Monday, October 27, 2008

Leaving Austin

I've said goodnight to my two grandsons for the last time on this trip, and I'm facing the fact that I have to leave this place tomorrow to head back to NYC. After 8 weeks on the road all over the USA, I settled in at my son's home here just outside of Austin on the shores of Lake Travis, and I've gotten really comfortable being with my family (and vice versa) over the past two weeks.

It won't be a straight run back to NY, as I'm going through the south (along the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern seaboard), and I've got to get back into "road mode" and enjoy the rest of this trip. Of course, I don't love the south like I do the western states, and I'm dreading the colder weather after basking in the sunshine for so long with the top down. But the south has its charm, and it's not New York. I look forward to breakfasts at Waffle House, where the first question from the waitress is "Y'all need an ash tray?". Not just about the smoke, but what the lack of that legislation indicates about courtesy, consideration, and preservation of individual freedom.

I attended a concert by my son JP's choir today, and they closed with a composition called Untraveled Worlds, based on a poem entitled Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which reminded me of why I went on this trip (talking about it in the past tense already - hey, not so soon!), and why I wanna keep on traveling (beyond the US borders in the future).

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And not to yield!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Coffee Shop Infiltration

I went to Quack's Coffee Shop in Austin to wait for JP and the babysitter bringing Gabe. At Quack's they offer Red and Blue M (McCain) and O (Obama) shortbread cookies, and they post a tally on a chalkboard showing the current number of cookie votes (Obama being far ahead, of course). Intent on making my contribution to this blue-town-in-red-state phenomenon, I ordered a Red M. I could hardly believe my eyes when the cheery counter guy reached in and handed me a Blue O! Hello? Has ACORN gotten its paws into the coffee shops too? Swaying the little chalkboard polls? Probably not, in actuality. But here's yet another sucker who just can't process the information when someone actually says "M".

Then yesterday, I was at Quack's again to meet the family. This time the tally was even more skewed, maybe 20-25 for Obama and just 3 for McCain. I ordered another Red M, and got it this time. After I paid, the guy just went lazily about his counter business, obviously having no intention of marking my vote on the board. Hey! I directed him to make my mark on the right column, and he did so, obviously reluctantly, but with no apology or excuse as to why he hadn't done it automatically. Also posted in the place was a summary of votes from other Quack's in the chain all around the state (country?), no doubt similarly skewed in favor of O. I know it's only a sample of two instances, but with all we're hearing about ACORN and other fraud (and you know the mainstream media only report what they must, there must be so much more going on that we don't hear about), it's pathetic to see that even a "meaningless" coffee shop poll relies on such dishonorable methods to sway the results even further in the direction of their Savior.

I've gotta learn to deal with this mentality when I move down here - it's even more pronounced than up in NYC!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Big Bend Country - Alpine, TX

On last year's trip, we left El Paso and went right down to get on I-10, heading straight across Texas to Austin via US 290. But since the family was away for the weekend this time, when I left El Paso Saturday morning after two nights in the Day's Inn, I turned off I-10 at the little town of Van Horn and headed down along US 90 to check out Big Bend Country in the south of the state. US 90 follows the old Union Pacific railroad line, so the route has lots of little old 19th-century railroad towns.

South of Van Horn, I passed a long freight train going east on tracks some distance from the highway. A few miles on, the tracks ran right alongside the road, so I stopped to wait for the train to get a photo. While I was waiting (looking west), an AMTRAK passenger train surprised me going west. I remembered that this is the route followed by the AMTRAK Sunset Limited from New Orleans to L.A., the line I rode on a cross-country railroad trip back in 1998. [Well, I later realized, I hadn't actually traveled this route then. Coming down from Chicago on the Texas Eagle that year, I'd gotten off in Dallas, rented a car, and visited Austin (before JP lived there) to visit some of his friends. I partied kind of late the last night there, and left past midnight to drive down to San Antonio to catch the Sunset Limited at 5:30 AM. In the pre-iPhone days, I wandered around town a bit before finally locating the AMTRAK station, which was little more than a shed in the rail yards. Just as I pulled up to the station, I saw the train pulling out for the west. So I dropped the car at the airport and caught a flight to El Paso, where I caught the train last that afternoon. So I'd missed Big Bend Country in '98.]

