Monday, April 26, 2010

Road Trip. West Texas: Postcards from the Ledge

Poor, poor, pitiful me. Seems I'm traveling so much these days I can't keep up with posting the details in a timely fashion. I still haven't given a full Argentina report, and that trip was in March. Now April is about over and I am only now getting to tell about our adventure to West Texas a couple of weeks ago. Granted, I did dole out some details at my recent Austinist column, but that was an ode to the crankier portions of the trip. Lord was I a miserable companion for much of the time. But today I want to focus on the good stuff, and there was plenty of that.

Mostly, I'm going to rely on Warren's pictures to show you some of what we saw. Warren takes about 9,000 pictures wherever we go, so below is but a mere sampling. I took a lot of shots, too, and will throw a few of those in.

Day One we drove from Austin straight to Terlingua. Well, okay, not straight through. We did stop in Drippin' for some breakfast tacos (I got cactus in mine) and this marzipan candy from Mexico that I LOVE and was so excited to find. As you can see, the candy is right next to what I like to call my Mexican Car Insurance-- a glittery Virgin de Guadalupe we picked up on a road trip to Real de Catorce back in 2007.

Terlingua was once a thriving cinnabar mining town (mercury is extracted from cinnabar). These days the population is about 32, though it swells with tourists during certain times. Since the cacti are in full bloom now, I'm guessing the place was up to about 50 or 60 folks when we visited, if you figure in the tourists.

I totally lucked into finding us a room at Upstairs at the Mansion. This place I cannot recommend highly enough. It was once the home of the captain of the mining company, a dude named Perry. So historically it's known as Perry Mansion. Like all the other places out there, it fell to ruins. But the fantastic Miss Kaci is in the process of overhauling the place, and for the past two years she's been renting rooms as she finishes them.

When you pull up, all you see is a crumbling building. Well that and, in our case, a decent sized rattlesnake. Check it:

Admittedly this critter spooked me a bit but, come on, it's the desert-- rattlesnakes are part of the deal. Inside, I was surprised and delighted to find a super comfy bedroom-- surprised because from the looks of the outside, you get the idea you'll be sleeping on an army cot under a leaking roof, but no. We shared the kitchen and bathroom with another couple. Miss Kaci is an utter delight-- she spent thirty years in Alaska before moving to Terlingua. I tried not to overly-quiz her but failed. I had about ninety million questions about Alaska and West Texas, and plenty of envy for her chutzpah enhanced life choices. You don't need TV, books, computers, or any other human made distractions out at the Mansion. At night the sky filled with lightning and brilliant stars. The sunsets are stunning. And the sunrises aren't half-bad either. Plus, as noted, all that blooming cacti.

Day Two and Three we hiked Big Bend: The Window Trail and Santa Elena Canyon and, despite my admittedly foul mood at the start of each hike, by trail's end I was forced to calm down and feel good by all that nature. We also spent some time poking around the ruins in Terlingua, including a very cool cemetery-- I'm a big fan of the dead and how they are honored:

And we popped into La Kiva, this underground bar, where we indulged in "Terlingua Toothpicks"-- some deep fried something or other that burns on the way in and on the way back out:

End of Day Three, we took "the scenic route" to Marfa. This put me in a panic, since it took four hours and we were supposed to get to Marfa before sunset to check in at El Comsico. But if you plan accordingly, this slow route, which winds through Big Bend State Park (different than Big Bend National Park) you'll find yourself with some beyond-stunning views.

We finally hit the Homeland Security checkpoint a little after dark, where we had to stop to prove we weren't illegal Mexican immigrants escaping from Arizona. I was stressed enough at this point that when the dude asked me how I was, I answered honestly that I was pretty shitty. I can only think he found this refreshing-- or maybe I terrified him. Either way, he didn't even ask to see our passports.

Then on to El Cosmico. This souped up campground is one of Liz Lambert's places (she also has Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia here in Austin). El Cosmico has a bunch of old trailers, some yurts and-- our choice for accommodations-- a tipi . The tipi was pretty massive, with a king-sized futon, an inside fire ring, and lots of groovy pillows-- human sized dog beds as I liked to call them. Warren and I were a bit fire-impaired, and spent the first night ensconced in a thick layer of smoke. Our second night in the tipi, we went to sleep without a fire, waking up at 4 am, freezing, begging each other to please, for god's sake, go start the fire. I whined the most, so Warren did the honors, using an aim-a-flame and a chemical log to get a nice toasty fire going. (El Cosmico supplies a stack of real wood.) There's electricity in the tipi, too, so I could charge my beloved iphone and use my electric teapot to make coffee in my French press pot which, yes, I seemed prissy for bringing, but let us not discuss what happens when I do not have my coffee in the morning, so let's call me prissy-but-practical. Here is a picture of me pre-coffee, and a picture of my clever coffee setup:

As far as showers and toilets go, privacy is not the first word that comes to mind. But El Cosmico does have hot water and real toilets you can sit on. The catch is, if some dude is peeing standing up in one "stall" and you're showering in another, let's just say-- well, real life example: I think maybe I scared the shit out of some twentysomething guys who got an eyeful while I soaped up.

