Dallas Wayne

Dallas Wayne
Snapped by my buddy Winker in Austin a few years ago, here I am mugging it up with XM Outlaw Country host Dallas Wayne backstage somewhere on 6th.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Getting My Historic on at the Mine Shaft in Madrid, NM

It's been more than 10 years since I was last at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, New Mexico. (“Madrid” by the way, is pronounced MAH-drid.) It's only a 60-minute-or-so drive from my sister's home in Los Lunas, but we just never seem to make the trek any more.

So, I was pretty stoked when, at our family Sadie's outing on Monday night, my sister put forward the idea of making a pilgrimage to Madrid after Christmas. Immediately one of my nieces and her daughters jumped on board the Madrid express and a plan was hatched.

You have to love a town where the most modern structure is some sort of community bathroom.
 Madrid is the reincarnation of what was a coal mining town called Coal Gulch in the 1830s. It was a “company town” in every sense of the term. The mining company owned every business and house in the little community, including the Mine Shaft Tavern. Even the Mine Shaft is a reincarnation of sorts because the original burned on Christmas Day 1944. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1947. It has been serving alcohol-infused potables ever since.

The Mine Shaft's stage where we would have seen some live music had we stayed longer.
After the mines closed in the mid 1950s, Coal Gulch qualified for ghost-town status for the next two decades. All manner of spooky happenings make the Mine Shaft the most haunted building in town. Although there is another eatery or two in town, Mine Shaft is clearly the main gathering spot for locals and tourists. 

Today the town's main street is lined with old homes that have been transformed into gift shops, art galleries and boutiques.

The bar stretches on forever, but sadly, unpopulated by locals when we were there.
Its 40-foot bar is the longest in the state, boasts the tavern's PR. A stage for live-music occupies one end of the main room, flanked by the Men's and Women's restrooms that appear to not have been upgraded since the joint was rebuilt in 1947. But that's part of the charm, I guess.

Attached and accessed by a separate entrance is a museum and theater, sporadically hosting stage productions throughout the year.

Featuring several local microbrews, the bar offers a full range of spirits. The menu is typical of bars, but several steps up the quality ladder of most. The onion rings, burgers and fries are worthy of the 50-mile slog from my sister's. 

Mmmmm....Santa Fe Brewery State Pen Porter.
I washed down my buffalo burger and fries with a Santa Fe Brewery State Pen Porter and a Marble Brewery Oatmeal Stout. I had never had the Porter before; it was wonderful!

The rest of the family kept the margarita barista busy. This is another New Mexico joint where you don't have to look over the bartender's shoulder to ensure a superior margarita. Mine Shaft's house margaritas are outrageously delicious.

Not including the two-hour round-trip drive, lunch filled roughly three hours of our day. The only way I could have been happier is if it had occupied another hour or two. I really like this place. I was a little disappointed that more locals weren't populating the bar. Historically, when we've visited, the joint has been jam packed. The locals add a lot of color. It's always looked like the bar in the TV series “Northern Exposure.” Fashion apparently isn't a major concern among the local populace. Nor is dental care.

Otherwise, the excursion was everything I'd hoped for.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Enough Wheel Time with the WRX Wasn't an Issue as We Motored from Napa to the Coast

Uncharacteristically moderate temperatures and lots of sunshine have made my week with a Boxster S a winner.
In the future, I will think of this December as the “month of the performance car.” It began with the Chevrolet performance-car drive in Palm Springs, Calif. where I drove the all-new Chevrolet SS sedan, the redesigned Corvette Convertible and the Camaro SS Convertible. Currently one of the cars in my driveway is a Porsche Boxster S Cabrio. And just a few days ago, I drove the redesigned 2015 Subaru WRX around Northern California.

There are times when it's actually good to be me.

If you are going to visit a place, Napa is as good as almost any. The only issue worth bellyaching about is the slog from anywhere in Napa to the San Francisco Airport. It's 60 to 90 minutes in the best of conditions. Time it wrong, and it can surge into a couple of hours or more. This travel time is compounded for those of us going to the east coast on the return by the T.F.E. departure time of our flights. To arrive home at any sort of sensible hour means an oh-dark-thirty flight and a 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. shuttle to the airport.

