A Beautiful Day in Chicago with Old Friends

April 3, 2011

Lake Michigan, from the beach in Rogers Park

As I embark bright and early tomorrow morning on Route 66, today was a day in Chicago to meet up with old friends – and to get ready. It started with a nice morning with my mother, and then after lunch I used the (wonderful) CTA system to visit my old friend Jon – who I hadn’t seen in about 4 years. Jon and I have been great friends since we were about 6 years old – as we lived across the alley from each other in Hyde Park. He now lives with his wife and 6-month-old baby in Rogers Park, just a couple blocks from the Lake.

The attached photo is a pier from Rogers Park, looking south towards the Chicago Skyline. The thing about spending your whole life in Chicago is you can never really get to know some neighborhoods. Rogers Park is at the northernmost point of the City (next to Evanston), and I’d never been to its lakefront because Lake Shore Drive ends a few miles south. With no highway along the lakefront, it is probably one of the most underrated parts of Chicago. A real treat, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover it today.

Next, was time to go back to O’Hare and pick up my rental car. I’m using Dollar Rent-a-Car, because they have the best rate. And while I’m not thrilled with the one-way drop-off fee, the trick about rental car companies is that those who don’t charge a “drop-off fee” simply inflate the base price for its one-way rentals. Even with the drop-off fee, Dollar is still cheaper than the other companies. The clerk convinced me to throw in an extra $75, and get a Jeep Compass for the trip. While I normally wouldn’t do this, I’ll be driving through Arizona and New Mexico – so I figured it was worth the slight extra cost. I’m just hoping the gas mileage will be decent (what with prices!)

With my car in hand, I drove to Ukrainian Village to have dinner with my friend Vasyl – who I hadn’t met in 15 years, after we worked together on Dick Durbin’s campaign way back in 1996. It was really great to reconnect, and talk politics. There’s so much about Chicago politics that I haven’t been keeping up with, and I haven’t really kept in touch with people from my Durbin days. Vasyl and I had reconnected on Facebook. Then, I went to Wicker Park to have drinks with my friend Jenn – who had gone to Maine for the “No on 1” campaign. I’ve been going to Wicker Park since I was 10-years-old when an old school friend lived there. Back then, of course, it wasn’t the crazy hipster gentrified neighborhood it’s become – and walking around Wicker Park on a Saturday night was certainly a culture shock for me. Chicago has definitely changed, indeed …

I’ve had a great day, but am far more excited about tomorrow – when I take off on Historic Route 66, embarking on a road trip I have only dreamed about for years. I promise to bring insights from the road. But today was not about offering insights … it was just about re-connecting with old friends, who I spend way too many years not seeing …


Chicago’s Transit Puts S.F. Muni to SHAME!!

April 2, 2011

Chicago's CTA Map

Well, I made it to Chicago and I’m staying at my Mom’s house in Hyde Park – after catching a flight out of SFO this morning. Last night, I had a little “going-away” party at Martuni’s to celebrate the start of my trip. Thank You to Jenn, Vikki, Benjamin, Nicole, Dan Nguyen-Tan and a crew from the David Chiu campaign for coming by. And THANK YOU to Enrique and Jen Low for bringing over such a sweet gift for my birthday / bon voyage!! Made me realize how lucky I am to have great friends in San Francisco.

I grew up in Chicago, but haven’t lived there for 15 years. And while it’s still “home” in a sense, I rarely go back – maybe only once every two years for Christmas. But today, I had the same reaction that I get every time I come back. While I was never a huge fan of the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) when I was a kid, after living in San Francisco I have truly come to appreciate it. My plane landed at O’Hare, and I took the Blue Line to the Loop, and then the #6 bus to Hyde Park. It was quick, efficient and reliable – a genuine difference from San Francisco Muni.

Just had a quiet night with my Mom and stepfather. Tomorrow’s the day that I pick up the rental car, and meet up with a bunch of old friends (who I haven’t seen in YEARS) before leaving on Route 66 Sunday morning!

Oh, and despite my fears about unusually cold weather, it’s about 43 degrees here. A little cold for early April, but not bad at all. I should be fine driving through the middle of Illinois on this trip. Of course, I left San Francisco in the middle of *BEAUTIFUL* spring weather, but at least one of my three big fears of what can go wrong on my trip is proving to be unfounded.

What Could Go Wrong on My Trip?

March 30, 2011

As I prepare to leave for my trip in two days and tie the loose ends I need at work, I am constantly distracted – and a bit paranoid – about what could go wrong on my vacation. I guess it’s a normal reaction, when you’re about to embark on an exciting journey that you have planned so meticulously – that it can be infuriating when life hits you a curveball. At this point, I have figured out three bad scenarios that could put a monkey-wrench in my plans. And yet, I’m still excited about going – and if even I’m just spared one of these 3 things from happening, I’m sure I will have an awesome and memorable time.

