Back To Where We Began

When Sage and I finally changed directions–heading east from Moab, Utah–we started to sense the beginning of the end. From there on, every mile brought us closer to our origin, Maryland. We still had nearly 2,000 miles to travel across the Midwest, but the knowledge of the trip’s transience was always in back of our minds. What had we learned so far? What was still left to experience? Why had we gone on this roadtrip at all?

 

Boulder: Primal Roots

IMG_0320.JPG

Sage felt like she’d gone back in time when she reunited with her oldest friend, Molly, a superhuman hiker and keen philosopher. She took us on a couple “beginner” hikes, some 5,000 ft above Boulder, where it was already winter.

IMG_0310.JPG

Back down in Boulder, it was still fall.

IMG_8963.JPG

Molly gave us a tour of the outdoor shop/museum where she sells equipment to protect other crazy adventurers from themselves. Of course, what they do with that equipment is still crazy. Sage’s favorite object was the front toe of Malcolm Daly, self-described “entrepreneur, amputee, chef, visionary.”

IMG_4574.jpg

At the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur fossils, I analyzed the dilemma of reining in my insatiable appetite, while trying to recover from losing 10 pounds on this trip!

“This cretaceous fish died while eating its last meal. The fish tried to swallow a squid so large that only half of it fit in the fish’s mouth.”

I guess my mom has a point when she cautions, “That’s two bites, not one”…

IMG_4581.JPG

Sage reinforced this message by telling me a story about what happens to self-absorbed, ravenous meat-eaters using dinosaur tracks…

IMG_4583.jpg

And Sage achieved a life goal trying on her own tail!

IMG_4604.JPG

IMG_4611.JPG

We spent the day before Halloween wandering around downtown Boulder (even running into this most final of Last Suppers.) Since we couldn’t miss a minute of Halloween, we drove to Denver for an extravagant, interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show which started at midnight.

We’d now been to both the self-proclaimed “Athens of the South” (Nashville) and “Athens of the West” (Boulder).

 

Since Sage requires all Halloween costumes educate “non-believers” in Halloween values, we decided to use these black onesies from our host in Telluride to morph into a black widow couple engaging in “sexual cannibalism.”

IMG_0355.jpg

 

IMG_8942.JPG

Our responses were a little out of place in this family-oriented exhibit, but we felt they were appropriate for Halloween.

IMG_0379.JPG

We spent Halloween day at a horror convention in Denver, where we learned about the art of mask-making, listened to a lecture on the history of comic books, watched upcoming short films, made new friends, and even competed in a costume contest!

IMG_0382.JPG

IMG_0383.jpg

I think my face says everything about how we felt towards this new friend. I like to think he was smiling on the inside.

IMG_4828.JPG

We capped off Halloween attending a midnight-showing of The Wizard of Oz set to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” album in University of Colorado Boulder’s planetarium. But after 2 full days of non-stop Sage-Halloween, I fell asleep in 10 minutes.

 

Nebraska and Iowa: The Endless Midwest

IMG_0002.jpg

Even for a Texan, the journey across Nebraska and Iowa was longer than I expected! We stretched our legs at the Fort Cody Trading Post, an appropriately commercial shrine to showman Buffalo Bill.

IMG_0014.JPG

This fellow just would not play fair!

IMG_0019.JPG

The fact that I left the store with neither this hat nor toilet paper is a testament to my willpower.

IMG_0028.JPG

Maybe Bill stopped at this station in Gothenburg, NE when working for the Pony Express, which “reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about 10 days.” While impressed, we’re glad we had cell phones during our trip west.

IMG_0034.JPG

There weren’t a lot of places to stop (we read long passages from Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), but we did find this handy combined gas station/Indian restaurant, serving probably the best garlic naan and coconut chicken for hundreds of miles around.

IMG_4623.JPG

This was the closest we ever came to hitting an animal.

IMG_0041.JPG

We took a daytrip to visit Sage’s family’s hometown of Omaha, where we stopped by her great-grandmother’s old house.

Sage's Mom

According to family photos, Sage’s mom got a lot of grandparent-given baths here in 1959. Since most of her family had long left for Chicago, Sage found it strange visiting a city with so much family history to which she had no connection.

IMG_4637.JPG

“We crossed only one mud puddle today. It was six miles long.”—pioneer’s journal from Omaha’s Mormon Visitor Center

After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson was “asked how long it would take to settle so much land,” and he “speculated two thousand years.” Nevertheless, by 1869, hundreds of thousands of pioneers from “Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee” had ventured into this wilderness via wagon (“Pioneer Courage” Memorial).

IMG_0075.jpg

The trek was far from easy. Of the 4,000 Mormons who made the journey to north Omaha in 1846, more than 600 died from harsh climate, limited food, and disease.

IMG_0071.JPG

“They were the best pioneers in history.” – the totally unbiased Mormon Visitor Center

While our roadtrip wasn’t nearly as long, dangerous, or influential, we like to see ourselves as heirs to this American pioneering tradition.

IMG_4688.JPG

“Lila was glad to be seeing the country again, the fields looking so green in the evening light… It all just went on and on, the United States of America. It was so easy to forget that most of the world was cornfields.” – Marilynne Robinson in Lila

We briefly toured the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest MFA creative writing program in the country, where *Robinson* herself teaches. (I’d give my left hand–and I’m left-handed!–to attend her weekly seminar on the Bible.)  It was one of our trip’s most useful stops, as I began weighing the pros and cons of applying to MFA programs.

IMG_4674.JPG

Why does America have so many cornfields? According to Jonathan Foley–director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota–we use roughly 40% of U.S. corn for ethanol and 36% feeds cattle, pigs, and chickens. Much of the rest is exported as food, and the tiny fraction directly fed to Americans mostly becomes high-fructose corn syrup.

IMG_4671.JPG

“For all our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners…. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart.” – John Steinbeck

In our ever-connected, urbanized, homogenized American culture, Steinbeck is largely correct, and we could have eaten at Mcdonald’s, stayed at Holiday Inn, and talked to friends back home throughout the entire trip. Nevertheless, on our roadtrip, we most enjoyed searching for and finding America’s diversity.

For example, driving through the Midwest, like the South, Southwest, and West, felt like entering a different world. We moved from landscapes characterized by canyons and cacti; into vast sandstone plateaus and vaulting, jagged mountains; before abruptly hitting the Midwest: hundreds and hundreds of miles of flatness, golden cornfields, enormous blue skies, hay bales, and the occasional barn and herd of cows.

IMG_0099.JPG

It’s all connected though. In the Iowa State Historical Museum’s film exhibit, we learned that our hero John Wayne spent his first 7 years in Iowa!

“As the center of the Midwest, Iowa is an excellent setting for films exploring issues in American culture. Themes of farm life, small towns, hypocrisy, work, beauty, and loyalty are all discussed in popular films about Iowa.” — Iowa State Museum

IMG_0079.JPG

We missed most debates during our trip (thanks national media for making it nearly impossible for rootless, unemployed, computer-dependent, young citizens to inform themselves). However, we tried getting in the election spirit in the museum’s room on Iowa’s importance to American presidential politics (Disclaimer: I do not necessarily support the candidate whose face I’m holding…)

IMG_4698.JPG

We made an unexpected stop at Herbert Hoover’s Presidential Library, Museum, and gravesite, where we learned about Hoover’s many forgotten virtues. While now familiar with the museum’s selective, celebratory spirit, Sage found this optimistic filter particularly appropriate for Hoover.

“Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure. In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.” Hoover’s Inaugural address, March 4, 1929. The crash began Oct. 24th.

 

Chicago: Our Kind of Town

 

IMG_0206.jpg

Chicago, the week-long highlight of our Midwest trip, is where Sage spent her most formative years (the most “formative” aspect being the museums). As she relived memories in this towering metropolis, she gave me a crash course in all the art, architecture, and history the city offers.

IMG_0199.jpg

I have roots here too. My mom’s side of the family is from Lake Forest, north of the city, and this 1897 elevated “L” stop is even named after John Quincy Adams–my relative and a well-known chess enthusiast! (Note the pawn above the stairway entrance.)

IMG_0407.JPG

We think Chicago is so exemplary, not just from family bias, but also because it grew from its failures and misfortunes.

The most obvious example is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed 2,000 acres, killed 300, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed $200 million of property. But rather than fade into history, the city was reborn through tireless, innovative citizens, brilliant architects, and lots of money. From ashes rose a modern city that would impact the world.

IMG_4844.JPG

“Partially to celebrate its remarkable recovery from the fire,” Chicagoans staged the World’s Columbian Exposition 22 years later [Chicago History Museum (CHM)].

IMG_4891.JPG

Because of its central location and transportation system, “Chicago became the nation’s largest meat producer during the Civil War.” Its enormous wealth ($46 million) helped Chicago beat bids by New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis to host the 1893 “Columbian Exposition.” After winning, Chicago transformed itself into a “White City” filled with monumental neoclassical architecture, lagoons, basins, and canals.

Among various testimonies to American progress, the Expo boasted many “firsts” including:

  • A movie theater
  • An early dishwasher, fluorescent light bulb, and zipper
  • Juicy fruit, Cream of Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
  • The first U.S. coin to honor a woman.

IMG_0197.jpg

Chicago continued rebuilding through the 1900s, leading the “City Beautiful” movement with its innovative, recreation-oriented urban planning and giving birth to the world’s first and famous skyscrapers. The “Willis” Tower, erected in 1973 and originally named the Sears Tower, hits 1,730 ft and was the tallest building in the world for 25 years.

“As Chicago rebuilt after the Great Fire, increased demand for downtown office space spurred architects to design taller buildings to accommodate more people. Facing complex challenges and working under tight budgets that forced creativity, architects….developed a series of innovations that made high-rise construction possible. After WWII, a new group of Chicago architects further advanced high-rise architecture around the world.” – CHM sign.

IMG_0205.jpg

Marina City, completed in 1964, was the first U.S. building constructed with tower cranes and the first U.S. urban post-war high-rise residential complex. It’s widely credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities.

IMG_0311.JPG

I savored my hours in the Art Institute of Chicago–a neoclassical building dating back to the 1893 Columbian Expo. Unlike Sage, who’d been visiting since age 5, I’d only ever seen this famous Seurat as a print above my piano teacher’s piano. After seven years of weekly gazing, I finally got to see the real thing.

IMG_0354.JPG

Sage’s love of museums stems from the children’s programs her grandmother took her to here. She found new meaning in her old favorite–the Thorne miniature rooms–having recently researched them in her museum history course at Brown.

IMG_0307.jpg

This Magritte reminded us of the Menil Collection in Houston, where Sage introduced me to his work. Now he’s one of my favorite surrealist artists!

IMG_0301.JPG

Sometimes we all feel a little blue.

IMG_4719.jpg

Sage spent the day communing with her favorite god at a special exhibition on Dionysus through history.

IMG_0335.JPG

After visiting the Southwest, I enjoyed seeing its stark landscape and rugged people transformed into “American” art.

IMG_0337.jpg

We encountered this Native American rider and horse throughout our travels, and found it a fascinating commentary on the even more ubiquitous, upright, Texas cowboy version (“Bronco Buster,” mentioned in our Texas post). We found it especially appropriate in Chicago, where at the 1893 World’s Fair, Turner announced his thesis that the frontier had formed American democracy, but was coming to a close.

We found both sculptures filled with endless, romantic symbolism, and we’d love to hear your interpretations! 

IMG_0189.JPG

But Chicago doesn’t just store art in buildings: it puts it out on the street.

IMG_0281.JPG

The Palmer House was the first “fireproof” hotel, built after the original all-wood building burned down 13 days after it was completed in the Great Chicago Fire. The current hotel greeted us with these Tiffany brass “peacock” elevator doors, and it only got better.

IMG_0288.JPG

Bertha Palmer, wife of millionaire hotelier Potter Palmer, invented the brownie here in 1893 when she “wanted a new dessert to serve at the World’s Fair that was smaller than a cake, but still had cake-like qualities.” You’re my hero, Bertha!

IMG_0294.JPG

Under its skyscrapers, Millennial Park, completed in 2004, is one of the newest additions to Chicago’s public art culture.

IMG_4780.JPG

While there, we met up with Katrina, Sage’s friend and one of our trip’s most outgoing and joyful hosts. This was the least edible “Bean” I’ve ever come across, but my disappointment couldn’t last long with Katrina’s spirit brightening our surroundings.

IMG_4792.JPG

IMG_4804.JPG

Chicago has even mastered the art of playgrounds.

IMG_4815.jpg

IMG_4814.jpg

IMG_0403.JPG

Of course, Chicago’s music scene is another testament to the creativity the city inspires and cultivates. Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it moved during the Great Migration and grew up in 1920s, Prohibition-era Chicago.

