Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheyenne, Wyoming (mile 4,800)

June 29

As we approached Cheyenne, first we passed a bison ranch, then the road rose high, the lanes split, and a Union Pacific control tower stood between the ribbons of roadway. Looking down from our lofty perch, we counted at least 36 tracks, a third of them with trains on them, plus acres of sheds and shelters in the rail yards below.

As we learned later, this was the main line of the transcontinental railroad—the lifeline that shaped much of Cheyenne's early history. Union Pacific still stores its collection of operational steam locomotives in a massive roundhouse here—when they are not out being displayed at railroad events around the country or pulling special excursion trains.

The Union Pacific tracks arrived in Cheyenne in 1867, and the cattle barons arrived in force not long after that. With relatively mild winters and abundant short grass on the plains that stretched for endless miles in every direction, cattle could remain on the range year-round here. With the railroad, the cattle could easily be shipped anywhere east, and all the luxuries the barons—and the bankers and merchants who followed on their heels--craved from the east could be easily shipped to them. Within ten years, the thriving cattle industry in Cheyenne and surrounding Laramie County made it the wealthiest county per capita in the country.

We took a trolley tour of historic Cheyenne, and learned about its Wild West history. There were over 50 bars and bordellos near the railroad tracks—we ate lunch in a restaurant in one of those infamous buildings. But, the city had a much more refined history, and a rich cultural life as well, with an opera house built in 1883, sixteen music halls, and the first county library built west of New York City. South Dakota was first in the country to give women the right to vote—but only because it was a territory at the time and didn't have enough voters to qualify to become a state without padding the voting rolls with women. South Dakota was also the first state to elect a woman governor.
This is a picture of their beautiful capitol building—it is one of ten state capitols in the country with a gold-gilded dome.

The town celebrates its Wild West heritage with Frontier Days, held the last week in July. The event features nine days of rodeo events, games, musical entertainment, food and lots more. One of the highlights of Frontier Days is a free pancake breakfast put on by the Kiwanis Club of Cheyenne. This event is of special interest to Dick, since he is a Kiwanian, and his club does a (much smaller scale) pancake breakfast every year, too. According to our tour bus driver, the Cheyenne Kiwanis is the second largest chapter in the country, with 400 members. Their Frontier Days pancake breakfast serves 39,000 pancakes to 13,000 people. They mix their batter in a brand new cement truck.

Since we ate lunch in what used to be a saloon, we decided to have dinner at the Plains Hotel, built in 1911, the finest hotel in Cheyenne both then and now. Ever since its opening, it has been the place where the cattle barons, politicians and the other power brokers around town meet and mingle. And, if they want to meet and mingle with the show girls, there's a little place out back called Peacock Alley where they can enjoy a backstage visit.

In the early days, a respectable man could walk in the front door of the Plains Hotel, take a tunnel that led to the disreputable saloon section of town, enjoy some tawdry amusements, return through the tunnel, and walk out the front door of the Plains, with hardly anyone the wiser. The tunnels are no longer are in use for pedestrian traffic (or that's the story anyway, and they're sticking to it).

Monday, June 29, 2009

Hiking, Biking, and Liking Taos

June 27-28

We had an action-packed day and a half in Taos. Here are the things we enjoyed the most:

Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States

The main living structures of the Pueblo are believed to be over 1,000 years old. While the structures follow the style that was used bakc then, it is hard to believe that they actually are that old, since they are built of adobe brick, plastered over with adobe mud, building materials that need constant maintenance to remain intact. We saw many homes in the process of melting back into the earth in the Pueblo, and some in the process of being repaired.

The homes were built side-by-side and layer-upon-layer with no doors, just openings in the roof, as a means of defense. Each family would climb a ladder to their roof, then pull up the ladder and climb down it into their home from a hole in the roof. Today the inhabitants have cut doors into the homes, and use the holes in the roof as skylights. In other ways, they live as their early ancestors did, without electricity or running water. According to our guide, there are 1,500 registered Pueblo people living on tribal land around the Pueblo, but only 70 actually live in the historic area. The rest have chosen to live in modern homes with electricity and bathrooms.

Most of the intact ground level Taos Pueblo homes are used as shops today. There are about 40 shops, selling baked goods, jewelry, woven goods, tee shirts, pottery, and every type of souvenir that one could imagine, all at exceptionally high prices. We popped in a few, but shopping was not the historical purpose of this place, and it disturbed our sense of stepping back in time, so we didn't fully savor this aspect of the Taos Pueblo experience.

