Crossing Canada

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Crossing Canada

The border crossing at International Falls, Minnesota is about as inconspicuous as an international crossroads can get. Nestled into a series of industrial buildings and a web of railroad sidings, the small booth seems right at home. The border guard, who was just a little to perky for 6:00 AM, smiled and asked me where I was headed. I said I was going to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. “Geez, Louise, what for?” It’s a rather long story, but I’m traveling to all 59 National Parks in the United States and I’m on my way to Acadia National Park, via Cape Breton. “Holy smokes. Hey are you the bearded guy on the van?” In a sense, yes. “You got room in there for one more?” Uh….stammer, stammer. “Just kiddin, eh. But I’m jealous. Now git.” Living in Michigan, I have crossed into Canada many times. I’ve never been told to ‘git’.

The first thing you notice when you enter Canada, is well, nothing. A few different stores, the traffic lights seem to be a different shade of red and green and the speed limit is so slow you just accept that at some point you will end up in jail. Then there’s that whole miles versus kilometers nonsense that any speedometer can translate. But for the most part – at least on the surface – it’s the USA with more Tim Hortons.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

For those of you who have never driven across the top of Lake Superior, from Ft. Francis to Thunder Bay, to Ste Sault Marie, I can sum up the overall experience in a few words. A glorious time-warp. A combination of being off the grid, obviously at peace with nature – or at least you’ve called a truce – and not having more than a single Walmart for every million square miles of population. I passed billboards that were last changed when Kennedy was President. I drove through small towns and villages with people that looked at me as if I was one of the first settlers. But across that mighty stretch, there was beauty everywhere. At times what I was seeing around each bend was more magnificent than the last. A seemingly unending string of postcards waiting to be captured and sold at the local Circle K. The beauty was relentless and I found myself stopping every ten minutes, turning my drive into an all day meander and a bit of the night affair.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

As I rolled into Pukaskwa National Park on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior, it was pitch black. No lights, the dead of night. For just a moment I stopped on the narrow blacktop road leading into the campground and turned off my headlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. While I don’t mind the dark, I do like my hands and this was a darkness that you rarely encounter, so the headlights returned. Five minutes later, I spotted something about fifty yards ahead in the middle of the road. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was sauntering down the middle stripe like it owned the damn thing. Finally, it was close enough to recognize as a wolf. A wolf was walking the yellow line directly in front of my now stopped van. In shock I watched as it hesitated in front of my vehicle for a moment and then passed within foot of my window and disappeared into the inky black night. If the window had been down I could have pet him. But then the hand I professed affection for a few sentences ago may well have been eaten. Or at best nibbled. I still can’t believe a wolf strolled by my door. That’s going to leave an indelible impression.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

Camping in parks, as I have been doing, requires you to occasionally interact with fellow travelers. For the most part – and this is my own assumption – people in parks tend to share a few traits. For instance they like being outdoors. They like to travel. They appear to be rather fond of large pickup trucks and Subarus, which seem diametrically opposed. They like bonfires. And in this particular campground, they like weed. Unknowingly into this cannabis-fest I drove, finding its source parked but two small spaces to my left in the form of a minivan and two young French Canadians. This is the exact transcript of our conversation, which took place with headlamps glaring into my eyes, temporarily blinding me, but causing no concern from the headlamp’s baked owners. Hi guys, how’s it going? “English…no…French…oui…oui…uuuuhhhh…errrrrr…hahahahahah…sorry, must we goodnight.” As my eyes began to water and Snoop Dog lyrics suddenly rambled through my head, I bid them a fine evening and walked back to my van. I slept like a baby.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

For the next fours days I traveled across Canada, passing through Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Riviere du-Loup, Grand Falls, Fredericton, Moncton and New Glasgow. Every day was filed with grand vistas, tiny diners with great food, great weather and good people – like Reny. When I stopped for gas and coffee early one morning, I asked the young ladies behind the counter where I could find a good breakfast. It was Thanksgiving in Canada and the chances of finding something open were slim. Both answered in unison, “Across the street, eh.” Canadians really do say eh by the way. A lot. “Our aunt owns it. Tell her we sent you, eh. Maybe we’ll get a referral fee.” This followed by laughter. I paid my tab and drove across the street to a tiny little, unassuming building – more like an old house – and waked in. The dark haired, ruddy faced gentleman who handed me the menu reminded me of an old, scarred hockey player. I asked him what a Denver omelette was. “It’s when we use bacon instead of ham, eh. I make a good Denver omelette. Two cheeses for you.” And off he went. His only customer was happy. When he returned a while later with what looked to be a perfect omelette, we struck up a conversation. Have you lived here all your life? “Oh yeah. I’m French Canadian. Born and bred.” Is there weed in the back? This is what I thought but didn’t say. “Where you heading? Is that you on the van?” I explain my journey and what we hope to accomplish and he says, “I was a scout, yeah. We had a great scout leader here. Took us camping all the time, eh. One time a snow hut collapsed on a guy. Almost killed him. Dug him out with shovels.” As it so happens, that actually happened to me about ten years ago. When I told him the story he just kept shaking his head. “Could have died, yeah. You could have died, yeah.” Reny was a good man and I was lucky to meet him.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

Five days and about three thousand miles later, I crossed over onto Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. If I had to make that same drive across Canada tomorrow I wouldn’t hesitate. I saw more beautiful landscapes than I could describe in a dozen posts. I was fortunate to meet wonderful people at virtually every turn – and a few of them even spoke English. I discovered why Tim Hortons is an institution and had my coffee cup rinsed by a gal in Moncton, without even asking her to do so. “Oh just doing my part to make your day a little better. Yeah.” That kind of sums it up.

