Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keep Austin Paranoid

Let's just get this out there: I don't plan. Really much of anything, ever. That means that I have a lot of flexibility both in terms of my actual schedule, and also in a more general, mental sense. It also means that sometimes I end up arriving in Austin, Texas on what is, totally unbeknownst to me, the final day of the renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Too late, in other words, to catch any of the movies or music, but just in time for it to be very difficult and expensive to find somewhere to stay.

Austin has a reputation for being a great town, and indeed it does seem very nice, especially for someone who enjoys live music. But the citizens appear to be worried that Austin is becoming a victim of its own success, that outsiders are going to hone in and spoil the vibe. Everywhere you turn, there are t-shirts and bumper stickers which say "Keep Austin Weird." Driving my car down South Congress Street one morning I was even shouted at, "Go back to California!"

Granted, that was probably someone who'd had it up to here with the SXSW inundation, but it still seems nicely demonstrative of what struck me as a rather quaint, provincial sort of protectionism. And here's the weird thing: Austin really isn't that weird. Even comparing it only to other cities of similar size, it strikes me as less funky and diverse and interesting than Minneapolis, say, or Portland. I think being an oasis in the middle of Texas has given them a different yardstick.

Some readers may suggest that my 48 hours there do not qualify me to speak to the nuances of Austin culture. In hopes of placating these folks I will concede that the place that sold little heads in bell jars was a bit weird:

A strong sense of pride (narcissism?), however, seems to be common to the whole of Texas, at least if one is to judge by all the flag waving. I've lived most of my life in Minnesota, and I could not possibly tell you what the Minnesota state flag looks like. In fact, I couldn't even say for sure that there is a Minnesota state flag, though I assume there must be. But only a couple hours after crossing the border I could have drawn the Texas state flag from memory if need be.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Climbing as Metaphor

There's a spot in Zion National Park called "Angel's Landing." It's a tall pinnacle of rock with a fantastic view of the canyon stretching away in each direction. Getting to the top of this pinnacle is probably the most popular day hike in the park, and one reaches it via a scramble along a fairly steep, narrow fin of rock. I was never quite able to capture the vertiginous nature of it, but this might come close:

The chain is there to help keep you from, you know, dying.

At the end of the day I was checking in to a motel in the nearby town of Springdale and was chatting with the woman behind the desk. She asked me what I'd done that day, and I described my hike to Angel's Landing. She said that she had always wanted to go up there, but just didn't think she could face the climb. I told her that when I'd looked at it from a distance it had seemed impossible, but that once I was actually up there, and just concentrating on the bit in front of me, it was totally manageable. "Hmm," she said, "just like life."

And also just like life, totally worth it. Here's a shot I took from about half way up, looking down the valley:

The three little white dots near the lower left are cars, which might help give a sense of scale.

Southern Utah is dense with national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, state parks, and so on. The greatest thing is that the forces of geology seem to be unaware of these demarcated areas, because the fantastical landscape just goes on and on, paying no mind to the park boundaries.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon


Capitol Reef. I could do a whole series of just contrails.

Arches National Park

Strangely, I'm not the only one who finds the area to be photogenic. Depending on how you want to frame your shot it can look like this:

Or like this:

Honestly, what a beautiful place. I really think I could be happy here for a long time with nothing more than a camera. Well, maybe a camera and a Jeep. And a dog. And the love of a good woman.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Big Cliffs, Small World

You've probably never heard of Torrey, Utah. It's a small town, 171 people according to the 2000 census. It may not be quite the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here. Torrey consists mainly of a handful of motels, most of them closed for the season. It no doubt owes its continued existence to Capitol Reef National Park, Utah's least-visited national park, eight miles to the east.

The dining options in Torrey are limited. In fact, discounting the "Taco Time" at the Texaco station, the dining options at 7:30 on a Saturday night are precisely two: "Fine Dining Restaurant" at the Best Western, and a pizza place across the street. I idled in the road a moment, trying to decide, then hung a right into the parking lot of the pizza place. I grabbed my book and went inside.

