Talking Politics in Texas

From Galveston we drove to San Antonio where I was lucky enough to be able to write a review for Splash Magazines. This entailed us staying at a luxury hotel and dining at a very hip restaurant. So dedicated where we to the story that we even had breakfast in bed. Almost as much fun as camping.

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Along the San Antonio River Walk

We also made time to check out the River Walk which is located one story below street level like some sort of subterranean mirror image of the above downtown. At night it is lit up with Christmas lights and people crowd the cafes to sip coffee or cocktails. Strolling along the river bank it was easy to think we were in Europe. Then we walked into a gift shop that sold toilet paper with the President’s image on it and we knew exactly where we were.

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Street art in Austin. Works for us.

Next day we drove to Austin where we saw a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read “Not my President.” We were confused about the owner’s politics (sticker could have referenced either the current or future President). Other stickers, like one for the Human Rights Campaign and several for Hillary, were less confusing. Digging the progressive vibe we checked out the shops on South Congress Street. Later we went to the Texas Capitol and were greeted by the Confederate Soldiers Monument which celebrates the Texans who “died for state rights guaranteed under the constitution.” This is followed by a lot of propaganda on how the brutal north suppressed the noble southern wish for sovereignty. There is no mention anywhere about slavery. Must have been an oversight.

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Wanting to fit in we sponsored a bill limiting a woman’s access to birth control.

Politics aside, the capitol is impressive and the people working there, as is true with almost everyone we met in Texas, are friendly. One attraction that caught my eye was an exhibit celebrating the fifty-two African Americans who served in the Texas legislature immediately following the Civil War. After Reconstruction, however, it took until 1966 before an African American was elected to the Texas Senate. No reason is given for this extended absence, but my guess are the usual culprits of ignorance and racism. That and a healthy dose of voter suppression. Something to consider as states across the country are currently attempting to limit early voting and enact stringent voter identification laws.

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Deep in the heart of Texas exists the amazing Buc-ee travel marts. Like Wall Drug only without the robotic dinosaurs.

After Austin we headed north to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Housed in a former book depository (yes, that book depository), the exhibits first focus on the Kennedy presidency before delving into his assassination. It is very tastefully done and left us with many “what ifs?” like “what if his motorcade sped up as it approached the expressway?” Leaving Dallas we continued to think deep thoughts and I thought of how big our country really is. Sometimes I think that the amazing thing is not that Americans are so divided but that we ever come together at all. But then a national tragedy occurs and suddenly people feel a kinship to people who vote and think differently than ourselves. What if more people were able to drive instead of fly across America? What if that led to more open conversations? What if indeed.

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Looking down at Dealey Plaza from book depository

 

 

Galveston, Texas

Seawall Blvd. wraps along the Gulf side of Galveston. On one side is water, a sliver of sand at low tide, and the rocks which make up a tentative barrier against the sea. All the hotels are on the other side and in between are four lanes of highway. There are precious few ways to safely cross the street so we ended up driving across the street. As far as beach towns go we were not that impressed. The next morning though we found the quaint downtown and the quiet state park where we spent most of the day hanging out at the beach. Sometimes it takes a little while to get to know a place.

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Hanging out at Galveston State Park. Campsites on the beach as well as on the bay are available.

First founded as a “pirate kingdom” in the early 19th century, Galveston evolved into a very important and rich port city that was then nearly wiped out by a hurricane in 1900. The worst natural disaster in U.S. history, somewhere between 6,000-8,000 people were killed. Galveston was rebuilt and fortified in part by an influx of immigrants including approximately 10,000 Eastern European Jews. Over the past few decades Galveston has experienced many hurricanes with Ike the most recent uninvited guest.

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Sacred Heart Church, Galveston

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The Star Drug Store first opened in 1906 and has survived several hurricanes and one fire. A counter top place with a few tables, they serve excellent food as well as classic fountain drinks. Hennacornoelidays approved.

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Pleasure Pier is one of several piers jutting into the gulf.

 

Greetings from Abbeville, LA

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Avery Island: home of Tabasco sauce and the Jungle Gardens

Greetings from Abbeville, LA where we just celebrated New Year’s Eve in a very comfortable and relaxing rental. It was a bit touch and go to begin with as our GPS first delivered us to the wrong house. We stumbled about looking for a key before Corey went into the backyard and fun a whole mess of bullet casings. Time to go. The next place looked promising (and was in fact the right home) but we were a bit confused by the police cruiser parked out back. I wondered if 1) I stumbled into a crime scene and 2) if I had a good alibi. Again I could not find the key so I knocked on the door. Nothing. Then I tried to turn the knob and was surprised when the door opened. Now I wondered if maybe there was a napping police officer inside. Trying my best not to get shot, I yelled “tourist from Chicago! Just looking for the home I rented!” Complete silence and I thought about stepping into the house before I heard a dog barking from inside. I ran back to the car and cursed all home rentals. Eventually the mystery was solved (the rental was actually toward the rear of the property). Later we met the our two hosts and found them to be incredibly kind and spirited. He probably would have shot to wound not kill me.

