Until next time America.
We were in Roswell, New Mexico sleeping peacefully in our hotel when suddenly my eyelids fluttered open and I was blinded by a bright spotlight piercing through the curtains. I blinked and rubbed my eyes trying to look past the light to its source. I flung the covers off of me and went to step out of bed when much to my shock I realized the beam of light was engulfing me and was pulling me towards the window leaving my body to hover three feet off the floor. I lurched upright but the weightlessness of my body sent me hurling head over heals and I tumbled that way outside the window still swallowed up by the beam of light. I shielded my eyes from the strong illumination, and as my body came to rest upright, I was able to catch a glimpse of the large silver underbelly of a spaceship - my scream echoed off the street below as the ship quietly swallowed me up…
That would have made a really cool story- wouldn’t it have? But sadly nobody was abducted here at A100. Our day in Roswell really started with a complementary breakfast at the hotel and then a quick search through town for a mini golf course. We were hoping for a place with big plastic alien hazards that we would have to putt our mini golf balls through. No such luck though - I think Roswell is missing out on a huge market there. We did find an interesting museum however, so we pulled up and parked outside of the International UFO Museum and Research Center. That’s right - “and Research Center.”
The museum itself was pretty small compared to other museums we had been to but was filled with interesting artifacts from Roswell’s most famous historical affair. The Roswell UFO Incident actually didn’t occur in Roswell at all, but in an even smaller town nearby. However, the events on that interesting July day in 1947 have been the source of great controversy though out history ever since. Whether the debris that was recovered at the crash site was actually just weather balloon material or really artifacts from an alien craft only the military seems to know - and they plan on keeping it that way so wonder all you want America, they still won’t budge.
Roswell’s UFO museum walls were lined with affidavits from people in the area who describe the events that unfolded that strange day and who feed the conspiracy by suggesting that the government demanded silence from those who had been involved. We looked around at the different newspaper pages and legal documents that described what had happened in the small town near Roswell and tried to imagine the excitement this small corner of New Mexico has seen since then.
Roswell was an important part of our trip - an iconic spot in America on a trip which was set up to celebrate the most interesting sides of this great nation - however- today was going to have a pretty major finale. After leaving the International UFO Museum and Research Center we were headed to The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo Texas for Joey’s eating challenge. This event deserves a post of its own from the man under pressure so, take it away Joey.
Until next time America.
It took some effort to attack Carlsbad in the way we did - with little rest, coming straight from Austin, a full 8 1/2 hours away. But any malice I might have held toward Joey for his insistence on such a plan, quickly evaporated at the magnificent sight of the caverns here in Carlsbad - which, in case you didn't know, comprise the largest known cavern system in the entire western hemisphere. As always, I brought my camera - and soon returned to the car to retrieve my tripod. The results are below, beginning with our entrance and ending with our exit.
Other national parks have enticed me with their beauty, their grandeur, their ability to take a scene and turn it into something incredible. But this place was nothing short of other-worldly. It's not so quick to get there, no matter where you're coming from - but oh man, was it worth it. Hats off to Joey for insisting upon visiting this wonderful park.
Like Sarah mentioned, we went to bed early. In fact, as the main (only) proponent of driving through the night for the first time on the road trip, I wouldn’t have felt right not taking the first shift. So it was to bed at 9:00 or so for me while Sarah and Tom hung out and at least a couple hours of quality sleep before walking up with Sarah and Tom, piling what few things we had in the house into the car, wishing Tom and Sarah a good night, and driving.
As we drove I noticed familiar sights. Even in the dark, I recognized the turns and some land marks leading towards the wine trail. I wondered how long we would be retracing our steps; we had already driven the full length of the wine trail all the way to a town called Fredericksburg (stopping along the way), the full way back to Austin, and — as I was about to discover — the full way back out to Fredericksburg. On the two legs of this journey that we didn’t stop for wine, the entire drive was just over an hour and a half. This was a little annoying: everyone was asleep and we were just re-tracing our steps. We even had to fill up at the exact same gas station that we had earlier in the day! Why did we even drive back to Austin? But soon I lightened up, thinking about how three hours of “unnecessary” back tracking had allowed us to see the most incredible display of bats I could imagine while we visited with Michael more and ate awesome Tex-Mex.
Driving at night through middle of nowhere Texas is nice. The roads had very little to slow me down, the speed limits were as follows: 80 miles per hour during the day and 65 during the night, unless you were a truck in which case it was 70 during the day and 65 at night. I kept the weighted down Xterra at 72 or so and hit the cruise, and it was fast enough to keep things interesting.
