Blog Post: Tequila

The view from the pool at the top of our hotel. We were undisturbed here for hours, with no other guests in sight.

Deep Mexico. Not the border, not within running distance of an airport. The real meat of the country, right in the center – Guadalajara, and then Tequila.

I grew up within about six hours of the Mexican border, and have always lived within twelve hours of it, so I have some familiarity with Mexican culture. And, as seems to be the case wherever I travel, the US culture has permeated this country as well – so travelling this far into Mexico felt a bit like someone turned my “culture slider” from 30% Mexican to 85% Mexican. Yeah, there are McDonalds and Chilis, but that’s not the norm in Jalisco. And I didn’t spend long enough in the country to tell you what the norm is, but it definitely involves tortas and pastel paint.

Erin and I took the trip on invitation – my good friend (and boss at my day job) Michael Sias and his lovely bride Carmina planned their wedding in a small town near her family’s home base, deep in Jalisco. The city is called Tequila… I have no idea why. Something about the amazing vodka they produce.

No, there was tequila. A lot of it. The streets are literally paved with the byproduct of the tequila manufacturing process, as the cactus pulp fills in the (many abyssal) holes in the old-world cobblestone streets.

We only ran into a few service staff/tour guides who spoke English, but it was really a rarity. Luckily for me, Erin is pretty fluent in Spanish, so I would generally pick her up and place her between me and whoever was speaking at me. She did a great job figuring out exactly (…sort of) what was going on.

We left Thursday morning, flying out of San Antonio directly to Guadalajara airport. Much searching, much showing of passports. It’s only a two hour flight, though we spent two hours getting to the airport and another two hours in a taxi getting from Guadalajara to Tequila.

Guadalajara would jump from modern convenience to third world hovels without plumbing or electricity seemingly at random. However, it was uniformly colorful.

Heavy traffic getting out of Guadalajara. Weird fact: Drivers all use their hazards when they hit heavy traffic, but no one uses their blinkers to change lanes.

Graffiti covered everything.

I took quite a few short videos on this trip. Here’s a couple cataloging our journey to Tequila…

The highways in Mexico are baffling. You’ll be driving down a road (or in our case, death-gripping your spouses’ hand in the back of a taxi) going somewhere between sixty and eight-five MPH, and you’ll spot, if you’re lucky, a few white lines painted in the pavement. And just past that? A violent speed bump. A wheel-breaking, axle-scraping, tumor-riddled speed bump grown to kill. A speed bump planted decades ago that’s grown well and tall.

I don’t get it – I can only guess how many sleepy/drunk/foreign drivers fly into one of these going full clip, only to have their wheels and tires destroyed as they are sent hurtling catastrophically into the town the hump was meant to protect. They are the “I HALP!” of road safety.

We actually came across a serious wreck on the way to Tequila, and the road was shut down entirely. But our taxi driver was determined and/or bitter about giving a two-hour ride to the middle of nowhere, and veered off down a dirt road in an attempt to get around the block. It did offer me a up-close view of an agave farm, as seen below…

But soon we were clear, and the roads got quieter as we veered off toward Tequila. They also got much, much prettier:

And then we got out of Guadalajara, and things started changing. Mountains in the distance, including one incredible inactive volcano.

Mountains getting closer…

A blue agave field at the base of this one.

Canyons in the background.

Then, a drive down a canyon pass into the city of Tequila.

In this video you get a glimpse of Tequila, nestled in a valley between the mountains:

And we arrived! Beautiful town. We didn’t have a lot of time to snap pictures on arrival, as Mike and company were waiting on us to go out and eat… which we didn’t actually wind up doing, and instead visited the four-star restaurant in the hotel.

Well, I did have time for one picture. The town square is dominated by this church, the Parish of Saint James (okay, the Parroquia Santiago Apostol) which was built by the Spanish in 1530.

Behold:

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The hotel was pretty much perfect. Modern, built within the past few years. It’s apparently the most expensive place in the region by a big margin, but I would have paid twice as much per night if this place were in Austin.

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Nice bed.

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Panoramic shot of the sky bar..

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City at sundown.

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Coffin store! Erin was not interested in shopping here.

It was getting dark, so we went back to the hotel instead of trying to find Mike and company. We didn’t think wandering around the streets at night was a good first move for obvious tourists. However, after a few days in Tequila, I… well, I still wouldn’t wander around the streets alone at night.

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This is one of many hotel bars.

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Closeup of the extremely ornate cabinets.

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Personal tequila minibar in our room.

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Breakfast in bed, day two.

I really like these next two pictures because of the contrast they show between the hotel and the rest of the city. The first is a view from our room of our courtyard and the pool. The second is a picture of what’s just over that big salmon colored wall.IMG_5323

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Not exactly Disneyland – I liked it, it felt very real. People dried clothes up on the roofs and someone had what appeared to be a pit bull guard dog on his balcony.

