Boston to the Bay- C’mon California

April 16, 2014

Beauty becomes burden.  Counter-intuitive as it seems, the breathtaking scorched-red mesas and gently flowing waters of the Colorado River became tiresome, almost annoying.  I felt a desperate urge to capture it all, freeze it, and hold it.  Each bend was more gorgeous than the last and each meadow stretched farther than its predecessor.

I gasped for breath, drowned and smothered by the beauty encircling the fast-moving train.  It’s a hopeless pursuit to capture everything. The mood, the light, the quiet delirium that inevitably follow a few nights of sleeping upright could never show up in a picture.  The moment is sure to scamper away, quick as a jack rabbit.

I long for more than the visual.  I want to be way out there avoiding cacti and spiders.  And this desire shall also pass.  It will fade into the Earth’s curvature like the sun always does.  Once the sun of my ambition is eclipsed by the calm of realization, I’ll want more.  And isn’t that what life is?

Seeking, finding, discovering, and eventually forsaking in pursuit of the new, the mysterious.  The aim of capturing beauty is a fruitless, yet necessary, endeavor.  We must capture beauty and coldly send it away if we are to keep living.

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Big Bend- The Drive

Despite an ambitious plan to leave at five am, we stumbled out of my Aunt’s house in Boerne around eight am.  The drive to Big Bend is a seven hour drive west into the desolate confines of the Chihuahua Desert.  The park runs across the U.S.-Mexican border for over one hundred miles.  Soaring peaks abruptly jut from a lonesome bed of dirt, cactus, and scrubby grass.

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Stunning

Driving through this vast expanse of nothingness made the world seem so big.  One stoplight towns, abandoned taquerias, and the rubble of once elegant Spanish style brick homes reminded me that some, just hundreds of miles away, endure in a very different reality.

Little things on a road trip stand out.  I pressed scan on the radio dial and the numbers kept moving until they stopped on the only station in range, an abhorrent frequency wave of battered country troubadours who nearly drove us all to insanity.  We settled for my little brother’s iPhone spitting out Bob Dylan tracks in soft whispers because my Mom’s 200,000 mile warrior of a Sequoia did not have the right inputs.

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Road trip!

I saw nothing but open road, desert, and a couple of sleeping brothers.  This was the solitude I needed after surviving the cacophony of a middle school science room for months.  We all tried on my Mom’s sunglasses and we looked equally asinine.  A road trip with just the brothers is as close to childhood as I can get.

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Look at those clouds

A Rude Awakening

Writers Note:  This is the fourth part of a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine.  If you’re interested, here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

2:18 AM.  I can hear a faint sniffling.  I don’t have a cold.  I listen harder.  Several twigs break.  Heavy animal breathing, another sniff.  It sounds just like the family dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Wallace.  Except it’s not.  I’m alone in Lamoine State Park, Maine and protected only by the thin veil of a tent.

Immediately I rack my brain for potential slip-ups.  I must have left some bread crumbs in my backpack.  I did make that PB&J using my thighs as a table-top earlier.  I’m rapidly blaming myself for the disastrous hypothetical situation furiously brewing in my head.  A motley crew of mountain lions, black bears, and uncharacteristically aggressive white-tailed deer have undoubtedly surrounded my tent, I thought with all seriousness.  I sat upright, more still than I’d ever been.  I hear footsteps, heavy enough to be a human.

I sit rigid, stomach shaking.  (Side-note: camping alone in fear of wild animal packs is a phenomenal ab workout).  I stare at my phone every ten minutes, counting down until the sunrise that’s scheduled for 5:27 AM.  It’s amazing how precise your memory gets when paralyzed with fear.  After hearing a couple more footsteps and some more measured sniffing, silence arrives at 4:14 AM.  Still uneasy, I lay down until sunrise finally arrives.

Sunset in Maine

Writers Note:  This is the third part of a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 in case you missed it.

A sunset is more than a picture.  It’s the closing remark of a day rich with thoughts and experiences.  Not yet fully aware of this, I snapped a few pictures of the sunset converging on the lake near my campsite.  I felt far way from home in Texas.  Far away from my closest friends and family.  Yet, this sunset inspired a feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment that made it all worth it.

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In conclusion….

