It’s been a few weeks since I wrote anything on my blog. Other stuff just kept taking priority—but that was priority of my choosing, so I really have no excuse.
Anyway, rather than write any big, long piece to make up for what I haven’t posted in almost a month, I’m going to share some of the output from one of my hobbies: photography.
My grandparents gave me my first Vivitar camera when I must have been three or four, and I’ve been snapping pictures ever since. (I still have the Vivitar!) I upgraded to a digital Panasonic when I turned thirteen and more recently upgraded to a Canon DSLR last year to really take it to the next level.
Now, whether my eye for photography has ever been any good is for you to decide. And whether the shots come out looking great is also up in the air.
My goal as I work on photography on the side is to learn not only the mechanics of camera settings and framing the shot but also the post-processing that is done with image-editing software such as Photoshop. I’m a cheapskate (and Adobe charges out the nose for a Photoshop subscription now), so I’ve been using the open-source image-editor called GIMP. I think the results are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.
So, without further ado, here are some shots of airliners taken at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, TX and muscle cars taken at Lone Star Muscle Cars in Wichita Falls, TX. Enjoy and please let me know what you think.
One thing I really like about photography is that it gives me an excuse to get out, explore, and experiment. As you can probably tell, I like photographing machines, but really anything that (I think) exhibits beauty is worth capturing.
Coming soon: enhanced photos from my spring-break trip to Utah. Until then, thanks for reading and viewing.
We rose at 5:30 A.M. Page time since we finally learned which time zone we were in: Mountain Standard, which meant we would lose two hours driving east over the next two days (one hour entering Mountain Daylight, and another entering Central). We both slept unbelievably well that night after four nights on the ground in the cold inside sleeping bags—but those four nights on the ground made sleep in a bed that much sweeter. You learn to appreciate the things you take for granted in life when you go camping, and that’s one reason I like doing it.
We loaded up Vader and, since the motel office wasn’t open yet, left the keys on the table as our hosts instructed us. We drove around the block to grab a Southwestern breakfast at Ranch House Grille. I enjoyed an omelet while Daniel had huevos rancheros. We talked about what we wanted to do that day on the way back, and decided that we would have to forego a tour of Antelope Canyon for time constraints. Instead, we would stop at Horseshoe Bend on our way out of town, and then play the rest of the day by ear with the goal of reaching Albuquerque before sundown.
We paid for breakfast and then drove to Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Page. Our hostess had told us something about having to park in town and take a shuttle to the trail, but we simply drove to the trail, parked, and hiked about a mile round-trip to see the bend and back. At our visit, the trail was under construction and the parking lot was small, so I understood why there would be a need for shuttle busses, but I didn’t see any running while we were there.
Horseshoe Bend is simply a bend in the Colorado River that’s shaped like a horseshoe. It’s become a favorite site of photographers and Instagrammers (Daniel made sure to “get one for the ‘Gram”). It’s neat to look at, and it’s a short but moderate hike to the bend, but there’s not much else to do. It’s free, though—can’t beat that.
We got back on the road and drove U.S. 89 to Flagstaff. This route took us around the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, areas we didn’t really want to drive through a second time if we could help it. There is an incredible pull-off near Bitter Springs that looks out over the desert and towards the Grand Canyon that made the whole route worth it.
As we approached Flagstaff, I frequently took advantage of passing lanes to get by slower cars and trucks. I got pretty good at it, too—and then the check engine light on Vader’s dash started flashing.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Daniel, open the glove box and grab the owner’s manual. See what it says about a flashing check engine light.”
Daniel is not the best when it comes to using an index, but to his credit he found exactly what I was looking for, just as the light went away. “Misfire occurred,” he reported. “Could be due to spark plugs, over-revving the engine, or a bad fuel-air ratio. It says to take it easy on the engine and get it inspected by a dealer immediately.”
Not what I wanted to hear. Thoughts of what could be wrong rushed through my head. We had gained considerable altitude as we approached Flagstaff; could differences in air pressure or temperature, combined with accelerating, have caused the misfire?
I decided, since the light went away, to keep driving at a steady clip. We passed through Flagstaff and briefly got turned around as we tried to find Interstate 40. We also got cell service back and Daniel texted Mom to let her know where we were at.
“You know there’s a meteor crater near Flagstaff,” she said via text. “Y’all might want to check that out.”
“Hey, Matthew, did you know there’s a meteor crater near here?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, I read something about it. It’s twenty dollars per person.” I was trying to keep Pard’s finances in mind. “You want to check it out?”
That decided it.
The meteor crater is about thirty miles east of Flagstaff and four miles south of I-40. It doesn’t have a name; it’s just called “Meteor Crater Natural Landmark”. It’s not maintained by the National Park Service or any other governmental agency (which could be a good thing); in fact, the land is owned by a long-time rancher and the proceeds from the visitor’s center go to help maintain the crater.
