Where have I been? Well mister, that's a downright complicated question. You see, I've been here and I've been there, I've been up and down and crisscrossing this amazing little backyard I like to call "America." What did I learn? If you'll pull up a chair, I have a few stories to tell you.
”You look like you could stand a little cheerin’ up," said my cellmate, an ancient little man with a patched coat and a twinkle in his eye. I was stranded in that Alabama county jail after a roadhouse misunderstanding, and truth was I did have a hard case of the blues. "I used to dance me a bit,” he rasped. “Maybe a little softshoe and a story would put a grin back on you." I looked at his cheerfully wizened face, smiled, and nodded. The memory of the little old man’s dances and stories linger, long after he traded me to that other inmate for a pack of Merit Menthols.
You often heard tales of the magnificent beauty of the humpback whales that frolic near Alaska's verdant Pacific Coast. But unless you see them for yourself, up close, you will never truly understand how they can also be complete assholes.
If there is anything that can match the majestic vistas of the Grand Canyon, it is perhaps the many majestic liquor stores of Arizona that tempt you along the way to the Grand Canyon. But I wouldn’t really take my word on it, because I don’t remember ever making it to the Grand Canyon.
How did a humble small town five-and-dime become America's mightiest economic engine? I traveled to Arkansas seeking answers, and discovered that Wal-Mart’s amazing success story isn’t really a mystery -- all it takes is a commitment to customer satisfaction, efficiency, and the Red Army’s invincible Ozark Division, according to new Wal-Mart CEO General Xiao Zheyang.
In California I walked along Hollywood's Boulevard of Broken Dreams and learned the American Dream has its dark, seedy side. Every year thousands of naïve beautiful actresses come here harboring fantasies of stardom in the Hollywood Machine. Most of these naïve girls will end up signing gigantic studio contracts and move to Malibu. Only then do they discover the tragic truth: the Hollywood Machine has sold me a $20 map.
High in the Colorado Rockies I learned it takes nerves of steel to work on the emergency rescue ski patrol helicopters. I also learned that no matter how many times you call them, they always forget to bring those cool dogs with the miniature booze barrels.
I had heard about Connecticut nutmeg, so I decided to buy some of the state’s famous brown spice from an independent New Haven street vendor. I have to admit it was a little bitter at first, but after five or six vials I found myself anxiously returning for another tasty rock of that sweet, relaxing Connecticut nutmeg.
Ask the people of Delaware what makes their state so special, and they’ll puff out their chest with pride and tell you that Delaware is the first state. You know, this is exactly the kind of arrogance that explains why Delaware and Delawarites are universally loathed by non-Delawarites.
Of all the extreme thrills I’ve experienced nothing compares to performing in the coed pyramid water skiing team at Florida’s Cypress Gardens, unless you count the extreme thrill of sneaking a peak up at those pyramid chicks. And also, surviving that still-unexplained extreme pyramid wipeout.
“Why Mister Burge, I declare your sweet talk is enough to sweep a girl off her feet – on her wedding day!” said Jennifer, the enchanting Georgia belle I picked up on an I-75 on-ramp. I’m not sure what she hit me with but next thing I knew I was in an Atlanta hospital, watching the Las Vegas cops arrest her on CNN.
When I looked out into Hawaii’s Waiamea Bay and saw those surfers slicing across the gaping maw of a 30-foot monster wave, the fear nearly pushed my heart into my throat. Then I told myself it would take almost superhuman concentration to challenge the dreaded ‘Pipeline,’ so those surfers would probably be distracted while I checked through their wallets.
I’ve got to hand it to Idaho’s resilient potatoes – no matter how many times I baked them or diced them or mashed them, those crazy bastards kept coming back for more.
Illinois’ ‘Windy City’ of Chicago has lots of colorful traditions and culture. For instance, don’t be surprised if a local asks you if you cheer for the White Sox or the Cubs. This means he is soliciting a bribe, so my advice is to slip him ten bucks and keep your mouth shut.
To me, nothing said "Indiana" like that lone teenage farm kid practicing his jump shot on a barn hoop in the misty dawn sunlight. And to him, nothing yelled “air ball!” like me, coaching along the roadside, whenever that stupid jug-eared Hoosier rube missed.
Back home in Iowa, I was astounded when that 1890’s baseball team emerged from the cornfield. But not as astounded as the baseball team, when they were suddenly attacked by a pack of satanic corn children. Later, I heard one of the baseball players escaped from the corn children and had a tender love affair with a local Italian farm wife. To tell you the truth, that part really didn’t astound me all that much.
