Saturday, April 28, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Days 7-8: Gallup, New Mexico to Kingman, Arizona to Los Angeles, California

The death march home to Los Angeles continued, this time with driving rain at high altitude, broken only by a stop for breakfast at Denny's in Flagstaff.  After two nights in kitsch motels, I have never been happier to check into a Marriott than I was in Kingman, Arizona.  We used the gym, dawdled on the wifi, and generally reveled in the generic newness of it all.  While lounging by the indoor swimming pool, my husband read an article about Oatman, Arizona, and became charmed with the idea of a small detour to visit the honeymoon suite of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in this tiny western town.

The next morning we shared our complimentary hotel breakfast buffet with a group of bikers called the Messengers of Recovery.  They shared leather and facial hair with their brethren of the biker genre, but were telling  stories about a friend who had "been to the other side" and seen heaven.  After a winding thirty-mile drive on a tiny road, we were joined in Oatman, Arizona by approximately fifty bikers of the more traditional sort.  We took some pictures but decided it was best not to linger.  In no time we had crossed the border to the promised land.  Our portal: Needles, California.

It took us eight days to cross the country and, despite my aspirations, this was anything but the ultimate childfree vacation.  It was a chore -- needless to say, one I would not recommend that anyone attempt with children.  To make it more of a vacation we should have taken more detours, and there was plenty to see along the way.  My notes of missed opportunities include Johnnie Brock's Dungeon, the Halloween headquarters of Missouri; Darryl Starbird's Custom Car Museum in Fairgrove, Oklahoma; the Top of Texas Catholic Superstore, just outside of Amarillo; the Dinosaur Museum in Tucamcari, New Mexico; and Bearizona, a drive-thru (how American!) wildlife park.  We have one more car to get back to L.A., so who knows, maybe I will see the Jesse James Wax Museum before I die.
...and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

Friday, April 27, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 6: Amarillo, Texas to Gallup, New Mexico

Gallup, New Mexico

Day six started with promise.  As we drove into the Windows-startup screen of a landscape of open skies and flat greenery, my husband blasted the Sirrius Spa station.  It was the kind of music second-rate yoga teachers and masseuses play -- and I always ask them to turn off -- but he was having a moment, and I let him have it.  He was back in the West.

In Albuquerque we stopped in Old Town to stretch our legs and buy postcards.  We had a quiet moment in the adobe church and ate marginal Mexican food on the central square.  It got worse from there.  This is when my husband realized his vision of the American west bore little resemblance to reality, which consisted largely of pock-marked highway, aggressive truck drivers, and tatty Indian jewelry outlets along the otherwise desolate interstate.  We considered stopping in Grants for the night, but the cluster of chain motels and a Walmart (which admittedly I had previously found charming in Columbus, Ohio) masquerading as a town was too depressing to bear, and we continued for sixty miles to Gallup.

Maybe not.
There we checked into the El rancho motel, which had once hosted the cast of several westerns.  Our room was named after Kirk Douglas, and came complete with a wagon wheel headboard and heavy antiseptic smell.  We shared the bar with a long-haul trucker and a group of German cyclists, ate our second Mexican meal of the day in the hotel restaurant, and retired into the arms of Mr. Douglas to rest up for the final leg of our journey. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The ultimate childfree Vacation - Day 5: Tulsa, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas

U Drop Inn in Shamrock, TX

We broke up our drive from Tulsa to Amarillo with a stop in Shamrock, TX, home to the landmark U Drop Inn diner / Conoco station, which apparently featured in the Pixar movie, Cars.  A sweet old lady who had exactly the same accent as my grandmother, who also grew up in the Texas panhandle, sold us postcards at the visitor center and gave a glowing recommendation to Vern’s Steakhouse just across the street.  We opted for Taco Bell, saving ourselves for steak at the Big Texan later that night.

