Sunday, December 31, 2006
Exploring the town
Getting in to the Texas "thing". We actually OWN these hats!!!
Another first on our little journey! Jim & Michelle from Brockville have joined our merry band, having arrived on December 27’th. We have been touring the Texas hill country together and, seen just about all that San Antonio has to offer. Rather than totally succumb to the “trailer trash experience”, they have opted for a Hyatt. No sense of adventure!! But, great to see them! They too have been impressed with the history of the area and the apparent harmonious blending of the Spanish, Mexican and American cultures.
The Alamo Bowl was played here yesterday, adding 65,000 football fans to the local scene. The Texas Longhorns won a squeaker in the 4’th quarter, making for an exciting game. Since I think tickets for this game were sold out in 1966, we caught the game on the car radio, as we returned from wine tasting in the Texas hill country. I feel quite confident in saying that California does not have to worry about competition from Texas. Texas needs to stick to oil and cattle. Grapes…….maybe not!!
Today being New Year’s Eve and all, we have reservations this evening at one of the more highly rated San Antonio eateries and, hope to take in the midnight shenanigans at the downtown Tower of the Americas (do you think all residents of the “Americas” agreed to this moniker?). They apparently shoot off beaucoup de fireworks around the tower at midnight, making for quite a spectacle. I’m sure we won’t have to deal with any crowds!!!! We took in a Mariachi Mass at one of the 5 original SA Missions earlier today. The good Lord may not have recognized any of the 4 of us but, we behaved and had a wonderful cultural experience. Michelle, raised a good catholic, said it was the most unique mass that she had ever attended.
Tomorrow will likely be a quiet day after the festivities of this evening. Then Jim & Michelle hit the road for home on the 2’nd. We hit the road for points west on the 3’rd and, hope to find some of the more scenic areas we have been advised to see in west Texas along the way. BIG state!!
We wish any and all readers the very best for the coming year and hope that 2007 is a great year for one and all. Happy New Year.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Some days we can't remember our names but, we ....... "Remember the Alamo"
Somewhere waaaaaaay down there, there is a basketball game going on. No nose bleeds though!!
San Antonio is a unique city. Neither of us can recall being in a North American city so intent on preserving its historical buildings. Most of the major downtown hotels are located in former factories, warehouses or office buildings which have been beautifully refurbished and improved. The “River Walk” is another of those places listed in “1000 Places to See Before You Die” and, with good cause. The San Antonio River winds through downtown, with walkways on both sides, lined with galleries, restaurants, bars and hotels; all beautifully landscaped and brought together as if planned to be combined. And…….. this all happens one story below street level!
Texas has flown the flag of 5 nations (one being Texas), making for interesting history lessons. With characters like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston and Santa Ana thrown in the mix, it’s enough to make any kid pay attention in grade 5 history class. The Mexican influence is everywhere including the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), which has a large Mexican and Central American collection. And, to reinforce an earlier point……..it is located in a huge, beautifully restored “Lone Star Brewery” building complete with stables and warehouses out back. Many of the original Spanish missions, the primary tools employed to colonize south Texas, are still in existence. They are more fortresses than churches, with hundreds of indigenous people having lived at each mission, creating small, self-contained communities. The Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) is certainly the most famous.
We enjoyed a quiet Christmas made all the better through technology. We gave our son in Toronto and his girl-friend a web-cam and, treated ourselves to one too. We enjoyed the better part of a couple of hours getting caught up on line and in video. Great stuff! ALMOST like being there. Now we know what our “grandparent friends” have been so enthusiastic about
Getting last minute tickets doesn’t necessarily mean getting great tickets. We were able to score a couple of tickets to tonight’s San Antonio Spurs NBA game, which was a sell out. Great game, which sea-sawed a couple of times and almost went right to the wire, until the Milwaukee Bucks “turned it on” at the end and sealed the game. After the game, we got out of the parking lot in about 30 seconds!!! No maddening waits like one experiences at the Corel Centre / Scotia Place or whatever it’s been renamed since we left. The police control all traffic direction for many blocks around the arena, with no turns at one intersection and, all left turns or all right turns at another. The result is that traffic just disappears. Listen up Ottawa!!
