STATE 17: TEXAS
Following our short time in New Orleans, we headed West along the Gulf of Mexico to the great state of Texas. We had some time prior to our STATE 17: TEXAS project in Austin, so we took our time getting there and stayed a couple nights outside of Houston to get caught up on some HAS HEART work and to briefly explore the Houston area.
One of my best friends from high school lives in Houston, so it was an absolute pleasure to be able to catch up with him and his wife for dinner, especially after a long of being a tourist.
Our first visit was to a place you wouldn’t imagine when you think of Houston — it was something Kendra found on a random website’s list of “Things to Do in Houston.” I had no idea what it was and didn’t see any pictures of it beforehand, so when we were driving through an endless amount of suburban neighborhood developments and then saw this appear out of nowhere, I was bewildered. Come to find out, it was a the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple.
Although it’s an active Hindu place of worship, it’s also open to the public no matter their religion or lack thereof. In our case, marvel at its 33,000 hand-carved Italian marble and Turkish limestone pieces that were hand-carved in India by 2,400 artisans.
Construction began in 2002 and was completed within 28 months all without the use of iron or steel. It took 150 containers to ship the pieces that were then constructed onsite in a tongue-and-groove fashion like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.
So… you’re telling me that they’ve figured out how to have artisans on the other side of the world hand-carve ancient rock into forms that can be shipped and assembled on site like it’s some prefab kit?? That is insane to me!
Our next “spiritual architectural experience” was a visit to the Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational space of reflection and modern art.
Inside, there are fourteen nearly-black paintings by mid-Century artist Mark Rothko that line the walls of an dimly-lit chapel. Unfortunately photos weren’t allowed inside, which normally doesn’t always stop me, but this was such an experience that I wanted to enjoy it without a distraction of making sure the composition and lighting was right. Sorry, not sorry.
On the other side of the bamboo hedges and beyond the “Broken Obelisk,” a sculpture by Barnett Newman (in dedication to MLK) is a beautiful public park littered with small groups of people picnicing on blankets, stringing on a guitar, and even playing hacky sack (yes, apparently people still do that).
We also continued through the park to the Menil Collection art museum, which is the centerpiece of the 30-acre neighborhood of art that is free to the public and the beginning of the larger Houston Museum District.
Although the installation is meant to represent the polarities of building and destroying, existence and disappearance, displacement and migration through the continual grooving and smoothing of sand, it meant something different to me.
My interpretation of this mesmerizing and hypnotic sculpture was that the farther away from our core or from our purpose, the faster we have to run and scramble to keep up. The edges of the rakes were moving the fastest to cover the circumference of the circle, whereas near the center fulcrum at the heart of the circle, the rake moves slowly, in control, and with a sense of peace at its own pace.
Simply while staring at the center of the piece, I felt at peace. I want to live at peace, in control, and at the core of my self. That’s my goal. And I suppose this + and - installation has become a visual adoption of my life’s pursuit. That’s how art can change people — it evokes emotions and can help us visualize our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
Since Texas is so huge and pretty straight on the highway, Kendra agreed to drive with the trailer in tow for the first time on the tour! We have this unwritten rule that I’ll drive when we’re towing and she’ll drive when we’re unhitched.
Yet, she was willing to try her hand behind the wheel with our entire life’s worth being pulled behind as we rode together into the sunset.
San Antonio was originally founded as a Spanish mission and post in the early 1700s, well over 100 years before the United States’ decision to include it as a state of the Union which then led to the Mexican-American war. The first mission we visited was Mission Concepcion, first established in 1716 in East Texas but later moved to San Antonio in 1731.
These missions have since become protected as National Historical and UNESCO World Heritage sites, but they started off as a way for the Spanish to colonize native cultures while expanding their Catholic faith and Spanish empire. As well intentioned as it might have been to share faith and fortune and health and education, it erased native culture — which is something early America also did all too well in our founding, and yes, unfortunately still does today.
There’s nothing wrong with diversity, America. After all, that’s what makes America the and of the free. Let people be free, let them live.
The next mission we visited is what San Antonio is most known for and one we’ve always been told to “Remember the Alamo!”
After visiting these historic sites, we wanted to experience more of the local culture, especially some of the Mexican culture that Kendra grew up in visiting her Mom’s family every year.
The Market Square / “El Mercado” is a 3-block outdoor plaza that is the largest Mexican market in the U.S. boasting over 100 locally-owned shops, stalls, and restaurants. Strolling underneath the brightly colored banners and even brighter shop shelves, I’m pretty sure Kendra was in heaven. She even Facetimed her Mom to share in the fun.
Living in an Airstream, space is limited. Quitting your job and volunteering for a nonprofit, money is limited. Very limited. So anything we buy is very measured and thought-out. However, the only difficult decision we had here was to pick which hand-painted guacamole dish we would buy.
After laying our top options out on the shop’s floor, we finally made our pick and we couldn’t be happier! We LOVE guac, and we love how great it looks in its special Made in Mexico bowl.
