I think I see a Pick-in-ick Basket: A Day at Yellowstone National Park

I went to Bozeman for an astronomical conference in early July. Bozeman is a wonderful town, in my opinion. Also, it was nice being in the west again, where all the iced tea is automatically un-sweet and comes with a lemon wedge. Bozeman is pleasant and abundant and boasts the largest population of Himalayan mountain climbers in the US, they say. Prayer flags were everywhere and I wondered if I was back in Yuksom. There was a local art walk one evening, and the food at the restaurants was delicious. A group of us ate dinner served by the restaurant out on the lawn and the food, wine and weather was perfect (read: no Old Bay, no humidity). To really put the cherry on the sundae, I was not too far away from Yellowstone National Park. I haven’t been there since I was little, maybe five years old. Anytime you’re near a National Park, and especially one as auspicious as Yellowstone, I believe that you need to take at least a day to see it if you can. After asking permission from the company, I took an extra day on the weekend, on my own nickel, to drive down and tour the place. It was a lot to do in one day, but for Yellowstone, I had to try.

The guys at the rental counter had given me a car upgrade to the largest consumer vehicle that GM makes. At least I think it’s their biggest – it was huge. It fit right in with the locals, but I wasn’t sure how well I was going to do with driving it. It turned out all right in the end. It was a good vehicle to drive in a place with bears and bison. Both of which I saw, I might add. I got a late start but eventually got to the park and its amazing geological features. I’d been here before, about 40 years earlier, when Old Faithful was an hourly geyser, but I didn’t remember all that much. Specifically, I remembered Old Faithful erupting, that squirrels like Fritos, and that the sulfur fumes hurt my nose. I began planning my visit, mainly trying to avoid the worst of the crowds and to just enjoy myself (after all, it was summer and it was busy). I mean, you could try to jam everything in but really, it would have been stressful and I would not have been able to photograph things the way I wanted to. It would have been a push. Instead, I walked and walked, and hiked, and walked some more and drove a bit. It was pleasant without a big agenda. I know I might have missed a few things. In fact it was a long wait for Old Faithful, so I didn’t stay for the eruption. I just went where I wished and didn’t get ambitious. On my wander, I found the vertebrae of what looked like bison in a meadow and saw some very strange fungus in a warm pool (I found this fascinating). After a long day in the park, photographing here and there, it was time to get back. But the traffic was blocked up. Why? A mama bear and her two cubs were out looking for dinner near the road! What a thing to see. Shortly afterward I watched a bison grazing in a field. What a beautiful end to the day.

I admit, I didn’t see Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, but I still couldn’t believe how many wonderful things I had seen in such a short time.

A bee at work.

A bee at work.

Bleached landscape from the sulfurous pools

Bleached landscape from the sulfurous pools

Fungus in a boiling hot sulfur pool!

Fungus in a boiling hot sulfur pool!

Some of that wonderful fungus in a hot spring

Some of that wonderful fungus in a hot spring

Ants in the wildflowers

Ants in the wildflowers

The meadows of Yellowstone

The meadows of Yellowstone

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Sunset reflected in the hot pools of Yellowstone

Sunset reflected in the hot pools of Yellowstone

The sulfuric hot springs

The sulfuric hot springs

Mama bear and her two cubs.

Mama bear and her two cubs.

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The Page House

A long time ago in 1920, my grandmother’s family lived in the little town of Wenham, Massachusetts. Wenham was a place where wealthy people had summer homes and caretakers, of which my great grandfather was one (caretaker, not a wealthy person). My grandmother lived here with her family and grew up in Wenham, eventually going to Beverly High School. She walked miles to school even in winter, though I am sure it was not uphill both ways, took silversmithing as an elective, and graduated. A while later, she got a job testing special aircraft engines at the General Electric where she met her husband, and after that, life became more complicated with a series of moves – one every year or two, it seemed. They lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts in the very beginning of their marriage, with her mother-in-law, and before long, lived all over the United States.

Through it all, my grandmother wanted to go home. She loved California, but she wanted to go home. Before she died at what she said was the much-too-old age of 92, she asked us all to take her home when the end came. That is what we did.

She passed away in December, and I was willing to take her remains then to Wenham since the weather was not too terrible yet. But she had said it was all right to wait until spring and it seemed easier on the rest of the family if we did. I made a plan for a service in May. In late April, I wrote to as many of our family members as I could find in her address book to ask if they would be able to come to Wenham. And they all wrote back or sent word through someone who did write. They were going to come! One fine day in late May, we gathered there in Wenham at what I was surprised to find was a beautiful cemetery, and did just as she had asked.

