Made it through my first Texas Independence Relay back in March, herewith a photo of the fine folks in my team. I was quite surprised with how much I enjoyed the race, especially considering it was twice my current weekly miles. Compressed into 24 hours. Special thanks to Alex for inviting me to join his team and the epic trek through bucolic hill country, along winding highways and byways into Houston from Gonzalez.
a story for moth night at the ledbetters
1. After finishing grad school in Williamsburg, Virginia and knowing we would move within a few months, we decided not to renew our lease. For this reason, we spent about 4 months toward the end of the year, effectively homeless, all our worldly possessions in storage and ready for the move. A good friend was in India for a stretch, and he kindly sublet his basement apartment to us. Virginia in the tidewater area is like Houston in terms of climate, and our basement was quite dank and smelly, pungent with the fragrance of body spray, curry and mold. Occasionally bec could be heard gently sobbing in the shower over the chirps of crickets, keeping her company in there. At least 2-3 times a week, the undergraduates upstairs played beer pong, balls and solo cups connecting loudly with the wooden floor among the clatter of feet and drunken revelry. Vijay returned a little early, and in October or November found ourselves moving on to a hotel by the edge of town.
2. The hotel on the surface was much better than the basement, no crickets in the shower and we had a free continental breakfast every day, as well as a decent pool and Jacuzzi. We did notice a few other residents milling about, one room in particular attracted a lot of attention. This was obviously the local crack house or muster point for the Mormons, hard to tell based on the random clientele and their states of dress. Bicycle was also the preferred mode of transportation. Missing a stove or kitchen, we ate microwave lasagnas almost nightly and to this day get a little queasy at the thought of Stouffers. The hotel was to be our last stop in Williamsburg, and early December after a final interview at Penn State we began to plot our escape from the second worst hotel in Williamsburg. The worst in our experience was another hotel on the outskirts, our first stop in Williamsburg when fresh off the boat in 2000. It had what looked like a meth lab but no Jacuzzi.
3. Around Christmas we’d found a lease to take over for a few months in state college PA, with room for a little furniture, and so we started to look at truck rentals. One way seemed a little pricey, especially considering we’d need to repeat the trip for the rest of our goods when we’d found a house eventually. We both enjoy exotic vehicles (although Bec prefers her to be in good running order), therefore we decided to buy an old truck to carry us up there. Our reasoning was that we would have a memorable trip and a practical vehicle to enjoy and use afterwards. We consulted the classifieds and possibly craigslist, finding what looked like a suitable candidate, a 68 ford f250, located just south of Williamsburg in Newport News. The truck was to be a Christmas present of sorts, and Bec for her troubles received some clothes I picked hastily at the local target. Turns out they were radically the wrong size. There were more tears, this time by the light of our small garish Christmas tree. Also from target.
4. When I first laid eyes on the f250, it did appear a little worse for wear but lovingly maintained by the owner. A closer inspection revealed a hand painted powder blue and cream body, including some thinly veiled rust in the truck bed. However, the new engine leads, hoses, plugs and brakes seemed promising. We took it for a spin, and it handled like an Abrams tank. A standard transmission with four on the floor, little to no power steer and drum brakes made for an exciting and challenging drive. No matter I said, with my usual reckless abandon, it’ll do. And the price was right; for 500 bucks, it was a steal. We set out back to the burg on interstate 64, temporary truck permit in place and ready for anything. In what turned out to be a portent of things to come, I ran out of gas, finding out the hard way the gas gauge didn’t work. My resolve hadn’t weakened much. No tears from bec this time, just a nervous smile at my bravado, as we brought a jerry can of gas to our crippled truck resting suspiciously by what was a CIA facility. Keep in mind this is mid 2000s and the truck looked like something out of Mad Max, a generous assessment.
5. Sometime in January, we loaded up the f250 with a selection of items from the storage unit, including a large collection of CDs, books, appliances and small furniture. These were all held in place by a queen mattress ensemble, tied down with elastic netting, overall resembling a gypsy wagon. We loaded Bec and our neon up with clothing and perishables, leaving Williamsburg in convoy, by way of interstate 64 and Richmond to the North, then interstate 95 and DC before hitting MD and ultimately interstate 99 to state college in PA. We had completed the route some weeks prior for the final interview in December, last time in heavy snow, which the locals declared I was crazy to drive in. I get called crazy *a lot*. During that particular trip we noticed how many more trucks there were up North, mostly due to the snow and hills. I felt good leaving Williamsburg in a truck, a feeling which turned out to be short lived.
