What have I been up to?

Hello dear, long-neglected readers. While I am no longer on the road, my journey of course continues (and I do still owe you several stories from the road). Several someones have recently inquired as to what I’ve been up to since I quit my job in January, so I thought I’d give everyone a synopsis. For those following along, you have read some of this in much greater detail already, but bear with me for the overview.

Jan – taught sewing classes at Artisan’s Asylum, and a few private sewing and wood lessons. Took on an ill-fated commission to do a painting for a friend, and later returned the money when what we each expected came to light as being pretty far apart.
Feb – mostly spent every waking moment making a dress that I’d budgeted about 15 hours and $11 an hour for (consequently making about $3 an hour). At least it came out awesome… after about 3 drastic design changes making it nothing at all like the originally spec’d thing. I still love it despite the time and cost. Hounded a roommate to pay rent, including back rent. Scrambled to get plans together to go on an epic road trip and find a reasonably-priced place to stay in Taos, NM for 6 weeks in the middle of the trip. Packed up everything in my room to get it ready to be sublet. Had stars in my eyes about painting prolifically and exactly like Georgia O’Keeffe while in NM.
March – left later than planned for the road trip by 3 days, doing a last minute fitting of the dress literally the night before I left and taking it on the road to finish. Also due to leaving later, overlapped with the woman subletting my bedroom and her two dogs for 3 chaotic days of sleeping on my own couch, with Jake for one of those days as well (who you’ll recall came with me on the first leg of the trip). For those not so great with math, that’s a total of 4 adults and 2 dogs in a 3 bedroom, 1 bath city condo. Left with Jake, who proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time on the trip texting with his girlfriend (sorry Jake, I love you, but it’s an honest part of my story). Found out a week into the trip that the roommate I’d been hounding was moving out by April. Proceeded to have a good time making my way down the east coast and across the gulf coast despite these things. Found out somewhere along the way the roommate I’d been hounding’s last check bounced, when he also still owed me for a prior month. So that’s down 2 months’ rent well and truly owed, and another 3 that I was expecting to have all the rooms filled for. Jake flew home from New Orleans (mostly according to plan, though it was a day late due to flight delays). I eventually got to Taos, decided it wasn’t all that I’d hoped it would be and I was suddenly lonely in a place where I knew no one. Also found out pretty quickly that the person I was renting from was trying to sell the place, and had to make myself scarce frequently to let realtors show it.
April – started with finding out my bonus from the old job came in at 1/8th of what prior years had. Started to really freak out about money, and contemplated coming home. Each time, I looked at flights from Boston to San Fran plus a car rental to get to the wedding I’d be shooting at the end of May, since I’d still need to get there if I didn’t road trip it. Kept coming to the conclusion that going home would therefore be about as expensive as not. Tried to find a roommate for the place I was renting in Taos, got very few and mostly sketchy replies, met with one dude who went with someplace else, ended up not getting a roommate. Had a bunch of adventures and fun despite the money woes, not painting once, and being thousands of miles from home when a bomb went off a block from where I’d been on that day every year for the prior 8 years. Ended up on stage at the House of Blues in Vegas with the Dropkick Murphys somewhere in there, and shuffled a camp stove back from Vegas to Flagstaff for a random stranger.
May – got back on the road, bounced all over the southwest and California seeing a bunch of national parks and visiting friends and family in a variety of places. Thought I’d found a place I might move to in Arcata, CA until my car got broken into and most of my stuff stolen the morning I was leaving. Proceeded to Portland, OR (where thank god I had a cousin to help me out) and then Seattle, WA as planned, but spent a lot of time in both (especially Portland) getting my window replaced, replacing the vital stuff, dealing with an insurance company 3 hours ahead of me, and cataloging Every. Little. Thing. We’re talking over $2k of stuff where no individual thing was more than $100 max. All my hiking and camping gear, some art supplies, most of my clothes and shoes. Because what I wanted to do in Seattle was stay up to 2am at the hostel every night… making a spreadsheet. Right. Went to the wedding, shot the photos, picked up a cold, got back on the road with a stuffy head, drowsiness, and no time to hole up in one town long enough to get over it. So I took the cold on the road with me, we became great friends. It even gave me a parting gift – dizzy spells for months since (which have been dwindling, but do still pop up. Yes, I’ve seen a doctor, and apparently this is a not-uncommon and perfectly harmless and untreatable thing. Unless, you know, a bout of vertigo causes you to veer off the road or slip with a power tool…).
June – Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Badlands National Parks. Within these, I saw some of the most majestic landscapes and wildlife of all time, and had an overly emotional moment involving a moose, a mama bear and her two cubs, and nearly deciding to never leave Glacier. I also had one of the most terrifying nights of camping of all time in Badlands, where I survived thunder storms, a leaky tent, stampeding bison, a howling pack of coyotes, potential sketchy mountain men, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs (they’re vicious you know! Ok, so I have no evidence of that) and an unidentified something intentionally swatting at my tent. And, eventually, sleeping in my car. Then I stayed with friends in Minneapolis and Chicago on my way east on I90, covered 5 states in one day, got covered in bug bites at a rest stop in New York, and got back home. Once home, I saw every single person I could as much as I could; adjusted to living with the subletter, who had taken over the room for the roommate who bailed on the trip; dealt with a slew of technical issues and unexpected time-consuming-ness of editing and posting the wedding photos; and set my return from Firefly (oh hey, yeah, I went to a hippy festival in the woods in VT and got more bug bite and rain camping experience) as my deadline for when I had to seriously think about money again.
July – Quit coffee, booze, and all things fun for some dumb reason for a very painful two weeks, worried like hell about money and What I Want To Be When I Grow Up, continued to deal with photos and technical difficulties (and decided I don’t think I really want to shoot weddings for a main source of my income), started teaching sewing and wood at the Asylum again, got a gig helping another Asylumite execute her design for a very cool and large-scale cafe and game room cabinet/counter/table/bench project at a local coworking space, did a couple small sewing commissions (hemming pants, adding pockets), dog-sat, got a couple temp office gigs.
August – Insanely busy with more of the same gigs (which amounted to 3 half-time jobs at one point – again with some math, that’s greater than one ‘normal’ job), plus some pinch-hitting on the construction of some friends’ awesome MicroMuseum project, looking for (and finding!) a new roommate for Sept. 1, and some social fun squeezed in.
I think I’ve mostly decided I like financial stability and the stress of ‘normal’ work better than the insecurity and stress of constantly trying to find make-y gigs, always making what other people want, and still not having time for my own art. If I had a nice big financial cushion, I think I could invest the time and money into focusing on one make-y area and building up a solid business of my own products rather than scrambling and doing more service-based work, but right now I’m totally spent financially. So I think I just want to get a ‘real’ job again that is simply not quite as stressful and all-consuming as my old one was.
It sounds crazy, hectic, and mostly miserable. Which isn’t really true. It’s been crazy, hectic, stressful, and incredibly educational (which isn’t the same as miserable; at least I keep telling myself), and despite that it’s also been amazing. I have no regrets, but a lot of lessons learned for next time. Oh yes my friends, even if I hang up the artist/vagabond hat and reenter the “real” world, I’m sure there will be a next time. But this is starting to sound like an ending, which it’s not, so I’m going to wrap it up. The journey continues…

Utah

3 Utah National Parks in 3 days!

Sunset in southwestern Colorado

Seeing as I’m a New Englander, I hope you’ll forgive me for talking about the weather for a bit. I drove through nearly every climate and type of weather possible on Tuesday. It was 70’s and sunny when I left Taos, then there was freezing cold and feet of snow on the ground through the mountains in Carson National Forest, sand storms in Shiprock, NM, and Four Corners, bucolic rolling fields with perfect fluffy clouds for the sunset in southwest Colorado, and canyons and desert as I moved in to Utah. When I set up camp after dark in Moab, about 2 miles south of the Arches National Park entrance, it was clear, in the 50’s, with just a slight breeze. Around midnight, insane wind kicked up for a couple hours and I thought my tent might blow away with me in it. Once the wind died, there was about an hour of rain, and a 15 degree temperature drop. Due to the weather, I didn’t sleep great, but I woke up to sunny skies and a beautiful view of red rocks.