(1) Unusually Cold Weather in Chicago: Whenever I tell people in California that I’m from Chicago, they all say “oh, it’s really cold there.” I’ve always found that funny – because while we do have very cold winters, it also gets to be 95 degrees and humid in the summer. And any Chicagoan can tell you it’s a lot easier to survive the cold winters than the sweltering heat. But that being said, point well taken. It can get cold there.

I’ve been planning this Route 66 trip for eleven years, and I could have taken it last October. But because I was helping Jane Kim’s campaign, I couldn’t go. By the time the election was over, it was almost December – and driving through Illinois in the middle of a snowstorm seemed like a very bad idea. So I’ve been impatiently waiting to leave for months, waiting for spring. I wanted to go last month, but Chicago in early March is “hit-or-miss.” It could be wonderful spring weather, or it could be an awful blizzard. Early April, I concluded, seemed like a reasonably safe bet.

How was I supposed to know that Chicago is currently going through a cold snap? The Chicago Tribune reports that it’s been the coldest late March in 28 years. It’s even been colder in Chicago than in Wasilla, Alaska. Of course, there’s an old saying about Chicago – “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change.” Current weather reports say that it will warm up on Saturday, and it might be 50 degrees when I start the road trip on Sunday. We’ll see …

(2) Will a Federal Government Shutdown Close the Grand Canyon?: Because Route 66 goes through Flagstaff, Arizona, I was not going to pass up an opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon – which I’ve never been to. In fact, knowing how hard it is to get reservations there, I planned my whole trip around grabbing a room at Yavapai Lodge. A two-night reservation from April 12-14 was the first thing I did for this vacation – and have essentially mapped everything else around it. Then, I put down a deposit for a mule ride – which I really look forward to.

I might not make it to the Grand Canyon. In Washington DC, Congress is deadlocked on the federal budget – with right-wing Republican Teabaggers hell-bent on seeing the government shutdown, while President Obama and the Democrats negotiate against themselves in the most pathetic way. I don’t see this ending well, and I have a sinking feeling that a government shutdown is inevitable. Right now, the government is funded until April 8th (four days before I get to the Grand Canyon) – and unless we get a breakthrough, I may be out of luck for that mule ride.

16 years ago, the last time we had a government shutdown, my good friend Jackson (who I will visit in Chicago) did a cross-country road trip. He got to the Grand Canyon on the second day of the shutdown – and was unable to visit. I just called to make sure I would get a full refund if this happens, but it’s scary to think I won’t be able to go. Right now, I’m remaining optimistic – and need to make contingency plans, in case it doesn’t work out.

(3) Mudslides Have Shut Down Parts of Highway One: After I get to Los Angeles, the final part of my planned road-trip is to drive up beautiful, scenic Highway One all the way back to San Francisco. I’ve done this trip once, and the lesson I learned was that two days – while doable – is a bit too hasty and rushed to really enjoy it. So for this trip, I have budgeted three days – leaving L.A. on April 18th, and arriving on April 20th.

Well, as anyone in California can tell you, we’ve had a lot of rain lately. And after some really torrential downpours, a few chunks of Highway One near Big Sur fell into the Pacific Ocean. The California Department of Transportation is working overtime to fix the road, but there’s a strong likelihood that the road may not be doable by the time I get there in a few weeks. I still plan to do parts of it, but this certainly complicates my original intentions.

Jesus Christ!! Why Are You Going on this Trip At All?

Because I’ve only been planning this trip for eleven years – i.e., one-third of my life. Because Route 66 has always fascinated me, and I am in desperate need of a vacation where I get to explore. Like I said, I am leaving on this trip fully aware that these three things may happen – but determined to have a great time regardless. Completing that Great American Road Trip is something I need to scratch off my list, and I might as well go ahead and do it now.

And if none of these three things happen, it will be the trip of a lifetime!!

Embarking on a New Road Trip … Route 66!!

March 29, 2011

Welcome back to my personal blog, which I started two years ago when I did a two-week road trip vacation from Miami to Memphis. There’s something truly beautiful and magical about road trip vacations – being out on the open road with the freedom to go wherever you please; knowing the journey, not the destination, is the real adventure.

And there is truly something about ditching the Interstates, and exploring the country through small towns. I first experienced this as a teenager with my Mother, one summer in France as we were driving back from Switzerland. Traffic on the autoroute was really bad, so we opted to get off somewhere in Burgundy and take the back roads all the way to Paris. It took a lot longer, but I still cherish that evening – because we got to see the “real” France. And I’ve sworn ever since that any worthwile vacation is one that explores these country roads.

