Drop-Dead Gorge(ous)

After spending eleven days exploring “The Mighty 5”, I believe I’ve inhaled enough red dust to qualify for the first NASA Mars mission. Utah’s red dust had infiltrated everything, leaving a veiled matte finish on every surface: inside the Airstream, inside the truck, inside our undies, and inside our lungs. Leah and I were more than ready to move on to Colorado’s cool, crisp mountain air. Or so we thought…

We also thought we were leaving the heat behind, but unseasonable high temperatures followed us across state lines, where records have been set. All we’ve heard thus far, is “It’s not supposed to be this hot until July and August.” And at the other extreme, ski resorts in Utah and Colorado have experienced a late spring ski surge, with the Rockies holding onto three feet of snow that fell three weeks ago, resulting in officials closing the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, and posting avalanche warnings throughout the high country. If only the climatologists responsible for this hoax would go back to being less fake, then the rest of us would know how to prepare for normal weather.

Nevertheless, our first stop in Colorado has been encouraging, thus far. During our stay, the temperature at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park reached eight degrees over average for this time of year, which translated into a comfortable 90°F for us, down from customary triple-digit readings we endured while in Utah. It meant we could sleep with open windows at night, although it left us vulnerable to drifting cigarette smoke, and prone to a crying baby, a chatty family, a barking dog, and an occasional late-night motorcycle arrival.

Our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park afforded us two different perspectives: from atop the rim…


and the water’s edge.river view

The scenic road above follows a serpentine road with several stunning overlooks that highlight dramatic changes in the cliff face,wall detail

wall colorsas the roar of the Gunnison River echoes against the sheer walls of gneiss and schist.

long view of canyon

painted wallfissuredragon pointThe river’s pivotal role in carving out 2 million years of metamorphic rock has resulted in canyon walls that plunge 2700 vertigo-inducing feet at Warner Point into wild water that has been rated between Class V and unnavigable.

Gunnison River down the canyonCU Gunnison rapidsThe view at Dragon Point showcases brilliant stripes of pink and white quartz extruded into the rock face, personifying two dragons who have symbolically fused color into a somber Precambrian edifice.dragon wall

The view from the bottom up accentuates the towering spires laced with lush and vivid flora.ridgelinespiresridgeline1and focuses on an untamed water system that’s required three dams to slow the erosion of the canyon floor.

Ford and damAccording to Park Service statistics, left unchecked, the Gunnison River at flood stage would charge through the gorge at 12,000 cubic feet per second with 2.75 million-horse power force. Dams now provide hydroelectric energy, and have created local recreation facilities for water sports, including Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest body of water.

Black Canyon can be seen in one day, but a drive to the Curecanti National Recreation Area, 50 miles away, can easily turn into a two-day love affair with solitude and wilderness.

Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part One

Big Bend kicked my butte today, but it also offered the perfect remedy.

Part One: “Ouch!”

Just beyond the Chisos Basin turnoff, I pulled the F-150 onto Grapevine Road, a rocky and powdery six-mile approach to the trail head of our next adventure: Balanced Rock. Far from smooth, but never boring, the ride to the trail head was a struggle between watching where I was going and watching the ever-changing landscape through the driver-side window.

Grapevine Rd

“Watch where you’re going,” Leah warns. To my ears, it sounds more like an admonition.

Over the past two month, I believe I’ve finally adjusted to driving the F-150–becoming more comfortable with its size; more reliant with its ability to haul and tow; and more familiar with all the technology built in by Ford. However,   unknown to me at the time I bought the truck is a pot-hole alarm that keenly scans the road terrain and sounds off when approaching a rough patch ahead; it’s a cool feature that’s intended as an alert to slow down and avoid the upcoming ditch when needed. While it’s worthwhile and dependable most of the time, the only way to disable it is to tell Leah to close her eyes.

Even through we’ve been off-roading for over a month now, I have hoped that Leah’s anxiety and criticism about my driving would have subsided by now. My defense is always the same.

“You’re welcome to drive anytime you like,” I offer, knowing how intimidated she is of the rig size.

“That’s not my job, that’s your job,” she always counters.

“So why are you complaining? We always manage to make it back alive, and in one piece!” I protest.

And her familiar rejoinder is always ready. “Well, maybe you won’t be so lucky next time!”

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” I say to myself.

Nevertheless, the ride is distinguished by all the outcropping of rocks so close to the road. There is so much to see that is awesome, that awesome becomes the new ordinary.

crazy face

We soon arrive to a smattering of 4 X 4-worthy vehicles parked on a plateau beside the road. Not wanting to crowd the trail, I elect to drive by and continue on Grapevine Road to see where it leads.

“You missed the trail head,” Leah advises. Her tone now borders on admonishment.

“I know, I answer, “I just want to explore to the end of the road. It’s not that far from here.”

“How are you gonna turn around if the road’s too narrow?”

I am completely unaware of the “narrow road alert” feature on the truck until now. “I’m certain there will be a turnaround at the end of the road.”

“But you don’t know that for sure,” Leah continues.

“Just a little bit of trust, please,” I manage, “and a little bit of credit to the civil engineers who built this road.”

