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Hey, you got Chicago in my Vegas

So today I made a dangerous discovery.

That discovery is that there’s at least one brewpub in Las Vegas that is open and serving beer all day, every day. And all night. 24/7, as they say. I still don’t know why that expression annoys me, but it does.

Don't ask me why it's named Chicago. It's not cold, windy, or smelly.

Don’t ask me why it’s named Chicago. It’s not cold, windy, or smelly.

This is dangerous, of course, because I’m not one who believes there is a proper time of day to drink beer. It’s not just for breakfast, you know. Nor is there a proper time of day to not drink beer.

Oh, and did I mention the place also has a cigar lounge?

Why, again, do I not live in Nevada?

Oh, yeah, because I’d be broke in a week. Or possibly dead.

Many places here are open 24 hours, incidentally. There are, as far as I can tell, none of those silly laws about when you can or cannot buy or consume beer. Virginia has silly laws like that. Bars have to close by 2 am, if I recall correctly, and shops can’t sell beer between midnight and six am (though they may have changed that law recently – I don’t have to buy it at those hours because I’m usually stocked up). Haven’t run across much of anything like that in Vegas. Places seem to open and close when they feel like it. It makes finding snacks at 4 am much easier.

Anyway, I had a good day at the blackjack table. Good enough that I decided to try some Kobe beef. Well, not real Kobe beef from Japan, but the same kind of dead cow, only the cow, when it was alive, lived in Idaho. I’m not sure it lives up to the hype, but further research may be necessary.

Tomorrow, I’ll see if I can visit more brewpubs. I was here in August, but I got sick, which kind of puts a damper on the whole “tasting” part of beer tasting.

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North Vegas

Had to get this pic as I was leaving Page:

Because I'm actually 12.

Slot. Canyon. Hummer. Adventures.

Sign me up!

Anyway, lots of long stretches of nothing today. Nothing, that is, except freaking amazing scenery.

Like this.

Like this.

And this.

And this.

And then, approaching Las Vegas, I saw the city shrouded in mist (okay, it’s probably smog. But I’ll call it mist.)

I'm now *breathing* that stuff.

I’m now *breathing* that stuff.

This afternoon, I found a hotel near a brewery. Though that’s rarely worked out for me before, I’m not one to learn from my mistakes. Fortunately, it’s a good hotel and a good brewery: Tenaya Creek. I was there during a brief visit to Vegas this summer, but it was so good I had to go again.

As an aside, Tenaya Creek doesn’t do food, so first I stopped at a taphouse (even closer to the hotel; both these places are in walking distance) called Aces & Ales. Amazing, absolutely stunning, beer selection – but my primary focus is, of course, visiting actual breweries.

Tenaya Creek does what a lot of places in Vegas do: they have video gambling at the bar. If you’re gambling, your drinks are “free.” I put “free” in quotes because like every other game in Vegas, it’s horribly slanted in favor of the house. And the more you drink, the more money you put into the gambling machine. Science proves this.

So, basically, I had the most expensive beer EVER.

Worth it.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t care for Mexican-style food, you should stay the hell away from New Mexico.

Me? I love the stuff. After being entirely unable to find tonight’s designated brewpub (Second Street Brewery), I drove around until I found a different brewpub, Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery. Good beer, if a bit too much emphasis on IPAs, and excellent food.

It was important to me that I find one brewery or another, because tomorrow, I leave the water desert and enter… the beer desert. No breweries in the Beertabase near my route for a few days.

First thing this morning, though, the route took me near Four Corners – the one spot in the entire country where four states come to a common point: Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

That concept always struck me as kinda cool but mostly silly. After all, the state boundaries are largely arbitrary in that region; most don’t follow anything real like rivers or mountain ridges. But I’ve spent most of my adult life working for and with surveyors, so from that perspective, I wanted to see it.

The official corner, complete with tourists.

Which means that I finally managed to set foot in Colorado (a stopover at the Denver airport twenty years ago does not count).

