Saturday, December 27, 2014

Happy Holidays in West Texas

Holiday lights as seen from horse-drawn carriage
This was our second Christmas on the road, away from home and in the southern part of the United States. It’s easy to be oblivious to the holidays when you are away from home, but we saw some beautiful holiday lights in San Antonio and the next day decided to head north to Johnson City, first stop along the Hill Country Holiday Lighting Trail.  We arrived at dusk, just in time to snag a place at a bar for the Seahawks game (not hard, since no one else was watching it) and to watch the lights come on around town. It turns out that a lot of Texans go to Johnson City for the lights and music, and for good reason. We really found the holiday spirit (after the Seahawk win) as we clambered onto a carriage and let Priscilla the Clydesdale take us around the colorful streets.

Janna communes with LBJ
Since we were in the neighborhood we decided to visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch and we found a quiet, off road picnic area to boondock. Texas is most accommodating of weary travelers and most rest stops and waysides are welcoming for overnighters. After driving the ranch we made a slight detour to visit the historic dance hall at Luckenbach. Liz resisted the temptation to get out her fiddle and play the empty stage as she would have had to disturb a coterie of roosters that were strutting their stuff. Instead we headed across the Pecos River to the tiny crossroads known as Langtry.  The town had a colorful historical character there named Judge Roy Bean who dispensed western justice and liquor from his saloon which is restored and serves as a museum. We boondocked  there  (with permission) in the Community Center parking lot.

Two Texas Grand Dames: Hallie Stillwell and Gov. Ann Richards
Then it was off to Big Bend National Park, where we spent the first night at the Stillwell Ranch just outside of this very remote, huge and beautiful park. Hallie Crawford Stillwell was a Texas Justice of the Peace and a great friend of Governor Ann Richards. She ran the 22,000 acre ranch for 30 years after her husband died, until she passed away in 1997 at the age of 99. A small museum houses her memorabilia and we checked out a key at the camp store to tour it. Liz was happy to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the high desert looking for agates and carnelian. As opposed to the national park, it is legal to collect on the ranch property, 50 cents a pound for any rocks you want to take with you.
Mexican craft cache in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is the most serene and silent place we have ever been. According to the dark skies ranger lecture we attended, it also affords viewing of the most stars because it is so far from city lights. We enjoyed a couple of days of exploring and were touched by the openness of the border between the park and Mexico. An official pedestrian border crossing to the tiny village of Boquilles del Carmen was recently reopened there and it’s possible to hail a rowboat  to come across if you want to visit. The rowboat sounded doable but the subsequent ride to the village on horseback, or if you prefer, in the back of a pickup truck, gave Janna enough misgivings that we stayed on the US side. One morning we hiked on the Lookout Trail above the Rio Grande and watched a man on horseback come across the river to replenish the little caches of hand-made Mexican crafts that are illegally located in the park. Americans camping in the park pick them up and leave money in a jar. We visited with a young  American woman who was repairing the trail and, as we watched a Mexican family walk along the other side of the river, she hollered "Hola" and “Buenos dias” and  they happily hollered back the same.