This pain in the keister, though, is a small price to pay to one: spend some time in Napa; and two: drive the WRX. But, as an auto journalist a certain amount of whining is expected; so, I can now check off that box.

The one half-way decent shot of the exterior of The Caneros Inn that I managed to get as we mounted up for our ride and drive.
 You will find this post woefully lacking in photos of The Caneros Inn, where Subaru put us up. That's because most of my time there was in the dark. I arrived after dark on the first day. I was so late, as a matter of fact, that rather than go to my room when I checked in, I immediately joined the rest of the group at dinner.

The drive Subaru mapped out for us the second day was one of the longest I've been on in years. My driving buddy and I didn't get back to the hotel until after dark. And, we weren't even close to being the last in. More stragglers dragged in after us. By my comments regarding shuttles to the airport for east coast flights, you should be able to surmise that day three – our head-for-home day – offered no opportunities for resort photos either.

So, other than an hour or so around breakfast on day two, I had no light with which to work. I squandered that light believing that I could shoot my usual battery of lodging photos after the day's driving. Silly me.

My room: Behind those closed doors lies the heated tile floor.
I do like The Caneros Inn, though. My room was spacious, my bed was comfy and it was quiet. It was mighty chilly while we were there. The thermometer on the thermostat in my room never rose above 64 degrees, regardless of how high I turned up the heat. This isn't a whole lot lower than the 67 degrees I keep my thermostat at home turned to. On a positive note: It did afford me the opportunity to appreciate the bathroom's heated tile floor. I had heard of such things, but never walked around on one. I was amazed at what a difference it makes. The bottoms of your feet feeling toasty while the rest of you is covered in goose bumps is quite the sensation.

Dinner that first night was terrific. The resort is owned by the Plumpjack Winery. Among the wines we were served with the different dinner courses were Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2012, and Plumpjack Syrah, Napa Valley 2011. Both were outstanding.

The next day we had a chance to challenge the WRX with some outrageously twisty roads. I have clocked a lot of miles on California roads, but one 25-mile-or-so segment on this route was one of the twistiest I've ever driven. The WRX really hunkered down and handled it.

Although WRX is a member of the Impreza family, it shares very little in the way of exterior parts or interior surfaces with the more tame Impreza. 

Yes, I know; this looks more like the coast than Napa, but you got the part about this being a longer-than-usual ride and drive, right?
Here's the 4-1-1 on the next WRX that's due in showrooms in the spring: The turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder Boxer engine is new, generating 268 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. Subaru offers either a six-speed manual tranny or a new continuously variable transmission (CVT) to hustle engine output to all four wheels. A stiffer chassis and new Active Torque Vectoring greatly enhance handling, allowing for higher speeds in the corners. Bigger front brakes help reel in this kick-ass sedan.

Subaru says WRX can make the sprint from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds with the manual tranny and in 5.9 seconds with the CVT.

Outside, most of the sheetmetal is all-new, as are the head and tail lights. Subaru increased the rake of the windshield, pulling the A-pillars forward almost eight inches for better visibility.

Inside, rear-seat legroom is up by nearly two inches; while the trunk went from just over 11 cu.ft. to 12 cu.ft. The flat-bottomed steering wheel tilts and telescopes. For the first time Harmon Kardon supplies the audio upgrade, which has nine speakers and a navigation unit.

We drove both transmissions. As you might expect, the manual was more engaging. The WRX's CVT, however, is certainly at the head of the class for this type tranny. Subaru has engineered in gear-like steps in the CVT, which uses steering wheel-mounted paddles when opting for manual control. Both transmissions are a blast to drive!

The Napa Smith Brewery had the tasters all lined up and ready to go for us.
For dinner that night, Subaru transported us to the Napa Smith Brewery, where we were treated to a tasting of all of its brews. Although there were a few I liked, I was immediately drawn to the Bonfire Imperial Porter. Jumping from the little tasters to a pint in about 60 seconds. A seasonal, it is a wonderful blend of coffee, chocolate and caramel flavors. Good stuff!

