I’m back!

The engineers signed off on our building on Friday afternoon, so I came in on Saturday and picked up everything off the floor and gave my office a good cleaning (with 11 weeks of accumulated dust plus a coating of plaster fragments for every aftershock it really needed it!), so I’m now sitting happily at my own computer at my own desk in my own office and actually able to get on with some work. Life is good 🙂

The walls are still full of cracks, waiting for the plasterers and painters to get round to our building (they’ve got a lot of work to do all over the campus, so it could be a few months before they reach us), but they’re not in structural walls, so who cares about the cosmetics – at least we’re back where we belong.

Remember that “big” crack I posted a picture of back in September? It’s grown a wee bit 🙂

I’ve optimistically righted all my fallen potplants and given them a good drink, but I’ll be amazed if they actually revive this time.

Right, time to get back to work!

From my travel journal: Saturday 9 April, 3.45 pm

Somewhere in southern Texas

Yesterday was the first day that’s been mostly boring, but it did have its highlights. The main aim of the day was just getting from Lubbock to San Antonio – a very long trip mostly across more wide flat plains with not a lot to see.

Just outside Lubbock was a vast wind farm – thousands of wind turbines that went on for miles along the road and seemed to stretch right out to the horizon. Later when we stopped for petrol, we were told it’s the biggest wind farm in the USA.

There was the odd animal on the side of the road too – we saw a few more deer, some buffalo, squirrels, and smelt a skunk (though we didn’t actually see it).

Once again, new food experiences made up a large part of the day – strawberry slushie from a drive-in restaurant (where each car park had its own menu board and microphone so you could place your order, then they would bring the food out to your car for you), and catfish and hush-puppies (a menu item that inspired a lot of discussion and speculation about what they were – they turned out to be fried balls of corn dough) for lunch in a soda fountain in a gorgeous old bank building.

Of course, the real highlight of yesterday was meeting MartiP and her family in San Antonio. It’s always such fun to finally get to meet people you feel like you’ve known on-line forever. (And she provided even more new taste experiences, giving us all sorts of tasty nibbles for dinner.)

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away to check into our motel. Then we headed into the centre of San Antonio to visit its river walk and the Alamo. The river walk was very nice – all the bars and restaurants along the river have outdoor seating on the walk, which is right down almost at the water level, so there’s lots of twinkling lights on the water, and the walk meanders under the bridges, some of which have artworks under them. Colourful barges drive up and down the river, and best of all, there’s a bit of coolness that comes off the river, much needed in the heat of the southernmost point of our trip (and this is only spring! I’d hate to feel what it’s like here in summer!)

The name of this restaurant seemed appropriate, somehow 🙂

It was too late at night to see inside the Alamo, but the outside was all lit up. Historically it doesn’t mean a lot to me (I know vaguely what it signified to Americans, and to Texans in particular, but it’s not really part of my culture), but I could at least appreciate the architecture 🙂

Back on the road early again this morning, aiming for lunch in Houston. There being at least three space geeks in the car, it wasn’t so much Houston we were aiming for as the Johnson Space Centre. The Space Centre was almost an expensive waste of time, being mostly a gimmicky overly-interactive “museum” of replicas, very much in the vein of the Antarctic Centre, but one gallery totally made up for it by having a display of real stuff, like actual moon rocks and dust, and a Gemini command module. And best of all, you can touch one of the moon rocks and part of the module. I don’t care how good the replicas are, there’s something totally magical about touching something that’s actually been into space! Big smile on my face after that 🙂

I got to touch this one 🙂

That’s bits of the moon!

We’ve just crossed the state line into Louisiana. First state line we’ve crossed that is a river, which means we couldn’t stop and take a photo of the “Bienvenue en Louisiane” sign, because it was too close to the bridge exit and it wasn’t safe to stop.

(We cheated and got this photo when we were leaving the other side)

The countryside since Houston has been very different to what we’ve been seeing up until now. Houston is pretty much on the coast, so instead of desert it was suddenly a lot greener, with swampy-looking (bayou-looking, actually, I suppose) heavily treed areas along the sides of the road. All this green is a bit of a shock to the system after a week of brown and red.

