Late last year I started planning a weekend getaway to somewhere in Canada or the US in late January or early February. I was tossing up between three or four cities within an affordable travelling distance from Toronto, when I chanced upon this tweet in my timeline:

 

 

Montpelier, eh? I’d never even heard of it before. A quick spot of research led me to find that not only was it the sole US capital without a McDonalds, but it was also the smallest American capital city, with a population of around 7,800. What’s more, it was only 500km from Toronto, and Porter Airlines had some decent prices on flights to the nearby city of Burlington, about 45 minutes north-west of the capital.

If there’s no McDonalds in Montpelier, I wondered, then what on earth do the locals do for food & entertainment?

That familiar sense of intrigue sparked within me and I knew my next weekend getaway would be to the New England state of Vermont. And so it was that on Friday last week I set upon my first of three days in Montpelier: an absolutely delightful little town that would ultimately take the #1 spot on my list of favourite cities in the United States.

In case you were also wondering what there is to do in and around Montpelier sans-Mickey D’s, I’ve compiled here a list of the beautiful sights, delicious food and inspiring attractions that I was lucky enough to see, eat and visit during my trip!

 

Montpelier Panorama
A Montpelier panorama as seen from Cliff St, on the way down from Hubbard Park

 

The Three Penny Taproom

I arrived in the early evening and the first thing I did after checking into the lovely room I booked through AirBnB was to drop by the Three Penny Taproom at 108 Main Street. Known to locals as one of the top spots in town for authentic Vermont fare, the bar was recommended by my friend Johanna, who met with me at the venue for a couple of drinks and a bite to eat.

The first thing that struck me was the impressive list of craft beers on tap – around 25 of them all up, with a decent sample of local brews from around the state. I loved the deep fruity tastes of the Zero Gravity Ourbier, but looking back over the tap list at the website I wish I’d noticed the Honeymaker Tea Mead from Maine… honey wine with black tea, lemon & mint… it sounds incredible!

And then came the food. What more can I say, but the Daily Burger was quite possibly the best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life. Perfectly portioned beef, pickles, jalapeño, cheese, lettuce & peanut butter on the freshest brioche bun. Burgers don’t come around like that very often.

 

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The entrance to the Three Penny Taproom

 

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Some happy locals at the bar

 

Coffee Corner

I’d made plans the next morning to have breakfast at an eatery called the Skinny Pancake, but I ended up popping into a diner across the road called Coffee Corner at 83 Main Street. My AirBnB host, Karin, spoke very highly of the service and homestyle food available here. I was originally only going to have a coffee, but I couldn’t resist sticking around for my morning meal after a quick look at the menu, ultimately settling for the O’Bryan breakfast specialty (house-made corned beef hash with sautéed green peppers, served with eggs and toast). Wow. Two exquisite American-style meals in a row – I was in food heaven.

It was around about this time that I noticed a recurring theme to the cafes & restaurants around Vermont: they pride themselves on sourcing as much local food direct from the farm as possible, with maximum community involvement at the point of consumption. At the Coffee Corner I sat at what’s known as the ‘community table’, which is essentially a square bar positioned around the barista’s counter with seating for 10-12 people. The idea at the community table was to interact with the people who sat around you – and indeed I struck up a good couple of conversations with the locals around me while munching away on my corned beef.

 

Montpelier Coffee Corner
Coffee Corner

 

The Vermont State House

Located on the aptly-named State Street and adjacent to the woody hills of Hubbard Park, the grandest piece of architecture in Montpelier has to be the Vermont State House, serving as the capitol of the state since the mid-1800’s. The State House is open to visitors during the week but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see its interior as it’s closed on weekends during the winter. I was quite disappointed about not getting a glimpse inside – I was told it’s just as beautiful internally as it is externally, and a whopping 95% of its reviews on TripAdvisor are ranked as very good or excellent.

It’s interesting to note that members of the public are welcome to sit in on parliamentary sessions whenever the legislators are at work. Apparently it’s also not uncommon to see the governor and legislators line up at Pinky’s sandwich shop for lunch, mingling and chatting with fellow Vermonters.

Reason enough to visit Montpelier again in the summertime, I think?

 

Montpelier Vermont State House
The monumental Vermont State House

 

Hubbard Park

After my visit to the State House I made my way around the nearby backstreets in search of the path leading into Hubbard Park. Set on a hill to the north of the city, my map suggested there were some good hiking trails within its grounds, culminating with a century-old stone tower at the summit. The map wasn’t wrong. With a layer of fresh snow covering the track and the towering woods above me, it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful short hikes I’ve taken since arriving on continental North America.

 

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Hubbard Park foliage reaching well toward the sky

 

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The snowy path winding through the woods

 

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The Hubbard Park Tower

 

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Basically, an open invitation to climb the tower

 

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One step to go!

 

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The view across the Vermont countryside from the top of the Hubbard Park Tower

 

Morse Farm

After descending from the Hubbard Park trail via Cliff St, I met with my host Karin again who very kindly offered to drive me a few miles north of Montpelier to Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. In operation for over 200 years, the farm claims to produce the best maple syrup in the whole of the state. We spent quite some time browsing through the huge store, full of every type of maple-related food item and souvenir you can imagine. They had a tasting bar where you could sample the different grades of syrup from lightest to darkest – Vermont Fancy Grade, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. I picked up half a pint of the delicious Grade A Medium, as well as some maple candy and an apple cider donut!

Also on-site was a theatre with a multimedia display and an outdoor museum, but there wasn’t much on show when we visited, presumably due to it still being a month or two away from this year’s sugar season. However, there were some great woodwork displays, and I got to see a tapped maple tree in the woods at the rear of the shop.

Unfortunately I forgot how strict the TSA are at the airport when it comes to liquids, and as such I had to throw away my half-pint of syrup when I left Vermont 🙁 But not to worry: I ordered some more online and am looking very forward to it arriving soon.

Thanks also to Kumlu for suggesting Morse Farm as a great local attraction to visit.