Arches was beautiful. There’s really not a lot else to say about it, so have a couple photos (click here for full set of Utah photos):

North Window in Arches National Park

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

When I left Arches, I drove for about 5 hours up and down and up and down and up and down to get to Bryce. Actually, this was a theme of all the driving I did from Taos to Flagstaff. I probably gained and lost tens of thousands of feet of elevation. I believe the lowest I was at was around 3,000 feet, and the highest a little over 9,000. Anyway, since the Bryce Canyon City area is at around 7600 feet, it was way too cold for camping without 4-season gear. I was expecting the area to be somewhat like Moab, where all of a sudden a pretty densely packed town full of hotels, motels, and shops pops up as you get close to the park. The approach had been pretty desolate though – large expanses of nothing (but grassy, stream-filled nothing for a change of pace!) between ranches. By about 7 miles from the park, it was getting dark and I hadn’t seen an increase in stuff so I stopped at the next motel I saw. It was the Bryce Canyon Pines Motel, they gave me a decent price for it being last second, it was comfy and quiet, and they had a really good restaurant that was still serving dinner. I had breakfast there in the morning, too, before heading out. It turns out that when you get right up to the park, you get to Bryce Canyon City which does have a small handful of things, but the 3 or 4 hotels there were mostly booked and more expensive (I looked later), so it’s just as well I stopped when I did.

Not to play favorites, but… Bryce was my favorite of the 3 parks. You’ve got a combo of populated-national-park areas and solitude on trails; a mix of pine forests and red rock “hoodoos”; and it’s the place I’ve seen the most wildlife so far. Hoodoos are a particular type of canyon rock formation. They start with fins, which look like what they sound like – they’re fins of rock formed by wind carving away at the sandstone. As that process continues, you get windows, or arches. Fins and windows are the majority of the features in Arches National Park. When the wind continues to erode the sandstone, the arches collapse and you get spires that are called hoodoos. These are what fill Bryce Canyon. The park service there runs a program called “Hike the Hoodoos” to encourage fitness and exploration of the park. They have these geological brass markers along some of the trails, and if you collect either 3 rubbings or photos of you with the medallions, or hike 3 miles on trails that have them, you get a prize. I combined the Mossy Cave trail and part of the Rim Trail to do this.

Stream on the Mossy Caves trail in Bryce

Both hikes were spectacular. Mossy Caves is .4 miles to the marker, with little spurs to get to the mossy cave, and to a small waterfall. However, there are also a bunch of unmaintained but very obvious trails that go all around there. It was a really great place to just explore, play in the water, and sit in the sun, which I spent quite a bit of time doing.

Since I spent so long hanging out at Mossy Caves, it was about 3pm by the time I set out on the Rim Trail from Fairyland Point. It was 2.5 miles from there to Sunset Point, with the marker somewhere in between. I couldn’t caravan it, and couldn’t hike another 5 miles before dark, so I hoped the marker was roughly halfway between the two, gave myself a turn-around time of 4pm, and began the trail. It follows the canyon rim, with great views of the hoodoos below to the east, and fields and pine trees to the west. Some parts of it were very smooth and wide, so I did some trail running to improve my time to the marker (I really wanted whatever the prize was). I got there at about 3:58, making it just before my turn-around time, and was pretty thrilled. I snapped my photo, turned around, and headed back. I ran parts of the trail again just because I wanted to, and also stopped to take photos. I got some pretty stellar ones, including a solitary tall pine growing up between several hoodoo spires:

Pine in Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

Around a quarter mile from Fairyland Point, there is a pretty open field. My friend Clay had given me a scavenger hunt before I left Somerville, wherein if I get photos of all the things he named while on this trip, I get some kind of prize. I think it’s the mystery of what the prize is that drove me both to get the I Hiked the Hoodoos prize, and which is driving me to complete this scavenger hunt. In any case, a prairie dog is one of the items on this scavenger hunt. So when I got to where this field is, I paused and turned away from the canyon to scan the field for a prairie dog. To my surprise, what I saw instead was a group of 4 pronghorns grazing. They are pretty unique creatures as it turns out, and I’m really lucky to have caught a photo and heard their call (which I honestly can’t describe or mimic). I caught a couple shots, but they started to take a couple tentative steps in my direction once they noticed me, so I moved on.

Pronghorns near Fairyland Point in Bryce Canyon

When I got back to Fairyland Point, I got another unique surprise – I got to hear the canyon “sing”. I heard a weird sound that I thought at first was a bird’s call reflecting through the canyon. Then I thought it was a guy imitating a bird call into the canyon. But as I stood there listening for awhile, it varied but didn’t stop. I figured out it had to be the sound of the wind blowing through and across the hoodoos. It was very cool. Fairyland indeed.

Looking into Bryce Canyon from the Rim Trail near Fairyland Point

I headed back to the visitor’s center, got my prize (it’s a pin that says “I Hiked the Hoodoos!” and has a pretty picture, it’s pinned near the sun visor in my car now) and showed off my pronghorn photos. Then I went to see Sunset Point quickly before heading out. I didn’t actually find the point itself (the turn off for it is also the turn for the lodge and general store, so there are lots of little roads and not many signs), but I did find:

A (defunct) gas station on the national historic register:

Historic air pump

A Western Bluebird (actually several, but one that was not camera-shy):

Western bluebird

And… drumroll please… a prairie dog! And an endangered one at that (forgive it being a crappy photo, I was waaaaay far away):

Utah Prarie Dog

So, yeah. Bryce was my favorite. I took off from there towards Zion to camp for the night, since it’s only about an hour and a half away, and the south side of it is significantly warmer (being at 3900 feet). I entered Zion from the east side around sunset. The east side is cold, and full of these really stunning sort of petrified sand dune formations. I wanted to make sure I got to a campground and set up before dark, so sadly I didn’t stop to take photos. Extra sadly because, partway though the park, you come to a nearly mile-long tunnel that winds under a mountain, and then lose over 1000ft of elevation on a bunch of switchbacks. It was beautiful, but terrifying, and I really didn’t want to drive back up it, so I didn’t get back to the east side. I found a campground, was thankful the crying baby across from me stopped crying by about 10, was not thankful that the bros behind me woke up at something insane like 4am and proceeded to shout at each other to get everyone in their group up, went back to sleep, and eventually woke up and got going.

Indian Paintbrush on the Hidden Canyon trail in Zion National Park

Since I hadn’t slept well and it got super hot pretty quickly, I was kind of dragging and out of it all day and didn’t do a ton of hiking. I went to the Weeping Rock trail head, thought I was taking that nice short (.5 mile round trip), shady trail, didn’t read the sign well enough, and ended up on the Hidden Canyon trail, which is paved, but rather steep, with no shade at all. At some point I figured out it was way more than a quarter mile, but kept going to see what I could see. Having not intended to take that trail, I didn’t know how long it was supposed to be until the first Cool Thing, or even whether that was a canyon or an overlook. I turned around when I decided it was too hot and I had hiked enough. Got to the bottom, checked the sign, and I was probably a few hundred feet from the Hidden Canyon. Oh well. It’s always smarter to turn around when you’ve had enough (or, more accurately, before) than to push it.

A view from the Hidden Canyon trail in Zion National Park

A view from the Hidden Canyon trail in Zion National Park

I then took the shuttle back down (Zion has rather ingeniously banned cars through half of the park and makes you take shuttles, which is way better for the environment and honestly moves people through more efficiently). Saw some climbers on the side of a cliff. Saw a bride and groom getting on the shuttle at one of the stops. Gave some unsolicited advice about shuttle stops to a couple who couldn’t agree about when they should get off, and ended up in a nice chat about hiking and parks with them. The guy was planning a 3-day overnighter on the AT in North Carolina.