We experienced this legacy at the Green Mill–which still contains Al Capone’s favorite booth:

“…it afforded clear views of both the front and back entrances…It is rumored that there is still an access hatch to the tunnels located directly behind the long end of the bar that leads underneath the street…this is how Capone was able to elude the authorities when he visited The Green Mill.” – wikipedia

IMG_0291.JPG

Encountering this violin bar, we learned that music and alcohol are connected even in Chicago’s Symphony Center.

Chicago also has an impressive contemporary theater scene, and Sage’s grandmother got us ushering gigs at “Million Dollar Quartet,” which has been running there for 8 years! I was happy to hand out programs since it meant getting to relive our trip’s earlier encounters with musical heroes Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and piano wizard Jerry Lee Lewis.

Satanic verses.jpg

Chicago is also an intellectual center, and as part of the famous Chicago Humanities Festival, we heard author Salman Rushdie speak about the importance of free speech:

“You need to allow ideas to be expressed so you can knock them down.”

“If you’re a bad writer, that’s not your fault–it’s just your problem. But if you’re a self-censoring writer, that is your fault.”

IMG_0248.JPG

With its enormous wealth, Chicago also turned selling and shopping into artforms. Back in the late 19th century, Marshall Field & Co. (now Macy’s) pioneered modern department store retail by offering “the unheard of privilege of returning merchandise,” “European luxury goods,” as well as the “first dining-room restaurant, bridal registry, and clearance basement” (CHM).

For men struggling with Christmas present ideas, Marshall Field & Co. offers this motto: “Give the lady what she wants.

IMG_0258.jpg

Transforming shopping into an experience itself was so important, the store cut out all this potential selling space to create the right high-end atmosphere.

IMG_4822.JPG

The store windows even provide elaborate art displays to entice attention. The store did get our attention, but not our money.

IMG_0211.JPG

American Girl dolls inspired much of Sage’s current love for American History. Although she was disappointed that her colonial doll, Felicity, has been discontinued, she loved teaching me how American Girl dolls–while outrageously expensive–can still offer an alternative, inspirational, and educational doll experience.

IMG_4700.jpg

However, we were disappointed with the store’s focus on contemporary dolls–especially this “Girl of the Year” infuriatingly named “Saige.” According to real Sage, she has “no educational value. She just steals money.”

IMG_4703.JPG

Sage gave her “Best Bathroom” award to this pink dreamland (each stall has a dollholder!).

IMG_4706.jpg

We both got a glimpse of heaven in the next door, gloriously colorful Lego Store. Sage enjoyed watching me attract attention when an older woman asked if she could take my picture to “inspire her grandson.”

IMG_4712.JPG

My twin brother and I spent years building heroic, aerodynamic, speeding Lego ships, so when I saw all these miscellaneous pieces longing to be joined, I couldn’t help reverting to childhood.


But Chicago’s cultural wealth has never been equally available–or necessarily of interest–to Chicago’s diverse population.

“By 1900, Chicago had become a city of immigrants. More than 75% of the population was either foreign born or native born with foreign parentage.”–CHM

IMG_0175.JPG

“Rife with social and industrial problems, life in the city became increasingly fractured and difficult, particularly for the poor. Progressive reformers strove to improve conditions and provide all Chicagoans with access to culture, quality education and housing, and environmental and legal reforms. Progressive ideas originating in Chicago influenced and inspired reformers across the country.” – CHM label.

One notable Progressive institution attempting to address this inequality was Jane Addams’ Hull House, which “became a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings, and a safe haven where immigrants living in the neighborhood could find companionship and the assistance they needed to cope with life in a modern industrial city” (Hull-House label).

IMG_0134.JPG

IMG_0159.jpg

Sage considers Jane Addams, whom the FBI labeled “America’s most dangerous woman,” a role model–although not in terms of her long-sleeved dress. Jane Addams recounted how her puffy sleeves prompted Leo Tolstoy to admonish: “‘there was enough stuff on one arm to make a frock for a little girl,’ and asked [her] directly if [she] did not find ‘such a dress a barrier to the people?’” — Addams

IMG_0150.JPG

“The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach and how we live.” – Jane Addams

We educated ourselves, like the house’s former occupants, by reading from the museum’s historical library. I spent some time studying up on (outdated) feminism, communism, and liberal thought in Women and the Economy so I could beat Sage in our next debate.

IMG_4861.JPG

At the Chicago History Museum, we learned about various crises in Chicago’s history, and how they’re often most harmful to people in these marginalized groups.

For example, this photo shows a victim from “The Eastland Disaster,” America’s worst maritime accident, which took 800 lives–most from west side, immigrant neighborhoods.

IMG_0392.JPG

We also learned how these crises are often blamed on individual victims from these same marginalized groups, rather than larger, dangerous social conditions.

For example, while the Great Chicago Fire was largely caused by a “hastily built, densely packed” wooden city filled with lumber companies, poor construction, lack of safety precautions, and a summer drought, it was blamed on Mrs. O’Leary and her cow:

“Mrs. O’Leary [a poor Irish immigrant] became a scapegoat for the disaster, in large part because of her social and economic status. The blame lingered for more than a century. Finally, in 1997, the city of Chicago adopted a formal resolution absolving Catherine O’Leary–and her cow–of any guilt related to the fire.” [CHM label]

IMG_4857

“WHY NOT ADMIT HER?” OF “JUSTICE”

This “blaming the victim” happened again and again throughout Chicago’s history. During the Haymarket affair, the media targeted violent anarchists rather than the dangerous industrial working conditions they protested. Politicians blamed black participants for the 1919 Race Riots, rather than the “labor tensions between the races and overcrowding in the Black Belt” the Chicago Commission on Race Relations identified 3 years later. Similarly, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Mayor Dailey claimed demonstrators came to “assault, harass, and taunt the police” and most polled citizens supported police violence against them, while the President’s Commission on violence blamed a “police riot.”

In Sage’s opinion, blaming victims led to unjust persecution and a failure to fix the true causes behind these crises.

IMG_4836.JPG

In contrast, inspired by the 1904 Union Stock Yard strike, Upton Sinclair went undercover and then wrote The Jungle to expose the meat industry’s “unsanitary practices, poor working conditions, and political corruption.” By revealing the larger causes behind the strike, his book revolutionized meatpacking and sped up passing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act [CHM].

As an aspiring writer, it’s encouraging to remember how one good book can lead to real change in people’s thoughts and lives.

IMG_0183.JPG

“The most recent wave of immigrants has made Chicago and its suburbs one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world. Their varied traditions and customs have enriched the city, making it a complex crossroads of global proportions.” CHM label

We got to experience the cultural contributions of Chicago’s immigrant community while relishing enormous meatball subs in Little Italy:

“It’s a slice of life, not a fine-dining experience.” — Zagat rating for “Fontano’s Subs”

IMG_0202.JPG

We actually met a modern social justice hero when Sage’s friend, Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt, gave us a tour of the historic Tribune building.

IMG_0367.JPG

IMG_0362.JPG

We were even more convinced Gregory is actually Superman when he took us to the roof where the reporters supposedly “eat lunch.”

IMG_0374.jpg

A proud heir to the Tribune tradition, Gregory spends every day fighting for Truth and Justice through rigorous and courageous reporting.

“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” — John 8:32 (KJV)

“A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.” — George Sutherland

IMG_0382.JPG

That was also the ONLY night we spent apart the entire trip. I expected to be totally and completely lost without Sage’s strength and wisdom guiding my every thought and step, but luckily I had a nice quiet evening catching up with my old friend, Mary, who I’ve known since age 11.

Meanwhile, Sage and Gregory were watching this:

IMG_0116.JPG

IMG_0112.JPG

Our favorite part of Chicago was spending hours biking down the Lake Shore–an immensity created to “counteract the negative effects of urban life” (CHM). Due to this prescience, Chicago now has the best of all worlds: nature, culture, history, and even transportation.

If only it didn’t have winter.

 

Wilmette: The Segregated Suburb

IMG_4911.JPG

“I hold no preference among flowers so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous.” Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

Of course, not everyone appreciates Chicago’s diversity, and “white-flight” has led to the growth of many expensive, racially homogeneous suburbs.

IMG_0479.JPG

Sage lived in one of these suburbs–Wilmette–during elementary school.

IMG_0471.JPG

After months of exhausting travel, we took a break to visit Wilmette’s Gilson Park Beach, but while we enjoyed the beach, an ever-vigilant neighbor called the police on our “suspicious” dented, granola-and-blanket-filled blue Honda.

IMG_4901.jpg

Luckily, Walker Bros. famous Dutch apple pancake made it easy to forget economic prejudice.

IMG_9035.JPG

Homer’s ice cream helped too.

IMG_0418.jpg

We also visited Wilmette’s Baha’i temple–the only Baha’i house of worship in the United States, and the oldest surviving one in the world! The ribs meeting at the top of the dome symbolize “the hands of people of all religions together in prayer” towards one God.

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship” — Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith

IMG_0427.JPG

The Baha’i faith is a fascinating attempt to harmonize all major world religions into one worldview by considering each a successive stage in the progressive revelation of God. This temple’s architecture speaks to that desire, incorporating the Star of David (Judaism), the cross (Christianity), the crescent moon with five-pointed star (Islam), and the hooked cross (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.).

Many tenets of the Baha’i faith felt well-intentioned and inclusive: reconciling major religions, appreciating humanity’s diversity, eliminating prejudice, universalizing education, racial and gender equality, and harmonizing both science and religion in the search for truth. However, to me, it also seemed a little empty, as if depth was lost in the theological acrobatics required to consolidate such different religions.

“For the Baha’i faith, one of its biggest problems is its pluralism. That is, how can one reconcile such divergent religions without leaving them theologically gutted? It is easy to argue that the world’s religions have commonalities in their ethical teachings and have some concept of ultimate reality. But it is another beast entirely to try to argue unity in their fundamental teachings about what the ultimate reality is and about how those ethics are grounded.” – Got Questions Ministries

 

Toledo: The Gales of November

After spending the day where Sage grew up, we headed to my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Kevin’s house.

IMG_9057.JPG

I loved hearing them tell old stories about my late dad and grandfather.

One my grandfather loved to tell was how he met my grandmother, the woman in the photo’s right side. During WWII, he was a medic and she was a nurse, and he waltzed up to her and said: “If you want to lose some lipstick, you know where to find me,” to which she replied: “Go to hell.” But he must have redeemed himself because they went on to have 5 kids (this picture shows their three oldest, including my dad at the bottom).

IMG_0520.JPG

Toledo in November was a bit depressing.

IMG_0511.JPG

But at The National Museum of the Great Lakes, we learned there’s a long history to Toledo’s depressing, stormy Novembers–and the shipwrecks they cause. The lakes have taken at least 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they called ‘gitche gumee ‘/ The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead / When the skies of November turn gloomy

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more / Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty / That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed / When the gales of November came early

 

IMG_0499.JPG

“Dear Wife and Children: We have been out in storm forty hours. Goodbye dear ones, I might see you in Heaven…Chris K.” – message in bottle found 1913, 11 days after the Plymouth disappeared

IMG_0483.jpg

One of Toledo’s more famous residents might have been Rosie the Riveter, supposedly based on a Toledo shipyard employee.

 

However, Rosie might not actually have been that important to the war effort. Apparently, riveting was slow, labor intensive, and made boats heavy. Welding was faster, easier, and lighter, and during WWII, allowed U.S. shipyards to build 7,200 Liberty Ships, each with 600,000 ft of welded joints.

So, sorry Toledo: we think the song should be called “Wendy the Welder.”

IMG_0525.jpg

While the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center–the first presidential library/museum in the country–was closed for Veteran’s Day, we did visit the 1877-81 president’s tomb.

IMG_0535.jpg

Sage befriended this majestic tree, which has been living since at least the American Revolution!

 

Cleveland: Memory and Museums

At the Cleveland Museum of Art–one of the most innovative, interactive museums we’d seen- Sage and I happily spent our time absorbed in screens.

IMG_0544.JPG

IMG_0548.JPG

The touchscreens asked big questions like “Why Do We Paint?,” and then moved on to seemingly unrelated but extremely fun interactive activities. Here, we remixed Picasso’s “Still Life With Biscuits.”

Cleveland Museum of Art painting.jpg

Given our Pollock-inspired masterpiece, Sage and I are giving up music and writing to follow our true artistic calling: playing with museum touchscreens.

