This past week I took my first real vacation in several years. I'm not counting trips to the family, or the zoo. This is the first time in about five or six years that I've left work behind and didn't even look back. Three of my friends and I took a trip on our motorcycles. The final destination was Panama City Beach Florida, but we made several stops on the way. We left Friday morning at about 9:30 from Belton Missouri.
The first half of Friday was pretty boring. The roads between KC and southern Missouri are pretty boring. Once we reach the southern part of Missouri things started to get interesting. The roads got a little twistier and the scenery more enjoyable to look at. We made several stops along the way, and made it into Pine Bluff Arkansas at about 10:30 at night. We had hoped to get into a hotel before then, but we took a couple of wrong turns while trying to find a place to stay. The next morning, we woke up and realized how much Pine Bluff stinks. I'm sorry if I offend someone, but whatever it was really reeked, and we were happy to leave the city behind.
Saturday margining and afternoon we headed south. Late Saturday afternoon we rode into New Orleans. This was quite an experience in and of itself. We came into New Orleans via an awesome 25 mile bridge over Lake Ponchartrain. When we started onto the bridge it was like driving out into the ocean. The clouds obscured the other side and you had no idea how far you'd have to go to get to the other side. About 5 minutes onto the bridge we'd lost site of land behind us and still couldn't see the city in front of us. If it weren't for a 10 mile per hour cross wind, I would have probably fallen asleep on the way over the bridge. The seams in the road at regular intervals made the bike rock about once ever second. Eventually this rocking had the effect of lulling you into a daze, and I found myself having to concentrate pretty hard not to doze off. The whole time that I was on the bridge I was amazed at how vast the lake was and how tiny I felt out there in the middle. About 10 minutes later I started seeing the hints of a skyline through the clouds. Another 10 minutes later we were pulling into New Orleans. Within 90 minutes we were off the bikes, checked into the hotel, cleaned up and wandering around the French quarter.
Now I'd never been to New Orleans, so I wasn't really prepared for what I experienced next. We were pretty hungry, so food was first on our agenda. We wandered around the French Quarter for about half an hour until we came across K Paul's. This is a nice little restaurant owned by Paul Prudhomme. We were certainly the most underdressed people in there. It was pretty obvious that they didn't want to seat us when they asked if we had reservations. We told them that we'd sit out the hour wait for a table at the bar. We were seated in 10 minutes. I think they wanted to scare us off with the wait time, and when we didn't leave they seated in an upstairs corner as soon as they could. What happened next was amazing. If you are ever in New Orleans, I would highly recommend stopping in to K Paul's. Everything was wonderful. Not being a big eater and not really a big lover of fish, I decided on the Filet Mignon with Debris Sauce. I have no idea what debris sauce is, but that sure was the best steak I've ever had in my life. Like I said, I'm not a big eater, and I'm not really a big steak person, but this was good. I've found, that the trick to a good steak is to learn to appreciate your beef rarer than most. I used to be a well done man, but the more that I've been served a steak that's a little underdone; the more I liked the flavor. I'm now down to somewhere between medium and medium rare. I haven't yet worked up the guts to order a steak bloody, but it will happen some day. Yeah I know that I could end up with some horrible parasite, and have to sit on a toilet for a week, but what are the odds of that. I don't know. When it happens to me I will tell you. But I digress. K Paul's. It's good. You should go there.
Next in the evenings events was drunken wandering up and down Bourbon Street. This is actually more fun than it sounds. I really can't explain why, but I truly enjoyed myself. Yes I saw more boobies than I care to describe. Hey. I've got the internet, so this didn't hold that much attraction for me. What did hold my attention were the bars that were on each block. Unlike most cities these bars had no cover charge, so the doors were open, and you could wander in and out without having to pay to see what was inside. Almost every bar had a live band, and every one that I heard was good. During Saturday night we didn't spend any more time in the bars than necessary to make a deposit in the restroom, and grab the next beer. Why sit inside drinking all the fun was outside. We probably wandered up and down Bourbon Street five or six times before we really did anything.
