over the mountains and through the desert once again. We stopped one more time, at Zabriskie Point, the site of the album cover proper, but it was almost 4:30 by then and getting dark so any hiking around in imitation of the band had to be shelved because we still had a long way to go.

Zabriskie Point. Album cover.

It got dark quicker than we had ever imagined and it even started snowing as we were heading over the last mountain pass between Pahrump and Las Vegas, making the drive difficult and nerve-wracking at the very end, before we descended into the bright light city again.

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It was about pilgrimage, even if you look askance at assigning such a word of weight and import to a journey that seems trivial on the surface. But we go to these places because we are seeking connection, because we are looking for something divine, magical, at least other, seeking meaning or significance above and beyond what’s on the surface. I look at the vast enormity and wild beauty of the desert and wonder how it felt to four young men from Ireland. I listen to the silence and wonder what it does to the imagination of someone who constructs sound for a living. I look at a place and see it through my eyes and the eyes of everyone else who has seen that place. I stand there and try to figure out what I feel and wonder if it is what others felt standing in the same place.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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Dublin, 1984.

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I reminisce about rock and roll tourism, U2 style, in ye olde pre-internet days over at Scatter o’ light.

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ROLL SOUND.

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The corner of 7th & Main in Downtown Los Angeles. If you know what it is, you know what it is; if you don’t recognize it, it won’t mean anything even if I explained it to you.

(Of course, if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you saw this last week, so I apologize.)

I have to say that this was one of the coolest rock and roll things I have gone looking for in a long time. It was so much fun figuring out where this was, realizing it was still there, and then going there and putting the puzzle pieces together.

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Within Your Reach

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As much as I always wanted to, I never made it to Minneapolis until this year. Probably because I was smart enough to know that it wasn’t like every band I cared about would be standing on the street corner waiting for me as I got off the bus. The closest I came was when I was moving back to NYC from Seattle six years ago; a logical overnight stop was just outside of Minneapolis, and I took a morning detour long enough to stand in front of the Let It Be house for a few minutes and take a few pictures.

It was odd to drive around and look at the sights and walk into what was once Oar Folkjokeopus (back when record stores mattered, back when it was a point of pride to know the names of the cool record stores in every city), to walk across the street and have a beer at the CC Club, to stand in front of the stars on the wall at First Avenue (even though it was the weekend they decided to REPAINT them!), and quietly, find the bench that was dedicated to Bob Stinson’s memory, and sit there for a while.

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Some friends had recently visited Johnny Cash and June Carter’s grave, and related how they pulled out their iPhone and sang along to a tinny version of “Jackson”. I seized inspiration from that thought and started to play “Here Comes A Regular” until I deemed it maudlin, and instead found a live version of “Little GTO” from CBGB’s and played that instead. I think Bob would have appreciated the latter.

The weekend was capped later that day, sitting in Target Field as the sun went down, as “Unsatisfied” boomed over the loudspeakers. It was serendipity and it was heartwrenching and wonderful all wrapped into one bright shiny moment.

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