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Jungle Gardens include many Asian plants and artifacts including this thousand year old Buddha.

Abbeville, by the way, is the home base for Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup which is supposedly a staple of southern cooking. A Steen’s recipe book was placed in our kitchen. Flipping through I came to a chapter titled, “Why Pure Cane Syrup Is Necessary In The Diet.” From this chapter I read, “Most mothers are natural worriers about whether they are providing the proper diet for their offspring. Their worries could be put to rest, however, with a daily serving of pure cane syrup…” It goes on to describe how children in Southern Louisiana often snack after school on “syrup sandwiches.” And, of course, “for countless healthy individuals, ‘syrup sopping,’ is the only kind of desert worth mentioning” which consists of “pouring a good quantity of syrup into your plate after the meal is finished and sopping it up with hot, crusty French bread.”  There was a bottle of the stuff in our kitchen so I drizzled a bit on some bread. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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New Years Eve was also the last night of Hanukah. Over the last week we lit candles at Christmas Eve dinner, hotels in southern Illinois and Mississippi and, of course, the Big Easy.

Postcards from New Orleans

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Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans

In between lots of tea and one more Urgent Care stop (and Henna’s cold is just now really starting to clear up), we had ourselves a good time in the Big Easy. To us the city is equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Europe, and the American South. It is also rickety trolley cars well past their prime, Spanish moss hanging from the Cyprus trees, and hipsters congregating in the Lower Garden. It will not take a Voodoo spell to bring us back here.

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We were lucky to have met photographer David G. Spielman whose photos in the immediate aftermath of Katrina chronicle a very desperate time in New Orleans

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Located just outside the French Quarter in one of the oldest African American communities is Louis Armstrong Park (formerly Congo Park). Into the mid 19th Century slaves met her every Sunday to trade goods, stories, and express themselves in music and dance.

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La Bamba: Champaign, Il

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Burrito as big as Henna’s head

After a wonderful Christmas down south in Hegewisch, we are headed further south to the Big Easy. Henna does have a bad cold but the kind folks at Effingham’s Urgent Care assured us she probably will start feeling better soon. So with a menorah in the back seat and candles to burn, we are ready to begin a new adventure. First stop off the interstate was La Bamba.

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Ramiro Aguas, co-founder of La Bamba

Always open well after last call and featuring “burritos as big as your head,” La Bamba has been a fixture in Champaign since 1987. Begun by two brothers, Ramiro and Antonio Aguas, La Bamba now has eight locations spread out over four states. Amazingly, the restaurants do not use freezers or fryers which results in a very fresh product. Henna and Corey are big fans of their veggie burritos. I like their tortas. The burritos, by the way, are available in several sizes including one that is definitely bigger than even my head.

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The winter sky over the flat Illinois farm land

The days are a lot shorter in winter and hotels frown upon starting camp fires so we end up watching a bit more television than we do in the summer (which, if you ask me, involves way too much Food Network; I mean come on, how many times can anyone watch a future groom and bride fight over their wedding cake. And honestly, if you cannot compromise over a cake I’m not sure you should even get married). We also order a lot more pizza. Tonight’s pizzeria  told me that they were running low on dough so they were only making medium size pizza which would then be  delivered to us in about two hours. Our options were a bit limited so we added a salad and it was all delivered ninety minutes later without napkins or forks. The pizza, although cold, was actually pretty good. And when the ladies were not looking I switched the channel to watch some football.

 

National Museum of Mexican Art: Pilson, Chicago

Special thanks to the seventh grade kids who acted up on Henna’s school field trip to Springfield. Without them Henna’s class trip to the Mexican Art Museum would not have been cancelled making it doubtful we would have traveled to the Pilsen neighborhood last weekend. But children will be children and their loss was our family’s gain.

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One of many pieces focused on the Day of the Dead

The Pilsen neighborhood was given its name in the late 19th century by the large Czech population living there at the time. For those not familiar with Chicago neighborhoods, they often exist as a carousel for large ethnic groups migrating together. Before the Czech’s lived in Pilson and claimed it as their own, the neighborhood was primarily German and Irish. And then sometime in the 1960s Pilson became known for its large Hispanic population which is now being edged out ever so slightly by the hipsters.

