The Greatest Ride of Our Lives Part 7: California-Cleveland
Our trip back across the country from Nevada took only half the time we spent getting out there – five days as opposed to ten – but it was equally fascinating, beautiful and entertaining. Not to suggest that all of it was a vacation. We were up before dawn on Labor Day to pack up the tents and get out of Burning Man before the usual mid-morning gridlock, a move that paid off as we found ourselves in the city of Sparks, next to Reno, in time for a massive lunch-time nosh-up (see picture of Noel for proof), followed by an afternoon adventure I’d promised Campbell back on his first visit to Burning Man in 2007, a trip to the Wild Island water park in Sparks to clean off and have fun. Truth be told, just about all of us were too exhausted to fully enjoy ourselves and I, for one, konked out on a deck chair after a couple of the most terrifying water slides of my life. In the process I managed to acquire the sun burn I had avoided all week: that and a bout of indigestion from wolfing down too much hot food both at the lunchtime diner and an evening meal at Imperial bar and lounge back in Reno, combined with a pre-dawn alarm call to get our teenage son Campbell on a plane back to New York in time to start Senior Year on Wednesday, and I felt like I needed a holiday just to recover from the holiday.
But then we hit the highway. And oh, what a highway. Taking the Lincoln Highway, Route 50, added only 100 miles on our journey to Denver compared to the straighter Route 80, and yet it was like voyaging to a different planet. Aptly sub-titled ‘America’s Loneliest Highway’ it took us through the real Nevada desert, the Pony Express mail route of old, past naval bases and up to the picturesque town of Austin at a pretty high elevation. We pushed on through to a pleasant enough diner dinner in Ely (where the local Republicans were meeting next door), and a motel on the outskirts of Delta, Utah (where Mormon literature was to be found bedside) – and then another day on the road.
It was the kind of road trip where even the things that go wrong go right. Our one and only flat tyre occurred on a section of the Utah State Highway that was undergoing road works: as we got out the jack and faced the prospect of unloading the entire car to find the spare, a road crew man whose wife hails from New Jersey came along with his tool kit and helped get us back up and running in no time. We subsequently ate up more miles that Wednesday than made sense, traveling first through the stunning Utah canyons and then following the Colorado River (which we had encountered at the Grand Canyon two weeks earlier, of course) and in to the suburbs of Denver to stay with an old high school friend of Posie’s, where a hot dinner and home made margaritas were welcoming us. I woke up the next morning in a proper guest bed to remember that my biography on the Smiths had just been published in the UK (and to a prominent, but rather cutting review in the Guardian), managed to get a massive mail-out to my MailChimp list to that effect, forced myself into an invigorating 5-mile run up over the local trails, and then we were once more back on the road, and this time with the optimistic intent of making it to Kansas City by night-fall.
Fortunately, somewhere in the midst of that day-long journey through the vast plains of the mid-west (windmills a common sight, I’m pleased to report), I recalled that Lawrence, KS, an hour short of Kansas City, is one of the hippest college towns in America; thanks to the wonders of the iPhone, we were able to book not just a hotel, but to put in our meal order at the gluten-free restaurant a couple of doors down shortly before the kitchen closed. We’d have been there even earlier if I’d remembered that Siri could have told us where to find the local gas stations; instead we spent a rather anxious 20 minutes off the highway sucking on fumes in pursuit of a late-night refueling station. By the time we reached the lovely 715Mass restaurant/bar in Lawrence, Noel – who had exhibited exceptional patience over these three incredibly long travel days – was already fast asleep; woken up in front of a bowl of fresh pasta, he nonetheless devoured it within minutes.
Posie and I had decided to enjoy the one luxury hotel room of our journey as a celebration of my book’s publication, though in fact the $125 cost for what turned out to be a suite at the town’s historically famous Eldridge Hotel three doors along from the restaurant would not buy you a cupboard in most New York hotels of similar stature. The bar at the Eldridge is also famous – at least nowadays – for serving dozens of martinis made from local vodka. We had a couple. The only thing I can offer in my defense – other than celebrating book publication – is that there were countless college kids in there having considerably more than a couple. We loved the hotel, and when room service arrived in the morning with hash browns for Noel, it was understandably hard to get him to leave the place. Still, a walk down Mass St to the local Brits store (I kid you not) and the gift of a Sonic Screwdriver and he was all set for another long day in the car.
I had planned all along, as part of my music museums tour of the States, to visit the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, at 18th and Vine, and as we crossed the border into Missouri to do so, I had the Lieber-Stoller classic ‘Kansas City’ by Wilbert Harrison, on iPod epeat. Unfortunately, when I got the much-vaunted corner of 12th Street and Vine, it was to find it no longer existed. Nor was there any monument to the birthplace of Charlie Parker, which appears to now be occupied by the local Time Warner franchise; is it too much to expect someone to at least put a sign in the ground. He was only the greatest sax player that ever played.