Enough screwing around with the little tasters; just give me a pint of the Bonfire Imperial Porter!
Rather than taking me home, my flights the next day deposited me in South Florida for a long-anticipated, five-day visit. It made the early-morning trek to San Francisco Airport worth it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Another South Florida Excursion for the Record Books.

I'm freshly returned from a five-day South Florida extravaganza that included just about everything I needed it to, if not wanted it to. 

I had been in Napa Valley driving the redesigned 2014 Subaru WRX.
 It was a stopping point on my way back to Atlanta from Napa Valley and the San Francisco Airport. I'm not wild about the four-hour-plus flights required to ferry the distance between Atl and SFO, but there's no better choice really. At least on Delta there isn't.

Even though I no longer have sufficient clout to have Delta move me from steerage into First Class with any regularity, I can usually position myself in one of Delta's Economy Comfort seats where I am typically surrounded by Diamond and other Platinum members of Delta's less-than-elite Sky Miles Club bellyaching with one another about rarely receiving an upgrade. “Economy Comfort” is the new “First Class” for any Sky Miles member who flies less than 150,000 miles a year. Damn Northwest!

When one is 28 on an upgrade list with 67 people and there are only four remaining First Class seats, odds aren't good that an upgrade is coming his way. Delta boards by zone with those of us Gold, Platinum and Diamond members who didn't get upgraded, being called as a group right behind First Class. This has turned into a cattle call that often involves 30- to 40-percent of the plane. When everyone is special, no one is.

This is one fine-looking sedan.
My flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, however, was fine, as was the connecting flight to West Palm Beach. Because of the flight's length and the three-hour time difference, I didn't set foot in Florida until about 5 p.m. Then it was a 20 mile slog south to Delray Beach. Chevy was kind enough to have a new Impala waiting for me at PBI. It's a delightful sedan that is as drivable as it is great looking. This is the second time I've spent several days in one and I continue to be amazed at the number of people who want to stop me to talk about it. I am at a loss as to why it wasn't on the list of nominees for North American Car of the Year. It certainly should have been.

Thursday morning I had plans to see an former par amour, who I had been out of touch with for about seven years. We breakfasted at the Green Owl, a longtime morning spot favored by Delray Beach locals. We followed the food with a leisurely walk to the beach. 

Mmmmm...Fah's Wonton soup!
I don't want anyone reading this to think that I ate and drank my way through my five days in sunny South Florida, but I got back to the house just in time for my buddy Amy and I hit my favorite Thai place, Boca Raton's Fah, for lunch. Loaded with carbs, we scooted up to Boynton Beach for a couple of craft beers at Due South Brewery. We wound up the evening at the Funky Buddha Lounge and Brewery back in Boca. I do like craft beers!

Enjoying a Carmel Creme Ale at Due South.
Friday a bunch of friends headed to Outback for lunch. I guess there's nothing like a hangover to bring out the lust for red meat. I'm more of a Chinese-food sort of guy after a night of over-consumption, but mine wasn't the hangover being addressed. 

Friday night's party was a blast. I left my party hat in SC, but still managed to have a good time.
Ostensibly I went to FL for two birthday parties; the first of which was Friday night. This is actually a combo birthday/holiday party in its fifth year. I had missed three out of the previous four. This is a creative bunch when it comes to refreshing-adult beverages. I introduced everyone – well, everyone with judgment sufficiently impaired enough to say, yes – to cinnamon tequila. A wonderfully spirited holiday shooter. 

The night was Dark and Stormy....
My buddy Tim dispensed Dark and Stormys concocted with Gosslings 151 Rum. I had no clue there was a Goslings 151 Rum. Learning new things is good.

The Funkabilly Playboys.
As the party was winding down, a couple of us headed to Boca Raton's Duck to hear a set from the Funkabilly Playboys. It was well worth the trip. They rocked the joint.

