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The Great Gay American Road Trip

by Jason Heidemann
Shiprock New Mexico (Photo by Nick Fox)

Tomorrow I’ll pick up a car in Boston and spend two weeks driving the back roads of America across 17 states before ending my road trip in Palm Springs, California.

By Jason Heidemann | Shiprock New Mexico (Photo by Nick Fox)

The great Gay American Road Trip. Join us as we travel across the country on a journey to discover queer life in far flung corners of the USA!

A Saturday morning jog through Provincetown, New England’s all-embracing LGBTQIA mecca, and the pumped fist at the end of Cape Cod’s beefy bicep flex, reminds me why I love this town. Along the main drag of Commercial Street where I chart a 4-mile out-and-back loop, queers are already about in large numbers, and at the pre-brunch hour of 9 A.M. no less.

Street life on this weekend morning is so abundant in fact, that I feel a little bit like I’m running an obstacle course. I first maneuver around a pair of strolling lesbians, their hands locked in eternal embrace, and then hop onto the sidewalk where I sidle past a daddy-hunting twink with a whale’s tail peeping out his cargo shorts. At a traffic light, a honking horn and a waving hand reveals the smiling face of my friend Brian whose 40th birthday is why I’m here. Passing Macmillan Wharf, I see grinning new arrivals streaming off the ferry and dragging way too much luggage for a town that only requires a pair of shorts, a polo or two, and a Speedo or six.

As I trot along toward the outskirts of town, where stately homes with neatly gabled roofs are the norm, the gay-straight ratio reverses itself, a reminder that this is a city where homo and hetero swirl together like entwined softserve ice cream flavors.The sun is nowhere in sight, but neither is a single narrow mind. One P’town fixture I love are the rows of Pride flags strung across Commercial Street that sway in the breeze like hula dancers. As I pass under them at the end of my run, it feels like I’m crossing a finish line, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this gay New England weekend isn’t the end of my journey it’s just the beginning.

Provincetowm Marina (Photo by Micha Weber)

Provincetowm Marina (Photo by Micha Weber)

In only four days I’ve already packed in an entire vacation’s worth of activities. I corralled my crew to see drag whacko Dina Martina at the Crown & Anchor, joined the masses for afternoon tea at the Boat slip, enjoyed frisky fun at Crew’s Quarters (a small hotel where communal showers should really be called communion showers since everyone eventually ends up on their knees), chewed on Spiritus Pizza at 1 A.M., bought the cutest pair of olive short shorts at ST33LE (and quickly spilled lunch all over them), skinny-dipped at Boy Beach, enjoyed a sunset dinner with my friends at Sal’s Place, and ended a 7-year Instagram flirtation with a handsome local artist who in the presence of his hubby chose to be on his best behavior.

But there’s much more to come. Tomorrow I’ll pick up a car in Boston and spend two weeks driving the back roads of America across 17 states before ending my road trip in Palm Springs, California, where I’ll recline poolside at the first men-only clothing optional hotel to open in PS in a decade, the brand-new Descanso Resort. It’s a journey I’ll remember as practically life changing as I discover queer life in the most far-flung corners of the country

I don’t have an Oxford Dictionary in hand when I pick up my car at Logan International Airport, but I’m pretty sure Boston is an Old English word meaning khaki pants. This city is so buttoned down and preppy that gay guys here actually have sex in their bedrooms.

Almost immediately I’m driving through adorable Rhode Island, a state so miniature it’s like an object you think you’ve misplaced, like a set of keys. Its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it landscape is dotted with pretty brick churches boasting white steeples and I start to think of all of them like a tower of giraffes roaming across the New England Serengeti. In stately Providence there are cobbled streets and sturdy brick buildings, and judging by how often I’m stuck behind a car driving exactly the speed limit, I conclude this is a state where people drive with care.

I enjoy overpriced avocado toast at the Make Out Café, which is part of Plant City, the world’s first vegan marketplace and food hall. It sits right on the Providence River, the Sunday home to Providence Flea, which is buzzing with hive-like activity today, an apt description given that more than one vendor is hawking all-natural honey.

In Connecticut, I glide into Mystic, my new favorite small town, and not because it epitomizes New England charm or that it conjures to mind Matt Damon (who made his film debut in Mystic Pizza), but because I’m standing in line for ice cream in front of a tatted dude in cargo shorts and an orange trucker hat wearing a Tucker Carlson t-shirt emblazoned with the word f*cker straight across his smarmy face. I’m at Drawbridge Ice Cream which has been around since 1890, where I’m in a race to lick up every drop of homemade Seaport Salty Swirl before it creeps down the side of the cone and melts all over my hands. The downtown drawbridge for which Mystic is most famous is rising and so are my spirits; the open road is my happy place.