A true anchor to the community is The National Museum of Mexican Art which presents Mexican culture as being “sin fronteras” (without borders). In that spirit the museum displays everything from ancient Mesoamerican pottery to modern folk art. A popular attraction is their seasonal Day of the Dead exhibit which we were lucky enough to catch on the very last day it was displayed. The admission, by the way, is 100% free. We like free.

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Scott and one very hip cat at Pinwheel Records (1722 W. 18th Street)

Besides the art we also enjoyed eating at  El Milagro Tortilla (1923 S Blue Island Ave) and shopping along 18th street. Our favorite store was easily Pinwheel Records (1722 W 18th St.) where we raided their 10 cent record bin.

 

 

 

 

 

Playing the Blues on the Red Highway

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Where ice and earth meet

Last night was a rough one for Hennacornoelidays. Maybe only equal to that time we camped in a hurricane. Trying my best to fall asleep I imagined a road trip leaving from my house that only went through areas that voted for Hillary. I did not get very far.

The simple truth is that some of the areas we love the most agree with us the least on almost everything. And that is OK. I like people. I like talking politics. And religion. Sometimes this works out well, sometimes not so much. But what to make of the sign on Highway 20 near Chadron, Nebraska that features a snake with President Obama’s head? Or the nice older man camping with his adult daughter near that sign who warned me about black helicopters? The day he did was the same day the Supreme Court paved the way for same sex marriage. Beneath my feet I felt the rural and urban pieces of earth pulling apart.

I love my neighbors. All of them. Some of them have Trump lawn signs. I hope I am wrong and you are right. Other neighbors are devastated right now and this feels a lot different than when Bush was elected/re-elected. My good friend Tom, The Birdman of Edison Park, posted on Facebook what I think is the best way to get through the next four years. Get organized.

As for my other neighbors, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. You should have known better, but I forgive you. I also forgive the fine citizens of Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Think it might take me a little while though to forgive Florida due to them being a repeat offender and all. And I honestly did not expect any different from the Dakotas, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Utah, Idaho, or Mississippi. They are what they are and in time I will forgive them too. Now where can I get a bumper sticker saying, “Don’t blame me, I voted for her?”

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Sometimes the road gives and sometimes the road takes

 

Backbone State Park, Iowa

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Corey and Henna gazing out from the CCC built boat house at Backbone State Park

A couple of days before a possible teachers strike and immediately following one of the most nauseating presidential stories of all time (thanks a million Trump, you smug creep you), we headed to the foothills of Iowa’s “Little Switzerland.” Founded in 1919, Backbone State Park is named for a massive rocky ridge that extends over the very pretty Maquoketa River. A scant 400 million years ago this rock lay below a tropical sea which explains the marine fossils that litter the area. The park spills over a large area and although relatively well marked, it is definitely missing a visitor’s center. So we mostly stumbled around before finding a small cave which only Henna was brave enough to explore.

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Water, sun, and changing leaves; who could ask for more in October

We camped at South Lake where late at night we heard two owls calling to each other. Our loop (in the 30s) backed into a nice stand of trees with a trail that ran parallel to the water. What we enjoyed most though was stepping back into our camping roles. Back home life moves fast but out in the country, with no real plan and nothing we had to do, it felt right to sit back and watch the trees color themselves silly. Best time of our mini-road trip was playing Frisbee right before packing up the tent with a slow breeze blowing the leaves down like rain. The morning fire was still smoking and in that moment I honestly did not care if we went on strike, who the next president might be, or if the Cubs made the World Series. OK, I lied about not caring if the Cubs made the World Series. But it still felt mighty good to be back on the road.

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Backbone State Park is about 4 ½ hours from Chicago. Driving from the east, we recommend taking the very scenic Route 3 from Dubuque. Besides South Lake there are a few other campgrounds both in the State Park as well as the surrounding area.

We Camped in Seward and Had A Few Laughs

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Our campsite in Seward, Alaska

Seward, Alaska is one of the easiest towns to camp in with a couple hundred or so campsites stretched out along the waterfront. You pay for the sites like you would a parking spot; just punch in your site number at a kiosk then swipe a credit card. The place was quite busy the three nights we camped there and the campground was overflowing with the usual coastal Alaskan sorts (lots of Europeans, retired folks in RVs, large families from Anchorage, etc.) as well as a rough looking group of people camped just a few sites away from us. The leader of that last group was a very disheveled, mostly toothless woman somewhere between the age of thirty and ninety (honestly there was no way to tell her age) who talked at a volume louder than most people can yell. Oh, and she sounded exactly like Dale from King of The Hill.