I was left to my own devices during the day on Saturday. That's what happens when you stay at someone's house with children who participate in organized sports. I mostly lounged around until I linked up with friends at the Village Tavern in Boynton Beach late in the afternoon.

Sunday I devoted to introspection....and drinking beers at the homes of a couple of buddies where we watched the Miami Dolphins kick around the despicable New England Patriots. The week before I cursed the Dolphins, but I joined most of the country in cheering them on in last Sunday's game.

That evening was the second birthday celebration I traveled to FL to attend. Being a school night, it was somewhat more laid back than Friday night's affair. That was fine with me, I had to get up Monday morning, pack and be at the airport for an 11 a.m. flight. I also wanted to catch the Steelers game, in which they wound up pounding the Bengals.

We did get back in time to wander next door and play a few hands of “Cards Against Humanity.” This is an adult card game designed mostly to make you laugh. I won't go into the graphic details here, but it's a riot. It's not for the squeamish or the easily offended. Check your political correctness at the door. But it's about as much fun as up to six people can have for 25 bucks.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hitting the Trifecta: My First Drive of Chevrolet's "Big Three" Performance Cars

Despite including Chevy products in many of the stories I do for my dot-com financial clients, I am not invited to the bulk of the media programs it throws. Consequently, I was doubly stoked when I received the nod to attend its recent performance-car-driving event in Palm Springs, Calif. 

It was a first opportunity for me to get behind the wheel of the all-new Chevrolet SS sedan, as well as the 2014 Corvette Stingray and Camaro SS convertibles.

I made the two-and-a-half-hour slog to Atlanta to catch an 8:15 a.m. flight. To save you the time of doing the math, that meant pulling away from my house in Greenville, SC at 3:45 a.m. Normally I go out and raise a little cane on Tuesday evenings. In this instance, however, reason prevailed and I stayed home, hitting the sack around 9:30. I could wax on and on about age, wisdom and discretion, but that would be just so much claptrap. I basically stayed in to save a little money in anticipation of the wallet-emptying blowout my upcoming South Florida trip will be.

Delta upgraded me to First Class for the nearly four-hour flight to Salt Lake City. I knew I would be driving that afternoon when I landed; so, I reluctantly took a pass on the bar cart, amusing myself instead by watching a couple of free movies. Yes, I could have done some work, but couldn't muster sufficient motivation.

I've spent a lot of time in the E concourse of the Salt Lake City Airport.
Getting to Palm Springs via Delta required the aforementioned Salt Lake City leg plus a nearly two-hour segment south to Palm Springs. A wave of nostalgia washed over me when I reached the E concourse at Salt Lake for the connecting flight. The Three Amigos always wound up there for a connecting flight to Billings, MT on our legendary Eatons' Ranch boondoggles. We would have a celebratory beer in the little bar squeezed back in one corner of the terminal. I was getting all misty thinking about it. 

The old fountain notwithstanding, the front entrance of the Parker is anything but picturesque.
 Chevy put us up at the Parker, a mere five-minute drive from the Palm Springs Airport. This was once a Holiday Inn and hasn't strayed too far from those roots – except that, no doubt, it's more expensive, probably a lot more expensive. I was there for the cars and not the hotel, but the front entrance looks like the backside of a strip mall. It was clean, cozy and comfortable enough, though. 

The Parker's common-area lounge.
Although there is nothing notable going on inside this structure, its gardens and outside areas spread out behind it are quite lovely. 

The Parker's sprawling gardens are beautiful.
Getting coffee before the restaurant opens at 7 a.m. is a bit of a challenge. That's tough on East-Coast folks whose internal clocks may have them up and out of bed by 3 or 4 a.m. Parker has a small conference center and I suspect a coffee urn or two lying about somewhere, but apparently filling one up and setting it out for early risers never occurred to its management, or maybe it did. Let them eat cake!

I was really fired up about driving the Chevy SS sedan. This marks the brand's first rear-wheel-drive sedan in almost two decades. Chevy pulled no punches with it. Assembled in Australia, it is based on the same Holden sedan as the now departed Pontiac G8. “Based on” being the key words here.

