Polaroid Photo

Pictures from the road...

Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific


Jun '12

From Russia, with love

June 5, 2012

On the rim of Mala Simyachik with our MI-6 helicopter in the background

“Your attention please. We have landed on the crater of an active volcano. We will not be staying long. OK? Everybody out.”

Artyom had to yell as the rotor blades were still spinning. We couldn’t stay long, he explained, because the sulfuric acid rising off the lake just beside us would damage the helicopter.  The volcano we were standing on is mala (little) Semyachik. When the volcanologists were here, they lowered a steel cable into the acid lake. It disintegrated in minutes.  To the right we could see the smoke rising from the volcano Karimsky, the most active volcano on the peninsula. It has been spewing ash continually since 2006. This cone, and it’s ash, would come to be like dear friends over the next few weeks, as we would use it to navigate and spend nights listening to its jet-engine like sounds. It was just yesterday (the 20th of June) that I finally cleaned the remaining volcanic ash out of my contact lens case.

Kamchatka covers 100,000 square miles and houses 320,000 people. The brown bears are renowned for their size.  The roads on the peninsula are disconnected from the rest of Russia, so access is by plane or boat.  There are 19 active volcanoes, and some, including Karimsky, have been continually active for years.  The most recent eruption of a volcano in Kamchatka was June 16th, 2012.

Over the next two weeks, we would learn the many faces of Kamchatka.  It would challenge and scare us, inspire and excite us. We would be coated in volcanic ash and chilled by the endless rain. We would navigate down the Zhupanova river and trek over the tundra. Best of all, we would learn that Kamchatka meant so much more than the place in the board game Risk where you need to leave at least three armies.

Active Volcano Karimsky (no, that is not a cloud)

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May '12

Off to Siberia, just in time!

This has been a whirlwind busy month for both Robin and me. We leave in about 20 hours, and once we’re on the plane we will finally have time to say something about our trip. Until then here’s to preparation!

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Sep '10

Louisville, Slugger

One of the wonderful metrics of my journey across the country has been the different historical trails that each region has been proud of. Across the open desert of the west it was the Pony Express trail; in the mountains of Colorado it was the Continental Divide; in the rolling hills of Illinois, Indiania, and Kentucky it was Abraham Lincoln’s westward migration towards Springfield, and near the Ohio River where I would finally cross into Kentucky, it was Lewis & Clark’s famous trail. I stopped in the aptly-named Clarksville, Indiana, the oldest American town in the Northwest Territory and the home of George Rogers Clark. It was in George Rogers’ small cabin that his younger brother William and Meriweather Lewis did their final gear packing and launched out on their own cross-country journey 2006 years before me, and with much less Goretex. Before crossing the river I stopped at the Falls of the Ohio National Monument, a lovely flood plain on the banks of the Ohio where exposed fossil beds sun themselves just above the waterline, but I couldn’t stop for long since I was bound for civilization a bridge away.

Louisville apparently has a dedicated nightlife district, the two-block long “4th Street Live!” which, with cab-only driving and (possibly?) open alcohol allowed the city is seemingly trying to build into a music, tourist and party destination along the lines of 6th Street in Austin. I was looking forward to a relaxed and welcoming evening in Kentucky, so the drunk lines at the Hard Rock Cafe didn’t tempt me, and I continued past the loud hordes to my friend Yelp’s favorite spot at the bar of the Old Seelbach hotel. Oh, the delicious taste of Kentucky! With 61 bourbons on the menu and me planted firmly at the modestly-lit brass and walnut bar, I felt as much like a true American as at any time this stummer. Our nation’s official spirit will now always be my spirit of sore muscles and happiness.