When we get to the turnaround at the end of the road, we notice an occupied campsite with a blue pop-up tent and a folding chair. We both agree that this kind of camping is far too remote for the both us, and just like that, we’re on equal footing again.


I’m pleased to see that trail head parking has thinned out upon our return. The hike is considered moderate—a mild incline of desert terrain with a steep eighty-foot ascent at the end—but my right knee is acting up from a twelve-year-old skiing accident, and two subsequent arthroscopic interventions. All I can do is keep pushing forward, watching where I step and how I step.

“I thought you were gonna take some Aleve before you left,” Leah offered.

“But that’s not an option now, is it?” I say to myself. I never realized until now that the truck’s warning system comes with a mobile app extension. “I’ll just have to manage,” I reply aloud.

listing rock

We arrive at the uphill finale, which is not as terrible as I had imagined. While rock scrambling is inevitable, the footing is reasonable.

the thinker

Interestingly, the pain seems more tolerable the closer I get to the hike’s payoff, which in this case is spectacular—a distant mountain vista framed by a window of balanced rocks,

balance rock

…and a new twist on an old cliché:  NO GAIN, NO PANE!

Stay tuned for Part Two: “Ahhh!”


Boquillas Crossing

Today I met a national park service ranger by the name of A.L. Weimer who wore a bulletproof vest and carried a police-issue sidearm. While there are daily sightings of mountain lions and black bears throughout Big Bend National Park, I think his handgun has less to do with keeping the animals in line, and is more intended as a show of force in case any renegade Mexicans or Islamic terrorists get any big ideas about invading the U.S. through Mexico.

If so, Ranger Weimer, who manages the Boquillas Crossing, then becomes our first line of defense. Of course, thanks to our 2nd Amendment, I’m certain that many park visitors would rally in defense of our great nation, and arm themselves with the requisite arsenal of spatulas and Swiss army knives, or whatever else they could muster from their tents and RVs to hold off a foreign attack on American soil.

regulation sign

Leah and I decided that a reconnaissance mission was in order. To get to the other side, documents are first presented to Ranger Weimer, a dour-faced, no-nonsense bulldog, who makes sure there is no misunderstanding about the prohibition of alcohol or tobacco from abroad.

Walking through the customs house gate to the waterfront along a garden trail takes only five minutes.

Custom houseThe trail ends at a sandbar where eager Mexicans negotiate with Gringos to ferry them across the river by rowboat. Five dollars is generally the agreed upon price.

ferryHowever, with the Rio Grande water levels so low, Leah and I found it cheaper to wade across fifty feet of knee-deep water to the other side.

Leah crossingLand transportation comes from Uber burros, charging five dollar fares to cover the dusty and shit-laden ¾-mile trip…

burro ride…to a white trailer check-point surrounded by cyclone fencing on the edge of the village. It was a treat to sit in Boquillas’s only air conditioning for a few minutes to escape the 100◦ heat, while our identities were checked against a drug cartel database.

Once Leah and I were cleared as respectable American citizens, we opted to lunch at the Original José Falcone’s Restaurant and Bar, the largest of two eateries in town…

Jose Falcon's…with an overlook of the Boquillas Canyon.

Bouquillas canyonMama Falcone was sitting on the patio in her kitchen apron working on a future needlepoint tapestry that would soon display in the family curio shop next door, while her nephew Renaldo brought us menus and took our order—chicken quesadilla for Leah, and beef burrito for me. Meanwhile, a family of three from South Carolina sat at a nearby table chatting it up with Mama’s daughter, Lillia.

Lillia was explaining that her father opened the restaurant in 1973 after a pickup truck accident put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The restaurant was a big hit among locals and tourists, with Mama serving bean tacos and burritos, and Papa schmoozing the guests. Thanks to the unofficial crossing, villagers were accustomed to serving up to 200 Big Bend visitors a day—mostly tourists looking to enhance their park experience by buying food and souvenirs.

After Papa died in 2000, Mama and Lillia continued the business until the U.S. closed the border in May, 2002 in response to 9-11. Consequently, the town’s tourist trade dried up, and businesses failed without customers.

red barThe town population shrank from three hundred to one hundred adults and children, with many leaving for Muzquiz—the nearest Mexican city, and a seven-hour bus ride away. Eventually, Mama and Lillia found work in the States, but returned home to the restaurant after the crossing officially reopened in April 2013.

townThey are hopeful for an economic recovery, but the town is in shambles, and it will take many more Americans to salvage Boquillas’s economy.

gift stand

burned out hut


After lunch, Lillia volunteered Chico to drive us back to the landing in his beat-up Chevy Silverado. Chico was born and raised in Boquillas, and although his two brothers have moved on, he has never left.

“I like it here,” he admits. “It’s very quiet.”

When Chico isn’t shuttling visitors between the restaurant and the water, he bartends for the only bar in town, usually serving up beer to the locals. “Cervezza is cheap, but gas,” he explains, “is very expensive and hard to come by since Boquillas has no gas station. However, American friends are willing to fill five gallon containers from the park store, and send it over by boat.”

