Feeling like a Pointless Tourist

Some things have become kind of infamous just for being something that “needs to be seen.” Marfa, Texas is kind of like that. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t exactly have a lot to do there, but people still flock to it. I won’t lie, I’ll tell you right away that Marfa felt pointless.

After a day of National Park sites, it felt like the perfect opportunity to check out this tourist must-see destination. Most people know Marfa for the Prada store right outside its city limits. This art installation was created years ago and in this new age of social media, its image has become well-known.

I guess sometimes it is fun to just take the picture.

In general, the town of Marfa was very aesthetically pleasing. There were so many places in the city that looked “instagrammable.” It makes sense when you realize that Marfa is an artists’ community originally. But because it’s still a small Texan town, there’s also a lot of empty buildings and places that have fallen into disrepair.

It’s such a tourist town, most people plan just a day stop while passing through, so a lot of food places closed before 4 pm – on a Friday! After driving through town for ten minutes, I’d seen pretty much every shop left open.

I saw that there was a bookstore so decided to stop in. Unfortunately for me, this was actually an art book store. There were a few books local to Marfa and West Texas, but the majority were those massive coffee table art books.

There wasn’t much else to do but have dinner, so we headed to Hotel Paisano, where they had Jett’s Grill, one of only three places open. After that, it was time to meet up with my friend Austin, who would be joking us on the rest of our weekend journey.

We went to a beer garden called Planet Marfa that was one of the coolest (and only) places to drink. Something about this place felt more relaxing. All afternoon everything in this small touristy town had felt expensive and unnecessary – but finally here was a place that looked fun and didn’t charge an arm and a leg for a drink.

Sitting there, finally relaxing, we all waited for it to get darker and darker so we could check out the “Marfa Lights,” an interesting unexplained phenomenon. We actually saw lights! They were very distant and faint, but there were definitely one or two lights moving in weird patterns. And it was so dark we couldn’t even get a picture!

The one thing actually exciting in Marfa that has a purpose to share – and your picture looks like a black screen! Isn’t life funny?

Start Your Summer, Find Your Peace

I had a heavy wedding season this spring, so I had to halt all traveling for too long. I was so excited to finally get back outdoors and start checking off more National Park sites! Not only that, but resume driving the beautiful countryside from sun up to sun down.

After a bit of a nap after work, Jenna and I were headed off around midnight. Making great, time we arrived at our first stop, Carlsbad Caverns right as it opened! I had done a bit of cave exploration in Georgetown, TX, but I had no idea how big Carlsbad would prove to be! We didn’t think we had time to do the entire Big Room Trail and the whole descent walk, so we took the first elevator down.

It shot us quickly almost 700 feet down, which seemed great. Later I found out the descent walk is completely worth it. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff we missed, but a part of me is glad I got to do the entirety of the Big Room. Besides I need to go back anyway to see the bats, which missed us this time!

We were the first to step off the elevator and we headed straight for the start of the trail. Everything was so massive! It was like having the whole cavern all to ourselves. In the entire loop, which took more than an hour, we only ran into one person. We explored the cave, checking out the stalagmites and stalactites and other natural formations. There were also lots of pools and even one “bottomless pit.”

It was finally time to head to our next stop, the Guadalupe Mountains. I’ve spent the least amount of time in this west part of Texas, so the drive was incredible. It’s all plains until you spot the Guadalupe Mountains. It makes for a terrific scenic drive.

The highest peak in Texas is a part of this range of mountains, the Guadalupe Peak. There was no time this day and I wouldn’t prefer the insanely hot weather, but I have definitely put this on my bucket list. One day I will hike to the top of Texas’ highest point.

Continuing down the National Parks Highway, we were headed to the very tip of Texas – El Paso. El Paso is one of the only well-known cities in Texas I had never been to. We spent some time driving through the town, which of course shared similarities to Mexico, seeing as it is a border city.