Two things, though:

First of all, the site not only divides four states, but two nations: Navajo and Ute. The Navajo maintain the site, and they’ve got booths set up in all four states for a massive marketplace. And the stuff they sell is pretty cool – some of the usual tourist trap crap, but also some very awesome art and jewelry.

But the greatest amusement value, for me, is that it’s in the wrong place.

The geographical coordinates, based on Wikipedia (which as we know may or may not be correct, but the point remains that the point’s off), are: 36°59′56.31532″N 109°02′42.62019″W. While the longitude is fairly close (it was never meant to be based on Greenwich-standard meridians, which are the ones used on maps these days), the latitude should have been exactly 37 degrees north.

Without getting too technical, though, I’ll first say that the corner is the corner – the surveyed point takes precedence over any theoretical values; this is a principle that holds true for most surveyed lines. And considering that the latitude line was surveyed around the turn of the last century, before any kind of GPS or modern survey techniques, I’d say they were damn good.

See, surveying a straight north/south line – a longitude line – is pretty simple, once you know the longitude of a given point (which is itself tricky – it requires an accurate timepiece and knowledge of where certain celestial bodies should be at a given time) you just survey a straight line north or south. Simple in principle – though it still requires good survey skills.

In contrast to the mathematical trickiness of determining longitude, determining latitude is fairly simple: you set up a level instrument and take the angle from horizontal to celestial north, which is close to but not spot on the North Star, Polaris. (Or the south celestial pole if you’re in that other hemisphere.) That angle is your latitude – if you’re at sea level, which is useful for sailors. Takes skill, sure, and there are complications, such as local elevation above sea level (which itself is fairly arbitrary on a world with tides). With a quick search, I couldn’t find the actual elevation of Four Corners, but it’s very roughly a mile above mean sea level (based on signs in the vicinity that proclaim a 5000 foot elevation).

Okay, I’m getting too technical after all, but just one more point: while a latitude line appears straight and horizontal on a Mercator map projection, when you’re on the ground surveying the thing, every so often you have to bend the line to approximate a very large radius curve – it’s not a “straight line” from the perspective of spherical geometry. The only latitude line that’s truly straight (ignoring the curvature of the earth) is the equator. Look at the 37th parallel from a point on the 37th parallel, viewing east or west, and there’ll be a very slight curve to the north.

So, all things considered, it’s pretty damn close. We could get it much, much closer with modern GPS surveying techniques, and you’d find that spot to be located about a third of a mile away. But again, it doesn’t matter – because the surveyed boundary takes precedence over the theoretical one.

Surveying isn’t a glamorous profession, even though at least two of the U.S. Founding Fathers (Washington and Jefferson) practiced it, but they have some pretty serious responsibility in a country where land boundaries determine so much.

Okay, enough about that. Back to important stuff.

When I was going through my Beertabase, I discovered another unique thing in New Mexico: an abbey brewery. Common in Europe (some of my very favorite beers are from Belgian monasteries), you don’t get a lot of that in the U.S. As far as I know, this is the only one (if there’s another, I’ll find it eventually). And it was close to my route – close enough to the route, but remote enough from other places, that I knew that if I didn’t visit the [warning: audio on the linked page seems to start automatically] Monastery of Christ in the Desert on this trip, I might not ever make it there again.

Just in case it’s not clear, that is not the building where they make the beer.

So I drove 16 miles along a single-lane, rutted, gravel road, past some of the most amazing scenery I’ve encountered, and then had to walk the final 1/3 mile or so to the gift shop.

Where I discovered that they don’t actually sell the beer there.

In fact, disappointingly, I think they contract with some other brewery to actually make the beer – but from what I understand, it’s still under their supervision, and the trip was totally worth it, so… no regrets.

I probably should point out that I’m not Catholic. In fact, I’m not religious in any conventional sense – unless you count what Ben Franklin supposedly said: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the scenery, setting, solitude or serenity of the place.