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Voyageurs National Park

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Voyageurs National Park

Although not an island, think of Voyageurs National Park as Isle Royale multiplied a thousand times. A vast stretch of land nestled against the Canadian border at the northern tip of Minnesota, Voyageurs is home to four large inland lakes – Rainy, Namakan, Sand Point and Kabetogama – countless small islands and webs of waterways. This complex network of land and water is home to myriad animals and plant life. The marriage of land and water in it’s most glorious form.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

The drive from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Voyageurs takes about five hours and passes through Superior and Katetogama National Forests. Colors are peaking, so around every corner nature tries to one-up herself with gaudy displays. Of course the occasional human display crops up, but somehow manages to always feel small in her shadow. Then there was the Ron Paul sign. The owner of the gas station displaying this work of art, told me they understood the election of 2012 was over, but they just loved the sign. For what it’s worth Connie, so did I.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

I arrived at Voyageurs Headquarters just prior to closing, so that I could get my bearings for hiking the next day. It was a lucky stop, because I happened to meet Voyageur’s Chief Park Ranger, Ben Welch. Like most people who find out what I’m doing, Ben takes an interest and the conversation is always pleasant and informative, with me gaining much more insight than I provide. In Ben’s case, he was generous with his time, staying well past closing while outlining some of the challenges facing the Park Service. In particular we talked about the homogeneous makeup of most National Park Service employees and how this may be a contributing factor to various young ethnic groups not attending the parks in greater numbers. If everyone you see is different than you, it may be difficult to relate to the experiences they offer. Conversely, when a young person sees someone they identify with relating an experience, the impact is far greater. When I asked Ben if I could take his photo, he said, “Should I get my flat hat?” Yep – grab your hat. And he did.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

Unless you are backpacking into the wild after crossing a body of water, there are no campgrounds available within Voyageurs. So Arnold’s RV Park and Beef Jerky Emporium, which borders the park, became home for the next few nights. This is where I quickly realized that each time I would call a campground and asked if they had a vacancy, they would try to stifle their laughter before saying “yes, we have a few.” Of course they have a few. Who goes camping in northern Minnesota in October? Answer – with few exceptions – no one. On my first night at Arnold’s I met an exception. Five of them to be exact.

Where are you fellas from? “Wisconsin.” “Minnesota. We work at da paper mill and dey send us wherever dey need us, eh. You?” Michigan. “Whatcha doin ear?” I proceed to tell them about TheMountCo Project and to my great surprise, they are captivated. Near the end of my explanation, the burliest of the group – and decidedly the drunkest – appears to be weeping. Not sobbing, just a bit of a tear in the eye as he approaches me. “Ear – take dis,” and he shoves money into my hand. I can’t take this. But thank you. “Take it. Fer da voyagers you know.” Jesus, this guy is pie faced. “Put it in da collection box over der.” And with that he pushes the bills into my coat pocket. “Oh yeah…have a brat. They’re good and hot.” The next day I reached into my pocket and pulled out three $20 bills. Fer da voyagers don’t cha know. And the brat was delicious.

I spent two days hiking various trails throughout Voyageurs, crossing creeks, ponds and rivers. Trying to capture the essence of a place so vast and as old as time itself is difficult. Each trail offers a new path into water and tree filled landscapes, one more beautiful than the next. It can begin to overload your senses unless you relax, sit and take in one vista before venturing to the next. Much easier said than done. Both days were perfect October weather, with blue skies, mild temperatures and clear, star scattered nights.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.


Along the way I met a few people. Like the gentleman from New Hampshire, I met at the Rainy Lake Visitors Center. Last year he spent several months in Alaska. He described his experience with much detail and at the end added, “My fear is that they are going to begin drilling up by the Arctic Circle. That could be disastrous for The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For forty years they’ve been trying to drill and they might just get it done this time. Sad.” Afterward he smiled – kind of a forlorn look – and walked away. Then there was the mysterious ‘couple’ I encountered on a remote trail by Kategama Lake. He was around 55, she was maybe 19. He introduced her as his daughter. Now, perhaps I was thinking of Nabokov, when I should have been thinking adventurous father/daughter trip. Perhaps I was thinking Lolita, when I should have been thinking…forget it. Perhaps I should stop reading for a few weeks. In any case, they couldn’t have been friendlier. They wanted to discuss all the parks they have been to and the ones I have visited. It was an interesting, lively conversation and I can’t wait to visit Big Bend National Park after they’re glowing review. (Authors private note: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

On the day of departure I was up at the crack of dawn. Ahead of me was a five day, 2,150 mile crossing of Canada, with Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as my destination. It was 6:30 AM, I had a fresh cup of coffee and the lady in the customs booth was smiling. Good to go.

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Heading North

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Heading North

As you travel up north from southern Michigan, things change. Somewhere around Standish or West Branch. Everything falls away except trees and small breaks into open landscapes. You know you are up north. But when you cross the Mackinac Bridge and enter the Upper Peninsula - the U P - that's where true north begins. This is remote, hardscrabble country, filled with hardy souls that relish the cold and scoff at many of the hardships that come from this type of living. It takes a certain daring to live in this part of the country. Or maybe just the desire to be left alone. 

Nestled into this landscape is Marquette, Michigan, a postcard pretty town on the shores of Lake Superior and home of Northern Michigan University. If you plucked it up and plopped it down in southern California, people would flock to Marquette. But it's on the north reaches of the U P and you have to enjoy winter if you're going to live or be a student here. If you don't ski - or snowshoe, or ride a snowmobile, or dogsled - I think your sanity would be questioned. Skiing is a religion and that's why my brother from another mother - Cambo - chose to attend NMU. Cambo worships at the foot of the mountain.

After a chilly night and visits to numerous waterfront parks to introduce myself to Lake Superior, I met Cambo and we drove out to Presque Isle. About a ten minute drive from campus, Presque Isle is home to Black Rock, an outcropping of rocks that jut into Lake Superior. Perfect for jumping about twenty feet into ice cold water. Who wouldn't want to do that on a beautiful fall day? Certainly Cambo and I would. So we parked, walked the mile or so to the rocks and climbed to the edge. We hemmed and hawed for a moment and then one after the other - Cambo first - jumped into the frigid water. My initial reaction was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' My second thought was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' But we survived. After our walk back to the car, which was filled with warm conversation and plenty of laughs, I said goodbye to Cambo. I thanked him for skipping class to join me at Black Rock and hoped he wouldn't tell his parents. Then I proceeded to post it on Twitter. Sorry Cambo.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

The drive from Marquette to Grand Portage, Minnesota and the ferry that would take me to Isle Royale National Park, is about eight hours. Eight hours of breathtaking landscapes, closed mom and pop hotels, Betty's Pies, Bingo Hotel, dazzling trees and water. Always water.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

The morning of the Isle Royale ferry, a pink-hued sky broke over the Grand Portage Casino / Marina / Lodge / RV Park where I had spent the night. When traveling to Isle Royale this time of year, you take it with you or you're out of luck. I had to scramble to assemble my pack before the 7:15 AM departure, so naturally I took too much, giving me a pack that weighed about 35-40 pounds, with much of that being water. So be it. I climbed aboard the Voyager II with six other men that were catching the last ferry of the season. One last shot at the wilderness before the season ends. One more chance to feel removed from everything and everyone.

