Part 2: Murica: Mormons, Rednecks, Mennonites, and Strip Clubs…about what you’d expect really. 5,524km/3,349miles
I know some people in the USA, family, friends, and my boyfriend. Before this trip I’d only been to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York. Usually when people travel to the USA from Canada they go to Florida, California, and New York. I tried to map out a route that took me from Seattle, to San Francisco, to Denver, to Kansas, and finally Philadelphia. This was a logistical timing nightmare, I thought about flying some legs but couldn’t really afford it, so in the end I cut out San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Seattle is about 4 hours by bus from Vancouver, an easy evening trip and an uneventful one at that. Border crossing is annoying when you’re on a bus, mostly because they make you get off the bus and go through customs similar to that of an airport. Everyone breezed through without issue except one guy…black with long dreads…of fucking course, the only typically profile-able person on the entire bus gets stopped, questioned, and searched by the USA border guards. It was just so damn obvious and the guards were so shameless about it, like ‘yeah this is a totally normal and random search, what are you looking at Blondie?” Because I was looking, without caution, at this blatant display of discrimination. The outcome-obviously this guy was fine and they let him into the ‘Greatest’ country in the world. And that is how I entered Murica.
What I know about Seattle; grunge, coffee, a giant needle, and apparently a very impressive fish market. Basically I drank a lot of awesome coffee at some cute little coffee shops that I don’t remember the name of and walked around the city for 2 days. My long-time friend Colin had moved to Seattle with his girlfriend, now wife Audrey; they were amazing hosts; they took me to a bar at way too an early an hour because their University’s football team was playing a match and that’s what people do there…it made me happy that hockey games are on at appropriate drinking hours. They took me to a great bookstore where I bought a book on how to make books (this was incredibly handy later on). My last night, we went to a bar in their neighbourhood called The White Rabbit (incidentally this is one of my favourite songs and one that I sing exceptionally well at Karaoke). True to its nature and reputation, Seattle was gray and rainy most of the time with little outbursts of sunshine but I had a blast nonetheless. Obviously I did not go the Space Needle or the fish market…I am not the best tourist, I just like to wander around cities and do my best to avoid line ups. I could have spent an entire week in Seattle and not been bored but I had a timeline and it was time to move on.
My next main destination was Denver but it’s a long road to Denver from Seattle so I planned to stop in Salt lake City for the day and catch the night bus to Denver… sometimes things don’t go as planned…sometimes they go better than planned!
This is what I know about Salt Lake City; they hosted the Olympics at one point and evidently there is a Salt Lake in the vicinity. There was also a movie made called SLC Punks but I never watched but it lead me to believe there might be some punks about. The only other thing I knew about SLC is that it is home to The Church of Latter Day Saints….Mormons, which happens to be the largest most imposing building in the city.
I just need to stop here a minute and let you guys know that I did this trip without a phone and internet…in 2011…I know you’re thinking, I must be total hero but actually my phone was attached to my job in Korea and I just couldn’t be bothered to get one for 1 month. In that regard, I wasn’t able to look up “things to do in….” or even get in touch with anyone to let them know I missed my bus, I am an hour behind schedule, etc…
Back to Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormons…I feel like I can’t say too much here, because whatever, to each their own…however the reports of abuse that come from that community, essentially has me thinking this whole religion is 100% a cult. Armed with this knowledge, I was wary of everyone I met… of their overt friendliness, of looking directly into someone’s eyes for fear of being hypnotized. Regardless, I persisted in my exploration of this actually really beautiful city. When I got to SLC I had been on a bus for way too long and felt pretty grimy. I also really needed some clean clothes so at about 6am I walked a few miles to the closest laundromat and did all my laundry. I had intended to freshen up in the bathroom but it was nasty and I feared contagions so I decided to go back to the hostel I passed and ask to pay for a shower there. The hostel was pretty weirded out about my request and told me to go to a truckstop which weirded me out a bit…so eventually they agreed to charge me a truckstop shower fee but the towel was not included. Squeaky clean and still slightly damp, I walked back to the bus station and put my stuff in a locker; it was about 9 a.m ish by this point and I was famished and in desperate need of coffee. Well fuck… apparently Mormons do not drink coffee and no one had any positive leads on a source of caffeine. Having spent the night on a Greyhound, and coming down hard from my caffeinated adventures in Seattle, I persisted and eventually found a place. The barista was a really pleasant, LGBTQ friendly guy who told me in no uncertain terms NOT to bother going to the Salt Lake…he said it smelled like rotten eggs. Apparently from overwhelming, “unstoppable bacteria decay” (www.deseretnews.com). Why did they name this city after a Lake with an odour issue? I tried googling that question and came up with a list of things you may not know about Salt Lake City from Matador Network.