Bourbon Street probably more strip clubs per square mile than any other place on earth. A member of our party noticed a store front advertising "Live Sex Acts", and I have to admit that I was intrigued. How can they advertise that out in the open? I don't know. They certainly had pictures hung on the outside of the building that showed a man and woman in positions that certainly implied "Live Sex Acts". Given that the sign said "No Cover" we thought "What do we have to loose?" The answer to that question is my last shred of innocence and 14 dollars on domestic beers. What we failed to notice right next to the "No Cover" sign was a smaller and unobtrusive sign that said 2 drink minimum. And there was no sign that said a bottle of miller lite was $7. We walked in and were immediately accosted by strippers. There weren't any "Live Sex Acts" It was just a coed strip club that had both a male and female stripper on stage at the same time. It was a little less than entertaining. Everybody seemed to be bored there. Even the weirdo's down front throwing one dollar bills on the stage. We finished our beers quick and left as soon as possible. At that point in time in my life, that was the third time that I'd been in a strip club, and it was by far the skankiest of them all. By then, we were all pretty tired from two days riding, wandering around the French quarter and way too many beers. We decided it was time to retire to the hotel and regroup for Sunday.
Sunday brought rain. Not enough rain to wash away the stink of Bourbon Street, but it was slightly less gross than the night before. We started the day with the "complimentary" continental breakfast at the hotel. If every hotel has it is it still complimentary? Every hotel I've been to has sheets. Are those considered complimentary? I think the complimentary continental breakfast should be renamed the obligatory continental breakfast. After breakfast we wandered out into the street again. Being one of the few cities with an official drink (the hurricane) I was determined to have one. A better name for the hurricane would be booze coo laid. One of them, and I felt like I was drunk all over again. We spent most of Sunday morning and afternoon wandering around New Orleans doing touristy stuff. It was pretty fun. We decided upon a place called The Gumbo Shop for dinner. I have a feeling that K Paul's has spoiled me for life on restaurants. The Gumbo Shop was ok, but it wasn't anything to write home about.
Sunday evening brought more wandering up and down Bourbon Street. After about 30 minutes one of our party said he'd budgeted "stripper money" and that he intended to spend it that night. The general consensus was favorable so long as it wasn't at the same venue as Saturday night. He already had a place in mind and we headed there. There was a cover, and no minimum number of drinks. I don't know if that is the rule for a non skanky strip club, but if there ever was such a thing, this place would probably qualify. I really don't know what to do in a strip club. First of all, let me admit to being a little uncomfortable with these places. In my mind, a strip club is really about one step away from a brothel. Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with prostitution so long as it’s between two consenting individuals, but I for one would never pay for sex. That's kind of like admitting that I question whether I'm worth the trouble to lay without the exchange of money. That may be the case, but I sure as hell won't admit to it. By now you are probably saying why the hell is he going on about this. The reason I took the trouble to lay this out is to explain my behavior later.
Once we got into the place we sat down in a corner and watched the show. As you'd imagine, there were women dancing on the stage in various stages of undress. The show was impressive, and each of the dancers was quite beautiful and talented. As you'd expect, the stage was equipped with a pole, but this was a pole with a difference. It had to have been at least 25 feet tall, and the dancers would climb to the top and then proceed to slide down it, followed by some amazingly acrobatic dismount. As I said the spectacle was amazing. I'm sure, here is where my friends started thinking I was crazy. From everything I've seen and heard the custom seems to be to tip the dancer while she's on stage. I'm a firm believer in paying for services rendered, and these dancers were certainly talented enough to deserver some sort of reward. There were lots of men and women who'd go up to the stage and tip them. The only problem is that the dancer would rarely take the tip with her hand. Frequently the dancer would put the tip in the tippers mouth, and then take it with her breasts, or by acrobatically flipping upside down into his lap, her butt would end up on his chin, and she'd take the tip with her thighs. If I ever let a woman treat me that way it's because I think its part of foreplay, and not because I just gave her a dollar. Several of my friends didn't seem to share my aversion with that type of contact with a woman I had no hope with, so I had them act as my proxy. If I liked the dance, I'd hand a friend a dollar and they'd deliver it on my behalf. The first time I did this, I got a funny look, but not much backtalk. Eventually the practice raised enough eyebrows from my friends that I think they were sure that I was gay by the end of the evening. I swear I'm not. Eventually the friend with the "stripper budget" found a girl that he liked and proceeded to blow his budget and then some. I don't think he had to go back to the ATM, but I do know he certainly had less to spend on booze later. What he got out of it I'm not sure. I've never understood why someone would pay to be sexually teased by someone who had no intention of sleeping with you. Finally he'd had enough, and we wandered back out into the air.