On the bumpy ride over, I met Mitch Mitchell. Twenty two, from Atlanta and high-pointing all of the national parks in the lower 48. Isle Royale was his 38th since the beginning of June. I asked Mitch what was driving him. "There are only a few times in life when you have this opportunity. School can wait. Career and money can wait. I thought I should experience a bit of life first." I told him how much I admire his attitude and asked why the majority of twenty-somethings didn't seem to share his sense of adventure. His answer was short, but direct. "Way to busy chasing the dollar. Afraid of falling behind." Except for the fact that he smelled like a goat, I liked everything about Mitch.

We were met at the Windigo dock by Park Ranger Kaitlyn Knick, who gave us a few tips. Most notably, she informed us that it was rutting season for the roughly 1,600 moose on the island. Her exact words were, "Moose can be very aggressive during this season. If you see a moose, your best course of action is to hide. If you hear a moose nearby, hide. Do not confront a moose." And with those words ringing in my ears I set off for my 4.1 mile hike to Hugginnin Cove. About 100 yards from the dock I saw my first moose track.

IMG_9572.JPG

I would like to make a general disclaimer at the outset of what will be a rather lengthy set of blogs over the next 12-15 moths. I am not young. Please bear this in mind when I am describing certain events - such as hiking 4.1 miles over soggy, rugged terrain. If I were to tell you that this was an easy task, I would be lying. At least the initial mile. It takes me about a mile to catch stride, then the weight and uphill, downhill struggles lessen. But that first mile - whew - that was tough.

Other than your own footsteps, the first thing you notice on a wilderness trail, is the absolute absence of any sound except the wind. The wind across the forest floor, lifting leaves and scooting them along. The wind high in the trees, gentle in perfect pitch. It is your constant, unbroken companion. Several times along the trail I would sit and listen to the wind. Such a foreign sound to someone accustomed to the noise of daily life.

Over ninety-eight percent of Isle Royale is designated as wilderness. A mile into the hike I realize I could be a thousand miles from anyone and the effects would be the same. Surrounded by northern white cedar, red rooted black spruce, tamarack, red maple, and black ash, you are alone. As the trail begins to spiral upward, leading through moose tracked marshes, before descending back to the rocky shoreline, I was aware of being alone in a great forest - on an island - in the middle of a great lake.

IMG_9540.JPG

My campsite was right out of a travel brochure. On the edge of Lake Superior, the sound of waves hitting the rocks below, mingled with a rushing brook finding its way down from the hills. I set up camp, got out of my boots and promptly fell asleep. It was dusk when I awoke and decided to walk a few trails, take a few photos. The sky was bluing with steely dancing clouds and the waves were louder than earlier in the day. In time a full moon slid from behind the eastern cliffs and the night was never fully dark. Or silent.

After a pretty good sleep, considering the full moon was like a headlamp gazing cyclops-like into my tent all night, the first thought I had the next morning was uh-oh, my muscles are stiff as a broom. And they were. A few laps around the campsite loosened things up a bit. I threw on my pack and headed back to the boat, completing the second half of the 9.5 mile Hugginnin Trail loop in about two and a half hours. Along the way I heard the longing moans of a moose - where are you my love - but none crossed my path. Only the wind and the ever present rustling of leaves.

Shed of my pack I headed up to the Windigo camp store to see if they had the retro poster for Isle Royale. Being the last day of the season, the store was essentially empty, except for NP Ranger Valerie Martin, so we struck up a conversation. She wanted to know what I was doing on Isle Royale and I explained TheMountCo Project. Valerie immediately perked up and began telling me about northern Minnesota school programs that bring kids to the island, untethered from electronics and how that was having a positive effect on the kids. "I tell them they own the island. This is their land, their responsibility. And they respond well to the challenge of preserving the land when they understand that it belongs to them." She also added, "And I've never had one student tell me they missed having their phone while they were here. Not one." I think northern Minnesota schools and Valarie are on to something.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

As the Voyager II pulled up to the dock and we handed up our gear, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay a few more days. Explore more of this vast island, home to  sixteen hundred moose and two lone wolves. Sit by mighty Lake Superior and listen to her roar as she slaps the ageless rocks. But October 5 is the last boat off the island and as much as I wanted to stay, I didn't want to miss that boat. So as we pulled away from the dock, Valerie and Kaitlyn waved goodbye to the last visitors of the season. Gliding past Beaver Island and into the rough waters of Superior, I knew I would be back. But for today, I was heading to the tip of Minnesota on the Canadian border. Voyagers National Park.


 

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now what?

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now what?

This is what sitting around does to me. Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? A tune that continuously repeats and there's nothing you can do to make it stop? A little ditty - inevitably a song you don't particularly care for, but the beat or lyrics just happen to be catchy. I know this has happened to everyone on occasion and at this moment, 'The Macarena' is on a non-stop loop in my brain. HEEEY Macarena! God I hate that song.

I've decided I need to get out more often, so last night I went to a county fair. It was a mistake. Allow me to list but a few of the ways I did not fit in. A. I was overdressed. By overdressed I simply mean that I did not have on a beater or jorts. In fact, my shirt actually had a collar, which after last night, I can only assume has been outlawed. B. I have most of my teeth, which is kind of self-explanatory. C. I didn't even know they made cargo jorts. D. I was sober. E. I do not have a tattoo of Jesus or an ex-girlfriend on my neck. F. I did not have a posse, pack, gaggle, or gang. Apparently this is required. G. I wasn't chewing gum or tobacco. G (part 2). I was not spitting into a cup. H. Lastly, and perhaps it's just me, but clowns in general creep me out. I always think there's a body in the basement. So in summation, the whole episode was slightly depressing for someone who considers himself a man of the people. The tasty elephant ears, corn dogs and pulled pork barbecue platter took some of the sting out of the evening. They were out of fried pickles. 

