Tuesday, May 29, 2007

San Antonio to Irvine

Rather than take the I-10 across west Texas, we opted for the far more scenic US 90, a lovely road through flat deserts punctuated by deep canyons...

Seminole Canyon (off US 90)

...and rivers, such as the Pecos River west of Del Rio. Here is the bridge bringing the highway across the Pecos...

Bridge over Pecos River

...and looking south from the same spot towards the US-Mexico border (you can make out where the Pecos empties into the Rio Grande, about a mile south of where I am sitting with Maomao):

Pecos River flowing into the Rio Grande

After a not-so-good Mexican meal in Sanderson, TX, we continued west to Alpine, before cutting across the mountains on route 118 in order to rejoin the interstate:

Reststop on 118 NW of Fort Davis

We had dinner (at another Mexican place) in El Paso and made it as far as Lordsburg, New Mexico that night (staying in a motel on the main drag, appropriately named "Motel Dr.").

The next day, we got up early to try to make it to Irvine before the dreaded LA rushhour. We stopped briefly in Tucson for my fix (at a coffee shop near the University of Arizona), had lunch at a Del Taco in Blythe, and arrived at my dad's place in Irvine about 4 pm.

Barry and Kathii

We had the pleasure of staying for three nights at my uncle & aunt Barry & Kathii's place in San Antonio. Barry and Kathii are very much into koi and have a splendid koi pond in their backyard...

Japanese koi pond at Barry & Kathii's house

...and very comfortable hanging chairs:

Comfortable chairs at Barry & Kathii's house

Maomao enjoyed the garden quite a bit, as did a bevy of stray cats, including this one:

Drinking from the koi pond

Maomao was incidentally quite terrified of the koi.

The first night we strolled along the River Walk and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the river. On Sunday, we went for a drive in the hill country north of San Antonio. We had lunch at the Gristmill in Gruene (pronounced "green"), near the site of the oldest dance hall in Texas ("Gruene Hall"):

Gruene Hall

While at the Gristmill, Gina noticed young people floating down the Guadelupe River on inner tubes (called "toobs") and thought there could be nothing more fun in the whole world. Apparently, when she was a kid, some of her more lucky friends had access to old tires and could float down the river in Pengfang, while Gina (with no tire of her own) could only look on with envy.

Thus, the next day, just the two of us drove back to Gruene and got two toobs from Rockin R River rides. We were taken in a bus four miles up river and floated back down to Gruene. The local college students generally partake of this activity under the hot afternoon sun, with coolers of beer floating beside them on special inner tubes. We did it in the morning and were actually kind of cold at first, until the sun got higher into the sky. I thought it was quite fun, especially floating down a few small rapids. At the very end, however, just as we were nearing the beach where we would pull ourselves out of the water, Gina was struck with misfortune. She crashed into a rock in the last set of rapids, lost one of her shoes (a pair of crocs borrowed from Kathii specifically for the purposes of wearing in the river) as well as her inner tube (which I recovered a ways downriver) and ended up stuck on a rock in the middle of the rapids. After about a half hour, somebody from the Rockin R River shop explained to me that she should just float without an inner tube through the last set of rapids and then swim to shore, which is what she ended up doing. Here is a satellite image of the Gristmill (blue arrow) and the approximate site where Gina was stuck in the river (red arrow):

Gruene, TX

Knoxville to San Antonio

As soon as I finished grading the last exams and mailing all my books to California (or Colorado), we sold our bed and bookcases, packed up the car, and left whatever remained by the garbage bin. Maomao was a little more relaxed on this road trip, sometimes even eating while we were driving (last time, he went on a hunger fast for the first few days). Here are the three of us, driving somewhere in Arkansas:

Driving through Arkansas

We left well after noon on May 10 (Thursday) and made it the first day only as far as Memphis, where we had dinner at a perfectly decent Vietnamese restaurant (Knoxville, by contrast, has no decent Vietnamese restaurants). We spent the night at a Super 8 by the Mississippi River:

Super 8 in Memphis

The location was lovely, though the motel will need some work before it is really ready for guests. The first room we were placed in had a large hole in the wall that went deep into the building. We knew Maomao would go exploring and we'd probably never see him again, so we asked the guy at the front office if we could have a room without a hole in the wall. He seemed to know exactly what we were talking about. The moving from room to room was made somewhat more complicated by the fact that we were experiencing a tremendous downpour at that very moment. Here's a picture the next morning of Gina sniffing a Magnolia petal in the park across the street:

I-55 Bridge over Mississippi in Memphis

From Memphis, we drove west across Arkansas and into Texas at Texarkana. The drive was uneventful. I called Janie in the early afternoon to see if she happened to be in Dallas (she was not), and then to ask her for recommendations regarding Chinese restaurants in the Dallas region. She directed us to a Chinese strip mall in Richardson, TX. We stocked up on snacks at the Chinese grocery and also had dinner (noodles) at Jeng Chi Restaurant. That night, we made it as far as Temple (south of Waco).

