Industrial Strength

Most people, when they travel, keep their eyes open for famous sites and sights, or at least, spend their attentions on pretty and unusual things. Me, I love that stuff too, but I’m also intrigued by how other people in other places treat the things that are ordinary, plain, familiar, commonplace. Industrial zones are a great place to see such commonalities in abundance. Since I’m intrigued, as well, by decay and rusticity and quirky, strange shapes and conglomerations, the regions of manufacture and shipping and blue-collar labor are also a great treasure trove of images, both visual and imagined.

Herewith, a few of the photos I shot this summer while wandering in that particular mode.

Photo: Industrial Strength 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Any Old Palace will Do

As self-crowned, self-proclaimed Empress of Everything (mistress of none), I have always enjoyed the ease and luxury due my supposed station. I eat well, travel relatively often, and keep the finest of company. It’s only appropriate that I should also live in the palace of my own choosing, or better yet, in various fantastic palaces in different fabulous parts of the world whenever I happen to be there. Of course, the locales and the company I keep in them determine my level of happiness far more than the buildings and their furnishings do themselves. Isn’t that always the way? No matter how plush it is, a glamorous structure is only a gilded cage if it allows no light of love and adventure into it and no correspondingly venturesome, happy soul out of it.
Photo: S:kt Jakobs

So far I’ve managed to establish my string of palaces remarkably well, along with fulfilling my many other requirements of that life of luxury I don’t necessarily deserve but am quite capable of desiring. I’ve stayed in, lived in, visited, and wandered through many a grand, gorgeous, impressive place. I’ve designed many on paper and in my mind that would knock the socks off of any person who saw them. Yet I still can’t understand the people who look at glorious, showy homes and think only of whether the places would genuinely suit as their own dwellings. If your energies are devoted solely to thinking that “this master bedroom is too small,” all I can think is that your imagination is too small, your life too tightly fitted around what you perceive as Impressive Enough, to allow you to find your palace in whatever motel room or suburban house with one bathroom your life lets you land in at the moment.
Photo: Davenport, Spokane

Many of the palaces I’ve inhabited I have done only as a passerby, a visitor, a tourist. And I have nothing against that at all. After all, wherever I close my eyes to sleep, even the most cramped bedroom with a creaky, narrow, deeply bowed bed where the very middle of the mattress is the only almost-level spot to rest, I can turn it into any one of the palatial places I’ve visited, or continue to invent my own. The roof I am under is irrelevant in determining the luxury of my existence, so long as it’s safe and not lacking a place to lie down without breaking anything (furniture or me; I prefer to keep both intact) and not hideously cold or hot or wet. In my dreams, I remain Empress, and there I can build and inhabit the most astounding of palaces if I choose to do it.

As such, I am also constantly grateful for the many wonderful places I’ve visited, stayed,  and/or lived, and especially for the extensive ranks of friends and family and acquaintances who have through their immense kindness consistently supported my ability to live—and feel—like royalty.

Foreshadowed

There we were in our hotel room in Prague—much more sophisticated and glamorous than the sort we’d have booked for ourselves, to be sure, thanks to the tour organizers—and I looked up and saw this through the curtains on our window:
Photo: Through the Curtains

Isn’t it amazing how just the hint of an image, a fluttering silhouette in the afternoon sun, can promise so much romance and adventure?
Digital illustration from a photo: Shades of Dusk

You know, naturally, that since we were in Prague, any promise of romance and adventure was bound to be fulfilled and, indeed, surpassed. A holiday of any sort is not to be shunned, generally speaking. But when I find myself in a city so marvelously compounded of history, mystery, drama and delight as Prague, I feel from the first glimpse of its thousand towers that frisson, that lovely shiver, presaging wonderful things not yet imagined even by me in my most vivid dreams.