Chevy resisted the temptation of simply attaching a few new pieces and its bow-tie badge to the G8 to create the SS. Engineers at the event said roughly only 10 to 15 percent of the parts were carried over. 

The essential 4-1-1 is that it's powered by a 6.2-liter V8 that delivers 415 hp and 415 lb.-ft. of torque. Chevy clocked its 0-to-60 time at about 4.5 seconds. A six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles hands off engine grunt to the rear wheels. Front Brembo four-piston grabbers help with the braking assignments.

This is a full-size sedan in every respect. It has a spacious backseat with an ample trunk pass through. Its 16.4 cu.ft. trunk can swallow plenty of stuff.

There has been a lot of attention to detail inside the SS. Stitched-leather surfaces, suede-like inserts in the door panels and sport seats, and night-time blue ambient lighting all contribute to the interior's upscale feel.

One thing I really like about the SS is that there is only one trim level. When you see one, you don't have to look for some tell that identifies which engine or trim level it is. Every SS comes with the same engine, transmission and content. It is loaded with everything from a color head-up display and dual-zone automatic climate control to a nine-speaker Bose-infused audio system and heated/ventilated front seats. Every SS features Chevy's MyLink infotainment system, navigation system and an eight-inch color touchscreen.

On the safety front are forward collision alert, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, side blind-zone alert, eight airbags, and rear backup camera.

I put more than 100 miles on the SS during my afternoon drive. Program planners laid out a drive route that was perhaps the most challenging I've ever driven in a sedan. I walked away from that drive with no doubts about its remarkable cornering capabilities. Well planted and outrageously predictable, it really hunkered down in the turns.

If only these walls could speak...a bedroom in Frank's house.
Chevy took us off site for dinner our first night to Frank Sinatra's Palm Springs abode. I had been there a couple of times before. It's surprisingly normal. At least parts of it have been renovated since my last visit. After relating the story of how the sink in the master bathroom was chipped from some sort of altercation between the “Chairman of the Board” and one-time wife Mia Farrow to a couple of people, I was dismayed to find the master bath was one of the rooms that received a makeover. A little history gone.

Stay tuned for my reactions to the Corvette Stingray and Camaro SS.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hot Browns and Bourbon: Motoring Across Kentucky!

I have reached the point where I can pretty much take or leave a car-assembly-plant tour. All that really changes is the number and sophistication of the robots along the line. I've seen the outside of a half dozen paint booths, but have yet to see inside one. “Through that door is where cars are painted.” Yawn.

But even after touring three or four distilleries, I can still get revved up about seeing how particular spirits are made. About 90% of all bourbon is distilled in two Kentucky regions: One surrounds Frankfort east of Louisville and the other is around Bardstown to the southwest. I like bourbon!

Shelbyville's Science Hill Inn makes one of the best Hot Browns I've had.
I drove to Louisville on Wednesday where I hooked up with friends and then drove another four and a half hours to St. Alban, West “By God” Virginia for Thanksgiving. We took a little detour on our way to the Science Hill Inn in Shelbyville, KY for what I consider to be one of the best Hot Browns anywhere. I like Hot Browns almost as much as bourbon.

On our way back to Louisville on Friday, we stopped at Buffalo Trace distillery just outside of Frankfort. Buffalo Trace has been home to a few bourbons over the 200 years since Harrison Blanton first began distilling whiskey there around 1815. It became a formal distillery in 1870 when Colonel E.H. Taylor purchased it and christened it O.F.C. for Old Fire Copper.

In 1872 Taylor invested $70,000 in the business, building a new distillery. It changed hands once or twice on the way to Prohibition in 1920. As the Stagg Distillery, it had a license to produce and sell medicinal bourbon – I thought it was all medicinal – and was one of only four distilleries in the country to have such a license. 

The country came to its senses in 1933, repealing Prohibition. Fires, floods and a succession of superintendents dotted the chronological landscape over the decades as the distillery continued to expand. Before it was renamed Buffalo Trace, for the trail the migrating buffalo herds burned across the area on their way to the Great Plains, it was most recently called Ancient Age. 

