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.