"Restacked" building in Terlingua
Driving west out of the park we enjoyed the dips and rolls of the famous River Road which ended in the tiny towns of Study Butte (pronounced “Stoody Buy-oot”) and "Terlingua Ghost Town". Originally settled as Spanish missions, then nineteenth century mining operations, these places currently support a most amazing array of artists, naturalists and desert rats. We were surprised by the well-stocked organic Cottonwood Grocery in Study Butte and amused by the musicians playing in front of the Trading Company in Terlingua. There are some contemporary houses and business structures in this town, created by “restacking” rock from the ruins, and used mostly by venders catering to tourists. The flourishing arts scene was very attractive and if one can somehow avoid the 110-degree summers, it might be an interesting place to investigate more. 
Chinati Gallery houses Judd's artwork in old barracks
Our next destination was Marfa, made famous by the arrival of minimalist artist Donald Judd in the 1970’s and the arts scene that has developed around his huge installations. Since it was Sunday again and we were in a quandary as to where we might watch the game, Liz came up with the idea of stopping at a motel to see if we could somehow pay a small fee and watch it in the lobby.  The young couple managing the motel turned out to be an unexpected delight and, by the end of our visit, our latest new friends.  Both were former collegiate athletes, she a basketball scholarship recipient from Russia and he a football receiving end from California. We loved them both and found lots to talk about besides a place to watch the game.  After some careful deliberation and a phone call to the owner, they rented us a room for four hours to watch the Seahawks beat the Cardinals. In the bargain we got showers and a plug-in for the overnight in Lilypad. Cameron and Elena are an energetic and smart couple who are looking for a good place to settle and raise a family. We gave them leads for various hospitality venues back in the islands  and hope we will be seeing them again, perhaps this summer in Friday Harbor.

Yikes! Whiteout at McDonald Observatory
Leaving Marfa, we stopped to see the town of Alpine, then headed north to the McDonald Observatory operated by the University of Texas. Unfortunately as we ascended the mountain it began to snow and we were just able to hear a talk and slide show about the sun, plus another giving us a glimpse of the workings of the Hobby- Eberle telescope, one of the largest in the world.  By then, the weather was in white-out conditions so we hightailed it down the mountain, sad to miss the program about the stars and the milky way.
Gorgeous Christmas Day hike in Hueco Tanks
A night at the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains National Park and then it was on to our Christmas destination, Hueco Tanks Historical State Park. This fascinating place has the largest collection of pictographs in North America, some dating back 8,000 years. Subsequent visitors have also left their marks on the tumble of volcanic rocks that shelter several springs in the middle of the high desert. The park takes its stewardship task very seriously and only a few visitors are allowed in daily to camp or hike and only after watching an orientation video and signing many pieces of paper. The other appeal of the park is that it is an internationally known rock climbing site so at 8am on Christmas morning we gathered in the ranger station with a crowd of German speaking young people to receive our daily permit to venture beyond the campground and into the back-country. It was a lovely Christmas, biking and hiking in weather that reached 60 degrees, then cozy time in Lilypad singing, opening presents, and talking to family. Truly a happy holiday in West Texas.  Happy Holidays and a peaceful 2015 to all of you.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas

What fun: playing music with Chip every night!

We have taken much to heart as we travel around in Lilypad.  We have learned a great deal about the heart of this country, we have had old and new friends open their homes and their hearts to us, and now here we are deep, as they say, in the heart of Texas.  At this moment we sit in the San Antonio kitchen of Glenn ("Chip") Hughes, high school buddy of Liz’s, university professor, philosopher, musician, poet and all-around big heart. We were here for Thanksgiving and had such a good time that after a 10-day trip to the Texas coast, we came back to spend a few more days. He feeds us, and gives us the run of his house (oh what fun to have comfortable chairs, showers, good internet, and cable tv to watch Seahawk games.)  The house is filled with books and it’s a lot like hanging out in a really good library. Furthermore Chip loves to engage in heart-filled conversation and wait, there’s more:  he is affirming and patient about our fiddle and concertina practice and the three of us have been playing and singing together every evening.

Chip also kindly took time from his busy academic life and showed us the town of Fredericksburg and his favorite Hill Country drive along the Guadalupe River. In San Antonio he introduced us to his friends, showed us some of the city, and took us to both the innovative Institute of Texan Cultures and the McNay Art Museum.

Padre Island National Seashore
Our ten days in southeast Texas found us along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and visits to four of the many beautiful Texas state parks. We went to Rockport on the coast and took the free ferry over to Mustang Island, one of the long barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico, where we camped on the beach and toured the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s estuary visitor center. In Port Aransas we enjoyed a delicious sea food lunch and some serious bird watching, seeing Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and a flock of Pyrrhuloxia (no, we did not learn how to pronounce that.) Then it was south over a causeway to Padre Island National Seashore where we saw Skimmers and Royal Terns, Snow Geese, White-tailed Hawks, two kinds of pelicans, Red Headed Ducks and Sandhill Cranes. As environmentalist Hazel Wolf used to say, “Some of those birds needed watching.”

