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Austin, Cadillacs, and Heart Shaped Tubs

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After my two day stay in San Antonio, a city I wasn't impressed with whatsoever, I headed north to Austin. It's only about a two hour drive north, but the area in between is being built up and it's almost like one big city (similar to the space between Washington DC and Baltimore). I'd heard nothing but good things about Austin so I had high hopes of enjoying my time there. After all they have the SXSW music festival, Sandra Bullock, and Dell computers.

On the way to Austin I was surprised with the number of political and religious billboards on the side of the highway. It seems as if anyone can say whatever they want to on a billboard. I wouldn't have been surprised to see one saying "Satan Lives" or "Democrats are the work of the devil".

I stopped at a few places on the drive north, one of them being some sort of freaky statue outlet. It was hard not to miss the giant pink bunnies, elephants, gorillas, and giraffes staring at you. Apparently there is a market for these things but I don't know who is buying a six foot tall pink bunny for $1,200. Probably the same people who are paying for billboards that say "Jesus Christ is Lord, Not a Swear Word".

I had no idea where I was going to stay in Austin. My search on Expedia the night before didn't find any cheap hotels or motels and I really didn't want to spend a lot of money. Luckily my friend Erica made a quick phone call and arranged a deal with one of her lobbyist friends, and for $75/night I was staying in one of the coolest hotel rooms in town. Perched on the top floor of the Double Tree, the room had a giant terrace that overlooked the capitol building and downtown Austin. I'm convinced that your impression of a city is directly related to where you stay. Some people I met told me they loved San Antonio and that their hotel room overlooked the Alamo. Anyway, it was a sweet pad for the weekend.

I guess I'll just get this out there right now: I absolutely loved Austin. I went to Jo's Coffee every morning to a) drink coffee and eat breakfast tacos, b) use their free wireless, and c) do some serious people watching. I quickly noticed that people on South Congress Street were laid back, outdoorsy, and friendly. Many people brought their dogs with them and being a dog lover myself, I thought that was a great sign. There were a lot of green spaces, lots of people riding bikes and exercising, and overall I thought it was an attractive town (including the people).

I didn't make much of an effort to check out the art scene in Austin, but one thing I was surely not going miss was the Magnum Photo Collection that was recently relocated to the Ransom Center on the UT campus. Thousands and thousands of photographs are available to look at, and I mean to hold in your own two hands. In order to view the photos you have to watch a short introduction video, create an online account, check into the viewing library, and tell them which part of the collection you want to see. The librarians return shortly with boxes of photos for you to look through, wearing white gloves of course. It was seriously amazing and to top that off, absolutely free.

That night I had some of the best Mexican food that I've had on my entire trip at a restaurant called La Condesa. I wasn't particularly hungry when I sat down at the bar so I ordered two appetizers: chorizo nachos and a side of pomegranate chipotle guacamole. Both were amazing, as were the house margaritas. If I lived in Austin (which I very may well do one day), I'd eat here often.

Afterwards I went across the street to Lambert's, an upscale barbecue restaurant and a small concert venue. That night a band called "The Fiery Furnaces" were playing there. This brother sister due was a lot of fun to listen to. The brother played the piano while the sister handled most of the singing. It was a simple, clean, and beautiful performance, unlike their music that you can download from iTunes. It was a great way to cap off the night (with another margarita of course).

The next day, after my visit to Jo's, I did some exploring around the city and checked out Barton Springs where I found people kayaking and jumping into the river to cool off from the hot humid weather (probably the only downside to Austin). I also paid a visit to the Whole Foods mothership, i.e. the place where the nationwide chain got its start. The store was ginormous and had mini restaurants inside. I ate at the barbecue restaurant which was out of this world.

Later I met up with my friend Noël who recently moved back to Austin from DC. She was doing some volunteer work at the Pachanga Latino Music Festival and invited me to come check out out. It was great to see a familiar face and to meet her boyfriend, but the highlight of the festival for me was seeing the Mariachi Las Alteñas perform. This all female group played traditional mariachi music and really got the crowd going. Afterwards people lined up to have their picture taken with the group, which is where I took this portrait of Claudia:

I have to say, it's one of my favorite portraits that I've ever taken. The sun was setting which made for perfect lighting and I love the lake and trees in the background. It looks like a painting to me, and Claudia was a natural model.

The next day I headed north to see two whacky things that were on my list: the memorial for the Waco massacre (or whatever you want to call it) and Cadillac Ranch. The Waco memorial is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and being alone in an area where some crazy shit went down, in an area where Branch Davidians still live, well, it was pretty spooky. The memorial is hard to find and I found myself driving down a rough dirt road, not a soul in sight. As soon as I found the memorial, I left my car running, jumped out, took a few pictures, and got the hell out of there.

