Thursday, July 27, 2006

White's City, NM

This is really the third part of the Carlsbad Caverns story, but it takes place entirely outside the cave. It covers our return to Marfa.

The one quintessential Carlsbad Caverns thing we DIDN'T do was stay to see the bat flight. In fact, in the three visits I've made to the park, I've never once stayed to see the bat flight. I was planning to do so the first time, but it was the wrong time of year. The bats were in Mexico. Then when Beth and I came through in August, we were on too tight a schedule. We wanted to make a bit of headway into Texas before we stopped for the night, although we only got as far as Lamesa. This visit was similar--it was a long drive back to Marfa, and we didn't want to get back too late. My bat flight experience from Austin and the Congress Street Bridge will have to sustain me until I can make it back to Carlsbad Caverns. We should plan to stay overnight, see the bats, and maybe even sign up for the Left Hand Tunnel off-trail tour in the morning. I don't really think I'd like to stay overnight in White's City, though.

Named for Jim White, the guy who first explored the depths of the caverns, White's City is a collection of tourist traps and accommodations right at at the junction of the highway and the road that leads into Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It should be just the type of place I love, since my being denied a chance to visit South of the Border by my sensible dad all through a childhood of trips from Virginia to Myrtle Beach has left a huge tourist-trap-sized hole in my psyche. I eat old tourist attractions and their attendant kitsch up with a spoon, but White's City only makes me sad.

Now, the ladies tending counter at the gift shop there were very, very nice, as was Skye, our server at the Velvet Garter, where the food was much more edible than in the underground lunchroom (did I mention to avoid the pizza?), although if that seems to be damning with faint praise, it is. And I hear good things about the Million Dollar Museum, although it, like the bat flight, has always been shunted to "next time" status. But it just seems so, well, over. So done with. So had its day, and now it's just baking in the desert sun, crumbling slowly into the Chihuahuan soil from which it sprung.

There is one place in White's City that intrigues me, however, and it is the Apache Canyon Trading Post.

It's just a few yards north of the turn-off for the park and the main White's City drag.

I don't recall seeing it during my first visit to the cave, but Beth and I stopped by on our trip, hoping to find old-fashioned gift shop/trading post nirvana. It's something you so rarely encounter anymore--a place where you can buy feathered headdresses, beaded wallets and belts, cedar novelty boxes and "In the Dog House" plaques and the like. There are still a few left--the Jack Rabbit in Arizona, one or two retro holdouts in the Wisconsin Dells come to mind--but for the most part even the cheeziest of souvenir stands nowadays offers faux Indian pottery in dusty, cool tone pastel shades and sweatshirts for women with sultry airbrushed Indian maidens and desert scenes circa a 1975 folk-rock album cover on them. Oh yes, and dreamcatchers, also in *tasteful* pastels. I mean, what ever happened to primary colors, huh?? And just when did the supply of those musty rose-petal-ly *sachet* rocks run out? They used to be a staple of the cheezy gift shop.

You see, that's why the Apache Canyon attracted our attention. When we passed by a dozen years go, its bright white facade and splashy murals in red, blue, yellow, and green (its only nod to the secondary palatte) screamed "Cheeze-fest here!" at us as we motored past. We slammed on the breaks and pulled in, only to find that, though it was all gussied up and freshly painted, it was closed. So on this trip, I talked Jeff and Rachel into a short detour before we headed back to Texas.

Now, I didn't expect the place to be open--after all, it was closing in on 7:00 PM Mountain Dayight Time and there just wasn't all that much tourist action along the highway anyway. And I was right. It was closed, although if you look carefully at the photo above, you'll notice that the relatively fresh plastic liners in the trashcans indicate that it's not abandoned. Although it sure did seem so. Anyway, we took a while to poke around and snap some pictures. The paint has faded since Beth and I drove through, but the trading post still sports some fine examples of western souvenir store enticement art.

It even had some accessible family photo op locations--a jail cell with very lax security:

and a picturesque teepee:

Since I work in the Social Studies department of my publishing company, I know that the correct spelling is tipi, but I think you will agree with me that this actually IS a teepee.