The newest building in the Pueblo is the church, built in 1850. About 80% of the native population here is still Catholic, which is amazing, given their history with the religion. In 1619, Spanish priests built the first mission church here using native people as slave labor. The priests forced the Pueblo people into slavery and into Catholicism in order to "civilize" them. Although the Taos Pueblo people revolted in 1680, they only lived freely for about twenty years, until the Spanish conquered them again, and reconstructed the church.

That reconstructed church was destroyed by US troops in 1847, in retaliation for the killing of a territorial governor, which may have been the work of local townspeople, and not the Pueblo people. In the process of razing the church, the soldiers killed many Pueblo residents who had sought refuge inside. The remaining native people made the ruins of the church a cemetery, and built the church that stands today nearby. Services are held there at 7 am every Sunday, and all are welcome.

In addition to the Catholic faith, they maintain their tribal religious practices, passed down through the generations by family and tribal leaders. Their tribal religious ceremonies are private, with closely protected rituals—understandable, given their history of being oppressed and persecuted for their beliefs.

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

We chanced upon this wonderful piece of Taos history while geocaching.
Mabel Dodge was a wealthy and prominent socialite and art patron from New York, who became enamored with the West in the 1920s, soon fell in love with a Taos Pueblo man--Tony Luhan. She divorced her third husband, married Tony, and took up residence in Taos, where she and Tony hosted the artists and thinkers of the time at lively salons and retreats in their eclectic home. Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Martha Graham, Carl Jung, and D.H Lawrence found inspiration while visiting, and so did we.

Now a historic inn, the home and its lovely grounds are open to visitors. There is a self-guided tour of the public spaces, which are spectacularly eclectic, artfully blending the adobe frontier architecture of the home that originally stood on the site with airy light-filled spaces that Tony and Mabel added later, echoing the Mediterranean influences they brought back to Taos after renovating their villa in Italy. Standing behind the house and looking up, we could see Mabel's sleeping porch and bathroom with glass on three sides, festively painted by D. H. Lawrence to hide Mabel's bathing rituals from public view.

Francisco de Asis Church, the most photographed church in the United States

We deemed it photo-worthy,
and took our photos against a perfect sky. Too bad they prohibit photos inside.

Hiking Carson National Forest south Boundary Trail We laced up our hiking boots and climbed the rocky, but easy trail that switch-backed up the side of a little mountain. We were shaded by pines, cedars and junipers, and cooled by light breezes as we walked. The hunt for a geocache brought us to a wonderful spot with two rock thrones where we could sit and rest in regal comfort,
looking over the outskirts of Taos in the valley below.

Biking the Rio Grande River Gorge West Rim Trail

We stopped in a Taos bike shop to replace my original bicycle seat, which is now lying beside the road somewhere in eastern Texas, having vibrated loose and fallen off after 2,000 miles. While at the shop, we learned about an "easy" mountain biking trail that runs along the rim of the Rio Grande River Gorge. It sounded like a good place to get our first taste of true mountain biking.

So, the next morning we packed up, grabbed lattes, pastries and the Sunday New York Times at The Bean (voted best Taos coffee shop), and headed for the gorge. We didn't see it until we were right upon it, because the gorge is a narrow snaking crack in the earth with such steep sides that the river flowing 650 feet below can only be seen by walking right up to the rim—or across the pedestrian friendly highway bridge that spans it.

Within less than half a mile of beginning our ride we realized that we might be in over our heads on mountain biking. Although the trail was not hilly, it was far from flat. Big rocks interrupted our pedaling progress, grabbing our pedals and twisting our wheels to the side or sending us a little bit air-born. We had to hop off our bikes and walk them several times.
We didn't mind, though, because the only times we were able to actually enjoy the scenery were when we were off the bikes. While riding, our eyes were riveted on the trail ahead—vigilant for rocks that could send us sprawling or rattlesnakes that might be disturbed by our passage.

Fortunately, trail conditions improved, as did our riding skills, as we continued, and we were able to enjoy the sage-covered range stretching for miles in all directions, trailside wildflowers, majestic mountains in the distance, and dizzyingly deep gorge panoramas beside us.

Partway through the ride, we realized that just a few days ago we had walked 750 feet down into Carlsbad Caverns, 100 feet deeper than this gorge. We were quite amazed with ourselves.

We turned around after cycling for an hour, covering just five miles, according to our odometers. Our return trip took fifty minutes. This was by far the slowest ten miles we have ever ridden. Mountain biking is a very different sport than road biking, and we have a lot to learn.

After we changed out of our biking togs at a highway rest stop conveniently located by the trail head, we walked out on the bridge with our cameras and captured more great gorge views, including pictures of rafters shooting the white water rapids below.

The Enchanted Circle Route

The Enchanted Circle is a popular 84 mile driving tour loop through the mountains and countryside encircling Taos. We took the long way around, then jumped out of the circle after completing about ¾ of its perimeter, to continue our journey north.