I like passenger trains even more than freights (gotta catch 'em while they last), so I turned the car around and went back westward to find a spot to get shot of the train approaching. The tracks veered away from the road again, and we were separated for several miles by an orchard. Past the orchard, I finally found a road heading towards the tracks, and turned onto it. After driving about a mile on the rugged dirt road, I came to a crossing and got out to wait. I could see the AMTRAK headlight way in the distance and set up my shot. After quite a while, it became obvious that the train wasn't moving. The iPhone Google maps actually worked out there, so I found my location, and noticed that behind the orchard, the track split into two - there was a siding, where trains often wait for a train in the other direction to pass. Ah, it must be waiting for the freight I saw before, so I waited. And waited. Then I realized that this might go on for an hour or more (remembering such delays on my train trip), and decided to go back the way I came and take one of the little roads going through the orchard which led right to the siding. After making my way along the dirt road back to the highway (the rattling of the car gave me Nevada flashbacks), I turned east again, only to see the Sunset Limited in the distance heading west right towards the spot where I'd been waiting. No time to go back, nearly an hour
wasted for a photo not obtained. Referring back to the map, I realized that where I was waiting for the freight to pass was very close to where I'd passed it before, so It was obviously long gone past the AMTRAK when I got there. OH WELL, sez me, you can't win 'em all. I passed that same freight train several times along US 90 as I made my way southwest, stopping occasionally for gas, lunch, etc.

I decided to take a detour off US 90 and head up to Fort Davis, where there was an historical exhibit. On the smaller road, through the hills, the countryside was really awesome; not like the mountains up north, much more barren in the prairies. I pulled into the Fort Davis lot at 5:15 PM, only to find that it had closed at 5 PM. Really surprised me, as the sun was still fairly high off the horizon. I'd gotten used to pretty early sunsets, since Arizona doesn't do Daylight Savings Time, and PDT had stayed with me all the way through AZ. Then New Mexico got me on Mountain Daylight Time, and after El Paso I entered Central Daylight Time, where the sun set much later than yesterday (particularly in the western part of CDT). So, no Fort, but the extra hours of sunshine are cool.

After going back down to rejoin US 90 at Marfa, I continued east into the hills. I'd decided to stop for the night at Alpine, which had an above-average selection of motels according to google. But, weary of the same old nationwide chains, I picked a small local motel - Motel Bien Venido - in order to patronize the locals. It was the cheapest ever ($38), cruddiest ever (light bulbs out, table & no chair, ancient toilet facilities), but I don't really care about that stuff. As long as I had my internet access (finally getting a good Wi-Fi signal on the 3rd room I tried).

I'd read and heard about the mysterious Marfa lights, an "unexplained phenomenon" visible from the highway back towards Marfa, so I figured it was worth a little 20-mile backtrack to check them out. A major tourist attraction of Marfa, there's even a well-marked roadside observation area, where I pulled in. I thought I'd be the only one out there, but there were a few other cars. Lighting is wisely kept minimal here, and the idea is to look to the southwest in case this is one of the 10% of nights when they're visible. I saw some twinkling near the horizon in the distance, but it sure seemed likely that they were headlights of vehicles on US 67 going south from Marfa to the border town of Presidio. I overheard some dude lecturing a couple of his guests about the lights, going on about PYE-zoelectric effects (it's pee-ay-zo if you've ever heard it and not just read it) and such, and had to roll my eyes. I was still peering at the distant sky near the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that didn't look like headlights to me, when we few visitors were suddenly surrounded by kids of all ages - three (3!) tour buses had just pulled up and unloaded, and the jabbering masses were a stark contrast to the serenity of the surrounding country. All going on about the "mysterious" lights. I wanna believe (something), but I left tending to side with the various academics who have done studies and concluded that what everyone's been seeing for years are distant vehicle lights.

So, back to the Bien Venido, I caught some late movie on the snowy TV, and finally fell asleep in the sagging old bed. I awoke around 5 AM itching all over, and finding welts wherever I scratched! There had been no sign of mosquitoes, and sure enough, an examination of the bed revealed bedbugs - one under the pillow, another in the sheets, only two out of many more, no doubt. My first encounter with these critters. I got the bug spray out of the car and covered my entire body with it; and, since the other bed in the room was firmer and in better shape, I switched to that on the off chance that bedbugs prefer ratty beds and mattresses. It took quite a while to get back to sleep, not only with the itching, and the concern about more bugs, but I kept realizing that my jaw was tightly clenched in rage at the situation. When I awoke around 8 with only a couple hours of sleep, there were many more welts, and much more itching, demonstrating that bedbugs are not affected by bug spray, and infest beds of any quality with no prejudice. I was ready to give the manager hell, but his little wife was at the desk, and expressed such dismay and concern when I stressed to her the absolute unacceptability of bedbugs in a motel, I just shook my head and stormed out. I'm sure it's a well-worn display of surprise and concern.

