Planet SOMA US Tour 1997

8800 miles. 29 states. 2 countries. 5 weeks. This was some trip!

On 2 September 1997, yer humble host leaves on a very long journey around the country. The object is to see the USA, via the old roads as much as possible, and to meet interesting people. Accommodations will be provided in large part by Planet SOMA readers and other friends. Updates will be transmitted from the road.  You’re invited along for the ride, but be forewarned: I break for drive-ins, sleazy motels, cute boys, etc…

So what the hell am I thinking? With minimal cash on hand, I’m embarking on a 7500-mile trip around the country alone. I’ll be gone for five weeks. I’ll be spending a good third of the trip staying in the homes of people I’ve never met face to face. For at least six or seven nights I’ll be lurking about completely alone in cheap motels hundreds, even thousands of miles from home.

This trip is something I’ve been contemplating for a long time. I was pretty damned amazed that a lot of Planet SOMA readers liked the idea well enough to offer couch space and bathroom privileges, as well as guided tours and more.

Why are you doing this?

Well, I guess it’s just because that’s what I do. Over the last few years, I’ve learned that the times I’m happiest are when I’m completely alone, driving down a highway I’ve never traveled before, en route to a relatively unfamiliar destination. It’s such a great sensation, seeing things I’ve never seen before, as well as new versions of things I’ve seen a million times before. The completely banal becomes exciting.

Aren’t you apprehensive about your living quarters?

I’m not worried about the prospect of staying with strangers, and I hope they’re not worried about the prospect of me in their homes. In fact, calling many of my hosts “strangers” is pretty inaccurate anyway. Thanks to e-mail, I’ve formed alliances with people all over the country — and the world. Surely there’s a considerably stronger bond here than with someone I might invite into my home after meeting up in a bar on Folsom Street.

Will you be giving updates on Planet SOMA?

I sure hope so. The level of detail will depend on my computer access as I travel, as well as on how much time I have. At a minimum I plan to put up simple text updates as often as I can. The pictures may have to wait until I get back because (a) I don’t want to spend the whole trip editing them and (b) not everyone can accomplish video captures easily.

That said, the simple answer is “yes…there will be updates from the road”.

Can I still join the fun?

No. I don’t want to meet anyone else.

OK…I’m kidding. I’m still itching to meet more people around the country. Take this as a hint, if you will, but Detroit and Oklahoma City are the two big spots where a friendly face would be appreciated. But there’s still time to meet up if you live somewhere else too. Mail me (before Labor Day would be nice). We’ll talk.

Thanks again to everyone who has expressed support and interest in the trip. It’s gonna be fun.

The Itinerary

The itinerary describes the trip as it actually occurred, and includes all changes made on the road, including the elimination of Phoenix, San Diego, and Fresno. But here’s the original, if you’re that curious…

Tuesday 2 September (Reno):

  • Route: Leave San Francisco on I-80 eastbound through Sacramento to Reno.
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goals: Finding the cool dyke I met while she was working at Subway in Winnemucca five years ago, and comparing Reno’s cheap buffets to those in Vegas.

Wednesday 3 September (Salt Lake City):

  • Route: Continue on I-80 to Salt Lake City (two nights).
  • Accommodations: Coutesy of Eric.
  • Goals: Obtaining an Osmonds lunchbox. Maybe a T-shirt too…
  • Obscure TV Reference: Donny and Marie.

Friday 5 September (Denver):

  • Route: Continue on I-80 through Cheyenne, switching to I-25, headed for Denver (one night).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: Not running out of gas between SLC and Cheyenne.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Dynasty.

Saturday 6 September (Kansas City):

  • Route: I-80 to Kansas City (two nights).
  • Accommodations: I’ve been offered lodging by Bernie and dinner with Gary.
  • Goals: Managing to get through the whole visit with no references to Dorothy or “The Wizard of Oz”, and visiting Country Club Plaza, which was more or less the first suburban shopping center in America.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Lots of Cops episodes, Mama’s Family.

Monday 8 September (St. Louis):

  • Route: East on I-70/US40 to St. Louis (one night).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goals: Never spent any time here. It intrigues me. I want to check out a few Route 66 landmarks, like Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard. If memory serves correctly, this is also the first place I get to eat White Castle Burgers.

Tuesday 9 September (Madison):

  • Route: I-55 (old Route 66) north to Peoria, I-39 north to Madison (two nights)
  • Accommodations: Chez Steven.
  • Goals: Last time I drove through Madison, all I did was buy a Coke and a Kit-Kat bar. I plan to eat better this time. A side trip to Milwaukee is very likely at this point in the trip.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley

Thursday 11 September (Chicago):

  • Route: I-94 east to Chicago (two nights)
  • Accommodations: Staying with Joseph. Visiting Curt.
  • Goals: My last trip to Chicago didn’t do it justice. Buildings…the el…White Castle…the South Side…Big Chicks (the bar)…
  • Obscure TV Reference: Good Times, Bob Newhart

Saturday 13 September (Indianapolis):

  • Route: South on I-55/Route 66 to Peoria and west on I-74 to Indianapolis (three nights).
  • Accommodations: Here I visit Bob, to whom I am eternally indebted for suggesting the trip in the first place.
  • Goal: Rumor has it Indianapolis is a roadside archtecture mecca, with a smattering of interesting historic districts as well.
  • Obscure TV Reference: One Day at a Time

Tuesday 16 September (Detroit):

  • Route: Switch north on I-69 (I’m excited about this particular highway) through Fort Wayne to I-94 and Detroit (two nights).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: I really want to see this place; my friend Rae (a native) loves it, plus I just have this fetish for urban decay. Auto-culture exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. A WOWO bumper sticker and T-shirt.