I just turned 33 years old, and for the last 11 years I have explored America. In the spring of 2000, I was about to graduate from college at UC Berkeley – when I decided to travel the United States that summer. After buying the book Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen, I mapped out an extremely ambitious cross-country road trip. That summer, I went to 28 states – but I was running out of money.

While sitting at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, I got a call on my cell phone from Randy Shaw at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic – who I had briefly met before leaving. He asked when I could come back to the Bay Area and start a job, so I told him to give me two weeks. I drove all the way down U.S. Route 1 on the East Coast to Key West, Florida – and hopped on an airplane back home.

That was eleven years ago, and taking that job changed my life. I still work at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, albeit now as a lawyer and as managing editor of our political blog, Beyond Chron. But it has always been my goal to complete that Great American Road Trip, even if it requires multiple road trip vacations. So every few years, I take off for a week or two and drive somewhere in America.

One summer in law school, I took three weeks off and did the whole Pacific Northwest – from San Francisco up to Seattle on the Pacific Coast, and then back down inland through Mount Saint Helens and Crater Lake. Two years ago, I flew to Miami, went back to Key West where I left off, and drove to New Orleans for Mardi Gras – capping the trip at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

At this point, I have done everything I had set out to do 11 years ago … everything except the Magical Mother Road, known as Route 66.

What is Route 66? Why is it so Special?

Route 66 was known as “America’s Main Street” – one of the earliest cross-country roads that went from Chicago, all the way to Los Angeles. When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in the 1930’s, he called it the “Mother Road” as it helped struggling Okie sharecroppers find their way to California. In the 1950’s and 60’s, as Americans flocked to the Sunbelt to find opportunity, Route 66 symbolized the journey West for young people.

Long before I became a road trip enthusiast, I remember hearing about Route 66 on a TV documentary in the early 1990’s. I was living in Chicago at the time, and the idea of driving on one road to Los Angeles fascinated me. What I found even more interesting was the fact that Route 66 no longer exists. That’s right … In 1984, after they completed the Interstate System, Route 66 was decommissioned as a national road – because there were now quicker ways to travel the country. So it began to decay, and small towns along the way dwindled in population.

So if Route 66 No Longer Exists, How Can You Drive it?

While it’s technically impossible to drive the entire Route 66 (and there will be times when going on the Interstate is required), the vast majority of the road itself still exists – even if it’s no longer designated as a U.S. Highway. In some states, like Oklahoma, they have designated most of the old U.S. 66 as a state road. And in many places, there are markers that say “Historic Route 66.” The road is basically still there, but you need to know where it is – and that’s the fun of this adventure.

Having grown up in Chicago, I know exactly where Route 66 starts – in front of the Art Institute, on Michigan Avenue. And having been to L.A. a lot, I know exactly where it ends – Santa Monica Pier. But the idea of driving the entirety sounds amazing, and it’s always intrigued me to do this road – especially because it no longer exists.

Eleven years ago, I bought the book Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion by Tom Snyder, a 177-page book that gives elaborate turn-by-turn directions on how to take Route 66. There are also websites out there that can help you. And I’m not going to disclose how many HOURS I have been wasting in the past month, geeking out on Google Maps to figure it all out.

Okay, So When Are You Going?

Today is Monday, March 28th, and I am still at home in San Francisco. On Friday, April 1st, I fly to Chicago and spend a couple days at my Mom’s house. On April 2nd, I pick up a rental car – and on April 3rd, I begin the long journey down Route 66. My goal is to arrive in Los Angeles on Saturday, April 16th – after taking a two-day detour in the Grand Canyon. And after Los Angeles, finish up the trip by taking Highway One back to San Francisco.

I can’t wait, and can’t wait to have so many of my friends read this blog and offer me advice along the way!!

My Run for San Francisco Supervisor — District 6

May 9, 2009

cityhallshotToday, I am announcing that – with regret, and after months of consideration – I do not plan to be a District 6 candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2010.

It was not an easy decision to make, because there are many reasons for me to run. I have worked in the Tenderloin and South-of-Market area for almost ten years, and am passionate about the community – and doing what’s best for San Francisco. I know what organizing can do at all levels of government, and that decisions made by elected officials matter. I have been a tireless advocate for the poor, but could also effectively bring together the diverse constituencies of District 6. I also believe I would make a better Supervisor than the current candidates, and – with the right campaign – had a credible shot at winning.

But there are two reasons why I’m making this decision – which are mostly personal.