IMG_0558.JPG

IMG_0577.JPG

In contrast with the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit on Dionysus/Bacchus throughout history, the Cleveland Museum offered a far more interesting virtual journey into the varied lives of the Bacchus, Perseus, and Adam and Eve myths, unrestricted by collection or medium. With this representation of Adam and Eve, we think Legos might have finally beat Michelangelo.

IMG_0594.JPG

Eventually, we headed up to the American collection to reminisce on the beautiful western landscapes we’d left behind.

We particularly connected with “Twilight In the Wilderness” by Frederic Edwin Church, showing an eagle fixedly gazing over the last moment of peace before a storm–painted just before the Civil War. Likewise, throughout our trip, our awareness of the approaching end made every moment seem increasingly precious and beautiful.

IMG_0595.JPG

I felt the twilight of our trip with acute sorrow, but Thomas Cole’s 1838 “View of Schroon Mountain” optimistically depicts the beginnings of rebirth after a destructive storm, which reassured me this country’s vistas and cultures–not to mention life itself–would provide plenty of future adventures and joys.

“Championing the unspoiled American wilderness, Cole declared, “We are still in Eden…” —CMA label

IMG_0590.JPG

We saw a different representation of America in George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey’s,” part of the Ashcan movement’s rejection of romantic western landscapes for grittier, realistic representations of urban life. Viewing the powerful, boxers from down in the audience reminded Sage of watching wrestling in Chicago:

“Stag at Sharkey’s embodies the grittiness, violence, and masculinity of the new city. In 1909, when Bellows completed this painting, prizefighting was illegal in New York. Athletic clubs such as Sharkey’s were the equivalent of Prohibition’s speakeasies — illegal, but they did a booming business. In Bellows’s boxing match, the spectators are vulgar; their expressions indicate that they are at least as violent as the match they are watching. But the boxers themselves are reminiscent of stags in nature, still graceful while locked in combat. PBS’s sister Wendy Beckett

IMG_0601.JPG

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum also brought back memories, pulling the vibrant threads of oldtime, country, blues, soul, gospel, jazz, and rockabilly from Bristol, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Austin, and Chicago together into the story of Rock and Roll.

IMG_0602.JPG

“A man told me in a Montana saloon, ‘the reason I like Jimmie Rodgers is everything he sings is true’–the highest praise a folk singer could ever have.” — Pete Seeger

IMG_0605.JPG

“Rock and Roll found an honesty, a passion, and a sense of reality lacking in pop music.”–RnR Museum

By this point, we knew this musical “honesty,” “passion,” and “reality” well (since basically every genre claims it as a defining characteristic). From hearing the strains of Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” pouring from an unlit Studio B’s speakers in Nashville, to watching Jerry Lee Lewis rowdily bang and shake his way up and down the piano in Memphis’ Sun Studios during Million Dollar Quartet, rock and roll had long been essential to our roadtrip playlist.

 

Graham Nash of “Crosby, Stills & Nash” taught both of us about his approach to songwriting:

“Watch now, watch, keep watching, see! see!”

 

Bruce Springsteen offered this advice:

“A rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and your audience looks up at you and see themselves–as long as these reflections are human, realistic…”

We didn’t leave with a definitive sense of Rock and Roll, nor can we say we have a comprehensive understanding of any music we encountered on our trip. Nevertheless, this museum, like our trip as a whole, gave us renewed appreciation for familiar sounds–and even introduced us to new ones. We can’t imagine Blue Ridge Parkway without hearing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” New Orleans without Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” west Texas deserts without Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” or snow-capped Colorado mountains without John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”

 

Pennsylvania and Maryland: Back to Where We Began

Reluctant to end, we made as many stops as we could on our 385-mile drive back to Maryland.

IMG_0649.jpg

IMG_0682.JPG

IMG_0664.JPG

We were also constantly stopped by overpriced tolls.

IMG_0713.JPG

IMG_0741.JPG

Though warned we might get shot for trespassing, we stopped in Pennsylvania’s abandoned “Storyland”–a fairy tale park closed in the 1980s–just to have one last excursion.

IMG_0743.JPG

IMG_0748.JPG

IMG_0750.JPG

We even stopped to look in random store displays. We really didn’t want to get back home.

IMG_0734.JPG

 

Conclusion: Kings of the Road

[As usual, I’m giving Sage the last word]

Throughout our trip, Ben and I were constantly asked, “What was your favorite place?”

Surprisingly to us, our answer’s been no place, but rather, driving between places. Our favorite place has been the endless American road–the moments researching that strange abandoned building, arguing over a historic “hero’s” legacy, or singing like a cowboy about Texas.

Roadtrippers often cite Steinbeck’s famous claim that Americans are instinctively unsatisfied with where they are. At heart, all Americans are travelers–longing to go “there” without even knowing the “here” they long to leave.

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.” – John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley

 

While we certainly felt this longing to see other parts of our country, the best parts of our trip weren’t about escaping past and future places–just as the trip as a whole, despite our tagline “avoiding adulthood”–wasn’t really about running from our pasts or evading the future.

IMG_4615.jpg

Rather, being on the road on a roadtrip created the perfect interspace: above rather than between our “real” lives. Isolated in my dented old car and flying 85 mph through the desert, Ben and I could reflect on the paths we’d already taken and contemplate the many still open to us.

IMG_0448.JPG

After 9,273 miles, the road led us right back to where we started, but we returned home knowing more about our country, ourselves, and each other.

“This was different from any trip I’d ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I’d driven, in all that wonder, there wasn’t a moment when I felt I didn’t belong; not a day when I didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty…never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen.” – Paul Theroux

We’re sad the trip’s over, but while we can’t yet see exactly how, we know this trip will help us find our next adventures.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life” – Sal, from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road

In one way, we’re also glad the trip’s over. Life on the road is liberating, but Ben and I are both happy slaves to writing and music. We loved going out and listening to our world, but we also want to make music of our own. Hopefully, much of what we create will come from reflecting on this roadtrip itself.

IMG_4741.JPG


 

THANK YOU!!!

Thank you to Mom (Terra) and Dad (Jim) for inspiring and supporting this trip.

Thank you to Mom (Martha) for checking in every day.

Thank you to all friends, family, and strangers who gave us housing, food, and conversation. This trip was as much about and because of you as the places we went. Special shoutouts to Hannah, Nancy, Amy, Stephen, Margot, Cindy, Sharon, Charles, Gayle, Graham, Lorianne, Wes, Gail, Baerbel, Charlotta, Dan, Molly, JJ, Charlotte, Gregory, Katrina, Mary, Nancy, Kevin, Helene, and Allen.

Thanks to all the friends, family, and strangers who supported this plan and helped us create it! (Too many to mention, but you know who you are!)

Finally, thanks to everyone following this blog. We never felt alone this entire trip because we always felt your support. And if you liked riding along in spirit, we encourage you to take your own roadtrip, and we’ll be right behind you the entire way!

“Hike your own hike.” – Molly and JJ

Addendum:

There’s so much we didn’t have room to talk about here, so if you want to know more about something, ask!!

 

IMG_0778

Advertisements

The Wild West

“Wilderness isn’t redeemed by man, man is redeemed by wilderness” –John Muir

IMG_0724

Ben and I have obviously fallen in love with the mythic “Wild West”: cowboys, pioneers, indians, deserts, boots, independence, freedom, nature… But we’re also aware of this “wilderness’s” darker side: drought, storms, mountain lions, lawlessness, isolation, hunger, cold…

This section of our trip brought us face to face with “wilderness” through national parks in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Though we knew exposing us to wilderness was a primary goal of these parks, we still didn’t know what it meant to leave the comfort of home and venture into nature. What exactly were we searching for? Does “wilderness” (still) exist? And even if it does,  did we really want to find it?

 

Grand Canyon: Squirrel Petting Zoo

IMG_0668

Ben talked and talked about his “majestic, life-changing” week rafting through Grand Canyon the entire roadtrip. Though we didn’t have much time, I expected to have some spiritually moving experience too.

IMG_0655

Nope. Not only could we barely see the canyon, most people didn’t seem interested in trying.

“This being the case, why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate that other crowd, the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

IMG_0639

Squirrels seemed the main attraction, beating out 2 billion year-old rocks in the one of the deepest and longest canyons in the world. Admittedly, they were unusually fat squirrels. But Ben and I figured that even if Grand Canyon couldn’t attract attention, “plague” would deter feeding and cuddling.

We clearly had a lot to learn about what people were looking for in these parks.

Vermillion Cliffs: Night of Terror

IMG_0716

Of course, the danger of the wild is real, and sometimes you can’t avoid it even when you try. While roadtrips are full of potential dangers, thus far, our trip had run pretty smoothly, especially because I’m a fabulous planner. But there are certain things you can’t plan.

The further we drove into the remote desert, the more beautiful our surroundings became. It wasn’t until nightfall, however, that this remote beauty (and lack of cell service) morphed into… terror!!!

Our search for our Vermillion Cliffs campsite went on and on and on, so here are the highlights:

  1. Wrong turn over one-lane, deer-lined mountain road. 30 minutes in, turn back.
  2. Find correct dirt road. A sign reads “Vermillion.” No further directions.
  3. Spot pickup truck on side of road. Ask for help. Told it’s no more than 10 miles ahead.
  4. Pass enormous family of monster cows (mom, dad, baby) ON the road.
  5. Cross endless, huge, puddles like black holes. Car inexplicably survives.
  6. Drive 15mph more than 10 miles. Still no paths or signs. Plenty of potholes.IMG_0725
  7. A SIGN!… Ben falls in cacti to read it. It has nothing to do with our campsite.
  8. Headlights behind us. Relieved, at first. Realize no one knows where we are except the pickup truck person who gave us totally wrong advice.
  9. A red-eyed hare blocks our car by hopping straight down the middle of the road. The pickup truck closes in.
  10. Let truck pass. Can’t keep up and find ourselves alone again.IMG_0730
  11. More bumpy miles. Spot unreadable sign, and CAR BEHIND IT–IT’S A CAMPSITE!!!
  12. Feast.

 

Zion National Park: Refuge for Every Soul

IMG_0764

It was worth braving Vermillion to reach Zion: everything good about national parks. Trails were challenging but well-marked and maintained. And once we arrived, we left the car behind for an advanced shuttle system.

IMG_0773

IMG_0822

Our first day hiking “Angel’s Landing” was just plain fun. Not only were we out of the car, we were pulling ourselves along cliff ledges with chains, climbing on our hands and knees, and Ben was jumping in the most dangerous spots he could find–as usual.

IMG_0807

At the summit, Ben and I sat down next to a fellow counselor from Laity Lodge Youth Camp, the Christian summer camp he was part of for 9 years. What are the odds?! There must have been angels with us on the landing.

IMG_0804

I’m pretty new to the National Parks thing though and still didn’t feel like I’d found the profound, transformative, “spiritual” experience I assumed a place named “Zion” implied.

“These are the temples of God. One can worship here as well as in any man-made temple.” – Isaac Behunin, 19th century Mormon pioneer

IMG_0874

IMG_0875

In 1865, Behunin named this canyon “Zion,” meaning fortification, place of refuge, or city of god. Hiking the sublime, mountain-sheltered “Narrows”–with heights as tall as 1000ft and widths as narrow as 20ft–we found all these monikers appropriate.

IMG_0854

However, while sheltered and beautiful, the Narrows didn’t exactly feel like a refuge. Most of the 5+hr walk was through ice-cold, fast moving water, and we were constantly nervous about falling.

IMG_0888

But in pushing me to recognize and question my physical and mental limits, The Narrows’ difficulty and discomfort ended up making this a far more personally revelatory experience than I’d had at any earlier park.

IMG_0924

But Zion offered every type of experience, and we finally found our spiritual experience in our first “shower” in days.

IMG_0948

IMG_0965

Just kidding (we didn’t shower for another couple days). The “spiritual” experience actually happened when we found the secluded Upper Emerald Pool at the top of this mountain and sat for hours in rapturous contemplation.

“His sight is turned inside himself, to try and understand / the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.” – John Denver “Rocky Mountain High”

 

IMG_0976

Every night camping in Zion was equally wondrous. Since we couldn’t go out to dinner or concerts, we read about the nature of space-time in Stephen Hawking’s “A Briefer History of Time.” And sometimes we just stared up at the stars.

“O these vast, calm measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest. Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever!” – John Muir

Bryce Canyon: Who Are The Hoodoos??

IMG_1013

“Beyond the roads, beyond the viewpoints, Bryce Canyon remains a ‘wild place.’” –NPS visitor center

In the internet age, Ben and I assumed it would be easy to learn about national parks before we got there, but over and over, even extensive reviews, park service websites, and personal recommendations failed to prepare us.

In this case, we expected striking wilderness and adventure, but found roads, scenic overlooks, and frustratingly little information.

