The Southwest (Part 2)

Dallas, TX
September 2. Day 6.
Driven: 107.8 miles (1887.8)

I began the second half of the trip with a visit over to the Bureau for Engraving and Printing (unfortunately, no photos allowed). It was pretty neat to watch money being printed, and it got tenfold more awesome when we witnessed a paper jam. My favorite part there had to be in the gift shop afterwards, when I asked if they accepted credit cards. The guys working the counter said, “Sure.” Then a beat. “…if you don’t mind putting us out of our jobs.” I’m sure they’ve told that joke a billion times, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Like, for the rest of the day.

Random question. Do you think tour guides like it when there’s a smartass in the group? Does it break up the monotony, or is it just another douchebag you have to deal with? I mean, I’m pretty sure the rest of the group hates it (or at least, I did). For instance, this middle-aged white guy at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing kept making stupid cracks. When the tour guide said as an aside she would have five cheesy jokes on the tour, this guy basically kept count the rest of the way, yelling out “That’s three!” Hey, we’re not in high school anymore. It’s not cool to be an attention-whoring, obnoxious adult.

Anyway, down a few miles from the Bureau was the Historic Stockyards of Fort Worth. I went in the morning, so I didn’t really do much except for window-shop and eat. It had a nice vibe to it, though, and I’d imagine it gets really rowdy on the weekends. There was a rodeo plaza (as in an actual rodeo, not Rodeo Drive), a ‘Cowtown Cattlepen’ maze (am I the only adult who thinks mazes are awesome? I want to do one of those gigantic cornstalk ones someday), and train tracks right through a shopping depot. And look – candy cigarettes! Pure class.

I stopped over at Riscky’s for delicious Hushpuppies – deep fried jalapeno cornbread – and a Buffalo Bill Burger, made with 100% real buffalo meat! It was as much food as it sounds, and more than it looks (tricky depth perception); I was surprised I was even able to eat the entire burger, much less most of the fries and about half of the cornbread… dipped in ranch. Everything’s bigger in Texas, indeed. Especially the obesity epidemic.

Fort Worth is about 40 miles from Dallas, which must make the placement of the airport rather inconvenient. It’d be the equivalent of calling John Wayne (that’s SNA to you non-locals) the Los Angeles-Irvine International Airport. See, you can learn by reading this blog! Furthermore, Cowboys Stadium is in Arlington, which is still a good 20 miles west of Dallas. Hey, Dodger Stadium isn’t in Santa Monica. And yet, no one gives Dallas shit for the sprawl the way they do Los Angeles.

I then drove that 40 miles to downtown Dallas to check out the Sixth Floor Museum. Man, what a fucking depressing place that is. I mean, the museum is really well-done, but you’re going through it, reading about preparations for JFK’s trip, listening to boastful comments from local authorities about their security, as well as plenty other quotes from key figures that are so sad in retrospect… and you’re basically waiting for the hammer to drop. “DROP THE HAMMER, KEVIN!” There. I just linked the JFK assassination to a commercial for Vault soda.

Seinfeld: “But why? Why McDowell?”

Kramer: “Well, maybe because we were sitting in the right field stands cursing at him in the bullpen all game.”

Newman: “He must have caught a glimpse of us when I poured that beer on his head.”

…but it really was an incredibly somber place to be.

I wrapped up the day at the White Rocks Lake Park in east Dallas, sitting and relaxing for a little while. Just as in Minneapolis last year, the break was exactly what I needed. As you can tell, I am rather ambitious in planning these trips, occupying myself pretty much from 8 am until 9 or 10 pm everyday. A good book does wonders! (In this case, it was the excellent The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, the first non-school related book I’ve read in almost a year; I highly recommend it, even for non-baseball fans)

Austin, TX
September 3. Day 7.
Driven: 217.4 miles (2105.3)

The layout of the Dallas World Aquarium is extremely cool. You begin up top at the rain forest level, looking at birds and monkeys and disgusting sloths that are stuffing their faces. Then, you maneuver your way down to the… ground level, and look at… ground animals (the theme escapes me at the moment). The final bottom floor is where all the aquarium stuff is. Surprisingly, there’s not THAT much down there, which makes the “World Aquarium” a bit of a misnomer. Then again, I suppose “Dallas Three Levels of Animals” isn’t quite as catchy.

I got to see a little mouse disturb a resting tarantula. The results were not pretty (but man, did that generate a ton of excitement among aquarium visitors). In contrast, what was rather disappointing was the scheduled feeding time for the sharks. I imagined a kind of crazy feeding frenzy when the girl scattered fish into the waters below, kind of like that Simpsons where daredevil Lance Murdoch pricks his finger into the awaiting tank of sharks, eels, piranhas… and a lion. Instead, most of the sharks seemed to ignore her.

