Thursday, March 19, 2009

Saint Patrick's Day - the Day of Days

Todd and Mark share a moment in O'Keane's

A couple of days later and fully recovered, I feel able to report on a grand St Patrick's Day adventure. I wore a green shirt, Todd and Mark feeling somewhat more Irish than myself, wore kilts. It's a curious thing, but in America they seem to celebrate St Pat's day more than ourselves in England and Wales. I'm unsure as to how many Irish made it to Oregon on the trail, but promotions abound in shops and diners and restaurants, special menus knocked up and the barrels of Guinness rolled out. We hit Bend for about two o'clock and grabbed some lunch in McMinnamens, who I'm happy to say did better for themselves than last time. The Irish stew was aromatic, rich and tasty, though they forgot Todd's bread, damn them. Moved on to another bar for a shot of Jameson's each. This came with a radioactive looking glass of dyed green water. Then onto the greatest pub of all time. Amusingly, this bar was a minimalist dive purely and solely dedicated to getting hammered.

This is a little place called O'Keane's after the long dead owner, Hugh O'Keane. It's sort of a small brick and oak barn with a big front door consisting of two Hobbit hole style giant wooden semi-circular slabs to pull on. Inside there is a big stove pulsing out heat, a bar with the taps set into the rear wall and a huge array of spirits. Along one side of the pub are cosy oak booths, along the other tables. The beer garden looks nothing special - slightly garden centre in fact - but is very spacious, which is handy as they have a little gazebo affair with Irish belly-dancers (yes, I know) and drummers and fiddlers.

This place was so awesome that we stayed here for most of the day, drinking fine stouts and ales. The food being served was good fare, though I forgot to eat, and the queue to the bar so big it wove its way out of the barn, and out into the beer garden. For all that everyone was having a great time, and there was no jostling or idiocy.

There was also - some of you will be happy to hear - lots of smoking. For once I didn't mind, it fitted the snug little place so well. The only shock I had was when I over-generously bought three big shots of Laphroaig for Todd, Mark and myself. Though their shots are a little more generous than ours, I was still traumatised when the bill came to $30. Mental note, quality single malt scotch bought over 4,000 miles away from the source may be a little pricier than that bought a mere 400 miles away back in the UK.

"It's the kilt, chicks dig the kilt."

In this cosy, heavenly environment we took plenty of time to talk complete bollocks to each other, be it about zombies, the Falklands war, pasties or children's TV shows. (They never got Ulysesses 31, I weep for them.) I was really reluctant to leave, but leave we must, as we went to a late night bar. I got carded, once again, and we drank guinness until half one in the morning when we got a lift back home. Amber was the generous soul who transported us, and the fates smiled upon her for doing so, for when she returned to the bar with Lyryn and Joel for some slot machine gambling, she won about $700. Yikers!

Things I observed:

Despite Draconian carding measures I was happy to see some clearly underage drinkers slipped through the net somehow.

They didn't play any Pogues, for shame. In fact, for all it was an Irish night, aside from the fine live traditional folk music at O'Keane's, nowhere played any Irish at all. Apart from some U2, and like they count, right? For double shame.

Americans have never heard of the word 'muntered', I have updated them.

They're well stocked up on Irish stouts, red beers and spirits to make it a true St Patrick's Day. The only difference was the lack of fighting traditional to the night. Hurrah!

Allegedly I am a lot louder, and a lot more 'British' when drunk, according to my American hosts. I am also more opinionated, more emphatic and more arm-wavy. Lies, I'm sure.

Final score - eight pints, one bottle of Guinness, three shots. Apparently.

Mad Weather

Snow. For a brief time there was lots of it. The weather here is crazy, one day it's roasting hot with a cloudless sky, the next flurries of cold white goo are drifting down from the sky. Since Harley looks something like a husky and loves bounding about in the frozen stuff, I cynically used him and the inclement weather as an excuse for yet more photographs.

Yes, yes - I know. More wolf-dog, but look at him! Anyway, as soon as the snow settled it began to melt once more, the sun sweltered through the layers of gray cloud and sheets of water spilled from the roof tops as the snow receded. Very soon there was little left but a few miniature flurries tucked away here and there. Apparently it's like this all the time here, roasting one minute and freezing the next. Must make picnics pretty hard to plan.

Late that afternoon as evening closed in and I headed back down to Drake Park. You can make out just a little snow left, and nearly all the cloud had deserted the sky. It is an image I rather like, the strangeness of the sky against a curiously menacing pond. Danger! Deep Water, kids. Don't wait for Donald Pleasance to turn up in a hooded cloak.