After a few hours, we drove through several spots with an overwhelming sulfur smell—worse than I have ever experienced. Tom woke up in the middle of the night and asked me to pull over ASAP so that he could relieve his bladder. It was in the middle of one of these relatively short “patches” of smell, and man did he notice. He jumped back in the car and asked if everywhere outside smelled as bad. I laughed, said “no” and kept driving.
At five in the morning, it was time for another fill up and time for me to get some sleep. I woke Sarah up as we were pulling into a gas station and man was she cranky. She complained about how she wasn’t going to get any sleep and the next day as a result she was going to hate the caverns and the sky was falling. By the time I pumped the gas she was in the driver seat ready to go and a little apologetic. You don’t want to mess with Sarah the first five minutes when she wakes up, especially at five in the morning.
I fell asleep in the front passenger seat of the car and woke up in New Mexico, about a half hour before we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad, NM. We were able to enter the National Park area before the caverns even opened, but the Visitor Center and path to the entrance of the cave were closed off. We used the single open bathroom and dug around in the car for granola bars while we waited. We were among the first in line for the cave tours. I had several lined up and was extremely excited. There was a lantern tour: Left Hand Tunnel, as well as the Lower Cave, which is advertised to have an “incredible diversity of cave formations that compete for your attention almost everywhere you look.” I was excited for these once daily tours as well as the more common Kings Palace, a tour with a paved walkway that allows visitors to concentrate on formations instead of footing.
To my dismay, as I approached the ticket counter, I was greeted by repeating “sold out” labels after what seemed like most of the tours. As it turns out, on any given day, everything but the Kings Palace tour fills up. Many tours are only available once a day for fifteen or twenty people and fill up weeks in advance. I purchased our admission to the caves and for the Kings Palace tour and relayed the bad news to Sarah and Tom. After another half hour of waiting, we headed for the natural entrance. As soon as we started walking, any disappointment evaporated.
The entrance was a sheer cliff. It would be impossible to navigate without climbing equipment or a series of ladders if not for the extensive concrete paths zigzagging back and fourth. The result of this windy path is that the dramatic drop is able to be walked easily with a shallow downhill grade—like walking down a wheelchair ramp instead of a steeper (but more direct) stairway. The caves were amazing, with something to look at every step of the way down the huge corridor. I am not sure that any explanation will do it justice, but check out the pictures.
While walking, we saw no end to the path for quite awhile. The whole path ended up being one and a quarter miles, and with the frequent stops to stop and admire everything, took close to an hour for us to navigate. The lighting was provided by spotlights, which were all behind rocks or in crevices. This lack of direct light made the walk even more interesting and authentic-feeling.
We reached the bottom. Tom and Sarah both decided that their wardrobe was insufficient for the alarming drop in temperature. They quickly decided to take the 754 foot elevator (I’m not kidding) from the heart of the cave to the top and grab closed toed shoes and additional layers. I felt okay and walked to the in-cave concession stand for coffee to help wake up more completely. I wondered around a bit and made sure we knew the starting point for the Kings Palace tour. Upon Sarah and Tom’s return, we walked directly to the meeting area and got ready for our tour.
Kings Palace was more amazing than our descent: The formations—formed from the movement of water and the deposition of previously dissolved calcium carbonate dissolved therein—were dramatic, and varied. They included the ever popular stalagmites and stalactites, draperies (sheets of calcium carbonate), columns (you guessed it), and soda straws (small, hollow stalactites). The endless sizes, shapes, and combinations of these formations made for quite a viewing experience. At one point the guide turned off all of the visible spotlights and created total blackout conditions. I would not want to be an explorer whose lantern went out in the depths of this cave.
After this, we shot back up the elevator for some lunch (the in-cave snack area hadn’t been delivered food because they were short staffed). They had a good selection of burgers and a couple specialty sandwiches (gratuitous food photo!).
We descended the elevator again to go on the self-guided Big Room tour. This is the second largest chamber in the world, and the largest in the western hemisphere. The formations, while different, had many familiar features to those in the Kings Palace, but many were on a larger scale and everything was still very interesting. Again, we spent a ton of time taking pictures and admiring our surrounding.
After a full day of spelunking, we piled back into the car and entered “Roswell, NM” into the GPS; at the point when we added Carlsbad to the itinerary the geography made it obvious that we would have to go to Roswell to play with the aliens. On the way we stopped at Cottonwood Winery, where we did a tasting and sampled some spicy peanut brittle.
We checked into our hotel in Roswell and headed back out for another buffet at the China King Super Buffet — and more training for me before the 72 ounce challenge; the time for the eating challenge was approaching quickly.