I try to keep my expenses down, but a motel price that low should be a warning to keep moving.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tombstone, AZ

The name Tombstone has been familiar to me most of my life, from the various tales of the wild west where it's mentioned. So I took a detour off my eastward path on I-10 and drove south to visit the place. It's on a high plateau (4500 ft) surrounded by desert and distant mountain ranges. I arrived in late afternoon, determined to find a motel with good internet access in the hope of catching up on work.

I skipped the chain hotels outside of town, preferring something with "local charm". The Tombstone Motel (motto: Rest In Peace) had a Wi-Fi sign and a smoking room, so I checked in; but it turned out that meant you could "usually pick it up" from someplace a block away, and I got no signal, so I got a refund. Down the street, The Larian Motel claimed to have Wi-Fi, but only non-smoking rooms. I've put up with having to break my chain of thought to step outside for smokes too often on this trip, and I was determined. So I went to the Holiday Inn down the road - they were booked solid. Best Western was non-smoking only. Back on the main street, the Adobe Lodge had no Wi-Fi. Finally, the Trail Rider's Inn had Wi-Fi (which "usually works") and smoking rooms, so I settled here. No signal in my room, but good signal at the office, so I got him to move me next door to the office - a non-smoking room, but I did some priority shifting. Ah, but now there was no Wi-Fi signal there either, or even in the office! Antenna-tweaking and power-cycling did nothing. I finally got him to let me run an Ethernet cable directly from his wireless router out the door and into my room, and got access. Only to find that they use some intermediate ISP service I don't quite understand. It seems to take your requests, get the output from the site, and then send it on to you - when it has time. So it's all very slow, and many operations just time out and don't work. The charm of the wide open spaces is offset by the flaky internet access. AND, this room came with no table, so I had to set up the laptop on a shelf in the large closet! Guess I'll try to stay somewhere more urban like El Paso tomorrow.

Tombstone started as a mining town in 1879. Silver mining led to a "boom" in the 1880's, but when the mines dried up, the town shriveled up. The two World Wars provided some business mining much-needed metals, but there's nothing else here. So "the town that wouldn't die" lives on through tourism. I toured the town - Allen Street has this 1880s feel to it, although with a distinct Disneyland quality. The buildings seem quasi-authentic, but like a film set; and gunfight reenactments seem to be a main attraction. The town was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961, but in 2004 the National Park Service declared this designation "threatened", due to the way the locals have modified, simulated, and otherwise distorted many historical buildings and facts in the interest of enhancing the tourist experience. I guess a living museum consisting of an accurately preserved/restored frontier town just doesn't have the tourism appeal of the rows of cheesy faux-1880s shops and bars. The main historical event that took place here was the gunfight at the OK Corral between outlaw gangs ("cow-boys") and law officers in which some familiar names were killed. Wow. OK, move on...

I ventured into Big Nose Kate's Saloon for a burger and beer and to soak up the western atmosphere. More like a caricature of a saloon. A book on display inside about the role of Jewish women in the early settlement of the town gave me a funny feeling about the name of the saloon, and the social [un]consciousness of past centuries. I ordered and cancelled a burger - here I am out in the wild west, so close to cattle country, and they will not serve a burger anything but well-done! The creeping Nanny state taking care of me - I take my own risks with rare meat back east, but no can do out here. Makes me wonder how much longer we'll be permitted to eat rare meat in NYC as the new anti-harm laws pile up. Meanwhile, if I must eat well-done beef, it's better in a burrito with all that camouflage.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Heading East

I finally had to say goodbye to San Diego and the Pacific Ocean Friday morning. Before getting back on the road, I stopped in at a service station in Ocean Beach to have some maintenance done on the car - oil change, wheel balancing, and shocks. I got a perfect score - they didn't have oil filers for a 72 Caddy; their wheel balancing computer only handled cars back to 1980; and of course, no shocks. So I went with it as is. I did buy a headlight and had it installed, and found a police station where I could have the summons signed.

I got off the Interstate highway and took a state route so as to ride closer to the land along more winding mountain roads, and closer to the Mexican border. Back on the road again, it felt distinctly different from the earlier part of the trip. Going west, I was not only going through more fantastic landscape every day, but constantly chasing the sun as it headed for the horizon. Now, I had the setting sun to my back, leaving it behind for the darkness of the east; and with every mile I drove, I was bringing the sunset a bit earlier. The inner voices battled: "It's the beginning of the end" vs. "You've got the whole country to cross again, and the Southwest is gorgeous". The return trip is never as exciting, but I'm determined to enjoy it. And of course, the family in Texas pulls me onward.