The Expected and Unexpected in Texas





*I typed this in the car. It could be better. I will fix when I am on land.

There are some things I expected from Texas. I have seen ranches, cowboy hats and a man getting arrested in a gas-station Wendys. I’ve heard country music, “y’all’s” and a chatty woman casually utter a racial slur. But the most surprising thing about Texas is everything I didn’t expect.

The Landscape
Our detour into West Texas took us through Guadalupe National Park. I had no idea such an epic mountain range existed in the state. We drove through a forboding thunderstorm accompanied by high winds that blew smoke from a nearby fire. Coupled with the fact that we were one of the only cars on the road, I felt like we were driving to the end of the earth. It was beautiful and eerie.

On Friday we drove through Texas hill country, which is dotted with farms, peach stands and–as billed– hills. We passed through some adorable towns. Fredericksburg looks like something out of a movie. An adorable Texas movie.

Although it seems everyone in Texas knows about this place, I feel like I am breaking some serious news here. Guys,– assuming you like hipsters and randomness–Marfa, Texas is awesome.

At first glance, Marfa looked like all the sleepy, one-block towns we had seen in the southwest. It was already nightfall, so we weren’t going to be able to see the great art galleries my friend had recommended to us. The streets were empty and the town was dark, but we made it to The Miniature Rooster just in time to order dinner.

So I don’t have any pictures or the restaurant or Padres, the bar we went to afterwards, but somehow we had driven to a hipster oasis. Miniature Rooster had an amazing menu (shrimp and grits with some foam–sorry, this ain’t a food blog, but it was YUM) and decorations straight out of the pages of Ready Made Magazine. Padres had a stage and a back porch, lit by Christmas lights. We joined a small group of cigarette-smoking bearded guys to watch the Heat/Mavs game.

I was desperate to find out how this artistic community chose this area to make their haven. Sure, it’s cheap– but wouldn’t any remote town been just as cheap? In talking to the people in Marfa, it seems most are Austin transplants, but no one could say WHY Marfa. The only attraction there is the Marfa lights– but how did art follow? We drove through Roswell New Mexico and it didnt seem like alien sitings lured anyone funky. So I guess the lights arent the only mystery in the town. And speaking of…

The Marfa Lights
I think I saw them? We stopped at a viewing station they have set up, which is just binoculars and bathrooms. I can’t remember the last time I was somewhere so dark and quiet. I was even a little scared. You could barely see the person next to you.

I did see SOME stuff. I saw some light over the horizon and two shiny things that looked like headlights. The people that stood with us said that wasn’t it, but the woman at our hotel said that if you saw any lights, those were the Marfa lights. Okay! So… I saw the Marfa Lights?

I thought I’d have tons to say about Austin. After all, it’s the city I’ve heard the most about from our travels.

But Austin turned out to be exactly how I imagined. And I mean that in a flattering way. The food is amazing and overwhelming. The city doesn’t just have the very popular food trucks– they have food trailers. (Everything is bigger in Texas?) They are everywhere. And every single person you ask has at least five different recommendations as to where you can get the best BBQ and breakfast tacos. And as a design heavy city, each place had a well-considered brand and it’s own tshirt.

It was HOT and HUMID, so we didn’t do too much. We heard music on sixth street and went dancing in East Austin, but mostly we sat around. Driving for over a week and eating will do that to you.

I was most surprised with how unpretenious I found the city. In the past decade it seems the majority of all things cool in music, food and design originate in Austin and Brooklyn. I enjoy Brooklyn, but have found it scene-y, self conscious and intimidating. I assumed the same for Austin, but it just didn’t have that air. Is it cos it’s in the south?  Cos it’s too hot for people to care? Yet another Texas mystery.

I don’t remember hearing much about Austin in the 1990s. I am also curious as to how the city became what it is. A friend said she’d send me a link to a set of stories NPR did on the city’s growth. I’ll post them here for y’all. (See how I did that!)

Another thing that I found surprising about Austin: most places have fans instead of air conditioning. All the other southern cities I’ve been to blast the air. What’s with that, Austin? Not cool. Literally.