I woke up on the small end of my cousin Michael’s couch, sat up and stretched out. Michael is the second oldest cousin of mine and the oldest of his siblings. When I was ten, Michael was 15 and as far as I can remember he hung around my brother mostly and I spent my time with his two sisters, Leslie and Lee Ellen. All three of these kids definitely got the creative genes in the family; the youngest, Ellen, is in a band and recently got a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in Germany (she’s fluent (I’m pretty sure) in German too). I see Leslie every year at Thanksgiving and she is usually talking about her awesomely painted car with a chalk board on the back that people can draw on, and the sculptures she makes out of bottle caps and candy wrappers. And Michael - as soon as we walked into Michael’s apartment he had a series of small wooden dowels built up into a Fibonacci Sequence just for the fun of doing it. Like I said, this is the gifted side of our family.
So as I was saying - I woke up and stretched out, got up and was about ready to jump in the shower when Tom brought over a note Michael left for us. It said “Looking for good breakfast?”
"Why, yes we are" I thought and read on.
“Try Kerbey Lane Café on Kerbey Lane 10 min walk from here food is awesome J -Mike.” We headed over to Kerbey Lane where we found this café. We were on the way to the Texas Wine Trail down route 290 so the boys fortified themselves with a hearty breakfast each. I had some chicken tortilla soup with tortilla chips because I was feeling a little under the weather and wasn’t thinking a few sips of wine would require a stomach full of potatoes to handle.
We headed off to the first winery on the trial which was the Texas Hills Vineyard after our lovely meal. We were met by a very pleasant woman who was extremely helpful in getting us ready for a day of tastings. She gave us each a Texas Winery Passport and told us to get a stamp and a code number from each winery we visited that day. If we filled up the passport and went to a website to put in the information from the different wineries we would get a free gift. She didn’t know exactly what the gift would be but it was all an effort by the Texas Tourism Board to get more people to visit Texas wineries.
We each admitted we had no idea Texas had a wine trail let alone made wine until we arrived in Austin and she said that was typical - no one really paid attention to Texas wine because it seemed so out of place for the region. She also mentioned that because Texas is so dry and hot that they really don’t make sweet wine (which was what we had mostly found in New York State) but instead they have a lot of dryer wines. Joey and I are big fans of dry wines, but Tom was a little out of luck today, most of the wines we tasted were dry and even the sweet ones were erring on the dryer side. We tried a few whites and reds from her list, thanked her for the passports and area map and headed off to the next winery.
We pulled up to Woodrose Winery, walked up their pretty pathway and headed in for a taste. We had similar experiences from Woodrose to Pedernales Cellars to Becker Vineyards and Torre di Pietra Vineyards. Each had dryer wines rather than sweet and each attributed that to the dry hot climate. Each stamped and coded our passports and each were delicious in their own right.
Around the middle of this string of wineries we met a very friendly, very chatty woman originally from Ohio who got talking to us about the Texas region we were in. We bought some tasty Salmon spread and crackers which I all but devoured (that tortilla soup wasn’t the best to hold me for a whole tasting day as it turned out). She was very interested in the fact that we had gone to see Joel Osteen and found our travel story very interesting. Hope you’re still reading!
We winded down route 290 and neared Fredericksburg which was the end of the trail. It was nearing closing time for most of the wineries, but we were in time to stop at one more. At the Fredericksburg Winery we were met with a sort of grumpy older man who begrudgingly served us the small glasses of wine, annoyed at our general lack of knowledge of the different kinds. He kept making asides to Tom about how Joey and I were know-nothing wine drinkers which put me in a foul mood. I left with a scowl on my face but as soon as we got back to Michael’s and he suggested an awesome Tex-Mex place for dinner I was all smiles again.
It was getting near sunset so Michael suggested we go check out the Austin Bats before eating so we didn’t miss them. Watching the bats is nightly tradition here in Austin - there is one bridge in particular that is built in such a way that the bats have made a home between the bridge and the road, and every night at sunset they fly out from underneath out into the night to feed.
We waited around the top of the bridge and watched all the kayakers floating in the water below, all of the people gathered on a grassy spot by the edge of the water, and everyone on the bridge with us checking their watches waiting for the famous spectacle to ensue. Finally the sun sank low enough for the bats to take their cue.
A steady stream maybe two feet across came from the far right side of the bridge. Michael told me that he had never seen so many at once - I guess we brought good luck with us. After awhile the bats started coming from the middle of the bridge, and then from over to our left as well. They flew in columns and arched across the fading sunlit sky. Impressed but hungry we made our way towards the Tex-Mex place Michael had suggested and we had an amazing meal.