Two of the four of us were tired and wanted to "go to bed". Surprisingly it was the two who'd just had lap dances. It was just about 11:30, and I've never been to New Orleans and didn't know when I was going to get to come back. I had no intention of surrendering that early. I could make up any sleep I missed on the bike the next day. At that point I and one other guy proceeded to bar hop. This is pretty easy on Bourbon Street since none of the bars have a cover charge cover, a bouncer and no doors on the bars. You just walk right in. Eventually we settled on one that we liked. The band was good, and the crowd seemed pretty cool. On top of that there was a really cute girl that would come around every five minutes or so and try and sell you a shot of something. The shots came in little plastic test tubes. I think I blew $40 on shots for the three of us. I'm sure the other guy probably spent just as much. The band was pretty good, but they kept playing crap from the 80's. There's only so many times I can take Journey in one night. Eventually we moved on. The next bar wasn't bad either. The band was better, but the crowd was a little rowdier. I wasn't too worried, but I did see a fight start right in front of me. It's been a long time since I've seen something like that. It broke up pretty quickly, and the band didn't even stop playing. The only problem with the new bar was that the pretty shot girl was still at the old bar. Eventually I switched from booze to water, because I knew that if I didn't I'd be miserably hung over on the bike the next day. Unlike bars back home, the water isn't free. They won't give you a glass of water; you have to buy a bottle. At $4 a pop it almost made me want to switch back to the booze. By about 2:30 in the morning I was starting to get tired, and worried that if I didn't get to sleep soon, I wouldn't be able to get up the next day. We headed out and retired back to the hotel.
The next day started uneventfully. We ate breakfast and checked out. By the time we were back down to the bikes it had started raining, so we donned our rain gear. Imagine standing in a 90 degree garage with 90% humidity wearing a rubberized suit over your already hot motorcycle jacket waiting for your friends to get their shit packed onto your bike. I was about to have a heat stroke, and a rage embolism all at once. Eventually all were ready, and we got back on the road, and once moving I cooled off some. Monday was fairly uneventful, and we made it into Panama City Beach sometime after nightfall. The worst part about our arrival is that the signs coming into town are deceptive. You see signs that say Panama City Beach at least 20 minutes before you are really in the town. This means that the slight euphoria that you get when you know that a long day’s ride is soon to be finished is eventually dashed and followed by the slow grinding frustration of working your way through traffic trying to get there. Eventually we made it to the condo where we were staying and were greeted by our hosts. They were the Aunt and Uncle of one of the guys on the trip, and they'd graciously agreed to put us up for 4 nights.
To be honest there isn't much of great interest that I can say about our stay there. It was really one of those nearly uneventful few days that feed the soul. We swam, sat in the hot tub, ate some of Coach Bacon's heavenly blackened fish, rode around town on the bikes, swam some more, sat in the hot tub some more, played poker, played dominoes etc.
One of the most exciting times we had happened the day before we left. We'd signed up to take a jet ski tour of the area on Wednesday, but after a 2 hour delay, the guide came back and told us that it was canceled due to rain. We were pretty bummed. When we showed up on Thursday, we were a little nervous about the weather. It had rained every day we were there, and Thursday was turning out to be no different. We showed up for our 2 o'clock appointment and were disappointed to learn that we were going to be waiting for another hour while the weather cleared.