Our final National Park site of the day was the Chamizal National Memorial. This site commemorates the peaceful settlement of the Chamizal dispute. Because of its purpose, the whole visitor center was focused on the idea of peace and diversity. Besides learning about this dispute and the cultures involved, it celebrates all cultures and the ideal of the “melting pot” that is America.

On the main building is a massive mural depicting all different cultures and peoples. It’s big and colorful and super interesting. It’s got JFK and Obama, Native Americans and Spaniards, and lots of different ages and races of every people that has made up part of American history.

Even though all three of these stops were very different, they represent the sort of things I’m discovering on my National Park journey. There’s natural wonders, and scenic views, but also the concepts brought to the world by man. We strive to seek out not only the physical attributes of this land but the meaning we make of it too!

Mad Dash Through the City

After our previous day of nature adventures, I slept good and hard. Now it was time to actual explore the city of Portland. Our flight home was at 3:40pm, so that gave us about six hours to try and tackle the must-sees on our Portland list.

We grabbed coffee next door to our Airbnb at Bushel & Peck (I’m a fan of any city that has a bunch of great independent coffee shops). Our first stop was at Mills End Park, otherwise known as the “World’s Smallest Park.” I sipped my coffee while looking at this little patch of grass – oddly enough placed right in the middle of a median – and was a little underwhelmed. I wasn’t sure why I’d been so excited to see this originally; I guess I’d imagined it fully and well landscaped since it was small, but it was kind of just some twigs with trash adorning it.

We walked a few blocks leisurely through downtown just to get a chance to see some of the everyday culture. It was still pretty early so not too many people were out, but I love walking a city and just watching all the mundane stuff there is to see. We made it to Powell’s Books, aka Heaven.

Spoiler alert: Powell’s was my favorite part of Portland. I know, I know, it’s just a bookstore. But it’s massive and has so much to see. It’s got new and used. Merchandise and gifts for book lovers (and gifts for nerds ha). They’ve got great recommendation tags all over and even have themed book lists. I wanted to buy everything, or just move in. Sadly, I didn’t. Instead, we headed around the corner from Powell’s to the Ace Hotel, where one of the oldest photobooths was still in use!

We took a few and it actually exposed and developed our film strips. I had to carefully pick it up as the sheet was still drying. I love that they kept such care of it and that it still works!

From Ace, it was time to head to a Portland classic: VooDoo Donuts. Of course it was very busy. There was so many bright colors and the display case turned and they were trying to efficiently move the line, I got a bit overwhelmed. When Jenna decided to get the original voodoo doll donut, I went for the same but in vegan version just to taste test. Now, it’s funny that there’s red jelly inside (pretend blood), but being not a fan of jelly donuts, it was a very unpleasant surprise after my first bite. Got to admit, not really a fan overall of VooDoo Donuts.

Right across the street was the iconic Keep Portland Weird sign, so as tourists we snapped that picture, and then headed to the outdoor Saturday Market. We arrived, saw no booths of food or crafts from local artisans in sight and were very confused. Of course, my research isn’t failproof (which we all know by now) and the outdoor market wouldn’t kick up again for at least another month. Bummer.

I’d done a lot of research on thrifting in Portland. I could tell a lot of the local fashion was thanks to thrifting and I knew from “Best of” lists that Portland had a lot of great vintage shops. I knew we wouldn’t have time to hit them all, but the one that kept coming up as cheapest and most quantity was the same one, locally nicknamed the Bins. It was a Goodwill outlet, where you bought based on weight. Basically, I got three tops for a dollar and some change – crazy!

All day we’d had little bites to eat here and there, but we saved it all for the outdoor food truck area. We were starving and there were so many options. I got a plate of hummus from one and a mountain of fries from the cutest food truck, Potato Champion. Seriously, the food in Portland is so so good!

Our time was escaping fast and we each had one more last wish list item. We grabbed coffee at Heart for Jenna and then made a mad dash for ice cream at Salt & Straw. I was flabbergasted at how busy it was – the line was completely out the door! I was so stressed on time, we should already have left for the airport, but it was one of the only things on my list and I was bound and determined. Luckily, it all worked out! And it was so worth it!