I've been trying to gather information about the Apache Canyon Trading Post ever since I returned home from Marfa--I hoped to find out if it is still in business and if it is the wonderful throwback cheezy gift store I so desperately want it to be. Who runs it and how long have they been doing so? Oh, I have so many questions. The only useful info I could find was on that stalwart standby, Roadside America, where, in a report about how stinky rattlesnakes are, they noted that the two little old ladies who ran Apache Canyon Trading Post had to remove their popular rattlesnake wishing well attraction because they couldn't stand the stench any longer. That report was from 2002--eight years after Beth and I first saw the place.

Please, if anyone knows anything about Apache Canyon Trading Post just north of White's City, NM, let me know! I'm begging you!

The sun was starting to skirt the ridge lines and an isolated thunderstorm was pounding a tiny portion of the desert nearby, so we decided it was time to head home. The only eventful thing I can tell you about THAT drive was the dance of the suicidal bunnies--periodically along our route, jack rabbits and cottontails would dart across the road right in front of the car, as if purposely trying to throw themselves beneath our wheels. We'd encounter ten to twenty of them in a short stretch. Then the action would abate for a few miles, we'd begin to breathe again, and zip! more of them appeared, doing the deadly dash. I don't think I hit any, although at one point Jeff said "I'm just telling you--if it's a choice between hitting a bunny and flying off the road at 80 mph, I expect you to hit the bunny." Oooh nooooo!!! All I'm sayin' is that it was a very good thing that we were literally the ONLY car on the road visible in either direction throughout most of that drive.

Here's a parting glimpse of the Apache Canyon Trading Post. Maybe next time we will find you open, my friend.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Carlsbad Caverns, Part the Second

Before we start on the next part of the tour, I'd like to say a few words about the park's audio devices. Twelve years ago, the audio devices were called "listening sticks," and they picked up signals from transmitters near famous formations and other points of interest. There were signs along the route that told you when to start listening. They were a tad wonky, because if you strayed beyond the range of the signal, your audio would fade out and you'd have to wander back within range to hear the rest of the segment. But as I recall, they had neckstraps.

Today, the audio devices have a keypad with numbers. There are numbered signs along the route, and all you have to do is key in the number and the correct audio segment comes on. You can stop it anytime you wish, or you can repeat it--a nice feature. Although my memory of the audio portion of the erstwhile tour is rather (well, very) hazy, I recall that it was full of good information, but rather staid--and sometimes kind of technical. As I'm a cave nerd, I liked that. Today, though, the audio *hosts* are a man and a woman who seem just a tad too jolly about the cave. True, the audio includes interviews with rangers and cavers and such (the description of the ascent to a room called the Spirit World near the ceiling at the Top of the Cross was fascinating), and that was great, but we became a tad skeptical when the hosts kept exclaiming that this or that feature was their "favorite formation EVER" or words that effect. A bit too effusive. And if you know anything about how such things are recorded, the odds are that these guides never set foot inside the cave. If I had my druthers, the powers that be at Carlsbad would rework the audio to be somewhere in between the serious and the effusive (keeping the interviews, of course). And they should replace the wrist straps on the current audio devices with those handy neckstraps. It's hard to keep a camera steady with a long plastic thingy dangling from one of your arms. Just sayin'.

Sermon over--tour is about to resume. Most of the photos in this post are courtesy of Rachel, to give credit where credit is due. I'll lay claim to the ones that are mine as they appear.

The King's Palace tour takes in four lavishly decorated chambers called, collectively, the scenic rooms. Tours through these rooms are guided because people just can't seem to resist the urge to break off cave formations and take them home as souvenirs--and there is much to tempt the would-be cave vandal in these chambers. It's nice to have the rangers along, though, because they offer a wealth of information on the history of the cave, both geologic and human. The tour branches off from the natural entrance route not far from the Big Room. Near the entrance to the King's Palace you encounter undeniable visual evidence of the great age of the cave:

Notice how the huge, flowstone-encrusted boulder has broken free from a seam near the ceiling. The vertical fluting of the flowstone is askew. Now look at the top of this boulder. Not only have myriad stalactites *grown* from the ceiling above the rock--the ceiling the rock once clung to--but there are sizeable stalagtites rising from the top of broken boulder. One of them--the largest--may even be a column. It looks as if it comes very near to reaching the ceiling if it has not yet done so. One of the notable features of the natural entrance route is the trail that skirts Iceberg Rock--a huge portion of the entryway ceiling that broke free and fell a long, long time ago. I think the breakdown in the picture above may have been a result of this fall, as it seems to be near, but below, where the huge piece of ceiling fell. It looks as if Iceberg Rock fell, dislodging this rock below it. If so, think of how long it would have taken for the slow drip of water and deposition of stone to build that big stalagmite. Then think how long it took for the flowstone to cover that boulder in the first place.

