Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #2

Yellowstone, the Gilded Coral Snail and 2120 South Michigan Avenue
Willoughby, Ohio
April 8, 2001
Scoreboard: 10 states

I have to start this installment with a confession. When I first wake up I’m an idiot. For 45 minutes or so I can’t comprehend the most basic concepts, can’t carry on a decent conversation, mess up everything that I try to do. In a stable environment this is less of a problem, I just clear the email or putter around the yard for awhile. On the road, in close quarters, it leaves me vulnerable to the psychological parries of my

We drove late into the night, still surrounded by snow, and woke up in Missoula, Montana. It’s a pretty town, and there was a nice view of a cemetery from our motel window. Alexandra and Kasmira were babbling at me right away the minute I opened my eyes. Something about a graveyard and prairie dogs. After repeated clarification it turned out that the graveyard was full of prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs in the graveyard? “Are they dead?” I asked.

I was mocked severely by the girls for the remainder of the morning. “Yes papa, the people in Montana love prairie dogs so much that they build cemeteries for them.”

Going into Yellowstone there’s not all that much that separates it from the surrounding countryside. It’s an hour drive off the interstate, but there are few clues that you’re nearing a tourist attraction. There are mountains on all sides though, and there are some very nice religious touches on the two-lane highway. A meditation chapel, a carved wooden statue of a monk, a shrine to Mary.

Boiling River

The Boiling River, Yellowstone NP

Unfortunately most of Yellowstone was still closed off. The road to Old Faithful and such doesn’t open for another few weeks. Fortunately the section containing Boiling River is always open, and that was the big attraction for us. A number of signs down towards the river warn that you’re entering “bear country,” but from the herds of Elk (and the ubiquitous Elk byproducts) they must still be hibernating, or really lazy.

It should only take a half hour to walk from the road to the Boiling River but naturally we parked in the wrong place, which turned out well as it allowed us to see a lot of cool birds and walk along the river for a few miles to the hot springs. The hot springs run off into the river, hence the name and attraction.

As we were walking down Kasmira asked if there are any “dangerous animals” in the river. Clearly this was an opportunity for revenge that couldn’t be passed up.

“No, not really….well, there’s the Gilded Coral Snail.” They all laughed, a snail!

“Yeah,” I continued in Grinch mode, “they get about this big.” (I held my hands in the position of a very healthy honeydew melon) “…and they have little teeth like piranhas…”

There was much sudden movement and wailing, and after several entreaties to “Tell us the truth, papa!” I conceded that the snails were the creation of an imagination that spends entirely too much time contemplating the works of Ed Wood.

Rather than anger, my confession was met with wild applause! They’re good girls.

You can’t sit directly in the hot springs. The veins are way too hot, you’d be boiled like a peeled box of macaroni. There are only a few areas that are any good for….wallowing and bouncing around. A nice couple invited us to share the primo location with them and then, even better, left after about 15 minutes.

There’s a slight mineral smell that adds to the experience. The waters are full of wonderful currents of hot and cold and mingle with each other and change around your body. It’s easy enough to regulate your overall temperature by moving towards either the hot springs or the river, but the currents are whipping around beneath the surface – the effect is very wonderful, calming, sensual.

An otter came swimming past us, maybe ten feet away. He didn’t acknowledge our encouragement, but wasn’t intimidated. It began to snow. We were basking in the Boiling River talking to otters with the snow coming down.

Mt Rushmore

Theresa enjoys the view at Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore was a bit less wonderful. It was so fogged in that we couldn’t see so much as George Washington’s nose. This didn’t keep the gift shoppe from playing The Stars and Stripes Forever and hawking trinkets. Without notable enthusiasm the girls selected packets of gum and we left. My suspicion is that the Presidents are going to refuse to be seen for at least the next four years or so.

It’s been said many times, in many ways and rhythms: Chicago is a great city. Downtown is a bizarre mélange of hardened street cases, revivalist religionists, and assertive yuppies. The mix remains fairly constant at every hour. Everyone has an amplified urban defensiveness. Chicago has a harder feel than even New Orleans, or Los Angeles.

It also has a lot of style. The architecture is extraordinary, the cemeteries quite nearly indescribably elegant and bereft of prairie dogs, even the yuppies walk with runway élan.

Trapps on the town

Trapps on the town
(left to right: Uncle Jonathan, Amelia, Kasmira and Alexandra)

My little (taller) brother is finishing up graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago, so we met downtown around midnight and took the subway to Pilsen and had dinner at a great Mexican place. Like San Francisco, Chicago appears to have absolutely no interest in cultural homogenization.

The waiter’s English was barely better than my Spanish (reminder to self: crash course on the boat, we have to buy a VW van in Barcelona). The tamales were tremendous, and they had this awesome cheesecake with pineapple and mango in it and coconut sprinkles on the top. They’d recently lost their liquor license, so the locals brought in alcohol purchased at the corner liquor store.

Leaving Chicago the following afternoon we went to one of my personal Meccas: 2120 South Michigan Avenue. For the initiated, no further explanation is necessary, and for the uninitiated no explanation will create the sense of awe that I experienced, but I’ll try.

2120 South Michigan Avenue is the site of Chess Records, the label that broke the great blues artists of the 20th century: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and countless other soulful musicians were drawn to the studio from the Mississippi delta and thereabouts. Dixon’s widow recently purchased the site and plans for legal teams to reclaim royalties for aging blues legends and other philanthropic activities are in varying stages of development.

If you’re not into the blues don’t bother making the trip. If you’ve ever got a chill from the chords to Little Red Rooster, don’t miss it. There are all kinds of contributions and artifacts, but the most incredible thing is just standing in the space where the magic was cast. Standing in the space occupied by the legends in their long-shot assault on the aesthetically bankrupt white bread musical mores of the day, the audacity of bringing the blues to the city, the entirely unforeseen musical revolution that followed…the world was changed and 2120 South Michigan Avenue was the epicenter of the quake that followed.


Buddy Guy’s Blues Club, Legends

Unfortunately very few of the millionaires that fed on the musical fountainhead of the masters have paid tangible homage to their roots. The Rolling Stones are well represented, Ron Wood donated several original drawings including a self-portrait and a sensitive rendering of Bessie Smith and Stones artifacts can be found throughout, but there are no hints of the existence of most of the many musicians who received worldwide acclaim for essentially electrifying existing music and feeding at the trough of Chess musicians.

I admit that I was slightly disappointed that Henry Gray, the pianist for many of the great Howlin’ Wolf sessions, isn’t represented at Chess. Henry is the greatest blues pianist that I’ve ever heard.

Such relatively minor concerns notwithstanding I got the spiritual jolt I needed out of my trip to Mecca. On the way out I was talking with the friendly proprietor about seeing Willie Dixon at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in the mid 1980s and found myself saying, with great emotion, “…and man you could just feel him taking the stage, and then there he was…you know….he was Willie Dixon.” Mr. Dixon then dedicated his set to nuclear disarmament. God Bless His Soul.

Tune in next week when we go to Grandma’s house in Vermont, and take on the den of iniquity: New York City.

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