The bourbon list

Oh, sweet Kentucky bourbon

The next morning I made my way to the south of the city where I was just in time for the Kentucky State Fair. This had actually been reccommended to me in St. Louis, and I was anxious to see what they had to offer. To my slight embarrasment and chagrin as a born and bred Wisconsonite, I’d never been to an actual state fair, so this was also my chance to finally innagurate myself into that part of my corn-n-cows herritage. I spent about half the day wandering through parking lot of the fair grounds among the food stalls and music tents. I was vaguely aware that state fairs are the avante guard of the current revolution in fried foods (namely, discovering that *anything* — from butter to coke — can be fried), but I was still wowed by the number of booths willing to dunk any food I wanted into boilng oil. My favorite offering, I think, was the was the Krispy Kreme burger with bacon and cheese. Inside the large exhibition halls I found many a Rand Paul sign and a few Tea Party buttons attached to baby stollers being pushed around the vendors’ hall, but much of the feel was agricultural. There was an entire building devoted to competitive cow ownership, but my favorite section was the tobacco competition. This is what the 4H club does here. Does Philip Morris know that you’re winning prize money from their product?


The food options of the Kentucky State Fair

After both bourbon and corndogs I *still* had extra days of rest to use, so I took advantage of being in this part of the country. One of the driving goals of my trip is to spend time in the parts of my country that I otherwise don’t have reason to, and this is one of those places; thusly, I decided to rent a car and visit friends in Nashville (which sadly fell through) and Memphis. This required a little back-tracking, but my friend Jess was kind enough to drive up from her home in Mississippi and meet me half way, so it seemed as good a plan as any. This was my second time in Memphis, so having already conquered Beale Street and Graceland on a guys’ road trip in 2007, Jess and I decided to spend our 24 hours more historically. We listened through a very enjoyable tour of Sun Records (thanks for Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash, and Elvis!), took in the fun video and less-thrilling historical exhibit at Stax Records (I mostly remember Isaac Hayes), and were blown away by the National Civil Rights Museum. This last was surprisingly powerful; built around and into the Lorraine Motel where M. L. King was shot, the museum gives a surprisingly thorough history of the civil rights movement until his death, like a well-kept college notebook on the subject transformed into an exhibition.

As wonderfully as the Memphis heat was treating me, I knew that schedules must be kept, and I returned to Kentucky ready to get back on my bike. I really wanted to take advantage of being in this area, though, and I soon realized that three museum just weren’t going to be enough, so I changed my course and added the most terrifying destination yet to my journey. But that’s a story for tomorrow…

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Sep '10

I’m not dead yet!

This just in! I’m still very much alive, and will crank out all the notes and half-finished posts I have to finish my journey very, very soon. Very. Promise.

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Sep '10

On Gear and Gears

Yo, MTV, let’s rap! A few different people have asked about the gear that is carrying me across the country, and since it’s all gotten me this far successfully I figured I’d share.

The Gear

My cross-country touring gear, left side

My cross-country touring gear, right side

A few notes: I originally carried an MSR Whisperlite International stove with a separate cookset. and carried the ubiquitous red aluminum fuel bottle on the bottom of my down-tube where the reserve water now sits. My thinking was that white gas would be hard to come by in the desert, so I should have a stove that could fall back to using gasoline. I learned that I cooked infrequently enough that my gas lasted easily through the heart of the desert, so I switched to a canister-based JetBoil. After a few more months, though, I’ve realized that I could do without any cookset: most of the time I either eat cold food or I eat out; next time I’d save the weight and go without. I also am over-prepared, which is my nature. I could definitely save some weight by carrying less: bike repair equipment; first aid stuff; spare batteries; miscellaneous useful stuff (I have a ziploc bag containing paracord, duct tape, a sharpie, zip ties, velcro ties, and super glue), clothes (2 off-bike shirts?), and food (I try to carry at least one full day’s worth of food, but then crave something different when I get to a town, so my reserves just stick around). But, each one of those is hard to give up. Also, for those who wonder: the bike (w/ racks, pump, empty bottles, and helmet) weighs 37 pounds. The four panniers, with a light food load, weigh 46 pounds.

The Gears

I’m riding a 2009 Novara Randonee, REI’s house brand touring bike, and it’s been absolutely great to me thus far. It required one major change, however — it’s gears. While it’s a wonderfully-designed touring bike, no one actually sells a bicycle that is geared for fully-loaded tours across the Rockies.