Willing to bet everything I own that one of these guys doesn't have to put on additional makeup to perform. 

Willing to bet everything I own that one of these guys doesn't have to put on additional makeup to perform. 

On to my second brilliant idea. When I was a kid, my dad loved taking his six kids to the zoo. (It is worth noting that we lost at least one kid on each visit because my dad never did a head count until we got home. Those of us not lost simply waved as he drove 80 miles an hour down Kenneth Street on his way back to the zoo.) Easily my favorite attraction at the zoo was the chimpanzee show. Every afternoon at The Jo Mendi Chimpanzee Theater, Jo would roller skate, walk a tightrope, ride a scooter, unicycle, bicycle and motorcycle, balance on stilts, and drive his own electric car. Always in a diaper and occasionally while smoking a cigarette. My dad would double over in laughter every time Jo rode the unicycle. Something about a chimp on a unicycle got him every time. Fortunately we finally figured out that bikes, scooters and cigarettes aren't part of a chimp's natural habitat. In 1983, the Zoo Director, Steve Graham deemed the shows to be cruel and ended an almost 50 year run. The Jo Mendi Theater was dismantled and a new four-acre habitat was created. It was touted as the most naturalistic habitat of any chimp exhibit in the world. But sadly when I walked into the zoo last week I was thinking of only one thing. A chimpanzee riding a scooter with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Not even the mating zebras could top that.

Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp, seen here with two of my older brothers. The man on the right is Jo's agent Felix Dexstein. Every time Felix gently squeezed his belly, Jo passed gas. Much to the delight of my brothers and more than likely the dismay of Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp.

Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp, seen here with two of my older brothers. The man on the right is Jo's agent Felix Dexstein. Every time Felix gently squeezed his belly, Jo passed gas. Much to the delight of my brothers and more than likely the dismay of Jo Mendi the Wonder Chimp.

Okay, so the carnival wasn't very satisfying and the zoo only served to bring back odd, unreachable memories. Now what? Time for brilliant idea number three - The racetrack. After all, what's better than standing at the rail, slapping your program into your palm and shouting at the top of your lungs as your pony comes flying down the stretch? Right? Well, for one thing there is the unending line of people that I had stand behind to place a bet. Then the sea of humanity you pass through to get to the rail. Was Fellini in town casting a movie? Am I the only guy who doesn't own a piece of John Deere clothing? Is there a comb-over contest after the second race? These are the thoughts rummaging through my brain as I stroll through Darwin's waiting room to take up my place at the rail. 

"Springdrops in the seventh," I overheard a man say. "I know the trainer. It's a sure thing." Now we're getting somewhere. "They're dropping him in class. Get on him," said the man who happened to be wearing a magical toupee that moved ever so slightly when he spoke. Now keep in mind that none of this conversation was directed at me. I was clearly eavesdropping, while being entertained by his dancing hairpiece. "Trust me." Oh I trust you. Springdrops was on the board at 28 to 1. That's about a $58 return for every $2 bet. Put $50 on the nose and the payout is around $1,450. So I plunked down $100 and waded back to the rail, giddy thinking about how I was going to spend the $2,900 I was about to win. 

"And they're off," says the PA announcer who sounds like he was the G-man in every Bogart movie. "Springdrops jumps to an early two length lead, with Tenderfoot second, Brutus three lengths off and Sherry, Penny Earned and Solo rounding out the field." I'm feeling pretty good. My program is coming apart at the seams as I pound on the rail. "Come on Springdrops, Daddy needs a new pair of shoes." And down the stretch they come! Springdrops still in the lead by a solid length, Sherry on the inside and Penny Earned pushing hard three wide. I'm screaming "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" (It wasn't an articulate scream.) And then it happened. Springdrops suddenly looked like he stopped running. He didn't of course. It's an optical illusion that takes place when every other horse passes you. "AAAAAAHHHH!" (Even less articulate.) "And it's Penny Earned by a nose over Sherry. Tenderfoot takes third, followed by Solo, Brutus and Springdrops." As I drop my program and mope toward the exit, muttering profanities under my breath, I pass the cashiers window.  And there he is. The man with the magic toupee is cashing in tickets. What the....? "Hey pal, who did you have in that race?" "The winner. Penny Earned. How about you?" "I had Springdrops." He shakes his head, hair doing the bosanova. "Come back next week. He's dropping in class. Sure thing." 

Springdrops jockey, Ted Koezinsky, seen here winning by several lengths the week after I bet on him. The couple in the background, Bobbie and Kip Jordache, had won a radio contest and were allowed to watch the race from the infield. They did not bet on Springrops to win. Losers.

Springdrops jockey, Ted Koezinsky, seen here winning by several lengths the week after I bet on him. The couple in the background, Bobbie and Kip Jordache, had won a radio contest and were allowed to watch the race from the infield. They did not bet on Springrops to win. Losers.

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Home

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Home

I've been home for almost a week. Still trying to process the events of the last 100 days. Fairly safe to say I didn't foresee being abducted by the F.B.I. when I started my 50 state bar tour. Nor did I anticipate being held in an empty white room for days on end. Or jumping from buildings, only to be knocked out - yet again - and interrogated by guys straight from the set of Men In Black. Seriously poor planning on my part. Obviously I should have anticipated being drugged, kidnapped and mistaken for a spy. Happens all the time, right?

With respect to the 50 state bar tour, I only made it through six or seven states before getting hit in the noggin. So I'm chalking up this adventure as having reached an unfortunate conclusion. A bit of an understatement, but why cry over spilled milk as they say. I may shed a tear over spilled bourbon however, but why belabor the point. The dozen or so bars I visited were a mix of howling blues and shit kicking fun. As always I met a few memorable characters that will hang in my memory for years to come. People that I enjoyed having a drink with, a few that I couldn't get out the door fast enough to avoid and every type of Tom, Dick and Sally in between. That's the beauty of an adventurous soul. 

