ACROSS THE UNITED STATES — As I thought about my two-week cross-country road trip this summer, I was wary about going it alone. But I found plenty of people to keep me company on the drive — or rather, many of them found me.
I solicited tips in the Travel section and on the Los Angeles Times' Daily Travel & Deal Blog, (latimes.com/travelblog) explaining how I was a Times intern moving to Los Angeles to become a full-time writer and asking readers to send advice on stops along the way of my music-themed trip.
I listed the dozen or so cities where I planned to stay overnight and requested that readers send me their choice concert venues. The overwhelming response transformed my adventure into our adventure.
Over the two weeks, my e-mail inbox and Twitter stream overflowed.
Many people suggested local favorites and hidden gems never found in any travel brochure. I blogged each day about my experiences.
Here is a recap of my trip:
Reader recommendations about the core of the Big Apple were light, so I turned to locals on the streets of SoHo and Brooklyn. An Art Garfunkel look-alike pointed me to a CD release party. Boring. I would have preferred the sound of silence.
But I found a wild soul concert at a bar in Brooklyn called Union Pool. The Rev. Vince Anderson & the Love Choir entertained and inspired a packed crowd of resident hipsters.
The Fresno, Calif., native pounded on his keyboard and sang about stories from the Bible while the audience sipped beer and clapped along.
"You are the faithful remnant," Anderson shouted to the audience. "And the remnant is pretty healthy, indeed."
By the second day, I still didn't have many reader picks to choose from. I landed at the Black Cat to see a local band called Mittenfields. The tip came from the band's bass player, David Mann. Kudos to him for the self-promotion.
He and his band mates put on a solid indie rock show. Guitarist Sam Sherwood sympathized with my difficulty finding good music here.
"There's not really a scene," he said.
Rolling with the trip's musical theme, I drove directly to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. I caught part of an onstage interview with Darryl McDaniels, member of the pioneering rap group Run-DMC. In front of an audience of local students and teachers, the godfather of hip-hop discussed how the genre should be used to educate.
"A lot of people don't want to use hip-hop as an educational tool," McDaniels said, "because a lot of the people who have been doing hip-hop for the last 15 years have been doing it wrong."
Are you telling me 50 Cent's hit song "How to Rob" isn't inspirational?
After touring the museum, I headed for some of the city's music spots that readers recommended.
One blog reader, who goes by the name Kathy the Great, suggested the Spitfire Saloon, which she accurately described as a "dive punk bar." The gruff, tattooed patrons and the mangled tricycles on the wall scared the bejabbers out of me.
Driving through downtown, I was starting to take notes on the bleak atmosphere of the auto manufacturing city. It quickly became obvious why Detroit ranked at the bottom of a recent TripAdvisor survey of users.
My trek took a detour when I received a message from a Twitter follower about Michael Jackson.
By the time I checked into my hotel, news of his death was spreading. So I hopped back in my car and fired up Google Maps software on my iPhone, entering the words, "Motown Museum."
Juggling the digital map and a camera, I sped to the Motown Historical Museum, where the Jackson 5 had recorded its early hits. By the time I arrived, dozens of people had gathered. I pulled my point-and-shoot camera from my pocket and approached the first person within earshot. "L.A. Times?" asked Richard Wilks, a Detroit local. "Dang, you guys are fast!"
I shot videos of reactions and of people dancing to Jackson songs. I rushed back to my hotel room, edited the video and posted it on YouTube. Within a couple of days, the clip had been viewed a half million times.
Gary was not a planned stop. But Jackson's hometown now seemed like a worthwhile detour.
To say Jackson came from humble beginnings is an understatement.
"You don't want to be here at night," said Paul Warner, a freelance photographer who grew up in a house a few blocks from the historical Jackson home.
Many had assembled on the Jackson lawn the night before to mourn the pop singer. Several of them stayed there or returned the next morning, carrying souvenirs and CDs.