We poked around in Marfa, a little town I really dig. I had some huevos rancheros at Carmen's. And, on a tip from the young woman at the chamber of commerce-- who wore these very weird glasses that seem to be some sort of trend out there-- we attended a reading at the Marfa Book Co., in large part because she told us that usually they have really good food afterward. She wasn't kidding. The feast was prepared by Food Shark, and served at this house on a hill where Lannan Foundation Fellows go to write. I should say, if you are planning a trip to West Texas, you should consider bringing plenty of your own food since, with few exceptions-- and this is just my opinion-- a lot of what's available out there is pretty crappy gas-station-deep-fried-not-exactly-fresh/local/organic. (Again, me being prissy, I know...):

And yes, we saw the Marfa lights. We also hung out at Padre's, a bar owned by an Episcopalian priest who lives in Hawaii and who is a good friend of a good friend of mine. The joint is run by David Beebe, former Austinite and frontman for Banana Blender Surprise. Warren had a nice gin & Orange Crush, I had a club soda & bitters with lime, and we played many rounds of shuffleboard (not the old people, stand up variety, the kind with that long wooden board covered in parmesan cheese-like stuff that makes it super slippery).

On the drive back, Warren mentioned that the Caverns of Sonora were midway between Marfa and Austin and might be worth stopping to check out. We were both only semi-interested, but somehow managed to convince ourselves to take the side road out to the caverns. EXCELLENT CHOICE. If you haven't been, you need to make plans to go immediately. We took a ninety minute tour that covered two of the seven miles of trails in the caves and it is so trippy down there, so many wild formations, that there were moments I imagined the whole thing must've been created by Hollywood set designers. At the end of the tour, our guide took this picture in which, yes, we appear to be participating in some New Age rebirthing ritual:

And then, voila, we were home once again. I don't have another vacation scheduled until mid-May, almost two whole weeks of glorious rest before I am again pressed to hurry up and relax.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Getting Back to the Good: 200 Two Steppers

So, okay, yesterday afternoon I allowed some retail clerks to get the better of me (see earlier post). But really, I most enjoy celebrating the good things in this town, of which there is no shortage. The day was beyond salvaged by 200 Two Steppers at the Texas State Capitol, an event that kicked off the Fusebox Festival and was the creative collaborative genius of two of my favorite Austin artists, Allison Orr and Graham Reynolds. As the name suggests, the choreographer and composer assembled 200 Two Steppers to dance, and WHAT AN EVENT it was. Hundreds of folks gathered to watch-- I think they should've called it 200 Two Steppers and 3,000 Photographers.

The weather was absolutely perfect. Christina Mars, lead singer for the Asylum Street Spankers, lent her magnificent pipes as did Dale Watson. As Graham said, "This is my first country gig. Not a bad setting or band for a first country gig." Understatement of the year. The music, the dancing, the crowd's enthusiasm-- all perfect. And all of us were invited to dance at the end, which we did. Warren and I made a particular spectacle of ourselves, giving the impression of having fourteen left feet between us. And I'm pretty sure, on a dance floor packed with pointy boots, I was the only one wearing Vibram Five Fingers.

Afterwards, I had the pleasure of meeting Allison's dad, whom I thanked for bringing her into the world. This was my fourth chance to catch one of her shows, and she single-handedly brings more joy to more Austinites on a regular basis than anyone else I can think of. Well, okay, double-handedly as she and Graham often work together. Their Trash Project, in case you missed it, was especially moving.

Below, some pictures from the event. That one of the guy on the ground-- don't worry, he didn't get trampled. Just one of the many photographers I spotted contorting themselves to get the best shot. Thanks Allison and Graham and Christina and Dale and all the dancers who made this brilliant event happen. Oh, and afterward, Warren and Dave and I headed over to Texas French Bread @ 29th & Rio Grande for dinner. I'll be writing up a full review of that for JetBlue soon. But let me offer a teaser: it was GREAT. Local, organic, seasonal menu-- 85% of the food they serve at dinner comes from these parts (they import the olive oil and parmesan). It wasn't very crowded but it should have been. Check it out.