Our tour guide was more excited about bourbon than I am.
How's that for a history lesson? I learned all of that from our very animated tour guide as we strolled the distillery grounds for an hour.

I didn't realize when at a buddy's house in Knoxville on Tuesday evening that I was tasting several of the bourbons produced at Buffalo Trace.
Today Buffalo Trace produces what many regard as some of the best bourbons available. It's product list reads like a bourbon Who's Who: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, Colonel E.H. Taylor, W.L. Weller, Blanton's and Pappy Van Winkle, along with several others.

The more exclusive labels are bottled by hand.
This was the best and most informative distillery tour I've experienced. I highly recommend it if you find yourself motoring across Kentucky at some point. 

Each of these barrels contains about 250 bottles of bourbon and weighs roughly 500 pounds when the aging process begins.
Not to mention at the tour's end we were treated to a swig of Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace. Mmmmm...bourbon....

Sunday, November 24, 2013

To Some They May Just Be Boots, But to Me, They Are Old Friends

Other than a few members of my family – and when I say my family, I really mean my sister's family – and a few close friends and fraternity brothers, I have had no relationship with anyone or anything that has endured as long as my love affair with my first pair of Tony Lama boots.

My first pair of cowboy boots, purchased in El Paso some 37 years ago. They take a lickin' and keep on kickin'.
I was 25 years old when I relocated from Louisville to Las Cruces, New Mexico to manage the candy store my sister and her husband were launching. “Relocate” may be too strong a word. I owned and maintained my house back in Kentucky during my eight or so months toiling away behind the counter of that small confectionery startup. I wasn't so much the manager as the entire staff. My sister and brother-in-law both worked full-time jobs; I was the guy working the business day to day. I really didn't make any executive decisions beyond when the staff – namely me – could go to lunch. 

My first experience as a homeowner was this two-story at 315 Belvar Avenue in Louisville.
It was an adventure, though. I had wanted to live in the Southwest as long as I could remember. And, here I was living the dream.

I lived at my sister's for those several months. As it turned out, this would be good training for all of us when I moved back in 10 years later during a little downturn in my life. Living in what was probably a house of no more than 1,200 square feet were four school-age girls plus my sister and her husband. I swelled the ranks to seven. 

My sister's house where seven of us struggled with one tiny bathroom.
There was one tiny bathroom. Getting everyone ready and off to their schools or jobs every week-day morning was a logistical endeavor of monumental proportions. I don't recall a lot of arguments revolving around bathroom usage, though. It was a fairly smooth-running operation as I recall it. But I don't think I ever sat down to deliver the mail without someone knocking on the door. You really learn how to perform under pressure in such an environment.

That's me seated in front of the Santa Fe Brewing Company with a brew in my hand in 1988. Yep, those are my Tony Lama's on my feet.
I arrived in Las Cruces a month or so before the store actually opened. One of the first things on the agenda was to drive the 40 miles to El Paso where I would buy my first pair of cowboy boots. Tony Lama is an El Paso company; so, it shouldn't be surprising that it maintained an outlet store there. It was on North Mesa Street – very close to where I would live when I moved back six or seven years later.

My sister, brother-in-law and me at Sandia Peak in Albuquerque in 1990. Notice my footwear.
I can no longer remember what I paid for those boots, but I'm sure it was less than $60. This was 1976, after all. They were my only cowboy boots until I moved to El Paso in 1982, when I purchased a couple of more pair. Somewhere I do have a photo of me wearing those boots, standing in front of the Kandy Kottage with my yellow TR6 in 1976; but I haven't been able to locate it.

Wearing my Lama's at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson in 1993.
 Granted, for most of the 37 years I've owned these boots, I didn't wear them a lot. I lived in El Paso for perhaps 18 months, and wore them extensively during that period. Beyond that, however, I'd probably only wear them a dozen times a year; and most of those occasions were visiting my sister. I lived in South Florida for 25 years and that just isn't a cowboy-boot climate or culture. 