The Big Texan motel is right off the I-40, just before Amarillo.  I had been looking forward to the Texas-shaped swimming pool all day, only to be disappointed when the check-in girl told me it wasn’t open until May.  Why that was so when it was ninety-one degrees outside was unclear.  The good news was that we could check into our room early.  The bad news was that it was 2:00PM and we were by the side of an interstate with nothing to do all afternoon except entertain ourselves at a roadside motel.  The inside of our room was painted concrete block with swinging, saloon style doors to the bathroom, which featured a fringed, ultra-suede shower curtain.  It was another lesson in the fleeting value of irony, and, after a quick tour of the gift shop, we were left with no choice but to belly up to the bar at the adjacent Big Texan steakhouse. 

the Big Texan Steakhouse & Motel, Amarillo, TX
After an aborted attempt to drink a glass of rosé from Lubbock, Texas, and success with two home-brewed honey blonde beers, we sat down to an early dinner in the steakhouse.  We were just in time to see the last fifteen minutes of a man attempting to eat a seventy-two ounce steak in under an hour, the reward for which would be the steak was free.  He was seated at an elevated table in the center of the room, just under the watchful eye of the grill cook.  Our server subsequently told us this was so the cook, Cookie (I swear), could watch out for barfing.  This was a disqualifying offense if done at the table, but acceptable if done in the parking lot.  It also explained the two small garbage pails sitting on the stage.

With ten minutes to go, the contender was declared disqualified due to vomiting.  Thankfully, we were being serenaded by a roaming trio of elderly men doling out The Yellow Rose of Texas for tips when the penalty occurred and failed to notice.  Staged barfing aside, the Big Texan was delicious.  I went to bed with a lead belly, anticipating our arrival in the west the next day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 4: St. Louis, Missouri to Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa VFW
Here’s what you need to know if you are going to drive cross-country, east to west: you hit bottom on day four.  This is when everything becomes a blur of Jesus, fireworks, and adult superstore billboards.  The promise of the West turns into a death march in which you cling to the mid-century kitsch of Route 66 like a promise of salvation, only to find out that irony is a fleeting entertainment.

We ended day four in Tulsa.  We were staying on the outskirts of the city and decided to stretch our legs with a walk into the CBD.  It was dead, so we returned to the neighborhood surrounding our hotel in search of something, anything, more uplifting.  On Cherry Street we discovered a nascent boho scene.  You had to look hard, but it was there: a pub with retro stools, an indie coffee shop with a collective of Mac users surfing the free-wifi while burrowed into second-hand sofas.  We drank our coffee outside on aluminum porch sliders before stopping into the Corner Café on historic Route 66 for dinner. 

Frito Chili Pie
I REALLY wanted to like this place.  There was a server named Bobbi Jean and fried green tomatoes on the menu.  I ordered the tomatoes to start, then doubled down on Frito chili pie.  I am pretty sure I ate half a can of Dinty Moore beef stew over a bag of Fritos before I admitted how gross it tasted.  Still hopeful we could salvage the evening, we headed to the nearby VFW, the only bar we had seen, for a pre-bed beer.  We joined one other couple at the bar; that the woman was celebrating her birthday in this desolate hall just made us more depressed.  I nursed my domestic-imitating-a-foreign-beer and watched a bad sitcom on the giant TV. 

On the way back to the hotel we spotted the “art bar.”  Inside was a cement room hung with oil paintings, mostly of cowboys and Indians.  A square bar, also of cement, dominated the center of the room, and we took two stools with a view of a giant oil painting of Lake Havasu party boats tethered together.  Tulsa must have been getting to me, because I was taken with the artist’s rendition of the dusky sky over the lake.  There was only one other person at the bar, a standard issue hipster sporting a standard issue hipster beard, truckers’ cap and inner tube earrings in each earlobe.  He was busy impressing the barmaid, a sweet girl in a black racer-back tank top and lip ring, with his suitably inaccessible musical selections on the jukebox.  I nursed a beer and took the scene in, but I wasn’t persuaded to wait the hour until karaoke started.