 

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Inside the Morse Farm country store

 

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Grade A Medium Amber. The most popular syrup on sale: “distinctive in taste and golden in colour”

 

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Nothing but the best from Morse Farm!

 

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The cute entrance to the Woodshed Theatre, constructed out of maple timber

 

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A tapped maple tree

 

The Vermont Countryside

Instead of heading straight back to Montpelier, Karin took me on a detour through the Vermont countryside. We travelled about 8 miles out of town along some gorgeous meandering dirt roads, where we eventually stopped at the North Montpelier Pond. So far over this side of the world I’d walked along the banks of a half-frozen river in Oakville and I’d seen the icy surface of Lake Ontario extending out a hundred metres before meeting water, but the North Montpelier Pond was the first time I’d experienced an entirely frozen body of water.

Our ears were met with an eerie creaking noise as we stepped onto the snowy surface, but we were reassured to see the fresh marks of car tires stretching well into the centre of the lake. The ice can’t have been that unstable. It was quite a moment to know I was standing on a thin solid meniscus only a few inches above the aquatic life trapped below.

We continued south along a few more secluded roads, past elaborate homesteads & farms and into the nearby township of Barre. The Vermont countryside is a truly wondrous area of the world to explore by car and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see a small portion of it with Karin.

 

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A homestead along a well-maintained dirt road in the Vermont countryside

 

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Standing in the centre of North Montpelier Pond!

 

Hope Cemetery

Just outside the township of Barre lies the very unique 65-acre Hope Cemetery. First used as a burial ground in the late 1800’s, it’s famous for its 10,000+ tombstones being carved entirely out of Vermont granite, many of which are the works of post-revolutionary Italian migrants. We crawled slowly along the necropolis laneways marvelling at the efforts surviving family members went to in order to memorialise their deceased loved ones, with designs ranging from a soccer ball to an airplane to a racecar.

It’s an ironic fact that the sculptors who worked on the tombstones suffered a higher-than-average death rate due to the inhalation of silica materials from the granite dust. Having said that, with knowledge that death was impending, the sculptors had the chance to design their own elaborate tombs before their time came up.

 

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The ornate memorial for a two-year old boy named Aurelio

 

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A granite racecar tombstone

 

Ben & Jerry’s Factory

Karin & I returned to Montpelier after a delightful couple of hours touring the countryside. By this stage my friend Johanna had finished work for the day so we met again, and she was kind enough to take me on yet another drive west of Montpelier to visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury (another local attraction recommended to me by Kumlu).

I can count on half a hand the number of times I’d consumed Ben & Jerry’s in the past, and it was recent news to me that it was a Vermont institute, having been founded in Burlington in 1978. What better way to familiarise myself with the brand than to go on a tour of their ice cream plant?

The tour was quite fascinating and took us around half an hour to complete, culminating with a tasting session in the Flavour Lab (more of that in a second). We weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual factory in case we were spies from Häagen-Dazs, but I can tell you there are miles and miles of steel pipes that transport milk, cream, sugar and all kinds of delicious fruity/chocolatey/marshmallowy/swirly ingredients from massive storage barrels into mixing tubs and finally into the pint buckets that get dispatched out to the shops.

 

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The Ben & Jerry’s Factory

 

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That’s a hell of a lot of dairy goodness

 

So there was a tasting session at the end of our tour where we all got to sample an experimental new ice cream recipe that hadn’t yet made its way into the shops. The idea is that the tour group is invited to give feedback on the sample; the more positive comments it receives, the more likely the recipe is to be manufactured on a larger scale.

What sample did we get?

 

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BROCCOLI CHEDDAR CHUNK

 

Yep. Broccoli ice cream with kidney bean chunks and a cheddar swirl.

Now I’m a moderately adventurous guy when it comes to food, but there are some ingredients that just aren’t suitable for use with dairy products. I know from experience that mushrooms are one of them, but broccoli and kidney beans can also be added to that list.

FML.

I did try a cup of the Phish Food a few days later at the Ben & Jerry’s store in Burlington though! That’s more like it.

 

Cold Hollow Cider Mill

Thanks to Johanna’s keen interest in local food & beverage, she knew of a few more must-see foodie locations in the general vicinity of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, so we headed north toward Stowe to drop by the Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Similarly to Morse Farm, there was a large country-style bakery & store full of all kinds of local food items and souvenirs, including the sweetest apple cider imaginable and my second cider donut for the day, all produced on-site. Adjacent to the store was an exhibition on the cider-making process with free tastings available, which you could pour yourself out of a huge cider barrel. It wasn’t to be our last free tasting of the day either 🙂

 

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A nice warm fireplace inside the Cold Hollow Cider Mill

 

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America’s favourite apple

 

Cabot Cheese Annex

Returning south along Route 100, we made another pitstop at the Cabot Cheese Annex. A cooperative of 1,200 dairy farms across New England and New York, Cabot Creamery has two retail outlets in Vermont dedicated to the co-op’s produce and other Vermont specialties. It was a fantastic discovery for a cheese-lover like myself, with well over 30 different cheeses available for sampling, and scores more on the shelves for purchase. I left with a highly-recommended block of Tarentaise, a semi-hard Alpine cheese from Spring Brook Farm in Reading, VT.

 

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The best of the lot was the horseradish cheddar

 

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Unlike my liquid maple syrup, the TSA happily let me take the cheese across the border back into Canada 🙂

 

Green Mountain Coffee

We snuck in one final stop before returning to Montpelier – the Green Mountain Coffee Visitor’s Centre, located alongside the Waterbury train station. Although it was too late in the evening for a caffeinated beverage, the snowfall made for a perfect backdrop to photograph the gorgeous old building.

 

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Green Mountain Coffee Visitor Centre

 

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The historic Waterbury train station

 

New England Culinary Institute

After bidding farewell to Johanna, I made my way up to an eatery she recommended called Salt Cafe, a small restaurant that specialises on local food and changes their menu every few weeks depending on the available produce. Unfortunately they were booked out for the night, so I fell back on plan B and had my dinner instead at the New England Culinary Institute.