We headed back to Michael’s stuffed full and lay around on his couch a little bit more watching cartoons on his projector screen. I said my good-byes early because we had a crazy plan for the night. Joey wanted to get to Carlsbad Caverns which was a nine-hour drive from Austin so had suggested driving through the night. We thanked Michael for the use of his couch, slept until around midnight then headed to the car for the long drive west.
Thanks a million Michael, we had a great time in Austin!
Until next time America.
After the eventful morning, we weren't quite through with Houston just yet. Growing up in the Tom Hanks era has made certain phrases a part of my own personal lexicon - phrases like "Life is like a box of chocolates," "There's no crying in baseball!" and of course, "Houston, we have a problem." As long as were so close, we decided to check out Space Center Houston, the launching point for America's missions to the moon.
Admission was fairly pricy, and I couldn't help but notice that an annual membership was almost the same price as a one-day ticket. There was a bunch of old NASA gadgets around the room, as well as an exhibit about George Lucas that teetered between appropriate and confusing. They had an R2-D2 robot on display, which makes a little sense, but then they had things like the magic wand from Willow, which I found just baffling.
The admission included a tour of the facility on the tram, and we had our choice of seeing Mission Control, or checking out the astronaut training center. We opted for the former of the two, but to do that, we had to stand out in the lovely Houston weather for a half hour or so.
When we eventually arrived, the group shuffled into the building and to a room with theater-type seating, where we had a full view of Mission Control and a brief speech by an older fellow who'd worked there during NASA's heyday. The room looked just like it did in the movies, and the guy talking was pretty funny, because he almost seemed like he was getting emotional during his speech, even though he obviously gave the same speech several times a day.
The tram also took us to a warehouse-ish building in an awkward corner of the facility, where a giant piece of flight equipment lay inside for people to admire. The trams were running on a 15-20 minute basis, but there was a longer gap between trams when we were trying to leave. We kind of had to push and shove a little for our seats, but we pulled it off and left a pretty big group of people behind us, mumbling about the heat and telling their kids to quiet down. All in all, I agreed with Joey when he said that the Air & Space Museum back in DC was considerably more impressive.
We tackled the three-hour drive to Austin without any problems or rush hour traffic. In fact, we got there so early that our expected host, Sarah's cousin Michael, hadn't even gotten off work yet. Like clockwork, we killed the time at a local public house, called the Draught House Pub & Brewery, about a mile from Michael's house.
Our schedule around this time was pretty tight. Pretty soon we'd be visiting Carlsbad in New Mexico for a very exciting national park. But between now and then, we were also planning on driving out to San Antonio for an Alamo visit. We started to realize that all this might not be possible in our present time frame.
But before long, Sarah's phone rang, and Michael was on his way home from work. We met him there and spent the night watching TV and playing video games.
The next day, we took a deeper look into this very uncharacteristic Texas town. More on that from Sarah, coming very soon.
I watch a lot of television. Before we embarked on our great odyssey this summer, you could generally expect to find me sitting on my couch, underneath my laptop, with some kind of noise playing on the TV in the background. After all, I did emphasize in broadcasting during college, so sometimes I like to get a quick taste of plenty of different programs, if only to see the state of the industry today.
And we've all been there, when it's late at night, you can't sleep, and nothing is on television besides for infomercials and televangelists. Every now and then I've paused to examine both. The infomercials are all pretty much the same - just with different products - but the televangelists are all fairly different. Whatever they're saying, whether the viewers find themselves inspired or mortified, it's pretty hard to forget these folks after you've watched them.
One night, many moons ago, I took the time to read into one of the more prominent of these folks, a guy named Joel Osteen, whose services are taped here in Houston and broadcast regularly on numerous television networks. His church, Lakewood, is what's referred to as a "megachurch," a non-denominational Christian organization that's grown so large, they hold their services inside a former NBA basketball arena.
Since we arrived in Texas, we'd seen a rodeo and a gun show. This was clearly the third part of the Texas trifecta, and we just had to satisfy our curiosity.
We woke up bright and early around 6:45 and put on our Sunday best, and had a short drive to the church from our hotel, winding our way through an office complex to find parking. Once we did, it was fairly easy to find our way in - follow the signs, and the scores of people all walking in the same direction.
Once we were in the lobby, I spotted a woman wearing a Lakewood Church nametag, and began to ask for directions through the massive building. As soon as I said the words, "This is our first time here," her eyes lit up and she cheerily told us to follow her as she quickly began to scurry through the crowds of churchgoers in the halls.