This photo was taken the night before I arrived in Vegas. When I asked Barb about the significance of her tattoos she said, "Obviously they represent peace." In that moment I knew I should just be quiet. 

This photo was taken the night before I arrived in Vegas. When I asked Barb about the significance of her tattoos she said, "Obviously they represent peace." In that moment I knew I should just be quiet. 

So what's next for The Bearded Man? I'm not sure, but I know I have to get back on the road pretty soon. For now, I'm going to lay low and hope some guy in a dark suit, brown shoes and a bad haircut doesn't come strolling up the road. These days I keep looking over my shoulder, thinking a hand is about to reach around and cover my mouth. It's a bit unsettling, but will eventually fade away, only to be found as an occasional tickle in the stilted corners of my mind. In short...I'll be fine. By the way, tomorrow is my birthday and I need a new pair of jeans.

This photo came in an email today. The email read, "Hope all is well Mr. Porcello. Look forward to seeing you in Vegas some time. Your pals at the F.B.I." There was a smiley face emoji at the end.  

This photo came in an email today. The email read, "Hope all is well Mr. Porcello. Look forward to seeing you in Vegas some time. Your pals at the F.B.I." There was a smiley face emoji at the end.  

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The Man in The Panama Hat

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The Man in The Panama Hat

Large pieces of memory were coming back to me. Clearly. Like awakening from a dream with absolute detail. Four men repeatedly calling me Mr. Porcello. Four men repeatedly asking why I was in Las Vegas. When was I meeting my handler? Where were the documents? "You have the wrong man," I insist. "This can happen two ways - The easy way or the other way." "I'm not Mr. Porcello. You've mistaken me for someone else." "You're not going to like what comes next Mr. Porcello." And in that moment, I went from being The Bearded Man to Mr. Porcello. All it took was one injection.

The man in the dark suit was growing impatient, slowly laying the photograph on the bed. "Are you sure you don't recognize any of these men?" "I'm sure." Pieces were beginning to fit, but with a few unyielding sharp edges. Kidnapped and held in a white room. By who? Escaping, only to be picked up by four men. Men I had not seen in the white room. In both cases drugged. In both cases referred to as Mr. Porcello. Ending up in a hospital, with a man in a dark suit sitting across from me. A man who also refers to me as Mr. Porcello. A man who is walking toward me with a needle in his hand. "Time for playing games is over Mr. Porcello. I need to know the names of the four men in the photo. Why did they hide you? What information did you give them?" He grabbed my arm with force and as the needle began to puncture my skin, a man wearing a cream Panama hat entered the room. "Put down the needle Agent Scriff. Now."

I came to learn this man's name is Turnstill. Agent Turnstill. This photo represents his happy face. 

I came to learn this man's name is Turnstill. Agent Turnstill. This photo represents his happy face. 

The man in the Panama hat walked up to me and gently rested his hand on mine. He was clean shaven and I picked up a soft scent of aftershave. His glasses reflected the ceiling's white light, making his eyes inaccessible. His clothing carried no labels. "Good evening," he said before sitting on the edge of my bed. "My name is Federal Agent Turnstill. I know that you are not Mr. Porcello. Let's start there." The cheek of man in the dark suit twitched. He was clearly uncomfortable. "I need information," said Agent Turnstill in a flat voice. "I need to know what happened in the white room." "I've told this gentleman everything I can remember. I didn't really interact with anyone. I was held against my will, but I was never interrogated or punished. It was as if they were simply housing me for someone else. Was it for you?" He showed no recognition of a question having been asked. "Did they ask you any questions about documents?" "No." Do you know why you're here?" "No." His hand was still on mine when he said, "There has been a mistake." 

As my memory slowly reappeared, my itinerary - something about visiting bars - began to grab a foothold. The Horse You Came In on Saloon. I think that's where I was supposed to be. I hope I still don't have an open tab.

As my memory slowly reappeared, my itinerary - something about visiting bars - began to grab a foothold. The Horse You Came In on Saloon. I think that's where I was supposed to be. I hope I still don't have an open tab.

"Mr. Porcello is a foreign national wanted by several agencies in connection with espionage," said Agent Turnstill. "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You match the description given to us by Interpol. You see, we've never actually made contact with Mr. Porcello." Agent Turnstill was emotionless. "I had you taken to the white room. We allowed you to escape - notwithstanding the shots fired by Agent Scriff. There was no intent to harm. The white room was intended as a psychological primer for what came next." As I listened, I felt as though I had been inserted into a Tom Clancy novel. What happens now that they know I'm not Mr. Porcello? Do I represent a threat? "Mr. Porcello was captured in Chicago last night. He was carrying documents in the frame of his glasses. He intended to hand them off to a Pakistani diplomat. Before I entered your room I was handed a photo. This is Mr. Porcello." He reaches into his shirt pocket and unfolds a regular sheet of paper. Before handing it to me he smooths the creases. "It's an uncanny likeness. I'm sure you'll agree." I sit up in bed and take the photo. I'm nervous. I turn the sheet over and staring back at me is a black and white photo of me. 

I've been driven to a remote parking lot, secured by tall chain link fence with razor wire resting on top. Agent Scriff and Agent Turnstill sit on either side of me in the back seat of a black Suburban, driven by a young man with a perfectly squared hair cut, just above his collar. As we get out of the vehicle, an older man in jeans and a sweatshirt that said HARVARD on the chest, shakes Agent Turnstill's hand and nods to Agent Scriff. "Tom," said Turnstill. "It's over here," said HARVARD. "We've replaced what we damaged in the work out and detailed the rest. That's a hell of a nice RV you've got there sir." "Thank you," I said, still reeling from the past 24 hours of this Clancy-like affair. Turning to me Agent Turnstill extended his hand. "Here's my card. If you're ever in DC, give me a call. I owe you one." The smallest hint of a smile crept across his lips. "Thank you, I will. But right now I just want to head home. I still have a couple of blank spots and I hoping time on the road will help fill them in." I shook hands with all three gentlemen and opened the door to my Sprinter. They were still standing there when I looked in the rear view mirror and turned onto Interstate 15.

Back on the blue roads heading home. The Bearded Man abides.

