Oozlefinch or bust

In December of 2019, I took a few weeks off to drive to Florida, because I’ve never been to Florida before. Never — not even to Disneyland. Along the way, there was one place I wanted to visit more than any other: the Oozlefinch brewery in Fort Monroe, Virginia.

First, what is the Oozlefinch? An Oozlefinch is a cryptid (like Bigfoot or the Jersey Devil) — a featherless bird that was seen, as legend has it, by certain members of the U.S. military, perhaps during a state of intoxication, and was then embraced as a mascot. From Wikipedia:

The Oozlefinch is the unofficial historic mascot of the Air Defense Artillery – and formerly of the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps. The Oozlefinch is portrayed as a featherless bird that flies backwards (at supersonic speeds)and carries weapons of the Air Defense and Coast Artillery, most often a Nike-Hercules Missile. Oozlefinch has been portrayed in many different forms and artistic interpretations through its history.

oozlefinch

I learned about the Oozlefinch from a tour guide at the Nike Missle Radar Base at Fort Hampton in Sandy Hook, NJ. As part of the tour, the tour guide tells the tale of the Oozlefinch and its importance to the U.S. Air Defence program.  If you’re ever on Sandy Hook, make sure you take the tour and visit the various abandoned military bases there. It’s rad — it’s like something from a Half-Life video game.

The tour guide (I think his name is McMahon) explained the history of the Nike Missle program and the Oozlefinch:

tour guide sandy hook

Old radar, now a favorite roosting place for vultures (no Oozlefinches):

Radar Sandy Hook

As part of the history of the Oozlefinch, the tour guide mentioned the Oozlefinch brewery in Virginia. At that moment, I got it in my head to visit that brewery. Once something novel or bizarre gets lodged in my mind, there’s no getting it out.

If you’re traveling from New Jersey to Florida, no GPS will take you through Fort Monroe, Virginia — it’s going to take you on I-95S, circumventing Delmarva entirely. Even when you ask the GPS to take you to Fort Monroe, Virginia, it’s going to take you through Washington D.C. — you don’t want to do that — for many reasons. What you want to do is take US 13 South instead — through the guts of Delaware, into Maryland, and then into Virginia and across the Chesapeake Bay. Why? Because that’s the most scenic route. I’m also going to recommend crossing the Chesapeake at sunset because it’s spectacular.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is amazing. It’s 18 miles of bridges and tunnels over and under the Chesapeake bay — lit by the setting sun, illuminated by cycling rainbow-colored lights — it’s a sight to see.  At this leg of my journey, Spotify was playing Lana Del Rey and Grimes — pretty good, chill music considering the flow and visuals of driving across an 18-mile expanse of water at sunset. To be honest, I don’t pay attention to the lyrics.

bay bridge

I rolled into Fort Monroe right when the sky turned black and rain began. Nestled in the moist darkness of the Virginia milliary base, I found a black cinderblock building, with a beer garden illuminated with large-bulb, festive Christmas lights glimmering in the rain — and there it was: the Oozefinch bird in all its featherless, long-necked glory inviting me in.

Inside, like many brewpubs, there’s massive, gleaming brew kettles, and a medium-sized bar and souvenir area. They have an extensive variety of beers, with lots of fancy different flavored beers. Not basic at all. If you’re into craft beers, you’re going to want to try them all. I tried the hefeweizen — pretty tasty.

oozlefinch brewery

Unfortunately, they didn’t have food — no carbs to soak up the alcohol — and with at least 4 more hours of driving ahead of me, I limited myself to one beer. [REDACTED]. And I bought some souvenir keychains and stickers — in case I ever make it back to the Nike Missle Base in New Jersey, I’m going to give one to the tour guides there.

I hope to visit the Oozlefinch again, hopefully, next time I can get a hotel or a designated driver so I can enjoy more beer.

Oh yeah, why “Oozlefinch or bust”? Well, somewhere in Delaware my windshield started to crack… severely. The whole way I was thinking “am I going to make it without my windshield caving in?” I made it. And because I’m a low-key gambler, I drove that cracked windshield all the way to Miami and back…

Centralia - Motocross

Nothing but trouble in Centralia Pennsylvania

Nothing But Trouble is a 1991 comedy (horror) film starring Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Demi Moore, and Taylor Negron. It was directed by Dan Akroyd and written by Dan and his brother Peter. The film is very weird. I believe the Akroyd brothers knew how weird it was, but they didn’t know it was so weird that the average American would reject it. The film only made $8 million dollars in theaters — one-fifth of its budget — which is a flop by any measure.

