Archive for November, 2019

Part 2: East to west across the USA – New Orleans to Los Angeles.

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

April 23, 2019. New Orleans, Louisiana to Houston, Texas, USA.

We returned to Merchant one more time for breakfast, as they served fresh orange juice, fruit, cereal and a great coffee. 

Hard to find all that in the one place in the US. 

It was a long drive to Houston, the start of the second stage of our drive across the Southern US, so we stopped at Rêve Coffee Roasters in Lafayette on the way. 

I had an espresso made from locally roasted Java Taman Dadar beans. 

Again it was full of single people, on their computers. 

Then it was back onto the road to Houston. 

In Houston we were staying at the Microtel Inn and Suites by Wyndham Houston. This was opposite the Houston Space Centre, the official visitor centre of NASA Johnson Space Centre.  This was our main reason for being in the city.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

April 24, 2019. Houston, Texas, USA.

It was 50 years since man walked on the moon and the Space Centre at Houston was a pivotal part of that historical event.

We had visited Kennedy Space Centre, Florida in November 2017. This is where the rockets took off but the control centre was in Houston.

No rockets were every launched from Houston. 

The facility was built as a political gesture, to win Democratic votes in Texas and to support Lyndon Baynes Johnston.

The “We choose to go to the moon.” address was delivered by President Kennedy, in Houston, to mark the start of the space centre’s construction in 1962.

There were many exhibits from the ‘Space Race’ including Mercury and Gemini spacecrafts, a Saturn V rocket as well as a replica of the Space Shuttle Independence. This was strapped to a Boeing 747 and you could actually walk around inside the shuttle and view the cargo hold and flight deck. The Saturn V rocket was in fact three rockets, from various programs, that were put together for the display.

It was massive, measuring 110 m (363 ft) in hight (or length as it was lying down) 10.1 m (33 ft) in diameter and weighing in at 2,970 kg (6,540 lb).

The only disappointment was that the control room, used in the moon landing, was closed for renovations. This was in preparation for the 50th anniversary later in the year.

Dinner was a 10 minute Uber ride away to BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. It was just down the road from la Madeleine, where we had breakfast that morning. 

This was a huge complex with a wide selection of craft beers and an extensive menu. 

In 1978 they started off in Santa Ana, California, as BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria and then moved on to become a craft brewery and restaurant chain. Currently they have 204 outlets in 15 states across the USA.

 

Forever Bicycles (2014 Ai Weiwei)

April 25, 2019. Houston to Austin, Texas, USA.

After looking at a couple of options, we returned to la Madeleine, the French bakery, for breakfast. 

It was a huge cafe with a wide variety of options.

However there was something strange about the place and it was only on our second visit that I realised what it was. 

There was no tipping and they had staff who cleaned the table for you. 

Service without a charge. 

It was a relatively short, three hour, drive to Austin but we stopped in Columbus for a break. 

The terrain was flat and green with the Colorado River meandering through. 

This  is not the same Colorado that created the Grand Canyon but a different one. This Colorado is the largest river in Texas with both its source and its mouth in that state.

It was right on 3pm when we arrived at the Best Weston Plus Austin City. 

Our room wasn’t ready and we had to wait. 

After we finally checked in we went for a wander around the city.

Rainey Street is the entertainment centre of Austin. It was originally residential but now the historic, pre 1934 bungalows that line the street have been turned into bars and restaurants. There are some vacant lots and these are full of food trucks.

We then walked down to the Colorado River and got a view of the city from another perspective.

It was then back to Rainey Street for a drink at Craft Pride and then dinner.

Again we saw the American service industry at work. 

The only restaurant on Rainey Street that didn’t serve their meals off polystyrene was Anthem. As it turned out they were eco friendly and sustainable, so that was a plus. 

When we arrived the place was busy but certainly not full. We still had to put our name on a list and wait. 

I don’t fully know why but suspect that they were understaffed and couldn’t accommodate a full house. 

Yet again they were maximising the return for the owners, by minimising the experience for the customers and employment for the staff. 

 

Wild Seed Farms

April 26, 2019. Austin to San Antonio, Texas, USA.

We were both surprised and delighted that our hotel in Austin didn’t use disposables in the room. 