She brought us right up front, maybe eight rows from the stage - which I call a stage and not an altar, for its obvious lack of any traditional Christian idols, without even a cross on stage. She asked us to save a seat for her, and hurried back to work.
So far the whole experience was completely different from my general concept of going to church. Then the service began.
The first half hour or so was like nothing I've ever seen. A large group of performers, most of them singers but with plenty of musicians among them, broke into a light-filled, surround sound contemporary Christian song. People in the crowd ate it up, singing along, jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air.
As the song ended, Pastor Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, came to the stage from the back. They both gave a short welcome to the crowd, the music continuing to play all the while in the background. But as soon as they were finished, the band took over again - for about four more songs in a row. There were no breaks in the music, just seamless transitions from one song into another. It was like a short contemporary Christian concert, packaged into the church service, and quite a performance at that. This was the part you don't see on TV.
When the music finally ended, Victoria Osteen took the stage and gave the audience some words. The three of us, as I noticed, were just about the only people in the crowd who hadn't brought their bible from home... I suppose we could have brought the Gideon's bible from the hotel.
A few other people came out to speak briefly, including Joel's mother and some other guy whose name I didn't catch. Soon Joel came to the stage, thanked the audience for coming and for their support, and soon the cameras were on, recording the sermon for the world to see.
Now, this Joel fellow takes an interesting approach to his sermons. He stays pretty much as far away from the fire-and-brimstone tack as he can, and instead tries to focus on embracing good and nurturing hope in times of desperation. To illustrate, he told a story about a tree in his yard that he thought about cutting down. But he balked, upon hearing the advice from a friend that the tree simply "wasn't in season." This, he said, applies to many parts of life - a relationship that may have gone sour for the time being isn't something you should give up on completely. It's just not in season. Give it time, and give it love, and just like Joel's tree, it'll be in full bloom again one day.
In the meanwhile, throughout the entire service, there were maybe two or three readings from the bible, none of which lasted more than ten or fifteen seconds - which, I suppose, is part of what makes this a non-denominational church. At the same time, this was the most optimistic, uplifting montage of sermons that I'd ever heard, and it was clear why people would keep coming back to this place. Everyone here, whether young or old, black or white, seemed to be a part of a community by coming here. People were comforted, happy, and at home in this church.
I reflected upon the experience as we filed out of the building. I have some pretty negative opinions toward most religious doctrines, because most of them claim to hold the answer to important questions, only to require a leap of faith and abandonment of reason in order to truly believe that what they say is true.
These doctrines were formulated to spread the acceptance of common-sense ideas - love your neighbor, help the needy, don't cause undue harm to others. But those basic lessons are too often overshadowed by outdated, irrational directives that lead to discrimination, hate, even war against people who believe otherwise - all the while hiding behind the notion that their set of beliefs is correct, and everyone else's is wrong.
I believe otherwise. I believe in those basic fundamentals of Christianity, which pretty much everyone can agree on. That's where I draw the line, and rely on my power of reason and common sense to make my way through the rest of my life. Doing so keeps me from becoming a part of a community like Lakewood Church - which I'm okay with. I'm an independent person, and I'm not afraid of going against the grain at the cost of keeping my own ideas intact.
I can see how people would want to be a part of a community like this. Embracing love and life is what living is all about, and that was the message at Lakewood Church. If I could bring myself to submit to belief in God and Jesus and the Bible, this would be a wonderful place, and I'd bring all my friends. But my greatest faith is in myself, and my own ability to reason my way through life by asking questions and learning real answers. The world is too awesome to have all the answers in just one little book.
The gun show in Dallas gave us plenty to talk about, mostly to make sure that everyone in the car had seen everything and that it wasn't just some kind of strange dream. A four hour drive south to Houston - and past this monstrous statue of city namesake Sam Houston (those are people standing at his feet) - brought us rolling into this giant Texas city in the early evening.
A handy function on our GPS allows us to search for local parks, landmarks, and other attractions of that nature. With her help, we managed to locate a George Bush Monument right near the center of town. I found it pretty comical, for the fact that the Sam Houston statue absolutely dwarfed this puny little monument. Maybe there's a bigger statue back home in Connecticut somewhere.
We'd certainly not yet had our fill of the delicious local fare here in Texas. Our experience at Casa Juanito in Dallas a few days before had merely served to whet our appetites for more delicious Tex-Mex. A quick bit of research online led us gleefully to Chuy's.