There are more non-Mormons than Mormons.
Sorry to crush your vision of what Salt Lake City is ‘supposed’ to be like, but the Mormon majority is a thing of the past in the city, with the rest of the county not far behind. The non-Mormon population has been on a steady rise for the last decade, and despite the fact that this is the headquarters of the religion, not everyone you’ll meet here will be Mormon.
It’s got one of the largest LGBT communities in the US.
Betcha didn’t know that Salt Lake City was Advocate‘s #1 “Gayest City in the USA” in 2012. It dropped to #6 in 2013, but I’m betting that’s still a lot higher than you expected. SLC was the first in the state to pass anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation, and the LGBT community here is HUGE. The Pride Festival is one of the biggest events in the city and draws over 25,000 attendees, including (for the last couple years) a hundred or so members of the Church of LDS who come out to show their support.
Most people are ridiculously friendly and hospitable.
Maybe it’s all that fresh air and nature that surrounds the city, but the people here are just crazy nice. Whether you encounter them on the slopes, in the bars, or on the SLC streets, strangers won’t recoil at the sight of out-of-towners like you. Welcome to Salt Lake City!
While the statement about Mormons is not backed up by data in the post and I’m not about to delve any further into the topic, it is easy believable. Normally when we travel to places we try to recall anything we know about the place and the people there…inevitably there will be stereotypes that pop up and while traveling you’ll unknowingly or knowingly be on the lookout for them. As they say stereotypes exist for a reason but usually the reason is a small but loud minority. And seeing the facts about the LGBTQ community and that they apparently receive support from the Church of LDS further shows that the ideas we have are not based on real knowledge but assumptions. Statement 3 is 100% true; people randomly striking up conversation with me as I was waiting for the light to change, wandering around the state capitol building, walking up gorgeous streets surrounded by mountains, and when at last I sat down at a bar for dinner and a beer (yes, I found a bar!).
So I sat down at this bar serving local brewed beer at about 6-7% alc.; I was planning to stay for about 1-2 hours (I had been walking up and down hills all day), I ordered some pretty decent calamari if memory serves, and a very strong beer…and then another…and eventually got to talking to a traveling sunglasses salesman from Florida who was super friendly and we got along awesomely. The bar was packed at this point and I asked for my bill but the waitress informed me that the machines were down…at this point I had 30 minutes to get on a bus to Denver. Well I didn’t get my bill in time and didn’t really have a plan except that me and this guy should probably just buy some beer and drink somewhere else. Basically we had a dance party in his hotel room, passed out and woke up ridiculously early to get on the day bus to Denver with a hangover. Good times. I know, I know…DON’T GO TO A FUCKING STRANGER’S HOTEL ROOM!!!!!!! Right whatever, listen most people you meet are good people, blah blah blah…if you can’t trust your instincts…and let’s be clear-I was NOT drunk when I hatched this plan…then maybe stay home in your bubble suit. This guy was great, perfect gentlemen, tons of fun, and I came out the other side with an “I got stuck in SLC for a night and met a traveling salesman” story.
The only bummer about getting stuck in SLC was that I missed out on a whole day in Denver because I spent that day on another damn bus. My journey compared to that of many others riding the bus, was one of absolute leisure. One man sitting next to me told me that he was a truck driver and his truck had broken down outside Salt Lake City; the truck company told him to stay put and they would sort it all out. Two weeks later, he was still sitting in and paying for a motel room with no news from the trucking company, so he hopped on the Greyhound to make the long trip back to Georgia (nearly the opposite end of the country). Sadly, in many circumstances, newly released convicts were put on buses in the middle of nowhere to be sent back to their home state; making their journey to get home, after serving their time in prison,a 2-3 day greyhound journey; well done America!
Surprisingly I was not totally sick of the bus yet… Like I said in Part 1, I was figuring my shit out on this journey and I don’t know when I had my lightbulb moment but I did eventually. Rolling through North America’s surreal landscape is nothing short of inspiring and the fact that you are trapped on a bus with nothing to do but stare out the window, contemplate this beautiful land and where you fit into it…it’s fucking cathartic. Wyoming, in particular, astounded me with its unusual rock formations, stripes and colouring.