There were real, washable glasses and coffee cups. 

We headed off to breakfast, thinking it might be the same there. 

Unfortunately it wasn’t, everything was destined for the bin. 

Luckily we had our ‘Save the World’ kit with us. 

Before the drive to San Antonio we explored a small area of Downtown Austin, especially the area around the Texas Capitol Building.

Not surprisingly, there was a ‘Remember the Alamo’ monument within the Capital Building gardens.

It was then back on the road, but with one more stop, this time to visit Wild Seed Farms. This is a wildflower farm, the largest in the US, just near Fredericksburg. It was literally acres and acres of flowers.

We tried to get an espresso at Wild Seen Farms but they specialise in flowers not beans, so we moved on.

We did find a good coffee in Fredericksburg and had a walk up and down the main street afterwards.

When we finally arrived in San Antonio, and checked into our AirBnB, we discovered that we had done it again.

We had arrived just in time for the last few days of the Fiesta and our apartment was right in the middle of it. 

The ‘Fiesta San Antonio’ is an annual event that originally started in 1891 to honour the memory of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. Local women decorated carriages, baby buggies and bicycles with flowers. They then met in front of the Alamo and threw the flowers at each other.

This inspired the name, ‘Battle of the Flowers.’

Today it’s a money spinner for the city, with over three million people taking part, and flowers are still part of the celebration.

On arrival we quickly realised that everything we wanted to see in San Antonia was within walking distance of our apartment, so we parked the car and left it there.

The Riverwalk in San Antonio is unique to the city and I would think, the US.

This is a pedestrian only walkway that’s below street level and runs along the winding banks of the San Antonia River. The walkways are on both sides of the river and full of shops, bars and restaurants.

We had dinner at The River’s Edge, a restaurant right on the Riverwalk. 

We then continued around the circuit and were glad we had chosen River’s Edge. 

The other areas were over commercialised, a bit like Southbank on heat. 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

April 27, 2019. San Antonio, Texas, USA.

As we we staying in an apartment we took the opportunity to self cater our breakfasts. We had purchased fruit and cereal the night before, so it was a leisurely start to the day. 

We were told that there was a street parade due to pass by our apartment during the morning. People were already lining up and many had brought their own seats.

They were there for the long haul. 

It was Hayden’s birthday and we had arranged to give him a call. 

Just as we were calling the parade started. 

To get a closer look at the parade and the fiesta we went wandering around the area near our apartment. The streets were full of happy people and there were a number of private street parties in progress. These were held under canvas gazebos that had been erected in the front gardens of large timber Southern mansions. There were decorations on the houses and the fences were also festooned with streamers.

Then we went in search of some history.

The Alamo is a very important event for Texans and the people of San Antonio. In 1836 about 100 Texans defended the Alamo Mission from about 1,500 Mexicans. The siege lasted 13 days and eventually the overwhelming force of the Mexicans prevailed and most of the Texans were killed.

The siege of the Alamo involved a number of famous Texan frontiersmen. 

Colonel James Bowie (Bowie knife), Davie Crocket (King of the Wild Frontier) and General Sam Houston (the city of Houston)

Both Bowie and Crocket died at the Alamo. 

Late in the afternoon we wandered back to the Riverwalk. There we met Hershey and Tim, a couple of old friends who had got together for the fiesta. They were fascinated by our accents and wanted to chat.

I got the feeling that there are very few Australian tourists in San Antonio.

In the Evening we avoided down town and went to Rosario’s, which was just around the corner. 

It was a loud, but enjoyable, Tex Mex restaurant, buzzing with people intent on getting the last out of the Fiesta. 

 

The fort at Fort Stockton

April 28, 2019. San Antonio to Fort Stockton, Texas, USA.

It was overcast and the good weather from the last few days was gone. 

Which was lucky for the Fiesta goers and for us as well. 

This was the start of our long drive to the Pacific coast. Today was over 500 kilometres and 4.5 hours driving – the next day a little shorter. 

The longest day will be Tucson to San Diego. 

The geography had changed dramatically. We were now out of the lush hills with wide flowing rivers and into a more desert environment. 

There were even less wildflowers along the roadside. 

