Monday, June 30, 2008

michelle does austin, or: don't mess with me, texas

I didn't leave Carlsbad until 8 pm and still had to driveway halfway across Texas to get to Austin by morning, before Jessica left for work. I don't know what delirious part of me thought that this was a good idea. Probably the part of me that remembers driving 12 hours to Taylor, from 5 pm to 5 am, a DECADE ago, before I became suddenly and inexplicably old and weary.

The first couple of hours were on a very dark and very lonely prairie road. Along the side of the road I saw two foxes, four deer (three living and one on his way to a better place,) five cows grazing RIGHT on the side of the road, and innumerable rabbits. I am astonished I made it through the night without killing another living thing.

By 11 I was already tired and kind of cranky. I decided to stop and get some coffee at the Sonic in Pecos, Texas. (Jessica: "It's pronouned 'PuhAYcuss'.") I thought it might be closed at 11 pm, but au contraire, mon frere, it was JUMPING. It was THE place to go in Pecos in the middle of the night. I saw several people in cowboy hats. I wanted to take their picture but I decided not to get pounded. (Jessica: "Wise decision.") So I just ordered my "java chiller" and popcorn chicken from two surly teenage girls who neither spoke nor smiled and was on my way.

The coffee helped for about an hour. I stopped worrying about hitting rabbits and tore along singing David Garza at the top of my not-that-great voice. Then I hit another wall and really thought maybe I should just stop in Ft. Stockton. I would have, too, but I couldn't get anyone in Ft. Stockton on the phone. So I decided to keep going, especially since Isaac said I could buy this new and fun summer bag if I didn't stop and spend the money on a hotel. I listened to "On the Road" to stay awake. The thing is, "On the Road" is actually pretty boring. Later this weekend I listened to it on my ipod to put myself to sleep.

I thought I would have some respite at 1 when Tim called to talk over our New Orleans script. But I've had terrible reception on the road, and our conversation went like this...

Tim: I've been thinking about the beginning of the script, and I realized that -
Michelle: Hello? Are you still there?
iPhone: Call failed. Call back?

Michelle: Hey, sorry, the call dropped.
Tim: It's ok, I was just saying that I was thinking about the beginning of the script, and -
Michelle: I bet if I could hear you I would think what you were saying was really smart.
iPhone: Call failed. Call back?

Michelle: Sorry again.
Tim: It's ok, I'm just driving too. So anyway my genius solution for that problem we were discussing is -
iPhone: Call failed. Just give up, you know you want to.
Michelle: You don't know what I want.

Tim's Phone: Ring, ring, ring.
Tim: (asleep in bed with his wife) That's just Michelle calling from somewhere in Texas. Just hit ignore.
Caryn: (ignore)

The drive was made worse by the fact that the highway, which normally has an 80 mph speed limit, ratchets all the way down to 65 mph at night. And the last time I was in Texas - on my way to Austin in fact - eight years ago, these two cowboy cops stopped me and gave me a ticket for going 72 in a 70. SEVENTY-TWO IN A SEVENTY. I hated them so much. So now I'm kind of terrified of Texas cops and I went 65 the entire night, even though I barely saw another car, let alone a cop car, the whole time.

After what felt like half my life, I pulled up to Jessica's apartment in downtown Austin at about 6, catching her before she left for work. She had made up a little air mattress for me in her room, which I was so, so happy to see. I don't know if I was totally coherent. I stumbled into some loungy clothes and fell asleep, totally ignoring her cats who were scratching at the bedroom door and wondering why I was ignoring them, and slept until 4:30, when Jessica got home from work. It was amazing. We went out and got some food at a casual Japanese dining establishment and then sat on her little patio-ish type thing and talked and drank beer with orange slices in it, which is some great Texas secret. I don't even like beer and I kind of liked it. It still took me like two hours to drink one glass, but what can you do.

The last time I was in Austin, it was 115 degrees outside and all Jessica and I could bring ourselves to do was go to Dairy Queen and get ice cream ("I'll always have a place at the DQ.") So every time she's like, "Austin is God's kingdom on earth," I've had to beg to differ. But this time, I have to say, I have find quite a few delightful things.

A few highlights of my weekend...

Fried avocado stuffed with chicken and cheese and topped with sour cream. WHAT!?

Really fun coffeehouses with free wifi and interesting music...

... at which I worked on my blog and Jessica watched videos...

...of fainting goats...

...and laughing babies.

A massage for my poor, poor aching neck from a guy named Slate.

Game night with people from Jessica's church.

6th Street.

Trying to go hear music on 6th Street with Jessica's friend Brie, but actually just wandering around for an hour.

Vending machines with candy, coke, and independent music!

Brie giving Jessica directions to a place called Smoke 'n' Os.

Jessica feeling skeptical of Brie's directions.

Jessica disregarding the lessons learned by her friend Michelle.

Brie getting directions to Smoke 'n' Os.

Arriving at Smoke 'n' Os.