The NECI operates a number of restaurants in Montpelier that act as a classroom for students, who learn the hospitality trade by cooking for & serving actual paying customers. As with seemingly every other eatery in Vermont, the NECI places a large emphasis on the farm-to-table concept, with students encouraged to develop relationships with farmers and to formulate their menu in accordance with the seasons. I dined at the NECI on Main outlet, and had the pan-seared Arctic char with a spectacular batch of dessert sushi to finish off.

 

Montpelier NECI
Dessert sushi at the NECI… amazing

 

The Skinny Pancake

I finally made it to the Skinny Pancake for breakfast on my final day in Montpelier. Located across the road from Coffee Corner at 89 Main St, the menu is comprised of an impressive selection of sweet & savoury crêpes & pancakes, as well as a few non-crêpe options for good measure. I had the rather compelling Frumple cake: a sweet crêpe cooked briefly, then twisted into a light pile and dusted with cinnamon sugar.

It was so good I couldn’t resist a second Skinny Pancake at their location in Burlington Airport the next day.

 

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The Skinny Pancake

 

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Frumple cake!

 

Buch Spieler Music

I try to make a point of visiting an independently-owned record store in each city I travel through. Buch Spieler Music was the perfect example in Montpelier, at 27 Langdon Street. They don’t just sell CDs & records; they also have a large vintage clothing section, audio accessories and a DJ hire service.

I had a chat to a guy called Jeff at the counter and asked if he could recommend some local indie music to check out. It turned out he plays in a Montpelier blues/rock band himself called Lake Superior, so I gladly bought a copy of their recently-released album Steam Engine which has a great raw Black Keys kinda sound to it. Check it out!

 

Montpelier Buch Spieler Music
Buch Spieler Music

 

The streets of downtown Montpelier

I had just as much fun randomly wandering the streets of downtown Montpelier over the weekend as I did visiting its many sights & attractions. The architecture, parklands and positive spin on its street art were all very satisfying facets to discover.

 

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Get yourself to Montpelier!

I was altogether very pleasantly surprised at how, within the space of a few weeks, I went from not knowing a thing about Vermont’s capital to securing its place at the top of my favourite US cities list. Granted I haven’t visited very many US cities yet, but it’s going to take a lot to top the serenity, friendliness and community spirit of Montpelier.

So now we all know: there is an abundance of awesome stuff to see, eat and visit in and around Montpelier despite there being no McDonalds!

If you’re ever in the area, do yourself a favour and spend some time in this beautiful little city.

 

But what are you supposed to do in Montpelier if you REALLY crave a fix of Maccas?

Well then you just drive a couple of miles south to the town of Berlin!

 

Berlin McDonalds
McDonalds, Berlin

 

 

 

Oh, and by the way…

I was just kidding about the broccoli cheddar chunk at Ben & Jerry’s.

They actually gave us Salty Triple Caramel Chunk: salty caramel ice cream with gobs of salty caramel and milk chocolate salty caramel truffles 🙂

If there was ever a reason to visit the city of Burlington in the picturesque north-eastern US state of Vermont, it’s gotta be for the chance to see the world’s tallest filing cabinet.

As it happened, I stayed in Burlington last night following a very pleasant couple of days in the state capital, Montpelier. Despite waking this morning with a throbbing hangover after getting awfully tipsy on Wolaver’s Coffee Porter while watching the Super Bowl at an Irish pub (go Seahawks!), I couldn’t resist dropping by the colossal office-drawer tower to see it for myself.

Thankfully it didn’t take long to sober up considering it was a chilly -7°C outside. It took me almost an hour to walk from my hotel to Flynn Avenue in the city’s south, where I finally caught a quick glimpse of the monument between the Foster and Briggs St turnoffs. My fingers were so numb from the cold by this stage that I could barely operate my camera, so I backtracked a little to the Pine Street Deli and warmed myself up with a cuppa.

I was back out on the road 20 minutes later armed with warm fingers and feeling completely recovered from the previous night’s festivities, so here it is: the world’s tallest filing cabinet!

 

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There is no plaque or information on-hand at the site of the artwork, so it took a bit of investigation to discover the reason behind its existence. I found a great article at the Seven Days Vermont newspaper detailing its motive and the challenges faced during its erection. Basically, it was built in 2002 by local artist and architect, Bren Alvarez, who was frustrated with the length of time it was taking for the city to plan & construct a section of road known as the Champlain Parkway, which would ultimately connect Burlington with Interstate 189 and vastly improve traffic flow. Such was the delay that Alvarez assembled 38 vertically-stacked filing cabinets (one to represent each year since the plan was formulated) and plonked them right in the centre of where the proposed Southern Connector would be built, as a satirical reminder of the project’s drawn-out bureaucracy.

More than a decade since the completion of the artwork, and construction on the Champlain Parkway still hasn’t begun!

 

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These days the world’s tallest filing cabinet appears a little rusty and graffitied from years of being out in the elements, but that only adds to its cause – Bren Alvarez’s crazy artistic idea remains on display after all this time because of his local council’s failure to deliver.

Imagine if we all designed and installed an artwork whenever our council or government were in the wrong? I think the world would be a pretty colourful place 🙂

 

Directions to the world’s tallest filing cabinet:


View Larger Map

 

Note: there is actually another claim for the world’s tallest filing cabinet, by artist Samuel Yates of Napa, CA. However, the monument in Burlington is still widely known as the world’s tallest.

I had my final few days of freedom last week before beginning work in Toronto, so I decided to book a getaway to the US on the Greyhound. My ultimate destination was Chicago but I was also very curious to stop over in the city of Detroit, Michigan, for one night. With 2,137 cases of violent crime reported per 100,000 people in 2012, Detroit is famous for being the second most dangerous city in the States – second only to the city of Flint, merely 70 miles north-east. Not only that, but the city filed for bankruptcy earlier this year with around $18 billion dollars in debt, making it the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in United States history. With these two statistics in mind, I wished to experience its seemingly bleak atmosphere for myself.