Thursday 18 September (Pittsburgh):

  • Route: South on I-94 to Toledo, east on I-90 to Cleveland and west on I-76 to Pittsburgh (one night).
  • Accommodations: A last minute offer from David (I LOVE people named David) has resulted in accommodations and a Mac here.
  • Goal: I’ve known an awful lot of people from Pittsburgh over the years. Hopefully it will not be obvious why they left.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Mister Rogers Neighborhood

Saturday 20 September (Baltimore):

  • Route: East on I-70 (veering onto US 40, the old National Road) to Charles Town and Harpers Ferry. Then on to Baltimore (two nights).
  • Accommodations: Risa, the only high school friend with whom I still communicate is here.
  • Goal: Cruising the Giant Foods near Johns Hopkins, recapturing my childhood and photographing motels in Charles Town and Harper’s Ferry. And I love Baltimore. There may be a side trip to Washington and/or Wilmington.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Homicide: Life on the Street

Monday 22 September (Greensboro):

  • Route: South on I-95 through Washington to Richmond. West in I-64 to Norfolk to visit Taylor, and then onto Greensboro via US 58 and I-85.
  • Accommodations: Mom and Dad. Plus I get to hang out with Jeff and Adam and Daniel and Taylor.
  • Goal: Very much rest. Very little driving. Babylon, Waffle House, K&W, Libby Hill. Cruising UNCG. Side trips to Myrtle Beach, Reidsville, and hopefully the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.
  • Obscure TV Reference: The Andy Griffith Show.

Tuesday 30 September (Charlotte):

  • Route: South on I-85 to Charlotte.
  • Accommodations: Duncan.
  • Goal: Gus’ Sir Beef, my first Krystal burger.
  • Obscure TV Reference: The PTL Club.

Tuesday 30 September (Atlanta):

  • Route: South on I-85 to Atlanta (one night).
  • Accommodations: Tony.
  • Goal: Krystal Burgers, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, and Little Five Points call.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Matlock, Gone with the Wind (OK…it’s not a TV show, but I couldn’t skip it…)

Thursday 2 October (Memphis):

  • Route: West on I-20 to Birmingham, north on US 78 through Tupelo (the Elvis birthplace) to Memphis (one night).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: Graceland? Beale Street? The National Civil Rights Museum?
  • Obscure TV Reference: In the Heat of the Night (Mississppi leg only…)

Friday 3 October (Oklahoma City):

  • Route: West on I-40 (detouring onto Route 66) to Oklahoma City (two nights).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: Many many Route 66 sights. The seduction of a member of Oral Roberts’ family.

Saturday 4 October (Amarillo):

  • Route: West on I-40 (more Route 66 detours) to Amarillo (one night).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: Cadillac Ranch.

Sunday 5 October (Gallup):

  • Route: West on I-40 (with yet more Route 66 detours) through Albuquerque to Gallup.
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: The hidden cities of Route 66.

Monday 6 October (Kingman):

  • Route: West on I-40, through Holbrook (home of the Wigwam Village Motel) and Flagstaff, to Kingman (one night).
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: More hidden cities of Route 66.
  • Obscure TV Reference: Route 66.

Tuesday 7 October (Bakersfield):

  • Route: West on I-40/Route 66 through Barstow and Needles to Bakersfield.
  • Accommodations: Motel.
  • Goal: Making it through the desert without a dead grandma in the back of the truck (per Steinbeck).

Then back to San Francisco, where by this time I will most likely be homeless. OK…just kidding…


Three days and counting. I’d get more excited if I could get rid of this cold I seem to have picked up somewhere. Actually, it’s a little better now, but I’ve been sounding a little like Brenda Vaccaro all day.

Anyhow, Friday brought good news and jumper cables. I needed both as it’s been a long week and I’m not convinced that AAA will instantly remedy any roadside traumas I may experience.


So there was the obligatory trip to Target for trip supplies. Mark came along and over burritos at Pancho Villa offered me the use of a spare PowerBook for the trip. This made me most happy. This will also, in his words, “guarantee that we get updates”. Cool.

There was an inordinate fascination with the shopping cart lift at Target and with the warm and fuzzy T-shirts contained therein. I was unable to find a suitable travel alarm, but I settled for Cocoa Pebbles on sale. We made it safely back into the City before Critical mass hit.