Three and a bit more hours to New Orleans. We couldn’t find anywhere to stay in the centre of town, so we’re going to be out on the outskirts, but we’ve got a plan… (probably one that will involve another very late night)

From my travel journal: Sunday 10 April, 4 pm

Somewhere in Florida

Today has been a day of many states. We started in Louisiana this morning, and have been through Mississippi and Alabama (or at least, through the little bits at the bottom of them), and now we’re in Florida, about four hours from tonight’s stop in Gainsville.

We crossed the Mississippi river yesterday in Louisiana (which confused me a bit, because I expected to cross it in Mississippi, given the name). It wasn’t as wide as I thought it would be, either – it was wide compared to NZ rivers (except maybe the Rakaia when it’s in flood :-)), but I’d expected something more like the Congo, where you can’t see the other side. There’ve been some pretty wide bays we’ve crossed on bridges and causeways that have almost met that criteria, though.

New Orleans was amazing. There have been a lot of perfect moments on this trip, and a number of them happened last night. After checking in at our motel we drove into the city centre and found a parking building, then walked to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. The atmosphere there was incredible – I’ve been to a lot of “party” towns, and most of them have a faint undertone of desperation – everyone trying very very hard to have fun. Lots of drunk people of course, but almost nobody was being aggressive (we did see one fight start, but policemen on horses broke it up before it even really started (that was really impressive to see, actually – they basically used the horses to create a physical barrier between the aggressors, and then when one didn’t calm down, they squeezed him between two horses to hold him)). It may have been that highly visible (but friendly – they were letting people pat the horses) police presence that contributed to the generally good behaviour, but there seemed to be more to it, like a contagious good mood in the crowd.

The policemen weren’t the only ones with horses – we saw two men taking a tiny shetland pony for a walk! They didn’t look the sort to be into ponies, but the mystery was soon solved when we saw how young women were flocking to them 🙂

We wandered along the street listening to the music (almost every bar had live music) and watching the spectacle, and even managed to acquire a few strings of beads each (we’re not telling how we earned them, though!*)

We had a late dinner in an oyster bar, where as well as oysters we sampled all sorts of local delicacies. There was much swapping and sharing between plates so we could sample everything: crawfish ettouffe, soft-shelled crab, gumbo, alligator burger, mint julep (that contained a lot more bourbon than mint!), a dangerous-tasting cocktail called a Category 5 Hurricane, and beignets. The waitress had the most gorgeous southern accent, called us all honey, and gave us each a hug when we left 🙂

Even though it was way past midnight and we had an early start ahead of us, it was hard to drag ourselves away from the party and head back to the motel and our beds!

* Oh, alright, we found them lying on the ground.

This trip really is turning out to be all about the food. We stopped for lunch in Mobile, Alabama, in a restaurant on the shore that looked like it used to be a fishing shack.

Felix’s Fishing Camp

It served mostly seafood, of course, and the food was amazing again. We shared a crab and spinach dip, then I had some sort of fish (I never did figure out which variety – the waitress’s accent was rather dense!) with hush puppies and fried green tomatoes. Even though we were all so full none of us had finished our meals, we decided that this time we had to have desert (an aspect of American food we’ve not sampled up until now, the mains always being so big that we’ve never had room), so shared a moon pie a la mode betwen us. Definitely worth squeezing a few extra mouthfuls in for 🙂

I still can’t get over the cheapness of eating out in America. Our meals today, including drinks, taxes and a generous tip, still only came to about $20 each. I’d have probably paid closer to $50 for an equivalent meal at home.

From my travel journal: Thursday 7 April, 3.50 pm

Still somewhere in New Mexico, about 50 miles from the Texas border

Stopped for lunch in Roswell. Aliens are their only tourist attraction, so they make the most of it. As well as the “official” UFO museum there are half a dozen gift shops (or “UFO and Alien Stuff” shops, as several were called) posing as museums, plus random other alien-themed places, including the McDonalds. We’d wanted to have lunch at the place we’d heard of that sells alien burgers, but couldn’t figure out where it was, so we ended up eating McDonalds. Could be worse, I suppose.

