Michael and Sarah's Great Cross-Country Adventure

This is a blog about our 6-week trip driving across the USA. We set off on March 18, 2008.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Starting the trip back east: Oregon to South Dakota

I'm getting totally overwhelmed with the blog. Sarah is better at filtering. We can't possible mention all the things we see and do, not even all the fun or interesting ones. There are just too many. So as you read, keep in mind that there's lots we haven't said. With that in mind, please see a couple new old posts below that I recently finished (Lakewood Church and California: the other blue state), they were posted in a funny order.

From California, we drove from the redwood forests up the coast of Oregon, catching a herd of Elk along the way, and many many miles of New England type rocky shores. In fact, much of Oregon looked just like Cape Cod or Maine. Sarah loved it; to me it was ordinary. But the sea cave full of sea lions (a different species than previous sea lions) was cool.

We stayed in Portland for a couple nights, where our friends Ruth and Dustin showed us around. Portland was cool and trendy, much as I imagine Seattle to be. There's this famous bookstore there, Powell's, that one could spend hours in. And cool public art that you can play with. The last morning we had to wait around a bit for my contacts to get shipped - let me explain.

In California, we hiked along the Big Sur river down to the ocean. It was a hot day, so despite the near ice cold water, I jumped in to the river at this point where it curved and made a whirlpool and deepened to more than 10 feet. You could jump off the rocks along the edge into what had previously been a very shallow river. Two other people were swimming too, though most people just sat around and watched as I stripped down to bikini underwear and jumped in. I was so excited, I forgot that I was still wearing my sunglasses, which were gone when I bobbed back to the surface. Then swimming through a couple more times for fun and to search for my glasses, which I eventually found, I managed to lose my contacts. Being late on a Friday, my optometrist was already closed, so I went nearly blind for the next five days, ordering contacts to be over-nighted on Monday, which didn't arrive till Wednesday. Ahh what a pain. Anyway.

So leaving Portland, we saw several really cool waterfalls, then drove through a lot of nothing until Spokane, Washington, where we had dinner. This reminds me. Road Food has failed us. It's biggest slight was in California, where the author insisted on "ordinary" food. We started realizing that she didn't necessarily pick the best food available, just the most edible ordinary American diner-type food. This works great in the middle of nowhere, but in cities and blue states, there are better options. And it plenty of middle of nowhere locations, she's left us high and dry, having not covered the regions we traveled, or naming once place over two day's worth of travel. Anyway.

We stayed the night in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which pretty much started the wide open beauty of the US, in my humble opinion. I mean, the spaces just get enormous, and there's a disproportionate amount of beauty, especially in Wyoming. Between Coeur d'Alene - a beautiful lake resort community - and now - near The Badlands, South Dakota - we've seen the most beautiful, and the most boring, stretches of nothing in the US: Montana and the rockies, Yellowstone, grasslands, the Big Horn mountains, Mount Rushmore, and The Badlands, just to name the highlights.

The Badlands, which we just finished seeing tonight, are rather similar to the geological formations we'd seen 8 years ago in Cappadocia, Turkey. And the most interesting part for me is coming to understand, at least in part, why some people think it's not worth leaving the US. There really is everything available here. I mean, if you'd seen the Badlands, don't go out of your way to see Cappadocia. It's almost the same, minus the fairy chimneys.

Well, since I could go on for hours, I'll just stop now. Some little things though. I'd rather live in Montana if I had to live in an empty state. The people there are pretty cool. Wyoming gets the prize as the most empty state, which incidentally also has both extremes of the most beautiful and most boring landscape. And lastly, I'd highly encourage that everyone take a few months or more visiting the US, not just for the beauty, but also for all the different types of people and things. Some of it will be boring, but it's exciting even in the boring parts. Like the random Devil's Peak in the middle of grasslands in Wyoming. Wish I'd had time to do some climbing.

the true middle of nowhere

First, Michael says that he is no longer going to blog. He says he is too tired of traveling in the evenings to write about it afterwards, and I rush him too much in the mornings. Which is true, I do rush him. We certainly do not agree on how best to use the hours between 9 and 12.