"Javie" checking us out at Falcon Lake
We also learned about the historic cattle ranches of Texas. We drove through Corpus Christi and stopped at the Kenedy Ranch Museum, a small but well-done and highly informative museum in the tiny town of Serita. At Port Isobel we stopped at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where we added Green Jays and Black Legged Stilts to the bird list. Liz went on a tram ride and learned about the Nilgai, (introduced Indian antelopes) that, along with feral hogs are major challenges to refuge managers. This refuge also hosts 12 of the 50 ocelots that are known to live wild in the United States and many major research and management strategies are in place to support this population. In Falcon State Park, we were quite excited to see a wild javelina. 

Would have loved to see Hidalgo lights at night
We were surprised when we stopped at the Brownsville Visitor Center to be greeted as “Winter Texans”. Evidently the area makes a concerted effort to attract northern visitors, and many signs proclaim welcome. Birders are a big part of this business and there are even associations limited to "Birding B&Bs." Close to 500 bird species have been sighted from the coast up the river, many of which cannot be seen in other areas of the United States. Along the way we discovered some other interesting things like delicious oranges and grapefruits sold from pick-up trucks, the holiday lights of Hidalgo, and the city of Laredo, where everyone was speaking Spanish and our light skin and ignorance of the language clearly labeled us as out-of-town visitors.
Guess we're in a Homeland Security file now
As we traveled west on Military Road (also known as Highway 281) we witnessed many instances of law enforcement/citizen interactions, a startling illustration of this nation's huge increase in police personnel along the Mexican border. That, and the occasional sight of the fifteen-foot fence that marks the border between Mexico and the US, were to us, a profoundly sad sight. We were stopped at check points and repeatedly photographed by Homeland Security cameras. The police presence made us uncomfortable and brought thoughts of a "police state," making us wonder how our neighbors to the south must feel when they come here, whether legally or illegally. We wonder whatever happened to heart-felt welcomes and general open-heartedness in southern Texas. 

After enjoying a quiet Texas state park at Lake Casa Blanco on the outskirts of Laredo, we headed north and found ourselves driving through oil, gas and fracking operations for 200 miles. It boggled our environmentalist realities to see the machinery every few miles on the ranch lands, and dusty little crossroad towns that are now highly industrialized and are apparently surviving by economies based on servicing these huge sites. 

But we were somewhat cheered by spotting countless Crested Caracaras and other raptors dotting the landscape along the way. That’s one nice thing about the heart of Texas: it’s really good for the birds.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Louisiana Hospitality

One of the goals of this trip, and in fact, the eastern-most destination planned on our route, was a visit to the city of New Orleans. We approached with trepidation, not just because Lilypad doesn’t do well in the narrow streets of historic cities, but because “NOLA” has a reputation for unsafe neighborhoods and downtown streets. So we were back and forth about even going there for quite a while, but in the end we really wanted to see it. Braving one of the steepest bridges of the trip to make our descent into the city, we landed at a small gated campground on the public bus line.
Our bus, stuck in parade traffic
The next morning we hopped on the bus. The forty minute ride into downtown took about two hours, but we do think the journey is in fact the destination, and this bus ride was very interesting. First we got stopped by a parade and sat for forty minutes as marching bands, horse drawn carriages, cute twirling kids in matching outfits, and a contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” went by. Evidently parades are so much a part of the lifestyle here that most of the people on the bus didn’t watch it and no one had any idea what it was about. We watched part of it and talked with the woman sitting next to us, who told us what it was like to be in the water and then in the Super dome during Katrina. Then we transferred to a street car, which broke down enroute and we waited a long time for the next one. We found it interesting that when we were on the bus, our white faces were a noticeable minority, but the group in the broken-down street car was almost entirely white tourists.

