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#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 8
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Brent and I are in Kansas, heading west, as I scroll through our itinerary of roadside attractions. We’ve been adding stops as we go and occasionally ruling out other stops, but when Brent suddenly asks, “What’s next?” I tell him it’s a place called Truckhenge. “We’re definitely going there,” he says, with a weird smile on his face.

I plug the coordinates into my map app, which I’ve named Sally—don’t ask why—but she’s busy yelling at me, as usual, that we’re doing something wrong, or that there is no such location. “Oh, yes there is,” Brent says. I ask him what Truckhenge is, and he says, “I don’t know. But it’s there.”

TruckhengeIt’s about a half hour drive from Lawrence to just outside Topeka, under a blue sky and rising August temperature. We navigate our way to a dirt road that turns sharply to the right and leads us to a Quonset building tucked behind the treeline. The place is silent. Brent stops the car and we look at each other. We suddenly realize we have no idea what we’re doing.

So, Brent gets out, and I stay put, hanging out the car window and lazily saying things like, “Is there a doorbell? Knock again. Try the handle. Do you see anyone inside?” After each quip, Brent shoots me a knock-it-off look. He gets back in the car. We sit and stare at the building. There’s a fading phone number painted on the garage door. I call it and a man answers. “Hi,” I say. “We’re at Truckhenge…”

“I’ll be right down,” the man says.

Moments later, the owner, Ron Lessman, walks out with a dog or two in tow. He introduces himself and begins talking, and man, he talks fast. In the first two minutes, we learn his name, that he built this Quonset house, and that he put gargoyles on it to keep the County away. We share a laugh and he explains his philosophy on life, which is all about common sense and is not so keen on bureaucratic rules. But just when I think he’s anti-establishment, he tells a quick story about the local police force and mentions the officers with respect and by name–because he knows them all by name–and his story is about appreciation for their quick thinking on a matter at his property and the work they do. Somewhere in the fast and funny story, he begins to mention the wood carvings around the property that he’s made himself, the art of the Quonset house, he casually points out an old boxcar to our left that he says is full of bones, and he makes mention of a pond beyond the trees.

To myself, I think: Bones? Human?

Ron is a wiry, tan man with long, graying beard, a bandana on his head, and he’s wearing a red t-shirt that bears the words Truck You. “We’re just trying to have fun here,” he says. “Would you like to come in the house?”

“Sure,” we say happily and immediately. We follow Ron and I make eye contact with Brent. I widen my eyes to ask him silently, “Think we’re gonna die?” He mirrors my look and I read him saying, “Not sure. Let’s find out.”

I take a final look around the front of the building, the trees, the blue sky, and the boxcar, thinking we’ve dropped in to a strange new land. “Kansas,” I think to myself and I think about life, death, and journeys, all in the blink of an eye. As we follow Ron, he tells us that William Shatner was at Truckhenge just a few weeks ago. It’s apt because right at this moment, I can’t help but picture the characters from Star Trek beaming in with their recorders (by the way, Brent owns one of those recorders) to learn about a new place with a sense of adventure and a sense of “anything can happen.” This sentiment is precisely why, wordlessly, we knew we’d go inside, because anything can happen, anywhere, anytime, so we can get back in the car and drive away or we can boldly go forward. We choose forward, knowing we rejected outright any other choice. (Don’t try this at home, kids. Don’t risk everything unless you’re willing to lose it all.)

TruckhengeInside the Quonset house, Ron shows us more of his art—it’s on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, painted on the floor, and I’m drawn to the reverse side of the smiley face window he’s made from wine bottles. The house is spacious, and everything in it, and of it, has been repurposed. Pieces from cars and boats have been rebuilt into a staircase with a chest of drawers and signage made into railings. As sunlight streams in from windows on the second floor, fencing creates hallways, fruit hangs from a coat hanger, a series of boarded up windows serves as shelving. Everywhere you look is art in progress, and objects reimagined to new purposes. It’s nothing short of astounding. Brent and I realize we’re safe as kittens, and just as curious.

