Once around the lake, James

I awoke Friday morning to crystal clear azure skies, scoured cloudless by a fierce cold wind that made the Spanish moss wave back and forth vigorously. We had made big plans the previous evening to get up early that morning and take a canoe out on the lake, but those plans were scotched shortly after I stepped onto the back porch and grasped how windy and cold it'd become - apparently a front had come through overnight.  As we packed, I broke the news to LadyBee and we quickly formulated plan B - see if we could instead find a local guide to take us out on the lake where we'd be pretty well assured of seeing some wildlife, and from the comfort and safety of our host's mechanically propelled boat, no less.

We went into town with the notion of first finding a cup of coffee and then seeing to the tour.  Our first stop was a
 pre-Sensitivity-Era-named establishment named Crip's Camp (photo at right by LadyBee).  When we barged in the door, they'd just finished pouring the last overcooked pot of morning coffee down the drain and then had the audacity to tell us they'd done so.  Too bad - we'd have to find someplace else to break our fast.  Our hostess Boo was apologetic though, and worked tirelessly to try and find us an escort to compensate for her lack of hospitality in the breakfast department.  This resulted in one particularly hilarious telephone conversation that I got to both eavesdrop on and participate in. 
"Hello, Johnny, this Boo, up Crip's Camp...Boo!....Crip's Camp!!......BOO you dumbass!!!  Boo WHO- yeah-ha, ha, very funny."  The poor fellow on the other end of the line was evidently trying to explain that Boo had the wrong number, but she wasn't having any of it.
"C'mon on you dumb son of a bitch, wake up!  It's Boo!  I got two ladies wanna go out on the lake and I want to see if you can take 'em."  More evasiveness from the other end of the line, where confusion apparently reigned.  After several more attempts at browbeating the poor fellow into recognizing her, Boo handed the phone to me, hoping I could penetrate the fog where she had failed.
"Howdy!  My name's Shiree and I'm looking for a guide to take two of us out on the lake.  Are you available this afternoon by any chance?"
"Well, first off my name is Ron and there's no way I can take you out on the lake, because my leg is broke."

I handed the phone back to Boo thanking her profusely, and assured her we'd be fine making arrangements of our own and so set out again to see what else we could scare up.  We pulled into the parking lot of a little place not too far down the road when we saw a sign indicating it was the Uncertain General Store and Grill.  Even more fortuitously, the red Open sign flashed coquetishly off and on in the window, suggesting the place might actually be open and serving food!  Yahooo!

LadyBee and I entered eagerly and started asking questions right away: Are you open?  Do you have coffee? Are you still serving breakfast? Where were you born? What is this? Do you know someone who can take us out on the lake??? Our juggernaut of inquiry was met by the equal charasmatic force of the two gracious and lively sisters who run the place, Kay and Nita (Nita at far left, Kay center, photo by LadyBee).  Along with our waitress and Kay's adorable (and I seldom say that word associated with children) grandson, the six of us had a grand time cutting up and swapping stories while LadyBee and I sat and ate our meal.  They were all so friendly and open and fun loving - what great folks!  After it was all said and done, I came away with not only a belly full of chopped bbq beef sandwich washed down with cremora enhanced coffee, but also a bottle of golden pink mayhaw syrup, a belt woven by a local artisan using aluminum can pull tabs, and a jar of mahogany brown pre-made roux for tricking people into thinking I can make real gumbo.  We were even able to arrange our swamp tour tableside before finishing our lunch!  How's that for successful one stop shopping?
Our tour guide Johnny (whether it was the same Johnny we were looking for before or not, I couldn't tell you) arrived just as we were settling up our tab and we were soon being ushered out to an electric paddle wheel vessel called The Swamp Thing that was docked on the lake, directly behind the Grill.  It's a big covered skiff with a paddle wheel in the back that runs off the same kind of battery you'd use for a golf cart, so it's nice and unobtrusive, perfect for sneaking up on unsuspecting wildlife.  The wind was still blowing a gale when we set sail, but we didn't care - we were bundled up snugly in our coats with the sun shining brightly down on us as we sat on our fancy cushions, drinking in the strangely gorgeous scenery.