The cave is rather dry now (although there was water dripping here and there--and some of it dripped on me...), but the sheer abundance of stalactites in the King's Palace indicates that many millennia ago a tour through the cave would have seemed like a hike through a rainstorm.

Although nowhere near as big as the Big Room, the King's Palace is spacious and chock-a-block with stalactites. Here is a detail of the ceiling in the King's Palace:

It was here that the ranger who led the tour gave his geology talk about the formation of the cavern and the way the common speleothems form. This room is also the location of an almost column--a feature called the Eternal Kiss. It is a stalagmite and a stalactite that are so close to joining that you can barely slip a credit card between them. I remember this clearly from my first and second visits, but no mention of it was made this time--and I didn't think to look for it until our tour was over, alas.

The next room on the tour is the Papoose Room. It's full of soda straws and lovely creamy white speleothems. This is one of my snapshots:

Not a lot of soda straws in this particular picture, but note the creamy white draperies and the elegant column. This photo of Rachel's shows these formations in a wider context:

The formations in my photo appear to the left of the chamber.

Here is another lovely white speleothem in the Papoose Room:

You can also get an idea of the profusion of soda straws in this room from this picture, although the next photo really does the Papoose Room proud:

Why is it called the Papoose Room? I have no idea, except maybe because it's the smallest of the scenic rooms, or because it is between the King's Palace and the Queen's Chamber, or both? At any rate, it's one of my favorite rooms. But you could tell that, huh?

The Queen's Chamber is famous for its profusion of speleothems, including some voluminous draperies. This is the spot on the tour where the rangers doused the lights and we sat in utter darkness as the lead ranger recounted the story of Jim White and his exploration of the cave. Instead of just switching the lights back on, the ranger lit a candle lantern he had brought with him, and we were able to see the cave by lantern light--it looked very different from the chamber we saw when we first entered this room--brightly lit by electric lights strategically placed to show the formations to best advantage. Every cave I've ever visited does the "cave darkness" spiel where they turn off the lights and you can't see your hand in front of your face (but, oddly, you sense it in a way you can't when you do the same thing in the light). But this was a very classy, memorable way to present the concept. A very nice touch.

With the lights on, here is what awaits you in the Queen's Chamber:

You can see some of the draperies near the center. The helictites are clinging to the wall on the left.

From the Queen's Chamber, the trail winds to the Green Lakes, two green-tinged pools that reflect the formations and passages that loom above them. The expanse between the two scenic rooms winds is quite scenic itself:

Beth, my good buddy and pal, study this photo carefully. This is the picture we should have had the gumption to take when we visited lo, those many years ago. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Heh heh. Sod those old ladies. They would have understood. (Everyone else, please don't ask me to explain. Just draw your own conclusions. Thanks!)

Here is one of the Green Lakes--this one is my snapshot:

Doesn't this make you wonder what lies beyond that archway?

The chamber where the Green Lakes are situated is also where you will find the Veiled Statue (see Part the First), the final featured speleothem on the King's Palace tour. Although it is a lovely, fluted column and rightly holds sway as one of the "must sees" in the cave, the chamber has other intriguing formations:

If you look very closely at the photo of this area in the first part of the Carlsbad Caverns travelogue posts, you will notice right where these features are in relation to the Veiled Statue. The draperies upon draperies, the odd assemblage of stalagmites, and the promise of something beyond, behind the curtains of stone. That is the lure of Carlsbad.

Next up: the last of the Carlsbad trip narratives. But it will have to wait until at least tomorrow. The Daily Show is about to come on.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Carlsbad Caverns, Part the First

The highlight of our recent trip to West Texas took place in New Mexico: We drove up to Carlsbad Caverns, one of my favorite places on the entire planet. It was quite a haul--three plus hours each way--which made for quite a long day. But it was worth every minute of the long trek.