Nothing But Trouble

So, why is it weird (or at least too weird for the average human)? Spoilers ahead: It’s a hero’s journey but the protagonists are not heroes. All the characters are despicable on some level, so it is difficult to empathize with any of them. Chevy Chase & Demi Moore’s characters are unlikeable yuppies. Dan Akroyd’s “Judge” character and his clan are demented serial murderers. I think we’re supposed to root for Chevy & Demi’s characters, but I get the feeling Akroyd’s true sympathy lies with the Judge, who is a victim of bad bank loans and spends his life seeking retribution. John Candy’s character does have a heroic moment but ends up only exchanging his despicable family for a new wealthier one. I don’t want to give away too much — I want you to watch this film and see if you can enjoy it. Perhaps the weirdest moment of the film is a song and dance scene featuring Digital Underground and 2Pac (then a member of the band).

The town of Valkenvania was inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvania, a very small town that was all but abandoned due to a below-ground coal fire. Like much of Pennsylvania, the town sits above vast deposits of coal. Legend has it that someone lit a fire too close to a coal shaft, the coal caught fire, and the town eventually had to be abandoned because it was not safe to live above a massive, underground, inextinguishable, poison-gas-producing inferno.

There are a few documentaries and urban-explorer videos about Centralia on YouTube. These explorers cruise the local streets, enter abandoned homes, find the occasional doll head or VHS tape, and hike the graffiti highway. Most encounter a local or two — the town does have some inhabitants, the graveyards are well kept, and the graffiti highway is owned by a coal company — if you visit, you will encounter other people, so be respectful.

July 12, 2019, I drove to Centralia to check it out. When I arrived, I drove right through it — I saw no indications that there was a town there. Just a weed-lined, two-lane county road (61).

I expected Centralia to be abandoned, but it was not. There are homes standing, and they seem to be occupied. Most of the town has been raised with the exception of 5 or 6 houses, a municipal building, and 3 cemeteries. Look at the town on Google maps — the homes have green lawns and cars parked outside them. Granted, they could be cars belonging to urban explorers in some cases.

I felt guilty for invading their town and disturbing the peace. I live in a tourist town and know first-hand what it’s like to have a city slicker come to town, cause a ruckus,  and relieve their bowels on the street in my neighborhood (no joke), so I can empathize with Centralia’s remaining population. I imagined a resident living in their home clutching their head wondering what was worse: a migraine from coal fire fumes, or jackasses from New Jersey, or YouTube doing k-turns in their front lawn.

obey the law or face the reeve
Don’t disturb the peace or you might face Dan Akroyd.

So, I left the local streets and went looking for the graffiti highway.

I saw a half dozen cars parked at the bend of highway 61 and figured this was a good place to stop and start looking. Both sides of the road had tell-tale graffiti marking, so I flipped a coin. I walked east down a gravel road, which led to a small cemetery and motocross trails, punctuated with piles of coal, shotgun shells, mud pits, vents for the coal fire, and weathered piles of people’s stuff. I assume the stuff — which reminded me of things you would find in a thrift store dumpster — were dumped there, or stolen from abandoned homes and left there by urban explorers.

Centralia - Coal
A random pile of coal in a town known for its out-of-control coal fire.
Centralia - Vent
One of the vents that vent fumes from the Centralia coal fire. I think it’s supposed to look like a vampire.
chevy chase car
Chevy Chase’s character’s BMW passing piles of coal and a fume vent.

 

Finding nothing east of route 61, I headed to the west side. After scrambling around a mud pit, twisted trees tagged with graffiti, ankle-rolling used graffiti cans, and tick-encrusted weeds, I found sunlight and the graffiti highway.

It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen: a wide two-lane road, every available inch covered from beginning to end with a tangled rainbow of spray paint — much of it fresh — for 7/10ths of a mile. I expected the air in Centralia to smell like coal fire fumes, but it smelled like paint.

Most of the graffiti was tags/signatures and cartoon characters & memes. No Mona Lisas or Starry Nights — just 1000s of colorful, funny, and ephemeral modern-day runes & hieroglyphs. There were dozens of people walking the road, riding bikes, or adding to the graffiti.

 

graffiti road
Centralia graffini road

 

Centralia - Motocross
Motocross biker showing off for the camera.
Centralia - Poo
Winnie the Poo Meme from 2019
Centralia - Shaggy
Shaggy Meme from 2019.
Centralia - Leaves
Everything gets painted. The road, the guide rails, the leaves of trees surrounding the road…
Centralia - Gouge Collapse
One of the prominent ruptures in the highway, making it unusable. I’ve seen photos of steam/fumes rising from this rut online.

I did not see any vapors or steam rising from vents or cracks in the road. I did get a slight headache, but that could be because it was HOT and sunny out and my large forehead was baking in the sun.