During the 20 hours I spent in town, I came to see first-hand how it maintained such a notorious reputation. Amongst the abandoned buildings, ramshackle neighbourhoods and suspicious-looking individuals I passed on the street, I couldn’t begin to imagine how the recent economic woes have further affected a city that’s already suffered so much hardship over the years. Yet despite its tribulations, I was surprised to witness many pockets of joy within its streets – from a beautiful community garden sponsored by the downtown Compuware headquarters, to an entire street in an eastern ghetto dedicated to community art and peace.

In all my years of travels I’ve never felt more uncomfortable than walking through the suburban streets of Detroit – but that ambience of constantly being on edge is what I loved so much about my visit. Here are a handful of stories telling of the crazy characters I met and the beautiful places I saw during my day in Detroit.

 

The Bus (a.k.a. Kentucky vs Customs)

It had been a long afternoon on the bus.

We were late leaving Toronto by half an hour, but we managed to gain time due to some shorter-than-planned stopovers in the Ontarian towns of London and Windsor along the way. With 10 minutes to spare until our scheduled arrival into Detroit at 8:40pm, the bus hastily pulled into customs on the Canadian/US border.

The clearance process remained largely uneventful from my point of view. I did think the questions fired at me from the immigration officer were slightly more demanding than normal, but I eventually got the ok for entry and was back on the bus in no time. There were nine people on board and it took around 15 minutes for us all to clear.

Or so we thought…

As the bus pulled away, we’d just about reached the point of no return when a customs officer came racing towards us, yelling to the driver that there were still people inside who hadn’t cleared. Indeed, upon counting the heads on the bus, there were only six of us! Three still remained within the building. Embarrassed and annoyed, the driver reversed to the carpark and we patiently waited for the remaining passengers to complete their clearance. There is a very strict rule that the bus isn’t allowed to leave until all passengers have cleared – up until that point, we were all prisoners of the Greyhound in no-man’s-land.

I started chatting with a guy from Kentucky sitting opposite me, who had been staying with a friend in London, Ontario. He was on his way back home and had a connecting Greyhound from Detroit at 9:15pm. With 20 minutes to go until its departure, it was a frustrating setback for him to still not be on US grounds. Once he found out I was Australian and about to spend a day in Detroit he took pride in telling me everything he knew about the local gang culture and street crime, placing a bet that I wasn’t going to make it out alive. Unnervingly, two other people on the bus who had overheard our conversation agreed wholeheartedly with him. An old guy up the back chimed in as well: “Don’t listen to them, Detroit ain’t that bad. Just stick around the downtown area and don’t venture into the neighbourhoods or you’ll end up with a cap in yo ass.”

Mid-conversation, Kentucky checked the time once more and completely out of the blue he snapped! In a split second his face turned from a look of slight frustration to one of sheer hatred as he erupted: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE THESE FUCKING CUSTOMS COCKSUCKERS DOING?!! I NEED TO BE ON MY CONNECTING BUS IN 12 MINUTES!” He stormed off the bus, yelled at the driver as if it was his fault and paced around the carpark trying to figure out how to make his escape.

Customs saw what was happening and quickly made their way outside, presumably with handcuffs at bay. The rest of us on the bus watched and listened in disbelief as Kentucky tried to hold up an argument.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS SHIT, WHY WON’T YOU JUST LET US GO THROUGH? I’M GOING TO MISS MY FUCKING CONNECTION”

“Sir, you need to get back on the bus right now.”

“THIS IS BULLSHIT MOTHERFUCKERS YOU JUST WANT TO MAKE ME MISS MY BUS”

“Sir, please hand me over your passpo…”

“FUCK YOU I JUST WANT TO CATCH…”

“NOW LISTEN HERE MO’FUCKER. YOU CAN EITHER HAND ME OVER YOUR PASSPORT AND WE LOCK YOUR SORRY ASS IN THE CELL OR YOU CAN CALM DOWN, SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET BACK ON THE BUS”

And with that, he raged back up the stairs of the bus, proclaiming “I HOPE AMERICA GETS INVADED TOMORROW” and “I CAN’T WAIT TIL SOME ASSHOLE DROPS A NUKE ON WASHINGTON DC”

Shortly afterwards, a customs official came onboard and offered to walk anyone through the building if they didn’t want to wait on the bus any longer. Except for Kentucky. He was told to stay right where he was.

I chose to remain on the bus because we were still quite some distance from my hotel. Kentucky apologised to us for his outrageous behaviour. Eventually customs gave the bus driver the ok to continue – apparently the three passengers we were waiting for had issues and weren’t going to clear any time soon. We didn’t end up making it into the terminal until nearly 10pm, and Kentucky had to hang around Detroit until the following afternoon for his next connection.

Welcome to America 🙂

 

Lafayette Greens

After my tumultuous hour spent on the border and a night at a very shady hotel (1. a couple in the queue in front of me booked a room for two hours; 2. the infused stench of marijuana wafted freely through the corridors; 3. there was a vending machine in the foyer that sold panties and lingerie), I set foot on Detroit streets in the morning with potent curiosity.

I’d barely walked for 15 minutes when I stumbled across a surprisingly lovely community garden called Lafayette Greens. Sponsored by Compuware (a billion-dollar IT services company based in Detroit) and built on the site of an abandoned building that had since been demolished, the garden offered a very welcome and refreshing change from the landscape of desolation I’d been expecting to encounter. It was designed first and foremost to beautify downtown Detroit, but it also aims to encourage urban gardening and acts to spread the word on how derelict surrounds have potential to be transformed into areas of enchantment. This is a theme I would revisit later in the day upon visiting the Heidelberg Project.

