It’s a chilly and snowy Friday afternoon, we’ve just walked off a turbo prop plane that flew us to Cleveland Hopkins International from a much snowier and colder Syracuse, NY. After a short walk along the Tarmac and up a flight of stairs we see an oasis standing proud amongst a sea of haggard travelers and shitty fast food counters: a Great Lakes Brewery annex.
A few minutes pass and I’m drinking an Edmund Fitzgerald, one of my favorite Great Lakes brews, Julie has their 11% holiday offering, and for the first time after a difficult week of travel and emotional stress I’m starting to breath easy. It’s in this moment that I’m processing the bizarre and unforgettable events that have filled the 168 hours since I got a long dreaded phone call, while in a motel room in the Mojave Desert, that my mother has passed away.
More accurately I was in the motel’s parking lot moving things around in the car when my dad called and gave me the news. Julie and I purchased two tickets on a redeye from LAX to Dulles, while sitting outside the Joshua Tree National Park welcome center. Our car, our rolling home, needed to be parked for at least a week somewhere, we ran the gauntlet of friends we could ask but didn’t want to bother, called garage after garage but were unwilling to leave our keys with them, eventually we found a parking lot that allowed us to hang on to our keys and also offered a shuttle to our terminal. The same terminal where a New Jersey man opened fire killing a TSA agent that same morning. We drove towards Los Angeles, stopping for coffee and a wifi connection to make more difficult calls and arrangements, not easy while in the playground room of a McDonalds. Just outside of LA we pulled into a parking lot of a Ralph’s grocery store to unpack our storage trunks, and consolidate our clothes into one bag. The Big Lebowski playing through our minds, “Look just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps!” In a Target parking lot adjacent to LAX I took the bikes off the roof, took all four wheels off and wrestled them into the back of our Element. I also took off my shorts and put on jeans and a sweater, preparing for the cold November east coast climate. Checked in and now awaiting departure from the bar at Wolfgang Puck’s express, drinking a 24ounce Sapporo, feeling in a daze more from the day than the booze. Coffee and sleep on the plane and a box of Tim Horton’s donuts that my brother brought when he picked us up in Syracuse, 24 hours of travel, step one of a difficult week.
Of all the beer and tequila that has swam through my head in this past week, the Sapporo at Wolfgang Puck’s at LAX, the case of Yuengling I split with my dad, the bottomless pints of Lake Placid Ubu Ale I had at the Sherwood Inn, it’s this Edmund Fitzgerald that is making me finally feel like it’s all going to be OK and I’m fully relaxed and ready to sit on another plane for the four hours back to LA.
Beer is cathartic and simple. Water, yeast, hops, grain, four earth grown ingredients that are as therapeutic as they are intoxicating when combined. Of all the self-indulgent travel beer writing it’s this statement that is the point: beer is pure and true. Beer can help to calm and center you.
Back in LA Saturday morning, I buy a six-pack of Firestone Walker DBA– Double Barrel Ale—(an English Style Pale ale, with a nice biscuit malt and fruit esters, a soft leafy finish with a hint of citrus hops, a very middle of the road beer that is exactly right for me at this time) at a Ralph’s grocery store, Firestone Walker makes two of my more beloved beers, the Union Jack IPA and the Reserve Porter. The first time I had Firestone Walker’s Reserve Porter was at a bar in the beautiful 30th Street station in Philadelphia while waiting for a roll back to New York. The Reserve Porter has been discontinued, but recently in Paso Robles, I was lucky enough to drink a glass from the last batch they made. But, that’s another story.
Over the course of the long weekend, I drink a few DBAs, a helping of delicate tequila, and a couple of PBRs and Dox Equis at the film festival we’re attending. However, Tuesday morning comes fast and we’ve got five days to get to Manchester, Vermont for three days of The Long Bike Back screenings and discussion with the brilliant and gifted students at a private school in town. Five days. Five days to drive across the country with the daily tasks of finding places with wifi to work, food we can eat, a place to get clean and a safe spot to sleep on the road. (It took four hours to fly to LA from Cleveland and it will take us four days to drive back there). Before leaving I buy another six-pack of DBAs.