Yellowstone is a very cool park. There are so many bison and elk that you literally become tired of them. At one point, there were bison all over the road and caused a big backup, and we got out and walked to see what it was. As I was walking back alone (Michael stayed with the bison), car after car asked me what the hold-up was. "Bison in the road" elicited huge signs of disappointment. Who wants a bison when they can have a bear?

We didn't see any bear, but we were lucky enough to see a wolf on our way in. He was white and out alone in the snow. You probably can't see him very well in the picture.

Some of Yellowstone is closed because there is still a lot of snow, but our timing was perfect: the road to Old Faithful opened the day we got there. Geysers are not as cool as bears, but they are cool. Some of them are really beautiful, with tons of colors around them. Old Faithful was faithful and shot off on schedule. It was the only geyser we really saw erupt, so it was cool.

We also drove over to the canyon, which was full of snow so we couldn't get too close. It was really beautiful, with tons of colors. The first waterfall took me totally by surprise--everything is so still in the snow, and so I totally didn't expect it. It gave that feeling of an early explorer encountering a waterfall--as opposed to our modern version, where the waterfall is marked on the map and we are waiting to be impressed.

We entered and exited Yellowstone through Montana, as those are the only entrances/exits that are open. This meant that, when we re-entered Wyoming, we were left feeling that it is the poor step-child of US beauty. That first stretch of Wyoming was the most dull landscape we have seen. But then the rocks started getting some iron in them, and when we turned onto a scenic road running through the Bighorn National Forest, almost immediately the landscape became quite pretty. Not the most spectacular in the country, but it held its own.

On the other side was the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, which seems never to have moved out of the 1950s. It was complete with drugstore cum soda fountain, and had a store called "The Office" in place of a Kinko's. No Walmart. In fact, Wyoming is the first place we haven't seen a Walmart. It's really like the world has forgotten Wyoming.

Since we weren't sure how we would spend a Saturday night in Buffalo, we went on to Gilette. I was concerned Gilette might be a large city, but that was a silly concern. We spent our Saturday night with the local ladies playing Bingo. Wyoming is also the first state I can remember in a long time without a smoking ban. And also the first without any immigrants, although there are a lot of Native Americans.

With love from Gilette,


Friday, April 18, 2008

winding our way through the Northwest

At the risk of a laundry list, I will try to describe what we've done since I last wrote. I'll post lots of pictures to make it more interesting.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, it's hard not to like it. I managed to get my only sunburn of the trip there, as the weather was hot and sunny. We walked a ton, probably because I was desperate to avoid the car. We had a great time at the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building, eating very well at all the stands. Then we walked through the center of town, through Chinatown and Market Street, and then took a bus out to the other side and laid in the grass with a view of the Golden Gate. It was kind of a lazy day despite the walking.

We stayed with a cousin of Michael's dad, who has lived in California for years. I'm not sure that I had ever met him, but we had a really nice time with him and his wife. They cooked us dinner, which is always appreciated during our long travels.

The next day we headed up the coast to see the Redwoods. We first stopped in the Humboldt Redwood Forest, and wandered among the trees. The trees have a way of dampening the sound and it feels very relaxing among them. There's also that inevitable feeling of being small around something very big.

We camped that night in the Jedediah Smith Redwood Forest. What we saw of it was less impressive than Humboldt, but it was nice (despite my whining about camping) to sleep in the forest.

Then we drove up the Oregon coast. Apparently I am a true girl of the Northern coast, because I really loved that drive. The rocks and the waves and even the grey weather were much more my style than the California coast. I told Mike I wanted to spend the rest of the trip there and then just fly home. (I had gotten very sick of driving by that point.)