National Highway 10 was an excellent drive with far fewer trucks, but it was a Sunday and could be a very different story the next day. 

Up until this section of the drive we had always been able to find a good coffee, but as we moved further west it became harder. 

We arrived in Fort Stockton at 3 pm and then made the short drive to the other end of town, the site of the historic fort.

There’s wasn’t much left of the fort, just a few out houses scattered over a very open expanse of grass.

To my mind the best attraction was a sculpture of Paisano Pete, the world’s second largest Roadrunner.  “Beep, beep.”

The fort was known as Camp Stockton until 1860 and was built around Comanche Springs, one of the largest sources of spring water in Texas.

Since the 1920s Fort Stockton has benefited from another underground source of wealth – oil.

Fort Stockton is a one steer town and that night we had dinner the at Kbob, where we both had steaks.

The portions were so huge that I think we probably ate that one steer between us.

 

Cactus flowers

April 29, 2019. Fort Stockton, Texas to El Paso, New Mexico/Texas, USA.

The Garage Coffee, Music and More coffee shop was the only coffee in Fort Stockton that looked reasonable, but was closed on Mondays. 

So we found one in Van Horn, that was on the Interstate 10, about half way between Fort Stockton and El Paso. 

Aslan’s Coffee Shop was one of the strangest coffee experiences I have ever had. 

When we arrived we weren’t even sure if they actually served espresso, so Thea stuck her head in the door an asked. 

By the time I had parked the Jeep and got inside, Aslan was already making our coffees. 

Once inside we were greeted with “Good day and God bless you.“

There were two very rotund people already in the cafe and the male of the couple was holding court. 

It turned out that their RV had broken down and they had sought refuge in the town. 

Being good Christians they had asked the local church if they could park there while their van was repaired. 

It just so happens that the cafe was on the same land as the church.

So there they were saving everyone who popped in for a Cup of Joe.

It was a bit like having coffee with Jesus. 

When we arrived in El Paso was 30°C.

This was the fourth day of warmer weather – the warmest spell we had experienced since leaving home. 

We were too early to check into our hotel at Sunland Park Casino so, at the suggestion of the receptionist, we went sightseeing. 

This was along the Scenic Drive, a short stretch of road that overlooks the city of El Paso. 

It was created in the 1920s’ and has been a popular destination even since. 

Before our drive we popped into Sunland Park Mall, which was just around the corner, for lunch. 

The mall had just undergone a refurbishment and was almost empty. Most of the shops were still vacant and very little of what was already there was open. 

Thea had run out of knitting so the next stop, after the Scenic Drive, was a wool shop.

This gave us an opportunity to see some of the surrounding suburbs. 

We chose to stay in the casino area as it was out of the sprawling downtown area of El Paso, which isn’t regarded as a great tourist destination. 

The hotel was in New Mexico, practically on the border with Texas and Mexico. 

On one side we had the Sunland Park Racetrack, on the other, the Western Playland and right next door was the casino. 

It was Vegas in Texas but more down market, if that’s possible. 

We could even see part of the US/Mexico border wall from our hotel window. 

This is the wall that already exists between the two countries and has nothing to do with the Donald’s grand plan. 

The wall was started by George H. W. Bush in 1990 and continued by Bill Clinton in 1993. Any further expansion was halted by Barack Obama in 2011. And this is more than likely the real reason why Trump wants to continue it now.

Dinner at the casino was a strange affair. 

We were told that there were three restaurants within the casino, however there really was only one. The main, full service restaurant, is only open during the racing season, which started the next day and the third one was just a snack bar.

So we were forced to eat at their exceptionally mediocre café. In fact describing it as mediocre probably gives it too much credit. 

The service was poor and the food, masquerading as Italian, was worse than that. 

Whatever did the Italians do to the Americans to cause them to massacre their cuisine the way they do?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

April 30. El Paso, New Mexico/Texas, to Tucson, Arizona, USA.

The food was so bad at the casino cafe the night before, we didn’t want to risk having breakfast there. 

Fortunately, just down the road was 2Ten Coffee Roasters. 

Great food, including a variation of Avocado on Toast and excellent coffee. There seems to be more and more of these boutique roasters popping up across the US. Maybe the tide is eventually turning against the likes of Starbucks – let’s hope so.

