California to Oregon

Here is where I try to crunch in a quick blogpost while I have wifi. After leaving San Bernardino, we headed due north towards… wine country.

Check out the large-scale pictures here.

Quick rant before I extoll the virtues of NoCal: On-route from San Bernardino, we found ourselves in the outskirt suburbs of LA searching for a restroom. I hit a Starbucks, another coffee place and a Subway. They either did not have a public restroom, or had a padlock with a numberpad attached to it. I finally had to pay a quarter to the padlocked grocery store bathroom. LA is the land of nothing is free, not even the bathrooms.

Anyway.

We had it in our heads that we would hit Healdsburg, CA because there appeared to be quite a bit of wineries there, and it was a decent drive from San Bernardino. A plus was there were breweries in the area as well, something for Rob to enjoy. What actually ended up happening is we got off the highway at some point for a bathroom break, and while driving through this little town of Petaluma, my google map informed me of a brewpub nearby and we decided we were game. It was a little place called Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery. We stopped in and had a sample paddle and a pile of shoestring onions to soak it up. While we were sitting there trying to decide our next move, Rob got into conversations with the bartender and the locals who insisted we try Lagunitas, just up the road a ways. Again, we were game, so after a nice stroll in downtown Petaluma (it feels sort of like a smaller version of Collinsville) we got back in the car, headed for this legendary Lagunitas.

Petaluma, CA

Well, you read Rob’s blog post about the place, so I’ll try not to repeat him. It was a lot of fun, and we did what Rob loves best: talk to the locals. I had 1 or 2 pints, but for the rest of the time I was enjoying the interesting open air bar that moved seamlessly from outside, where they featured live music, to inside where they had tons of their own creative brews on tap, to the back outside patio area for smokers. We stayed here till closing, which was only 9 p.m. and found our way to a hotel half a mile away.

The next morning we headed due north again, headed for Crescent City which is a small town on the shore, just by the border of Oregon. We were so tired by the time we arrived. We’d spent the entire day driving the Pacific Coast Highway which is an insane feat.

Oregon has been amazing so far. Nice, quiet, young, but still a city. They’re very green, organic, and friendly to vegetarians. It’s been a wonderful trip here so far. Maybe I’ll write more about this city later. For now, we’re packing up and headed to Seattle.

The Car is named Nola.

Dear Toyota Motor Co.,

I wish to express my appreciation for the fine motorcar that is the 1997 Camry. Mine is tan, but I didn’t choose the color. I did however name her Nola.

This car is my roadtrip chariot for the summer of 2011 — a journey quite literally of 10,000 miles across the contiguous United States of America.

She is a fine vessel with over 100,000 miles. Her paneled aluminum sides show some careworn rust spots and an obvious crumple and dent under an obvious do-it yourself fix, but she runs strong and true, and her AC blows mightily frigid.

Though her shiftshock shuns a strange driver, I have found the subtle nuances of her transmission to be charming, almost poetic.

There have been repairs and there have been replacements. I am the second owner so such things are expected, but she has always gotten me from A to B without fail.

Domo Arigato.

Sincerely, Rob Dixon

Beer in Wine country

Petaluma, California
Lagunita’s Brewing Company
Rob Dixon

I have to say Northern California is awesome. Yes, there are the stonified hipster hippies and the trendy Prius-piloting iMac attackers, but my interests drew me to the budding brew culture.

As an outsider in new surroundings, there’s nothing like this back home. We have our microbrews, but out here the micro is macro. Every town, village, crossroad and alcove seems to harbor a brewery, and every brew is amazing.

Take the Lagunita’s Brewery’s malted magnificence for example — they have names for their brews like “The Hairy Eyeball” or “Secret Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale.” Let’s just say on that last one they went a little overboard on Proposition 420 and named a beer after the subsequent events. Anyways, they are fantastic…the brewery and the beers.

NoCal truly is beer heaven. If your love for ale coincides with the phrase “joie de vivre,” then you must visit. Take any exit after San Fran on the 101 northbound and find yourself a watering hole. I guarantee you’ll be pleased.

Next…Portland.

