Inhuman Swill : Travel

Packing Kevin's painting
"What the hell are you doing?" the old man yelled into my window. "You can't park here! What's wrong with you?"

I had just backed very carefully into a space barely wide enough for the car. My friend Kevin was riding shotgun, my dog Ella in a nest in the back seat. Funny, I thought as the man angrily waved me back into the alley, we only missed our target by about twelve feet.

That was exactly one year ago this evening—Wednesday, June 26, 2013. It was the tail end of a 24-hour odyssey that already felt like a dream.

In reality, though, the odyssey went back much farther. For months, Laura and I had been planning a move from Chicago back to New York City. The company she worked for had offered her a job in its New York office, and in fact she was already spending much of her time there, transitioning into her new role. It fell to me to make all the arrangements for moving, to get everything packed, and to find us a new place to live.

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Flat Stanley in Chicago

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Flat Stanley and I wait for the el train
Back in May as we were preparing to move back to New York, I realized that I had a visitor sitting on my desk. My nephew Mark in Utah had sent Flat Stanley my way, and for months I'd done nothing with him. The school year was soon to end, so Stanley and I headed out for a Chicago adventure. Here's the letter Stanley wrote to accompany him on his trip back home to Utah.

Dear Mark & everybody--

It's nice to see you again. How have you been?

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RAGBRAI Recap: The Legacy

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Hmm, what could we possibly make tonight...?
[ continued from yesterday ]

Laura loves my Manhattans. I make them in the proper, original fashion, with rye and not bourbon. I always keep a bottle of Templeton rye on hand (though Bulleit rye is a fine choice too), along with Dolin sweet vermouth, Peychaud's bitters and Luxardo cherries. I make a damn fine Manhattan, if I do say so.

Laura wasn't always a fan of the brown-liquor cocktail. I'd been drinking Manhattans and old-fashioneds for a few years but never managed to infect her with a taste for them. But then our friend Scott Smith foisted one of his Manhattans on her, and it was all over. The primacy of the Templeton Manhattan was cemented when we attended a documentary about the distillery's history at Mayne Stage in Chicago.

Like I say, I always keep these ingredients on hand. Always. So when Laura texted me last Thursday afternoon to ask Will you make me a manhattan tonight?, my response was an automatic Hell yes.

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RAGBRAI Recap: The Road Home

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Bike arch, Lake View, Iowa
[ continued from last week ]

In retrospect, we probably could have come up with a solution that didn't involve throwing in the towel completely. We could have ridden each of the next two days until noon, then called for the support wagon and sat out the triple-digit afternoon heat. We could have just sat out those days entirely and picked up again on Thursday morning in Marshalltown.

But none of those compromises were within comprehension in our ragged states that afternoon as I laid out to Laura the math I'd run in my head, the risks of heat stroke or something worse, the exit strategy I'd worked out for getting us home, and most of all the fact that I just didn't think I could do another day under those extreme circumstances. And she agreed with me.

Once we'd decided we were leaving, there was no looking back. We quaffed more beer and stuffed ourselves with tasteless, wonderful carbs from the Glacier Bay buffet, then pedaled another five miles or so through Lake View in search of Team Nasty's campsite for the night. As we set up our tent, turkey buzzards were circling overhead. No doubt they were hoping to scavenge garbage from the influx of campers, but at the time it struck us as ominous confirmation that we were making the right decision.

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RAGBRAI Recap: Day Two

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Hanover's old-timey sawmill
[ continued from yesterday ]

A clap of thunder dislodged me partially from sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Because it was such a warm night and there was no rain in the forecast, Laura and I had gone to sleep without the fly sheet over our tent, leaving the mesh open to the air. But now I could see that the fly sheet was in place. As I blinked, a flash of lightning cast someone's shadow onto the fabric of the tent. I remember thinking, "Oh, it's so nice of Colin to take care of our tent," before lapsing back into sleep.

I slept fitfully after that, as did Laura, since the tent was now stifling. At one point I realized that she had tied back the door in the fly sheet on her side of the tent so that the rain would fall on her face and help keep her at least somewhat cool. I did the same.

I was chagrined to wake up at 5:00 am (when my alarm went off) and learn that, in fact, the lightning shadow on the tent had belonged not to Colin but to Laura. Since I didn't wake up, she had installed the fly sheet all by herself, not to mention dragging our bags to shelter and snatching down the clothes we'd hung over our bikes to dry. We broke down our tent and packed all our stuff away as quietly as we could in the sleeping camp. We dragged our bags over to the support van, hopped on our bikes, and headed out.

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RAGBRAI Recap: Day One

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Team Nasty jersey, as worn by @chavoen #RAGBRAI #jimnasty
[ continued from yesterday ]

We woke up on the morning of Sunday, July 22, not nearly as rested as we had hoped to be. But at least the heat of the morning meant that our tent was already nearly dry after the night's thundershower.

Our hosts provided coffee and delicious pastries, not to mention bathrooms where we could suit up and apply our No-Ad 85 SPF, our Body Glide, our Chamois Cream, our Monkey Butt. We struck our tents, and Laura and I helped pack Team Nasty's gear into the support van that would meet us in that evening's destination town, Cherokee. Two members of our subgroup, Barbara Lynn and Jenny, hopped into the two SUVs to drive back east across Iowa to the yoga retreat where they would spend the next week. Laura, at more than one point during our months of training, had nearly made the decision to join the yoga party and leave me to bike alone. Part of her may have regretted the decision as we mounted up on our bikes and hit the road.