That night I stayed in Wichita Falls which I can assure you is extremely boring. I asked the lady at the front desk of the Econo Lodge, "So what's there to do around here." Her response, "Pretty much nothing." She wasn't kidding.

I checked into my motel at around 5pm and it was 100 degrees outside. I laid down on my bed to edit some photos and all of a sudden the wind started howling, so much that it actually set my car alarm off. I didn't think anything of it really until I turned on the TV later and saw the news about the Joplin tornado that happend at about the same time. So basically, I caught the tail end of that storm and could have very easily been sucked into the sky like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. It was pretty unsettling to think that I could have been in a tornado and didn't even realize it. When I stepped outside less than an hour later, the temperature had dropped to 80 degrees - crazy stuff.

The next day I drove on to Amarillo where Cadillac Ranch is and of course had to stop at the "World Famous Big Texas", a tourist trap that boasts about their "free 72 ounce steak". If you can eat the entire thing and all of the fixings, it's free, and that my friends is absolutely disgusting. I bought a few postcards, a giant foam cowboy hat, and left without attempting to eat an entire cow.

As I drove west out of Amarillo I only had a vague idea of where Cadillac Ranch was, but as it turns out it's hard to miss. I wish I had seen it when it was first installed, when the cars were in good shape and not completely vandalized. Still, it was a sight to behold and I'm glad I made the trip to see it. There were spray paint cans everywhere on the ground, so I decided to leave my mark ("Max Does America") right under the tag left by a Baptist church group.

After about a half an hour, I jumped back into my home away from home and drove south towards my next destination, Marfa. It was late in the afternoon and I knew I wouldn't make it all the way down to Marfa, so I just drove as far as I could and ended up in Midland where George W is from. Awesome. I think there are actually people who think he was a good president and are proud that he's from their city. To each their own I suppose. I crashed in a cheap motel in an industrial park and noticed that they had a heart shaped bathtub there in their "special room". Apparently the room is booked every weekend. Can you imagine who is using it? I hope their maids have some seriously strong disinfectant when they make their rounds on Sunday. Gross.

OK, time to hit the road again (I'm writing this from Kingman, AZ). When I get time I'll write about my experience in Marfa which, aside from getting bloody noses from the dry climate, was pretty amazing.

PS - About the random picture of the dog at the end....

The next day I was driving to Marfa from Midland and decided to stop at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. It was probably 90 degrees and not exactly pleasant. All of a sudden that dog came trotting down the highway and stopped about a hundred feet from me to lay in some shade underneath a tree. I had a bottle of water but when I approached him he backed away from me. Having been bitten by a few dogs in my lifetime, I wasn't about to mess around, so I poured some water in my empty Starbucks cup, buried it partially in the dirt so it wouldn't tip over, and went on my way. I hope the poor guy drank the water and found his way back home...I really felt bad for him.

Welcome to Big Bad Texas

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As I drove out of Louisiana on I-10, I was captivated by the cyclones of white bugs swarming by the side of the road. The setting sun highlighted them as they swirled around like little mini tornadoes and I wished that my car was equipped with a side spray of Raid so I could blast those suckers right out of the sky. While I enjoyed my time in Louisiana, I knew what was coming next: Texas, the biggest state in the contiguous United States. Alaska is the biggest US state but it might as well belong to Canada as far as I'm concerned. But Texas is the real deal, a good old fashioned piece of America where cowboys fought indians, oil made people rich, and a goofball became president.

When you first drive into Texas, everything just seems big. The landscape itself is your first clue as you can see for miles and miles. People drive big trucks, the women have big hair, and the churches are the size of football stadiums. Giant American flags fly everywhere you look, but even more so is the Texas state flag. One of the first things I saw when I entered the state was a big ol' pickup covered in the Texas state flag. A lot of corporate logos incorporate the state flag. Billboards constantly remind you that you're in Texas and you should be downright proud of it. One bumper sticker said, "Some people will go to heaven when they die, but I'm going to Texas." People from Texas loooove them some Texas.

My first stop was Houston and I didn't have high expectations. I hadn't heard many great things about it, in fact I'd heard that it's basically the armpit of Texas. Luckily my friend Danielle is from Houston and gave me a great list of places to check out while I was there ranging from art collections to restaurants to strip clubs (sorry, didn't get that photo you requested!). As I drove into the city I couldn't help but notice how beautiful their highway system is. The overpasses swoop in like giant ribbons and you feel as if you're slowly gliding into the city. They're aesthetically pleasing too, unlike say El Paso.