Here is my things I know about Denver list: Mountains, snowboarding, artsy, Jack Kerouac and other Beatniks. I love all of these things, so obviously I was stoked to walk the streets that Kerouac had walked and think Kerouac thoughts…Really I just got in late one night, went to a Whole Foods for snacks and fell asleep. The next day I walked all over the city and met up with an old friend who was going to school there. We went out for food and drinks, first at a very respectable place on a main street with lots of respectable people around and then in a bar that looked like maybe there were supposed to be motorcycles out front and someone getting a Hepatitis tattoo in a booth, all in all it was a good day. Chris offered to drop me at my hostel but I fancied a walk so we parted ways and I started heading off in the direction of my hostel in the sketchiest neighbourhood in the city…I think… but can’t be 100% certain of this because I didn’t look it up. The hostel that I stayed in was not your average backpackers, it felt more like a temporary home for recently released criminals and drug addicts (a halfway house).
What I learned about Denver: Truly beautiful city with an old industrial vibe, friendly people everywhere…I’m Quebecois, we’re more reserved and not very friendly so this talking to strangers things was very new to me.
What I also learned in Denver; there are 2 places called Junction City, one is in Colorado and the other is in Kansas…I was Kansas bound and very nearly lost another day ending up somewhere else in Colorado…thankfully I got sorted out in time….another thing; the bus station is crazy busy, massive lines…fairly fucking unpleasant. Up until now all of my buses have left on time but this one left an hour late. Back to the lack of phone on my person, I was unable to inform Douglas that I would be an hour late. Also up until now, I’d really only met nice, interesting, somewhat boring people on the bus but things start to change once you begin crossing the Midwest bible belt. 11 hours of the most incredible Rednecks I’ve ever seen or heard in such close proximity…it was like watching TV …I was fascinated….Here’s the thing about stereotypes, they exist for a reason and these guys here… they were the reason. I couldn’t tell if they were drunk or they just came like that but one thing was for sure… they were loud, ignorant, and obnoxious…everything people assume about Americans and are usually wrong about-well these guys were all of it. Anyway I eventually had to stop eavesdropping and listen to music because it’s considered rude to stare. I did sit beside a lovely young man who was an average, mildly interesting person trying to get somewhere.
At long last, Junction City, Kansas; the city where dreams are made, the geographical centre of the USA, the Land of Oz, and the epic final destination to my long voyage. This also happens to be where my boyfriend was posted and literally the ONLY reason I had gone to the Mid-West. As previously explained, my bus was an hour behind schedule and with no phone to call and warn him of this, I was worried he would not be there waiting for me, thinking I had abandoned ship and decided not to come. No matter, I thought, I’ll just get out at the bus station and call him from a pay phone. HA! The greyhound stops somewhere along a dark highway outside an eerie little shop-like place down the road from some questionable motels. Douglas wasn’t there! No one was there except myself and 2 others that had debarked the bus. There was thankfully a pay phone but of course…I didn’t have any change sooooo I asked the strangers to use their phone, which they didn’t seem too pleased about, but recognizing my circumstances as being not too favourable, they relented. He didn’t answer…well fuck. The strangers left and I waited a bit longer hatching a survival plan. As I started walking towards a distant gas station, Douglas comes tearing into the parking lot, hops out, and chuckles his very Southern, very good hearted chuckle and says, “You made it!” I was like “What the fuck Douglas! You’re over an hour late to pick me up!” He was not as it turns out he was on time but heard from someone else waiting for someone that actually the bus was running late and he left to pick up something up….So basically I’m the jerk of this story.
Douglas and I checked into our hotel, made good use of the room, ate some pizza and passed out. The next morning, bright and early, he had to go to work, he’s in the army so it was REALLY early. I got up some hours later, and not being a fan of hotel room coffee, got dressed and set out to find some coffee and breakfast. I found neither; after an hour and a half or so of walking around I found an Advocate’s office, an army surplus store, a few fast food chains, an army surplus store, a Walmart, a notary’s office, an army surplus store…and well you get the idea. While it was a pleasant, albeit uneventful place to walk around on this fine October morning, it didn’t take long to figure out that I had seen it all and the most interesting thing to do in Junction City is go to Walmart by day and then stop by the liquor store by night.