A quick explanation of gear ratios. The Randonee comes equipped with 48/36/26 chainrings — that is, the biggest cog attached to the pedal has 48 teeth, and the smallest has 26 — and an 11-32 cassette — of the 9 cogs in the back, the smallest has 11 teeth and the largest has 32. Simple enough, right? Now throw in a little math: my tires are 700mm in diameter (about 27.5 inches), which means that for every revolution of the wheel, I go 2.2 meters. If the front and back back cogs had exactly the same number of teeth (1:1) that’s exactly how far I’d go with each revolution of the pedal. Simple, right? But, of course, If the pedal’s cog is twice as big as the wheel’s cog (2:1), the wheel will spin twice for each pedal revolution, and I go 4.4 meters. Since the size of the wheel matters here, the useful number is gear-inches: with a 4:1 ratio, it’s exactly the same as if I had a direct-drive bike (like one of those old penny farthings) with a giant wheel four times as big, or (4 x 27.5) 110 gear-inches.

Combining all the different gear combinations (3 front gears horizontally, 9 rear gears vertically), this is what my bike’s gearing looked like when I bought it, expressed in gear-inches. Again, this is the size of the (giant or tiny) direct-drive wheel it’d feel like I’m pedaling:

117.8 88.4 63.8
108.0 81.0 58.5
92.6 69.4 50.1
81.0 60.8 43.9
72.0 54.0 39.0
61.7 46.3 33.4
54.0 40.5 29.2
46.3 34.7 25.1
40.5 30.4 21.9

I replaced both sets of gears to give me a lower bottom-end, even better suited to very very slowly carrying me and my heavy load up steep mountains. My new setup is 42/32/22 teeth in front, and 11-34 teeth in the back. This gives me my new gearing:

103.1 78.5 54.0
87.2 66.5 45.7
75.6 57.6 39.6
66.7 50.8 34.9
56.7 43.2 29.7
49.3 37.6 25.8
43.6 33.2 22.8
37.8 28.8 19.8
33.4 25.4 17.5

This gearing is pretty “crazy low”, but that’s good; while the difference between 21.9 and 17.5 gear-inches doesn’t seem that big on paper, it’s still 20% lower and makes a big difference when trying to move 250+ lbs of bike+biker up a mountain. The fact that I lowered my “top-end”, meaning that I can’t get as fast of a top speed, doesn’t affect me that much; when in my new highest gear (103 g.i.) pedaling stops accelerating me downhill after about 35 mph, but who cares? That’s plenty fast to get where I’m going.

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Sep '10

The Most Unlikely House In The Woods…

Paoli, Indiana: halfway between Illinois and Kentucky and a million miles from San Francisco. Wikipedia alleges the town to have a few thousand people, but it carries itself as a much smaller place. I pulled in during the waning hours of the afternoon heat and, not seeing any obvious camping spots, determined to meet a local to assist me in my quest. I walked into the dimly lit bar on the town square and took my seat on the faded and cracked barstool next to the small handful of regulars drinking at 4 on Tuesday. These are a worn, conservative, blue-collar people; I knew immediately that the conversation surrounding my journey would not be the excited admiration of fellow cyclists, but rather the incredulous exclamations of “Don’t you know they invented cars for that?!?” that account for a good portion of my interactions. This is a bar in which my use of the word “counter-intuitive” prompted the man with which I was conversing — mid-sixties, wearing cowboy boots and a grey Hulk Hogan moustache — to fix me with a deep stare and rumble, “Boy, that’s a pretty big word for Pa-oli”.


So unexpected, and so true

Eventually I got a recommendation to camp at the trailhead for a horse trail about five miles out of town. Sisi, a mid-fifties woman raised in Paoli but only recently returned after a 20 year absence, said she’s stayed there and offered to give me a ride since it could be hard to find. Evening fell, and as we drove further into the forest, winding our way down a gravel path, I got an eerie sense of apprehension. How exactly did I end up in this strange car in a dark woods? “If you need breakfast in the morning,” she offered, “just go to the house across the road. My friend and high school gym teacher Linda lives there. Just tell her I sent you, and she’ll fix you up.” “Oh, okay,” I replied, having no intention of taking her up on the offer. “Here, I’ll introduce you,” she said as she passed the trailhead and turned onto a darker and even twistier gravel driveway. Hmm.