French Quarter: note "not haunted" apartment for rent
We walked the length of Bourbon Street which we found way too full of inebriated people of all ages, and we were astounded by the number of smokers. We wanted music, but downtown music in New Orleans doesn’t seem to happen without alcohol and tobacco, or before dark, and we had been warned off the public transportation at night. So in our two days in the city, we walked several streets of the French Quarter, shopped the independent venders at the French Market, ate shrimp and grits, took a bus tour, and visited a sculpture park and two very interesting cemeteries. We also spent a few hours in the small but powerful exhibit about Hurricane Katrina in the Presbytere, adjacent to the cathedral on Jackson Square. The personal stories in the exhibit, as well as from our friend on the bus, were very moving. Our campground hostess picked us up downtown both days at 5pm, so we did not experience that famous New Orleans night life. But we did see a bit of the city.

We headed west, up the levee river road of the Mississippi River, marveling at the huge refineries alternating with sugar cane fields and rice fields. We learned a lot about rice culture at the 100-year-old Konriko Rice mill in New Iberia. In Louisiana , the rice fields also produce another lucrative crop: crawfish, thus making both crops sustainable and organic. Also near New Iberia we took the factory tour at the Tabasco plantation, an iconic Louisiana product produced by the same family for over 140 years. 

Pennye fixes the concertina
Our next stop was Scott, just outside of Lafayette, where the fun really began, all because Janna’s concertina had a few sticky keys.  We made our way to the Martin Accordion factory in the area where Junior Martin, founder of the shop and his daughter Pennye Huval were there to welcome us. Pennye quickly pulled the concertina apart and put things right for a charge of only $10.Then she invited us to return the next day to hear them present Cajun music culture to a Road Scholar group. So we happily trundled off to the beautiful municipal campground in nearby Lafayette with its adjacent nature center and trails. When we returned the next afternoon, we were not disappointed.  Three generations of Martins: Pennye, Papa and grandson Joel Martin gave a two-hour talk and musical performance explaining the roots of Cajun music, and illustrating the differences between Cajun, Zydeco, and other regional music styles.
Oh NO, Janna wants a new instrument
We loved the music, Joel singing and playing the accordion, Papa on the steel guitar, and Pennye on  acoustic and bass guitars and triangle. Then we followed her brother on a tour of the accordion factory where the family produces beautiful high-quality Cajun accordions (also known as melodians and not to be confused with piano accordions.)  After that the family insisted we stay overnight in the factory driveway, and Pennye took us out to dinner at a local restaurant where a Cajun band was performing.  The next morning we got to jam a bit with Pennye on the accordion, Papa on the the guitar, Liz on her fiddle, and Janna (believe it or not) on the concertina. What fun.

Still seeking all things Cajun we visited the Cajun Music Hall of Fame in nearby Eunice and saw Junior Martin’s picture on the wall and felt privileged to have had a close encounter with this significant person in Cajun music history. Then, in search of a local eatery where Liz could hear some fiddle, we found D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant. This “field of dreams” place is way out on a crawfish and rice farm, in the middle of nowhere, but everyone knew where to come. The owner generously allowed us to park overnight and gifted us some bread pudding for dessert and a box of fresh-cooked beignets for breakfast. The band was great and Liz got to watch the fiddler all evening and engage him in fiddler conversations during the breaks. The accordionist was sporting a Martin accordion and told us that Junior was his great uncle.