Later I'm off to Virginia City, where on Saturday there promises to be a foot and a half of snow. Crikey, eh? Glad I brought my jumper and thermals. (Note to American readers, a jumper in the UK is what you call a sweater, and not the lady's jumpsuit noted in your own twisted vocabulary. That was an embarrassing trip to the shop when I asked if I could try one on in the fitting room, I tell you.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Trip to Downtown Bend

Drake Park - Mirror Pond, Downtown Bend

First of all, an aside:

American food is confusing. There's just so much choice. In the UK, open up a cupboard and you'll have your bread, vegetables, some snacks. In the fridge there will be milk, fruit, other veg, meat and beer. In America, kitchen space is dominated by condiments, toppings, whips, sauces, spreads, microwave food and add-waters. So much so that I'm finding my British austerity brain struggling at working out what I can actually eat.

Never mind, at least their eating-out food remains lush, eh folks? Even if the choice dilemma extends to menus that unfold to prog-rock gatefold album sized proportions. I've still to spring my sausage and pasta bake on them too - which is easier said than done as I'm still to find fresh veg and sausages.

Things the Americans do get right are well-stocked household bars. I've already sung the praises of the beer overhere, a thriving industry of microbreweries and friendly competition. I would like to add that the UK could learn a thing or two, from their confident unshowey advertising and the way all the restaurants and diners stock their beers and promote them over the domestic suds.

Another thing they seem to have got right is Downtown Bend. It's built on the same Roman town grid-lines as every city and town in America, but the actual content is quite refreshing. Whilst the roads of Bend stab out in an urban sprawl bracketed by mega-marts and retail outlets, fast food joints and discount warehouses, the downtown hosts the small eclectic independant business. There's a comic book store, a wonderful music shop called 'Ranch Records', an old fashioned art-deco cinema and a curiosity shop packed to the gills with old clothes, memorabilia, jewellry, antiques and books. There are also curious shops where the owners don't seem to know what they're doing, and live a sort of strange life as a hybrid between a newsagent and a very limited DVD store, or garden centre. Possibly because the owners are high all the time.

One of the nicest things about Downtown Bend, aside from the beautiful redbrick buildings, the statues, the drinking fountains (that don't seem to work but look nice) and the coffee shop culture is the complete absence of litter. Even their backstreets are litter free!

In fact, there seems to be a complete litter void everywhere - on the roadside, in the parking lots, even at the retail malls. I don't know if the Americans take all their trash home, or walk to the bins, or if they have a very efficient trash collection and council litter pickers - but it is a joy to see and incredibly humbling. Perhaps its just civic pride and the tourist trap nature of Bend, as in the winter months it sees a lot of rich people coming to ski and in the summer months a lot of hikers. But it's still pretty impressive, I've yet to tut and shake my head sadly at the sight of a discarded water bottle or sweet wrapper. Even walking through the park I saw not one bit of rubbish. I remember my short stay in Portland a year and a few months ago, and it was the same there with a complete lack of rubbish. Britain, hang your heads in shame. America may be a disposable culture filled with consumerists - but at least these disposing consumers dispose of their disposable consumables tidly after consuming. As they are always disposed to.

And there's no better place to enjoy litter-free Bend than their downtown recreation area . It's called Drake Park and it houses Mirror Pond, though it's really part of a river. It doesn't have the grand marble and concrete gestures of British Victorian parks, but it does have indications of civic pride and a healthy outdoors summer culture. There's an grassy amphithetre with a nice concrete mural wall for music performances and theatre. Douglas firs abound providing lots of nice shady spots. There's also a big historical tree-cart thing that is amazingly huge. Next to the park there's the obligatory softball pitch, and running along one side of the pond are incredibly lush houses with little jetties and weeping willows. It's a gentle, unpretentious place ideal for picnics. There's also plaques set in volcanic boulders all over the place, citing citizens and events of the last sixty or so years that would have been resolutely forgotten in Britain. With a lack of a ribbon cutting monarchy, jubilees or any grand historical sweep past the Oregon Trail, Benders like to celebrate the little things. The opening of a new popular store in the 1930's. The rigging of a giant working model of the USS Missoussri on Mirror Pond in 1951. Various Daughters of the Revolution floats and charity drives. And the heroic failure of a citizen to rescue a drowning child from the 'pond', the fast moving currents claiming his life as well as the lad's. There's something remarkably touching about these little tributes, America may not have the grand and rich tapestry of history that the UK has, but they do seem to have more of a sense of the importance of folk and the little actions that make a community.

