May 31st, 2009

PNR, day 4: carpentry and ponies and music...

The giant bat outside the Louisville Slugger factory.
Grape Cottage, for the win!
Fourth Street Live!, early on a Friday night.

Friday saw another generally problem-free trip, this one into Louisville. I did take a supply stop at a Wal-Mart; that included copies of my car keys so there won't be a repeat of Cincinnati. The first stop of the day was the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. They actually take you through the factory and show the step-by-step process of making bats. The machine that makes the bats for Major League players has a thousand templates, and can meet specifications within a hundredth of an inch. And everyone gets a mini-bat to take with them. I enjoyed it.

After a brief trip across the Ohio River into Indiana for lunch, I made my way to Churchill Downs. Showing up just before two, I was unexpectedly early; on Fridays, the first race goes off at 2:45. Wandering around the paddock, it was easy to tell who was seriously into the thoroughbreds, vice the more casual fans. The clothes say it all. On Kentucky Derby day, the television cameras bring us the images of men in expensive suits and women in sun dresses...and giant hats. And even on a lazy Friday, there were a few of them at the Downs. In the first race, I wagered on a long shot; he finished dead last. When I placed my bet for the second, the horse I chose was the second choice, but the odds fluctuated wildly. When Grape Cottage bucked a little bit in the paddock parade, I felt good; I figured he had a lot of energy. And sure enough, he made a late charge on the front stretch to take the win. I stayed for two more races, but was done with betting, content to stand on the win I had. Overall, I was up two dollars on departure.

I drove back into downtown Louisville to check into the Brown Hotel. This was where Orlando Bloom's character stayed in the film Elizabethtown, and it was certainly an elegant place. And you certainly get a feel for the pulse of Louisville when you look on the dresser and see such magazines as Horse Society and The Bourbon Review. After showering, I walked north towards Fourth Street Live!, a block full of bars and restaurants that becomes a pedestrian mall at night. I ate at the Sports and Social Club, which has a six-lane bowling alley inside. After dinner, I was milling around outside, when all of a sudden I'm directed to move. I look to my left...and Kenny Chesney's tour bus pulls up. He has a group of fans waiting there for him; I agreed with one of the beer servers that Kenny himself wasn't on the bus. After wondering for a while where I should go, I tried out Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano bar. The pianos were cool, but the place didn't have quite the scene I sought, if you take my meaning. Since the cover charge I paid would also get me into a place called Saddle Ridge upstairs, I headed there. As the name implies, this was a country and western-themed place. While inside, I met another guy on a road trip, who didn't think the scene measured up to that at his alma mater, Cal State - Chico. There were many women who availed themselves of the bar as an alternate dancing surface. But the shock of the night was right around midnight, when I saw a group of people line a hip-hop song. I don't remember what the song was, but it felt unnatural to see that sort of a contrast.

I didn't get back to the Brown until about 2:00. I was pretty trashed, because I lost cognizance of the volume of the television and the music coming from the computer. This produced a most unwelcome ringing of the phones about 2:30; upon answering, I heard this in a lilting, Southern female voice:
Mr. Carberry, would you mind opening the door for security, please?
I opened my door to see a large black man there, asking me to lower the volume. I did so, and finally drifted off to sleep a few minutes later.

I was more than pleased with the 'Ville, and I'm glad I set up to be there on a Friday. A great opening to the opening weekend of the PNR.

Pictures: Day 4, Louisville

PNR, day 5: all sorts of highs...

meets West.

In contrast to the previous two days, Saturday's schedule included significant time behind the wheel. The four-hour run from Louisville to St. Louis was punctuated by miles of single lane slowdowns on I-64 in Indiana, mistiming the fuel stop and getting raped on the gas price just over the border in Illinois, and stopping for lunch in Mount Vernon, IL. That was the site of the only hotel stay of the 1999 Great Alaska Adventure, and it's also where my mom committed a huge blunder by driving against the flow on a one-way street. I reached the Gateway City at a quarter to two Central time, thankful for picking up the extra hour.

