First Rattle Out of the Bag

Pilsner Korv are beer sausages and apparently Mr. Bullens has nice ones

When I awoke this morning, I remember thinking for the first time in a very long time, "It's too early, I don't want to get up!" even though it was nearly 8:00 a.m. - well past my usual rising time.  It felt so good under that duvet and six hours of sleep seemed to have done little to mitigate the deep weariness I had arrived with.  But I had a few chores to attend to, the first of which was finding something tasty for breakfast and so grudgingly evicted myself from the warm nest I had been curled into.

I was dressed and headed to the dining room in short order to scope out the hotel's complimentary breakfast offerings, but memories of various free breakfast atrocities from budget hotels across the U.S. made me skeptical of what I might find.  My trepidation couldn't have been more misplaced, however, as I was greeted by a sumptuous spread complete with a gleaming candelabra whose burning tapers lit the charming room with a soft yellow light (remember, the sun wouldn't rise for several more hours). The tables were loaded with a wide range of intriguing foods, many of which were new to me.  I opted for a sampling of items including a deviled egg topped with caviar and scallion creme fraiche, a wide ribbon of house-cured salmon and a knob of cheese with deep blue veins.  Needless to say my breakfast was absolutely delicious.

After breakfast, I ventured out to visit a nearby grocery store to pick up some provisions since I would be cooking for myself most of the next week and wasn't certain what supplies I'd be able to find in Abisko (official population: around 100).  The grocery store is always one of my favorite destinations to visit when I travel since what people buy to eat and conduct their daily lives transmits so many nuances about a culture.
Shopping at the grocery store in Kiruna quickly reminded me that what I had read about the Swedes paying a good bit more for their foodstuffs than we do in the United States was absolutely true.  For example, having enjoyed a pear at breakfast, I added one to my cart and was a bit shocked to see the final price come in close to $5.  Swedes are not apparently big consumers of fresh produce, but  as a result, diced bacon was considerably more affordable, to my surprise and delight.  As I stood in the check out line with my selections I was relieved to discover, as I'm sure you are, that Tom vill ha Katie tillbaka!  Some things are the same the world over, aren't they?

I returned to the hotel where I rounded up my suitcases so I could make my way to the Kiruna train station,  My first stop was the bus station where I was tickled to find a ROCKET in the parking lot!  I had forgotten that the Esrange Space Facility is 40km from Kiruna and that outer space is one of the big employers here (besides the iron mine - more on that later).  If you look at the horizon behind the rocket in the photo at left, you'll see the setting sun - at 1:00 p.m.!  When we pulled out of  the train station shortly before 3:00, the last tenuous rays of light were disappearing and the darkness allowed me to watch as sparks thrown from the rails illuminated the clouds of snow that were being stirred up by the passage of the train.

It was a short hour and a half ride to Abisko, where I had to haul my bags up another snowy hill (when will I learn to pack lighter?) and was soon ensconced in a tiny but busy hostel near the train station.

After settling in a bit to my bunk in a six bunk room, I decided to prepare some dinner using my precious groceries.  Diced bacon, mushrooms, onions and zucchini with spicy tomato pesto over pasta.  It was delicious, but I was still so weary that I couldn't eat much.

As I was picking through the remainder, trying to muster interest enough to finish, other hostelers began coming in to excitedly report that the aurora was awake and active.  That managed to divert my weariness in an instant and I threw on my coat to run outside and see what all the fuss was about.  Sure enough, the aurora was pulsing from one side of the sky to the other!  I ran back inside to suit up properly and get my camera gear assembled.  I was so excited I forgot the memory card stuck in my computer and had to trek back down the hill I had just hiked up to get a better view in the full darkness.  No matter, though - I was so thrilled that it didn't even register.  When I returned to the top of the hill behind the hostel (where a helipad is conveniently located for sky watchers) I started taking photos and watching the skies.  I was amazed to see that it wasn't necessary to focus my attention to the north, there were auroras firing off in every direction I looked.  The persistent but thin cloud cover diffused the light sufficiently that the color photographed as a dull aqua, I however was not able to see any color with my own two eyes.