Fruit punch hookah.

Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas.

Texan table decorations.

The most amazing brisket sandwich ever.

My new favorite bar...

...with free wifi! Nothing like a Bailey's and a blog.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

same bat time, same bat channel

Thursday morning, I woke up in El Paso - which Jessica fondly calls "one of the armpits of Texas" - and updated the blog. Yea for hotels with free internet. I left at noon and drove the three hours to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. I thought for a minute about skipping it and going straight to Austin, because I was getting tired and it was out of the way, but then decided I should just go. It took me about three hours, not counting stopping at a border patrol station and explaining who I was and where I was going and how I really am seriously not Mexican.

I thought I had been to Carlsbad Caverns before. I have memories of my dad explaining the difference between stalactites (with a C for Ceiling) and stalagmites (with a G for Ground.) But I haven't been there; it must have been another cave. It was in the middle of the desert, with nothing for miles. I stopped a few miles away at a little shop that said it sold tickets for the caves, but I think that was just a ploy to get you to come in and buy fudge. The woman gave me four samples and was trying to give me more but I begged off. I knew it was a bad idea to have fudge samples as your first meal of the day and then walk for miles in a cave. But I ate them anyway. They were delicious.

Carlsbad Caverns were first explored in the early 1900s by a 16-year-old cowboy named Jim White who was out mending fences, saw a cloud of smoke in the distance, and followed it to find that it was not smoke, but a cloud of bats leaving the entrance of the cave. He started exploring the cave with a lanterns, and over the next few decades became the expert on the cave, naming the various features and leading National Geographic surveyors through the caverns.

I paid my six dollars to hike down through natural entrance to the cave (as opposed to taking the elevator nine miles down to the bottom.) I just made the afternoon cutoff for the latest you could enter, which ended up being really nice because for almost the entire way down I was alone on the trail. And it was... well, creepy, to be honest, but quiet and lovely too.

This is at the beginning of the hike, looking back up at the entrance. During the day, hundreds of swallows swoop around the cave, but they're too small to show up in this picture:

It took about an hour to get to the bottom of the hike, which ends in the "Big Room." The caverns are incredible and spectacular. I walked along in the dark and damp, water dripping off the limestone all around me, and occasionally on me, and thought how beautiful this world is.

Apparently a lighting designer from Broadway created the setup so that some features are highlighted while keeping the overall sense of darkness. Early visitors to the cave, led on tours by Jim White, had to be lowered in a guano mining bucket and explored the cave with lanterns. I thought about how thrilling that would be... and also how dark. It would be fun to have such a sense of discovery but I'm sure they also missed a majority of what is amazing about the cave, part of which is the sheer scope.

My pictures honestly don't do it justice, but here are a few:

After the hike, I had an hour or two to kill before the evening flight of the bats, so finally got something to eat to counterbalance the four pieces of fudge, and took a nap in my car, during which I think I wrenched my neck. It's still bothering me. Although maybe I'm blaming the nap when I should be blaming the hundreds and hundreds of highway miles. Both literally and figuratively.

A little after 7 I walked down to the stone seats built into the hillside in front of the natural entrance of the cave to see the bat flights. Most nights during the summer, thousands of Mexican freetail bats leave the cave at sunset to feed, returning at dawn. These bats are tiny, only three inches from head to foot, as you can see from the picture at right, which I have to admit, I didn't take. Those aren't even my fingers. I tried to catch a bat to keep as a pet, but I failed.

The sun was beginning to set, and a few swallows still flew and chirped around the cave. A little before 8, a few bats began to fly out of the cave, and in about ten seconds the whole entrance was full of tiny black swooping bats. It reminded of me of the scene in The Green Mile, when John Coffee opens his mouth and the black evil flies out.

The park rangers don't allow cameras in the areas during the bat flights out of fear that the noise will disturb the bats' sonar. I really wished I could have taken pictures. I have never seen anything like it. Hundreds of bats would fly out, in a constant flow, swoop around in a big cloud, off to the right, and fly off into the desert, a long black snaky line against a lavender sky. It was amazing. And then, in about fifteen minutes, as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. The thick cloud slowed down to a trickle of bats, and then they were gone, little black specks in the distance.

Happy Birthday, Jason!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

i believe in a thing called thing

To comfort myself for missing the cheesy re-enactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, I asked Isaac if we could stop at a roadside "attraction" called "The Thing," advertised on billboards 90 miles each way on the 10, much like South of the Border on I-95. She said "Only if it's under two dollars." She said it in her car voice but I can understand her.

Fortunately, "The Thing" costs one dollar, so we stopped. Basically you go into this gas station gift shop, pay your dollar, go in through a door in the back, and walk on a sidewalk, painted with yellow feet, that leads through a series of three warehouses, where there was the MOST RANDOM COLLECTION OF WEIRD STUFF THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN. Some highlights, for your viewing pleasure...