Lone tree, viewed from the Hidden Canyon trail in Zion National Park

I got back to the visitors center and tried to decide what to do. It was only about 3 in the afternoon, but I was hot and tired and didn’t want to hike more. Still didn’t feel like driving back up the switchbacks. My original plan had been to spend the whole day hiking around, spend another night in the area, and head to Flagstaff Saturday. I decided to head by a really cool looking inn I’d seen in town and see if they had rooms and for how much; they didn’t. So I decided to drive 30 minutes or so to what looked like a decent sized town, Hurricane, and see what there was to see. It was not in fact decent sized and was mostly residential. So I decided to head to Flagstaff early and have one less night of paying for a place to sleep, woohoo!. And now I’m here in Flag. Earlier, we went to a Mexican place with a mariachi band for Cinco de Mayo. Now Tony and Susan are rolling Vietnamese spring rolls:

Susan and Tony making Vietnamese rolls

And now you’re all up to speed. (Update: due to a fight I had with Photoshop, this did not get posted Saturday night when I wrote it. Now I’ve also been to the adorable former-mining-town-turned-tourist-town of Jerome, AZ with Tony. It was fun. Those photos are on my Facebook.)

Goodbye Taos!

…and on to the Utah and California portion of the journey! I leave tomorrow morning; next stop: Arches National Park.

There have been a couple nice-ish days here and there while I’ve been in Taos, but yesterday and today were finally gorgeous, warm, perfect, walk-around-in-a-tank-top-and-shorts weather. It’s a nice going away present from mother nature. Yesterday I visited the Harwood Museum of Art and walked around town taking quick snapshots of the sights I’ve grown used to. The museum has a couple of really stunning modern pieces – a 1953 abstract expressionist drawing by Edward Corbett, a piece by Larry Bell that was sort of reflective layers of smoked glass framed in black, a room full of Agnes Martin paintings where no one painting is particularly great in my opinion, but the overall gallery they built around them is a great place for contemplation. There is also a gallery dedicated to a local artist, Eva Mirabal or Eah-Ha-Wa, who apparently joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1943 and trained at Fort Devens; small world (that’s about 20 minutes from where I grew up).

Mural in Taos center

FBI gorilla at the Taos Trading Company

In town, I finally went into the Taos Trading Post, which I had avoided thus far because it’s full of kitschy made-in-China crap whereas most of the plaza shops are local-made and/or unique. But something drew me in, and I discovered the full extent of the bizarre kitsch–next to the displays of generic insert-tourist-town-name-here shirts and the rows of faux pelts and drums, there is an authentic 50’s style soda fountain. With a human-sized plush gorilla sitting on the stool at the end. Wearing a red FBI tee shirt. So I guess I’m glad I finally went in just for that spectacle.

The Rio Grande from the Las Minas trail

The Rio Grande from the Las Minas trail

Today I went on a hike that I’ve been meaning to do pretty much since I got to town, from the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor’s Center in Pilar. The Las Minas trail is steep, mostly skree, has cacti and bushes encroaching a bit on to the trail in spots, but is really well defined, has no real obstacles, and is a short hike to get to an overlook from which you can see the Rio Grande winding below. It was just what I wanted – physically challenging due to the steepness, but not at all technical or hard to find the trail, and short but beautiful (if a little developed – I don’t think there’s anywhere on the trail from which you can’t see the road, or electrical lines). I love hiking – it always reminds me that you can climb any mountain one step at a time.

Yield to camels, apparently. No, I have not seen any camels.

I also finally had a green chile burger from McDonald’s. I’m not much of a McD’s person – I do generally try to avoid it. But in foreign countries, I always like to go into them to see what weird local things are on the menu. This being the US, I really didn’t think there would be anything different on the menu here than in MA, but Tony and Susan informed me that in New Mexico, and New Mexico alone, they serve green chile burgers, and I had to try one. It wasn’t a culinary masterpiece that transcended the typical McDonald’s experience, but it was definitely new and different, and it had a kick I was surprised by (a lot of dishes around here drowned in chile are really not all that hot). Perhaps not the most elegant option for my last dinner in New Mexico, but an iconic one none the less.

So, goodbye Taos. You have been both good and bad, and I’m glad we can part ways on an up note. Now on to the packing.

Taos Mountain viewed from the Millicent Rogers Museum

Taos Mountain viewed from the Millicent Rogers Museum

One Week Left in Taos

More accurately, 6 5 days. This post has the alternate working titles of “Longest Post Ever” and “Wherein I Pontificate About Artsy Things Periodically for the First Time In This Blog”. I kind of think the latter artfully represents how long the post is without being too literal, no?

I’ve started 3 drafts so far about the Boston Marathon. I get a little further each time, but I just can’t finish it. I thought I needed to talk about it, but I think that’s just it – I need to talk about it, in person, amongst friends, over comforting food and coffee. Not write one more monologue to be posted into the ether about it. Also, I needed to talk about it more last week; now, I’m just trying to move on and figure out how to make the most of my last week here. So I’m going to just table that. Needless to say, it’s been a hard week to be away from everyone I love.

I know it’s been a long while since I’ve posted, and there seems simultaneously like so much and so little to tell you about. Taos has honestly not been at all what I expected, in mostly disappointing ways, some not at all related to Taos itself, so I haven’t wanted to write. I want to write to tell you all about how awesome things are, the enriching things I’m doing, the creative things I’m making, the ways my mind is being blown and my life is changing for the better. I haven’t really had a ton of that. And when I am having good experiences, I don’t want to put them on pause to post. So I’ll talk a little about the bad, then try to sum up some of the good that I’ve been neglecting to tell you about for the last month or so.

Basically, when I got here, a lot of my fears for things that could go wrong with the trip all combined. Being suddenly alone in a strange place made me depressed. Meeting people to do things with has been hard to impossible. The weather hasn’t been great; it’s been too cold, grey, or windy more often than not to go outside to paint or hike. The altitude making it harder to breathe has also not been conducive to hiking (I feel like I’m just now really getting used to it). I haven’t been able to shift my night owl ways to make good use of daylight and open hours for things. One of my roommates back home told me halfway into March that he was moving out by April 1, and he still hasn’t paid 2 months of rent that he owes me. My bonus from my old job came in at about 1/8th what the previous years were. I had some looming projects I’d tried to tie up before leaving Boston that I wasn’t able to and had to take on the road with me.

All of this has led to a lot of depression, loneliness, anxiety (in particular worrying about money and if I need to just get a ‘real’ job when I get back), and feeling a bit trapped and frustrated. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching shows online as a coping mechanism, which typically just makes me feel guilty for not being productive. I’ve thought a few times about just driving home, temping for awhile, and flying to California for the wedding at the end of May. That desire was pretty darn strong last Tuesday, when I was missing people most. But I keep deciding that, while I might be happier in the short term if I do that, in the long run I’ll regret the missed opportunities. There are probably many opportunities I have still missed out on as a result of being a shut-in more often than I’d like, but there will always be missed opportunities, and I have still taken advantage of many.

So with that, on to the opportunities I have been taking advantage of:

Santa Fe: I’ve driven the hour and a half down to Santa Fe a few times. It resonates with me more than Taos. It’s a much bigger town, has more going on, and has better art. (I also discovered on my last time through that they have a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts). I’ve visited the Georgia O’Keeffe museum (loved the Annie Leibovitz exhibit, in addition of course to seeing so many O’Keeffes up close and personal), the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (which is really good; I particularly liked Tom Jones‘ series of photos and stories about blood quantum in the Thicker Than Water exhibit), The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, and the Loretto Chapel and its “miraculous staircase“. My first visit was a stopover on the way from Roswell to Taos, and I stayed at a really cute B&B – Las Palomas; it’s an old pueblo-style adobe building, meaning it’s really a set of buildings and private rooms with shared walls that surround a series of walkways and courtyards. I had a Guinness overlooking the historic plaza at the Plaza Cafe on St. Patrick’s day. I gave some change to a young guy with a backpacking pack and a dog who was spinning poi on the plaza. When my friend Alyissa came to visit for a few days (more about that later), we had a really good dinner and drinks (made by a former Jamaica Plain resident) in the courtyard at The Shed. I’ve relaxed a couple times drinking coffee and editing photos at the Collected Works Bookstore and Cafe. I bought buttons and chatted with knitters at Tutto. I went into this furniture place I’d passed my first time through that had a parking lot full of weathered East Indian architectural elements; it turns out they also have Spanish colonial elements and some other antiques, filling that parking lot and 3 large storefronts. Sadly, they didn’t allow photography–the mishmash of items all leaning together was stunning–but I had a good time wandering through and gawking none the less.