As I was making the photo above, I realized that I was looking directly at the Big Dipper.  It took a moment for me to take in how incredibly large and bright the dipper was from these northern climes.  Check it out in this poorly executed photo - even though it's a bit blurry, you can see the intensity and size of the thing.  No telescopic lens needed!

I spent a good hour in the freezing cold drinking in the dance of light above me and snapping photos.  My photos didn't turn out very well, but catching a good image of the aurora borealis is almost as ephemeral as the phenomena itself.  I didn't worry because I knew I'd likely have several other good opportunities to do a better job.  It was really enough to stand under the pulsating heavens and be so, so, so happy to be alive.


International Menu with Exhaustion for Dessert

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!  I hope you enjoyed your day of pie, community and loose pants.

I spent my Thanksgiving day and night and then yet another day riding in airplanes and queuing at international airports.  Please allow me to share my transcontinental Thanksgiving dinner menu with you (which I enjoyed to the poetic lines of The Virginian no less):

* Breakfast tacos from Salt Lick at Austin's Bergstrom airport (5:30 a.m.!)
*Chicago style hot dog followed by  Vosges caramels with bacon, smoked salt and chocolate at Chicago's O'Hare airport
* Turkey and dressing courtesy of Air Berlin someone over the Atlantic Ocean (see above)
* Bowl of latte and croissant with butter and jam at Berlin's Tegel airport
* Smoked salmon sandwich and a Jul drink at Oslo's Gardermoen airport
* Sarah Bernhardt pastry and orange soda in Stockholm's Arlanda airport
* And for desert, just plain old fashioned exhaustion!

I departed home for the airport at 5:15 a.m.Thanksgiving morning and have spent the last 38 hours reaching the remote outpost of Kiruna, Sweden via various forms of modern transportation.  I'll be taking the train to Abisko tomorrow morning to start my week of Arctic aurora borealis watching, but now I must conclude my missive and sleep the sleep of the dead.  Happily, it's gently snowing outside my window and I have a nice fluffy duvet to snuggle under.  How does one say Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.... in Swedish, I wonder, and where does the angstrom go?

A lackluster-through-the-lobby-window photo of our plane on the runway at Kiruna.  No fancy jetways or state of the art fueling needed in Kiruna!  That, and the plane slowed to a stop after landing and did a 180 at the end of the runway to get back to the airport.  Very rustic. 


A Strange New World

Photo by Chad Blakley/Lights Over Lappland
Abisko National Park, November 9

Oh so joyously, I will soon be off to some of the furthest northern reaches of the European continent to see the aurora borealis and enjoy meeting one of the world's favorite cities, Berlin.

While doing research for the trip this morning, I ran across some fascinating data - sunrise and sunset times for the region of Sweden that I'm planning to visit in December (Kiruna and Abisko):

                                               Sunrise           Sunset              
                          November     7:50am          2:55pm
                          December    10:14am        12:41pm
                          January          - Sun does not rise -

The sentence "Sun does not rise" really got my attention.  It will be very interesting to adapt to so little daylight.

I've included here two photos by a fellow named Chad Blakley.  Chad and his wife run an extremely well thought of tour company out of Abisko that takes photographers out into the wilderness of the immense Abisko National Park to photograph the aurora.  I've signed up for a tour not long after I arrive and I look very forward to tromping around the majestic Arctic park in the darkness of night.

Photo by Chad Blakley/Lights Over Lappland
Abisko National Park, November 7

If you enjoy photographs of the aurora borealis like I do, you should periodically visit the Space Weather aurora gallery.  It's a real time archive of auroras the world over.  Chad's photos appear there regularly.

And if you'd like to get some vague notion of where Abisko is, here's a map:

And if you're a map geek, here'a link to the Google Map:  Abisko, Sweden

I need to go pull out my parka and snow pants!  Just a little over two weeks away.  Yahoooo!


The Happiest of All Endings

Forrest City was a fine place to spend the night (if a bit cookie cutter for my taste), but we had fried pies to eat and a wax museum to visit so were soon on the road and I'll be damned if it wasn't another beautiful autumn day.