While we were all very sad that Grandma had left us, we were happy to see each other and I got to meet several people I had only ever heard about. Some of the cousins had not seen each other in 50 years and soon, at a nearby restaurant, everyone was talking and laughing and passing around old photographs. It is my belief that this is the sort of afternoon my grandmother would have organized if only she could have. At least I hope so.

The next day we took our rental car up the coast. I drove us out to Marblehead to see the Norwegian home my great-grandfather built for his wife, and then up into Maine to enjoy Cape Arundel and Kennebunkport in its brief summer glory. Lobster rolls were happily consumed, memories were shared, and blueberry pie disappeared. The day finished with a walk around Portland, a long ride, and a good supper back in Boston. We enjoyed the beauty of New England and the food my grandmother always loved. I still remember the time she brought home a crate of bluefish on ice and we picked it up at the baggage claim. She’d been on a plane all day but when we took her home that night from the airport, she cooked the fish for us all for dinner, so that we could eat it while it was still as fresh as possible.

Finally, when everyone else was on their flight home, Mom & I had a couple of hours to visit the Page house. This is an historic building where our ancestors lived generations ago. It’s fallen on rather hard times since the historical society moved their headquarters and all their excess stuff ended up in the Page House. Still, they are trying to take care of it. They have much of the old furniture still set in place, and you can see how the post and beam construction is sagging and warped but holding up. Grandma had talked about it all these years, and it seemed somehow that it would be a bit more magnificent. Well, I guess you can’t have everything as it once was. Mom & I smiled and tried to remember the pride it had always represented in Grandma’s voice. At least the town of Wenham is still just as rich and beautiful as it once was – that hasn’t changed. Nor have the traditions of the people there or their love of heritage.

Wherever my grandmother is, I wish her well, and I hope she knows that we think of her. I hope that she knows we all remember her and that she made a difference to each of us. Finally I hope she knows how much we all enjoyed the blueberry pie – she would have liked that.

The family marker

The family marker

The Wenham Cemetery and Page plot

The Wenham Cemetery and Page plot

Inside the Page House

Inside the Page House

Door in Marblehead

Door in Marblehead

A home in Marblehead

A home in Marblehead

My Norwegian great-grandmother's house in Marblehead.

My Norwegian great-grandmother’s house in Marblehead.

Home for sale in Marblehead

Home for sale in Marblehead

Me at the Page House

Me at the Page House

They don't make hardware like this anymore - at the Page house

They don’t make hardware like this anymore – at the Page house

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More Yummy Lobster Rolls in Maine... La Dolce Vita.

More Yummy Lobster Rolls in Maine… La Dolce Vita.

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The Cherry Blossoms

One hundred years ago, the mayor of Tokyo gave the District of Columbia over 3000 cherry trees of twelve different cultivars. The first lady, Mrs. Taft, and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, together planted the initial two trees at the end of 17th Street Southwest. Cherry trees are all over the city but most of all, they are in the Tidal Basin near the Potomac River. When they bloom, the whole city seems to turn pink.

Another thing that happens when the cherry trees bloom is that everyone comes to see them. New trees, in the form of camera tripods and monopods, sprout up everywhere! It is a photographer’s dream and nightmare all at once, and it is difficult to get a good shot between the thousands of people walking around and the other photographers encamped in the area. Still, there are so many trees and so much beauty that it’s worth trying.

We’d been watching the news all week to see if the blossoms were out yet, and they were taking their time with the cold snap. But then, one day, it got warm and everything changed. I left work a little early in the afternoon and caught the Metro into the District. It was hot out. In the last three weeks it had gone from 26 degrees and snowing to 96 degrees and sunny. I had several blocks to walk from L’Enfant station to Tidal Basin with a lot of heavy equipment, using a less than ideal camera bag for the job, since my easy one was in a box somewhere in storage. My tripod was in storage too, and I could have really used it, but no luck. We must suffer for beauty, as my grandmother used to say, so I staggered on in the heat. On arrival, I saw a mass of people and pink blossoms everywhere. It was gorgeous. I struggled for a position, and waited and waited and waited for gaps in the crowd, and eventually, I thought I’d managed a few pictures that maybe didn’t have heads in them. Sometimes it’s hard being short.

It was so pretty out, and people were all so happy to see the flowers, that it was easy passing the time. I took a few pictures of people with their cameras, and had a bottle of water and a banana. Before I knew it, the sun began to go down and it was time to think about dinner. I consulted the phone for a place to get some oysters or something on the water. Then I tried to walk to the recommended spot. Things went sorta wrong from there.