Oh man. This was a little pricier than our last such meal, set in a more lively environment with a full bar and Margarita specials. But nothing in the background can overshadow a meal like this. I'd taken a glance at the menu with a very open mind, and my eyes wandered upon something called the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo. That was all I needed to see - and as it arrived, for the life of me, I couldn't identify anything on the plate beyond the rice and beans. I've never known such sweet, blissful ignorance in all my life.
Usually at this point, we'd be getting ready to find a watering hole nearby to spend the rest of the night. But on this particular evening, we found it a better idea to pick up a case of beer from a local gas station and retire to our hotel for the night. Generally, we're not bashful about shelling out a little extra money for some good, fresh, local beer - but in Texas, that's not such a simple endeavor. It's much easier to find cheap domestic beer that's been rebranded to fit the state.
Why, oh, why would we go to bed so terribly early on a Saturday night? I'll fill you in with my next post.
“Are you ready,” Joey flexes his arm and kisses his bulging bicep, “For the gun show?!” I heave my backpack on my back kind of chuckling at him while kind of thinking I might just take a nap in the car while the boys go look at guns.
As a proud Massachusetts liberal I can honestly say that I had never seen a real gun until I met Joey’s family. They all go hunting during deer season and once when I was up at their hunting cabin I saw several real rifles. Joey let me aim one - I didn’t shoot it, just aimed it, and it was kind of like looking through a monocular with crosshairs.
The three of us found our rodeo tickets from the night before to get a dollar off at the door and headed down to the same area for the gun show. We pulled up and parked in a huge lot and walked in a small door in a strip mall looking section of shops. Outside the door was a sign that read “No loaded weapons. No exceptions.” And in smaller letters at the bottom it said, “Guns will be checked on the way in and out.” We walked inside and the place turned into a full warehouse complete with plain cement floor and walls, and every inch of available space was filled with a booth showcasing all kinds of guns. We were told by the attendant at the door that we couldn’t bring cameras in so Tom ran his and mine out to the car. He jogged back in and we made our way onto the main floor. I noticed a booth off to our left with red, white and blue Christmas lights and a light up sign that said “National Rifle Association.” The first thing after that which caught my eye was a picture of President Obama. Curious, I thought, and leaned over to see what was written below his picture. “Gun Salesman of the Year. Number One NRA Recruiter.” Hmmm, aren’t you clever Texas, I smirked and slipped through the crowd towards the boys.
“Joey, did you see this?” Tom was pointing at a poster with three pictures on it, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Harry Reid. Below their unfavorable mug shots read “The New Axis of Evil.” I rolled my eyes, but kept my head down so no one noticed my disapproval. There were a couple of shirts on the same table with snide remarks about the proposed health care changes printed on them, for example, one had a picture of a needle on it and said something to the effect that the new health care proposal would just be lethal injection for Americans. I had a quick flash of memory back to my home state and the town next to mine-Northampton, Mass. This is the most highly concentrated area of liberals you will find anywhere in the country. Two years ago I walked into a fun store called Faces where the entire back half of the first floor was devoted to any number of anti-Bush paraphernalia from playing cards where his head was superimposed onto bodies in dresses or bikinis to posters with Bush-isms in small letters across the entire page. So this is the other side… I thought to myself as I weaved my way through large men with mountain man beards and guns the size of their leg. I was wading through a sea of people who until recently had only been fictional characters on the news and who I was sure weren’t actually real. Well, they’re real. And they’re large. And they have big guns.
We wandered up and down each row; I marveled at people carrying around their own guns or aiming the unloaded models they picked up off the tables. A man walked by with a rifle hanging from a strap on his shoulder. The barrel of the gun was facing straight up and had a wooden dowel fed down the shaft with a small paper flag sticking off the end of the dowel. It read “$300 or best offer.” You can do that? I tried to reconcile my previous knowledge of background checks to have this yard sale gun swapping make sense. I quietly looked around at all the weapons. Joey pointed at the guy with the gun for sale.
“This is just like an electronics expo.” He smiled at me. “People walk around with antennas attached to their helmets to get a better frequency and talk to people - they have things sticking out of their helmets like how that guy has a for sale sign in his gun.”
“Back up. People wear helmets with antennas on them at electronics expos?” I eyed him up, carefully trying not to imagine him with one on.
“Not everyone, but it’s like at a Star Wars convention where people dress up like Boba Fett, people just get into it at these kinds of places.”