First, I must explain my obsession with this marvelous cave. Ever since I was a toddler and my parents took me to Luray Caverns, I've been fascinated by caves--commercial caves. I haven't mustered the courage to go caving, although I may do so one day. I'm intrigued by the prospect but not driven quite enough to pursue the opportunity. I love taking cave tours, though, and a good cave will make my heart soar. Jeff and I even got married in a cave--Grand Caverns in Grottoes, VA. It's my sentimental favorite of the Shenandoah Valley caves, although I have to admit that Endless Caverns in New Market wins my "best in show" for that category. One day I'll have to do a post devoted to show caves I have known and loved (and those that fell far short of my not-so-high standards). But today I am going to laud the paragon of U.S. show caves: Carlsbad Caverns. Nothing else comes close.

I first visited Carlsbad Caverns in 1994, when I was fortunate enough to visit it twice. The first time, I was driving around the Southwest on my own, trying to find my bearings after the break up of a twelve-year relationship during which I had kind of lost track of who I was. The best way I knew of finding that out again was taking long road trips (no matter that I maxed out the credit cards doing so). It was on one such trip that I visited the first time, in March. I had read about it, but nothing prepared me for the experience of walking into that huge hole in the ground, "listening stick" in hand, subterranean glories ahead. The place took such a hold on me that in August, when my friend Beth and I took a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to Waynesboro, VA (my hometown and Beth's home, still), I insisted that we visit Carlsbad Caverns so I could see it again. And, of course, to win Beth as a Carlsbad convert. Beth is a bit claustrophobic, and doesn't do most caves well. I told her she would have no problems in THIS cave, and I was right! This cave is huge. No tight crawls, "Tall Man's Headaches" or "Fat Man's Miseries" in THIS cave--at least, not in the part open for the most public of tours. (There are off-trail tours that no doubt have crawls and squeezes and such, if you are so inclined. And I might be, one day.)

It had been nearly twelve years since I set foot on that switchback trail into wonderland, and I was a bit worried that Jeff and Rachel wouldn't be as enthusiastic as I was, but the cave weaves its magic--and it enchanted them as well.

So, now, to the tour.

I have to begin on our drive to the park, which is about 170 miles north of Marfa. We started out early and quickly made our way through Valentine, TX, which is practically a ghost town. It is picturesque, though, and on any other day we would have stopped to take pictures of its dereliction (it even had a boarded up tree house!), but we were on a schedule--had to get to the cave! That didn't keep us from stopping a ways north of Valentine, though, when we encountered the chic and shocking Prada Marfa:

Yes, it's a Prada Store. No, it's not real. It's an art installation. That's Rachel posing. She's as real as can be, but she's not wearing Prada. We stopped to snap some pictures and muse about why it wasn't called "Prada Valentine." Soon we were back on the road.

We made it to the cave around 11:00 AM, thanks to a time-zone change. We got our tickets, including our reserved tickets on the 3:00 guided King's Palace Tour, picked up our audio devices (which were new and improved--well, supposedly--listening sticks), and headed down the trail and into the enormous cave entrance.

If you are planning to visit this cave and are reasonably ambulatory, do not succumb to the lure of the elevators. Walk down the natural entrance. It's steep, and it had my bad knee singing a bit, but there's so much cool stuff to see on the way to the Big Room that you won't want to deprive yourself of this experience. Just watching as the daylight fades and the dim cave lighting takes over--without which you'd be wandering in utter, profound darkness--well, that's worth the hike right there.

But there is so much more to come. Along the way, the formations get more plentiful and more bizarre. Case in point:

As you approach the Big Room, you encounter a stunning taste of what's to come:

This is one of the many wonderful photos Rachel took in the cave--she has quite an eye (and a steady hand--a lot of these photos were taken without flash). Just to keep above board, the two entrance photos are Rachel's as well. The alien chest-burster thingy is mine, as are all the photos below. Part the second will feature more of Rachel's photos.

When I looked at the picture above, I was surprised to see several of the formations we encountered on our King's Palace tour later in the day clearly visible from this part of the natural entrance route. The formation with the green tinge is the Veiled Statue--the final stop on that tour. If you have very sharp eyes, you'll also see a couple of formations that I'll show you closer views of (thanks to Rachel) in the next post. Apparently, a couple of decades ago the scenic rooms (those now only accessible through the guided King's Palace tour) were part of the self-guided tour (as the natural entrance and the Big Room still are). Visitors were routed to these rooms first, before they proceeded on to the Big Room. But some people (well in this case, an awful lot of people) are pigs, and the scenic rooms were losing around a thousand speleothems per year. People just broke them off and took them with! So the Park Service closed the rooms to all but those who make reservations for a ranger-led tour. The only glimpse others get is from the vantage point of this photo.