The Enchanted Circle lived up to its name, offering up lots of reasons to stop and enjoy our surroundings. There were many roadside historic markers, including one pointing the way to Kiowa Ranch, a gift to D.H. Lawrence from Mabel Dodge Luhan (they must have had a very special relationship). There were cows grazing in a peaceful green alpine valley, with piney mountains as their backdrop and roadside wildflowers in the foreground. The road climbed up into the rocks and pines of Carson National Forest,
and we stopped for a picnic lunch at a table next to a cold stream rushing so loudly over the rocks that we couldn't hear the passing traffic.

A denuded mountainside heralded our arrival at a Chevron Molybdenum mine. We didn't know what was being mined at first, but Dick drove up to the security gate and chatted up the guard to learn that they still employ 200 people here, even though the mine is not nearly as active as it used to be. Molybdenum is used in steel production.

We climbed past the booming little resort town of Red River and went through Bobcat Pass, which at 9,820 feet is one of the highest passes in North America. The temperature up there was a refreshing 58 degrees. We saw snow-capped peaks across the pass, and spotted elk grazing at the edge of an alpine meadow as we descended on the other side of the mountains. We left the loop at the little town of Eagle Nest, where I added a bird to my life list—a Yellow-headed Blackbird.


This Mexican style cemetery lies on the south side of Taos.
It is similar to many we have seen in our travels through Texas and New Mexico. I include it here, because I am fascinated by the festive appearance of the Tex-Mex cemeteries, with their colorful silk flowers, photos, religious icons and mementos that give clues to the stories of the people who lie there and to those who love them.

Heading North in New Mexico

June 26

We left Roswell under cloudless skies, and quickly entered a landscape straight out of the Westerns we remember from our childhood—stony red land with patches of parched white grass and scattered yucca, sage and cactus. We stopped to take a picture of a grazing antelope, stopped about half an hour later to photograph grazing longhorn cattle, then we almost stopped for a tree—it was the first one we had seen in over fifty miles.

Around lunchtime, we visited Las Vegas, New Mexico, an interesting little historic town in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It was founded in 1835,
and quickly became a major port of entry to Spanish New Mexico for supply caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. Then it got another boost in 1879, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached the town. The old town center was on the west side of the river, and the railroad tracks were laid east of the river, so a new, more fashionable town of East Las Vegas formed literally on the other side of the tracks. The two towns remained separate until 1970, and although they combined, they still retain their very different individual characters.

We toured both—the traditional frontier town that spreads pinwheel fashion around the Mexican plaza in west Las Vegas, and the more formal Victorian town with its square grid street plan in east Las Vegas. Las Vegas proudly claims more than 900 buildings on the historic register, and more preserved structures than any other city in New Mexico.

Our favorite preserved structure is this Lion Fountain. The Women's Christian Temperance Union formed in Las Vegas in 1885 to protest the alarming proliferation of saloons and public drinking around town. They decided to erect this fancy drinking fountain in a neighborhood which had a particularly high concentration of drinking establishments, in the hopes that its fresh water would lure patrons away from their alcoholic beverage consumption. No word on how successful this strategy was, but we have a guess.

Another intriguing, and a bit mysterious, structure in Las Vegas is the United World College, which sits high on a hill above the town. The United World College Movement began in 1962 with a mission to unite people, nations and culture for peace and a sustainable future. Armand Hammer purchased the property to establish a United World College in the United States in 1981, and the school opened in the fall of 1982, with Prince Charles in attendance, as he was the president of the United World Colleges Movement at the time. The college has 200 students from 80 countries. U.S. students comprise less than 25% of the student body, and all of them attend on full scholarship. We think that, prestigious as attendance to the college may be (there are only 12 United World Colleges in the world), full scholarships are probably necessary to entice anyone to attend school on this hilltop in the middle of the desert, far from civilization, save for a tiny town that hit its peak over a century ago. Why Armand Hammer selected this site is a mystery—a minimum of distractions from the work at hand, perhaps?

We continued north, up the pine-covered slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, into the Santa Fe National Forest. The clouds, which had been building all day, finally opened up and gave us our first rain in over two weeks. We got out of the car to take pictures of a lush green alpine meadow and the temperature was 66 degrees. We kept climbing to the pass near the top of the mountain, and the temperature was 56 degrees. We came north to escape the heat, and we were successful!