I quickly sent a few picture messages of what I perceived to be awe-inspiring.  Mixed reviews.  Why?  Because you can’t transport a feeling and you sure as hell can’t share a moment with someone through a picture message.  Traveling alone is liberating but it is truly impossible to fully share the experience with others through pictures, phone calls, even writing.  Sometimes you just have to be there.

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You can’t transport a feeling

Part 1: Mount Washington

Writers note:  This is the first part of a multi-part series detailing a 3 day trip to Mt. Washington, Acadia National Park, and Portland, Maine.

The Drive

With ambitions of scaling the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, I woke up at 3:45 AM and headed for Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.  Once darkness passed, I was greeted with a pleasant New Hampshire sunrise.  Eventually, I took a back road for about 15 minutes in search of a gas station.  The hunt was well worth it.  I ended up in the picturesque town of Milton, NH.  The service station was sitting alongside a quiet lake.  A mist was visibly rising from the water.  I spotted a lone fisherman, undoubtedly enjoying the quiet of morning just as I was.

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Just enjoying the good life

I continued through to the White Mountains.  It was one of those drives where you have to resist the urge to stop at every scenic vantage point.  Most likely your destination will be just as beautiful, if not more beautiful, as these stops along the way.  The small towns of New Hampshire appeared just as I’d imagined the Northeast.  Old cottages, bed and breakfast inns, beautifully adorned brick facades beckoning you to stay.  Out my windows I was surrounded by rolling hills with periodic views of the rugged White Mountains, the northern section of the more well-known Appalachian Mountains.

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Even still, I couldn’t resist

The Climb

I arrived for what I thought would be a relatively easy 9 mile roundtrip hike to the summit and back down.  Everything started as expected with a well-formed, albeit a bit rocky, path.  Verdant low-lands, the sound of water rushing down through glistening streams.  This easier portion of the climb allowed me to take in more cultural aspects of the park.  I heard a number of foreign languages.  German, French, Chinese.  I haven’t yet decided if the propensity to see so many foreigners in national parks is an indicator of nature’s power as a great unifier or a sign that foreigners spend entirely more time outside than the notoriously sedentary American population.

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The gentle rush of flowing water

The luscious low-lands transitioned into a steeper climb, made much more difficult by rocks covered in wet moss.  Thankfully the path was equipped with wooden ladders to aid with some of the more impassable terrain.  I kept moving and eventually eclipsed the tree-line, catching a glimpse of what was ahead.  I stared up at a quarter mile of a highly inclined jumble of rocks with no clearly marked path.  This daunting task conjured up a scene from the movie “300”, where Leonidas meets Ephors.  An unrealistic and greatly exaggerated analogy that made complete sense at the time.  For a refresher, take a look at the clip through the 1 minute mark.

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What up clouds?

After scaling infinite rocks and successfully conquering Ephors, I made it to the summit.  At the summit, the weather was flipped upon its head.  The temperature was in the low 40s with a rippling wind of around 30 miles per hour.  The entire area was quite literally in the clouds and visibility was reduced to almost nothing.  I hid behind a sturdy rock and devoured my gourmet lunch of PB&J, trail mix, and water.  The stifling clouds combined with the strong winds created an eerie celestial atmosphere.   Kind of like if you got to heaven and there was no God or any visible change in lifestyle.  Just a hang-out spot draped in a white cloud.

It was windy, here's proof.

It was windy, here’s proof.

 The Descent

After a few more hours of hiking, I made it down around 4 pm.  The 7 hour hike had me exhausted so I decided to make some progress towards the ultimate prize, Acadia National Park in Maine.  I drove for a few hours and settled on resting my head for the night in Augusta, ME.  For dinner, I chose gluttony and devoured a whole pizza in my hotel room, passing out before 9 pm.

Photo Gallery: The Best of the Rest

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Welcome to the weird- The Hartford Chronicles

I moved to Hartford a couple days ago.  I moved to Hartford a couple days ago.  Had to say that twice just to make sure it was reality.  Already this place has struck me as the weirdest place I’ve ever been.  Let me explain.

“Varsity”, a long lost friend from high school, labeled as such for his penchant to show up on nearly every sport’s roster, was in the area.  I was tasked with finding something for us to do.  We set out on foot and immediately noticed that something was amiss here.  Block after block of wide, inviting city side-walks almost completely devoid of people.  We were surrounded by ancient, beautiful brick buildings.  The best way to describe it was a museum or maybe one of those tiny replicas of cities encased in glass.  It was as if we were ants walking in a display case while the behemoth metropolises of Boston and NYC observed us with delight.  The only sounds heard were police sirens and eerie opera music emanating from an auto shop.