IMG_1052

We were particularly annoyed about repeated references to the Paiute Indian myth explaining Bryce’s iconic “hoodoos”–rock pillars formed when ice or rainwater wear away weak sedimentary stone. Apparently, the NPS doesn’t explain the myth “out of respect” for Paiute custom to only tell it in winter (NPR explains it here).

We had mixed feelings, but this reticence seemed silly in an age when this info is so available, and the park service couldn’t come up with anything else to talk about. What do you think about not sharing basic information out of respect? [Please comment!].

IMG_1030

At least we could rely on the CCC to get things right. We could always spot an accessible, harmonious CCC-built trail, even if we couldn’t rely on the current NPS to make an informative sign.

IMG_1041

Regardless of our criticism, the park was beautiful, and Ben and I loved making up our own explanatory stories to fill the vacuum. But we think national parks have an obligation to provide more than beautiful views and wish we’d had the opportunity to learn about what we were seeing.

Antelope Canyon: It’s All About the Photo

IMG_1058

Choosing beauty over sleep is never easy, but sunrise at Lake Powell made the sacrifice easy.

IMG_4171

But we were again reminded that beauty isn’t everything at Antelope Canyon. The tour was designed entirely around taking beautiful photos, and we didn’t learn anything about the site’s geological, historical, or cultural significance.

IMG_1078

IMG_1100

IMG_1103

The tour also encouraged us to find familiar forms in the rocks, particularly characters from popular movies like Nemo and Captain Jack Sparrow. While we’d enjoyed doing this at Carlsbad, we were frustrated that our American Indian guides assumed we’d only appreciate this “slot canyon” by equating it with pop culture references.

IMG_4154

However, as at many national parks, Ben and I were determined to have a more substantive experience, so we stayed after the tour to talk with our guide. We particularly liked hearing about his solitary quest to better understand his tribal heritage by learning Navajo language, history, and traditions.

Yet we also felt our guide, like many Native Americans, expatriates, and young people we met out West, was a bit unfair in his simplistic characterizations of “mainstream” American culture–reflected in our superficial, picture-oriented tour. Ben and I thought our entire tour group would have been receptive to hearing his story and his culture’s beliefs, if he’d been more open to sharing.

IMG_8827

“Statistics show that many Navajo families live in poverty. Yet our lives are enriched by living on the beautiful land where our ancestors lived, by speaking our language, and by continuing our traditions of stockraising, farming, craft work, and ceremonies. We work hard today to keep our language and traditions strong in the midst of the modern world.” Monument Valley Museum

Historic Shonto Trading post reminded us of poverty back in Appalachia, where natives preserved traditional crafts to preserve old ways of life, simultaneously perpetuating their own poverty.

“If people aren’t integrated into American society, then it’s very difficult to reach them and create the basis for economic opportunity and affluence.” Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution

IMG_4221

But we understand why people like our tour guide resist “integration.” And at 27,425 square miles, the semi-autonomous, self-governed Navajo Nation was only one of the many Americas within America we encountered.

Horseshoe Bend: Neat!

IMG_1111IMG_1139IMG_1154IMG_1169

Again, we didn’t learn anything, but it was a cool view!

Monument Valley: Making the Myth

IMG_1195

Of course, there are ways to make the beauty of the West profitable, e.g., the movies!

IMG_1198

In our best campsite of the trip, Ben and I slept in the exact spot John Ford’s Stagecoach traversed in his famous 1939 movie (note: “The Ringo Kid” was John Wayne’s breakout role).

Stagecoach_081Pyxurz© 1939 Walter Wanger Productions, Incorporated

“[Stagecoach] presents the West… as a savage wilderness whose outposts of civilization are held together tenuously by telegraph lines, military patrols, and we soon learn, stagecoach lines… once it enters the vast expanse and genre dreamscape of Monument Valley, the terms of the narrative become completely clear… the stark contrast between town and desert, between bustling civilization and primal wasteland, and… the claustrophobic microcosm of frontier society versus the spectacular and vaguely prehistoric landscape…” (37). Thomas Schatz, Stagecoach and Hollywood’s A-Western Romance

IMG_4250

Ironically, we think this landscape is partly “profitable” because it seems so distant from anything related to profit–or mankind altogether. We couldn’t reduce this “wild” landscape into human meaning or value, but that irreducibility made it useful by encouraging us to sense our own insignificance.

“Despite the great variety of living things to be found here, most of the surface of the land, at least three-quarters of it, is sand or sandstone, naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon. It is undoubtedly a desert place, clean, pure, totally useless, quite unprofitable.” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

Bluff Fort Museum: Mormon Pioneers

IMG_4271

Is it possible in any fertile spot in Utah, no matter how remote from civilization, not to find a prosperous band of Mormons? It might have been so before ’79, but now we find many interesting settlements.  One…called Bluff City. I cannot imagine a finer example of Mormon enterprise than these two hundred people, with their wealth of cattle and horses, leaving good homes, and facing the dangers and hardships of an unknown country.” Remington W. Lane, Harpers Magazine, December, 9, 1893

But much of the “wild” west was long ago made useful to humans–as far back as 19th century Mormons. We got a taste of “frontier” society at the free Bluff Fort Historic Site–our second encounter with these brave, religious pioneers.

IMG_4292

This was a determinedly “local” museum–created by and about recent residents–and it reminded us that out West people are still connected to the earliest pioneers through living memories.

“As her descendants, we pay tribute to the legendary sacrifice and service Josephine Wood offered to her community and to our God. May we emulate her courage, compassion, selfless service, and stalwart faith.” –label honoring “Aunt Jody,” Midwife/Nurse/Doctor (1853-1909)

Mesa Verde: Let’s Never Change

IMG_1221

By the time we got to Mesa Verde National Park, I’d finally learned to set up camp all by myself (thanks Ben!)

IMG_1225

I made our campsite so nice, some friends visited while we were sleeping.

Actually, it wasn’t the nicest campsite. But then, Mesa Verde isn’t the prettiest place.

IMG_1294

70% of the park has burned since it opened in 1906 (95% of the fires were started by lightning).

IMG_1288

For this and many other reasons, we couldn’t figure out why Mesa Verdeans called this land home for so long (750-1300AD). They were so desperate to stay, they spent their last 100 years here in 600 inhospitable cliff dwellings, only to inexplicably disappear.

IMG_4341

In my opinion, Mesa Verde is the story of people so attached to tradition and afraid of change, they lived in the stone age through the 1200s.

IMG_4353

Above, you can see how residents had to crawl just to enter their homes (after scaling cliffs–we never figured out how they’d go to the bathroom at night).

And cliffs were only the last of hundreds of years of decisions to live in impractical, dangerous locations to avoid change.

IMG_1274

Tradition and family ties may have proved stronger than logic or landscape” –Village Upon Village NPS label

For example, kivas began as underground homes, and only after generations of fires did they become communal and then symbolic, religious structures instead.

IMG_4355

However, Mesa Verde is also the story of why people might choose not to change, or “progress.” For example, the museum talked about how hunter gatherer societies have more leisure time, so there’s no reason to develop wheels, metal, written language, etc., without compulsion–like sustaining large populations or defending against enemies.

Mesa Verde thus encouraged us to think about the causes and costs of change–a relevant theme while on a roadtrip to discover our often forgotten American past.

“We have songs, we have customs that are handed down… because of that we have maintained a way of life…. We’re reminded of (our) past because we live it everyday.” Armand Minthorn at the Omaha NPS Lewis and Clark

IMG_4307

As a side note, the CCC again shone in Mesa Verde. Not only did they work on administrative buildings, lodges, campgrounds, roads, and trails, but even beautifully crafted, humorous miniature dioramas!

“Here in the park, far from the harsh realities of the time, the workers designed and built their own idealized world—a world in which people were happy, everyone had enough to eat, and no one worried about money.” –Mesa Verde NPS museum

After this trip, Ben and I plan to move into these dioramas.

Telluride: Dream Bubble

IMG_1392

My last semester of grad school, I worked with my solo performance partner Charlotta Hacke on her play called “Dream Bubble,” about her beloved hometown Telluride. Her love for this place was so tangible (and musical!), I had to experience it for myself (and Charlotta’s mother graciously hosted us).

“So high up on that mountain
I thought we’d never come down
It was a dream we were livin’ in
And I was the happiest I’d ever been”–“Telluride” by Tim McGraw

 

IMG_4363

Telluride’s tourist attractions were closed for the season, so Ben and I entertained ourselves in the town library, where Ben read to me about Telluride’s mining history. In 1875, prospectors found iron, silver, lead, copper, zinc, and gold in the ancient mountains and carved 350 miles of tunnels to squeeze out the land’s wealth. This eventually attracted the infamous Butch Cassidy, who robbed his first bank in downtown Telluride.

IMG_4409

While the mining industry’s legacy remains, Telluride has continued getting full human use out of its natural beauty as a high-end resort for skiers and festival-goers.

“Where the danger is doubled / and the pleasures are so few
Where the rain never falls / and the sun never shines
Lord, it’s dark as a dungeon / way down in the mines” – “Dark As A Dungeon” by John Cowan

IMG_4382

Ben, the poet, described the town thus: “Like a gem nestled in the palm of the mountains, Telluride seemed to be waiting for us to pick it up and discover its splendors for ourselves.” Admittedly, I encouraged Ben’s sentimentality by reading him Wordsworth on our hike up “Bear Creek Falls.”

IMG_1349

But Telluride was also a good reminder of the fragility of nature’s beauty, and the temptation to exploit and destroy it for immediate profit.

“…with my cheek on one of those green stones
That, fleeced with moss, under the shady trees,
Lay round me, scattered like a flock of sheep—
… In that sweet mood when pleasure loves to pay
Tribute to ease; and, of its joy secure,
The heart luxuriates with indifferent things,
Wasting its kindliness on stocks and stones,
And on the vacant air. Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being” –“Nutting” by William Wordsworth

IMG_1351

IMG_1367

IMG_1386

IMG_1317

We’re grateful that, like the national parks, Telluride’s current residents have worked so hard to preserve the “Dream Bubble” they love so much.

Ouray and Montrose: Small Town Surprises

IMG_4420

While lounging at a “clothing optional,” historic hot springs, we enjoyed Colorado’s majestic rocks in a new form: dissolved lithium, which supposedly enhances “a mood of tranquility” (sitting in an outdoor, naturally-fed pool for 3 hours probably helped too). We then forgot our health and ate greasy patty melts at this local burger joint:

IMG_4424

Ben became the talk of the town when the waitress told Ben (and all the young girls around) he was a spitting image of Jackson Rathbone (“Jasper” in the Twilight series)!

JasperHale3

I quickly rescued Ben’s inflated ego with music, but Ben got to practice blushing in response to adoring fans if he ever moves to one of these movie star-filled small towns.

 

IMG_4451

Ben and I also became adoring fans to one such movie star–John Wayne–who we’d now followed from the Alamo to Montrose’s “Museum of the Mountain West.”

IMG_4432

While we’d seen the same “everyday life” objects at similar living history museums (e.g., small town dentist offices), we’d never had so much fun learning about them–especially because of our theatrical, private tour guide. We also loved meeting the collector/director, who’d been building this enormous collection since age 4!

IMG_8882

We drove a few minutes down the road to see the jagged Black Canyon of the Gunnison (self-described as the steepest-deepest-narrowest canyon in North America) but it was obscured by fog. We entertained ourselves identifying the poop of various animals instead.

Moab: Arches, Canyons, and Dead Horses

Since starting Edward Abbey’s national park classic Desert Solitaire in Zion, Ben and I couldn’t wait to finally meet the famed Arches.

IMG_4482

Ironically, while Desert Solitaire encourages its readers to protect the wilderness by leaving it alone, thousands of readers have flocked to Moab in a hope [of] finding their own piece of solitaire.” –Moab Museum

We’re not the only ones. Nowadays, over 1 million people visit Arches every year.

IMG_0048

“It should be remembered that within any type of arch there will be enough variety of forms, shapes and forces that there will be no simple explanations that will totally solve the mystery of their origin.” –Dale Stevens and Ed McCarrick from the Introduction to The Arches of Arches National Park

IMG_0078

We actually did learn about the mechanical and chemical processes behind arch formation at the Park Visitor Center–but maybe that’s because Ben finally stayed awake through an intro video! Sleeping wasn’t his fault though–most are 20-30 years old and aim merely to inspire/hypnotize–e.g., I recorded audio at Black Canyon National Park to help Ben sleep:

IMG_0127

The sign in front of the arch Ben’s jumping in explicitly warned not to get too close because it could collapse any minute.