Of course, they may all be shotgunning each other behind my back, I have no real idea.

But maybe Bend caught me on a good day. I was inclined to see all that was good and noble about the place, and pass my eye over the gas-guzzling tank sized SUVs and the homeless joe sitting against a pillar, underneath a flock of tin birds that wove their way along the alley ceiling, lit by lights. It was glorious weather, unusually so. A warm spring breeze wrapped around me, and I wandered the place in a t-shirt, feeling the sun. It made me think that there were only happy times in Bend, that it's a pleasing Apple Mac advert of a harmonious community, cycling about the place and organising charity pie-bakes. It's a lie, naturally - but its one I want to enjoy for this holiday. If I want grim reality this month, I'll watch The Wire, thank you very much.

Right now though, Bend is looking rather different than it does in these pictures. How so? Well, it's started snowing - yup, a mere day and a half after these pics were taken and it's snowing its arse off. About an inch outside and still falling, though I think it's also melting a little, it being noon. This may prove troublesome for our Virginia City trip later in the week however - we have to get through the Mountain passes! Der-ner!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Think I'm turning Country

Is it a good look for me? I don't know. I would secretly like to introduce the stetson to Cardiff, if only in the vain hope to run out of town this Pete Doherty cockney-urchin look-a-like craze that's sweeping the nation's youth. Anyway, Lyryn's place has a bar, and in this bar are many liquors. Being a manly-man I stuck to unmixed whiskey and vodka. This borrowed look was the result, though the shirt and rather nice brogues are mine. Wish I had the pump-action shotgun though. You realise how vulnerable we are to zombie attack in the UK, right? I mean, there's only so many cricket bats to go around. Music of the night was Gorillaz, Decemberists, Travelling Willberrys, Violent Femmes and British Sea Power. Why aren't we all listening to country here? I'm confused.

It's Todd's coat by the way - he's way taller than me, which is why I've sort of a David Byrne 'Big Suit' look going on. Nice and warm coat all the same.

Earlier the same evening I'd been to see a one woman play called Joanna's Body. It was a black comedy about cancer, and pretty near the knuckle. It was however affirming and truthful, and although some of the jokes didn't come off quite as well as the playwright would think, the performance of the actress who played Joanna was awe-inspiring. She played each body part and organ - all of them offering up their thoughts and feelings in the struggle against the invasion - and Joanna herself with a mix of humour, pathos, anger and - well, pretty much every emotion going. Her performance of the cancer cells was a highlight, anthropromorphised as louche evil French squatters. The female cancer at the start was worryingly sexy in its sneery, curvey, strike-a-pose cruelty. Good stuff with a punchy ending and a tight narrative - if a little frightening at times.

We finished off with a bit of a Spaced marathon, watching five episodes of series 1. They all thought it was jolly good, which pleased me muchly.

Harley White-Hawk

Todd has a completely awesome wolf called Harley White-Hawk. He used to be owned by a pair of fairly negligent hippies, and although not pure wolf - being a shade malamute - he is fecking big and with a beautiful tawny pelt and white fangs. Harley is friendly, leaves hair everywhere, pretty effectively blanketing my nice black coat. He also led to the quote of the day:

"Aw, Harley and his bull-cock."

"Yeah, he's still gnawing on it."

Yeah, while in the UK we have butcher's bones for the dogs, over here they have two foot long bull-penises. They look like withered brown sticks. I try not to get within a few feet of them. I try not to think of Harley's enthusiastic sucking and chewing on these when he licks my face and nuzzles my crotch.

Apparently he hates bees and tries to eat them. He also can't catch for toffee.

Harley's the main reason why deer won't show up outside our door, unlike other houses, thus ruining an exciting photo op. But why moan when you can get cool wolfy photos, eh?

What Was Nervous Pete Doing Eating in Bend, That's What I Said... Ahhh-aaah...

In the few days that I've been here, my austere Brit nature has been challenged by the sheer consumerism of America. Although it's a worrying characteristic, and one that the UK increasingly shares in, it is however immense fun for tourist Pete. Basically pretty much every meal aside from two breakfasts thus far has been eaten out.