New Mexico in Context

Route 285 in New Mexico. This is the busiest the road ever looked.

On the car ride from New Mexico to Texas, I read my boyfriend the post I wrote about Albuquerque. As an urban planner he is trained to look at cities in context, and he had a different perspective. Although I viewed the city’s big box stores as tacky reflections of urban sprawl, my boyfriend assumed that most other parts of the New Mexico didn’t have those services. He told me that Albuquerque is the biggest city in the state and reminded me of a conversation we had with an employee of the funky Flying Star Cafe. When we told her we were visiting the city, she excitedly recommended we visit the Borders a few blocks away. I giggled as we left the restaurant. “Borders! As if that’s an exotic place!” I said (or something equally snobby).

However, the Albuquerian’s enthusiasm made more sense  as we drove southeast through the state.

Most human activity ceased about 45 minutes outside of Albuquerque. For miles all I saw was barren yellow grass. As the car grew low on gas, the desperation for a town increased. Everything was bordered up in the first town we passed through, including the gas station. A trip to Wikipedia told us that, as of the 2000 census, the city had 96 people.

Vaughn’s main street

Vaughn, about 20 miles down the road, was a little better in that it had two working gas stations… but not much else. As I took a picture of a vintage sign outside a motel the motel’s older owner started talking to me. He said Vaughn was established at the turn of the 20th century as a railroad town. It once had 1,900 people, but now is has 500. The man was glad I liked the sign even though some of the neon had gone out. He wants to get it fixed, but it costs $1200 and means he has to ask  someone to drive up from Roswell, which is almost 2 hours away. He has four kids, but they’ve all moved away to Albuquerque.

Another view of Vaughn, with the vintage hotel sign on the right.

As I got back into the car and took another look at the bordered up businesses around us, I thought about how much a Walmart, Sears or, yes, a Borders would mean to the 500 people who lived in the area. Albuquerque looked pretty good now.


Inside the Balloon Museum

Albuquerque was a controversial choice. When considering a stop in New Mexico, Taos and Sante Fe seemed alluring, with their artist communities, rich histories and Georgia O’Keeffe museum. But I heard that Albuquerque is less touristy, which appeals to me.

I admit, fatigue got the best of this traveler and her companion. A late start meant only an hour at the impressive and thoughtful Balloon Museum. An hour was not enough time to experience it in full, but I did glean some interesting facts. Did you know that zepplins were considered advantageous during World War I because the enemy couldn’t hear them approaching? This, despite the fact that they’re totally easy to pop!

Village square in Old Town Albuquerque

We visited Old Town Albuquerque (your standard tourist spot), drove by some adobe-style homes and made two stops at the Flying Star Cafe, but I can’t claim that I really got to know the city. It’s more of a sprawling than I thought, and is brimming with the chain stores you see everywhere. What struck me as unusual is that the city has southwesternified all the typical eyesores of a concrete city. The walls of the freeways are painted warm browns and oranges, public art stands by many highway exits and most street medians are well manicured. The city does a good job of making you feel like you are somewhere, because the gluttony of big box stores and roads make you feel like you are nowhere.

Still, the city doesn’t seem that unusual. Even the funky area near the University of New Mexico reminds me of a less intimate and beautiful and Gainesville. Albuquerque is okay, but next time I’m in New Mexico maybe Taos and Santa Fe are worth a look.


Before departing for this trip, I sent the itinerary to one of my dearest friends, Melanie, who lives in Dallas and has spent a lot of time in the state. She was aghast when she saw that I had planned to drive from Albuquerque to Austin through the Texas panhandle. She said that this route included some of the “dullest roads” in the state and probably the country, and suggested we reroute through Marfa, Tx. The city has a vibrant arts community and as well as the unexplained Marfa lights. By taking this route we will also see Hill Country, a beautiful part of Texas and the birthplace of LBJ (yay, Civil Rights Act! Boo, Vietnam!)

The Beau explored the route and found that we can visit both Roswell and the Carlsbad Caverns. Excellent!

We leave Albuquerque in the morning and head on our way. We’ll be in Austin Friday night. New Orleans, Monday evening.