Back on the blue roads heading home. The Bearded Man abides.

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On The Roof

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On The Roof

I was out of breath by the time I reached the end of the corridor. As I ran its length I saw no one. I was alone. 

As with every door I had encountered in the white room, the door at the end of the corridor blended seamlessly into the wall. It took several seconds of running my hands over the smooth surface to locate a crease and sunken latch. Slowly opening the door - not knowing what was on the other side - the sun bore into my eyes. I stepped through the door and onto a rooftop. Heat from the tarred roof rose up and danced in distorted waves. Dazed, I suddenly understood that I was looking directly at the Las Vegas skyline. Struggling with the light, I walked to the edge of the roof. I was three stories from the ground, but the roof continued one floor beneath. Suddenly, there was a voice. "Mr. Porcello, please come back inside." I turned to see a man in a dark suit walking toward me with his hands behind his back. "Mr. Porcello, please. I am here to help you." I began to take a step forward, then turned and jumped to the roof below.

A man in a dark suit with a gun behind his back, saying he is here to help me. I'm not James Bond (or am I?) but this doesn't feel right.

A man in a dark suit with a gun behind his back, saying he is here to help me. I'm not James Bond (or am I?) but this doesn't feel right.

I hit the roof hard and awkwardly rolled before gaining my feet and running to the edge. Gathering myself to jump to yet another roof one floor below, I hear the sharp sound of gunfire and the tar next to my feet explodes. "Mr. Porcello, stop! Let me help you!" I have no interest in being assisted by a man who just shot at me. I jump to the roof of the first floor, bounce up and sprint to the edge, where without thought or hesitation I make my final leap onto the pavement below. When I hit the ground, my head glanced against the side of the building and everything went dark for a moment. Then I began to run. Two shots kicked up the gravel as I zigzagged away from the building. Faintly the words "Mr. Porcello, we want to help you!", reached out to me before turning a corner and sliding up against a wall. I was free.

Back of the building where I was held. White room was on the third level. Who knows what was on the first two floors. Probably a Barnes & Noble and a Starbucks.

Back of the building where I was held. White room was on the third level. Who knows what was on the first two floors. Probably a Barnes & Noble and a Starbucks.

When I woke up, the man in the dark suit was sitting across from my bed. The man from the rooftop. "How are we feeling this evening, Mr. Porcello?" "I remember the white room." "I was sent to retrieve you from the people who were holding you. I was sent to bring you in. But you ran." "You shot at me." "I was trying to make you stop. My job was to bring you in." "Why?" "Try to remember what happened after you ran, Mr. Porcello. We need to know what happened after you left the white room." "You found me in a casino and brought me here." "That's correct. But something happened in between. What happened after you ran? Who did you meet?" He reached out and handed me a photograph of four men. "Do you recognize any of these men?" I did, but after a few moments I responded, "no." My memory was kicking into high gear.   

These fellas look innocent enough. But behind the cheery disposition, cheap suits and bad haircuts lurks a quartet of CIA operatives. The white socks gave them away.

These fellas look innocent enough. But behind the cheery disposition, cheap suits and bad haircuts lurks a quartet of CIA operatives. The white socks gave them away.

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Tamii with two i's

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Tamii with two i's

I spent the next seven days in the white room. Exquisite meals were promptly delivered each day at 6:00 AM, noon and 6:00 PM. When I requested a book or newspaper to read, it was brought to me within minutes (there were no electronics). A drink? Virtually instantaneous. When I needed to go to the bathroom I simply said "I need to use the men's room". A door opened and a young lady - never a man - appeared to escort me down the long corridor. During each walk she would always ask the same single question. "Are your accommodations comfortable Mr. Porcello?" And each time I would ask a series of questions. "Where am I? What is this place? Why am I here? Do you have a sister?" Her response was always the same. "If there is anything you need, just ask and we will do everything we can to meet your request." Always spoken with a smile. A big, gloriously white toothy smile. I imagined her name was Tamii - with two i's. Then there's this tidbit. As we walked down the long white corridor, there was always a gentle breeze blowing in our face, regardless of which direction we were walking. Her hair would move ever so slightly and she would gently move her head from side to side. I began to have the distinct impression that I had been kidnapped by a group of disturbed individuals who were secretly making shampoo commercials.  

How can the wind always be in your face? It's one of life's great mysteries. It's right up there with who shot JFK and the contents of Spam.

How can the wind always be in your face? It's one of life's great mysteries. It's right up there with who shot JFK and the contents of Spam.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking...Gourmet meals three time a day, drinks on demand, long walks to the bathroom with shampoo models, unlimited reading material, more peace and quiet than you could possibly wish for...What's the problem? The problem numb-nuts, is that I don't know where I am (a large white room?), I don't recognize my own name (Mr. Porcello?), my memories are scattered and disjointed at best and I have no idea how I came to be here or why. Other than that, yeah, this place is great. 

One day when they delivered the books I had requested,  several old comic appeared. These two were my favorites. Just the thought of Superman crushing it and flying around the bases - literally - made me smile. But then something about baseball began to bring back memories. 

One day when they delivered the books I had requested,  several old comic appeared. These two were my favorites. Just the thought of Superman crushing it and flying around the bases - literally - made me smile. But then something about baseball began to bring back memories. 

On day eight they stopped responding. "I need to use the men's room." The door didn't suddenly and soundlessly swing open. "Hello. I need to use the men's room." Silence. A small rush of panic toyed with my chest. "Hello. Hello?" Nothing. I walked to the place in the wall where the seamless door had always opened. There wasn't a handle on the inside, but slowly my fingers found the crease of the door frame and pulled. The door silently floated open. I stepped into the long empty corridor and hesitated. Then I began to run. 

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The White Room

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The White Room

"Why are you in Las Vegas?" asked the man in the dark suit. "I honestly don't know" I said.