6. Somewhere North of Richmond and after a refill, I sensed the occasional bump against the truck body. It was hard to pinpoint and not very loud, so I thought nothing of it for a while. Over the next half hour, the frequency and volume of the noise increased, and bemusement turned to mild panic, something was obviously wrong. I pulled off near Fredericksburg with Bec in tow, and did a quick walk around the vehicle. The problem took a while to register, it was so far outside my experience. Apparently, my tires were disintegrating; I’d never seen anything like it, large chunks of rubber had fallen away, the tires resembling swiss cheese. This was just prior to smart phones, and at the time we had no AAA, so we decided to head off from 95 in search of new shoes for the horse.
7. I drove gingerly around the country highways of greater Fredericksburg in search of a tire yard. I don’t remember how we found the place, maybe we relented and asked directions. I do remember pulling up into what used to be a gas station and feeling a sense of relief; driving 95 is stressful at the best of times, let alone when your tires are made of cheddar cheese. A couple of surly guys eventually offered to help. After a quick study of the truck, they took on horrified expressions beneath the grease and sweat on their faces. It had been a harrowing experience, not to mention couple of months; our nerves were getting raw at this point. The more affable guy tried to explain that the truck had antique tires (I had picked up on that one) but what was much worse, were fitted with split or suicide rims, otherwise known as widow makers. Take them off wrong and they can decapitate or otherwise maim you. Suffice it to say, they wouldn’t touch the tires unless we also replaced the rims. I mentally sobbed in the shower, I think Bec was holding up better than I at this point.
8. Our cheerful mechanics pointed us to a junkyard out in king and queen county to the south, where we could buy some used rims. It was a long journey, practically back to Richmond, and there we also encountered unsympathetic junkyard workers. Nonetheless they loaded us up in the neon with some sooty ford rims, one on bec’s lap, three in the back seat and trunk, taking up all the room we had left. We made it back just before closing and thankfully our greasy saviors took pity on us, fitting rims and tires. Our two hour trip had turned into about seven by this point, so we charged out from VA into MD, stopping just briefly for food before finally hitting 99 North in PA around 10 pm. Even in the darkness we could see the beautiful vista of central PA open up before us. Not for the first or last time we felt like Ulysses, beset by endless challenges on the quest to find the way home. Eventually we would sell the truck, extracting the roughly 900 dollars we’d sunk into it, but not before I was pulled over by the cops, losing my license for a couple of days on one occasion. A story for another time.
We took our first trip to Mexico recently, staying on the coast down akumal way, picture below. Tranquil hardly begins to describe it. Managed to swim with green sea turtles, survey some Mayan ruins, indulge a little in the local cuisine and just generally relax with family/friends. A great respite, returned refreshed to H-town, but ready to go back to Mexico asap, maybe Merida next time.
Alas the wolfsburg died as it lived- painfully. Exsanguinated on I-45 by a piece of it’s own undercarriage to be precise. Apparently some debris broke off a corner of the drip pan, which proceeded to rotate into the transmission like a buzzsaw. Nice.
There’s nothing quite like finding out that your expensive DSG transmission is toast, which happened for the first time during a snowstorm in PA at ~ 50k. To have it happen a second time with ~99k on the clock meant that it was time for the knackery. Here’s hoping that the new vehicle is less of a money-pit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look at some expensive mods for my wrx.
After a successful day or so at Collision in New Orleans, we moseyed on up to Seattle for some R&R. Stayed first night next to the Safeco field, turns out the Mariners were playing that night. Enjoyed a meal in a raucous restaurant attached the SilverCloud, set out next morning for Pike place and provisions. The markets offered up a pleasant sensory overload. We picked up smoked salmon, hand made cheese, fresh donuts among many other items. Made the obligatory stop at the original Starbucks, ate at a Bavarian place that did a very decent breakfast.
On the way out of town, stopped by Mischief distillery in Fremont, for likely the best tour and tasting we’ve ever had. Our gracious host regaled us with the recent history, the sourcing of the (sustainable) rye exclusively from WA and area farmers. One of our favorite whiskeys was aged aboard a boat featured on deadliest catch.
From Fremont we drove out to snoqualmie in order to nerd out over the twin peaks revival, shot out that way. Stayed in the great northern hotel aka salish lodge, walking as much as possible over to the falls to take it all in. Supped on the salmon and other vittles from Pike place, washed down with Rye. Locals were accommodating and warm, especially in the town cafe(s) near the train museum and when making the obligatory stop by the double R diner in north bend aka twede’s cafe. Also managed to seek out the sawmill and a couple of other iconic locations.