 

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The entrance to Lafayette Greens

 

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A cute robot girl residing in one of the garden beds, made out of reused household items

 

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Robot girl’s boyfriend!

 

With half an acre of space on which to grow, the garden consists not only of artsy robot-like installations but also scores of raised beds full of flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and ornamental plants. The large number of volunteers who help keep the garden at bay kindly donate the edible produce cultivated on site to local food banks, which is a productive and invaluable means of community involvement. I highly enjoyed my time strolling around Lafayette Greens and I was heartened to see how well it succeeds at its mission.

 

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Pumpkins

 

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A Lafayette owl

 

The Heidelberg Project

I left the garden and had a late breakfast at American Coney Island (one of the two famous Coney Island hot dog diners in Detroit – the other being the much-rivalled Lafayette Coney Island next door). I browsed the web over my hot dog for a few touristy things to do in town, and I was particularly intrigued to discover an attraction called The Heidelberg Project. It was located 4 km away in one of the eastern suburbs. Completely ignoring the advice of the old man on the bus who suggested not to walk through the ‘hood for fear of “a cap in yo ass”, I set upon the 45 minute stroll along Gratiot Avenue up to Heidelberg Street.

For somebody not used to the image of municipal neglect, this stretch of highway leading out of downtown Detroit sure was an eye-opener. I passed cars parked on the side of the road with smashed windows and missing tyres. There were countless buildings and construction sites that had clearly been abandoned and left for squatters to inhabit. I saw at least three houses that had burnt to a crisp, with nothing left but a charred outer shell. I trampled through drastically overgrown sidewalks, came across numerous public phone boxes minus the phone, marvelled at the sheer amount of graffiti sprayed over every available wall/door/window, and wondered about the lives of the locals congregated in parks and on street corners.

And then I reached Heidelberg Street.

In 1986, a resident of Heidelberg Street, Tyree Guyton decided to react against the ever-increasing poverty and neglect within his community – a trend he was all too familiar with ever since the riots of 1967 which burnt the city to the ground and claimed the lives of 43 victims. He began creating colourful and enticing works of art out of discarded household items and put them on display in vacant blocks and abandoned buildings along the street. With help over the years from his likeminded neighbours, Guyton has succeeded in constructing the ultimate oasis within the ghetto. It’s a symbol of hope for a community in need, having won multiple awards and drawn enthusiastic visitors from around the globe to dwell upon the urban plight faced by locals for so long.

Walking around the Heidelberg Project after just having experienced the forsaken streets of suburban Detroit proved to be the ultimate contrast. I genuinely felt like I was wrapped in a safe, peaceful blanket as I explored the incredible art installations. The further I made it along the street the more it surprised me with its charming eccentricity – I swear I had a permanent what the fuck?! look upon my face all afternoon!

The Heidelberg Project is a must-see for any visitor to Detroit.

 

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The Number House, one of the many houses that have been converted into entire works of art along Heidelberg Street

 

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There’s no stopping the Heidelberg Project 🙂

 

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A sign of hope from above beside this house plastered in giant reproductions of coins

 

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A couple of playful creatures hanging off the walls of the Party Animal House

 

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The Party Animal House. What a crazy dwelling this is.

 

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A bunch of doors all piled together

 

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The Record House. An entire house covered in 33″ vinyl

 

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A CD Clock on the Record House

 

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There are hundreds of thought-provoking works like this located all around Heidelberg Street

 

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Shopping carts and all kinds of randomness

 

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A collection of vacuum cleaners underneath the Obstruction of Justice (OJ) House. Unfortunately, the house was burnt down by an arsonist only a few weeks before my visit 🙁 The community had done a fantastic job at cleaning up the charred remains and showering it with quirky Heidelberg artefacts.

 

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The People’s House (previously known as the Dotty Wotty House) as seen from underneath the remains of the OJ House. The multi-coloured polka dots symbolise human diversity. This is where Tyree Guyton himself occasionally lives.

 

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An evil doll amid more vacuum cleaners above OJ House

 

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A delightful fence made of shoes outside the Number House

 

Saved by Jesus

I must have spent three hours hanging around the very uplifting Heidelberg Street. By this stage, having refreshed myself and knowing I survived the journey east to Heidelberg, I felt street-hardened enough to confidently return to the city the same way I came.

There were so many photo opportunities along the walk in but I didn’t feel safe enough to take my camera out for fear of being a robbery target. Not far into my journey back, I took my chances and stopped briefly to take a photo of this very cool graffitied wall:

 

Downtown Detroit 04

 

Just as I was packing my camera away into its bag, I was approached by two middle-aged ladies who had quite possibly consumed some kind of narcotic concoction within the last hour or two.

“Man, y’all shouldn’t be stayin’ in one place too long lookin’ like that or yo gon’ get yo-self done for.”

Thanks for the welcoming advice, I thought.

“Do y’all think yo could spare a couple o’ dollars?”

Here we go. “What do you need a couple of dollars for?” I enquired.

“Oh Lord Jesus, you not from around here! Where y’all from? You know, we just tryin’ to survive these streets an’ we need to find us somethin’ to eat so we just wonderin’ if a kind young gentleman like yo-self could spare us a couple o’ dollars.”

I gave them a couple o’ dollars just to keep the peace and explained that I was from Australia. With dollar signs presumably in their eyes they decided they’d keep walking along the road with me. They were friendly enough and we chatted for a while about Crocodile Dundee, koalas and kangaroos. And all was going great until I noticed up ahead a gang of around 15 murderous-looking guys all hanging out on the street, smoking, drinking and acting extremely suspiciously.

They saw me. Here I was, the idiot foreign white guy walking along the footpath towards a gang of crooks with two girls tagging along behind who were probably from a rival gang for all I knew. And the guys all stopped what they were doing and stared right at me as if I’d just committed cardinal sin. You know the feeling when you’re in somebody’s territory and you know you’re not welcome? Multiply that by about 100 and that’s precisely how I felt.

