Half a Wit
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Softly tips my bare-wire nerves
Sort of like duct tape
It was a cool feeling, AT FIRST. Even though I've been away from it for seven years, the years and years of aikido training I once did taught me, if nothing else, how to fall. Without thinking about it, I tucked my chin, held my arms close in, went entirely limp, and turned (in the air) so I'd hit the ground sideways with the padding on my hips. Which I did. Hard. And stunned. But with nothing more than a huge bruise that's about to turn really vivid. Professional drivers have broken limbs falling from their steps.
But the freefall part was awesome. Like a millisecond dream of flying. From which, regrettably, I woke up. I feel like I accomplished something by not being in traction or dead or anything. Yay me.
So it is that, given six months paid time to spend as I please, as long as I justify it as research, and given that I plan on spending it by shedding as many day-to-day responsibilities as humanly possible and live on the road, heading for arbitrarily chosen destinations by random pathways, the level of preparation required for that amount of freedom is driving me nearly to hysterics. There's the banal stuff: canceling services, finding a subletter, redirecting mail, letting the neighbors know. But then there's the how to actually pull off a solo cross-country trip living in a van for half a year.
I haven't even left the house yet, and already I'm pushing my own limits--of necessity pushing through panic responses to acquire, in a hurry, certain skills necessary to pull all of this off.
The day before yesterday, I bought a trailer. Had to travel a couple of states over, because that's where the deal was. Bought it from a tanned and healthy young and surprisingly well-mannered if somewhat dim ATV punk who didn't need it anymore. learned for the first time how to mount and haul a trailer--and a very fun lesson it was, involving as it did a really nasty merging traffic situation and a panic stop/skid with 25 feet and about 1800 pounds of vehicle from 65 mph on wet highway, in order not to hit a suicidal deer. Going forward is really not bad and kind of fun. Backing up is a challenge, involving entirely counter-intuitive counter-steering (if you want the back of the trailer to swing to the left, steer to the right. WTF?) Jacknife in a crowded parking lot a couple of times, and you figure it out. Fortunately, I have a driving instructor, freshly graduated from 6 months of training as a long-distance trucker. He is exquisitely patient, and really quite a good teacher, who never over-instructs, and lets me figure most stuff out for myself after explaining the steps required.
The trailer is for my motorcycle, which I decided, because this is the story I'm writing for myself, absolutely must come with me. It is also for other things I can't leave home without. In order of priority: the rather impressive booze collection I've amassed in my last six months of cocktailcrafting experiments, my bicycle, winter clothes, and books and electronics and stuff like that I'll need for research.
I've seen guys push their motorcycles onto trailers and pickups. I've never done it myself. I'm actually not very good at walking my motorcycle any distance--too short, too low a center of gravity, upper-body strength of a 10-year-old. I ride it anywhere it needs to go, and foot-push the rest.
I'm going to be in remote regions of the western continent all by myself. I am taking my motorcycle with me. If I want to do this, I have to learn to load the bike on the trailer. By myself. Right now.
Which means riding it up a flexy ramp, fast enough to get it up the incline, ducking in time not to smack my head on the trailer opening, fall over and die with a concussion and my bike on top of me, and stopping in time not to hit in front of the trailer. And more terrifying still, walking it backwards back down, without catching my bootheels in the grid, and falling over and dying with a broken leg and my bike on top of me.
I drive an hour to buy the ramp. I set the ramp up. I tell myself, I can do this. I ride the bike up to the ramp.
I nose the front tire onto the flexy bendy grid, and I fucking panic.
"I can't do this." Muscles hot and cold, weak, head pounding, shivers. That sort of panic. Followed by: "Fuck. I just spent a whole lot of money to be able to do this."
"Oh well," he said. "The trailer is still useful for other things."
"Yeah. But....I really want to do this. Can you do it?"
"Yes," he said, quietly. He is 6'4," and there's only a foot of head clearance once the bike is at the steepest point. If he can do it, I can.