We were ready to leave Tulsa at 6:30AM on day five, but Tulsa wasn’t ready to let us go.  Road works conspired to keep us off the interstate until, on our third attempt, we found an open on ramp.  Later in Oklahoma City we would meet a similar barrage of road works.  We set our sights on Texas, and didn’t look back.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 3 (on which we disciplined other people's children): Columbus, Ohio to St. Louis, Missouri

We drove from Columbus to St. Louis yesterday.  Other than farms, grazing cows, and faded red barns, I don't remember much about it.  I'm not sure if that's because it was non-descript, or because road trip fatigue is starting to set in, or because the destination, St. Louis was so unexpectedly great.  We actually stayed west of downtown, in an area called Dog Town, at a mock English hotel.  Those last two statements offer plenty of easy targets, but I won't take any pot shots because the hotel, the Cheshire, was great.  Sure the faux mottled walls were a little too uniformly mottled to look anything like a real English inn, but it was nicer and cleaner and friendlier than any English inn I ever frequented in the six years I lived there.

We had purposely set off from Columbus early -- foregoing the 10% discount for breakfast at Perkins that staying the night at the Red Roof Inn had entitled us to -- so that we would get to St. Louis by early afternoon to have time to look around.  We took advantage of the hotel's complimentary bikes to stretch our legs in nearby Forest Park.  After spending a few hours in the park I tried really hard to think of a nicer park in America or Europe and couldn't come up with one.  There is a zoo, a museum, lakes, and a restaurant (and those were just the parts we saw) laid out in a mix of woodland and more manicured surroundings.  I got into the spirit of St. Louis at the Boathouse restaurant by ordering BBQ brisket and locally brewed Schlafly ale.

Museum in Forest Park, St. Louis from a paddle boat
The restaurant tables were next to a lake, and feeding the ducks was popular with kids.  One four-year old boy who got a bit aggressive in throwing the bread at the ducks incurred the wrath of my husband.  Wrath is actually a strong word.  It's a technique he has honed that walks the fine line between getting a misbehaving child's attention yet not drawing so much attention to himself to incur backlash from a protective parent.  It harks back to the Victorian days when children were to be seen and not heard, and anybody in polite society could reprimand them, usually with the enthusiastic approval of the parent.

"Don't do that," he told the boy.  Then, "DON'T DO THAT," louder, more deliberate but not yelling.  The boy looked at him incredulously and stopped.  It was clear no stranger had ever disciplined him.

After lunch we rented a pedal boat and tooled around the waterways for an hour.  When we returned the boat, another little boy had gotten overzealous feeding the ducks and fallen into the lake.  He seemed more embarrassed than hurt, and the restaurant staff were impeccable in handling the situation.  One got towels, another returned with a free souvenir t-shirt for him to change into, and a third got hot chocolate.  They may have all just been scared to death of a lawsuit, but it really did seem like they were just being nice.  I never thought I would be recommending places to go if you have kids on this blog, but the Boathouse in Forest Park, St. Louis, seems like an awfully good choice.  Your kid may even learn some manners from a stranger with an English accent.

The ultimate childfree vacation - Day 2: Niagara Falls to Columbus, Ohio

Main Diner in Westfied, NY

I'll be honest.  Day 2 of the road trip was always the one I was looking forward to the least.  Our destination: Ohio, known to me only through WKRP in Cincinatti and Drew Carey -- both dependable, likable TV shows, but hardly romantic or exciting.  I assumed the same of Ohio.

The day started off to script.  It was so rainy the sat nav refused to come out of night time mode until mid-afternoon.  There was a classic Americaville Main Street diner in Westfield, NY, where we stopped for mid-morning coffee.  Then there was Pennsylvania, a state that should be better known for its shopping.  In the Lake Erie-adjacent stretch of I-90 we drove, you can buy porn from The Lion's Den, wine from Pennshore Vineyards, fireworks and karate Supplies from the creatively named Fireworks and Karate Supplies store, and, right next door, an Amish shed in which to store it all.  We didn't buy any of those, but it was tempting.

Then there was Ohio.  What were vineyards doing in Ohio?  And ski resorts?  Maybe I had underestimated this state.  We pulled off the interstate somewhere around Richfield in search of lunch.  We found beautiful rolling hills and a friendly proprietress of a closed restaurant.  She was extremely apologetic that the tavern was closed to prepare for a wedding, but offered us a soda and use of the bathroom and directed us to a Subway back by the interstate to help avert a looming low blood sugar mood-wobble.  Before long we were checking into the Red Roof Inn in Columbus, our only planned chain motel stay of the trip.  The room was clean and the staff were courteous.  Just like Ohio.

We killed the afternoon in a strip mall across the street, where we popped into Marshalls so my husband could refresh his underwear supply (in a rare lapse of planning by this OCD-ish man, most of his underwear stash was trapped in a suitcase under the big screen TV).  Next we wandered the aisles of Walmart looking for disposable razors.  This was the first time I had been in a Walmart for years, and I was slightly awed.   It even had a nail salon.  I have always been a Target girl myself, but I think I might start to change things up if I find a Walmart in West LA.

We ended the evening with dinner at Average Joe's Pub and Grill in another strip mall across the street from the Red Roof Inn.  It was cold and I didn't have much in the way of warm clothing, so I was wearing running shoes and a waterproof jacket with my otherwise non-sporty outfit.  I fit right in.  Everyone in the bar, male and female, was wearing some version of sportswear.  I saw no shoes other than flip flops or sneakers.  There were no collared shirts other than the one my husband was, somewhat conspicuously, wearing.  Visors were de rigeur for the group of gentleman playing pool behind us, despite the fact that it was cloudy outside and there was no other indicator in either the way they were dressed or shaped that they were fresh from a game of tennis or golf.  They were just a group of average guys hanging out in an average restaurant in an average town.

But here's the thing.  Average in America is quite nice.  It is pleasant and comfortable and friendly.  Average in America is better than average anywhere else, something I feel qualified to say after spending the last six and half years in Europe.  Ohio, you might be average, but that's not half bad.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The ultimate childfree (not counting my husband) vacation - Day 1: Boston to Niagara Falls

The road trip did not start well.  My husband was pissed off over the fact that I was in Reykjavik for work in the days immediately preceding our departure.  To complicate matters he had developed a bad cold, and thus I spent most of my business trip in Iceland fielding text messages accusing me of abandoning him with all the packing when he was "deathly ill."  He also expressed his displeasure by allocating me exactly half of a small black duffel bag to pack the belongings that would sustain me for the next two and a half weeks.  This was not completely unfair given that he was moving to Los Angeles permanently to start work while I would be back in Boston in a few weeks to pack off our furniture and the remainder of our belongings with movers.  But it was a little unfair when you consider that the items he had selected as essential to his life for the next six weeks, and therefore worthy of a spot in the car, included a big screen TV, three computers, a sound system, and a movie projector.

My half of the duffel bag was packed before I left for Reykjavik.  I had taken care to hide two dish towels and a rolled  up set of bath towels in amongst my clothes since I knew he would not deem such items worthy of precious car space.  But apparently I had not used enough care.  As he packed his half of the duffel bag the night before we set off, he discovered the contraband linens.  Only a dusty old window screen prevented them from being hurled down onto Beacon Street.  I chalked this all up to the anticipatory stress of starting a new job and chose my moment when he wasn't looking the next morning to repack the towels.

I wish I could say that once the linens were secured things got better, but things always get worse before they get better.  The leaky cups of Starbucks were a mere precursor to the satnav getting things wrong right off the bat.  We had battled our way through Brookline and were ten miles down the highway when we noticed the signs to Rhode Island and the satnav calculation that it would take eleven hours to arrive at a destination that was supposed to be six hours away.  Words were exchanged.  Satnav settings were tweaked.  And eight hours later we arrived in Niagara Falls.

Into the Welcoming Arms of Niagara Falls
We spent our first night of the road trip in a dilapidated neighborhood of formerly grand houses of the Disney Haunted House architectural style.  Thankfully the Hanover House B&B was not as run down as some of its neighbors.  While we were parking in the back we noticed the curtains twitch.  The rotund older lady of the house was there to greet us when we arrived at the front door, not with a warm welcome but with a barrage of questions.  Her opening gambit was, "What room are you staying in?" to which I replied that I didn't know as we were just checking in. 

This did not satisfy her.  "You had to pick a room when you made a reservation," she said.

Having made reservations in seven hotels in seven states for this trip, I didn't remember the fine points of this particular one and, much to her apparent disgust, told her so.  At this juncture she suggested that maybe we were in the wrong place.  I asked if I could take a look at the sheaf of papers she was clutching, and there it was: a list of check-ins for the day that included our name and address and noted our room as the "William and Mary." 

"We're in the William and Mary," I told her.  She did not object, but replied that her eye sight was not so good and that her husband, who usually looks after the check-ins, was still out.  I softened a bit realizing that this was all about her defensiveness about her eyesight and an inability to ask for help.  Then she noted that we were not supposed to arrive until between 4:00 and 5:00PM, and it was only 3:30PM.  My patience was thinning and my husband's had thinned, so that when she launched into a monologue about the sites of Niagara Falls, he interrupted asking for the key.  We left her at her perch in the entry hall, clutching the stack of paperwork and muttering about the Maid of the Mist while we proceeded up the stairs in search of the William and Mary amongst the fake floral arrangements, dolls, paintings, tea cups and throw pillows that crammed the house.

A walk to the Falls along the river was a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs.  We did the obligatory photos and postcard purchases before heading out for an early dinner where we encountered our next bout of Niagara Falls customer service.

At the Red Coach Inn, a faux British pub just across the street from the novelty garden set out in the shape of the Great Lakes, we butted heads with Lewis the maitre d'.

"Two for dinner, please," I said.

"Do you have a reservation?" countered Lewis.

Seriously?  The restaurant was at best a third full, a description that could just as well apply to Niagara Falls on the whole.  The New York side of the Falls is a shadow of its former glamorous honeymoon destination self.  Did we really need a reservation?

"We're completely full between 6:30 and 7:30PM," Lewis informed us.

Sensing a window of opportunity, I eyed some empty bar stools, giving Lewis all the cue I thought he needed to suggest we either eat or at least wait at the bar until a table was available.  I was even hoping for an "I'll try to get you in sooner," but no such luck.  My husband had to suggest to Lewis that perhaps we could get a drink and wait at the bar.  Lewis seemed amenable to the idea, but was at pains to let us not he could not guarantee a table would be available by 7:30pm. 

"Well we probably shouldn't wait then, should we?" husband asked, half sarcastically, half giving Lewis one last chance before we walked out the door.  Lewis didn't bother to reply, and we walked out the door, two blocks down to Niagara Falls very own Hard Rock Cafe.  Easy as it is to mock, the service was the best we had thus far.  The first night of our road trip ended with sangria accompanied by old videos of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Howard Jones, which was enough to even cheer up my husband.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Road Trip

Photo by Nicholas_T, via Flickr (Creative Commons)
April is inadvertently turning into child-free vacation month on this blog and in my life.  In one week we are setting off on the ultimate child-free vacation, a cross-country road trip.  It is something I have always wanted to do, and now circumstance has made it a necessity as we relocate my husband from Boston to Los Angeles.

Allow me to explain.  Last November we relocated from Berlin to Boston with my job, marking our return to the US after six and half years abroad.  We knew we eventually wanted to end up back where we started, in Santa Monica, California, but my company-funded move meant I had a one year commitment to Boston.  After a couple months of looking for the right job in Boston, my husband broadened his job search to include Los Angeles.  While he eventually was offered a job in both Boston and Los Angeles, the one in L.A. was a more appealing opportunity both in terms of the job itself and, from a long term perspective, the location.  Happily my boss agreed to let me work half-time in Los Angeles; the rest of the time I will commute cross-country.  Not ideal, but I am a good traveller and not particularly daunted by the prospect of two red-eyes a month.

When we first tell people about our big plan it elicits two distinct responses.  People with kids ask, wide-eyed, "Is your marriage in trouble?"  People without kids get excited about the road trip and conclude that "eight months [the remainder of my commitment to my current employer] is nothing."

The flexibility to make this kind of unorthodox living arrangement is one of the hallmarks of being child-free.  Although I usually bristle at the implication that the child-free have some sort of unspoken obligation to live adventurous lives (great blog on this from Life Without Baby earlier this week), nobody can accuse my husband and me of not having taken advantage of our status in recent years.  Since leaving Los Angeles, our respective company-sponsored world tour has allowed us to live in London, the Costwolds, Berlin, and now Boston.  The Cotswolds was the best of these destinations (I wrote all about it here), Berlin the worst.  In other words, they have not all been happy outcomes, but at least we can say we tried.

Stay tuned.  Next stop: Niagara Falls.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A childfree vacation in P'town

Last weekend when I should have been posting my latest blog, I was busy hanging out at the beach.  Big things are afoot in my household -- namely a move home to Los Angeles from our current outpost in Boston -- and so, in an effort to enjoy New England while we are still here, we made a last minute trip to Cape Cod.

While there we stayed at our first ever child-free hotel.  I didn't choose it because of this.  In fact I only discovered it when I called to make the reservation and the receptionist asked me if everyone in our party was over eighteen.  Given the hotel is in Provincetown, MA -- whose summer calendar includes "Bear Week" and "Girl Splash" -- I assumed this was a euphemism for gay-friendly.  My incredibly acute powers of perception were validated when I noticed the rainbow image on the hotel website.  The hotel's policy on children was right above the rainbow, and, I thought, rather eloquently and firmly stated:  "The Inn is regarded as a quiet escape and romantic getaway for most of our guests, and we work hard to foster that environment. Since it is not an appropriate environment for children, no one under the age of 18 is permitted at the Inn at any time. Unfortunately, we cannot make any exceptions."  (Amusingly, the pet policy appears right underneath, with a rather different tone:  "Let the pet pal you love travel in luxury with you...Pets Are Welcome.  Whether checked in for work or play, what could be more wonderful than snuggling up with your favorite furry friend during your stay?")

The hotel residents were a mixed crowd.  We spent the wine and cheese hour on our first evening with a thirty-something couple who had left their infant with her grandparents back in Boston.  We headed to the nearby Shipwreck Lounge for our second, third, and fourth wine hours, where Gary the barman doled out tankards of Pinot Grigio to the dulcet sounds of MDNA.  We were joined by Marley the bar cat, who drank his water out of a highball glass, and a gentleman named Thurston Hartwell, III.  The latter claimed he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower, which was appropriate since Provincetown was the first landing place of the Pilgrims.  Mr. Hartwell was as close as we got to the town's early American history since the Pilgrim Monument in the center of town was closed for repairs.  

Saturday was cold and moody, and we shook off the excesses of the previous evening with a long walk along the jetty and around the dunes of Herring Cove.  Our only regret was that we hadn't brought our bikes to explore the paths of the Cape Cod National Seashore.  In the evening, after another wine and cheese hour at the hotel, we headed to one of the few restaurants in town that was open (many weren't set to open until later in April or early May when season officially starts).  Mews a shingled, seaside house in the West End, was heaving but expertly run.  We were early for our reservation, but seated quickly thanks to a family of three -- a little girl with two moms -- who didn't linger after they finished their meal.  She was the only child we saw all weekend.

The Details:
Crowne Pointe Historic Inn and Spa
2 Bradford Street
Provincetown, MA 02657 

The Mews Restaurant and Cafe 
429 Commercial St
Provincetown, MA 02657