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Inside of the hotel elevator. I realize this is a global elevator manufacturer, but they really missed an opportunity not calling themselves “Shindler’s Lifts.”

Day two – time to go exploring.

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The Jose Cuervo crow. It’s actually taller than me.

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Big bird, or tiny man?

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This is not technically tequila, but “agave liquor.” It’s 30% alcohol by volume rather than the 35% tequila is sold at, and basically not refined as well. These jugs cost about $7 each and look like about two gallons of liquor. I did not feel the urge to buy one. Note the AK-47 shaped decanter in the back – what else are you going to drink your hideously cheap booze with?

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It’s really disconcerting that Mexicans use the same symbol for the peso that we use for the dollar. It’s about 20 pesos to each dollar, so these come out to around $7.50 each.

One thing I failed to capture here, but which was a constant everywhere I went, were the dogs. Mexico apparently has quite a wild dog problem. In Guadalajara I noticed people walking with dogs and assumed these were well-trained animals following their master without a leash, but… no. They’re just stray dogs following people around. And they were everywhere – literally ten in the town square alone, chasing pigeons or sleeping outside shops. Over the trip I probably saw over a hundred, from well-bred golden retrievers, to toy poodles, to what might have been a coyote who infiltrated their ranks. They all seemed pretty domesticated, actually, in that they were comfortable around people and are pros at city life. I did not try to pet any of them, though.

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It’s a building, what do you want from me?

Erin wanted to take some tours. We were honestly trying to stay away from the Jose Cuervo related stuff (note, this wound up being unavoidable. They even owned our hotel, apparently) because it’s such a massive global brand that it seemed it would be less authentic. So we met up with a Gran Orendain tour, a smaller tequila distillery. In what became a trend on our trip, we were the only English speakers interested in the tour and so got a tour guide to ourselves.

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Yes, our tour bus is shaped like a barrel of tequila.

This is a 500 year old city, meaning some conquistador designed this place with horses in mind. Because of this, traffic was insane. In many places, the roads were only wide enough for a single car to travel at a time – even though they were two-way roads. Our bus regularly got in scrapes where traffic would gridlock as multiple cars tried to enter an intersection at the same time, with the only solution being for one set of drivers to chicken out, and for four or five cars to reverse at the same time and let opposing traffic pass.

I took this next set of photos from the tour bus window. This is how close the enormous novelty-shaped van was to hitting other cars as we passed.

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So close this driver is reaching to fold back his side mirror – that wood is the side of our van.

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Perfectly normal situation to be in, apparently.

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Big pile of agave inside a distillery.

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This was a clothes washing station built decades ago for locals to do their laundry. No longer in use, but a cool historical site.

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The “modest distillery” that played some important historical role in Tequila’s history. It’s now in ruins and apparently haunted.

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One thing not accurately captured here is that this area stank pretty awful. A constant stream of bubbling tequila-manufacturing waste water runs across here, and smells like rancid agave. Despite that, it was very pretty…

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Iguana chilling out below the ruined distillery.

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This is the heart of the blue agave cactus after seven years of growth.

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Guide snapped a shot of the two of us. You can see an open oven in the back where the agave hearts are cooked at about 120 degrees for many hours.

I’m confident these hard-working guys were thrilled to have me standing around pointing a cell phone at them.

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Agave syrup, water and yeast. This is the first step of the fermentation process, and pretty gross. Just a filthy vat of brown fluid bubbling as it digests itself. Luckily, the distillation process cleans the finished product completely.

A bit of tequila nerdery: I’m a scotch guy, but I am generally interested in liquor and the way different regions of the world have created products so unique to their culture. Scotland has scotch, the USA has bourbon, Russia has vodka, etc. – all beverages really specific to their country of origin and steeped in history.

So, it turns out blanco tequila – the cheaper, clear variety – is a lot closer to being “the real deal.” They all start as clear/blanco tequila, but brown tequilas, categorized as “reposado” or “anejo” are aged between six months and three years in oak barrels. Except, no one tried to do that until the 1960’s, basically borrowing the technique used by everyone who makes whisky. To me, this kinda turns the brown tequilas into “tequila whisky” and blanco has the purist and most unique flavor. We got to do a taste test/interview with a tequila tester for Jose Cuervo who agreed.

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There’s some kind of yellow pigment in this statue’s eyes that made it quite creepy.

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Big ridiculous tour bus.

Because we had multiple dinner/parties, we didn’t really get to try much food. But I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s approach to travel, and wanted to try something local. I should say that Erin and I took a cavalier attitude to Montezuma’s Revenge. We ate ceviche, brushed our teeth with tap water, had ice in drinks, etc. We did try and stick to bottled water for drinking. And… neither of us got sick at all, so there.