We puttered through silent groves of monochromatic cypress, limbs bare but for a profusion of silvery tufts of moss waving in the wind.  We passed a few feet from a beaver den that housed three glossy brown beavers sunning themselves contentedly on the roof.  They were nonplussed by our passing, obviously enjoying the bright winter sunshine as much as we were.  Johnny filled us in on the history of the area as we toured about, pointing out the last remaining "tea house" building left standing in the region.  You see, in the olden days, the Texas side of the lake was dry (i.e., no fire water), the Louisiana side plenty wet.  Those wiley Cajuns soon figured out they could do a landmark business in contraband peddling to desperate Texans on the Louisiana side and cabins on stilts began to line the Louisiana shore offering, according to Johnny, pretty much anything you wanted.  Unsurprising seeing as how the area had long been  a lawless refuge of scofflaws and pirates (boasting guest appearances by Jean Lafitte, the rock star of pirates, even!).   The lone tea house left standing (tea house denoting the place housed a still) is now unglamorously used as a rustic fishing camp by a bunch of grown men that can buy cheap booze at the Uncertain Tavern instead.

Photo by LadyBee

LadyBee and I enjoyed our tour thoroughly, the serenity of it having soaked in just in time for our longish drive back to Austin that afternoon.  We hadn't been traveling long before the scenery began to change back from spooky cypress groves and deep piney woods to limestone boulders, paddle cactus and pesky cedars. Before we knew it, we were barrelling down I-35 from Waco, managing to roll into Austin just in time to have supper with Mark.  We regaled him with tales of the Uncertain Tavern and our unending stream of good luck with all the wonderful folks we had met and it made me realize what a lot of fun and adventure we had managed to pack into three short days.  But then that's par for the course when you're living large.  Wahooo!


Forest or Swamp? You decide.

Thursday morning, LadyBee generously agreed to accompany me on an appointment I'd made to meet with Joanathan Gerland, the Director of The History Center in Diboll, Texas.  I'd asked Jonathan to meet with us so I could determine what level of interest The History Center might have in a book I've been thinking I'd like to compile from their collection of more than 4,000 photographs that my grandfather, J. Shirley Daniel took as company photographer for Southern Pine in the late 40s through the late 1950s.  I felt really lucky to have LadyBee along since she's an accomplished art curator and photo editor, and has even worked in the publishing business previously.  Me -  I haven't a clue about what it is I'm trying to instigate here.

When we met with Jonathan, the conversation was amiable.  I left feeling confident that The Center will be supportive of my efforts in whatever ways they are able, because that's seems to be an integral part of their esprit de corps there.  Jonathan and his staff work tirelessly toward preserving the history of the piney woods region and they accomplish a mind boggling amount given their resources.
After our meeting, LadyBee and I spent some time leafing through a few of the albums that contain prints of my granddaddy's photos, searching for images we found especially appealing so I could have prints made of some of our favorites.  Louis the librarian provided the two of us with identical copies of each album so we each had our own copy to look through at the same time.  It was uncanny how many times the two of us wrote down the same exact numbers on the print request list without ever uttering a word of comparison.

As lunchtime approached, we found ourselves reaching the saturation point and concluded the exercise by ordering 38 prints.  It was time to get on the road and head north to the beautiful Caddo Lake area where we'd be spending the night in site-appropriate lodging. 