Only a short distance from I-40 lies DeValls Bluff, Arkansas - a town so small it doesn't even have a Walmart, but not so small that it can't contain two of the most outstanding pie venues in the entire state.  Last time I was out this way I made a visit to Mary Thomas's Family Pie Shop and enjoyed an exquisitely delicious sweet potato pie, so this time I figured I'd stop and give Miss Lena's offerings a try - hand rolled fried pies with a variety of luscious and inventive fillings.  The pies are only available on Fridays and Saturdays and when they're gone - they're gone. So it turns out we were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time - wahoooo!

The shelves of the tiny shop were lined with baskets of golden freshly fried pastries, each nested deeply in its own paper napkin cocoon.  We ordered a variety: pumpkin/pecan, apricot, banana/chocolate, coconut and blueberry. Mark elected the blueberry for us to stand right there in the parking lot and eat and it was indeed delicious.  The filling was chock full of fruit and not gloppy or overly sweet.  A steady stream of customers came and went as we polished off our decadent breakfast.
The lively gal named Viv that had sold us our pies stuck her head out the door and hollered at us as we departed, "Now y'all be sure and eat that coconut pie soon - that's the one you want to eat next!"  We weren't too terribly much further down the road when we decided to follow Viv's sage advice and devoured not only the coconut, but the pumpkin pecan too - just for good measure.  Fried pies are kind of a right now thing, after all.  Fabulous.

We were next headed to Hot Springs for a therapeutic bath at the Buckstaff Bathhouse - the oldest continually operating public bath house in the area.  When we arrived, there was a long discouraging line, so we decided to jump ahead on our itinerary and visit the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum instead.  Josephine was the great-great-great granddaughter of the famed Madame Tussaud, but this classic American roadside attraction bears no resemblance to the glossy product of her British peers.  Most of the figures date from 1971 (along with the literature) and it adds a very definite charm to the place.  And the curators certainly don't feel the need to fuss about formalities like chronological order or reality, which makes it all feel so....free wheeling!

I really liked the evil twin of Jimmy Carter at the bottom of the celebrity escalator.  It looks like Jimmy is about to lead Clark Gable, Mae West, Liz and Richard and Louis Armstrong on a rampage in downtown Hot Springs.

Only at the top of the escalator, a rather tipsy looking Pope John-Paul II stands casting a derisive look of bemusement on the lot of them, thinking to himself, "I hope those kids have fun, but this is the LAST TIME I am bailing them out of jail!"

Christ surveys the scene from his cross high above the escalator, eavesdropping on the nearby Hanson brothers who are hanging out with their friends at a dinner party...

...while Christina Ricci, wearing a throw-out bearing on her head like a crown, pretends she's afraid of Joe Sears dressed up like Carrie Nation.

And what's a good wax museum without a hall of horrors?  There was a curtain you could go through to avoid the Hall of Horrors in case you were too scared.  We saw one couple duck through it hurriedly, relieved that they were able to spare themselves such distress.  And I thought I was squeamish!

One of my favorites was the Joseph Stalin dance party.  Can you tell it's a rave?

The figure of Queen Elizabeth II of England was stunning in its apparent lack of resemblance.  I'm not even sure what to say to be sarcastic about this one.

After finishing our tour, we wandered a bit further down Central Avenue until we decided that it had begun to look like every touristy strip of any city and that we just weren't in the mood for that sort of thing. We found a place where we could have a tolerable but immediate lunch, and then got back on the road so we could make use of the extra daylight to dial in our next adventure.  This next feat was going to take a bit of logistical prowess.

The plan was to hike almost three miles down a remote stretch of abandoned railway outside the minuscule town of Gurdon, Arkansas to see if we could observe a phenomenon referred to as The Gurdon Light - a bluish glowing orb that sometimes appears and floats gently along the track bed, bobbing to and fro in a way that's distinct from normal. Sightings of the Light have been reported since the early 1930s (long before cars were introduced to the area) and even today, the site is far enough away from any sort of road that the headlights-from-the-highway explanation has largely been abandoned.  Some folks claim the Light is the apparition of a murdered  railroad worker, searching for his head with a lantern.  The boring old scientists posit the effect is related to the accumulation of electrical discharges generated by the flexing of underground crystals (the basis of piezoelectricity).  But one thing that pretty much everyone does agree on is that there's something going on out there, even if no one is exactly sure what it is.   