The Priceline Lesson

Dear Priceline dot com,

Congratulations. You got me. I hate to admit it, but this seems like the ideal forum to profess I’d been had — hoodwinked, flimflammed, et cetera…and you did it so well.

I love star trek, ergo William Shatner is usually entertaining. I enjoyed and appreciated his kitsch air-chopping taglines for you, the company, but no more. Fool me once, blah, blah, blah.

The way you offered high-class accommodation at a name-your-own price was great, but the real genius was in using an unaudited rating system that puts the money in your pocket before the mark knows what they have. And the mastery of the runaround from your customer service is supreme. P.T. Barnum would be proud.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the way the scam works, but those devilish details need praising one by one.

When Kaptain Kirk tells you it’s a 4-star hotel at half the price, AAA might say that’s a 2-star at super cost plus. You beamed me up when I should have stayed grounded. Brilliant.

You have your patrons pay before they know which hotel to stay at. The complicated legalese in the charge implies that a customer may cancel with some effort if they are dissatisfied, but we both know that’s just hokum. Brilliant.

When a customer calls you to cancel, you say, call the hotel. When they call the hotel, the hotel refers back to you. It’s a endless cycle. Brilliant.

Then the prompt e-mail sent by your service department explaining they did all they could do (which is nothing) seals the deal, leaving the customer throwing up their hands in surrender. Brilliant.

I commend your unscrupulous practices and wish you the best before the wiser catches up with you. You should have a Skype session with the MGM Grand and trade sucker stories.

As for me, $97.16 and 40 minutes on the phone is a bargain for a refresher course in scammery. I will now only use your website as a reference, but never again for a transaction.

I leaned my lesson. Thanks.

Rob Dixon

San Francisco

One thing I did not know about San Francisco: It’s actually cold here. We had to break out the jeans and sweatshirts for the first time on the trip. The cold wind was ridiculous as we walked the beachfront in early afternoon.

I can’t give a full opinion of San Francisco yet because we won’t be spending a full day invested in this huge city. I didn’t take into account the availability and cost of rooms in the city, which means we’re spending one night here. I compromised when I realized how tough it would be to find a decent hotel, on a budget, that offers free parking. So our plans today are to hit the SFMOMA as my one attraction, then head up to wine country. It’s sad, but I’m also ok with it, because it’s stressful being in a foreign city and I’m actually a little homesick for New England, with its states/cities/towns so small in comparison to these HUGE cities (i.e. Vegas with its 2 blocks the equivalent of 12 NYC blocks).

I’m hoping that we’ll plan a redo on SF for next year. The thought is if we plan now we can get great rates on hotel/flights and I’ll actually THINK about where we should be going. See, I’m so used to NYC day trips: hit Chinatown, have Dim Sum, walk Canal Street for a few hours, then head home. I don’t know SF at all so I don’t even know where to begin. This is making me consider what will happen on our next major city stop: Seattle. I’m thinking we’ll do a self-guided walking tour, with plenty of opportunities for me to use my camera. That way, not having an agenda might work in my favor.

Here are the San Francisco pics from yesterday, hopefully I’ll have more from today:

Crossing into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge
San Francisco

Navigating the streets, and we have no idea what we’re doing
San Francisco

It was strange to see the cable car lines at an interesection
San Francisco

My first view of the Pacific. It was cold and windy!
San Francisco

San Francisco

We hit a brew pub close to the hotel and passed this on the way:
San Francisco

and now for something completely different.

Rob Dixon
Ocean View Motel
San Francisco, Cali

Like baptism by fire through the Mojave, we have arrived revived and renewed in California. Texas and Vegas were two slots in the same oven, but Southern California is more like the next chapter.

Oh yeah. The check engine light went on. No horror movie breakdown a la The Hills Have Eyes — oh, no. I Googled the hell out a a good mechanic.

…and thanks to Eddie’s Auto in lovely San Bernardino, California, The car (which now has a name) is running tip top.

She’s got over 100,000 miles, so after about a thousand miles of driving through a pressure cooker, she, the car, decided to take her own vacation. I will say that getting a solenoid replaced gave us a day to pause and rest. It was quiet. The weather was gorgeous. It was wonderful.