A Rolls-Royce in which Adolph Hitler supposedly rode, though "it can't be proved":

Life-size wooden carvings depicting various torture methods:

A really dirty bedroom set with a mannequin of a Native American man:

And... the "Thing":

If you were really observant, you may have noticed something, which is that the "Thing" is not so much a "Thing" as it is a "Dead Person."

I left with these wonderful images in my head and headed to El Paso, where I stopped at a hotel, crawled into bed, and tried to convince Isaac to let me sleep the entire next day. She said no, emphatically, which was good, because that day I saw some of the most spectacular natural beauty of my life.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

wyatt, i am rolling

So it looks like I'm doing this thing. Two mornings ago I embarked on my Great Southern Road Trip Which Also Includes Some Midwest And Some Regular West, or GSRTWAISMASRW for short. This is me embarking with Isaac (my car):

If I don't die in a fiery crash on this trip as I did in the rather ominous dream of a friend who I hope is not a prophet, I'll drive to New Orleans by way of Phoenix and Austin, stay for a month on a writing sabbatical (which I am determined to protect after my experience last year in Italy, where I got no writing done) then hit Destin, Knoxville, and then Fayetteville, North Carolina, my home town, for a couple of weeks. Then New Bern, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Chicago, and Route 66 all the way back to LA by the fall.

After spending the night with my family in Reseda and saying good-bye to my aunt and grandma, I set out east. A few hours later, I took a detour off the 10 (though I think it's only called "the 10" in Los Angeles and the rest of the world calls it "I-10") to see the Salton Sea, which was fascinatingly photographed by my talented roommate Stephanie a few months ago.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River flooded and it took authorities two years to get it under control. Now the water is mostly agricultural runoff. Apparently, the tilapia in the water commit mass suicide every few years and wash up onto the "beaches," which would explain the strong smell of death and the very, very sharp fish bone sand that flipped painfully up into my sandals when I got out of the car to take a few pictures.

Where I walked:

Where I stayed:

(Just kidding, Mom.)

What I look like driving around:

I left Salton Sea, probably smelling like dead tilapia, and headed to Phoenix to see my old Taylor friend Pete and his wife Heather. They took me to dinner at a restaurant in Phoenix called Sam's Cafe, where they give you a little piece of white chocolate and pecan candy wrapped in a corn husk for dessert, and we caught up on our lives. They're moving to Durham next month so Pete can go to Duke for business school. And, as it has ever been and ever will be every single time I visit Phoenix, it was a hundred degrees out until the sun went down. That night I stayed in their lovely guest room, of which I am envious, and dreamt that my apartment was full of orange lizards and frogs. In my dream I thought, "Do lizards turn into frogs eventually? I guess they must." It's funny how our dreaming brains are sort of brilliant and sort of mentally handicapped.

The next morning started out well. I had breakfast with the VTs and set out for Tombstone, listening to an audiobook of Kerouac's "On the Road" and feeling grateful for my life. There was more good news - my doctor called to tell me that my heart murmur is nothing to worry about and I probably won't keel over any time soon - but that phone call happened to be timed perfectly to distract me from taking the last exit for fuel for hundreds of miles of Arizona desert.

Here's me waiting for roadside assistance:

For about ten minutes - which was just about 30 seconds after the moment that I realized that I really had better find a gas station soon to about 30 seconds before I actually ran out of gas - I had absolutely no service on my cell phone. I was having fantasies about walking for miles on the side of the road at noon in the desert and I couldn't help but notice that the scrubby desert landscape looked just about right for burying someone you never want to be found. But then, right as Isaac made a kind of clunky jerk and insisted that I pull her over (Isaac is a girl), I got one tiny heaven-sent bar of reception on my phone, and I was able to call for a truck. For the rest of the trip, I am going to be stopping for gas when I get down to three quarters of a tank. Or maybe just anything below F.

I figured I still had time to make it to the mining towns I wanted to see before stopping for the night, so I headed to Bisbee, an old copper mining town that was unexpectedly beautiful. I drove around the windy little streets for a while and then decided to be a true tourist and get a tour into the Queen Mine.

The tour was kind of interesting, because it was fun to ride on the tracks into the mine, but it was about an hour longer than I was interested in it. I think I actually know how to be a miner now. The guide had me hold two sticks of dynamite and a detonator for a demonstration, and told me not to let them touch. It seemed like a valid warning as he wrapped them carefully in separated cloth bags when I gave them back. Was it Milan Kundera who said the fear of heights is not so much the fear of falling as it is the fear that one will suddenly leap? I had an almost overwhelming urge to try to make them explode.

Because of the gas situation and the (inordinately long) tour, I didn't get to Tombstone until after 5, and everything was closing. I was surprised at how uncrowded it seemed... I don't know if it's just not a popular summer destination or if everyone else in the world has been scared off by the gas prices. It was still fun to walk the streets and imagine what it would have been like to have been Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday, or some rustler or a prostitute, just trying to get by and stay alive.