Once you hike down that steep trail, you're going to be thirsty and probably hungry too. And you may sorely need the facilities. No problem! There's a lunchroom down there at 750 feet below the surface:

And restrooms:

Now, I know the whole concept of the underground lunchroom is outdated and kind of wrong-headed, and the food services there have certainly gone downhill in the last decade or so (not that they offered great cuisine in 1994, but there were chicken fingers and whatnot, prepared there, not microwaved frozen pizza that, when nuked, became the consistency of fluffernutter). But I am nostalgic for the whole retro notion of food service at 750 feet. And the subterranean purveying of souvenirs. There's been talk of removing the lunchroom for years, and, truly, the lunchroom as it stands could use a major overhaul, no question. The Park Service is renovating facilities on the surface this fall and winter--perhaps that spells the renovation of the lunchroom too--or its demise. As it is now, it's kind of sad. But they'd better not take away the restrooms (although they could use some updating as well)!

We had a snack, availed ourselves of the facilities, and headed into the Big Room. There's just no way to convey its size or the variety of its speleothems, but here are some of the sights that await:

This is the Hall of Giants--giant stalagmites, that is!

And here is the Lion's Tail, hanging over the trail.

It's a stalactite with some cave popcorn adorning its tip.

This is a detail of the Big Room:

I don't recall its name... sorry!

This one I know, though:

It's the Temple of the Sun.

I don't know what the name of this feature is, either, but when I uploaded the photo, I noticed something odd about it:

A weird pixie face is lurking within the stalactites.

And this is the Doll's Theater:

It's a charming niche filled with hundreds of soda straws.

Our next adventure was a tour through the scenic rooms--the King's Palace, the Papoose Room, the Queen's Chamber, and the Green Lakes--led by rangers who made sure we didn't straggle and that we didn't break anything. But I'm going to save that for a second post.

Take a little break. Pick up some water and maybe some chips in the lunchroom (but don't touch the pizza!), catch some sweet relief in the washroom, and get ready for some more commercial caving next post.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Visit to West Texas

Last week, Jeff and I headed to West Texas to visit Rachel, Jeff's daugter. She's working in Marfa this summer, a place that can be aptly described as situated in the middle of nowhere. Although to describe it as such would mean that nowhere is incredibly, starkly beautiful.

It also takes quite some effort to GET to nowhere. For us, that effort included a flight from Chicago to Dallas, where we hopped a connecting flight to Midland/Odessa, picked up a rental, and drove three solid hours at 70-80 mph (depending on the road) before we turned onto U.S. 90 and beheld this:

It turns out that Marfa is the seat of Presidio County, and it has a lovely courthouse--in fact, its courthouse is much prettier than those in nearby Fort Davis (Jeff Davis County seat) and Alpine (Brewster County seat), although those WOULD be impressive were Marfa not in the competition. I didn't take pictures of the other two, so you'll just have to take my word for it, but here is the Presidio County Courthouse:

More on the courthouse later, though. We are still discussing the trip TO Marfa.

Now, I mean no offense Dallasans or Dallasites or whatever the proper term for a denizen of Dallas is, but your airport truly sucks. Or maybe it is simply American Eagle airline that sucks. All I know is that everything coming and going to Marfa worked for us EXCEPT for making the Dallas/Midland connection. What a cavalcade of ineptitude! Four gate changes, more than an hour's delay, and then, when we tried to board, we found out that they had given our seats to stand-by passengers despite the fact that we had been duly checked in in Chicago. Sigh. I'm not sure what happened to the stand-by passengers, but we insisted we be reinstated on the flight. We had a rental car waiting and a long drive ahead of us. I didn't want to navigate such unfamiliar terrain in the dark. However, I shouldn't have worried--Marfa is near the western edge of the Central Time Zone, so the sun doesn't set until after 9:00 PM in July.

Although I had no idea what to expect Marfa to be like, I DID have a preconceived notion about what West Texas would be like. Flat. Scrubby. A clutch of bobbing pump jacks every few miles or so. Hot. This preconception was based on previous drives through Texas, although the routes were quite a ways north of our particular destination on this trip. For the first half of our drive or so, my notions of West Texas were borne out. Then we found ourselves climbing a hill, and at its crest we gazed out over a panorama of high desert with a range of craggy mountains marching through from south to north. Stark. Beautiful. And that was where we were headed.

