Saturday, March 27, 2010

Diary of an American Dreamer

About a month or so ago, I quit my job of over two and a half years. I didn’t have another lined up, I wasn’t moving, and I didn’t really have any sort of safety net (beyond a few months worth of preemptive saving). What I had was a broken spirit and a depleted sense of self-worth.

I was worn out. Mentally, physically and emotionally drained from over 30 months of a near thankless job not even remotely related to my degree or my dreams, I just had to get out before I went over the edge. I needed to reset, to get a fresh start, to get a handle on just what exactly it was I was chasing when I put in my two-week’s notice.

So I packed my bag, loaded up in a car with three friends, and hit the open road.

I've long been a fan of road trips, and really of traveling in general. I don’t know if it’s the discovery of new places and things, the sense of freedom being away from home, or just the expectation of the unexpected; but whatever it is, it soothes me. I really wouldn’t mind working on the road for awhile. I have nothing to tie me down anywhere, why not just get out and see what else there is?

I have a friend that often bitches to me about the high price of traveling in the States. She went to Europe, traveled all over the continent and fell in love with it. But yet, she can’t even get a decently priced trip to travel the southeastern U.S. She’s completely justified in her complaints; it’s incredibly too expensive to travel within our own country. It shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for someone my age (25) to just get out and (affordably) see our nation without having to couch surf and scrounge by. You can spend a summer backpacking in Europe for the same cost of a weekend in New Orleans. So if I could nab a job that paid me to get out there, that’d be a pretty sweet deal.

My fondness of road trips has a kink or two in it. One, I really only like driving long distances – anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours and it just annoys me; but give me a drive longer than three hours and I'm golden. To steal a line from myself: Happiness is a sunny afternoon, the open road, windows down, with an autumn breeze. Two, for the past several years I've started every drive of over an hour with one simple “meal” found at every gas station: Slim Jim, peanuts and a Mountain Dew. Don’t know where, why or how this started, but it did.

There’s nothing wrong with road tripping by yourself; it can be very satisfying. I did it numerous times in college, making the trek from Alabama to Maryland and vice versa. But, a truly great road trip involves at least one good buddy. Besides the simple fact that sharing with a friend makes most things better, it also helps to have someone to keep you sane whilst driving through the unimaginably boring terrain of I-20. Between Mississippi, northern Louisiana, and the vast nothingness of East Texas, a man could go insane within 12 short hours.
For this trip, my main man was my buddy Caleb, aka C.R. Not to discredit Meghan (who has said that if she ever gets super-rich she will start a pro wrestling organization and tab me to run it) or Beth (who I saw drink a beer bigger than her), but C.R. is my partner in crime. This is a man who not even ten minutes into the trip randomly said “I should be a truck driver,” and warned “alright now, be on the lookout for Smokey.” He was also there to confirm to me that, yes, I did see a sign for a town called Chunky (coincidentally the place of our first Smokey sighting). Only in Mississippi, folks.

About the time that I confirmed that Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” is still the best driving song ever made, it hit me that the pair of jeans I was wearing might have been the only one I packed. A short while later I confirmed this. For a lesser man this would’ve been a problem. For me, it only added to the adventure.

Our first night was spent at the Diamond Jacks Casino in Bossier City, Louisiana. About the only thing that could’ve made this night better would’ve been massive winnings from gambling. But after I quickly lost $10 to a slot machine (the devil’s creation), I decided to settle in with a fried catfish po’ boy, a six-pack of Miller High Life tall boys, WWE Raw, and the Jacuzzi conveniently located inside of our hotel room. It’s the little things, folks.

Shortly into our second day of driving, C.R. informed us that our theme song of the trip was “If You Wanna Get to Heaven (You Gotta Raise a Little Hell)” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Not exactly a hard concept for someone like myself to embrace.

There are two key things you learn while driving through Texas. The first is that they are damn proud of Willie Nelson (as they should be). The man’s face is EVERYWHERE. The second is that if there is a stormy sky in Texas, it looks like pure, unholy death. I wasn’t sure if we were driving into Austin or the gates of hell.

We finally arrived after battling traffic, and immediately hit the bars. Upon texting my mother alerting her of my safe arrival, she replied “Have fun! Be safe! Do a shot of tequila for Mommy!” Just another reason I love that woman.

After downing said tequila (always obey your mother, kids), I noticed that the very first Texas bar I set foot in had paintings of guns on the wall. Fitting. I also noticed way too many guys with their pants tucked into their boots (read: at least one). Not so fitting.

Later, I learned my first lesson (the hard way, naturally) about attending South by Southwest: be prepared, or else you’re gonna miss some shit. Sadly, I was too late in learning that both Motorhead and Hank Williams III were playing that night. Unfortunate that I missed a chance to see either rock gods or one of my favorite musicians, but I now I know that if you’re gonna go to SXSW, you better study up and find out every damn show that’s playing – even if the trip was a last minute thing.

