Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Big Bend, Texas - New with CAPTIONS!

Austin, Texas is a crazy town, and rolling into the downtown on a Saturday night immediately following a Longhorns W is an exhausting venture for anyone, especially the road-weary! So after some awesome Mexican food and bizarre people-watching, we hightailed to the Johnson (as in Lyndon Baines) Ranch to crash in the car. This is that famous big Texas sky courtesy of the Ex-Prez's digs the next morning.
Some little Germantown with a good bakery.
We veered off of the westbound tack of I-10 to head almost as far South as Grand Isle, to the seldom lauded detour destination of Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend is situated on the Southwestern extremities of the state, where the Rio Grande makes a ridiculous carve northward (hence the name.) It is a gigantic park, rife with mountains, cliffs, caverns, desert plains, and a contested history of human occupation that spans the entire history of civilization on this continent. This is our first campsite, with the largest dormant volcano in the background.
The shadows begin to creep from our tent's vista. Looks fake even when you're there in person.
Texan afterglow our first night in Big Bend.
This rock formation is called Sphinx-Chipmunk in Repose. I'm lying. But it really did look like that in person.
Prickly Pears are our favorite cacti. Especially if they are little pink babies!
Our second campsite, a 'remote' location miles off the road and isolated in arid beauty.
The chihuahuan desert is plush with flora, striking in its beauty even in the onset of winter.
Heading off to hike the desert splendor.
The mountains seem to peel apart the story of the planet's eons. We were told by one of the Rangers that Big Bend has one of the (if not the) only uninterrupted continuous fossil records from Pangaea, to the Dinosaurs, to Native Americans.

Cool camera accident while we trailblaze the desert brush
The distant mountains before dawn's break.
The world shifts from cool to warm. I could have put 100 more pics of this sunrise.

Art imitates life. Also, check how much dew accumulates even in the desert.

They said that Big Bend was the least-visited National Park.
Basically, Big Bend is the center of a volcanic hotspot where a lot of upheaval and mountainous terrain just shoot up out of nowhere in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. So, you get vast desert for endless stretches and then verdant Rockies-esque altitude, flora and fauna colliding within a relatively small area. It was like every five miles brought a new biome into view.

In the distance, there are some chimneys. We tried hiking to them prior, but got caught by sunset and had to run along the path before we were engulfed in the dark. Damn chimneys, why do they have to be covered in cool pictographs and be so far away! More reasons to return someday...
This was a windy scenic route, where we were leapfrogging a bunch of sightseeing, leather-clad bikers. The cliffs are courtesy of the Rio Grande.
In the desert, even death is beautiful.

Those cliffs are Mexico, and lunch was green apples and sharp cheddar.
It's probably amazing in the springtime too...
Despite the harsh climate midday, when we entered the park at dusk we saw two roadrunners, rabbits, and a coyote within the first five miles.

One of the biggest washouts, and easily one of the most breathtaking views of the entire journey.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shrimpboats, Oilrigs, and Yat-Speakin Coonasses; Our Visit to Grand Isle

As a recommended day-trip, we headed two and a half hours South of New Orleans (if you can believe that) to the small barrier of Grand Isle.

Grand Isle is known for being the site of fortification of the Mississippi's mouth, and thereby New Orleans, being historically pummeled by every hurricane and tropical storm to impinge on the area, and, more recently its oil reserves and resultant fisheries.

This is Dave and Mabel, the first folks we met on Grand Isle. What started as a question of whether or not he worked at the State Park there turned into a conversation hours long. Dave recounted in depth the ins and outs of various types of shrimping and oyster vessels, Cajun (or Coonass, as they refer to themselves) history and culture, and the intricate process going on in the multiple oil rigs offshore. He had us sold on his own personal ideas for 'fixing' the problems inherent in New Orleans and the wetlands and bayous of Louisiana at large. A man with truly bare-bones educational history, he was indicative of Louisianans at large: not a backwoods or yokel culture at all, but a people with their finger on the pulse, and more cognisant than any formally educated "Yankee" of the future that will result if the precedent remains unchanged. Great people.

Oh yeah, and the whole time there were dolphins kickin around the Gulf.

Grand Isle is also a major birding destination, being a major migratory stopping point before winged travelers attempt crossing the gulf.

We wound up spending the night. Can you blame us?"What's the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee?...

... Damn Yankees never leave!"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hard Day's Work in the Big Easy

New Orleans is still a city of commensurate beauty, culture, and feverish fun times that have always been synonymous with the mouth of the Mississippi. However, over the past years there is another, harsher reality that has been brought to bear on this city. We opted to take a scenic route, if you want to call it that, of the service road off of the highway as we entered the city from the northeast. Even now, it seemed every third structure was lacking a roof. Piles of rubble take up literal blocks of what was once inhabited city and strip mall infrastructure lies vacant, eerie with the absence of commerce despite life of some fashion existing all around.
However, for every boarded house, there seemed to be a construction project or refurbishment happening. From the passerby perspective we held, they seemed to be not professional projects of any sort, but neighborhoods gathered with common purpose and goodwill.

Thanks to our host Michele, we were able to spend our first Saturday in NOLA giving at least a little something back to this amazing place. A combination of Loyola University's National Service Day and Step It Up, a nationwide service effort to push Congress to cut carbon emissions, had people of all walks of life gathered with benevolent intentions at locations throughout the city and the nation at large. Our locale was City Park, one of the largest privately funded public spaces in America. Since the storms ravaged that end of the city, several of the trees had died due to the saltwater flooding, and in their wake had been overrun with invasive species, particularly Chinese Tallow. This was compounded with a devastating loss of staff and funding, which had previously been provided by tee fees at the golf course, which now lay in ruin.
So we spent the early portion of the day with hatchets and clippers in hand, showing the Tallow what was what. The energy was abundant and positive, and we quickly took to the work. Hours were spent with many hands laboring, but even this effort barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done to fully renew this space.

The feelings of good intention and forward-looking positivity did not end with our blistered and dirty hands in the park that day, though. We then fought the urge to nap away the afternoon and headed to Art Egg Studios, an old produce warehouse gentrified into an artist's collective. The studio for the day was converted into an area of green education. Seminars on Bio-Diesel, and tours on the effectiveness of fluorescent and natural lighting, proper insulation, solar water heaters, renewable bamboo instead of hardwood flooring were all over the facility. States like New York, Colorado, and now Louisiana actually have lucrative tax breaks for the installation of such green amenities which combine with lowered power bills for a worldly beneficial result. We were then treated to speeches by several civic leaders, with a keynote by presidential candidate, John Edwards (whose hair looks as perfect in real life as it does on tv!)
The day's finale was a Second Line led by Da Truth Brass Band, whom we followed on a closed highway all the way to the Superdome. All involved in their red shirts spelled out NO NEW COAL for a helicopter overhead, and it was all in all a wonderful day in New Orleans that we will remember forever.

But enough blathering prose... its time for pictures!