We finally arrived in Taos, New Mexico (elevation 6,967 feet) in the late afternoon. We found a little local motel, the Sun God Lodge, which we thought could be a good base for our local explorations.
It had Western hacienda style units arranged around a shady central park, with a '60s road trip atmosphere about it. We knew we found the right place when we opened the door to our room, and it was decorated like the dream bedroom of a 1970s teenage cowgirl.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Exploring Below the Earth and Beyond the Earth

June 25

Below the Earth: Carlsbad Caverns

It didn't take us long to drive across the Chihuahuan Desert from Pecos to Carlsbad Caverns, but by the time we got there at 9:15 the temperature was already in the 90s. Above ground, that is. The cave is a constant 57 degrees all year long. We couldn't wait to get inside.

There are two ways to get to the Big Room, as they call the 82-acre main chamber of the cave—walk for about an hour and a half down a twisty path that descends 750 feet through the cavern, or take a two minute elevator ride that drops you off right at the Big Room entrance. Of course, we opted to walk. Armed with acoustiguides to provide us with information about what we would see at numbered stations along the way, we grabbed our jackets and headed for the cave entrance.

Even before we walked into the cave, we were enthralled. As we neared the wide black mouth of the cave, we were surrounded by at least a hundred chittering swooping cave swallows. As we entered the cave, the smell of their guano and the sound of their calls were both nearly overwhelming, but as we descended,
we left them behind, and entered a very dark, quiet, cool and peaceful world. The lighting was purposely dim along the path, and visitors were asked to whisper to each other if they wanted to talk, in order to preserve the quality of the experience for others.

The formations along the path were spectacular—massive forests of stalagmites, stalactites hanging five stories long, delicate soda straws and draperies that were translucent in the light. We were glad we hadn't gone the easy way and missed the experience of the cave's beauty unfolding slowly.

We entered the Big Room from a corridor that was just a couple stories high. Suddenly, the space opened before us several hundred feet in height with formations dripping from the ceiling and rising from the floor and flowering and flowing and frosting the walls in every direction as far as we could see. The feeling of transcendent grandeur was beyond explanation. A better writer, a poet perhaps, could take a stab at it, but I am not up to the task. All I can say is, I saw it and I gasped—it was literally breath-taking.

We followed a circuitous route with new wonders at every turn
as we explored the Big Room. By the end of our tour we knew a lot of facts about how Carlsbad Caverns were discovered, how the cave and the natural wonders within it were formed over eons of geologic time, the life forms in the cave, and survey and research work being conducted there. But, what we will remember most is its beautiful grandeur.

When we emerged from the cave, the temperature outside was 100 degrees, and the sun was ruthlessly brutal. All hopes we had of a bit of hiking were dashed. We drove slowly out of the park, stopping at all the roadside exhibits along the way, and only venturing out of the car for a couple of ten minute hikes – one on a trail to an overlook with indigenous plants labeled along the way; and another to rock overhangs used for shelter by Indians, with plants they used for food and medicine labeled along the way.

Enough of this heat—we are heading north! We had planned to continue across Arizona to Southern California to see the Nixon and Reagan Presidential Museums, and then head up the coast. But, we can't take the heat, so we are changing the plan. On to Roswell, New Mexico we go.

Beyond the Earth: Roswell, New Mexico (mile 4,000)

Roswell is desperately trying to keep alive the memory of a UFO crash which may or may not have happened here in 1947. The townspeople are wishing hard for a return visit from those little guys—the Best Western sign says "Welcome Aliens," the McDonald's is shaped like a flying saucer, half the businesses on Main Street have names or window displays that carry out the UFO theme, and all the street light globes have alien eyes painted on them.

In our ceaseless quest for knowledge about this historical (or hysterical) phenomenon, we visited Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center. The Museum has tons of first person accounts from people involved in some way with the 1947 UFO crash—witnesses who saw or heard it, people who saw the wreckage afterward, police and other investigators. The museum also presents lots of speculation and conspiracy theorizing, as well. There seems to be little question that something crashed, and that a lot of effort was made by government personnel to keep whatever it was secret or cover it up.
The four little creatures inside the wreckage, one of them still alive when it was found? Hmmm, the evidence on that one is a little thin. The museum hypothesizes that government agents intercepted the witnesses who saw the little aliens, paid them a lot of money and/or threatened death to them and family members, causing them to change their stories after their first sworn affidavits. Without the little men, it is pretty easy to write off the UFO as some kind of spy satellite or other airborne intelligence device gone awry that the government wanted to recover and keep quiet.

Lest anyone think the Roswell event was an anomaly, the Museum has photos and videos and sworn affidavits from lots of people, including military and airline pilots, documenting hundreds of sightings of UFOs. They also have evidence of aliens coming in contact with humans and implanting things in them.

Based on conversations overheard in the museum, we think we may have been the most skeptical people, or the only skeptical people, there that day. Dick was wondering if it was appropriate for parents to be bringing young children, because it might scare them. Based on what I overheard, the people with young kids were bringing them to the museum to supplement their education, because this is the kind of stuff they don't cover adequately in schools.