However, the night was definitely not a loss. After leaving the first bar, we scarfed down some incredible pizza at a joint called East Side Pies. After some roaming around, we ended up at Club De Ville, seemingly just because it was close to closing time. Upon entering, we found out there was a mechanical bull setup for all the drunks to enjoy. Now, none of us had any intentions of partaking until our friend Ryan proclaimed “hell yeah I'm riding it, we all are. Get in line.”

So we rode, and I can safely say that it was the first time in my life I had ever regretted not having chaps. The bull destroyed me (thankfully my pants survived). Worse yet, C.R. lasted two seconds longer than me. Defeated by the bull was tough enough, but now I was just humiliated.

We savored our final few minutes by hitting the dance floor and boogieing down. And we were doing a damn good job of it on our own… and then the DJ put on Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and a man in a red jump suit raced out to us, started running circles around us and motioned for us to join. So we did. What ensued was three minutes of circular-running, fist-pumping joy. Now I'm told someone all professional-looking took pictures of this. My hope is that somewhere, these pictures brought a smile to someone.

Buy the ticket, take the ride. The Man said that, and I don’t disagree.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Austin is the fact that in all of my walking downtown, I didn’t once notice a chain restaurant. Not a single one. No McDonald’s on any street corners. I'm sure they’re there, but we sure as hell didn’t eat at any. Instead we enjoyed some of the finest, greasiest, loveliest food I've ever eaten. I indulged in Mexican and Ethiopian, pizza and bratwurst, BBQ and breakfast. I didn’t have a single complaint about anything.

The best aspect of SXSW is that there are an inordinate amount of free activities to enjoy. And let me tell you, friends, there are few things better than walking up to a bar, money in hand, and having the bartender crack open a beer and say “free, enjoy.” That folks, is amazing. What’s more amazing is that on the next go round, he hands you a mixed drink, and again nods and says “free.”

(Going along with this free theme, I would once again like to extend a thank you to my new friend Marion, who for whatever crazy reason decided that she would host mine and C.R.'s rowdy asses. She survived, sanity in tact.)

Come August, I'm leaving Tuscaloosa, for better or worse. As much as I love this town, I need to get out and see what else there is, and if it holds anything for me. I can guarantee you that Austin is on my short list. I can also tell you with a certainty that if I do become a resident, a little place called Lovejoy’s will become my favorite watering hole. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, dark and dirty bar that brews their own beer. In other words, my kind of fucking place.

While enjoying their homemade stout, The Dirty Charlie Band played a set of that kick-ass rebel-rousing honky tonk music that I love so much. Any band that has a dreadlocked bassist, and a denim-vested lead singer that belts a line like “ladies ain’t good for nothing but another heartache song” is alright by me.

I'm not exactly one for falling in to routines, but I won’t exactly argue against the once I developed during SXSW: Wake up, eat amazing breakfast/lunch. Find venue with good music and free beer. Get sauced. Eat more amazing food. Find rock & roll show, drink whiskey, dance the night away. If that’s wrong, to hell with whatever is right.

Over the course of the course of four days, I bore witness to some of the loudest, rowdiest rock shows I've ever seen. Whether it was a bunch of girls rocking my face off (The Coathangers, Those Darlins), seeing one of my favorite bands for free (Drive-By Truckers), discovering a new favorite (Glossary) in a bar fashioned out of a doublewide trailer, seeing a concert I've long wanted to see (The Black Angels, Justin Townes Earle), supporting local bands making the trip (Birmingham showcase featuring 13Ghosts, Taylor Hollingsworth, Through the Sparks, Vulture Whale), or freezing my ass off but still enjoying some good music (Dawes, Deer Tick, Lucero), I rocked out and had a blast.

I suppose this where I'm supposed to embark some wisdom about some lesson I learned from this trip. I don’t if there’s something there that we don’t already know – get out there and experience things while you can.

Don’t worry about finding some deeper meaning in everything, just live in the moment. Bask in the sun, savor the cold beer, and let the wind blow through your hair. Meet new friends and catch up with those from your past. Put your fist up and rock the fuck out. Ride a bull without chaps… just be prepared for the bruising.

Pictures! (Woo for visual aides!)

Tall boys in a Jacuzzi... now that's the High Life.

No mini-fridge, no problem.

What's on that slice? Awesomeness, that's what.

This is legal on the streets of Austin. I approve.

Of course this was in the bathroom of a bar inside a doublewide trailer.

Mmmmmmmm...

Drive-By Truckers. Free. Let there be rock.

Mess with the bull...

... you get the battle wounds.

Free as a feelin' in the wind.

That beer was free. Along with many others.

C.R. starts some bull mess, so I put him in his place.

Marion, our gracious host. Somehow she tolerated us, even when I made faces like that.

Lesson learned. 

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