Leaving Gary in the late afternoon, I made it to the Windy City in time for dinner, landing at Taste of Chicago, the annual weeklong food sampling event. I managed to try a little bit of Chicago's best, including deep-dish pizza and a juicy Italian beef sandwich. After I met with a colleague from the Chicago Tribune, the night's entertainment was capped with a morsel of heartbreaking blues music at Kingston Mines.
The music only got better as I headed south. I landed at Bluebird Cafe in time to see some talented singer-songwriters. Janis Ian, who wrote the 1975 Grammy-winning song "At Seventeen," was among them.
Ian performed a brilliant rendition of the Beatles' 1962 hit "Love Me Do." The audience latched onto the silver-haired woman's every word.
I would have missed this small, isolated venue if not for the readers.
Speaking of reader tips, the repeated demands to see Memphis persuaded me to skip a planned stop in Birmingham, Ala. With apologies to Ian — who wrote in after she saw my blog post to suggest I not miss Alabama — Memphis had a lot of interesting history. Alas, by the time I got here Sunday night, everything was closed. Still, I got a glimpse of Elvis' Graceland home and drove by some of the museums and record stores there.
The Big Easy is full of beats — jazz, rock and weird street drumming. It also offers an abundance of alcohol, which makes it easy to enjoy that music. In between mouthwatering Cajun seafood dishes, intimate live music and wandering Bourbon Street, I was happy to accept the Mardi Gras beads that older women seemed eager to throw me.
By the time I crossed into Texas, I was fighting sleep.
Most of the tips I got were for pizza parlors. Strange, I thought.
Regardless, I stopped at two popular pizza joints, compared their slices and spent the night recovering. Star Pizza, a local chain, made the meanest slice. Good, but New York still wins.
I got a ton of tips for places to see in Austin. During the day, I grabbed a meaty meal at Stubb's Bar-B-Q and took a dip in the Barton Springs Pool.
At night, I caught a couple of bands. Most notably, Patrick Wolf performed at Antone's, often referred to as Austin's Home of the Blues.
Wolf, a flamboyant, sparkle-covered rocker, pranced around stage and agitated bartenders. The hipster crowd went crazy when Wolf began rolling on the floor.
El Paso, Texas
With no reader tips for the nation's 22nd-largest city, I ventured into uncharted territory. After the seemingly endless night in Austin, I wasn't prepared for the fist-pumping, bass-driven club vibe in the city's college bar scene. The next morning, I ruffled some feathers with a blog post about my night in the city, which quickly prompted e-mail responses from two angry government officials.
"We probably need to do a much better job of marketing all the great things in our community," wrote Veronica Escobar, a county commissioner. "Your piece will hopefully get us all moving on that."
With plenty of tips, I bounced around to different bars to sample the live music. The choices, which included heavy metal and stale screamo rock, were less than appealing. Luckily, I stumbled over two talented musicians whose guitar cables were running along the sidewalk.
The two, members of Zoltan Orkestar, played a quirky mix of Hungarian folk and American jazz songs about clowns.
"A lot of circuses came through my town when I was a kid," said frontman Zoltan Szekely, a Romanian-born, Hungarian-raised, Pennsylvania transplant. Szekely played an instrument containing a ukulele taped to an acoustic-turned-electric guitar, topped off with a bicycle horn and a tambourine at his feet. His five-piece band draws a crowd of elderly jazz fans and kids looking for a sideshow.
Apparently, what happens here is supposed to stay here. So even if I wanted to tell you, I couldn't.
After two weeks and 5,100 miles, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and hibernate. But the show must go on. I set my sights on Club Spaceland. When I arrived, an '80s, U2-sounding group called the VLA was performing on stage. Later, Andy Clockwise came on. The sound wasn't anything new, but the stage presence was electric. Frontman Andy Kelly pounced on tables, posing in a gargoyle-like stance, while drummer Stella Mozgawa pounded on her cymbals. When the last note rang, I was out the door quicker than the headliner could leave the stage.
I received hundreds of invaluable travel tips from readers. After two weeks of constant driving and barhopping, I can come up with one new piece of advice for anyone considering a similar adventure: Schedule a day of rest.