Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Play the blues, the Delta blues …

In the howling wind comes a stinging rain …

Welcome to the next chapter in our joint experience of life as the future indeed continues to unfold in spectacular fashion. We have made it to Paris, Las Vegas, where we were fortunate to catch up with good friends, Brian and Jan Kenny. There was much to discuss and it was a time spent frivolously as well as in deep thought. If you recall the previous post you will be reminded that our trip to Paris was about to start and as we packed for the journey, the skies cleared considerably and for the week we were on the road there was no precipitation falling down on us – yes, clear skies are often their own reward as it put us in the mood to enjoy a much-needed weekend of rest.

Whether it is out of superstition or just being over cautious, no matter what the weather forecaster may predict, at this time of the year our go-to vehicle is the all-wheel drive Jeep SRT 8. Into this vehicle we cram a winter survival pack that includes shovel and snow removal brush; additional windscreen washer fluid; candles, bottled water and energy bars; snow chains and yes, even a couple of big bags of kitty litter. Whatever conditions we were likely to face, including the possibility of an off-road excursion, we were definitely prepared. To date, we have not had to rely on any of the above, but yet, even with blue skies overhead, we weren’t about to take any chances.

Las Vegas is becoming a much-visited city for Margo and me so much so that we have started to check out the various RV sites with an expectation that once again, we will be attending industry and trade events in this city later in the year. There’s always the big HPE Discover event and we are looking forward to the opportunity to spend time with HPE executives and management and it’s always a great occasion to hear and see firsthand what the company is up to, particularly as this will be the first major event post HP-split that we will be attending. However, as of February, we walked right into the middle of the festivities celebrating the Chinese New Year and as the photo above captures, given it is the year of the monkey, there were numerous floral arrangements featuring monkeys and this was the display at the Bellagio.

Having the Jeep with us, we drove out to Lake Las Vegas and on further to Lake Mead. If there is one place on the American landscape that reflects the desperation over the dwindling water supply, then it has to be Lake Mead. The drive down to the marina involves trekking over first a paved road of bitumen, then some recent additional footage of concrete and finally, a dry and dusty dirt trail. The water level has dropped so alarmingly that the intakes to the power generation units within the walls of the Hoover Dam had to be relocated many feet below where they originally were located. While to many, the very thought of there being lakes in the desert surrounding Las Vegas sounds absurd, nevertheless, much of the west still depends on what the Colorado River delivers and of late, it’s been very little.

The view of the lake in full retreat, at a time when El Niño is expected to send punishing rains to the California coastline and dump record snowfalls on the Sierras, is depressing. To date, the hotter than normal Pacific current hasn’t quite delivered on expectations. Yet again, in Colorado, March is always the snowiest month, so perhaps El Niño has still more to deliver. But it is getting desperate for a large part of America’s population and rain is much needed. However, it wasn’t rain or even snow that turned our return trip from Las Vegas into an adventure. It was those sunny skies that we saw on the drive out from Boulder.

With warm days in the Rockies comes melting snow. However, with nights still chilly, water that begins to flow rapidly refreezes. This is a recipe for rockslides and so it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to hear that massive slides had shut down Interstate 70 leading into Denver, our primary route home. It became clear we wouldn’t be able to take our normal route home and with no indication given as to when the rockslide would be cleared, we elected to head south and take US highway 50. A good plan, for sure, but old habits are hard to break and by accident, we drove onto Colorado highway 92 that was a single lane highway over the mountains via Crawford where once singer, Joe Cocker, lived. Fortunately the snow had been ploughed and the road was empty but it slowed us down considerably. It may be one of the best roads to take in the fall, but in the middle of winter, it’s not recommended for the fainthearted. 

Driving America’s highways is our passion. We never had to experience America from the back seat of a station wagon driven by our parents, as nearly every one of our peers had done, every road taken presents us with new vistas and no matter the time of year, even roads travelled often, the view out the front window is very different. Returning to Boulder meant unpacking the Jeep, cleaning it, and the repacking as we were headed into the Deep South. Following a route that would take us across Kansas before heading south into Oklahoma and then into Texas, and finally arriving in New Orleans. We were looking forward to a return trip to the Big Easy as there is something about it that does reflect images of Las Vegas.

Avoiding the mountains to the west and south, we thought we had it all sorted out. Yes, the traditional winter survival pack was crammed back in but with stopovers in Dallas and several nights on the road, we have adapted to a different style of packing. After the experience we had with our first trip in the Maserati, we no longer take large suitcases with us preferring instead to rely on much smaller luggage with one bag packed per stop. As the picture above captures so well, at first sight it looks a little incongruous but it works and we are never left to drag heavy bags to our rooms. Or depend in any way on bell hops.