It occurred to me that Chico was giving us good intelligence about his situation, which would be useful should tensions ever flare between the U.S. and Mexico. And I believe that given the chance, Carrie Masterson and I could turn Chico into a valued asset. We tipped Chico five dollars for the ride and the invaluable information.

Leah and I crossed back the way we came—by wading through the Rio Grande. We acknowledged Ranger Weimer upon our return, who ushered us to a virtual customs station, where we submitted our credentials electronically and spoke by phone to an invisible agent who scanned us by remote camera.

“Take off your hat, remove your sunglasses, and stand behind the yellow line,” barked the long-distance voice.

After answering a few routine questions, like “Are you bringing any raw fruits or vegetables into the country?”, we were safely readmitted to America.

Turning to Ranger Weimer, I asked casually, “So how do you feel about Trump building a Wall down here?

He looked at me sternly, and answered in a stoic voice, “Sir, we’re not allowed to express an opinion about that matter.”

But I wasn’t done yet. “But do you think these people are dangerous?”

He was becoming annoyed, answering more emphatically, “Like I said, sir; I have no opinion on the matter!”

I left Boquillas Crossing completely satisfied by our cultural exchange, and reassured that we would be safe from bad hombres from the other side. Fortunately for us, the citizens of Boquillas del Carmen are hard-working people. They are a small and subdued militia of struggling entrepreneurs who depend on us, and are more interested in fighting for their livelihood than picking a fight with their neighbor.

museumI have met the enemy face to face and I do not fear them. Their rowboats and mules would be no match against our ships and tanks.


“We’re on the Road to Nowhere”

After spending the day roaming through wide-open spaces at Big Bend National Park, we returned to our relic of an RV park at Stillwell Ranch–just outside the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center–to cool off under a revitalizing blast of AC running inside the Airstream.

The glaring sun and punishing heat of the day had taken its toll on us, although we were grateful for sustained winds of 20 mph, which seemed to make the temperature more tolerable. By 7:26 pm, temperatures had cooled down to 91◦, and we were ready to explore the road less traveled.

Navigation screenEarlier in the day, border patrol had sped past our campsite from the southern border, causing us to speculate whether an ICE officer had just interdicted an illegal border crosser. And so, with the sun at our backs, and our batteries recharged, I fired up the F-150, turned right on Texas FM (farm-to-market road) 2627, and headed due south in search of bad hombres. The radio god immediately synchronized his playlist with our mission, and delivered David Byrne belting out the lyrics to “We’re on the Road to Nowhere”.

From Stillwell Store, the 22-mile trip to the Rio Grande passes through Black Gap WMA (Wildlife Management Area), a 100,000-plus acre expanse of back-country wilderness—desolate and barren to the eye, but home to wandering black bears, mountain lions, white-tailed and mule deer, and javelina (think desert pig). The dusty two-lane road dips and pivots like a rickety roller coaster as it hugs the rugged foothills of the Sierra Larga range across the vast Chihuahuan Desert, until the DEAD-END sign appears.

Just around the corner lies an impassable single-lane border crossing known as the La Linda International Bridge, doomed and defunct for the past 20 years. Broken pieces of barricade and rubbish line the roadbed, with a reinforced batting cage wrapped around the guard rails. It looks like a free-standing prison door resting on a concrete pile.

bridge detailHistorically, the bridge was constructed by Dow Chemical in 1964 to transport fluorite from Coahuilan mines across Heath Canyon to America. But U.S. and Mexican authorities shuttered the bridge in 1997, suspecting drug smuggling. Other reports cite the murder of a Mexican customs official as the reason behind the bridge closure.

The setting surrounding the bridge is eerily reminiscent of any post-apocalyptic scene from “The Hunger Games”. Except for a few pesky flies, the area is lifeless, and the quiet is disturbing.

bridge overview.jpgAcross the border stand the remnants of a faded factory.

MineBroken buildings and slanted warehouses survive in silence against a brown mountain backdrop.

Safety and SecurityYet in the distance to the right of the river, La Linda mission stands alone—its double towers dwarfed by nature’s majesty, and its church doors removed for a purpose higher than God.

La Linda MissionThere are those who would welcome a return to the border crossing.

border obliskCommittee meetings and feasibility studies on both sides of the river argue the benefits of potential tourism and ease of crossing without traveling to either Del Rio or Presidio. Currently, a legal crossing to La Linda would take nearly 10 hours by car versus 10 minutes by illegal foot path. But there are no travelers today, or at any other times. It’s just too remote.

canyon CU
U.S. on the left, Mexico on the right

The thought of running a wall through the middle of La Linda International Bridge brings a smile to my face, knowing that in securing our border, we would be protecting and defending America against Mexican solitude and desolation.

David Byrne’s prophetic words still echo with irony:

“They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right.”

Here T(w)oday, Guano T(w)omorrow–the Sequel

If you love the smell of ammonia (and who doesn’t), then Stuart Bat Cave in Kickapoo Cavern State Park should be on your bucket list. When approaching the entrance, the acrid smell of guano is omnipresent, and for good reason, since Stuart Bat Cave is home to 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats from spring through fall.

