Mrs. Groovy and I are on a quest to see all fifty states. So far we’ve made it to twenty-seven of them. And although Montana is our favorite state so far, there hasn’t been a state we haven’t loved.
America, for all its faults, is still a kick-ass country. I know it doesn’t always appear that way on the nightly news. Watch the nightly news long enough and you’ll be convinced that our infrastructure is crumbling, our institutions—whether public or private—are uniformly inept, and our citizenry has renounced brotherly love and devolved into fiercely squabbling tribes.
But that’s not the America I’ve seen across twenty-seven states. The roads, bridges, and tunnels are fine. Electricity, potable water, and functioning bathrooms are plentiful. Businesses, stores, restaurants, museums, schools, and government offices open every day, well stocked and staffed, and generally eager to make their customers happy. In a word, America works. And it’s damn nice as well. Nowhere in our travels have we been treated poorly. Nor have we seen others being treated poorly. Whether it’s been San Francisco or Birmingham, my fellow Americans have been nothing but kind, gracious, and helpful—to me and Mrs. Groovy, and each other.
So if you want to see the real America, not the nightly-news America, get out there. Visit a state you’ve never been to before. And if you do decide to heed my advice, here are five suggestions to help make your visit to an alien state memorable.
A few years ago, Mrs. Groovy and I spent a long weekend in Austin, Texas. In preparation for our visit, we googled “things to do in Austin.” One of the things to do in Austin, oddly enough, was to take a day trip to San Antonio. (San Antonio is just 74 miles south of Austin.) “Cool,” Mrs. Groovy and I said to ourselves. “We’ll rent a car.”
But what’s there to do in San Antonio besides visit the Alamo? A quick google search provided us with a bevy of possibilities. And one that intrigued us the most was a place just outside of San Antonio called Greune Hall.
Gruene Hall (pronounced Green Hall) is the “oldest dance hall in Texas.” It features an excellent restaurant, live music, and ice cold Shiner Bocks. Did somebody say, “heaven”?
The day we were there, a country band from Bandera, Texas, was entertaining the wily two-steppers. Well, I don’t remember the band’s name, but I’ll never forget the chorus from the song that paid tribute to its small-town roots. It definitely elicited the most yeeeee-haws from the crowd. Here it is.
In Bandera, Texas, there’s a lesson to learn. You don’t lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn.
Would we have discovered Gruene Hall if we didn’t rent a car? Doubtful. The moral of the story, then, is this: if at all possible, drive at some point during your next vacation. It’s a great way to turbo-charge your ability to explore. Just do a google search on “day trips.” You’re bound to find something to pique your interest.
Walking is great exercise. And it’s a great way to observe the people and businesses of whatever city you happen to be visiting.
To find great walking opportunities, just google “walking” or “walking tours” followed by the name of your vacation spot. This is how Mrs. Groovy and I discovered the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky (see picture below).
The Big Four Bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge that spans the Ohio River and connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana. Walking to Jeffersonville and back was a little over a mile. And each day we were in Louisville, Mrs. Groovy and I took a sprightly stroll beneath its stately struts. Oh, the simple joys of life!
Check Out a Dive Bar
Dive bars are not for the faint of heart—dimly lit, battered accoutrements, and home to a sketchy clientele. But if done strategically (i.e., during the daylight hours), it’s a great way to safely fraternize with the locals and learn about the area.
To find a great dive bar, just google “best dive bars in” followed by the name of your vacation spot. From my experience, the website Thrillist provides the best breakdown of dive bar possibilities. Yelp is a close second.
Now, to give you an idea of what a dive bar visit might entail, here are some screen shots from the website of our favorite dive bar in the whole wide world, the Double Down Saloon.
The Double Down Saloon invented the bacon martini, but its signature drink is a shot called ass juice (Everclear and fruit juice). The last time we were there (October 2011), a guy sitting across from us claimed to be a retired Mexican porn star. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. We weren’t about to question him. The point is that this is the kind of character you’ll meet in a dive bar—colorful, opinionated, and loud. But ultimately harmless. And always great fodder for stories.
Like I said, dive bars aren’t for the faint of heart. But if you have an adventurous streak, and don’t mind slumming it for an hour or so, I highly recommend a visit to one on your next vacation.
Dine at a Classic Eatery
If you’re ever in Massapequa, Long Island, you gotta grab a burger at the All American Drive-In on Merrick Road.
If you’re ever in Stoughton, Massachusetts, you gotta grab a pizza at the Town Spa on Washington Street.
I know about All American and the Spa because I grew up on Long Island and my mom’s from Stoughton. Both eateries are institutions. They help give two rather nondescript towns an identity. Is the All American burger the best burger I ever ate? No. Does the Town Spa pizza make me do back flips? Again, no. But that’s not the point. Eating at All American or the Spa makes you an honorary member of the team. Meet anyone from Massapequa or Stoughton in the future and you’ll instantly bond.
America has become franchise nation. You can eat McDonald’s, Subway, or Taco Bell anywhere. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having ample access to food of a known quality helps cut down on decision fatigue. But to really learn about a place, and make life interesting, you gotta eat where the locals eat. So I implore you to seek out a classic eatery wherever you travel. And here are three great resources to do so.
Do at Least One Weird Thing
When Mrs. Groovy and I visited Atlanta, Georgia, we did the usual tourist stuff—CNN, Coca-Cola, Centennial Park, Varsity Hotdogs, and the Georgia Aquarium. But we also did something untouristy. We googled “weird atlanta” and discovered that this guy called the Unknown Hinson was going to be performing in Atlanta while we were there. Tickets for his show were cheap, around $15 per person. So Mrs. Groovy and I looked at each other and said, “what the hell.” Our Atlanta vacation would end with the musical stylings of the Unknown Hinson.
The best way I can describe the Unknown is thus: take Dracula, fuse him with Hank Williams, and then splice in some wicked guitar-playing genes. The guy was a freak (check out the clip below). But between his twisted take on country music, and the Flintstone-clad drag queens that opened the show, it was one of the most entertaining evenings Mrs. Groovy and I ever had. Now, when Mrs. Groovy and I fondly recall our Atlanta trip, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t Robin Meade. Nor is it hugging a polar bear at Coca-Cola or watching fifty-foot sharks meander over our heads at the Georgia Aquarium. No, the first thing we think about is a man and his loving tribute to a plastic blow up doll.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. America is great because its people are great. Don’t miss out on this greatness. See what great things your fellow Americans have built. See what great things your fellow Americans are doing. Drive. Walk. Throw back some shots of ass juice. Wolf down some Voodoo doughnuts. Do something weird, dammit!