The first is financial. Not the fundraising, although that’s a daunting task. More simply, running a serious campaign requires a full-time commitment – which means quitting your job months before the Election. If I had substantial savings, a working spouse or lower living expenses, that would have been doable. But last year, I bought a Tenderloin studio condominium (with a down payment assistance from the City’s first-time homebuyers’ program.) My monthly expenses are high, and my non-profit salary means that I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m not at a point in my life where I can go without income for an extended period.

The second is my lack of enthusiasm for this race – at this time. Despite being passionate about what’s at stake, and attempts to hype myself about running, I could not get excited about doing what I needed to do to win. My question was – do I want to spend the next 18 months asking people for money, shaking hands with every voter in the District and talking with leaders to run a viable campaign? The answer became apparent to me two weekends ago at the California Democratic Convention. I was in my element organizing and speaking out, but I wasn’t focused on what was necessary to promote my candidacy.

I just couldn’t bring it all together right now. If it was May 2007 – and the District 6 race was still three years away – I probably could and would run. But it’s May 2009, and it’s time for me to really decide what’s best. I want to focus on my job, my personal life and the political work I do every day to push for change at all levels of government. I know I play a role in what’s going on, and I’m having too much fun to leave. I want to be more effective at pushing change, and thought running for District 6 in 2010 would be the way.

But running for office isn’t a job … it’s a calling. Right now, I’m not getting that call.

Miami to Memphis — My Top Ten Insights

March 1, 2009

southeastmapMy two-week vacation has come to an end. I’m back in San Francisco, and will be returning to the office on Monday. I’m sad about having finished the road trip, but rejuvenated about the experience … and excited about what’s to come, now that I have the spirit to take things on. Looking back on these two weeks, there’s a lot I have learned … some profound, and some just plain obvious. It’s time to look back and reflect on what I’ve taken away from it all, before I go back to the grind of work. Without further ado, here are my Top Ten insights …

(1) Key West Needs Rent Control: Whenever you have (a) an attractive and quirky area, (b) huge demand from everyone who wants to be there, (c) a very finite supply of land, and (c) little to no capacity for growth, it’s no surprise the cost of housing goes through the roof. I’ve seen it happen in Manhattan and San Francisco, and Key West is experiencing the same phenomenon. Cruise ships have brought a new influx of tourists to the area … endangering Key West’s low-income folks who have been there for generations. Rent control is not the affordable housing panacea, but it allows communities to thrive and maintain their diversity. It’s tough being in Key West if you’re poor, and the city has no tenant protections. Key West is wonderful because you’re on an island at the edge of the world … with all kinds of funky and artsy people. Let’s work hard to keep it that way.

(2) Florida Has Ruined What Was a Precious Wetland: Before the white man drained the wetlands and built the worst definition of suburban hell, everything south of Orlando was like the Everglades … a vast expanse of marshes with all sorts of diverse wildlife. The Everglades National Park is only one-sixth of what it once was in its heyday, and after having spent a day there I know how beautiful and spiritual an experience it can be. It’s not just development that killed the Florida wetlands … it was the scale and opulence of driving around everywhere that has wasted millions of acres of land. The new Obama Administration believes in saving the Everglades, unlike the Bushes. Let’s see how much progress can be made to preserve it.

Sunset at Fort Myers Beach

Sunset at Fort Myers Beach

(3) Florida Should Invest in a Gulf Coast Route: California built Highway One on the Pacific Coast because it knew it had a gorgeous Ocean … and that it should be open for all. Oregon likewise has Route 101, and even Florida’s Atlantic Coast has A1A. But despite the Florida Gulf Coast being lovely, it’s hard to experience it by car from Naples to Tampa. Either you go to a side beach road and get stuck in traffic, or the beachfront is reserved for some opulent mansions. It’s less of an issue up in the Panhandle … Route 98 through the “Redneck Riviera” is well worth the drive … but it would be nice to have one scenic route the whole way, so all Floridians can enjoy it.

(4) Off-Season at Panama City Beach is Truly Off-Season: You can go to Key West in the summer, or New Orleans when it’s not Mardi Gras … and still find a whole lot to do. But Panama City Beach when it’s not Spring Break? Dead as a doornail. It’s kind of sad to have such a “cyclical economy,” when these places should be busting with activity. The beaches are snow-white and gorgeous, but there’s no one around to enjoy them.

(5) I’ll Never Make Fun of Alabama Again: Going to Mobile was meant to be pit-stop … where I would just get a hotel room for the night and do my laundry. How was I supposed to know it was the home of the original Mardi Gras … before New Orleans made it famous? How was I supposed to know there would be a great parade Downtown, followed by hours of drunken revelry? Mobile even has three gay bars, and you’ll never guess who gave me directions on where to find them … an Alabama country girl who went to Christian College, calls herself a “devout Republican” and loves Sarah Palin. Mobile was a highlight of my trip … I’ll never tease Alabama again.