Speaking of feeding frenzies, I had myself a Whataburger leaving Dallas and heading south towards Austin. The drive-thru burger is definitely among my most common means of eating during these road trips (incidentally, ‘taking a picture of myself eating as I drive 70-80’ is my most common means of endangering my life), and I was quite pleased with the Whataburger. Nothing spectacular, but I feel like they capture the ‘local burger joint’ feel rather nicely. Plus delicious, delicious apple pie.

After a couple of false turns (and with the help of a Longhorn), I located the inconspicuous Lyndon Johnson presidential library and museum on the University of Texas campus. It didn’t help that the building was under construction. Once inside though, as is always the case with these libraries, it was very impressive. Plus it was free, which never hurts. Perhaps as expected, the specter of Vietnam loomed over every exhibit. It made the museum seem almost defensive, which was a little sad.

The museum also housed an impressive-looking archives, and an cool collection of portraits of both Presidents and First Ladies. My favorite of the former is the classic JFK looking downtrodden. Of the latter? Well, I’d have to say that Abigail Van Buren and especially Rachel Jackson were foxes. Rachel had a Connie Nielsen in Gladiator thing going in her picture. Well done, Mr. President. Well done.

I have to admit that visiting other campuses really loses its appeal as I get older (if the act ever had any in the first place). I mean, unless there’s something really historic or architecturally unique, it’s just another school. And that reminds me of my school. And my classes. And my work. In short, other than the LBJ library, I really minimized my time at the University.

State Capitol buildings, on the other hand, I can’t get enough of. I explored downtown Austin a little bit, winding my way towards Town Lake (which much more resembles a river). As expected with any city with a body of water, there were a ton of joggers, canoers, bikers, and dogwalkers. I like that – it kind of unifies all of these metropolitan areas. At the same time, these Texas nutcases were doing it in 100 degree temperatures.

The amazing flight of the bats from the Congress Avenue Bridge was a definite highlight. Even on a boat in the middle of the lake, however, I was unable to get away from the fucking “Gotta get get” Black Eyed Peas song they play at every Angels game. The culprit? A booze cruise with a loud sound system. I ended the evening at a hostel, for once not watching shitty movies on late night cable as I had been apt to do.

Houston, TX
September 4. Day 8.
Driven: 216.7 miles (2322.1)

One presidential library to the next, one college campus to the next. The Bush edition – that would be the 41st – is in College Station, home of Texas A&M. I wonder what the city was called before it had a college, because it seems somewhat presumptuous to name a city as such when you don’t even have a college lined up yet. What if Silver City (New Mexico, where I stayed a few days ago… just checking to see if you’re still paying attention) didn’t have any silver? Somebody’s face sure would be red.

Anyway, the library is definitely one of the best I’ve visited. There were a ton of themed interactive exhibits. This one was the situation room for the First Persian Gulf War; others include a little podium for the White House press room, a handprint ‘scanner’ for the CIA, and an impossible-to-play flight simulator to land a plane on a carrier. The stories (especially about his time in the Navy) were fascinating, the backgrounds were thorough, and – in a section aimed at kids – the Bushes let their personalities shine through, making an absurdly cute and hilarious video. They seem to have a sweet relationship.

Onto Houston! When I talked to somebody in Austin the day before about my travel plans, I mentioned I was going to Houston next. He responded with, “Well, you’ve already seen the one good city in Texas.” Nice. I could see his point – downtown Houston is definitely not the most cheerful place in the world. I checked into the Residence Inn (by Marriott!), though, and found a fucking mansion. A kitchen, living room, and super-high ceilings. Thank you,! Naturally, I jumped on the bed a few times.

Giving my car a much-deserved break, I then hopped onto the metro to head into Houston’s museum row. An impressive statue of Sam Houston adorned the nearby park. I checked out the Museum of Natural History (more on this in a second), later watching a neat show at the Planetarium that covered the beginnings of space exploration. But instead of using real mission footage, they used computer animations, which was a tad cheesy. I guess the actual footage doesn’t graft onto the dome or was too expensive to get or something. By the way, did you know that they let Laika the Russian Space Dog die on Sputnik 2? What the fuck; that’s something that shouldn’t be glossed over.