IMG_0108

The city of Moab is (possibly) named after the sandy wilderness in which Moses roamed, and this type of wandering-lost-in-the-“wilderness” is still available throughout the national parks’ poorly marked trails.

IMG_0150

Wandering can be fun for awhile.

IMG_0095

“Old” Landscape Arch is a little longer than a football field, and twice as high as the Statue of Liberty.

IMG_0140

We particularly enjoyed watching the sunset and the moon.

IMG_0145

But if you fall under the desert’s spell, there’s no promise you’ll get out alive. After it got dark, we wandered many wrong trails/non-trails before finding the parking lot. When we eventually heard a choir singing, we weren’t sure if we’d died and gone to heaven or actually found living people singing church hymns (it was the latter).

There’s nothing quite like the desert to make you appreciate being alive.

 

IMG_0152

We didn’t know much about what we were seeing at Canyonlands, but what we saw was pretty spectacular.

IMG_0167

IMG_0182

You can literally see the BIGNESS of time in the layers of a canyon, so Ben and I let these visuals inspire BIG conversations (about justice, music, communism, violence, history, change…).

IMG_0201

To his infinite credit, Ben listened to me rant about Plato for hours, and we’re still friends!!!

IMG_0227

Horses can symbolize wildness and freedom, but Dead Horse Point shows how easily man destroys them. This state park gets its name from a legend in which a band of “broomtails” were left gathered on the above “Point” and died of thirst 2,000 ft above the Colorado River.

IMG_0239

IMG_0235

Ben and I occupied ourselves hiking while waiting for my nephew Leander to be born!

Leander Baby to use

IMG_0247

IMG_4518

We ended our Moab adventures watching a new HBO show being filmed right over Dead Horse Point. We can’t wait to see how this show adapts the myth of the West for our own generation.

IMG_0259

IMG_0267

IMG_0253

Aspen: Wild Weather

IMG_0288

We weren’t ready for winter, but it was more than ready for us. Driving up a snowy mountain to find our campsite, our car gave up and we turned around to spend the night in nearby Aspen.

IMG_4539

I did make it up the playground mountain.

IMG_4548

Maybe we’ll be able to afford backpacks like this on our next roadtrip.

IMG_4544

What’s the point of going to Aspen if you can’t ski yet??

IMG_4551

Maybe the point is getting a beautiful but cheap hotel room.

IMG_0281

Luckily, our car (barely) managed Maroon Bells the next morning. It’s supposedly the most-photographed spot in Colorado.

IMG_0290

IMG_0303

But we didn’t get many photos because we were freezing!

 

Conclusion: Tree Museums

Ben and I know national parks aren’t really “wilderness”–which by the end of our trip, meant something like a world not built by humans to serve human needs. Parks have “wild” things in them, but they’re so contained, aestheticized, and comfortable, they don’t necessarily offer a “wild” experience.

Still, Ben felt the “wildness” they conserved was a priceless gift. From Zion’s slot canyons, Monument Valley’s sandstone buttes, to Arches’ arches–and the vast expanses between–he considered himself lucky to “spend a few moments of his comparatively short life with nature’s ancient and enigmatic architecture, to allow the sheer givenness of creation to fill his soul with wonder.”

But we also agreed the parks missed explanatory and educational opportunities, and after visiting so many, I found myself wishing our society put more money/value into teaching people how to live responsibly with nature that surrounds them everyday, rather than protecting spectacular monuments in the desert. I may have felt differently if the parks had better used these sites to teach visitors about a geological history and environmental dependence we all share.

IMG_0179IMG_0822IMG_1041IMG_1139IMG_0078IMG_0127IMG_0140IMG_0182IMG_0290

Nevertheless, maybe the point of going into Wilderness is to just get out of your own head and get lost? Or, to paraphrase my opening Muir quote, it’s not what we can do for wilderness, but what it can do for us? If so, by not using signs, the parks did a great job forcing us to find our own paths and our own meanings. Man taught us little about nature, but nature taught us a lot about ourselves.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

Dante’s Inferno

IMG_0332

Give Me The Sun

“You take the sundial and give me the sun.” – cowboy author Eugene Manlove Rhodes in Paso Por Aquí

IMG_0696

Leaving Texas, we put human-scale history, civilization, and minute by minute schedules behind us. Before entering true “wilderness,” we still had a few cities ahead–Tuscon, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. Nevertheless, from our first real National Park excursion at Carlsbad Caverns onward, our roadtrip experience instantly transformed. Sage and I stopped cramming our heads with comprehensive narratives of American music, military and political history, and were suddenly free to absorb a world shaped by forces far older and larger than man.

New Mexico: “Land of Enchantment”

IMG_0051

“You are journeying from light into dark, descending into a sunless world where weather is changeless, and time seems frozen”–National Park Service (NPS) label

We began by literally entering this other world on foot, walking 755 ft. deep into Carlsbad Cavern’s “Big Room”–the largest chamber at 600,000 sq. ft (a floor space of 14 football fields!)

IMG_0147

These caverns formed out of limestone built up from 250 million-year-old reef sediments. After the ancient sea dried up, these rocks were hollowed out when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone from the bottom up, rather than the usual cave-forming process of carbonic acid combining with carbon dioxide and seeping downward. Eventually this liquid drained, roof sections collapsed, and dripping ground water formed cave decorations.

But this geological explanation was somewhat beyond us, so for more info go here:

IMG_0084

Therefore, Sage and I found ourselves instinctively making up our own fantastic, supernatural stories to explain every stalactite chandelier, stalagmite finger, glass-clear pool, and pocket of impenetrable darkness.

IMG_0096

And we’re not the only ones: people have found human interest in these natural formations through storytelling since 16-yr-old Jim White first explored them around 1898. These explorers filled Carlsbad with romantic names like Hall of Giants, Fairyland, King’s Palace, the Devil’s Spring, the Boneyard, and Rock of Ages.

I think this storytelling is part of human nature–ever since Eden, we’ve been naming the objects of our wonder. Those cones of rock look like a colony of gnomes, that tower like a giant frozen in fear.

IMG_3922

“[Carlsbad Caverns] should not exist in relation to human beings… [It] is remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything.” – Ansel Adams

Admittedly, this storytelling meant we viewed Carlsbad’s wonders “in relation to human beings.” But as human beings, we could only capture this cavern’s otherworldliness in familiar terms: imagining and anthropomorphizing rocks into supernatural creatures. Even scientific explanations, filled with jargon and time-scales far beyond our comprehension, felt too distant from our human experience.

IMG_0128

Still, sometimes words were insufficient, and we simply wandered in wonder, too in awe to make this majesty into meaning.

IMG_8737

Another reason we made up stories was that Carlsbad felt so lifeless. But the next day in White Sands we learned these extreme environments are teeming with life, just on a level that’s hard to see.

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.” – Rose Houk and Michael Collier

IMG_0179

By not super-imposing our own lives onto our landscape, we could learn a little about ourselves from the very different desert life hidden around us.

IMG_0172

“And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition. Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.” – John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley

“Adapt or die.”  – NPS Visitor Center

Sand dunes are constantly shifting, and if a soaptree yucca is suddenly immersed, it has to  “grow tall, grow fast, hold on.” However, if the sand dune shifts again, the plant won’t have enough internal stability to survive. Thus, while we admired their adaptability, Sage interpreted them as a good reminder to cultivate a strong inner life, and not merely adapt to one’s environment. [Please comment with your interpretations below!]

IMG_0190IMG_0191IMG_0194IMG_0196

We found it frustratingly hard to capture White Sands’ surreal vastness with my camera.

IMG_0258

Somehow we managed.

IMG_3993

IMG_0289

Of course, nothing compares with spending hours watching the sun set over undulating gypsum dunes for ourselves.

IMG_0295

Yet even White Sands paled in comparison to us (just kidding…am I?)

IMG_3975

Far from everything familiar, and with a seemingly endless span of open time and space, this sunset was one of our first opportunities to stop and reflect. Silently watching the sun disappear over White Sands reminded us how valuable it is to let ourselves experience the innumerable moments of ephemeral beauty around us every day.

Since we lodged near El Paso, Texas before heading deeper into the desert west, Sage and I spent many hours belting out this song:

IMG_0339

We stumbled across this deli/museum in Deming, New Mexico with a little help from our friend, TripAdvisor.

IMG_0324

We dined with a couple old friends from the bayou.

IMG_0325

We were hoping to make friends with this well-dressed, even-toothed, “Shakespear”-aficionado, but he must’ve been caught.

IMG_0331

After lunch, I enjoyed some “light” reading in the saloon/library.

IMG_0321

Before hitting the road, I discovered my favorite bathroom of the trip. Apparently, the women’s bathroom wasn’t as interesting because women kept stealing artifacts.

We next stopped at the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, “the Smithsonian of the Southwest.” It was stuffed with “paintings, furniture, period rooms, antique machines and tools, toys, dolls, clothes, vehicles, farm equipment, war memorabilia, photographs, Indian artifacts, gems and geodes, and…Mimbres pottery.”

IMG_0342

IMG_4012

IMG_4016

As always, we found driving as thought-provoking as the destinations themselves. We were particularly intrigued by the philosophical questions posed by this road sign: “DUST STORMS MAY EXIST

[thanks to Charles Lehardy for fully explaining the debate surrounding “may”]

duststorms2

We also enjoyed the warm welcome and sound advice from this southwestern New Mexico town: “ALKALI WELCOMES YOU. EAT BEEF.

Later, we stumbled upon the Steins Railroad Ghost Town and its modern history of old west violence. The tourist destination of the abandoned town was itself largely abandoned after the owner was murdered (“shot five times, his scalp was lacerated and his chest and stomach were bruised“)

“According to old timers, there was no law here at all–just the agreed upon rule that ‘if you killed someone, you had to dig the grave.'” – of nearby Shakespeare ghost town

IMG_0371

We were having a great time singing murder ballads and exploring until Sage spotted the NO TRESPASSING sign across from the gallows.

IMG_0372

Tucson, Arizona: The Undeserted Desert

IMG_8753

Sage got to spend some much needed time with Elsie, her first niece, who did her best to prevent us from working on our blog.

IMG_8756

IMG_8768

Life on the road afforded few opportunities to cook healthy food, so Sage used our time pet-sitting to teach me how to make crepes!

IMG_0462

We did force ourselves out of the house to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The symbol of the Sonoran desert is the water-hoarding giant saguaro. Despite their inhospitable appearance, these cacti are the source of life for many insects, birds, and even people.

Unlike Carlsbad and White Sands, life in this desert zoo was obvious and active:

IMG_0399

IMG_0403

IMG_0405

Luckily, this frantically pacing bear was the only one we saw our entire trip.

IMG_0409

“What do the coyotes mean when they yodel at the moon?” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

The coyote gets its name from the ancient Aztec deity Coyotlinauatl, and frequently appears in Native American legends as a “fool, trickster, and demigod.” With both animals and plants, we were impressed with how much human meaning and use Native Americans found in their environment.

IMG_0428

While I think most things are beautiful in their own way, Sage interpreted these javelinas as evidence that sometimes God makes mistakes (or was just practicing for PIGS!!!)

IMG_0436

IMG_0444

IMG_0448

IMG_0456

“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity […] so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.” – Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

IMG_0385

Phoenix: Resurrecting Lost Voices and Preserving World Music

We started Phoenix at the Heard Museum, “dedicated to the sensitive and accurate portrayal of Native arts and culture.” After reading labels about Native Americans being kicked out West our entire roadtrip, this was the first time we encountered living Native Americans telling their own stories in the modern world.

IMG_0487

Of particular relevance was the first-person exhibition on American Indian boarding schools, which, beginning in 1879, attempted to “civilize” them into mainstream American society.

IMG_0488

We were instantly struck by these children’s fierce defiance upon arrival at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first school of hundreds.

Just four months later.

IMG_0497

This sign [READ IT CAREFULLY!!!] was one of many instances of us trying to educate Native Americans into “Americans,” when we should’ve been learning from them.

“In the early 1900s, the federal government sponsored a project to capture traditional Indian music on wax cylinders. At the same time, government boarding schools were busy trying to erase that culture from Indian memory.” – Ted Matou, Red Lake Chippewa, student at Pipestone Indian School

However, the next day at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument museum, Sage and I learned about “benevolent preservation,” in which the government does allow and support alternative cultures, but only when they’re no longer threatening and have lost their practical meaning.

IMG_0546

After having seen so many multi-use agave plants at the desert museum, we loved seeing how 3rd generation Apache fiddle maker Anthony Belvado uses their stalks to make music.

But this museum went way beyond American Indian music–containing “over 15,000 musical instruments…from nearly 200 countries and territories.”