Driving from Phoenix to Albuequrque

Motor Lodge Inn
A few months ago I saw a slideshow about boutique hotels (those internet slideshows are irresistible). The slideshow featured  The Motor Lodge in Prescott, Arizona (Prescott, pronounced like biscuit, as the owner told us.) After our long day in Phoenix, we drove an hour and a half north to stay there.

The Motor Lodge Inn was built in the 1940s and has had various owners. It became very run down and was once a crack den (oooooh!). Joe and Brian bought the place three years ago and have transformed it into a retro haven. I was already sold on the place, but when Joe and Brian sent us off with four warm chocolate chip cookies I knew I would

Our room at the Motor Lodge

Our room at the Motor Lodge

The view from our room at The Motor Lodge

89A: Jessup

Jessup: Remnants of a mining town and ghost town

The owners of The Motor Lodge urged us to reroute and take road 89-A to Flagstaff. This included a drive through the beautiful Sedona mountains and forest and a stop in Jerome, which sits on the side of a mountain.

Jerome has undergone a bunch of changes. Instead of expressing them in a sentence, I will use arrows:

Mining Town –> Ghost Town –>  Hippie Town –> Artist/Gallery town/place to buy fudge

Sedona Mountains. Oy, to die for.

One of the 800 pictures taken of the Sedona Mountains

Route 66

We took I-40 most of the way to Albuquerque. The interstate runs parallel to historic Route 66 and I was eager to experience this famous road. I found it suitably kitschy, but also sad. Since most travelers take I-40 now, many of the businesses that once lined the road are shuttered. It’s depressing. Additionally, as a driver looking to go 80+ mph (sorry Dad!), Route 66’s 40 mph speed limit was off putting.

The route to Meteor Crater. (Not pictured: Cows)

We detoured from I-40 in an attempt to stop at Meteor Crater, the site of a meteor impact outside of Winslow, Arizona. However, when we found it would be $30 for the both of us to experience the Meteor Crater Museum and the actual crater, we realized we didn’t care.

It wasn’t all a loss. The route out to Meteor Crater was barren, yet beautiful (I wasn’t able to get a picture of the cows by the side of the road.) We also stumbled upon the most awesome gas station on the planet. I bought a bunch of magnets and postcards from a woman named Dottie Hanson. I wanted to sign over my savings account, but was ushered out.

Signs along Route 66

Rock Shop along Route 66. It was closed, which is upsetting cos I am fresh out of rocks.

The highs and lows of Phoenix











It turns out my boyfriend was right about Phoenix. But it wasn’t all bad.

The Drive
The drive from LA was gorgeous. We stopped in Palm Springs for a late lunch and Joshua Tree National Park for a quick look. (I’ll upload more pictures later)

Our lodging
My friend told me about this website, airbnb, where people lists rooms or proerties that you can rent out for a night (or longer.) Based on our experience, I definitely recommend it.

We were lucky to find the very hospitable Kate. She lives in downtown Phoenix, in a wooden house that was owned in the 1930s by a circus performer! The house is a converted duplex and we stayed in the part that was once rented out.

Kate made us a beautiful breakfast and talked to us about being a progressive-minded  Phoenician (pronounced like the ancient “Venetians”. This was particularly difficult for me to grasp). She also said the city suffers from an identity crisis. It’s got infleuences from the old west and the Mexican community, but suffers from “dick envy” for California.

The best part of our stay were her two cats and two dogs. They were so friendly — maybe TOO friendly. During breakfast one of her dogs brought in a pair of my underwear from my room.

Phoenix Phail
I got a recommendation from the New York Times’ “36 Hours in” series to visit the Phoenix Botanical Garden and we decided to travel there using public transporation.

This turned out to be a bad decision. It wasn’t easy to navigate the Phoenix Light Rail, even though it’s one line. Maps, Phoenix … maps are helpful.

We knew it was a mile to walk from the light rail to the garden, but the big mistake was assuming the walk would be scenic. It was… a little. Highlights include The Fire Museum.

The problem was we couldn’t find the entrance to the gardens.  We found the zoo, and we did walk alongside the gardens, but by the time we found the entrance we had to head back. Wayfinding signage, Phoenix. Look into it.