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Gorgeous red-brick building…with no one inside

After having had enough of strolling around in post-apocalyptic Boston, we decided to try our luck with the local bars.  The Russian Lady had endeared itself to Yelp so we decided to give it a go.  The place was empty.  I appropriately ordered a White Russian and Tabby, the bleach blonde bartender, placed it onto the “Hammer and Sickle Vodka” coaster along the bar.  “How’s this hammer and sickle vodka?”  I asked without really needing or wanting the answer.  “Terrible”, she replied.  The first glimmer of that Northeastern bluntness I had been so eagerly awaiting.  “So what the hell is there to do in Hartford?”, I asked in a more serious, seeking tone.  The conversation quickly devolved into a stern warning to never, under any circumstances, go into Bushnell Park after dark.  Bushnell Park is the main city park (and, per Wikipedia, the oldest publicly funded park in the US).  I had earlier gotten my tourist fix by snapping numerous daytime pictures of the beautiful park.  However, it’s apparently filled with crackheads at night and, as I learned, sometimes in the morning as well.  Tabby fondly recounted walking her dog at 7 am on a picturesque Sunday morning.  She was greeted with a homeless man attending to the finer things in life directly beneath the iconic arched entrance to the park.

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Not exactly what the esteemed architects of this beauty envisioned

After a couple of drinks there, it was time for dinner.  We headed over to the The City Steamer, a cool restaurant near my apartment that brews its own beers.  The doorman quickly told my friend, “no muscle shirts”.  We both burst out laughing.  Varsity is a tall, somewhat gangly figure who isn’t exactly packing the pythons.  We could, however, sit in the bar area if we wanted.  We found this funny as well, given our recent discussion on the haves and have-nots of Hartford.  Hartford is the insurance capital of the country so, naturally, the haves work in insurance and the have-nots don’t.  White haired insurance executives in the dining area and bearded men in cut-offs in the bar area.  A simple, albeit close-minded, social order.

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A “White Hair”

After an enjoyable meal, we elected to try our luck with the bars again.  This time we found a place much more alive.  Being from Texas, we instinctively gravitated towards The Rocking Horse Saloon.  Decent live country music and 40s of Old English in brown paper bags.  I didn’t even bat an eyelash.  Yep, this is Hartford.

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Yep, they’re up here too

From Swingersville to the Gulfton Ghetto, A Brief History

An introduction to Gulfton

Nestled between the Galleria, Bellaire and Sharpstown, lies the immigrant community of Gulfton.  Gulfton is a living, breathing experiment of one of Houston’s true eccentricities–its lack of zoning laws.  How else could a place known as “Swingersville” in the 1970s transform into the “Gulfton Ghetto” in a matter of a decade?

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Taco trucks on every corner

Let the Good Times Roll- The Swinging 70s

At the height of the Houston oil boom, Gulfton was a mecca for opportunistic energy industry workers.  Immigrants from foreign countries and transplants from the Rust Belt of the United States came in pursuit of high-paying energy jobs.  To accommodate the onslaught of young professionals, giddy real estate developers hastily constructed sprawling “luxury” apartment complexes with haughty names like Napoloeon Square, Villa Royale, and Chateaux Carmel.  These mega-complexes had all the amenities of a fraternity boy’s dream.  Pools, lots of pools (one complex famously had 17 private swimming pools, 17 laundry rooms, and 17 hot tubs1)  A few complexes even had on-site disco clubs.  Astoundingly corny advertisements aired all over town with the promise of everything outside of dancing mermaids.  Seriously, check out this old tv plug from the infamous real estate mogul Michael Pollack (not to spoil it but he spends time “pressing” on a Nautilus machine and a bikini clad bombshell emerges with the promise of a free VCR).    With all the hubbub, “Swingersville” had no time or use for constructing proper infrastructure such as sidewalks, parks, and libraries.