I did at least get to see some instruments of note (pun intended as always) at the American Jazz Museum, though cameras were not officially allowed and my shot of hometown hero Jay McShann’s piano is not the best. The Museum had its merits, including a lot of interactivity with the music itself, right down to allowing the visitor to re-mix famous studio sessions for themselves, but somewhere between the lack of working headphones and the fact that we were on such a tight schedule (I visited the museum on my own, promising to keep it to an hour), I couldn’t possibly compare it with those we had seen in Memphis. I can’t speak for the Negro League Baseball Museum that forms part of the same complex, either; I can only say that I was a little disappointed to find both the museums themselves and their gift stores so sparsely populated. There are a lot of great things going on in Kansas City – not least the soccer team there – and a longer stay in town might have brought more of them to my attention. We had miles to consume, however, especially if we were still hoping to make it to Cleveland the following day and still get home by that Saturday nightime.
The two lessons I learned from this trip to apply to any future such road adventure: 1) Stop for dinner nice and early rather than trying to get to a hotel to eat; everyone will be much calmer and happier as a result. 2) Check the weather, constantly. We – alright, I – had pussyfooted around a little bit in Kansas City and we all paid the price for it when we drove right into an enormous weather system ahead of St. Louis that forced most of the traffic, including the 18-wheelers, off the road and into gas stations in search of shelter, the rain was so damn heavy. Had we apprised ourselves properly of the impending conditions – and with iPhone in hand, it was hardly that difficult – we could have outrun it by heading east and adding some extra miles, or pretty much avoided it altogether by heading north and up to Chicago. Instead, we tracked north-east, right along the very ridge of the storm, stopping for a Mexican meal to escape the rain at one point and then wrongly convincing ourselves the storm had subsided; I drove the next six hours straight in some of the heaviest wind and rain of my life, about the only saving grace of which was the totally cool Friday night dance mix coming out of an Indianapolis urban radio station, which took me back to the good old days of DJ Red Alert in NYC.
I had fully intended to make it to Columbus, OH by nightfall but had to settle for Dayton, instead, where even getting ourselves in from the car to a strip-mall Marriot Inn at 1am saw us so thoroughly soaked we may as well have taken a bath. Morning found a bunch of NASCAR fans watching Fox News in the breakfast lounge. I had a word with reception about this choice of channel, but I was glad I was not too rude about it, as it turned out I left a treasured shirt in the room and the hotel kindly sent a cleaning crew in twice to find it and send it back on to me. That said, and knowing Ohio’s vital role on America’s political pendulum, I found myself somewhat fearful for the future as we picked back up and by-passed Columbus on our way to Cleveland.
We couldn’t not do it. We couldn’t go all the way around America, to Graceland, Sun and Stax in Memphis, to Woody Guthrie‘s birthplace in Oklahoma and to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and not take in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Besides, the prospect of seeing Pete Townshend’s guitars and maybe part of a Keith Moon drum kit was just about all that had gotten Noel through the 600 miles a day in the back seat. (That and repeated viewings of The Kids Are Alright.) As someone who doesn’t believe in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to begin with, I had set myself up for a disappointment – one partly based on the lackluster Annex that lasted but a few short years in New York City. The Cleveland Hall of Fame, though, is the real deal. From a memento point of view, it had what we came for – including the Pete Townshend acoustic on which he recorded ‘Pinball Wizard’. But it also had Leo Fender’s first solid-body prototype electric guitar, a short-term exhibit on Les Paul, tracing that man’s own search for the solid-body sound from an almost comical prototype made out of a railroad tyre between two blocks of wood to the polished Gibsons bearing his name, John Lennon’s Rickenbacker and even Leadbelly’s famed 12-string. There was also exhibit on Sam Phillips – coals to Newcastle allowing that we had been to Sun in Memphis two weeks earlier, though worth it if only to see the Sun piano on which the Million Dollar Quartet had (been surreptitiously) recorded that fateful day that Elvis stopped in to hear Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny doing their thing.
Equipment aside, there was enough depth of historical information and excellent temporary exhibits that I could easily have spent the whole weekend there; among other things, there are standing music consoles for all the hall of famers that appear, going by the example of the Who, to include every piece of music they ever made and then some. Though that luxury of time was not on our side, and 7-yr olds have limited attention spans anyway, we were careful not to over-rush it in Cleveland, and to all intents and purposes (well, other than the fact that we still had to drive over 500 miles back to the Catskills that night, which we managed to do, getting home in time for me to run a trail race at Olana the following morning!), our journey ended with thirty of the best minutes a rock ‘n’ roll biographer dad could ask for: Noel on his Martin acoustic-electric, entertaining a wedding party by playing ‘My Generation’ and ‘Substitute’ while weaving in and out of the statuesque guitars on display outside the Hall of Fame. It is, perhaps, no wonder, that readjusting to school two days later was to prove a major problem. When you’ve spent the last two and a half weeks on the road in America, visiting some of the great music memorials and spending a whole week at Burning Man, it must hurt to be back in the classroom.
We called it the Greatest Ride of Our Lives in honor of the final track on my Road Trip Mix CD: a song recorded by my friends Robert Warren and Mark Lerner with students from the same Onteora School District’s Vision 21 program, based on Kerouac’s novel ‘On The Road.’ The song itself is entitled ‘The Greatest Ride of My Life.’ And it was.