The crater was completely worth it. For eighteen bucks apiece (we each paid twenty and got a two-dollar bill in change!), we got access to the small but impressive museum and a free, guided tour along the crater rim. You can’t descend into the crater because doing so would start to erode it, but you can get some spectacular views from the rim anyway. Our tour guide told us quite a bit about both the natural history and the human history of the crater, and we learned that it is, in fact, the largest, best-preserved impact crater in the whole world. On top of that, the blast created at impact was equivalent to twenty-million tons of TNT.
After spending a bit longer at the crater than we intended, we drove a short distance further to Winslow, where we did indeed stand on the corner (yeah, we’re tourists!) and then stopped for gas. Things move slower in small towns off old Route 66, and that includes fuel.
“I could urinate faster than this!” a fellow traveler complained to me at the pump. “I mean, this is crazy!”
The good thing about our delay was that we got acquainted with a couple from Florida who had just retired and were taking a road trip across the country. “We just saved all we could and started investing in real estate, and now we’re basically being paid from our investments,” he explained. “We were both able to retire with all the benefits and we’re still making money on the side. You two guys are pretty young and you’ll get good jobs if you don’t already have them; just start socking away everything you can and learn about real estate. It pays for itself.”
We thanked him for the advice and said we would look into real estate. I stopped gassing up my truck before the tank was full because Daniel and I were both tired of waiting. We said good-bye to the kind man, and when we left the gas pump had evidently not shut off as it filled his Ford Edge. Gas spilled down the side of the car. I was glad I shut the pump off early and made a mental note never to stop at the Phillips 66 in Winslow ever again. (Word to the wise…)
Daniel took the wheel and drove us on the long-haul from Winslow to Albuquerque with one brief bathroom pit-stop. As we rolled through I-40 construction outside of Albuquerque, he said the words I didn’t want to hear: “Matthew, the check engine light’s back on again.”
The truck drove fine and the engine wasn’t shaking or making any sounds as far as we could tell, so since we were out in the middle of nowhere anyway, I told him to drive it steady into Albuquerque, where we would take it to an AutoZone and have the code scanned. I prayed it wasn’t anything serious, and that pressing on wouldn’t make anything worse.
We arrived in Albuquerque right at sundown, just as planned. We had a little trouble finding our AirBNB casita for the night, due in part to confusing roads and addresses, and in part to the lack of streetlights to illuminate the addresses. We stopped in briefly to examine the casita (quaint, quiet, and comfortable), then hopped back in Vader to grab dinner at a place called Monroe’s. We each had Southwestern-style sandwiches, but I don’t remember much of the meal because I was thinking about the truck. All I wanted to do was get it to AutoZone and, hopefully, be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the code was nothing.
We drove up to AutoZone and a guy about our age, from Fort Worth in fact, read the codes and then pulled them up on the computer. “Man, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “One’s a misfire, the other’s an issue with turbo underboost. Could be an issue with the turbocharger. I think you should get that checked out immediately. Don’t want you two breaking down on the way back to Texas; there’s nothing between here and there.”
I sighed. “Where can we take it?”
He consulted with one of the local guys, not an employee, who hung around the store to chat cars. “You need to take it to Brothers. I think they’ve worked on F-150s before. They open at nine tomorrow because it’s Saturday.” He wrote down the address and phone number on the printout of the error codes and handed it to me. “Good luck, guys. Hope you can get it figured out.”
We went back to the casita and made plans for the next day. I had hoped to leave early, as had been our precedent, but having to wait until nine o’clock to visit the mechanic would scrap those plans. I gave Dad a call and asked if he had any advice.
“Do your research,” he said. He and Mom were watching a James Bond movie. “Pray about it and sleep on it. Let me know tomorrow morning.”
Everything I was reading online was making me worry even more: Owners who reported the same codes were having their turbochargers overhauled and replaced. That would be expensive, time-consuming, and unsafe to drive without. I pulled myself away from my phone and prayed fervently that God would provide us a way to get it fixed quickly so we could get back home, and a backup plan if not.
Daniel, true to form, took a leisurely, hot shower, then plopped down on the mattress to listen to reggae music while checking in on social media. My shower was cold because he used all the hot water, but I didn’t get onto him about it. Instead, I told him we’d sleep in, take our time getting ready to go in the morning, and then be at the garage called Brothers well before they opened. He agreed, and we turned out the lights.
We both slept pretty well that night considering we shared a bed. It always winds up being a battle for the blanket whenever we sleep in the same bed, but I think we were both so tired that it didn’t matter.
The next morning, I washed my face and checked my phone. A text from Dad lit up the screen: “Good morning travelers! Call me when you get up and we will talk truck stuff.”
I did. Dad had spent some time researching the same error code and came across different results. He said it was likely spark plugs, from what he read. “Take it to your guy,” he said, referring to Brothers. “He’s the one they recommended, so go to him, and go with God.”