Saturday, December 23, 2006
We created a bit of a Christmas card which we attempted to send to everyone on our e-mail contacts list but, some of them bounced back for whatever reason. The ones that did go had the formatting all messed up anyway. Then we attempted to copy the card to our blog with absolutely no success. Please accept the fact that we made an effort to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas. We sincerely hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday and a healthy and prosperous New Year.
The entire area from Louisiana to mid Texas is known for its pecans. There are roadside stands, pecan orchards and, processors selling from their factories. You can buy glazed pecans, whole pecans, cracked pecans, pecan pieces, chocolate covered pecans, pecan pies and, a pecan in a pear tree for all I know. We are continually being admonished for our pronunciation of the name of this delicacy. We say pee-can however the CORRECT pronunciation is pee-con. In fact one sales women at a road-side stand told us that the pee-can was located out back with a half moon on the door. With sincere apologies to those who pronounce this word correctly, it always sounded “affected” to me (I say tom-ay-toe and you say tom-ah-toe). However, you are correct!! We thought we might name our motor-home the “Pecan”. It’s the right colour. Then we can pronounce the word any damn way we please.
We have been making mental notes on our trip about the best and worst that we have experienced along the way. In the “drivers” department, Florida drivers had a lock on the worst category until we got to Texas. In Texas putting on your turn signal to change lanes is a sign to the guy behind you in the lane you are moving to, to floor it so you can’t get in. Solution…….don’t signal………surprise em!!!! Some state is going to have work hard to beat Louisiana roads for the “worst” prize. Time will tell.
The Trans Siberian Orchestra was in town today and, since it was a cold, rainy day we decided to get some tickets on-line. What a show. It was 2 ¾ hours and seemed like 20 minutes. They put on a Christmas show that was spellbinding. Tchaikovsky may have been rolling over in his grave when they performed the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. But, we liked it!!!
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
A little "reno" at the LBJ Library
No "reno" here. The Bush Library.
BIG is big in Texas. The Austinians are quick to point out that the Texas State Capitol building in Austin is BIGGER than the US Capitol Building in Washington. It IS the BIGGEST state in the union, at almost 900 miles across and, there seems to be some measure of pride in this fact. Every time we think we have seen the ultimate residential neighbourhood, we find one where the homes are BIGGER and grander. We have just returned from driving around Mount Bonnell, which is a hill-top residential area overlooking Austin and, holy mackerel the homes are BIG. The waterway homes in Lauderdale are tiny by comparison.
We visited both the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin and the George Bush (the elder) Library in College Station; both extremely well done. It is amazing how much one can learn in these facilities, not only about the President and the society in which each of them governed but, about ourselves. A guide was quick to point out that the Bush Library is not BIGGER because there is a protocol for Presidential Libraries which limits their size to an agreed maximum! The drive to College Station looked to be closer on the map than in reality however, we had a great opportunity to drive through many small rural Texas towns. It is amazing to us how BIG the high-school football stadiums (and we do mean STADIUMS) are in communities with populations of 400, 750 or 1,500. Across the Texas plain one can see the light standards at the stadiums for miles. Remember the old “water tower” game when driving cross-country. We were looking for high school stadiums!
The Bush Library is on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, with an on-campus student population of 45,000. BIG! And, they take their football VERY seriously. Those high school stadiums pale in comparison to Kyle Stadium, the “on campus” A&M stadium, which any CFL team would kill to be able to play in. BIG!
Even the “Blues scene” is BIG in Austin. Austin claims to have over 100 live music venues in a city of only 750,000. I am sure that they are stretching the truth Texas style but, there ARE a lot of bars, clubs and theatres, where one can see live music. We caught 3 bands last night; one OK and two very good. One had a guy named Reilly Osborne playing my fav, the Hammond B3 organ. He was great. Now, can I get Brenda to return????? It still ain’t Memphis pardners!!!