I think everyone should go see it, but…

In early 2020, the road was covered with soil by the coal company that owns the road. They probably don’t want someone breaking their leg or exchanging viruses, and then suing them. For the coal company, the road was probably “nothing but trouble”.

Life lesson: make sure you get out there and see stuff while it’s still there to be seen. You gotta get it, while the getting is good.

Land Yacht

A little bit east of Pittsburgh

Another year and another road trip to witness and map a 17-year periodical cicada emergence. This year it was Brood VIII (8), a group of cicadas in an area wrapped around Pittsburg on the east, north, and west. Disappointingly, my trip only lasted 4 days, including driving to and from Pittsburgh, thanks to crappy weather (rain) and a blown turbo intercooler.

Driving through Pennsylvania is rarely exciting, though much of it is pleasant to look at — mostly long green mountains that hug the ground like exhausted dachshunds, and the occasional tunnel to break the monotony. Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, Allegheny. Route 70 is nice — not amazing, not grim, just nice.

I chose to stay at the Springhill Suites in Latrobe Pennsylvania because it was near a golf course. Golfers wake early and make quite a racket — cloudy brains in the grasp of a hangover struggling to assemble themselves, knocking into every wall, tripping over every chair, slamming every door. I wanted to wake early each day, and a hotel full of golfers is as good as any alarm clock. The Suites were nice — Paul Mitchel soaps that smelled of orange & spice; a desk in the room; a refrigerator to hold Redbull and snack cakes; a window facing west towards and a small airport — nice sunsets. Free Chupa Chups in the lobby. The Wi-Fi wasn’t free but also wasn’t expensive. The free breakfast was bland, but you get what you pay for.

Most of my trip was spent driving from one park to another, with the guidance of the built-in navigation system that came with my 7-year-old car. The system is outdated and often takes me along some wild paths — plenty of as the Germans say “hoffnungsvollunddocherschaudernd” — hopeful yet cringing — like mud & gravel one-lane roads with no exit for 2 miles.  Two white knuckle miles of potholes and ruts and the constant fear that a Silverado 6500HD is heading around the bend at 70 miles per hour. Still plenty of fun. It’s usually on roads like this where you find beautiful bubbling road-side brooks or a Grand National with 36″ tires parked next to a slowly oxidizing tractor. Life becomes interesting when your GPS forces you outside your comfort zone.

My favorite named location was the Hoodlebug Trail in Black Lick, PA (a “lick” is a natural salt or mineral deposit).

I use my entomological road trips as an excuse to partake in a few of my favorite things: gas station convenience store junk food fireworks stores, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, and weird, or not so weird, roadside attractions.

I’ve decided that my current favorite convenience store is Sheetz. I also like United Dairy Farmers (know for their ice cream). Circle K, Wawa, Quick Check, and 7-11 are fine as well — they all have their quirks. Sheetz has the best-iced coffee-flavored drinks — banana, coconut, chocolate. Good stuff.

Frog Prince and Princess Fireworks

Glitter Mountain fireworks store in Donegal, PA had an enchanting selection of novelty fireworks, like Frog Prince and Princess, a Black Cat Mobile (like a Bat Mobile), and meme-themed rocket batteries. I love fireworks packaging as much as fireworks — all the bright, contrasting colors, hissing cats, grinning frogs, menacing aliens, metallic jellyfish starbursts — all advertise amazing explosive experiences. I want them all.

Little Debbie Snack Cakes

The biggest Walmarts usually have the best selection of Little Debbie snack cakes. Ever since I heard the band Southern Culture on the Skids sing about them in their song Camel Walk, I’ve been into them. I have a painting of Little Debbie on my office wall. I don’t eat them every day — but when I’m on road trips I track them down. I love their flavor, sweetness, and their unique plastic-like frosting.

As for roadside attractions, I didn’t see many of those. I did blunder upon The Laurel Hill Iron Furnace in St. Clair Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. This was an iron furnace back in the 19th century — now it looks like an ancient temple found in the jungles of South America.

Laurel Hill Iron Furnace

A shed being consumed by a forest…

Shed being consumed by a forest

And a car on a pole (Excel Auto Body in Export, PA on RT 66):

 

Here’s a map of the places I visited:

Map

Here’s a list of places I wanted to visit but did not because of time and the blown intercooler:

  • Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney
  • Johnstown Flood Museum in Johnstown
  • Quality Dry Cleaners in McKees Rocks
  • Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh
  • Fallingwater in Mill Run
  • Kecksburg Space Acorn in Mt. Pleasant
  • World’s Largest Teapot in Chester, WV
  • Bayernhof Museum in Pittsburgh
  • Mars Flying Saucer in Mars

 

Notes about New Jersey

Moon Motel

A friend of mine was traveling to New Jersey, so I typed up some notes for her about what to see and do in the state. This is, by no means, a complete list, but in context to her winter-time travels, it made sense. It was cut and pasted into a Facebook message.