Saturday and Sunday are devoted to laundry and cleaning up and yet more errands and printing cards and gathering maps, and…

There will be no rest this weekend.

Getting Started

Bags packed. Laptop configured. Email answered. Winnemucca tonight!

Monday was laundry day, which was a more daunting task than one might imagine. Afterward, there was another last minute Target run with Sarah, at which point she provided me with a really cool book for the trip (review forthcoming).

The rest of the day was spent making road tapes, packing, moving things around the house, asking myself what the hell I’m doing, etc. Fortunately, Nick at Nite provided a sanity break in the form of a “Green Acres” marathon.

It all starts this morning.


Left home a little later than planned (surprise…) and decided that it would be worth an extra two hours tomorrow to just stay the night in Reno. The choice was thus: $40 for a room in Winnemucca, where it’s boring and the sights take ten minutes to see, or $25 for a room in Reno, where there are cheap buffets, sleazy motels, and even queer bars. Hmmm…some choice…

Lunch at the Chick-fil-A is Farifield was a good thing. However, I think I first started getting excited about the trip when I passed Sacramento and the scenery stopped being so familiar. I really started getting excited around Truckee, where it stopped being insufferably hot.

I think I like Reno better than Vegas; it seems less slick and processed. The grittiness adds a certain charm which Vegas is lacking. And everything is on a slightly smaller scale. The casino strip is not nearly so exciting, but then again, it’s also not nearly so oppressive.

So now I’m comfortably settled into the Motel 6 on Wells Avenue. It has its own Denny’s. Alas, I missed “Roseanne”, so I think I’ll take a crap now and find food…


Good crap, passable food. Love those $6.49 bloat buffets. I sampled Fitzgerald’s. The food and service were not upto Vegas standards, but it worked.


A few observations on Reno:

  • It’s a much better spot for a carless vacation than Vegas. Everything is pretty much concentrated around the intersection of 4th and Virginia. There are even queer bars within walking distance.
  • On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the average age of everyone in Reno seems to be about 70. Everyone smokes. I wonder how many of these characters are locals.
  • It’s really dark here once you leave the strip.
  • It rained here most of the evening. I didn’t think it rained anywhere west of the Rockies this time of year.
  • Why I’m sitting here watching “Moesha” and “In the House” just like I was in SF I don’t know. Could be the lack of sleep last night. I’m beat.

The Reno bar tour proved pretty uneventful, most likely due once again to the fact that it was the Tuesday after Labor Day. I limited my drinking to The Quest on Commercial Row, but I also drove by the empty parking lots at 1099, Visions, the Five Star, and Bad Dolly’s. I wasn’t inspired.

Winnemucca to SLC

Boy, is Nevada a boring state to drive across. I’d forgotten just how monotonous it actually is. The scenery is really interesting for the first fifteen minutes. And then it never changes. Fortunately the speed limit’s 75, and there are some interesting towns to drive through if you leave the freeway.


Winnemucca was as exciting as ever. Lunch in Battle Mountain was a joy; imagine eating at McDonald’s not because you want to or because you’re trying to save money, but because THERE’S NOTHING ELSE THERE!

All this scenery and solitude and flat-out boredom gave me time to ponder many of my life’s mysteries and challenges, but discussion of that will have to wait.

As if to serve as a warning about the repression inherent to Utah, the speed limit inexplicably drops to 55 at the state line, and continues at this glacial pace for about ten miles of nonexistent road construction. A mild gas trauma greeted me as I hit Salt Lake City; I’ve never seen any city with so few gas stations on the outskirts. I was near panic, but I survived.


Once in the city, though, and once settled at Eric’s place, I began feeling more comfortable with the surroundings. This was a pretty big relief, as this was the first of many nights to come sleeping in the home of someone I’ve never met. Points to Eric for pulling off a potentially uncomfortable scenario and making me feel right at home.

Dinner at Bill and Nada’s Diner — a truly wonderful place with chicken-fried steak, chocolate cream pie and individual juke boxes at each table — was followed by a tour of neon Salt Lake by night and a couple of beers at the Deer Hunter, where disco never died.

Salt Lake City


This morning brought a daylight version of the tour, with stops by the Deseret Industries Thrift Store, Sam Weller’s Book Store, and the Utah State Fair (two hours before it opened). Then I was treated to a look at the surprisingly cruisy parks in Sugar House and Memory Grove. Lunch at Hire’s Big H, with carhop and tray.


I could go into more detail about Salt Lake City and the “Mormon factor” and all, and I will…later…Right now I’m fantasizing about Beck on MTV and trying not to think about tomorrow’s horrendous drive to Denver.

Thursday night in Salt Lake brought a trip to Brick’s, the happenin’ bar in town. The scenery was nice, if untouchable; it was all-age rave children night. Nice bar…they serve double-size Rolling Rocks. I’m not sure if this is a good thing.


A few more random notes on Salt Lake City:

It was similarly unnerving to note the similarities between Eric (my host) and myself. That’s another story entirely.

