Along the Borderline…

On our recent Grand Tour of Texas, just upstream from this spot there was a boatman offering to row us across the Rio Grande so we could have our passports stamped in Mexico. It’s a novelty, of course, but the Boquillas Border Crossing is one of the 48 official crossing points on the US-Mexican border.

I didn’t bite on the boat ride or buy a handmade trinket from the young Mexican sitting in the shade of a spindly tree along the trail, but it felt surreal to be there on the dusty edge of the Chihuahuan desert peering into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon while hearing in my head the mean-spirited chatter about rapists, drug dealers, and other criminals swarming toward the US border determined to steal our jobs and destroy our heritage.

Despite its geopolitical importance, the Rio Grande is disappointing as rivers go – shallow, muddy, and barely a trickle at points – though the canyons it’s cut through the Chisos Mountains on its way to the Gulf of Mexico offer a dramatic landscape barely known to most Americans. Located midway on the 700 mile stretch of West Texas highway that links El Paso and San Antonio, Big Bend National Park is an amalgam of rugged mountains, limestone canyons, desert savanna, and the all-important borderline river.

Big Bend gets its name from a big S-curve the river makes along that stretch, and it’s mountainous terrain an exception to the otherwise flat, barren topography of West Texas – beautiful in its way but difficult to appreciate until you’ve seen it up close.

I went through advanced jet training in Beeville, south of San Antonio, and flew that expanse between Corpus Christi and El Paso many times. In the summer, there is always a line of towering cumulus building on a north-south line just west of Fort Stockton. I’ve looked up at the tops from 44,000’ knowing I couldn’t get over them and wondering if I’d ever find a way around them. Would anyone ever find me if I had to eject there in the middle of nowhere?

Those days are behind me and driving that stretch of highway today my thoughts are decidedly different. I was struck by how wasteful, almost criminal, it is to see our government expending vast resources to keep desperate exiles from crossing this scrubby waterless plain in search of a better life. Their lives must be truly intolerable if the West Texas desert looks like a better choice than the homes they are leaving.

The Rio Grande marks the US-Mexican border from east of El Paso all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. US 90 angles along, 20 or 30 miles to the north but roughly parallel to the river until the two meet in Del Rio. Alongside that highway for 174 miles from Marathon to Del Rio there is a bulldozed strip of white limestone dirt that plays the same role as the old Berlin Wall. There are literally hundreds of armed Border Patrol agents in vehicles combing this barren strip for FOOTPRINTS.

Every day these agents, in green and white patrol cars, pull tires behind their vehicles to rake and smooth the strip so they can check later for the fresh footprints of “illegals.” Never mind that the border is 20 miles south or that the Chihuahuan desert is so inhospitable that it would be an act of pure desperation to attempt a crossing. In the picture above, the Mexican border is beyond the flat line of the horizon. Is this really an intelligent, viable solution to illegal immigration? It must seem so to USBP and ICE given the number of cars, trucks, and Border Patrol facilities we saw along these 174 miles of US 90, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a better way to deal with the problem.

Today’s New Yorker magazine (April 23, 2018) has an excellent article by Nick Paumgarten about his recent canoe trip from Boquillas del Carmen to Brownsville, the history of the Rio Grande, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to build a wall along the Texas border. See:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/23/a-voyage-along-trumps-wall

Nick’s article is worth reading, not only for the perspective it gives on the border wall but also as a call to action for the preservation of our natural treasures. We don’t need a wall. We need smart people working together to craft intelligent human solutions to difficult problems. We have solved more difficult problems than this one when we had solid intelligent leadership and a bipartisan desire to find solutions.

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Texas Vernacular…

This is Confluence Park, a public/private enterprise, at the juncture of San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River near downtown San Antonio. Designed by Ted Flato of Lake/Flato Architects, the park is designed to teach students and neighbors about the water and native plants of the area in addition to giving them respite from the residential density surrounding the park. More about that and Ted Flato later, but this was one of the many surprises of our Grand Tour of Texas.

When we left Seattle, we thought the Austin music scene could be a highlight of The Tour. As luck and timing would have it we didn’t hear a lick in Austin, but that’s the thing about Texas; it’s so big and there are so many things to see, hear, and do that they can’t all be done on a three-week road trip. Instead of 12 Bar Blues, our highlights were the surprising three A’s – Astronomy, Architecture, and Art. I wrote about astronomy and “dark energy” last week and Donald Judd’s art in Marfa the week before. Today I want to share what M and I learned in our up close and personal course on Texas architecture.

