Thursday, May 31, 2012

RT12 Day 9: Montgomery

Hard to believe it was only yesterday that I woke up in Austin. I'd planned to stay somewhere outside of New Orleans last night, but I ended up making the 800-mile drive to Montgomery, Alabama instead. Something about 14 hours of interstate driving clears the head, I guess. So since I was almost a whole day ahead of schedule, I got to sleep in this morning and spend all afternoon exploring Montgomery. I drove around downtown and followed every historical sign I saw, and there are tons of them. I visited the first White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived with his second wife (who was 18 years his junior. Just sayin'!).

It's a cool little museum, self-guided and donation-based. A surprising percentage of the furniture in the house is original, and there are lots of little relics, like gold pens used to sign big-deal documents, desks where other big-deal documents were drawn up, handwritten letters, etc. And apparently he played backgammon.

Jefferson Davis slept here!

This is the flag that was draped over his coffin as his body was transported via funeral train to Richmond, Virginia.

The present-day state capitol building is right across the street:

And next door is the Museum of Alabama:

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum is also a few blocks away, but I didn't go to it because I was hungry and got a sandwich instead. Am I a bad American for going to all the confederate stuff but skipping out on the Rosa Parks thing and the Freedom Riders museum??

The Alabama River flows through the city, and there's a park on its banks. I parked in a parking garage in a weird place, and it was ridiculously difficult to find pedestrian access to the park. 

Eventually, I got there, after walking through two fenced-in parking lots, going up an elevator in a parking garage (not the one I parked in), walking across a pedestrian bridge, and then taking two flights of stairs down to the riverbank. And guess what. It wasn't even that fun. 

The train station by the river:

I don't remember what church this is. I took the picture because I thought it was pretty, but now I think the windows on the left-hand side look like a face...

En route from somewhere I don't remember to somewhere else I forget, I saw a little sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald home and museum. So I made a left turn down a quiet, out-of-the-way residential street and found this:

Apart from that sign on the corner of the lot, the house wasn't marked in any way, and there was no one else parked outside. At first, I didn't think I was in the right place. But when I opened the front door, I was greeted by an extremely attractive -- and extremely married -- tour guide. Worth the $2 student price. I mean the tour is worth it. There's an 18-minute video followed by a 30-ish-minute tour of part of the house. (The rest is rented out as apartments.) Geez, Zelda was a total nutcase. Incidentally, one of her relatives was the original owner of the Confederate White House!

Since I was the only visitor there, I chatted with the guide for a few minutes after the tour. When I mentioned that I'm about to go to Jordan, he said he went there on his honeymoon and told a cautionary tale about taking hash on a bus to Jerusalem. I forget where I was trying to go when I made the detour to see the Fitzgerald house, but where I ended up next was the parsonage for the Dexter Baptist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived here for a while. For some reason there's only one tiny sign that says so, and you don't see it until you're right on top of it. You'd think they'd make a bigger deal out of it?

A few blocks away is the church where MLK Jr. preached and where the Montgomery bus boycott began:

Across the street from the church is the Civil Rights Memorial. It was designed by Maya Lin, the same woman who designed the Vietnam Memorial. And she's from Athens, Ohio of all places!!

Around the disc are names of people who died between 1954 and 1968 in the pursuit of racial equality. When I was a kid learning about the civil rights movement in school, it seemed like ancient history, in the same way that 30-year-olds are "old" when you're 8. Of course I know better now, but it's still jarring to realize people were being slain by the KKK only a couple generations before me. The date in the middle of this picture -- June 21, 1964 -- was my mother's second birthday. (Sorry, Mom, but everyone already knows you're about to be 50.)

As I left Montgomery to head north to Tennessee, I saw signs for the Confederate Memorial Park. I guess since I was in stop-at-nothing mode yesterday, I made up for it today by stopping at everything, even ridiculous things that are 15 miles off the freeway:

There was a little museum that I was a little too creeped out to visit. So I looked at a bunch of Confederate flags and left. 

Now I'm in Chattanooga for the night, up too late for Eastern time because my body's still operating somewhere between Mountain and Central time...

Speaking of mountains, getting all that driving done yesterday gives me time to explore mountains and caves tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

RT12 Day 7: Austin Part 2

Last day in Austin. A lot going through my head about this trip. Long story short, moving away from the Bay Area is hard for sure, but knowing firsthand that Austin is a pretty cool city... that makes it a little easier. And now that I have a student ID card with a picture that's worse than my driver's license photo, the whole thing is starting to feel "real." Overwhelming, but in a good way. 

New school, new start.