He does. I watch. This is possible.
"Can I do this?" I ask him.
"I think you can. Do you think so?"
I do. Have to over-rev a little, get caught a little. But I'm in, and I'm not dead.
Then back down that incline--slow, slow walk, first gear engaged, hand squeezing and releasing brake slooooowly, bootheels firmly planted. Breathing, breathing. Stop thinking. Just breathe: brake, foot, angle---place where heels can't touch, find toe position, brace.....down!!!!
I did it once or twice more, just for the sheer adrenaline headrush of it.
I can do this.
Tomorrow morning, I hit the road, with my motorcycle, my cat, my bicycle, 26 bottles of assorted spirits and mixers, and of course my laptop--everything I'll ever need for every possible situation.
Maybe, just maybe, I won't come back.
In June, I will be leaving the house for several months away. And I've been agonizing over what to do with him. When I took him camping with me over spring break, he was fine for a few days, then got deathly ill from travel stress, requiring a hideously expensive trip to a vet to fix him up again. Nobody who might rent the house wants to cat-sit. He's a bit fragile for travel, and I just can't bring myself to put him down just because he's old and I'm leaving. It doesn't seem right. And all the vets I asked just gave me the same stark set of choices I already knew. The more I mentally tried to brace myself for that final trip to the vet, the more cuddly Humphrey became. Lately, he's taken to proving his viability by humping his arthritic way up the stairs in the morning and leaping as high as he is able onto my bed in the morning to wake me up for a cuddle and to coax me awake for his breakfast--which he has never been allowed before, and which he should not be doing in his condition. I allow it, because I know that this is all the time we have together.
Finally, I talked to a friend of mine, who is an animal trainer. She is the wisest woman I know when it comes to animals, and I trust her because she is utterly unsentimental. She's the anti dog-whisperer. She teaches people to respect and communicate with animals on their own terms, not to project their romantic fantasies all over them. When I asked her how to make a decision to put an animal down if it wasn't quite ready to die, she said "It all depends on how you feel about it after the fact." Then she asked if I still enjoyed Humphrey's company--which nobody had bothered to ask. Definitely so. Then she asked, when I took him camping before, how did I prepare him? Well, I didn't. I just took him with me and we went. This was part of the problem. Cats are territorial creatures, she said. They are happy in their own spaces. And I'd taken him out of his home into a strange place without warning. He did his best, and then he freaked. So the solution was, I should take him with me. But first, I should make the van into his house.
So she told me how to train a cat.
First--make him desire the van. Make him skip a meal, or at least delay it. Give him boring food in the house, but delicious treats in the van, randomly. And only allow him to be in there for very short periods. Make him want it, but don't give him everything he wants. Let him savor it just enough, and take it away again. And don't let him know when it will happen again.
Next, make him trust the van. Keep him inside for longer intervals, and let him out as soon as he cries. If he learns that you will let him go when he's frightened, he will trust you, and let you take him further, deeper into the experience.
Next, take him for short drives--increase the risk. Bring him back to safety when he is truly upset.
Finally, make the van his home--with all his things and toys in it, and everything he associates with safety and comfort. He will let you take him anywhere. And he will trust you utterly, because you have brought him to this point, far from home and way beyond his limitations.
There's a metaphor in here somewhere. I leave it to you to decide how much it applies to human relationships.
Before I went to New Orleans for the first time and ordered my first mint julep, I had assumed that the julep was some Old South equivalent of a wine cooler. Imagine my surprise when I tasted my first cool frosty mouthful of slightly minty straight bourbon. Gave me a whole different view of those southern ladies, on their verandas all day, fanning themselves at the heat, having silently sadomasochistic erotic fantasies about the 'servants,' and sipping juleps all day long. Between that and the laudanum and the corsets, I'm pretty sure that New Orleans ladies were permanently high through probably most of the early 19th century. Serious epiphany.
