Friday, May 27, 2011

Savouring the South...

Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. New Orleans, Greenville, Leland, Memphis, Nashville, Sevierville, Gatlinburg and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to write, a good 10 days in fact! We've been doing a lot of travelling, making our way through the deep south whilst trying to avoid floods and tornados. We certainly saw a lot of flooding in Mississippi where the great river had broken through the levy's onto farmland, but thankfully we've seen no signs of tornados and I'd like to keep it that way!

Anyway, here’s what we’ve been up to:

New Orleans:
New Orleans is one of the most vibrant, diverse, and ‘alive’ places I’ve ever been. From alligator to zydeco, this city is hands down awesome. We ate, we drank and we explored. We listened to the legendary (I found out!) Big Al Carson at the Funky Pirate where we hung out with some pretty groovy new friends; took a tour of the swamps and saw some gators hanging in their hood; ate loads of unhealthy southern food like fried shrimp, fried catfish, po-boys, gator sausages and gumbo (aaahhh, gumbo – not so unhealthy if you don’t add a tonne of buttered bread!); crept around crumbling tombs in the cemeteries (the gravesites are above ground); and drank daiquiris in the streets whilst exploring the French quarter. All five of my senses were alive in New Orleans – and then duly dulled through the consumption of their lethal take on a standard drink. But I loved it, and I’d definitely visit again. It has been my favourite big city in the states so far…hands down. Go there!

Mississippi is the kind of place that I didn't think existed in the US anymore. It is the true deep south. Accents are thick, Ma'am and Sir are mandatory greetings and all the food comes fried (and large!). We travelled the Blues highway to a place called Greenville where we experienced eating in an authentic honky tonk diner that had serviced the town for over 80 years. It was here that we also saw the great Mississippi river cresting only metres from the top of the levy after swallowing a number of jetty's and a couple of large casinos.

The reason for heading towards the unpredictable floodwaters was to see the birthplace of this beautiful little frog: 

A tiny town called Leland is the birthplace of Kermit the Frog according to Jim Henson who spent his early years here. A small museum has been constructed which chronicles Henson's childhood in and around this part of Mississippi. It was so quaint and a great reminder of the beauty in imagination. The muppets were such a huge part of my life as a child and being in Leland where it all began was truly special. Jim Henson, I thank you for being such a superb human being!

Speaking of superb human beings, we met another wonderful man in Leland who goes by the name of Pat Thomas. Pat played us some pretty grungy blues guitar inside the local museum and then proceeded to get chatting to Benny (for some reason Pat and I had trouble understanding each other) about his life. And what a life! I could tell you all about it but you wouldn't believe it unless he told you himself. Suffice to say he knows all about the blues. Still, you've never seen a larger smile.

And then there was Memphis. I'll break it down...grimy bars, lots of dirty blues, lots more bourbon and whisky, about 15 new friends, seeing the sunrise on Beale Street, dinner at breakfast-time and a super charged hangover the next day. 

Oh, and there was Graceland too, which was something else. Unfortunately I can't share any images or the Graceland image police will sue my poor arse. Think green shag-pile carpet lining the floor, walls and ceiling in the 'jungle' themed recreation room, mirrors on the ceiling in the cream, sunshine yellow and deep blue colour-schemed tv room, dark brown, faux-woodgrain, veneer kitchen cabinetry, and generally just whacked out 70's interior design. It was wild! I was much more interested than I thought I'd be and kind of felt sad for the King by the end of the tour. He lived a pretty bizarre life.

From Memphis we headed towards The Great Smoky Mountains and we only left there today. They were beautiful beyond my wildest imagination. But I'll save all of that for my next post.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Join the club...

Yesterday I joined an online community for hearse owners called Hearse Space. There are a few of these communities online which cater to the interests of hearse owners all over the world. I never imagined that I would become the owner of one of these vehicles. I'm disinterested enough in vehicles to not own a license or drive myself, so it had never crossed my mind that I might one day own a vehicle that transports the dead. But life's funny like that isn't it? And that is what keeps things interesting. Anyway, in joining the club I became very curious about the hearse and decided to do some's what I discovered:

This song: Curse of the Hearse.