What I found at the end of that drive was stranger and more wonderful than any image I could have dreamt or conjured. For a few brief moments as we approached the giant dark house in the woods I was afraid that I was entering myself into a Midwestern Deliverance. But as we followed the sound of voices and light from the strangely cluttered porch, I saw this:


Singing folk songs in the woods

Linda and Andy are, according to Sisi, “probably the most liberal people in Indiana”. Their home is a sprawling tribute to the outdoors; its giant wooden beams disappear at strange angles behind living trees, and its impossible to judge from any one spot how big the structure is. The first impression is that the house grew naturally in the space, and that’s not far from the truth: I found the couple and their friends in their kitchen, which happened to be a side porch. This is no accident — they sleep outdoors every night of the year on an unscreened upstairs porch, living together with the Indiana weather and whatever animals make their home around them. They are activists for forest protection, which eventually explained some of the scale of their home, which is a registered non-profit; they host groups and retreats here, and in my late-night wander around the grounds I found a small village of seemingly hand-built cabins, barns, meeting rooms, and composting toilets living among the trees. Andy soon fetched his guitar and commenced, with his guests, sang lovely original and traditional folk songs. A menagerie of dogs and cats wandered in and out while Linda cupped a tiny baby opossum in her palms, gently petting it to sleep. After enough wine and conversation I made my choice of sleeping quarters and curled up on fold-up cot on the sprawling back-porch-cum-dining-room. In the morning I awoke to the sun streaming through the trees and the crowing of the roosters that were beginning to wander out of the barn in search of food. Across the log railing that separates one porch from the other, Linda cooked breakfast. Eventually, I loaded my bike and kept moving on. But in the strangest and most incongruous 12 hours of my summer, I was reminded that there are still surprises in America.


Linda is also known as "The Possum Lady"


Living with a menagerie

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Aug '10

Come On and Feel the Illinoise


State #8

Having exhausted all the cultural and gastronomic delights that St. Louis has to offer (or, at the very least, spent 48 hours in one place), I decided it was time to press on and head towards the rising sun. Far from the wearying funk that came from the record-toeing heat wave and the rolling spikes of the Ozarks, I left the city refreshed and reinvigorated about seeing my nation. Part of this invigoration flowed naturally from the feelings of exploration and accomplishment at crossing that great river, the Mississippi. Since reaching the continental divide at the peak of the Rocky Mountains I’d kept the river in the back of my mind as the hydrological 2/3 point of my journey. Like all the rivers around me I’d descended to this point, and would now have to fight gravity to the top of Appalachia. From there, the sea.

One complication with heading leaving St. Louis is that all direct routes onward go through the decaying municipal carcass of East St. Louis. I’d driven through East Saint once a decade ago, months after the end of a two-year garbage strike and under orders from the the city’s chief of police not to remain stopped at red lights after dark; all around I saw the crumbling faces of the tens of thousands of buildings being condemned faster than they could be torn down. This is a city with murder and assault rates nearly 20 times the national average, and one which doesn’t inspire feelings of safety in the heart of someone traveling along and on two wheel. I reasoned, however, that while crime doesn’t wait for breakfast, it does, statistically, wake up later, so I entered this gateway to Illinois at 8:00 am on a Sunday and didn’t stop pedaling until I was once again surrounded by trees and silence.


3000 miles in Illinois!

I was surprised at the quiet joy I felt at my surroundings. The trees and hills of southern Illinois aren’t easily distinguishable from those of eastern Missouri, but the land itself felt more familiar to me. Sufjan Stephens remarked that he liked the state because he considered it the “center of gravity” for the American Midwest. Of my entire journey it also is the closest both in spirit and in geography to my native Wisconsin, and for the duration of the state the depths of my id felt more at home than anywhere else I’ve traveled, even California. In two days I’d crossed the state on good old stalwart highway 50. This was the most interesting stretch yet for the highway itself: it began in 1806 as a mail route and stagecoach road and evolved was part of the Midland Trail, one of the first coast-to-coast automobile roads at the beginning of the last century. Adjacent to the modern highway I kept catching glimpses of the older 50 it replaced, at times fully intact and at others overgrown and crumbling. Beautiful old trestle bridges sat dormant, patiently standing among grass and trees as if waiting for their drivers to return after a only a few decades’ absence. These are the sights that you don’t get from a car; this is the reason to travel slow.