I'd compiled an elaborate set of instructions from the web to help us pinpoint the exact location, but after driving back and forth several times in the area where we felt like it should be, the dirt road we were looking for failed to materialize.   I decided to stop and ask the gal behind the counter at the Red E Market for some help.  After she explained how to locate the turn off and where to park, I peppered her with more questions: "Have you ever seen the lights?  How far are we supposed to go along the track?" She laughed and said, "I've never seen the Light even though I been out there a bunch of times.  And it's a long way out there!  You better take snacks and jackets and other people!"  Another local who was in the store getting some fried chicken chuckled and said, "Yeah, I've been out there a couple of times before, but I never seen 'em.  Be sure you got a good flashlight because some of those bridges are falling apart."

Now that we knew how to get there, Mark and I decided to make a practice run out to the parking area so we wouldn't have to figure anything crucial out in the utter darkness, plus it'd give us a chance to fine tune the list of items we'd need to bring with us later that evening.  When we finally found the dirt road we were looking for, it immediately dissolved into two tire tracks through the weeds running along a narrow lane winding through Arkansas forest.  We followed the trail for close to a mile or more and just short of the parking area (which we could see in the distance) there lay an enormous puddle which spanned the entire width of the path. It was filled with murky red brown water and looked to be deep and muddy to boot.  We got out of the car to scout out the situation and quickly surmised that there was pretty much no way the car would make it through the puddle.  The real drawback of that situation was that the pathway where we were parked was only wide enough for one car and was bordered on each side by a shoulder of soft red mud, saturated by recent rains.  I wouldn't be able to turn the car around and was going to have to back out every single inch of the way, all the way back to the road.

Mark got out and spotted me to help make the task go a little faster and soon enough we reached the highway and were heading back toward the interstate where we had previously noticed a hotel.  As I drove, I listened to the various voices of reason in my head debate whether I should do this thing or not. The predominate themes centered around how challenging it would be and the high likelihood that we wouldn't see a damn thing besides gravel and mud.  Then there was the necessity of backing the car yet another mile or so down the path before we hiked 6 miles through a cold dark Arkansas forest.  I coasted the Caddie into the hotel parking lot and turned the key to kill the engine.  I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, trying to dispel the raging debate going on in my head, searching for a state of calm which would simply allow me to listen to my gut.  I've found, however, that trying to fix that problem usually just makes it worse and after a good 10 minutes of fretting, I finally got tired of it all and realized hell yes I wanted to do this thing, I was just uncomfortable with all the unknowns.  All of a sudden, it was like the coin had dropped in the slot and I felt sure.  And I'm so glad that clarity managed to prevail.

When we returned to the turn off around 8:30 p.m., I decided to back the car down the path on this leg so I didn't have to cope with it later when we were tired and more than ready to leave.  It was pitch black out - no moon, no street lights, no nearby homes - but the night was clear and the glimmering carpet of stars over our heads was absolutely breathtaking.  A family of six arrived just as we were parking near the lake sized puddle.  They were moving surprisingly fast, so we let them organize themselves and set off before we got serious about departing ourselves.  We could just barely hear them and see an occasional flashlight beam in the distance as they walked along ahead of us.  One of the first things that occurred to me was, how the hell are you supposed to tell the Gurdon Light from someone's flash light, for crying out loud?

As we set out walking, we both agreed right off  the bat that whether or not we saw the Light was pretty much immaterial at this point - the intriguing walk itself would make the effort worth it.  We'd brought some tea and cakes along so we could stop and have a midnight picnic somewhere along the path.  The trail was a bit muddy and wet in some places, but we were easily able to navigate around the boggy bits and the terrain was predictable enough that we were able to use the red bulb setting on our headlamps to walk along.  The trek requires you to cross at least 5 (we crossed 6) trestle bridges, some of which are partially rotted.  We were careful to turn on the high white beams of our headlamps each time we reached a bridge - definitely not the place you want to twist an ankle or worse.

