Saturday, July 24, 2010

Another great travel moment.

Here's the cab that picked me up at O'Hare Thursday. A perfect coda to a week in Iowa...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two-fisted Tales of the Frozen North! Aberdeen, S.D.

I've been traveling to North and South Dakota for nearly two decades. I've seen things over the years and, like anyone my age, love to drone on and on about them. So, without further preamble...

South Dakota is cattle country.

In Aberdeen, meat is not only what's for dinner; it's also what's for lunch, breakfast, mid-day snack and dessert. It's everywhere, along with cowboy themed decorations and cow-hide fabric patterns. Whatever you can think of; if it's not made from meat, it soon will be. Pork-in-the-bottom yoghurt, Beefie-Roll Pops (with the chewy tenderloin center), 85% lean ice cream; teriyaki jerky baby pacifiers ; if it doesn't exist, it's just because no-one's gotten around to marketing it yet. (All that muscle tissue going through the colon slows one down a bit. Give them time.)

This region's like the quantum opposite of Vegan; Meateater versus anti-meateater. I'm pretty sure if Aberdeen were to make contact with Southern India, they would cancel each other out in a massive nuclear fireball of delicious, savory devastation. This is an Atkins diet wonderland where you're going to need all your teeth.

The Steak Buffet  Restaurant is Aberdeen in microcosm. When you walk in, you will not find diet platters or veggie dishes. As a matter of fact, you won't find much of anything in the vegetable family. After ponying up your $7.95 for the "All-You-Can-Choke-Down" Golden Ticket, you're immediately confronted by "The Salad Bar." (Chuckle)

The closest thing to salad here, in the traditional sense, is a small bowl with several wilted leaves of tannish, dispirited lettuce; probably handed down from father to son over several generations till its original purpose was lost in the mists of time. It's now just placed there for tradition or a laugh. The real salad bar contestants are potato salad, macaroni salad and ham salad (my favorite- cubes of ham mixed with cubes of cheese and green peas in a sauce of sour cream, mayo and human cholesterol; a heart attack in a bowl)

The next table holds the appetizers and "vegetable" offerings; fried chicken, meatballs and baked potatoes. (Your choice of topping; butter or sour cream) Then it's a cheerful ramble over to the carver table for sliced roast beef, ham or turkey. Of course there are large, double-fisted dinner rolls, pre-slathered with butter, at every turn. It's a testament to the regulars that they manage several rounds of these tables, shambling from one to the other, humming tunelessly while they sweep item after item into their gaping maws, as this is all mere prologue to the main event.

Having defeated the all-you-can-eat gatekeepers already described, they come to... The Steak Pit!

"Step right up, folks. Choose your steak and how you want it done. Hork it down and come on back for more! "

Dim, hulking shadows can be seen; shuffling through greasy, billowing smoke towards the open grill, to slap down their chosen slab of meat with cooking instructions in a scene from "Apocalypse Cow"

These are folks who've been here all day. You can recognize the outlines of their bodies in the upholstery. Entire families occupy a booth; Aunt Pearl leaves only to be replaced by Ruthie-Mae's youngest (Not quite right in the head but a heart of gold..) while the twins, Travis and Travis (They were named after each other...) head up to the "Wall 'o Desserts"  to ruminate over the vast selection of fruit pie slices, carrot cake squares and Boston cream pies on display. There is, of course, a soft-serve ice cream station, to round things out and account for any random survivors.

Scanning the customers around the room, you notice a certain commonality, beyond the fish-belly complexions and their slow, underwater movements, as they progress from feeding station to feeding station. Bypass scars can be seen peeping out from the graying chest hair above many flannel shirts. (Note: Not all of these are men...)

If you manage to walk out of Steak Buffet on your own, any pangs you may feel won't be from hunger. Sit down, take a children's aspirin and wait for the paramedics to finish their pie.

I love finding new places to eat when I travel. Other things I enjoy are, in no particular order:

Finding a nice bar where the music and talking doesn't immediately cease when I walk in. This is inevitably followed by some slightly deformed individual with a name like "Stumpy Joe" sidling furtively out the back to raise the alert that "There's a stranger up ter the saloon what's askin' questions about martini's" This never seems to end well for me.