I got to visit the MES department this afternoon and meet some of the faculty. The department chair took me to lunch at a Palestinian restaurant near campus, then I met with a professor who works on Comparative Semitics. Turns out, in addition to being brilliant with languages, the guy's a birder. I have a bird "thing." Not so much a phobia as an every-fiber-of-being, capital-H hatred. And there is a species of bird here that make absolutely horrifying noises. Like spine-chilling screeches. I'd been trying to identify them since I got here, and this birder-professor solved the mystery: they're grackles. And oh my GOD these things are everywhere. They make normal chirpy sounds, too -- but watch the video and see if you can hear the noises I'm talking about. Don't let the males' shiny exterior fool you. They're hostile creatures, and vicious: 

After my meetings, Dad and I came back to the hotel to escape from the grackles (turns out you can still hear them through the lounge's glass walls!) and to get a break from the 97-degree heat. I took this opportunity to plan the next leg of my trip. As with all of my "planning" for the trip, it was back-of-the-envelope style -- literally, in this case. 

For dinner, we walked back downtown. One of the things I like about Austin is how walkable it is. Here's a view of the state capitol building from campus:

There's even a pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south parts of the city. Lots of joggers on the adjacent Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail. 

We ate at Malaga Tapas and Bar. Good food, nice presentation, and relaxed atmosphere. Who knew breaded and fried avocado slices could be good?

The omnivore was happy with his crab cakes and lamb. We're 3 for 3 on restaurant choices -- a pretty good record.

The capitol is lit up beautifully at night:

Another testament to the city's walkability. These two photos were taken from the same spot:

Saying goodbye to Austin for now, and waking up bright and early tomorrow morning to embark on the 9-ish hour trip to New Orleans!

Monday, May 28, 2012

RT12 Day 6: Austin Part 1

Day 6, the halfway point in the 12-day trip. Hard to believe it's halfway over! Staying in Austin for a few days is proving to be a nice break, a way to regroup before undertaking the rest of the drive home to Ohio. Dad arrived last night, and we've spent the day exploring campus and driving around town, familiarizing ourselves with different parts of the city.

Walking around UT's campus this morning, I immediately felt comfortable there, in part because it reminds me a lot of Ohio State. As an OSU alum, I'm used to huge state schools, huge both in campus size and in student population. So I found myself playing a little involuntary game of compare and contrast. Not in a better-or-worse way, just in a same-or-different way. Because, really, I love Ohio State's campus, and I suspect I'll love UT's as well.

Here's Guadalupe street, which borders campus on the west, and is the Austin analogue of Columbus's High street. The requisite Chipotle, coffee shops, and fro-yo. Oh, and don't forget the Church of Scientology.

In roaming campus without a particular agenda, we stumbled upon the football stadium. It's impressive, to say the least, with a capacity of over 100,000 and a building cost well over $3 million in today's dollars. (But Ohio Stadium again beats it out on both counts, seating 102,000 and a coming in at a cool $18.6 mill.) The architecture of the Longhorns' stadium reminds me not so much of the 'Shoe but of the Schott:

Texas squirrels are much more similar to Ohio squirrels than to their California counterparts, in terms of determination, fearlessness, and narcissism. This one even posed for a picture after dumpster diving to score some lunch:

The most widely recognizable symbol of the university is the Tower. (Its real name, apparently, is the Main Building... blame them for calling it the Tower?) Of course, this is much more reminiscent of Cal's campanile than any building at OSU. I suppose the postcard picture of OSU would feature an aerial shot of the oval and the newly-renovated main library? Who needs a tower when you've got... a big field of grass? 

Would you believe that this next building houses biology and chemistry classes? To think that for my two years as a chemistry graduate student, I was stuck working in a dingy basement, in a 90+ year old building. And that was at the top-ranked chemistry program in the nation! Hmph. 

This campus has no shortage of statues, most involving livestock of some sort. The kid is holding a lamb. I like sheep too much to imagine what happens next. Thank God they don't look like they're going anywhere anytime soon.

So we had some statue fun:

Dad was patient enough to indulge me:

I was surprised how much green there was on campus. There is no equivalent of OSU's Mirror Lake, but there are quiet little creeks like the ones I loved at UCB:

And a turtle pond! A whole pond just for turtles! Definitely an edge over OSU. Although I'm skeptical about the quality of their living conditions. I mean, I probably wouldn't be happy if I had moss growing on my back. I wonder if they even know...

Around noon, we'd had enough of the heat and humidity and hopped in the car to explore Austin and grab some food. Because it's Memorial Day, many of the bridges crossing the river were closed, so we took a detour down Congress Ave, which turned out to be great! South Congress is a vibrant neighborhood with lots of great restaurants and shops, and happy people wearing sunglasses. We got lunch at a Mexican place, Guero's Taco Bar. These Texas-sized vegan chalupas were delicious:

We spent most of the afternoon in the car. After an abortive attempt to hike at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve (good job, Katie, for checking if it's open on holidays), we decided to drive around and get a feel for some of the neighborhoods, like Hyde Park and East Austin. Then we ended up downtown. If I had a quarter for every time someone has told me over the past few months "You'll love Austin" or "You'll have a great time there"... (I'd buy you an exotic pet, like a llama, or an emu. 5 points if you know.) Walking around downtown, I started to realize what all the hype is about. So many great restaurants, so much to do, but still a comfortable, friendly, neighborhood feel -- a huge plus over Berkeley, in my (probably minority) opinion. And it's walking distance from campus, a big plus over Columbus. 