Another problem was that it was hot and we didnt have water or sunscreen. Yes, I am aware that Phoenix is in the desert, but I blame the city.

We rode the bus back, which took some time. Taking the bus and the tram allowed us to see the streetscape… but the streetscape wasn’t nice. It’s a city built for cars and most people live in the suburbs, so the city center is a lot of gas stations and car dealerships. Yich.

The Game
I want to see all the major league teams play in their baseball stadiums, so the game was the whole reason we came to Phoenix.

It didn’t disappoint. Despite the fact that Chase Field is one of the leagues newer stadiums (built in 1998), the fact that the organization seems to exclusively  refer to the team as the “D-backs,” and that my team (the Marlins) lost, the game was great. The food is cheap (for baseball) and everyone we encountered was nice.

In fact, most people we encountered in Phoenix were nice. But that still couldn’t save the city.

Sorry Phoenix, you suck.

Reconsidering Los Angeles

If you asked me last week, I would’ve told you I hated LA. I’d spent a little time there before, but the only things I remember from my trips are urban sprawl, the Walk of Fame (skip it) and Grauman’s Chinese theater (skip it).

However, my experiences during this past trip changed my mind. I’ve heard all of these things about LA before, so I’m not going to blow any minds with my observations here, but sometimes you have to discover things for yourself.

Los Angeles, you’ve turned me around.

LA is cool.

Art in the Streets at MOCA

Like, hip. I saw Sarah Silverman and Friends at Largo, a nightclub in West Hollywood. Several big name musicians and comedians are basically informal artists-in-residences there (Sarah Silverman’s show is monthly), and lots of big name talent in LA goes there to experiment with new material or showcase their other talents. (Ed Helms recently hosted a bluegrass show at Largo.) It may sound like a pretty fancy place, but the setting was very informal and relaxed with several small performance spaces and bars that cradle a courtyard. Very cool.

On Friday, we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to see Art in the Streets, a survey exhibition of grafitti art organized by the museum. I’ll leave  the art criticism to my friends who know better, but it was my first time seeing a very trendy show that originated in LA. A few years ago I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Murakami exhibition organized by MOCA. I enjoyed it and thought the Brooklyn Museum was a great venue, but having experienced MOCA I imagine the Murakami show had a bolder, more thrilling personality in the space. It just seems to fit.

This city is diverse.
Most cities seem to have a Chinatown. But LA has a Japantown AND a Koreatown. It seems like there was a restaurant to represent every culture. I even spotted Ecuadorian/Italian cuisine.

I went to a Dodger game and was surrounded by a very economically and racially diverse crowd, which is very unlike the crowds I am used to in most cities–especially D.C.

This city is gorgeous.

No doy, right? The weather is perfect, the mountains are breathtaking and the beach (while I never stepped foot on it) smelled really nice.

I was taken aback by the city’s traffic. I have always heard how frustrating it is to drive there, but everything took at least an hour to travel to, regardless of how much time you allotted to get there. However, as I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and looked out to the ocean, it made sense that millions of people would flock to the area and suffer through the congestion. Everything here is gorgeous.

We’re in Phoenix now. My boyfriend is a little skeptical of the city. Hopefully Phoenix will show us what it’s got.

Everything here is gorgeous–even the view from the Dodger Stadium parking lot.

Highway 99 to LA



At my request, we are driving south on California’s Highway 99. Obviously the state’s most scenic route is the famed Pacific Coast Highway, but my boyfriend grimaced when I suggested we take it: For native Californians it just takes too long; they’ve also done it a million times.

Highway 99 runs through the middle of the state, disecting one of its major agricultural regions. Although this route takes longer than the barren I5, I was interested in getting a taste of the small towns of the central valley. It reminds me of US 27, the road I took through Florida to drive to college at UF– another two-laned road dotted with farms and church towns.

It was also mentioned in Grapes of Wrath as the main road used by the Joad family.

The pictures above are terrible, since the car was moving. But I love the beautiful pink flowers with the grapes growing in the background and the Sierra mountains beyond.