Chinatown is Everywhere

It was true when the world was much younger, but all the more so in this age of easy travel and speedy communication: the globe shrinks, cultures meet and intermingle, and there’s less and less difference between one city and another. A minuscule part of me is sadder each time I see English plastered across the signs and storefronts of a foreign country that used to seem more exotic and culturally distant from where I grew up and lived my life. Intermingling can easily lead to homogeneity, and that can be mighty boring.
Photo montage: Chinatown is Everywhere

But then I am reminded that even when travel was arduous and communication as slow as molasses in a meat locker, cultures met, mixed and mated, and gradually produced new and fantastic variants of themselves. Where would we be if languages had never borrowed and stolen terms from each other, evolved and changed over time? If nobody had ever crossed a border, learned about another culture, married a foreigner, or learned the way a more advanced or inventive group could accomplish tasks more efficiently and elegantly, would humans even still be around to do that stuff anymore?

My attitude is changing. Now, I really do still greatly appreciate that there are recognizable ethnic neighborhoods in nearly every city, every country. They’re wonderful microcosms of the nations and peoples that immigrated and founded them. But I also love that there’s a regular hurricane of linguistic mash-ups, cultural blending and reinvention of characteristics that comes from our happy meetings on new shores. It’s how we got here; it’s how we’ll move forward and continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, as long as there are those fantastic ethnic-enclave neighborhoods still in action, I’ll know I can follow the locals and find the best jiaozi and sticky rice in town when I get hungry.

Hither and Yon

photoTravel calls. It almost always does. I am grateful that travel doesn’t always require a lot of concrete resources. Because when travel demands that I join hands and run away with her, I may not have instant access to the time, money and practical resources needed for physically hitting the trail.

That’s when I travel Inward. While I love traveling in fabulous cities and foreign countries, unknown rural roads and famous tourist sites, I also delight in traveling the interior world. I make inner places both based on those lovely locales I’ve visited in real life or know of through others and on ones wholly invented by my strange little imagination, and they’re populated with all sorts of people and creatures, real or magical or, better yet, a nice mix of the two, doing whatever the denizens of such places should or can do. Anything can happen, and in the inner world I can be the one deciding what that Anything should be, playing puppet-master and ringmaster as I see fit, and returning home to my conscious and ordinary world of day-to-day life when it’s time to do so.

And when traveling Inward is not enough or the moment of wealth arrives when I can afford traveling Outward again, that’s what I like to do. So much unexplored territory remains for me to learn, experience and enjoy. To assimilate as fuel for further inner invention! So many friends and towns and countries I long to revisit. Beauty and mystery and joy and adventure that removes me from my ordinariness. That, whether my journey goes inward or outward, is a grand and miraculous thing.

May we all travel well, wherever our travels take us.photo

Vulture Culture

Bird-watching is easy in countryside where there’s a lot of flat land, a lot of sky and plenty of clumps of brush or trees here and there for roosting and cover. Our recent expedition to Texas Hill Country was a great occasion for it, especially since the fences, power poles and trees that line freeways are both the perfect lookout points and display pedestals for local hawks and grackles and doves. Most distinctively regional among those winged wonders catching my eye as we drove down and back were the marvelous black vultures.

I love watching them, from the graceful, majestic soaring swoops and loops they draw across the broad planes of the sky to their awkward huddling in flocks on the massive transformer towers, to those rare and delightful closeups where I can get a better look at their funny mix of magnificent feathered eagle-like bodies with those wrinkly, wizened looking little heads and their bold hooked beaks. The sudden whuff-whuff as a large bird, unseen above my head on its light-pole perch, dove over me in a low arc to switch poles was like being fanned by the wing of a passing angel the other day. Clearly my intrusion on its territory wasn’t so distressing to the buzzard either, as he opted to land on the next post over and then sat surveying our party placidly even when my husband and I came and stood directly below to gaze on the magnificent creature. He felt exceedingly well fitted for the place, letting the cold drafts ruffle his feathers just a little as he sat gazing out at Canyon Lake under the lowering skies of the first of the year.