Each day at dusk, a stream of bats can be seen circling the mouth of the cave– approximately 25 feet across–around and around and around, accelerating to speeds of 60 mph until they explode from the darkness…

co4.jpgbat hole (2).jpg

best bat2.jpgand into the twilight, fluttering en masse, up and over the trees.

Bat sky wide.jpgA continuous and frenzied swarm pours from the cave in a procession that could last up to two hours.

Bat silhouette.jpgWith the exception of some rogue bats that fly off in scattered directions, the mother lode hooks right and follows a path 50 miles due east to Uvalde in search of mosquitoes and corn earworms, a tasty moth that wreaks havoc on a number of Southern crops.

By the time they return at dawn, each bat will have eaten up to three-quarters of its body weight, which is collectively equivalent to 10 tons of insects, and easily explains the pungent odor by the cave.

Best 3.jpgHistorically, the Sergeant family, who farmed this property from the early 1900’s, protected the cave entrance with fencing in order to mine the accumulated guano, which provided important income to the ranchers until 1957 when sold as premium fertilizer and an explosive constituent.

bat sky.jpgHaving over-nighted for three days in the park, I can testify that there is no shortage of annoying bugs here. Not to be selfish, but I’d like to propose that some of the bats stay behind and clean up inside the park’s perimeter. If the bats only knew that they could dine closer to home–forsaking the 100-mile round-trip–then I could better enjoy my outdoor dinner plans as well.

flash bat (2).jpg

Remembering the à la Mode

April 20 represented a milestone in my life. It was officially the first day of my retirement. It also coincided with a counter-culture connection to cannabis consumption (known in hippie parlance as “420”), and it was the carnival kick-off for Fiesta San Antonio. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a celebration without participation in both events, all topped off by fireworks.

I have worked at many jobs spanning many different careers and found all of them gratifying in one way or another. Each job seemed to prepare me for the next one, even though the steps in-between were uneven and varied, or complete leaps of faith. I suppose I attribute my jack-of-all-trades mentality to a restlessness that overcame me by travelling throughout Europe the summer after my sophomore year in college.

When I returned to school, I abruptly changed my major from political science to sociology and photography, hoping that an understanding of people and pictures would carry me to different places.

My last job/career as a special education teacher in New York City’s high schools for the past eleven years came close to realizing that dream, as I taught inner city teenagers about the world around them through words and images. But the time was right to put it all behind me, and resume my quest for some kind of redemption by reducing my footprint and refining my senses. It was time to travel again… although this time, in style.

At precisely 4:20 pm, the ceremonial lighting of a glazed metallic iguana pipe set the mood for what was to become an epic evening in downtown San Antonio, made easy via a VIA bus shelter conveniently located directly across the street from Traveler’s World RV Resort. (The bus runs every half-hour, and costs just $1.30 a piece to carry us to the party zone.)

Once there and navigating through the thick stew of resident revelers, it becomes apparent that three things matter most to fiesta folk: medals, eggs and hats. Sashes, vests and tallis-like scarves provide opportunities for collecting even more medals and pins on an already crowded chest. Bragging rights belong to the San Antonians who would collapse under the weight if wasn’t for the support of others to hold them up.

King Antonio and his Court

Equally as important are confetti-filled eggs (drained and decorated cascarones) available by the dozen for the sole purpose of smashing them over the heads of adoring neighbors, and showering them with good luck. Even the cops showed signs of confetti dandruff, making police assault okay for the day.

egg smash.jpg

Lastly, thematic hats of all shapes and colors are easily the most conspicuous sign of extroverted behavior at the Fiesta with a special nod to “size matters”. This is a post-Easter parade gone sideways, where the most ridiculous rule. Carmen Miranda awards for the day go to the following:

3 some hat.jpg

butterfly hat.jpg

flower hat.jpg

potato head hat.jpg

spurs hat.jpg

beer hat.jpg

phone man .jpg

Food is also an important part of any fair. Vendors with tents and trucks tempted the hungry with long lines for tacos, tamales and turkey legs.

turkey lady.jpg

taco man.jpg

Yet somehow, Leah and I managed to circumvent the lines by inadvertently crashing the Taste of Texas, a VIP event for those willing to shell out $100 per ticket for tasty tapas.

taste of texas.jpg

We noticed a sophisticated crowd of people in a courtyard behind a hedge who were enjoying themselves, and thought to check it out, unaware–until we crossed over an ivy walkway–that wristband entry was required. It was easy pretending that we belonged with our hands in our pockets.

T of T ariel.jpg

We even got the chance to mingle with Fiesta royalty.


The evening ended with a fireworks display in the presence of the Tower of Americas, San Antonio’s tallest lookout, which dates back to the 1968 World’s Fair. It was definitely the icing on the cake, and the cherry on the sundae.

FW 1.jpg



It was Alamo à la mode!