A quick glance around showed me a couple empty tables, but I figured I'd sit at the bar, which is my preference when dining alone. And while scanning the bar for an empty stool I heard:

"Ben Warde?"

That's strange, I thought to myself, I could swear I just heard someone say my name. I sure would feel like a fool, looking around to see who said my name in this pizza place in this tiny little town in southern Utah, because clearly I'm not going to know anyone here. I looked around anyway.

And there were Jesse and Dave, two friends from Minnesota. We used to work together at Adobe. With them were three other Adobe folks, Nick, Mike, and Zack. So, I didn't end up sitting at the bar after all.

This is not the first time this has happened to me. Once at a post office in New Zealand I bumped into Matt, we'd gone to college together, I hadn't seen him since graduation. And on Vancouver Island I met Robert, then bumped into him again eight months later on a train in Australia. Small world. Oh, and the reason we all come to Utah, big cliffs:

Friday, March 06, 2009

Cirque de Porn

Someone once described to me a trip that she had taken to Las Vegas with a former boyfriend. She had gone reluctantly, and she seemed really emotionally injured as she described to me how appalled she was by the gluttonous excess, the crass, alienating inhumanity, the whole tawdry, tacky, morally bereft mess of it all. And as she talked, all I could think was, "Yeah? That's the point."

Being able to appreciate things on their own terms is a valuable skill, especially for the traveler. It's not something that I always succeed at myself, but I always try, and it was in that spirit that I went to a Cirque de Soleil show called Zumanity. Now, you may think, as I did, that Cirque de Soleil is an actual, unique performance troop with some sort of integrity. Like, I don't know, the Bolshoi Ballet or something, but with trapezes. Well, it ain't. It's a franchise, and every casino on the Las Vegas strip has a show with the Cirque de Soleil label slapped on it. You might think it would be hard to choose, but really it wasn't, I just went to the one that was "created for our guests 18 years of age and older." It was cute. It was sort of like the Bolshoi Ballet, but with trapezes, and breasts.

Honestly, much as I like breasts, and the Bellagio fountains, and the Mirage volcano, and the view from the Stratosphere, and losing money at blackjack, the coolest thing in Vegas (and I realize that this is me utterly failing to appreciate a place on its own terms) is the Hoover dam. Damn. That thing is cool.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Greatest Museum in the World

If you find yourself some day walking down Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, you may walk right past The Museum of Jurassic Technology. It's tucked between a carpet store and a Thai restaurant, but there's a helpful sandwich board out front which says, "MUSEUM," so you can't miss it if you're paying attention. Don't be shy now, go ahead and push the button above the brass plaque which requests, "Ring buzzer once for admittance." The button is right underneath a little diorama featuring an urn and some moths. Like I said, you can't miss it.

On my first visit, almost six years ago, I thought it was a joke. An incredibly elaborate, incredibly deadpan joke. After my second visit a few days ago I'm not so sure. You could say that it's a joke, and that it is also serious. That it's having its cake and eating it too. But really, I don't think there's any cake eating going on here. Rather, I think it has simply transcended all that to become... well, I have no idea. But whatever it is, it's wonderful. Glee-inducing, giddy-making, wondrousness.

The thing is, and maybe you've noticed this already, I'm not going to tell you anything about it. You just have to go. It's not like there's some big surprise which would be spoiled. It's not "The Crying Game." It's just that some things are best appreciated without preconceptions. Maybe all things, now that I'm thinking about it.

Of course I'm sure you could search on the internet and find out all about it. But why would you do that to yourself? If you absolutely must know something about it, and can't get to LA, then I suppose you could always visit the museum's website. Or better yet, read Lawrence Weschler's excellent book, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder."

At one point in his book, Mr. Weschler describes chatting with the museum's proprietor:

As I was opening the door to leave, I once again noticed the diorama of the urn and the moths. What about that?

"Oh, that's a little urn surrounded by French moths - or, no, maybe Flemish, I'm not sure."

And what was the significance of the urn?

"It's just an urn. I don't think it means anything."