I even got to meet one of the monks, at their gift shop, where I made some small keepsake purchases (including a little book on abbey-style brewing around the world). Anything to support the Cause (that is, the Cause of promoting craft brewing regardless of the religious or political affiliation of the brewers).

On the way from there to Santa Fe – a good hour’s drive – I stopped in a local convenience store and picked up a six-pack of their Abbey Ale. Haven’t had any, yet, but I will.

I’ll just leave you with one more pic to give you a better idea of the setting.

Yep. Totally worth my car’s ruined suspension. (Just kidding – my Subaru can take way worse than that)

Ogden, Utah

Wyoming is cool.

Bit boring sometimes on the road, but mostly awesome views. Lots of big empty prairie interspersed with uplifted, colorful and broken sedimentary rock formations. And sometimes igneous. But mostly sedimentary.

Did I get any pictures, though? No, of course not, because my camera is still on the fritz and I won’t be able to do anything about it for another couple of days.

One thing has been bugging me for the past few days, though. I’ve seen it on ranches from South Dakota into Montana and on into Wyoming, but I don’t recall seeing any in Utah (mostly because so far, Utah is an enormous mountain range).

Basically, what’s been bugging me is: what in the hell are these things?

Srsly, wtf?

They’re on prairie ranchland, usually to the west of the road (and never on both sides); they’re all made of the same thing: wood, modular, angled slightly back from vertical toward the road.

They’re not fences, because they don’t hold anything in – the ends are open. The actual ranch fence is visible in the foreground of that pic – mostly just the posts, because my camera phone isn’t the greatest.

I rejected a few theories, such as:

– Alien landing signals (aliens don’t need signals)

– Things to annoy cows

– Tornado early warning devices (you see one in the air, run for shelter)

– Things to annoy curious city boys from back East (there are cheaper ways to do that)

– Warnings for when the kids are having tractor races that a road is nearby

– Jackalope traps

– Things to bounce basketballs off of

About the only thing I can figure is that they’re driftbreaks, meant to keep blowing snow off the roads. But I don’t know, and the one and only time I approached an actual cowboy and said “Howdy…” he said, “That Obamma bastard has ruint the country!”

Seriously, all they can talk about around Wyoming is the upcoming election, and I have a good idea which way Wyoming’s going.

Anyway, web searches haven’t helped much, either. Just try searching for “weird wooden fence-like structures on ranch land.” Be sure to turn SafeSearch on if you value your sanity. So if anyone knows what these are, please tell me.

So. Utah. First time here. A lot greener than I expected, but then I didn’t really know what to expect. The hotel I’m in, Ben Lomond Suites, is just a couple blocks from the brewpub, Rooster’s. Both are pretty awesome. Ben Lomond has amazing rooms at cheaper than I’ve paid for crappy ones elsewhere – but then, this is probably an off-season for Utah; too late for summer activities and too early for serious skiing.

Skiing’s a weird word. I always want to put in an extra i. Skiiing.

In any case, I take back what I said in a previous post about not selecting lodging based entirely on proximity to the brewpub. Sometimes, you get lucky.

I’d been warned that Utah has funny rules about bars. For one, there are no bottles behind the bar. Rooster’s had a glass wall behind which was the brewing equipment, though, so I enjoyed the scenery. Apparently the reason for the no bottles behind the bar rule is that if you watch the bartender make you a drink, you might think it’s glamorous or classy or something, and you can’t have that.

Well. I’ll just be pleased that Utah has brewpubs at all, though this might be the only one I visit on this trip.

Casper, Wyoming

I’m lucky to be here.

No, no, I don’t mean it like that. I mean that every hotel in central Wyoming is booked solid – combination of oil boom and nearby wildfires. And no, I don’t know what happens if the wildfires reach the oil wells. I want to be gone before that happens.