If you’re from New Jersey, you’ll likely have strong opinions about the content of this article. It likely won’t feature your favorite places, and you’ll likely disagree. You’ll likely tell me about grammatical errors. But that’s New Jersey for you.

This article is written with a traveler in mind, so when I say things like “Jersey food is horrible” I’m thinking about how often I’ve gotten food poisoning from the average restaurant (a lot). Travelers need to avoid food poisoning. I’m sure your favorite — or your personally owned restaurant — is just fantastic.

Here is the message/notes on New Jersey.

Independent Reading

My expertise is mostly with West-northern and Central New Jersey.

Food

NJ has a lot of food choices, including some unique to the state. Those unique to the state are typically due to a regional business or the Shore (beach area). The diversity is due to NJ’s proximity to NYC. Generally speaking, if other states have it, they’re doing it better — for example, NJ is rife with great pizza parlors, but there’s better pizza in Brooklyn. Generally speaking, Jersey food is horrible — or at least no better than chain restaurants. With a few exceptions, the local Applebees is as good or better than the mom & pops.

So what’s unique to NJ?

Pork roll, which is ground up pork parts shaped into bologna-shaped tubes that people slice up and cook with eggs and cheese, and eat them on a bun. A grab-and-go blue-collar belly-warmer. These can be found anywhere. In the north, they call it Taylor Ham, in the south it’s Pork Roll.

Giant hot dogs (found along the shore) and Italian Style Hot dogs (Newark area).
Giant hot dogs are large, thick-skinned hot dogs heated on a metal pan and served on a bun often with chili & cheese. Everyone will have their favorite place to get these, but Windmills are the most reliable — the Windmill in Longbranch is actually shaped like a windmill.

Italian Style hot dogs are hot dogs served in an Italian bread roll, with ketchup, potatoes, and onions. I don’t know a specific place to get these. This is really a variety of the Jersey “Fat Cat” sandwich, with is typically a burger with EVERYTHING on it.

Tomatoes pies. A tomato pie is the inverse of a pizza, in that the sauce goes atop the cheese. That’s about it. Just as good as pizza with the same combination of flavors.

Papa’s is the best known. https://www.papastomatopies.com They also have a mustard pie which I’ve tried once and actually liked.
It’s Nutts has a great name, and their tomato pies are pretty good as well http://www.itsnuttsrestaurant.com .

Disco Fries. French fries with gravy and cheese, but not curds like poutine. Found in diners.

Frozen Custard. This is a south Jersey shore thing. Basically soft serve ice cream, but instead of cream, it’s based on custard (includes egg, which works well with vanilla). Very good, but not much better than plain old soft-serve ice cream.

White Rose style burgers. These are essentially large White Castle burgers. Burgers with a lot of onions mixed into the meat, smash fried by alleged former convicts [this is not said for comic effect — it’s what I’ve been told time and time again]. Burger places have names like the White Rose System and are usually isolated from anything else interesting.

Baked eggs. Instead of frying eggs, these hole-in-the-wall mom & pop places bake them. The result is dry, not buttery, with a faint smell of burnt hair. Don’t recommend it, but the places they serve them are usually interesting as they haven’t updated since the 50s.

The Best City: Asbury Park

Asbury Park might be NJ’s most interesting city.

Wooden Walls Project. A couple dozen graffiti/street artist murals found throughout the town made by world-famous artists like Shephard Fairie, Squid Licker, and others. http://woodenwallsproject.com

The Silver Ball museum http://silverballmuseum.com/asbury-park/

The Carousel/Casino https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/asbury-park-casino-carousel-house

The Steam Plant https://blogfinger.net/tag/the-asbury-park-steam-power-plant/

The Paramount Theatre https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paramount_Theatre_(Asbury_Park,_New_Jersey)#/media/File:Asbury_Park_Paramount_Theater.JPG

Morro Castle Monument https://weirdnj.com/stories/mystery-history/morro-castle/

Good galleries [Parlor Gallery is superb], decent restaurants, music venues, and the boardwalk.

Roadside Signage/Figures

Interesting roadside sights are being rapidly destroyed as older businesses fail, so now is the time to see them.

Top of mind is the Clown in Middletown NJ. That’s going to be torn down soon to make way for a Mall and Condos. It’s a giant plywood clown. https://weirdnj.com/stories/roadside-oddities/evil-clown-of-middletown/ . East-central Jersey.