I made a beeline for the one absolute must-do in St. Louis - the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and its iconic centerpiece, the Gateway Arch. Walking around the Museum of Westward Expansion brought back memories of playing the old Oregon Trail game on the Apple II. ("From the animals you shot, you got 1724 pounds of meat. However, you can only carry 100 pounds back to the wagon.") I then headed for the trams that take people to the top. I was fortunate that it was a perfectly clear day in the Midwest, which provided spectacular views and pictures of both East and West. When the tram cars arrived to take us to the bottom, the one to which I was assigned opened...and out came a family that looked like they'd flown from Munich to St. Louis and gone straight to the Arch. Guys in curled-bottomed hats and suspenders, all the females in full-length dresses and bonnets...full Old World German regalia. But that wasn't their defining characteristic. When we entered the tram car, we were overpowered by the stench of body odor. Someone remarked that wherever they came from is a place that doesn't believe in deodorant. After coming down, I headed toward Busch Stadium. The Cardinals are on the road, so the place wasn't open...but I could still get a couple of looks inside. I searched for the National Bowling Hall of Fame, but couldn't locate it, and my feet were hurting from the walking, so I headed north and checked in. As I walked around, I happened across not one, but two wedding parties. It would end up not being the only matrimony-related thing I saw in St. Louis. The routine was to be very similar to that in Louisville the previous night: shower, clean up, head out for dinner, and then on and on.

Dinner was at the Morgan Street Brewery in Laclede's Landing, just across the interstate from my hotel. The burger arrived with a side of "coniques"; they seemed to simply be breaded potato balls. They were certainly better than the similar concoction served on the ol' submarine. I walked around the area and down to the Mississippi River, into which I dipped my hands; I intend to do the same thing when I reach the Twin Cities on the return leg. I continued walking, debating on whether to head to the Central West End or stay where I was; I chose the latter because of the proximity to the hotel. Finally, I needed to make a play. That play was The Big Bang - another dueling piano bar. But this one had a totally different crowd than the one in Louisville. To be precise, it was packed...with bachelorette parties. There had to be at least seven or eight of them in there. You don't need to have seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin to know what that means. I walked around the place, enjoying the music, taking in the lush scenery...until I was stopped by a young woman who asked for a condom to complete a dare. Among the things my nuclear power training taught me is to be prepared for even remote possibilities. As such, I could provide, and so I did. They were impressed and thankful, but one woman really stole the show. She flat out told me she wanted a one-night stand; I gave her my number, and she gave me a promise that she'd call. She never did - but it's just as well, because I have the gut feeling that had we reconnected, I might have left St. Louis with a gift that keeps on giving.

One of the things I've discovered over the last many years is that a bar where live music is in progress is like a hockey game - good things happen when you go to the front. I took a seat just off the stage, at a table occupied by two young women. We'll call them "Heather" and "Erica" - of course, those aren't their real first names. The spark that really struck up a conversation between the three of us was the mention of the Cardinals; they were from Indiana and partial to the Cubs, and I still have lingering bitterness from the Mets' loss in the 2006 NLCS. Early on, I discovered that Erica was engaged, although she had no rock to attest to that. After a little while, Erica wanted to go dance. She asked me where the dance clubs were; I pulled out my driver's license and pointed to the words "NEW YORK STATE" to show that I had no clue. Eventually, they were ready to leave, and they asked if I was coming with. I knew at that point that this probably wasn't going to end exactly as I'd like, but I was having fun with them, so I accepted. We followed the Brick Tamland-like LOUD NOISES to Big Daddy's, a bar and club on the other side of Second Street. The scene inside was jumping, and it was just the place Erica needed to satisfy her dance craving. She was a total bundle of energy; she probably could have gone another six hours had the bar not closed. In contrast, Heather's body had not handled the time change from Indiana nearly as well; she was tired and ready for bed. Luckily for both girls, she played the role of supportive friend and made sure they both got home safely. I alternated between chatting with Heather and dancing with Erica, and watching as guys tried unsuccessfully to lay down their game on her. Finally, 2:30 rolled around, and it was time to be herded out. I accompanied the two ladies back to the Hyatt; they were both thankful that they had found a "nice guy" to party with, and Heather even gave me her business card. After some parting hugs, I took off running down Fourth Street; I was ready to get myself to bed, knowing full well I'd be running on short sleep to reach Kansas City at the desired time today.

So in total, I had a blast in St. Louis. If you're ever there, get up to the top of the Arch, and get down to Laclede's Landing - especially on a weekend.

Pictures: Day 5, St. Louis