Category Archives: Travel

What matters most

I didn’t know spring until I came here
Here we’re pushing up the lid on the cool hemisphere
Everything melts I know even your tears
Here in this hemisphere

What matters the most is what you do for free
Me believing in you and you in me
You try to find work and you do your best
You get what you get and you deserve the rest

– “When The Ice Goes Out” by John Gorka

trinity churchI went to visit my girl this past weekend in a region of New York known as the North Country, up near the Ontario border. She’s been staying up there for the past three weeks, visiting old friends and family. I went to get a taste of the place and people she so often talks about and found that she didn’t exaggerate when it came her descriptions of the land and the souls who live on it.

It started snowing the night after I arrived and accumulated several inches by the time it was time to leave the next day. I had never seen so much snow outside of the Rocky Mountains and it was beautiful as it blanketed the Grasse River, frozen in parts, still running in others and visible from the kitchen window. I kept saying how beautiful this place was and everybody kept replying, “No, you really need to see it in spring or summer when it’s so green.” But I’ve seen incredible, lush green, this summer in Seattle and the Puget Sound, everything growing and constantly saturated with a sheen of fresh rain.

But all that white frosting a rural area like this was something I wasn’t used to and it WAS beautiful. Still, I get the point the locals were trying to make. The green of springtime, at the end of so much winter white, must really be breathtaking.

As we were driving around town on that last day to meet a friend with a more winter-ready car to drop me off at the airport, I tried to imagine what spring might look like. I remembered a line from a song by one of my favorite songwriters, “I didn’t know spring until I came here.”

In Texas, everything is flipped. The summers seem never-ending and often brutal. Fall is what I look forward to here, and it comes late, but when it finally arrives with that first crisp turn in the air temperature and a hint of woodsmoke in the air, it’s a joyful occasion for me. Spring seems to last about a day in comparison. There’s the first break in what we consider winter, then bluebonnets, maybe a tornado or two, then the mercury rises and rises and rises.

I don’t have an appreciation of spring, not like these winter folk do. But I kept reciting those lyrics aloud and came to the next line. Maybe one of my favorites.

“What matters most is what you do for free.”

This fall (and really even a bit longer than that) has been a time of learning for me. Learning about what really matters. Learning to silence the premeditated resentments of expectation, edit out the constantly-comparing language of pride, and to reframe life’s goals, joys, pleasures and treasures in terms of what truly lasts.

I’ve always liked Gorka’s lines but there’s a double edge to them. On one hand, the things that are most important are things for which we don’t receive a check – being good husbands/wives, raising a family, glorifying the Creator with all the blessings He’s given us. Or even some of the more trivial things, talents, hobbies, pursuits we do simply for the enjoyment of them – music, cooking, writing, art.

On the other hand, there’s the implication that we assign value to the ways we spend that “free” time. Look at how we spend our moments away from our day jobs or routine responsibilities – what does it say about what matters most, deep in our hearts? The lyric used to make me smile. Now it convicts me. I think good music can do both.

What matters most to me is changing, slowly but surely (it’s just the way I seem to operate). Because I’ve been coming out of a winter of sorts, and it seems that I’m starting to truly know spring for the first time myself.


Life, Death, Memories and the Open Road

I wrote this on July 29th while driving with my roommate through New Mexico. We were taking my Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe, crossing an item off my summer bucket list.

The broken white lines and telephone poles zip past.
New Mexico’s landscape rises and falls, grasslands and scrub brush.
The mountains are distant and we’ve not yet hit the desert.
And I think about road trips made my Papaw and Mamaw Hale, in the wide sedans we used to sail like ships across the hill country highways of Central Texas.
Papaw was Truman Preston Hale, a true Texan, a man of deep love and few words.
Tall with vice grips for hands, made strong by decades of hard work, but a mechanical mind every bit as sinewy despite only a few years of formal education.
His weathered but warm face was always crowned with a Western hat, felt in the winter and straw in those brutal Lampasas summers. A Stetson Open Road is what I remember though I don’t know that he had a preferred model.
He always looked forward to seeing us, always made a point to full his pockets with loose change, soft orange candy peanuts, chewing gum and hard butterscotch candies wrapped in cellophane.
He never went far without a coffee can for spitting tobacco juice into, and he always had a pocketknife at the ready.