Locating the right hotel for this and future stays. This doesn't necessarily mean the best hotel. You just know it when you find it. (There's an odd correlation between the right hotel and the right bar. What are the odds?) I found mine on the outskirts of town; the Ram-kota.

The first time I showed up in town, I had made reservations there based on its proximity to the location I had to visit the next day, Having made it through the piles of drifting snow sharing the road with my rental, I was confronted with a big marquee sign saying "Welcome Dennis Harris." I was pleased, honored and, in a way, humbled to realize my arrival meant so much. I assumed that the location I was inspecting the next day was trying to butter me up or that, for some reason, Aberdeen itself was just delighted to see another carnivore turn up. It was only after I'd proudly made myself known at the desk that I learned of the standard practice of pulling a random name from a hat to choose the "Guest of the Week".  I ended up with an upgrade to a whirlpool room and a free "Chunk-o-Meat" dinner at Minerva's; not world acclaim but better treatment than I'd get in California or some Shirley Jackson short story... (Bingo!!!! Why are you all looking at me like that?)

After settling into my regally appointed whirlpool room, I decided to shake off the Dakota chill a bit. Having already indulged in a little light vivisection-with-potatoes-au-grautin at Minerva's and returned with a nice Go-cup of Gordon's, I filled the tub and slipped into it with my accustomed walrus-like grace, pausing for only 7 or 8 strangled squeals as I adjusted to the water. Then, acclimated, I lay back in comfort with one hand gently cradling the slowly dissolving styrofoam cup of gin as the other punched the button to start the whirlpool jets...

Over the next hour or so, as I worked to pick off all the tiny feathers that were glued damply to my body, I learned a lot about Aberdeen from the desk attendant on the other end of the phone line.

I'll bet you didn't know that Aberdeen, South Dakota is, apparently, the pheasant hunting capital of the world, did you? Did you? Well, it is.

Come pheasant season, vast herds of the little bastards can be seen flapping majestically across the fields, flying into things, being run over by cars, getting shot by drunks in red plaid who then tie their legs together and hold them up for photographs. After that I'd assumed they were just thrown away as one never sees them on a menu. "Pheasant-under-glass" just doesn't seem to turn up in restaurants here. (Waitress, I'd like something stringy and gamey with, perhaps, just a hint of lead pellet...)  I assumed, then, that they were hunted by local ranchers trying desperately to protect their livestock from the depredations of that fiendishly wily predator, the pheasant! A mental image arises of 100 or so Ringnecks laboring, with grim determination, to airlift a young steer to their mountain redoubt where they'd eat like kings for month

Actually, people come from all over the world to bang away at these things. Like hordes of maddened Dick Cheney's, they pop these dim-witted birds out of the sky till their pouches are full. They then take them back to wherever they came from and hand them over, proudly, to the wife who's no more about to clean them than those cut-throat trout they were presented with weeks before.

This is where the pheasant-gypsies enter the story! (Feel free to lightly hum "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" over the next paragraph or so.) Another distaff arm of America's itinerant service industry, the pheasant-gypsies arrive with the season to eke out (actually, "eek out" seems more apt here...) a meager living processing these feathered unfortunates for transport home to the hunter's freezer. Requiring much less space and facilities than, say, deer carcass processers, the pheasant gypsy has only to gut and pluck the bird, at which point it's ready for bagging and freezing. Simple enough; the main requirement is a nice big container of hot water for dipping and plucking those carcasses.

Whirlpool rooms are booked months ahead for pheasant season... Make your plans well in advance.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Languid in Dubuque

As a well-seasoned business and pleasure traveler of long standing, I like to think of myself as a sort of travel expert; a master of the road if you will. (I also like to think of myself as lean and catlike, with lighting reflexes and a 30 foot wingspan. I just do...) I'm so comfortably at home in airports and hotels that people have commented on the similarities between myself and George Clooney in that "Up in the Air" movie; primarily the fact that we're both bilaterally symmetrical (Women love that, I understand...)

