Tag Archive | Travel

Pining for Alpine

I just attended my fourth writer’s retreat in Alpine, Texas. I can’t tell you how much good this does for the people who attend. We spend five days living, eating, and breathing writing. I come back feeling re-energized and ready to write.

Far West Texas is my favorite place to be in the hottest part of the summer. It’s always 10 to 12 degrees cooler than here, and it gets downright nippy at night. I get a week in my favorite place, doing my favorite thing, taught by some of the best writers around, and comparing notes with like-minded people. Heaven.

My teacher this year, Mike Hall, an editor at Texas Monthly, is a really nice guy. He was approachable and genuinely interested in helping us take the next step. I got my ego stroked and my confidence built, so much so I’m determined to finish the book I’ve been working on forever. The whole project is a lot clearer than it’s ever been, so maybe 2015 will be my year.

Paisano Hotel, Marfa

Paisano Hotel, Marfa

A big part of the fun on these trips is playing tourist with my husband. Bryan and I visited Marathon, Marfa, and Alpine. We’ve been to each one before, but there’s always something new to see. That’s something people don’t expect from tiny towns sitting in the desert.

Marfa has really grown and has turned into a clean, pretty little town. In addition to becoming quite the art colony and providing Marfa Radio which saves tourists suffering NPR withdrawal, it has two traditional claims to fame: the Presidio County Courthouse, which is one of the prettier members of the Tacky Texas Courthouse Club, and the Paisano Hotel, where the cast of Giant stayed while filming the movie in the mid-1950s. A young friend of mine announced she has never seen Giant but planned to rent it after hearing about it in Marfa.

Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa

Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa

“Or you can read the book,” I suggested.

“There’s a book?” she asked wide-eyed.

The exchange made me feel old, but I smiled picturing Edna Ferber watching us, thoroughly disgusted.

Gage Hotel, Marathon

Gage Hotel, Marathon

Marathon Cafe

Marathon Cafe

Next Bryan and I headed for Marathon, pronounced MAR-a-thun. You swallow the last syllable. The one visible place to eat turned out to be a highpoint of the trip. Just the other side of the historic Gage Hotel sat the tiny Marathon Café.

We complimented our waitress, who turned out to be one of the three owners, and the floodgates opened. The residents of Far West Texas have learned to be polite to the tourists but not to get too friendly. We are different; we are The Others. And they never know exactly how we’ll react to open friendliness. I always try to get people to talk to me. It’s half the fun of traveling out there.

We found out the café was owned by three cousins, all older ladies with painful arthritic joints. As is normal there, none of them plan to retire anytime soon. Hard work is ingrained in them from childhood. You work until you get too ill or too dead to continue. A niece did the cooking. She had trained at the Gage Hotel and brought her considerable talents to the tiny family concern. Bryan said his chicken fried steak was excellent, served interestingly on top of the cream gravy. My hamburger quite simply was the best I’ve had in years, and she seemed surprised when I told her so. We will definitely go there again next year.

Sometimes we revisit favorite places, only to find them closed up or reincarnated as something else. Businesses come and go out there with the suddenness of death in the desert. Apparently you’ve got a window to make it or else. There’s always a little feeling of relief when we arrive and find a favorite haunt still standing and still in business.

Our last stop was Alpine. I had just spent a week there and had seen everything in town three times. But we discovered the Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus last year and decided to go back. For one thing, they have a great gift shop, and I always stock up on memorabilia there. The displays don’t change drastically, but one of the blessings of advancing age is short-term memory loss. I see places for the first time over and over.

One of my favorite exhibits is a large topographical representation of the entire area. Plates on each side list points of interest and landmarks. Push the large, red button next to the plate, and a tiny light goes on at the appropriate place on the map. In the vastness of the place it’s easy to get turned around, and I enjoy lighting up the places we’ve just seen.

Black Bear, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Black Bear, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Pterosaur, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Pterosaur, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

I like the stuffed black bear, whose relatives are repopulating the area. I also like the life-size replica of a pterosaur, which won’t be back anytime soon, hanging from the ceiling. Between dinosaurs, and later on Comanches and Apaches that gave the settlers many a bad day, Far West Texas has always been a pretty busy place. I prefer the toned-down version of today.

