West bound but down first
We left upstate New York a few days before New Years Eve 2014, drove to Baltimore where the temperatures dipped well below zero with a wind-chill akin to Yellowknife or Siberia, or just Syracuse, let’s not be dramatic. Deciding enough was enough we split for the South. Within ten hours of Baltimore we’re in Savannah, Georgia parking the car under a palm tree, walking into a liquor store. I love DRIP, went twice. Go there when you’re in town. After drinking an Abita Turbodog at Universal Studios, seeing the Blue Man Group, spending the day getting nauseous on the Harry Potter rollercoasters with two other friends from back home (the often mentioned in this blog Michael Doctor and his much better half Amanda) I think it’s the three 22ounce Stone Arrogant Bastards at an outdoor bar that has me hung-over the next day. Stone beers never cease to impress me. I don’t always go that bold and down their beers, but when I do, the buzz that accompanies them is like a hug from an old friend whom I’ve missed, and reminds me of how close our bond is and how deeply we value one another. Stone beers have been an oracle for me since my craft beer awakening a decade plus ago. For me they remain to this day a gold standard from which a lot of craft beers are judged. Renting an ocean side apartment on New Symnra Beach, we spend another week in Florida. The first two days are gorgeous. On the same day there that there is snow in all 50 United States (North Florida got a dusting), I go swimming. The New Symnra Beach Brewing Company or NSB as they call themselves is down the street. The flight of beers on offer included a few guest brews (which I don’t remember) and NSB’s lineup. All the NSB’s were good, but mostly I recall enjoying the hell out of their Inlet Amber Ale. Approachable beer that goes down easy yet has a noticeable, albeit muted, brewer’s signature is such an exciting aspect of discovering new craft beer. Beer drinking, the art of such for me, is as much about ‘it’s beer time’ and the celebration of that moment of opening a bottle, can or getting my hands on a freshly poured cold glass as it is what I’m about to drink. I love slammable beer as much as I love the serious sippers, this Inlet Amber walks that line for me; a seriously brewed beer with real ingredients made in small batches by hand. A beer so approachable I could sit at the bar and drain half a barrel of the stuff. After our time in New Symrna, we decide to leave Florida. This is good because I was a little nervous we’d never leave. I had a nightmare that we had headed south, run out of money, and were forced to get jobs somewhere in the panhandle teaching snowbirds how to use Tinder and selfie-sticks. As Julie so eloquently stated in her blog, there’s no shortage of naked sun-burnt flabby vintage flesh roaming the beaches here. Along the way to Pensacola, we stop and take a humid walk through Tallahassee. To my northern sensibility, the Spanish moss and Southern architecture scream of racism and the history of simplemindedness that un-nerve me to my core. I do not feel threatened, but, I can’t shake the image of pain, exhaustion and discomfort of the folks who under duress toiled the earth here with wounds from injustice, whips and nooses. Pensacola, much like Tallahassee, is bland, humid and quiet. In my mind, I keep hearing the screaming voice of a young, drug addled Mike Doughty sing the loathsome refrain in his song aptly titled, Pensacola, “Like waves in which you drown me shouting….” as we walk through the city. Two Dos Equis are in the ice filled garbage bucket at the Red Roof where we’re staying. Almost ten years after Hurricane Katrina, we are driving along the Gulf Coast and seeing the reconstruction and remaining destruction. Walking on the beaches of Biloxi in the early evening we are engulfed by a blizzard like thick fog, the white sand looks more like snow than sand. Julie took some awesome photos from this moment. Back on the road towards New Orleans, our first stop is at an inlet of Lake Ponchatrain in the Irish Delta just outside of New Orleans proper. Being here, with the cityscape just out of reach, I feel that same tingle of energy I get just outside of every city or storied place we visit. We have rented a house near the park district for a couple of nights and we take our time touring the French Quarter, but ultimately spend our money on Magazine Street. Cooling in the refrigerator is a six-pack of Abita’s Mardi Gras Bock. A Maibock/Helles Bock mashup, it’s good, goes down a little too easy despite it’s sugary seven percent. I don’t always love caramel malts in the beer, but this-as are most of their beers- is real good. Abita, I’m sad we didn’t pay you a visit, but we will soon. In just a few days of walking through New Orleans, seeing and experiencing the vibe, the culture, the stunning architecture, I’m in love and could easily envision living here a while. Deep into the Mississippi Delta, after a strange night in a motel and dinner at the best restaurant in town: theKenTacoHut, we stop the car so Julie can clean her camera’s delicate internal mirror. Here we are standing alone along the side of the road surrounded by muddy fields, lurking hound dogs, crows and rotting earth. The silence is overwhelming, but I can hear the chain gangs in my imagination. See the white hooded judges, the cell doors, the hate, the fires and the fear; I’m enraptured. In the afternoon we find Dockery Farms and the actual crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to devil to be a blues musician. I take out my guitar and a riff comes out of my hands I’ve never played before, I didn’t even think the instrument was in tune, hounds came but the devil didn’t--or did he? Later that night, walking down Beale street in Memphis, a stranger confuses me for Kenny G. I of course tell him I’m not that worthless, rich, soprano sax hack, but he is insistent and Julie is almost unable to contain her laughter. We slip into a speakeasy style bar and I’m drinking an awesome Fennel Milk Stout by the High Cotton brewery. Julie has their (High Cotton’s) Bier de Garde, both exactly what we wanted. The band on the other hand is wretched. Here we are in Memphis and the drummer can’t keep time, nor the singer sing in tune, if musicianship no longer matters in this town then I might as well be Kenny G. The next day we see the spot where Jeff Buckley returned to his source, pay our respects to the King at Graceland and visit the hallowed ground where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Walking around the preserved Hotel Lorraine is an exceptionally heavy experience. How would the world be different had this not happened? It is truly difficult to put out of my mind the anger that is rising in this country. Whether it’s coming from a community that for decades has had their basic human rights eroded by those in charge, or from the folks who are taught how to react and respond to complex emotions with guns, racism and religious hate. In general I find the south, Memphis, and the Mississippi Delta a loathsome place, though hauntingly beautiful, it’s somewhere I do not necessarily intend to return but know I will. However, not until there is some real progress. At this point Julie and I have been very fortunate to have done a fair amount of travel but we have never felt more unwelcome than driving through Arkansas—not even in France! Odd to say, but it was a relief to enter the sovereign nation of Texas. Beer is still at the center of this tale. I drank a few every night, whether in the hotel rooms, or at a bar and yes not exclusively craft, but still I drank beer. As I have mentioned in the past, access to actual craft beer isn’t readily available everywhere, especially while firmly planted in Bush and Bud Light country. But thanks to globalization, I was able to drink Heineken, Dos Equis, Leffe, and luckily I also had a lot of Dogfish Head, Abita, Stone and Flying Dog during this part of the crossing. The last thing I’ll say is that I dig green bottle beer, I like Heineken (Heineken Light actually tastes more like the beer in Amsterdam, so I prefer that) it’s the pilsner malts and the skunk that really do it for me and I find it truly refreshing.Two days later we’re in Orlando, Florida, fridge stocked with DogFish Head 61 minute, Dos Equis, Leffe blonde and tequila, our plan is to stay for at least a week and catch up with my good friends David and Mariko. David and Mariko own a theater company and run a show on International Drive called DRIP. DRIP is an amazing, sexy, rocking and interactive experience. You get to drink cans of PBR or Fat Tire, while watching a sensual narrative of three lovers dancing in sand, water and paint. Water-based paint is lunged toward you and splashed on the walls around you, while your head is bobbing to an awesome live rock band that’s holding down a succinct accompaniment.