I nodded, thinking of the RV expo we had gone to before this trip. We were thinking we would find useful road trip items and we did find a small frying pan that plugs into the cigarette lighter. No one was dressed up like a camper, but I guess that would be taking it a little too far. I compared this gun show experience to that RV experience and tried to fit in the only other expo experience I think I’ve had. In Massachusetts every year we have a fair called The Big E. Maybe E stands for Expo, maybe it stands for Excellent, maybe it doesn’t stand for anything, I don’t know, I never asked. Regardless they have rabbits, sheep and cows there and most states are represented in their given building, Vermont sells cheese and maple candy, Maine has a line out the door every year for their baked potatoes, that kind of thing. The people at the RV show and the Big E are large people too. Those people know their way around a farm and so when they look at sheep and cows they don’t just see sheep and cows like I do, they see what sex the animal is, what age the animal is, how strong it is and everything else I have no idea about. The people at the gun show started looking like just Texans who knew about guns and I began to take the experience in stride.
We passed by a table full of handguns.
“Now these wouldn’t be for hunting, right?” I asked Joey.
“No probably not, you would probably use a rifle."
"So, these are like self-defense guns, right?"
"Yeah, most likely."
That you would own a gun for self defense makes sense to me, but since I don’t know how to shoot one I have always been more afraid of owning a gun for any reason than ever seeing them as a mode of protection. I’ll just jump on a treadmill and learn to run really fast and that’s all the self defense I think I’ll need.
We passed a table with brass knuckles and a throwing star shaped like a swastika. This stuff is just to hurt people - there is no other purpose behind having this stuff. I gave a closer look to the brass knuckles - the sign by them read, “belt buckles.” I don’t believe you, I softly breathed. I left that table behind putting it out of my thoughts. Chalk that throwing star up to a bad sense of taste, I told myself and slid between two men back to back looking at different table’s guns.
I keep talking about men, but there were women here too. I couldn’t stop myself from chuckling at an older woman in a pink dress that just looked like an ankle length polo shirt. She was wearing pink Crocs and was eyeing over a table of hand guns. You’re too old and sweet to want a gun! Why aren’t you baking cookies for your grandchildren?” But even older ladies, head to toe in pink, need a sense of protection I suppose.
We headed toward the Snack Shop and ordered a much more massive lunch than we expected. We each got “baskets” that came with fries and a drink. I got chicken strips, Tom had a cheeseburger and Joey got fried catfish. We tried fried pickles with ranch dressing too and they were delicious but with all that food we barely managed to finish half of our meals. You will not leave hungry when you eat at any kind of restaurant in America. And if there’s anywhere that sees itself as the embodiment of America - it’s Texas. While we were mid-meal I noticed a group of five kids off to the side in matching uniforms. The three boys had buzz cuts and the two little girls had their hair pulled back into tight buns.
“Do you see those kids?” I asked Joey, “What do you think their uniform is for? It’s not the Boy Scouts, I can tell that much.”
“I’ll go ask,” Joey jumped up and walked over to the kids. He came back to the table and told me, “They said, ‘the young Marines, sir.’”
“They said ‘the young Marines, sir’” I repeated, and Joey nodded. These kids were at most twelve years old. Now that’s impressive. Last night in the hotel we caught G.I. Jane on TBS. I looked at the smallest girl in the group with her green skirt, flat black shoes, tight pulled back bun and light brown shirt with stripes on the sleeve.
“Do you think they know what’s going to happen to them?” I asked the boys, my eyebrows raised in concern.
“Well they don’t have to become Marines,” Joey assured me. “They’re just a youth club like the Boy Scouts.”
“Yeah, but like the super intense Boy Scouts,” I said.
He chuckled and we moved on. We were about ready to go so we just wandered up and down the last few rows we hadn’t seen yet. Tom and I got a big kick out of small guns with pink and purple handles; I guess girly-girls need all kinds of accessories to match their outfits. We walked by a table and I did a halting double take. On the table was a bazooka. Really?!? Next to the bazooka was a missile. Holy God, are you kidding me? Joey saw me bug-eyed and staring, “It’s not live ammunition, I mean I guess you could fill that shell with gun powder and fire it off, but, you probably wouldn’t.”
We made our way past a few beef jerky stands and some stands with huge knives and then, right as we were about to leave I saw the thing I least expected to see at a gun show. Muffins. Yeah. Homemade muffins for sale. There are some things in life that I just can’t explain.
We left the gun show and headed on down the highway towards Houston. Texas is going to be full of new experiences for us so stay tuned, America; this state is going to provide a lot of interesting stories for us to tell you.
Until next time,
We woke up and immediately noticed women in pink everywhere. Apparently, a huge (inter?)national Mary Kay makeup convention was going on. We were still laughing as we entered the worst Denny’s Sarah can imagine; it didn’t seem particularly bad to me, but certainly subpar. The food seemed sanitary enough, and you can ignore anything else.