I started out of Tidal Basin toward the bridge. The wrong bridge, of course. After a while, I had walked most of the way to Virginia. Ugh. I was near the Pentagon and Reagan Airport with no hope of a cab anywhere. I looked for a taxi for a few minutes, just because I couldn’t face the alternative quite yet. Ultimately, there was nothing else to do but to turn around and walk back. I consulted some fellow pedestrians to confirm my directions (responses were “yes, go that way”, and “oh dear that is too bad!” in short succession). A couple of miles later, I was back near the fish market about five minutes walk from where I started, and feeling pretty dumb. Nothing at the market appealed since it was messy and mostly deep fried, and there were long lines. I had passed hunger a while back and gone into that stage where you don’t care anymore if you eat. I shook my head and headed back up toward the Metro. On the way I met some tourists who were lost and also looking for the Metro, so we joined forces and went together. Having lived in the area for only six weeks, I was pretty used to getting lost and it had become a fact of life for me. Slowly, slowly, consulting the map at every intersection, we made our way back to L’Enfant plaza and the Metro, and then it was back to Greenbelt and my apartment in Laurel. I couldn’t wait to get back to someplace familiar.

First thing I did was take off my shoes and put my feet in some hot water while the images loaded into the computer. I seem to remember devouring a bowl of cereal, somewhere in this time too, but mostly, I couldn’t wait to see if anything I had shot came out! Yes, there were at least five images with no one’s head in them! Some were even properly composed! Oh heavenly day! It was worth getting lost after all! Following are my favorites, and the hope that if you’re in DC in the spring, you’ll collect some of your own.

The Jefferson Memorial across Tidal Basin

The Jefferson Memorial across Tidal Basin

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See how crowded it was?

See how crowded it was?

Sunset at the Jefferson Memorial

Sunset at the Jefferson Memorial

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cherry_blossoms-8911

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We’re not in California Anymore: Observations on Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Like every place, Maryland has its ups and downs. What defines the DC Metro Area are a couple of key facts. One: it used to be (and still sort of is) a giant swamp, not too far away from a very large bay, the Chesapeake. Two: the fortunes of the area and its people ebb and flow with the current economic state of the federal government. There isn’t a sense of lasting prosperity in Maryland, near as I can tell. That’s not to say Maryland’s broke; it’s reliable in places, but it’s not brimming over with money and optimism. Much of Maryland is rural, and it’s also technically part of The South. Here are a few observations I dare to make about the area, and I hope they do not offend anyone too much.

  • People are neighborly and you’d better be too. Really, you’d better be.
  • Easterners speak bluntly. The southerners less so, but it’s not unexpected behavior. I find this a blessed relief.
  • It’s quiet and uneventful, unless you’re in the bad parts of Baltimore (where they filmed The Wire).
  • Few people use their directional signals in the car. I think at some point they won’t come with your car when you buy it in Maryland.
  • If you merge on the freeway, you are expected to hang back and wait, even if you were slightly ahead of the car in the main lane. Otherwise it’s rude.
  • There is a sort of calculated vehicular homicide going on in the District of Columbia on route 295, and very aggressive driving on 495 (aka The Beltway).
  • Lots of people reverse into their parking spaces. I still don’t get this.
  • People regularly refer to which county they inhabit, or work within.
  • There are many places in Maryland where people have lived all their lives and not gone more than 500 miles from home.
  • Boating is plentiful, as is water. For a Californian, the water richness is shocking.
  • The weather is miserable except occasionally it’s nice, but you don’t know when it’s going to be either one.
  • Old Bay is in half the restaurant food. This is fine in the crab, but come on folks, there are other seasonings.
  • Lots of people fish, crab and hunt, maybe even your fancy professional neighbors.
  • Shockingly scandalous local politics have been known to occur in the area (Marion Barry, anyone?).
  • Politics, especially federal politics, is the local sport. You will be hearing about it even if all you wanted was a traffic report on the radio.
  • Professional football is kind of a big deal here. And lots of people play lacrosse. Swim clubs are also popular.
  • They have great seafood and also very good peaches and corn. But finding a restaurant that doesn’t bring in frozen crab cakes from who-knows-where is a bit of a challenge. What gives? We’re on the Chesapeake!
  • Marylanders are very into CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and there are farmer’s markets all over the place. Hydroponics and greenhouses are popular too.
  • There are Amish markets here with wonderful, wonderful food. I have discovered a new cookie called the Lemon Snap and it is delicious.
  • If you want good Mexican food, you might have to learn to make it yourself.
  • Gardening here is a defensive game. The mowing alone is a full-time job, and there are all kinds of critters just waiting for a chance to eat your plants.
  • Trees here are thin and fast-growing affairs, mostly. With freezing rain, it’s hard being a tree in Maryland. The “rain” coats an entire limb in heavy ice, and then it falls right off from the weight. Sometimes it takes the whole tree with it. Any trunk bigger than two feet in diameter is impressive here.
  • When folks hear it’s going to snow, they make a run on the stores for toilet paper and bottled water. Gas stations are mobbed. Panic ensues. But snow happens every year at least a few times so shouldn’t they be used to it? Confusing…
  • People sometimes strike up a conversation with you for no other reason to be friendly or polite.
  • Delivery and service persons assume that you will be home during the week between nine and five, and will not give you an estimated time of arrival until the day of service. Nuts.
  • If you want proper French croissants, fancy bathtubs, designer fabrics or elegant fixtures, you will probably be ordering from a catalog or going to New York, Philadelphia or Toronto.
  • $400K buys you a 4,000 square foot house on an acre of land. Imagine…
  • Parts of the Capitol are like a ghost town. People live there, but at the same time, it feels abandoned at night in many districts. Perhaps because a lot of people aren’t there to stay, due to the nature of elected positions, they aren’t all making DC “home”. I don’t know.
  • The monuments and the museums of the Capitol are wonderful and the metro is great. DC is a special place to visit.
  • Annapolis has been around since 1649 and its brick streets are charming. There are a few old and lovely towns in Maryland and Virginia. I am pleased to live in one of them.