This movie, The Hearse, looks like a work of 80's brilliance:

The world's fastest hearse lives in Queensland, Australia:

Final scenes of the Jag hearse in Harold and Maude:

Images of different makes and models on I'm particularly fond of the 1953 Cadillac Landau Hearse. Stylish.

And here's my Hearse Space profile page.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trailblazing through Texas...

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. 
~ John Steinbeck.

From cowboys to contemporary art, Texas was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. At once a parody of itself, with cliché bucket-hat wearing, gun toting sheriffs, but also full of the unexpected, like hipsters hanging out in the dry, dusty fields of border towns. It was indeed a strange place and like a nation unto itself. We started our Texan journey in El Paso, a true border town. The Mexican city of Juarez is literally divided from El Paso by a ditch and a couple of nasty looking fences. The journey to Central America can be made via a bridge which includes border patrol check points. We didn’t make the trek, A) because we’d been told that it was quite dangerous, and B) (when we’d gathered the courage to make the trip) because the line up to get back in to El Paso from Juarez was so long that we couldn’t see the end of it. Not surprisingly, there is a large population of Mexican migrants living in El Paso. We enjoyed both the Mexican food and cultural artefacts that dotted the city, like images of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted   in the streets.

From El Paso we ventured East to the small town of Marfa to check out a unique exhibition space dedicated to contemporary installation art. Marfa is a very, very weird place. I’m not sure what it was about the place that led me to this conclusion but the vibe there really freaked me out. Seems I’m not the only one who thinks so.

We stayed at a beautiful hotel called the Paisano, its architecture reflecting a Spanish influence with a central courtyard and intricate ironwork embellishments. Strangely, we were allocated the room in which James Dean had stayed during the filming of Giant, his last acting job before his death. It was strange because we had only booked the evening before arriving and apparently the room is usually booked out months in advance. The spirit of James Dean did not visit us, but it was kinda fun to imagine that he’d been hanging out in the same room many moons ago.

The Marfa Film Festival was taking place (in spite of what the website says!) during our visit and on our first evening in Marfa we gathered late at night, in a dark field with a bunch of locals and film lovers to watch a screening of The Warriors, an old 70’s film that focuses on gang warfare.  It was a little bit hilarious to see how much things have changed in regards to film technology.

The next day we ventured to the Judd Foundation for a guided tour of the exhibition spaces. The site itself was once a military compound which housed German prisoners of war during WWII. 

It was great to see these works installed in permanent exhibition spaces smack bang in the middle of the Texan desert. I was impressed by our guide, a young woman who was very knowledgeable on both the works, the history of the site, and the Judd Foundation. Even Benny found it interesting (perhaps more-so than I, if I’m honest! The heat had me wishing the tour was over towards the end.), and that’s saying something given his self-confessed ignorance of contemporary art. Or perhaps, that’s exactly why he found it interesting? There were things that irked me about the site – the lack of women represented (one!), some weak statements in didactics by artists that are supposed to be the crème de la crème of what they do, and the constant reminders about not touching the art and how fragile it is (cement and steel?). But you know, otherwise it was superb (and I’m glad to be critical).

From Marfa we moved onto Austin and caught a Fleet Foxes concert, which I’m sure was fabulous, but as I was intoxicated from a session at the pub with some new friends beforehand, I’m afraid to say that I don’t remember much but a blur of nice harmonies. Oh dear!

Then we hit Houston where we caught up with some wonderful friends I met on my trip to Las Vegas last year. JoJo was our super host and showed us some Texan hospitality by letting us crash on his couch. Here he is in his amazing patio garden:

And now we’re in New Orleans, about to head out and soak up some of the party atmosphere in the streets outside…

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Savouring the saguaro and the sacred...

Saguaro. They're freaking cool for cactus. I mean, I'm a big fan of the cactus anyway, but this thing is really quite impressive. Put a bunch of them together and you've got an outdoor gallery of totemic living sculptures that amaze and delight. Especially at sunset when their tall lean forms become dark silhouettes that loom against the immense, technicolour vastness of the desert sky. How was I to know that I'd become smitten with an oversized cactus? I mean, I was so taken with the saguaro that I attempted to become one. Alas, I realised that I'm too short to pull it off. 

