On the road with Branden and Lauren from Rotten Journal
There's one thing you're guaranteed to find as you make your way around this enormous country, and that's booze. Bartender Branden and sommelier Lauren from Rotten Journal live on the road in their 1989 Yukon Wilderness travel trailer, sampling liquor (not while they're driving—don't drink and drive, kids) and rolling around the Southwest.
How would you describe your life of trailer travel in three words?
Branden: Breakfast. For. Dinner.
Lauren: Dessert. For. Breakfast.
Where are you right now?
Las Vegas, Nevada. Ignoring the strip and exploring the seedy underbelly.
Why did you decide to travel the American Southwest in a trailer?
We were cold.
We initially set out from Dayton, Ohio on Nov 16 2016.* The weather was chilly but manageable, so made a short trip to Hillsboro, Ohio to do a video on Prohibition, and then on to Columbus to profile a meadery. That night, the weather turned and we woke up to freezing temperatures and snow. We put some antifreeze in our plumbing, conducted our interview, cancelled the shoots we had lined up in Kentucky, and immediately drove south until we stopped shivering at the gas pump. This didn’t happen until we hit Charleston, SC.
Wanting to stay warm, we then just cruised westward along the southern states, stopping wherever we found something good to drink, and squeezing in Cuba and Mexico along the way. We had originally planned to do this for three or four months and then head to Europe, but once we hit Texas we were reminded of our deep affinity for the desert and decided to stretch our legs a bit, and get reacquainted with the wide-open landscape and the rich history and the big, bright, beautiful sky. During this time, Branden also attended a sustainable building academy in New Mexico (called Earthship Biotecture, if you’re interested).
As far as “in a trailer” goes, the American Southwest is really an ideal area to have a home on your back. Some of the most beautiful places out here are also some of the most remote—i.e., good luck finding a motel. Also, the drives are gorgeous and parking is plentiful (provided you can/will dry camp). Just be mindful of road conditions! You don’t want to get stuck towing a trailer on a washed-out one-lane road going up the side of a mountain. Not that we would know anything about that.
*Which means we recently celebrated one year on the road!
You travel the US (and the world) in search of booze—the rarer the better. What have you found in the US that you can’t find anywhere else?
This is a tough question, because with the internet you can pretty much get anything anywhere. That being said, some things are literally unheard of outside of a very small location. We really like those types of booze that have so many layers of local culture/tradition built up around them that even locals aren’t really clear on their origins.
Something we discovered while in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is a product called Ojen. It’s a clear, sweet, anise-heavy liqueur originally produced in Spain. By the early 1900s, it had become the beverage of choice for the wildly influential Krewe of Rex [a carnival krewe that stages New Orleans' largest parade on Mardi Gras Day] and imbibing Ojen Frappés—Ojen poured over shaved ice—became a Mardi Gras tradition. In the early 1990s, the company that produced Ojen announced that they would be ceasing all production. Panicked, a group of NOLA businessman, all members of Rex, convinced the manufacturer to make one more batch under the condition that they would buy it all—6,000 bottles in total. They then set up local distribution and kept NOLA swimming in Ojen for nearly two more decades, but in 2009 the last bottle was officially sold. Ojen was no more.
Then, in January of 2016, one month before we arrived in town, the NOLA-based Sazerac Company released their version of Ojen—called Legendre Ojen—which they had been reverse-engineering since the well went dry.
While in town, we actually had the opportunity to taste both the original and the new bottling of Ojen with Chris Hannah, legendary barman at the historic Arnaud’s French 75 bar. The old bottle was actually from Chris’s private stash, so this was a particular honor (Chris would accept a James Beard award on behalf of the French 75 bar just a few months later). Sazerac Co.’s version is pretty close, but the old one is, in our opinion, a little better. Of course we’re gonna say that though, right?
This is not a product I expect to see outside of NOLA any time soon. Even finding it in NOLA was tricky. When we were attempting to grab a couple bottles for the road, most liquor store owners responded with, “O-what?” We finally found some. We’re saving it for Mardi Gras.