Every time we visit, Bryan and I try to figure out a way to move out there, and every year we realize we can’t. There are down sides to living in such a remote place: medical care is sketchy and usually far away; there is no quick way to get out there or back here from out there; and I’d have to hold auditions to find people to talk to about politics. With kids and grandkids in Central Texas, there’s a lot to stay for.

Still, I think we both started thinking about our next trip out there as we unloaded the car from this one. Far West Texas calls to both of us. As a friend, Joe Nick Patoski, said, “You either get this place or you don’t.” Bryan and I get it.

Daytrippin’ the Hill Country

bluebonnetsIt looks like we’re finally going to have a Spring in Central Texas. It was touch-and-go there for a while, as the temperatures swung 30-40 degrees daily. They finally stabilized into a pattern more recognizable to the inhabitants.

There is something so comforting about seeing splashes of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups, even bordering the Austin freeways. Along with the not-easily-fooled mesquite tree finally budding out, these ironclad promises of spring make everyone feel more optimistic and adds  “spring” to the step.

When I was a child, spring showed up early in my mother’s iris beds. There were two clumps of bulbs planted in the middle of the front yard, one purple, one white. I loved to cut a white one and put it in a glass of water and red food color. Before long that pure white blossom would be tiger-striped, the red liquid sucked up  into every vein. I used green food coloring if there were any irises left for St. Patrick’s Day. The rest of the year the foliage served as something for me to leap over, as I practiced the world’s shortest long-jumps.

Some people plan trips to Paris (the one in France) or India, safaris in Africa, or mountaintop Incan ruins. Bryan and I plan one- or two-day trips in the Hill Country. We never tire of exploring the little towns, museums, and shops, and if we’re lucky, getting into conversations with friendly locals.
My favorite quotation is by the sportswriter/novelist Dan Jenkins: “What I love about Texans is, you ask them a question, they tell you a story.” That’s a major part of the charm in driving around Texas. If you mind your own business and fail to strike up a conversation in the shops and cafes, you’re missing out on a lifetime of stories.
Bryan and I have become fond of Johnson City. We “rediscovered” it when I attended a seminar for writers at their library. While I studied the craft, Bryan hiked around Pedernales Falls State Park. Before we left, a charmingly pushy librarian sold us tickets to their spaghetti/bingo fundraiser the next month.
I wrote about the event in the post, “London, Paris, Las Vegas…Johnson City?” (3-8-2013), where Bryan won a $50 gift certificate to Ronnie’s Ice House, totally unknown to us. It was several months before we got around to driving back up to JC and cashing in our prize.
Ronnies 3
      Ronnies 1Ronnie’s is kind of strange to city slickers, used to restaurants open most of the day and night. They are open from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every day but Sunday. We tend to plan our daytrips around Ronnie’s hours, but it’s worth it. The brisket is possibly the best I’ve ever eaten, so good I had to force myself to try the chicken (wonderful) or  the pork loin (life-changing).
I also like their sides, which go beyond the standard potato salad and beans to include corn salad, tomato and cucumber salad, and others. I’ve always meant to try one of their two desserts, buttermilk pie and pecan pie, but I’ve never had the room for it.
The interior, a cross between a hunting camp and a classic truckstop, is as friendly as the regulars who talk to each other across the room.
“How you doin’, friend?”
“Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do any good anyways. Where’s Mary?”
“She’s gettin’ ready to go to Austin. Gotta get a root canal.”
“Oh, Lord! You tell her we’ll be prayin’ for her.”
“I’ll do that. While you’re at it, say one for our bank account, too.”
It strikes a deep chord in anyone who grew up in Texas or would have liked to. And I’m not too citified to find all of this comforting and charming. If Norman Rockwell had been a Texan, the Saturday Evening Post’s covers would have regularly portrayed the inside of Ronnie’s.
Johnson City is a great staging area for side trips, too. Sometimes we visit Enchanted Rock to reminisce about when we could both climb it. It’s an easy jog to Fredericksburg for shopping, too. Last time we explored JC and visited the museum at the LBJ Childhood Home complex. I even managed a circuit on the walking path that circles several historic buildings.
If you want to unwind without a large time or cash investment, I recommend daytripping. Pretty soon you’ll get as excited over a visit to the Hill Country as a trip to Europe, which as my father used to say, is “just too far and snaky to go.”