After I got off the phone with Dad, Daniel and I packed up and ensured the casita looked spick and span before walking out for the last time. I looked up and saw a dozen hot-air balloons dotting the clear, blue Albuquerque sky. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad, after all. (Sadly, all our camera batteries had died, so I didn’t get any good photos of the balloons. And that’s why, sadly, the rest of this post has no pictures.)
I looked at the map on my phone and saw that there was a Chick-fil-A close to the garage, just on the other side of I-25 (the CanAm highway). We drove through and grabbed breakfast, then parked ourselves outside Brothers Complete Autocare at half-past eight, eating our chicken biscuits and drinking milk while we waited for nine.
I saw the garage bay door go up at a quarter to nine, so I got out of the truck and walked in to investigate. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, but then a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman peeked around the corner at me. “Buenos días,” I said. I don’t know why I automatically went to Spanish, but I trusted my instincts. “¿Hablas inglés?”
He smiled. “Eh, little bit.” He gapped his thumb and forefinger for emphasis.
I tried to explain what the problem was across the language barrier. I told him I was from Texas, trying to drive home, and was having engine trouble. I thought it was the spark plugs. He listened attentively and I could tell he wanted to help. “Is outside?” he asked, pointing.
“Sí,” I said, and led him to it. We popped the hood and he set to work on it immediately. I stood outside and watched him, while Daniel sat inside and slowly enjoyed breakfast, listening to Tears for Fears.
As the minutes ticked by, some local guys, the kind who like to hang around garages, showed up and stood around as the mechanic worked away at the engine. He explained to them what the problem was, in Spanish, and they would ask questions or offer suggestions. My Spanish being rudimentary at best, I could catch a few key words and phrases, but much of it was lost on me.
“Look here,” he said finally, pointing to the number-one coil pack. “See? Is new.” He pointed at the others. “Original.” The coil pack for the first cylinder was not nearly as dirty as the others were. “Might be some problem before, I don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I knew I had never changed it, nor had my mechanic back home. “Do you have a replacement?”
“Un momento.” He put on his headset and made a phone call. “Hola, Carlos.” He told Carlos, who worked at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts, what he needed. He shook his head and took the headset off. “They no have it. You want me to try spark plugs?”
I told him yes, and he asked Carlos about them. “They no have spark plugs,” he said regretfully, shaking his head.
“What else can we do?” I asked him.
“I will call someone else.” He dialed another nearby store and told them what he needed. “They have them,” he said to me. “Fifty dollars.”
“Do it,” I said. He nodded and placed the order.
“Gracias,” I told him when he got off the phone. “I appreciate your help.”
He smiled. “De nada. Is my job. Is what I do.” He plunged back under the hood and started unscrewing the old spark plugs.
Pretty soon, a young lady drove up in an auto parts truck and dropped off the new plugs. The mechanic quickly gapped them and set to work installing them. In the meantime, I kept Mom and Dad posted on the progress. “Trust your mechanic,” Dad encouraged. “He is the answered prayer.”
The mechanic’s son, who spoke fluent English, showed up about this time and started working on someone else’s car but then came by to talk to us when the work was finished. He cleared the codes on the truck and we fired the engine up. It turned over fine and sounded healthy. The check engine light stayed off. He advised I get some octane booster from AutoZone and then fill up with premium gas to ensure the fuel-air mixture wouldn’t be too lean.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked him after he lowered the hood.
“Eh, one-twenty?” he reckoned on the spot.
“Do you have change for one-fifty?”
“Sure.” We both pulled out our wallets and exchanged the money. I shook his hand. “Muchas gracias, señor.”
“You’re welcome. Good luck.”
And with that, we hit the road just after 10:00 A.M. Mountain. I drove us from Albuquerque to Tucumcari, and Vader ran great. We filled up in Tucumcari, and Daniel drove us from there to Wichita Falls, where I took the reins one final time and drove us the last two hours into DFW. We arrived at 8:30 P.M. Central, for a total of nine hours of nearly non-stop driving. We made good time and the miles rolled by as we listened to everything from Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam.
And so ended our bro-trip to the American Southwest, packed with adventure, thrills and chills, and many more memories than what I’ve shared here. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
There are a few things we learned for the next trip. First, it’s good to know what cell coverage is like where you’re going, especially if you’re driving through places like the Navajo Nation. A backup satellite phone would be good to have. Second, it wouldn’t hurt to carry some basic auto parts, such as spark plugs and coil packs, just in case. Third, make sure your tent sleeping arrangement is comfortable; we suffered from no support until we bought new Therm-a-Rests and struggled with a lack of space the whole time.
