12.09.2008

Now UCM, Now you don't

Oh what a lovely day full of vague decay! When I rose this morning and ventured back out into the world, I was delighted to find that ominous clouds glowered overhead, and as I made my way east along the interstate, I encountered continual bands of precipitation ranging from a fine billowing mist to a torrential downpour so dense you couldn't see more than five feet in front of you. It was curious to me how each intensity level lasted no more than 90 seconds at a time before giving way to the whims of its neighboring weather. The occasional emergence of the sun from lacunae in the cloud deck made for spectacular displays of light and shadow, including a large arc of rainbow lasting only a few moments on the outskirts of Biloxi.
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My first destination of the day was the UCM Museum in the tiny town of Abita Springs, Louisiana, just northeast of Covington (http://ucmmuseum.com/). Say it aloud: U-C-M. You see 'em! You SEE 'em! Get it??? I belabor the point only to give you a taste of the tongue-in-cheek, mirthful spirit of the place.
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Artist John Preble has spent many years covering a vintage gas station complex with a wonderment of found objects, curiosities and treasures. John not only boasts one of the world's largest collections of paint-by-numbers masterpieces, but he's also created a number of elaborate animated folk art dioramas that are amazing and fascinating to watch. Here's a crude video of my favorite, the tornado scene:

video

I had the extreme fortune and pleasure of having the place to myself as I wandered about, accompanied only by the sounds of a light drizzle pattering on the roof and the thrilling strains of "Don't Fence Me In" followed by "Deep in the Heart of Texas". Once again, I found myself to be the only one clapping, but it didn't dampen my spirits one iota!
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One of the recurring themes in the museum complex is animal freaks of nature (what must the hot glue and expandable foam bill run at the UCM?) and in the misty Louisiana afternoon, the Allisapien resting in his empty pond was a powerful reminder that I wasn't in Kansas anymore, Toto. The deep South is a vast, undiscovered territory for me and I was delighted by this eerie welcome.
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I spent a good bit of time talking with John after my tour and it turns out that not only is he an imaginative and prolific artist, but he makes his real living managing and producing music. In a fascinating conversation, he excitedly described to me a powerful renaissance that's underway in the New Orleans music scene and described several "trad Jazz" groups that were making notable music and better than decent salaries by passing the hat at street performances all over the world (see the Loose Marbles on YouTube to get a flavor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUeI4Q9ePEg).
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As the screen door slammed behind me on my way out (it did not hit me) I experienced the distinct reluctance in leaving that comes at the end of a visit with a host who has been particularly gracious. Goodbye, John and thank you!
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To ameliorate the poignancy of parting, I proceeded directly to the Abita Brew Pub down the street to drown my sorrows in locally brewed artisan beer. It didn't occur to me (for some dumb reason) until I was almost in Abita Springs where I'd heard the name before - beer! Of course! I ordered an amber colored seasonal brew that turned out to be absolutely delicious - Pecan Harvest. I also ordered a bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo, expertly served with saltines for pushing the last dregs unabashedly into the spoon. This particular bowl of heaven boasted a nutty brown golden roux, but was delicious and robust even so. It was the perfect fare for a rainy afternoon of spicy mystery.
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I selected a small two lane blacktop for my exodus from Abita Springs, and truly savored the colors and sights and sounds of a remote Louisiana road on a stormy afternoon. I passed a place that made me laugh and laugh when I had time to consider it: a debris strewn lot with a complex of trailers patched together to make a domicile with a sign out front that read: "This Is It CPR Training". From what I could tell, the owners ran a CPR training business called This Is It! I wish now I'd stopped to snap a picture. Priceless!
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I headed back south a bit so I could turn onto Highway 90 which runs directly along the shore of the northern Gulf of Mexico for quite a distance. I started my trek in Gulfport, Mississippi and as many times as I've seen it, it still gave me a feeling of gladness to see the waves of the dull brown Gulf rolling ashore. I was especially interested in driving this route because I'd heard reports that this stretch had been particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and I wanted to see if the damage was still evident. Surprisingly, to me at least, not only was it evident, but I would go so far as to described parts of it as downright desolate! As I drove mile after mile of what appeared to have been a highly populated waterfront area, there was not much left but naked foundations and glossy new high rise condominiums, obviously built hastily in the still evident rubble of architectural ancestors. Typical of what I saw would be on a block of 6 homesteads, one might have remained standing or been rebuilt, while the others were mere weed strewn concrete pads, most of them with For Sale signs beckoning forlornly. The thing that really surprised me, though, was in looking closely at the remaining buildings and the foundations of what was left, these houses in general were zillion dollar homes, mansions, castles! I really hadn't conceived of this area as a glamorous retreat of the superwealthy, but that seems to have been who was hardest hit.
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As I rounded a swoop in the coastline just as I reached Biloxi, a bright silver gleam caught my eye, activating my magpie gene. I hurriedly pulled over to investigate the spaceship like seedling which was sprouting up right next to a highly interesting building that had obviously been devastated by Katrina but was being repaired with the most interesting truss system I'd seen in a long time. It turned out that what I was seeing were the Frank Gehry buildings being constructed for the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Arts. What a delight! How often do you get to see a Gehry building disrobed? The contrast of the desolation, the gleaming silver pods and the stormy coastline were sublime.

I resumed my drive along the coast and the sun began setting in earnest just as I turned off of 90 and rejoined the blandness of the predictable interstate north toward Montgomery, Alabama. By the time I settled into my hotel room in Greenville, AL (with a bag of Krystal burgers as my dinner - THANKS ALOT, Brooke!) the rain had intensified into a steady downpour and I happily tucked myself in for a cozy evening with the laptop.

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