We ended up in Portland, which sadly is not on the coast but is really a nice city. We have close friends from New York, Ruth and Dustin, who were from there and have moved back. They toured us all around, but mostly we just hung out the way we used to do in New York. Lots of coffee shops and good restaurants. It was a nice change of pace, and great to see them.

After a slight delay while we waited for a new pair of contact lenses to arrive by DHL (Michael had a slight mishap in the Big Sur River), we finally headed east. We took I-84, which I liked since we had been on I-84 in Massachusetts/Connecticut. I84 goes through the Columbia Gorge, into which drop some really beautiful waterfalls. Then it heads into the nothingness of Eastern Oregon, and then we headed north into the nothingness of eastern Washington. We managed to not take a single picture during our short time in Washington.

We spent the night in Coeur D'Alene (pronounced Core Dalaine), Idaho. There's a big lake there, surrounded by mountains. I can't say it looked that different from something in New Hampshire, but it was our one taste of Idaho so I tried to make the best of it. We also drove I-90 East, thus making it to my own personal "Mother Road" (just 3000 miles to Boston!).

The ultimate goal was Montana. I'm not sure when I got it in my head that it would be cool to drive across Montana, but that was an important part of this trip for me. As it turns out, Montana is not a long string of amazing mountain vistas like I'd thought. But it is extremely cool to be in a series of big valleys and crossing huge mountains, and the only cities you cross are less than 50,000 people. Mostly, actually, we passed towns of three or four buildings only. We had a nice first glimpse of the Rockies, which I realized I've never seen before. We also drove through a preserve for Bison, which are very very cool animals. They stand around like cows but they run like slow horses, and they are huge and look so cool!

Mentioning the bison reminds me that there were sea lions and elk on the coast, but it's starting to get difficult to remember everything.

Tomorrow we're headed to Yellowstone, so we drove as close to the park as we had time for. We're staying in ski country but the season is over, so I'm not sure there's more than one other person in this huge hotel.

With love from Big Sky,


Sunday, April 13, 2008

charismatic megafauna

What's cool about California is that it's an open-minded, cosmopolitan state with the natural wonders of a back-country. After driving up the coast from LA to San Francisco, I can see how, if you grew up here, you would think all other places are lame. Since I didn't grow up here, I would not agree that the California coast is the most beautiful in the country. I happen to be quite partial to Maine. But the combination of things here is hard to beat.

The highlight for me is definitely the marine wildlife. While I knew of a few places where the seals etc. hang out, the first ones we saw were at the recommendation of a sign on the road. The elephant seals were sleeping all over the beach, and the young ones were swimming near the shore. My New England mind still has trouble grasping the idea that no one feeds these animals in order to get them to put on a show for tourists.

We also saw sea lions (and maybe seals?) in Monterey, hanging out on the support beams under the docks. Little groups of them would show off in the water, but the big lazy ones would just hang out. I think people do feed these guys to get them to put on a show, but at least they're still wild.

We're in a bit of a rush this morning, so I'll leave it at that for now.

With love from San Francisco,


California: the other blue state.

We started off from Massachusetts, drove through a sea of red states, and finally reached the blue "shores" of California. We stopped first in Joshua Tree National Park, camping overnight at a crowded but very nice no-hookup campsite. The Joshua tree looks rather like the famed Dr. Suess lorax, only in dull matte desert colors. Foolishly we only got one picture, and by far not the best. I was distracted climbing on all the rocks.

We drove the next morning to LA to stay with Sarah's brother Peter in Hollywood Hills. But before I put in my two cents on LA, a few little side-tracks. Everyone knows the smog is bad in LA; it collects there, trapped by the mountains, and the prevailing easterly winds. But driving over the mountains and seeing the change from crystal clear skies to the thickest haze I've ever seen in my life is just shocking (not even Cairo was as bad). No wonder California is motivated to be the environmental champions in the US - they've got some of the most beautiful nature and they can see the devastation humans are causing with their bare eyes.