I went to Walmart, picked up some food and some craft supplies (there were a lot of hours left before Douglas finished work), and headed back to the hotel room. I relented and drank hotel coffee, which was not as bad as expected, then I opened up my “How to Make Books” book and got to work. I’m fucking terrible at making books apparently. But it kept me occupied for a while. I honestly don’t know what happened to the rest of the day…probably took a nap but at some point Douglas called with some piss poor news that someone had skipped out on guard duty and he drew the short end of the stick and had to work all night…ugh. What the hell was I supposed to do all night by myself? I had exhausted my resources and was not too keen or curious to venture out on my own. If the coffee selection was that bad, what would the nightlife be like in this town? As I gazed out the window forlornly I saw the unmistakable bright lights of a liquor store…fuck it, if I am going to be stuck here alone, I might as well have some wine!
Once I made my selection, I went to pay for it…as one does, and as I expected by a country whose legal limit is 21, they carded me (I was 26). Like a well-seasoned traveler in America, I pulled out my passport and confidently handed it over. Instead of being rewarded with a curt nod and ‘that’ll be x$’ this lady says to me:
Cashier: Ma’am we can’t accept foreign identification in Kansas State liquor stores (plug your nose and say this out loud slowly while rolling your eyes) You need and American ID.
Me: Wha..?!?! But this is a passport and seeing as how I’m only here for a few days…how would one go about acquiring this American identification?
Cashier: Well you can’t
Me: So only American Citizens can buy alcohol in Kansas?
(Meanwhile, I could see out of my peripheral that the older wino-esque gentlemen behind me was getting pretty antsy)
Cashier: Well you need an American ID.
Wino-esque Gentlemen: Ma’am (at cashier) That’s an internationally recognized form of identification (my passport), you HAVE to take it.
Cashier goes to find manager. Manager agrees to let me buy alcohol… I go back to room, drink some wine and fall asleep to the TV. So much for my romantic Kansas getaway.
The next day we went to Topeka, Kansas, the state capital. We ate breakfast at an Ihop while a table full of dusty, old, bigoted prunes stared daggers at us. Similar attitude at our hotel check-in, similar encounter at Starbucks and with almost every person we encountered in Kansas except this one lady who I think was just flirting with Douglas and didn’t have a clue why I was standing in the vicinity smiling. Incidentally, Kansas was the first to conclude that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.
Topeka, Kansas, not much going on there…we tried to find some lively nightlife but found an Irish Pub that appeared to be hosting a staff party and us. Inevitably, we ended up at a Strip Club on the highway that we had passed on the way into the city. We went out wanting to dance but ended up watching women dance…and let me tell you, these women were not paid for their dancing skills; some places do actually employ talented dancers. Topeka has approximately 127,473 residents 126,000 of which are most likely agoraphobes or hermits or out of town. The last time I visited Douglas we stayed downtown Topeka the whole time, this is not a weekend place…I had to search high and low for coffee and food and ended up in an Irish Pub which was the ONLY place open and served dismal coffee. Every time I go to Kansas I have to go through caffeine withdrawal; maybe this is why our relationship didn’t work out.
But in case you were wondering why I bothered to make the trek to Kansas, here’s a picture of Douglas without his shirt on:
After a few days, it was time to go back to Canada and eventually back to Korea. I bought another book for the bus trip from Kansas to Barrie, it was not long enough and I had to read it twice. A day and a half of picking up recently released convicts in their plain grey sweat suits and brown paper bags through the prison dense state of Missouri, in stark contrast to a large family of Mennonites who also happen to be riding the bus, to a single Dad and his 2-3 year old child moving a day and a half away to grandma’s house. This kid was so well behaved, but not surprisingly he was getting a little antsy so I pulled out my “How to Make Books” book and we made mini insta-books that we filled with mini drawings of cartoon animals.
Back in Barrie, Ontario to visit with Lindsay again before meeting my brother in Toronto. Surprise, she’s pregnant! The following year when I came back from Korea, she would have a tiny little nugget named Liliya, who is my Goddaughter.
The next month would be spent very broke, at my brother’s place in Ottawa, Ont, interviewing for jobs in South Korea, going through the arduous Visa process, applying for my Bachelor of Education at the University of Ottawa, and playing with Jaida and Bernie.
I flew back to Korea with 100$ in my pocket and no regrets!
The End of the Great Greyhound Saga of 2011