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A lot of shops are built into this garage-type structure, basically a single-room establishment with a metal door that slides down at night.

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Rest of the shop.

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Tacos! Barbacoa, flank steak, and chorizo. All very good.

That night, we went out to a western-themed wedding party hosted by Mike and Carmina. I was too busy talking with my boss’s dad to remember to take photographs, though I did manage a few. The bar was seriously impressive, and massive.

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We spent day three exploring, shopping, and doing another tequila tour, this one ending in a private tasting lesson where we paired different types of tequila with different foods to bring out flavors. After that, we had three or four hours before the wedding but wanted to relax. We swam in the big hotel pool – totally empty, except for the staff – and then moved the party to the sky bar. Also empty. This was one of the more serene and “if this isn’t good, what is?” moments of my life.

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I took about 500 variations of this shot. Church, inactive volcano, swimming pool.

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I filmed a video of the thirty second walk from my room to this view to try and give a better sense of it.

Time to get fancy! Erin bought me this suit as a Christmas gift a few months ago.

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See, Mom? I told you burgundy shoes could look good.

Off to the church! I’ll spare you more shots of the outside. Here’s the interior, though.

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Epic.

Before the show really got rolling, one of the ancient kneeling-board things slipped from its hold and brought all it’s considerable weight down on my shin. I may have said something very unholy in response, so apologies to Mike and Carmina if I brought some sort of curse on their family.

I didn’t take any shots of the actual ceremony as it seemed like poor taste to wave my cell phone around this solemn event. I also couldn’t really understand anything, as it was primarily in Spanish. But the bride was radiant, the groom stoic, the space sanctified. All in a good day’s wedding.

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Mike and Carmina, post ceremony.

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Happy newlyweds.

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My own beautiful wife/personal translator.

So that was the end of the ceremony, officially. And now I’m thinking – okay, head to the reception hall. Eat food, meet the groom’s friends, try not to get smashed at the open bar, leave with some dignity. Maybe dance a bit, pay respects to the newlyweds, eat some cake.

But, no. At this point, things took a turn for the extravagant. First, a march through the streets with our mariachi band.

It doesn’t end at a reception hall. Oh no, it ends with us being handed margaritas at the gated entrance to a compound. Just inside the gates? Sweet modern art.

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Garden art on the way to the arena.

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Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

So we walk past that, a bit hesitant and not knowing what to expect. And we were right to feel that way, because we did not expect this. Yeah, it’s a gladiator-style sand pit.

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A lifetime of playing videogames tells me that black statue is going to come alive, and one of us is going to have to fight it before we can advance to the next area.

But, no! Tribal ceremony re-enactments!

And then… dancing horse! Because of course there’s a dancing horse:

What a party! That wrapped up, and we were led further into the compound, and greeted by more abstract sculpture.

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That’s the hall across the courtyard.

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The view from inside the veranda.

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Multiple gardens across the property.

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More flowers.

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A general sense of wonderment had set in at this point, with everyone pretty much in awe of the proceedings so far

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Inside the hall – massive flower arrangements on every table. And that’s a glowing dance floor in the center… the first hint this might be a little more laid back than the estate implied.

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I’m a big fan of cool ceilings.

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And this was an impressive one.

We ate, we got to know the lovely people at our table, and I drank a bit of tequila. The fathers gave speeches, and the dancing started – slowly at first, the father/daughter dance and Mike and Carmina’s first. But the floor wasn’t filling fast enough, so Carmina decided to kick it up a notch and aggressively recruit for the dance floor. I wasn’t going to say no.

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I was disappointed that the horse didn’t show up. That guy could dance.

So we danced. A lot. And then, we were force-fed tequila with a stick. I failed to get any video evidence of this mostly to protect the guilty. The organizers had a limbo stick with a shot-glass mounted on the center. Limbo under, pause, and have a shot of tequila deposited in your face. I think the party cleared an entire bottle in about five minutes; not even Erin was spared. It was a good time.

All told, this was a ridiculously fun wedding. Got to be the most impressive private party I’ve ever attended in my life.

We had to get up at seven, so we left around midnight. Things weren’t even close to winding down, but we knew we had a good eight hours of travel ahead of us, including our most daunting task: figuring out the Guadalajara airport. So we said our farewells and stumbled back to the hotel.

The next morning we woke up early to meet our taxi out Tequila. A bit dried out, I did snap a few parting shots of Mexico. A stark contrast from the night before, but a striking one as well. I liked the dichotomy of it all – most extravagant party of my life up against the realities of a country that, at least in places, is a bit down on its luck.