Colorado Springs: I took a 3 day trip to Colorado Springs on a whim a couple weeks ago. The drive there was gorgeous. Colorado has beautiful landscapes – high dessert, jagged snow-capped mountains, clear streams, rolling fog. I passed a little clump of clearly-abandoned but reasonably safe-looking (i.e. not falling down) buildings on the way that I wanted to take some photos at, but never got around to it (we’re talking like a small set of outbuildings of a ranch, not a town or even an actual house). Very close to this spot on the way back I passed some horses that were munching on the grass that was literally on the edge of the road, who seemed completely oblivious to the cars passing a few feet from their noses. I passed through a town with an adorable lazy river winding through it with many little wooden foot bridges crossing it, and yellow-leafed cottonwoods lining it. I stopped to take a couple photos of fog rolling down a mountain side into aspen trees at a pull out that as near as I can tell is meant for putting chains on your truck tires as you enter the snowier elevations of the mountains. Almost the entire drive was scenic and lovely (there was a brief section of typically boring highway).

It turns out a good chunk of the cool things to see in Colorado Springs are actually technically in Manitou Springs, where I happened to stay. The place I found to stay at was weird and awesome. I’m sure if it were fully booked, it would be less weird (also, probably less awesome), but as it was, I had the place completely to myself, no innkeeper or anything. It’s part of a set of 3 B&Bs, and the innkeeper stays at one of the others. I’m a little surprised they let me stay there and didn’t suggest one of the other two. The place is called the Rockledge Country Inn. It’s an Arts and Crafts mansion originally built for a millionaire from Kansas and purchased in the late 1920’s by a Texas oil tycoon. The owner/innkeeper told me about the history as he showed me to my room, told me where the wood was to keep building up the fire in the ginormous central fire place all night, and told me it was fine to poke around in all the open, unoccupied rooms. After really good food and cocktails at a gallery/restaurant called The Warehouse, I came back and took a ton of photos of the giant fire place, balcony, chandelier, marble baths with brass goose sculpture faucets, and all the rooms. I did forget to get a photo of the living room with grand piano, and of the most opulent bathroom (a tub big enough to swim in, aforementioned golden goose faucet, and shower head that would rain down a curtain of water from the ceiling). I lounged in the main hall on a giant couch under the giant chandelier in front of the giant fire for awhile before going to bed both nights. Breakfasts were custom made and eaten in the back of the kitchen with the cook since I was the only guest. The view of Pike’s Peak from the grounds was amazing. The trails through craggy red rocks on the property were beautiful. This place was definitely a find. Moving on to what I actually did in CO Springs, versus just where I stayed…

I spent an inordinate amount of time driving and wandering around the Garden of the Gods. My photos don’t do it justice (sadly, neither do the ones on their website). It is quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Mind you, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, the top of Mt. Washington on a rare clear day, Paris, Stonehenge, a jungle, waterfalls, coral reefs, and a dormant volcano in Maui… ok, now that I’m thinking of ALL the places I’ve been, some may be more beautiful. Still. It’s breathtaking, and you should visit it if you ever have the chance. But, don’t get the bison burger at the gift shop cafe. Or the ice cream. In fact, it’s probably best to avoid the food there entirely. I seriously couldn’t swallow one bite of the burger (I’ve had buffalo burgers before, I’m reasonable certain it wasn’t that it was bison, I really think the meat had gone bad), and the ice cream was self-serve soft-serve that was the texture of a Wendy’s frosty and therefore not particularly conducive to the cone they give you to put it in. It was gross. Anyway – go for the sites, not the food.

I also visited the Manitou Cliff Dwellings (more like a museum than ruins. Also, you need to go through a long winding maze of a gift shop to get to the bathrooms!), the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum (a surprisingly interesting, free, little community history museum set inside the old town courthouse), and the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway. The cog was definitely a good call – it’s worth seeing the view from the top, but I think I would have died driving it. Also, I’m definitely not in shape or used to the altitude enough to hike it and certainly didn’t have snow hiking gear with me. Even though I’d been at 7k feet for something like 3 weeks, I got dizzy and short of breath when my elevation was doubled. Also, I’ve now taken both the highest and oldest cog railways in the world, being Pike’s Peak and Mt. Washington respectively. I hiked to the top of Mt. Washington and took the cog down; I met a couple at the top of Pike’s Peak who were doing the same there, and chatted with them a bit (the guy and I both started hiking with poles when we were going to do the Grand Canyon and are now hooked, and agreed that taking the train down is the way to go to save your knees). The cog was after my second night in town, and after that I drove back to Taos to await the arrival of…

Alyissa! My friend Alyissa came out to visit for a long weekend, and it just so happened to be sunny and relatively warm (after having hailed and snowed that Monday – one of the things that led me to drive to Colorado on Tuesday [if it’s going to be cold and snowy, may as well do it right. Not that it snowed, or was all that cold, in CO Springs]). She flew into Albuquerque at 9, so she didn’t get here until around 11 (which was 1am on her internal clock), so we caught up some but then went to bed. The next morning, we drove down to the Rio Grande Gorge visitor’s center just south of town in PIlar. We went across the road to one of the turn-offs along the river, watched some people practicing whitewater kayak tactics in an eddy, took goofy photos with cacti, and then we saw a golden eagle. I got some not-great shots of it with my too-short lens, then took the chance of switching to my longer lens and tripod and waiting it out to see if we could catch it again. It never did circle back close enough to get more photos, but it was still really cool. The only out-of-the-ordinary wildlife I’ve seen so far otherwise had been as roadkill. (well, plus two prairie dogs as we drove past them on the way to the river that day). We then wandered around town, got coffee at World Cup, went to galleries and shops, and had lunch at the Adobe Bar. I think we just napped or kicked around the casita for awhile after that, then had dinner at The Gorge Bar and Grill. I’d been there before and had great food and service, but I think because it was a Friday it was crazy busy and distinctly less awesome. But, a bunch of kids came in dressed up for what I assume had to be prom to show off and say hi to people they knew there, so that was interesting.

Saturday we did two things I’d been putting off: the Taos Pueblo, and Ghost Ranch. The Pueblo we went to first thing in the morning and got a tour. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it’s an active pueblo where people still live, worship, maintain the adobe walls each year, etc., but it also tries to maintain traditions and stay historically accurate, so there’s no electricity or running water and the river is still their main source of water. As a result, only about 150 tribal members live in the pueblo year-round, and many others maintain their homes in the pueblo for use during ceremonies and feasts but live in modern homes outside the pueblo walls otherwise. One of the “rez dogs” (this one with an owner and name – the aunt of our guide, and Zia) followed us on the tour and she and I became best buds. It was really nice to get some puppy love. I have no photos of the pueblo because they charge you to bring in cameras, more at a to-be-negotiated rate if you intend to use them commercially, and I just didn’t want to deal with figuring out if mine would count as commercial.

Perhaps this should be its own whole post, but I’m finding the dichotomy between maintaining tradition and sovereignty versus participating in modern American culture and society fascinating. It’s an incredibly complex issue, which every person seems to approach differently, including whether they want to be referred to as Native American, Indian, American Indian, American, or their tribal nationality (or possibly not knowing how they want to be referred to; there’s the additional complex issue that Tom Jones’ exhibit delved in to regarding people being denied the label of a tribe due to not being “pure blooded” enough according to tribally-imposed laws, often drafted based on how to disperse casino proceeds). I’d like to learn a whole lot more about it, but I really don’t know how without being offensive and intrusive (besides just reading a lot of books, but in trying to learn about a culture so entrenched in oral tradition and incredibly protective of it [see the first line under “How old is Taos Pueblo?” here], that seems generally a step removed). One thing I found really fascinating on the pueblo was that there was a man who was selling his artwork at the pueblo, working in a modern printmaking illustrative style that was still clearly influenced by his heritage. This man had previously worked at MTV, but returned to the pueblo, and was working in an interesting mix of an old world and a new one. He sold work that he could not make on the pueblo due to the printmaking process he was using, clearly influenced in style by his work at MTV, accepting credit cards via an ipad with Square card reader (as many people on the pueblo and also in small shops around here in general do), has a website where he sells his work also, and wants to make an animation from one of his characters… yet he’s doing this from a place with no electricity, and the character is based on the traditional adobe walls there. It was just a really interesting look at how one person is interpreting his heritage into his contemporary art, and integrating two cultures and lifestyles together. I’m hoping Alyissa has the scrap of paper with the name of his shop, because I didn’t write it down and I’m not having success Googling for him without a name to go on. Anyway, back to the trip…