But I managed to get a room at Parkway Plaza Hotel that didn’t cost me body parts and which, happily, had a free shuttle to the local brewpub!

…as usual when beer is involved, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hell yeah geology!

That, of course, is Bear Lodge, aka Devils Tower. I got there around, I dunno, 9:30 in the morning or so, hung around the visitor center for a while to look at the exhibits, and then decided to walk around the formation.

There’s a trail, about a mile and a quarter long, that circles the base. It being a really nice day, the trail was well-populated. Most people circle it widdershins, I noticed. I don’t know why. Of course I had to be different and go deosil, or clockwise. For one thing, this ensured that I wouldn’t be annoyed by people insisting on walking just slightly too slowly in front of me. You know how it goes: You got a good pace going and you don’t want to slow down, but the people in front of you also have their own good pace going and it’s incrementally slower than yours. You can a) slow down to match their pace (annoying); b) speed up to pass (not always easy on a narrow trail) or c) wait until either you or they get tired and step off the trail. It’s worse when you’ve done (a) and then they suddenly decide to come to a complete and sudden halt right in front of you.

So, yeah, I avoided all that by walking deosil.

I got a couple dozen pictures, from all angles. I saw people climbing it – with and without ropes. I saw one person standing on the edge of the summit like he or she (I was too far away to tell) owned all of the Black Hills.

I should note that I had to use my backup camera (aka Android phone) for the pics; my Nikon’s batteries are shot and won’t hold a charge. Completely annoying when traveling. But that’s why I always have a backup.

So, just one more picture, from a different angle:

We’re rockin’ now.

The geology of the area is well-studied; an igneous intrusion into sedimentary layers, and the layers got eroded away over millions of years, leaving the more erosion-resistant igneous rock. There are different theories of exactly what forces formed the magma intrusion, but that’s the basics.

Me, I’m fond of the legends related in this article, especially:

According to the Native American tribes of the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux, some girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.

Because it involves bears and the Pleiades.

So all in all I spent a couple of hours there, and made it to Casper well before nightfall.

The local brewpub is Wonder Bar, which has four beers of its own as well as several craft and macro brews on tap. I stuck with their own beer, a nice selection of wheat ale, pale ale, red ale, and dark ale – all of which were quite good. But it’s the red I filled up on, taking advantage of having a shuttle back to the hotel.

Tomorrow? Utah, which has a surprising number of breweries, most of which I will not be able to visit on this trip.

Davenport, Iowa

While Davenport wasn’t on my original route, it was close enough, and I have a friend here. Besides, there are five breweries in the vicinity. But mostly because my friend Ransom Noble lives here.

Now, before we even met up, she asked me to investigate an establishment that she’d be too chicken to visit, herself, so I’m calling her out on that here. The establishment? Hot Cups, a coffee shop that… well, click on the link.

Tragically, when I got there, the place was closed “indefinitely.”

Until now, I didn’t even LIKE coffee.

Such are the bitter winds of fate. Oh, well… at least the breweries were open. Well, the one we went to for lunch was, anyway… Bent River Brewing Company, across the river in Moline, Illinois.

Ransom showed up with her kids, who are all kinds of cute.

There is, I should mention, more than one reason that I enjoy brewpubs; apart from the obvious, not a lot of parents with small children hang out there, meaning that unless some drinker gets rowdy, the places are quiet during the day, like churches. So there I was, in the sanctity of the brewpub… in a booth with two small children, the smaller of whom demonstrated incredible lung capacity for such a small entity.

I felt like I should do penance.

Afterward, I finally got a chance to hang out by the Mississippi; usually, I’m crossing it, not lurking on its banks. Not the best day for pictures, though. Cloudy and rainy.

Yeah, yeah, it’s a river; so what?

I even got to meet Ransom and her husband for dinner at a different pub – another Granite City location. There, I discovered that not only does that chain have good beer, it also has excellent food. So, okay, that’s two breweries in the Quad City area visited; I’ll save the other three for another trip.