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward

An abandoned house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward

(6) I Expect Obama to Do Something About New Orleans: Everyone knows our new President has a lot on his plate, but our national disgrace is what’s happened to places like the Lower Ninth Ward … more than three years after Katrina. New Orleans is not a good place to raise a kid, because there isn’t much to look forward to. The City is desperately poor, and does not have the resources to repave its streets, re-open its crumbling schools and provide the kind of services we would expect from a world-class city. On the other hand, New Orleans still has a more bohemian lifestyle than New York or San Francisco, because it’s affordable to live there. Which may not last forever … rents doubled after the Storm.

(7) People in Cajun Country Don’t Speak French: I went to Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville to find folks who speak my mother tongue. I saw a lot of signs in French, but Louisiana’s French tradition … even in Cajun Country … is more a gesture to the past, than any present-day reality. It’s not like going to French Canada or northern Maine, where everyone speaks the language. The few local Cajuns who speak French do so because their grandparents taught them, and “Cajun French” is really a garbled combination of English and French. Even the young folks who sing Cajun tunes don’t speak it … give us another two generations, and it’ll be like church choirs that sing Latin. But, I must say, the Cajuns sure know how to cook boudin and cracklin.

(8) Mardi Gras Doesn’t Just Happen on Tuesday: Literally, Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday” … the day before Lent, where Catholics can partake in drunken festivities and indulgences before 40 days of ritual sacrifice. But you don’t just have a mass parade on one day … the real Mardi Gras celebration lasts for weeks, with various parades on each day that eventually culminate with real debauchery on Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration in New Orleans, because the city can use some joy with all its problems. Thankfully, folks don’t just wait for one day a year to let the good times roll … they make sure it drags on for much longer than that.

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

(9) Casino Gambling Has Ruined the Mississippi Delta: The Mississippi Delta — where the blues was born out of the misery of black sharecroppers — has always thrived on creating a rich culture out of its poverty. But in recent years, the new “cash crop” isn’t cotton … it’s the gambling industry, as riverboats head up and down the Mississippi River and dock in places like Vicksburg and Tunica. It’s unfortunate that an industry which gives false hope to people about “getting rich quick” has found such a niche in this region. After getting some authentic live blues in Clarksdale, this area has so much more to offer than tacky casinos.

(10) Graceland is Less Opulent than Expected: Sure, Elvis Presley decked out his mansion with shag carpets and bright Seventies furniture more appropriate for a Las Vegas lounge. But the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s famous home was actually quite modest … and Elvis never forgot his humble roots, by honoring a promise to his parents who had struggled hard to raise him. He had them live with him at Graceland, and he spent the next 20 years of his life making worthy charitable donations in the Memphis area. Say what you want about Elvis’ red-baiting politics … the guy still had a Heart of Gold, and his impact on music cannot be disputed. Long live the King!

Going to Graceland … and Back Home

February 28, 2009

Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis

Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis

When my alarm woke me up this morning, I said out loud: “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Today was the last day of my two-week “Miami-to-Memphis” tour, and I’ve been dreading its conclusion ever since I left New Orleans. But I still had a few hours before I had to catch my plane … which only meant one thing left to do on this vacation: going to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion on the south end of town.

People had teased me about going to Graceland for its opulent tackiness, and my boss even said he wouldn’t go if it was “across the street.” But a visit to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s abode was a surprisingly spiritual experience, one that helped me feel rejuvenated about this vacation. First, Graceland isn’t nearly as grandiose or opulent as one would imagine. I had always pictured a glorious antebellum plantation that Elvis bought once he became famous, and redecorated it with only the tackiness that a “nouveau riche” star would do. But the house was built in 1939 … and was surprisingly modest in scale. Sure, Elvis added his flair with shag carpets and a few extensions on the property. But it didn’t live up to the ridiculous hype those who like to make fun of Elvis have made it out to be.

The music room at Graceland.

The music room at Graceland.

Besides a tour of the mansion, a very tasteful museum has been displayed about the life and accomplishments of Elvis Presley. While I would have liked to have seen more focus on his earlier rock ‘n’ roll career in the 1950’s … rather than the drab Vegas lounge singing years of the 60’s and 70’s … you couldn’t help getting excited walking through the exhibits as the King’s music blared throughout the room. “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” said John Lennon … as the undeniable impact Elvis has made to the development of music was felt as you did the audio tour of Graceland.