You’d think I’d have a hundred photos of all the guac we’ve made in the bowl since then, but to be honest, I haven’t found any. I suppose it’s gone and in our bellies too quickly to even take a picture of it.
After just a couple days of San Antonio sites and great WiFi at Braunig Lake RV Resort, we packed up again and headed Northeast to Austin, where we were hosting our STATE 17: TEXAS state project alongside USAA at their USAA Design Studio.
Instead of being surrounded by other RVs on concrete pads, there are woods, squirrels, birds, cacti, and even coyotes around us. There were large enough trees to hang my hammock on and work from, as well as enough privacy to cut my hair (and have Kendra help out with on the back).
Being a state park, there wasn’t any WiFi. Luckily, most of my daily work was preparing for a presentation with AIGA Austin, so I was able to do it offline and in my hammock.
Also being a state park, whenever we needed a break from our screens, we simply walked outside of our door and were immediately in nature, exploring trails and walking through streams. What more could we ask for?
Once our HAS HEART work was done in our Airstream, we’d explore Austin and see Airstreams all over the place as food trucks, coffee and donut trucks, bars, and just even sitting in driveways or backyards as AirBnBs or “guest houses.” Another thing you see throughout Austin is its love of neon signs, both old and new. We loved it.
One of our favorite things to do is to explore neighborhoods, especially those with interesting architecture. Austin, definitely has a modern, mid-century inspired, minimal with touch of Japanese zen, vibe to it, and we weren’t ashamed to creep on it a little bit.
Personally, I loved them. The wait was long and we were starving, so I may have been an easy critic, but my Mexican wife was a bit more critical of them.
Don’t get me wrong, she was more than happy and fulfilled, but between you and I, so has a difficult time calling any Mexican food “The Best” unless her Mom or Aunts cooked it — truth be told.
After we wrapped in Austin, we had some time before we needed to head to New Mexico, so we toured Southwest to one of the least visited National Parks, not because it isn’t worth visiting, but because it’s the hardest to get to.
Umm… I’m not really even sure how to describe this campsite in Big Bend National Park. It was overlooking nothing but the Texas desert and Mexican mountains. It had two perfectly placed trees fit for a hammock, and it was pull-in with plenty of trees, shrubs, and space between us and the next door campers.
Getting this spot was well worth the 5am wake-up call. The night before we stayed in the closet Walmart parking lot to the park (which was still a two-hour drive away) alongside nearly a dozen other RVers. Since the campsites were first come, first serve, we wanted to make sure we were the first ones out of the lot. We’re damn glad we did.
The only downside was it had no connections. No power, no water, no sewage, and definitely no WiFi. Which for a couple days, isn’t a big deal — which was all the time we had to spare anyway.
Plus, it gave us the rare opportunity to DISCONNECT. Unplug. Read a book. And enjoy each other and nature.
We made the most of our three day and two night stay. After setting up the Airstream, we went for a little drive to get the lay of the land and excursioned out on a couple easy hikes to get us warmed up.
As we climbed a large hill, we overlooked the Rio Grande River, the natural divide between the United States and Mexico. This beautiful landscape in reality was the border that is drawn on maps and continually debated about in politics and every day on the constant 24-hour news cycle.
This, this beautiful, flowing river that cuts through desert landscapes and shapes canyons is the visible and invisible divide between two nations.
Seeing it in person makes you realize how unnecessary and annoying all of the talking heads in D.C. are about this issue.
For years and years and years, people traded and moved from both sides of the river and back. They made friends on both sides of the rivers and sold their farming yields, livestock, and goods on both sides of the river.
Can you imagine having been able to move back and forth freely for generations and then have a distant law be enforced that now all of a sudden prevented you from living your simple, basic, and traditional family life?
Obviously, I’m simplifying any potential dangers and negative aspects of having an open border, but I am also questioning if many of those are just scare tactics for a political agenda.
In addition to the closed border, there are U.S. Border Patrol trucks and vans constantly driving around the park.
There’s also an intimidating border crossing building that even we felt uneasy going near even though we had absolutely no legal to worry about anything. To say the least, it was an uncomfortable feeling that negatively juxtaposed our amazement being in such a beautiful, natural piece of Earth.
The next morning, we took Queen Bee offroading on some narrow and windy mountain “roads” in pursuit of a hot spring.
But this wasn’t just any hot spring, this was literally right on the Rio Grande River. At first we weren’t sure if this was the right place by the way it was shaped, but then we dipped our toe in and immediately unclothed into our bathing suits to soak ourselves in its warmth.
For nearly an hour we had this ancient, natural hot springs to ourselves. We looked across the river to Mexico and imagined life in the old days when things seemed a bit simpler.
As the morning wore on and our skin was getting a little wrinkly, others starting showing up asking if this was the hot spring, also unsure of it even with us two sitting in it. It wasn’t hard to convince them that it was, which was good timing for us to continue on with our adventure through the desert.
We made the 55 mile drive across the park from our campsite in Rio Grande Village via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive towards our next mind-blowing destination: the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (see Map).
Having never hiked a canyon trail before, we were flabbergasted of the size and scale of the formations especially considering the fact that its been gradually carved away by water over more years than we can comprehend — especially since there were fossils still lodged in the rock.