En route, we realized we had become famished, and began sussing up our limited roster of choices as we rolled through a succession of towns so small  that the only food to be had was fast. When we pulled into the city of Longview, I almost brought the car to a screeching halt when I spotted a Waffle House just ahead!  Wahoo!  LadyBee had never before experienced the thrill of dining at what is surely my favorite fast food restaurant, so I figured she needed to be initiated in the elusive art of a crispy hash brown and the reward inherent in a pile of glistening raisin toast.  All in all, it must have been an auspicious choice, for soon after polishing off my Texas Bacon Cheese Steak Melt, I found this Kanji character representing the words "hash brown" on my plate!  What are the chances?
After our delicious late afternoon breakfast, we resumed our push toward the swamp. I'd been telling LadyBee all along that we were headed to the forest, but in fact where we were headed was both. Not long after turning off the main highway in Marshall, we began threading our way through miles of greening woods and soon arrived in the tiny town of Uncertain, perched quaintly along the Texas shore of beautiful Caddo Lake.  I think you can well imagine, when I was planning the trip and saw a little place called Uncertain there was no way I was going to pass up going there.  How could you not go?  I'd found an unusual cabin where we could stay the night, one I felt lent the proper dignity and feel for the region: an old houseboat that had been pulled up onto land and made into a cabin!  It so beautifully expresses the noble spirit of repurposing that predominates in the humbler regions of eastern Texas.  Ahem.

One of the first things that strikes you when you get to town is the sudden appearance of the mirror like waters of Caddo Lake, reflecting light from openings in the dense canopy of cypress forest that covers the region.  Add in sheets and curtains and tendrils of elegantly lugubrious Spanish moss hanging from every possible tree appendage and it makes a hell of a beautiful backdrop for this rustic village of friendly Texans.
As soon as we had finished unloading our bags from the car into our curious nautical cabin, we decided to set out on a walk so we could explore the area more thoroughly before dark.  Our hosts had advised us to wander a bit on nearby Taylor Island, famous for being the summer residence of Lady Bird Johnson's family for many years.  Lady Bird was born and raised in Karnack (which is about 6 miles from Uncertain) and is said to have gained her intense love of nature from roaming the very woods that we were now exploring.    We wandered down a tiny road lined with guest cabins and private residences, pausing to talk with a trio of lightbeer swilling neighbors in lawn chairs that had gathered to enjoy the beautiful spring evening.  We declined their generous offer of beer, but lingered even so for a half hour or more, engaging in the fine Texas tradition of talking the ears off perfectly innocent strangers.
When we resumed our walk, we ventured out onto several of the small homemade piers that line the lake's edge, thoroughly enjoying several secret little spaces we found nestled among the cyprus, surrounded by richly organic water alive with invisible creatures that manifested in the form of splashing water sounds only.   
On our way back to the cabin, LadyBee cut through a wooded area on the border of a bog, heeding a vague instinct that called out to her.  It wasn't long before she had spotted a small mound of weathered puzzle pieces, one she recognized as distinctly turtle-like in flavor.  Now LadyBee is a huge fan of both turtles and skeletons, making the find nothing less than exhilirating.  She carefully and patiently combed through the bed of pine needles and leaf litter, gathering up tiny bones, fragments of shell and gorgeous transparent scales decorated with rorschach shaped designs remniscent of a Maori tattoo.  I could tell she was itching to try and take a crack at putting the pieces together as soon as we got back to the cabin, but it would have to wait until we returned to civilization and Elmer's glue.
As the dark descended we returned to our hostess Joann's house to get some advice on where we might eat some dinner.  Joann offered to call around and see who might still be open and unsuprisingly, there was only a single place that was still serving at 7:00 - the Uncertain Tavern.  "Is it okay with you to eat at a tavern?" Joann asked hesitantly, not realizing that she was talking to two people who have eaten dinner in far, far stranger circumstances than a local longneck dispensory in east Texas.