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We loved the trip. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. Everyone we met was extremely polite and helpful – or so I assume, since I couldn’t understand what they were saying. No one tried to scam us, we never felt threatened, and the only time someone ran up to me in the street was to return a hotel room key I dropped. I’ve done a lot of vacations in the United States, but this was our first real attempt at international travel. Flying kinda sucks and is expensive, yet the end result was something much more memorable and enchanting than even my recent trip to Colorado. That was a zen-like romp in my own personal bubble, while this was vibrant and noisy and alive with nothing to separate me from a very colorful land I knew almost nothing about.

Go to Mexico.

Thanks for reading.


I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think.  I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.


Travel Blog: Memphis

The Missippi River. A source of inspiration for artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding and B.B. King. The waterway and its many divergents interlace the city, driving culture and commerce into an otherwise flat, hot, not-particularly-large city in Tennessee until it’s overflowing with talent and culture.

Because of that, Memphis has character. If New Orleans has jazz and Austin has “indie” country/rock, then Memphis has rock and roll. And blues. And soul… and gospel. It’s a city where Johnny Cash got his first break opening for Elvis a year after the city made Elvis into a megastar. A city where rock and roll was invented, where B.B. King might bump into Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding at the Sun Records Studio. Eventually it just devolves into a list of American music legends:  Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayes. All of them got their start in Memphis, and the city doesn’t plan on letting you forget that. It’s a wild city; a party town and a cultural landmark.

Erin and I wanted one last vacation for the summer – she tasked me with surprising her with a location. I’d driven through Memphis once before on my (tragically non-cataloged) road trip to Nashville, and was struck by the look and feel of the place. I needed to know more about it.

I’ve got to hand it to my wife: she’s capable of getting into a car and driving to an airport with no idea where she’s actually going to wind up when she gets off the plane. I mean, she prefers it that way. My anxiety would be in overdrive, but that’s why I do all the planning.

We flew out of Austin and arrived at the Memphis airport around one in the afternoon. Flight was on time, luggage arrived, and being part of the civilized world means Memphis actually has Uber. We arrived at our hotel, The Madison, an hour early. No problem, because Yelp armed me with a list of places I had to eat at. I made reservations for each night we were there, but one place I had to hit didn’t take them: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.

They’re not kidding around about the ‘famous’ part. It’s a little one-room establishment that seats maybe 40 people, but even at 2:30 there was a half-hour wait to be seated. It’s one of those unique places that is enormously popular exactly because it’s small, unchanging and unassuming.


But maybe my amateur-foodiesm has me spoiled. The fried chicken tastes like, well, above-average fried chicken. Basically the same thing you get at KFC, just a bit better in every way – a bit more spice and flavor to the batter paired with very juicy cuts of chicken. The price is right, though, and it’s not the restaurant’s fault you need to stand on the sidewalk in the Memphis sun for a half-hour before you can eat.


By the time we finished, we could check into The Madison. I picked this place over the obvious choice (the Peabody) because I dug the style. Lobby was fantastic, rooms were pretty good. The hotel’s restaurant was better than most, but still tragically condemned to hotel restaurant status. They’re just never as good as actual restaurants in the area.


Note – I’ve shamelessly stolen a few photographs of key locations, because I wasn’t sure I’d do this blog and got a little lazy with my camera.

A big bonus for the hotel is the Twilight, a rooftop bar exclusive to hotel guests that oozed class.



D’awww.

That night we hit a restaurant called McEwens. Pretty good place, a little foodie joint, though there was one misstep.

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Our waiter recommended a lobster risotto, claiming it had won some critic’s award for “the best risotto in Memphis.” Sure bet, right? But no. Gritty, undercooked rice. Sad.

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Boo, hiss. The dinner was slightly redeemed by a grilled peach stuffed with gorgonzola and arugula, which I ate too quick to remember to photograph.

The next morning, we decided to go for a walk and see what we could see.

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This is the Memphis City Hall. Sadly not captured is the fact we were drawn into a Feed the Homeless fundraising event as we walked by – we grabbed some barbecue and bought a few raffle tickets for good measure.

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I never actually saw a trolley in service my entire time here. I did see lots of city buses, but they all had normal wheels. I’m sure the cyclists of the city appreciate the deep, pointless grooves cut into the roads downtown.

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Each of these little tourist-information boxes was painted by a different artist; I loved it. Really added to the sense of art appreciation, and also they just looked great. IMG_5944

There was also quite a bit of non-commissioned artwork. Keep on blowing those bubbles, little guy.