This was our day at the rodeo. Since the beginning of the trip, this was on my short list of things we had to attend, and Texas seemed to be the perfect place. I had hoped to find one in a rural area; my idea of the perfect rodeo is a town fair-once in a season-big prizes rodeo in the middle of nowhere where people travel miles and miles a comin' in here, a wailin', a hollerin', [an’] a yellin' at the competitors. This rodeo would be just outside Dallas in an air conditioned stadium; we were curious but excited for the evening, but first we were off to the Sixth Floor Museum.
This museum memorializes John F. Kennedy and documents the chain of events that led to his death. It was extremely effective, appropriately located in the sixth floor of the former Texas Book Depository, the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the fatal shots that killed our former president. The audio tours, visuals, and videos along the tour were incredible and his death was a great tragedy. For many living at this time, this must have been the most awful thing that could be imagined. We spent several hours checking everything out and quietly cursing Lee Oswald. I still haven’t decided if I was glad to see Oswald assassinated by a crafty nightclub operator, Jack Ruby. The last thing Lee ever heard was, "You killed the President, you rat!"
Next was a quick stop as what is billed as the “largest bronze statue in the world.” This was actually a series of individual statues that collectively were quite impressive. They were a cowboy and a series of bulls, all individually and masterfully crafted to create a memorable experience. We spent a good fifteen minutes checking this out, likely more than any individual nonmoving display anywhere else in the country.
We had time for one more sightseeing item before the rodeo. We headed off to Reunion Tower, dodging Mary Kay pink-suited women the whole way while walking over—and using tunnels to walk under—train tracks. After finding ourselves in a lobby of a nice hotel and asking around, we discovered that the Reunion Tower was, and had been, closed for a year and a half. Tom, who had previously worked for the Philadelphia branch of Where Magazine was particularly annoyed because the Dallas edition, besides being full of typos, (he was a copy editor) also had outdated information – which had led us here. We dodged more trains and Mary Kay representatives and jumped back in the car.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, the rodeo:
As I mentioned at the top of the post, we didn’t know what to expect. We got our tickets and headed in. We hurried to eat the all you can eat Bar-B-Que buffet to eat beef brisket and sausage before the festivities started. This was intended as further training for my seventy-two ounce steak eating challenge coming up in a few days. As it turned out, we had to pay an additional two bucks for the all you can eat wristband, and we were in a hurry to get seats anyway so we finished up and headed to the sating area, pausing to observe the national anthem and a stadium-wide prayer on the way.
This was not what I was expecting. I remember a rodeo from my youth and it was more about the competition than pure entertainment, this was an entirely new experience. A “rodeo clown” with a microphone made sure that there was not a moment of silence between events and tried his hand, somewhat successfully, at comedy. The competition area was covered in dirt. Music played a big role during lulls in the action. The lights were lowered and a couple fireworks suspended from cables exploded.
The rodeo had all of the main events that one would expect: calf roping, steer wrestling, and bronc and bull riding. In each case the individual performances were put on a big screen with a timer, the objective for the riding competitions being to ride as long as possible or, in the case of roping or wrestling, finish in as low a time as possible. In most cases, the competitors did not break a minimum time threshold to qualify to even be in the rankings for the riding competitions; they similarly were unable to correctly lasso calves or otherwise correctly complete whatever challenge was presented them. Ultimately; this confirmed my suspicions that any rodeo that “performed” several times a week was unlikely to attract top competitors. This was certainly more serious and competitive than a Medieval Times restaurant, but less serious than a championship rodeo.
There were also some interesting filler displays and competitions, including trick riding performed by cowgirls who could do flips on their horses or jump from and back to the saddle while riding. A competition that was slightly more serious was a timed competition where some women took turns dodging barrels on horseback and completing a short course as quickly as possible—essentially a speed riding and turning competition.
Sarah thought the kids’ competitions were cute. A few young children tried to hang on to the back of a mutton as long as they could (or at least longer than the their competitors) while the sheep ran around. How ridiculous. During half time about thirty kids lined up and tried to catch a young somthing-or-other animal. It looked like it was set up to be unlikely that they would catch it and hurt themselves. It was pretty funny.
Despite the low level competition and copious amounts of entertainment “filler,” just about everything was entertaining and I found myself excited to see what was next. The whole experience was about as expensive as a movie and much, much more entertaining.
Before we left, the loudspeaker announced that with proof of admission to the rodeo, we could get one dollar off tomorrow at the gun show. We held on to our tickets. The thunderstorm on the ride home was really cool, I think even the lightning is bigger in Texas.