I am finally home after a long vacation, 4,500 miles through the Great American West. I’ve been on the road, sleeping in hotels so long that I keep checking under my door in the morning for a receipt and checkout time, wondering why the bed is not made up when I come home in the afternoon. Some things are taken care of for you when you travel, you pay for that, probably too much. That’s what credit cards are for, and vacations, like Christmas, are periods of rationalizing debt. I am happy to spend money to do the things I did on vacation: but I’ll bet I could be just as happy on half the expense. Though travel can take you to places that are wonderful and unique, it is rarely an unalloyed pleasure.
I grow tired of eating in restaurants. It’s always a crap shoot, especially for someone who is carefully attentive to his own home-cooked meals. Only in the best of restaurants do I experience meals better than my own home cooking, and reading menu prices for foods I know will be indifferently prepared from frozen ingredients makes me shiver. Everything, from a nice chicken entree to almost any sandwich, comes with melted cheese on it. Everything comes with fries, from a cheeseburger to a gyro sandwich. That lack of culinary imagination, of effort, is emblematic of eating in most restaurants.
Yes, I still use the word ‘restaurant,’ even though it appears to be passé. Today, a place where one buys prepared meals is likely to be called A Dining Establishment, or An Eating Company, or, most pestiferous to me, An Eatery. A what? Who coined that awkward bit of pompousness? It is used a lot, and given Americans’ penchant for gorging, I wonder if we will soon see An All You Can Eatery?
Servers struggle with the language. Some are perfectly charming and helpful, but they almost universally share the inability to accept that English ‘you’ is both singular and plural. A table with more than one person seated must be referred to as ‘y’all,’ ‘youse,’ or ‘you guys’—it depends on the latitude—when ‘you’ would be perfectly grammatically acceptable. In St. Louis we fret over the misuse of the word ‘working,’ as in, ‘Are you still working on your dinner, or should I remove your plate?’ I have had some cuts of meat that took work to cut, but usually I do not work at my meals. Even more pernicious though, is the habit of grabbing things. I say, ‘May I have a straw with my soft drink?’ and the server says, ‘Sure, I’ll grab you one.’ ‘Is there any horseradish?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll grab that.’ ‘May I have the check?’ ‘Let me grab it.’ Everyone’s grabbing everything. When I ask the busboy if he has seen my waitress, he promises to grab her. Youse better not.
I tend to be a stickler for correct language and spelling, what is referred to these days as being a ‘grammar Nazi,’ usually by the same people who blamed their teachers when they did poorly in school. As one gets ever deeper into tourism territory, the misspellings increase, even on otherwise professional-looking signs. That’s where my tolerance breaks down; I accept that everyone does not have impeccable spelling ability, but if you paint signs for a living, that’s kind of your job. Buy a dictionary, for Pete’s sake.
Finally, there are the places that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I visited Deadwood, South Dakota, the town where Wild Bill Hickok was sheriff, and had his famous liaison with Calamity Jane, and was finally shot to death. The town was running downhill until several years ago when they approved limited stakes gambling. It is now a seedy little Las Vegas, with gaming in every hotel and restaurant, and busloads of doddering seniors shoving their walkers towards slot machines. I paid for a tour of the town’s historic sites, and sat on a bus while the guide told us that Wild Bill Hickok was never sheriff, only spent a few weeks here, and never had anything to do with Calamity Jane, a drunken, crude woman who looked nothing like Doris Day; Hickok’s murder was the only true part of the story. The guide beamed as he told us all this, though he played at being distraught at having to break it to us. When the bus stopped in the cemetery, giving us all a chance to photograph their graves, I remained in my seat.
The high-point of my trip was Yellowstone National Park. Let me say first that Yellowstone is a marvel, with natural and geographical wonders to be found nowhere else. But . . . it is huge. The park is larger than several states, with parts of in three states. I arrived at the east entrance to the park, from Cody, Wyoming, and got to the west Entrance in Montana days later. We had to eat the dogs on the way. Seriously, ninety-nine percent of what you do in Yellowstone is drive. Old Faithful is fifty miles from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone Lake is fifty miles from Artist Point. Gibbon Falls is fifty miles from the Roosevelt Arch. These are the kind of drives that make standing in line at Disney World sound fun. Add in another five percent of your time spent seeking a parking place, and that leaves only a few minutes every few hours to look at one of the dozens of attractions. And another thing—do not be fooled by the legends of bison, elk, and bears picturesquely wandering about. You will see little wildlife, if any, and that mostly ravens, which are a kind of obese crow whose diet consists wholly of smoking roadkill. I know, someone reading this will cry out, ‘I saw lots of wildlife!’ It’s not that it never happens; but heading to Yellowstone with the expectation of seeing bears is just setting yourself up for heartbreak.
I do not regret visiting Yellowstone, any more than I regret the whole trip, which set me back financially for the next several months, and left me bone tired and ready to get back to work for some richly deserved relaxation. The aforementioned natural wonders are things that will stay with me for life, as will the legendary streets of Deadwood and other things I saw. I have been home for several days, back to work most of a week, and I’m starting to think about my next trip.