We walked and we walked and we walked.  We encountered a couple of groups that were returning from their trek down the tracks and each declared they hadn't seen anything and were ready to call it a night.  There was a group that followed behind us at some good distance and we could occasionally hear them laughing or see the beams of their lights bouncing in small points behind us.  We passed the third, fourth and even fifth trestle with no sign of a light other than those we had brought with us.  Sightings are most common, if you believe witnesses, between the fifth and sixth trestles.  By the time we reached the fifth, we could hear the family that had started before us headed back our way.  The report: no sightings and they were more than ready to call it a night.  By my reckoning, it was now highly unlikely that there was anyone else left ahead of us.  Not long after we crossed the sixth trestle (and into the prime viewing area), I scouted out a little graded gravelly area beside the path where I could spread out our tea things.  In mere minutes I had a piping hot thermos of English Breakfast tea ready for us to share along with a banana and a few assorted tea cakes.  Taking tea was even more immensely satisfying than I had imagined in this rarefied setting and reminded me of books I'd read about ruddy-cheeked English blokes having blustery picnics in the verdant English countryside, both revived and fortified by the power of good old fashioned black tea.  Only they didn't tend to do it in the middle of the night, as I remember!  I lay on my back basking in the sparkling starlight and spotted several shooting stars -  my final count was 3.  Mark and I took a moment to pronounce the adventure a tremendous and resounding success, light or no light. 

As we finishing the last dregs of our tea, the voices of the group that had been behind us grew louder, indicating their imminent arrival.  We called out to them as they passed by to see if they'd observed anything and no, they hadn't.  They were new at this too, and sought council on how much further to venture but I didn't have any helpful advice to offer.  They set off unsure of how much longer they would go on and it wasn't long before we heard them returning - still no luck spotting the Light and they were finally ready to get back to their car.  We waited to let them get a good little ways ahead of us so we could enjoy the silence of having the place to ourselves. I felt pretty confident that we were bringing up the rear of the retreat since we hadn't seen or heard anyone else for a \while and we were sort of at the furthest point of the viewing area..  As we stood and stared deep into the inky blackness searching eagerly for streaks or smears or pools of light, our eyes seemingly began to play tricks on us.  We concurred and found that both of us had begun seeing strange flashes, pin pricks and faint smears of softly glowing light.  Could any of those anomalies be the Light?  No, not the Light we decided.  This was different, but distinctly present.  After thinking it over, I'm pretty certain that being in such an intensely dark environment allowed us to perceive light traces that would not otherwise be significant enough to register.  Sort of like how you can't see the aurora borealis during bright daylight, even though it's still percolating away in the heavens.  In that ultra dark location we were momentarily gifted with the power of seeing some of the ultra faint wisps and streaks of light that flow around us all the time.  It's because we're humans that we usually choose to disbelieve something when we don't know how to explain it.

I stowed the last tea things in the backpack and pronounced the official commencement of our return to the car - there seemed no use in going any further.  As we walked along, we checked vigilantly both behind and ahead for the merest suggestion of an unusual glimmer.  We hadn't been walking long when we identified a steady bright point of light not far ahead of us.  We kept our eyes on it as we walked along, trying to figure out what it was - was it a spook light? No, it couldn't be the Light because it never wavered.  We soon discovered that it was in fact a solitary votive candle that someone had lit and left in the middle of the path.  Pretty quaint, if you ask me.  Once we realized what it the source of light was, we used it as a way of empirically understanding how fire and light and eyesight work over long distances in the deep of night.  We continually swept our eyes forward, looking for any sign of the Light, but also frequently turned back to see if we could still see the candle glowing in the distance (which we could for an unbelievably long time).  We mused on which group had left it and what their motivation was.

On one of the many occasions when we turned to face forward after having just paused to turn around and see what was behind, there suddenly appeared a large blue sphere of bright light hovering over the rail bed just ahead of us, big and round and sharp, moving in an erratic enough fashion that I felt sure this was it - the Gurdon Light.