Ron shows us his art, lets us take pictures, and takes us through the back of the house to the expansive farmland that is dotted with his wood carvings—each with its own character story—areas for bands to play, boats, bottles and cement, the pond beyond the trees, and the word Truckhenge spelled out on the ground with bricks to be visible from planes above. TruckhengeAlong the way, Ron tells us about his struggles with bureaucracy, he tells us about the many bones they found in the large pond that experts from the university have deemed to be camel bones (they mystery deepens), and he tells us of the great concerts that go on at this property.

TruckhengeWe stop at the trucks at the corner of the farm. The County said because of the flood plain, Ron had to “pick up” the trucks. So Ron had them raised off the ground onto girders of concrete and the County conceded that the trucks were no longer a mobile threat. Thus, Truckhenge was born.

TruckhengeWe round the corner, listening to Ron’s stories and sharing some of our own—where we’re going and how far we’ve come. At this point, we know we’ll never make it to Colorado before dark, but we can’t help ourselves from exploring more with Ron. The temperature continues to climb as we make our way back around to the boxcar of bones. Ron invites us in, and we happily follow. The boxcar is in bad shape, but you can still move around in it, carefully, and we find that Ron has separated and sorted the various animal bones he’s found in the pond.

We suddenly hear the ring of a telephone and the sound is so foreign to us. Outside the boxcar, we see a small group of people walking the property as if they live there. We have no idea where they’ve come from or how long they’ve been there, out of sight, but Ron and his dogs are completely at ease with their presence, so we are, too.

Back inside the house, Ron invites us to sign the guestbook, and we do. Brent turns a page in the book and shows me what he finds: William Shatner’s signature. Brent gets a Truck You t-shirt, and Ron gives me a peacock feather. He hugs us goodbye.Truckhenge

The heat of the day has caused my Missouri bug bites to flare up in fiery itch, so once back inside the car I scratch and scratch as we drive down the road. For an hour, all we say to each other is, “I… I…” and shake our heads. We are forever different and there are no words anymore. Truckhenge is an experience that you have to have for yourself, because you’ll enter as one thing and emerge as something completely changed.

Eventually this day we will reach the Mushroom Rocks State Park, where we’ll wander around saying things like, “We’re just trying to have fun here,” and, “Well, Ron says…”

Until then, we drive in quiet awe of what just happened toward a town that’s not real.

Our deepest thanks go to Ron Lessman for inviting us in.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Time Before Time

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 7
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Time Before TimeBrent and I arrive at Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City at 11 a.m., ready for some breakfast beer, rather than bypass the brewery altogether due to timing because there’s no concept of time when you’re on a road trip, anyway. Okay, there is, but we stopped living by time a couple states ago.

Time Before TimeIn the Boulevard tasting room, we share a flight of mini beers of our choice, deciding the Black Pale Ale (my choice) and the Farmhouse Ale (Brent’s) to be the best, and then we hit the gift shop for t-shirts and magnets and how-do-I-look-in-this-hat time.

When we get back in the car, we cross from Kansas City, Missouri into Kansas City, Kansas, and drive west toward lunch with dinosaurs—truly, a restaurant in the suburbs dedicated to giant food portions and animatronic dinosaurs. Time Before Time(For you Mall of America Minnesotans out there, think Rainforest Café but with dinosaurs and an erupting volcano.) We feast, take pictures of ourselves hanging in prehistoria (mostly of Brent trying to get eaten by every dinosaur we approach–you can imagine the people who came today merely to eat lunch are glad to get out of our way), Time Before Timeand stealthily follow the dino footprints through the T-Rex Café gift shop trying to sneak up on each other. I’m not super sneaky at this point—I nicked my foot with the glass door on the way in and have developed a bit of a limp. Time Before TimeRemembering the O’Malley’s girls in Weston who gave me a napkin of gin to rub on my numerous bug bite welts, I tell Brent that I need some emergency gin for my toe. He laughs at me. There’s no gin in the gift shop, so I opt instead for a dinosaur backpack for my nephew.