One big change is the weather. It varies a lot. Sometimes a lot in one day. When the season changes, you know it on that very day. Suddenly, it’s spring, or suddenly it’s summer or fall. You can go away for five days and when you come back, all the trees have turned magnificent colors in October. This spring it went from being 26 to 96 in a span of three weeks. This winter, it spat down tiny ice balls. It’s always something different. And there is A LOT of rain in Maryland. At first I was shocked at the number of public fountains but eventually I realized that there is more than enough water to go around. Too much, even. Starting in May, I kept waiting to wash the car, waiting for a day when it wasn’t raining. Months went by and in September I had to laugh at myself for waiting and just wash the car in the rain. This summer it rained so much that the farm crops suffered. For me, the worst thing is the summer humidity – it looks beautiful out the window but if you go out, you cannot even take a deep breath for the humidity and the smog. It’s heartbreaking. Maryland is petitioning the EPA about the states in the coal-burning Rust Belt, along with several other eastern states, for the terrible air quality that wafts our way.

With the humidity on top of smog, well, the summers are hard. Fall makes up for some of that, thankfully, but I do miss summers outdoors. I suppose I will get used to it, but it seems unimaginable. People here go on about having four seasons; I contend that they only have two. There is “Oh, it’s nice outside today” and “Please don’t make me go out there!”

The best thing about Maryland so far is how much people have tried to help me and tried to make me feel at home. Even though I am from the West, they are doing their best to put up with me and make sure I don’t die on the Beltway or fall on my ass in a December parking lot. They worry about me, they ask if I understand about sleet and not to drive in it, and they answer all my silly questions about why, exactly, I have to drain my hose bibs. They laugh at my rants about reversing into parking spaces and the horrors of the stink bug. They have even tried to help me find good Dim Sum restaurants and guava juice at the supermarket. And I am grateful to every last one of them.

Springtime in Maryland

Springtime in Maryland

Dandelions

Dandelions

Silver birch trees in the Patuxent Reserve, MD

Silver birch trees in the Patuxent Reserve, MD

Trees have it rough here.

Trees have it rough here.

Toys at the NASA gift shop

Toys at the NASA gift shop

Interesting stuff in my office

Interesting stuff in my office

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Are we there yet?

It’s been a long time since we last left our heroine, driving across the country and hoping to get to Maryland. How has she fared? Did she get there? What’s the place like? Questions abound. It’s late, I know, but I’ll try to pick up where I left off.