Old highway 50

Finally I crossed the Abraham Lincoln Bridge into Vincennes, IN, and within the hour had been picked up (literally) by my charitable new host, Gary. Certainly one of the best parts of my summer has been the unexpected and random graciousness of strangers, and top among these are other cyclists. Eleven years ago Gary rode the length of highway 50 across America and each summer keeps an eye out for fellow travelers passing through Vincennes. Usually he finds and hosts a few per year, but I was the first he’d seen this season. With big-hearted insistence he and his wife Kim took me out to eat the giant pasta dinner I craved, the to into their home to take care of all my washing, entertaining, and sleeping needs. I learned of his trip, solo but fully supported, when to fit his schedule he crossed the country in an astonishing 27 days, and I shared the highlights of my adventures and future plans. I departed over-burdened with gifts: well-rested, satiated, my bike filled with their Gatorade and breakfast bars, and carrying Gary’s maps of Kentucky and Virginia that will guide me to the coast. There is a fraternity among tourers that is infectious; experiences like this are what make me look eagerly forward to my next summer in San Francisco so I can pay the kindness forward with hospitality of my own.


Kim, Gary, and the kennel

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Aug '10

St. Louis is Listening, Part 2: A Vagabond’s Picks

I’ve always found giving tourist advice in San Francisco to be problematic; usually the visitor, whether a traveler met on the road on their way to my fair city or a houseguest whose belongings are already strewn around the spare bedroom, will ask a loaded and troubling question like “What should we do while we’re here?” I suppose this sort of thing shouldn’t weigh so heavily on me, but it’s in my nature to be pedantically precise about answering the guest’s intended question. I presume them to mean “What sort of activities, attractions, and amusements are indispensible to the San Francisco tourist experience?” The problem is that there’s very few of those things that we actually do, and I feel like a failed host if I don’t provide them with what they want. Usually I suggest the few things that have actually stuck with me — visit Alcatraz, walk around Chinatown — before stumbling and explaining to the person that we in San Francisco really spend almost all of our free social energy pursuing food and drink. Thus, in an historic and bustling city like St. Louis, subject to four different nations throughout history and the sixteenth largest city in America, my first priority is to find out where a brother can get a good bite to eat.

Katie’s Pizza

If you are of my parents’ generation and wanted to find Katie’s Pizza, you might start by looking in a phone book. If you did you’d learn that the restaurant is in the City of Clayton; this fact bears some explanation about the geo-history of St. Louis. Like the City of London (size one square mile), St. Louis is one of those strange cities whose official political boundary bears no relation to any real demarcation of citydom. Bounded on the east by the mighty Mississippi River and surrounded on the west by the St. Louis County, the City is an independent city, subject to no other local government below the state. This historical oddity meant that the city literally had no land to annex and no way to grow; thus, as people were fruitful and multiplied they spilled into the many adjacent counties. Thus the St. Louis Metro Area (whose official practical and political bodies, like the Metro Police, are the de facto governance for the whole area) incorporates both cities like Clayton, which in any other locale would be considered a neighborhood or district, and more remote cities like Chesterfield, which would likely be considered suburbs.

Thus properly located, Katie’s Pizza is a find in any city. Stopping for only a snack in the middle of the afternoon, I had the toasted ravioli. This is a signature St. Louis dish, and Katie captured it perfectly. The large, handmade ravioli were stuffed with gorgonzola and artichoke, then breaded and lightly fried. They were served atop fresh spring greens and paired with and amazing fresh pesto on the side. It was delightful. I watched as others enjoyed their pizzas: I saw squash blossom, arugula, fingerling potatoes, beets, fennel, and the rest of the farmer’s market piled to perfection, and every pizza looked delicious. Up there with my favorite pizza places in San Francisco (City & County).

