"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, July 28, 2006

Moving on

Today we leave Lake Winnipesaukee behind and move on through the scenic Green Mountains of Vermont, on our way back to my sister's place. Internet access may be spotty for the next few days, but I can report to my loyal blog readers (all three of you) that, alas, we did not meet any celebrities whatsoever today. Not even this guy.

Yes, yes, I know ... we're falling down on the job. We'll try to do better tomorrow, honest. However, we did stop at a little gift shop just outside of Killington, VT, and picked up a couple of boxes of these for our Republican friends back home in Texas:

Just the perfect thing to get that bad political taste out of the mouth. I'm sure they'll be thrilled.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

New England Cuisine

One of the things I miss the most since moving to Texas is not being able to walk into any restaurant (even one that allegedly specializes in seafood and/or ice cream) and order a "clam roll and a mocha frappe". Do that anywhere else but in New England and you're liable to be greeted with a blank stare from someone who has obviously never heard of two of the finest food items on the planet. Up here, the landscape is literally dotted with little walk-up clam shacks and dairy bars like this one:

We stopped at Tamaracks (shown above, in Weirs Beach, NH), a drive-up legendary for its fried clams and lobster rolls, and said by some to be the best in the land. It was pretty decent all right, but really, almost every little mom 'n pop shop makes a wicked good clam roll: start with a true New England-style hot dog bun with soft sides buttered and grilled to a toasty crisp, then pile on a mound of sweet fried clams cooked belly-in.

Another restaurant famous all over New England and beyond is the Clam Box, located
just up the road from my old home town of Hamilton, in Ipswich, Mass:

The Clam Box has the unique architectural distinction of being built to look like an actual box of clams the way you used to get them back when I was a kid. It's always been a favorite place of mine, although the price of a clam roll has gone way up from the $1.50 I recall back then, to nearly ten bucks today.

Walk-up ice cream stands can be found all over the place up here; nearly every town, no matter how small, has at least one or two. Most hand-make their own ice cream instead of buying the mass-produced machine-packed stuff you get anywhere else, and it's a traditional summer evening ritual to order your ice cream cone or sundae at the window, then eat it outdoors while watching the blue flashes from the bug-zapper for entertainment. For anyone unfamiliar with the word, a frappe is very similar to a milk shake, only made with real ice cream instead of blended soft-serve like you'd get at a DQ, Burger King, or Sonic. They're much richer, and come in a wider variety of flavors than your basic chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

I'm thoroughly enjoying these treats I remember from my youth, although the flip side of this is that my transformation back to a New Englander seems to have already begun. I had a conversation with someone today in which I used the word "sure", and actually caught myself pronouncing it "shoo-ah". This could be a dangerous sign. If I'm not careful, any moment now I'll be wanting to pahk my cah in the Hahvahd Yahd.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Live from New York, er, Hampshire...it's Mr Toast!

Yes, that really is me standing next to Jimmy Fallon aboard the Lake Winnipesaukee cruise ship Mt. Washington earlier today. Much to my surprise, I met the former Saturday Night Live star and Weekend Update co-anchor while he was in New Hampshire enjoying some R&R time away from his hectic schedule in New York. Jimmy was quite gracious and welcomed me to visit with him for about 10-15 minutes or so before he went down to dinner with his girlfriend and her family, who live in the area. When I asked him somewhat incredulously, "what the hell are you doing on the Mt. Washington?", his deadpan response was "Rehab." We talked about everything from Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch's new NBC pilot 30 Rock, his own departure from SNL and his next movie, to my pulmonary fibrosis (which we referred to as "Jerry Lewis Disease"). He seemed quite interested in the fact that I had been a disk jockey in the past, and when I told him that my last gig was as an engineer for an NBC-network television station, he put his arm around me and told me I was "one of the family".