But on the last leg of the journey, the heavens opened in a manner we were unprepared for – a deluge of rain together with winds that simply cut visibility to zero. We had driven into a massive storm system that was the intersection of a warm front coming off the Gulf of Mexico hitting a cold front that the Jet Stream brought down from Canada. Even if it has a sense of NAFTA about it, there was nothing good about it. Killing the cruise control, dropping our speed to below 35 mph, turning on the hazard lights and upping the windscreen wiper speed to maximum, I swung over to the leftest lane – yes, the fast lane – as the yellow line separating traffic lanes from the emergency lane was the only visible indicator of where the road was headed.

The sky had opened up or perhaps simply ripped open as the horrendous deluge engulfed us but with the sky as dark as it was and no visible indication of where the horizon lay, it wasn’t until we arrived at our hotel in New Orleans that we found out  that five tornadoes had touched down in and around us. As the system had moved east it had intensified further and it is sad to note in passing that several fatalities occurred as the system cut a swathe across the south eastern states. It put quite the damper on our collective moods for a day or two and while we didn’t have the experience in New Orleans we had anticipated, we came to understand what the city would be like when in the grip of a more serious hurricane.

This trip through the Deep South was both an experience of music as it was an experience of food – and given the weather we encountered, food dominated yet again. Out hopes of hearing Jazz were put aside as we taxied from one place to another and given the lateness of the evening on some nights, we just didn’t have the stamina to wander the streets listening for traditional the traditional sounds of New Orleans. And then, to borrow the title of a movie, it was a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. Yes, the downright ugly – and it was in New Orleans. There is after all a reason why there is a saying that suggests you can never go home.

In the very early 1980s I came to New Orleans for the first time as part of a multi-city business trip to America. The highlight of the visit was dinner at Antoine’s, a hundred plus year old restaurant. Yes, its doors are still open and yes, it has the same sense of timelessness about it, but it’s nothing to look forward to these days. Overpriced, overcooked and under-atmosphered, we have a sense it simply cannot survive much longer – if your plans include a trip to New Orleans any time soon, simply stay away from this place and look for a much better venue.

When it comes to dining out on fish, which had been our intent in New Orleans, we had scored much better in Dallas. Yes, Dallas, at a small-chain establishment, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. Here they served up one of the better salmons we have tasted. Should you find yourself in the neighborhood then try the Ginger Salmon: Grilled salmon fillet topped with ginger butter & served with almond green beans. But this was just the start and of course, New Orleans aside, there was more to come as after leaving the delta, we headed north to Memphis before cutting the corner via the Ozarks into Kansas City.

The original plan was to leave New Orleans and revisit Highway 61 – the original blues route that ends up outside - Chicago but driving fatigue following the journey into New Orleans together with lots of fine wine while there had taken its toll, so the choice was Interstate 55. While entering the suburbs of Memphis, Margo began looking for good BBQ establishments and our first choice had been a recommendation that had come from a business associate, but as luck would have it, directly opposite our hotel was a small shack called Corky’s Ribs and BBQ. By happenstance, Margo found that this little place scored the highest ratings on a site she uses so we had to try and it was terrific! Wow – what can we say? We tried pretty much everything on offer – the ribs, the pulled pork and the brisket.  

It came as a surprise, too, when we finally made it into Kansas City we wound up being just a few blocks away from a really good BBQ establishment, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue. Yes, it’s another small-chain restaurant and ultimately, Margo and I were split over whether Corky’s was better than Fiorella’s or not, with Margo’s nod going to Fiorella’s. In short, either one offered the style of BBQ we have come to associate with trips along the Mississippi River and the photo’s above reflect the fun we had even if Antoine’s proved ugly. Perhaps the only eating establishments that passed as being simply bad were the numerous fast food places we stopped at along the way but at these establishments we did limit our intake to just a couple of cups of hot coffee!

What has really changed across America’s landscape has been the price of gas (and diesel). Unbelievable! We were pumping gas at some stops well below $2.00 per gallon – at some places, less than a $1.50 – and that is for 91 / 93 octane premium gas. When you only have to pay a little more than $25.00 to put almost 20 gallons of gas in the car, you just have to enjoy while it lasts. Not surprisingly, we try to avoid California as in some cities gas is still priced above $5.00 per gallon and that kind of takes the fun of travelling completely. On the other hand, shortly we will be heading into Arizona with a visit to Scottsdale, and across Arizona you can pump the cheapest gas in America.

As we look back on February’s travels across some twenty states in three weeks, it was that trip from Dallas to New Orleans that remains fresh in our minds. The howling winds, the torrential rain and a sky that couldn’t be seen. We had wanted to hear the blues famous in this region and to experience the roads that took this musical form into the mainstream but circumstances intervened. The lyrics atop this post have been taken from the U2 song, Bullet the blue sky, and it’s more than appropriate to end this post with the complete stanza as its message was hard to escape and especially pertinent to how we felt for those few lonely and isolated hours on a freeway devoid of form:

Across the field you see the sky ripped open
See the rain through a gaping wound
Pounding on the women and children
Who run
Into the arms
Of America