Archive for October, 2015

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.

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