As I moseyed about the Mansion Tour for a couple hours, I couldn’t help but think what a great experience I’ve had in these past two weeks … from listening to roosters have a “crow off” in Key West, to canoeing the silent marshes of the Everglades, to viewing the snow-white beaches of the Florida Panhandle, to celebrating the first Mardi Gras in Mobile, to dancing to Cajun music in Breaux Bridge, to partaking in the festivities of New Orleans, to watching authentic live blues in Clarksdale … it would be a tough time to go home. At the end of the Graceland Tour is a “Meditation Area” where the tombs of Elvis, his stillborn brother, parents and grandmother are all buried. I sat there, as the noontime sun shown on the nice garden … and thought about what this trip has really meant for me.

Elvis Presley's tomb

Elvis Presley's tomb

This trip was all about exploring parts of the country I had never been to … it was about continuing my famous 28-state road trip I did after college where I had left off … and it was about taking a real vacation I may not have the opportunity to do for a very long time. As I set off on an exciting but stressful chapter in my life, I can always look back at this time as my moment of repose. I’ve been woefully ignorant of the major news developments in the past two weeks, as I have consciously avoided keeping up with current events … nationally, and back in San Francisco. Now is the time to head home … now is the time to head back to reality again. Now is the time to say farewell to the King, and goodbye to this trip.

P.S. Stay tuned for a blog posting tomorrow, where I summarize some final thoughts about this vacation.

Diggin’ the Mississippi Blues …

February 27, 2009

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

I’ll keep this post short, because it’s almost 1:00 a.m. and I just checked into my hotel room for the night. I stayed at the Ground Zero Blues Club until 11:00 p.m., a well worth it experience to dig the Mississippi Delta Blues. The club’s audience was an ecletic mix of tourists and locals, as a few very well-dressed black men with impeccable suits came in … and were clearly revered by those in the know. One of them even got up to sing a few songs, which was a highlight of the night.

But Ground Zero was launched to showcase new talent in the Delta Country, and tonight I met a 17-year-old black kid (who looked 12!) called Omar. The boy can play a mean electric guitar, and he knows it. After one of his acts, I came up to congratulate Omar … and he asked me for a tip. I laughed, but he was serious. He asked again, so I gave him $5. A few regulars told me he’s been coming in to perform for years, and they’ve seen him come into himself over time. The show was technically an open mike, but despite the temptation I opted not to sign up. I didn’t come to Mississippi to play; I came to hear the blues, and these folks are out of my league.

The two-hour drive to Memphis was tough, as night had fallen … and I experienced one of the South’s legendary thunderstorms. Growing up in Chicago, I always had those in the summer … but apparently, it happens all year round down here. I had Memphis native Aretha Franklin keep me company in the car, but when her CD ran out I put in Robert Johnson … the 1930’s blues legend who sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. As I drove through the dark roads of the Mississippi Delta, Johnson’s voice was an ominous reminder of what part of the country I was going through … a place steeped in history.

Tomorrow, I wake up around 8:00 a.m. … and have tickets to visit Elvis Presley’s nearby Graceland at 10. I have to return the rental car at the airport by 12, and my airplane leaves at 2:30. I’m very close to the end of my wonderful two-week vacation. I wish I could stay a day longer, so I can actually visit Memphis … such as Beale Street, or the Civil Rights Museum. But I won’t see anything besides Graceland, as I head home and back to reality. I can’t say this trip has given me some notable spiritual enlightenment, but it has allowed me to relax, explore and think about what lies ahead … it’s important to do that every once in a while. We need to stop and smell the roses.

And They Called it … the Birth of the Blues!

February 27, 2009

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

I’m in Clarksdale, Mississippi … just two hours south of Memphis, in the heart of Delta Blues country. My trip concludes tomorrow, and I’m making the best out of my final hours as a traveler to indulge in the best Mississippi has to offer. I’m blogging from Ground Zero Blues Club, where an open mike starts in about 45 minutes. I had wanted to get some good blues, but was told there isn’t much going on Thursday night between here and Memphis. And the locals tell me Beale Street in Memphis is overhyped. Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, specializes in having local up-and-coming blues musicians perform live. Before W.C. Handy made it big in Memphis and Muddy Waters was discovered in Chicago, they got their start here in Clarksdale.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

I left Vicksburg this morning, and Seth’s advise for where to grab breakfast was probably a good one. But when I got there, the place had a hand-written notice saying: “closed Thursday.” So I hopped into my car, and headed up north on Highway 61. One thing I’ve learned about the “Great River Road” is that you really can’t see the Mighty Mississippi very much — unlike California’s Highway One, which hugs the Pacific Ocean. But Seth had told me to check out the Vicksburg Civil War Memorial site … directly north of town. It’s the highest elevation point along the River, and offered a terrific view.