IMG_0527

IMG_0580

IMG_0596

IMG_0598

[the air guitar is made of “nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, dreams.“]

IMG_0558

Since I play piano, I liked learning about Steinway construction. Since 1859, Steinway & Sons has been granted 127 patents for improvements in piano design.

IMG_0576

We even learned more about our new favorite musical genre: outlaw country! Here’s another sing-a-long from “the best country western song” (covering “momma, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin’ drunk”):

“I was drunk the day my mom got outta prison / And I went to pick her up in the rain / But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck / She got run over by a damned old train” – David Allan Coe

IMG_8776

The best part of Phoenix was discovering the Buffalo Chip Saloon, filled with country music, country dancing, and barbecue.  After free waltz lessons, we came back the next night for a rodeo!

Flagstaff: Poetry and Pluto

Our one day in Flagstaff was perhaps our favorite of the entire trip. We spent the morning contemplating what it means to be a cowboy, modern or mythic, at a cowboy poetry and music festival at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

[Tony Norris singing Sons of the Pioneers’ Ridin Down the Canyon]

But we’d been learning about the spirit of the cowboy throughout the trip. One of our favorite museum labels explained the cowboy like this:

Who were they, those giants who pushed the great herds north in the face of Indian menace, unrelenting weather and inhospitable terrain? Gaunt veterans in faded blue and gray with their bitter memories of Vicksburg and The Wilderness; former slaves, free at last to seek a life of their own; Mexican vaqueros, already generations old masters at handling cattle; preacher’s sons and farm boys, renegade and man beyond law; gentleman adventurers, second sons and remittance men; political exiles from the Old World; dreamers and idlers, those wanting to forget and those in search of something “just beyond.” Masters of no man, beholden to none, they “signed on” to follow the herds. They rode dangerous trails from nowhere to nowhere and left their bones to bleach by the skulls of the buffalo.” – Lucie Adams

Here are a few excerpts from some of our favorite cowboy poetry:

“He’s as much of a cowboy as he’ll ever be / He’s as close to the real thing as you’ll ever see

He’s fighting a battle that he’ll never win / The world will not change and he won’t give in

Just call him a cowboy and leave him alone / He’s learned how to live in a world of his own” — Just Call Him A Cowboy by Max Sidders


“But the bulk of the animal kingdom / He placed in the hands of a few / Who feel more at home in a pasture than / an office on Fifth Avenue”Animal Lovers from Deming Museum


“But like I said, the precedent was set so long ago. / The angels had to learn themselves what all good cowboys know. /

They worried if they didn’t work to keep the schedule tight / that Earth would not be finished by the deadline Sunday night. /

They’d never learned to think in terms of ‘rollin’ with the flow’ / But God does things on Cowboy Time … to watch the flowers grow. /

He bade the angels to relax and said, “For Heaven’s sakes, / I’ll get it done in seven days … however long it takes!” — Cowboy Time by Baxter Black

IMG_4092

We also went to an exhibit on the different ways people have tried to capture Grand Canyon in art.

IMG_0635

While we’d mostly use photography throughout the National Parks, we couldn’t believe the different ways one medium could represent the same place. This picture showed the pros and cons of using photography versus hand-drawn, 2D maps. Throughout our travels, we continued discussing the merits of using photos, painting, writing, drawing, and music to capture and convey our experience.

Nh-pluto-in-true-color_2x_JPEG

Since after Flagstaff we’d be heading into true wilderness, we prepared for our many nights under the stars by spending our last night in civilization at the Lowell Observatory. Established in 1894, this Observatory made history when, in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

We were so high that, even in a city, we got to observe a star cluster through the historic 1896 Clark telescope. Percival Lowell’s research with this telescope– supporting his theories about life on Mars–inspired science fiction writers including H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Conclusion: Give Me The Sun

“I’m about to…relax after a hard day of watching cloud formations” — Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire

Forcing us to stop our schedules and simply look at the sky, daydream, and observe in wonder, the beauty of the West taught us the value of living on “Cowboy Time” [see above poem]. Through our “hard days” of watching, we found life hiding under mountains, on roads, in the desert, up in the sky, and within cities. Hopefully we’ll give ourselves this time to appreciate the good hidden in our own worlds when we’re back in civilization.

God said let there be light and he separated the light from the darkness… and God saw it was good… Now God knew that in time to come children would get tired of playing and would lie down to chew on a blade grass. They would need something to do to make time pass, so on the second day God made heaven so the clouds would have a place to make pictures in the sky. God looked at heaven and saw it was good.–Six Days by the Light Crust Doughboys

IMG_8760

But we also want to remember it can be blinding to look at the sun in all its glory, without the filter of the sundial or civilization. We’ll explore the darker sides of chasing “wilderness” in our next post…

IMG_3967

The Texas Mystique

I’m not from Texas, and Ben’s “born and raised,” so this was my chance to experience the true Texas from the source itself: Houston, Austin, and San Antonio (and Ben). I’d heard rumors about the Alamo, cowboys, cowboy hats, Texas two-stepping, BBQ, and more about BBQ… but didn’t understand what was SO GREAT about his “Lone Star State.” Great or not though, people have STRONG feelings about Texas, and I was excited to discover it for myself.

I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox…. Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.” –John Steinbeck

Texas 4

Houston: Modern Metropolis

Ben was determined to prove that Texas is modern, cultured, and sophisticated. Therefore, despite our ban on attending encyclopedic museums (to focus on where we are and save money), we spent the morning visiting surreal paintings in the [free] Menil Collection.

invisible-world-1954(1).jpg!Blog

Le Monde Invisible. Image courtesy of wikiart

We also skipped art museums because most people can’t handle my… intensity with art. But Ben did an excellent job using Magritte’s paintings to discuss the illusion of freedom–on road trips and otherwise–and all the barriers we face pursuing it.

So, after one day, Ben persuaded me that Texas can be modern and sophisticated. The “Museum District” has 19 museums, and Houston, the 4th largest US city, is also the country’s most diverse.

But of course, to discover the “true” Texas, I had to learn its history, and since we started Texas from Houston, we also started its founding story backwards.

Texas 1

We began the story of the Texas Revolution at the Monument and Battlefield of the Battle of San Jacinto–which actually ended the Revolution. But luckily every Texan seems to know this myth, so Ben helped me catch up.

While Mexican dictator Santa Anna and his men were taking a siesta, Sam Houston and roughly 900 men caught them in a surprise attack, killing 630 and capturing 730 more, while only losing 9 men. The battle was over in 18 minutes, and Santa Anna surrendered the next day.

Note that at this monument, like everywhere else, Texas has to do everything bigger than everyone. It’s taller than the Washington Monument.

Texas 2

Inside the monument, Ben learned about his distinguished relative, Mirabeau B. Lamar: the 2nd President of the Republic of Texas and known as the “Father of Texas Education.” For example, Lamar set aside land for a public school system, which later, through the Morrill Act, led to major universities including Ben’s alma mater, Texas A&M.

I immediately recognized Lamar as Ben’s relative when I saw their striking resemblance–more than just physical. Lamar may be the source of Ben’s interest in poetry. Here’s an excerpt from a poem addressed to Sam Houston, 1st and 3rd President of Texas:

“I come great Chief of sanjacinto/ A disappointed, ruined printer,/ And humbly beg to lay before ye,/ A very sad, but honest story.//…

Within the town that bears your name,/ And borrows thence its greatest fame,/ I’ve published long, a weekly paper,/ As great as any man’s or greater.”

The Modest Petition of a Newspaper Editor, To Samuel Houston, President 1841

I hope Ben finds greater success as a writer though.

Mirabeau Lamar childhood pic

Ben actually dressed up as Mirabeau Lamar in 5th-grade! But like much of our Texas journey, the museum challenged some myths Ben’s been taught. For example, despite the above photo, we learned Lamar ordered many attacks against Native Americans, believing “total extinction” was necessary to make land available for whites.

Texas 3

Austin: Texas has culture!

Texans eat tacos for breakfast. Really. It’s the best idea!!! Texans also love their music–and Ben and I found a place that gives free tacos in exchange for a song.

Despite my pre-breakfast voice and untuned violin, I got these for free.

Texas 5

We ate there all three mornings.

Despite being stereotypically anti-government, Texas was also the birthplace of one of the most active American presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, and we spent the morning at his presidential library and museum.

LBJ, “a tornado in pants,” was in love with his own voice. On the phone, he wouldn’t let Martin Luther King Jr. get a word in. But the “LBJ treatment” made for some truly effective political action.

“We sometimes shy away from the exercise of power and sometimes the way he used it might have been tough, but the overall end was to try to make life better for people.” –Dorris Kearns Goodwin

Texas 7

Thanks to LBJ for:

  1. clean air
  2. civil rights
  3. preservation of wilderness
  4. seatbelts!!!
  5. free information
  6. the arts and humanities (the NEA and NEH)

IMG_0833

LBJ was a strange introduction to Texas, but so was Austin. Both LBJ and Austin surprised me with their active approach to government, liberalism, and embrace of social planning.

“There is no problem which we cannot solve together, and there are very few which any of us can settle by himself.” LBJ, 1964

However, they also reminded me that while Texas may be one “cohesive” state, it’s made up of many different people and ideas. Later in San Antonio’s “Institute of Texan Cultures,” we learned about the many cultures–German, Irish, African American, Native American, French, Spanish, and many more that collectively created so-called “Texan” culture. Moreover, today, Texas’ ethnic and cultural makeup is rapidly changing:

We were also excited to discover a surprise music exhibit on the Beatles!

Texas 8

After visiting so many star-centric music museums, we loved learning about fans and “Beatlemania.” For example, we read that Lennon allegedly remarked:

“The power of Christianity was on the decline in the modern world, and… things had reached such a ridiculous state that human beings (such as the Beatles) could be worshipped more religiously by people than their own religion.” – John Lennon

Concerning hero worship, we felt a bit similarly about the LBJ museum–particularly when watching the animatronic LBJ religiously reanimated down to his hair and fingernails. While the exhibits sometimes ignored his flaws to obsess over his character and good intent, LBJ’s accomplishments, like those of the Beatles, merit remembrance.

Texas 11

In addition to tacos, Austin is also a food cart haven. At “Hey, You Gonna Eat or What?,” we tried the award-winning “Shiner Monty Christo:” a Shiner Bock beer battered Monte Christo.

Texas 12

We ate before swimming at Barton Springs, an enormous spring-fed public pool–one of Austin’s many impressive public spaces.

Texas 19

This is probably because Austin has big government, literally. The Capital building is bigger than the U.S. Capital Building (interpret that for yourself).

Texas 20

We kept running out of water and were thrilled to discover a historical sign about a water fountain, but then read that although one existed in the early 1900s, “because no photographs…were found to document its appearance, a circular bronze marker was installed in 1996 to mark the location.” How helpful.

Texas 21

On our road trip, Ben and I have been trying to grasp some of the “Cowboy” spirit for ourselves–bravely seeking out the path less traveled, restoring our connection to the land, and singing to the moon… even in a world where it seems anachonistric (acknowledging Hollywood probably shaped this image more than history). We’ve seen similar iconic “Bronco Buster” images all over the west.

Texas 14

And we’re not the only ones. Even in this Texas metropolis, the romantic image of the Cowboy still shapes modern sounds. Here Ben and I worshipped at the feet of one of our new idols, outlaw country legend Willie Nelson.

“The farther Americans became removed from the cowboy past, the more intense became their interest in cowboy songs and lore.” –Bill Malone, Country Music USA

We’ve been listening to cowboy music ever since [more on this later].

Texas 13

But Austin, “the live music capital of the world,” has produced much more than cowboy music.

The “8 1/2 Souvenirs'” gypsy jazz at the historic venue, C-Boys, made us feel we were in 1930’s Paris.

Texas 15

And during a live “Murder Ballad” show we spontaneously found one night, we relived songs from the very beginning of our trip.

While these southeastern murder ballads weren’t cowboy songs, it turns out they’ve helped define what “cowboy” sounds like:

“By the mid 30s… a ‘western’ music definitely was becoming dominant, but it was a music that was not even remotely connected with cowboy origins… that had developed in the eastern tier of the southern states: Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma” –Bill Malone, Country Music USA

Texas 22

The “armadillo” is the symbol of Austin music. We loved interpreting this representation of a bloody armadillo shooting from a musician’s heart–please share your interpretation below! [Dad, I expect another essay!).

We’d been waiting since Nashville’s Studio B to play this song:

San Antonio: Remember the Alamo!

Now that we were nearing our final Texas city, it was time to learn the beginning of the Texas Revolution story: The Battle of the Alamo.