Salt Lake is a definite cute boy magnet. Maybe that caffeine-avoidance and all that clean living have some benefits. Everyone looks really healthy here.


It’s frightening how much this place reminds me of North Carolina. Substitute “Southern Baptist” for “LDS” and you immediately understand both the religion and the politics, not to mention the oppression. Also, Greensboro and Salt Lake are physically similar in a number of ways; both are about the same size and both seem to have a huge preoccupation with making sure that everything is pretty and inoffensive and appears free of any type of conflict.


All in all, I had a strangely good time in Salt Lake City. My good experience here made me somewhat less apprehensive about the mysteries of the remainder of the trip.

SLC to Denver

The drive to Denver was brutal: 550 miles in one day. Wyoming is one long state. It didn’t help matters, though, that I was operating on not quite enough sleep. I have to say Wyoming is a much more scenic drive than Nevada. Of course, almost anything would beat Nevada.


At 80MPH — with stops (or at least slowdowns) in Rock Springs, Rawlins, Laramie, and Cheyenne — Wyoming is a much less stressful means of crossing the Rockies, although not as spectacularly beautiful as western Colorado. But I was seeking speed on this leg of the trip, since today and tomorrow are the two longest hauls of the entire tour.

Denver seems a little like a home away from home, since I spent so much time here on the last cross-country trek (in 1992). But frankly, I’m too damned tired to look around much, so I’ll mostly be sleeping tonight in preparation for tomorrow’s 600-mile jaunt to Kansas City.

Fortunately, there’s a Wienerschnitzel across the street.

Denver to KC


As promised, I slept through Denver and saw almost none of it save for the inside of a car wash and a drive down the Colfax Avenue strip (old US 40) on the way out of town. There was also breakfast and a thrift store moment, as well as my first Waffle House sighting of the trip, albeit too late for breakfast. On the down side, Denver provided the first functional spotting of a Hardee’s as well, although I did run across one in Salt Lake which had closed, no doubt to the delight of anyone who ever ate there.

One hundred sixty miles of Colorado farmland proved none too exciting. And then came Kansas…


It’s actually not such an awful drive, I guess. It’s just so damned LONG. Over 400 miles of minimal variation in scenery and many, many small towns. I was very excited when the first Stuckey’s appeared 35 miles in, right as I crossed into the Central Time Zone. A complete chicken-fried steak dinner for only $2.99 (and an ashtray on the table) almost made up for the fact that there were no extra large Stuckey’s T-shirts to be had.

Ever onward, yer humble host and the little car that could trudged forth into the heartland, through Colby and Hays and Salina and Russell, and eventually through the strip mall formerly known as Topeka, at speeds which rarely fell below 75, and with the air conditioner set on sub-arctic.


Finally, at 10:30, I arrived in the Missouri side of Kansas City and found my way to Country Club Plaza, where Bernie, my host for this part of the tour, manages an espresso bar (which is mercifully NOT a Starbuck’s). I sense good things about this trip to KC; tonight’s quick drive into the city more or less erased my five-year-old memory of Kansas City being completely creepy. Who knows what a little more time might do….

Kansas City

Y’know, if the weather in KC didn’t really suck, it might be on my short list of potential new homes. What a great place; last time I was here, I must have managed to miss everything good about it.


In my short visit, I was treated to an amazing tour of the city, courtesy of Bernie, a photo exhibit on urban decay (always a favorite pet obsession) courtesy of Bentley, the aforementioned photographer, barbecue at Gates, quality time in an abandoned reservoir, beer bust at the Dixie Belle, my first White Castle in almost a year, and the grand opening of the KC Jazz Museum. Oh yeah…I forgot the Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch…


I lucked into lodgings with some people who are both very proud of their city and very well-versed in its mysteries. It’s not often I find myself sitting in a gallery after hours drinking beer and discussing urban form. I was pleased.


Biggies on the tour included the first Russell Stover candy store ever, a few roadside gems,North Kansas City, the President Hotel, and an industrial area (the West Bottoms?) which I want very much to colonize. KC has a tremendous number of great old buildings downtown — more than most cities of a similar size — and this is probably a result of the fact that the 80’s building boom largely bypassed the city. But I see signs that development may finally be threatening some of these gems. It’s a shame.



The Jazz Museum opening was a lucky coincidence, especially because I was thus spared the $6 admission fee. Having seen it, though, I would have probably paid it anyway. Great material, excellent presentation. the reservoir was a much cooler thing than you might imagine, although it worries me that it’s completely open to the world.


The only down sides to the visit were the unbelievable heat (SF tends to make one a bit of a weather wimp) and the fact that I was unable to connect with Gary or with Shane.


Random observations on Kansas City:

This is where I more or less started feeling like I was in the south again, despite the fact that it’s really in the midwest. The attitudes were similar, the accents were familiar. The bar scene was a mirror image of North Carolina, in that it seems very pervasive to the local “gay culture” (quotation marks directed at the term, not at Kansas City).