This is what I remember. I'm in a large warm room. My metal framed bed is pushed off to one side, but the rest of the room appears to be empty. There are no windows and the artificial white light hurts my eyes. The floor is white tile, which makes the light brighter and my head ache. I reach over to steady myself against the wall and my fingers feel a slight give. As I begin to get to my feet I hear a voice. "Welcome Mr. Porcello." The voice, tinged with glee, seemingly came from all parts of the room at once. "Did you sleep well Mr. Porcello?" Was I supposed to answer? "Where am I? Who is Mr. Porcello?" "We apologize for any inconvenience this arrangement may cause. We will have a meal delivered to you in minutes." "Where am I?" "Patience Mr. Porcello, patience."  

The white room.  I have to admit the room service was spectacular.

The white room.  I have to admit the room service was spectacular.

"We hope you enjoy your lunch Mr. Porcello. Please let us know if there is anything else we can provide." The gleeful voice came and went. I began to pace the room. As far as I could tell, the room was without a door. How is this possible? "I need to use a restroom." "Someone will be there to assist you in a moment." At which point a door seamlessly materialized from the wall and out stepped a meticulously dressed young woman. "Please follow me Mr. Porcello." "Where are we going?" "To the restroom." With that she opened the door and we stepped into the longest corridor I've ever seen.

My first meal in the white room.  How did they know I love salmon? How do they get lemon wedges to stand on their side like that?

My first meal in the white room.  How did they know I love salmon? How do they get lemon wedges to stand on their side like that?

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The Man in the dark suit

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The Man in the dark suit

The morphine drip made me feel warm and numb. I've been in the hospital for 48 hours and slowly, hazily, small bits and pieces of the last 71 days are beginning to emerge. The man in the dark suit visits me twice a day. He has yet to identify himself and at this point I am content not to ask. He brings me newspapers and gum. I tell him I can't chew gum (I'm afraid I'll choke because I'm so high) but that doesn't seem to matter. "Why are you bringing me newspapers?" I asked during his first visit. "Maybe something will jog your memory. Bring a piece of you back." "Why is this important to you?" "It's important to a lot of people."

Initially, the only memories that surfaced as a result of pouring over newspapers in a half-drugged state were random, disconnected points. For example, I like the Detroit Tigers and hate the Yankees. I remember reading and loving Thomas Wolfe (not the one with the natty suits). Snippets of driving cross country appear like blotches on a canvas. But then I remembered this. A hand reaching over my shoulder and placing a handkerchief over my mouth before everything turned black. 

My sketches of the man in the dark suit.  Claimed Wrigley Spearmint was the finest gum.   

My sketches of the man in the dark suit.  Claimed Wrigley Spearmint was the finest gum.   

A 1950's ad for Wrigley's Doublemint gum.  The man in the black suit cautioned me not to confuse Doublemint with Spearmint. "I've seen it happen.  It can get ugly fast," he said.

A 1950's ad for Wrigley's Doublemint gum.  The man in the black suit cautioned me not to confuse Doublemint with Spearmint. "I've seen it happen.  It can get ugly fast," he said.

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Vegas

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Vegas

It's 3 AM. I'm wandering aimlessly around the casino floor, trying to remember exactly where I am. My head is throbbing. My vision is slightly blurred. There is a slight metallic taste in my mouth and my wrists are raw. As I pass a mirror I'm shocked by my appearance. My clothes are tattered, my hair has been cut in jagged seams and I am wearing a pair of brown shoes I don't recognize as my own.

I woke up surrounded by three doctors and a man in a dark suit. The contrast between the white lab coats and the dark suit was sharp and made me uncomfortable. "Sir? Sir? How are you feeling?" asked the doctor to my left. "Where am I?" "Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas." "How did I get here?" "A policemen brought you in. You were lying on the floor at The Venetian, semi-conscious. Do you remember being brought in?" "No. The last thing I remember is looking in a mirror and barely recognizing myself. I must have passed out." "You didn't have any identification with you. Would you mind telling us your name?" "My name?" "Yes. Can you tell us your name and where you live please." A sliver of panic ran the length of my spine and I suddenly felt cold. "Can I get a glass of water?" I couldn't remember my name. "Take your time," said the man in the dark suit. "Take your time."

I arrived in Las Vegas 71 days ago. 70 of those days are blank.  

The only known photograph of The Bearded Man at Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas.  Photo was taken by an unidentified man in a dark suit and released to the press on April 3, 2017. 

The only known photograph of The Bearded Man at Valley Hospital Medical Center in Las Vegas.  Photo was taken by an unidentified man in a dark suit and released to the press on April 3, 2017. 

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Bearded Man rolls through haunted flagstaff on his way to vegas

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Bearded Man rolls through haunted flagstaff on his way to vegas

Gallup, New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona is a three hour drive along I-40 and remnants of Route 66. At some points they become tangled and figuring out which road your on is anyone's guess. Along this stretch of Route 66 is Winslow, Arizona, a booming town before the I-40 bypass began construction in 1977. But, as anyone who has listened to a radio in the last 45 years can tell you, Winslow is omnipresent. 'Well, I'm a-standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona - Such a fine sight to see - It's a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford - Slowin' down to take a look at me.' (I know you were singing the song in your head.) Written  by Jackson Brown and the Eagles Glenn Frey in 1972, the corner in Winslow, Arizona became etched into the American psyche - symbolic of youthful freedom. I had to swing by and see the corner of Second and Kinsley. Adorned with a bronze statue of a man and his guitar and the words 'Standin on a Corner' on a sign above his head, the corner looks amazingly like a billion other corners in the USA. Behind the statue is a storefront mural depicting a red flatbed Ford. 'Come on, baby, don't say maybe - I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.' (I wish.) After rubbing the guitar for good luck and eating four perfect shrimp tacos at Mi Pueblo, I was off to Flagstaff. 'Well I'm a running down the road - tryin to loosen my load.'

Hotel Monte Vista is said to be haunted. I just wanted to put that out there so that my stay is not colored by anything resembling fear. The Bearded Man believes in ghosts, but it has been a while since I've run into one. However, as I was checking in I had the distinct feeling that my luck was about to change. This place has a vibe. Kind of like the vibe from 'The Shining'. Old hotel, photos of even older buildings on the wall and an elevator that I was expecting blood to pour out of at any second. Then I got to my room, where four black and white photos of a man long since departed, hung above my bed. (Does anyone else find that odd?) Upon closer inspection, I think they were photos of Walter Brennan, who's name means nothing unless you are at least 50 years old. Maybe 60. My dad loved Walter Brennan, if that helps. In any case, I ended up taking a nap under the watchful gaze of Walter and the smell of what I'm betting is embalming fluid.

Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff, Arizona. If you are looking for a place to stay up all night, with one eye open, this is the place. The twin little girls walking down my hall at 3 AM will forever haunt my dreams.  Pretty sure they were mumbling redrum...redrum. 

The Monte Vista Cocktail Lounge is just off the lobby of the hotel, a floor below the Rendezvous bar, which I think exists solely for out of towners who don't know any better. The Lounge is a comfy little joint with a polished wood bar, pool tables and a dance floor in front of a karaoke stage that was in full swing. A young, fragile looking gal in a cowboy hat singing 'Britney Spears, 'Oops, I Did It Again' as if she were auditioning to be a backup singer for Adele. 'Oh, baby, baby - Oops!... You think I'm in love - That I'm sent from above - I'm not that innocent.' Oh waitress, a cocktail please. Britney was followed by what can only be described as confusing. Dressed in cowboy boots that appeared to be several sizes too small, she introduced herself to the crowd as Terii 'with one r and two i's' and sang James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful', more as a plea than a statement. Where is my waitress? 'Are you enjoying ladies karaoke night?' 'Excuse me?' 'It's ladies karaoke night, sir. We get great talent in here.' 'Seriously? What time do they show up?' I bet Rhonda spits in my drinks all night.

'Did you know that Humphrey Bogart stayed at this hotel?' Carlotta asked as she pulled out a chair and plopped down next to me. Trust me, plopped is the right word. 'Where you from good lookin?' 'I'm from Mississippi originally, but I've lived all over the country.' She smiled. She had the kind of smile that made you think her town didn't have access to fluoride until recently. 'I knew you wasn't from around here. I could tell by your shoes.' 'My shoes?' 'They ain't boots. They're shoes. Look around. You're they only man without boots in here.' I looked around. Not only was I the only man without boots, I was virtually the only man in the room. 'Hi, I'm Carlotta. Call me Carly, everyone does.' 'Hi Carly. Do you sing as well?' 'Oh yeah. That's why I'm here. Have a few beers, sing a few songs and head back to my trailer and my four boys.' 'What are you going to sing?' 'The theme from Titanic. I think of Leonardo when I'm singing.' 'That's funny, so do I.' 'You're a hoot. What's your name?' 'Scott Baio.' 'Hi Scott. I'm Carla, but you can call me Carly. Everyone does.' Alrighty then. 'I'm up Scott. Wish me luck.' And with that she planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek, stumbled to the stage and sang as if she had swallowed a bag of gerbils. Please dear merciful God, make it go away. To an untrained eye it may have appeared as though I ran out of the bar, but in fact I was only walking at a brisk pace. 

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from 'Casablanca.  Slim behind the front desk told me that a few scenes from the movie were actually filmed at the hotel. Maybe that was Bogart standing in the corner of my room all night. When I woke up there were cigarette butts all over the floor. 

After a restless night of odd noises and cigarette smoke from the poltergeist/specter standing in my room, I was up at 5:00 AM and ready to skip town. Hell, I was ready to leave Arizona. Hotel Monte Vista had lived up to its haunted billing. I'm a big fan of Bogey, but I'm not okay with him visiting me in the night. Before he died it might have been cool, but let's just say I won't be watching Casablanca for a while. Actually never. Ever. 

It was early and I didn't want to stop at Snow Cap Drive-In, but I couldn't help myself. After a mostly sleepless night and blowing out of Flagstaff like a guy with stolen tires, I needed a small dose of Route 66 kitsch. Jackpot. Built by Juan Delgadillo in 1953 with scrap lumber collected when he worked for the railroad, Snow Cap is a place you can't drive by without smiling. In my case, without eating. I wolfed down a great bacon cheeseburger, with stringy fries and a chocolate shake. But the best part of the stop was when I pulled off to the side of the parking lot and went to sleep for two hours. I woke up with ketchup on my shirt and a chocolate ring around my mouth. I'm ready for Vegas baby.

Snow Cap Drive-In on Route 66. Home of one of the best milkshakes I've ever had. Author's Note: Ask for extra napkins and don't ever fall asleep with a straw in your mouth. I've had a lisp for three days.

I can't get enough of Route 66, so I stay on all the way to Kingman and Hackberry General Store - my last stop before Vegas baby. (Can you say Vegas without saying baby?) How can I describe this place? Old gas pumps and rusted out cars dot the front of the store and trail off across the property. Large Coca-Cola signs hang above decal covered windows and Mobil's Pegasus takes flight from the roof-line. If you didn't know any better, you might think you had driven through a black hole and arrived in 1955. Walking inside only heightens the impression of time travel. Elvis and Marilyn are here. A jukebox to spin some 45's and a dime store Indian stands guard, obviously protecting the countless dollar bills that line the walls. Then there's the men's room. Ceiling and walls are pasted with pinup beauties in various stages of disrobing. Now there's something you don't see every day. (I'm pretty sure one of the photos was my aunt Madge.) I grabbed a couple of Route 66 root beers and a Chick O'Stick, almost tripped on the dummy on the front porch - It's an actual dummy - and made my way to the Sprinter. Pulled onto Route 93 with visions of black jack and tourists dancing in my head. I felt excitement and dread in one fell swoop.

Vegas, the town without eyes or ears and a misplaced conscience. The town where Mo Green was shot in the eye and Wayne Newton still plays 118 shows a day. The town where bachelors go to make memories they can never share with their wife. Where women go to use the name Sissy or Barbie for the night. Then of course it's a town the whole family can love. Provided you don't might your 12 year old being handed a hooker's business card every two blocks. It's a unique slice of America that should be required visiting. This is who we really are when no one is looking. If you survive Vegas with a clean conscience and a full wallet, you're a good person. Vegas - My home for the next two nights. I've sanded my fingertips, so I won't leave any clues.

My room at Aria in Vegas. Not an understatement to say I splurged a bit. But it's okay.  The bottle of water in the fridge is only $27. Thanks again MountCo.

 

 

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