Even the McDonalds is UFO-themed

Skyring’s bumper sticker collection is growing

In contrast to all the new age-y UFO stuff was the stone plaque outside the courthouse, which turned out to be the ten commandments (rather disturbing to this New Zealander, used to complete separation of church and state)

We’re definitely down out of the mountains now – it’s starting to get very warm. The Australian four fifths of the team will be happy – they were all complaining about the cold yesterday (while I spent most of it wearing a t-shirt ;-)). Now it’ll just be me complaining about the heat… (control of the car’s air conditioning has been an exercise in trans-Tasman compromise)

In the last hour or so we’ve started passing little clusters of oil wells again. I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more of them in Texas.

Water tower, traffic lights hanging from the power lines… small towns look just like the movies!

From my travel journal: Thursday 7 April, 10.50 pm

I was right about the oil wells. Just across the border we went through hundreds of little wells, pumps bobbing up and down.

Lots more wide flat grassy plains (prairies, I suppose?). Where they’re farmed they’re quite colourful – intensely red soil where they’ve been ploughing, green where it’s irrigated (the same huge irrigators we have in NZ), and yellow everywhere else.

When we got to Lubbock we headed off in search of a local park that has a large population of prairie dogs. The park took a bit of finding, because the GPS once again directed us to not quite the right place, and then FOS, who was driving, managed to go the wrong way down a one-way street (luckily nobody else was on the road!), but we eventually found it, and then, after asking directions from some people having a picnic, found the prairie dogs.

They were so fascinating to watch, popping in and out of their burrows, and flicking their tales to us in warning. I don’t think I managed to get any decent photos though – it was starting to get a bit too dark, and they were a bit far away for my little camera.

Once we checked into our motel, we headed out for dinner, and couldn’t resist trying the Outback Steakhouse, an Australian-themed restaurant. General consensus was that the food was excellent, but had absolutely no relation to Australia (I’ve definitely never seen Chicken-Fried Chicken on an Australian menu!). We were most amused that one of the dishes offered was NZ lamb – that’s probably the closest the menu ever got to Australia 🙂 Good steak though, and the waiter was really friendly (and said “y’all” – I so love that!), so we forgave them for their geographical inaccuracy 🙂

From my travel journal: Saturday 9 April, 12.35 am

San Antonio, Texas

Yep, another really late night. After a long reasonably boring day of driving (though there were a few interesting parts along the way), we hit the town tonight… well, sort of 🙂 We actually went for a walk along the riverfront among all the bars and restaurants, and had a look at the Alamo.

Too tired to write more now, I’ll catch up tomorrow.

From my travel journal: Friday 8 April, 8.45 am

Lubbock, Texas

A very late night last night, as we all were reaching the end of our supplies of clean clothes so had to hit the motel’s laundry after dinner. There was only one machine, so it took a long time for our two loads to go through, and then even longer waiting for another guest to finish with the dryer. We ended up taking shifts at sitting down in the laundry room with a book, and it was well after midnight by the time it was finished. And then FOS decided to watch a movie on TV – I’m beginning to get an insight into why the girls are always late getting up in the mornings (last night was the first time I’ve shared a room with them since the hostel in San Francisco, because all of the places we’ve been staying in have only had double rooms, so we’ve had to get three rooms).

Wobbling again

Had a decent aftershock early this morning – a very noisy 5.3 that rumbled away for ages in that disconcerting way that makes you wonder if it’s going to build up into a really big one. It didn’t, but still not a good way to be woken up at 3am!

The really annoying thing is that we’re theoretically moving back into our building at work next week, but that was a big enough aftershock that the engineers are probably going to want to inspect everything again, which might delay our move in yet again… I am so sick of this hot desking!!!! I just want my old office back (and my decent computer!).

Cool (but very depressing) website: a streetcam tour of the central city “red zone”. I’ve wasted far too much time already this morning exploring it. Definitely gives you an appreciation of the scale of the damage.