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Think this tree would be hard to trim? The Galleria Mall - 4'th largest in the US
Try this one!!! On top of the mainmast of the barque Elissa in Galveston Harbour
One of our “bibles” on this trip is the book “1000 Places to See before You Die”. We have checked many of the 1000 places off on our little journey. Fortunately for our longevity, we have many hundred left to experience! The book highly recommends the “Menil Collection” in Houston. This eclectic art collection of over 15,000 items, ranging from Greek and Roman artifacts to surrealists Max Ernst and René Magritte, is one of the world’s largest private collections and, is housed in the most spectacular, purpose-built art gallery we have ever seen……..including the Guggenheim! A magnificent collection. There are even numerous works by Barnett Newman who, you might recall, caused a storm of controversy when the National Gallery of Canada paid $1.8 million for a large Newman canvas portraying a red stripe on a blue background (Voice of Fire). The Foundation operating the large, minimalist, modern main gallery has purchased the entire surrounding residential neighbourhood and transformed all of the structures into a homogeneous arrangement of buildings with strong design integrity in all aspects, including the surrounding gardens resplendent with large sculptures and “people spaces” and 1,000’s of Paperwhites. One building, a Mark Rothko “chapel”, features 14 oversized Rothko canvases which, to my unknowing eye, look like the artist ran one work through a special Xerox and hung the copies side by side. Got to be careful…….Rothko is our son’s favourite artist and, I know he reads the blog……hi Jonathan! Guess I’ll have to work on my artistic sophistication! The “chapel” was a very contemplative space none-the-less.
Houston / Galveston is Brenda’s second favourite city along our route to date. I think we will be returning home with Chicago still firmly in first spot. For the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is a clean, modern, vibrant metropolis with a wonderful system of highways, parks, trails, and all the modern trappings of good planning. There are numerous museums, galleries and interesting things to see and do and; Galveston Island, the Gulf of Mexico, and wonderful beaches are 60 miles south, with all the Tiki Bars any self respecting sophomore could hit on a rainy March break. There is a “vibe” to this place.
We’ve toured north, south east, and west in this city; saw the sights and visited many attractions. We’re sold! All the high office buildings downtown have their roof-lines outlined in white lights. Very effective. TO could do that. We rode down Oak Post Boulevard tonight, where they claim to have 500,000 white lights on hundreds of Christmas trees. Looked like more to us but, we lost count at 56 lights. Think of University Avenue in Toronto with the power meter spinning big time! The “high rent district” is an entire neighbourhood of “Bridle Paths”. And… real estate here is cheap ………relatively speaking. Tomorrow – Austin.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Full scale mock-ups of everything
Standing in front of a door to a "vacuum thermal test chamber"
Brenda taking over the historic control room [She's the one in black ;-)]
Holy rocket ship Batman, the Johnson Space Center in Houston is one huge facility. We spent the entire day there (except for maybe that time spent drinking beer and eating 50¢ oysters…..fresh off the boat……..and …….they were great). The Houston facility is NASA’s central brain where most of the projects are dreamt up, prototyped, and tested. And man do they test!! Several years ago, we visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, from where all flights are launched but, it is from Houston that they are controlled.
We were uniquely fortunate that a Space Shuttle flight (STS116) was “in the air” and docked with the International Space Station (ISS). We were able to visit both active control rooms (one for the shuttle; one for the space station). Unfortunately no pictures allowed however, it was a thrill to see the actual minute by minute control of a live mission. One of the astronauts on the ISS was attempting to replace a carbon filter on a water system and was seen and heard to say “This Alpha Tango blah blah thing is sticky. Ok if I use a bigger wrench?” High tech indeed!! The CAPCOM in Houston said “Sure go ahead”. Fortunately it came unstuck. I fear a big hammer might have been used next. We also watched as the ISS astronauts set a new world record for a Frisbee toss. I can’t help but think that a weightless environment might be cheating!! I guess it’s not all work.
Pictures were allowed in what they call the “historic control room”, from where all flights up to 1997 were controlled and, in all other facilities. Astronauts were practicing space station construction in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), a huge swimming pool 100 x 200 x 40 feet deep and, at the other end of the pool; they were already developing techniques for the next moon mission in 2020. I may have overdone it on the picture taking but what the heck, I am a bit of a tech geek!