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Seward, Alaska sometime after midnight in mid-July

There also were a trio of squatters who set up their tents just a few feet from ours and well within our campsite boundary. They had appeared in the short time we spent at the beach making dinner. Upon our return they sheepishly explained that they could not find anywhere else to camp and asked nicely if they could stay. We decided they could and even invited them to our fire which they declined. Instead all three disappeared into the larger of their two tents.

Less than thirty minutes later a European couple approached us and asked if we knew where they might be able to camp. We did and through a series of intricate maneuvers made possible due to us having talked to a large friendly family earlier in the day, they ended up camping next to us. Actually they ended up sleeping in their large SUV because they did not have a tent. And then Henna, who was whittling, cut her finger. Not a lot of blood, but she looked quite faint and kept repeating “I’m sorry” while madly gripping her finger. The cleaner bathroom (running water and soap) was a few blocks away and that is where we went to dress her wound. All this tired us out and, despite the bright sun, the loud toothless woman, and our giggling neighbors (who later we learned were stoned out of their minds), we decided to go to bed.

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Eric and Mara with the three of us hiking in Kenai Fjord National Park (Seward, Alaska)

But then a beat up Subaru slowly drove past our campsite before circling back with the driver honking his horn several times. It was our friends Eric and Mara, two backpackers from Holland, whom we had previously met in Juneau. They did not have a car the last time I saw them so I asked them if they had stolen this one. They had not but they did need a place to stay. So I asked the European couple who were about to retire inside their SUV if Eric and Mara could set up a tent and they of course said yes. We then re-lit the fire and cracked open a few beers.

A couple of days later Eric and Mara joined us on a fjord tour. This tour was arraigned months ago as part of an article that I wrote for Splash Magazine. It was a very fun, but also very rocky experience. So rocky, in fact, that many of the passengers became sick with the crew quickly whisking people to the lower, calmer deck the moment their face changed color. The seat directly next to me was like a magnet for the sea sick as each person who sat there had to leave at some point or another.

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The captain was only a bit older than the crew members. Over and over again she would say things like, “wow, we have already seen three bald eagles, a Beluga, and two sea lions.” And then a little while later she would repeat that same line with two more animals included. I am not sure exactly why she doubted our recall abilities, but the voyage felt a whole lot like a very intricate memory game.

Her first mate was a friendly bearded kid named Simon who appeared more Gilligan than hipster. Toward the end of the tour a rogue wave surprised everyone on board. A garbage can fell to the ground and the television monitors flickered. The boat came to a complete halt and it seemed like maybe the ship was seriously hurt. Corey was especially concerned so I tried to reassure her by pointing out that Simon did not look the least bit concerned. And with that Eric leaned over and very deliberately said, “Ah, but Simon has seen some shit.”

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And so have we. It would be impossible not to after traveling over 10,000 miles in a giant circle. And really, when it comes right down to it, what better reason is there to travel than to see a whole bunch of cool shit. I am just happy to have been able to experience it all with my two best friends. I also am very thankful to all of you who have checked in on us throughout the summer. We hope you enjoyed hearing about our adventures as much as we enjoyed sharing them. Like Corey says, however, there can be no road trip without a home to return to. And that is where we are now, happy to be with our friends and family. But it’s always fun to look back at where we have been.

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Victoria Bug Zoo

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Praying Mantis (contrary to public opinion, Praying Mantis are actually secular)

 

Think you know your bugs? Quick quiz, which of the following are actually bugs: spiders, grass hoppers, beetles, or mosquitoes? The answer… none of the above. Bugs are actually an order of insects and include tens of thousands of little buggers but not many of the insects most commonly thought of as bugs. Semantics aside, insects really do get a bum rap. Yes, they can spread diseases around like zika. But they also are an essential food source for birds and a huge aid in farming. However underappreciated they may be elsewhere, they are quite celebrated at the Victoria Bug Zoo which houses over forty species of insects from around the world. All the insects are located in one large room with a couple of guides available to answer your questions. They are also plenty of opportunities to have a more intimate experience with the insects as the guides are not shy about taking them out of their cages. Who doesn’t want a giant tarantula crawling up your arm? Well, I mean besides Corey.

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One of the many Leaf Hoppers found at the Bug Zoo

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A Rose Hair Tarantula at rest in Noel’s hand

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The Victoria Bug Zoo is located at 631 Courtney Street in beautiful Victoria, B.C. For more information, go here.