Bailey’s Chocolate Bar

I have a passionate and life-long love affair with words (as evidenced by the verbose ramble of this blog), but I can’t begin to express how much I appreciate a business that can live up to the two words of its name with such complete perfection. This is the quintessence of a drinking establishment for people who love chocolate (as evidenced both by their menu and by the astounding frequency with which its Yelp reviews mentioned it being “perfect for Girl’s Night Out”). Their menu begins with fifteen different Chocolate Martinis, ranging from White to Very Dark; Sexual; Nutty; and Mexican. They had Liquid Dessert Martinis, made with ice cream. And after a few more pages of chocolate-themed delight, the had a real dessert section that tilted even more towards the sweet while still managing to always combine booze and chocolate. I had the Cinnamon and Stout Beer Shake: stout beer blended with house-made cinnamon ice cream and chocolate. Strange? Yes! Delicious? Absolutely. And reason for me to get out my blender as soon as I get home. That was so good that I went back to the beginning to try a Hazelnut Chocolate Martini. Clear and served with a few hazelnuts in the bottom of the glass, this drink effortlessly combined all the tastes it promised. Gaah. This is what (drinking) dessert is supposed to be.

1111 Mississippi


1111 Mississippi - Oh. My. God. Good food.

Ohmygod this is good. In an elegant and trendy place like this I was fully right to feel out of place sitting at the bar in my mountain bike shorts and California Republic cycling jersey, but if I was stripped naked I would have still remained to have this food. I ordered the mussels and a glass of wine, and they were nothing short of breathtaking, probably the best mussels I’ve had in my life. The sauce was featured a generous amount of pancetta, with onions, tomato, and god-knows-what balancing out the saltiness and the meat of the mussel itself. I was perfectly contented and full to boot, but when the man next to me asked about my dish and I his shrimp bisque, I knew I was stuck for another round. This time there was no question: it was the best I’ve ever had. I can’t now convey my immense feelings towards this dish because even while eating it I was forced to put down my spoon and let the waves of inarticulate gastronomic pleasure crash over me; my conscience won’t let me sully that feeling by trying to describe the dish in detail, except to simply say: Eat here.

Park Avenue Coffee


Park Avenue Coffee

Park Avenue Coffee is two doors down from Chocolate Bar and around the corner from 1111 Mississippi, all part of the charming neighborhood of Lafayette Square. (Geography buffs: the eponymous park has a corner at Park Avenue & Mississippi St. See if you can find the pattern here). Excepting the fact that my stupid Windows’ stupid wifi couldn’t connect to their stupid network (my Apple iPhone had no trouble, of course), Park Ave was a delightful coffeeshop. In my two separate visits I got a total of two black coffees and a muffin; all were quite tasty, the coffee especially standing out as above average. I also noted the prominent advertising and customer discussion of their many flavors of Gooey Butter Cake, though I did not try any despite it sounding perfectly delicious. What I liked best about the shop, however, was how well if fit into the neighborhood.


See what I mean?

Lafayette Square is the city’s oldest park, created in 1836, and most of the neighborhood dates to that era. The park is surrounded by Victorian row houses that capture the French heritage of the region. A trendy area through the nineteenth century, the neighborhood declined into a ghetto through the first half of the twentieth, but the second half brought a wave of resident purchase and renovation that returned the houses to their former visage and the cachet of the area to its peak hipness. This is an area with obvious and beautiful history, but it’s also trendy and gentrified. The park is gorgeously landscaped, providing trails to walk and bandstands for free concerts, and you’ll never want for an organic cappuccino or gelato around its borders. In this setting, Park Avenue Coffee is just the right shop.

Anheuser Busch Tour and “Beer School”


Playing tourist

It may seem odd that I would visit Anheuser Busch, given that in many ways they are my arch-nemesis in the beer world, but their size makes them interesting, and I reckoned that a visit to St. Louis wouldn’t be complete without it. Indeed, this corporation seems to be as large a part of the city as its French heritage or the Arch; in every neighborhood and all strata of society can you find evidence of one or the other name. It was Busch who revolutionized the scope of what a beer distributer could be, and it was this industry that seems to have built the city into what it is today.

I like that the sprawling factory campus is part of its neighborhood; built of the same red brick as each of the surrounding houses, its edifice, gates and smokestacks look like they could be the impenetrable workshop of some nineteenth century Klaus-like toymaker. If you inhale, however, that fantasy evaporates, for the entire neighborhood is permeated with the deliciously sweet and floral smell of wort, the fermenting union of cooked hops and barley malt. This is an industrial smell I’d be happy to wake up to.