If New York City packaged and sold a scented candle, its name would be something like Fumes & Urine, or Subway in Summer. This is not a bug mind you, but a feature. I happen to love this stinky metropolis. I am spending tonight in Queens with a Colombian queen who shares the same name as one of the Beatles. The master bedroom, where I’m sleeping, is huge by NYC standards, but it’s not the only thing enormous in this apartment. When I slyly ask this Beatle why he has a full-length mirror next to his bed he nudges me right onto it and proceeds to answer my question. I’ll never listen Sgt. Pepper’s “Fixing a Hole” the same way again.

Sunset in New York City and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges (Photo by IM Photo)

Sunset in New York City and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges (Photo by IM Photo)

Tomorrow I’ll pick up a car in Boston and spend two weeks driving the back roads of America across 17 states before ending my trip in Palm Springs, California.

A couple hours later,I am sitting at a bistro table under scaffolding at an Italian restaurant in the West Village. Does it get anymore NYC than this? Via Carota, helmed by out restauranteurs Jodi Williams and wife Rita Sodi, is my favorite Village eatery. My server is handsome and I’m pretty sure we’re mutually smitten. I want to order 10 courses just so I can watch him walk away each time, but instead I choose an heirloom tomato salad. The kitchen here works wonders with everything it touches including a wild boar pappardelle. But between my main and my dessert I excuse myself to use the bathroom and return to discover my table has been folded up and taken in for the night. The exhausted and unapologetic staff seat me elsewhere.

Later, I enter Marie’s Crisis, a basement sing-along dive bar and queer Village fixture, to a rousing burst of “Go Fly A Kite” from Mary Poppins. My NYC friends are deeply suspicious of how “straight” Marie’s has become on weekends, but tonight it’s largely queer. I know this based on who is singing along. (The musical vocabularies of heteros are largely limited to blockbuster numbers like “Summer Lovin” from Grease.) During this Poppins medley, I meet a large, black man who goes by the name “Cher from the Seventies.” He tells me of a time when the Von Trapp grandchildren showed up at Marie’s Crisis and sang “Edelweiss” a cappella. “That shit shook my world,” he says. “Do-Re-Mi” brings the entire room to full vocal throttle, and I decide to leave on a high note (literally).

If you ever have trouble pulling yourself away from New York, the cure is to drive through it. All you will think of is “get me out of here!” Traffic is at a standstill on this Monday morning, but it’s not because of pedestrians. Sadly, one feature of post-pandemic life in the city is that at 8 A.M. on a Monday morning, there are very few commuters traipsing up and down city sidewalks anymore and crowding Halal carts and bagel shops. As I enter the Holland Tunnel, that grimy tube connecting Manhattan to New Jersey, I can see the silhouette of Manhattan’s grand skyline in my rearview mirror, and it gives me chills. Until next time, Gotham.

Big, fat happy clouds greet me in New Jersey. I am driving extra cautiously: nothing against the Garden State, but I definitely don’t want to die here. Eventually bland suburbs marked by strip malls and narrowed down dreams fade into lush countryside. I pass through a town named Buttzville (pop. 57) featuring one business, a wiener-shaped stand named Hot Dog Johnny’s.

My arrival in The Poconos, a region in Eastern Pennsylvania marked by mountains, vineyards, ancient stone barns, and armies of cornfields is downright symphonic in that a finely tuned orchestra of crickets humming across the hills and valleys provides a background soundtrack.

“You wanna slow it down? You almost clipped our housekeeper.” A clerk is barking at me. He’s also exaggerating. I don’t come close to running over any staffers as I pull onto a gravel parking lot at The Woods Camping Resort where the first sight I see is a gentleman with a thick mop of grey hair walking to his car in flip flops. Shoes aside, he is completely nude.

The Pool at The Woods Campground (Photo by Jason A. Heidemann)

The Pool at The Woods Campground (Photo by Jason A. Heidemann)

The Woods Camping Resort is one of several queer, clothing-optional campgrounds servicing the Mid-Atlantic, and at 163 acres is surely the largest. The impressive grounds include a clubhouse, large swimming pool, volleyball courts, an amphitheater, bathroom/shower facilities named for various Golden Girls characters, a lake, and an extensive trail system.

Themed weekends include Gay Geek Fest, Christmas in July, and Nudist Vacation Week, among others. I arrive the Monday following the glow party Illumination, a favorite at The Woods.

Fellow campers are sparse given it’s a weekday, so I climb aboard a floatie and lounge poolside under a large umbrella which a nice gentleman from nearby Bucks County refers to as Ginger Island because he says it’s where, “all the light skinned boys hang out.” He calls himself a “perm,” meaning that he is a seasonal resident at The Woods. He wears professorial round glasses, blue trunks, and a hat that says DOG DAD. His thick accent reminds me I’m a long way from home. “The showa is so sophisticated,” he says. Half the queens can’t fig-yah it out.”