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The humbly named “Mud Island” is a little piece of land in the middle of Mississippi River, apparently the site of a rather short and tragic naval battle during the Civil War in which the Confederates’ strategy of using cotton bales as bullet shields on the decks of barges ended (quite predictably) in massive fires. At any rate, the city has done an amazing job with the island. This massive walkway leads you there, and a monorail runs underneath it. You can feel the bridge quake as the monorail passes underneath.
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One of the weirdest, coolest features of Mud Island was scale replica of the entire Mississippi River carved into the ground. It was extremely detailed – it looked like every single depth-change and tributary was carved in. Water ran through it and people were encouraged to run around and play in the three-inch deep pools.
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IMG_5927MY WIFE IS A GIANT.
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This thing was massive; the designers really committed. The entire sculpture was several hundred yards long and ends at the picture below, in this pool (no swimming allowed, for some reason…) IMG_5917

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We chilled out the rest of the day, then that night hit up a restaurant called Flight.

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o (7)The concept of the place was clever. Everything could be ordered three ways: either as an individual small plate, an entire entre, or as a “flight” in a three-course meal of small plates designed by the chefs. And the flights didn’t end there, either. There were desert flights, bourbon flights, scotch flights, wine flights – you get the idea.

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Soup flight! Flight flight!

Chicken and waffles, sure, everyone does it. But do they cover it with this mushroom reduction?o (10)

Flight did not disappoint. One of the better meals I’ve ever eaten, and we had an awesome waitress that managed a 30% tip after giving us great advice about the city. She also had her own business card, which… I’ve never seen before. That’s some serious waitressing.

Good food.

The next day, we had a tour scheduled with Backbeat Tours. Great fun – an hour and a half on an air conditioned bus with a tour guide who was also a local musician. He’d take us to musical landmarks, like the site of Elvis’ first gig or the recording studio where the laundry list of famous 50’s and 60’s artists recorded their albums. On the way, he’d play guitar/sing samples of the tunes.The tour ended, and we wound up downtown again.

So we walked some more, and then things took a turn for the serious. I had completely forgotten that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. He came to take part in a protest against the death of two black sanitation workers who were mysteriously (see: suspiciously) crushed (see: murdered) in garbage trucks, resulting in the “I am a man” protest chant commemorated below.

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This brought us to the Lorraine Hotel – now a civil rights museum, but quite cleverly, most of the hotel is preserved in its original form… including the room MLK rented and the balcony from which he was assassinated.
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That wreath marks the spot where Dr. King was shot down. IMG_5948

Hard to see here, but this museum is built onto the original hotel. The tour ends in MLK’s room. It was a beautiful museum, very crowded and very solemn. No pictures of the inside (sorry, I didn’t want to be “that guy.”)

We closed out our trip that night with visit to Itta Bena. It’s a little Italian place literally hidden above the B.B. King bar on Beale Street. Beale Street, for the uninitiated, is very similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans or 6th Street in Austin – it’s blocked off from traffic and you can carry alcohol around, live bands in every bar, that sort of thing.

There are only two ways into Itta Bena. One is up a discrete staircase in the B.B. King club, and the other is up the fire escape.

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I love “hidden” restaurants and bars. It’s the anti-advertisement that appeals to me – most places beg you to come inside, but this one dares you to find it.We actually have ten bars in Austin that are literally “secret” and can only be found by researching them; maybe a good topic for a future blog.

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The windows are covered in blue film, giving the place a strange, dark vibe. Some talented jazz guitarist was noodling in the corner.

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The food was good, but not great – the same sort of thing you’d find at any upscale Italian restaurant. Still, it definitely won on atmosphere.

On the way out, I snapped a shot of Beale Street in full swing.

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Sadly, I could not take part. No, our flight departed at 8:30 the following morning – it turns out that only Allegiant has direct flights from Austin to Memphis, and you had to take whatever time slot was available as there was only one flight per day.

That’s our trip to Memphis. I had a great time; I flew to this city on a hunch, basically, and was not disappointed. It’s hard to think of a city more packed with culture and heritage in the South, and yet it really doesn’t come up on the usual list of cities you need to visit. But yes, you do need to visit it. Thanks for reading.


I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think.  I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them al


Travel Blog: West Texas

It gets strange in West Texas. Five nights, and none of them normal.

And I’m no stranger to Texas. I’ve been here all 32 years of my life, in fact. And I think I have a good idea of how outsiders view my state – cowboys, conservatives, football, and tinges of Mexico.

This is not that Texas. After 32 years, this isn’t even my Texas. Not yet.

This is a slow dance with a cactus. This is a Texas-satire that somehow means more than the object of its humor. Yeah, this is fierce independence. This is deserts and guns and horses and saddles. But it’s also self-aware. It’s not basic, it isn’t something you nod at condescendingly from your train window (“oh, how quaint!”)

It’s challenging. It’s threatening. It’s intelligent, it’s raw. This is West Texas.

Day 1

So, I’m Scott Kelly. I write existentialist fiction novels, and I have a dad who has a lot to do with those books. I somehow failed to take a single good picture of him this entire trip, but rest assured he planned it all. He drove half of it, and we undertook the journey in his car. Many of the photos you’re about to see came from his camera.