Their first obvious attempt at being green were the use of windmills along I-10 just over the mountains outside of LA. Unlike Germany, however, who scatters a few, maybe ten, windmills over several square miles, California has crammed probably every single windmill in the entire state into this one valley. There must have been thousands of them. It's no wonder people protest wind farms in the states. What a way to destroy the beauty of the valley. And I wouldn't doubt that migrating bats do get killed in these windmills; they hardly have anywhere else to fly.

Anyway. LA is an environmental disaster, but I won't say more about that for the moment. Instead let me cover the obvious. We saw the Hollywood stars; there are tons of them. Everyone has a star, including Lassie, Godzilla, Kermit, etc. and actors, singers, and TV personalities that we'd never heard of, plus everyone truly famous. Mulholland Drive was nice, and Beverly Hills was nicer, but I much preferred Malibu Hills (or the hills over Malibu, whatever the name of the place), where houses were set in amongst enormous and frighteningly steep hills, but not packed in like sardines and guarded with 20-foot hedges.

It was great to see Peter, and of all the neighborhoods we visited, Hollywood Hills (where he lives) was definitely the coolest. The streets are very narrow and wind up the hills, lending the place and each house a lot of character and individuality. We also saw a lot of art in LA, and don't get me wrong, I love art, but great art can be anywhere, so why drive 3000 miles across the US to visit museums? I could go on and on comparing LA with NYC, but others have done that before, just watch Sex and the City. I'd rather have NYC any day, though I am jealous of the easy beach access.

My last rant on LA is the old wealth-over-poverty issue, and rather than rant, I will just say it makes me sick how large the gap is in the US. If it's that big in Germany - I don't believe it is - well, at least it isn't flaunted in the face of the poor who sleep on the streets and beg for food and money. (Yes I'm taking to you Mr. Getty.)

After LA we drove up the California coast to San Francisco, and can I just say, not fair. The east coast sucks in comparison. I ate one of the best steaks ever for dinner, before we stopped overnight to camp on a bluff overlooking these amazing rocky shores, thanks to a tip from our friends Sarah and Eric, who'd stayed there in the past. Who knew the central coast had such great beef? And they even prepared it as requested: rare. In those red states - I'm not naming any names - they seem to refuse to serve meat rare.

The next day, we watched elephant seals, sea lions, and harbor seals laze around the beach and docks, before heading into San Francisco, where we stayed with my second cousin and his wife. We spent the next day in San Francisco, and while I did like it a lot there, you can't compare it to NYC. Still, they had a semi-decent public transport, and the access to nature is far superior to NYC. We didn't really have time to get to know San Francisco the way I would have liked, and didn't get to do Napa or Sonoma, but I'd be happy to go back and spend a week or more there.

From there we drove further up the coast, into redwood territory, camping overnight amongst some of the smaller, but still huge trees. It's just amazing the amount of beautiful nature that California has, and more amazing still that they remain blue, which does wonders for the comfort level and food we experienced, even in small coastal towns. The whole state is definitely a place I could visit again and again.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New Pictures

We've added pictures to the past few posts. See below. Enjoy!

Sunny Southern California

We left Tucson for Los Angeles. We were going to drive the whole way, but Peter (my brother) had plans and couldn't host us until the following day, so we took a detour into Joshua Tree National Park. Much of Joshua Tree looks like the Tucson desert, or some version thereof. But then suddenly you hit some magical elevation and there are all these Joshua trees everywhere. I'm not sure what the link is between Dr. Seuss's the Lorax and the Joshua Tree--everyone seems to compare them, but I don't know if Dr. Seuss made the link explicit. In any case, it's a bit of an eerie (if false) feeling to look at these trees and pretend they're the last trees on earth. (Mike says it's a copyright violation to post someone else's pictures, so you'll have to search Google images yourself.)