The brewery tour was acceptable if uninspired. I’ve certainly seen better demonstrations of how beer is made, but the company’s history is interesting, and the Clydesdales and Dalmatians were adorable. I also paid $10 for “Beer School” under the theory that for a Hamilton I should always sign up for whatever “more better” tour is available. The “more behind the scenes” tour was full, so I got the “learn about how to taste beer”. This was a mistake. When the class began and we were all asked what kind of beer we liked, I answered something about “darker ales with a good hop and some nutty, carmelly tones”. Most of the rest of the class answered Bud Light or Heineken. One girl answered Bud Ice. We then tasted Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, and Wild Blue with Blueberries, all while learning that (a) glassware is important, (b) pouring is important, and (c) smelling is important. You can imagine my edification. That said, the blueberry beer did taste like grape juice (no relation to beer) and was 8%, so if I need to get some children drunk I now know where to start.

John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub


McGurk's neighborhood - Soulard

Finally, to good beer! This is a true Irish Pub. The first thing I noticed, even before I walked in the door, was that Lad Lane played there weekday nights. Huh? Lad Lane is an Irish folk band that I’ve had in my music collection for some years and quite enjoy. I knew nothing about them besides their music, however, so was shocked and delighted to find them playing in St. Louis in a slightly sketchy neighborhood. This did bode well for the bar, however. The next thing I learned about McGurk’s was that they have their own beer. Huh? Indeed, McGurk’s Irish Ale, which I naturally tried. It’s quite good. One very good burger later and I was listening to good Irish music. I listened and sipped what turned a very generous snifter of good Scotch for a downright cheap price. McGurk’s is the one place that I found myself glad to not live near, for it would be far too dangerous.


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Aug '10

St. Louis is Listening, Part 1: Vagabond’s Yelp


The Arch

Finally, a City! St. Louis was to be my refuge, my island of escape from the the isolation, the “rural charm”, the hills, and most of all, the heat of southern Missouri. On this charge it succeeded. The presumed lack of camping options in downtown St. Louis meant that for the first time in 6 states I paid for a place to stay, but I was thrilled to be staying in the Huck Finn Youth Hostel. True, it was pretty far down on the list of quality hostels I’ve stayed in, but being around other people, even better, other travelers, was worth it.

I pegged Walter at about 70, based on the deep-set wrinkles surrounding the gray beard he trimmed daily with an old-fashioned pair of hair scissors. Leaning over the dorm room bathroom, he methodically and conscientiously brushed all the stray hairs off his frayed white Hanes undershirt and the conservative khaki Docker pants into which they were tucked. Walter had been at the hostel for a month at this point; wintering in New Mexico and summering in the Midwest, he is the quintessential old youth-hosteller. This is a man who’s obviously experienced in hostelling: the towels draping down from the bunk above him provided a near-perfect veil of privacy around his bed, his possessions neatly arranged below for easy access. This lifestyle, he informed me, is very economical.


St Louis

Walter also recommended to me particular attractions and places as I continue eastward. This is a regular phenomenon with travelers — it’s as if there exists and entire hidden world of attractions, sleeping, eating, hospitality information that is exchanged only by those far enough from their homes that they’ve forgotten all their regular haunts. An old bike tourer on a remote country road told me which church will give me a free shower and pointed me towards a fire station I could sleep behind. To the young Dutch boys in the hostel, in the midst of a driving meander from New York to San Diego, I passes along the tip of the good pub that had been recommended to me. The work/travel hostel employee made sure I knew where to find the home of Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest man in medical history (8 feet, 11.1 inches!). I countered by sharing with her where on Route 66 she could find the World’s Largest Rocking Chair (46 feet) and the Vacuum Cleaner Museum (and Factory Outlet). This “Vagabond’s Yelp” may not always lead you to the single best restaurant or accommodations as determined by the commons, but if you follow its advice you will almost always come away with a good story to tell.

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Aug '10

And Into the Fire

God, it’s hot.




Luckily, I found this:


The Pittsburg, KS swimming pool: best $4 spent this summer.

Eastern Kansas. Western Missouri. Then the Ozarks started. Screw this, I’m going to St. Louis.