While the car was tended to, the hotel where we stayed was clean and comfortable. Diana and I took a dip in their pool and enjoyed our “day off” while the car received some pampering.

We left San Bernardino yesterday morning, traveled some West-Texas sized straight roads through California citrus country and arrived in a very Busy San Francisco yesterday afternoon.

I shall opine further, but for now, coffee is sorely needed. The clock says 6:30, it feels like 4, but my body seems to still be running on CT time.

MGM Grand is a misnomer.

By Rob Dixon

Dear MGM Grand Casino & Hotel,

I wish to express my deep disappointment in your Las Vegas establishment. While your slots and tables are new and shiny, and your bars and discos are slick and trendy, your rooms are mediocre at best and a good portion of your staff are rude or burned out.

Your “newly renovated” west wing was an homage to haste and oversight, and the quality in the detailing brings to mind the phrases “unskilled labor” and “lowest bidder.”

Where to begin?

The LED TV built into the bathroom mirror was merely a novelty and served only as a noise generator for the fact the toilet was not closed off from the rest of the room. Perhaps you may like the sensory experience of others relieving themselves, but not me. The leaky fixtures were pretty annoying too, but I will concede I do know people who like the sound of falling water.

Oh, there’s more. So much more.

I was surprised to see a circa 1990s cathode ray TV built into the wall of this supposedly recently renovated room. I thought an older television was okay except for it was also broken. At least you’re consistent.

When I informed a clerk in the lobby of these problems with the room he was rude and disinterested. Perhaps I should have dressed up for such an occasion as a visit to the exclusive front desk. I noticed the better the dress of patrons the more chatty and friendly the staff were.

Speaking of castes, I do believe your hotel’s west wing is a 21st century version of steerage. The long windowless hallways are too cramped for even a couple walking abreast. The ice machines are hidden in hobbit holes at the ends of featureless grey passageways. I noticed elevators out of order or strewn with litter. I can only hope your stairwells are clean or won’t fall apart, lest ye hit that proverbial iceberg.

In closing, I enjoyed my trip to Vegas in spite of my stay at the MGM Hovel. I would recommend you take some of those Social Security checks and all that laundered yuan and pay for some real renovations. I’m no expert in hotel management, but from what I’ve seen of your operations, neither are you.

With the frostiest of sincerity,
Rob Dixon

Tunes on the road

I spent weeks planning the music playlists for the trip. I wanted good mellow driving music, good upbeat pop songs, and personal favorites that are near and dear to us.

I hadn’t fully anticipated wanting to play state appropriate songs till we hit Georgia and suddenly wanted to hear two songs: Georgia on my mind by Ray Charles and Georgia Can You Hear Me by Street to Nowhere. With youtube’s assistance on my iPhone, both songs were playing via iPod radio transmitter in our car’s speakers.

Then it became a game of sorts. We played Mississippi Queen, but got stuck trying to think of songs for Louisiana and Texas. But we picked right back up again with Phantom Tolbooth’s California, California Dreamin’ and soon San Francisco (be sure to wear flowers in your hair).

In addition, I’ve been trying to make use of a new social music app called Spotify. I opted to do a trial paid version of the app to try on the road, since it boasts “offline playlists.” It wasn’t entirely clear to me what that meant until after I’d spent hours ripping music from CD’s that I own, and realized that Spotify won’t recognize them to play streaming on my iPhone on the road. That was really annoying, but then on the trek between Vegas and California I figured out a good way to make use of their so-called “offline” playlists: search for the song in Spotify’s database, then add it to an existing offline playlist (of which I had several that I’d already created). I think what happens is it saves a cached version of the song on your phone so that you don’t have to listen to it streaming, which would be highly annoying on the road since there were huge stretches of highway where there was no cell signal. But I digress.

Some of my other favorite songs that I added to our road trip playlists include: Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love by UB40, Yellow by Coldplay; a barrage of classic rock tunes by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; a bit of David Lee Roth Van Halen; 80’s pop songs like Take On Me, Melt With You, the list goes on. If you’re on Spotify, check out some of the other tunes I selected, my username is dianaguay.

Also, if you have other state song name suggestions, let me know!