We finally got on the jet skis at about 3 and headed out. The guide was pretty wild. Have you ever seen the movie Captain Jack? Keep that picture in mind while thinking of the guide. He told us, "This ain't no grandpa tour.", and that he went full throttle the whole way. He wasn't kidding. They claimed that ski's that we were riding would go 65mph, but they lied. I could only get mine up to 62. I tried to keep up, but the seas were rough in spots, and my death wish is only a minor one. Once I hit a wave big enough to knock me up in the air so that the only thing that connected me to the ski were 2 fingers and a thumb on my left hand. I'm not sure how I managed to recover and not loose some teeth or crush my gonads in the landing, but I did. I decided at that point to try and keep it at about 55. Why push my luck? ;) I think the guide could tell by the looks of us, that we weren't quite right in the head, so he stuck us up front where he could keep an eye on us. The four of us guys were able to at least keep him in sight for most of the tour, but we consistently left the other 3 skis way behind. There were several occasions where he'd stop, tell us "wait here", and then zoom back to catch up the other skis. He'd show up 10 minutes later, and we'd have 10 minutes by ourselves to do dumb things on jet skis. They are harder to turn over than you'd think.
On one of these stops he pointed out a school/flock/gaggle/murder/herd of dolphins. We sat there for 20 minutes and just watched the dolphins swim around us. It was pretty cool. I've heard people describe having spiritual experiences while interacting with dolphins. That didn't happen for me. They were kind of aloof. I almost prefer it that way. I felt like an invader and out of place, and observing from a distance while they observed us was good enough. One other neat thing that happened is that five or six manta rays swam right underneath us. We didn't see them really clearly, just the huge white diamond shapes right under us.
Most of the rest of the trip was just us following the guide from one stop to the next. We saw lots of starfish and some urchins and crabs, but I have to admit, that the trip would have been just as good without them. The most fun was slaloming across the water at 60mph I'm sure that I traveled twice as far as everybody else on the trip, because I'd insist on taking these long wide arcing turns while following the guide who was just going in a straight line. The feeling of leaning the ski all the way over and seeing the water wiping by at 60 mph was just awesome, then yanking the handle bars the opposite direction and heaving it over to the other side, while the thing just skipped across the water. I'm sure that what I was doing was dangerous and dumb, but it was a blast regardless.
While on the trip, on several occasions it started to rain. I though rain on a motorcycle sucked. This sucked 10 times more. Most people don't know what rain on a motorcycle feels like. Have you ever been shot by a bb gun? Imagine something slightly less painful than that all over your face, and then you know what rain on a bike at 60 mph feels like. Now imagine that all over your arms, legs, face and chest, and that's what it feels like on a jet ski. We slowed down a little for the rain. The whole tour was about 3 hours long, but we'd have happily stayed out another 3. It was well worth the $100 that we paid.
That night we packed up our luggage and prepared for our departure the next day. I totally over packed for the trip, so I made two piles of stuff. Everything I needed for the trip back, and everything else. The everything else pile was placed in a box and mailed home Friday morning. We left at about on Friday morning. This gave us enough time to make it to Chris's cousin's house before it was too late. Once again we were treated to the nicest hospitality. Fish fry, cheese grits, tea and brownies. You can't beat that with a stick. I'm not a big fish person, but I wouldn't mind a few more pieces of fish from the fish fry. After that we succumbed to the urge to play poker. I swear, with god and all of creation as my witness, that I will someday win a game. I won't win back all that I've lost, but it will be a moral victory for me. I'm not a bad poker player, really. I manage to pull in a few good hands, but I never seem to finish in the money. Oh well, its fun and I don't mind giving my friends a few dollars every now and then. We eventually retired to our accommodations a bed, a sleeper sofa and a couch. I've found that if you are tired enough, you can sleep anywhere. We were awoken early the next morning by the wonderful smell of fresh waffles. Let me just state for the record, that I was working on a clean plate policy this vacation. If someone put food in front of me, I made damned sure I ate it. I managed to put on about 8 or 9 pounds during the trip. I think I ate a half pound of waffles that morning. I would soon regret my gluttony.