Downtown Odyssey

Some of my best adventures happen close to home. This past weekend turned out to be a keeper, having a great time and never getting more than 17 miles from home. I went downtown Saturday and Sunday, and I might as well have been in Paris—Texas or France.

The big hoo-hah parades on television during the holidays leave me flat, but I love going to downtown Austin to watch a display of Local Cool march by. Whether the Texas Independence parade in March or Chuy’s Christmas parade last Saturday, I appreciate the efforts of those who get out there and act goofy for the entertainment of others.

This year’s Chuy’s parade had an added incentive for me to drive downtown, walk farther than I should, and stand longer than I should, just to get a glimpse of my oldest granddaughter marching with Cheer Station.

A lady in front of me saw their banner and said, “Cheer Station?” I don’t know what that is.”

I immediately explained my connection, that it is where my “gkid”  takes cheer and tumbling lessons. The youngsters duly impressed the onlookers, hoisting small girls up in the air, managing to catch them before they hit terra firma. The lady I spoke to and all her relatives cheered like fiends and turned to smile encouragingly at me. I felt surprisingly validated, knowing they thought my granddaughter and her friends were terrific, too.

I chose my perch for the parade on Congress Avenue carefully. It was a short walk to St. David’s on 7th street, where I had agreed to meet my daughter at the Art from the Streets exhibit. We’ve been before, but this time was especially fun, as Megan interviewed artists and took pictures for a grad school project. After introducing herself to one of the exhibitors and explaining why she wanted to interview her, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, I love the paparazzi!”

I shopped while Megan worked, finding a couple of handmade necklaces I needed. I also bought two photographs by Sam Cole, one of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend and one of iconic bluebonnets. I bought those for my husband’s office, which is decorated in Rustic Texan, especially when he’s at his desk. Megan and I ate lunch at Scholz Garten, and I headed home to rest up for Sunday.

Sunday found me back downtown to see “Santaland Diaries” at the Zach Scott Theatre. It has become something of a holiday tradition for us, and every year I laugh like a maniac, as if seeing it for the first time. Short-term memory loss has its benefits. This is the farewell season for Martin Burke, however, the genius actor responsible for much of its popularity. His almost one-man show was terrific as always, but I left wondering where I’d be this time next year. I can only hope Martin reconsiders and comes out of his retirement from this role. Cher does it all the time.

We usually lunch at Casa de Luz before going to a play, but in deference to friends from San Antonio who are deeply suspicious of vegetarian fare, we ate at Threadgill’s, which never fails to please omnivores, especially those raised in the South.

I was ready to rest up Sunday night, just as tired as if I’d taken in a Broadway show. At least I didn’t have to unpack. We who are fortunate enough to live in Austin have diamonds on our doorsteps, good times just waiting for us. I’ll meet you downtown. 

Time Machine Tune-Up

On September 23, I wrote about plans to attend my 45th high school reunion. I had doubts I’d made the right decision, but my husband and I went this past weekend. I’ll be stopping by Sonic tonight for an order of crow with a side of fries.

Bryan and I decided to play tourist in San Antonio, my home until 1980. We checked into the Country Inn, a very nice mo/ho/tel a stone’s throw from the site of Saturday’s soiree. Then we went for dinner at Adelante, a surprisingly Austinesque, healthy(er) Tex-Mex restaurant near my old high school. Their lard-free policy helps lighten the cuisine, and the menu offers vegetarian and vegan delights, as well as real-deal-just-lighter favorites.  After vegetarian enchiladas and tamales, we went back to the hotel feeling self-righteous and light on our feet.

I grew up in San Antonio, but for once I was grateful for the GPS’s whiney instructions. It’s been a long time since I could navigate the city on autopilot. We headed downtown, bound for El Mercado to shop Mexico without going there. It took some effort to figure out where to park, but after a few false starts we found a place. Enjoying one of  San Antonio’s annual Five Days of Perfect Weather, we walked the couple of blocks to the market. We shopped for treasures unfindable just 90 miles to the north and ate lunch at Mi Tierra. Undoing all the benefits of the previous night’s supper, we pigged out on the delicious-but-deadly version of Tex-Mex.