It seemed like it took forever to cross Texas. I know it didn’t actually take forever, but it was a very, very long drive – more than 800 miles. Eventually I crossed into Arkansas where I made a short stop at the Stuckey’s in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I promised my uncle in grand road trip tradition that I would stop specifically at a Stuckey’s. And if I hadn’t promised him, you can believe me, I wouldn’t have stopped. The place is odd. If you Google “Stuckeys Arkansas”, you’ll see the Arkadelphia location listed proudly. They claim this is their space, and there was a big sign outside with the name on it along with the gas station, but when you got inside, it looked only like another quickie mart. I asked about the incongruity. They said they weren’t sure what was going to happen next, but that at one point it had been more Stuckey-esque (my word not theirs) and now funding and plans were scarce. Then they pointed to the two shelves of Stuckey’s merchandise: some scary-looking, preservative-laden, shiny foodstuff (not to be confused with actual food). I didn’t buy any. This Californian bought a granola bar and some cranberry juice instead. I hope my uncle understands. Soon afterward I reached the Tennessee border, marked by many large and well-advertised fireworks stands. After Texas, getting to another state in mere hours was a pleasant surprise.

I was driving through the night. I was late. I’d stopped to visit my friend in Dallas earlier and now I was making for Madison, Alabama, to see another old friend. I wish I’d had more time for National Parks and beautiful scenery, and heck, for driving in daytime, but I had miles to go. I only had about three days left to get all the way to Maryland! It was several states away. Uh oh. My mother was expecting me to pick her up from the airport and there was no room to be late. Really, uh oh. I was feeling the pinch. Onward! I crossed the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, a little after midnight and headed toward the state line. Before long, I found myself on a completely deserted highway (except for the fireworks stands) crossing into Mississippi and eventually, finally, on to Alabama. The first few towns with Hampton Inns had no vacancies, so I had no choice but to press on. How does it happen that the inn is full in late February in the little border towns of Mississippi, anyway? Well, I suppose I am not the first one to wonder – I hear another group of travelers asked themselves a similar question about 2000 years ago. I was very sleepy and I opened the windows to keep myself awake. At long last, only 100 miles from Madison, I found a bed and hit the hay. After sleeping like the dead, I had to hurry to get to town in time to visit my friend. We enjoyed a long, pleasant lunch. It was so good to see her face and listen to her: definitely worth that all night driving. Good thing too because I now had another 800 mile night coming to me.

I left Madison at 4:30 in the afternoon and I had to cross most of Virginia or I’d leave my mother stranded for sure. Oh, oh… uh oh. I drove through Alabama, spent about five minutes in Georgia going through Chattanooga, found more fireworks stands at the border, crossed the rest of Tennessee and half of Virginia in one shot. I was making good time until I got up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. There it started to snow. Oh no. Snow. I had tried to avoid that white stuff all the way across the country. But here I was in February in the middle of the night in the mountains, and there was no getting around it. I stopped at a rest stop, consulted my smartphone and found the next town with a reputable hotel was only ten miles off. I called, made a reservation and then made a face at the snow. Now what? I’ve lived in California all of my adult life and I have little idea how to drive in snow, except to go slowly. Hey – look – there’s a highway patrol officer. They’re nice to scared little ladies in Virginia, aren’t they? I heard they are. I pulled up alongside, rolled down my window and waved. He rolled down his window too and we did, indeed, have a friendly chat about road difficulties between here and the inn. Since the snow had just started, he said he thought I’d have no trouble if I was careful, especially on turnoffs and bridges. He was right. I made it to the hotel and fell into a dreamless slumber about a minute after my head hit the pillow.

The next day was a careful race across Virginia (red car, California plates, cold weather). I indulged myself for a few minutes by the side of the road in the Shenandoah valley for some photographs. It was so pretty I had to stop, even in late winter. I bet if you go to the National Park instead of just the side of the interstate, it’s even prettier. One day I’m going back; it’s beautiful. But today, we had a schedule to hit! Mom is going to be waiting (uh oh). I hurried to get on to one of the last freeway junctions: route 66 across to the dreaded Washington DC Beltway. It was getting dark outside and I had two hours to get to that hotel in Laurel, MD, unload half the car into the hotel, and go back to Washington DC to get my mother and her suitcase. Oh dear. Hurry up!! Then, at long last, twenty minutes into the Beltway, I crossed the Maryland state line. I looked at my old teddy bear in the passenger seat and informed him that we’d made it to our new home. You see, there wasn’t anyone else to tell. As much as I’d had the support and love of everyone in my life, I was alone on this journey, unless you count the bear. I decided around Arkansas that I was counting him.

An hour later, I made it to the hotel, did the fastest car unload ever, and dashed off to Reagan airport, though I was 20 minutes late. Oh Mom. My poor mother was starting worry when I wasn’t there – she only had a text message to console her. But I couldn’t talk to her: I was busy trying not to get killed on the DC Beltway. Man, that is some road. I’ve done a lot of driving in a lot of places. San Francisco, Boston, Manhattan, the Italian Autostrada, central Florence, the other side of the road in Malaysia – but nothing is as bad as Washington DC. The Beltway and the 295 are probably the worst. DC freeway driving is a competitive blood sport. Now that I’ve lived here a while, I can handle it most of the time, but it took a lot of getting used to. Having to get downtown to get Mom and then get back was scary for both of us (I’m still sorry about that Mom!). But I did it. There she was, waiting patiently with her bag. What a relief – I wasn’t too late.