This was also the first place I began to see the urban blight and decay which seems to be hitting many midwestern cities very hard. A pattern of inner city abandonment and a lack of many “successfully” revitalized (read: “gentrified”) areas was a pattern which would become even more evident in St. Louis and Detroit. The abundant supply of land seems to make it easier simply to abandon the old and move outward rather than repair the perfectly usable buildings which already exist, and it’s a trend which seems even more pronounced in the midwest than on the coasts. Look for a separate piece on this soon.

Another odd midwestern pattern I first noticed around Kansas City: the practice of soliciting employment applications through radio ads, which even mention hourly pay rates for places like McDonald’s, etc. It seems usually to be low-status jobs who advertise this way. I’m not sure if it’s due to a low unemployment rate or a high one.


As Bernie mentioned, Kansas City has elevated the concept of “white trash” to an art form. I kinda liked it…

KC to St. Louis


As I left KC, I had breakfast at my first Waffle House. Grits are always a happy thing. The run through Missouri was not bad and the state flew by pretty quickly. After the west and Kansas, a few hills and trees were most welcome. Missouri skies during the day look as if a huge storm could develop at any second. It never happened.

Now I’ve made it to St. Louis. I’m reminded of just how much a nervous white boy I can be, simply because this town gives me the willies so far. I guess it’s a combination of the fact that my car seems to be a little cranky, and of the one or two wrong turns I made which put me on some fairly intimidating streets. I’d like it much better here with a tour guide. Somehow, though, I feel I will find the “courage” to venture back out later tonight.


I have to say that my entrance to the city along old Route 66 was a little disappointing. Only three motels on the whole stretch, none of them spectacular. Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard was pretty cool, but I was a little disappointed to find that they don’t serve any food. I had a hankering for a hot dog, but had to settle for turkey with the old folks at a nearby cafeteria (but at least it was “free pie” night.)

Off to do whatever comes next now and finish it in time to take the car for a morning checkup and visit the top of the arch tomorrow.


Aah…Saint Louis. Ultimately, I found I was a bit unprepared for the level of decay I found there. It was staggering, as if the entire northern part of the city had just been abandoned. I’ve read about the phenomenon of entire urban blocks returning to grassland as the buildings which once occupied them burned or simply collapsed, but I’d never really seen it until now. Frightening. Once again, it’s as if the residents just decided one day to abandon a great city and go somewhere else. In areas like this, you find yourself being scared not of the people you see on the streets, but of the fact that you don’t see ANY people on the streets.

St. Louis to Madison

It was cloudy and rainy, so I skipped the top of the Arch and just sort of looked around downtown and along the remnants of Route 66 after taking the car in for a checkup. I also didn’t venture back out last night, more from a lack of energy than a lack of “courage”…

Once out of St. Louis, I hit Route 66 in a major way. After a stop at a little roadside “welcome center” in Hamel, staffed by a very nice and talkative woman, I was on the way. Two things amazed me: the excellent route markers supplied by the state of Illinois, and the friendliness of the people in the establishments along the old road. Once they learned I was traveling 66, I was treated to stories, photos, and (loved this part) free stuff! Excellent drive.


The Ariston Cafe in Litchfield is a definite Route 66 must. The food was great, and the owners showed me books and pictures and introduced me to the German tourists at the other end of the counter who were also traveling “the road”. Apparently, Route 66 tourism is big with Germans.


After a very long drive through the fertility of central Illinois, I finally arrived at Steven’s house in Madison. Very nice guy, very nice town. And since the heat had finally let up by this point, very nice sleep. This was a welcome thing.

Madison is not an exciting place by any stretch of the imagination, but I found plenty to do there and had a great time. Especially compared to last year’s visit, which was essentially a convenience store run during the Minneapolis trip.



They call Madison “the Berkeley of the East”, due to its leftist campus politics, etc. This was in fact the first city in the US to have a municipal gay rights ordinance on the books.

It’s definitely an attractive place. The city surrounds an isthmus between two lakes. Thus, there is s a very pronounced east and west side, and travel between the two is sometimes difficult thanks to the bottleneck caused by locating downtown on the isthmus.


Given all this, it’s interesting to see how strangely conservative the place appears on the surface. I saw much more “collegiate preppy” than “collegiate punk”. I didn’t really sample the gay scene here, being warned that most of the interesting nightlife options perished in the Hotel Washington fire a couple of years ago.

I did cruise the State Street campus strip a bit and also found a few thrift stores and an excellent used book store, Shakespeare’s, where I scored an original 1964 New York World’s Fair guidebook pretty cheap.

Definitely a nice enough place.

Madison to Chicago

This morning, I hit the road early en route to Milwaukee (which kept my interest for about half an hour, I’m disappointed to say) and then Chicago, which is where I now sit, in a creepy mall in the suburb of Skokie, waiting for Joseph to get off work so I can dump my stuff and begin the next round of the tour.