We had been told about Old Mesilla, a well preserved western frontier town, while we were having our religious coffee experience the previous day. 

During the American Civil War Old Mesilla was briefly the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona from 1861 to 1862.

The Wild West era saw the like of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Pancho Villa visit the town. In fact Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang in the Old Mesilla court house in April 1881. He never did hang in the town but died of a gunshot wound in Fort Sumner in September of the same year.

The area around Old Mesilla is surrounded by pecan orchards. I am sure Pecan Pie is a favourite in the town.

Our next stop was Tombstone, another place of Wild West legend. Tombstone’s city seal boasts that it’s: ‘The Town too tough to die’

The most famous event in Tombstone is the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Coral’ This involved the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil  in a shootout against Doc Holliday, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. 

The irony is that the gunfight didn’t actually take place in the O.K. Coral but in a nearby vacant block of land owned by the famous photographer C.S. Fly (1849-1901). Camillus ‘Buck’ Sydney Fly is regarded as one of the first photojournalists in the US. He chronicled the lives of Native Americans, while they were still at war with the United States. And was an eyewitness at the O.K. Corral gunfight.

Unlike Old Mesilla, Tombstone is a Hollywood set, with fake cowboys at every corner, all with their Six Shooters at the ready.

In Tucson we were staying at the Hotel McCoy – Art, Coffee, Beer, Wine. This was a retro 60s Motel with a bar serving local wine and craft beer. They had 6 craft beers in cans and 4 on tap. 

It was a very funky motel in a great location, just off the freeway.

Downtown Tucson was an easy Uber ride away.

 

Mount Lemmon Scenic Highway in the Coronado National Park

May 1. Tucson, Arizona, USA.

We had breakfast at the hotel but it was a strange affair with Oatmeal, Pop Tarts and boxed drinks, all of this was out of disposable paper cups, plates and containers. This was really at odds with their Hipster image.

Our Save the World Kit got yet another outing.

Also, they didn’t have an espresso machine, so coffee would have to wait.

Therefore our first stop for the day was to Hermosa Coffee Roasters. This was just a short drive from our hotel and in, what is known as, the Old Market Area. 

The area wasn’t old at all but a totally new development, of small trendy businesses, all housed in shipping containers.

The cost of keeping these metal ovens cool in the Arizona heat must have been horrendous.

The days outing was a drive up to the summit of Mount Lemmon, on the Scenic Highway. It was a beautiful winding mountain road, with an abundance of lookout points and pull-offs. 

As we climbed to 2,400 metres (8,000 feet), the change in scenery was dramatic.

At the start of our ascent cacti dominated, then as we climbed, conifers took over. 

The temperature also plunged from 28°C (82°F) to 14.5° (58°F)

At the top we stopped for a break at Sawmill Run. Thea had of all things, Pecan Pie and, to my surprise, I got a very reasonable espresso. 

The staff at the Sawmill had T-shirts with a graphic of a hand, that was missing two fingers – funny but a bit sick. 

After our scenic adventure we returned to Tucson to get a better look at the city.

A map that was provided by our hotel suggested that we do the Aqua Tourist Trail around Tucson. It was a bit of a waste. 

Most of the area that was suggested in the tour was under construction. In fact Tucson seems to be undergoing a transformation, with new buildings popping up all over the city.

It was now 31°C (88°F) and getting a bit hot to do much walking so we returned to the hotel.

We needed an early nigh as it would be a long drive to San Diego in the morning. So it was another Uber into town for an early dinner at Hotel Congress.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

May 2. Tucson, Arizona, to San Diego, California, USA.

Before leaving Tucson we returned to the Mercardo District and Hermosa Coffee Roasters for breakfast.

We had to drive 661 kilometres to San Diego. This would take us over 6 hours so, after a few hours on the road, we stopped in Yuma for a break and yet again found a cafe serving an espresso – of sorts. 

It was at the Coffee Bean Espresso Bar and Cafe that we decided that the ‘hickness’ of a place is measured by hats. The more guys you see wearing baseball hats, the ‘hicker’ it is. 

We were staying out of the main area in San Diego at the weirdly named, Days Inn by Wyndham San Diego/Downtown/Convention Centre.