I’m hungry, but am having a tough time finding a place to eat along Highway 61 … at least something old and traditional you would expect from the Mississippi Delta. The casino economy has exploded interest in Route 61, transforming it from a sleepy two-lane road into an efficient four-lane highway. So I pop in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, as bluegrass favorite after bluegrass favorite gets me into the groove as the road follows the rolling hills near the river. When I get to the village of Onward, I take the option to turn left on Route 1 to get back into a quiet two-lane backroad. Now we are in the Delta, a flat countryside … as I imagine George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson escape in their prison clothes and hide among the various bayous.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

In the small village of Mayersville, I finally find a convenient store / restaurant where I can grab breakfast (or lunch?) … as it’s almost 12 Noon. It’s one of those places without a formal menu. You just get in line and request either chicken or ribs, and the cook serves you a tray with your choice … along with corn, sweet mashed potatoes and beans. Humble farmers with the thickest accents I’ve ever heard eat their lunch near me, as I indulge in the traditional Southern fare. I strike up a conversation with Ricky, the owner’s son, and I ask him where I can get some good blues in the area. “Clarksdale,” he replies … which is a few hours to the north.

This is blues country … a predominantly black part of the Mississippi where sharecroppers in abject poverty created a new music form that has transformed American culture. As Muddy Waters once said, “the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll.” Legend has it that somewhere in these parts, a young Robert Johnson met a devil at the crossroads … who taught him to play a mean guitar in exchange for his soul. Nobody knows exactly where that crossroads was, although a few places in the Mississippi Delta take credit for it. As the O Brother soundtrack comes to an end, I put in a Blues compilation CD that will keep me occupied for a while.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

As Bessie Smith wails a melancholy tune in my car and I admire the peaceful road (there is practically nobody else around), I long to get a view of the Mississippi River. Just north of Rosedale is a turn left into “Great River Road State Park.” I arrive at the park’s entrance, and there’s no ranger to greet me. But there’s a sign that says “Honor Box: pay 3 dollars if no attendant.” I drop three bucks in the bin, and move on. The park is even more desolate than Route 1, as I now have just myself and the Mighty Mississippi to contend with. It’s one of the most serene moments I’ve had in a while, interrupted by the blues riff of my phone ringing … whoever is trying to call me won’t have much of a chance. There is absolutely no cell phone reception in these parts.

I had been advised that in these parts, you can’t just open up a tourist guidebook to find out where the real blues joints are in town … you gotta be proactive, and ask the locals. I arrive in Clarksdale around 3:30 p.m., and visit the Delta Blues Museum. The place is incredible, as we have original guitars owned by B.B. King and Muddy Waters … and I read about the area’s rich history. Muddy Waters was born in the area in a pre-Civil War log cabin that was a slaves’ quarters for many years. Most of the cabin structure has been relocated inside the museum, as I watch a short video documentary about Muddy Waters’ life. I am now more determined than ever to seek out blues tonight.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

I ask the museum attendant where to go. He says on weeknights there isn’t much … and between here and Memphis is nothing but riverboat casinos for entertainment. He advises me either to drive up to Beale Street in Memphis, or hang out at Club Ground Zero. I’m skeptical about any club owned by a Hollywood actor (even if he grew up in the Delta), but I go to a local memorabilia shop called Cat Head. The owner, who is organizing tonight’s “open mike” at Ground Zero, tells me it’ll be a good jam session. She says that Memphis on Monday or Tuesday nights is good, but not on Thursdays … might as well stay in town for the entertainment.

I take a quick ride — with Aretha Franklin singing in the car — to Abe’s BBQ, a legendary joint in town to get a nice pork sandwich. Now I’m back at Club Ground Zero, blogging away as a local musician performs on stage. The jam session will start in about 20 minutes … I don’t have a guitar, but if the spirit moves me I think I can borrow one from a performer. We’ll see … I’m determined to make my last night of this road trip one of the most memorable.

After tonight’s show, I’ll drive to my cheap motel south of Memphis. My plan is to wake up tomorrow morning, go to Graceland, turn in the rental car and then fly back to San Francisco. I’m in denial that this trip is ending.

Following the Mississippi … on Highway 61

February 26, 2009

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

As I head up to Memphis from New Orleans, I’m getting this ominous realization that my glorious 2-week vacation is coming to an end. For that reason, I am determined to have a good time … even if getting out of Mardi Gras would be a tough act to follow.

For the rest of the trip, I am basically following only one major road … US Highway 61, as it meanders along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis. I left New Orleans today, and put in the only CD in my car that would make sense for the occasion … Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” As the opening electric guitar riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” kicks off the start of the album, I speed through the unappealing scenery … singing along to Bob’s unforgettable lyrics.