The tavern sat in a clearing at the edge of  the woods, deposited alongside the lonely county road that led into town.  There were only a couple of cars parked outside when we got there, but the door stood open invitingly, emanating the glowing neon colors of beer signage and emitting the sounds of popular country music and laughter of those well familiar with the antics of their fellow drinkers.  When we entered, there were only five other folks in the bar - two gentlemen with beards and missing teeth who sat at a table predominated by a half gallon bottle of cheap whiskey (or more acurately HALF a half gallon); a large blonde woman and her seeming companion stationed at the bar tossing back longnecks and chain smoking and then a shy young girl that it quickly became obvious was the bartendress.  As we approached the bar to see about what dinner we might be able to scare up, the blonde woman exclaimed loudly, "HEY!  You've got pink hair!"  A few ticks went by and I smiled wryly, preparing my social boxing stance, waiting.  "You've got pink hair...and big TITTIES!" she tried again.  It was my turn. "Why, yes I do, but please don't stop there..." I invited, "...I love hearing all about myself!!!"  For a very short moment, I waited to see how my fiesty response would land and have to admit I was a tiny bit relieved when it was met with the loud laughter that ususally signals the melting of something unseen.  The fellow who had been sitting with Deirdre (as we would soon come to know her) took the reins for a bit, asking us where we hailed from.  LadyBee wasn't from around here and still wasn't entirely sure things were going well yet so quietly disclosed she was visiting from San Francisco.  I, however, am plenty cheeky and wasn't about to give up so easily on the opportunity to banter, and so told him he'd have to damn well guess where I was from.  Steve, it turns out, is the Coors Light rep for the area and was busy checking on one of his customers, Deirdre.  After he tried several locally inspired guesses such as Longview and Marshall, I figured I'd help him along a bit: "Okay, now, Steve, think about it - where do all the weirdoes in Texas congregate?"  It only took a moment or two longer for him to grasp my point and shout out triumphantly "Austin!"  I signaled his success with a vigorous high five and the official total enchantment of the Uncertain Tavern was well underway.  Before LadyBee and I left several hours later in a hail of embraces and wishes for our continued health and happiness, we had been showered with a cornicopia of gifts including free beer, two awesome t-shirts, a coozie, some Lone Star stickers and dinner on the house!  Better yet, we had a blast, entertained the locals, and experienced the enviable joy of being the Queens of the Uncertain tavern.

In comparing notes afterwards, we decided the whole amazing evening had hung in the balance of those first few moments when I was simply a scandalous head of bright pink hair and they were the rubes who had never bothered to see such a thing.  Yet somehow, all seven of us were able to transcend that wide gulf and form a tiny strange community for the blink of an eye.  And it's been my experience over and over, that the best part of humanity often occurs in just such a void. LadyBee and I  were flush with the thrill of having tasted it on this fine spring evening in Uncertain, Texas. 


Carve it and they will come

LadyBee and Honey

Having turned in at a ridiculous hour the previous day, it was delicious to have the luxury Wednesday morning of not being in the least bit of a hurry to get anywhere or do anything.  After we dragged ourselves out of bed at a much more reasonable hour, we congregated in the kitchen and did what people always do in kitchens: hang out.  It's tempting to think of the kitchen simply as a place where you go to cook, but no - its primary function is actually to be the space in your house that people feel most comfortable hanging out in and we put it to good use.

We cheered Kenny on as he made his signature cottage cheese pancakes (DAMN they were good) and watched as Andy plated (or bowled I guess) an expertly prepared Ugli fruit for our enjoyment. Our breakfast was just as lovely and delicious as it could be.  We even sat down at the dinner table like a family, with napkins and everything!

After brunch, we lingered on, slipping into conversation after conversation as we began the motions of departing.  It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we managed shortly before 2:00 and headed off toward the bustling metropolis of Beaumont.  Now, I don't think I've ever before consciously elected to go to Beaumont of my own volition, seeing as how most of the descriptions I hear from people that have lived there are, shall we say, less than glowing.  But I had remembered while planning our itinerary that there was a curious little collection of carvings I wanted to see that was housed in the Lone Star Steakhouse, nestled close beside the ever lovely Eastex Freeway in central Beaumont.