Over the next couple of days, Mom helped me choose finishes and fixtures for the new townhouse being built in Annapolis, the one I bought back in January, and she got to see my temporary apartment in Laurel. But then I had to put her back on a plane and say goodbye. It wasn’t easy. I was alone now: just me and the bear.

Late winter in Virginia

Late winter in Virginia

The Shenandoah in February

The Shenandoah in February

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Papers Please

When I broke the news to my family and friends that I’d be driving across the US, some suggested routes, others shared their own stories about crossing, and still others encouraged me to visit them as I drove through. My mom, though, gave me a new, in-the-wrapper CD and told me specifically not to open it until I got to the Texas state line. She said, looking concerned, “You’ll need it most then. It takes days – DAYS – to cross Texas.” Mom was right. Of course I went and took probably the longest route through Texas: 812 miles from El Paso to Odessa to Abilene to Dallas and out through Texarkana. Did you know that El Paso is closer to California than it is to Dallas? My goodness.

Fortunately I can find something interesting to look at nearly anywhere. Photography classes changed me – now I notice a hundredfold more about my surroundings. My teacher warned us it would be different after Photo One, and it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. This is all to say that it takes a lot to make me bored on the road. Really, a lot. Even the desolate landscape of La Jornada del Muerto had its interesting and scenically motivating points. In La Jornada, it seemed like I’d been transported into another world where everything was brown and rocky. I was afraid I might not be able to come back – but it was not boring. The land changed every 50 miles or so, like most places in the world. Texas, though, well, it goes on and on, and then on some more, and it looks largely the same. It’s like an endurance race for your creativity. You find yourself wishing it would look a little different, just for a few minutes. It doesn’t, but you keep wishing anyway, perhaps even imagining the herd of cattle or the farmhouse that could be there, if only you could redesign the scenery. Well, there is the ugliness that we have imposed on the land near Odessa, in the form of roughly 100 miles of oil refining, complete with foul air and strange advertisements particular to oil rigging. Technically, that’s a change, but it wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Still, there were good moments, such as the Pecan Shack at exit 386. That was just fine. The exit numbers are directly related to the number of miles that the road has gone since its inception or the state line. All my roads started or ended at mile zero. The Pecan Shack had more allure than just nuts and sugar: the prospect of a person to talk to and something new to look at after 386 miles on Interstate 20. I got to visit my friend Dannielle in Dallas at her workplace, see a rather interesting giant hat, and have the first decent meal I’d had in a couple of days (not to mention good conversation!). I also visited Pecos, home of the first rodeo, kind hospitality and some delicious Mexican food. It’s always a promising sign in a Mexican restaurant when the building is unadorned adobe and has cafeteria tables. The humblest places have the best food. Alfredo’s did not disappoint – the green sauce was picante and muy auténtico. Another highlight was crossing the state line near El Paso. The sign said “Welcome to Texas! Drive Friendly – The Texas Way.” Love it.

Speaking of El Paso, I got there around 3:00 and got through it by 4:00. I learned later, after I had missed my chance for lunch or dinner, that El Paso has the best food for hundreds of miles around. Sigh… the problem with detours is that you don’t have time to find the yummy stuff. Visually, El Paso is a typical border town: it looks like a collection of ramshackle shanties got together and multiplied like rabbits. I think the city planners went on vacation for maybe the last seventy years. Of course, the fact that my route passed less than five hundred feet from Juarez, Mexico, probably didn’t make things look any better. The adobes sprouting up all over El Paso were mirrored on the other side of the highway by the cardboard and plywood shacks in Juarez. El Paso is one of the dustiest cities I’ve ever seen. Even in late February, dust was blowing everywhere, and the whole place was a sort of a tan color. How does anyone keep her house clean with that going on? It can’t be easy. All this, and despite my prior discussion about the humblest places having the best Mexican food, the thought, “wow, great tacos, I should stop” did not occur to me!