Circus Drive-in sign. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/27279 I think it is still up.

Motel Moon sign. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dancentury/42446341480/in/dateposted-public/

Some Unique Weirdness

The Deep Cut Gardens mafia volcano in Middletown. https://www.dancentury.com/travel/the-volcano-of-middletown-nj/ Better in the summer, because the gardens are in bloom.

Light Dispelling Darkness fountain in Edison NJ https://www.dancentury.com/travel/edison-new-jersey-is-boring-dont-go-there/

Quick Stop groceries from Clerks. It’s a real place. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/8659

Museums

Most museums in NJ are aimed at kids, and so a visit is 2 hours of high-pitched screaming and having strollers shoved into your ankles.

The Silverball Museum in Asbury Park is a pinball machine museum and you actually get to play with the machines. http://silverballmuseum.com/asbury-park/ It is the “#1 attraction in NJ”. East-central Jersey.

Sandy Hook/Hartshorne Woods/Fort Hancock. In the 1960s and prior, this was the military base that protected NYC from Nazis and the US from Russian missiles. Now it’s a huge, disintegrating military base that’s semi-open to the public. The fact that it’s winter and the government shutdown makes a lot of it inaccessible. But the stuff in the woods, and that isn’t fenced off is accessible. It looks like something from a post-apocalyptic video game (admittedly, I’m not a gamer). Two lighthouses. East central Jersey.

Grounds for Sculpture is a gigantic sculpture garden in Hamilton Township. http://www.groundsforsculpture.org It is, however, closed in February. There are many sculptures in the surrounding area outside the grounds. West-central Jersey.

If you know someone interested in model trains Northlandz https://northlandz.com in Flemington is worth enduring screaming children. I’ve never been, but I hear it’s amazing… if you like trains. West-central Jersey.

InfoAge Science Center. Deep historical science and technology nerdery. https://infoage.org East-central Jersey. I’ve been to a computer fair there, but never to their main exhibit.

Holmdel Horn Antenna. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/holmdel-horn-antenna

Closed in February, but the Franklin Mineral Museum quarry is neat because they have glow under black-light rocks https://franklinmineralmuseum.com West-northern Jersey.

Its sister mine might be open though: Sterling Hill Museum https://www.sterlinghillminingmuseum.org West-northern Jersey.

Thomas Edison Center Boring, but the world’s largest light bulb. East-central Jersey.

Decrepit and Abandoned

Other than the aforementioned Sandy Hook/Hartshorne Woods/Fort Hancock, NJ doesn’t have as much decrepit and abandoned that is obvious. Because of our large and ever-growing population, the old gets ground up and replaced pretty quickly. The stuff that doesn’t get rebuilt/processed is typically left alone because it’s a toxic dump, there are legal issues, or it’s far enough from civilization that it gets a pass. Weird NJ http://weirdnj.com chronicles the stuff that’s a little out of the way, and beyond Atlas Obscura and Roadside America.

What is a mystery to me is South Jersey. Pine Barrens, southern Shore, odd little downs. They’re probably interesting stuff there.

My Trips in 2015

I took two trips in 2015, one short and one long.

2015 map

The long trip, looped through 19 states.

The short trip was to Raleigh & Chapel Hill, NC.

These are my stories:

  1. South of the Border: the Quintessential Roadside Attraction
  2. Augusta Georgia: Golfers, Cookies, Grits
  3. Alabama the Jewel of North America
  4. Jackson Mississippi
  5. New Orleans in 3 Hours
  6. Exhausted in Little Rock
  7. Elvis Presley’s Jets
  8. Land Between the Lakes, part 1
  9. Land Between the Lakes, part 2
  10. Kuttawa Kentucky Huddle House
  11. Fort Massac Illinois Rest Area
  12. Big John: Metropolis’ Other Hero
  13. The Superman Museum in Metropolis Illinois
  14. The World’s Largest Statue of Superman
  15. Jungle Jim’s: the Greatest Supermarket in the America
  1. Welcome to North Carolina
  2. Chapel Hill and Snack Cakes
  3. Raleigh North Carolina
  4. I-95 is Atrocious
Mississippi Gator

Jackson, Mississippi

On the third day of my Spring 2015 road trip, I arrived in Jackson.

( Read more about the scientific aspects of my road trip on Cicada Mania. )

My destination was the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (2148 Riverside Dr, Jackson, MS). The location was particularly vexing for my GPS, which led me through a maze of lumpy streets, the surface of which rose and fell with an amplitude of about a half a meter. It was as if I was driving over frozen waves or ski slope moguls.