In all, a good day. Tomorrow? Long drive. But I’ll still try to find something interesting to post.

Crown Point, Indiana

I’ve seen this billboard (in Ohio) before, and I finally got a chance, today, to take a picture of it.

A parable on the danger of printing important text on your billboard with ink that fades in the sunlight.

I don’t even know what time it is.

No, it’s not because I’m drunk; I’m not. It’s that I’m very, very close to the boundary between Eastern and Central time. Last time I was this close to a time zone boundary, you may recall, was when I was in Maine, and Canada was right across a strait. This time, it’s not that simple. The boundary doesn’t follow the western border of Indiana all the way. When it gets to the greater Chicago area, where I am now, it takes a turn around Gary and surrounding municipalities.

And I’m pretty sure I’m on the Central time side of that border, but somehow I can’t find out for sure. My phone says one thing. The clock in the hotel says another.

I need a Tardis.

Today was a good beer day, as opposed to yesterday, which was a bad beer day. I guess Indiana just makes good beer.

It occurred to me today, though, while chatting with a nice bartender named Emily at Granite City Food & Brewing in Fort Wayne, that beer might begin to suffer from the same malady as most other art forms; that is, for lack of a better phrase, snob creep.

It happens with almost every kind of art. The medium starts out with a simple concept: something created to please people, make them think, affect their emotions, or whatever. But then, something happens and the creators stop creating for ordinary people, and start creating for other creators and critics. At that point, the art form becomes mostly inaccessible; or, alternatively, it splits off into what the snobs call “high art” and “low art.”

Painting is probably the most famous example of this. It started out with some cave dweller recording his or her tribe’s victory over a wooly mammoth or brontosaurus or whatever. And now, what passes for “art” in museums these days is a single color filling a canvas. No ordinary person can look at that and say, “Oh, that painting is a response to society’s tendency to watch TV instead of actually thinking,” but some critic or another will actually present that as a fact. The artist, then, will smile and nod, appearing to agree with the critic while secretly thinking, “HA! $30,000 in the bag.”

It’s as if cavepeople painted a big gray blob with some red on it and other cavepeople nodded knowingly, going, “That obviously captures the final agonies of the brontosaurus.” When really it’s a big gray blob. And now artists look down their noses at anyone who tries to make something realistic-looking – which is what most of us ordinary people want.

Look, the point is that once art stops being accessible, it’s no longer fun. I’ve ranted on at length in other media about the presence of the “literary fiction” genre, which seems to exist so that English professors can feel superior – but non-litsnobs read that crap and go, “Someone made money with this?” No. Give me a good fantasy or science fiction book any time – that is what literature should be about – telling a compelling story. That’s all.

Snob creep. This could happen to beer.

It will be sad if that happens, but most artistic media fall into that trap eventually – the insiders will know all the secrets of brewing and come up with some concoction that pleases other insiders with its freshness, newness, boldness, whatever – and us poor slobs who just like to drink a goddamn beer will be left shivering in the cold going, “but I just wanted a nice porter.”

Don’t let this happen. It’s one thing to be a beer snob, insisting on craft microbrews at every turn – naturally I’d say that, because I’m one of them – but it’s another thing entirely to decide, “Hey, we have all these standard rules about how to make a good beer – let’s change some of the rules and call it art!” That’s what happened with literature, by the way; someone decided that we don’t need a silly thing like a “plot.”

“New” isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes it’s best to keep cranking out what already works.

Okay, enough ranting. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite taps so far, this one from Crown Brewing in Crown Point, Indiana:

More Crown Brown please. Yes, just keep it coming.

Aroooo

This exists:

Aroooo

“Blood Red Ale”

Yet another thing to make me miss England.

That and crumpets. Can’t find crumpets in the US for anything.

Oh, the beer’s pretty good. Not stunning or anything, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a creative label.

I leave tomorrow, and I should be packing right now…