Instead, I went to the trading post. I’d been driving 270 miles by the time I reached El Paso. The Saddle Blanket had been advertising for the last hundred miles and I was desperate to stretch my legs. Normally I can get a new CD or a postcard or at least find something I am interested in at a roadside stop. But this place, well, how can I put it? Surreal? Let’s just say they’d assembled quite a collection. The goods ranged from the useful (saddles, blankets, baskets) to the very tacky (ceramic chickens that had women’s naked breasts) to the completely unfathomable (a life-sized skeleton that was mechanized to chatter and shake and light up incessantly). Although, now that I think about it, maybe you could use the skeleton more easily than the human breasted chicken. I don’t know. You’d need to see it to believe it.

After that strange experience, I was ready to leave El Paso and its rush hour traffic. I’d thought to get to Midland for supper, but after a nice chat with a fellow customer at the gas station, my heart sank as I realized it was probably too far. The same fellow welcomed me to Texas and after some talking, gave me a snack. And you wonder why I like these people? Snacks! I got underway and tried not to get chocolate on the steering wheel.

To make dinner even less accessible, the road was closed forty miles north of El Paso. What? Another detour? Hey, wait a minute – these white trucks with sirens and logos all match. And isn’t that an American flag up there? Oh, hey, it’s a border patrol stop. The frontier brigade had closed the entire Interstate and had diverted all traffic to a checkpoint with people in uniforms asking questions. Fortunately, I was prepared: my passport was in my purse. Ten minutes later, after doing plenty of people watching, I was in front of the agent. He seemed surprised when I handed him my passport, saying it wasn’t necessary (Really? What else are we doing here?) then asked if he could have a look at it anyway. He asked where I was going, why I was going there and where I’d been, and he liked my red car, but otherwise it was uneventful. It was like crossing the border anywhere else in the world, except it was inside my own country. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Back on the road, it seemed like forever, but I got to Pecos at nearly nine o’clock for some dinner, and then got underway making time to Abilene. Thank goodness the speed limit down in West Texas is 80 miles an hour on the Interstate. I arrived in Abilene way after midnight and pulled into the hotel. When asked for ID, I gave my handy passport to the young man behind the desk. He’d never seen one before. He told me he’d been to several places in Texas but no further. But then, I can see how that could happen. You could get in the car, drive until you were completely exhausted, and no matter how long that took, you’d probably still be in Texas. If you didn’t go by airplane, well, you might never be able to leave!

I leave you with some facts about Texas from my friend Dannielle.

1. Beaumont to El Paso : 742 miles
2. Beaumont to Chicago : 770 miles
3. El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas
4. World’s first rodeo was in Pecos , July 4, 1883.
5. The Flagship Hotel in Galveston is the only hotel in North America built over water. Destroyed by Hurricane Ike 2008!
6. The Heisman Trophy was named after John William Heisman who was the first full-time coach at Rice University in Houston.
7. Brazoria County has more species of birds than any other area in North America
8. Aransas Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of North America ‘s only remaining flock of whooping cranes.
9. Jalapeno jelly originated in Lake Jackson in 1978.
10. The worst natural disaster in U.S…. history was in 1900, caused by a hurricane, in which over 8,000 lives were lost on Galveston Island.
11. The first word spoken from the moon, July 20,1969, was ” HOUSTON ,” but the space center was actually in Clear Lake City at the time.
12. King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island.
13. Tropical Storm Claudette brought a U.S. rainfall record of 43’ in 24 hours in and around Alvin in July of 1979.
14. Texas is the only state to enter the U.S. by TREATY, (known as the Constitution of 1845 by the Republic of Texas to enter the Union ) instead of by annexation. This allows the Texas Flag to fly at the same height as the U.S. Flag, and may divide into 5 states.
15. A Live Oak tree near Fulton is estimated to be 1500 years old. [Note, the oldest known currently living tree in the world is in California!]
16. Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in the state.
17. Dr Pepper was invented in Waco in 1885. There is no period in Dr Pepper.
18. Texas has had six capital cities: Washington -on- the Brazos, Harrisburg , Galveston, Velasco, West Columbia and Austin.
19. The Capitol Dome in Austin is the only dome in the U.S. which is taller than the Capitol Building in Washington DC (by 7 feet).
20. The San Jacinto Monument is the tallest free standing monument in the world and it is taller than the Washington monument.
21. The name ‘ Texas ‘ comes from the Hasini Indian word ‘tejas’ meaning friends. Tejas is not Spanish for Texas.
22. The State Mascot is the Armadillo (an interesting bit of trivia about the armadillo is they always have four babies. They have one egg, which splits into four, and they either have four males or four females.)
23. The first domed stadium in the U.S. was the Astrodome in Houston

*Editor’s note: Some of the images below were taken from the driver’s seat. I had to make time!

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The Journey of the Dead Man

“I 40 closed ahead. Seek local accommodations”.