At Eatons' Ranch in 2003, wearing, you guessed it, my Lama's.
Now that I'm in South Carolina, I get to wear boots a lot more. My original Tony Lama's, though, I reserve for riding horses. I donned them religiously on the nine vacations spent at Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming. I just had the opportunity to wear them again at the Toyota Tundra media event at Barnsley Gardens in Georgia a few weeks ago.

With Toyota's redesigned Tundra at Barnsley Gardens a few weeks ago. My Lama's are still hanging tough.
I've had them half-soled and heeled a couple of times over the decades. They have stood up heroically to all manner of treatment, weather and neglect. And after 37 years, they fit like a glove.

My love affair isn't even close to being over.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Putting a Little Soul into Minneapolis

When I flew to Minneapolis for the press launch of the redesigned Kia Soul, it was the first time I'd been in Minnesota in 10 or 15 years. On that occasion I was on a “Discover America” shoot for an episode on Leech Lake. Sounds exactly like a place you'd want to go, right? 

As far as a destination, it was fine, but the people I had to liaison with there were among the worst I worked with during my 10-year tenure with that show. I had so much trouble with them during the research, scripting and scheduling phases, I was nearly beyond control when my feet finally hit the ground there for the actual shoot. I could devote an entire post to that abysmal experience, but will spare you the rant.

Over the years working on that series, I developed a thick skin and taught myself to tune most of these idiots out. I'd just ignore them. But the Leech Lake folks really got under my skin. It was a contentious three days. I also remember you couldn't step outside without being swarmed by mosquitoes the size of humming birds. The only place I've ever been where the mosquitoes are as bad is the Outer Banks in North Carolina. 

I've always liked Minneapolis, and if anything, it's better than I remembered. Kia put us up at the Graves 601 Hotel. It's a terrific property located downtown. I can't remember the last time I was impressed by the shower in my room, but the one here was outrageous. Me want.

Is this a great shower or what! You can direct the spray wherever you want.
Dinner that night was at The Butcher and the Boar. I like meat and that's what this joint specializes in – well, that and booze. There were at least 30 beers on tap and many of them micro brews of one stripe or another. 

The entrance to The Butcher and the Boar.
 The following day we media types paired up and set off on a several-hour ride and drive.

You need not be a hamster to appreciate the Soul. It's a funky looking gadabout loaded with neat features and available technology. Kia goosed both engines by providing more grunt at lower rpms. We drove Souls armed with the 164-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder. Plenty quick enough, it did well in traffic and touring on the open road. Kia stiffened the chassis, improving handling; while the shocks have been repositioned for better ride quality.

Longer, wider and lower than the last generation Soul, the redesigned car looks more stable and even a little aggressive. Well, it would look more aggressive if not for those damn hamsters.

Inside the surprisingly roomy cabin, a restyled instrument panel accommodates an available 8-inch touchscreen. Technonerds can opt for Kia's UVO eServices infotainment system. Even the $14,700 base model comes with full power accessories, heated outboard mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity and a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio and iPod interface.

As you move up through the three trim levels, a navigation system, backup camera, a kickin' Infinity audio system, front speaker surround mood lighting and a panoramic sunroof are all standard or available as options. 

Kia credits the original Soul as the product that transformed the brand into what it is today. The redesigned Soul won't have a similar impact, but it will do much to help Kia stay the course. And that's just fine with me. 

Dinner that night was catered in at a rather cool venue where Kia cranked up the celebration. Live music, great food and, of course, wonderful drinks made the evening.

Kia always provides some after-dinner entertainment. At the Soul event, it was Sumo wrestling. Yep, we struggled into inflatable fat suits, donned head gear and did some grappling. I had always wanted to try my hand at this, and jumped at the opportunity to suit up. With the help of my corner men, I finally got velcroed into my suit and was ready to rock and roll. 

My opponent proved no match for me, giving up after three or four minutes of my relentless attacks. I apologized to her afterward, telling her that next time I would pick on someone my own gender and size. It was fun, though.

A canceled flight and other misadventures somewhat marred my trip home, but it was well worth it; hell, the shower was worth the trip.