BLAME it on the absinthe. The legendary wormwood-based liquor, with its mind-altering properties, is a constant at my parties, and during my 31st birthday shindig a few years back, its liberal consumption led to a vow, whose consequences persist to this day.
The saga started with a most innocuous question. ?How many of the 50 states have you been to?? someone wondered. I don?t recall who made the query or what prompted it, but most of the guests were familiar with my irrepressible wanderlust, so the inquiry wasn?t illogical in the least. Doing a quick mental count, I replied, ?Including Washington, D.C., which is technically not a state, 20.?
The responses came fast and furious. ?That?s it? And you call yourself a traveler?? ?Only 20? That?s not even half of ?em!? Fed up with the harangues, and fortified by my fifth glass of The Green Fairy, I made the fateful proclamation: ?On the life of my father?s father, I shall have seen all 50 states before I turn 50!?
Left unstated was that my paternal grandfather had been dead for quite some time, a fact that greatly reduced the gravity of this decree. No matter. By then, most of the guests were so liquored up they had lost the ability to make lucid statements or even stand unaided, so I figured the oath would quickly be forgotten.
It wasn?t. Enough of my friends repeatedly referred to the topic that I finally caved in and started planning sojourns to all the 30 states I had yet to see. It was an affair that proved to be at turns exciting, exasperating, expensive, enlightening, elaborate, ephemeral, and empowering, often simultaneously.
Take my trip to Louisiana, first to fall off the Roster of Unvisited States. I arrived in the midst of an outrageous celebration known as Southern Decadence, six nights of unrestrained dancing, drinking, and debauchery. I wanted to be part of all of these, but I also wanted to experience the Southern hallmarks the state offered?plantation tours, live jazz, Mississippi riverboat cruises, walks through genteel, historic neighborhoods, the Crescent City?s exquisite cuisine. At the end of my stay I?d slept maybe a total of seven hours, kept going only by Red Bull. My finances and fortitude were thoroughly drained but the payoff was a peerless, priceless trove of experiences and remembrances, all made more poignant when, mere months later, Hurricane Katrina unleashed its untold horrors.
Subsequent excursions to other heretofore-unseen states have been equally memorable, in spite of exploits that may not have always been similarly exalted or erudite. In Nebraska, for instance, the Midwestern heartland famed for corn, cattle, and somewhat incongruously, champion investor Warren Buffett, I spent a full day ogling Omaha?s tourist attractions, and the evening gorging on a gourmet steak dinner. Later that night, at a sophisticated nightspot called The Max, I met two local guys, one gay, one straight, who worked as parking attendants at a nearby lot. When the club closed, they invited me to hang out with them for a few hours at the gay guy?s apartment. And that?s when things took a turn for the worst. Barely had we settled down on the creaking assemblage of foam, metal, and patches of vinyl that at some ancient epoch might have been a couch, when our host opened up a small box and proceeded to start smoking a sizeable quantity of crack next to me. I was offered a few hits, but keeping in mind Whitney Houston?s admonition that ?crack is whack,? I gracefully demurred.
Shortly thereafter came a loud knock on the door, which opened to reveal this gargantuan, heavily-tattooed black man with a menacing mien who, I immediately gathered, was the not-so-friendly neighborhood drug dealer, negotiating his latest sale. From the loud argument at the door, it was easy to make out the issues being disputed, including pricing, merchandise quality, and apparently even sexual favors to be included as payment. One loud outburst caused me to glance their way, which the narco-salesman responded to by giving me a horrendously lecherous look that had the same effect on me as falling head-first into a septic tank would.
Out of the blue, a scenario I?d never previously contemplated suddenly shot to the top of my tally of worst nightmares: I was about to be the victim of gay rape perpetrated by a burly, two-bit drug dealer in an Omaha, Nebraska crack house, moments before being incinerated in the conflagration caused by a tweaked-out queen?s wayward narcotic paraphernalia. One of the first notions that came to my increasingly panicked mind was: henceforth, when someone Googles my name, news stories filled with torrid details of my tragic death will be the first thing that appears, so disgracing my family that every relative I have will have to change their name and move to some remote hamlet in Mongolia?s Gobi Desert.