Two and a half days in Chicago, and I’m not sure if the town ever once toddled, but I like it there anyway. So much so, in fact, that I’d consider moving there in an instant if (again) the weather weren’t so severe. I can deal with the cold and the snow; it’s the summers that would get me. Fortunately, at least on this visit, things were just right. Last time, it got a little cool and I was a little rushed.


I didn’t cover nearly as much ground as I’d have liked, simply because I just didn’t figure in enough time there. I was also unable to connect with Gary or Curt. But the accommodation and guided tour, courtesy of Joe, my host, were great. I predict another visit to the windy city very soon; I have to admit the place fascinates me tremendously.


Diving into Woolworth’s downtown proved to be rewarding. It’s really depressing that this American institution is about to disappear forever. I almost picked up a lunch counter stool for $35, but decided I didn’t really want to carry it around the country and back in my back seat. I’ll probably come to regret that decision.

There was also a visit to the first Ray Kroc McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines. Contrary to popular belief, this was neither the first McDonald’s (that was in San Bernadino), nor the first McDonald’s franchise (which I believe was in Sacramento). It was, however, the beginning of the evil empire we know today as McDonald’s Corp.


Much-anticipated was my return to return to Big Chicks, which may be my favorite queer bar between New York and San Francisco. This time, I even met one of the owners. She was fairly big, but not huge.

The Chicago Reader is without doubt the best free weekly in the country, putting even the Village Voice to shame.

A few more highlights:

  • Dinner at the Wishbone, a “home-cooking” establishment which seems oddly out of place in a dark industrial district. Liked the restaurant. Hated that they were out of pork chops.
  • Boy-watching (and band-watching) at the Empty Bottle.
  • Street cruising on Winnemac Avenue (which I’m told is NOT common). Guess I’m just lucky…
  • Compulsively humming the theme from “Good Times” after driving through the Cabrini-Green projects in which it was set. This got a little embarrassing.
  • The “el”. Being short for “elevated”, it is not spelled “L”. Keep that in mind, please.
  • Yet more White Castle. Yumm…
  • A tour of the Chicago boulevards of urban planning fame.
  • Joe’s really cool 1972-era book on drag culture.


Chicago is an amazing place, which is unlike any other city of its size in the US. The fact that land was so abundant has resulted in an unusually sprawling city by east coast standards, but still a very dense and concentrated one compared to the rest of the midwest and west. The streetscapes are wonderful and colorful, the road system works, and driving around the city is a joy I might never tire of; there’s something to see around every corner, from neatly-maintained rowhouses to industrial wastelands to the severe decay of the south side projects. Like I said, Chicago just fascinates me.


And there was also my moment at the very start of Route 66 at Lakeshore Drive and Jackson Boulevard. It’s a little disorienting to do Route 66 out of sequence, but it’s better than not at all, I guess.

All in all, it was an eventful couple of days. And, after a drive through the depressing landscape of the south side and the Indiana suburbs, followed by a few hours of Indiana farmland, I have now successfully reached Indianapolis, where I’m living in the lap of luxury thanks to Bob. The Hoosier adventure begins in earnest tomorrow.

Chicago to Indy

What is it about the midwest which fascinates me so? Maybe it’s the flatness or the greenness or the way that cities develop so differently than anywhere else in the country. Or maybe it’s the people there: friendly, giving, unpretentious people who’ve never met a stranger. Frankly, as I’ve said before, I often think the south is overrated in this department. Aah, but I’ll get back to this…


Indianapolis was great. Bob kept me in fine style at the Renaissance Tower due to an unhappy plaster moment in the guest room. During my two-plus days in the heartland of America, I was treated to a coast to coast tour of Indiana, from Terre Haute to Richmond. There were motels on Highway 40, tenderloins in Greensburg, a street fair in Indy, and cheap cigarettes everywhere.


Indiana more or less has created its own time zone by refusing to acknowledge Daylight Savings Time. This was a little odd as I changed my clock when I crossed into Eastern time, and then had to change it back when I realized the rules didn’t apply here.

Once in, though, my inner clock somehow managed to adjust, and I actually managed to get a fair amount of rest while still seeing many things. I feel I covered Indiana more thoroughly than just about anyplace else on the tour, thanks to an extra day and a determined host.


The first brought a street fair in Fountain Square, a historic commercial district near downtown Indianapolis. There were bands, cute boys, and a really cool store devoted to 50’s memorabilia which even contained a working bowling alley and soda fountain. The corner market with $1.60 a pack Camels was a big bonus too.


This night also brought my first look at neon Indianapolis. I was pleased. There is a quite respectable amount of 40’s/50’s/60’s roadside architecture here.



Snapshots of Indianapolis included some great motels and drive-ins, including the soon-to-be -demolished Al Green’s, the always appropriate White Castle, and Speedway IN, home of…surprise…the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. David’s pick du jour: few things could compare with a meal at Shapiro’s; I’m not sure why I was so surprised to find a really good Kosher deli here, but I’m glad it was!



Indy is a classic midwestern city, sprawling and laid out on an unrelenting grid pattern with a few diagonal streets for variety. US40, the current alignment of the old National Road cuts through from east to west.