Back on the road again, we head toward a giant teepee (isn’t everyone who’s on the road these days??), and we find it—though we have no idea why it’s here. Time Before TimeA side door along the fence has a sign with a phone number on it should we want to rent it out—that door is locked. The front door to the teepee itself has a curtain pulled across it so you can’t see in too well. Clearly they don’t want people looking in, so we approach the teepee and try. The best we can see is a case of Pepsi on the floor a few inches from the front door. We back away to discuss getting in to this teepee.

Time Before TimeMeanwhile, cars stop and gawk at the teepee as they turn around in its dirt parking lot, and Brent and I stand there goading each other to try the door. We’re the only ones standing there—no one else even gets out of their cars.

“Just open the door,” I tell Brent.

“You do it,” he says. “I think someone lives there.”

“That’s why you should do it,” I say. Minutes of reasons and excuses later, a plan is set as to how to apologize if we walk in on someone’s living room. It’s my plan, set for Brent to act out, but somehow the plan gets twisted and now I have to do it. I set my face and start marching toward the front door of the teepee. Halfway there, I turn around and stick my tongue out at Brent, but he’s cued and ready with his camera phone to get the footage of my awkward apology. Great. YouTube and a police station, here I come.

I continue to the glass door that looks like it belongs on a gas station rather than a teepee, slowly reach out my hand, grasp the metal handle, and pull. It’s locked. Brent laughs.

Thus, we take more pictures and hop back in the car. “Who locks a teepee?” I ask as we head back onto the road toward our next adventure.

We laugh and realize we’re both starting to like Kansas. And we’re only just getting started. Where we’re headed next, we’ll be invited inside. And we won’t emerge the same again.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 6
(Click here for Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

It’s late when we leave O’Malley’s Pub, and Brent has found us a hotel that’s just north of Kansas City. We consider, for a split second, hitting up some Kansas City nightlife before turning in. I consult the Googs and the first thing that pops up is Applebee’s. For nightlife?? I scroll down and I find Boulevard. Boulevard! But, it’s been an awesome day that started in St. Paul, meandered by a giant gnome in Iowa, a haunted phone booth, Mother Mary in a tree, sliced bread in Missouri, a giant ball of string, and a triple underground pub and brewery. The truth is, we’re a little tired. But Boulevard’s tasting room opens at 11 a.m. Hmm…

“Breakfast beer?” I ask Brent. He makes a face. Then his face becomes unreadable and serene–which means he’s thinking. “We’ll be on the road by then and long past Boulevard. No breakfast beer.” Bummer. Perhaps it would have been weird, anyway.Mid-America Sea Change

We head out from O’Malley’s and drive down the center of Weston so we can get one last view of the historic businesses and streetlights along the river. We’re the only ones around, so Brent stops in the middle of the street and we just take it in.

It’s a 40-minute drive to the hotel, all in the pitch darkness. (At least, what I know to this point as pitch darkness. I’m about to get schooled in that, but today is not the day.) I study our list of roadside attractions with the handy dandy use of my flashlight app, but it seems that finding a Bonnie and Clyde marker in the dark is the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack, blindfolded.

By the time we reach the hotel, we’re pretty much wiped out for the day.

In the morning, Brent drives us from our hotel parking lot to another lot across the street.

“What are we doing?” I ask.

“Look for the marker,” he says.

“Bonnie and Clyde?” I ask, and get excited about it. We’d ruled it out, miles ago. But in the corner of this parking lot across the street from the random hotel Brent happened to book while I got bug-eaten on O’Malley’s patio was the veritable haystack needle.

“How did you know this was here?” I ask.

“I recognized the name of the street over there, when we got in last night,” he says.