Talbot Kelly has been out here multiple times for work and play, and set the agenda for the road trip. But he knows me – of course he knows me – and if you know me as well, you should enjoy this as much as he knew I would.

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Das Mercedes-Benz. C300; turbo-charged for your pleasure. It’s teched out, and practically drives itself – handy, on a 1600 mile trip. And I don’t mean “it practically drives itself” the way TV commercials in the 80’s used that. I mean it will steer itself around corners, warn you if you drift out of lanes, and come to a complete stop and then accelerate again based on the speed of the car in front of you.

The first leg of the journey was basic: the escape from civilization. We drove down out of Austin and into San Antonio, the space now a battleground between the two competing metropolitan’s suburbs. From San Antonio, we aimed west – into the countryside. Here, things started to look considerably more rural. More western.

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Then, a neon yellow sunrise on the horizon. Could it be? I’ve been eating these chips since college, and we found genesis. Yes, it’s the actual Julios store/restaurant. For the uninitiated, they’re a popular Texan chip that tastes somewhere between a Nacho Cheese Dorito and a real corn chip.

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Okay, it was actually pretty average.

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Full of Julio’s magical chip dust. Probably…

Then it all started to get more No Country for Old Men. Which is fitting, because they actually filmed a chunk of that movie here. Adding to that sense of far-west lawlessness was the fact that every third car we saw was a border patrol agent. We went through a checkpoint, though no one seemed too interested in the two of us.

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Where you walk ten miles across the desert to the nearest plant, and it’s more weapon than vegetation.

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A good place to fall to your death.

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Roads were getting more interesting the further we went.

This was the outskirts, and we ended the first day on the border into desert madness.

Marathon isn’t really a town – it’s a stretch of highway, basically, with some dirt roads behind it. However, it does host an incredible hotel. The Gage. It oozes Southern charm, and actually brings along a four-star restaurant and pretty well-known Austin chef. I’ll forgive the restaurant its cringeworthy name (the Twelve Gage…) because it wound up being some of the best food we ate on this trip. Granted, later in this trip we were satisfied scooping cold potato hashmush and paper-thin origami turkey-bacon out of stale rewarming trays. There’s not much to eat in this part of the country, and the concept of paying more money for smaller servings of higher quality food hasn’t really caught on. You can get single slop, or pay 10% more for a double serving of slop, but that’s where your options end.

But, not at the Gage.

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The Merc was not out of place here.

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The Gage courtyard.

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Classic fascia.

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Hey, the new iPhone has some new tricks.

Day 2

Each morning on this trip, I tried to do a little three or four mile run around whatever town we woke up in. Today marked my first run, and I was rewarded for stumbling over dirt roads with this. I present, the ugliest building I’ve ever seen:

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I half expected a little train to ride out of here with a group of kids on it – surely this is a theme park attraction and not an actual building.

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What… what the hell, Marathon? It looks like a carney’s fever dream melted.

It turns out you can drive straight from Marathon, through Big Bend, and come out at Terlingua (our second stop.) Dad didn’t know this, and I didn’t either, but it wound up a happy accident that we drove about fifty miles across the center of the iconic National park.

It’s a different world out here. It’s been uncharacteristically rainy, but despite the green you’ll see here, it’s very much a desert. A desert with mountains, but not the climbing sort. These mostly seem to be made of great piles of brittle shale.

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It was lonely out here. The kind of lonely where you can walk into the center of the road, lay down, and take a photograph without catching a glimpse of another car.

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The kind of lonely where you can walk off, bury a family member, and erect a small wrought iron fence around the grave.

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The kind of lonely where you can walk off, erect a sign for your state park, and… okay, I’ll stop.

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Then the real mountains started.

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Guh.

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Big Bend. Apparently now home to bears and mountain lion as well.

As we broke free from Big Bend and its vacuous serenity, we stopped for a quick lunch on the way to Lajitas.

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I uniformly hate things written on signs inside stores, but this one gets a pass.

We didn’t stay the night in Lajitas, but we did stop long enough to take some shots of this guy. Check it out – goat mayor!

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Mr. Mayor, a tornado ripped through Lajitas and we can’t greenlight the disaster recovery funds from FEMA unless you sign here! Or eat the paperwork, that’s fine too.

That goat mayor is weird as hell. I get that. But it’s a tourist attraction; I’m sure they have some system in place where they won’t need the mayor to sign off on important decisions. It’s a joke to get people like me to take pictures.  He is finally elected, and it’s all to get laughs. Same reason I got into the National Honors Society in eighth grade. I feel you, goat.

But then we left the tourist attraction of Lajitas, and went to Terlingua. Terlingua is strange. We went to many strange places on this trip, but none as outlandish or outrageous as Terlingua. There is no method to this madness; it’s not put together to be a “ha-ha.”  It’s not guided by visionary artists or bitter libertarians. It’s just insane.