Mercifully, the dealer?s cell phone rang and he rushed off to close another deal, which my other recently-made pal and I took as our cue to hightail it out of there. Having realized I?d had enough of Nebraska, I drove my rented car straight to the airport, nine hours ahead of a flight that would take me back to San Francisco.
Then there was the year three good buddies and I went on a road trip to Las Vegas. Part of our itinerary was an afternoon visit to the engineering marvel known as Hoover Dam, after which we?d go to the equally marvelous Las Vegas Premium Outlets mall near downtown Vegas for discounted designer merchandise. While at the dam, I saw a sign on the bridge spanning the reservoir, directing us to the border between Nevada and Arizona. I?d never been to Arizona. I could cross another state off my list!
After some convincing, my fairly unenthusiastic companions and I made the five-minute drive across the state line to see what was there. Upon arriving, it was readily apparent that, to crib from Gertrude Stein, there was no ?there? there. Aside from a pretty fantastic view of the dam and Lake Mead, and a pretty forlorn gift shop selling tacky Arizona souvenirs, nothing else interrupted the hilly desert scrub for miles around. So we pointed our rented SUV back across the bridge and straight toward the outlets, getting stuck in an atrocious 30-minute traffic jam going over the span. After several minutes amidst the mess of motionless cars, dark mutterings along the lines of ?if we don?t make it to the outlet mall before it closes, someone who just had to set foot in Arizona will find himself walking back to California? began to be heard. Fortunately, the ?Open? sign remained lit when we pulled into the Premium Outlets parking lot, as otherwise I might still be hoofing it through the Mojave Desert at the moment.
The inventory of adventure and adversity directly attributable to my ?50 States Before I Turn 50? mission goes on and on. There was the outing to Oklahoma, where a three-day weekend extended to a nearly weeklong stay because the worst snowstorm in a generation hit the state. I had to spend three days in a hotel with no heat or power, venturing out every morning to the only public place where the lights and heaters were working?the neighborhood Wal-Mart. Aside from a short stop at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial on my way to the airport, that Wal-Mart was just about the only thing in Oklahoma I was able to experience.
And then there was my eleventh-hour expedition to Idaho during a particularly trying period in my life, where some unfortunate errors in judgment resulted in my not having enough change of clothes for the entire trip. Thus forcing me to board the departing flight wearing the same outfit I had on when I arrived, accessorized (due to yet another erroneous decision) by a heavy, dirt-clad 20-pound sack of the state?s famed potatoes.
I?ve gleaned a bit of the multifarious minutiae about how alcohol is served to the public in Utah, which makes an ostensibly easy endeavor like going into a bar seem as complex as a ritual from the Da Vinci Code. I?ve come face-to-face with real-world evidence that the rich are different from you and me during a jaunt to Connecticut where, during a stop in ultra-moneyed Greenwich, I noticed that instead of using regular taxis like every other city does, the famously affluent town used black Lincoln Town Car limousines as their cabs. I?ve immersed myself in the wonders of the natural world by visiting the world-renowned Georgia Aquarium, followed by a short stroll to a neighboring building to gulp down the man-made delights showcased by the distinctive World of Coca Cola attraction. Even my younger brother?s graduation from Dartmouth somehow facilitated this 50-states enterprise, when I briefly escaped from the ceremony to go for an hour-long drive through the meandering country roads of state-next-door Vermont, just to be able to scratch it off the list.
Five years have gone by since I embarked on this 50 States Quest, adding 10 new names to my registry of visited ones, with 20 left to go in the 14 years before my 50th comes crashing in. This venture has so far proven to have more ups and downs than Pamela Anderson?s cleavage during a Pilates class. But it?s one that, initial misgivings notwithstanding, I wouldn?t miss for the world. Again, to crib from the old Bob Hope ditty, it?s sometimes been a headache, but it?s never been a bore.
Indeed, it may very well be that the opportunity to see first-hand the myriad wonders and marvelous diversity of each state, woven together to become the brilliant tapestry that is these 50 United States of America, ends up being one of the best birthday presents I will ever receive. Now there?s a truth worth a toast, with a glass filled to the brim with shimmering green absinthe.