I will never get tired of dinosaur exhibits. Dinosaurs are inherently cool. Although, my mind will invariably think back to that classic television series. Like, I’ll see a Mastodon and think of Billy (David Yost). Or Sabretooth Tiger and the late Thuy Trang. Jason David Frank, Walter Somethingorother, Amy Jo Johnson, and uh, the red one. That’s right – go go Power Rangers! By the way, was Rita Asian? I could never tell.

Continuing into the dark nether regions of my mind, every time I see cool, shiny crystals shaped thusly, I think of kryptonite. The museum also had your standard natural history museum exhibits, including little dioramas of animal figurines in their natural habitats. I always find that kind of strange. It’s like “Well, it’s almost as good as a zoo… sort of… pleasedon’tleave.” There were also a few special galleries I didn’t want to pay extra to see. What the fuck, when a special gallery costs more than the price for regular admission, that’s totally uncool.

You know what else is uncool, Houston? Fucking rip-off rally monkeys. I can understand how thunderstix have been replicated everywhere, because they’re generic and effectively (re: insanely) loud. But monkeys are off-limits. I mean, they didn’t show rally monkey videos or anything like that, but still, do Rally Astronauts or some other kind of bullshit.

The Juicebox did have its charms, though. One was that alternative moniker to Minute Maid Park given by a local weatherman – who definitely deserves major, major props. Another was a pretty neat “air guitar” cam, accompanied by Blink 182’s All the Small Things, a welcome addition to the between-innings forms of entertainment (along with the ever-popular “Kiss” and “Linger creepily on attractive women” Cams). And, as in Arlington, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” played here as well. I can appreciate that.

San Antonio, TX
September 5. Day 9.
Driven: 307.3 miles (2629.4)

Unlike previous years, I had decided to backload the driving this time around (for a variety of reasons). Today, it was basically touch and go. Touch both the southernmost and easternmost destination of the journey – Galveston, Texas – then begin the sprint home. I awoke in the Residence Inn and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast, happy to get a respite from the nutrigrain bars and McDonald’s combos of days past. I helped myself to sausage, roasted potatoes, a biscuit, and orange juice… then realized that it was basically a homemade version of the Sausage McMuffin with hash brown. Oh well.

I liked Galveston a lot: there’s character there, to be sure. I took an enjoyable tram tour through the city (imagine the Universal Studios backlot tour, only taken to local streets). Most of it was beat up, still showing the aftermath of Hurricane Ike… when did that hit, by the way? I had no idea, and it seemed rather disrespectful – and ignorant – to throw that question out there. Anyway, residents were kind, many waving, some gawking behind screen doors. It must be weird to have your house on the historic tour three or four times a day.

Oil rigs are cool. There was actually a museum on one in Galveston, which in itself was an incredibly nifty concept. Plus, it was really informative, but I can’t recall anything I learned right now. So instead, I’ll regale you with a fantastic IMDb tale from the set of 1998’s Armageddon: “Regarding the film’s premise, Ben Affleck asked director Michael Bay, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier for NASA to train astronauts how to drill rather than training drillers to be astronauts?’ Bay told Affleck to shut up.” Well played, Michael Bay.

The Gulf of Mexico is a pretty sight, and even the failed businesses and abandoned hotels couldn’t detract from the view. Parking was free practically everywhere, a far cry from what I’m used to on the West Coast. Then again, we don’t get hit by hurricanes. (Too soon… I think). Another in the series of random questions: If you’re paying $17 for valet parking overnight at a downtown hotel, do you still have to tip the guy in the morning? My personal answer was no, but I felt a little guilty leaving him empty-handed.

Backtracking significantly (~30 miles) for the first time, I headed back towards Houston, with one final stop at NASA and the Johnson Space Center. I hate to say it, but this was the biggest disappointment on the trip. The place just had this really weird feel to it, almost like a giant Chuck E. Cheese. There was basically a kids playground in the lobby, with tons of children running loose like wild animals. The cafeteria was fucking disgusting, with trash everywhere. And the attractions? Yes, certainly awe-inspiring, but this Apollo model required a two hour wait. The lines were unbelievably inefficient, and then I spent about three times the amount of time sitting on the tram than at the actual stops.

There was an incredibly boring show where a guy updated us on the status of the current NASA missions for about 15 minutes straight (in so doing, he used the word “wherein” about four times, which was four more times than I’ve heard that word used at any other point in my life). There was a giant warehouse full of mock-ups for NASA equipment, which looked cool, but really in principle is no different than a stupid life-sized plastic dinosaur. And it didn’t help that as I looked at this stuff, I overheard someone next to me say, “I can understand the conspiracy talk; I mean, why haven’t we been back to the moon since [Apollo 11]?” Fucking Johnson Space Center.