As the sun was setting behind the canyon’s walls, we took a dirt road path back to the main stretch of land. And in case you’re wondering why the truck manufacturer logo is blurred out, there’s a reason for it that I might touch on another time.
We arrived back to the campsite very late. It was pitch black with a clear sky blanketed in stars. It was absolutely breathtaking. We made a quick bite to eat and grabbed a beverage and spent hours looking up at the stars from the privacy of our own backyard.
This was my first attempt at astrophotography, and without WiFi or cell service, there was no way for me to Google or Youtube instructions or settings — so I had to wing it. The quality isn’t great. I later learned the art of the perfect nighttime settings, but it’s a blurry start.
The next morning was a bit slower waking up, which is what Kendra and Noel live for — the two of them could literally stay in bed cuddled together all day if they could, whereas eager beaver me was ready to roam on our last day here.
After hiking the Western canyon trail at Big Bend, we opted to hike the nearby Boquillas Canyon Trail on our last morning before we had to check-out.
Along the trail, there was a honor-system trinket stand that Mexicans often sneak over at night or in the morning each day to set-up with handcrafted goods for sale to support their families. Meanwhile in the background just across the river, there were also a couple fishermen cooking up their morning catch.
We even met a singing Mexican Jesús. Not Jesus, “hay-SOOS.” We could hear him before we saw him. He had a great voice and was just hoping for a few dollars here and there to make some money. We didn’t have any on us, but Kendra exchanged a few pleasant words with him in Spanish before we continued on, later spotting his red canoe that he must have crossed over on.
Although it was only a couple day stay, Big Bend left a large impression on us. It’s a shame it’s so difficult to get to, but if you’re ever road tripping across Texas, it’s definitely worth the extra effort.
We pulled away refreshed after our ventures, but knew there was still a lot of Texas yet to drive through, including a random Border Patrol Inspection Station on a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere…
We were highly recommended by our Texas project videographer, Daniel DeLoach, to visit Marfa, TX. Neither of us really knew what it was or what to expect considering it was located in the middle of nowhere. Literally. But once we pulled into the Tumblein RV Park, we dug it.
After a long day of driving, it was time for a nap, which didn’t last long as soon as Noel made a new friend.
Marfa is most well-known for its mysterious Marfa Lights, who some believe they might be ghost lights or UFOs. We looked it up and apparently they’re just car lights in the distance that due to the temperature and air conditions, can get distorted and “out of this world” looking — so, we didn’t go. Besides, we couldn’t stay up that late after a long day on the road.
Bonus for us, the sunset put on a show that was even more impressive, especially with a couple other Airstreams camped around us.
The next day we explored downtown Marfa, from its historic Hotel Paisano that housed Western movie stars like Liz Taylor and James Dean to its eclectic array of luxury brands, fashion boutiques, gift shops, restaurants, and more.
Of course, we also explored the local neighborhoods which were a mix of run-down, dust-town houses to traditional adobe casas and clean, modern homes with a touch of mid-century inspiration.
The unique thing about Marfa is its history. It was basically a “water stop” in the 1880s during the railroad days. Then in the 1970s, “minimalist” artist Donald Judd appreciated Marfa’s ghost-town feel and its juxtaposition of his New York City life.
Gradually, he brought an art community to Marfa, transforming an abandoned military fort into what became The Chinati Foundation that brought artists, galleries, and art lovers to the middle of nowhere.
We only had the time and money to do the self-guiding “tour” of Judd’s untitled concrete structures (1980-84), which acted like beautiful minimal frames of the grasslands (cue the antelopes).
It’s funny because a small group of friends of ours have for years been talking about how cool it would be to create our own little town — not like a cult or anything, but just a well-designed, sustainable, community-focused town (ideally with some water, mountains, and great views!)… so to experience Marfa that had this resurgence due to an influx of artists was a small moment of maybe, one day, our creative utopia could be a reality.
Finally, after three weeks and nearly 1,000 miles of being in Texas, we were on our way out of Marfa but stopped by the infamous Prada store art installation in the middle of nowhere… which is a theme in Texas, in case you haven’t noticed.
To clarify, this isn’t an actual Prada store; it’s an art installation Elmgreen & Dragset created in 2005. There isn’t much of an artist statement about the piece, but my personal interpretation is how frivolous and unnecessary fashion can be in the scheme of things.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned on this tour is how little you truly need in order to live your best life. Don’t fall prey to the capitalistic hamster wheel that does nothing but lure you to buy more, more, more.
Instead, focus on the few items you need, appreciate, and have meaning to you. You’ll enjoy those while you enjoy the more important things in this short life we are blessed to live. Make the most of everyday, not everything, because you can’t take anything with you.
A couple years ago, what I assumed to be a parody of the Prada installation popped up around Marfa known is this faux Target “store.” We frequent Target more than most and have stayed in more Target parking lots than probably anyone, but this one — no, no. We peeked our heads in, but quickly ran out in case there was a murderer or rattlesnake in there.