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 CafĂ© 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.

Museum of Wonder

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After spending the night in Perry, Florida at the "world famous" Econo Lodge (one of the best I've stayed at to date), I decided to venture up north into Alabama to see a special little museum. Not long after I left DC and started my road trip I got an e-mail from my friend Cory that said, "Artist Butch Anthony has a shop called Museum of Wonder in Seale, Alabama." That was pretty direct and to the point, and after Googling the museum I knew it was something that I should probably check out. Today was the day. I e-mailed Butch to see when the museum was open and he replied, "All day, any time." Perfect.

After a four to five hour drive through a bunch of farmland and a much needed Starbucks break in Columbus, I punched in the museum's address in my GPS and headed into the back woods, a wide spot in the road. After quite a long drive down a dirt driveway, I came upon some signs that said, "Museum this way." A couple of border collies herded me as I slowly drove up the driveway. When I parked and got out of my car I was greeted by a bare chested, skinny guy in overalls. After our introductions he asked, "Where ya from?" in a slooow southern drawl.

"DC," I said.

"Oh, do ya know Cynthia Connolly?"

"Yep."

"You do? Really? She and I used to see each other about ten years ago."

"Small world," I thought to myself. Small, small world.

Butch gave me a tour of his most recent artwork in his house. He finds old photographs and paintings at garage sales and paints skeletons over them — dark and creepy, just the way I like my art.

We then headed over to the museum where he unlocked the padlocked door, disappeared inside, and started his ritual of turning on the lights. I was first greeted by a table full of animal skulls, and...well it's impossible to explain everything. My photos should give you a taste of what you'll see at the museum, a hodgepodge of creations that Butch started when he was 14 years old. As I walked around the museum, basically a shed in his backyard, I sweated, giggled, and snapped away with my camera. After a while I met Butch outside where he was sawing the headboard of a bed apart. "I found it on the side of the road...might make a fish out of it." All of his work comes from found objects and much of it is for sale on his Etsy page.

Butch asked me where I was headed next and I said I wasn't sure. "If I was you I'd head back to Florida to check out Apalachicola. I've got a friend who has ten acres of land down there. He's got a guest house, cottage type place that he rents out. You'll get all sorts of good pictures down there....oyster fisherman, shrimp fisherman, worm grubbers...." It was starting to sound like a good photo opportunity for me, so after he made a phone call to his friend Frank, I was headed back south to Florida, another four to five hour drive, basically going back to where I started in the morning.

As the day went on I started to get pretty sleepy, so I called Frank and asked him if I could visit him tomorrow. "Oh sure, come by in the afternoon then." Of course I'm abbreviating our conversation because Frank could talk your ear off if you gave him a chance. So I called it a night in Panama City, a town I never want to go back to. It's dirty and has basically no redeeming qualities.

The next day, after killing some time at the local Starbucks in Panama City (where I overheard conversations ranging from drag queens, guns, and divorce), I drove on over to Frank's house in Eastpoint, just east of Apalachicola. When I got to his driveway I called him — no answer. About an hour an a half later I gave him another call — no answer. By that point it was 4 or 5:00 in the afternoon, I was tired, and decided that I'd had enough of Florida. Way more than enough of Florida. I drove north through Tate's Hell State Park where the pine trees were as straight as an arrow, a thing of beauty. The last time I'd seen trees that straight and evenly planted was on my drive from Berlin to Munich. It sounds weird, but the trees were gorgeous.

I headed west on I-10 towards New Orleans as the sun started to set. After many days of driving on small rural roads, it was great to be back on the interstate where I could cover a lot of ground on the wide open road. So long, Florida. I'll see you in December when I return for Art Basel in Miami.

Abandoned Motel

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I came across an creepy abandoned motel near Perry, FL. I took some pictures of it and thought I was going to be a) killed by a zombie or b) arrested by a state trooper. Neither of those happened.

The end.

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