( An aside: My in-dash GPS is good, but it isn’t great. It probably isn’t as great as Google/Wais is, but I’m not going to risk my life and the lives of others squinting at a cellphone screen or juggling one in my hand while I drive. I do use Wais when I’m stuck in traffic though. )

The Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences

Two Headed Snake

The Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences was nice. Their best attractions were their live fish, reptile, and amphibian environments. They had a two-headed snake and more cute baby alligators than you can imagine.

The live fish exhibits were particularly fascinating and enchanting. Definitely, a perfect atmosphere to chill out in after a long drive on a hot day.

Catfish and Gar

Trails behind the museum led to the LeFleurs Bluff State Park. The trails wound through what seemed like miles of woodland, past alligator infested lakes and the Pearl River (which I will assume is also infested with gators). My “desk potato” body was out of breath by the time I navigated all the trails and returned to the Museum.

Here’s a video of some of the many natural wonders you’ll find in LeFleurs Bluff State Park:

Maybe it is wrong to say “alligator infested lakes”. It is their home and has been for millions of years.

( My condo is a “Dan infested condo”. )

The Hotel

Needing a place to stay, I found the nearest Hilton, and said: “I’m a Hilton HHonors member, what have you got for me”? ( Two h’s in HHonors, BTW. ) Membership has its privileges and I got a penthouse suite, floor 14. Great view of the city. I liked that the desk chair looked like it was made in the 1960s.

If “classy” has a spectrum, the Jackson Mississippi Hilton falls on the “swank” side of the spectrum, rather than the “posh” side. This is the room:

Jackson Mississippi Hilton

It’s “swank”, right? Look at this chair. That is a swank chair.

Swank Chair

The highlight of staying in the penthouse suite was that Ms. Diva was in the suite next to mine. How did I know Ms. Diva was next to me? Her Bluetooth name gave her away. I got to meet Ms. Diva in the hallway, and she looked like Janet Jackson, which seems appropriate.

Most of the hotels/motels I stayed at had breakfast in the lobby, but the Jackson Hilton had its own classy dining room. And breakfast was not free. Rule of thumb: if breakfast is in a dining room, it is not free; if it is in the lobby, particularly if there is a lobby waffle maker, it is free.

I was amazed by the number of pickup trucks in the parking lot of the hotel. Pickup trucks seem to be the new SUVs — everyone has one because they’re handy for hauling shit back from Costco and Ikea.

Dracos

After deliberating where to eat for about three hours, I settled on Dracos’s which is a seafood joint in the same parking lot as the hotel.

Draco’s claim to fame is their charbroiled oysters. In the spirit of trying everything at least once, I gave them a shot. And guess what: they’re freaking amazing. Oyster + butter + parmesan cheese + charbroiled flavor = amazingly delicious. I can’t lie.

How Lucky I Am

I was done exploring LeFleurs Bluff park & the museum, I’d met Ms. Diva, I’d had amazing oysters, so it was time to go. I stopped by a chain pharmacy (can’t remember if it was a CVS, Rite-Aid or Walgreens, and not that it matters) to load up on water, Red Bull, and some snacks. At the front of a checkout line was a gentleman in a wheelchair. He did not simply have a broken leg; it was apparent that he suffered from considerable physical and neurological disorders. Every moment of his transaction with the cashier was a struggle; finding the change, handing it to her, holding the soda he had purchased — all a struggle. A second and third cashier opened their registers, and the rest of us customers were able to check out quickly. I left before the man in the wheelchair and turned back to notice that he was stuck in the automatic doors. I held the door open for him, and he was finally able to leave.

I am thankful for how lucky I am to have been born with a relatively sound mind and body, and that I am able to drive around the U.S., pretty much anywhere I want to go without much effort or resistance. I’m a lucky guy.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science Globe

Raleigh, North Carolina

Crepe Myrtles

It is impossible to write about Raleigh, North Carolina without mentioning the Crepe Myrtles.

Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are flowering trees imported from Asia. They seem to average about 10 feet in height, come in pink, red, purple & white, and are literally everywhere in the Raleigh area.

C to the R to the E to the P to the E

The sheer number of crepe myrtles is shocking. Now you’re thinking that I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not. If you live in the area, you’re probably numb to it: “the sky is blue, the grass is green, and everything along the sides is pink.” But for an outsider driving into North Carolina, the experience is sort of like the “Stargate” scene in 2001, a Space Odyssey, but instead of a stream of colored lights, it is a stream of flowering trees.

If that reference is to obscure, just imagine driving through a pink tunnel made of flowers.