Finally, when camping, stay clean! Our campground didn’t have showers, so we made do with body wipes and dry shampoo (or at least I did) for four days. One reason a lot of people don’t like to camp is because they can’t get clean, and it’s completely understandable. No one wants to go to bed feeling sticky from the day’s sweat. Some good body wipes go a long way (such as these from Surviveware, which were awesome—affiliate link alert). And dry shampoo (I used this one from Hair Dance), even for those with short hair, makes a big difference. Just ask Daniel; he didn’t use any and his hair was hideous!!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these tales of our epic adventure. If you get a chance to “go west, young man (or woman)”, go! Every state we passed through had its own unique natural beauty and charm, but Utah was simply beautiful to me. There is so much more to do there, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park—not to mention a myriad of state parks and other natural areas. And, of course, there’s the Grand Canyon, too.
We closed the doors of Vader the truck for the final time as we sat in the driveway. I turned the key and the twin-turbocharged V6 roared to life, accompanied by the usual dinging: Fasten your seatbelts. I checked the load of gear piled up in the extended cab behind me. It looked stable enough, and I had decent visibility. We buckled in, I shifted to Drive, and we turned out of the driveway and onto the open road.
We got to the intersection with the main road and I realized I forgot my cold-weather coat.
After a u-turn, a dash into the house, and a final last good-bye to Dad, we strapped in and pulled out again, and this time, we didn’t come back.
Then, as we navigated the snaking highways of downtown Fort Worth with Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” playing through the stereo, Daniel realized he forgot his water bottle. How ironic.
I woke up around 6:00 AM that morning and immediately got to work packing the final things on my list: toothbrush, toothpaste, pillow (I almost always travel with my own), and the like. Daniel woke up around the same time, ate breakfast, and went to school to take that exam that his crazy professor moved forward from after spring break.
Dad, operating at Mom’s behest, bought a us all a second breakfast from Chick-fil-A to eat before we left. I must say that trip planning and packing and loading do sap one’s energy, so I was more than happy to eat on a hobbit meal plan. We devoured the chicken minis and then saddled up.
Which brings us back to the Fort Worth traffic and Daniel forgetting his water bottle. Of all the things we brought, all the gear piled high in the extended cab and all the other camping gear and food in the truck bed, he had forgotten his water bottle. I wondered what else he might have forgotten.
We would find out before too long.
Our plan for Day 1 was to drive from DFW to Santa Rosa, NM, and spend the night at the Best Western Santa Rosa Inn. The original plan was to drive all the way to Albuquerque on Day 1, but due to our delayed departure from Daniel’s unexpected exam we had to shore things up a bit. Since Daniel had been up well after midnight studying for said exam and only had about four hours of sleep, I decided I would do all the driving on this first day and let him rest.
It’s hard to rest when you’re excited about a trip, though. We talked a lot and listened to his special trip playlist. The first song as we pulled out was “Hammer to Fall” by Queen, followed by “I Can’t Drive 55” as we hit the highway and proceeded to hit 75. Following that were some deep cuts from Eddie Money, such as the aforementioned “Gimme Some Water”, which I abused so much by singing at Daniel over the trip that I don’t think he’ll ever want to listen to it again.
Our first stop was the Love’s in Wichita Falls, just two hours down the road. We took this opportunity to empty our bladders and get Daniel some water (partly so he could quench his thirst and partly so I would stop repeating the “Gimme Some Water” refrain). On the way into the city we spotted our first international license plate: Quebec.
After a quick stop, we got back on the road and pressed on to Amarillo, where we planned to eat dinner. The drive from Wichita Falls to Amarillo is not a very exciting one, unless you count State Troopers pulling out to pull over speeding motorists exciting.
Daniel switched his playlist up and I was treated to–ugh–Ween. He mixed it up by throwing in some Mike Posner, but neither did much for me. Posner has some interesting arrangements, but Ween is just kind of weird and hard to take seriously. I will give them props for touching on so many different genres: One minute they sound like Motörhead, the next they sound like Stone Temple Pilots, and then after that they’re drawing influences from Ennio Morricone.
Around Childress, Daniel fell asleep. That enabled me to put on some music I wanted to listen to, namely Rush. I drove us onward as the dystopian-themed Grace Under Pressure album played at low volume, grooving to Geddy’s Steinberger bass lines and occasionally air-drumming (with one hand on the wheel!) to Neil’s fills.
As we neared Amarillo, Daniel woke up and I told him to find a place to eat, preferably somewhere right off the highway. We’d seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch along the road for many miles, and I asked if he’d like to try it out. He agreed, so we set our course for an early steak dinner.
For those who don’t know, the unique thing about The Big Texan is its Texas King steak challenge. If you can eat a 72 oz. steak with sides and a salad within an hour, your meal is free. Like they say, everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas.
Neither of us were that hungry, but steak sounded good, so we whipped into the parking lot and sat down in the lodge-themed dining area underneath the mounted heads of bucks, bulls, and bears. We came in just before 4:00 PM, which meant that we could still order from the (cheaper) lunch menu. Talk about great timing! We each settled on a 9 oz. ribeye, me with a baked potato and green beans for sides, and Daniel with fried okra and, if I remember correctly, steak fries. We admired the taxidermal wonders around us and watched as a man sat at a table on a stage and attempted to devour The King Steak while waiting on our own steaks.