We saw these beauties in Saguaro National Park, located within the Sonoran Desert just outside of Tucson, Arizona. Apparently this is one of a few rare sites in which they grow in abundance. I feel privileged to have experienced their strangeness. No really, I do! I know, they're just cactus. No, actually, they're the ultimate, supreme masters of the cactus world. Respect.

Another desert beauty we experienced close to Tucson was the San Xavier del Bac Mission church, also known as The White Dove of the Desert. It was under restoration while we were there, by the same people who took part in restoring the Sistene Chapel no less. The Baroque style architecture and painted frescoes were truly awesome. I had not expected such richly coloured, detailed work to exist beyond the whitewashed facade of the church's exterior. It was like a jewell in the harsh, unfriendly landscape of the desert. Hundreds of candles, lit by parishioners, burned inside the church, and around the walled, landscaped gardens of the mission. The prevailing mood of the church and its surrounds was one of reverence and peace, promoting earnest reflection and humility. We spent a long time soaking up the atmosphere here. I wish I could bottle the feeling that I get inside a beautiful church. Reverence is priceless.

And outside we discovered some local people selling freshly made Indian frybread....hell yes! We partook and enjoyed every delicious bite.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cruising the American desert...

Adventure is just bad planning.
 ~ Roald Amundsen.

I couldn't agree more heartily. Our plans are sketchy at best and we seldom know where we are going to be heading from one day to the next. We have changed plans whilst sitting in the front of the hearse ready to set forth several times. The last week in particular has been full of bad planning and adventure. But it always seems to work out in the end.

It all started in Vegas. I’d go into detail but our experience was much like you’d imagine it to be. Basically, it involved copious amounts of alcohol, food, sleeping, and walking the strip. We blew out so much one night that we spent the whole of the next day in bed nursing our sorry heads and whining about how much Vegas sucks. Which is unfair, because Vegas is Vegas and it’s what you do with it that counts. We stayed at a particularly classy establishment called the Flamingo (they boast Donny and Marie Osmond as their resident show hounds – yeeeah, no, we didn’t go see them perform). For anyone who thinks I’m serious when I say ‘classy’, just to clarify, I’m really not. We thought it would be fun to stay in the centre of the strip amidst the chaos and revelry, but it was overwhelming and somewhat depressing. Heh, don’t get me wrong, we had our fair share of fun, but I don’t think I want to hang with the cheesy hotel going, pokie playing, 2 dollar margarita types again. I don’t know why I thought I would. So, that was Vegas.

In contrast to the bling of the Vegas Strip we spent the next couple of nights at Zion National Park (because we were unable to reserve camping at the Grand Canyon). Now, this is more our style. Zion is located in the bottom western corner of Utah. Boasting large peaked canyon walls that change colour in the shifting light, Zion, like it’s namesake, was truly a place of refuge for us. We spent our time hiking the trails and breathing in the rugged beauty of the landscape. 

Next stop, the Grand Canyon. Wowsers! I see why it’s listed as one of the world’s natural wonders, because it’s really something else. Unfortunately my experience of the canyon was limited by a nasty bout of food poisoning (eating cheese from a warm esky probably isn’t wise), but I struggled through enough to experience the grandeur from easy to reach vistas and found myself forgetting, for brief moments, that I was on the verge of bodily disaster. Ugh! We didn’t manage to rise early enough to catch a sunrise but the sunset we saw was magical – the colours of the canyon walls changing hue right before our eyes.

Once again, Damien was a hit at the campgrounds. I could not imagine that our trip would be half as brilliant without that beautiful beast of a vehicle. I think we’re both falling in love with him. Which is tragic really, considering our impending permanent separation. Just look at his sweet chassy checking out the view will you:

We’re both enjoying the desert experience. The landscape changes more often than we thought it would – there’s always something new on the horizon. Right now we’re in saguaro country, in Tucson, Arizona. We decided to stay here on a whim, driving at sunset straight through Pheonix where we had planned to stay. It just looked too large and oppressive after having spent all those nights under the stars. Anyway, the saguaro are bizarre and litter the landscape with their strange, erect sculptural forms. They look like demented, broken soldiers standing at drunken attention in wonky rows. Our next stop is El Paso...then it's a long (and we've heard very dull) drive to the east of Texas where we'll consider our next moves, then throw them to the wind.