Lady Bird! Lady Bird! Fly Away Home

A photo essay with pops of colors under gray skies at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center…

bdlg exterior.jpg
Observation tower
Mission statement
LBJ mission statement
Serenity Fountain
Purple Bluebonnet
Antelope horns
Antelope horns
lace cactus.jpg
Lace cacti
Winecups with African daisy
Gregg’s mistflower
cactus flower.jpg
Prickly pear
cactus bee.jpg
Prickly pear blossom and honey bee
Texas bluebell.jpg
Texas bluebell

Here Today, Guano Tomorrow

Hundreds of people are standing on or below the South Congress Bridge in Austin, TX and waiting for sunset, which is expected at 8:20pm tonight. Most are tourists with cell phones or bulky cameras, eagerly anticipating the torrent of bats soon to emerge from their roost under the bridge.

The atmosphere is circus-like. Everyone is talking excitedly about the upcoming attraction. Young and old stand shoulder to shoulder;

people on bridge.jpgor find a blanket-sized parcel of grass to relax and watch the sun go down;

Lawn for bats (3).jpgor pull up in a boat to wait for showtime.

kayak.jpgOne fellow standing behind me seems to be mystified by the whole experience. “Are they gonna fly outta that sewer hole over there?” he wonders out loud.

P1010402.JPGHis misconception is immediately corrected by a 10-year old standing nearby. “Hey mister, this isn’t Batman, y’know! They come out from under the bridge where they live,” says Einstein boy.

“I hope they don’t come around me…that shit is poison,” says sewer man.

bat warnings.jpgI too am excited to catch the bats in flight, but I’m also interested in doing something different with my Lumix, which I’m still learning to use. I’m determined to capture the bats in motion!

As twilight approaches, the throng fills the empty spaces of lawn and becomes more animated.throng.jpgThe moment arrives when the first bats emerge, and the crowd gets giddy.

bat flight1.jpgAnd moments later, the floodgates open, and the bats streak across the night sky by the thousands–

bat flight2.jpga migration wave of epic proportions that approaches a feeding frenzy.

bat flight3.jpgI confess that the photos are experimental. However, I understand that there are traditionalists who need to see things as they are, versus my interpretation of the event. So, in fairness to those whose vision is less oblique than mine, I’ve increased the camera’s shutter speed to give a more accurate representation of the bats’ flight path…

Blue Angels.jpgsuch that even Meat Loaf would be impressed.

Road Toad

Driving across vast terrain of boring interstate highway can easily give rise to a semi-serious anxiety disorder called scenery-itis. It can make a person wistful and cranky after extended exposure, and at worst, it can turn other drivers into road toads–a chronic condition of a different sort, where motorists believe they can leap and fly.

Researchers have been studying this condition for as long as Sears & Roebucks have been offering driving licenses to the blind, yet they have very limited data to advance the science. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating behaviors they have chronicled to date.

For instance, three tell-tale signs commonly associated with scenery-itis that can trigger an onset are: disinterested animals grazing on roadside pastures; personal injury lawyers predominating the signscape with same-number telephone numbers (call me at 666-6666); and pecan pie outlets competing with beef jerky huts as the only available proteins.

Symptomatic drivers should pull off the road immediately after experiencing bouts of excessive yawning, blurry vision, and an inclination to count the bugs that kamikaze into their windshield.

There are two known variations of the disorder. One is called Buc-ee’s-osis, which is a knee-jerkey fixation with gas station mascots when your vehicle needs fuel.

buc ee's.jpgThe other condition is a more common affliction commonly known as drifting-into-ditch-itis.

Unfortunately, the only known cure is driving through Utah, which does little good for a driver in Texas.

Donations are now being accepted at this blog to get me to Utah as soon as possible.

Some Like It Hot

Down on Avery Island–in the thick of Cajun country, just up some from the Atchafalaya Delta–is a place where mosquitoes explode if they bite you. At least, that’s what they tell you on the company tour.

tabasco museum.jpg

It’s where the McIlhenney family has been making Tabasco Sauce the same way since 1868.

early years.jpg

It’s an interesting process that has much in common with fine wine or Kentucky bourbon, but doesn’t require an ID to buy it or try it. Although, some common sense should dictate how much you pour to invigorate your étouffée or gumbo.

The sauce begins with a special strain of tabasco pepper seed that sprouts in a greenhouse nursery before it’s transplanted into rich and fertile alluvial soil.

pepper plant.jpg

A graduated color stick determines the precise shade of the ripened red pepper before it’s properly picked by Peter, and crushed into a mash mixed with salt mined from the family property.

salt mine.jpg

Company coopers prepare and sanitize 60-gallon white oak barrels reinforced with forged iron bands…


where the mash is stored and sealed with crusted salt, and left to age for up to three years for the traditional heat, and between eight and ten years for the “reserve” collection. It was dizzying, just standing by the storage shed to take a photograph and inhaling the pungent aroma of fermenting peppers.

wall to wall barrels.jpg

When the mash is “ready”, it’s sent to the production floor free of peel and seeds. then combined with pure white vinegar, and monitored for three weeks before quality control personnel determine that it’s ready for the bottling plant.

add vinegar.jpg

Automation will carry out the packaging under watchful eyes at a rate of approximately 220,000 bottles per day to keep up with world-wide demand,


and a very demanding clientele.

queen crest.jpg

It’s been 150 years since Edmund McIlhenny poured his potent pepper sauce into recycled cologne bottles, but the five generations that followed have been loyal to the original recipe, and have grown accustomed to the savory taste of success.