Tuesday we get a late start out of North Hollywood with a strong desire to never leave California. We slowly steer east and make it to Barstow, gas up and get on I-40, there’s a sign at the beginning of the freeway stating in battered white lettering: Wilmington, North Carolina 2554. This is as exciting as it is daunting and considering we actually have nearly 2900 miles to cover, it feels impossible. But the sunset through the Mojave is breathtaking, giving us a sense of the vastly empty, negative space we’re speeding into and what adventures we’ll undoubtedly encounter. Crossing back in time when we get to Arizona–the state does not observe day light savings time– we have some dinner and seek out a brewery but it’s closed, all bars close by 9pm in Lake Havasu City. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Lake Havasu known to be the place spring breakers go to misplace their dignity for a week? Our rest stop back on 40 is busy and cramped, but we find a spot, between two idling Semi’s, watch the stars, sip tequila and I drink one of those DBAs, delicious and cathartic.
Wednesday, Julie has a conference call that lasts most of the morning and I have to teach Skype piano and drum lessons by 3pm EST, McDonald’s outside of Grant, NM fills the order. After working we race to the ToHajile reservation and watch the sunset over Albuquerque from the mesa that overlooks the city. That desert hum will forever enchant me. The Rattlesnake Draw Rest Area a few hundred miles west of Texas in Moriarty, New Mexico, is where we find our spot for the night. The nearly empty parking area is creepy but secluded, so I feel compelled to drink two lukewarm DBAs.
Thursday, it’s still early as we cross into Texas and make a stop at the Cadillac Ranch just outside of Bushland, Texas. We’re directly paralleling Route 66 now, making stops in Amarillo and just over the Oklahoma state line. After a chilly walk through Oklahoma City, a shower and some food, we move on towards Tulsa. We’re driving east on a bizarre and rather strange toll road called the Governor Roy J. Turner Turnpike, I get confused and almost drive us out of the only rest area on the road – meaning there was not another rest stop until the Missouri welcome center. Julie saved us from a much longer night, calmly insisting we stay next to an idling Mac truck in front of a McDonalds. I drank one DBA and listened to the rain all night long.
Friday, a cold morning’s walk through Tulsa, a warmer lunch time stroll through Joplin, where we take note of the powerful and dramatic tornado damage, one block is decimated, the next looks as if nothing happened at all. We arrive in St. Louis around 5 pm and are held up in traffic for quite a while, wasting even more time trying to find a parking spot so we can re-visit the Arch. It grows ever colder as we speed deep into the Illinois heartland, flat everywhere we can see, the almost full moon illuminates with great detail the nothingness that is barren farmland, we find a gym, dinner and then it’s back on the highway for another hundred miles before finding a rest area to spend the night. Tequila warms me up before I have the second-to-last DBA.
Saturday, up early for a morning walk around Elkhart, first time back since I fell off my bike here five years earlier. Our next walk is through a town outside of Toledo, also visited on The Long Bike Back trip. It’s pretty incredible that in the past four days we have paralleled the length of Route 66, “The Mother Road” and now we’re paralleling Route 20, the oldest and longest transcontinental road in the United States. With an evening stroll through Cleveland and a burrito in Erie, we make it to Skaneateles to eat some sushi with my dad around 1 am. I drink Yuengling, saving the last DBA for our hotel in Manchester.
Sunday: Another early rise and another four hour rainy drive. We make it to the inn where we’re being hosted and I, at long last, finish the sixth Firestone Walker DBA. A six pack of beer bought in LA, drank across the country and now finished, albeit illegally, in a Vermont inn.
Beer, its there for you in all the clichéd ways. Beer is truth, it’s simple, and it’s as humble as those of us who cherish and champion it are. I could have made the drive without Firestone Walker’s DBA and it would have been an awesome experience either way but armed with such an excellent beer to look forward to at the end of the day helped me remain centered during a really interesting and stressful period of time.