If you look hard enough, you can find neighborhoods form every period from the mid-1800’s to the present. Historic districts here have the typical midwestern sensibility (“people still have to live there so let’s not turn it into Disneyland”).


Indiana: Coast to Coast

Bob referred to the game plan for days two and three as “the coast to coast tour of Indiana”, and in fact we covered most of the state from east to west along old Route 40. We saw Terre Haute and Richmond, Brazil and Shelbyville, Greensburg and Greenfield (but not Greencastle or Greentown). There’s more here than you might imagine, from covered bridges to cute farm boys to courthouse squares. It actually kept my interest despite the fact that I’m a diehard city boy.



Major stops included:

  • Billie Creek Village and the covered bridges of Parke County.
  • Shelbyville, hometown of my host.
  • Greensburg, home of the courthouse with tree attached and a dang good piece of strawberry pie.

Meeting Bob’s family was a great aspect of the trip. I got much more a feel for what the people (and dogs) are like here than almost anywhere else I’ve been so far. I have to say that I liked everyone I met. It was almost as if I was visiting my own relatives, not only because I was treated like “one of the family”, but also because of the similar backgrounds. These are the kinds of people I grew up with.


Granted, there is a certain conservatism in Indiana, and I was a bit put off by the fact that there were people who offered no apologies about using terms like “nigger”, etc. But in general, this was not not nearly so oppressive as in the south (or even in large chunks of “progressive” California).

I guess (racism aside) it’s a more informed and independent sort of conservatism, I felt that people were more familiar with the issues as opposed to mouthing doctrine supplied by the local fundamentalist minister. Thus, I was able to respect it a bit more, despite my leftist leanings. Agree or not, one definitely gets the feeling that people think for themselves here, rather than blindly submitting to dogma like in North Carolina…or San Francisco…

My preference is to believe that Dan Quayle is merely an aberration (sort of like Jesse Helms in my home state). I have to believe this. It is a necessity…


A few post-mortems:

  • Them Hoosier boys are cute! I was able to capture at least some photographic evidence of this.
  • A pork tenderloin in Indiana is a far different thing in Indiana than in San Francisco. Vive le difference!
  • NO, I did not visit Bloomington and take pictures of little pink houses. My apologies to those who were looking forward to this.

Indy to Detroit

After leaving Indianapolis, another big Indiana goal was realized with a visit to the studios of WOWO in Fort Wayne. I listened to this station as a sullen teenager and was determined to stop in as I drove through. They gave me a tour of the facilities and lots of cool stuff. We like WOWO. We wish they’d lose Rush Limbaugh, though…


So now, I’ve moved onto Detroit, where I’m trying to decide which side of Eight-Mile Road is creepier; the devastated urban south side or the completely lifeless suburban north side. I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.



Of course, I was truly unprepared for the unspoiled grasslands, sunny vistas, and wide open feel of Detroit. Mainly I was surprised because all of these things were found in former neighborhoods rather than in parks. The level of decay here was at the same time more and less astounding than expected. What can you expect of a city which had two million residents 30 years ago and contains fewer than a million today?

I came to Detroit primed by Camilo Jose Veraga’s photo essays in “The New American Ghetto”. He was so bold as to assert that the near-abandoned downtown area, with its collection of empty skyscrapers from the 1920’s, be designated an national park with urban ruins and our disposable society as its theme. I don’t think I’d go quite so far.


Actually, I found a shockingly beautiful city of early twentieth-century architecture, wide boulevards, and unusual neighborhoods. Driving here is a wonderful experience; it’s not just the lack of traffic, but the fact that Detroit was (understandably) designed for the automobile.


Granted, it was a bit depressing to see all the “holes” in the neighborhoods, the empty spaces where homes once stood, the boarded-up storefronts, the abandoned skyscrapers, etc. Literally, you drive through what used to be a dense neighborhood of rowhouses and large apartment buildings or even mansions and find two or three per block still standing, with the rest having reverted to grasslands. It’s quite disorienting.


There were definitely patches where I felt uncomfortable. But, as in St. Louis, I was more afraid of what WASN’T visible than of anyone I saw on the streets. With a knowledgeable guide I would have felt secure doing more exploration. This will happen soon; I’m no less drawn to the place that I was before I arrived.

It’s sad to see that a city which was once so great is now in such condition. It’s also exciting to sense the potential. Detroit seems as if it’s sleeping, trapped in time and waiting to wake up and become a major city again (OK…I admit to paraphrasing Veraga here). Development has not removed the past here, although fires and abandonment have taken a huge toll.


Lest this get depressing, all is not bleak in Detroit.

I will admit that I bedded down in the suburbs. I was indeed part of the problem rather than the solution. There is perhaps more of a disparity between the city and the suburbs here than in any other US city. The segregation rivals that of the south. I do not usually operate this way. I did so here for two reasons.