We left Louisiana via this All American Road
If there is any way to sum up our Louisiana experience it is in the hospitality shown us by just about everyone we met. Not since Nova Scotia have we felt so welcome and embraced. Hey wait, there’s a reason for that! Followers of our travels will remember we were very much taken with the story of the early pacifist Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia who negotiated with Native Americans to share the land for five generations, and then were evicted because of the their refusal to take up arms for the British, who by then had acquired the land in wars against the French. A significant number of those folks found their way to French speaking Acadiana, where their descendants, now known as Cajuns, are still graciously and generously sharing their culture with all who come along.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Arkansas Travelers

Folks jam in the streets of Mountain View

Although we have been in Arkansas for a while now, we discovered there was a lot more to see and do in this very interesting state. After our exploration of northeastern Arkansas, we headed into the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains to attend the semi-annual Bluegrass Festival in Mountain View. There we squeezed into the last available campsite at the Ozark RV Park, adjacent to the cultural phenomenon  known as the Ozark Folkcenter State Park. This amazing destination exposes locals and visitors alike to the music, crafts and skills that are living traditions here, and also hosts world class musicians in a 1,000 seat auditorium.

Local music icon JC Bonds even invited Liz to play
We went for the music of course and were not disappointed. Walking around the craft village we met a nine year old fiddler named Mary Parker and three other girls who were playing traditional tunes in the courtyard on the guitar, mandolin and banjo. Later at an evening concert we watched Mary and her friends in a stunning performance that included singing and clogging. These young folks  are proficient musicians, trained from an early age by the public school-based Music Roots program. Skilled musicians provide youth with classes in traditional folk instruments  (those  four plus  the autoharp and  dulcimer.) Donated instruments are provided for the students to use as long as they are in the Music Roots program, and are often gifted to them when they get older.  We were also very impressed with an adult group from Minnesota called Monroe Crossing and were delighted when Mary Parker, her little brother, and the rest of her group got on the stage to clog along with Orange Blossom Special. (See video on the Monroe Crossing FaceBook page). We spent several hours listening to these and other great bluegrass bands. If you love traditional acoustic music, you’ll love Mountain View Arkansas.

Chihuly Christmas Tree from Clinton Whitehouse
We then headed to Little Rock and stayed at a very convenient, inexpensive  and  tidy municipal RV park on the north side of the Arkansas River. We rode our bikes on the paved riverside trail and the next day took the tourist trolley across the river into Little Rock’s historic downtown. This area was revitalized when the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International reclaimed a highly contaminated industrial site at the east end of downtown and spent many millions to restore wetlands and build state of the art facilities. The Clinton Library was overwhelming in its content (over 80 million pages and lots of stuff!), but we enjoyed seeing the faces and remembering the events of the years of the Clintons in the White House. Liz then toured the LEED-certified headquarters of Heifer International  while Janna enjoyed their gift shop and the late afternoon sunshine.

Left Wing Books
Right Wing Books
 We also made some other discoveries: The Flying Fish Restaurant: catfish, shrimp, gumbo, inexpensive, casual and delicious; and  River Market Books and Gifts, a used bookstore run by the Friends of Central Arkansas Libraries (FOCAL) in an historic  building downtown. This remarkable destination has three floors of carefully arranged fiction, literature, children’s books, biography, music, history and more. The political science section even has “left wing” and “right wing” shelves. Fortunately they were closing and we were kicked out after only an hour; it would have been so easy to buy more than we could afford or carry home.

NPS Visitors Center overlooks the historic scene
Little Rock Central High School still operates as a school
Before leaving Little Rock we also visited the National Park Service Visitors Center at Little Rock High School. It was remarkable to sit watching the videos of the courageous kids integrating the school in 1957 while we looked out the window to the still-operational high school across the street where a very different student body now populates the halls. Again, we felt the energy of being “where history happened” and appreciated the moment of reflection.

As we wrap up our reporting from the great state of Arkansas we have a confession to make: we did indeed go see the Purse Museum in Little Rock (too small and too pricey) and the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, site of the first store owned by Sam Walton and now a very poorly curated museum. But we also went to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville  a huge museum founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, that houses original art from many American artists and has assets totaling more than $500 million.  The building is beautiful , the grounds around it are lovely and the art inside is spectacular. There is no entrance fee or parking fee. So it seems a little of that Walton money has gone for the benefit of the public. Just a little of that Walton money.
And now we are headed to New Orleans.