We camped at this campside with two huge piles of boulders. There were lots of other people, and I don't normally like camping when I feel like I'm there with everyone else. But in the evening, when the sun is low, the Joshua trees caught the light perfectly and it was really nice to be there. We also hiked up a small mountain before heading back to the campsite for sunset.

Los Angeles is a total change from all that. There have been a few places we have been where I feel like you can really see how damaging we humans are to the earth, and LA is one of them. You drive over those mountains and all you notice is the smog.

On the other hand, LA is also the first place we've been since Pittsburgh where the people are "like us". This is the first time I haven't felt out of place, as if we come from two different countries. It's strange to have driven all this way and lived through all the space that separates the Northeast from California.

One of the first things we did was drive all the way to the coast. We sat and had a drink on the beach, and even though it was chilly it was that perfect blue sky that is the cliche of Southern California. The best part was that a school of dolphins passed by, really close to the shore. We could see them jumping out of the water and kicking up their tails. It was great.

Our time in LA has mostly been spent seeing art and hanging out with Peter. The museums here have some really great pieces, and the Getty center is an incredibly pleasant space to just hang out. It's cool that they have managed to create a space for fine art that has the feel of a spa or some expensive resort in the hills. It would be a great place to host an awesome party.

Peter has a really great house in the Hollywood hills that he shares with three friends. They live on this narrow street that looks more like Provence than LA. The landscape in LA is my ideal--steep green hills all over. That's exactly what I was missing in Berlin.

The other feature of visiting LA is being in the car. It is amazing that you can get on the highway at 2pm and it's stop-and-go traffic. It's also amazing that there are so many highways everywhere. It's such a different city than New York. I think it would take me a while to get used to. And can you really appreciate the sun when it's gorgeous every day?

With love from LA,


Sunday, April 6, 2008

mostly New Mexico

For some reason, it has occurred to me now to mention that Michael and I do not read each other's blog entries. At the beginning we were, but when you live everything together and then write it all down yourself, you don't really want to read about it again. Therefore, I apologize for repetition, and hope that his perspective is at least different (and therefore perhaps interesting).

I enjoyed the art in Marfa. None of the several Texans working at the various hotels we stopped in had actually visited it, and one described it as coffee tables painted silver and called art. He obviously hadn't been there--they were much too big to be coffee tables. The basic idea is that this artist bought an old military base and he and his artist friends did large-scale installation art in the buildings. The coffee tables were 100 pieces, each 41 x 51 x 72 inches but each slightly different. That was my favorite piece, but there was other cool stuff too. Another interesting one was a reproduction of a Lenin-era schoolhouse in disrepair, which has been left to further deteriorate since it was built in the 1990s. It reminded me of this Jewish girls' school that was opened as an exhibition space for the Berlin Biennial art show we went to in 2006.

On the way from Marfa we stopped at an observatory. I think star-gazing is cool, but telescopes during the day don't do it for me. But I guess we have to balance science and art on this trip.

Then we got to New Mexico. I really liked New Mexico. Since we barely saw anything and were only in the far southern part of the state, I'm not sure it's fair of me to decide that. But I like to think I have an innate connection to the state because my grandmother grew up there. Plus, I love Mexican food, and that's all we ate.

Carlsbad Caverns was really beautiful (I was going to say cool, but I think I'm overusing that word today). We were lucky enough to have gotten there nearly at opening, and were almost completely alone when we got down into the cavern. That was an amazing feeling. I kept thinking about how it must have been when it first opened as a park. And also what it must be like when there are tons of people and all their voices are echoing all over.

So I was impressed by Carlsbad, but White Sands was one of the highlights of the entire trip. I guess that's because we decided to camp. I'm a sucker for feeling like I have privileged access to something, and that's how you feel when you're completely alone in a national park all night. It was just us and one other guy camping, and we only saw him in the parking lot in the evening and on our way out in the morning. I told Mike that White Sands is one of the most photogenic places I've ever been. Every time I took a picture, I felt like I saw another view that was even better. The truth is that probably none of it captures the feeling of being out there all alone.