Funny guy, and a delightful cap to a fantastic day on the lake. This has been a great vacation so far, and it's not over yet!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The obligatory stereotypical vacation photo

If you'd like to see a lot more pictures of the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip, click here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The view off my front porch

This portion of our vacation is being spent on beautiful Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire. Lake Winnie, as most folks up here call it, is the largest lake in New England and was my favorite spot during many a summer vacation as a boy growing up in Massachusetts. The above photos are of our view fom the front porch of our lakeside efficiency cabin, shortly after we arrived yesterday. You can see the Ossipee range in the foreground, and if you look carefully, the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, is barely visible in the distance. Today has been spent in total relaxation, sitting out on the deck enjoying this spectacular scenery, and the endless parade of passing boats of all types and sizes; everything from the smallest outboards, to gorgeous sailboats, luxury yachts, cigarette boats and mini-ocean liners like the m/v Mt. Washington, on which we plan to cruise tomorrow. We're spending most of the week here, and will ramble through Vermont back to my sister's place this coming weekend.

Not too shabby.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

We have landed!

The Toastcraft has successfully touched down at our first destination, my sister's home in Woodstock, New York. We'll pause for a few days here and after refueling (at $3.09 a gallon - ouch!) will soon be back on the road again, heading further north and east to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. More news and photos to follow shortly.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Road hazards

Seen today on I-81 southbound, just outside of Staunton, VA:

You can't really tell from this angle, but there's another car under the truck. The Interstate was completely shut down for hours, and traffic behind this accident backed up for at least twenty miles or more. In the resulting parking lot on the highway, groups of folks were gathered outside their vehicles to talk, play ball or frisbee, walk their dogs, etc. while they waited for the wreck to be cleared. There was nothing else to do. Fortunately, we were going in the opposite direction.

Today's portion of the trip was the most arduous: our 12-hour-plus driving day has covered over 700 miles of ground through five states, from Nashville to Harrisburg, PA. In addition to avoiding the accident above, we also narrowly missed being sideswiped earlier on the same highway by some asshole who cut across four lanes of traffic and nearly rammed into our van, coming literally within a few inches of hitting us. I give some serious props to Mrs. Toast (who was driving at the time) for a tire-screeching yet textbook-perfect accident avoidance maneuver. Fate was truly smiling on us today; we ran into showers which slicked the roads soon after this happened, but if the rain had come a little bit sooner, our sudden braking would most surely have thrown us into an unrecoverable skid. Also, about two weeks before the trip, I had noticed our two rear tires were looking a bit thin and replaced them. Had I not, this might have made just enough of a slight difference in the van's handling under the stressful maneuver to have erased the few inches of clearance between only having our nerves shaken up and actual crunching of metal.

Thank you Saint Christopher!

More from Mississippi

Here's a few more pictures from our trip so far:

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Mrs. Toast on the patio of Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS. On Saturday night, we were treated to a fine rhythm and blues review show by local favorites "Wiley and the Checkmates". Their repitoire is more "Blues Brothers" than Delta blues, featuring a tight horn section and a some great old soul and funk tunes from the likes of James Brown, Joe Tex, Johnny Taylor, Sam & Dave, etc. The club is partly owned by famed local resident Morgan Freeman, but we never expected to see him there. So after we got seated and ordered a drink, I was skeptical when Mrs. Toast said, "Isn't that Morgan Freeman sitting two tables up from us?" Much to my surprise, however, it actually was him! I got to shake his hand and say hello; he stayed for the band's first set but left early. Wouldn't you know this was the one time I did not have my camera with me.

The next day we saw this car down the street from the club, and still feeling in a "Blues Brothers" mood, we felt like this was what we should have been driving instead of our van. Anyone want to go to the shopping mall?

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Below: exterior of the club, which was once a cotton inspection warehouse.

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Close-up of the window sign. Note the poster to the right.

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More photos coming soon!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Standing at the Crossroads

By Robert Johnson

I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.
I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.
Asked the lord above for mercy, save me if you please.

I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride.
I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride.
Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.

I'm going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side.
I'm going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side.
You can still barrelhouse, baby, on the riverside.

You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy willie brown.
You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy willie brown.
And I'm standing at the crossroads, believe I'm sinking down.


by Mr. Toast
(with apologies to R.J.)

I went down to the crossroads, played my air git-tar
I went down to the crossroads, played my air git-tar
Gotta be pretty careful
Not to get hit by a car

Oh I went down to the crossroads, ate me some Bar-B-Q
Oh I went down to the crossroads, ate me some Bar-B-Q
Had beans and cole slaw
A Doctor Pepper too

Yeah I went down to the crossroads ... bought me a a sofa, dining room suite and an area rug that was marked 40% off retail but still overpriced:

Just kidding about buying the furniture, but it seems that the legendary spot where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil is being exploited in a big way. Now dems's de blues.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

We have photos!