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The infamous Michael Pollack

 Reality Sets In

The mundane forces of supply and demand would slowly have their way on the Houston economy.  The oil industry cratered in the 1980s and the dreamy singles with the Kennedy cuts went back to their homes along the Rust Belt.  Blocks and blocks of apartment complexes rapidly hollowed out.  Landlords collectively crapped their pants and resorted to dramatic slashes in rental rates and the elimination of those silly background checks.  A new migration of lower-income immigrants from primarily Central America moved their large families in droves to now affordably priced apartments.  The population in Gulfton nearly doubled between 1980 and 2000 without construction of a single additional apartment complex.1  As a result, Gulfton currently has a population density nearly 8 times the average of Harris Country and 3 times the average of Houston’s inner loop.2

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The community’s park isn’t exactly pristine

Current Social Issues

This period of rapid economic growth followed by tremendous decline left a tightly packed cluster of aging apartment complexes with limited public resources.  The social consequences of this “build and bail” development philosophy were dramatic.  An unemployment rate that hovered around the 1999 rate of 12% and the earlier mentioned dearth of public resources (exactly zero YMCAs or public libraries) resulted in high crime and limited social mobility.  As feared gangs like MS-13 and the Southwest Cholos entrenched themselves within the community, Houston residents began to derisively refer to the area as the “Gulfton Ghetto”.  Additional community issues ran the gamut from a lack of public healthcare facilities to school overcrowding.

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A neighborhood gang, the Southwest Cholos

http://redcountyrp.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=271&t=33350

There’s Still Hope

Now here comes the positive part…there’s hope.  Lots of it.   The Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center was constructed in 2010 and represents the brand of sustainable development this community has sorely needed for decades.  The center boasts a community garden, a gymnasium, a tax center along with a credit union, and an on-site elementary school.  Neighborhood Centers Inc. CEO Angela Blanchard’s guiding principles are refreshing and inspirational:

“One:  The people are not the problem- they are the source of potential solutions.  And two:  Leaders are already there in neighborhoods, to be tapped.” 3

Staying true to this philosophy, the organization conducted a grass-roots interview effort to identify the community’s strengths and aspirations for the future.  The members of the community are correctly treated as majority shareholders in the vision and direction of the center.  Baker-Ripley now provides financial literacy classes, citizenship application services, tax preparation, and have even engaged in a bit of banking through partnerships with local credit unions.  These services mirror Blanchard’s second guiding principle of providing the skills to empower local residents to lead their own communities.

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Baker-Ripley Community Center

In addition to this impressive community development center, the area has undergone a number of educational improvements.  YES Prep and KIPP, two successful charter school programs, have firmly established themselves within the community.  Area children apply and are randomly selected for admission through a lottery process.  If you’ve ever watched the education documentary Waiting for Superman, you are well aware of the heartbreaking scenes of families not hearing their name called.  Whether you agree with the system or not, the tremendous weight families place on admission into these schools speaks volumes to the positive influence they have on students.

 Even Lee High School, the public school serving the area, has become the focus of national reformation efforts.  Efforts spurred by startling demographic trends.  School enrollment peaked in the early 1990s at around 2,500 and has since plummeted to 1,416 as of late 2012.4  Additionally, in the early 1990s only 1 in 4 students were considered low-income compared to approximately 80% in 2012.4  

A cold, hard look at the challenging demographics combined with students’ sub-standard performance on state aptitude exams prompted Houston ISD to implement its Apollo program, a partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, in 2010.    Apollo schools implement similar practices and strategies employed at successful public and charter schools across the nation.  The program focuses on re-evaluating struggling school’s principles and teachers (i e out with the old, in with the new), increasing instruction time and effectively using data to facilitate instruction.

This almost entirely immigrant community’s audacity to creatively attack seemingly insurmountable infrastructural, social, and educational challenges is truly inspiring.

1. Rogers, Susan. “Superneighborhood 27: A Brief History of Change.” Places: Vol. 17: No. 2. Posted on the California Digital Library. 2005. 37. Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

2.  Neighborhood Centers, Inc. “Houston’s Untapped Potential.” http://www.neighborhood-centers.org/en-us/content/Gulfton+Marketplace.aspx.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

3.  Houston Chronicle “How to build strong neighborhoods” http://www.chron.com/default/article/How-to-build-strong-neighborhoods-3979168.php.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

4.  Radcliffe, Jennifer.  “Education Secretary stops at Lee High en-route to All-Star game activities.”  Posted on the Houston Chronicle.  February 15, 2013.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.