We drove from White Sands to my grandparents' in Tucson. On the way, we drove through a piece of Coronado State Forest. Honestly, I wasn't even going to mention it, but I happen to know that Michael did (I don't know what he said) and I want to give my version. Michael was navigating while I was driving, and he failed to noticed that the route he wanted to take was all unpaved roads. So there were were, half an hour from the interstate in the genuine middle of nowhere Arizona, and our choice is to go on or go back. So we drove on, for about 2 more hours. I have to admit that it was a very cool drive. But please don't tell Budget Rent-a-Car.

There was something strange for me about driving into Tucson, a city that I have visited so many times but only by plane. The idea that I could trace the road all the way back to my parents' in Massachusetts feels strange.

Tucson has mostly been for visiting and relaxing. My grandparents are 85, and it is really wonderful to see how they support each other and really keep each other going. For some reason I never really thought about it in previous visits. I hope I'm so lucky as to get to grow old with Mike (sorry, I know it's a cheesy note to end on).

With love from Tucson,


Lakewood Church

As I mentioned in an earlier post, our primary reason for visiting Houston was to attend church at the largest mega-church in the world, Lakewood Church or Joel Osteen Ministries. They've got a congregation of over 40,000, and the Sunday morning service we attended was a more-than-half-filled stadium of about 9000-10000. If you'd ever like to know more specifically what the service was like, they broadcast it live on TV. To properly explain my experience would take me much more space than I'd like to spend writing now, but in short you need to know two things: (1) I was raised by a staunch atheist who regularly spoke about the evils of religion, and (2) I'm a scientist by training who's come to question the belief in natural law and wonder if/how/where faith could possible have a place in my life.

So when Joel first walked up to the pulpit and nearly ten thousand people stood at once to share in worship, a chill passed through me. It was almost frightening, and I seriously considered the horrible scenario where they suddenly decided that I was the devil incarnate. What would I do aside from be brutally mobed by 10000 peaceful God-loving Christians in the name of ridding the earth of all evil.

Of course I'm not evil, and neither we're they going to do such a thing, even if I were. Probably any large crowd united for one cause would have scared me a bit. But try to put this in context. Whether intentional or not, I was broght up thinking of Christians, especially the type who surrounded me, muttering praise to God and blindly folling a charismatic leader, as a group to be feared as much as Nazi's. Who knows what they would do if asked to in the name of God.

Well, the feeling finally passed, as the first 30 minutes or so of the service commenced with a pseudo rock concert, and my concern passed to the regulars whose hearing was most certainly being damaged by the intensely loud sung praise to God. I hoped they didn't think it wouldn't effect them because it was worship.

When Joel finally spoke, every fifth word was God or some other incantation thereof (Jesus, the Father, Him, etc.) but if you carefully substituted your favorite scientific motive instead, most of what he said was quite inspiring. In fact, if you allow for a liberally interpretation of what God is, then I could see totally agreeing with everything Joel said. He was really a good motivational speaker, charismatic, and dramatic. By the end, when he asked that people who lacked faith but wanted help finding it stand, I stood. See, I do want faith. Faith in my convictions, faith in this world and the people on it, and faith in God, if somehow that would help me.

But I don't want to go to church, and I don't buy most of what Christianity has to offer. Nor have I found an answer in Buddhism, Judaism, science, and many other religions. I wish I could just convince myself to believe, but instead I question, as a good scientist, and lacking an answer and faith I just feel confused.

Marfa, Texas to Tucson, Arizona

Marfa is an art community in the middle of the Texan desert. We stayed at the hotel El Paisano, where the film Giant, with James Dean, was filmed. A nice place, but actually the most expensive place we'd stayed (the last room in the cheaper place in town was taken just before we got there). The art was interesting (The Chinati Foundation), but not spectacular. Mostly it was weird to come across such an international crowd, and east coast food, in the middle of the Texan desert. Oh, and then there were the weird Marfa Lights. I have to admit, they didn't seem to be cars or houses, but I definitely wouldn't be surprised if they turned out to be some local's kids with flashlights.