Unappealing scenery is an apt description. New Orleans to Baton Rouge along Route 61 isn’t much to brag about … picturesque bayous, sprinkled with oil refineries carry the inescapable conclusion that it’s not an environmentally sound place to be. But I’ve got Bob Dylan in the car, and I’m snacking away on the jar of cracklin I picked up in Cajun Country … so I really don’t care. When Dylan’s CD has concluded, I pop in REM’s “Automatic for the People,” as the car meanders through the inevitable traffic jam and road work around Baton Rouge, heading due north.

Now the scenery has taken a room for the better … as Highway 61 north of Baton Rouge calls itself “Scenic Blvd.” The rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley start to show their stuff, as REM’s gritty music also comes to its end. I need something idyllic … something joyful … something familiar. So I pop in a CD from the California Golden Overtones, UC Berkeley’s all-women acappella group whose songs I also know and love. It doesn’t occur to me until after I throw in the CD that my favorite song on the album is “Black Velvet” … which starts with the lyrics: Mississippi, in the middle of a dry spell; Jimmy Rogers, on the Victrola, as the car crosses the state line.

Route 61 is now called the “Great River Road,” as it follows the mighty Mississippi River. Granted, we’re a few miles east of the River and can’t see it from the road, but the picturesque view coupled with the speedy efficiency of a four-lane highway creates an almost ideal circumstance for the romantic traveler. But yet, I long for the less congested scenic route … a two-lane road with a low speed limit that allows me to fully relax, one that convinces me I am truly on vacation. When I get to Natchez, Mississippi, my wish becomes true … with the Natchez Parkway.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is the oldest highway in America, stretching 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville. A very young Abraham Lincoln, who rafted down the Mississippi to New Orleans found his way back home to Illinois via the Natchez Parkway. It’s an idyllic road in the woods … deviating off Highway 61 to be closer to the Mississippi. I take out my Paul Simon “Graceland” CD, and sing along to these very apt and appropriate lyrics for this particular journey: I’m following the River down the highway to the cradle of the Civil War … I’m going to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Yes, my final destination before flying home on Friday will be Graceland … despite its tackiness. When Paul Simon sings “for reasons I cannot explain, there’s part of me that wants to see Graceland.” Paul was inspired to write this song while following this very highway up to Memphis … now I feel a kinship with the guy besides a very common first name. As the “Graceland” album concludes, the Natchez Parkway crosses Highway 61 … which I get back on, to stay closer to the Mighty Mississippi. Night has fallen, and I’m heading to Vicksburg for the night.

I arrive in Vicksburg around 7:00 p.m. — and my first impression of the city is not good. I had reserved a cheap hotel room in the heart of Downtown, thinking that being in a historic Civil War town on the waterfront would be fun and eventful … but the town looks dead. I ask the desk clerk what’s there to do in Vicksburg tonight, and she says “gamble” … lotsa riverboat casinos on the Mississippi, which is not definitely not my thing to do.

So I figure out a place to go have dinner, and choose Walnut Hills, a charming old Southern restaurant that serves fried chicken, collard greens and mashed potatoes. The short walk to the restaurant is a bit sketchy, but when I arrive it feels safe. There are practically no other customers, save for a nice family of four … who turn out to be locals. They explain there’s nothing to do in Vicksburg tonight, because it’s Ash Wednesday. In fact, the four of them just got back from Church. Turns out the youngest at the table is my age … Seth Libbey, and he plays bass guitar and knows blues country. Seth tells me I came to Vicksburg on the wrong night … last night was Mardi Gras, and it was fun.

After dinner, Seth offers to give me a ride to a local sports bar where we grab a couple beers. He calls up a few of his music friends, and asks them what’s going on tonight. Nothing fun, apparently. So after a few beers, he takes me to another bar in the area where he offers me a drink. Everyone in the bar is friends with Seth, and we end up playing cards with the bartender for several hours. If I hadn’t met Seth at the restaurant, I would have been bored out of my minds tonight. Seth’s been playing blues gigs for years, as he tries to write the Great American Novel. On the side, he works as a tour guide for the local Civil War battlefield site … so knows a lot of the history.

When I tell him it’s getting late and I should get back to my hotel room, Seth takes me on a brief tour of the City … with its beautiful murals on the waterfront that describes Vicksburg history. He clearly loves his hometown, but told me he normally doesn’t engage with “strangers.” When I tell him I’ve never been to Mississippi, he says he’s honored to be my “first Mississippi friend.” Before dropping me off, I ask Seth where’s a good place to go eat breakfast tomorrow morning. He points out a place on Washington Street, before we call it a night.