After the pueblo, we drove to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch finally. I’d been putting it off because the days and times of the tours at Ghost Ranch are weird and sparse, and honestly it didn’t seem like the most straightforward drive and I was a little scared of it. I’m glad I went with Alyissa, because it probably would have made me nervous doing it alone for the first time (the road gets really windy and cliff-y, and you go far enough to get to Ghost Ranch that you keep thinking “did I pass a turn or something?”). We stopped at the Abiquiu Inn, at first honestly because we weren’t sure if it was Ghost Ranch. It also has the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio Tour Office right next door, but apparently you can only do those tours by prearranged appointment. The parking lot was very empty and dead, we wandered around confused for a little bit, then went in to what looked like it was a cafe to see if they had a map or something. Turned out to be the entrance to the cafe at the inn, the inn’s front desk, and the gift shop that had looked closed from outside. We decided to eat lunch, and it was AMAZING. Seriously, I think it was the best food I’ve had on this trip. I had seared steak strips in some kind of roasted red chile sauce with grilled asparagus and corn and polenta cakes. While we waited for the food, I got directions to Ghost Ranch and “The White Place” (a place O’Keeffe painted several times) from the front desk, and looked at some of the art hanging in the restaurant. There was a photographer who’s stuff I really liked, and I turned to one of his shots and went “wait, I know that bridge!”. Amongst all his photos of New Mexico were two from the Public Gardens in Boston. Weird! So anyway, it was a good thing we stopped and got oriented and fed, and the parking lot looked less abandoned by the time we left.

We never found the turn to get to The White Place, but the 8 or so miles to Ghost Ranch were beautiful anyway. We ended up stopping and hiking a short way to take photos at what it turns out is known as the Chama River Valley Overlook (at least according to one youtube video) or The Horseshoe (at least according to one local photographer). Just after that we passed the Padernal (a mesa O’Keeffe painted frequently) and Abiquiu Lake (which she oddly never painted). Then, all of a sudden, there was the turn for Ghost Ranch! Some movie was shooing on the ranch, and a Genie lift was one of the first things we saw upon turning in. So much for the pristine nature/southwest feel. That was, however, the only evidence we saw of filming after passing the tell-tale yellow “to set” sign. We got to the welcome center, got orientated again, and hiked a brief little loop behind the welcome center. I’m really glad we went, because this was the inspiring landscape I’d been looking for. I vowed to go back with my easel and paints, but… I haven’t. Mostly, again, due to the weather not being great. Perhaps I’ll create a million paintings from my photos when I get back. At least that’s the new thing I’m telling myself, since “perhaps I’ll spend a month doing nothing but painting” hasn’t worked out. In any case… I took a million photos, Alyissa scared me by wandering off just out of sight at one point, we found each other and all was well, I took some more photos, we saw horses, and we left. And I took some more photos of an old wagon on the way out. By the time we got back to the main highway, we were getting hungry, and Santa Fe was closer than Taos, so we went there. That’s when we went to The Shed, and had the bartender from JP. It was a good time, especially since I didn’t need to be the DD – Alyissa was super kind and drove us back to Taos (I’d been driving up til then, and you know, for the last several weeks and hundreds and hundreds of miles since Jake flew home, so I was really grateful).

Sunday we were both a little beat from the packed day before, so we just got a quick breakfast at a coffee shop down the street from my casita, then drove a short way to the Earthship Biotecture World Headquarters. If you don’t know about them, click the link. The practical: they are self-sustaining, off-the-grid houses that use as many recycled materials in the construction as possible and also produce a lot of their own food in greenhouses. The aesthetic: they tend to look like hippie hobbit holes. Alyissa, a performance artist, had brought with her a multicolored sequined tube dress in hopes of finding the perfect location to do an artsy photo shoot collaboration in the desert. I had a vision in my head since she first mentioned this of an up shot of her perching on the headlight of an antique or classic car, with her squinting into the sun, the wind blowing her hair, and a saguaro cactus in the background in the top right of the composition. Sadly, the nearest saguaros grow many hours away. But on the bright side, at the Earthships, we finally found the perfect landscape, lighting, wind, and props. There’s no way I could have achieved shots closer to my vision without paying a production crew to scour for locations, shlep gear many hundreds of miles away, etc. It was extra perfect that the aesthetic details of recycled glass bottles in the walls, and a chromed sculpture, mimicked the shiny sequins on her dress. The location also added to the collaboration between my art of photography and her art of performance because, since Alyissa fit in so well with the surroundings, and this is a location many people visit (and photograph) each day, we became part of the surreal artsy hippie spectacle they were coming to ogle at, and also a caricature of what they themselves were doing, reflected back at them. At least I like to think it became all deep and performance-y like that.

Anyway, another afternoon of kicking around lazily, followed by an amazing dinner at a place called the Love Apple. The food was good, and the decor was something like Spanish Colonial Adobe meets Shabby Chic French Provincial. I kind of want to open up a restaurant with that look now. There was a couple next to us who got engaged over dinner, and concluded the night snuggled under a blanket at one of the fire pits they had outside with champagne and desserts. It was adorable.  The next morning, Alyissa headed out for a crazy day-plus of driving and switching planes and sitting through delays to get back home.

Las Vegas: Ok, so apparently I am going to post about the marathon some.

Last week, when I was feeling homesick and worried about Boston, all my former coworkers who work a block from the first bomb site, and everyone I know back home, I spent a couple nights hanging out to the closest thing Taos has to an Irish pub, the Taos Ale House (which, for the record, is not an Irish pub at all). Both times there were few patrons, so we got to talking, which was nice. One girl had gone to UMass (but started after I graduated – that made me feel old). One guy’s daughter was considering going there. Everyone of course knew about the marathon bombings. The Bruins were on Wednesday night (can’t believe we lost in the shoot-out!). One guy was a painter and we talked about that for awhile. I chatted some with the bartender too, who is the only reason it felt even remotely like an Irish pub – he had an Irish name, and one of the playlists he had on regular rotation was based on the Pogues. I asked if he knew of any Celtic influenced music ever playing locally, he did, none was coming up before I was leaving town, but he’d mentioned that the Dropkick Murphys were playing Santa Fe in “a couple weeks”. When I went home, I looked up their tour schedule, confirmed Santa Fe would be after I was in Arizona or California, but also saw they had a show in Las Vegas on Friday (this was on Wednesday night). So after hardly any deliberation, I bought a ticket and contacted my uncle in Flagstaff to make sure it would be cool to use his place as my stop-over.

Thursday was nice – I got to focus on driving all day and take my mind off the bombings and the fact that they still didn’t know who did it. The landscape was pretty (some people don’t think that about barren desert; I do). I stopped in Continental Divide, NM for gas and food. Got to Flagstaff late, and had a relaxing night watching Project Runway with my uncle and aunt (it’s weird calling her that; Tony’s always been my uncle even though he’s not a ton older than me and still seems like a cool young dude to me, but to have a woman who I met while she was working at the bottom of the Grand Canyon who also seems like a cool young person to me be my “aunt” is weird. I think I’ll just call her “Susan” whenever possible. Since, you know, it’s her name and all. For the record, John, if you’re reading this, I feel the same way about Miho. Miho and Susan, please take this as a compliment; you’re too young and cool to be “aunt”.).