We found a room at the Western Inn, a vintage hotel with frontier adobe ranch architecture on the outskirts of town, and passed a quiet night with no alien visitations or nightmares inspired by our UFO research.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Go to the Rodeo!

June 24

We started our day in Fredericksburg, a little town of 10,000 where Bavaria meets Texas. Settled by German immigrants in 1846, the town honors its heritage with a wide assortment of German restaurants and beer gardens, along with shops selling rustic Texas décor and Western resort wear. There are over 300 B&Bs throughout the Fredericksburg countryside, scattered among peach farms, half a dozen wineries, and the country's largest working wildflower farm (Wildseed Farms). We didn't have time to sample all the town's charms—we settled for lattes and strudels to go from the Java Ranch, and were on our way north.

Our drive took us past cattle ranches and exotic animal ranches, where hunters come for Texas safaris, to bag big game trophies without the hassle and worry of leaving the good old U.S. of A. The land became more hilly and rocky, and cattle ranches gave way to sheep farms. Then we jumped on I-10, the speed limit ratcheted up to 80 mph, and everything went by so quickly I hardly know what I saw. In another hour or so the land flattened out and tall mesas rose in the distance. As we got closer, we realized that the mesas must be creating wind tunnels, because there was a huge wind farm with at least 500 wind turbines that we could see on the tops of some of the mesas, and flowing down the mesa sides into the valley.

We stopped for lunch in Fort Stockton (pop. 7,846), best known for its town mascot, Paisano Pete, the world's largest roadrunner. Like Indians, explorers, stage coaches, and settlers for centuries before us, we made our way to the town's Camanche Springs, one of the few dependable sources of fresh water in this arid area. Actually, today a huge Olympic size swimming pool lies on top of the springs, but the park around the pool is a nice spot for a picnic—we sat in a shady picnic shelter and had our lunch, then did a little self-guided driving tour around Fort Stockton town (which is looking like it has seen far better days). My favorite spot on the tour was this little Episcopal Church, which was built in Pecos in 1896, then sold by the Pecos Episcopalians to the Fort Stockton Episcopalians, who moved it here, a distance of 54 miles, in 1958.

As it turned out, Pecos was our last stop of the day. Pecos claims to be the home of the first Rodeo in the world,
held in 1883. As we were stopping just to photograph the rodeo sign, we realized that there was a lot of activity around the rodeo arena. Turns out, we were lucky enough to arrive in Pecos on the first day of the 127th West of the Pecos Rodeo, and we were even luckier to find a hotel room for the night. Getting rodeo tickets was no problem—Pecos has Texas' largest outdoor rodeo arena, after all. We were in the third row behind all the reserved boxes with people's names on them.

But wait, the rodeo wasn't until 8—we had plenty of time to explore Pecos (pop. 9,501) before then. We visited the West of the Pecos Museum. Housed in an old saloon and hotel, the museum has 50 rooms of exhibits! Everyone in town has cleaned out their attics and their barns and contributed their treasures to make this one of the very best local museums we have ever seen. Really!

There are rooms dedicated to rodeo history, to the town's most respected cowboys, and even a cowgirl who was put on a horse on her first birthday and died on her horse at a ripe old age. There are barb wire collections and arrowhead collections, the reconstructed shop of a turn of the century barber/dentist, and a beauty parlor with a perm machine with about 100 clips hanging from electric wires that look like they could fry your hair but good. A beloved town doctor's office is reproduced in a couple rooms, a honeymoon suite from the heydays of the hotel in another set of rooms.

My second favorite room has the hats of cowboys hung on its walls all the way around, reaching up to the ceiling. They are stained with dirt and sweat, and some are ripped a bit. There is no curation, just little white labels affixed to some of them with the names of the men who wore them. I was talking about that room to one of the women who works at the museum--Debbie was her name, embroidered over the pocket of her Western shirt. She said to me, "Oh, yes, I found my daddy's label on the floor in the hat room. I have to go up there one of these days and smell the hats to find it and put the label back on. He passed, but I can still smell him in his hat. It's a tradition here when your daddy passes, you ask the museum to put his hat on the wall. There's a lot of spirit in that room if you knew those men." I could feel it without knowing the men.

My favorite room commemorates the winners of the town's annual Golden Girls of the Old West Pageant, where they select the Queen of the Rodeo from a group of high school girl contestants, based on talent, personality, and beauty. The pictures of the winners throughout the history of the contest are hung on the wall, all in their Golden Girl costumes, which look like home made versions of the dresses Miss Kitty used to wear on "Gunsmoke." A smaller section of the room recognizes Little Miss Cantalope, a primary school age princess. (The cantaloupe is to Pecos as the lobster is to Maine—as we learned in another room of the museum which has some petrified cantalopes on display.)