Over the years I've developed my own rating listings of the places I travel; a veritable Michelin Guide to the nation's plague spots. When someone has need to travel to, say, Platteville, WI; Springfield, MO; Fargo, ND or Toledo, OH, the second thing they'll do (after trying desperately to get out of travelling to Platteville, WI; Springfield, MO; Fargo, ND or Toledo, OH) is to call good old Denny for trip advice. In a trice (sometimes less...) they'll know which hotel has the best beds, attached bars, least objectionable pillows, Manager's happy hours, hottest and least rashy whirlpools, double-bubble 2-for-1 drink specials, best workout rooms (okay, I made that one up...) or most amusingly surreal Karaoke night (Bar in the Holiday Inn Fargo- hands down. There's a blog post all its own there, someday...) I've always taken a certain measure of pride in this. (As well as in my lighting reflexes and 30 foot wingspan.)

This is why I'm not at all happy with changes that have lately been occurring within my little travel domain. I've had about 20 years to get used to everything (About the standard period for me to commit anything to memory) Now, however, things are changing right under me. I've stayed at the same Comfort Suites hotel in Green Bay for 18 years. I loved it because they had a huge pool and spa that was virtually empty except for me whenever I was there. They also had a supper club made up of dark wood, velvet flocked everything, comfy furniture and tables with crisp white tablecloths waited on by old staffers who'd served there since LBJ was in office. The dependable menu had nightly specials including the truly hilarious "Thursday Polish Buffet". I enjoyed the food, even venturing so far as to have a bowl of Charnina (Duck blood soup) periodically just to trick someone else into having some as well. This is entertaining twice; first when you tell them what they're eating and then again once they can bring themselves to ask what the lumps are.

Even better, though, was the clientele. Large, extended families of large, extended people would show up every Thursday dressed in colors and fabrics not found in nature since Robert Hall outlet stores shut down in the early 70's, grazing contentedly on blood soup, blood sausage, pierogis (probably blood pierogis...) and all manner of blintz-centric foodstuffs. I actually came to recognize many of them over the years and was able to watch the children grow into their teens, heading for high school and their first coronaries. All this history, all this tradition came to an unexpected, crashing end a couple years back. I strolled through the hotel, down the access corridor and bopped through the supper club door into a parallel universe. The supper club was gone.

In its place was a slick, modern bistro/lounge with flat black walls and ceilings, decorative metallic panels, pendant lighting and thick slabs of glass everywhere. The old wait staff were gone, their dogs barking now only in my memory; replaced by young, eager servers sharing a common look of puppy-like incomprehension. The long-standing menu was gone. In its place were offerings apparently spit out by some sort of evil, random-menu-generator. Entrees were date-raped by sauces or recipes with no reason to exist in our plane of reality. (I imagined a large, heavy book back in the kitchen. Chained to an iron bookstand and glowing malevolently, the words "Cooking With Cthulu" are dimly visible on the cover. Distant, anguished chanting is heard, "The chicken is sauteed in a sage/oregano/lime/herb butter, finished with a pomnegranate/chocolate/balsamic reduction, why not, and served on a bed of couscous with fried plantains, tickled broccoli rabe and THE STILL BEATING HEART OF THE VIRGIN SACRIFICE! ALL HAIL, CTHULU! ALL HAIL THE DARK LORD!! This is offered with a bread basket and your choice of pretentious field greens salad or some absurdist soup. Today it's Pumpkin Ionesco. Please let me die now...")

This  was sad enough. Worse awaited me, though, as I made my way to the far end. Where once a big, 4-sided bar surrounded an island of grown-up offerings; Scotch, Wild Turkey, Cuervo and a reliable, if limited selection of nice, old single malts, (Critical for those nights when you just have to swirl one around as you stand in the rain, loudly declaiming T.S. Eliot into the teeth of the storm. "Thass right! Aprilzz cruuelest month, sumbitch, you callin me liar? Oww! Okay, okay, sstop hitting me, lady!!!") I now found a minimalist bar fronting a glowing, backlit wall that silhouetted the fruit vodkas and other kiddie drinks currently underwriting all the most annoying TV commercials. There was, of course, a huge day-glo list on the wall of all their specialty martinis, none of which is actually a martini! I'm sorry, "Appletini's"? "Hershey's Mint Chocolate Kiss-o-tini"? This is sick and wrong.

I can actually feel "Grumpy Old Man" rising up self-righteously in my consciousness, waving his cane about, good ear cocked forward and ranting about the old days when "we drank Old Forrester until we finally came to, being led back to our rooms by some smiling Latino man from the Wait staff and that was the way it was, dammit!"