I kept calm, not looking at any of them and continued on walking & chatting with the girls as if everything was just dandy, despite each member of the gang turning their head toward me, eyeing my every move as I edged past them.

Then the girls started again, “Hey my man do y’all think you could spare us a couple more dollars? We just need a little spare change, y’all know?”

Shut the fuck up! Not now! I wanted to snap back at them. This is bullshit, how am I going to get out of this without being shot?

We cleared the gang. Phew.

“Our car’s run outa gas and we need a bit o’ spare change so as we can fill it back up again, y’ know what I mean? We gonna walk y’all to our car up the road that’s run outa gas so you can see we ain’t tellin’ you no lie, we just need a bit o’ money so we can buy us some gas to put into our car up the road that’s run outa gas” and on and on they went.

I was fed up with them by now and politely reminded them I’d already given them some money up the road.

Then one of the girls stopped, pointed at the sky and looked me square in the eye. “Look up there,” she said before shifting her glance toward the heavens. “Ya’ll know what’s up there?”

Here we bloody go again. What now? I was half expecting her to draw a knife or a gun or call upon the gang for some homicidal assistance.

“That’s Jesus Christ and he’s our lord, he’s our saviour and he’s gon’ pay you back for being such a kind gentleman for sparing us some money! Praise be to our lord Jesus Christ!”

And with that we said our amens & goodbyes and they went on their merry way.

Thanks be to Jesus, I survived my first and hopefully last suspicious human encounter in the Detroit ghetto.

 

The Ex-Marine

I spent much of the remaining afternoon in the safe confines of the downtown loop, checking out the Detroit Public Library, Campus Martius Park, the very impressive Compuware building and devouring a delicious late lunch at the Detroit Beer Co that included a side of beer and cheese soup. Yes: beer and cheese soup. It was as incredible as it sounds.

My bus out of Detroit was scheduled for 6:45pm, and with an hour and a half to spare I decided to pass the time by searching for inspiring photo opportunities along the inner-city streets. I passed through Grand Circus Park and was heading along one of its off-shooting southbound lanes, when I noticed a fence had been installed around an upcoming footpath. I say installed with an emphasis on the past tense… it had since been ripped down and was lying on the path horizontally. I saw no reason to walk around it so I just walked over it.

“Hey man, what the hell are you doing? Do you think that’s safe?” I heard from behind me. “They must have put that fence up for a reason, I’m not game to walk through it like you are!”

I turned around to find a tall, well-built but friendly looking guy with a blonde crew cut and slight hobble to his step. “Hey man, would you know where the Greyhound terminal is?” he asked as he approached. “I’ve gotta get up to Ann Arbor.” As it happened, I was headed toward the Greyhound terminal so I took out my map, figured out which route to take and invited him along for the walk. He told me his story along the way.

His name was Rick and he served as a marine in the US Armed Forces, including a stint in Iraq before being discharged due to injuries. He suffered some major trauma to one of his wrists, extending up along his arm, which has left him in constant pain today. Although he lives in Ann Arbor, a small city to the west of Detroit, he had to visit the big smoke today for an MRI at the hospital to check on some of his injuries. There was just a slight problem upon exiting the hospital: he couldn’t find his car. After some investigation it turned out he’d parked for too long in an illegal spot, and the authorities had towed his car away.

He managed to track down the grounds where his car was held, but they weren’t able to release it because he didn’t have any credentials on him let alone the money to pay the fine. He tried the police, thinking they might be able to intervene because he was an ex-marine, but they were powerless to help him, explaining how the company that had towed and held his car was well within their rights to do so. His only way out of the situation was to take the bus to his home in Ann Arbor, collect his credentials and the money to pay the fine, return on the bus to Detroit and complete the deal.

But right now, he was thirsty, hungry, and needed to get on the bus, which he was pretty sure departed around 7pm. He hinted that he didn’t have enough cash on him to pay for his ticket; I figured it was good karma and he was a friendly guy after all so I gave him the $5 he needed to cover his ticket plus a few extra bucks for a drink. I hadn’t quite figured out yet how legit he was, but if he turned out to be a bullshit artist he was at least a bloody good one and deserved the $ for his effort.

There was still some time before the bus so we went into a nearby diner where he decided the drinks were too expensive and chugged down three massive cups full of tap water instead. He didn’t like the look of this particular fast food joint so we continued up the road back to American Coney Island, where I went for breakfast earlier in the morning. Part of the petty cash I gave him was put toward some chilli fries… and then he counted his cash and decided he still didn’t quite have enough. He borrowed my phone and called a guy named Bo, also an ex-marine, and asked if he could meet outside American Coney Island in 10 minutes. Apparently Bo was a good mate who looks out for Rick whenever he’s in town and would be able to lend him some cash.

We went outside to meet Bo, who arrived on a bicycle looking as sinister and suspicious as the members of the street gang I walked past earlier in the day. We were introduced but he acknowledged me with only a nod of his head. Bo and Rick huddled together and walked a fair way up the street where a transaction was made outside the view of the passing public. Bo scooted off on his bike as quickly as he appeared and Rick returned with his newly acquired cash, a.k.a. *insert whatever you believe he acquired here*

Intrigued and beguiled by the turn of events since I met my new friend, I suggested to Rick it was about time we made our way to catch the Greyhound. He told me to carry on ahead without him – he needed to stop by a restroom to freshen up first, and he’d meet me at the terminal in 10 minutes.

Upon arrival and with 20 minutes to spare, I found that my bus at 6:45pm was the same bus that Rick would need to catch to Ann Arbor. I figured that if he made it to the station and caught the bus, there may have been some legitimacy to his story; if he didn’t make it, then I’d clearly witnessed first-hand the lengths a poverty-stricken local would go to in order to score.

I never saw him again.

 

Detroit - Rick
Me and Rick

 

A final few photos

Here are a final few photos I took throughout the sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-impoverished, always-enigmatic city that is Detroit, Michigan.