The 2009 Golden Girl of the Old West was chosen just last Saturday, in time for her first official rodeo appearance tonight. The rodeo began with her, her court, and Little Miss Cantalope being pulled around the ring on a float. The rodeo queen was not wearing her Old West dress. She was wearing a tiara, a puffy sleeve white blouse and a pair of cut off jean short shorts. I was a little bit disappointed.

But that was the only shortfall in the pageantry. A precision cowgirl drill team did amazing maneuvers to music on their horses, bearing the flags of all the rodeo sponsors; a cowboy galloped around the arena with an American flag throwing sparks off the top of its flagpole. There was a very long Christian prayer invoking the power of Jesus to save our souls and to protect the cowboys from harm, following an ode to the first amendment protecting our right to pray this prayer.

Finally, the main events—bareback bucking bronco riding, team calf roping, solo steer roping, saddle bronc riding, tie down roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing (the only cowgirl competition), and bull riding, with lots of clowning and trick riding and jokes and words from the sponsors thrown in. There was even a half time show--all the kids under 10 wearing boots were eligible for the boot scramble. The 3 winners who found their boots from the big pile in the center of the ring and ran back to the judge first each got a bicycle from Walmart. We didn't know any of the 630 cowboys riding in the rodeo, but we caught the spirit of things and were whooping and hollering and stamping and clapping with the best of them cheering those cowboys on.

The bull riding was brutal, though. The riders wore helmets with face guards, but even so, when they got thrown the bull was mad, and a couple got stamped before they could get up and run. Several limped off or were helped off the field. We had to leave before it was over (fortunately, it was the last event), because we just couldn't take the brutality, and we didn't want to see someone loaded into an ambulance. We are definitely not tough enough to be cowboys.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Texas Presidents in Two Days: Part 2

A Full Day of Lyndon Johnson

Austin, Texas (3,340 miles) and Johnson City, Texas

June 23

Before we get to the Presidential Library here, a quick aside on Austin is in order. The city has the most confusing and treacherous freeway system we have ever seen. We felt like we were playing a high speed game of Chutes and Ladders, with lanes suddenly rising high into the air, splitting and dipping, and necessary lane changes and exits marked only at the last minute (if they were marked at all), short exit ramps and strange sections where it seemed like the lanes just split off to send half the traffic up and half the traffic on ground level, only to end up at the same exit a few miles down the road. It drove us batty!

Speaking of bats, there is a colony of over a million Mexican free-tailed bats that summers under a bridge in Austin, and they draw crowds of people around sunset to watch them emerge from their roosts under the bridge and fly off over the river in search of food. We joined a crowd of about 100 sitting on a grassy hillside in a riverside park next to the bridge to wait for them to emerge. Another group of onlookers formed on the bridge above us.

A shout went up from a few diligent watchers—"They're starting!" First a few bats flew out and then back to the bridge tentatively, then they were joined by more bats, and then it turned into a dark fluttering cloud, spiraling out from the underside of the bridge, turning, then flying down the river in search of bugs. It was breath-taking, a truly amazing and wondrous sight that lasted for about ten minutes and then was over as the clouds of bats disappeared in the distance and only a few stragglers fluttered about.

We aren't surprised to learn that Austin's latest economic impact study indicates that the bats contribute $7.9 million to the city's economy. We can state with certainty that far more people come to see the bats than come to visit the Johnson Library and Museum.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Like the bats, the Johnson Library and Museum is a free attraction—it is the only Presidential Library in the United States that is free of charge, at LBJ's insistence, consistent with his goal of providing equal access to opportunity for all in our nation.

Before our Museum visit, we hadn't realized how long LBJ served in Washington before he was chosen as Kennedy's running mate in 1960. He began with service as an aide to a congressman in 1931, was elected to the House in 1937, the Senate in 1948, chosen as Democratic Minority Leader in 1953, and became the youngest Majority Leader in history in 1955. When he ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964, he won the election with 90% of the electoral vote and the largest popular vote up to that time. We thought some of the anti-Goldwater campaign buttons were pretty memorable and amusing: "Goldwater: In your guts/you know he's nuts," "Goldwater in '64/Hot water in '65/Bread 'n Water in '66," and one that clearly would never see the light of day in this century—"Bury Goldwater."

Exhibits recaptured the turbulence of the 1960s—the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr; the Viet Nam War and anti-war protests, race riots across the country. Those events have dominated our memory of that time, like blood thrown on the canvas of Johnson's Presidency, eradicating our ability to see the full picture.