This is a real desert community – this is a place for people who went for a hike through Big Bend, stopped, and decided “I live here now.” Population of maybe a hundred people, and about fifty of those sleep in tents around the skeletal remains of hundred-year-old mining camp. Then there’s this guy:

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Take a minute to soak this one in. Yeah, that appears to be a sunken submarine (it’s not) and an old sailing ship (It was.) Tiny statue of liberty, nice to see you there.

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View from our cabin.

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Remains of the ghost town.

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Hello, desert cat. Are you friendly?

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Yep.

We ate dinner that night at one of Terlingua’s [only] restaurants. That’s okay though, because it was awesome. Locals and their five dogs (a piece) out front, and live music inside. Food was decent, but the crowd was awesome. We wound up getting to know both couples eating on either side of us. One of them was even from Port Lavaca, like me – and he admitted it, too!970FC230-4B96-4045-AC61-46D2A310C039.JPG

I woke up that morning for another jog and snapped my favorite shot of the trip. FD681C50-19CB-44CA-9C4E-CF4861965CFE.JPG

Day 3

This is TX FM 170. Consistently ranked one of the top twenty roads in the entire United States. It winds, it weaves, it dodges and banks – and to your left is the Rio Grande. Just past that? That’s Mexico. I would have killed to have been in my car for this stretch, but the Merc held its own. Its got twenty different ‘modes’, and luckily one is called “Sport+.”

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And then at the end, there’s this rock that looks like an elephant.

So, we went straight through Marfa and into Valentine. Valentine is a nothing town, a ghost of a bone. We saw a lot of economic despair in this part of Texas, and Valentine was ground zero for the wrath. Maybe that’s why an artist commissioned this $80k installation on the completely flat, straight, barren highway (laden with crows, by the way). It’s a Prada store, designed to be a reasonable facsimile of a Paris boutique. Except behind it there are cows, to the left there is roadkill, and to the right there is a floundering town that can’t muster a single gas station. The idea is that this place will erode into the ground, destined to thoroughly confuse anthropologists and archaeologists for thousands of years to come. Kind of a time capsule filled with trick snakes… or, a poignant message about consumerism in a place that mostly sees that word as excuse to ask for their first Wal-Mart.

I love this sort of art. Seriously. It is something that no one would notice in a strip mall in Venice or even downtown Austin. Cut that store out, paste it here, and suddenly it’s a striking introspection on Texan life. The setting becomes a piece of the canvas on which this thing is painted.

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Stylish young lady not an actual piece of the exhibit – in fact, the exhibit was pretty packed with youngish folks who’d driven the hour long round-trip out of Marfa to witness it.

Marfa

Marfa is minimalist. Sort of. It’s a boom-town all out of gas, taken over by minimalist artists in the 1950’s. It’s one of the best looking small towns in Texas – by a very large margin – and I think I’ve seen a good portion of them.

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This church is engaged in a stylistic war with itself. Steeple?! It’s all steeple, fool!

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This is our hotel, the Paisano. It’s famous because a movie was filmed here in the 1950’s called “Giant.” It starred James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. It was James Dean’s only really big movie before he died, so it is a culturally important film. But it seems to be at war with the rest of Marfa. The rest of Marfa is fine with having a bunch of famous artists move there to create interesting minimalist art and put excellent typography on their buildings. This place is still pushing the tiny taste of Old Hollywood they received seventy years ago. Don’t stay at the Paisano; it seems to be at war with the rest of Marfa. Also, worst bathroom I’ve ever seen in a hotel room.

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Marfa: our buildings do what it says on the can.

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This picture sums up this part of Texas for me. On the left, a historic building from a long-forgotten boom economy. On the right, a postmodern art gallery. Between them, about twelve inches. Around them, about a thousand miles of space.

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Donald Judd was the first megafamous artist to move to Marfa. He’s also an extreme minimalist, which is the reason the rest of Marfa has a minimalist bent. I love minimalism; I even consider myself a sort of minimalist novelist. This is one of many cement boxes he dropped in a field outside of his bunker-turned-gallery. I love the way the sun rising across the field casts detail inside the boxes.

Day 4

Balmorrhea  springs

This is a natural spring up in the mountains of West Texas. You know it’s not a swimming pool, because there are fish in it.

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If this place caters my party, do they bring their own drunk yokel?

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That’s a damn fine looking gas station. That’s out of business.

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Church, meet mountain.

On my walk, I came across another elected dignitary. Could tell by his swagger that he held the collective weight of his town’s votes. Maybe not a mayor, but still…

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Probably just a Comptroller or County Clerk.