I look to where he’s pointing. “Ambassador?” I ask, and then it hits me. “Oh, you’re right.” (His memory astounds me. Maybe this is how brains work when they’re not absorbing the world, sponge-like—okay, hoarder-like–and working to sort it all out into writing. He doesn’t leave his house in wrinkled clothes with a pen stuck in his hair, trying to remember, not what day today is, but rather what we call the days of the week. Incidentally, I’m calling today William.)

Mid-America Sea ChangeBack to the parking lot: This is the scene of a Bonnie and Clyde shootout. (“A” shootout, not “the.” That one’s in Louisiana. From here, they got away.) We are standing at the former site of the Red Crown Tavern and Tourist Cabins where in 1933, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang rented two cabins, were surrounded by lawmen, a shootout erupted, and Bonnie and Clyde escaped–but not without consequences. Clyde’s brother Buck was fatally wounded, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, sustained an injury that blinded her and she was caught.

This happened at a time when, during America’s Great Depression, many were stealing to survive. At first glance, that sounds kinda cool. We’re all in love with the thought of being renegades, thanks to the X Ambassadors song. (The Styx song, “Renegade,” shows the more sinister side.) The truth is, a renegade is a traitor. Not just a person with a rebellious spirit, but rather a turncoat, a deserter. That’s a different tale, indeed.

The stories, true and legend, of Bonnie and Clyde are fascinating, yet, everywhere that they went they lived on the run, sustained injuries, withstood the deaths of family, and stole–mainly from Mom-and-Pop shops.

Law enforcement doesn’t buy in to the fascination and lore of outlaw crime. They outright hunted Bonnie and Clyde and ultimately caught them in a hail of gunfire in Louisiana. This plaque is a testament to that manhunt, as it says on the bottom, “In tribute to the lawmen.”

“Indeed,” I think.

“I’ve been thinking,” Brent says and I look at him. “Breakfast beer,” he says. “We’ve come this far.”

I smile. We hop in the car and head toward Boulevard Brewing Company at 10:30 in the morning on William, realizing suddenly that this isn’t weird at all.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

America Underground

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 5

(Click here for Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

It’s getting dark in western Missouri, and I’m hitting The Googs to check out the place Brent thinks we should stop for dinner. We are headed toward a giant ball of string, and, feeling very Griswold, we’re singing “Holiday Road” in the car. Google tells me the pub is no ordinary pub—it’s got three levels, and they’re all underground. Seriously?!? I tell Brent to “Punch it, Chewie,” and he insists he’s not Chewie; he’s the Captain. I roll my eyes. Yeah, Captain my—Assuming that we continue this pace, we’ll arrive before closing time, but only just.

The sun is setting over Weston, Missouri as we arrive in the river town, and it isn’t just the coppery sunlight that makes this town beautiful. Picturesque storefronts greet us and most of the town has been designated as a historical district. We find our way easily to the Weston Brewing Company and food takes precedence over the string ball, which is around here somewhere.

Inside, we settle in to eat by lamplight but soon the noise of the neighboring party is too much for introverted Brent, so we ask if we can move outside onto the patio. It’s a quiet Missouri summer night and we’re happy to be in the fresh air—so far. We decide we’re close enough to the border to get a hotel in Kansas. Brent books someplace from his phone—yes, it’s 9 p.m. and we’re only now booking a place to stay for the night. And we can, because life is good like that. Kansas it is. In the meantime, Brent goes wandering around the grounds looking for the string ball, and he’s gone long enough that I know he found it and can’t drag himself away. I find him and the giant ball on the back of the patio, under the roof, but with no lighting there.

America UndergroundIn the dark, we find out that this was once the world’s largest ball of string, collected by one man, Weston’s own Finley Stephens, and that it weighs 3,000 pounds. Brent and I take turns pretending we’re Atlas, which puts us up close and personal with this ball, and I can tell you that the string is soft to the touch.