Colin, veteran of two previous RAGBRAIs, had explained in advance how to expect the days on the road with Team Nasty to proceed. They were a sleep-late, stay-up-late kind of team, getting on the road after the morning rush was over, and lingering for food and beer in each of the towns along the route. "You never do eighty miles in a day," he said with authority. "You do a series of eight ten-mile rides with plenty of recovery time in between."

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Team Nasty (in part)
I know you've all been holding your breath for the past couple of weeks, waiting desperately to hear how RAGBRAI turned out for us. Herein lies a tale.

RAGBRAI, as you may recall, is a seven-day bike ride across Iowa that takes place every year at the end of July. Laura and I had been training for months, and more than once during that time we had to talk ourselves out of bagging the whole adventure and selling our bib numbers to hardier folks. But our friends who would be riding with us assured us that, despite the predictions of very hot weather, we would do fine and have a great time.

So it was that we were ready and waiting when those friends, having driven through the night from New York City in two SUVs, arrived at our place in Chicago on the morning of Friday, July 20. After they had rested up for a while, we loaded up our gear, strapped our bike rack to the back of the Jeep, and hit the road.

The seven of us stayed that night in three hotel rooms in Dubuque, Iowa, about three and half hours from Chicago. We had an early birthday dinner for Laura at a very fine restaurant in town, though the tenor of the evening was one more of forced hilarity and final meals than of pure celebration. A band was playing in the town square beneath the clock tower later, and we joined the party for a while before retiring.

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The RAGBRAI crew tanks up in Chicago before hitting the road
I'm not sure when or why we first started thinking it was a good idea. Probably nearly a year ago, when we were visiting our friend Colin and the ride seemed fun and impossibly far off in time.

I'm talking about RAGBRAI—the [Des Moines] Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Yes, across Iowa. Four hundred seventy-one miles across Iowa, to be exact. In seven days.

Laura and I have been training for this since April, though not quite as successfully as I had hoped. The RAGBRAI training schedule suggests logging 1,500 miles in the run-up to the ride. My personal goal was 1,000 miles. I've made 756.

I've vacilated between euphoria, terror, anxiety, and zen acceptance over the past four months of training. I felt great when Laura and I completed a 70-mile training ride at the end of May. I felt horrible when I bonked last week at mile 66 of a 75-mile training ride. (Laura did fine that day.)

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The obligatory SXSW recap post

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Into the belly of the beast
I keep not finding time to post about my trip with Laura to the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but it was a swell time and I should probably jot down a few memories before a) they become totally instead of just mostly irrelevant, and b) they fall completely out of my head.

Laura has been to SXSWi a few times before, and she was adamant that I should come with her this year to feed the programming consultant side of my brain. We bought our memberships and booked our hotel last summer. We flew to Austin on the morning on March 8, the day before the conference started, which turned out to be a good idea in several ways, the first of which was entirely accidental. We ran into our good friend Scott Smith of Chicago magazine in the departure lounge at Midway that morning. With him were Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Steve Prokopy of Ain't It Cool News. We were all on the same flight, and we ended up riding the bus from the airport into Austin together and all trekking to Frank for lunch (the only time that weekend we were able to get in, incidentally). We were also able to go to the convention center that afternoon and pick up our badges in fairly short order. The next day, lines at registration were a couple of hours long.

The panels themselves were varied and interesting. I attended discussions of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smarter algorithms for pinch-and-zoom on touch interfaces, social/local/mobile services, online privacy, and even more abstruse topics. These panels all seem fascinating in retrospect, though I'm afraid that at the time most of them suffered from the problem of not quite living up to the promise of their descriptions in the program guide. Very useful stuff that, at worst, got me excited about doing more iOS programming.

There was time for entertainment, too. We made it out to Skinny's Ballroom to see Scott and Andrew (along with 18 other readers) participate in 20x2, an evening of two-minute readings. (They both crushed it. By which I mean they were good.) I saw a hilarious panel on comedy podcasting featuring Kevin Pollak and Doug Benson and others, and I attended Rainn Wilson's (sadly hit-and-miss) presentation about his spirituality site Soul Pancake. I managed to get into my own top pick of events, which was a live taping of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jeffrey Tambor. But it was Laura who scored the coup, using her Amex membership to get us a free pair of tickets to a special Jay-Z concert at Austin City Limits Live. ("HOVA! HOVA!")

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The final trip

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Of 2011, I mean. This has been one crazy travel year. Seems like every other week we're rushing off somewhere or other, and we're kind of tired of it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It's been a great year, a ton of fun. Well, Laura travels all the time for work, and that's not always fun, but as far as personal trips go this year between the two of us we've been to Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, St. Louis, Lake Geneva, a hunting lodge in southern Illinois, Waukesha, and then New York City at least four times. Also, Venice, Paris, many small cities and towns in Normandy, and we even spent three days with friends from London at Disneyland Paris. I keep meaning to post here about all those trips, but I haven't even had time to sort out and label all the photos on Flickr. Every time I think about it, it's time to pack for another trip.

I'm posting this trip report preemptively from our flight to San Diego. Yes, we're on our way to World Fantasy, even though we don't have memberships. We hope to see a shit-ton of you there, because it might be our last chance to see you until you come to Chicago next summer for Worldcon. (You are coming to Chicago next summer for Worldcon, right?). This is absolutely our LAST TRIP of the year, and the only one we intend to take next year is to SXSW in March.

Yeah, right. Just wait and see how that works out for you, buddy.

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William Shunn

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