So, here's the picture we missed appreciating when we lived through it. Lyndon Johnson had an extraordinary record of over two hundred pieces of landmark legislation passed during his time in office. In the area of civil rights, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968 were passed. There were 60 education bills passed, Head Start and Job Corps were initiated. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Medicare, the Clean Air Act—the list of legislation that was passed in support of Johnson's vision of The Great Society is immense, and most continue to enhance our society today.

We could imagine how his many years in the House and Senate paid off during his Presidency, as we listened to tapes of his phone calls to legislators, horse trading and bull-dogging in rapid fire fashion to ensure that legislation for his projects passed.

In his final State of the Union message, Johnson said, "I hope it may be said 100 years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just for all people." Forty years later, his legacy of justice for all endures.

However, as we left the museum, discussing what we learned, we couldn't help but wonder what happened to Texas between the years Texans elected Johnson to represent their state in Congress and the Senate, and the years they elected George W. Bush to serve as their Governor. Johnson was a pragmatic liberal, and Bush a dogmatic conservative. (We're not talking about his dad—we think he was a moderate conservative, maybe even a compassionate conservative.) How did Texas swing so far right, and when will the pendulum swing back? We can talk about questions like this for a long time as we drive along the Texas highway with no decent radio stations on the dial.

The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lyndon Johnson grew up in a six-room house in Johnson city, Texas, a settlement of 200 people named for his ancestors. It was on our way west from Austin, so we stopped to look at his little home there, then drove 13 miles down the road to the LBJ Ranch.

There we picked up a CD that provided a guided driving tour around his vast holdings. We don't know how many acres it is, but, to give you a little perspective, when we went to the Park Visitor Center at the ranch entrance to get our driving pass, and said we wanted to take the 4 p.m. tour of the Texas White House, the ranger said, "No way. It's 3:45, and it'll take you at least a half hour to drive there from here." The ranger was right. It took us more than half an hour just to get to the house. It is a very big ranch.

Along the way on our driving tour we stopped at the show barn where Johnson's staff cared for and trained his prize winning Hereford cattle. There we learned that this ranch was just one of nine that Johnson owned, and one of his smaller ranches, at that.

We laughed at the portion of the tour which included a taped phone conversation with his ranch manager—his interrogation style and rapid-fire maintenance instructions sounded exactly like his phone call ramming through legislation that we heard back at the Museum. The ranch manager offered his own wry commentary: "Whoever wrote the song about 'where seldom is heard a discouraging word' didn't work here."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two Texas Presidents in Two Days: Part 1

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

College Station, Texas (mile 3,200)

June 22

We drove for miles, weaving our way through the vast and virtually treeless campus of Texas A&M to get to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. All the buildings on campus seem to be named for an alumnus and include their class year on the building nameplate. George Bush is not an alum, but he chose to place his Library here because he admires and identifies with the "Aggie spirit."

In President Bush we have finally found a President who does not have a humble beginnings story to tell—his father was Prescott Bush, a popular US Senator from Connecticut. Prescott Bush campaigned for President Eisenhower, and co-authored the Federal Highway Act signed by Eisenhower which kicked off our interstate highway system. Both Barbara and George went to elite private schools and met at a dance given jointly by their schools. George's parents gave him a brand new Studebaker as a college graduation gift. He definitely had a leg up on all the other Presidents we have checked out so far in the money and family connections departments.

This is the fifth Presidential Library of our trip, so we find ourselves comparing the men and their libraries.

President Bush's Library is like Eisenhower's, in that his Presidential years take up considerably less than half the space in his Library. Like Truman, he dedicates a great deal of space to his family, and one of the strongest messages of his museum is the importance of parents instilling strong values in their children and demonstrating strong character by example. Like Truman, he served his country with valor, and returned from the war a decorated hero. He flew over fifty combat missions and made 116 aircraft carrier landings before he was shot down over Chichi Jima. He managed to complete his bombing mission before parachuting from his disabled plane, landing in the ocean and floating around in hostile territory for three hours before a submarine rescued him. (After that experience, it is hard to understand why he still loves to jump from planes and parachute to earth to celebrate his birthday.)

We were impressed by George Bush's varied public service career moves before he made it to President. Again and again he was awarded positions for which he seemed unprepared or untrained—head of the CIA with no prior Intelligence Service or background, UN Ambassador with no tenure in the diplomatic corps. In each case, he rose to the occasion to serve admirably, and he gained invaluable experience that served him well as President during Desert Storm and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He continues to serve in a variety of ways, including joint coastal recovery efforts that he and Bill Clinton team up to lead together after national disasters.