I call that a very good Texas omen.digital painting from a photo

Stratospheric Eventualities

Calm and measureless heights of azure Texas sky

Rise streaked with silent foaming white,

The broad hot blue patterned with these delicate

Ambling clouds that stretch to cover great distance at

A leisurely, attenuated speed, always slipping noiselessly

Across branch-tops, over the brazen sun, and into

The realms of seeming outer space, asleep

Though it should be at lazy midday
digital painting from a photoSuddenly this easy traffic is crossed

By a soaring, circling pair of

Dark metallic wings, the steely black of one

Great vulture passing through to catch

The updrafts and to cycle down, surveying

His kingdom plat by plat—he’s joined, soon enough,

By would-be kings, the other buzzard princes of

The wide blue air, who comb the same

Field of clouds with their own

Gunmetal-dark brace of wings
digital painting from a photoAnd after a time, these too are scattered abroad at the dash

Of two, then three, sharp triangles of louder, faster, sterner steel,

As fighter jets flash by in succession,

Pull together into a tight

Formation from their first sharp linear slash, and make

A single force with which they will unzip

The sometime quiet of that great wide skydigital painting from a photo

Foodie Tuesday: When in Texas . . .

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A menu from the LBJ (US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s) ranch, from the 1960s.

. . . eat like a Texan.

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Well-made biscuits go perfectly with everything, of course.

That’s simply to say that, since we’re on the road with Mom and Dad S and dining out much of the time, the logical thing to do is to eat classic local and regional foods, as well prepared as possible. If you don’t already know the area fully, just ask who’s the nearby iconic source of said goodies, and any folk in town will surely share their opinions and recommendations. We all like to let others in on what’s good, as long as they promise to eventually leave town again for their homes and don’t take up our spaces at the table!

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Pull up a chair at Black’s.

This trip, such practices mean that we’re enjoying lots of beef, fried foods, Mexican and Tex-Mex delicacies, and pecans. The ‘World’s Largest Pecan’ (a–to my eye–humorously humble sculpture we saw on the courthouse lawn in Seguin) notwithstanding, there are an almost infinite number of exquisite food specialties featuring the nut of the Texas state tree, ranging from the simple and unadorned to mouthwatering pralines and brittle and crunchy chocolates and spiced nuts and intensely rich pecan pies. Pretty much anything one can imagine putting in one’s mouth to eat is considered prime material for putting into the deep fryer first, in this state, so it would be wrong not to feast on chicken fried steak or, yes, chicken fried chicken. The latter, not to be confused with that other magnificent delight fried chicken, is made like its steak cousin: a nice chicken breast pounded into a thin cutlet, coated with a nice breading (usually a thin, seasoned batter), and deep fried until its fragile shell is as daintily crackling-crisp as the sugar crust of a crème brûlée, and then of course devoured with large quantities of fried potatoes or biscuits or bacon-cooked green beans or buttered sweet corn or coleslaw.

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Brisket and ribs and *some* of the fixin’s at Black’s.

I could, as you know, go on and on, rhapsodizing endlessly on the variety and virtues of Texas cuisine, but it would leave me fewer subjects for future Tuesday posts. More importantly, it might eclipse what was one of our goals in visiting this part of central Texas, which was to eat some fine Texas barbecue. Beef-centric in the main and not so much defined by sauces as are some other regions’ BBQ specialties, Texas BBQ is more characteristically recognized as being wood-smoked meats, brisket being probably the star of the show followed by various sorts of ribs, pit-smoked turkey and ham and pork roasts, pulled meats and, not least of all, sausages. Like many other regional signature foods, in Texas there are as many signature styles and flavors of sausage as there are barbecue masters and smoker chefs.

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All fired up at Smitty’s.