The crusty old, rough-whiskered bartender (Wonder what became of her?) has been replaced by a blank cipher named Chad. Nice enough in a dim way but no apparent appreciation for a patron's fascinating tales about the old days. No proper understanding of how badly the music, sports teams, work ethic etc. of his generation compares to, say, certain others. Worst of all, the priceless knowledge of how to make the perfect martini that I had, in my Promethean way, imparted over the years was gone; lost to the ages!

Here is the recipe! Save and share it! Teach others so it will survive the dark times! The machines are coming, dispensing frozen margaritas and oblivion!

  • Fill a glass with 3 oz. Bombay Sapphire, Gordons or Everclear, chilled to below freezing.
  • Wave a bottle of vermouth threateningly in its general direction.
  • Garnish with 3 vicodin-stuffed blue-cheese olives
  • Scatter throw pillows about the floor and alert smiling Latino man from Wait staff.

I gradually adjusted to the loss of the supper club just in time for the next surprise.

I arrived one late Fall day to discover that the peaceful, empty pool area had been converted, seemingly overnight, into a water park. Screaming small people were whizzing down (and probably on) water slides, splashing through shower hoses and floating, lazily, face down in the whirlpool spa. Sighing softly to myself, I quietly downed the last of my drink and had Gonzalez lead me away. I've not been back since.

This is just a sampling of the changes, some large and some small, that now assail me. One hotel chain has converted all their bed mattresses to pillow tops; nice and comfy but notably taller which can be confusing when, like me, you often wake up with travel amnesia; no idea what city or hotel you're in, in which direction the bathroom or air conditioner lie or, particularly critical after several Denny-tini's, where exactly or how far away the floor is currently located. Also troubling is the expanded offering of pillows I'm now confronted with. God meant us all to have two nice, rectangular pillows on our beds. One of my favored chains now proffers a bed with 5 square pillows. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with them. Often I just curl up on the floor and weep softly to myself.

Last night, though,  marks a turning point beyond which my world just no longer makes sense. Worst of all, it seems, is that I've been done in by a Best Western. Somehow, it's just wrong being taken down by a hotel that accepts pets. Apparently some yappy Maltese can comfortably negotiate something that totally confounds me.

One nice thing about hotels is having an easy chair or recliner to prop yourself in while you watch TV, read or find other ways to avoid checking e-mails. There's usually a nightstand to one side and a lamp stand/table to the other, allowing you to multi-task between eating and drinking which is critical to high achievers like myself. Last night, though, I checked in and found myself confronted with this.

This is not an easy chair. Actually this is not any sort of chair. I remember seeing pictures of these things in movies. I'm pretty sure this is a fainting couch. They were prevalent back in the old times when women wore whalebone corsets so tight they tended to pass out a lot. They'd apparently spend a lot of time on these things, waving wanly at prospective suitors and dying of consumption which was much in vogue back then.

These are not conducive to sitting, though I made a game attempt. I think you're supposed to drape yourself languidly across it which I'm unable to pull off. The closest I can get is to sprawl myself uncomfortably on top of it which just isn't the same. This piece of furniture frightens and disturbs me. If I'm being presented with fainting couches in my hotel rooms, what's next? I already can't work the ergonomic desk chairs. They fold me in half and then flip me over backwards into a somersault not nearly as graceful as you might think me capable of.

Some day I imagine I'll walk into a hotel washroom to find one of those mechanized, Japanese toilets with the servo arms, gauges, probes, rotating knives and such. That's where I'll have to draw the line.

Oh, I'll get by for a while by booking rooms with open balconies but that won't work forever. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

As a matter of fact, I think I'll head across the room and take another shot at that chair. I seem to be feeling just a little bit languid right now.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mouse Hunt

This week we’ve been in Orlando, Florida at some resort Staci booked us into; the name escapes me. I don’t always pay attention to such details as long as she handles things and tells me what to bring, when to be ready (what to wear, appropriate times to laugh and when I really should stop talking… This has worked out quite well so far.) and so on.

It’s a nice enough resort, I guess, though the staff is a bit creepy. (Everyone keeps wishing me a “magical day” like members of some strange sort of Doug Henning cult.) I have found something truly disturbing about this place though.