Your ‘Daring Pairings’ bring together foodstuffs and alcoholic concoctions that are unlikely bedfellows. What’s been your best discovery so far? Why?
Eggnog and french fries. Because it’s awesome.
A truly great paring is greater than the sum of its parts; for example, I can no longer have fries without observing—audibly—“these would be way better with eggnog” and vice versa (to the confused stares of everyone at McDonald’s/the dairy case at Safeway).
We discuss on our blog in obnoxious detail why our pairings work, or fail miserably, but suffice it to say that this one brings together the classic (un)holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar. If you’ve ever dipped your fries into your milkshake, you know what I’m talking about. We haven’t gone far from that template—we mainly just added booze, which, ya know, is an improvement. It’s now an (even better) unholy foursome (a fourgy—can you print that?). [Yes –Ed]
We're not always interested in reinventing the wheel completely with the parings. We usually pick a well-worn combination and tweak it ever-so-slightly, and then take all the credit. The key is that the combo isn’t already being explored; I’ve never had my eggnog served with a side of fries, which is really a shame when you think about it. It’s now my goal to change that.
What have you learned about life on the road that’s surprised you?
That’s it’s as cheap or as expensive as you make it.
I think many people assume that downsizing into an RV will just inevitably save them money, but ’tis not necessarily so.
It can, but it requires you to live smart and, perhaps most importantly, park smart. This necessitates some research, and sometimes some privileged information. We’ve learned about the best free parking spots, some even with hookups and facilities, just from talking to other RVers—especially those who’ve been at it for awhile (i.e. old-timers). Learn to bake cookies and talk to strangers. If it’s on the internet, it’s probably overrun already—especially if the Wynns have written about it. Actually calling ranger stations to ask about boondocking is sometimes helpful, but more often than not they’ll be less than forthcoming. They’re sick of cleaning up after people. I get it.*
The flip side of this is staying every night in an RV park, sometimes for upwards of $100/night (though $30-$50/night seems about average in our experience). You do the math, and then go get a mortgage.
Also, a brand-new Class A can easily cost more than your house. Our rig cost $5K out the door, taxes included (haggle!). She’s got some years on her, but she’s got no grey hairs and she still makes me cry when she sings “Is There Life Out There.” We call her “Reba.”
*We always carry yard bags in case the last (or the last several) campers have been particularly negligent. It only takes a few minutes to tidy up a site, and it helps us all in the long run, especially in terms of free sites continuing to exist. Leave a place nicer than you found it.
What are your must-haves in the trailer at all times?
My great-grandmother’s cast-iron skillet; this is my prized possession. I sing to this thing. I tuck it in at night. I keep it so well seasoned that it’s practically a mirror. I use it on the stove, in the oven, and over a campfire. It will be written into my prenup.
Ear plugs: The walls of your average camper are paper-thin, and rest stops/parking lots are not the quietest places, especially at dawn when the big rigs are releasing their air brakes and getting back on the road.
Waterproof bluetooth speaker: Laptop speakers don’t do justice to Rocky IV. Also, we take it on picnics and to the pool.
Warm slippers: RV floors can get cold. Especially if, like ours, they are not carpeted. There’s just an open pocket underneath your rig and minimal insulation between you and the ground, so if it’s even just a little chilly outside your toots are going to be the first to feel it.
Portable record player: When we were planning this trip, we knew we were going to live minimally. Having served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, this wasn’t a new way of life for me. I could trim down most of my belongings, but leaving behind my records made me really sad. Branden saw that and surprised me with a battery-powered, portable record player right before we left. I think it’s the best thing anyone’s ever gotten me. Selecting which handful of records to take with us was difficult, but we have certainly picked up a few along the trip (well, maybe more than a few).
House plants: Our camper was previously used as a mobile hunting lodge, and the walls are still dark faux-wood wallpaper (which Branden loves). I need a dozen plants or so to brighten things up. We came across a collection of vintage beer cans just before leaving Ohio, and purchased the whole lot. We then removed the tops with a can opener and have been using them as planters ever since. They’re unbreakable—perfect for an RV! We’ve since added a couple of vintage Folgers cans to the mix for some larger plants.
