Sunday, July 06, 2008

Day 8 - South Dakota

South Dakota – all I can say is that this place must be pretty depressing in the winter. We actually have a Teach For America corps here. There are about fifty teachers teaching on a Native American reservation just southeast of Badlands National Park, far, far away from any substantial town. What a commitment!

We left Rob’s pretty early so we’d have time to explore a bit once we reached Wall, SD. Most of the drive through northwestern Iowa was more of the same: lots and lots of corn. In South Dakota the landscape changed a bit. The cornfields were interspersed with hayfields and pasture lands. We saw one herd of buffalo and tons of cows.

At lunchtime we stopped in Mitchell, SD, home of the world famous Corn Palace. Supposedly the façade of this basketball gymnasium is made entirely from corn. It was a bit anticlimactic, but one of those necessary places of lore that one must visit when driving through South Dakota. Corn Palace was in downtown Mitchell, away from the fast food restaurants closer to the interstate, so we moseyed on in to Betty’s Café. It was bustling with locals of all ages who’d come right over from church. Our order was brusquely taken by the waitress, and about 10 minutes later a pile of slop was thrown down in front of me.

My experience with cafes and plate lunches has mostly been positive. In Louisiana, a run-down café in a long-forgotten downtown will usually serve up some mean red beans and rice (think Lea’s in Lecompte or Bourbon Street Café at Shop-Rite in Jennings). But that scenario plays out much differently in South Dakota. My turkey slices were accompanied by some peas and carrots straight out of the can and instant mashed potatoes smothered in white gravy.

We made it through the meal unscathed, though, then stopped by Cabela’s for some man-time. Massive sporting goods stores are so much fun! (C just couldn’t figure out why I enjoyed being there).

The drive from Mitchell to Badlands National Park was brutally long and desolate, but the sites awaiting us were spectacular. The Badlands (so named by fur traders in the olden days) are a vast area of sharply eroded buttes and pinnacles. The National Park includes the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the U.S. One theory is that this area was once a huge watering hole that eventually dried up. That might account for the large numbers of prehistoric fossils found in the area.

We hiked some up the rock and through a meadow before making our way to the Days Inn, Wall, SD – our home away from home.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Day 2 of Des Moines

Our second day in Des Moines was fairly low-key. Rob took us to a quaint diner where we had a ridiculously good breakfast. It was the type of place you see politicians schmoozing in during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. The place was packed on a Saturday morning. I had buttermilk pancakes and Courtney had French toast; we shared a side of hash browns, generously sprinkled with Tobasco 

After breakfast we plopped ourselves down at a downtown Starbucks to get some more prep-work done for our new jobs. I’ve always been a fan of the Starbucks business model, but usually head to smaller, locally-owned coffee shops because of the unique atmosphere and free Wifi. Well, Starbucks now offer free Wifi through AT&T – you just need to use a Starbucks gift card to make your purchase, and set up an account with AT&T. It’s a pretty good deal.

We had two-day tickets to the 80/35 festival, so by noon we were out on the music grounds. We saw Drive-By Truckers, a southern rock band in the modern mold of Lynyrd Skynyrd; ….., and Yonder Mountain String Band – a fantastic bluegrass ensemble. The weather has been incredible all weekend (we even got a little chilly last night). The last act of the evening was The Roots, but by that time C and I were pretty beat, so we headed back to Rob’s place to get a full night of sleep before our drive across South Dakota.

Friday, July 04, 2008

St. Louis to Des Moines - Day 6

No run this morning – C wanted one, but I needed a break. Instead we worked a bit then got on the road for Des Moines. It was a long trip, about 375 miles or 6 hours of driving. The road took us briefly through some pretty rural parts of northern Missouri, then southern Iowa.

We passed some areas that still had visible signs of the flooding that ravaged the area a few weeks ago. One small lake was still well beyond its normal bounds, and we saw some extensive sandbagging along parts of the highway. All in all, though, it seems to have drained well.

Speaking of farmland…the Midwest has been synonymous with corn for a while now, but wow, corn fields stretch as far as the eye can see! This is the agricultural industrial complex at its finest. It was a little depressing, though, knowing that millions of our tax dollars are being poured into this area via subsidies, feeding the corn-producing machine. I’ve also been reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, which laments the problem, so I’ve been on a bit of a tirade against corn recently.

Soon after entering Iowa we stopped for lunch in the little town of Mount Pleasant. We resisted the urge to pop into the nearest fast food joint, and instead drove to downtown. It was a quintessential Midwestern town with a town square surrounded by run-down shops and restaurants. We picked the most authentic-looking café and went in for a couple of burgers and fries. It was obvious that we were out-of-towners, but our waitress was really nice.

The rest of the drive into Des Moines was pretty long and uneventful. There’s not a whole lot going on in Iowa besides corn. Des Moines, though, was a nice-looking city. In most of the bigger cities we’ve passed through, there’s been a ton of development happening. I’ve read that this has to do with a younger generation coming of age, wanting urban living as portrayed in popular shows like Seinfeld and Friends. It’s also being driven by rising fuel costs – it’s no longer as exciting to live in the suburbs and pay the costs of commuting.