After recharging our batteries, both figurative and literal, in the air-conditioned hotel room, we walked back downtown for dinner at Cru Wine Bar -- goat cheese beignets with honey, lavender, and cracked pepper, wild mushroom pizza with fontina and white truffle oil for the herbivore, and ahi tuna for the omnivore. Key lime cheesecake for dessert. Perfect end to a good day. Austin, I'm impressed!

And, look, we found a swing! (I'm almost 25, I promise.)

Tomorrow,  I get to meet with professors from the Middle Eastern Studies department. I guess I better act my age...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

RT12 Day 5: West Texas

Today was the lowest mileage day of my trip so far, about 350 miles from Fort Stockton, TX to Austin. Also the first day with no tourist stops (no planned stops at least) on the way, so I had the luxury of hitting the snooze button four times before getting out of bed, and being leisurely about packing up. I was expecting a boring, uneventful drive, in contrast with the continuously stunning landscapes of the past few days. And the first couple hours met that expectation pretty well. In fact, this picture could equally well be a video:

Yup, exciting stuff!

As I travel further east, the character of the trip is changing with the landscape and the liberal-conservative spectrum, and I'm having to adapt. If I keep expecting Grand Canyon All The Time, I'll always be disappointed. So I'm adjusting and learning to love this part of the trip for what it is, letting the billion percent humidity and spotty cell service add to the aesthetic rather than kill the mood. Enjoying the road trip thing, windows down, sunroof open, and 90's rock radio way up. (Of course, that's in the spots where you can find more than the two requisite stations: Christian and country.) Wind-blown hair and California license plate. Speeding like crazy. (The speeding part has to stop soon -- after 2277.3 miles, I saw the first cop of my whole trip.)

The quickest way to get from point A to point B would have been to take I-10, but I decided to click on the little white Google dots and drag them up until they hit state routes and county roads, just to make things a little interesting:

So I ad-libbed my way in the general direction of Austin, trading in white dashed lines for yellow ones, and merge signs for "historical marker in 1 mile" signs. These brown and white historical markers show up every few miles. I'd been passing them by, since they're almost always just small turnouts with informational plaques. But sometimes they're not! As I drove past what I thought was just another lame-turnout-with-a-plaque sign and I saw some stone ruins, I did a double-take and made a U-turn. Lo and behold, I found a presidio!

In 1757, having gotten wind of possible treasure in this area, the Spaniards built this fort near present-day Menard, Texas. They promptly tried to convert the local Apaches to Christianity, and in doing so, iadvertently made enemies of other Indian tribes, including the Comanches. The Comanches attacked the fort, and supposedly only one of the hundreds of Spanish settlers lived to tell the tale.

It was restored in 2011, and now there's a parking lot, restrooms, and fancy signs at the entrance. But definitely not flocked with tourists.

You can walk through the ruins and read the signs that indicate which piles of rubble used to be living quarters and which were church-related (what's the p-word I'm looking for!?)

I had fun climbing around through the tiny doors.

This is the coolest part:

There's a beautiful little river that runs adjacent to the presidio (believe me, this is a shocking display of beauty when you've been driving mind-numbing miles on west Texas country roads). And now there's a golf course right nearby, too. Who knew?!

On this drive, I definitely had moments of "Where the hell am I moving?!" Granted, I realize Austin is nothing like these parts of the state, and I'm only seeing this stuff because I insisted on driving on ranch roads. But still, I reserve the right to react to the fact that I'm moving to Texas. Here, "Tanning" does not mean the first thing you think of. There are billboards that read "Deer and Hog Processing." There actually are abandoned streets that look like this (you can't tell here, but it's a taxidermy place):

There are churches everywhere. You know those yellow diamond-shaped warning signs, like for livestock crossings or curves in the road? Yep. They have ones that say "church." They also have signs that say "Obey warning signs. State law." Taking the two together... hmm. My favorite church (another double-take followed by a sharp U-turn):

Their bidding to "come as you are" seemed to take on another meaning. Ha. The gate happened to be open, so I drove down the narrow road leading to a small wooden shack-like building that must have been the church. Halfway down the road, I ran into this guy:

Here he is, standing right out in the open. This is one of those pictures where the animal looks a lot less imposing than in real life. I swear, he was huge, and he was staring me down, like, church service ended three hours ago, what are you doing here, you're an idiot. I wanted to get closer, but I chickened out and threw the car into reverse. Didn't even turn around, just backed all the way out the road. Yeah, because I was scared of a cow. Whatever.

So I didn't go to church with them, but I did see some real life cowboys, in the flesh. Hats, ropes, and everything! A mile later, I saw another U-turn animal, with insane-looking antlers, that I still swear to God was a reindeer but clearly couldn't have been. What is this? An elk I guess? Apparently I don't know the difference between reindeer, moose, elk, and caribou. Oh well, there are other things I'd rather know anyways. I wish this picture could convey the actual nature of the beast:

Anyway, arrived in the late afternoon and checked into my hotel, waiting to pick up Dad at the airport. An unexpectedly fun day! Looking forward to exploring Austin tomorrow.