The biggest attraction of Oklahoma City is something that the city would be much happier without: Oklahoma City National Memorial. But since there is no way to undo what happened, it has to be some consolation that it is a hauntingly beautiful place. It captures the horror of the bombing and it honors the dead. No description gives it justice: you just have to go there and stand between bronze gates and look across the reflecting pond towards 168 empty chairs.
I have had it with gold bugs. Historical precedent notwithstanding there is nothing special about gold. Any commodity can serve a role of store of value. I get that people are scared of economy declining but that’s no excuse to blow the gold bubble. Haven’t we just learned how that story ends? Once society progresses past barter there is a need for money as a medium of exchange. The reason to use gold as money, the only reason really is lack of quick and cheap long distance communication. If you can instantaneously confirm that a person will be able to settle the bill at some point then you can hand them the goods in exchange for a promise. But if you cannot do that you need to collect something that has inherent value. And is small enough that you can easily handle it. And doesn’t expire. And isn’t easy to forge. And exists in sufficient quantities: not too much, not too little. Enter gold.
Despite all the talking about inevitability of its flow, time is actually quite a flexible concept. We are driving east on the interstate 90 and out of a sudden there is a sign: Central Time Zone. We didn’t cross any state borders and - judging by the total blackness on both sides of the highway - we are in the middle of nowhere. And without much warning one hour of our day is gone. I suppose middle of nowhere makes sense for a time zone change. And the hour that we just gave up wasn’t ours to keep. We borrowed it in July when driving through similarly empty Texas. Although why in South Dakota the time zone change line isn’t straight is beyond me - there are only 4 states in the Union with fewer people per square mile.
We’ve gained some notoriety. Or at least our truck has. We stop at a roadside exhibit and a lady and her granddaughter are asking us if we were in Langtry 2 days before. We strongly suspect ours is the only truck with Vermont registration plates here. It’s easy to spot us. People remark we are far from home. They have no idea. A border patrol officer at the checkpoint - yes there are checkpoints in US - seems confused. Is it Vermont or is it Poland we are from? But he stays polite. Looks at our Vermont driving licenses as if they were not real. I cannot blame him. They don’t look real to me either. We try to produce passports but he doesn’t want to see any other documents and waves us through.
Texas has some wonderful laws: when you own the land you can pump out as much groundwater from underneath as you want. Comes really handy when your land is arid but you desire to grow some water thirsty lettuce or pecan trees. If that dries wells of your neighbors so be it. It’s about who has the biggest pump after all. Or when you don’t feel like farming at all, you can simply find a city in need of water and export water from the desert. Just invest in a diesel pump and some piping and the money will flow your way. Ingenious, huh?It doesn’t hurt to have a river or a stream flowing through your land. Just make sure you are upstream. In the case there are too many claims you have a better chance to use the water before the river dries up downstream.
We decide to spend couple of nights in the Chisos Basin in the Big Bend National Park. It takes us almost 2 days to get here and we are not leaving without having a closer look. The park stretches from Rio Grande north. There is a desert here, but there are also very picturesque mountains. Chisos Range is the highest and the most beautiful. And since the park was created by the CCC it’s all about public access: there is a road leading to the basin, a hotel and some cabins. The lack of the Internet is more than made up by the sunsets views and night sky full of blinking stars. We try to sleep with our windows open but unfortunately some people insist on using AC despite the fact that we are over 5500 feet above the sea level and temperature drops comfortably at night. I suspect many guests have absolutely no idea that one can open a window.
San Antonio and Austin appear to be poised for competition: Mexico’s northernmost city vs. live music capital of the world. Texan keep their serious businesses in Houston and Dallas. These two cities are supposed to be fun and quirky. Also Austin is supposed to be the Texas capital: the responsibility it does not take too seriously. San Antonio has the River Walk. Austin - the Texas State Capitol. One city attracts tourists, the other - lobbyists. People spend their own money in San Antonio. Politicians spend taxpayers dollars in Austin. San Antonio is packed with hotels for every budget. Austin’s hotel base leaves some to be desired: overpriced chains encroach on downtown and run down motels on the outskirts.
There are more Texas surprises as we drive through the rugged hill country.First of all the scenery. It’s lush and green here. Maybe because it’s been a very wet year. Green hills give us an unmistakably Tuscany vibe. Especially since cowboys are still few and far between. There are canyons, vistas, serpentine roads, even mountains. There are also ranches. With deer, bison, goats and… antelopes. Altitude and wind manage to diminish obtrusive heat. For the first time since entering Florida back in May we can enjoy being outside in the middle of the day. We even go hiking in Enchanted Rock park. Half an hour climb up the mostly bare rock seems too easy and we spend another two hours hiking among opuntia and rock formations admiring, from afar, the brave souls who opted for rappelling.
We expected a lot of things of Texas: cowboy boots, Stetson hats, big cities, oil rigs, huge ranches. But we didn’t expect Germans. We knew they settled in Pennsylvania. But it looks like they got here as well. Texas is a big state - bigger than any European country unless you count Turkey or Russia. We did of course expect Spanish. They came here first via colonies in Mexico. Later Americans started arriving through freshly purchased Louisiana. After a brief stint as an independent republic, Texas joined the Union in 1845, only to secede and join CSA 15 years later. After Civil War a new wave of immigrants from Europe started arriving and Germans were among them.
You might think presenting space travel is attractive and thrilling in itself. Images of the blue planet from the orbit, the famous first words on the Moon, the first docking in space, the first space walk, exploring one of the few remaining frontiers should be enough to hold everybody’s attention for couple of hours. NASA Space Center by definition should be one of the most exciting places to visit. But the company that manages Houston’s NASA Center does not think it is good enough. They proceed to turn the center into a second grade theme park full of rides, screaming kids and outdated computer games.
There are people who believe taking photos steals small pieces of their souls. And there are museums that contend taking pictures devalues works of art that they own. There might be good reasons to restrict photo snapping. Sometimes you just want to look at something without the risk of tipping over a crouching photographer, or maybe you want to concentrate for a while without constant noise of cameras. By the way: many point-and-shoots nowadays do not really have to make all that noise but surprisingly few models let you configure a silent mode. And even if they do most people do not bother opting for annoying clicks, beeps and recorded shutter sounds.
Houston is a maze of multi-lane superhighways crisscrossing a forest of office towers with pockets of isolated residential neighborhoods. This is a city built for cars with multitude of garages and parking lots to accommodate all the people driving to town: one driver per vehicle. Buildings are designed to look good from the highway as if that was their primary objective. It all started innocently in the 20s with Niels Esperson Building followed by Gulf Building built in my favorite art deco style. And it went downhill (or should I say uphill) from there. Gradually low buildings were torn down to make room for ever growing skyscrapers, streets were replaced by highways to allow for ever increasing traffic. There are over 600 high-rises in Houston with 6 miles of tunnels underneath so one is not subjected to the outside heat. But instead of a subway there is one mall food-court after another. Maybe train didn’t fit in after all stores and restaurants descended underground trying to escape ever present cars.
The Lonely Planet guide suggests a trip through Louisiana Cajun Country highlighting a wild and jubilant French-speaking culture punctuated by crawfish boils, all-night jam sessions and dance parties. It calls Lafayette the grooviest town in Cajun Country […], full of beautiful people, tasty Cajun cuisine, and abundance of live music. Our guide to Texas that we’ve just bought after realizing that we are about to venture into the largest state in contiguous US completely unprepared, has Port Arthur under Lively Cajun […] noted for […] its superlative seafood and its Cajun nightclubs with their fiddle music and rowdy atmosphere.