We take pictures and giggle like little kids and eventually get back to our table in time to eat. The food is exceptional—but we’re attracting attention. Not from people, mind you, because the locals don’t seem to mind us or our antics at all. No, we have a line of ants marching toward my plate but I don’t pay them much attention because my legs are under attack by mosquitos. These aren’t just any mosquitos—they’re invisible beasts whose poison feels like fire injections. Now we know why most patrons are sitting inside.

America UndergroundI scratch and scratch and finish my last few bites as fast as I can, trying to cover my legs with my napkin and eyeing the gold-lighted doorway of O’Malley’s pub next door as my salvation. We pay the check and I sprint toward that door yelling, “Run for it!” to Brent. Inside, we shut the door tight behind us and look around. We seem to be in a waiting room of sorts. I think, “Salvation has a waiting room?” but have no time to ponder it because Brent finds a staircase. The only way to go is down, and yes, that’s ominous, so down we go.

America UndergroundAt the bottom of the stairs, we find dark pathway to the left that is roped off, and a tunnel to the right. We take the tunnel and find it opens into an amazing cellar bar room with vaulted ceiling and Irish placards haphazardly placed on circular walls. In a small hallway area to the back of the room is the bar. We get pints of beer that were made on the premises, and chat with the bartenders–two girls who are about to embark on a vacation together the next day. They’re excited and chatty, and let it slip that there are two more pub levels below where we’re standing that are closed tonight. We’re so far underground already that it doesn’t seem possible that there are two levels further down.

“Can we see them?” I blurt out without thinking to be polite.

“Sure!” they tell us, and Brent and I just look wide-eyed at each other.

America UndergroundWe are led back out through the tunnel and through the dark passage that was roped off. We head down a dark slope in a room where oak tanks used to be stored, according to our guide. We enter a second, smaller bar area, and keep going until it opens up to a giant cellar. We are standing at the cellar’s ceiling, looking down on a narrow stage to our right and plenty of wooden seating to the left. The bartender explains that this is one of the very first lager breweries in the U.S., that these cellars were dug by a German brewer in the 1800’s to store the lager, using ice from the river to keep the temperature down. I’m so astonished by the simple grandeur of the place that I don’t hear the connection between the Weston Brewing Company and the Irish O’Malley’s, but this pub is a true find.America Underground

Back in the upper bar, I continue scratching my legs and the bartenders tell me they heard a trick using gin. They give me a gin-soaked napkin and tell me to rub that on my legs. I’m in desperate shape; I do it, and it provides a good bit of relief. “We need to make sure we are stocked up on gin,” I tell Brent as the girls explain that the mosquitos in Missouri are unrealistically bad and always have been.

“In the summer, we run from our cars to the buildings. No one walks if you’re wearing shorts,” we’re told.

The girls ask where we’re headed and we tell them ultimately Colorado, via Kansas. They’ve driven it many times and tell us, “For two-thirds of the way, all you see is fields.”

“What happens after that?” I ask.

“Then you’ll start to see some cows.”

Brent and I laugh. We’re not worried about this. We’ll find a way to make it fascinating, because you never know when you’re going to stumble into salvation, only to find lore, history, relief, and a damn good pint. We’ll find what Kansas needs us to find.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Sliced Bread

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 4
(Click here for Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Sliced BreadWe’re heading toward sliced bread. We have no idea how cool this trip is about to get. It starts with: Magnets. Yeah, magnets!

Brent collects magnets, and we realize that we will arrive in Chillicothe, Missouri an hour after the gift shop closes. I call the gift shop to see if the hours posted online are correct, and a pleasant man answers and tells me he’s happy to hang around past closing if we’d like. (How awesome is that?!? How many people would be willing to stick around at work after the shift ends just to wait for some crazy tourists? That’s job love, and few people have it.)

I ask Brent how far out we are, and he does some mental math—a feat this writer brain will not do—and he says we’re at least an hour away. I thank the man on the phone for his gesture but tell him he’s fine to head home after work.