I made the mistake of checking email and Facebook on my phone before I went to bed. It was I think about 11pm in Flagstaff, which at this time of year means it would be 2am in Boston (AZ doesn’t do daylight savings time. One smart thing about that state.). This was after the MIT cop got shot and the BMW stolen, but before anyone was really reporting on it. This made for a very emotionally tense few hours of refreshing Reddit’s chaotic updates based on what one guy was hearing on the police scanner (thanks JpDeathBlade for that!). I eventually went to sleep. When I got on the road to Vegas in the morning, I started listening to NPR, but when they said something that had already been incorrect by the time I went to bed the night before (that they were still questioning the first guy they’d erroneously arrested), I shut it off in frustration. I drove for a couple hours being worried and anxious, and I stopped at the Hoover Dam as much to check in on the news via my phone as I did for seeing the dam itself. I spent a lot more time there than I would have if I’d just been checking out the dam. I was happy to see a couple people pause for a moment to look with what seemed to be respect at the flag at half-mast, and a little bewildered to see all the people who just walked by it like everything was normal. This was the same kind of reaction I had when I first heard about the bombings while in a coffee shop on Monday – fundamentally understanding why everyone around me was unaffected, but so far removed from feeling normal personally that I just couldn’t comprehend it. Anyway, I kept looking for updates on my phone, nothing was new, my friend in the search zone in Watertown kept updating Facebook that she was fine, and I got back on the road. I wondered if the constant helicopter circling overhead at the dam was normal or due to heightened security because of the bombings, but then I passed where they were taking off from, next to a casino – for $69, you too can take a helicopter ride around the dam any day of the week!

When I got in to Vegas, the sun was just starting to set, and an Elvis impersonator was getting out of a classic pink Cadillac next to the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign. It was kind of a perfect welcome. Sadly I don’t have a photo since, you know, driving. I’d been planning on staying at a hostel at the other end of the strip, or with a friend of a friend outside of town, but by the time I got there I was so emotionally exhausted, I wanted to be able to just go to bed after the show, not worry about figuring out the bus system, paying for a cab, or driving somewhere. The Dropkick Murphys were playing at the House of Blues, which is in the Mandalay Bay resort/casino (all hotels in Vegas seem to be resort/casinos). They still had rooms, they were more than I wanted to spend but not ridiculous, and I booked one. The show was great. The Murphys, like me, apparently stayed up too much of the night watching the news. I got a little too emotional. I also got a little too drunk (the Guinnesses they serve are HUGE). I also, however, ended up on stage for the last two songs and got a hug from Ken Casey, which may be more of a highlight on this trip than sitting 3 seats away from Neil Gaiman in the front row at an Amanda Palmer ninja gig (oh I didn’t tell you about that? hm. For a future post. About the past.). You can see a video of one of the songs here, but I’m a couple rows back and also right about where that dude’s head is in the way, so you can’t see me. The next day, I played a couple slot machines, won all of $7.33, lost it again, and took off on a mission.

You see, when I thought I’d stay at a hostel or something, I’d looked on couchsurfing.com for places, and to see if anyone was going to the show. Someone had posted that he’d left his camp stove at a hostel a few days earlier, and was there anyone who could possibly get it to Flagstaff. Seeing as I could, in fact, do that easily, I contacted him and we arranged it. The hostel was past the other end of the strip, so I drove the whole length. I would have liked to walk around some and take photos of the Chihuly installation at the Bellagio (especialy since I missed his show at the MFA in 2011; though I do think I saw a chandelier by him at a shop in NOLA. MOre future blog post fodder), but there’s no way to pull over or park on the strip. Figuring out the Las Vegas bus system or paying for cabs everywhere is pretty much how you get around, and I didn’t really have the time or desire to do that. I snapped two crappy cell phone photos of the New York, New York and the Paris hotels while stopped in traffic. I passed into “old Las Vegas” and got to see all the sketchy, run down casinos, strip clubs, and wedding chapels (not a section of road I’d want to be on at night). Saw several people getting married, and another Elvis or two. Passed the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, of Pawn Stars reality TV fame (there was a line around the block to get in). Finally found the hostel, which was even sketchier than the photos had made it seem, and was glad I hadn’t stayed there. Got the stove, drove back to Flagstaff. I met the kid at the Dunkin Donuts for the exchange, since it was near Tony and Susan’s place and I now knew where it was. He was kind enough to buy me a half dozen donuts in thanks. He was super chatty, and I normally may have asked if he wanted to get coffee or drinks or something and keep exchanging travel stories (conversation! with people! so deprived of that on this trip!), but I was beginning to shiver since I was still dressed for the 80-degree weather in Las Vegas, and Tony was making Italian sausage stuffed portobellos for dinner. Had dinner and more TV with Tony and Susan that night, and drove back to Taos on Sunday. With some stops:

Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Albuquerque: There are a couple short loop hiking trails in the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, but by and large it’s a drive-through kind of national park off of the highway I was already taking, so I decided to stop on my way back. Turns out it’s not right off the highway, and you first drive through a dilapidated kitschy town on old Rt. 66 first. I passed a motel where the rooms were individual formed cement buildings in the shape of teepees. I passed a souvenir shop with a row of dinosaur sculptures out front (many others had a couple, but this one had a truly impressive number). I passed approximately five million gem and rock stores, all claiming to have the best prices on genuine (but legal!) petrified wood. I shockingly passed zero carved wooden Indians (in fact, I saw one in Austin I think, and otherwise I’ve seen more in New England than so far on this trip). Got to the park and purchased an annual national parks pass, seeing as I intend to visit several more. Walked around one of the trails in the petrified forest, stopped at a few pull-outs to take photos of the painted desert, marveled at the wonders of nature, you know, the usual. Plus took photos of a raven that landed about 6 feet from me. Albuquerque is involved only in so far that I stopped there for dinner in Old Town. I passed all the places I’d been to on a business trip to a conference there several years ago, and was shocked at how much closer together everything seemed now than it had back then, when I’d never been to the southwest and the number of countries I’d visited was larger than the number of states.

Taos: Of course, there have also been several things I’ve done in and around Taos itself. A lot of walking around town. Some laying in the grass in the Kit Carson park. Coveting all the fabrics in Common Threads. Meeting a painter from the pueblo named Frank who was selling his watercolors on the plaza, and seemed genuinely surprised when I genuinely wanted to hear the meanings behind the symbols in his paintings (I didn’t buy one because I had no cash on me and also needed to get change to feed the meter, but told him I’d find him later. Sadly I haven’t yet, even after asking about him at the pueblo). There was a trip to the Tesuque Flea Market, wherein I bought a photo by the photographer I linked earlier, earrings from a woman who used to live in I think it was Peabody, and had a chat with a man I likely met in college at the shop he used to own across from Thorne’s Market in Northampton. I’ve been trying out many restaurants in town, and several coffee shops (I was writing yesterday from Wired? [which I refuse to link, because they have the worst website ever, which is inexcusable for a “cyber cafe”. But the actual place is great.], and today from Coffee Cats [where some girl who can’t be more than 14 just said “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Phyllis?”]. I once left The Coffee Spot [who don’t have a website] because there were two insane women talking loudly about such conspiracies as how the US government gave the Redwoods to the UN to repay a debt, and how DC and London operate in relation to their countries the way the Vatican does to Rome). I’ve had good conversations with the owners at Taos Arts Supply twice (including a confusing one that Alyissa and I had with the wife of the pair about disgusting and terrifying bugs… while she was wearing a spider pendant). I drove part of the Enchanted Circle and got tailgated and blatantly followed by a total jerk of a cop. I got to hear all about how the woman running one shop was surprised to discover that she was pregnant again, in her 40’s, after 4 children, and how she went from being very upset to happy about it and how her prior pregnancies had involved the kind of issues that make doctors say “Fascinating, we need to document this” but this one was her most smooth yet which is why she didn’t realize she was pregnant for 3 months (yeah, I didn’t really want to hear all that either. You’re welcome.). I’ve wandered around galleries and book stores and lots of small local shops. All this in between all my internet-TV-watching and book reading, I’m not sure how I fit it all in to that busy schedule of important matters. Oh yeah, and in between showings of the casita – I found out when I got here that it was on the market and I’d have to make myself scarce periodically for realtors to come through. The owner’s been very kindly giving me $20 to go get breakfast or lunch whenever I need to clear out though.