And what great steaks they were! Cooked medium, juicy and flavorful, chewy and succulent. My potato and beans were delicious, too. They even brought a jalapeño for each of us. I took a bite of mine and said, “This isn’t too bad!” I ate it easily.
Daniel, the guy who tries spicy peppers, took a bite of his and couldn’t handle the heat. “Do you want mine?” he asked. I thought he was wimping out on me.
He wasn’t. I took a bite and instantly regretted it. My sinuses started running, my eyes teared up, and my face flushed. I couldn’t drink enough water. It was that bad. Daniel laughed as I languished. And yes, I was too manly to ask for some milk.
After the jalapeño fiasco, we paid and hit the road again, pressing on all the way to Santa Rosa. We topped off the tank before we left Amarillo listening to “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait (to whom I argued we should listen because, heck, we were in Texas!). I let George serenade us all the way to the New Mexican border as we drove past cattle, ranches, and wind turbines.
The landscape took a stark change as we approached the New Mexico. The ranches disappeared and suddenly there was rock and scrub brush on both sides of I-40. I noted that the wind started picking up, too. A few minutes later, we crossed into “The Land of Enchantment” and watched the sun set ahead of us.
It was the most unusual sunset I think either of us have ever seen. We indeed saw the sun for the first time all day, blazing directly in front of us and low on the horizon. Maybe it was the clouds, or the wind, or some other weather phenomenon, but the sky was colored all colors of the rainbow: purple on our left, orange and yellow in front, and even green on our right. I’d never seen a green sky before.
And the wind was intense. Daniel’s phone warned of wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, I think. I slowed my speed a bit as I watched my gas mileage tumble on the truck’s trip computer. Driving Vader into the wind was like trying to slice cold butter with the rounded part of a spoon.
The sun fell below the horizon and left us on the dark desert highway, along with everyone else trying to reach Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, or Albuquerque at a reasonable hour. The miles went by fast even at a slower speed, and before we knew it we were in Santa Rosa, pulling into the Best Western off old Route 66.
It was our first time staying in a motel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lobby was clean and inviting. I checked in and drove around to our motel room, where we unloaded only the necessities for one night. Our motel room was fantastic, too: two queen beds, two sinks, and immaculate. And if we needed anything from Vader, he was parked right outside!
We settled in, which didn’t take long, and unwound. Daniel fired up the TV and watched basketball; I grabbed one of the books I’d brought with me, Armada by Ernest Cline, and read a few chapters while munching on a bagel topped with peanut butter and honey. Good stuff.
We showered and hit the hay early, because even though we’d gained an hour when we crossed into Mountain Time at the New Mexico border, we would lose that hour the next night due to Daylight Saving’s Time. We would soon find that time was relative, as Einstein might say, not only based on which state we were in but which part of which state we were in. I found it easiest to just assume we were already on Mountain Daylight Time and deal with any time-related issues later.
“Oh, dang it.” Daniel interrupted my thoughts as I finished up my journal entry for the day. “I brought the wrong pillow!”
Par for the course.
And, if you were wondering why there aren’t any pictures from this part of the trip, that’s because we switched out memory cards in my camera and the one from the first part of the trip has gone AWOL. I hope it’s somewhere in the truck, but I’ve yet to find it. For all I know it may have been found by housekeeping in the motel room. If so, I hope they enjoy pictures of US-287 and whatever else is on it!
Airshows are awesome. If you’ve been, you know; if you haven’t, go and find out.
I grew up going to airshows. My dad worked in the aerospace industry and took our family to as many airshows as he could in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I’ve been to at least fifteen by my reckoning, maybe as many as twenty. I’ve seen both the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels at least three times each, likely more. I’ve also seen a very realistic Pearl Harbor/Tora! Tora! Tora! reenactment with Mitsubishi Zeroes, several AV-8B Harrier demonstrations, and a rare Russian Mi-24 Hind helicopter flight. (If you don’t know what those are, follow the links!)
My earliest airshow memory was talking to the pilot of an E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft at age three. He let me sit in the pilot’s seat, wear the headset, and play with the throttle controls. I then remember walking through the aircraft, past the computer workstations (where seats would normally be on a commercial aircraft), out the aft door, down the mobile stairs, and to where Mom and Daniel were waiting in the shade of a B-52 Stratofortress, Daniel still being in a stroller at the time. It’s all documented on an old camcorder tape somewhere, along with plenty of shots of vacant sky as a fighter jet whizzes past!