“Well, you’ll miss the gift shop,” the voice on the phone says. “But there’s a mural in town that’s worth it.” Cool. Sliced Bread

We hang up and I dig around on the gift shop website and find a way to order a magnet and have it shipped if Brent wants. I tell him. He does. I shop all the magnets and keep making him look at “another one” and “another one” on my phone.

After what feels like days through fields and trees and winding hills and lots of wondering if this drive East is a bad idea when we should be heading West after all, we find our way to civilization: the town of Chillicothe, Missouri.

Sliced BreadWe drive around the Midwest town and easily find the Sliced Bread mural before heading toward the original bakery building for more pictures and when we get there, we stare at the place in awe. It’s a nondescript brick warehouse of a building, but this bakery, in 1928, took a chance on an Iowa inventor’s machine for slicing bread.

The story goes that inventor and engineer Otto Rohwedder created this machine that not only sliced bread but wrapped it, and the first person to purchase it was his friend, Missouri baker Frank Bench. Put to use, the bakery’s sales increased 2000 percent in two weeks. According to the plaque Brent is Vanna White-ing, “Until this invention, which has long since been synonymous with invention, bread had to be sliced by hand in home kitchens.” Sliced Bread

(That “long since been synonymous with invention” part gives me goose bumps. What great writing!)

The trip to Chillicothe has taken us hours out of our way, but when we get back in the car we look at each other and declare, “Totally worth it!”

Invention. Taking chances. Changing life as we know it. Chillicothe, Missouri is what America is all about.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Minnesota and Beyond

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 3
(Click here for previous Segment 2Segment 1)

We breakfast at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, a narrow dining car packed with people listening to the sizzle on the griddle while taking in the aromas of bacon and coffee. This place has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, one of the first diners to be a registered historic place. According to their website, the designation “helped preserve the diner during urban re-development with in the city of St. Paul.”Minnesota and Beyond

I sit next to a stranger who is a regular guest. He’s ordered his usual, without carbs because he’s watching those. My breakfast arrives: a Belgian waffle with a side of fries. The waitress looks at him and laughs as she sets down my carb-on-carb feast. It tastes so good I could cry.

Minnesota and BeyondWe finally hit the road around the crack of noon because my travel buddy Brent has this all planned out and this is actually on time to him. It’s a typically beautiful Minnesota summer day with a bright blue sky as we leave the Twin Cities, headed for a giant gnome in Iowa. I make it as far as a giant barn/tourist info stop across the MN/Iowa border where we pick up free maps before we climb back into the car—Brent’s VW Jetta that is, in a way, our living quarters for the next 2000 miles or so—and I fall asleep. I sleep through miles and miles of flat farm fields and wind turbines, and I’m grateful to my carb-on-carb-induced sleep because those wind turbines kinda creep me out.

I wake up to find myself surrounded by turbines and Brent jokes, “It’s windy here because somebody put all these fans up.” I laugh and I don’t mind if the turbines hear me. That’s the defiance of living on the road.

Minnesota and BeyondWe get to Reiman Gardens, next to the Iowa State University in Ames, and sheepishly talk to the lady at the front desk about tours because all we really want to see is the giant gnome and can’t seem to admit that. We wander the gardens, happy to be out of the car, pass the butterfly rooms, enjoy a steamy tropical room with a mini-train running through the foliage, and finally wander outside and (admittedly) we take a route off the beaten path to the giant gnome, Elwood. He’s the world’s largest concrete gnome, and he seems happy to see us.

Minnesota and BeyondAfter a quick stop for coffee in the gift shop because sightseeing is tiring work, we hop back in the car and head to a town called Kelly, Iowa, to see a haunted phone booth. Yes, you read right. Supposedly, the phone will ring if you step into the box, but we were too busy pretending to be on the phone for that to happen. While Brent takes pictures, I dial the number from my cell phone but get caught. Minnesota and BeyondI dance around anyway and tell him to answer it, that it’s ghosts. Brent then calls the number as I start to wonder if maybe a retired couple lives in the yellow house across the street, a couple who watches the booth and dials the number to welcome people to town. Mystery solved. Or perhaps it’s just ghosts.