From Marfa we drove down to Shafter, a supposed ghost town, which was a total disappointment. Let me say, we'd had in our head this old wild west kind of image, where the saloon and bank are on the same street, and the whole thing was deserted but left as is. Well that wasn't Shafter. Later on we stopped by Shakespeare Ghost Town and Stein's Ghost Town. Both looked more like what we'd imagined, but the former was fenced in and ran tours only on weekends, while the latter was closed for the filming of some low budget movie.

More exciting was the McDonald Observatory. I won't bore you with the details, but just check out this awesome telescope. It was a nice break from the art.

We spent the next couple days at the Carlsbad and White Sands. What to say? If you haven't seen them, go. They're really cool. Of course, if you've been in an unmaintained cave, where you get only the light of your own helmet, it's a totally different experience, but the sheer size is outstanding. Unfortunately, the more rugged tours were all booked. At White Sands - yes it really is white sand - we actually camped out on the dunes, and let me tell you, that was definitely the way to see them, alone through both sunset and sunrise. In between the two are a lot of desert, and though the surrounding mountains sometimes made for interesting views, the spaces in New Mexico and on through Arizona felt much bigger than in Texas, at least to me.

We took a detour through unpaved mountain roads in the south east part of Arizona, through the Coronado National Forest, on our way to Tucson to visit Sarah's maternal grandparents. I would have very much liked to camp at Coronado, as the sites were very remote and primitive, not RV campground hell. But with only six weeks, we can't see it all. It was great to see Ed and Eve again, who are in surprisingly good health for 85 years. They've been married for 63 years, and always seem to work so well together, rather like Sarah and me. Tomorrow morning we make the long drive to LA, where we'll visit with Sarah's brother Peter.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Houston to Marfa

In my last (serious) blog, I talked about Galveston and barbeque in Houston. Well, that pretty much summed up Houston. We spent the next day trying to figure out what to do in Houston, and repeatedly getting two recommendations: go to Galveston, and go shopping. True, Houston had some great shopping, but nothing we couldn't do back east. It was so strange that Houston could be so big, and have so little to do, even according to the natives. We did end up finding a very hopping brunch/bar place for snobby I-think-I'm-soooo-hot 30 and 40 somethings, mostly single. (BTW, these people exist in droves in NYC too, but we generally avoid their see-and-be-seen hangouts.) Of note was how integrated Houston seemed to be, with blacks, Hispanics, whites, Indian (dots not feathers), and others all found together at the restaurant and bars we went to; this wasn't the case in the south. The real reason we went to Houston was to attend the largest mega-church, Lakewood, for Sunday service (see a separate entry). Suffice it to say, it was an interesting experience, and perhaps explains why Houston was so damned dull.

We left Houston Sunday afternoon to visit Sarah's college friend Andy, his wife Shauna, and their 3-year-old daughter Irene. Irene was just the cutest, smartest, little girl. It was nice to catch up with old friends, and just too bad that we can't all live a bit closer together (they're moving soon to Arkansas).

We drove the next morning to Austin, and spent several hours there soaking up the culture. It is truly a very liberal island in Texas, full of many eastern comforts and ammenities. But it's still Texas to an easterner. At a totally superficial level, it still has the huge spaces and cowboy boots, so come on. We drove on, in late afternoon, to San Antonio, in time to have an authentic Tex-Mex dinner, and a stroll around the River Walk. The River Walk is really pretty at night, if a little too perfectly polished, like a Disney World rendition of itself. In the morning it wasn't quite as spectacular, and the chemicals they use to keep the algea from growing in the river are more apparent, tainting the river green in color. The Alamo and Mission San José were both pretty cool, and the review of American history that they provide, I think, can help somewhat explain modern Republican motivation, even though the events occurred several generations earlier.

