Go Places

And a heart will always stay one day too long
Always hoping for the hot flashes to come
For the glue to dry on our new creation
Come with me, go places

The New Pornographers, “Go Places”, from the 2007 album Challengers.

Your intrepid blogger just returned from a week-long training course in Augusta, Georgia. A significant part of my day job involves the design of tailings and hydrotransport piping systems. In layman’s terms, I write the specifications for systems that pump rocks and sand around. It’s all part of the convoluted web of processes that eventually produce the hydrocarbon feedstocks that fuel your car, shingle your home, and encapsulate your iPod. With a little ingenuity you can turn dirt into a Dyson, soil into a Subaru.

Over the course of the week, I met a variety of cool people from all over the world. Most of them had some sort of engineering background, but they approached slurry transport in ways that were unique to their respective industries. Whether for bitumen production, dredging operations, minerals processing or other technological pursuits, we all came together to hear the experts unravel and demystify the cutting-edge concepts of slurry pump systems. And, yes, we found a bit of time after class to get drunk & tell stories, too.

Not to say that the week was without musical interludes, but they were tougher than usual to come by. Sampling the local FM radio stations can be fun whenever you visit a new town. You never know what sort of local legends you might stumble across, especially in a town that proudly features a James Brown Boulevard. But in Augusta, as in most places, the terrestrial radio waves are completely awful. It didn’t really matter if it was Top 40 or modern rock or classic rock or R&B or ‘90s or ‘80s music – the lowest common denominator reigned supreme. With robots and algorithms programming the corporate airwaves, it’s an endless tide of music guaranteed to neither offend nor entertain. The music was analogous to the United States of Generica flickering past my car windows – Creed, Semisonic, and Ke$ha might as well have been Applebee’s, Best Buy, and Chevron.

My tastefully appointed rental car was adorned with neither satellite radio nor a USB input. The vehicle registration said 2012, but the dashboard stereo was stuck in 2002. After giving up on FM radio, I left it up to my trusty iPod to shuffle us through an eclectic mix of favourites as I cruised the highways and byways.

As I blogged earlier, one of my favourite pastimes is making new associations between travel and music. The pump course wrapped up fairly early on Friday, which left just enough time to make two side-trips before returning to my hinterland home on Saturday night. It was cool to hear Whiskeytown’s “Jacksonville Skyline” come up in the rotation, as though it knew we were just a hop & skip away from north Florida. As I neared the coast, the playlist conjured up Guster’s “On The Ocean” and Death Cab For Cutie’s “Transatlanticism”, which seemed even more appropriate.

Not long after, fate found me moseying down the avenues and riverbanks of old Savannah. It was fun to do some people-watching in the local shops, then I munched on a handful of pralines while container ships navigated their way into port. Even better was hopscotching among the myriad parks and green spaces that dot downtown like so many checkerboard squares. Memorial plaques gave me a crash course on Georgia’s colonial founders and Revolutionary War heroes.

I simply could not visit Georgia without retracing some of the footsteps of my musical idols. On Saturday, I took the scenic route back to Atlanta by diverting to Athens, the birthplace of R.E.M. Good indie record shops are sadly extinct in Augusta and Savannah, but there is at least one shop in Athens that looms large in R.E.M. lore. Wuxtry Records is legendary for being the shop where my guitar hero Peter Buck met and befriended Michael Stipe and Bertis Downs, setting the stage for Georgia’s greatest indie-rock export. I spent the better part of an hour scanning the bins and shelves at Wuxtry for vinyl treasures, walking away with as many as I could cram into my suitcase without getting Canada Customs on my ass. The walls were adorned with a whimsical array of R.E.M., B-52s, Pylon, Widespread Panic and Drive-By Truckers gig posters. I’m told that Wuxtry is still in the same location as the Buck/Stipe era; regardless, the shop was a very cool experience and had that unmistakable High Fidelity vibe in spades. I could totally imagine young Peter and Michael behind the till, chatting about their favourite Patti Smith records.

There wasn’t enough time to look for more of the R.E.M. sights, although I think I briefly spotted the trestle bridge from the back cover of Murmur. I’ve heard that Masters Stipe and Mills still have homes in Athens, but I’m not the sort of person to invade their privacy. Rock stars are people too. When former drummer Bill Berry left the band, he reportedly retired to a farm near town to grow hay and relax. After cruising into town past picturesque farm after farm, I can totally appreciate why.

All things considered, it was a great trip. Both the analytical and artistic sides of my brain got a workout. I even found time for a few literal workouts, donning a t-shirt and shorts for some brisk mid-winter hikes. Temps in the 70s are always nice in March; springtime in Alberta just can’t compare.

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