But I was a tourist, and in subsequent visits to the south, I wondered why it was so damn hard to find a julep, even in good restaurants. And why they're drunk in metal cups, which seems kind of weird and tinny.
Well, because they are reserved for Derby Day, apparently, and the point of the metal cup, I just discovered, is to make your julep super-cold. And there is an art and a tradition to them. The julep is much older than the cocktail, dating back at least a century before the first use of the word 'cocktail' was in public circulation, and was one of the first American fads to spread throughout Europe. Some Kentucky families have had their silver heirloom julep cups for generations. And like any old-world tradition, there is a certain way to make them.
I adore Rachel Maddow. She first got on my radar during the presidential primaries, when she described Hillary Clinton PUMA supporters as "post-rational." Whoah. News people don't use phrases like that. And they don't look like dykey little boys either. They're certainly not obviously, happily and publicly queer. And they're ordinarily not Rhodes Scholars, and they don't actively enjoy intelligent public debate with people who disagree with them--including right-wingers. Also, she is a cocktail enthusiast.
If I was not thoroughly in love with Rachel Maddow before, I am now. Because last night, at the end of her news broadcast, she actually had cocktail virtuoso Dale DeGroff mix her up a pair of Derby Day cocktails. Which they then proceeded to sip. Right there on the air.
Here they are:
Signature drink of the Kentucky Derby (May 2)
3/4 oz. simple syrup or one teaspoon sugar
4 mint leaves and a sprig of mint
(Use tender, young sprigs.)
2 1/2 ounces Maker's Mark Bourbon
Prepare some very cold, very dry powdered ice with large cubes of Kold Draft ice and a canvas ice bag. Bruise the mint leaves in the bottom of a julep cup with sugar or sugar syrup and then remove the muddled leaves. Add ice to the three quarter mark and half of the bourbon. Stir to chill the julep cup. Top off with more powdered ice and the remaining bourbon and continue to stir until the outside of the cup begins to freeze. Garnish with the mint sprig and set aside to rest while the julep cup freezes over on the outside. Pick up carefully and imbibe.
I have no idea what "Kold Draft" ice is, and I don't have a canvas ice bag (though I hear that's part of the julep tradition). I used a double layer of plastic bags and a hammer. But the dry crushed ice is important for the cold frosty bourbon slushie effect. Also I don't yet own silver julep cups (though now that I know the point, I shall acquire a set). I did get a pretty good frost-coating on a hand-painted wine-glass though. Also, apparently they're not traditionally all that minty. A few leaves as all, not a handful as in the mojito.
For a lighter, more lemony variant, during the making of which Ms. Maddow confessed to making 'little pig noises' in anticipation, here is DeGroff's Whiskey Smash recipe:
1 1/2 ounces Maker's Mark Bourbon
1 ounce simple syrup
3 lemon pieces (cut a lemon in half and then quarter one of the halves, use three of the quarters)
5 mint leaves
Lemon wedge for garnish
1 mint sprig for garnish
Muddle the lemon pieces, mint leaves and simple syrup in the bottom of a Boston shaker glass. Add the bourbon and shake well with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lemon wedge.
Recipe source: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30524940/
Although I am a little fuzzy-headed, I am not unpleasantly hungover. And for the most part, I find the local devils too charming to attempt to banish, much less do away with. Also, the Kill Devil Cocktail is one of the most extraordinary I've had in awhile.
If you ever find yourself in New York City, go to the Pegu Club and have one of these. Sit in the curvy chairs at a table by the window and watch the pretty go by. Make sure that you bring along amusing company.
The Club would not give me the recipe when I called. But I found it on the net anyway, so there:
• 2 oz Rhum Agricole Blanc
• 1/2 oz Green Chartreuse
• 1/4 oz Demerara Syrup (2-1 sugar to water)
• 3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a chili pepper. The drink is amazing--deep and red and complex and spicy, with a surprisingly gentle bite and a good deal of sweetness (rather like the company). This was also my first time trying rhum agricole, which is made from fresh-squeezed cane juice rather than molasses, as most rum is. It's lovely stuff, but pricey. Maybe I'll ask for a bottle for my birthday.