We drove from San Antonio 414 miles (666 km) to Marfa, along route 90. This part of Texas was actually quite beautiful in parts, and didn't feel quite as big as we'd prepared ourselves for. There is nothing but ranches the whole way, interspersed with small, nothing towns. The mountains and canyons in the last 100 miles, whose rivers feed the Rio Grande, were especially beautiful. More about Marfa later, and pictures too, but our internet connection isn't so good here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

a few days (too many?) in Texas

Somehow, nearly the whole length of Texas has passed underneath us without me posting anything. Time seems to pass rather quickly here (despite Michael's much-commented-on previous entry). I'll try not to dwell on any one thing here so as not to drag this out too long.

The first point to make is that Houston is an extremely dull town. However, we had the good fortune to be in attendance at a live performance of Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church. According to Der Spiegel (always a reliable source on American eccentricities), Lakewood is the largest church in America, maybe the world. We estimated that about 10,000 people were there with us, in a former basketball stadium that has been converted into a Christian fortress. The service we attended was one of four they do each weekend. Joel spoke, and his wife spoke, and everyone prayed. But the most amazing part was the rock concert, complete with lights and band, and (nearly) 10,000 people singing along. I can't even really explain what it was like. You had to be there.

But then, I kept thinking that it wasn't that different than when I went to see Matchbox 20 and sang along with all the songs. These songs just happened to be about god (and weren't as good, in my humble opinion).

One more thing I do have to say about Houston is that it is the most integrated city I have ever been in. Everywhere we went there were whites, blacks, and hispanics, all in the same restaurants etc. Even at Lakewood.

That night we stayed with my friend (from Williams) Andy and his wife Shauna. I haven't seen Andy in ages, and have never met his now 3-year-old daughter Irene. It was a short visit, but it was really nice to see him and Shauna. They even treated us to our first homecooked meal of the trip (and an incredible chocolate cake). And Irene was great. We had a good time.

The next morning we took a quick pass through Austin. Austin is kind of quaint, if you can say that about anything in Texas. There were some cool places to hang out, and it has a nice homegrown off-beat feel that we haven't experienced anywhere else. Everyone says Austin isn't Texas, but I don't know about that. Just because you didn't support Bush doesn't mean you're not in the land of cowboys and sprawl.

We left Austin and drove to San Antonio. I liked San Antonio a lot too. The much-touted River Walk has a bit of a Disney feel, but really is quite beautiful and extremely pleasant to walk around. Everyone says the Alamo, which is right downtown, is smaller than you expect, and yet I wasn't prepared. It looks like a dollhouse compared to the buildings around it. Like a play church that some rich person built for his daughter on their big estate.

This morning we went by another of the missions on the "Mission Trail", on which the Alamo also sits. This one, San Jose, is still quite intact and you can see what it must have been like when the Spanish were there converting Indians. The whole thing about Texas independence and the history of that area glazes over the treatment of the Indians and, for that matter, the Mexicans. It's surprising that, with such a large hispanic population, they haven't been more heavily criticized for that.

After San Antonio we took a long drive to Marfa, way out west. Despite all you can say about the size of Texas, actually we didn't mind the drive out here. It was 6 or 7 hours, but we took a very fast back highway and passed through a variety of scenic places. Mountains, desert, artificial lake (dam), small towns, etc. I suppose if you had someplace to be, it would feel long. But for us, it was quite varied and not a bad drive.

Marfa is a bit of an artists' colony, tho not very interesting so far. But we did drive out to view the "Marfa Mystery Lights" tonight. They look like car headlights out on the horizon, but apparently have no known cause and can't be traced if you try to find them. The most entertaining part were the men with thick Texan accents behind us, commenting on what they saw and what they thought about it.

With love from Marfa,