On the plus side, there was this conversation from a kid and his dad as they walked the length of the Apollo model.

“Dad, A-S-U!”
“That’s USA.”
That was the highlight. Come on, NASA, you’re better than that.

I finally headed out of Houston and started driving West towards San Antonio. While I’m not a fan of the sideways traffic lights in the state, I really appreciated how the lanes in Texas freeways signified upcoming interchanges. Anyway, I saw lightning off to the side, which got me to thinking about how I should probably do more research on the weather before going to a danger spot like Galveston. As if on cue, rain then poured down from the sky, forcing me off the road – at least momentarily. It’s basically become a trip fixture, as similar out-of-nowhere rain had attacked me for a single day last year in Wyoming, and the year before as I left Oregon behind.

Demming, NM
September 6. Day 10.
Driven: 656.4 miles (3285.9)

As I traversed the length of the beautiful San Antonio Riverwalk, I overheard a riverboat tour guide inform his customers that this was where they shot a part of Miss Congeniality (two things: 1) that movie is on the short list of my favorite chick flicks of the last decade, and 2) Sandra Bullock has been a star for 15 years and looks exactly the same, especially when you compare her to someone like Meg Ryan, who has essentially devolved into a botoxed mummy before our very eyes). I wonder if anyone has ever attempted to follow the boat down the entirety of the walk, free-riding all the way.

From there, it was a very short walk over to the biggest tourist trap in the country… at least, according to some Yahoo! feature I read recently. Sure, the Alamo had its problems – some of the most prominent features at the site were constructed after the infamous battle – and I too was annoyed by the throngs of people in the gift shop. But that’s really an epidemic at any site, and besides, it was free! How can it be a tourist trap if it’s free? FREE! (Okay, so I actually paid $6 for an audio tour, but it was decent).

Besides, “if anyone wishes to depart under the white flag of surrender, you may do so now. You have that right. But if you wish to stay here with me in the Alamo, we will sell our lives dearly.” Dramatized history is fucking cool (2004’s The Alamo is not a great movie, but there are some scenes in it – featuring any of its three leads, really, but Billy Bob Thorton as Davy Crockett in particular – that are absolutely fantastic). And in many cases, as here, with William Travis drawing a literal line in the sand, actual history is even cooler.

About 60% of the Riverwalk was fantastic, with beautiful plants, mini-waterfalls, and other little statues here and there… as well as filming locations for Miss Congeniality. Because it was Sunday, there were even arts and crafts booths set up (which, thanks to some fat people, made my trek ever-so-precarious). The other 40% was pretty much neglected, which made it resemble a sewer system as much as anything else. Or where they found the script for Miss Congeniality 2, apparently. Hi-yo!

I literally took this picture only because I saw a photographer doing it. It looked to be an abandoned building. I had to wait a few seconds until his back was turned, because I didn’t want to look like I was just doing exactly what he was doing, even though I was. And I wonder if photographers are offended when people follow their footsteps, or if they’re flattered, like I was on the Midway when I ‘discovered’ a cool sign.

After a bit of a struggle with both directions and parking, I settled for a meal in Market Square, at the highly-reviewed La Margarita. Its reputation was well-deserved. I had a great sampler platter, which consisted of a cheese quesadilla and beef and chicken nachos. It also had these delicious taquitos, an amazing concoction called Oysters La Margarita (“The freshest Gulf Oysters on the half-shell, baked, with a delicious Sauce… topped with Monterrey Jack Cheese and served hot with Pico de Gallo and Guacamole”), and the juiciest and tastiest shrimp (cocktail) I’ve ever had. Thanks to that and the margarita I had, I would need to take a 15 minute quasi-nap at a rest area as I left San Antonio. No, seriously.

Before all of that, however, I finished up my time in the city at the historic Market Square. As I left the mall, the final extended stop of my long tour, with tiny pinata in hand, I passed a family just stepping into the square, debating over which shops to go to first. Their teenager piped in: “Let’s start by checking out the water fountain.” And indeed, he walked directly towards it. People can be pretty great sometimes.

I witnessed an absolutely perfect sunset as I headed towards Fort Stockton, Texas. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but there were beautiful shades of red and purple peeking through the perfect ‘sky blue’ in the horizon. At one point, the clouds were completely parallel and horizontal, and I felt as though I was driving towards heaven. And while I had one more day of straight driving to go, it was the perfect way to wrap up the trip.

Irvine, CA
September 7. Day 11.
Driven: 708.7 miles (3994.6)


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