Say "Kansas" to some people and they automatically think “flat.” But soon after you arrive, you realize its vast plains are a complex canvas on which nature has painted a masterpiece of sunflowers, golden wheat, and psychedelic munchkin villages. Later you realize that man, this painting is really freaking flat.
“Talk to the damn horse all you want, but he ain’t never gonna amount to nothin’,” growled the old trainer on the Kentucky thoroughbred farm, motioning to the stable containing a restless chestnut stallion. Still, there was something about that horse… a will, a heart… an indefinable desire. I don’t know why, but something told me he could be a champion if only that energy was focused. I cautiously approached the mighty beast, coaxing him near with a sugar cube. When he was close and calm enough to hear my whisper, I opened the weekly Kroger insert and showed him the 99 cent special on Alpo.
I used to think the “supernatural” was a lot of hooey -- until I met an old voodoo Cajun swamp witch in the backwoods bayou country of Louisiana. With my own eyes I saw how that mounted fish on her cabin wall came to life, then I screamed in terror as it began to sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Which undersea mutant species is the deadliest? Some might say the hideous Lobster People of Maine. Others point to the grotesque Crab People of Maryland. For me, it will always be the terrifying Kennedy People of Massachusetts.
Inside Michigan’s notorious Eight Mile, they all laughed and jeered when I pulled up my hood and got up on stage in that sweaty hip hop club, where I challenged champion Detroit rapper KTO to a throwdown battle on the mic. The laughing continued while he peppered me with a menacing mad flow of rhymes and beats and insults. And when his hurtful personal remarks finally caused me to run for the bathroom in tears, I suppose there was probably even more laughing.
I don't know if I’ll ever hear a more haunting sound than cry of Minnesota's beloved loon -- government radio superstar Garrison Keillor.
“Where you g’wan with that guitar, boy?” My blood ran cold when I turned around on that dusty gravel crossroads in Mississippi and saw the mysterious stranger. He was pale and ghostly but his eyes burned red like blacksmith’s coals. "Welsuh, I'm headed up to Tupelo to be a bluesman," I answered nervously. “Boy,” he cackled with demon grin, “if you want to bargain, I’ll teach you to make that guitar scream and wail like woman in love.” Down in the Delta, they say I was a fool for making that deal with the devil, they say I’ve got the hellhounds on my tail. But they also say this: there’s not a bluesman alive who can play the entire first part of Smoke on the Water like Hellbound Dave.
Did you know that Missouri is known as the “Show Me State” because its people are known for their skepticism? It turns out it has nothing to do with a voyeurism fetish. Like I told that night court judge in St. Louis, those guys really need to be more specific about their state mottos.
Working a dusty cattle drive under the big sky of Montana, I spotted a pitiful little dogie calf who got separated from his momma. Well sir, I guess I’m getting’ all soft-hearted, because right then I split that little critter off from the herd and raised him as my own. And, when we got to the trail end in Nebraska, he made a damn tasty Omaha veal chop.
At that high stakes poker tournament in Nevada, I stared across the table into the reflective sunglasses of my nemesis -- the legendary Reno Clem. I was looking for a facial tic, a raised eyebrow, any sort of ‘tell.’ Was he bluffing? I decided to go all in. Once again I had been suckered by my legendary dead nemesis Reno Clem.
On the exterior the flinty, rock-ribbed people of New Hampshire can be every bit as craggy and jagged as their state’s famous granite. But if you sit down and get to know them, you’ll find that they can be as friendly and warm as many carbon-based life forms.
Why is New Jersey the butt of so many cruel jokes? I recommend traveling there by car. You’ll see many charming, well-kept towns, filled with attractive, friendly, intelligent people. Then, when you finally arrive at the New Jersey border, you will understand why it is the butt of so many cruel jokes.
I met an old Navajo shaman in New Mexico who consented to lead me on a sacred vision quest. After ritually cleansing his lodge of the wolf spirit, we shared the ancient tribal pipe of wisdom. Our vision quest first took us to Circle K, where we sought the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and the Bud Light Fridge Pak. We continued the vision quest back at his lodge, where we shared a couple more pipes and checked out Cinemax.
I have to say New York has undergone a remarkable turnaround in since my first trip there in 1985. When I was visiting a few weeks ago I became inspired to participate in this amazing cleanup story. So I borrowed a squeegee from a gas station and wandered out into traffic seeking of unsightly windshields.
Down on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Road,” I had a hard time telling what was more popular – basketball, stock car racing, or moonshine. That’s when I came up with my latest North Carolina sports idea: Drunk Smoking Nascartball.