Which city (or locale) that you’ve visited is the best for drinking?
New Orleans is the best but everyone knows that.
Let’s talk about the runner up: Tucson, AZ. There’s nowhere else in the country—nowhere we’ve been, anyway—where were you can drop into a hotel bar (the hotel where they caught up to John Dillinger, in fact) and be served by a peppy 84-year-old who’s been bartending there since '59, or stumble upon a tiki mecca (Kon Tiki) in a strip mall, or brave a dive bar called the Meet Rack where the proprietor actually goes by the name “God”, has a sex dungeon in the back and gives a drink discount for life to patrons who get his face branded on their body (this is all real). Also, Sonoran hotdogs are the absolute best drunk food we have ever come across. We spent 24 hours here, with no plans or itinerary, and they were 24 of the most memorable hours of the last year (despite the fact that it was 104 degrees). Can’t wait to go back.
Is there a drink (either an old classic or something you’ve invented yourselves) that you think epitomizes life on the road—or at least makes it easier?
Hot spiked apple cider.
For a couple of dorks (us) who come from fine dining and the most obnoxious of cocktail bars, this is an embarrassingly humble drink. That being said, this is our campfire go-to, and if we go for very long without having a campfire we don’t really feel like we’re on the road (which reminds me…). We never really follow a recipe, usually just using whatever we have in the RV at the moment—which for us is, admittedly, always quite a lot—but this “recipe” will certainly get you to a nice place:
1/2 gallon unfiltered apple cider
19 oz Irish whisky or a good brandy (or a combination of both)
4 oz of a good dark amaro (Averna, Amaro CioCiaro, or China China are good options)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1-3 cinnamon stick(s)
Real maple syrup (optional, to taste)
Remove zest from orange with a vegetable peeler in long strips. Juice orange and strain juice. Add juice and zest to pot with cinnamon and cider. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Immediately strain or fish out orange zest and cinnamon. Now—and only now—you may add your hooch (don’t cook it, or you’ll evaporate the alcohol!). If your cider is especially tart, don’t be nervous about adding a nice big glug of maple syrup at this point. Make sure, however, that you determine this only after adding the booze, as the amaro will add quite a bit of sweetness. Pour into a thermos, grab a thick blanket, and head out to the fire. Now call your boss and tell her you’re not coming back.
P.S. Be careful. You’ll have an empty thermos on your hands before you realize it, and you might actually call your boss.
What do you love about being nomadic? Is there anything you don’t love?
What I love: You know that feeling you have like you’re not doing what you should be doing? Like you’re trapped and just getting older making someone else rich(er)? I don’t feel that way. Not anymore.
What I don’t love: Back when we lived in Los Angeles, we had a beautiful house where we regularly threw f***ing epic dinner parties. We miss that. Also, we’d like to have a dog. We know a LOT of nomads who have dogs, but it just doesn’t work with our schedule/lack-of-schedule right now. We randomly leave the country too often, and we don’t trust kennels. C’est la vie. If we ever settle down, we will get a dog before we get a bed.
Please feel free to add anything else about your lives/travel/food/booze/the general state of the world, if you’d like to.
Hmm. We would just want to say that the world would likely be a better place if more people left home every once in a while. That doesn’t mean that everyone should sell all their stuff and hit the road, but it would be nice if more us recognized the value of human experience and not just personal possessions. Road trips, even short ones, are a great place to start. Obviously, experiencing a foreign country is transformative, but we have found nearly as much variety within our own country—and sometimes within individual states—as we’ve found traveling abroad (for instance, we need a dictionary to understand the Creole/Geechee-inflected English spoken in some parts of Georgia and Louisiana). You don’t have to go far. Just go. You’ll learn that our differences are something to celebrate rather than something to fear, and that despite all of them we are ultimately all very similar.
Also, stop telling your bartender “not too sweet.” If the drinks are always too sweet you should really go to a different bar (or order a beer). Also, we just make it the same anyway. Xoxo.