Texas 16

Like the Cowboy, the Alamo is as much myth as history–but here’s a basic intro for all you non-Texans:

In 1836, the Mexican province of Texas was fighting Mexican dictator Santa Anna for independence or a return to the Constitution of 1824. After a 13-day siege of the Alamo mission, Santa Anna’s forces of ~1,500 killed all “Texian” defenders (~200 men, including Davy Crockett and David Bowie.) This loss, coupled with the later Goliad Massacre, inspired the later decisive victory at San Jacinto.

Texas 25

Phil Collins narrated an exciting Alamo light show history for us next door. We considered it about as accurate as all the other accounts (including the 1960 John Wayne movie).

Texas 26

Ben and I had different reactions towards this myth. Personally, I was not impressed with “heroes” who knowingly died against impossible odds for, in my opinion, no strategic purpose. Ben admitted their “courage” was more like suicide, but he respects that they stayed to fight oppression, and regardless, their deaths ultimately altered the nation’s history.

In terms of its contemporary relevance, Texans take this story to heart, and I found it a strange alternative to the myth of the American Revolution. While both take “independence” and willingness to fight and die for “freedom” seriously, I found the violence and war-centric narrative very different from the focus I was taught on ideas, writing, and even boycotts. Of course, Texans know both stories, but I wonder how this story changes Texans’ conception of what it means to be a “good” American.

Texas 27

Of course, before the famous Battle of the Alamo, the Alamo was a mission, so Ben and I took a mission bike ride to learn about this extremely early “American” history.

Texas 33

Missions served many functions, benefitting both the Spanish missionaries and natives. For example, the walls protected natives from raiding Apaches.

Texas 28

However, the missions’ primary function was to turn natives into “tax-paying, Christian citizen-farmers” (National Park Service label).

Conversion was particularly important, since Spain didn’t have enough citizens to secure their claims to American land. By “converting native peoples to Catholicism and teaching them to live as Spanish citizens… the missions became a buffer against other European nations competing for territory.”

Texas 30

Personally, I find it astounding that Spanish explorers would come all the way to America just to transform the natives into themselves, and Ben was upset they were exploiting the gospel for political and financial gain.

It was a good reminder to keep an open mind when traveling, and to embrace differences as an opportunity for personal growth.

Texas 34

Hence, I kept an open mind and embraced Texas BBQ: ribs, brisket, and sausage. And while I found it challenging (I don’t eat pork), it was AMAZING!! I admit there are some things Texas does better than anyone else.

Balmorhea: Into the Wilderness

Most Texans live in cities (~90%), and yet “Texas” makes me think of wide open spaces, cattle, cowboys, and cacti (thanks again Hollywood!). However, after visiting 3 major cities, Ben and I finally ventured off into the Texas wilderness.

Texas 37

But before, we made a brief pitstop at Ben’s San Antonio high school, TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas.

Texas 35 copy

Upon returning, memories came rushing back. It was a good reminder of his past growth–intellectual, spiritual, and social–as well as growing yet to be done.

Texas 36

After hours of driving through Texas Hill Country, desert flatness, tiny tiny Texas towns, and more BBQ, we stopped for our first night of camping in Balmorhea State Park. We somehow managed to get a private sunset swim in the park’s claim to fame: the world’s largest spring-fed pool.

Texas 38

When I met this elegant bug in the bathroom, I thought it was our first insect road trip friend. But Ben told me these “stick bugs” (Anisomorpha buprestoides) can “spray a milky kind of acidic compound from glands on the back of its thorax… unerringly hitting the face of a perceived predator… [causing] intense burning and even temporary blindness.

Texas 17 copy

NOW THE OLD GIANTS ARE GONE

WE LITTLE MEN LIVE WHERE HEROES

ONCE WALKED THE INVIOLATE EARTH

–Quote from Tom Lea’s painting of Texan Heroes at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

We’ve gone into much of this trip with our heads full of myth. Sometimes we’ve found them spectacularly enhanced, like when discovering enchanting springs, daring heroes, and smoked brisket. And sometimes they’re challenged by mundane but often overlooked facts: dangerous bugs, suicidal odds, and over-priced sides.

But we love digging into stories of our country and ourselves–whatever our adventures reveal–and we look forward to sharing our discoveries with you as we continue journeying into the West!

Heading South

Follow our musical journey on our ever-expanding “roadtrip” playlist: 

IMG_3558

Howdy ya’ll. We’ve seen a whirlwind of musical and historical cities (Bristol, Asheville, Nashville, Memphis, etc.), so we caught our breath at my family’s tranquil farm in the woods of northern Mississippi and then kept flying south to New Orleans.

Tolten: A Family Tradition

IMG_8530

We drove down through the countryside, home only to the occasional farmer and family. The nearest “town” to my family’s farm is Lodi, home to only 9 people, an abandoned gas station, and an empty shed for them to vote in once every two years.

IMG_8481

Sage contemplated the endless fields of cotton sprawling out from the road. After months of explaining cotton production to Smithsonian visitors from a history cart, it was odd for her to see it growing in a field for the first time.

IMG_3595

We made it to Tolten – my family’s affectionate name for our 1840’s shotgun house – and were finally able to rest. The house and surrounding forest have been in my family for nearly 100 years, and the rooms and gardens silently preserve many memories, conversations, and secrets from innumerable holidays and reunions.

IMG_3612

The upstairs hallway is covered in old family photographs, including this eerie one which I’d never noticed before, but which Sage discovered through her enviable powers of observation. Notice the small white shepherdess in the bottom picture, inexplicably staring straight at the photographer. Any idea what’s going on? (Please comment below.)

IMG_3552

We also explored the history hiding in the woods around the house. Timmy, who’s been my friend and mentor my entire life, enthralled us with story after story about this countryside. Dating back to the 1800s, the gravestones went up to people in my own life. Timmy and I reminisced about Clark and Cora Campbell, a couple who worked at Tolten for decades. I can still smell the syrupy pancakes and crispy bacon Cora spoiled me with as a child.

IMG_3609

I didn’t just talk about pancakes though; Sage and I got to devour them, thanks to Peggy–who’s continued cooking buttery, southern feasts for every meal at Tolten. Sage is one of my only friends with whom I’ve shared these traditions and memories. And more than just memories, Peggy, Timmy, and Chris give life to Tolten now. They’re each so dear to me, and now Sage calls them friends too.

IMG_3587

We spent most of our time writing, reading–and in Sage’s case, fiddling!–on this breezy porch.

IMG_3624

Tolten is inseparable from the wilderness. While we didn’t go on a customary coon hunt, we did see deer, raccoons, toads (in and out of the house) and Sage saw her first armadillo. Too bad it was DEAD.

IMG_0432

On our departure, we stopped at the Jackson house of Eudora Welty, a southern writer famous for her ability to depict the dialect and place of Mississippi. She was the first living author published by the Library of America, placing her in a pantheon of such greats as Melville, Twain, Emerson, and Faulkner. Welty once remarked:

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” – Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

Welty reminded us to look for stories in even the smallest, seemingly insignificant moments of our trip. Sage and I are constantly surprised by the history we stumble upon when we treat our drives as destinations in themselves.

New Orleans: Dance of the Dead

IMG_8516

But “listening for stories” got much easier when we arrived in New Orleans–where stories are practically shouting at you from the alleys, bars, and trombones.

IMG_0496

The French Quarter was particularly layered with centuries of stories.

IMG_3644

Appropriate for a city obsessed with death and ancestor worship, we began our first day winding through Saint Louis Cemetery #1, opened in 1789. It’s the final resting place of Homer Plessy, whose “separate but equal” legacy we’ve followed throughout the south, and Marie Laveau, renowned voodoo queen, to whom locals still leave offerings.

IMG_3655

In 2010, actor Nicholas Cage–whose second wife was Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie Presley–built this modest pyramid to house his talented remains.

IMG_3668

We visited a far more expensive, high-tech tribute to the dead at the National WWII Museum. While I know Sage respects those who lost their lives in this war, she didn’t have much respect for the museum itself.

IMG_3683

While exhibits encased us with behemoth bombers, reconstructed battlefields, dramatic newsreels, and animated maps, the content was too overly simplistic and celebratory to leave us with any deeper connection to this history. It was a good reminder that flashy, fancy museums are no substitute for thought.

IMG_0782

This National Park Service Visitor Center exhibit, on the other hand, was stuffed with so much shocking, imperative information that Sage was crawling on her hands and knees to absorb it all.

IMG_0469

Instead, walking tours were our best way to meet New Orleans (we did three!). Established in 1816, when the city was overrun with Yellow Fever and plagues, this French Quarter pharmacy was the first licensed apothecary in the country. But don’t think these cures were better than the diseases themselves! Our tour guide promised this museum was more bloodcurdling than any ghost tour.

IMG_0485

While Sage experienced this morbidity as perpetual Halloween, I needed to reaffirm life by gorging myself on muffulettas (A Sicilian sesame loaf stuffed with olive salad, mortadella, salami, ham, mozzarella, and provolone.) This famous bar gets its name from New Orleans 1812-1815 mayor Nicholas Girod–who offered this residence to Napoleon in 1821 as refuge from exile (we’re still waiting for his response).

IMG_3698

Why is New Orleans obsessed with death? Well we think their first mistake dates back to the city’s very founding, when in 1718, this fellow, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, selected the city’s site.

“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver […] that ten thousand River commissions […] cannot tame that lawless stream […] cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.” – Mark Twain, Life On the Mississippi 1883

IMG_0732

We learned more about the environmental dangers to the city when we visited the nearby wetlands for ourselves.

IMG_0699

IMG_0712

These alligators aren’t the real danger to New Orleanians. The levees and canals built to protect New Orleans from flooding are actually creating far worse problems. For example, they dump waste-filled water into the Gulf of Mexico, creating algae-filled “dead zones” as large as 7,000 square miles where nothing can survive.

Our refusal to accept the natural flow of this landscape has resulted in the rapid loss of Louisianna wetlands, which are disappearing at the rate of 33 football fields a day.

IMG_0745

IMG_0754

Why should you care? First, because these alligators are adorable.

Second, because wetlands are a “speed bump” for hurricanes, and protect the city. But even if we give up on New Orleans’ future, you might care that these wetlands provide 30% of the nation’s energy needs, and, more alarmingly in my opinion, 31%(!) of the nation’s seafood.

IMG_0530

Sage also let me stop in this bookstore, since William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson once roomed together in the second story (occasionally shooting passersby on the street below with BB guns, earning extra points for hitting nuns). Nevertheless, he still managed to write a couple novels here, so mom: don’t worry, all this road tripping will pay off! The book I’m holding–a rare signed first edition copy–is worth $9,500.

Therefore, in the New Orleanian spirit of taking advantage of what little time we had in the city, we decided to embrace new experiences.

IMG_0537

We found alligator (sorry) to be salty, spongy, and tasteless, but worth trying once.

IMG_8569

We also shared a “sazerac,” New Orleans’ official cocktail, notable for the absinthe-coated glass and use of bitters (a local invention).

IMG_8572

Bourbon Street was also worth trying… once.

IMG_3720

While people-watching, we speculated on how the city’s perpetual awareness of mortality can lead to lawlessness in the pursuit of pleasure. But it can also lead to great music.

For example, Storyville–the red light district shut down after WWI–was the birthplace of jazz.

IMG_0567

We also got to hear music in Louis Armstrong park, which encompasses Congo Square, the space where African Americans have been performing since slaves gathered there on their Sundays off from work in the 1700s.

IMG_0603

This awareness of death doesn’t only lead to musical creation. At the Backstreet Cultural Museum, we learned how African Americans in the Tremé district defied adversity by affirming life and community.

IMG_0576

“Collaborative creation is what gives the suit its efficiency, [so] once it has been worn, it has served its role and a new one must be constructed.” – Backstreet Cultural Museum

Mardi Gras Indians not only wear these costumes to compete, but also to bind neighbors together and prove their communal strength. Sage is already color-coordinated enough to be next year’s Mardi Gras Queen!

When discussing our time in New Orleans, Sage brought up how there seems to be a necessity to its music, a defiance and resilience against despair. Music often grows out of awareness of and respect for the dead, but thereby works to sustain and rebuild surviving communities. Whatever threatens this city, its soul lives on through its sounds.

“There stretches a long line, a long unbroken line honoring their peers… [we] laid them to rest as they lived / by their music. This music…so overriding of all else that families, faith, and frailties, day gigs, politics, and justice, Love, Hate / All else, comes after.” – Backstreet Cultural Museum

We made so much of the time we had, we were exhausted and more than ready for our next destination: my homeland, TEXAS. Look out for our next post, where I show Sage the history, music, and landscape of the Promised Land!