It certainly wasn’t in Downtown, so we had a bit of a hike to get to the Gaslamp Quarter. Which is where the action is in San Diego.

Also known as the Gaslamp District, it is an historical area of sixteen and a half blocks and full of restaurants and bars as well as a number of strip clubs.

Historically gas lamps weren’t actually used in the area but have since been installed to add a touch of authenticity.

After dinner we got an Uber back to the hotel as the route back was rather hilly.

 

Del Mar (The Pacific Coast just north of San Diego)

May 3. San Diego to Los Angeles, California, USA.

It was only 210 kilometres, about 2 hours driving from San Diego to LA. 

However we took much longer as we used the coastal route and were then confronted with 29 kilometres of traffic jams as soon as we hit the outskirts of the LA.

It turned out to be more like three and a half hours.

In LA we were staying at Cathie and Earl’s apartment, which was over the road from Universal Studios, in an area known as Studio City. They weren’t there but had very kindly offered us their place while they were in New York. This meant that we had the rare opportunity to cater for ourselves again and needed to get supplies.

In much of the US the culture is irrevocably bolted to the past. 

So much of the attitudes, architecture, politics, transport and even food is all from a bygone era. 

It’s as though the New World has now become the Old World. 

There is always exceptions and the Whole Foods chain is one of those. Much of their fresh food is organic and they are now introducing bulk products, to save on packaging waste. 

They sell reusable, bamboo based, cups plates and straws. 

In their Burbank store they have a cafe serving healthy food, coffee, wine and a range of craft beers. 

We had used Whole Foods on a previous stay in LA and had also visited their new store in NYC. 

It was therefore the logical place to go again for our breakfast supplies.

Founded in 1980 they now have over 500 stores worldwide and growing.

 

Grand Central Market (1917)

May 4. Los Angeles, California, USA.

Just up the road from the apartment was a Metro station. We took the Red Line to Union Station and then wandered back, one stop, to Pershing Square. 

Union Station was celebrating its 80th Anniversary, being built in 1939. It was designed by John and Donald Parkinson and combines Art Deco, Mission Revival and Streamline Modern styles.

It’s a beautifully spacious example of transport architecture.

Next was the Grand Central Market, which is on the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building. In 1917 the market replaced the Ville de Paris department store. The location for the market was chosen because of its proximity to the Angels Flight Railway. This funicular services the well-to-do residents of Bunker Hill.

It was yet another festival weekend. The Cinco de Mayo was due to be celebrated the next day. 

This time we missed out by a day.

Cinco de Mayo or Fifth of May celebrated the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire  at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th 1862. Nowadays in LA it’s more a celebration of Mexican-American culture.

We had a coffee at Demitasse, well it was better than Starbucks. 

This thought was reinforced by a board out the front which read: ‘Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks’

Ironically there was a Starbucks just opposite and many passers-by stopped to take a snap of the sign. 

On the train ride back to Studio City there were people selling a wide variety of products. Incense and socks were two popular items on offer.

That night we had dinner at Cafe del Ray with Ian and Peta Beavis and Evan, who was in LA on business. 

This involved a long drive and a number of Uber rides, as it was on the coast at Marina del Ray.

LA is a very big city.

 

Universal City Walk

May 5. Los Angeles, California, USA.

After spending a quiet morning in the apartment, we cleaned and walked up to Universal studios to do the City Walk. 

This was a strange combination of designer brands and American fast food outlets. 

There was an Italian restaurant just inside the entrance and we managed to get an espresso. 

We were lucky it was there, as it was the only place that looked like it served coffee – of any variety. 

We returned to Cathie and Earl’s and did the final bit of packing, before embarking on the ‘loooong’ drive to the airport. 

It was only a 30 minute drive but it felt like an eternity. 

Even on a Sunday many of the freeways were car parks. 

After checking into the Sheraton Gateway at LAX, we dropped the car back to Avis. 

We had been going for 23 days, on a variety of roads, covering 5,903 kilometres (3,668 miles) and averaging about 257km per day.

In that time we met some interesting people, stayed in both good and bad accomodation, dined in a wide variety of restaurants, all while travelling through some amazing parts of the Southern US.