This pretty much brings us to now. I’ve spent the last 3 days working on this post, and I think I’ll post it as-is and add photos later for the sake of getting it out there (I know, I still owe you photos from The South as well). I haven’t done any painting (yet. I’m still holding out hope that I’ll get to it). I’ve had some hiccups. I’ve had some bad days where I never even changed out of PJs. But chronicling it all for for you, I’m realizing just how much I’ve managed to fit in, too. I’m a little sad I’m now down to only 5 days here–I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it (and the weather’s finally getting nice!). I’ll probably spend the next 2-3 days mapping out the next leg of the journey, trying to arrange lodging along the way, and getting those photos into these posts. I’ll try to be less absent for the next month.

The South

I know it’s been quite awhile since I last posted. I’ll catch you up on everything since Austin soon, but for now I thought I’d finish the post I started about the south over 2 weeks ago. I’m leaving it how I started it, so here you go:

When last we left our intrepid adventurers…

We were in Williamsburg. From there, we had several options for where to go next. We’d be doing all our driving at night, and a major road in the Smokies was closed, so it didn’t make sense to do Blue Ridge Parkway or the Smokies for the view. I also really wanted to see Savannah, so going down the west side of the Carolinas didn’t make a lot of sense. We opted for Raleigh as a good distance and straighter path towards Savannah.

After a really awesome dinner of various sliders, a sampler of local beers, crab rissoles, and the best sticky toffee pudding ever at a place near William and Mary called Dog Street Pub, we took off into the night, bound for an Econolodge in Raleigh.

Everything about Raleigh was a pleasant surprise. The Econolodge was something like $45 for the night – lower per person than the hostel we’d been planning to stay at if we went through Asheville. For that, I was expecting the kind of place you don’t really want to turn the lights on. I have to say though, after an initial room switch because our first room’s card reader was not working, everything was really decent. It was clean, it was comfortable, the guests and employees were all really friendly, the shower had good pressure and heat, the room was actually kind of nice, the whole building was very clean and decent-looking, not a scary shady motel at all. The one complaint is our non-smoking room did still smell vaguely of smoke but that may be because they had to move us.

When we woke up, we drove through Raleigh’s more downtown area. We passed through a historic neighborhood full of the most adorable craftsman bungalows. We saw several houses with large plaques out front explaining their historic significance. We drove past a college, several state buildings, and the capitol building. We landed in an area called City Market, at a place called Artspace. It’s a really cool old mill or factory building, converted into artist studios, galleries, and classroom space. Classes are mostly for kids. Artists need to be juried into their studios. There are 3 gallery spaces for special exhibitions, one of which I really enjoyed, by Margaux Crump, Strange Chemistry.
After checking out art, we found a really good coffee shop called The Morning Times. Skipped out on getting a custom brewed pour-over, but the pre-brewed was still locally roasted and really good. There were also photos hanging by a local artist who seemed to be doing what I plan to; Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon, Zion.
We did a quick stop at a plantation “mansion” (quite small for a mansion) called Mordecai. The grounds include the house where Andrew Jackson was supposedly born. Had a good conversation with the guy running the gift shop, who had visited Boston and was of course a Colonial history nerd.
Overall had an unexpectedly good time there, I could really see myself living in Raleigh.

We did another evening-to-night drive, this time to Savannah. On the way, we stopped at the most ridiculous roadside attraction complex ever, just on the NC/SC border, called South of the Border. Now, I once stopped at a restaurant thing on a road trip in Canada where the building was surrounded by monster trucks and nearly-life-sized dinosaur sculptures (I remember it was the first place on that trip where we got poutine, on our way to a ski resort near Mont Sainte Anne; there were a lot of weird roadside things on that trip). This was even more ridiculous. You see billboards for it for miles and miles, and then you get there and it really is this whole complex. Amusement rides, souvenir shops, restaurants, RV parks, motels. I don’t know why anyone would want to make a vacation out of it, but it’s so kitchy it’s worth stopping and taking some pictures.

When we got to Savannah, we stayed at a decent hotel (Residence Inn, I think?), pretty close to the historic area. Nice place, free valet parking, decent breakfast. Too cold to try the outside pool. Hotels.com lied about there being a hot tub, sadly. Went to dinner that night at a supposedly haunted brew pub, Moon River Brewing Company. Had a second night of local beer samplers, plus a pulled pork sandwich, onion rings, and fried green tomatoes topped with crab salad. Lots of good food on this trip. After dinner, we went downstairs to the basement (the haunted part), but we didn’t see any ghosts. I did chicken out on going in the totally dark part though, after waiting for it to be empty of loud drunk people, because it suddenly felt too creepy. And maybe a little chilly. And I had an inexplicable scratch on my hand later. Soooo… maybe we did encounter a ghost after all, who knows? Walked around after that taking photos along River St., saw lots of drunk people with kilts and those doodly-bopper headband things with shamrocks on them (thought it was a little strange, since St. Patrick’s would be the following weekend; also since kilts are more Scottish),  then crashed for the night.

We stuck around Savannah the next day with gorgeous weather, wandering, going into shops, watching people play giant chess in the park, eating more good food. There was a really cool coffee shop called Coffee Fox (more local roasted beans, and cold brew with simple syrup, yes!). Sitting on a bench outside there, I got into a conversation with a local guy, he asked where we were visiting from, how long we were staying, etc. He said, aren’t you a little early? (this was on March 9), so of course I asked why. Turns out, St. Patrick’s Day is a really big deal in Savannah, who knew? They have the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country (first is NYC, not Southie, sorry guys), and are the only place in the country to recognize it as an official holiday other than Suffolk county (where we know it’s actually Evacuation Day of course). So I guess that explains all the faux-Irish stuff the night before. I asked if Savannah had a particularly high Irish population; they don’t. Local Guy’s theory is that Savannah is a popular spring break destination, spring breakers like excuses to be silly and drunk, and it lines up with a lot of spring breaks, ergo, St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal. I suppose that makes some sense. Local Guy also recommended we check out the SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) gallery, which I really wanted to but we just didn’t end up getting there. He also said to check out “stopover fest”. Ok, now again I have to ask… what’s stopover fest? Apparently a lot of bands traveling to South By Southwest (giant music festival in Austin) stop over in Savannah on their way, and they play some shows at local bars and venues. Again, who knew? Of course we had to take off that night, so we didn’t get to go to any of those shows. Also not gotten to were any of the tons of historic sites in Savannah. Soooo it turns out, early to mid March is a pretty good time to visit Savannah, which I’ll have to do again, since we didn’t do most of those things. I just wanted a chill wandering around day without much planning, and I had a hunch before I went that Savannah would be a place I’d like a lot, and could easily spend more time in. Turns out I was right, so I’ll probably head down there for a long weekend later this year or next.

So what did we do? Well, there was that coffee shop, random wandering and photo-taking, a honey store (they exclusively sold honey, and honey-based products; there was a “hive” set up for kids to sit in and watch a video about bees), a French market themed shop (very cool place, full of vintage and antique accessories and house stuff plus some modern items in the same old-Parisian sort of style, we spent a bunch of time poking through there and taking photos), gawking at Paula Deen’s store and restaurant (didn’t go in b/c the line for the restaurant is ridiculous at all times, and didn’t need anything in the store. Overheard outside: “What do they sell, butter?”), a store that sold cool dog stuff, a store that sold cute and clever kitchen things, a store that sold a million types of salt, a couple vintage clothing stores… there were a lot of niche shops. We ended our day in Savannah at the City Market area (pedestrian-only street with shops and vendors, think Quincy Market or Church St. in Burlington, VT). Had lunch (more crab cakes!), sweet tea, and people-watching on the patio at Belford’s. Went across the street and got some pralines and divinity at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen (who incidentally do mail-order; some of my editors at my old job had sent these to me in the past), then said ta-ta to Savannah. It may not sound like much of a day, all we did was shop, but I had a great time and definitely want to go back.