It’s completely overun by rodents.

Seriously; everywhere you look there are rodents of every size and type imagineable. I haven’t mentioned it to Staci as she’s apparently oblivious to it and I don’t want to weird her out. At home, I’m pressed into service to capture and release every bug, bird or chipmunk that wanders into the wrong area. I know if I say anything here, I’ll end up having to trap, feed and relocate every one of the little vermin I come across. (Probably with its own little squeaky toy and a stern talking to about looking both ways before scampering across the road to spread disease.) Therefore, I’m keeping my mouth shut around her.

However, I can’t believe that the management is this lax with its pest control policy, especially when there are so many kids around. Kids just seem drawn to these things (I blame their parents for having such a cavalier attitude about sanitation and safety, as well as the kids' apparent limited diet of juice boxes and Ritalin.) It’s just a matter of time till someone gets bitten. Fortunately, I have some free time between taking the grandnephews on rides, explaining to Staci "just-what-I-was-thinking-taking-the-5-year-old-on-Space-Mountain/Yeti Plunge/Tower of Terror/The Regurgitator etc." and tucking her into bed early with some aspirin and a cold compress, so I’ve taken action to help address the problem.

Fortunately, I've not seen any “no hunting” postings so I'm assuming there’s no limit on these things and have been picking them off at will. It’s rather challenging as these things are pretty clever and grow to an enormous size. I thought, at first, that they were big mice or rats but now believe they may be a South American rodent of some kind like a capybara; probably forced north by global warming or habitat destruction. Some of the bull rodents reach the size of a man with a rack of ears 4 feet wide! (One of those heads would look great over my mantel.) I’ve also heard that capybara is very tasty and, considering the exorbitant meal prices here, have decided that supplementing the larder with a little wild game would only be prudent.

Stalking the beast was surprisingly easy as they seem to have lost their fear of man. This is when they can be most dangerous, though. I’ve seen what happens when tourists walk up and try to pose for pictures with bison in Colorado. (Bison don’t like this. They’re very self-conscious about their appearance, especially after a moult.) I’m not sure what these giant rodents could do with those ears, they’re probably more related to sexual display or dominance, but no point in taking chances. They could be made of bone or some antler-like material; you wouldn’t know till it lowered it’s head and charged. By then it would be too late.

I dropped my first big specimen from the cover of an Italian-ice stand by the periphery of the roller coaster. (They probably range in from the surrounding swamps.)

It was surprisingly tough to kill. After several shots, it was still screaming in a disturbing fashion which seemed to upset the women, children and one or two of the men in the area. I finally managed to dispatch it by snapping its neck, although even that involved twisting the head around two or three times before finally hearing that crunching-celery sound as the beast kicked twice and went limp.

I hung the carcass from the branch of a nearby artificial tree to bleed out (which seemed to take forever) but had to leave the bulk of the meat as I was being assailed by people shouting angrily at me and waving their fists. Probably some of those PETA activists. (They need to learn to control that anger as it scares their children, a number of whom in the area seemed traumatized to the point of catatonia. Some people probably shouldn’t have kids.)

I had to content myself with slicing off a couple big ham steaks before beating a hasty retreat. Tasted sort of like good quality pork; oddly familiar texture.

I still needed my big trophy rodent, though, and got my chance the next night during dinner when one actually got into the restaurant. It was going from table to table, probably looking for scraps. I was able to get in very close.

It was while skinning it that I made my horrible discovery about how these things attain such size. What tumbled out of the carcass when I opened it up was horrifying. Its unexpected food source, which is plentiful in the area and which it somehow swallows whole… Well, I can’t bring myself to describe what I saw as Staci probably wouldn’t handle it well. I’m counting, instead, on all the parents and children who were in that dining room to spread the word about this threat. I’m sure they will as they all ran screaming hysterically from the building; having realized, I guess, how close they may have come to sharing the fate of the poor unfortunate that lay splayed out on the floor. (I don't think of myself as a hero, by the way. I'm just a man; like any other man you'd meet in Greek mythology...)

As for myself, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough after that and won’t be going back. Well, not soon, at any rate, though I did see something else down there that may draw me back to Orlando some Autumn.

Does anyone know when duck season starts in Florida?