First, I simply didn’t know my way around and was worried about landing somewhere that my car, laden with essential trip stuff, might avoid a break-in. This is the same caution I exercise in SF all the time.

Second, in order to experience all that happens in Detroit, sad to say, it is absolutely NECESSARY to experience the suburbs, like’em or not. Much of the nightlife, shopping, and even the “trendy bohemian” scene has moved north of Eight Mile Road to places like Ferndale. Frankly, I never ran across a lot of motels in the city either.


I ate at many White Castles. I photographed many former White Castles. I traveled Woodward Road, the depressed but definitely not boring main drag. I saw “the fist”, a large sculpture placed in the new alternative “white downtown” near Renaissance Center by Coleman Young. I rather like the symbolism. I saw the abandoned Hudson’s — once one of the largest department stores in the US — and the renovated Fox Theatre, and the former Book-Cadillac Hotel.


I hit a few bars, including the paranoia zone known as the Gold Coast, and a really cool spot in Ferndale called the Groove Room, which just happened to be queer-populated and hosted by a drag queen the night I was there. I got the feeling that there was an incredible scene but that I was having a hard time finding it.


I also took the tour “overseas” to Windsor, Ontario, where I accidentally entered a (gasp) nude male strip club and another bar, bought chlorophyll chewing gum, and got inordinately excited that there were still Esso stations. I took advantage of the fact that combo meals were the same price at Burger King even though the Canadian dollar is worth only 72 cents US currency. However, I skipped the 61.9 cents per litre gasoline in favor of the much cheaper US variety.


I did not, however, find my way to Lafayette’s Coney Island although it came highly recommended. And the Body Shop, a highly recommended bar, is no more. But boy do I have plans for my next trip when I can actually spend some time here.

LOVED Detroit.


In Dearborn, I hit the Henry Ford Museum and marveled to the intact Holiday Inn guest room (circa 1968), the complete Texaco station (circa 1939) and the plethora of old cars, etc. This place is pretty amazing, and I found it worth the admission price. Think about it: a museum of car culture. What could be a more appropriate place for me to visit, especially while in Detroit on a trip where I was in search of roadside culture?


I smelled the nostalgic (from MY childhood at least) aroma of the Mold-a-Rama, which creates a plastic sculpture in a matter of minutes for the price of loose change. These machines were in every tourist trap in the world for a period in the early 70’s. I guess they were abandoned because too many people passed out from the fumes; now they’re a “period piece” in an exhibit on plastics. Does this mean my long-lost plastic dolphin from Marine World and my plastic Eiffel Tower from King’s Dominion (which are not for sale because I don’t know where they are, so please stop emailing me with purchase offers) are valuable now?


I hit the fully-restored diner. I saw the billboards and the neon signs and the streetcars. I fantasized (as I often do) about owning a Corvair. I even bought things. And then I left.

Like I said, I LOVED Detroit. And I HATED Ohio.

Detroit to Pittsburgh

OK…it was more or less only a place I was supposed to spend a night sleeping, and only won out over Cleveland because I was offered a place to stay. But I liked Pittsburgh so much I allowed myself to get a full day off schedule for the first time so far just because it was so cool here.


This is in marked contrast to Ohio, which I will specifically describe as one of the most unpleasant places on the tour so far. Toledo was such a traffic and construction snarled hellhole that I didn’t even stop to get money or food before getting on the overpriced Ohio Turnpike. Of course, as it turns out, there are NO ATM’s along the pike, despite the distressing number of Hardee’s. This made getting off said turnpike a very interesting experience as I had about two bucks in my pocket at the time. I now owe the state of Ohio three dollars. It’s a good thing there was no comment card attached to the citation. All in all, I’d just as soon skip Ohio next time, crappy turnpike and all.


But I did love Pittsburgh, once I finally arrived! It’s a beautiful place; with the rivers and the hills and the trees, it easily rivals San Francisco as far as the natural setting goes. In fact, the addition of actual trees and greenery affords Pittsburgh a beauty which is almost impossible to find anywhere in California.

As I drove in, on the winding highways cut between the hills and the rivers and saw that the actual city was pretty damned cool too, I realized that one night wouldn’t be enough. Fortunately, David, my host, was amenable to this idea. The fact that the Goodyear blimp was in town to honor my arrival made it all the more special. Obviously, the city really took my visit to heart.


Fifty years ago, the steel industry ruled Pittsburgh and it had a reputation as perhaps the ugliest and most unpleasant place in the USA. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. Actually, I didn’t catch much evidence of the former steel domination. What I did see were great neighborhoods, interesting buildings, and the boys of the University of Pittsburgh (some of the most visually appealing of the trip so far). Apparently, the writers who so despised Pittsburgh were unable to see past the smoke and soot which used to be everywhere.


I guess there’s nothing really specifically spectacular about the place. I just liked it. The geography offers a great setting for the town and the mountains and rivers divide it into quite manageable village-like areas. It was good that I had a guide, or Pittsburgh might have been damned near indecipherable, my geography degree notwithstanding. A host who provides topographical maps is always a good thing.