When we emptied my grandfather's chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

When we emptied my grandfather’s chest of drawers after his death, I took two items. An unopened can of Billy Beer that he had kept as a souvenir from the Carter administration and one of his pocket knives. Along with his shotgun, these are the only possessions of his I own.

Those same vice-grip hands were equally at home fishing, shelling pecans from the tree in the yard, fixing cars, hand-mixing the world’s best milkshakes with just a spoon and a tall aluminum glass, or giving a 6-year-old grandkid’s knee a squeeze on a road trip as we zipped through small towns like Hico, Evant and Adamsville.
He took my dad on road trips as a boy. They saw the Grand Canyon and who knows what else, my dad, no doubt sitting like I did – staring at the lazy gliding buzzards in those impossibly vast Southwestern skies. Maybe he gave my dad a wink and a squeeze on the knee or a tousle of his hair – my Papaw’s love language I guess.
We never talked much. But I always knew where I stood with him, nonverbally. Still, I would have loved a day inside his head, or to take a trip like this and see the land through his eyes.
I remember my last few visits with him, in a nursing home in Temple. He was moody from the pain and didn’t want to eat the bland food. A notoriously picky eater with a cast-iron stomach, I can’t count the times I saw him consume meals of just tamales and piping hot black coffee.
I tried to have the conversations there that we didn’t have before. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember and now I teach kids how to write and tell stories, so I place an enormous value on words. But it seemed forced and he was in pain sometimes and seemed confused at others.
And we didn’t need the words anyway. We knew where the other stood, I believe. Right until the end. I would rub his silver hair on top of his head, up where the Stetson Open Road used to sit, and pray silently.
And every now and then as I’d walk by his bed, I’d feel a light tap on my knee, and when I’d turn to see him smiling, I could read every word on his face.
The road stretches on and we’re still an hour or more from Santa Fe. Dramatic clouds fill a towering sky, in every direction, as far as I can see.
My face and t-shirt smell like Old Spice aftershave. I was running low on my more expensive cologne and saw the familiar bottle in the grocery store. If it was good enough for Papaw, it will do the trick for this trip at least.
I’m in the passenger side as my good friend has driving duty and I’m still full from lunch of coffee and green chile stew.
I want to lay back and rest my eyes, so I cover my face with a Texas Rangers ball cap. Can’t help but think an Open Road would do this job better.

Walking in Memphis…

Listening to this tune as I pack for a trip to Missouri is reminding me of my trip to Memphis last week. I’m going to try to use some of my free time from this fellowship to edit a few of the photos I took on the trip. When they’re ready, I’ll put them up on the photo blog.

This is an old tune by W.C. Handy that put Beale Street (or Beale Ave. as it was known then, they changed the name after this song came out) on the map.

Beale Street was okay, but it’s a pretty touristy today. It was cool to walk the same streets as some of the blues, jazz and early rock legends, but there’s not a ton of the old scene left.

But Memphis is a city that does a good job of putting its history on display. Sun Studio, Stax Museum, the Civil Rights Museum are all fantastic.

But this was the gem of the trip.

More photos and stories to come.

Holy crap! It’s just hot out there…

iPhone screenshot... we could have record heat tomorrow. Yes!

It ain’t no joke. The back of the heat is very scrong indeed, 96 degrees at 5 p.m. tonight.

So… I have one more week of school left. After I squeeze in about two weeks of work into that one week, I should be ready to begin my summer vacation.

Every year I get the same question: What are you going to do this summer? And every year I had the same answer – just a combined shrug and sheepish look. (Actually I had a quite different answer at one point for this summer, but that’s a whole nother story… it’s back to shrug, sheepish look).

I know that I will be trying to continue with my diet and exercise (down about 35 pounds since rejoining WW in December). I know that I’ll be working on a reading list developed from the 100 books every man should read from the Art of Manliness (see my new tabs for more information). And I know that I’ll have a few gigs at least with the band.

Past that I’m not sure… though I was looking at some possible travel options the other day – maybe a road trip to Santa Fe and Flagstaff, or possibly Colorado Springs might be in order.

I haven’t ever taken a trip like that solo. I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy it, but also not sure who else would want to come with me.