Airshows never get old for me; in fact, I appreciate them more and more as I get older. I still enjoy seeing the aircraft, but now I also enjoy talking to the pilots and crew. Most of them spend the day standing around in the heat, cold, or rain, just waiting for someone to ask them about their planes. You can learn some interesting things from striking up a conversation with them, and they’re more than happy to talk. I got to speak with a B-2 Spirit pilot this past weekend (though he left his B-2 back at Whiteman AFB, darn!). Dad told me that one time, back in the late 80s, he asked an F-14 pilot about the video targeting pod on his aircraft. The pilot looked at Dad incredulously and asked, as if it were classified info, “How do you know about that?” Dad replied, “Tom Clancy wrote about it in Red Storm Rising!” (It pays to read good books.)
Perhaps above all else, I enjoy airshows because they are tangible reminders of the sacrifices that American men and women make so that we can be free in this country. For every B-17 Stratofortress that survived World War II, there were hundreds that bit the dust or limped back home over European skies; and the life expectancy of a B-17 crewman was just a handful of missions, if he was fortunate. The men and women who build, fly, and support military aircraft do it not for their own sakes but for ours, so that we may live freely, safely, and comfortably on our own soil. They have my fullest respect.
So, get online and find out if there’s an airshow near you. If there is, go. Bring your friends and family. Take good walking shoes, sunglasses, and sun protection—and a camera, too. Even if you know nothing about airplanes or aviation, go. Watch some air performances. Walk around the static displays. Talk to some pilots: ask them about their aircraft and what a day in the flight suit is like. Smile and thank them for their service. Many will autograph bulletins or even have posters they will autograph.
And, most importantly, have a great time and make great memories.
Coming soon: pictures from the 2018 Fort Worth Alliance Air Show. Stay tuned.
It was nearly 10PM on the dark Colorado River. Behind us lay the ultra-modern buildings of downtown Austin. Ahead of us lay pitch black. Somewhere on our right was the public dock where we launched our kayak from. There we were in the middle of the still river, with no one else around, tired, hungry, and ready to call it an evening.
And then Daniel said: “We’re like the only ones out here. This is kinda scary!”
My encouragement: “Well, at least no one’s going to mug us!”
Our trip to Austin began when we woke up at 5:30AM that morning. Aiming to leave the house by 6:30AM, we left at 6:50AM instead (a twenty-minute delay is pretty good by our family’s standards!) in my intrepid little Mazda 3 and arrived in Austin just after ten, stopping only in Georgetown so Daniel could buy a second breakfast at Chick-Fil-A. No, he doesn’t have furry feet.
Arriving in Austin, our hopes and dreams were dashed by the horrendous traffic. Being that it’s Austin, I expected some traffic, but thought that it would be greatly diminished since we were rolling in after rush hour. I was wrong and I should have known better, but I learned my first lesson of the trip—traffic in Austin is almost always bad.
Our first stop upon arriving was the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, which I hear some call “Graffiti Park” or the graffiti park. If you want to leave your mark on some concrete (at least until someone else leaves their mark over yours), practice some photography, or simply climb to the top for a great view of the city, this is the place. We didn’t bring any spray paint and opted not to buy any from the vendor there, so we simply took some photos and enjoyed the view.
While we were near downtown, Shoe Man Dan wanted to visit the Shoe Palace store on The Drag (Guadalupe St.), which is located right next to the infamous Tyler’s (where the “Keep Austin Weird” shirts are sold). Daniel looked at all the latest styles while I enjoyed the air conditioning, and then we decided on a whim to visit a turtle pond on the University of Texas campus.
What was once a serene pond of placid turtles is now a frothing sea of hungry reptiles, thanks in part to Daniel trying to get some action footage of the turtles with my NoPro. Sadly, the SD card is apparently corrupted and it remains to be seen whether the action footage will ever be seen.
Having driven off all the UT students looking for a quiet place to study, we decided it was time for lunch and headed off to Wild Bubba’s Wild Game Grill, which is quite a drive from downtown. Wild Bubba’s is located southeast of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack (another place worth visiting; our family toured it last year) and serves some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. I ate a yak burger and Daniel had a kangaroo one. Both were delicious, and I learned that yak is apparently one of the most nutritious meats you can eat, being 96-98% lean and containing vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Who says you can’t have your burger and eat it too?
After filling our bellies and the Mazda’s gas tank, we drove to Camp Mabry so we could visit the Texas Military Forces Museum located on the base. Unfortunately, we had only an hour before it closed, so we had to make the most of our time and skip over some things that we wanted to spend more time looking at. However, it is a fantastic museum dedicated to the history of Texas and the military, from the days of Texas Independence to the modern National Guard.
Our plan for the evening was to kayak down the Colorado River and watch the bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. Instead of paying out the nose to rent a kayak and do a group tour, we brought Daniel’s inflato-yak and found a public boat launch by Austin High School where we could put in. The bridge was only a mile or so southeast of our launch point, and we figured we could get down there with no sweat. After checking in at our AirBNB in southwest Austin, we grabbed dinner at Plucker’s and headed to the river.