Upon arrival, we met up with my friend Rob for the first annual 80-35 music festival. We caught a few smaller bands, then ended the night with the Flaming Lips. Some magazine has called them one of the top 25 bands to see before you die, and it was certainly a spectacle. The lead singer rolled out into the audience inside of a translucent ball, and the stage backdrop was a continual psychedelic light show. But the scene wasn’t really our style. We were pretty tired from a long day of driving, and hundreds of drunk, smoking hippies and hipsters aren’t our crowd. Needless to say, we slept well that night.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Busch and more Busch - Day 5

This morning's run took us down Market Street to the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River. It was overcast, which gave us a good indication of the weather for the day. We spent a couple of hours after our run playing on our new computers. Last night we received our new work computers via Fedex, and we were both really excited about that. They're sleek little Dell laptops - even lighter than our last ones.

Our first adventure of the day took us to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. We took the $10 stadium tour led by a retired school teacher and HUGE Cards fan. He took us all over the stadium, on four different levels. We visited the high-dollar suites, the press box, then ended in the home team's dugout. It was pretty cool to see such a massive structure completely empty.

After the stadium tour we headed north along the river, back to the Gateway Arch. C was scared to take the pod to the top, so we settled for watching a film about Lewis and Clark on the big screen. It gave us a little perspective on how differently we're traveling today compared to the unimaginable trials they went through as they took a similar course across the country. We also decided to support our national parks by becoming annual pass holders. We'll have to make sure we get our money's worth!

Our grand finale was a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. I'm a big beer snob and can't handle too many of their brews, but it was nonetheless a cool visit. The scale at which they produce beer is phenomenal. The size and age of the brewery complex was also impressive. Many of the original buildings were built more than a hundred years ago, and the complex sits on 100 acres of land! We took the tour, then I imbibed in a couple of their more respectable brews.

Tonight we bunked with Neda, an LSU friend in med school at Washington University. She took us to a great Scottish bar for dinner - one of our best of the trip so far.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Day 4 - Nashville to St. Louis

Running is such a great way to explore a city. It's much more efficient than walking, and you're able to see so much more than if you're driving. Biking would be nice, but then you've got to worry about navigating traffic (most U.S. cities aren't very bike-friendly). I guess horse and carriage would be ideal, but of course, that's not usually and option. This morning we went on our usual run and explored Vanderbilt University. It's a gorgeous campus set just outside of downtown Nashville. The campus as a work of art seems a mostly American phenomenon. Europe has its share of beautiful, historic campuses, but not nearly to the degree of America.

After our run we got coffee at Fido, a coffee shop that was the former home of a pet store. If you haven't been able to tell, C and I are big coffee shop fans. Ironically, she doesn't like coffee, or any hot drinks for that matter, but we both like the ambiance. There's usually great music and a quiet atmosphere - both conducive to getting work done.

We hit the road mid-morning heading to St. Louis. We ended up visiting four states today - Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. It was another pleasant drive. Western Kentucky offered miles of pastoral rolling farmland, and we only got turned around a couple of times. Collectively, I think we've lost about an hour of time doing this road trip the old-fashioned way: with a road atlas and a few selected Google Maps printouts. With no GPS device, I think we're doing it pretty close to the way Lewis and Clark explored the West.

Downtown St. Louis is a beautiful place. The architecture was remarkable, and the preservation of older buildings was really commendable. C got a fantastic deal on for our first night there. We paid $60 for the Hyatt in the old Union Station. The entrance of the station served as the hotel's main lobby, and the rest of the station has been converted into a shopping mall. Whomever designed this place deserves awards! It is a model of historic preservation.

We made it to the hotel in just enough time to drop our bags then walk to Busch Stadium to catch the Cardinals vs. the Mets. The rain came down hard for about an hour during the third inning, so the game was delayed. When it stopped, it was getting late so we headed back to the hotel before the next wave of thunderstorms moved in. Troy Glaus hit his second homer of the game in the bottom of the ninth to win it for St. Louis.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Day 3

When we stepped out for our run this morning we were met by some chilliness. The temperature up in the mountains was an unseasonably crisp 65 degrees. In back of the inn was a nature trail that went by a small pond covered with morning fog. A couple of swans were nesting on its bank, and we steered clear of them as we've heard they can be mean. Some parts of the run were on pretty steep hills, but I guess we can just consider that preparation for Seattle.

Breakfast consisted of banana's foster French toast and bacon, with a couple of sourdough biscuits on the side. It was heavenly! It made up for our below average dinner the night before. After breakfast we sat in rocking chairs on the inn's back porch, doing work on our laptops and watching birds eat at the feeders.

We got on the road mid-morning and headed toward Nashville. The first part of the drive was the prettiest, as we passed through a couple of small rural towns. We rolled into Nashville around 2 p.m. and were able to catch lunch with a buddy of mine in med school at Vanderbilt. After that we found the place we were staying. Another friend from LSU let us stay at his place for a night - he was back home visiting his family.

The main event of the day was a trip to the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry started in 1925 as a weekly radio broadcast, and hasn't missed a week since. Today they do three broadcasts a week, and we were lucky to be in town for one of them. This was my second time visiting, Courtney's first, and we both loved it. We saw Pam Tillis, Terri Clark, and a great young songwriter named Eric Church (see video below).

After the Opry we drove to the airport to pick up our second car of the trip - a Chevy HHR. Then we dropped our red Suzuki off at its new home. Unfortunately, we didn't take many photos today.