Our aim, specifically, was to visit what is pretty widely acknowledged as the BBQ capital of Texas, the town of Lockhart. It’s kind of a pity that Lockhart became so renowned for BBQ and so defined by it, because (apparently unbeknownst to all of the guidebooks and programs I’ve ever seen about Lockhart, since it’s never been mentioned in my hearing) it’s really a pretty town, with a gorgeous Victorian courthouse in its center surrounded by a charming square full of shops and restored vintage buildings, neighborhoods full of a grand mixture of old-fashioned architectural styles ranging from tin shack to Southern mansion, and groves of beautiful old oaks, soapberry trees and pines undergirded by fine clumps of prickly pear and wild grasses.

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A whole mess o’ Texas-style libations.

But barbecue is, for better or worse, Lockhart’s middle name, and since we’ve been staying less than an hour from there it seemed it would be a sacrilege not to test its validity. Though there are in fact additional reputable places in town for eating good barbecue (we have it on local authority), Lockhart is famed primarily for three eateries that are all longtime institutions in town and known each for its own unique style of both food and atmosphere. We had only the one chance to visit on this our first trip to the area, and one day on which we could sensibly do so, so we decided to check two of the three big-name places for the sake of comparison. Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market both sprang from the same joint’s origins, so we opted to go with the completely unrelated Black’s for our first stop, shared a two-plate assortment of foods there between the four of us, and then wandered over to Smitty’s (something of a coin-toss decision winner between the two ‘cousin’ places) to sample a little of the competition.

I will simply say that this first brief encounter made me a believer in Lockhart rather than a fixed advocate for one or the other place. Each had its marvels and was an emporium of fine BBQ dining in its own way. Both had delicious, moist brisket. Smitty’s prides itself on letting the meat star in the show to the extent that not only would a visitor insisting on sauce be shown the door, there are few other adornments even available. A very short list of drinks, some saltine crackers or plain squashy white bread, plastic knives and spoons and butcher paper wrappings for carrying the meat to table, and if you aren’t feeling quite well fed enough you’ve clearly just ordered too little meat. Both eateries offered delicious house-made sausages, Smitty’s being more peppery than the plain variety we had at Black’s, but both succulent and flavorful. Black’s seems almost dressy by comparison when it comes to dining room atmosphere–Smitty’s is a long, plain, barn-like series of rooms painted floor to ceiling with layers of dense pit smoke that gives it a superb patina of authenticity, but Black’s is classic Texas kitsch, checkered cloth-covered picnic tables lined up cheek by jowl between walls plastered with longhorn and deer-antler trophies, taxidermy and celebrity-visitor portraits.

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The fabled Pink Ring of smoked brisket looks mighty purty alongside some peppery house-made sausage, don’t it.

I could tell you about the starch and vegetable sides at Black’s, but ‘that ain’t barbecue’ after all, and I could tell you about the desserts there, which looked perfectly dandy, but we didn’t touch those since we still had a stop to make at Smitty’s. I could admit to you that even after we ate small meals at both Black’s and Smitty’s we still had the room and the gumption to stop at a shop on the square and have a scoop each of ice cream, but that might be giving away too much information and setting a bad example at the same time. I will tell you that the drive out and back was through the picturesque central Texas landscape and in the company of loved ones and therefore a very pleasant way to pass a slightly drizzly afternoon at the tail end of the year. And yes, that it’s well worth your while to drive along out to Lockhart, Texas, no matter what the weather when you’re in the mood for some barbecue. I’ll get back to you when I’ve been able to test the other places’ competence in that realm, but after all, it’s worthwhile enough just to know that two of the touted sources of BBQ goodness are all they’re cracked up to be, because when you need some barbecue, well, it’d better be good.

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Ice cream is good medicine even when you’ve overeaten during the main meal.

Now, eat up, y’all. There’s a whole new year of good food ahead of you!

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Lady Bird Johnson (President Johnson’s First Lady) served up some good Texas food on her campaign-support train trip, introducing more of America to the deliciousness that is Texas cuisine. (Choose the chili, if you want to be like Mr. President.)