So far a large chunk of my time here has been spent eating, and again for tourist Pete this is no bad thing. Mainly because the places I have been taken are pretty damn lush. But there's a curious confusion here, where people will order in or go out as a social bonding thing when they're not actually hungry, and this is rather baffling. For example Taco Bell champions itself with the slogan:

"The Fourth Meal between Midnight and Breakfast."

And pretty much do a roaring trade on that stance. The people I'm staying with are more reasonable, and are the sensible three meals a day kind with not much in the way of snacking. But still it's a surprise how much is eaten out - it's the default setting over here it seems, with eateries and take-away joints filling the roadside, seemingly employing a good chunk of Bend's population.

But I'm dangerously edging towards snootiness, where the Brit holds up his ration card and proudly champions his ten Weatherspoon chips on a plate aside a 6oz burger. Simply put, eating out here is way better than in the UK and the hit rate for a damn good meal is far higher. In restaurants and pubs, the competition is so fierce that they have to be damn sure of offering up some seriously memorable grub, and in the words, "Was everything fine with your dining experience?" they are not merely form as in the UK, or even the words of a waitress anxious for tips, but spoken in a deep seated anxiety for survival.

So - my top dining places thus far in Bend:

1: Baldy's

This is a small chain restaurant championed by Oprah, and where my friend Amber works. It's a small unpretentious diner with trapping equipment and wagon wheels on the walls, red gingham tablecloths and a two page menu. They mainly deal in the BBQ side of things, and proudly proclaim themselves the last BBQ eaterie in Bend - which although I'm assured is true I still find hard to believe. I had a garlic fried bread BBQ pork strip sandwich, with fries on the side and coleslaw. The pork was juicy and tender, the bread crisp and moist, the fries crunchy and melt in mouth. As for the coleslaw, so often a luke-warm limp afterthought in Brit eateries, it was in fact crunchy, cold and very flavoursome. I washed the meal down with a beer called Blonde Bombshell, a refreshing light and citrus fruity beer with a nice rough texture served in what looked to be a jam jar.

Not only was the service top notch, but the meal was free - which I mention in my respect for honesty in restaurant reviewing.

2: Yoko's Sushi

Reasonably priced with some good bottled Japanese beer. I checked out their Loco rolls with shrimp, salmon, avocado and tobiko (flying fish eggs) - all wrapped in seaweed with some fine smoky eel sauce. It was pretty succulent, and the rice was some of the best I'd ever tasted. The meal was amusingly served by the Springfield broken voiced teenager, and the lady preparing the food gave some handy tips on how to make the best sort of rice. (Wash and dry, wash and dry again and again apparently until the shiney film has gone.) I also had some octopus which was pretty nice in texture, if not overly flavourful. The spring rolls were crisp and succulent and the dips plenty. The prices were modest and the place was decked out in a light blue with an exotic fish tank. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, and the preparation behind the counter next to our table was fun to watch. The only difficulty was in finishing our portions, which looked modest but were extremely filling in actuality.

3: Black Horse

This is a trucker's stop, and predictably what it lacks in flavour it makes up for in portions. I had nachoes, a 'half plate' of them, and it was titanically huge platter sized portion at that. Service was rather slow, they sort of forgot about us in the corner, but when it came it was attentive. The nachoes were smothered in beef chilli, sour cream, cheese and just enough and not too many jalapaenoes. Unlike our dorito style nachoes, theirs are deep fried and very crispy. The only problem is that you end up feeling a bit queasy - or at least this Brit stomach did. Still, the only sensible way to do nachoes in my opinion, and my past experiences with the Brit version were left looking measily and cardboardy in the tucker's wake. Washed down with a pitcher of nut brown ale called 20 inch Brown, which was jolly nice. The trucker stop is full of... well, truckers and motorcyclists. The jukebox is country and rock and damn good at that. Motorcycles sport the walls, as does a rather touching name-plate memorial for KIA motorcyclist diners. Once again the beer menu was varied, with microbreweries shunting the domestic beers to a little box-out menu ghetto. Good stuff. Three quarters for a game of pool, which I won - I may add.

Also, the truckers cheerily wished my a good day, which was jolly nice as I was worried my limey accent would get me this:

"Aw, shit-box!"