I decide to put on some underwear and take a hike. A common thread at queer campgrounds is to theme the street names. At The Woods, for example, I walk along Diversity Way and Sex Drive. The Lake Loop exemplifies the full beauty of the Poconos, and toward the end of my trek I encounter a handsome forty-something man wearing tight swim trunks with see-through mesh in the groin area. He and his partner are also “perms” at The Woods and they come here twice monthly from NYC to escape the city in summer. I can tell from the ballooning mesh that he’s enjoying my company and within minutes of striking up a conversation we retreat to the bathroom facilities where we have a good time in the showa.

The only thing better than a super gay afternoon in nature is a super gay night on the town. It’s a steamy, hot evening in Philadelphia when I arrive at dusk, just in time to witness the last bit of sunlight vanishing from city hall’s iconic clock tower. At the corner of 13th and Locust Streets in the Gayborhood (the city-designated name for Philly’s LGBTQ neighborhood) I meet my friend Jimmy for dinner at Bud & Marilyn’s, a handsome diner draped in rich, dark tones and bathed in a soft, amber lighting that reminds me of a late afternoon SoCal beach vista.

Bud & Marilyn’s is one of a half dozen businesses owned by wives and business partners Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. Their portfolio also includes hip neighborhood eateries Barbuzzo, Lolita, Jamonera, Little Nonna’s and The Lawn at Loveluck (a pop-up), plus two boutiques, Open House and Verde. Over fried chicken dinner I learn that Jimmy, an old Chicago friend, is attending law school in Philly with the purpose of carrying on a family tradition first started by his great grandfather, who also unsuccessfully ran for governor of Illinois) Fun fact: Jimmy’s grandmother was a model. If you Google image Schlitz Woman an early advertisement of her showing off her pearly whites and hoisting a beer pops right up.

After dinner I head to The Bike Stop, a dimly lit, multi-story leather bar located in a back alley. In other words, it’s perfect. When I was last here in 2013 it was underwear night and as that little thought bubble is hovering above my head, I hear the fellow on the barstool next to me say to his friend, “I’m not taking off my pants out respect for this guy.” He’s nodding in my direction. Of course, what he wants is my permission, which I promptly give him. It’s also a cue for me to remove my shorts and join them. In no time at all, most of the room strips down.

The names of these fellas are Jerry and Jim, and they are at the Bike Stop to celebrate Jim’s 40th (actually 62nd) birthday. They get a kick out of the fact that I keep asking the bartender for “gay water” meaning a vodka soda.

Meanwhile, a tall man in a cowboy hat taps me on the shoulder. “Handsome buns,” he says. “May I touch them?” At 10:58 we recognize it’s exactly 62 minutes until Jim’s 62nd birthday and time for me to go. As I pull my shorts up over my jock strap another guy approaches me. “Covering up that ass so soon,” he says. Sadly, yes.

Federal Donuts is not as good as I remember on my last Philly visit, but it’s enough to sustain me until lunch. As I swing out of town I stop and visit the Arch Street Meeting House where hundreds of activists met in February 1979 to plan the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. A historical marker on Arch Street commemorates the event.

I’m on the road again and searching for signs of LGBTQ life along the way. In West Chester, I spy a strip mall named Gay Street Plaza and a historic brick home with a Pride flag. Every day on the road I count the ratio of Pride to Trump flags. So far it’s about even, which I think is encouraging given this is rural America. Pennsylvania is pretty. I pass stone bridges, horse farms with galloping thoroughbreds, but also occasional blight, including suburban tract homes so hastily constructed the big bad wolf could knock them over with a single huff and puff. Mennonite churches abound and I slow down at one point to let an actual horse and buggy pass.

Andy Warhol wax Figure at Madame Tussauds in Times Square (Photo_ Oleg Anisimov)

Andy Warhol wax Figure at Madame Tussauds in Times Square (Photo_ Oleg Anisimov)

In York, I saddle up to a barstool at the First Post which was constructed in 1852 as a hitching post and is now a sprawling bar and grill, and apparently a popular hangout for ladies who lunch. The southern fried chicken sando, a thick and tasty slab of thigh meat slathered in mustard and muenster and sitting on a pretzel roll is my kind of road food. I fall easily into conversation with a bartender named Joe, a clean-cut dude in his early 40s who is supping from a water bottle which I am shocked to see upon closer inspection has a Nasty Pig sticker slapped across it. Was not expecting that.

The drive to Pittsburgh is slowed by torrential downpours in Franklin County, but as my windshield wipers work overtime to part the water like curtains, I do see a large billboard from a local LGBTQ organization that reads: Be proud of who you are.”

The skies are still overcast when I reach the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown. This is the site where United 93, one of the four planes determined to crash it into either the White House or the Capitol Building in DC. I’m here because one of the heroes on the plane was Mark Bingham, an openly gay Silicon Valley-based executive who famously overslept and nearly missed the flight. He was 31.

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