"Do you see what I'm seeing??!?!?" one of us whispered sotto vocce to the other.  "Yes, yes, YES!  It's the Light!" said the other.  I was so excited I have no idea who said what.  But it was the Gurdon Light alright!  It shone through the black lacy forms of trees lining the railway and hovered for what must have been a full minute or two before disappearing.  Almost immediately after the light vanished, there was a dim blue glow that appeared near the ground and quickly dissipated.  We were stunned.  It was hard to articulate anything useful or reasonable after seeing that.  Virtually nothing could be said to do it justice.

We spent the next half hour of our walk verifying that we had indeed seen what we thought we had seen.  When we weren't able to debunk the event and it became clear we'd been privileged to witness the ephemeral wonder we had come to see, we were joyous.  The heroin high of adventure pumped at lightning speed through our veins.  It was still a long walk back to the car, but we were joyous.

Turns out we were indeed the last ones to leave that night.  I noticed ours was the only car in the vicinity when I finally slipped gratefully behind the wheel of the Caddie, enjoying the thought of getting to drive forward this time.  But getting in bed after a good long walk and all that excitement was even better than driving forward.  We both slept really, really well.

The next morning, we packed the car for the last time and headed out early since all that was really left of the trip was the last mad dash across Texas so we could arrive in Austin by evening time.

The weather that last day was the loveliest of all the weather we'd encountered so far.  The clouds were putting on an all star revue featuring an abundance of  ice crystals dancing high in the stratosphere.  I spotted one gigantic fan shaped cloud that had a distinct bar of bright light across its middle and as the cloud moved, I noticed that the bar of light remained in the same exact place, definitely reflected light of some sort.

We stopped in Fairfield, Texas, so we could have some late lunch at Sam's Restaurant.  Sam's is in my estimation one of the very best steam tables of southern style home cooking you'll ever have the privilege of running across.  There are a huge number of restaurants that aspire to what Sam's does so flawlessly, and very very few of them succeed.  How about freshly baked loaves of soft white bread whisked to your table; a lavish fresh salad bar featuring the likes of watermelon pickles and three kinds of pickled pepper; a mahogany glazed beef brisket competing for room on your plate with thick slices of country ham, chicken fried steak and of course, golden fried chicken.  I really wished I'd brought my second stomach because for dessert there are a lot of different pies and they're all delicious. 

Meringue was not only a mighty fine way to top off the day, but it also served as a grand symbol for the entire trip.  Airy, light, delicious ephemeral magic  Meant to be enjoyed right now, just as Viv advised.

Can you see the sundog on the left?


Fall Color, Faux Bois and Fried Chicken

Boy howdy what a delicious breakfast we had Friday morning!  Our wonderful hostess Jenn had left us with not only orange juice and coffee fixins, but also a tray of breakfast items to heat up (including some really tasty fritatta).  I toasted the biscuit halves and fried up the bacon and we proceeded to have ourselves a feast. It was such a lovely way to start the day and linger a bit longer in the wonderful old house we had been staying in before we lurched off toward home.

There was no longer any trace of the weather system that had rained so much moisture down on us in the past couple of days - the temperature was crisp but pleasant and the sky was a vivid blue.  

Immediately upon leaving the confines of the city, we were surrounded by a sea of blazing fall color which substantially enhanced our drive along the two lane blacktop toward the old town of Bonne Terre, Missouri.  The community of Bonne Terre was originally settled by the French in 1720 after lead ore was discovered in the area.  The city’s huge lead mine (which predates the Civil War) went out of business in the 1960s, but was filled with water and has become a popular scuba diving destination that conducts underwater tours of the 5 level mine complex.

As fun as swimming around in a old lead mine sounds (and strangely, it does!), we hadn't brought our BCDs or wetsuits with us and so chose instead to visit the Space Museum.  

The Space Museum is obviously a labor of love, and in many ways it provided a perfect complement to our earlier tour of the Cosmosphere in Kansas because it dealt with many of the same topics, but in a much more eager and informal way.  Bonne Terre resident and space enthusiast Earl Mullins has amassed a respectable trove of space related treasures and generously shares them with the public in a quaint old office building at the Bonne Terre Lead Mine- much to the delight of small museum fans like me.