My day started with a four donut breakfast at Shipley Donuts. Somehow I thought that was a good idea, but they were so good I couldn't help myself. After slipping into a nice food coma, I headed off to see some art. Like DC, Houston has a lot of art galleries and museums that are 100% free. You just walk in the door, look around, then leave. I first went to the Rothko Chapel which is a minimalist looking building, not what you think of when you hear the word "chapel" but what you think of when you hear "Rothko". I honestly wasn't impressed by the interior but I liked the idea of a non-denominational place where anyone could go to be alone with their thoughts. I'm alone with my thoughts every day on this trip so I didn't stay long at the chapel.

Just down the street is the Menil Collection which is also (and amazingly) free of charge. The building itself is beautiful and tranquil, but I found the squeaky wooden floors to be distracting. Their contemporary collection was impressive, as was their current civil rights photography exhibit (Dan Budnik, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Bob Adelman, and Elliott Erwitt), but their "antiquities" collection quickly bored me.

My next stop was the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, also part of the Menil Collection. Again, another tranquil space and a beautiful, contemporary way of displaying the frescoes that were stolen from Cyprus in the 1980s. I went in, I went out.

OK, enough about the great art that Houston has to offer (although I did go to the Contemporary Arts Museum as well), let's talk about the barbecue. I had lunch at Goode Company Barbecue and well, it was more than good. I've had some good barbecue on my trip, but this was top notch. I got to eat it on a picnic table next to a lawyer in a cowboy hat who was sorting out a divorce for an old guy who was also wearing a cowboy hat, with a view of a giant armadillo that's right across the street. Have I mentioned that everything is big in Texas? As their saying goes, "Everything is bigger in Texas," and they're not kidding.

After slipping into another food coma, I headed over to a funky part of town filled with thrift and antique stores. As I drove around Houston I was surprised at the amount of street art that they have, something that's usually a good indicator of how creative a city is. There was a lot of graffiti and stencils but I didn't see any wheat pastings. I saw one stencil of Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" in his pink bunny costume but I wasn't able to stop to get a picture of it. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by Houston but didn't feel compelled to stay another day, so I hit the road and headed toward San Antonio.

Unlike Houston, I had heard good things about San Antonio and was actually looking forward to it. After all they have the Alamo, the River Walk, and margaritas. Yep, that's pretty much all San Antonio has to offer. I talked to an older couple later in Marfa, TX who was from San Antonio and they confirmed, "Yep, that's pretty much all there is." So I really don't have much to say about that city other than I probably won't be going back there ever again unless it's for a convention. Hmmm, maybe a margarita convention? I'll have to get my people working on that.

Well that's enough of Texas for now. Texas is big remember? I covered a lot more ground and I'll write about those adventures in the near future. After another long day of driving, it's time to catch some shut-eye. G'night y'all.

New Orleans, Tabasco, and Flooding

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It just so happens that I was in the state of Louisiana during one of the biggest floods in recorded history. Well, almost. I was a few days early to see peak river levels as the water was slowly working its way down the Mississippi River from Memphis. I suppose I should be grateful that the flooding didn't prevent me from spending time in New Orleans and other parts of the state, but I've always wanted to be right in the middle of a giant flood, cars floating down the street, rooftops poking out of the water, etc. Not that I wish that kind of destruction on anyone, but I'm fascinated by extreme weather conditions and seeing what Mother Nature can do when she puts her mind to it. We're truly at her mercy.

Luckily the Army Corps is on the ball (most of the time) when it comes to containing water issues in the area. They made an executive decision to blow a hole in an upstream levy so that any flooding would take place in rural areas rather than potentially taking out heavily populated areas like New Orleans — we know they've seen enough in the past few years. On my way west out of Louisiana I decided to stop to see if I could get some photos of the pregnant river. I stopped at a visitors center near Henderson and talked to one of the women working at the information desk. "Where can I go to get a picture of the river?" I asked. She said, "Oh you can't, the National Guard won't let anyone near it." Then she looked around and got closer and said, "Follow me," as she lead me outside. "If you walk over there you might be able to walk up on the levy, but I didn't tell you that." She then showed me on a map where I could go to see the pontoon bridge near Butte La Rose and I'd definitely be able to take some pictures there. It was pretty cool to see the water level slowly rising before my eyes, just small little puddles forming in the grass. I talked to a state trooper who was preventing people from crossing the bridge and he said that on Thursday, two days later, there was a mandatory evacuation of the town. The water was expected to rise another 11 feet by the weekend and the town would definitely be flooded out.