We inflated and assembled the kayak on the road by the school, locked the car, and carried the ‘yak to the waterside. With our valuables stored in waterproof cases and carabiner-ed to our trunks, we boarded the vessel and began paddling down the river.
Actually, we found ourselves paddling up the river. The current was flowing against us. Most everyone else on the river at the time, including a rowing team, paddled the other way, with the current. “It’s okay,” I said to Daniel. “This means we’ll be paddling with the current when we come back.”
We pressed ahead, passing locals on paddleboards with their dogs happily sitting there with them. After thirty minutes, we were about to pass underneath a bridge, but not the right bridge. Daniel pulled out his phone while I kept motoring ahead, and determined (with my aid, since he’s not the best navigator) that we had to pass underneath two road bridges, a pedestrian bridge, and a train bridge before we made it to Congress Avenue. We also determined that our inflato-yak was likely the reason we weren’t moving very fast through the water, due to its less-than-rigid construction. We pressed on, needing to cover quite the distance before sundown because that was when the bats would come out.
We paddled hard, and barely made it. Right as we approached the bridge, bats began flying out in scores. Thousands of them, tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. They squeaked and fluttered as they formed a black trail through the sky, hunting for bugs. I think I heard one of the other people on the river (someone who paid to kayak, but probably had a better launch point) say that the number of bats that fly out every night is somewhere around 1.5 million. Wow.
I have no pictures of the bats, as I didn’t want to risk taking my DSLR out on the water. Daniel took plenty on his phone and shared them with all his friends, but not with me. I’m just his brother. Nevertheless, when in Austin, check the bats out!
And that brings us back to where this bro-trip report all started. After getting our fill of the bats getting their fill, we turned around and paddled back to the boat launch. The sun had set, and once we were past the lights of downtown and enclosed by trees on either side of the river, it got really dark, really fast. The current died down, too. So much for paddling with the current. We were paddling with no current.
Two lesser men might have given up, and tried to get off the river somewhere else, but not us. No, we stuck it out, despite darkness, tired shoulders, and Daniel’s complaints about the darkness and his tired shoulders. I’m happy to report that we did eventually make it back to the boat launch, but only after we passed it once and had to paddle back to it. We expeditiously took the kayak apart, haphazardly reloaded it into my car, and wearily drove to our accommodations for a much-needed night’s sleep.
The next morning, we got a slow start as we were still tired from the previous day’s adventure. After breakfast, we geared up for a more relaxing day hiking in Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson City.
Though hot, the scenery was gorgeous. The Texas Hill Country has some beautiful and interesting geology. Plenty of people were there enjoying nature, some of whom were enjoying it a little too much by swimming where they weren’t supposed to.
We hiked and climbed over rocks, then went to where we could legally swim in the Pedernales River. In a moment of stupidity, I forgot my trunks and sandals in the car, so I sat the swim out. Daniel enjoyed hanging out in the water, however, and I enjoyed the shade.
Once we felt hiked out, we drove back to Austin for a very late lunch, and then spent the early evening exploring downtown some more. We drove down Congress Avenue towards the Texas State Capitol, and eventually found ourselves back on The Drag, where we decided to park and walk around. Daniel bought himself a shirt from Tyler’s, while I decided I didn’t need another shirt, pair of shoes, or any other souvenir to remember the trip by.
Austin is an interesting city. It’s weird, and there are plenty of “weird” people, but it’s also got its fair share of normal and “normal” people. (Though I think the “weird” Austinites thought that we two conservative Christian brothers were the weird ones!) I saw plenty of “Beto For Senate” signs and the hippie-dippie types, but also a decent number of trucks with conservative bumper stickers and even the occasional cowboy or rancher. Daniel and I both think that Austin is like part of California transplanted into the heart of Texas. That means you get both the natural and man-made beauty of San Francisco, but unfortunately you also get the liberals.
Still, the city has a strange charm that keeps drawing me back. This was the third weekend I’ve spent there, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back for more. Next time, though, we’re using real kayaks.
On a whim, I decided to take a Friday trip down to Waco. Having passed through the city many times en route to other destinations, I’d never stopped there for more than a bite to eat. I wanted to get away for the day, and since Waco is slightly over a one-hour drive from home, it made perfect sense as my destination.
The two biggest attractions in Waco, from what know, are Baylor University and Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia. However, my biggest attraction to Waco was the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, something I had seen the signs for every time I passed through yet never visited. (That’s the law enforcement agency, not the baseball team. Chuck Norris, not Nolan Ryan.) In researching other things to do in Waco, I discovered the Waco Mammoth National Monument, an archaeological site with in situ remains of Columbian mammoths that is operated by the National Park Service. With those two items on the itinerary, plus a lunch at Captain Billy Whizzbang’s Hamburgers, the day looked to be a good one.