As we travel through the south, one thing that amazes me is how resourceful people can be when they have so very little to work with. A classic case in point is the little town of Transylvania, Louisiana (pop. 743), to which I hereby grant the coveted Toasted Tour 2006 "Making Something Out Of Nothing" award. The name "Transylvania" comes from the latin word for "across the woods". If you recall your American history, The Transylvania Company was formed in the 1770's in an attempt to establish a new fourteenth colony of the same name (modeled after Pennsylvania), by purchasing land from Native Americans in an area which is now part of Kentucky and Tennessee. The most notable proponent and explorer of this territory was one Daniel Boone. Although the effort failed, the name stuck around, and most likely the sharecropper outpost later created by the company known as the Transylvania Project during the time of the Louisiana Purchase is how the town got its name.

However, the name "Transylvania" entered the public's consciousness in a entirely different form in the late 19th century, when Bram Stoker wrote of the ancient area of Romania as being the home of the evil Count Dracula. Ever since, "Transylvania" and "vampires" have existed side-by-side in popular cultural awareness.

So. Here you are in an absolute vacuum of a community in the middle of miles and miles of cotton fields (right), literally nothing but a bend in the road with a few houses, a school, and a general store. But then one day, someone has a brainstorm: our town has the same name as the home of a famous vampire! Hey, let's capitalize on that! Let's say we're the home of the "fighting bats" school mascot, and put it on the side of our water tower!

Wait - here's a better idea! Let's sell a lot of batty merchandise at the general store, and stamp letters with a special "Transylvania" bat postmark!

Hell, maybe we can even entice people from Texas who would otherwise barely blink as they passed through our miniscule town on their way to, say, Memphis, to actually stop at our general store if the female passenger in the vehicle happens to have a slight fascination with a certain fictional bloodsucker! What a great idea!

As long as we're on a roll here, let's try to push some tatty, overpriced, made-in-Taiwan coozies, caps, ash trays, or anything else adorned with a logo that vaguely has something to do with "vampires" or "bats" on these gullible tourists, and make them sorry they ever wasted fifteen minutes of their lives to stop and look at this crap!

Yeah, that's what we'll do!!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

We have liftoff!

This bulletin just in from Mission Control: the Toastcraft Tracking Center reports that the vehicle is currently about 400 miles downrange after a successful launch early this morning. Weather conditions are nominal, and all systems are A-OK for tonight's extra-vehicular activity at Ground Zero Blues Club, located near the legendary "Crossroads" of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississipi. Unfortunately, only slow dial-up internet access is available at this moment, so further details will have to wait until communication conditions improve. Over and out.

Friday, July 14, 2006

All systems "go" for launch

The countdown clock is fast approching zero hour. The vehicle is fueled and ready on the launch pad, and we will be preparing for takeoff very shortly. As you can see, we have a nice, comfortably-appointed, climate-controlled crew cabin:

And the pilot's cockpit is equipped with the latest technology, including GPS-enabled voice-activated computer navigation system with digital mission-status readout; BlackBerry and cellular communications transponder; supplental oxygen dispensing system; 600-watt 110-volt AC power inverter; thermoelectrically controlled chilled beverage cooler; and 220-watt four-channel aftermarket MP3/CD stereo system:

Latest dynamic tracking projections show that the vehicle is scheduled to pass over the following states during it's 4,000-mile flight trajectory:
  • Solid circle Texas
  • Solid circle Louisiana
  • Solid circle Arkansas
  • Solid circle Mississippi
  • Solid circle Tennessee
  • Solid circle Virginia
  • Solid circle West Virginia
  • Solid circle Pennsylvania
  • Solid circle New York
  • Solid circle Massachusetts
  • Solid circle Vermont
  • Solid circle New Hampshire
  • Solid circle Maine
  • Solid circle New Jersey
  • Solid circle Delaware
  • Solid circle Maryland
  • Solid circle District of Columbia
  • Solid circle North Carolina
  • Solid circle South Carolina
  • Solid circle Georgia
  • Solid circle Alabama
Re-entry into the Texasphere is expected in approximately three weeks. Watch this space for further updates from mission control following (hopefully) a sucessful liftoff tomorrow morning.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The post about not posting