Gardiner, NC, Suburb of Raleigh

I stayed at a Best Western in Garner, NC. The hotel was fine: pool, “lobby breakfast”, quiet, comfortable rooms, and plenty of parking. Garner, NC, the city, is essentially a highway encrusted with strip malls and big-box stores, surrounded by a web of winding, hilly forest roads. That is my perception of it. I visited the local Walmart to check out the locals. While the Walmart did not have the bins of fireworks that I was hoping for, they did have isles of snack cakes, beer (which let to this), and the hairbrush & computer mouse I needed.

An UTZ truck in the parking lot of the Walmart: UTZ truck

Raleigh Museum of Natural Sciences

The primary place I visited while in Raleigh was the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. As museums of Natural Science/History go, I would put it somewhere between the American Museum of Natural History and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science; all are good, but the North Carolina one falls in the middle.

The first thing you notice when approaching the museum is the massive planet Earth/globe. It is massive enough to be mentioned in Roadside America:

North Carolina Museum of Natural Science Globe

Inside the Museum you’ll find four floors of Natural Science exhibits, most if not all, focused on North Carolina fauna, flora, and geology. The massive whale skeletons, and arthropod zoo, were most impressive.

Blue Whale Skeleton at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh NC

Whale Skeleton in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

The arthropod zoo in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Arthropod Zoo Bees

Other than that I also was impressed by:

  • The hummingbird exhibit
  • The live snake and amphibian exhibits
  • The massive sea shore and forrest replica/reproductions
  • Graphics that explained the different areas & layers of North Carolina geology
  • The large assortment of taxidermied animals
  • The gift shop was solid. I bought a squid replica, and admired an electric fan shaped like a fox.

Fox squirrels are massive — almost size of a house cat — I did not know that.

Fox Squirrel in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Rambling Around Town

When visiting a city, I like to walk around the town without a plan or compass, with the goal of stumbling upon some interesting sights and experiences. I like to visit the stores & restaurants locals frequent; sit on park benches and observe the local vibe like a local would; try to see the city through a local’s eyes.

During my three hour ramble around Raleigh, I discovered a giant acorn, a sand castle 200 miles away from the ocean, and world-famous Clyde Cooper’s BBQ. Clyde Cooper’s BBQ had pork skins, which I get for my sister’s chihuahua from time to time. The chihuahua is passionate about eating parts of other animals.

Giant Acorn in Raleigh NC

Sand Castle in Raleigh NC

Clyder Coopers in Raleigh NC

Worth Mentioning

It is worth mentioning that I visited Raleigh right after all Confederate flags and memorabilia were removed from State/Government buildings, including museums. Had I visited weeks earlier, I may have had a different experience.

NC Food

Chapel Hill and Snack Cakes

Little Debbie

Earlier this year I visited North Carolina to meet a famous cicada expert (Bill Reynolds of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC). While I was in the Raleigh area, I decided that it would be a good idea to visit Chapel Hill, NC. I had not been to Chapel Hill since the 1990s, and at the time I had a blast, so I felt it was worth a second visit.

Chapel Hill has spawned many interesting musical acts, but perhaps their most iconic is Southern Culture on the Skids (SCOTS). SCOTS is a perfect mix of elements of rock, psychobilly, country and novelty music — it’s like they took parts of each, and made something better than the sum of the parts. One of my favorite SCOTS songs is Camel Walk, which features the lyrics:

OWWWW WEEE, Little Debbie, Little Debbie
I’m a comin on home, baby, ’cause you make me wanna walk

The problem is the Little Debbie, Little Debbie part. A problem you say? Yes, because I became momentarily obsessed with Little Debbie snack cakes. The problem with that is when I eat too much Little Debbie snack cakes, it saps my energy. Realistically speaking, you should only eat one dessert a day — and not buy two or three boxes of snack cakes and some Pabst tall-boys, and then spend the majority of your vacation watching YouTubes and napping in a hotel room (a little hyperbole, but close enough to the truth).

So, to recap, you can see how my unrestrained mind works: 1) Visit North Carolina, 2) think about visiting Chapel Hill, 3) think about Chapel Hill’s best band SCOTS, 4) think about their song Camel Walk and its lyrics about Little Debbie snack cakes, 5) go to Walmart to buy a USB cable but leave with Pabst and boxes of snack cakes, and 6) hang out at the hotel — instead of Raleigh or Chapel Hill — because I ate too many snacks.

My North Carolina Breakfast of Champions

Learn from my mistakes: no matter how delicious banana cakes are, limit yourself to one a day. You will appreciate them more, and you will get more out of life.