It’s worth a visit – but maybe pack a bulletproof vest just in case 😉

Downtown Detroit 01
No Ping, Ding or King allowed in Detroit

 

Downtown Detroit 02
The abandoned Metropolitan Building in the CBD decorated with LOVE

 

Downtown Detroit 03
The base of the abandoned Metropolitan Building

 

Downtown Detroit 05
A friendly addition to the garden at Campus Maritus Park

 

Downtown Detroit 06
The burnt-out shell of a house in the eastern suburbs

 

Downtown Detroit 07
Michigan Cherry Salad with Detroit Beer Cheese Soup at the Detroit Beer Co

 

Downtown Detroit 08
A funky, colourful design inside the very modern and not-abandoned Compuware Building

I had a few hours to spare the other night in Chicago and took the opportunity to venture up North Michigan Avenue and check out the John Hancock Observatory. 94 floors above the famous Magnificent Mile, it’s a spectacular destination for anyone wanting a birds-eye view of Illinois’ most illustrious city.

I didn’t have a tripod to steady my camera for the long exposures required at such a time of day, so I decided to have some fun instead.

I present to you: the Chicago skyline on LSD.

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 01

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 02

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 03

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 04

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 05

Ok… my camera did manage one relatively sober shot before it tripped 🙂

Chicago Skyline On Drugs 06

During the final week of September 2013 I paid my first visit to the mammoth, perpetual metropolis that is New York City.

Armed with my camera I set foot in a decent portion of the neighbourhoods that make up Manhattan, from Harlem down to the Financial District; occasionally venturing further to the boroughs of Brooklyn in the south and Queens in the west.

For me, it was a city of extremes. There were aspects of NYC that I adored more than anywhere I’ve been, from the glorious range of cuisines available at my fingertips to the remarkable ease of navigation thanks to the famous numbered streets & avenues. On the other extreme, I was taken aback at how tarnished the city appeared – it’s as though the urban thoroughfares hadn’t seen a scrubbing brush since the 1940’s! At the end of the day though, I must say the grimy streets do add to the charm and help make the most populous city in the United States what it is today.

I’ll definitely return soon to see more – but until then, this is what I’ve seen already:

New York-1
A bright flower garden near Bryant Park on 42nd Street

 

New York-2
Satan apparently dwells on 5th Avenue

 

New York-3
A chimney in the middle of the street!

 

New York-4
Splendid view of Macy’s (the world’s largest retail store) from the summit of the Empire State

 

New York-5
Masters of chess at Union Square

 

New York-6
I love how there are American flags like this posted on the doors at every subway station

 

New York-7
The majestic Brooklyn Bridge

 

New York-8
Padlocks of love

 

New York-9
Some indecipherably unique musical notation on a Brooklyn Bridge pylon

 

New York-10
A Jay-Z inspired message on the wall?

 

New York-11
Facing the Manhattan Bridge from Water Street in Brooklyn

 

New York-12
No parking sign in the DUMBO district (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)

 

New York-13
DUMBO was my favourite area in the whole of NYC to explore… it has an unrivalled character to it

 

New York-14
Some bright DUMBO street art

 

New York-15
A Brooklyn sunset

 

New York-16
The roof of an apartment building as seen from the north side of the Manhattan Bridge pedestrian crossing

 

New York-17
At the 9/11 Tribute Centre <3

 

New York-18
One of the nearly-completed new World Trade Centre buildings, with the Survivor Tree in the foreground. This tree not only survived the horrors of the WTC collapse, but also made it through Hurricane Sandy alive. May it live many more peaceful years.

 

New York-19
A fenced-off block near the Civic Centre

 

New York-20
A typical NYC subway

 

New York-21
Leading into the subway darkness…

 

New York-22
Some unrecognisable but interesting devices on the subway ceiling

 

New York-23
A playful Madison Square squirrel

 

New York-24
Soho health alert #1

 

New York-25
Soho health alert #2

 

New York-26
Looking down at the railway passing beneath 11th Avenue

 

New York-27
The streets below the Chelsea High Line

 

New York-28
Getting hitched on the High Line!

 

New York-29
A reflection of the MetLife building, above Grand Central Terminal

 

New York-30
One of the many 14th Street subway platforms

Last Sunday I went to my very first baseball game at Citi Field in Queens, New York City! Before I left work in Sydney, my very kind colleagues had chipped in for a ticket to see the New York Mets vs the Milwaukee Brewers as my leaving gift. I thought I’d share some observations & pics here so that everyone back at home can see what the experience was like 🙂

Pretty much everything I knew about baseball up until this point, I’d learnt either from The Simpsons or from the baseball game on Wii Sports. I’d never even seen a match on TV before. Well, I did actually play a bit of softball in year 7 but it is a different game and I can barely remember a thing about it – so I will admit to being a true baseball virgin as I made my way along the crowded #7 subway line headed to Mets – Willets Point station.

 

Pre-match presentation

I arrived at the stadium around 1pm along with many thousands of Mets supporters (I didn’t see a single Brewers fan all day) and we all queued for quite some time to get through security. Unlike most attractions I’d been to in NYC so far, there was no annoying X-Ray scanner here – just a simple bag search and a pat-down.

As soon as I got in I was chased by a woman who threw a free Mets 31 t-shirt at me! I wasn’t expecting a free shirt and apparently I walked right past her as she was handing them out at the entrance.

It took a while to find my seat – it was up four flights of stairs accessible only at the other end of the stadium, but I was presented with this awesome view once I got there:

01 Baseball
I doubt there was a better seat in the house!

The mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomburg, had just begun a pre-match presentation, inducting a charming fellow named Mike Piazza into the Mets Hall Of Fame. I had no idea who he was but he seemed well-loved by the crowd.

After a short speech, Bloomberg proclaimed the 29th of September 2013 to be “Mike Piazza Day.” Oh, how the crowd cheered!