Mad Mad Money

Stepping through the warehouse doors of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World is like stepping into a “Roger Rabbit” movie, where out-of-towners are dwarfed by larger-than-life “Toons” sculpted from layers upon layers of paper machéd Styrofoam, and painted in comic book colors.Bart.jpg

With 400,000 square feet of working and storage space on the port side of the Mississippi,

MGW exterior.jpg

a treasure trove of floats waits to be recycled in preparation for next year’s Mardi Gras parade just moments after masked marauders have tossed the last strand of beads.

Cat and heads.jpgSince 1934, four generations of Kerns have been perfecting the art and business of celebrating Carnival, always managing year after year to surprise the public with fresh ideas infused with craftsmanship and technology.

Kiss.jpgKern Studios works with dozens of carnival organizations (known as krewes) who finance their own parades through member dues and fund-raising to offset expenses for:

Chicken and man.jpgfloat warehousing, designing, sculpting, construction, decorating, tractor pulling, audio, lighting, and parade route security–all routinely costing $100,000 or more for each 28 foot display on wheels.

Queen.jpgBut what’s a krewe to do if they eschew the usual bayou reissue? The Krewe of Bacchus commissioned Blaire to produce extravagant figures and floats on a more grandiose scale. He obliged them with 18 feet replicas of King Kong in 1972, and Queen Kong in 1973.
King Kong.jpg

Mrs Kong.jpg

In later years, a Bacchus signature float extended to 105 feet, accommodating 86 riders.

Muses and Leah.jpg

This year, the Krewe of Rex, Mardi Gras’ longest-standing parade organization (since 1872) launched 27 floats for their 134th parade. And with 70 different parades running this season, Kern produced over 450 floats for them and others…

witch.jpg…which makes it (big) easy to see why Mardi Gras is such a cash cow for New Orleans, and Blaire Kern,

General Budha.jpgunless you’re a Buddhist.

Hail Lisa Marie, Full of Graceland

The Graceland mansion tour allows visitors to gawk at garish furnishings that are fit for a king throughout the year except on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

On those two days and afterhours, Lisa Marie (as sole heir) and her family are certain to emerge from their second floor retreat (which is strictly off limits to everybody else) and romp about the downstairs–perhaps to enjoy dinner in the dining room without the roped stanchions,

Graceland dining room.jpg

or take coffee in the living room.

Graceland living room.jpg

A private tour guide was overheard discussing Lisa Marie’s comings and goings, which have become more frequent now that she resides in Nashville. So it’s not uncommon that she’ll visit with her 8-year-old twin girls.

Since the kitchen is surrounded with display glass to preserve the $750 microwave oven Elvis bought in 1972, I asked if a kitchen existed on the second floor for family use during the day.

Graceland kitchen.jpg

Sources have confirmed that only a refrigerator exists in the living quarters, but if anybody is hungry–for instance when the twins requested McDonalds the other day–the Graceland staff was more than willing to bring it back, helping Lisa Marie avoid the paparazzi, and maintain anonymity.

“She could be upstairs right now,” said the VIP guide, “lookin’ down at you through that window, and you wouldn’t even know it.” That sounded creepy to me.

Lisa Marie fondly recalls the childhood years she spent in the Jungle Room while growing up in Graceland–feeling the green shag carpet under her feet, and snuggling in the plush barrel chair by the waterfall, usually while she watched TV (one of 16 on the property).

Graceland Jungle room.jpg

In fact, her father, Elvis so adored TV, that like LBJ at the time, he maintained a media room in the basement so he might watch 3 side-by-side TVs at once.

Graceland media room.jpg

And while the house is a triumphant tribute to gaudiness, like the pool room,

Graceland pool room.jpg

it pales in comparison to the on-site gift shop, where the public can take home an endless supply of in memoriam memorabilia.

Graceland graves.jpg

Because, Elvis by design, according to Lisa Marie, is all about taking care of business (TCB).

Elvis socks.jpg

Elvis wear.jpg

And at the end of the tour, long after the last pre-recorded note has been sung, and the last of the 2,000 guests per day has been bussed away, there can be little doubt, regardless of what you’ve heard, that Elvis is definitely still in the building.

Elvis impersonator.jpg

Smoked Meats

Memphis is the best thing to happen to ribs since Adam’s grand gesture to Eve. As one of the four great BBQ pilgrimages (including Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City) Memphis stands out among all the others given its sheer volume of first class BBQ eateries scattered throughout the city. Whether it’s a joint, shack, restaurant or food truck, the holy trinity of meats–pork, beef and chicken–are all represented here in Memphis and consumed in biblical proportion.

With so much to choose from, we went to the internet to narrow our options. Realizing our propensity for gnawing on bones, and weighing the opinions of the millions who came before us, we settled on a full slab with 4 sides from Central BBQ, a relative new-comer who has already expanded to 3 locations in its 15-year history, and a perennial favorite at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

We arrived at 7 pm to overflow parking and a lengthy line out the door. A covered outdoor dining room with family-style seating bustled with a blend of first-timers, students, families, and business types. Eventually, we approached a counter to place our order. We exchanged money for card #23 and sat ourselves, waiting for our food to be delivered 10 minutes later.