Minnesota and BeyondWe drive to Polk City, where there’s rumored to be a tree in the shape of Mother Mary. We drive past it twice, looking curiously at every tree in a mile-long area and finding trees that look like frogs and horses and one that looked like Spock, but no Mary. And then suddenly, there she is. Newspaper articles I find somewhere online say that she arrived naturally over time. There are flowers at her feet that people have left for her. We take pictures, and I place my hand on the tree, reverently careful not to touch her.

Minnesota and BeyondBack in the car again and as our official navigator, I play around on Google. (We have a list of stops, thanks to Roadside America and Brent’s logistical obsession with trip-planning, but there are patterned holes in the agenda for off-the-cuff extras, and man, I find a doozy.)

“Where to now, Chewie?” Brent asks me.

“Stop calling me Chewie,” I say.

“Stop hiding your face in traffic,” he says. Yeah, touché. 

Minnesota and BeyondI check with Google, which I’m now affectionately calling The Googs, and find that we’re within range of a place called Chillicothe, Missouri, where sliced bread was first sold. Brent and I just look at each other. We can’t pass that up. He puts the car in drive and follows the cross-country roads I find with his paper maps and some help from my Map App, and the old VW Jetta heads us toward sliced bread.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

A Tour is Born

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 2
(Click here for Segment 1)

I arrive at Mall of America’s The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and find there’s space at the bar for me and my wheeled suitcase, so I settle in as the petite, raspy-voiced bartender tells me she’ll make me an iced tea with some kind of peach vodka in it. I agree to it, and it’s one colossal peachy drink that I’d never order on my own and I love it immediately for that.A Tour is Born

I spend the afternoon eating shrimp cocktail with my peach drink and watching Forrest Gump on the bar TV. It’s amazing not to need to be anywhere and I soak in the feeling of “I’m exactly where I need to be.” I chat a little with the other bar patrons about their work and tell them I’m embarking on a road trip to see Trampled by Turtles in Colorado. They don’t know the band–which is a crime—but they tell me to go see the “giant ball of string,” which everyone adamantly says is in Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa. Turns out, they’re all pretty much right. [Over the course of the next few days, I find out there’s the world’s largest/second largest ball of string (collected by one man), string (collected by a community), and twine, and they’re in Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.] Regardless, knowing my friend and travel companion, Brent, giant string is already on the itinerary along with a lot of other roadside attractions. Yes, with the uncanny and timely release of the newest Vacation movie into theaters, this is about to be a “Holiday Road” kind of trip.

Brent sends a message that he’s done with work and nearing the Mall. I pay my tab and head for the specified parking ramp. We meet up, hug, and finally say hello. It’s the first time in months that we’ve spoken out loud. Even planning this last-minute trip has all been done via message, and that has only added to the mystical nature of travel.

A Tour is BornWe head out to dinner, and he drives to the Surly Brewing Company in St. Paul, which is bustling with people between the main floor beer hall, the grassy courtyard outside, and the upstairs where a private party is going on.

We sidle up to the bar and he points out that one of the taps is labeled #Merica!

We guess that it’s a lager, and it is. We chat with the bartender about coconut porter made at the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh and never mention our upcoming road trip. I’m wearing a Captain America t-shirt, and the bartender (and everyone else all day) calls me Captain. I feast on a fantastic smoked salmon salad and farro salad with poached egg and wash it down with the Cacao! Bender.

A Tour is BornWhen we finish dinner, Brent and I sit outside on the grassy knolls and watch people come and go with their beer. It’s a mixed crowd of after-office attire and pre-fall hipster layers mingling easily. I like this place.

We stare up at the big Surly sign and I say that we need a tour name. “We can’t just jump in the car without a name for the trip,” I say. Here we are, having cleared our work schedules for the week ahead, Brent from his code-writing job where he tells computers what to do, and me from my writing and waiting tables gigs, though truth be told, the writer brain never shuts off, and here we’ve no name for what we’re doing other than “road trip.” Writers name things. We need a name.