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Goodbye to the big river
Restaurant decor Texas style - crystal chandelier and Texas Longhorn
We have been cruising along, crossing over, and generally in the neighbourhood of the Mississippi River since early September. I can’t remember how many times we have crossed back and forth. Monday we crossed over for the last time, leaving the river and Baton Rouge behind - westbound. I-10 from Baton Rouge to the Texas State line is unquestionably the worst highway we have ever been on. The roads in Quebec are as smooth as glass by comparison. We kept wondering how much stuff we were breaking as we chattered our teeth and jiggled our bones down that highway. God forbid that they should ever have frost heaving!!! When we arrived in Beaumont, Texas our satellite antenna system was haywire but after cycling it numerous times it settled down and finally worked properly. After visiting a sitting of the Louisiana State Legislature on Sunday and watching a whole lot of nothing going on, we thought of e-mailing and suggesting that they spend a few bucks on the highway system.
You can tell where you are on the Gulf coast by listening to which hurricane the locals are talking about. Here in Texas it’s Rita. They got hammered! We drove from Beaumont to Port Arthur on the coast and saw the usual damage patched with blue tarps and plywood. Very, very sad. Nothing is immune: businesses, hotels, homes, you name it. On the coast, we crossed to “Pleasure Island” on a very high bridge from which we could survey the surrounding countryside. Oil refineries to the horizon in both directions!! The Dupont plant in Maitland could be a lawn ornament at some of these Texan facilities. It is easy to see how an incoming hurricane can affect the price of refined oil.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
This place is one of the most highly rated Cajun food restaurants ... no kidding. The old washing machine adds a certain "je ne sais quoi" don't you think?
I’ve always thought it would be a rush to be involved in some record setting activity. Done! 120 year old temperature records are being broken every night and we are in the centre of the action. Oh, by the way, these are not high temperature records. We are being advised to keep taps running in order to keep the plumbing from freezing. Welcome to the old South!! At least there has been no snow……..yet!
We toured the most haunted Plantation in the south the other night and had a wonderful dinner in their attached restaurant. Everyone SEEMED to be alive. Virtually every family that has inhabited this plantation from the mid 1700’s to the present has suffered numerous violent or tragic deaths in the main house and out-buildings. As a result…….lots of ghosts. We didn’t see any but, Brenda was looking a bit pale!
We spent the day yesterday touring Cajun Country around Lafayette, Louisiana. Getting there involved crossing an 18 ½ mile, low level bridge, which topped swamps, bayous and lakes. It was breathtaking. Massive cypress trees surrounded with still water for mile after mile. I wanted to stop and take pictures but figured one of our 18 wheelin’ friends might not like it! Traveling in this area requires a healthy appetite and a willingness to learn about new foods (Boudin – a spicy pork and rice sausage; Satsuma – small very sweet oranges; Cracklin’ – pork skin fried crisp; as well as the usual crayfish, gumbo, jambalaya and my personal fav – catfish). Early Cajuns must all have been brewers. The food is so spicy that you just have to have another beer. “Everyone needs something to believe in ……… I believe I’ll have another beer”.
We tried the most highly rated Blues club in town last night and…….this is not Memphis! The local blues band was workmanlike at best and, if we want to be honest, pretty wooden in their playing. But, as with all blues clubs, the crowd was interesting!
Today we will climb to the top of the State Capital building, the tallest in the US. From this vantage we hope to get some panoramic views of the busy Mississippi River. From ground level is it difficult to get a good look because of the continuous levees. We’re also heading to a nighttime Christmas celebration and bonfire at a large plantation house. Quess whose idea that is?
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Two years after Mother Nature came "to visit". This used to be a hotel!!
Surrender or else!