20170328_192658.jpgOur rack-for-two was prepared as 1/2 “wet” and 1/2 “dry”. The wet half was basted periodically with a rich tomato, molasses, and vinegar sauce laced with heat, while the dry half was rubbed in brown sugar and spices, rendering a caramelized crust during it’s 12 hour slow cook.


Leah and I debated which half we liked better, and unanimously elected the dry rub as our favorite, which also gave us the value-added option of dipping our ribs in: Mild, Hot, Mustard, Vinegar, Hot Vinegar or Sweet Heat barbecue sauce.

Our sides included tasty mac ‘n cheese, coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad with 4 rolls, all washed down with a pint of Ghost River Grindhouse, a highly regarded local Memphis brew.


By 8:30 pm, the dining-in crowd had thinned, but the take-out window was still cranking out orders. It seems the local population knows exactly where to go for its smoked meat fix.

A Hole in the Head

What’s so special about a 379 ft. hole in the ground?

Well, it matters to a lot of folks near the bottom of Kentucky, where the National Park Service legitimized Mammoth Cave as the 26th National Park in 1941. And it matters to lots of Black Americans whose slave ancestors have recently gained recognition as some of the earliest cave explorers before the Civil War. Of course, the biggest irony is that the most qualified cave guides couldn’t get work at the cave once the U.S. government took over the concession.

Stretching more than 400 miles in all directions, Mammoth Cave is the largest subterranean cave network in the world, with geologists speculating that another 600 miles of caves have yet to be discovered. But what cave explorers have mapped thus far, has brought international tourism to this area, and turned spelunking into a regional phenomenon. Hardhats with headlights are de rigueur in Edmonson County. And children nag their parents for facsimiles in the park and hotel gift shops.

Reservations during peak season are strongly recommended by the Park Service as tickets are needed for cave access, and group sizes are limited. Upon arrival, we were disappointed to learn that spring-breakers had overwhelmed the demand, and we’d be shut out during our stay in the park. We reluctantly accepted a self-guided tour that was underwhelming, albeit we learned that the cave had once been a mine for sluicing saltpeter (an essential component of gunpowder) during the War of 1812.

P1010177 (1).JPG

P1010201 (2).JPG




We later discovered that the park offers 16 tickets for the Frozen Niagara tour to the lucky few who are willing to wake up early and stand in line the following day when the ticket office re-opens at 8:00 am. Leah arrived at 7:45 am to find a lengthy line which didn’t bode well. With a little misdirection, she managed to cut the line, and snagged two tickets.

We boarded the bus at 9:45 am after a brief safety introduction by Ranger Jerry Bransford.

The ride to the cave gave Ranger Jerry a chance to tell the story about his great-great grandfather Materson Bransford, who along with Nicholas Bransford and Stephen Bishop became the first to guide the curious through the darkness holding candles.

His kin welcomed royalty and celebrities from around the world, including Jules Verne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Gen. George Custer. What a scene it must have been for the rich and famous to heed the commands of slaves while underground, only to be castigated as slaves when they resurfaced.

It was after a 30-year career in manufacturing, and a 55-year interruption of Bransford know-how, that Ranger Jerry accepted an invitation from the park service to continue the legacy that started four generations ago, and return as a Mammoth Cave tour guide.

Since Mammoth Cave is known to be a dry cave, there is insufficient dripping water to mix with limestone to form stalactites from the ceiling and stalagmites from the floor. However, Frozen Niagara is a rare exception for having a subterranean river that flows overhead, producing spectacular formations that continue to drip and grow, as they have for the past 250 million years.

Uncharacteristically, the bunker-like entrance to the cave yielded to a revolving door. The last one in had to volunteer to lock the door from the inside. On the way down into the tunnel through a narrow passage with low ceilings is when I yelled at Leah to “DUCK!” while she was looking for her feet in the darkness and heading towards a ceiling with no clearance.

“Owww, FUCK!” she yelled, her head bouncing off a knob of stone. It was only minutes ago that Ranger Jerry forewarned that “someone on this bus is gonna get ‘brainrock’ goin’ through the passage, so BE CAREFUL!”

I saw it happening in slow-motion, and I was powerless to stop her. I reached over to massage a knot beginning above her hairline that was fast-turning into a knob—almost a mirror-image of the stone she crashed into.

A woman yelled behind me, “Hey, thanks for the warning.”

“Look Mommy, I’m getting down on my hands and knees,” her daughter said.

“Get up, Cindy. The nice man said you can’t touch the rocks.”

The tour continued to a 200 ft. shaft of carved and decorated rock that plunged into a pool. We got to stand somewhere in the middle between top and bottom of this opening which made it hard to decide whether to look up or look down. Either way, it was breathtaking. I was delighted to learn that stainless steel railings would lead us to the bottom, providing another remarkable perspective.P1010209.JPG




At the conclusion of the tour, the passengers were directed to a gangplank lined with spongy mats soaked with Wool-Lite and water to decontaminate the soles of our shoes from possible exposure to “white nose”, an invasive fungus that has claimed more than 6 million bats in the past 5 years, and has appeared in 29 states to date. The original carrier was known to be an amateur English spelunker who brought the fungus across the ocean on his caving equipment. As a child, Ranger Jerry’s kin would tell him stories about ceilings so thick with bats, that you could feel the room quivering. But not anymore.