If you’ve got some insight into the world of solitaire vacationing, please share. And if you’re interested in taking a road trip with me, please don’t turn out to be creepy.

Either way, I hope that I’ll spend a little more time blogging this summer.

Time to leave and face the heat… here’s a shot from outside my window!

Catch some rays!

Lubbock or leave it…

So I’m in Lubbock again for what has become a semi-annual trip to the UIL Regional Academic meet. We got in on Thursday, but my two students don’t compete until Saturday. So I’ve got a free day and a half here in America’s Playground.

We were surrounded by storm clouds yesterday with a tornado watch on for the area.

Darren, my bandmate and roommate for the trip, sat with me in our room as we watched The Office and 30 Rock but were continually interrupted by breaking weather updates. The big green screen radar map included several coiled graphics with capital “M’s” on them. I joked that the “M” probably stood for mesocyclone. Darren laughed. It was less funny when I turned out to be correct.

But the most we saw near the La Quinta was some rain and a lot of lightning.

So here I am spending a Friday morning in Lubbock, which seems a good time as any to listen to some Wilco. This place just has that kind of vibe. And I’m all out of Buddy Holly.

So here’s a “video” (actually just the album cut with one still image behind it) of the song that made me fall in love with Wilco’s music (thanks to Adam Chamberlain for sharing his excellent taste in music with me).

Either Way

Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will blow away
Maybe I won’t feel so afraid
I will try to understand
Either way

Maybe you still love me
Maybe you don’t
Either you will or you won’t
Maybe you just need some time alone
I will try to understand
Everything has its plan
Either way
I’m gonna stay
Right for you

Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will roll away
Maybe I won’t be so afraid
I will understand everything has its plan
Either way

Natural State of mind

Ava Grace and her Daddy after an evening cry

Ava Grace and her Daddy after an evening cry

I’m on the tail end of my annual summer break escape from Texas to Arkansas trip, and it’s been a blast.

I got here late Saturday night and I’ll head home in a few hours. I always enjoy visiting, but it is nice to climb back into your bed for the first time in a week. Hello sheets and pillows, hello comforter (how apt your name is now), hello lumpy mattress – ah, the devil that I know. (if you really don’t care about the details of the rest of my trip… stop reading now)

Continue reading

Depth – Donald Miller and the Grand Canyon

Through Painted Deserts

Before I got 13 chapters into Donald Miller’s Through Painted Deserts, I never wanted to visit the Grand Canyon.

There was no appeal in seeing in person a big hole which I had already seen in a million postcards and textbooks and Discovery Channel mini-docs.

But in this travel memoir by the author of Blue Like Jazz, this natural wonder is alive for me for the first time. And while I’m not sure if I want to retrace the steps of Don’s physical journey (the trip to the bottom sounds like it might as well be a hike to the moon), I do envy the metaphysical journey he makes. Deeper into the canyon, and deeper into himself.

Stripped of other wants and trivial things, he’s left with just his own mortality and his own mind and a desire to push past his own distaste for journaling to record this as an Eben-Ezer stone in his life.

As much as I have a desire for outward travels – Bryan and I chatted lightly the other night about borrowing an RV and hitting the road for three or four weeks one summer, see the America that had been concealed to us, I’m starting to respect the need for inward journeys too.

I want to see sunrise over Macchu Picchu but I also want to know where my anxieties and fears have their roots. I want to see where land terminates into that great expanse of ocean, and I want to plumb the depths of this strange, unexplainable love that keeps me, even against my best efforts, keeps me.

Thanks Don for sharing this journey. Even though I thought some of the metaphors were a little forced and some of the description a bit over the top, they were still good words, and they were yours, not mine anyway. It’s what you’ve helped stir up which counts more and I think if you were here, you’d agree with that.

Big Shelby

Another fine article from the good folks at Gangrey. This time it’s Sean Daly of the venerable St. Pete Times sharing the significance of Memphis (or Big Shelby, as James Autry‘s relatives referred to it in Nights Under A Tin Roof), for good or ill, from a barstool in Earnestine and Hazel’s to the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

And Ben is correct when he lauds the greatness of Daniel Wallace’s shots. I just wish I could’ve seen the girls’ mystery ghost/golden retriever shot from Jeff Buckley‘s old house.