Hello y'all, just wanted to let any readers I might have left know that as of yet I have not fallen off the face of the earth. That will happen on Saturday. Rather, this week I have been preparing to leave the planet, or at least that's what it feels like. We've been getting all our ducks in a row for roughly 4,000 miles of driving ... making hotel reservations, contacting people we'll be visiting, etc. Fortunately, we have friends staying at the house while we're gone who will look after the place and take care of the cats, so that's one less thing to worry about. I apologize for the lack of updates here, but I promise all sorts of great stuff (complete with photos) once I get organized!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Highway 61 Revisited

Blogging may be light in the next two weeks, as pre-departure planning and packing intensifies for the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip. If you look over in my sidebar, you'll note that the seconds are continuing to fall away from our countdown clock at an alarming rate, and it will be time to hit the highway before we know it.

As shown on the map to your left, the first phase of our travels on our way to New England will take us through the heart of the Mississippi delta to revisit some old stomping grounds from my wild n' crazy single days. For a time, I worked with a radio entrepreneur who contracted management and programming services to small stations throughout the mid-South. As such, part of my responsibilities was to spend as much time on-site at the local stations as necessary to get them up to speed, and for the better part of a year I traveled to such major metropolitan areas as Lake Providence, Louisiana (pop. 4,704) and Clarksdale, Mississippi.

While I don't expect much from Lake Providence -- merely a bend in the muddy river with little to distinguish itself -- I did live there for several months and it should be interesting to pass through it again. However, after crossing the Mississippi at Greenville and continuing north, I have much higher hopes for Clarksdale, a town with a solid reputation for its revered historical place in the uniquely American music form called the Blues.

Clarksdale is quite literally the birthplace of The Blues; the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 is the legendary "Crossroads" where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. It's also the home of the internationally-known Delta Blues Museum and was the former residence of musicians and celebrities like Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Tennessee Williams. Its most well-known current resident is actor Morgan Freeman, who is a partner in a 5-star restaurant and entertainment venue called the Ground Zero Blues Club. Fortunately, our road trip plans put us in Clarksdale on Saturday night (July 15), so with any luck we'll be able to catch a live performance at Ground Zero and enjoy a tasty pulled-pork "Sammich". Details and photos will be posted here afterwards.

From there, we'll be heading up the road known as the "Blues Highway" -- Route 61 -- to Memphis, another town famous for it's contribution to the American music scene. Before the Interstate system was in place, Highway 61 was the major north-south route from New Orleans to the Canadian border, and has a near-mythical status similar to Route 66. Many musicians have composed tributes to this road; Bob Dylan's classic album is considered by many to be his best, and other music legends such as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley took the blues to Chicago along the highway's path. When I lived in Clarksdale, there wasn't much to do at the time; on weekends I would drive Highway 61 up to Memphis to party at the many clubs there, so this trip will nostalgically retrace my steps from those days. Memphis is a fine city, and I can't wait to see how it's changed and grown since I was last there over twenty years ago. We will certainly spend some time on Sunday checking out the shops, clubs, and restaurants on Beale Street, and if you look at the live Beal-cam, you may possibly see me mugging for the camera at some point during that day.

The name "Memphis" brings a number of names in American music history to mind, such as W.C. Handy and B.B. King, but most folks associate only one "king" with the town, and that of course is Elvis. I am not really a fan, but I did visit Graceland many years ago out of curiosity. Mrs. Toast is not a fan either, so we'll likely skip the tour this time around. However, if any of my loyal blog readers have a serious affection for Mr. Presley, please let me know and I'll try to pick up some sort of tacky souvenir item for you while we're in the vicinity. I can't promise much, but I'll try.