Finally settled in at the airport, no longer rushing for the first time that day, only waiting, I relaxed and thought back on our mad dash around Portland. It felt like we’d done nothing because of how many things we’d had to give up on our list. Compared to our leisurely nature day, our city dash had mostly been frantic. (Apparently more leisurely in the morning where I snapped the following pic for some reason.)

When I think back to rearranging the schedule or substituting, there’s nothing I would hang though. I had a full Portland experience, I just didn’t have the chance to fully experience Portland (if that makes sense. I’ll just have to go again!

Bad Luck Fixed by a Drive to the Coast

My only “real” knowledge of Portland, Oregon before this trip was the tv series Portlandia, which seems not too far off in retrospect. This trip was mainly for my travel buddy Jenna, who’s birthday was the following Wednesday. Her Oregon wishlist included lots of nature highlights, so that would be our main goal the first day.

However, we had to fly in Thursday night and I got to admit, our trip didn’t get off to a great start. Our flight had been delayed by three hours and so when we finally made it to check into our Airbnb around one in the morning, we discovered we’d been given the wrong code and our host was unreachable. We were tired and cold and on the phone with Airbnb support for quite a while. Not the greatest introduction to Portland.

They ended up giving us an old code that luckily worked, and we were more than ready to shake off our bad luck the next morning. However, the bus we’d planned was nowhere to be found. I took out my perfect schedule, and knew we would have to rearrange some things. When your transportation plan is derailed when traveling, it’s time to be flexible.

Originally, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (which is actually in Washington) was a “if we have time” item, but now it was within ten minutes of the car we would be renting. We lyfted there, and I was secretly glad to be crossing off a new National Park stamp and be checking off a whole new state. We arrived as soon as it opened and it looked very much like the little town John Smith establishes in Pocahontas. They even had a volunteer blacksmith that we spent some time chatting with!

We enjoyed the tall trees and open field, and I was reminded of the Park ranger, who pretty much said she was glad we were visiting but as a true Oregonite, wanted only visitors. Next we got our car, headed back over the state line, and checked out one of the top Portland tourist destinations: Multnomah Falls.

We walked up as close as we could get, and it was still pretty amazing since I’d never seen such a high waterfall (especially not on the side of a small mountain), but our bad luck would strike again. The Falls were cut off from the main entry because of mudslides, so we were only allowed a far off look. While still impressive, I couldn’t help but be bummed we wouldn’t be able to get closer.

On the way to lunch, we changed up our plan again to stop at The Grotto. We wanted to get rid of the last of our bad juju, so we headed to this Christian alcove which was full of pretty trails and one of the tallest, rickety elevators you’ve never seen on the side of a hill. There were lots of famous saint statues and a beautiful meditation building with a great view of Portland.

It was starting to drizzle when we headed to Bye Bye, a vegan restaurant in the heart of Portland. Optimistic about the nature left to see, I chowed down on a vegan grilled cheese and guacamole. Let me pause to say, I loved all the food in Portland! I could probably write a whole post on just the stuff I ate – and I just might!

We were headed to the coast in our rental car from a new app Turo, and I was really enjoying the drive. Oregon had equal parts farming and woods, so the mini roadtrip was pretty great. I love a good drive, and even though it was a bit rainy, that just added to the enchantment of seeing new things. I entered the winding roads of Ecola Park, and couldn’t imagine that we would soon pop out through the woods and be on the coast. But we did.

There was only thick forest, until suddenly the sky appeared and I parked at the top of a cliff overlooking a magnificent site. It felt like I was in a different country, one where tales of dragons and magic had been based in. It’s hard to describe the beauty. And even though I have amazing pictures, it still doesn’t really do it justice.

From Ecola, we headed south a bit, driving through the adorable coastal village, making our way to Haystack Rock. We enjoyed the beach, the massive rocks, the scenery, the ocean, everything was magic.