Fast forward a few hours, after a little rest and a lot of primping, and it was time for my reunion. Checking in and getting a nametag with my full name, Janet Wheeler Kilgore, complete with a black-and-white senior photo of a girl with pretty eyes and an improbable bubble of very dark hair, I was unsure of myself, making mental notes of all the exits. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into a lovely room full of old people. Not that I expected to see the place full of teenagers, but when time-travelling into your past, shouldn’t people at least look familiar? Obviously, my time machine needs a tune-up. The nametags helped tremendously, but even with glasses, by the time I got close enough to read them, I felt obligated to say something, like, “Nice tie!” or “You really need to get that heart murmur looked at!”

People seemed genuinely glad to see me, and I really enjoyed seeing them and catching up. I’d thought of most of them over the years, wondering what became of them. Somewhere between our teens and dotage, I guess we’ve all learned a thing or two. I spent the evening saying, “Hi, I’m Janet Wheeler,” a sentence I hadn’t uttered since my first marriage and name-change in 1971. Questions from our younger days (“Are you going to Prom?” “Is the punch spiked?”) were replaced by, “Do you have grandchildren?” and, of course, “Do you know where the restrooms are?”

I stopped in my tracks at the list of 45 classmates who have passed on. That was definitely the epiphany of the evening for me. My husband was terrific, mingling with ease in a room full of total strangers. He said he enjoyed hearing stories about a time in my life he hadn’t shared, and recalling names and faces was all on me, another plus.

So, I was wrong about my reunion. My memories of high school now have a different quality—lighter, softer, sweeter. I’m so glad I went, and assuming the Mayans were wrong, I’m even looking forward to the next one—the 50th. Groan.

A Chance Encounter

Writers with a Sense of Place ClassI recently attended the Writers League of Texas Summer Writers Retreat in Alpine, Texas. This was my second retreat at Sul Ross, and they just keep getting better. Last year Karlene Koen taught me I DID have a book in me and that fiction is not a four-letter word. She is a dear mentor and friend. This year I took Joe Nick Patoski’s class, “Writing with a Sense of Place.” He gifted me with a boost in self-confidence as a writer and the knowledge I really do have a writer’s eye. He is a treasured new friend.

During the week of the retreat, he gave us several writing assignments, and one of my favorites was to write about a character we had met in Alpine. Here is mine.

Every time I come to Alpine I meet what I consider typical characters of the area. I usually meet older people, middle-aged to elderly, just your general grown-up. What makes this trip different is the young man I met on my way to class yesterday.

I work sometimes at an Austin high school, so I’m no stranger to the young’uns of our breed in their adolescent Blunder Years. As I approached the building, I caught sight of a strapping giant of a kid, obviously an undergraduate-type but with the face of a little boy. He looked like a balloon figure of an eight-year-old boy, blown up out of all proportion like the balloons in Macy’s parade. This man-child could have floated easily between Bullwinkle and Popeye on Thanksgiving Day.

He was neatly dressed in the ubiquitous, painfully blue West Texas jeans, definitely not stonewashed Levi’s, and a polo shirt, tucked in, of course. Instead of a backpack, he toted one of those shiny, aluminum briefcases. At first I thought it might hold his lunch, being the appropriate size for a lunch this boy would consume, but I soon realized it was on more serious business.

He got on the elevator with me, although he looked like he could build a staircase, much less use one. I smiled at him, to let him know I wasn’t one of those crabby old ladies, and he immediately grinned back and said, “Good mornin’, m’am.”

I smiled again and returned his greeting. He looked very pleased with the way the conversation was going.

“Are you taking classes here, too?” he asked, a touch of disbelief in his voice.

I explained I was here for a writers retreat and that I had come over from Austin. His face lit up, and he looked like he was going to wag his tail any minute.

“Oh, I’m from San Antonio!” The nascent connection solidified as I told him I grew up there.

The ride up one floor didn’t last nearly long enough, and soon we were wishing each other a good day. As he went down the hall, he looked as if I had made his day, meeting someone from “home” and all. He certainly made mine.