"Poppa" John Gavrelos was a Greek immigrant who made his living in the restaurant business, which provided him a convenient and steady supply of wood in the form of produce crates.  Poppa used the crates to carve elaborate tableaux of a wide array of subjects between the years of  1923-1948.  A good many of the tiny dioramas are scenes drawn straight from the bible, but there are also scale replicas of monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Parthenon, sitting shoulder to shoulder with important scenes from history such as Betsy Ross sewing our nation's first flag and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Poppa used a little bit of everything to augment and detail his carved scenes, and I especially appreciated his use of a variety of different silver spray painted seed pods, meant to represent exotic trees in foreign lands.  Like so many works born of mania and passion, however, the years have taken their toll on the pieces, especially since the notoriously meticulous Poppa has been gone for a while now.  Still, the dust and the spider webs and the faded khaki chenille palm fronds lining the road to Jerusalem didn't dim the charm and whimsey of the figures one bit.  Probably my favorite part of the whole display was the wild juxtaposition of scale that reigned from one end of the 30 foot case to the other.  A tiny 1" schooner sits at the fit of a giantess dressed as Lady Liberty sporting a glamorous discarded ring crown. Chickens and horses of identical sizes frolic outside the Parthenon, but they'll have to watch their head as they stoop over to enter, due to their enormous height. 

When we had had our fill of the frenetic landscape, we left the watchful eye of Poppa that gazed steadily and mirthfully down from his portrait on the wall, and exited through the Steakhouse so we could express our appreciation.  LadyBee met Poppa's great nephew John who now runs the place after she remarked on the stuffed armadillo she spotted laying on it's back drinking a long neck.  (Just wait 'til she sees the purse!)  She and I talked about it as we drove away under the bleak gray sky, and agreed that it was stoic of John to preserve his great uncle's work - not an easy task, but vital in an age of fast food chains and designer museum displays.

Our itinerary took us next toward Lufkin, Texas where we'd spend the night so we could visit the Diboll History Center the following morning.  We drove north from Beaumont and watched as the land began to roll gently and pine trees started to appear in forest quantities.  As dusk approached, it became obvious that we needed to find a place we could take our daily walk, so we picked a lonely road leading off into the pines that a sign by the side of the road had promised would lead us to some sort of park.  Evidently, it was one of the area's well kept secrets because we never did find anything resembling a park or trails, but we did find a good place to park so we could meander down a nearby dirt road that appeared to lead to a group of rustic hunting shacks.  The only evidence of civilization we encountered was the ramshackle wreck of an old barn dotted with the detritus of intermittant itinerants.  It was a lovely walk though, sweetened as it was by the scent of fresh pine and soundtracked by the exhilirating sound of the wind moving briskly through the tree tops.

After we reached Lufkin and checked into our hotel, we walked to a nearby restaurant to get a bite to eat.  It was the kind of place that had deep fried gator nuggets and glossy vapid desserts arrayed on a tray for waving before bloated diners.  We managed to eat a decent meal involving gumbo and salad, and then trotted on back to the hotel so we could turn in early in a vain attempt to make up for our previous evening's lack of sleep.  Not to mention we'd be getting a pretty early start the next day.  All I remember after finishing up my blog entry was how silky and wonderful my giant bed felt as I crawled between the covers. 


Leading LadyBee to Lufkin

My dear friend LadyBee sent me an e-mail recently, needing to get out of San Francisco for a bit, wanting to go on an adventure, wondering if I might like a visit.  I quickly and enthusiastically responded in the affirmitive and plunged into planning a short trip for us, buoyed by my certainty that with as many interests as we share and as easy as it is for us to spend time together, we could rip it up no matter where we went.  After some thought, I settled on a trip to the piney woods of East Texas for several reasons, but for one in particular - I had a suspicion that LadyBee would be an enormous help in evaluating the feasability of a photography project I've been cogitating on for a while now.  It would necessitate a visit to Diboll, Texas, but LadyBee had graciously agreed to cede total control of the itinerary to me, so I got to decide and I was devilish enough to keep most of our destinations a secret.

