Travel is a great teacher, and often its lesson is how to weather disappointment. This is advertised by America’s most dispiriting toponyms: Cape Disappointment in Washington State; Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Downers Grove, Illinois; the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina; and Embarrass, Wisconsin, named by early river navigators for the French embarrasse, to obstruct or impede.
I’ve never undertaken a trip that didn’t furnish an ego-flattening defeat. In Greece I was stung all over my dick by jellyfish, which seemed like a comparatively minor setback when I was then dumped by my girlfriend in Mykonos. When my job installing ice rinks sent me not to frozen Texoma or northern Georgia but to a luxury shopping centre in Sarasota, Florida, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Thanks to a contaminated Whole Foods buffet, I came close to being right.
As disasters go, these aren’t the stuff of Cabeza de Vaca, Hugh “The Revenant” Glass, or the Donner Party. Still, they keep me cautious whenever I leave home.
My southerly route through New York, on 88 toward Oneonta, meant missing out on the finest of the state’s regional cuisine. A proper “TUMS Along the Mohawk” culinary tour of I-90 includes hot dogs with meat sauce at Gus’s in Watervliet; an upside-down pie (toppings, then cheese, then sauce) at O’Scugnizzo’s in Utica; riggies and greens everywhere in Utica; a Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s Hots in Rochester; and beef on weck at Schwabl’s in West Seneca.
I knew of nothing so enticing in the Southern Tier, save a homely innovation called cold-cheese pizza. This is pizza plus a paper bag of cold shredded cheese, which you sprinkle on your hot pizza to protect the roof of your mouth. Here was a perfect union of gluttony and impatience, the custom of a people who willingly eat something called a Garbage Plate, and I wanted it.
But on the menu at Sal’s in Oneonta I found no mention of cold cheese. I was overcome with embarrassment; I felt like a Guy Fieri acolyte in search of the culinary grotesque. So, as disappointed as those starving Corps of Discovery men who, in the Bitterroots in 1805, “wer [sic] compelled to kill a Colt . . . to eat,” I ordered regular old pizza, not even hot enough to melt cheese. Leaving town I realized that I could’ve tried spiedies, a sandwich of cubed meat marinated in Italian dressing. Too late.
In Elmira, I was directed by signs to Mark Twain’s headstone, inscribed —diminishing the myth — Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Visitors had planted before it a small forest of pens and cigars. Twain’s presence lifted my spirits. I spotted a boy with his puppy, a man walking a three-legged dog, and a sign that read, oblivious to its own irony, CHURCH FOR SALE. It was a landscape that Twain himself could have painted.
The effect was short-lived. I reached Bradford, Pennsylvania after dark, under the neon sign of the Zippo factory, with no idea where to camp. I stopped at a supermarket; when I came out, my tire-pressure light was on. Had some tweaker stabbed my new Pirellis? Seeing no obvious damage, I plunged into the fog-laden, cell-service-free Allegheny National Forest. Camping was permitted wherever not explicitly forbidden. Yet there were no turnouts, no trailheads, no clearings. Gas was low. Zooming in on the map revealed a Bone Run Road and a Route 666. Onoville and Smethport looked like Oh no!-ville and It’s meth!-port.
I turned tail. I was in the Seneca Nation, so there had to be a casino nearby. I found it in Salamanca, New York. At Seneca Allegany Casino the stop signs read “Sáë’he’t.” There were busloads of people ready to get their pockets turned inside out. It looked like a blast.
Like Moses vouchsafed a glimpse of the Promised Land, I was informed that a pool had collapsed and was presently flooding the available rooms. The clerk, a bald, walleyed Indian with a pencil mustache, called a nearby hotel. There, a man whose nametag read “Director of First Impressions” told me, “I have no key cards. They had the powwow last weekend and they must have been handing them out like candy.” He’d have to manually facilitate my comings and goings.
“I grew up around here,” he said. “I call it my childhood paradise. Got your fishing pole with you?”
I did—but I knew, somehow, that I’d never catch anything.
On the TV, a note:
“Please be advised of the TV Remote issues we have been left with since our cable company came in and did an Upgrade!…TV may only get channels 2, 3, and 4…unplug the TV and wait for it to reload…We cannot use the up and down arrows for changing channels…we are aware of the issue and have had the cable company back here numerous times and cannot get the issue fixed.”
It went on and on. It may as well have been in Onöndowá’ga:’ for all the sense I could make of it. Better luck next time, I thought, and rolled over to sleep.