This is not what you want to read on the interstate freeway sign. Nope. Especially not when you had planned to put in another hundred miles yet. Maybe it was a misprint? Surely they wouldn’t close a whole interstate freeway. Hm. Uh oh – there it is again and not a mile further. Well, the second time you read the same thing, there is unfortunately no denying it; face facts and exit. Not all was lost, though. There was a sign for my favorite el-cheapo hotel, the MicroTel, just on the right side of the road. Perhaps it was meant to be. Sigh.

After spending a whopping $52 (with tax) on my hotel for the night, I put in my earplugs, cozied up to my own pillow from home and hit the hay. That was fine for a while, but what to do the next morning? This is not a problem I have faced before. Evidently there is this thing called weather and it is responsible for all kinds of inconveniences. See, now, if you live in California, you put an umbrella in your car just in case. After that, you can safely ignore any additional weather concern. But we’re not in California anymore, are we Toto? Mere miles from my current locale, it was snowing, and heavily so. There were serious blizzards going through the mountains in New Mexico and the Texas plains. The weather line turned out to be as far south as Abilene. The only safe way around this severe winter storm was to turn right at Albuquerque and take the I-25 all the way south to Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas. That’s just steps away from the Mexican border and Juarez. It meant probably adding another 400 miles to my journey. But I didn’t have a choice. When the Interstate is closed, it’s serious. You’ve got to change your plans if you wish to continue.

Onward, then, into the New Mexico desert and the southland. I didn’t know much about this land as I’d never traveled south of Albuquerque but I was soon to learn that the road was built over what’s known as “La Jornada del Muerto”. For those of you rusty in Spanish, that’s journey or route of the dead man. Uh huh. Confidence inspiring, isn’t it?

It’s all desert once you pass the town of Socorro (Spanish for succor, which it provided to northbound men who’d made it that far). Called a xeric shrub zone by Wikipedia, it’s still uninhabited to the present day. Xeric seemed an understatement to me. It was rocks and dirt and creosote bushes as far as the eye could see for a long way. This is where the US detonated its first nuclear bomb, by the way, and I suppose I see why. They thought this land was as empty as it could get. In fact, it’s not, and there is more rodent and reptile life here than in all of Pennsylvania, they say. But you sure wouldn’t know it at first glance. According to an article in “The American Prospect”, http://prospect.org/article/border-effect,

The first American to survey these lands, John Russell Bartlett, described them in 1854 as an “unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless. … One becomes sickened and disgusted with the ever-recurring sameness of plain and mountain, plant and living thing.” A bookseller from New York with no formal education beyond high school, Bartlett traveled across the desert in a private coach, which he made into a bed at night. There, he found relief from the monotony of the landscape by reading Adolph Erman’s Travels in Siberia. Heading west from El Paso, Bartlett’s party lost its way in sandstorms, fought brushfire, and warded off hostile Indians. Bartlett himself was laid low with typhoid.

Talk about your negative reviews. Myself, I was tremendously relieved my car was reliable and that I had extra water. This place could kill you, fast, though it wouldn’t feel quick. It’s ninety miles through La Jornada. There are no springs, streams or reliable water holes. With temperatures soaring during the day and plummeting to well below freezing at night, most people unlucky enough to get lost here die of dehydration or hypothermia. A few hundred years ago, it’d have been the Apaches that would have finished you if the pitiless land didn’t. If that wasn’t enough, during Mexican times, the friars who ran the missions were quick to enforce the laws of the Inquisition. La Jornada is part of the (Spanish) King’s Highway that once ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

I first learned about the trail and the history of it at the rest stop. I noticed as I was driving that it looked bad outside, and I began to mentally inventory my water and gasoline. But having never been here, I didn’t know any more than my immediate sense of foreboding. I kept driving into the emptiness and wondering what on earth I’d stumbled upon. Eventually, there was something besides rocks, dirt and creosote: a building. I never saw a highway rest stop offer such temptation. Just the relief from the visual monotony was calming in itself. Still in its way, the Jornada is beautiful. It’s strong, stark, unforgiving and it goes on and on, without any care for you or your water-based weakness.

Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I saw a young dog, and he had no one to help him. I truly hope no one was cruel enough to abandon an animal here on purpose. Fortunately the little fellow was engaging and trying hard to make friends, and he got somewhere. Being highly allergic, I could not take him aboard, but another man did. As I was pulling out, I saw a man scoop the dog up, persuade the lady driving their SUV to go along with his plan, and they all got in the car together. I was forcibly reminded that in the Jornada, we have to help each other, because there is no quarter.

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