A bloke called John Franco came up to the podium and said a few words, followed by a few others who all beamed about ol’ mate Piazza. Bloomberg came back to present the award, which Piazza received to a standing ovation:

02 Baseball
Mets Hall of Fame inductee Mike Piazza accepting his award

He thanked The Mets. People cheered.

He thanked God. More people cheered.

He thanked Fonzie, and then he thanked his agent because if it wasn’t for him, he might have ended up playing for the The Dodgers. People cheered again.

He thanked Fred & Jeff. People booed. Poor Fred & Jeff 🙁

He was very emotional when he thanked his dad. That brought the biggest cheer from the crowd. He thanked the rest of his family and promised to teach his young son how to hit – “the rest is up to him,” he said. That got a laugh.

After the presentation he took part in the Ceremonial First Throw, which was caught by the current Mets captain, David Wright:

03 Baseball
The Ceremonial First Throw

The ticket holder of the day then appeared on camera – a lass named Bonnie who had been a Mets member since 2006. She had the honour of saying “Play ball!” into the microphone – and so the game began.

04 Baseball
A full stadium of Mets supporters

 

The Game!

The Mets started on the field with the Brewers batting. After merely five minutes, three Brewers players at the pitch and not a single hit of the ball, the teams changed sides – what the…? So soon? Did someone call time out? I had no idea what was going on.

It took me a few innings to realise there are three outs per frame, two frames per innings, and that not every innings results in runs.

The first run was scored 20 minutes into the game by the Mets. I was sure he was out because the ball reached home base before he did, but apparently he made it in time.

In the next innings, one of the Brewers made a successful dash from first to second as the pitcher was about to deliver the ball to the batter. Sneaky little bugger. I didn’t know they were allowed to do that.

It was around this time I noticed there were no sponsor logos painted on the field, which made a pleasant change from Australian sporting fields that are plastered with corporate emblems at awkward angles so that they look good on TV.

At the fourth innings there was a massive cheer when a Brewers player at third base ran home & got caught out. Sucker.

Some people came out between an innings to rake the field. Interesting.

05 Baseball
The field rakers

There was a deliberation about another Brewers guy who safely made it to first base, but the crowd didn’t agree. Lots of boos.

The crowd made an unexpected cheer when #5 David Wright was called up to bat – and then I remembered he was the team captain who caught the Ceremonial First Throw earlier in the proceedings.

In between one of the innings they showed 1800 Kiss Cam on the video screen. A roaming camera focused on couples in the crowd and the idea was that they’d see themselves on the screen and kiss. The most heartwarming kiss was from an elderly couple probably in their 70’s, it got a big “Awwwww” from the audience. Such a cute idea 🙂

 

The Hot Dog

During the 5th innings I decided to go for a walk and buy some food. But first I went to the bathroom to change into my free Mets 31 shirt, which I now realised was in honour of Mike Piazza’s Hall of Fame induction.

I made my way to the bar and ordered a hot dog & large Budweiser (with souvenir plastic cup).

While my order was being prepared, a guy who had just been served came back to the counter and asked the assistant if he could have an empty cup for dipping sauce. The guy at the counter wouldn’t give him one and said he’d have to pay $1.50 if he wanted the empty cup … “That completely puts me off the Mets, man!” he jeered back in frustration as he cuplessly walked away. Haha.

With hands full of beer and sausage I climbed over everyone to get back to my seat, eager to try my first proper Nathan’s Famous New York hot dog – and what better place to try but the baseball! But hang on… I opened my container and all I got was a bread roll and a sausage, what’s going on here? There was no sauce / mustard / onions, nothing!

I learnt the hard way that you have to put your own bloody condiments on the hot dog at the condiments stand. I couldn’t be bothered climbing back over everyone and proceeded to eat the most miserable looking hot dog I’d ever had in my life.

06 Baseball
NO CONDIMENTS

 

07 Baseball
At least the beer was tops!

 

08 Baseball
Some more of the happy Mets crowd

 

Good singing, bad Mexican Waves & the result

Around two thirds into the game we were all asked to stand and remove out hats for a rendition of God Bless America, sung by a young police officer. It was quite a humbling moment to be amongst thousands of patriotic Americans singing their praises at the top of their lungs.

Then some people dressed as chickens came out onto the field and got everyone to sing Let’s Go Out To The Ball Game.

I could hear a lot of cheering in the grandstand above me and looking up we could make out the beginnings of a Mexican Wave. They attempted to start it twice, but both times it didn’t even last a quarter of the stadium until it fizzled out. Americans might rule at singing patriotic songs in harmonic unison, but they suck at Mexican Waves.

09 Baseball
The Mets at play during the final few innings

At the eighth innings the Mets pitcher suspected another sneaky Brewer was about to make his way from first to second base unannounced, so he threw the ball to his teammate on first to scare him – but he missed the catch and let the Brewers guy complete his run to second with ease!

There hadn’t been a run scored since the fourth innings. It was 2-1 to the Brewers and being nearly 3 hours in, the game was starting to get a little slow and uneventful to be honest.

But the biggest moment of excitement was yet to come. In the second frame of the eighth innings, the Mets batter hit a short ball which was overthrown by the Brewers catcher to first – the Mets guy who was on first at the time made it all the way to home, hurrah!

That was followed straight afterwards by another perfectly angled shot, resulting in yet another Mets run.

At 3-2 to the Mets, the Brewers were unsuccessful batters in the ninth innings and the game was called.

The Mets won and we all went home happy!

10 Baseball
Cheers to that!

 

What sport should I see next?

The baseball was (surprisingly) a heap of fun. While I’ll never be a sports aficionado, I am pretty keen on at least seeing one match of every major sport while I’m based in North America. In my last few months in Sydney I managed to see a live match of AFL, NRL and Association Football, so I’ll try my best to continue the trend while I’m running hot.

So what should I see next?

Basketball?
NFL?
Hockey?
Lacrosse?
Curling?
Or something else entirely?

Feel freeI to leave a comment below – I await your suggestions 🙂

And better luck in the playoffs next year, Mets!