Bottled Water for Chocolate

Rob Dixon
Las Vegas
MGM Grand entrance (in the shade)

Vegas. The Meadows. Entertainment city. The adult playground. I could go on like this forever with nicknames that go gradually darker and dirtier, but you get the idea.

For those that have been, there is no explanation needed. For those that have not, I can give you three simple observations/rules:

1. This is the desert. You will die if you do not drink enough water. If you venture outdoors you must have water.

Barhopping? The tap is surprisingly good and usually free at most joints. Bottled water can be found cheap along the strip, but runs 3-9 bucks in the casinos. The more exclusive, the pricier.

If you’re going for a drive make sure the gas tank is full. Inside the city the gas prices are ridiculous, even for a nutmegger like myself. But in that case it could literally be your money or your life.

2. Mind Your manners and watch Your ass. Don’t do any favors for strangers and don’t ask for any.

Sure, you can snap a digital photo for the newlywed Becky Sue and Billy Jo Gawkstairs, but remember that Vegas is the University O’ Hustle where some stuff is legit, some not so much, but all designed to get something.

If you want regular information, use the web or ask a hotel staffer. If you want something else, ask a nice cabbie driver, or “hack” as I like to say. These guys are the real stewards of Vegas.

3. Be rich. Shit’s expensive.

I have more to say about Vegas and our road trip experience here, but I must admit, I’d rather be experiencing it now than describing it. I’ll get more in lettering at the next respite, but this is Vegas, baby! Nobody wants to be sitting outside the MGM Grand at 8 am on a Monday to blog.

More thoughts on Vegas

By Diana Guay

So I had a follow-up blog post all ready to go in draft form, and somehow I lost it… but I will try to recreate it as best as I can.

More thoughts on Vegas: Since it’s such a culture of excess and loudness, it can be hard for me to appreciate it. New Orleans may have similar qualities, but at least you had common courtesy, charm, and historical value. Vegas seems bent on over-doing what was just done by someone else. It gets tiring just BEING in Vegas, to be honest. One of the main reasons we stayed 2 nights is just because I needed a place to hang out in for a little while, since we’ve been in such go-mode for the past week. I also still have not seen the desert at night, and I’m thinking we might not do it here.

Last night we found ourselves in old downtown Vegas, visiting the famous Pawn Stars shop, and then walked the couple of blocks to the downtown Vegas casinos. This scene was a little different than the chaos of casino/hotels we’d been frequenting. This was old style Vegas as you see in the movies. In fact, at one point I had a surreal feeling of being in the movie Casino. Anyway, downtown Vegas felt more like a crazy block party than anything else. It may have been a bit more kid-friendly, as you could have your picture taken with celebrity look-alikes: Kiss, storm troopers, Garfield and the like wandered through the crowd, as did balloon artists. There were also live bands every block which added to the nuttiness. It WOULD have been more kid-friendly had there not still been the screaming sex ads, dancing girls in open casinos, neon sex lights and still the crazy amounts of alcohol being consumed at every turn.

The old casinos were sort of interesting. They garnered a slightly different crowd. The slot machines were older, spit out actual quarters and had hand cranks that weren’t purely ornamental.

Overall, though, Vegas is Vegas. Lotsa smoke, alcohol, loudness, people – a complete overload to the senses. I feel like a kid that got into their halloween candy and ate every last bite, and now I feel sick to my stomach. I’m looking for the calmness that any place else will provide. I need a little more class for a while. A palate cleanser, as Rob would put it.

But here are a few iPhone photos of Vegas, since I feel some of them are the obligatory Vegas scene:

We stayed at MGM. Maybe sometime soon I’ll write a blog post on why I would NOT recommend this hotel.

MGM

Yes, we did the tourist thing and went to Pawn Stars and took pictures by the sign. To be fair, EVERYONE else was doing it, and besides, if you can’t be a tourist in Vegas, where can you be?

Pawn Stars

Pawn Stars

I took this picture for Sara Grant. I bought my first pair of designer shoes – Chinese Laundry. I originally wanted them in silver, but they didn’t have them in my size. I settled for gold. But now I need Sara’s help to figure out what to wear these with!!

Chinese Laundry