The next morning, we continued south on the 35, stopping at Austin to have a look around the university. Gina had her first Jamba Juice and we then ate prepared foods from the Chinese grocery store next to our car in front of an apartment building near the corner of Lavaca and MLK. We made it into a bus tour of Austin. The tour guide announced on the loud speaker the history of the apartment building and then observed, "and in front, there are two people having a snack."

We arrived at Barry & Kathii's place around 1:30 pm.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Spring Recess 2007

There were no classes on Friday, April 6 (for "Spring Recess"...not to be confused with "Spring Break" which lasted a whole week in March). So we decided to go on a road trip to see Alabama and Mississippi. These were two of the last three of the 50 states that I had never been to (the last one I've never been to is Florida...we were going to go in May if my mom hadn't gotten runovered by an SUV). On Thursday afternoon (after Gina's classes), we headed off towards Birmingham (via Chattanooga). I thought Birmingham might be a nice place to stay but in fact it wasn't. We had enormous difficulty finding anything pretty there. Five Points South was not too bad however:

Five Points South

After some pretty cheap Latin American food nearby, we kept going and spent the night in what turned out to be a really dirty & nasty motel half way to Tuscaloosa (besides holes in the ceiling, there was also, for example, a used condom in the bathroom...for your information, it was the Scottish Inn Bessemer on I-59 between Birmingham & Tuscaloosa).

Tuscaloosa (which we visited the next morning) was a nice town. As we were driving into town, Gina had her first taste of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which she liked quite a bit (she usually does not especially like sweet things). After taking a walking tour of downtown Tuscaloosa (during which I nearly froze my hands off...a late freeze was striking the south that weekend), we looked around the campus of the University of Alabama (which is MUCH nicer than the campus of the University of Tennessee...much, much, much nicer). Here is a picture of a large lawn with Oliver-Barnard Hall (1889):

Oliver-Barnard Hall

We continued down I-59 towards New Orleans, stopping at Hattiesburg for lunch (Cici Pizza). I had had a job interview for the University of Southern Mississippi at the AHA. The interview didn't lead to anything but having now been to Hattiesburg, I must say, thank god I didn't end up there! A very unattractive and uninteresting town. We did encounter some pretty purple flowers on the side of the I-59, somewhere in Mississippi:

Flowers by I-59 in Mississippi

Entering New Orleans was kind of creepy, since there were entire neighborhoods that were completely abandoned. It was Good Friday and the "Passion Live" was being held in the middle of one of these abandoned neighborhoods:

The Passion Live

We were only in New Orleans for four hours or so. We walked along the Mississippi, stopped at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar for a not-very-good beer (for me) and a not-very-good vodka sour (for Gina)...

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar

...and went to Preservation Hall for a couple of sets. We were thinking about getting dinner prior to leaving town, but couldn't find anything that we really wanted, so ended up heading west out of town, stopping at a Denny's for dinner. Gina found a coupon for a pretty cheap (and clean) hotel by the airport.

The next morning, we headed back towards Mississippi, on I-10 and I-55. To the south and west of Lake Pontchartrain, the freeway was basically a causeway above the bayous. Our next stop was Natchez, MS. It was the time of the "Spring Pilgrimage"; we could have gone on special historic house tours, but didn't really have the time or the money. Instead, we went on our own walking tour, seeing some of the old houses, such as Rosalie (1820):

Rosalie, Natchez, MS

By noontime, I needed a fix and got a coffee at the very good Natchez Coffee Co. on Franklin St. We had lunch at the Pig Out Inn Barbeque. It was ok (and mainly cheap).

Out of Natchez, we drove along the Natchez Trace Parkway (a National Park-managed road following the ancient trail connecting Central Tennessee to the Mississippi River). Here is a short segment of the original trail (which had sunk down below the forest floor after centuries of use):

Old Natchez Trace

We followed the Natchez Trace past Jackson, to the site of a cypress swamp:

Cypress Swamp (Natchez Trace Parkway)

By then it was late afternoon on Saturday, and we decided to drive back to Knoxville that night. We stopped at the China Kitchen in Newton before driving pretty much non-stop back to Knoxville, stopping only briefly at Birmingham so I could get my fix (at a Starbucks we had noticed near Five Points South).