Camera in tow, I left home at 6:45AM and made a quick stop to top off my gas tank. I also checked my oil, something good to do before any road trip. All that done, I hit the road.
The drive to Waco early in the morning is pretty uneventful. One of my dad’s road-trip philosophies is to find a semi driving about the speed you want to travel and follow behind him. This strategy is good for two reasons: one, the semi cuts through the wind, allowing cars behind to travel in a slipstream (i.e., reduced drag on my car); and two, it takes some pressure off the driver of the car, since not much is going to happen between the semi trailer and the car’s front bumper. If something happens, it’s going to happen in front of the semi, and if worse comes to worst, he’ll take the brunt of it. I was able to “link up” with a southbound truck from Oklahoma and follow him all the way into the city. For anyone who doesn’t think much about this tip, ride in an older car like mine that has some rattles, clanks, and wind noise, and you’ll notice that the trip behind a semi is a whole lot smoother and quieter than it would be otherwise.
I arrived in Waco just after 8:00AM and made a stop at WalMart to use the restroom and buy a Rand McNally road atlas (“The Book of Dreams,” as Neil Peart would call it—and I would agree), something I’d been meaning to acquire as a backup to GPS and in preparation for future road trips. That done, I drove to the Ranger museum and hung out at the adjacent city visitor center until the museum’s doors opened at 9:00AM. A tip: stop at the visitor’s center to receive a coupon brochure with discounts for many attractions and restaurants.
The Ranger museum did not disappoint. In fact, it contained a whole lot more than I thought it would. I spent over three hours there admiring displays of firearms, equipment, and other memorabilia. The 45-minute film they show is a bit dated, a History Channel documentary on VHS, but still very informative in that it provided me a starting point from which to interpret and appreciate everything else the museum had to offer. For $8 ($7 with the coupon), it was money well-spent.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had my camera on the wrong setting (I’m still learning how to use a DSLR!), so most of my pictures either came out really bad or not at all. Still, here are three of the best that showcase just a fraction of what the museum has to offer.
Following my museum visit, I drove across town to Captain Billy Whizzbang’s for a hamburger lunch. I think I had seen a billboard for this place as well, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the old magazine Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and was reading about it that I made the connection with the restaurant. Anyway, after driving through Beverly Hills (not California, but with almost as much traffic), I arrived and ordered a hamburger with their famous WhizPigg patty (half ground beef and half bacon) and tater tots on the side. It was delicious and I could have gone for another one, but decided that was probably enough cholesterol for one day.
Back in the car, I drove alongside Lake Waco to get to the mammoth park, which is located far enough outside the main city of Waco that it’s surrounded by farmland. I paid $5 for a guided tour with a U.S. park ranger, and didn’t have to wait too long in the heat for the tour to begin.
I call the place a park because there are trails and picnic tables available free of charge and open to the public. The park ranger explained that before it was run by the National Park Service, it used to be a dairy farm. Two boys were playing in the woods one day and came upon a large bone, which they took to Baylor just down the road and had identified as a mammoth femur. Forty or so years later, and excavations have uncovered several fossils of Columbian mammoths, which are quite larger than either wooly mammoths or African elephants. Our park ranger explained that they could be as tall as twenty feet at the shoulder, and that humans way back then were crazy enough to hunt something that big. (I’m sure we still are, if there were something that big to hunt!)
A building had been built around the main mammoth dig site in order to preserve the specimens and allow visitors to view them in situ. Our park ranger guide pointed out a knot on the adult male’s ribcage that was evidently the result of a sparring match with another male (over a female mammoth, of course). One thing I thought was very interesting was that there was a camel found among the mammoths. Our guide explained that, some 65,000 years ago, there was a breed of camel that probably looked more like a llama or alpaca and that lived with the mammoths as a sort of watchdog against predators, since the mammoths likely had poor eyesight. He also showed us the different strata and how the mammoths found in that one dig site died thousands of years apart, and likely in different ways.
The tour complete, I walked the trail back to my car and headed for home. It was another uneventful drive, albeit on a busier highway later in the day. I couldn’t find one semi to hang with, so wound up jumping from semi to semi (always passing safely in the left lane). At least that segment of I-35 isn’t under construction!
Final thoughts: I would definitely visit the Ranger museum again, as there’s a lot that I know I didn’t fully appreciate. I plan to read some books on the Rangers so I have a larger knowledge base for my next visit, whenever that may be. Captain Billy Whizzbang’s was pretty good, and I’d go back for another burger and tots, although it’s pretty far off the highway and, thus, most everything else there is to do in Waco. I’m glad I visited the mammoth monument and I learned a lot there, too, but I’m not sure I’d go back again. The price was reasonable enough, and I’m happy to support their efforts in digging up more fossils, but there’s not much else to see or do there.
Thus ends the day-trip to Waco, hopefully the first of many similar day-trips and weekend trips to come. Next up: Fort Griffin?