I think I speak for all Americans when I say “hats off” to you, North Dakota -- for your delicious wheat products, and for being an impenetrable buffer zone protecting normal America from rampaging Manitobans.
If you’re ever in Ohio I recommend a visit to Cleveland’s exciting Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but remember to call at least 4 months in advance if you plan to visit the popular Billy Joel wing. Also, if you need directions to the Britny Fox archives, ask the museum guides. Over and over again, if necessary.
“Let’s go team, we’ve got an F2 on the radar!” I could hear my heart thumping in my ears when I jumped into the van. I had just joined the Oklahoma tornado chase team, and I would soon experience nature’s awesome climactic power. When I awoke in the ditch, I realized the twister had swept away the van, Professor Randy and Dr. Chuck, and all of my credit cards.
I knew if I were going to be a logger in Oregon, I would encounter environmental activists. Still, nothing prepared me for the angry screams from the Greenpeace protestor when the tree crushed the Volvo in her driveway.
My co-workers at the gritty mill in Pennsylvania never discovered my secret – steel worker by day, exotic flashdancer by night. And the other steelworking flashdancers would never discover that I was actually secretly working toward my real dream: to become a licensed Pennsylvania podiatrist.
For all its vaunted history of “religious tolerance,” I was shocked to learn that Rhode Island is now controlled by theocrats who have instituted the persecution minority spiritual practices. I myself experienced this when I left a beachside offering of car batteries for Womba, God of Oceanic Car Batteries.
Everyone knows that South Carolina is a mecca for golfers, but did you know that the South Carolina Golf Club, founded in 1786, is the country’s oldest golf organization? And did you know that the South Carolina Golf Club will prosecute you to the full extent of the law for driving your Camaro across their golf course?
Gazing up at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, I couldn’t help but think about how God has blessed our country with leaders of such wisdom, courage and enormous enemy-crushing size.
When I walk out into the stage lights, I froze for a split second. For years I had traveled a lonely circuit of roadhouses and honky-tonks preparing for this moment, but I never quite convinced myself it would ever come true. Yet, here I was -- on the stage of Tennessee’s Grand Ole Opry, staggering toward hot country singer babe Lorrie Morgan. And there she was, motioning for security.
Whether it’s an enormous plate of Texas barbecue, “Big Tex” at the state fair park in Dallas, or Houston’s cavernous Astrodome, one thing is certain – Texans really get mad when you spraypaint their stuff.
Gripping the wheel tightly, I struggled to maintain focus as I roared across the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. Then all hell broke when my right front caught a notch in the salt, launching the car into a wild, helpless, end-over-end tumble. After what seemed an eternity I found myself encased in a hissing heap of metal, salt and debris. No, there would be no new speed record for me that day, but at least I was alive. And that mangled Tercel was now Avis’ problem.
My mouth was watering in anticipation of old fashioned Vermont maple syrup when I pounded a tap into the tree, but I wondered… just why was the tree screaming? Turns out it wasn’t a sap maple after all, just a run-of-the-mill Vermont hippie.
When the wives and girlfriends said goodbye to the sailors at the Virginia naval port, their lonely sacrifice made my heart swell with patriotism. Later, when I offered some intimate companionship to these lonely wives and girlfriends, their powerful kicks made my groin swell with agony.
Whether they’re apple farmers, aerospace workers, gourmet coffee baristas, or software billionaires, people in Washington have one thing in common: relief that Courtney Love moved.
“Fire in the hole!” I was deep inside the West Virginia coal mine when I heard the bossman’s voice echo through its maze-like tunnels. I began scurrying for the entrance when suddenly the dynamite blast shook the walls, and I was buried under an avalanche of dirt and support timbers. I struggled and clawed my way toward a faint light, and after several hours I emerged from that tomb into the sweet fresh air of the valley, and hugged the bossman, grateful to be alive. “Um, I think you forgot your pickaxe,” he reminded me. As I headed back down the mineshaft, I heard the bossman calling the dynamite store for more dynamite.
Nearly everyone knows about Wisconsin’s famous cheeses, sausages, and beers. But take it from me: try a stack of their delicious Paul Bunyan hotcakes, smothered in delicious Vermont hippie syrup.
If you ever travel to Wyoming’s famous Yellowstone National Park, don’t make the same mistake I did. Even if you really have to “pinch one,” don’t use the outdoor toilet they call Old Faithful. Especially at 4:15.
Yes, I learned a lot out there on the road, but one lesson sticks out above all others: when you go out in search of America, avoid doing it alphabetically.