After Memphis, our next stop will be the Country Music capital of the world, Nashville. (Oddly, I'm not much of a country music fan either so I'm not sure why I'm quite so excited by our itinerary so far.) Although we don't plan on spending eighty bucks on tickets to see Porter Wagoner at the Grand Ole Opry, if possible I would like to tour the concert hall from my engineer's perspective to check out its impressive recording and broadcasting facilities. Mrs. Toast will no doubt be interested in Opry Mills Mall, the former Opryland theme park which has been converted into one of the finest shopping centers in the USA. And we have decided to splurge and spend a few extra bucks to stay one night at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, a world-class resort and conference center which is part of the Opryland complex. Hey, we're on vacation, so why not do something different?

Well, that's what we have planned so far; I think it will be a fun kick-off to our trip. Once we leave Nashville, it will be roughly another thousand miles to our final destination, so there's lots more to come. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Progress (?), Part II

News stories can be classified according to their scope: international, national, state, regional, citywide, local, and really local. This particular item is one of the latter, as it's newsworthy only to a handful of households on my street. But for those few people, this event has greater impact than any headline out of Washington.

I wrote here Monday about a local developer who has recently clear-cut a wooded area on my block in order to build a shopping center, and I was somewhat surprised to see that this was a front-page story in our local Sunday paper today. Under the headline "The grass isn't so green on the other side of the strip center", the story quotes several local residents who were taken by surprise when all the trees were plowed down by construction crews.

"We came home and they had cut down everything," said one. "It's just gone. Basically, we thought they would leave a thin line of trees behind the buildings, but they didn't. Now everyone can see our house from Wal-Mart."

Our street has always been a fairly secluded and peaceful neighborhood, where folks walked their dogs and could sunbathe on their front lawns. It's close to shopping, but was also hidden from view. That's not the case anymore, and for some, they've decided it's time to move.

"We just don't want to be here anymore," said a homeowner who lives directly across from what up until two weeks ago had been a greenbelt. "And they are going to put in some kind of drainage area in the back right across from our house – that's not going to help property values. And instead of trees, we're going to be looking at the back of a shopping center, so no one is exactly happy about it."

Others are worried about the noisy hum of bulldozers which wake them up early in the morning, as well as wildlife that have suddenly found their habitat gone. Even though we are at the other end of the street, we have noticed a huge increase in the number of gray squirrels that are showing up in our backyard to eat the sunflower seeds we put out in our bird feeders. We used to see them only occasionally, but are now getting them every day ... sometimes four or five at a time. There's no doubt in my mind they've been displaced from their homes by the construction.

A member of the City Planning Board said the future retail space indeed looks much different today than it did a couple of months ago, but one of the biggest requests the city gets every year is that local residents want to see more progress – more shops, more restaurants and more choices. This sentiment was echoed in a letter to the editor which coincidentally also appeared in today's paper:
"The Chamber of Commerce needs to think about what [residents] would like besides hunting and fishing. We formerly lived in a smaller city that had a Cracker Barrel, TGIF, Texas Roadhouse, Carrabas, Joe's Crab Shack, and many other well-known restaurants, as well as locally-owned restaurants. While there are many restaurants here, there are not enough. We also need a decent mall...the only place to shop is Wal-Mart. Will we ever have decent shopping? It really doesn't sound like it... Most newcomers here eventually hear the "rumor" that long-time residents do not want growth, do not want new stores and restaurants, and want the area to remain quiet. We can understand that wish, but if the city planned its growth properly, it could have both the amenities that people need and a quiet town."
This conflict between economic growth and quality of life is a common theme in small-to-medium size towns like the one I live in, and it's a legitimate debate. Most people here have to make a minimum 60-mile round trip to the nearest city that offers decent shopping and dining, and some of us find it necessary to make the 300-mile round trip to Houston on a semi-regular basis. With the price of gas rising to astronomical levels, the cost of such a drive can be significant.

Before the construction on my street began, there was supposedly a meeting between the city and residents to let them know what to expect and to get their input and feedback, but it was not publicized well and most people had little idea of the magnitude of the development that has now taken place.

On a more positive note, the developers say they will comply with city landscaping and screening ordinances by putting a natural "green space" barrier between our street and the strip center. Bradford pears, live oaks, Shumard oaks and crape myrtles will help add some aesthetics back to the neighborhood, and may soften the urban sprawl. We have not been told what stores will be located in the new center, although the newspaper article revealed that plans include at least one free-standing restaurant and up to 21 stores.

I suppose progress is inevitable ... but at what price?