We reached Marfa in the early evening and checked in at the Hotel Paisano. It's a historic hostelry built and opened just before the stock market crashed in 1929. It played host to the cast and crew of "Giant," which filmed in and near Marfa in 1955 and is famous for being James Dean's last movie. It fell on hard times in the late 20th century and fell into disrepair. It was even auctioned off on the courthouse steps, but the current owners have done a beautiful job of restoring it. Here is Hotel Paisano as it stands today, just to the left of the white building (which, if you squint really hard, you can see has "Texas" in relief on its facade):

Our room was nicely appointed but quite small. The size was mitigated by our shared balcony, which overlooked the courtyard and fountain of the hotel. In the evenings, guests would gather here to drink and enjoy the cool desert air.

Marfa is a small jewel of a town. It was once home to several military installations, but they closed after WWII. Since the 1970s, when artist Donald Judd bought a good portion of one of the abandoned bases and began working on and displaying his sculptures there, the town has attracted creatives: artists, musicians, filmmakers. In fact, two movies were shot there this summer. This town of just more than 2,100 has a wonderful bookstore, classy restaurants (which are priced accordingly), a cozy coffeehouse/breakfast cafe, and a host of galleries. In fact, it's sometimes hard to tell the real storefronts from the ones that are art installations.

One afternoon, as Jeff was hunkered down in the bookstore writing, Rachel and I explored the courthouse. The interior is just as nicely preserved as the exterior, with bannisters and molding of dark, carved wood; huge windows; and high ceilings. From the windows of the dome, you can take in a 360 degree view of Marfa and the surrounding countryside. Here is Highland Avenue--the main drag--looking South:

Here is the view looking east over the old jail (now offices and, as far as we could tell, storage) and past the water tower to the desert beyond:

We had a great time visiting with Rachel. She took us drinking at the lounge of the Thunderbird Motel--the cool and upscale lodging alternative to the more traditional Hotel Paisano. She introduced us to her fine colleagues at Marfa Public Radio and took us on a tour of their brand spanking new offices and studio. She helped us tell the aforementioned art installations from the aforementioned storefronts. We attended an estate sale in Alpine, where Rachel found and bought a desk small enough to fit in the trunk of our rental. We had many tasty meals. On Rachel's recommendation, we went north to Fort Davis where we visited the Fort Davis National Historic Site:

And where we ate at a real old-fashioned soda fountain:

We saw the Marfa Mystery Lights--strange orbs of light that materialize most nights near Marfa. They float in the air, wax and wane and wax again, blink out or sometimes split in two--fascinating. The state of Texas has built a nice viewing area east of Marfa on the road to Alpine. There were around twenty people there the night we came to see the lights, and it was as interesting eavesdropping on their conversations--other sightings they had made, theories as to what they were, and so on--as it was actually catching a glimpse of the mystery lights. Rachel had been out to see the lights before, but they had never appeared to her before she came out with us. Kismet, I think.

The three of us took an ambitious day trip north to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico--but that is fodder for another post.

Every day we encountered a tiny pink bike parked carefully on the sidewalks around town. The first day, it was parked in front of the Brite Building, about a block or so south of our hotel on Highland Avenue. The next day, it was parked on Texas, across the street from the courtyard entrance to Hotel Paisano. From there, it moved to the front of the local thrift store:

We decided it must be an art installation as well--a mobile one.

And speaking of art installations, the one thing we did NOT do was take the tour at the Chinati Foundation (which preserves and displays Judd's work), philistines that we are. We will have to save that for another visit. And, since Marfa has cast its spell on Rachel--i.e., she wants to stay there for now--we may well be back.

I wonder what Marfa is like in the wintertime.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Soul Queen of New Orleans

Last night I was party to a rare treat for a Chicago northsider: a live Irma Thomas performance. She headlined the first night of the Old Town School of Folk Music's Folk and Roots Festival near Lincoln Square. The last time I saw Irma live was about six years ago when she played one of the evening programs at Lincoln Park Zoo. She comes to Chicago only too rarely.

Her set featured a nice mix of her older songs (she even took some requests, although she didn't oblige Jeff's shout-out for "Break-a-Way"), selections from her latest CD, and her second-line set-piece--always a show-stopper. The highlight of the set for me was the encore: a rendition of "Sing It!" That song is off the CD of the same name that she did with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, and it melds an upbeat tempo with poignant lyrics in perfect Irma fashion.