And, on the lighter side, there were a couple other exhibits that we really enjoyed. There were several video presentations of Dana Carvey imitating President Bush on Saturday Night Live, President Bush's opening monologue from the time he hosted SNL, and some very funny interactions between the two of them. Like several other Presidential Libraries, Bush has his limousine on display. But, unlike the others, his curation of the limo tells a little bit about some of the intriguing security measures built into the car—bullet-proof glass as thick as a phone book, many layers of Kevlar in the underbody, bullet-proof tires—while piquing the imagination with the promise that there are lots of other special features which are "Classified," so we will never know the best stuff.

We thought his museum was wonderfully well done, and we liked George Bush better by the time we left.

Texarcana and Tyler, Texas (mile 3,040)

June 21, 2009

We hit the road again, traveling from Little Rock, Arkansas to College Station, Texas today, a distance of about 450 miles.

Our first stop along the way was Texarcana,
"Where life is so large it takes two states," according to the Chamber of Commerce billboard. Texarcana's post office is the only Federal Building in the country that straddles two states. It sits on an island the middle of State Line Avenue, with a big sign and a line painted on the pavement out front to make it easy for tourists to stand with one foot in Arkansas and one foot in Texas and to document the moment with a photo.

We then drove by the "Ace of Clubs House," so named because it is built in the shape of a Club, with three octagonal wings and a rectangular one. The story goes that one very lucky poker player won a hand with the Ace of Clubs, and used his winnings to build the house in 1885.

Nearby was a parking lot for the Sheriff's Department vehicles, and one of the busses was labeled "Department of Community Punishment." I think this might be what other places call "Department of Corrections," but they don't mince words around here.

By now we were hungry, so we stopped at the place where everyone in town goes after church, Bryce's Cafeteria, family owned since 1931. A long line snaked back and forth through dividers, and as people moved through the maze they greeted friends across the dividers and chatted a bit until the line moved again, sending them in opposite directions. The owner behind the serving counter was busy telling customers he had their favorite item today, he had missed them the last few weeks and was glad to see them back, and telling all the pie lovers that the fresh peaches were in, so be sure not to miss the peach pie. We entered planning to eat a light meal,
and we knew before we even got to the serving stations that they don't do light meals here. Without going into details, I will say that fried green beans are even better than fried onion rings, and the peach pie was every bit as good as the owner claimed it was.

Soon after lunch we discovered that Texas has two lane roads with a 70 mph speed limit—YIKES!

We found our next irresistible photo stop just south of Mount Pleasant. This is what may well be the world's largest Pilgrim head picnic shelter, found in front of the Pilgrim's Pride packing plant.

Our favorite stop of the day was the Municipal Rose Garden in Tyler, which claims to be the largest rose showcase in the country. It has 38,000 bushes, and over 500 different varieties of roses. The smell of roses baking in the 98 degree sun was splendid, and the beauty of the garden lured us to wander for nearly an hour in the merciless sun.

Even more interesting, or at least unusual, was the museum that we found inside when we escaped the heat of the garden. The Tyler Rose Museum claims to have exhibits on the rose industry (Tyler is a commercial rose growing hub, shipping hundreds of thousands of bushes to nurseries worldwide), but mostly it is a celebration of the town's annual Rose Festival, and the Rose Festival queens and their courts throughout history.

We were drawn into the museum by a display of a recent queen's ceremonial gown (really, it is more like a costume), with a 17 foot velvet train so encrusted with beads and jewels, satin appliquéd figures, and faux ermine trim that we couldn't figure out how anyone could walk with it. Visiting the museum, we learned that the trains of the queens are a big deal—one queen had hers made in New York by the designer who did Jackie Kennedy's wedding gown, another had hers designed by the preeminent costume designer for MGM back in the day.

The queens wear their gown and train to a big coronation ceremony on a Friday night, and then again in the town's rose parade the next day, which features over 100 entries, including lots of floats.

The queens also have very fancy tiaras, or outright crowns, and fancy scepters, which were sparkling in a most blinding fashion in two large display cases. Lining the walls next to the cases were a series of scrapbook style posters for each queen throughout history, featuring photos of the queen in her gown with her train artfully draped to show its full glory, tickets to her coronation and tea, the program from her morning prayer service, photos of her court and train bearers and so on. (Other festival activities include a Ladies' Brunch, a Men's Lunch, a Rose Show, Rose Garden Tour, and Rose Nursery Tours.)

I get the feeling that there is a lot of society back story to this Rose Queen activity (there is also a queen's court and a Rose Duchess to spread the royal titles around), but the secrets of selection were not divulged at the museum or on the internet. And, I am wondering just how much these queen costumes cost, and if the first requirement to being chosen as queen is having parents willing to pay in excess of $10,000 for your wardrobe (far more? I haven't priced out designer formal wear and tiaras lately).