I fell into the water right near the end, but was having such a great time, I didn’t even mind. It was cold, but driving back I only felt happy. It had been such a great day by the end.

I know based on previous travels that things are bound to go wrong. When you leave your safe, predictable home, you invite something different into your life. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but overall I’ve found the journey worth it.

Deep in the Heart, Close to Home

Waking up well rested in San Antonio, I was ready for a day of exploration. Seeing old friends the night before had been nice, but I was ready to get to some new places and see a side of Texas I hadn’t before.

It was rainy when we headed to the San Antonio Missions. I was surprised to find out that four of the five Spanish missions had been moved all into the San Antonio area for better conservation. I was even more surprised to find the National Park site so busy! The visitor center was packed. The site seemed to be busy not only because of the National Park denotation, but also as a local Texan highlight. The shop was full of fun Texan gifts!

We got our stamps and listened to a bit of the history in the visitor center and then decided it was time to visit the biggest one (that was also the closest), the San Jose Mission. It was crazy how good the building was keeping up, and how beautiful the architecture was. There were people lighting candles and praying in the attached chapel, which was kind of great considering people had been doing just that in this very spot for hundreds of years.

It started to really pour and knowing we’d already seen the “best” mission, we decided it was time to move on. On our way out, we took the scenic drive to see what we could of all the rain-obscured missions. It seemed like a great route to bike, so I hope I’ll be back one day to explore more!

For now though, it was time to head to our last National Park site for our weekend, Lyndon B. Johnson National State Park, where the former president’s boyhood home still stood. At the visitor center, we read a bit about the history of the president and “Ladybird” Johnson. (I’ll always love her for her wildflower initiative, which to this day spurs communities to plant thousands of wildflowers all over Texas.)

The home was familiar in the way all old Southern homes are to me, so not too interesting in my opinion. There was an old double swing that was still in use though. The whole area was somewhat humbling, imagining a small boy growing up in a somewhat farm lifestyle, going on to become the president of our country.

Our final pit stop was Austin to see some friends before heading home. Funnily enough, this was another Dallas friend who happened to be in Austin the same weekend. It was weird how many familiar faces we were seeing during our travels this weekend. It made it feel like we didn’t really escape into the culture. I’ll never regret time spent with good friends, but I have to admit I might like the more remote trips than ones like these that feel more like home.

Familiar Friends in New Places

Looking at my National Park map, I realized there were still a few sites scattered through central Texas that would require a drive through San Antonio and Austin. The weekend trip would give me an opportunity to finally explore the landscape I’d heard of called “Hill Country.”

I drove this first leg of the trip early on a Friday morning and I have to say, I already wanted to drive it again as I was literally driving it. There were so many cute towns with chic antique shops and interesting coffee shops; there were so many colorful murals and friendly town slogan signs. These fun towns were separated by beautiful plains where the sunrise was easy to catch and the road seemed infinite (in a great way).

Our first stop was Amistad National Recreation Area. By the time we arrived, it had become a bit cloudy. It wasn’t too cold, but still too early in the season to really enjoy the water. Instead we explored the rocky shore and took a little hike along the ridge of the reservoir. When we got tired, we looked across to the Rio Grande River, which separated Texas from Mexico. After about a four hour drive, we were only yards away from a different country.

After a bit of nature exploration, it was time to head to San Antonio. I wasn’t sure we’d have time, but I was really hoping to get into town in time to check out The Alamo. I’d only been once before with my parents when I was pretty small. Side note: The Alamo giftshop is where I got my first rock pouch and is responsible for my low grade obsession with rocks and crystals.

Growing up in Texas my whole life, I of course knew the history of the Alamo (how could I ever forget) and had even drawn the mission quite a few times for work projects. But it’s been years since my Texas history. It was great “reconnecting” to my Texan roots and walking around such a well preserved part of our history. As typical with most Texans, I have a lot of pride in my state.