IMG_0752

Don’t Quit Your Day Dream

IMG_2879

I (Sage) just graduated from my master’s program in Public Humanities from Brown, and Ben just returned from half a year traveling and writing in Chile. We’ve always dreamed of seeing America and realized this might be our best time to go for it. After months of preparation, we set out on the road September 8th, searching for music, history, literature, old and new friends, and adventure. We’ve already found so much, and we wanted to share some of our experiences with you, our friends and family.

So far, Ben and I have travelled through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and we’re now writing from Mississippi.

Farewell to the Familiar

rd2

After Ben flew in from Texas, we spent a few days preparing the car from my home in Annapolis, MD. To prepare our minds, we also took a trip to D.C., visiting the Smithsonian of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. King’s words sent us off thinking about how much personal inspiration we can find from learning about our country’s past.

rd3

Into the Frontier

rd4

Our first stop was the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA. The museum traces the path of America’s first settlers from the “Old” World (England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Africa), and shows how their diverse traditions merged to form “American” culture from the 17th-19th century. It was the perfect place to start our own journey westward.

rd5

This old German instrument was a precursor to the mountain Dulcimer, an “American” instrument we’d meet later on.

rd7

From Day 1, we’ve been trying to learn about our surroundings, even when we’re just driving past them. Here’s some light reading about the abandoned sanitarian we found unmarked near the Frontier museum (READ THE POEM!!!).

Bristol: The Birthplace of Country Music

rd11

We started our journey into American music history in Bristol, where the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions first recorded Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family. These recordings began a tradition that continues to shape American music.

rd8

rd9

We began the day with our first Southern meal, with a side of American pop culture at the unhealthfully delicious Old Lighthouse Diner.

rd12

The musical murals throughout Bristol reminded Ben of the eclectic street art in Valparaíso.

rd13

I experienced my first of many moments of bewilderment with Southern life in a “gold, guns, and guitar pawn shop.”

rd1

Ben started his education in real music with Jimmy Rodgers’ “extended yodel” in “Sleep Baby Sleep.”

rd16

rd17

I demonstrated mandolin and fiddle for Ben. Be glad this “Bristol session” wasn’t recorded!

rd14

rd15

For lunch we stopped at Burger Bar, the legendary restaurant outside of which Hank Williams supposedly died.

“They say Nashville is the home of country music

With this no doubt we’ll agree

But let’s don’t forget that the birthplace,

is Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee.”

–Poem Excerpt from Museum of Mountain Music

Ben found his first inspirational poetry in Bristol’s Museum of Mountain Music.

rd18

rd19

Asheville: Where the Mountains Sing

rd26

After driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ben and I arrived in Hickory, NC. We weren’t the first to seek out this mountain paradise.

rd22

In fact, the city of Asheville grew from pilgrims seeking physical and spiritual growth from the mountainous landscape and culture.

rd23

To write a book that has any interest or value, he has got to write it out of the experience of life. A writer, like everybody else, must use what he has to use.” –You Can’t Go Home Again, a novel by Thomas Wolfe

Ben aspires to someday be as tall and talented as this renowned Asheville author.

rd21

Ben often frustrates me with his ignorance of country music, and sometimes I can’t help but lash out.

rd20

Just kidding (about the lashing out).

rd24

Some old friends from fiddle camp treated us to the most spectacular Southern meal I’d ever had. Even Ben—a native Texan—concurred.

rd25

rd27

After all that eating, we needed some exercise. So we visited the one National Park you mostly drive through—The Blue Ridge Parkway. We stretched our legs on a brief hike to a lookout.

rd29

In the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center, we learned about how Northerners’ pilgrimage in search of “mountain culture” has itself affected that culture—molding and funding traditions that confirm their own romantic ideals.

rd30

Back in Asheville, we stumbled upon a huge Goombay festival, and our first BBQ.

For dessert, we enjoyed Asheville’s weekly drum circle.

In our third concert of the night, Ben and I had possibly our favorite surprise of the whole trip at the “Feed and Seed,” a small music venue/church 20 minutes out of Asheville.

Ben and I became the stars of the show when I taught Ben clogging and he taught me Texas two-stepping.

rd33

We spent the next day driving through the Great Smoky Mountains. The grey mist made us feel like we were driving back in time—especially when we stopped at the Museum of Appalachia, in Clinton, TN.

rd34

This was in fact not a historical reenactor, but a local espousing his strong attachment towards the Confederate flag.

rd39

The museum itself, however, also made us feel like we stepped back into another era.

 rd36

This artist aspired to have his work erected on the moon and “9” planets by 2020. We have 5 years to prepare the citizens of Jupiter.

rd40

Someday I hope to own this jawbone violin.

rd35

We were particularly impressed with the museum’s sophisticated labeling.

rd37

rd38

Actually, we were delighted with our free mountain dulcimer lessons.

rd41

Nashville “Country Music: Three Chords and the Truth”

rd44

Ben experienced his first taste of true bluegrass at the famous Station Inn with mandolin legend Roland White, who years earlier taught Sage her first ever mandolin lesson! White even played in the band of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe.

Ben liked it so much we went back the next night for a live bluegrass jam.

rd42

rd43

I immediately felt at home in Nashville, the “Athens of the South,” when I saw their reproduction Parthenon in Centennial Park, made for the 1897 Expo.

rd45

The TN State Museum was our perfect next stop on our journey westward. A total introduction to Tennessee history–covering culture, politics, art, technology, military, etc.,–we learned how the pioneers we’d met in Virginia continued into Tennessee: settling, developing cities, and often passing into Texas and beyond.

rd51

After this introduction, it was music time. We started with RCA’s Studio B, where many iconic country artists recorded.

Charley Pride: “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone

Dolly Parton: “I Will Always Love You”

rd47

Ben was not the first to sit at this bench. At 10pm one Sunday night, Elvis Presley arrived, but wasn’t quite ready to record. He talked with other musicians for a couple hours, ordered burgers and milkshakes at midnight, and began warming up at 2:00 am playing Southern gospel on this very piano. At 4am, with the room completely dark to create the right mood, he finally recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

rd49

I could barely contain myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which brought the story of country music full circle, connecting its roots with country today.

rd46

We started back in Bristol, with Jimmy Rodgers “Waiting for a Train.”

rd48

This is the famous Bill Monroe mandolin that basically invented bluegrass. The instrument, like many a country musician, made art from a difficult life.

According to the label, “In 1985, an intruder broke into Monroe’s home and smashed the treasured mandolin with a fireplace poker. The instrument was painstakingly reconstructed by Gibson from about 150 slivers of broken wood.”

rd50

Immersed in the museum’s story of the people, places, and instruments that define country music, Ben and I were excited to discover it living in the city around us.

This is Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers performing at 3rd and Lindsley (you can never have too many fiddlers!)

rd52

“The Mother Church of Country Music,” Ryman Auditorium has hosted everyone who’s anyone in country music (and housed the Grand Ole Opry 1943-74). But Ben and I were surprised to learn about the countless politicians, preachers, orchestras, educators, activists, lecturers, etc., who graced its stage before it was consecrated to country.

rd53

Why did no one ever teach us the choreography for the finale? (See step #6). The Hokey Pokey was first recorded on the Ryman stage in 1952.

rd54

Nearly every street (especially Broadway) was filled with country music history.

rd55

Even the historic GOO GOO cluster candy store connects to the city’s musical roots. Many legendary Opry stars promoted the candy at the Grand Ole Opry.

rd56

One of the first marketing slogans was “Say Goo Goo: A Nourishing Lunch for a Nickel.” According to the shop, some candy historians credit the clusters as America’s first fast food, “cheap, self-contained, and (in the short term at least) filling.”

rd57

After so many recognizable country stars, we were excited to learn about some of the session musicians behind them and their hits in the Musicians Hall of Fame. We also got an introduction to how recording studios—especially the Stax and Sun studios in Memphis—have shaped various genres around the country.

After I shared some light criticism with a staff member, he—who turned out to be the museum’s founder!—graciously talked with us about the museum and our trip for an hour.

rd59

In lieu of alcohol, we’ve altered our mental state with excessive sugar consumption. Exhibit A: Nashville’s famous Pancake Pantry.

rd60

I learned only one thing on Ben’s sub-par tour of Vanderbilt’s campus. These trees are part of the campus-wide arboretum that contains over 6000 trees and shrubs native to the state. (Don’t ask me what any of them are).

Afterwards, we walked along Music Row, the hub of Nashville’s historic and contemporary recording studios. We even visited the studio of the talented Cindy Sinclair, who ran “Nashcamp” where I first fell in love with bluegrass.

rd58

Nashville’s State house was one of the first buildings to mark the arrival of “trained” American architects in the frontier. We’ve come a long way from the one-room log cabins built by the earliest settlers in Virginia’s frontier!

rd61

During our visit, we stayed with Ben’s twin brother and sister-in-law. Ben caught up on some much-needed “bro time.”

But we wanted more time, with them and the city. Hopefully we’ll be back soon, and for a longer stay…

Memphis: A musical jukebox

rd64

At the Rock and Soul Museum, Ben and I learned about how country, as well as blues, grew into rock and roll, soul, and various other genres we listen to today. Memphis helped create many of these styles, (occasionally) overcoming powerful racial divides through musical mixing. Here’s a sample:

rd66

Across the street, we toured a Gibson guitar factory. We were impressed by the intricate manufacturing process, but weren’t clear on what—besides history—preserved their status as the best instruments available. Admittedly, they were pretty.

rd65

Although concerned by what appeared to be an empty café in an abandoned office building, Ben followed Sage into a magical museum filled with art, colors, music, and new friends. When a mysterious woman appeared, we were welcomed into the Center for Southern Folklore and she gave us a private screening of a documentary on Beale Street musicians and pigs praying before eating.

From this experience, Ben learned to trust Sage and her instincts in all situations and will keep his opinions to himself for the rest of the trip.

rd68

Ben and I were a bit skeptical about making a pilgrimage to Graceland—particularly for $40 a person. But our eyes were opened to Elvis’ artistic genius when we spotted his two-tone pink golfing jeep, often used by security guards.

rd67

These subtle stained glass peacocks—regal, ostentatious, and eccentric—seemed like an appropriate animal to welcome us into Elvis’ famous home.

rd69

Every room was unique: from mirror-lined hallways to jungle-themed dens, the house was covered, floor-to-ceiling, in Elvis’ outrageous, albeit memorable, style.

rd70

rd71

Elvis overwhelmed us with the extent of his influence and popularity. Did you know more people watched Elvis perform his Live Aloha from Hawaii concert than watched man first walk on the moon?

rd72

Thoroughly indoctrinated, we were finally prepared to pay homage to this divine, musical “King.” Always remember, as John Lennon once said, “before Elvis there was nothing.”

rd73

rd74

Elvis got his start at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, so maybe we could too!

rd76

Ben lends his talent to the “Million Dollar Quartet:” Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

rd75

Our enthusiastic tour guide demonstrated how Johnny Cash created a percussive sound on “Walk the Line,” so he could play it at the Grand Ole Opry despite its prohibition on drums.

rd77

Hopefully learning from these musical heroes will help us find our own artistic voices.

rd78

Diverse musicians have long interacted on Beale Street—and it continues to attract the best blues, rock, and soul performers today. Ben and I heard saxophones, pianos, and trumpets blasting from every bar.

The street itself was filled with people and entertainment. I even saw my first street tap dancer!!!

“If you were black for one night on Beale Street, you’d never want to be white again.” – music documentary in the Southern Folklore Center

rd81

But we can’t ignore the darker sides of Memphis’ racial diversity. We spent our final day at the National Civil Rights museum, located at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

rd82

The museum traced African Americans’ long fight for civil rights, beginning when Africans were first brought to America as slaves.

rd83

rd84

The museum, even while showing us how far we’ve come, challenged us to recognize how far we still have to go. I found the educational segregation section particularly relevant.

rd85

All the visitors were so engaged and passionate about this history that we couldn’t help but learn as much from their reactions as from the exhibits themselves.

rd86

Ben, while watching the prophetic “Mountaintop” speech Dr. King gave mere hours before his death, was moved to tears at his intense faith that good was even now overcoming evil.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And I’m so happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

rd87

My college roommate Sharon and I finally reunited over blues and barbeque.

rd80

Each day of this trip has been like a dream come true. Every few minutes we’re overwhelmed with gratitude.

However, we’ve been so wonderfully busy, we’ve hardly had a moment to reflect. Here’s Ben attempting to write while waiting for a concert in the famous BB King Blues Club. We’re currently taking a short rest in Mississippi, enjoying the opportunity to look back and look forward to the next chapter in our adventure!