Saturday we bid a fond farewell to twin peaks and drove on down to St Helens and the Cascades. Day was a little overcast (surprise!), the highest roads through the park still closed, but the cascades remarkable nonetheless. Shot over to yakima in the afternoon, took in the delights of N Front street including hop nation brewery, antolin cellars and 5 north for dinner. Our host Rob at the cellars was good enough to send us to the other destinations, including carousel for brunch the next morning, for quite literally the best pancakes we’ve ever had. Again the locals were extremely kind and forthcoming, especially over at hop nation.
Sunday before jetting back to Houston we took in Fremont and it’s market one last time, with final stop at our namesake, Brouwer’s cafe for the stout fest and the world’s best (lamb) shepherd’s pie. I did my best to put a dent in their extravagant and delicious list. Bliss 🙂 Thanks WA, you’re every bit as cool if not more so than CA.
We made the trek to Dallas last weekend in the wolfsburg with new front suspension, making the ride on 45 north out of Houston slightly less hazardous than usual. Upon arrival, checked into the beautiful Magnolia hotel, former home to the old oil company of the same name (that ultimately became Mobil), replete with exquisite tiled ceilings and décor, circa early 20C. Our uber driver informed us on the way to the Granada Theater that lower Greenville is home to a not insignificant St Patrick’s day parade, confirmed on arrival by the swaying lime green crowds. Swell. Turned out to be quite a friendly group, we even made some new friends in the hours before the Sleigh Bells show. Euphoric is the only way to describe their performance, one that still reverberates in the ears.
After an idyllic KLM flight, we drove bleary eyed from Schipol in our microscopic rental to Oud Charlois in Rotterdam. Upon arrival we negotiated a park on the street the dimensions of a postage stamp, explored our temporary digs and crashed in the attic sleeping space. Emerged from a mild coma and set out in search of provisions several hours later. In the evening,we reunited with dear old family at Schipol, together greeting the folks as they arrived from Brisbane via Seol.
Breakfast next morning was assembled from the efforts of our sleepy recon the day before. Lazy day spent walking the streets of Schiedam with mom, taking in the charm of the town lined with windmills along meandering canals. In the evening we hosted dinner for the folks and Aunt Riet back home. Sunday we reunited with Rob, Eve and their delightful boys, attending church together and catching up over lunch.
Lingered in Leiden Monday morning, before attending a singalong at a retirement home in Oegstgeest with Koos. An elderly gentleman sang us a hymn and blessing. My dear wife teared up. A coffee later at Katwijk, dipped the toes in the Noord Zee and dined at the pancake house in Liederdoorp. I made the regrettable decision to order a pancake with anchovies.
Tuesday was Nolet distillery, where we were regaled with several hundred years of history by our gracious host Pim. Off to Delft in the afternoon for a relaxing stroll with the folks. Wonderful to see them smiling and happy. Wednesday we met gracious friend and der reiseleiter Ralf by the German border ,who took us along the Rhine from Bonn to Linz and back. We saw many quaint old towns along the river, nestled among the foothills. Afternoon tea consisted of strudel and coffee, shortly followed by dinner back in Bonn. Thursday returned to Schiedam, for one last stroll around town. Entertained again that night in Oud Charlois, introducing our guests to Tex Mex, courtesy of Albert Hein.
Friday off to Gorinchem to visit a kindly aunt. From there a drive to Arnhem after lunch, and we launched ourselves through the old town for what felt like five minutes before meeting with Rob and Eve and the boys in Ede for dinner. A sublime meal and walk through the woods. Friday we moved to new lodgings, citizen M in Rotterdam near the equally modern looking Markthal. Our colorful shoebox was well appointed.
Saturday off to Konigshaven and La Trappe brewery for amazing beer. One of the old Monk’s asked if I was a hipster. Sunday, church and in the evening dinner with more family. We pored over and admired my uncle’s fine landscape designs, a few copies of which now proudly hang on our walls. I kicked back my last dutch pils for a while. Monday headed back out to Houston, very sorry to say goodbye to family, friends and Nederlands. A few pics here…
Recently we stopped by the European Science Café held in Montrose, for an event hosted by the Consulate General of France in Houston. We were delighted to hear Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano give a truly inspirational talk on his time at the international space station. Here’s a pic with the speaker and Bec; big thanks to Paolo for the recommendation!