“What kind of name?” Brent asks.

“I don’t know,” I speculate. “The Great West Tour, or Trampled by Turtles or Bust, or…”

Brent smiles, “Or, the #Merica Tour,” he says. Brent has a way of getting right to the heart of things in very few words—he, and Hemingway. It’s too bad about Brent’s computer career thing because he’d be a great writer.

“The #Merica Tour,” I say. “That’s exactly it.”

And so it is.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Cheating Death

cheating death#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 1
When a friend asks you if you want to go on a road trip, you say yes. You say yes, and then you figure out how you’ll get time off and the money for travel and to pay your bills that week. These are mere details that, for me, need to be worked out the same way a person makes a list of what to pack. Say yes, then make it happen.

I’m sitting at my computer in the dining room when my phone twinges with a message:

Road Trip?
Trampled by Turtles is playing in Red Rocks. The concert is on a Saturday. I figure we give ourselves two days’ time on either side of it to drive.

I answer back:
I’ll book a flight.

And thus, it began. I flew from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis on an August Wednesday. Days are easy to remember at the beginning of any trip. From here on out, though, they days blend until they don’t seem to have distinguishing names anymore.

I thought it funny to start out a road trip with a flight. It’s also funny to think that every time I hop on a flight, especially toward somewhere with a time change, I excitedly feel as if I’m cheating death.

light rail cheating deathI arrive in Minneapolis and collect my things from baggage claim. My friend doesn’t get out of work for a few hours, and I knew this when I booked. I’m happy to wait and I review my options. Maybe I’ll take a cab somewhere. Maybe I’ll just sit with a coffee and watch airport people. I receive a text from my friend saying that I can take the Light Rail from the airport to the Mall of America. I’ve just hurtled through the sky on a glorified rocket and a drink sounds good, so I go.

Mall of America cheating deathI find the Light Rail easily enough, and it takes me back to my D.C. days of riding the Metro to and from work. I think about how mass transportation astounds me with its convenience and my ability to get up and go pretty much anywhere for pretty much anything. I also I think about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and I laugh.

I get to the Mall with one clear agenda on my mind: The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. I’ve never actually been in there. Today’s the day.

Proving America is amazing, one stop at a time.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

I’m on a road trip through mid-America, stopping often for obscure history lessons, local characters, breweries, and of course, candy cigarettes. I’m learning just how amazing America is, one stop at a time.

Stay tuned for my Stories from the Road.


Stories from the Road

The Expense of TodayMy local bank has put up signs this summer next to each teller as some kind of financial promotion. Basically, each has teller was supposed to write what she (they’re all women) is looking forward to in life. Each and every one of them, without fail, wrote “Retirement.”

So now every time I walk into the bank I’m met with these “I want to retire, I want to retire” signs. It’s odd. The boss man’s is slightly different; he wrote something about cabin trips and margaritas, which is still an escape from the daily grind.

I’m sure this is just a way to get the bank customers to think about saving more or to think about our financial future. But I think about how this promotion is backfiring for me. I think about how the “weird” way I live my life–without paid vacation or designated sick days or financial security of any kind—and all in the name of art, is exactly where I need to be.

Sure, I should save more. But it seems the moment I have some monetary substance to my life, I find that that’s the exact sum I need to go see a remote part of the world, or to take a class with a Master on a topic, or even just to buy a book and some tools so I can fix it myself. I buy experience. And it all finds its way into the writing.

It’s not an easy life, and that’s why I put heart and soul into the writing I do, because those are the things for which I’ve saved and spent: heart and soul.

Don’t get me wrong; planning for the future is important. I still plan. But not at the expense of today. At the age of 24 I declared myself semi-retired because I didn’t want to wait until I was 65 (or, these days, 70) to make time for what I love.

The last thing I ever wanted was to seek tomorrow at the expense of today.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see


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