For those who have not been introduced to the Soul Queen of New Orleans, do yourself a favor: go out and find one of her recordings. Her title is not hyperbole. She has a rich, bluesy alto voice that brings you to tears one minute and has you dancing the next. She can convey heartbreak like no one else. She can exude joy. And she is one of the warmest, most down-to-earth people you will ever meet, should you get the chance. I had that good fortune at the Bottom Line in New York back in the early 90s, and I was able to reprise it last night. A friend who writes for and edits a national music magazine wrangled a few of us access after the show. The meeting was brief, but sweet. What a lovely lady.

The first time I ever saw Irma perform (or heard of her at all) was in the late 1980s when I caught her set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was the first time I attended Jazzfest, although it became a yearly event in my life for the next four or five years. Among the wealth of talent I took in that weekend were the Balfa Brothers, Boozoo Chavis, the Hackberry Ramblers, the Zion Harmonizers, and James Brown (who was funky and amusing, although the 15-minute homage to himself where the backing vocalists grooved and chanted "James Brown, James Brown" over and over and over and over was a bit much). But Irma was the highlight. Someone (or many someones) in her organization had hand-decorated paper napkins--hundreds of them!--with raindrops, musical notes, and Irma's name, a nod to her song "It's Raining." Members of the crew distributed them to the huge crowd around her stage so that we could all wave them as we danced the second line during her set.

A year or two later, I discovered the Lion's Den. It was the nightclub Irma and her husband/manager Emile Jackson ran across from the NOLA lock up. In fact, the Lion's Den shared a building with a firm called Bail Bonds R (turn the R backwards) Us. But the rough neighborhood didn't keep her devoted fans from flocking there on Jazzfest weekend evenings to worship at the feet of the Soul Queen and dance their own feet just about off. And Irma repaid our devotion with her voice and her charm and her humor. And by feeding us! You heard right--she and her cousins would cook up a huge mess of red beans and rice and serve it up to the crowd during breaks in the music--and it was all on the house! Talk about a lagniappe!

And now the Lion's Den is history, it and all the memorabilia of Irma's long career on display there swept away in the flood that claimed Irma's house as well. By sheer force of luck, Irma was working in Austin when Katrina struck, so she was out of harm's way. But she lost just about every material thing she had. And yet, she was as warm and as personable and as open and as funny last night as I have ever seen her. Obviously, the storm, the flood, and the aftermath couldn't do permanent damage to her spirit. And for that, all of us--all of her fans and all of those who simply haven't yet discovered her--should be thankful.

Thanks, Irma, for dropping by the north side and singing for us!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sparkly Things

I just returned from Evanston, where I basked in the glory of 45 minutes of fireworks. So sparkly! So loud! Such a spectacular finale, with the most beautiful mix of colors I've ever seen in a fireworks display. How I love the 4th of July!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Magpie Waltz

So, I finally decided to start a blog. Everyone else is doing it, so I figure it can't hurt if I do so too.

It will probably take me a while to get comfortable with this, but I'll try to update with fair regularity.

So... in case anyone is interested (or in case anyone is even LOOKING), I guess I should introduce myself.

I have a rather checkered employment history--college instructor; guitarist, backing vocalist, and arranger for several bands; music store clerk; corporate manuals editor; knitwear designer; surface designer (fabric and gift wrap); babysitter to a stand-up comedian; freelance editor; freelance writer--but right now I am an editorial manager at a major educational publisher. It's an actual career. I'm kind of stunned at that.

I've lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in the rust belt of upstate New York, in Boston, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles. Now I live with my husband Jeff and our fat, fluffy white diva of a cat named Shelly in an ancient fixer-upper of a condo a block from Lake Michigan in the City of Big Shoulders. While I miss topography--my husband (a native Chicagoan) was insulted when, upon my first Chicago snowfall, I asked if anyone could sled here--I love to have a nice, flat terrain on which to run. Well, on which to jog. I'm not all that fast. I also love our close proximity to Wisconsin and all it's funky antique malls and tourist attractions. House on the Rock is my Mecca. So is the Mocassin Bar in Hayward. Wisconsin simply rules in terms of weirdness. Jeff and I hope to live there one day.

That's about it for now. I'll write more as the spirit moves me.