We had a fairly boring and uneventful drive from Savannah to Marianna, FL (the sunset along the way was pretty). We stopped in Marianna simply because there was nowhere between Savannah and New Orleans that we really wanted to spend time at, and we needed to break up the drive. Mobile or Biloxi was further than we wanted to be driving in one night, and really there’s nothing useful in the Florida panhandle. So, Marianna was just a point on the map that had a Quality Inn right off the highway, and here was the experience I was expecting at the NC Econolodge. At least one light was broken, there were bugs (I killed a few, and eventually just killed the lights), the bathroom was mildewy, the whole place smelled musty. Luckily we got there late and were planning to leave pretty early, so it really was just a place to crash, and the sheets seemed clean and the beds reasonably comfortable. If I’d been less exhausted when we got there, I may have asked for a refund and checked in to one of the 6 or so other motels on the street, but honestly they were probably all the same. The coffee in the morning was surprisingly decent, and I got an interesting “urban decay” type photo of a dumpster between the Quality Inn and the motel next door with a giant lit sign and a toilet next to it, so… silver lining? Noticed signs on the way in the the night before for Florida Caverns State Park, but by the time we left, I forgot about that and just wanted to get the heck out of there, so no caves.

We took off from there, and stopped on a whim at the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola Beach, FL. It was pretty breezy and chilly (red flag!), but that didn’t deter me from sticking my feet in the water long enough to get a photo to post to Facebook to irritate all my friends and family who’d just had another snow storm in MA. It also didn’t deter one crazy lady from digging herself a big hole to lay in sunbathing in her bikini. We were going to check out Fort Pickens, but there was a big line of stopped-dead cars waiting to get in for some reason, so we bailed on that. We also passed on the art fair happening at the middle-school-and-high-school-in-a-strip-mall on the way from the highway to/from the beach. At least, it sure looked like a strip mall. The multicolored flashing LED sign board added to the effect. After this foray, we didn’t stop again until we stopped for BBQ (and sweet tea, and pecan pie) somewhere near Mobile. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was gooood. The meats were all smoking in what basically amounted to a huge, open-fronted fireplace, I wish I’d taken a photo of it.

I knew that somewhere around Biloxi, MS, I wanted to get off I10 and approach New Orleans via rt. 90. This would take us directly along the Gulf of Mexico coast through Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland – all places I’ve been through or worked in when my dad and I used to take trips to rebuild houses in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit.  Seeing the destruction down there, and trying to put a dent in it, was a life changing experience for me. It was really heart-wrenching – the level of destruction, the lack of cleanup and rebuilding that the federal government did, the degree to which so many local governments and individuals simply couldn’t make a dent in it because of the abject poverty, lack of insurance, etc. But it was also heart-warming, so many people coming together to make a difference. I went for a week each summer from one year after the storm to I think 4 years after the storm, and there was always still more to do. I wanted to reminisce, to stop at Biloxi beach, show Jake the beautiful carvings that were done to the stumps that remained along the median after Katrina took a lot of the trees down, and point out what’s been rebuilt and what remains destroyed. There are still quite a few empty cement slabs that were once house foundations, still a few stairways-to-nowhere that used to be front steps, and we saw one freestanding fireplace and chimney with no building around it. I didn’t notice the freestanding bank vault that I think used to be there, though that may have been on a side road. It does look a lot better now. You don’t see the piles of debris, mountains of trash bags awaiting pickup, and overrun lots full of downed trees mixed with new weeds that were so prevalent for years after the storm. I didn’t notice too many buildings this time that were just left in their first-floor-washed-out, roof-ripped-off state. But there are still those empty slabs, and a whole lot of For Sale signs that have been there for years. I called my dad from Biloxi beach, we took some photos in the starting-to-set-sun, and then… on to New Orleans!

And that, my friends, closes the chapter on The South (since New Orleans is a whole other beast, and then Texas really begins to be the Southwest). I know I posted some about New Orleans and Austin before, but I’ll elaborate on those and catch you up on Roswell, Santa Fe, and Taos in future posts. I’ll also add photos to this one later, since it’s now past midnight, but at least the writing’s finally done! Happy Easter everybody. I hope you’re celebrating the coming of Spring and/or Jesus (per your beliefs) with loved ones. I’ll be calling mine tomorrow when they’re gathered for Easter dinner, and I’ll be making my own mini versions of Easter brunch and dinner.

Made it to Austin: SXSW

Austin-16

Things learned today:

  1. “Baby” is basically “hello” in Louisianna
  2. Most of I10 in LA is bridges. Over rivers, lakes, swamps, and mostly bayous. It’s very pretty.
  3. I10 in general is much more interesting than all the the CT through GA highway was. You get views of the Gulf of Mexico, farms, ranches, towns, bayous, etc. instead of just a wall of trees you can’t see past.
  4. When speed limits get up as high as 75mph, it’s very important to pay attention to when they shift. 78 seemed perfectly reasonable… until the LA state trooper informed me I’d passed into a 60mph section. He was nice, but not nice enough to let me off with just a warning.
  5. There are in fact speed limits above my comfort zone. Thanks Texas. I didn’t think that was possible. But when the road is windy, hilly, and keeps periodically going through towns, developing stop lights, and dropping to 55mph without warning, I’m not comfortable going 75 in the dark.

Austin-6

I got to Austin around 10:30, after driving since before noon (hit traffic in Baton Rouge and Beaumont). I’m staying with friends of a friend, who are awesome, and who had some other awesome people over earlier. The apartment is also awesome – it’s a 14th floor loft with floor to ceiling windows, a balcony, and a great view of downtown (amazing how much more a dollar gets you almost everywhere else but Boston). Additionally awesome is that the giant music festival SXSW is currently going on right around the apartment building (it didn’t occur to me I’d be here for it until I was in Savannah and someone told me to check out “stopover fest”, which is apparently the collection of shows musicians play there as they pass through town on the way to SXSW). Due to all these factors, plus my back not enjoying the 10+ hours of driving today, and my hosts being incredibly gracious, I’ll be staying here tomorrow as well. It’s not worth one extra day in Taos to miss the opportunity to check out a festival I’ll likely never return to and a city I’ve wanted to see for a long while.

Austin-10

Still not sure exactly the plan from here when I take off on Friday. Options include:

  1. 6.5 hr to The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX. Would get there late enough that self-guided tour of Donald Judd’s work alone is the only viewing option, which kind of sours the deal. Would then have a 9 hour drive to Taos on Sat.
  2. 8 hr to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX. Would then have a 5 hr drive to Taos Sat.
  3. 8 hr to Roswell, NM, for sheer novelty and as a reasonable stop over point. 4.5 hr to Taos on Sat.
  4. 7 hr to Carlsbad, NM, then 6 to Taos Sat. Key feature would be hiking in Carlsbad Caverns. Downside is that I’m not hopefully I’ll have enough energy, time and daylight to really see them (last entry is 3:30pm).
  5. Split the drive exactly in half, just over 6 hours on Fri. and again on Sat., staying in Brownfield, TX. The only useful or redeeming thing about Brownfield is that it is halfway between Austin and Taos.

I think right now I’m leaning towards Roswell or Brownfield. Thoughts?

Click here for all of the Austin photos.

Leaving New Orleans

I have a very long post about the South in a draft, but it needs work still. It will be EPIC and totally worth waiting for. But I didn’t want to leave everyone hanging from day 2. Today I woke up in New Orleans, and will go to sleep in Austin, TX.

New Orleans has been awesome. I sampled Beignets (I like Du Monde better than Cafe Beignet, we did the taste test), had chicory coffee in a few places (mostly tastes like slightly smoky, kind of weak coffee), saw the French Quarter, went into some voodoo shops, had gumbo (chicken and andouille), jambalaya, muffaletta, tried gator (very chewy chicken), crawfish etouffee, fried catfish (yup, still don’t like it), got a fairy oracle voodoo reading on Jackson Square, saw Marie Laveau’s grave, saw Ann Rice’s house, tried on masks, heard live jazz, had a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, walked on the river walk, saw the French/City Market, etc. etc.

Jake’s flight yesterday got delayed to the point he’d miss the last connecting flight, so I got an extra night with him in town. Right now we need to finish packing up, then we’ll get breakfast and I’ll drive him to the airport. I’m excited and sad to be starting the solo portion of my journey. He’s been a lifeline back to everything and everyone I know back in Boston. I’m going to miss him. I’m also going to sorely miss having a driver to split with, especially now that I’m on to the portions where I need to be driving 8 hours a day to make it to civilization.

Ok, Jake’s got coffee going in the hotel room coffee pot, and there’s day-old Beignet to be had, so I’m signing off for now. Love and miss you all!