It was time for dinner and a bit of San Antonio nightlife exploration! My friend Gian was in town the same night for Army training, so even though we’d seen him the day before back home, we met up for a familiar face in a new town. I’d already spent a lot of time exploring the infamous Riverwalk on a bachelorette party a year or so before, so we wanted to check out what other scenes San Antonio had to offer. We headed for Pearl District and some of the new downtown bars.

My oldest friend Molly had recently moved to San Antonio, so I also invited her out for a drink to catchup. It was great, but also so weird to see faces from home out on my travels. Something about meeting these friends made it feel like we were just in a different part of Dallas. Even though the cities felt very different to me, it also didn’t feel quite like my usual escapism.

We took a long walk back to our car, checking out the tourists stumbling from bar to bar, and watching hordes of people making their way along the riverwalk. After a long day of rediscovering and celebrating my Texan roots, I was already ready to get back home. I love basically all of Texas, but the other cities just don’t compare to Dallas. I was born there and I think it’ll always feel like home. I think seeing old friends just made me long for my hometown.

Honestly, when I travel I don’t want the familiar. I want new experiences, I want to meet new people, and I want to become a part of the local culture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great seeing old friends! But I think in the future, I’ll have to invite them to join my travels instead of pausing them to catchup.

Long Glance at the Edge of the World

Canyonlands National Park is very big. We put ourselves on a time crunch through Arches because we weren’t sure we’d make it to The Canyonlands visitor center before it closed. From tip to tip, it would take about three hours to cross. And we’d never even heard of it before this!

The best place to start seemed to head for the section called “Island in the Sky” because it was the north edge we were closest to and a few other sections were closed for the winter season. Plus, Island in the Sky is a pretty cool name, so we figured we’d be in for a treat.

Surprisingly, it turned out every section of Canyonlands had its own visitor center, so after about an hour’s drive, we had our stamp and could stop stressing about making it through the whole drive in time. Now, we could relax and enjoy the Park at our leisure. Directly across from the Island center there was a lookout where we decided to sit for a bit. It was the biggest canyon I’ve ever seen.

On a ridiculous side note, this was also the Park where I made my first friend. Well, maybe just got my first obsession. In the parking lot I’d spotted the biggest crow I’d ever seen in my life! He was large and very vocal. I wanted to take him home with me. (Ha!) Instead, I filled my phone with at least a hundred pictures of him. I guess I sort of have him forever now?

Driving a bit further into the Park, we decided to check out the Mesa Arch trail because it was average difficultly and we’d already spent the whole morning hiking. Plus, we were really into all the natural arches Utah was showing us. It was a very easy hike, not strenuous or long at all. The path was lined the traditional way with stones stacked upon each other. We only ran into one family on their way out from the trail and then had the place to ourselves!

Even after starting with a great big canyon view, I was still awestruck by the sight of another massive canyon, but this time at its edge was a nature-made arch. There was something about these views which made me and my friends pretty quiet. Normally a pretty chatty person, I kept to myself at this Park and just stared out at the lands and colors for awhile without saying anything. It was extremely peaceful and humbling.

Tired from our day of hiking and fast approaching sunset, we decided to head back to Moab to grab dinner and explore the little adventure town. It’s so funny to me how every new town I go to, I can imagine the life I’d make there. I don’t know if it’s my wandering heart, but I often feel like I could be happy anywhere. The highlights of Moab were great beer, cute boutiques full of handmade goods, an adorable independent bookshop, and great coffee. What’s not to be happy about?

Walking lazily around the main strip, I could tell there was a certain sadness in the group that this was our last night, but also I could tell we were so tired from our adventures that we were all a bit ready to be back in our own beds. We stayed in an (Airbnb) cabin at the edge of Colorado for the night, knowing we had a full day of driving left to get back home.

I was glad though, thinking over all the new sights I’d seen. Honestly, I’d never given Utah much thought before. Now, I couldn’t wait to plan another trip out there. There was so much variance to the landscape from Monument Valley to Arches to Canyonlands, I knew I’d only scratched the surface of what Utah had to offer. All in all, this was a great last trip for the year of 2017, the first year I embarked on this National Park journey.