Texas, etc.

Yes, I know it’s been THREE WEEKS since I posted anything. I’ve really been “on the go.” I just completed my first trip for VISIONS magazine’s “VISIONS Across America” project. I’m traveling with photographer Jim Heemstra to all 50 states for a special issue that will be published in early 2014. We hope to have all our travel completed by fall 2013. That’s a lot of states to cover in two years when you figure I also have to put out all the regular issues of VISIONS at the same time. “Iowa Girl” may suffer a bit for awhile…but something’s gotta give.

I’m happy with the results of the first trip. We traveled to Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas Nov. 6-15. If you’re interested in reading about the Iowa State alumni we met, you can follow my new blog at www.visionsacrossamerica.com.

Working on the road is hard work. We spent way too much time in the car. And we’re trying to stay on a budget, so we ate grocery-store-deli take-out a lot…at rest stops, in hotel rooms, even in a parking lot of one of our appointments. We definitely are not traveling in luxury! (Yes, that is a banana riding atop the atlas on our dashboard.) But, having said that, we’ve managed to squeeze in a few tourist opportunities at most of our destinations.

Our first stop was Austin, Texas. We arrived in town at dusk the night before our first appointment. Jim wanted to photograph the sunset from the bridges in downtown. His pictures are a lot better than mine, but I tried. (That’s the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue with the Austin skyline.) Austin, as it turns out, is a great city. We walked, ate, and listened to live music on 6th Street. This was a Monday night, so it wasn’t a real happenin’ place, but I enjoyed the light crowds. I’m told Austin has live music all over the city, and it’s every kind of music you’d want to hear.

What I also liked about Austin was the food. This is a very vegan-friendly city. I posted a message on a vegan blog before we left Iowa, asking for recommendations for vegan-friendly restaurants, and I got some great advice. We ate breakfast the next day at one of the best ones: Bouldin Creek Café. Here’s a picture of my meal. I ordered something called The Renedict (pictured above), which I assume is a takeoff on eggs benedict. This amazing dish consisted of “tofu scramble,” tofu “bacon,” spinach, tomatoes, and homemade vegan Hollandaise on grilled ciabatta bread. I wasn’t sure I would like it…that’s an awful lot of weird tofu, right? But it was perhaps the most amazing thing I’ve ever tasted. (Can we get one of these restaurants in Ames, Iowa, please?)

The next day we headed to Houston, which is not a city I enjoy. It’s sprawly and industrial and really rather icky. But we went to Johnson Space Center for a very cool interview with one of our alumni and got to shoot inside the coveted Building 9, the space vehicle mockup facility. Afterwards, we went to Rocket Park, which houses a restored Saturn V (above), on loan from the Smithsonian. It’s enormous and very impressive.

Our next stop was New Orleans. This was one of the highlights of our trip. I’ve had a long-time love affair with this city ever since I visited for a conference in 2002 and spent a couple of extra days there. If I remember correctly, I walked 18 miles in one day. That was during my power-walking period. During that trip, I got my first (and only) tattoo at a place called Electric Ladyland (above) by a tattoo artist named Mark the Shark; I fell in love with the music scene on Frenchmen Street; I explored the City Park and the cemeteries and the Garden District and, of course, the French Quarter on foot; I ate my first beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde and drank my first Abita. It was, to say the least, a wonderful trip.

Since that time, I’d visited twice more. Once was post-Katrina. Both times I’d returned to Frenchmen Street (above) and Café Du Monde and checked to see if Electric Ladyland was still in business. It was.

During this most recent trip, I made my usual rounds. The beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde were well worth going off my all-vegan diet. (That’s me, eating my weight in powdered sugar.) Frenchmen Street hadn’t changed a bit. All the clubs and cafes looked just the same. The music vibe was outstanding. We spent one full evening drifting from club to club, listening to the best, most authentic New Orleans music you can imagine. (This is as opposed to Bourbon Street, which I can’t stand.)

We went back to Frenchmen the next morning and shot photos in the daylight. I found out that Mark the Shark is now working as a tattoo artist in Seattle. Maybe I’ll look him up if VISIONS Across America ever takes me to that city.

The highlight of our New Orleans stay was meeting with an Iowa State alum who lived – and still lives – in the Lower 9th Ward and is still experiencing the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood. She showed us around her neighborhood and then we went to the French Quarter for dinner at the Gumbo Shop. I had the gumbo z’herbes (a vegetarian gumbo) and the vegetarian dish of the day, Creole style. That day’s dish was rice and beans, which sounds boring but was anything but. My dining partners ordered blackened redfish and crab cakes – and Jim said my rice and beans dish was the best food he tasted on the whole trip.

We hated to leave New Orleans, but we had to be in Oklahoma City for an interview on Sunday. It’s about a 12-hour drive. We made it to Ardmore, Okla., in one day (with a stop in Baton Rouge to buy a bagful of delicious deli salads and a loaf of cranberry-walnut bread at Whole Foods Market). The next morning we drove the remaining 90 minutes to Oklahoma City. Our interview and photo shoot was at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, which I highly recommend if you’re ever in Oklahoma City. It’s a huge museum – a beautiful place, really – and was far more interesting to me than I had imagined it would be. We spent about five hours there. We also visited the Oklahoma City Memorial site (above), and I wish we would’ve had time to tour the adjacent museum. This is another must-see site if you get to this city.

No offense to Arkansas, but it was my least favorite state on this trip. In fairness, we were very tired by the time we got there, and we only saw the extreme northwest corner of the state. We had time to do our work and quickly walk through the Walmart Visitor Center (featuring old-fashioned candy, pictured above) in Bentonville before heading north toward home.

In all, we were gone 10 days and put 3,067 miles on the rental car.

I’m back in Iowa now until February, so I’ll try to get focused again on the state of Iowa.

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