But let's back up a bit to New Orleans. I'd heard so many good things about this town that it worried me a bit. Sometimes when people build up a city, a movie, a book, well you can be let down and disappointed. That happened to me last year when I visited Berlin. I had a lot of people say, "Oh my God you're going to absolutely love it," but I was kind of disappointed and missed what others saw in it (guess I'll have to go back one day). But New Orleans...it didn't disappoint me. It was awesome.

I stayed at a guest house right on Bourbon Street called Bon Maison. The central location was perfect for seeing the city as I could wake up, go get some coffee and beignets from Cafe Du Monde, walk around a little, go back to my room, wash the sweat off of me, go back out for lunch, walk around some more, go back to my room to take a nap, head back out for dinner and more sightseeing, and then stumble back to my room to crash for the night.

Luckily I had lots of good recommendations from my friends as to what to see, do, and eat in New Orleans. I didn't take many pictures while I was there as I just tried to enjoy myself and soak it all in. I met up with my friend Jessica and her husband for dinner one night and had the best food of my visit at Café Amelie on Royal Street — the gumbo was out of this world, as was the ambiance and the company! It was great to see a familiar face and to hear about the town from a local's perspective. As for the rest of the food I had in New Orleans, I have to say that I wasn't overly impressed. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as people said it would be. Everyone said, "Get a po-boy at ____ or at ____ or at _____!!!!" Well, to me a po-boy is just a piece of bread with some fried stuff in the middle. I will say that the "surf and turf" po-boy at Parkman's Deli was pretty tasty, but the other ones I tried were pretty bland.

I can only imagine what Bourbon Street is like during Mardi Gras. When I was there it was only a day or two after Jazz Fest and the whole town was pretty burnt out, so the action on Bourbon Street was pretty tame. There are lots of cheesy bars, bright neon signs, people dressed up expecting money from you if their picture gets taken, and drunk tourists. I only saw one beads-for-tits exchange and it was pretty lame. Most bars have a guy (sometimes two) trying to persuade you to come inside but they're more annoying than inviting. Despite all of this, Bourbon Street is a must see when you visit New Orleans.

One afternoon I checked out a photography gallery called "A Fine Art Gallery" — clever name. It was more of a dream for me than a gallery, as they have prints for sale from Sebastiao Salgado, Ansell Adams, Diane Arbus, Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Steichen, Brassai, Helmut Newton, Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Annie Leibovitz....I mean seriously? If you're into photography, this is a definite stop for you in New Orleans.

Most cities that I visit on my trip I think to myself, "Could I live here?" At first my reaction to New Orleans was "definitely". But as time went on I started to see it as a town I'd rather visit every now and then rather than live there. I love that people are down to earth and friendly, and the town has a lot of character. But I think it's a bit too slow paced for me and a bit too small, not to mention the oppressive heat in the summertime. Oh, and not this this is a deal breaker, but the roads there are absolutely terrible. I thought DC had bad roads, but some towns I've driven through in the south are like driving on the moon.

After I left New Orleans I made a quick stop at the Oak Alley Plantation which is something I've always wanted to see. I arrived there right as the sun was setting and was the only one on the grounds. It was great having the whole place to myself but a bit creepy too, thinking about all of the bad things that took place there back in the days of slavery. Regardless, the rows of oak trees that lead up to the mansion are absolutely gorgeous and I'm glad I didn't have a million tourists getting in my shot. My photo turned out OK, but I think this is a place I'd have to visit several times to get "the shot", you know, the type that you've seen on calendars.

The next day I drove on to Avery Island to tour the Tabasco Factory which was really cool. I had no idea they made so many different types of sauces. On the free tour (well it costs you $1 to drive onto the island) they show you a cheesy video that gives you the history of the island and the founders of the Tabasco brand as well as show you how it's made. You can then walk through the plant to see thousands of bottles whizzing by you (my Dad would have loved to see this) and then sample all of the different flavors in the gift shop. I discovered that they sell Tabasco soy sauce (my favorite condiment) and it absolutely blew my mind. They also had jalapeno flavored ice cream which sounds gross but it was fantastic.

After my stay on Avery Island I drove to a nearby town where my friend Henry grew up. He gave me directions to where his old house was but warned me that it's pretty dangerous there now. Eh, I wasn't afraid. So I punched in the street name on my GPS and started to get deep into the small town of Abbeville and soon I was getting strange looks from people as if to say, "What are you doing here?" I asked myself the same question and left immediately. I'd seen enough of Abbeville and of Louisiana, so I got on I-10 again destined for Houston.

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