Ranger Jerry shook my hand at the end, and gave me his card. He wanted me to share his story. I would have liked to record Jerry’s story during our bus trip. Unfortunately, the idea occurred to me halfway through his spiel. But redemption came when I approached the exhibit area and discovered a video of Jerry’s interview playing on a small kiosk monitor. The audio portion was captured and may become available at a later date if I choose to upgrade my subscription for an additional expense.

In the meantime, the New York Times carried the following travel feature about the historic Bransford connection to Mammoth Cave:

Form vs. Function

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, there is no better rock to be living under than Fallingwater, located in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania along Bear Run. Where else could you retract a glass floor to walk down a set a stairs from your living room, and soak your tired feet in running water spilling over rolling rocks? With stone quarried on site, and repeated themes of cascading concrete terraces that cantilever throughout the structure to resemble nearby rock formations, I can’t imagine another residence anywhere that is so bound by its natural habitat.

P1010122.JPGP1010127.JPGFallingwater is considered the finest piece of mid-century architecture anywhere, and it’s a treat to tour the house from the perspective of the Kaufmann family, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the retreat at the age of 70 in 1935. Completed in 1937 for $155,000, Wright frequently battled with Edgar Sr.–a Pittsburgh department store magnate–to preserve his purist design.

While the family respected Wright’s vision and artistic integrity, moreover, they wanted a house that would work for them–a house that they could live in. And so, Wright, who was at the nadir of his career, and famous for his unwillingness to compromise, held his breath and took on a client who had an equally strong idea of how his house should function. That they would survive such a contentious relationship for the sake of art and design is a testament to patron/artist symbiosis.

The sound and smell of water is omnipresent from room to room. There are no blinds or drapes that would rob the senses of scenic vistas–only walls of glass that seam at the corners, or more miraculously, windows that hinge without a trace of interruption.

Much of the furniture is built-in, and would seem uncomfortable, as if to suggest to the tenant that it’s motivation is to drive you outside, where nature is always the winner. But there are touches of warmth as well, including a massive fireplace with a swinging cauldron that could easily provide gallons of hot toddies when pulled into the fire, and bathroom walls and floors lined in cork.

The steel beams that buttress the building are colored to respect the outcroppings.


And other beams are playfully conversational and conservational.

The notion of unifying form with function is always contentious. The language of one easily dominates the other, leading to certain confusion and discord. But if both sides listen at the same time, and hear the quiet between the noise of overlapping voices, then something wonderful happens, and it’s called Fallingwater.

There’s a Bunker in the Hill, and It’s Revolutionary!

Dave was our guide for the 90-minute bunker tour below The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Hallway (3)

It was Dave’s 532nd tour in the two and one-half years since he retired from selling Chevys in town. His wife had begged him to go out and do something that will keep him away from her while keeping him fit. Always a fan of history and meeting people, Dave now claims he’s found the perfect job since it requires walking just over I mile per tour while he lets us in on a secret withheld from the public for thirty years.

Dave led us past the hotel indoor swimming pool, built in 1914,


and considered the largest of its kind, built at the turn of the century.

pool end

Dave revels in the trivia.

“Do you know,” he asserts us, “that this pools has exactly 961,000 individual tiles set into the pool walls and floor, and I challenge you to tell me otherwise.”

“Exactly 961,000?” I contest.

“Exactly!” Dave reaffirms. “Don’t believe me?…Then count them yourself!”

Dave leads us through the ballroom,


and towards the newer wing.

Dave explains that Ike commissioned the clandestine bunker during the height of the Cold War so Congress could be sequestered in the event of a nuclear attack on DC. While it would not withstand a direct hit since it was only 60 ft. below ground, it could seal and protect against radioactive fall-out. The 2-level 112,00 sq. ft. bunker was built between 1958 and 1961, 720 ft. into the mountainside beneath the newly conceived West Virginia wing of the opulent hotel, so as not to attract public attention.

The bunker was readied daily–just in case–by attendants who masqueraded as TV repairmen, and remained secret until the Washington Post broke the story in 1992, calling a halt to Project Greek Island.

Dave also speaks highly of white knight, billionaire Jim Justice, who owns the hotel and also occupies the governor’s mansion in Charleston. Despite being a Democrat, Justice was elected last November with 49% of the vote in a self-funded campaign, despite Trump carrying the state by nearly 70%. Justice rescued the Greenbrier from insolvency in 2009, and spent $100s of millions on refurbishing, including a casino that required a county referendum to pass.


A final thought: While I understand the principle behind building and supplying the bunker back then to preserve and protect Congress for the continuity of our democracy, there’s no way that I could justify a safe refuge for today’s elected Representatives and Senators. There’s no way they deserve to survive us all.


The breaking story that put an end to the bunker that was hiding in plain sight:

The Greenbrier boasts about itself: