The 5500 (Part 1)

Salt Lake City, UT
August 12. Day 1.
Driven: 705.4 miles

I have to admit I was pretty apprehensive about this particular trip, even up to the morning of departure. This was much more nomadic and ambitious than last year’s drive to Vancouver. But once I got in, it was go time. And go time was 5:57 am in Irvine, CA.

And once I got going, I realized that I love the road. Maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment, of gratification – given the perpetual movement. But it felt awesome to blow by Vegas, to go through where everyone else stops for good. After a pit stop in Mesquite, AZ, I took a short detour into the outskirts of Zion National Park.

Still, I ended up in Salt Lake City much earlier than anticipated. I explored the gorgeous downtown area – the convention center was spectacular. There was also a really nice outdoor mall.

On the downside, it was a pretty hot day. I had brought my plant along for the trip, thinking it wouldn’t get watered and die a neglected death at home. I hadn’t considered what 100 degree temperatures would do for it in the backseat. After one day, it was gone. I am an idiot.

I also subconsciously played “spot the ethnic minority” in Salt Lake City. There were two African-Americans, one Hispanic family, and two Asians. One was actually an employee at Temple Square (I actually typed “Mormon Square” – I also kept referring to it as the “House of Mormon,” which I assume is not p.c.). The second Asian was myself.

Speaking of not being p.c., I was really thirsty while exploring Temple Square, and upon seeing a water fountain, my first thought was, “Thank God!” I then laughed to myself like a crazy person. Props to the Mormons, though – the water was super cold. And the Jesus statue surrounded by the galaxies? Pretty awe-inspiring.

Salt Lake City is the kind of place where people walk their dogs and jog around the Capitol building downtown in the dead of night. It was like, any other ho-hum public park. In retrospect, I don’t even recall any trash laying around on the sidewalks. In other words, downtown LA this was not.

West Yellowstone, MT
August 13. Day 2.
Driven: 357.8 miles (1063.2)

The second day got off to an inauspicious start. I got literally two hours of sleep – thanks, I would venture, to the too-late effects of an energy drink from the previous day. Then I banged my head in the hallways of my hostel… twice. By the time I came to, I had traveled back in time.

To this place. Quite literally, ‘This is the Place’ Heritage Park in Utah, where the Mormons first settled in 1847. A haven of door knocks, multiple wives, and white people. These were the temporary shelters the pioneers constructed until their houses were completed. The poor remained.

The park was marked by a weird role-playing element, with an apparently functioning Mormon community comprising the employees and volunteers who ‘acted out’ their respective parts. This poor girl must have drawn the short stick. Or the long plow.

Hmm, in fact, underage labor was a recurring theme. I wonder if I could have just stayed at the blacksmith for the entire day to see what they did. And to creep them out.

The monument. Think what you will about religious people (and I certainly do!), but they sure produce some amazing works of art and architecture. Hey, when salvation is at stake…

It was onward north from there to Antelope Island, which is square in the middle of the actual Salt Lake. The water was ridiculously clear and still; some mountains on the horizon appeared to protrude from nothingness. Best yet, it was pretty quiet.

On the other hand, the buffalo burger on the island was disappointing. I was expecting something thick and tough and misshapen and weird. But it was pretty much like any other burger I’ve had… only $9.

Casper, WY
August 14. Day 3.
Driven: 359.9 miles (1424.1)

It wasn’t long after I entered Yellowstone National Park that I spotted a bunch of cars on the side of the road. That’s always the safest bet that there’s something afoot. But in the best of ways, the entire park is really just a huge photo op… I stopped at every chance.

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” This is actually the smoke rising from one of the numerous hot springs and geysers in the park. It was sick.

There are 1,500 active volcanoes that we know about… and one that we don’t. Tommy Lee Jones. Anne Heche. This spring, the coast is toast. Volcano. April 1997. (Okay, so Wyoming is nowhere near the coast, but I already referenced Dante’s Peak last year)

I find it amusing that people will always greet one another deep into hiking trails, but are much less inclined to do so the closer to the trailhead or parking lot they are. Maybe there’s a camaraderie in being in the middle of nowhere together. Or maybe there’s an undercurrent of “if I’m nice, they won’t push me off the side of this mountain.”

There were a ton of little clicky bugs on the trails (crickets?), so loud that I thought initially there was some lumber work going on. There were also a ton of people by Old Faithful, so many that some lady remarked aloud, “This is like Disneyworld!”

This marked the Continental Divide, which sounded more interesting on the information post (and Wikipedia) than it looked. In person, it was just a still river. Whatever its flow, it was onward ho from there through the Grand Tetons and to my cousin’s place.

I took this picture before the rains really came, and lightning and thunder struck. On the tiny two-lane highway, visibility was frighteningly low (especially after a fucking 18-wheeler roared by you). I found a car and literally followed him for 80+ miles: it was terrifying.

Sioux Falls, SD
August 15. Day 4.
Driven: 603.7 miles (2027.8)

My cousin provided a tour of ‘downtown’ Casper in the wee hours. This was the sign out in front of his soon-to-come Thai / Chinese restaurant. No free meals here… well, not for another week, at least.

It was during a certain point on this day when I realized that I was not only unsure as to which road I was traveling on, but which state I was in. The highway scenery was severely lacking, with this power plant a rare – and welcome – interruption. Shout-out to the PPNTers.

As I climbed the winding hills in Hermosa, I strained my neck around every corner, expecting to be overwhelmed by the iconic sculptures. I really thought I’d be able to get closer than the monument ultimately allowed – damn the lies of National Treasure 2.

Still, I’d be lying if I said it was anything but remarkable. Giant rocks shaped like presidents! Keystone was also an incredibly interesting place to drive through – completely touristy, completely thematic, and essentially an unreal, cartoon mountain town. Next up? Mount Richmore.

De Smet, South Dakota, proudly proclaimed itself to be the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder (just as a random billboard at a graveyard proudly proclaimed abortion to be “the choice that kills”). Truth be told, I had thought she was a fictional character, like Sarah, Plain & Tall or something.

Yet, the discovery of the day was not the tidbit about the author’s existence, or the irony of slow service at an Arby’s in Rapid City. It was simply the jaw-dropping beauty of Falls Park in Sioux Falls.

The sound and laser show at the park did leave something to be desired – 45 minutes of boring history accompanied by a few strobes do not a good time make. The bugs were enthralled, however.

Minneapolis, MN
August 16. Day 5.
Driven: 300.8 miles (2328.6)

Imagine if a mall were the size of a baseball stadium. That’s the Mall of America for you. Four stories of shops, including a top floor of full-sized restaurants and bistros and eateries and other synonyms. Of course, the novelty does wear off once you realize it’s just a mall…

At least, until you see the fucking amusement park in the center. Yes, a full-sized amusement park with coasters and rides, and not one of those half-assed ferris wheel – video arcade combos you might see on a pier (apologies to Santa Monica and Newport Beach).

I waded cautiously into the stream at Minehaha Falls, afraid I would lose my balance, as tiny little kids hopped around without fear. Remember that Simpsons where Bart and the boys dramatize their step into Shelbyville (and manhood), even as the girls ran carefree with a kite in the back? Yeah, it was kind of like that.

Ironically, this was taken at the Institute of Arts, which had a feature exhibit for Lee Friedlander, a photographer whose shadow entered many of his portraits. Okay, so that was a reach. It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

A beautiful statue of an angel. But what’s with the nudity, anyway? I’m glad I didn’t live in Ancient Greece. Or half glad, depending on the aesthetics.

Speaking of, the entire area surrounding the Chain of Lakes was gorgeous. Still water – and not an Almost Famous reference – just has this nice, soothing presence. It’s magnetic.

And to cap off the city trademarks, a Jucy Lucy, as recommended by my friend KC (shout-out to her blog). This was a burger with the cheese cooked inside the patty. The gushing dairy was a bit overwhelming, but it did make the meat amazingly tender and ‘jucy.’ Lucy, you whore.

Wausau, WI
August 17. Day 6.
Driven: 195.3 miles (2523.9)

An early start after another poor night’s sleep did provide a valuable lesson: a linen is not the same thing as a blanket. I was out of sorts when I saw this gigantic spoon in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. “This enormous woman will devour us all!”

I’ve never been a big fan of modern art – it always seemed to me like you could just slap whatever shit you could together and be done with it. A couple of lightbulbs arranged thusly, etc. But interactive modern art, and miniature golf modern art… now that’s a whole other story.