We left Austin Tuesday and headed toward the sprawling labyrinth of suburban Houston.  There's a museum on the north side of town that I've been wanting to visit and I felt sure LadyBee would appreciate its macabre and unique content: The Museum of Funeral History.

When I first read about the museum years ago, the thing that had caught my attention was the description of a curious relic that had thankfully gone unused.  It was a coffin for three, commissioned by a couple distraught over the imminent death of their baby.  They had decided that they would kill themselves after the baby died so they could all three be buried together.  They evidently didn't go through with the plan, and now the polished wooden box sits quietly empty in a pool of light, setting a mood the Cohen brothers would definitely appreciate.  When we arrived, I made a beeline for the triple coffin and it was every bit as eerie as I had imagined.

The museum had much more to offer, however, and LadyBee and I ambled about happily, threading our way between huge glossy hearses, glass cases filled with arcane objects of mourning, and racks of mysterious tools and fluids for preparing the dead.  It was absolutely fascinating, in a train wreck kind of way.  One item that both of us agreed chilled us to the core was a curious copper contraption that turned out to be a formaldehyde gas generator that could be used in the room of a decedant that had succumbed to a contagious disease.  When the undertaker arrived, he would crank up the generator, place the delivery hose through the keyhole of the closed sickroom door and pump a large volume of formaldehyde gas into the chamber to shroud the deceased in a cloud so toxic not even the likes of typhoid or smallpox could survive.  Yikes.

There were of course a wide variety of coffins, some very old, some very odd.  My favorites were from the workshop of Ghana fantasy coffin maker Kane Quaye.  These beautiful works of art are carved and brightly painted to resemble items that the dead held dear, e.g. a fish for a fisherman, a giant green onion for a farmer.  In Ghana, the attitude toward death seems to be anything but sombre, with one belief being that the spirit of the dead leads a joyous procession through town toward the cemetary, stopping along the way to collect friends and relatives to help celebrate.  I love that notion and encourage you, my friends, to put my charred remains into a sparkly pink urn and go on a mirthful rampage through south Austin, leaving a trail of glitter and smoking embers in your wake.

After we'd had sufficient time to absorb all the death related content we could, we paused for a quick glance at the flashing LED skull glasses and tiny decorative sarcophagi in the gift shop, and got back in the car to head toward my favorite part of Houston to visit with my wonderful friends Ken and Andy.

Shortly after LadyBee and I arrived, we excused ourselves for a walk through the vivacious neighborhood that bustles around Ken and Andy's extraordinarily beautiful and comfortable urban oasis.  As you may have read in one of my previous entries, I have resolved recently to walk for an hour each day, and LadyBee has been nice enough to take it on to join me on my outings while she's here.  Our route took us past the hauntingly serene Rothko Chapel where the two of us paused for a few moments to soak in the emptiness, bathed in the palest light, blanketed by the most delicious quiet.  It's quite an experience if you've never had a chance to visit.

When we returned from our perambulation, it wasn't long before Kenny arrived home from work and the four of us spent the rest of evening (and a good bit of the early morning) talking a mile a minute, eagerly getting to know one another (except for me who had the luxury of knowing everyone already).  This while continually lavishing attention on Ken and Andy's adorable new puppy, Honey.  She stole both LadyBee and my hearts the moment we met her.  By the wee hours of the morning, we found ourselves sitting by the side of Ken and Andy's gorgeous pool, enjoying the balmy breezes of late winter Houston and taking in the gray-orange glow of the nighttime sky.  I sipped iced Kalhua from a delicate crystal brandy snifter as we laughed and pontificated and chatted of cabbages and kings.  The last thing I remember was turning back the sheet of my bed while at the same time glancing out of the corner of my eye the bright red LCD readout of the clock - 4:32 - an undeniable sign that I was having so much fun that I disdained the reasonableness of the hour.  Hallelujiah!