Mark and I were greeted at the door by our tour guide Jim, who gave us a detailed personal tour of the museum's exhibits.  A good number of the artifacts were astronaut-autographed photos and documents and there were also a number of meticulously reproduced spacecraft models.  What really got my attention, though, was the collection of space themed items like ray guns, lunch boxes, costumes - things I'd imagine were just a little too pop cultural for the Cosmosphere but were nonetheless delightful to see.  I really appreciated Jim's enthusiasm and willingness to point out so many details I might otherwise have missed.  It's volunteers like him that keep small museums alive and vital.

From Bonne Terre, we headed south on a beautiful, curvy road soaking in all the fall color we could.  We soon reached the interstate and began the trek to Memphis where we’d be stopping to see some sculpture and grab some dinner.

The Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis was one of the first cemeteries in the nation to be developed into a park like public destination by visionary E. Clovis Hinds beginning in 1925.  The artist who arguably made the single biggest contribution is someone whose work I’ve come to greatly enjoy following, Dionicio Rodriguez.

Dionicio was a master of faux bois cement work, and by that I mean taking a bucket of wet concrete and making it look very very much like a tree.  We're lucky to have a good deal of Rodriguez’s work in central Texas because the doctor that was his patron and brought him to the U.S. from Mexico lived in San Antonio.  Dionicio spent decades travelling around the U.S. working largely in secret to create incredible naturalistic benches, bridges, palapas and grottoes - all from patterned concrete.

Mark and I arrived at the cemetery around 5:00 p.m. which happily put me there at the golden light hour just before dusk to view and photograph the sculptures. glowing with slanted autumn light.

I think my favorites, as always, were the structures that resemble enormous hollowed out logs or tree trunks and whose interiors manage to twist into intimate wood patterned benches and whose knot holes and limbs intertwine to form windows and nooks.  Dionicio was a master of not only building a form and patterning the applied cement, but he was also adept at tinting his medium of choice.  The resulting finishes are both natural and artistic at the same time.  They aren't necessarily hyper-real, but they express the spirit and look of wood impeccably.

As we finished our tour of the various installations around the cemetery, I noticed that a nearby office building was reflecting the setting sun in it’s copper colored mirror exterior, and the resulting reflection had formed a death ray beam that was lighting up a tree dressed in her buttery yellow autumn finery.  To look at the the scene was blinding, but it was so compellingly beautiful that I couldn't allow myself to look completely away.

In a grand stroke of fortune, our rendezvous with the best fried chicken of the trip was less than two miles from the cemetery.  I was familiar with Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken from reading my foodie websites, and was looking very forward to sampling the chicken I'd read such rave reviews about.

When we pulled in the parking lot, the place was thrumming with activity at 6:00 on a Friday evening.  We were quickly seated by a cheerful young thing that called us "y'all" which made me smile since I hadn't heard it in a while.  We agonized over which of the delicious sounding sides to get, but our order was soon placed and in what seemed like mere moments later, found plates laden with golden brown chicken set before us.  Both of us opted for the seasoned collard greens (with bottled pepper sauce, natch), but I rounded my meal out with mac and cheese and an ice cold IBC root beer.  I guess all I need to say by way of review is there was a lot of happy grunting at our table.  I polished off four wings and put a serious dent in my sides before giving up the ghost.  Which did NOT stop me from ordering a freshly fried pie (pecan!) to take with us for a later snack.

The good news, my fellow Austinites, is that I read recently that Gus's will be opening a restaurant in Austin in the next six months.  This is my unqualified urgent recommendation that you eat there as soon as you are able.  Fabulous!

As we we walked to the car, Mark spotted this magnificent donut neon signage across the street.  I walked over to take a picture and was tickled when I looked up from my camera and realized that perched right between Gus's Fried Chicken and the doughnut shop was a humble health food establishment.  I suspect it may well be a front for some nefarious endeavor.

A short drive to Forrest City left us perfectly poised to swoop down on Miss Lena's to get some fried pies and take in the sights of Hot Springs.