Gulf Shores, Alabama (Bama to the locals) took a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan 2 years ago. The RV Park, in which we are located, one block from the beach, was hit with a 19 foot storm surge. The devastation along the beach is unbelievable and, most of it has been cleaned up!! We are told that as we head west into Mississippi and Louisiana the devastation will be even more complete. In this area, the surge lifted a 300 foot Casino Boat and deposited it10 miles away on highway 98. It blocked the only rescue route in so the Army Corps of Engineers had to blow it up to create pieces small enough to remove with machinery. They then repaired the road and the rescue began. Last year, Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall over 200 miles away, hit the park with a 14 foot storm surge. It begs the question “How much will it take to make these people move out?” They are NOT quitters!
We bought some tuna steaks and crab bisque up a river off the gulf; at a fishing “port” that looked like Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan could be pulling their shrimp trawler in at any moment. We were served by a wonderful old lady who was the spitting image of Granny Klampett from the Beverley Hillbillies. She knew her fish!!! The boats were being unloaded as we put our “catch” in the car. Fresh! I now know what “backwater” means. We found our way there with no problem but, getting back was another issue.
Mobile is reasonably forgettable although one must always remember that, with two major hurricanes in two years, there is little emphasis on “decorating”. Many houses, hotels and other buildings in the region are still boarded up awaiting repairs. We visited the USS Alabama, which at 40,000 tons (80 million pounds), was even moved (a bit) in the storms. Made a mental note not to join the navy. Historic aircraft at the USS Alabama Memorial were tossed around in the hurricane like so much flotsam and jetsam INSIDE A HANGAR. They and the hangar are just so much scrap metal now.
We are packing up for Baton Rouge tomorrow (Friday) where we hope to find some more blues clubs. We’ll give New Orleans a pass. I think we’ll have had our fill of devastation without going to the epicenter.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Not a State Park
Florida snowflakes in the trees
We have moved to Santa Rosa Beach, near Destin, at the western end of the Florida panhandle and baby its cold outside. Well cool actually. Daytime 68F but, at night it has been getting down to the low 40’s or even high 30’s. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.
Yesterday, we blew the better part of a beautiful warm, sunny, Saturday watching the Liberal leadership convention and, for politics, it made for compelling television. Brenda was cheering for Bob Rae (I’m seeking help for her) and, I was supporting Gerrard Kennedy. So…..we’re both losers! I suspect the big winner may have been Stephen Harper. I could just never get my head around Mike O’Shaughnessy with his arm around Bob Rae!!!
We also visited Sandestin yesterday which is the first entire town we have even seen which is totally “gated”. Total access control in a town that looks like Inter-West moved one of its ski villages to the beach – a bit contrived but well done. But…..we got in!
We expected this part of Florida to be less developed and perhaps a bit backward. Wrong! We did not expect a “crane convention”! Wow…. If there is a bit of vacant land somewhere, someone will put up a building. Fortunately, the Florida State Parks have secured huge tracts of the best beach land and created State Parks that stretch for mile after mile, on island after island, leaving the beaches and surrounding dunes in their native condition. Some barrier islands are uninhabited. You cannot even drive to within a ½ mile of some of the beaches. This is a major breeding area for sea turtles and Florida Parks is doing an excellent job of protecting their terrain. The sand is snow white, leading Brenda to prod me into taking pictures every time we see the beach “because it’s Christmas and the sand looks like snow”????? The beaches and dunes are magnificent. One can often look down the beaches for miles with not a soul on them.
Speaking of Christmas and, thanks to Brenda’s excellent research, we did all the Christmas stuff Florida style. After a beautiful sunset, we attended the community Christmas tree lighting at Fort Walton Beach, complete with choirs and a tent shrouded ice skating rink. It was fun watching the locals in blankets, toques, ski jackets and scarves. I was in shorts. The ceremony was followed with a Christmas Boat Parade, which we watched from the comfort, and warmth, of a waterfront restaurant. Most boats, up to about 60 feet, were draped in thousands of lights. Even the police boats escorting the parade participants were decked out in lights to the extent that it was difficult to see their flashing blue beacons. Santa is an adaptive gent.
We will spend the next few days here foraging for food, internet connections and sunsets after which we will hit the road for Mobile Alabama on Tuesday. We are at a beautiful State Park but, from now on no more locations without Wi-Fi. The next post will likely be next Tuesday or Wednesday.