That was a massive tangent. Back to Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill is the perfect college town. They have all the right ingredients.
√ Music venues.
√ Music stores.
√ Brewpub(s).
√ Museum(s)
√ A variety of non-chain restaurants.
√ (I will assume) bookstores.
√ a College (UNC).
√ better weather than most states north of North Carolina.
√ an interesting local culture featuring unique art, music, and food.
√ College students.

Visting Chapel Hill for the second time was like visiting a movie set after watching a really awesome movie about it. So what do I mean by that? Well, last time I visited I was with friends, we partied, drank, played cards, went to amazing local restaurants, bars, and music events — heck, my friends and I even danced on stage at a SCOTS show! SCOTS drummer David Hartman (dating a friend at the time) took me to a favorite BBQ joint. You couldn’t ask for a better Chapel Hill experience.

Visting in 2015, all the right elements were there: the Local 506 bar, CD Alley, the brewpubs, the restaurants with their painted goats, colorful band flyers and stickers festooning every vertical surface. I’ll say it again: it was like visiting a movie set of a movie I’ve already seen. (Now I’m thinking of the NLP technique where you step outside a memory and view it objectively, but let’s not go down another tangent.) Sobriety, daylight, time limitations, and a lack of companions made my visit decidedly different — but I still had fun.

Goats and Music in Chapel Hill

What I enjoyed about Chapel Hill this time around:

  1. CD Alley (405-C W Franklin St): a great little record store, with a good selection. Appropriately, I bought a CD of SCOTS’ Zombified album (which is great Halloween rock n’ roll music). CD Alley feels like an authentic record store: cramped, dark, decorated outside with stickers and fliers of local bands — for a music obsessive, it feels like home.
  2. Carolina Brewery (450 W Franklin St): good brewpub. I had the Firecracker lager (I think), which was tasty.
  3. Local 506 (506 W Franklin St): they were closed, but it was great just to stand outside the door and take in all the interesting, multi-colored band flyers
  4. All the interesting stickers and band flyers all over town. Some people don’t like graffiti, especially when it is done to their property without their consent, but in a college town, it just makes sense. Light poles and mailboxes would look naked without it.

Stickers and Band Flyers of Chapel Hill North Carolina

Even though my second Chapel Hill visit was not as “epic” as my first, there was one thing that made it special — one thing that I would not have experienced the last time around, and that is the Ackland Museum (101 S Columbia St,). Ackland was around last time I was in town, but leisurely enjoying a well-curated museum was not on my agenda in the 1990s.

Ackland is a wonderful medium-sized museum with a well-balanced diversity of art spanning many centuries and styles, from the ancient…

Lion art hasn't changed much in the past 4000 or so years.

… to ultra modern…

Glitter Deer in the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill NC

And in-between.

Nam June Paik

A video posted by Dan Mozgai (@danmozgai) on

So what did we learn:

1) Go easy on the snack cakes, but do enjoy them from time to time.

2) If you return to a place you’ve been in the past, don’t expect it to be the same, but do enjoy it for all that it is.

3) Sometimes you get more out of life when you take it fast, but it is also enjoyable when you take it slow.

POWER VACATION!

In late May 2015, I went on a POWER VACATION! What is a POWER VACATION, you ask. Let me tell you.

These are the rules of POWER VACATION!

  1. You must visit more than one state or province per day. I visited 16 states in 8 days.
  2. You should have a pre-planned itinerary before departing, but you must deviate from your plans at least once.
  3. Never pre-book lodging. Use your cunning and the internet to find reasonably priced, and interesting lodging along the way.
  4. Take photos of the things you might never see again: roadside attractions, the sun setting over your hotel, a strange bug, the Doubletree warm-cookie van.
  5. You must pump your own gas. Except in New Jersey!
  6. Make massive mixtapes! Listen to an entire iPod of music. Fill a Flash thumb drive with 32GB of music, and listen to it all.
  7. Talk to strangers. Treat everyone you meet as a friend, even though you might never see them again in your life.
  8. Sample unique, local foods. This might mean a strange candy or confection at a truck stop grocery store.

Tips!

  1. Bring some Energy Drinks and 5 Hour Energy bottles. After driving for 9 hours in a row, you will need them. This kid has reviews of energy drinks.
  2. If you get sleepy while driving, pull over ASAP. Don’t put people’s lives at risk.
  3. Make sure your vehicle is road-worthy. If it’s your car, get it serviced before you depart. Make sure the spare tire is inflated.
  4. Make sure you have an assortment of things to listen to. Fast music for driving fast. Slow music, podcasts, and audiobooks for slow traffic.
  5. Keep your car clean. Don’t let energy drink cans and gum wrappers accumulate. Throw them out along the way.
  6. Stay alert to weather changes, and take precautions.

I’ll probably add to these lists, but you get the idea.