Day 5

Fort Davis is home to a cutting-edge observatory. And “cutting-edge” means a lot more when it’s surrounded by a raw countryside. Observatories tend to be built in remote parts of the world, because the light and radio pollution is low, so they operate optimally. They also really feel like science fiction when you’ve just left a miserable faux-50’s diner with unfathomably bad turkey bacon and driven straight up a mountain to be greeted by a glowing dodecahedral dome built by multiple world-class universities to uncover the true nature of dark energy.

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Maximum overscience!

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That is just the greatest name. Give this man his own brand of kid’s cereal, stat.

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I love a road runner, but I’ve never been this close. They’re such prehistoric, capable animals. I don’t know if I ever see them as roadkill; they’re too sharp for that.

Alpine

Alpine was the last stop on our trip, and also the largest city. While it was beautiful, and interesting, it wasn’t quite as mad as the last few stops (particularly Marathon, Terlingua, and Marfa). However, no other town left my knees knocking quite the same. You’ll see why.

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Opportune sunlight over the church.

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The lobby of our hotel, The Holland.

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The courtyard of The Hotel.

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I’m a podiatrist. Why is that so hard to understand? Look, this profession has been around for centuries, I shouldn’t have to… god damnit, fine. I’m a foot doctor, okay? No, the baby doctor is across the street. Between the pee doctor and the ladyparts doctor.

If you know me very well, you probably know I like cars. I like the way they sound; I like the way they look. I like driving them down twisty back-roads and lonely highways. I like how brilliant engineers from all over the world compete to try and solve the same set of universal problems. So when I saw this sports car museum in Alpine (“The Stable Performance Cars“), I had to go in.

It was $2 to get inside, and we were the only people there. It turns out Carroll Shelby – the car designer/legend best known for a long line of special Ford Mustangs – had a racing team down here. Inside were a series of cars he had a hand in designing: about ten different Shelby Mustangs…

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This Dodge Viper…

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His signature on a candy-apple red Mustang hood.

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…. and this, a 2005 Ford GT in the Terlingua racing colors. Right now, this car is worth somewhere north of $350,000 dollars. It can easily sprint over 200 mph. This line of cars is the only real American supercar, originally designed by Ford in the 1960’s to crush Ferrari. And it did just that. They’ve brought it back twice in recent history to continue the tradition.

So the owner watched us (okay, me) gleefully skipping around his museum, gushing over the badass muscle cars. Then he asks, “Hey, do you want to sit in the GT?”

Yes, yes I do want to sit in the Ford GT. I’m fascinated with cars, how can I pass up the opportunity to sit in one of the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen? The last time I saw this model of car, it was behind velvet rope in a museum.

So he lets me sit inside. I’m happy; it feels awesome. Sitting on the cement. Everything is ludicrously complicated, like Jackson Pollack splattered out a bunch of knobs and switches. I mean, the door has its own roof, for some reason… I suppose to lobotomize you in the event you slam the door too quick after getting inside.

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Roof-doors. Never really caught on. Happy Scott, though.

Then he drops this on me: “We haven’t started it up today, why don’t you revv it up and give it some gas?”

Now you have to understand, I literally cannot say no to this. Even if it meant smashing this priceless supercar into ten slightly less priceless muscle cars inside a tiny museum. And this guy is insanely generous to let me do so. If I owned this car, I’d be standing on top of it in camo pants while clutching my assault rifle: don’t look at it too hard, you’ll wear down the paint.

But I’m not going to question the generosity of the owner. So I say yes; I start the car (after some fiddling.) And I revv it.

And I sort of, on a conceptual level, know how to drive a standard – I’ve driven them around for a few miles recently. But I’ve never owned one, and I’ve never driven anything like this before. So, it’s not until I release the clutch to turn the car off, that I realize it’s been in first gear the whole time. It lurches forward a few inches, then stalls; my heart crashes then reboots.

No pressure. Just nearly destroyed this kind man’s prized possession. Still, no harm done, and I got a taste of a supercar legend.

Day 6

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My dad and I get along tremendously. This is the first, and likely only, blog you’ll see from me that I didn’t plan. But I couldn’t have planned a trip half this well, either. He doesn’t have this particular method of promoting his adventures, but he has his own circle of admirers, of which I’m one. He’s a hell of a guy in a hell of a place that outsiders would describe as hell, and I’m just happy he let me come along for the journey.

From here, it was the usual: survive a seven hour slog through boring Texas highways in an effort to get home at a reasonable hour. We did see a small hill that looked exactly like a woman’s breast, but I’ll spare you the indecency of that bit of geography.

Texas has the unique responsibility of being five or six worlds under one set of map lines. These treasures remain unassailed because they’re mostly uninhabited and ignored, but they’re the responsibility of this state. Given my experience with our governance, my only hope is that they remain under the radar – something granted to the people willing to seek it out. Or in my case, people drug along by those who know best.

Thanks for reading.

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