After the candlelit quiet and subdued charm of the Pegu Club, things got a little livelier. There was another cocktail lounge--this one a speakeasy, which required walking into an obscure phone booth and saying the right thing at the right time. There was a restaurant where, out in the courtyard there was a giant poster of a woman who looked like the love child of Greta Garbo and Boy George. There was a drunk and pretty boy whose LED-blinky red Elton John sunglasses charmed and mesmerized two tables, just only because he was the sort who could get away with it. And a lot of very short parties. The whole thing was kind of like an 80s movie--specifically maybe After Hours, the unlikely Martin Scorsese comedy about a guy whose attempted hookup with a beautiful girl in a Soho apartment turns into a series of scary, whacky misadventures in which his attempts to get home and back to a more or less normal life turn into a series of surreal encounters involving cabbies, bartenders, murderous punks, corpses, and an angry mob. Only there were no corpses or angry mob. There was a cabbie with a really cool stack of Bengali kids ghost story books, illustrated with lovely 1950s-style line drawings of trusted authority figure types: a maternal looking lady, a wise man/hermit, an old codger--looking ever so slightly menacing as they told a group of rapt children--whatever it was they were telling them. The cabbie was driving and wouldn't translate.
I have alarmingly large blisters on both heels from dashing through Village streets after midnight in search of a cheerful fix. They hurt. But in a good way.
I've never seen much of the east coast. And I've always been particularly curious about the Virginia/Carolina coast, ever since I read Misty of Chincoteague when I was old enough to hold a book, and watched Daughters of the Dust a few decades later (somebody should make a movie combining wild ponies and Gullah-speaking islanders in African-Edwardian best). And the immediate cause of my involuntarily country-western life of lonely phonecalls from endless highways is passing through North Carolina--just in time.
I know a lot of northerners who refuse to go to the South. They have a lot of very odd notions, and they are stupid, and they just roll their eyes and look superior when I tell them anything different (non-coincidentally, these tend to be the same people who refer to the entire stretch of the continental US between coasts as 'the flyover zone,' and assume that, if it is populated at all, it can only be by unibrow knuckle-dragging reactionary rednecks. OK, so a lot of it is, but nevermind....)
But I always have a pretty good time here. At the moment, I'm in this gorgeous, funky little town called Hot Springs North Carolina, up in the Smokey Mountains, in a bricky tavern by the railroad tracks. there's a fireplace, hot licking R&B on the sound system, a cheery waitress with one of those longboned mountain faces who looked pleased when I ordered pinot noir and a brownie sundae for dinner. Like a lot of places these days, there's no cell service anywhere, but there's a perfectly fine wireless connection.
I am camped right by a waterfall. The cats are with me, because they're now in training for a traveling life. They did better than expected.
It is always this way, when traveling. The first day or so is always cranky--all the preparation for getting away, all the things to get done before you leave. The second day is stressy--the perpetual feeling that you left something on, or something left undone, or will have an incredibly expensive mechanical breakdown in the emptiest stretch of highway.
The third day or so, it all falls away, and it's just the sweet slide of each moment unraveling. Usually also by this time, the radio gets really good. This part happened a day early--there is nothing quite so blissy as driving crosswise across old winding Appalachian two-lane highways with bluegrass playing on the radio. Especially when they do a bluegrass version of Vincent Black Lighting 1952. Especially when they follow that with one of the Carter granddaughters singing live from the studio--especially when she sings "Ring of Fire" in memory of her aunt June, all throaty sweetness.
Tomorrow morning, after I make my coffee in my traveling french press, and have a walk along the river, I am going to have a long soak in one of the private hot spring hot tubs.
I love road trips.
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