I love that city and it’s time to go back. I think I may have found my spring break destination. Save me a seat, Russell. I want to sit and talk about Otis and Elvis and Albert and B.B. and Bobby “Blue” Bland all afternoon long.

In Earnestine & Hazel’s, Memphis makes beautiful, haunted sense.

This is a town where restaurants and bars pride themselves not on their DJs or their stereo systems, but on their jukeboxes. Slide a quarter in and press play for the past.

Music connects everything here – the food BBQ, fried catfish, related artery nightmares, the architecture (brick, mortar, cinder block), the people (cliche in their hospitable charm) – and almost everything is connected to Elvis, Otis, the Delta bluesmen. Memphis is hot, steamy, mosquito-ridden, but it also is soundtracked by greatness.

“We have everybody here,” George says. “The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Tina Turner. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Elvis Presley. The King of Soul: Otis Redding. And the Queen of Soul. You know who that is? Aretha Franklin. She’s from here, too.”

Road to nowhere


A small part of a great conversation the other night, my friend Paul talked about how much he enjoyed driving across Texas when he worked as a college recruiter. The therapy which can be purchased for a tank of unleaded gasoline, a decent radio station, and those white lines stretching out as far as the eye can see should not be quickly dismissed.

The destination is unimportant for a trip like this. It’s the process, the getting there, without having to continually check for a map or keep your eyes peeled for an exit. You’re not in the car to get somewhere. You’re in the car to work stuff out.

My favorite “thinking drive” was back in Arkansas.

I’d take off from my parents’ house up Highway 60 and across the Toad Suck bridge, the Arkansas River dark and serpentine beneath the spinning tires of my pickup. I’d roll down the windows and crank out the Black Crowes, or Pearl Jam, or Miles Davis or Waterdeep as I’d zip into Perry County, past the small communities of Bigelow and New Dixie.

Past my landmarks of Hutch Auctions and the small trailer where my grandmother goes to get her hair styled.

Past the blood red and off-white wooden steeple of St. Boniface and on into downtown Houston, population 246.

Past the “Peace Baby” building, a low brick and wood building with a concrete stoop and that epitaph spray painted on the front door. I later learned the building had been the bank there at Houston. It looks like it would’ve made a good target for Bonnie and Clyde.

And flipping a u-turn in the parking lot of small country store which probably stocked the stink bait next to the potted meat, I’d make my way back home.

I might have driven that route 100 times or more in the span of a few short years with everything on my mind from a half-Japanese girl named Sharon to rerun high school memories to my own shaky faith.

I’ve taken friends and family on my drive to “show” them, in hopes they might recognize something special about the path. But I rarely got much in the way of comment at all, other than a request to stop by Wal-Mart on the way home.

I haven’t been able to recreate the drive here in Texas. I’m just not sure where to go. Too many of the roads here actually go somewhere. I imagine I’ll find one someday. And until then, I can take comfort in the fact that I haven’t needed a road like that as much lately, for what it’s worth.

But I’m still thankful those roads are there… going nowhere… leaving me time and space for the journey.

So here’s my lonesome road CD mix for July 28th.

  • “At least I got a car” – Waterdeep
  • “Key to the Highway” – Little Walter Jacobs
  • “Faith My Eyes” – Caedmon’s Call
  • “Life is a Highway” – Tom Cochrane
  • “Drive” – REM
  • “Seeing Things” – Black Crowes
  • “Home” – Marc Broussard
  • “Freedom of the Road” – Martin Sexton
  • “Razor Light” – Waterdeep
  • “Alive” – Pearl Jam
  • “Driver 8” – REM
  • “Running Down a Dream” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • “If I Had a Boat” – Lyle Lovett
  • “Eternal Life” – Jeff Buckley
  • “Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
  • “Bothered” – Over The Rhine
  • “Crossroad Blues” – Robert Johnson
  • “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” – Skip James
  • “Just Got To Be” – The Black Keys
  • “40 Acres” – Caedmon’s Call
  • “Johnny’s Camaro” – David Wilcox
  • “Scar Tissue” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “Gulf of Mexico” – Shawn Mullins
  • “Speak” – Nickel Creek
  • And anything by Ryan Adams, Hank Sr. or The Jayhawks