Not so Good:


Oh dear, I guess it couldn't all be perfect. This wasn't a disaster, but it's an experience I'm going to damn with faint praise at most. The meal took a fair while in coming and when it did, my salmon steak was overdone and dry with little flavour left. The spinach salad however was huge with very tasty tortellini pasta and a just-right orange dressing. It was an epically big salad however, and despite my best efforts I could only eat half of it. Fellow diner Todd however had a worse time, with his burger with a sauce filling turning up half cold and pretty inedible. Things were rescued a little by the drinks menu. Although a little pricy, the Hammerhead wheat beer was crisp and one of the best I'd ever drank. Just the right touch of the banana, and not at all overpowering like most wheat beers. Fruity, pleasing aftertaste and the beer-mat logo is awesome, looking like an Art Spiegelman drawing of David Byrne with - well - a hammer for a head. While Todd and Amber had some very nourishing Terminator beer-shakes - stout milkshakes, basically. Also, I must add that the very attractive and courteous waitress looked like Maggie from Northern Exposure, and thus was tipped well by me.


But overall, pretty disappointing meal, especially for the price. Maybe because the place was busy. But still, come for the drink say I. And for the beer-shakes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Gatekeeper

I am clearly not the Keymaster.

Strange. I'm starting this blog as an outsider looking in. No, not literally with my face at your window, breathing heavily onto the pane, but rather as a foreigner on American soil.

Three days ago I slid out of an Airbus and found myself in Minneapolis. I figured it was a good place to knock at the gates of the arsenal of democracy, due to the state being famed for its astonishingly pleasant way with strangers - the glorious attitude of 'Minnesota Nice'. Maybe I would find Francis McDormand at the Homeland Security desk, saying things like, "You betcha," and the most reassuring word in the world - 'hon'. (Pronounced 'hun', which is an altogether less reassuring word.)

Instead there sat a young man, clean cut features and sensible hair. He looked a bit like Chief Tyrol, the eminently down-to-earth stand-up-guy from a certain broody philosophical TV show. I figured it was a safe bet; a young man, brimming with cheerful pride in his role as meeter-and-greeter-and-sometime-renderer of foreign visitors.

Fucking nightmare. There was I, stammering like some Hugh Grant as he peeled back the layers of my life seeking falsehoods and ill-intent with a piercing stare and grim jaw. The burden of protecting the land of the free upon his back, he curtly challenged me on the truth of my holiday visiting friends in Oregon. Facts fell limply out of my mouth like some soggy salad bag of lies. His cold voice demanded absolute truth.

"How did you meet her again?"

"$800? That doesn't seem enough."

"Explain your job to me again."

I was sweating. For some reason I felt like a lying scrub of the highest order, despite being clad like a pure knight in the armour of abject honesty. Or something. Eventually the ordeal ended, and it was a relief to be stamped, filed and indexed by the guy - my biometrics now one of many ghosts in the machine. ("What?" - ed.)

From that point on, thank fuck, everyone in Oregon so far has been Minnesota nice. Even the huge truckers at the bar yesterday afternoon. "Good day to you, friend," they said, and I'd pleasantly reply, "Hey there, and to you to," and not try to sound to them too much like a limey fag or whatnot.

Maybe, once your outside the shadow world of the airport terminal, everyone is nice in Oregon and Minnesota precisely because it is so fecking cold. You can't afford to offend a stranger because he may remember, and one day when you're quietly freezing next to your broken down General Motors Goliath on some isolated and barren ice gripped road he'll pass you by with a cruel grin and fail to jump start your car.

And I know something about the cold and empty roads of Oregon. The housemate of my friends, called Todd, gave me a lift from the airport in a wonderfully battered piece-of-shit car. Night had fallen, we had to thread our way through several passes and over hills on a four hour drive to get back to the town where I was staying - Bend. Mountains loomed on either side. He was full of cheerful commentary as the excellent William Shatner read his way through Pulp's Common People on the stereo.

"Yeah, it was white-out conditions earlier. Couldn't see a fucking thing man."

"We've gotta be careful for the next few miles, the high winds blow you off the road sometimes."

"I sort of need snow chains for this sort of work, but they can't find any to fit these small tyres."

"Cat's eyes? You mean reflectors? We did try them, but the snow chains smash 'em to pieces. You've just got to squint you know?"

Fair play to Todd though, I did survive, he's a fine driver and what's more he had done the astonishingly nice thing of having his tyres cut purely for this pick up. He is also the most entertaining swearer I have heard in a long time.

And so I made it to Bend, completely shattered but with a double bed waiting to embrace me. And after a long haul flight cramped Harry Houdini style, the soft mattress I sank into seemed the size of a football field.

Twenty Day Holiday Go.