From my travel journal: Wednesday 6 April, 11.15 pm

Albuquerque, New Mexico

If I gain nothing else from this trip, at least I’ve finally learnt how to spell Albuquerque 🙂

A very long and adventure-packed day. We’ve only just got into Albuquerque (ok, now I’m just showing off ;-)) at the very late hour of what we thought was quarter to 10, but we discovered is actually quarter to 11 – finally that time zone change we expected to hit in Arizona has caught up with us.

Earlyish start again tomorrow, so need to sleep now. Hopefully I’ll remember everything well enough in the morning to be able to do some catching up while we’re on the road.

From my travel journal: Tuesday 5 April, 10 pm

Flagstaff, Arizona

Apparently the time here is the same as it was in Nevada – no idea what those signs were about then.

Leaving Las Vegas (hmm, wasn’t that a film?) took a lot longer than we’d planned., Firstly because we all slept in after our night on the town, but also because the crack in the windscreen had grown to the point of being dangerous, so we had to first find the rental company’s offices (which took a while, because GPS woman kept directing us wrong – she seemed determined to send us to casinos), and then wait while Skyring filled in a million forms and the company found us another car. The new one is exactly the same as the old, other than the colour – it’s now a nice red, much easier to find in carparks than the silver one (though the NZ flag flying from the radio aerial also helps :-)).

The entire contents of the car dumped in the carpark while we wait for our shiny new red car – it’s amazing how much junk we’d accumulated in just a few days!

Anyway, between all that it was past lunchtime by the time we got out of the city, and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet (we didn’t have breakfast at the hotel, because we’ve been having more fun finding somewhere to stop along the way). So we stopped off at a Starbucks briefly for muffins and caffeine to keep us going for another hour or so until we found an actual stretch of Route 66 with an old 50s style diner. Cheeseburger and shake for lunch, of course – what else could it be? (I love milkshakes here – they put whipped cream and a cherry on top!)

FOS recovering from her burger (or possibly just hadn’t woken up yet)

(Yes, I am easily amused, why do you ask?)

Travelling through the desert was an interesting surprise. I expected it to be like in Africa, where the landscape is identical for days on end. But instead every hundred miles* or so it changed – sometimes very dry and rocky with just the occasional shrub, sometimes scrubby, sometimes grass, and for a while there were amazing windblown rock formations all around us. And then when we got closer to Flagstaff we found ourselves in a scraggly pine forest, still with snow on the ground – not at all what I’d imagined.

*We’re all having to learn to think in miles and yards for navigating. It’s very confusing, especially the fact that a mile isn’t a sensible number of yards! And having to remember that something being x miles away is a *lot* further than it being x kilometres away, which makes a big difference if it’s a toilet (or petrol, or coffee, or any of the other essentials of the road) you’re heading for!

Another surprise was the Hoover Dam. I hadn’t realised it was on our route until we suddenly came across a huge lake in the middle of the desert. A little further on we found a road leading to a viewing area with a great view down to the dam and the Colorado River way down below.

By the time we got to the turnoff for the Grand Canyon, with still 60-odd miles to go, it was obvious we were going to be racing the sunset, and that we’d at best have only a few minutes of daylight left by the time we reached it. So after consulting the map we decided to go straight to Flagstaff, only about 10 miles away (and where we were booked into a motel for the night anyway, having intended to go there after the Grand Canyon), and have an early start in the morning so we can backtrack to the Canyon in the morning.

So here we are in Flagstaff. No late night adventures tonight, because we have to be up super early in the morning, but we did make one little side-trip after dinner, up a nearby hill to the Lowell Observatory (which I just had to make a pilgrimage to, having done a project on Pluto in 3rd form science :-)). The observatory was closed (:-( it’s open in the evenings on Monday and Wednesday nights, but not Tuesdays), but I was happy enough just to take a photo of the sign and say I’d been there.

As we were leaving the carpark, our headlights caught two deer standing on the edge of the forest. DOS and FOS got out of the car and tried to get closer, but only succeeded in spooking them (yeah, calling out “Here Bambi” will do that – they’re definitely not cut out to be hunters :-)).

So, five days in, three states down already, and I’m totally loving it! This trip is such a wonderful adventure!