I also geeked out at the Walker Art Center when I saw the $100 hand-crank laptop. Just seeing something revolutionary for the first time, like New Coke, the Arch Deluxe, or the Segway. Oh wait.

Museum’ed out for the day, it was off to downtown Minneapolis, and an early encounter with the mighty Mississippi. As well as this water power… dam… like construction thing with two giant doors. Potentially, the greatest water thrill ride in North America.

I’ve never seen a baseball game under a ghetto circus tent until I went to the Metrodome. The organization was refreshingly honest, however, with the cheap seats called… the cheap seats. For $7 and free range up top, they can call it whatever the hell they want.

Three hours and a win for the home team later, it was time to head east. The Capitol building in St. Paul was actually at the end of John Ireland Blvd. Later in the trip, I would find a Paul Sunderland memorial bridge. Only LA natives (and Laker fans) will understand this.

An impressive and symbolic Civil Rights monument in the capitol city. I spent the night in nowhere, Wisconsin, where the hotel clerk was endlessly amused that I – an LA resident – would ask about the security of the parking lot out back. I guess he had a point.

South Milwaukee, WI
August 18. Day 7.
Driven: 245.8 miles (2769.7)

I took the tour and I listened to the history. But I also saw the city, and thus, I can never truly comprehend how Green Bay, Wisconsin is home to an NFL franchise. As beautiful as the stadium is.

The guide asked if we were Packer fans. A few of us responded in the negative. He then asked who we rooted for. My response was, “Uh, no one.” …Stupid Los Angeles. Stupid Orange County.

Sneaking a peek into the locker room… exhibit of the Packer Hall of Fame, undergoing maintenance. They had some really nifty displays, but the whole operation was top-notch, all the way to the practice facility across the street. I abstained from Aaron Rodgers cracks.

The actual namesake of Green Bay is home to a very nice amusement park, with throwback prices (rides for a quarter). Continuing my trend of eating meals two hours late, I gorged on a lemon ice, popcorn, sausage pizza, and nachos… all for a few bucks.

My pit stop in Port Washington was no accident – I was on the lookout for Sasha Mitchell. Too obscure? How about Staci Keenan, Angela Watson, Christine Lakin, Patrick Duffy, or Suzanne Somers? I wondered if there would ever be a second time around.

A couple of hours later, I continued the baseball portion of my trip. Miller Park was absolutely gorgeous, but the next time Milwaukee constructs a stadium, they might not want to do it at the intersection of two freeways. Its accessibility and traffic were comparable to pre-2007 Dodger Stadium. Even worse, it was a sellout.

My $17 standing room only ticket, however, afforded a perfect view of the thrilling race. The Brewers won, but my highlight was an unexpected sighting of Darin Erstad (in Astros colors). Man, I miss that guy.

Schiller Park, IL
August 19. Day 8.
Driven: 127.7 miles (2897.4)

As I took a tour of the Miller Brewing Company, I kept thinking. If I were a drunk, would it be worth it to go through the hourlong tour three, four times a day in exchange for the couple of free beers they provided at its conclusion? …Yeah, it probably would be.

The Milwaukee Art Museum was a pretty remarkable architectural accomplishment in itself. From the outside, it looked like a giant spaceship or something. From the inside, it was a scene from Gattaca.

There was a mix of modern art, but it was incredibly cool. They had a room you’d walk into, surrounded by mirrors and lights and stuff, so it felt like you were exploring endless galaxies. They had metal contraptions and television montages and even this creepy guy who I thought was just hanging around… until I realized he wasn’t real.

The public market was also very nice. Yet, I hate how these places will always have meat covered with herbs and spices and stuff. They look and smell amazing, but will invariably be something like $20 a pound.

Anyway, it was time to trade Wisconsin for Illinois – unfortunately, via the beat-up roads of the latter state. My butt was comfortable in the confines of Wrigley. My mind, however, was in Tampa Bay.

The postgame scene – after a Cubs victory – was pretty much as advertised. The crowd stayed to chant some ridiculous song with gusto, then poured onto Waveland Ave. We’ll see you bastards in October.

I’ve had White Castle’s line of frozen hamburgers before. In fact, they were probably better than the actual thing. I’m not sure whether this is a compliment to one or an insult to the other. Perhaps both. Either way, I still hate the movie.

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