We left at about 9:30 that morning and promptly ran into some of the worst rain I've ever ridden in. The trouble started when our group got split into two. We were separated by a couple of cars, but it would eventually seem like miles. The rain started, and we decided to stop and put on our rain gear. Good idea. We then got back on the road.
The following half hour was about as craptastic as you can imagine. First off we got separated. Not by much, just a couple of cars. At this point the rain started to really come down. I mean Forest Gump coming at you sideways rain. Driving in rain makes most people nervous. On a bike it makes me pretty nervous. When I'm nervous I breathe faster. Inside a helmet w/out a defroster this means the shield fogs up pretty quickly. My helmet is vented to help fix this, but we weren't going fast enough to get enough breeze to fix the problem, so I was looking through a fogged up visor. I needed to see where I was going so I lifted the visor up. Big mistake. Have you ever tried drinking from a fire hose? Me neither, but I bet you I could describe it pretty well. I think in the first 30 seconds after I opened the visor I probably drank half a gallon of water. I was wearing a pair of orange tinted riding glasses inside my helmet. Lifting visor was a mistake, because the glasses then fogged up. On a motorcycle, in the rain, foggy visor, foggy glasses and swallowing rain at about a gallon a minute. Now that's what I call a vacation. Eventually I figured out that if I lifted the visor up, pulled the glasses down so that they were sitting at the edge of my nose and then held my left hand up to shield my eyes, I was able to see where I was going. If you hadn't already guessed, this arrangement is not particularly optimal for safe riding. I rode like this for about five or ten minutes (it felt like an hour).
The whole time I kept debating in my head whether or not I should just stop and hope that the other guys see me and pull over. Through the fogged up visor, I could just see the very back of the next bike, and I could almost make out the truck he was following. The stopping equation wasn't as simple as you might think. This was a country road with almost no shoulder, so no real place to stop w/out getting clocked by traffic overtaking me. There were the occasional driveways, but these were so poorly marked and muddy that I couldn't have slowed down in time to pull into one safely. The storm was heading the same direction we were traveling, so if I stopped I would just have to ride through it again. Next there was the risk that if I did stop, nobody else would, and that I would be alone, utterly alone. Keep in mind that this was in dueling banjo's country. Normally this wouldn't have been that big of a deal, but I didn't have a really good notion of our final destination for that day. None of us did. We were just heading north. I had no intention of stopping, alone, and then getting the Ned Beatty treatment from Deliverance. "Where you going city boy? Squeal like a pig." So muddle on it was.
Eventually I realized that it was the riding glasses that had caused the most problems. I left them at the edge of my nose and lowered the visor. By breathing shallowly I managed to avoid steaming up the visor horribly and made it until the next stop without incident. In fact most of the rest of the trip home went without incident.
The only other things of note were the morning of the last day. We started out in Little Rock Arkansas. There was some argument as to the route. I'm happy to say that I lost that argument. I don't know the highway. It was either 540 or 71, but either way it was beautiful. We started out driving along in what amounted to a forest in that region. As we crossed out onto a bridge the forest fell away. First I looked to my left and saw another bridge that had the oncoming traffic and it was backed by what looked like a little tree covered hill. I then looked to my right and realized that what I had been looking at on my left wasn't a hill, but the top of a mountain. To my right was an amazing vista looking out onto the Ozark Mountains. This leg of the trip was amazing, roads that ran like roller coasters up and down the sides of these miniature mountains. You'd zip to the top and be treated to an amazing view, and then balls out race to the bottom. Better than any roller coaster I've ever been on.
On that note I think I'm going to end this post. It has grown to such an enormous size and taken me so long to write, that I really have no desire to go back and proofread or edit it. Sorry if it doesn't make sense in places. I have some pictures that I might post some time, but they don't do justice to where I went or what I saw.