Until we started across the Lone Star State, we didn’t know there was a regional architecture called Texas “vernacular.” Usually one-story, Texas vernacular evolved from other regional styles like Prairie and Bungalow but was adapted to the warm southern weather, local traditions, and the availability of local materials. In the mid-20thcentury, a native Texan named O’Neil Ford undertook the modernization of this indigenous style and became a local legend. In his later years, Texans often referred to him as “the most famous architect nobody knows about.”

This is his “Little Chapel in the Woods” at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, where he blended local materials – wood and two kinds of limestone – in a modern Texas vernacular building but maintains traditional church-like elements of arches, vaulted ceiling, and an altar-chancel area.

Ford died in 1982, but not before his vision was implemented in designs for the campus of Trinity University, the campus of St. Mary’s Hall, the University of Texas (San Antonio), several buildings at Skidmore College and many of the facilities used by Texas Instruments.

The firm he founded still exists and when our friends Gar and Mollie Lasater were planning their Fort Worth house in 1993 they chose a young protege of Mr. Ford’s named Ted Flato to draw up the plans. As they told me the background story, it’s clear that the young Mr. Flato didn’t know what he was in for or who he was dealing with when he undertook the commission.

The last time I visited Fort Worth, the Lasaters were just breaking ground and we walked over to the site to see the hole that would become their dream house. It was on a beautiful wooded piece of sloping land in a residential corner of Fort Worth and they were anxious to keep it as natural as possible. They both have great taste and deep roots in Texas, and I knew the house would reflect those things. They also have a large extended family that gathers frequently and wanted creative creature comfort rather than a show horse, so I was anxious to see what they came up with.

In the beginning, Ted drew up two complete sets of plans and both were rejected as too conventional. At that point, Garland suggested they all go to Japan to see how Japanese architecture might influence their design – and off they went to look at Japanese gardens, shrines, and houses. The trip was a success in all respects – the Lasaters ended up with the house they dreamed of (I think the final count was 8 sets of plans) while Ted’s architectural reputation soared and his vision was forever influenced by what he saw there. The Lasater house is the only Fort Worth residence ever honored by the American Institute of Architects for design at the national level (1997).

We had lunch with Ted in San Antonio and he took the four of us on a walking tour of the dramatic Pearl District redevelopment project he and his firm, Lake/Flato, designed around the iconic old Pearl Brewery and Hotel Emma.

Later, in Austin, we visited Lake/Flato’s Austin Public Library (below). In all of these projects – the Lasater House, Confluence Park, the Pearl, and the Austin Library – Japanese elements marry seamlessly with Texas vernacular in a way that ultimately expresses itself as a transformational modern style. We would never have known any of this if it hadn’t been for our friends’ involvement with Ted and his high regard for the history and integrity of the Lone Star State’s architecture.

We may have missed the 12 Bar blues and music venues of 6th Street in Austin, but we were treated to a more personal experience with Ted’s hands-on tour in San Antonio and a close look at his projects in Austin and Fort Worth.

Often, the best parts of a trip are the unexpected things that happen. For example, at Confluence Park a young man on a skateboard overheard Ted describing the project to us. He shyly asked if Ted was involved with Lake/Flato in some way and was nonplussed to find out he was talking to Ted Flato himself. He, it turns out, is an aspiring designer and had been brainstorming about how to get an introduction to the firm. Ted gave him his contact information and invited him to apply for a job. I hope he did. We’re all rooting for him. That’s the serendipity of unexpected encounters and our own experience on The Grand Tour.

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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Our Grand Tour of Texas continued last week, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would include a cosmological dialogue about “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and the Magellan Giant Telescope. I had forgotten about Garland’s interest in astronomy and that years ago he and Mollie had given the McDonald Observatory some money to underwrite its operation.

I’ve spoken of this before, but my friend Garland is larger than life. His interests span a broad spectrum that includes Garcia Lorca’s poetry and Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the evaluation of insurance risk and mathematical puzzles like the Collatz Conjecture. He loves Mollie, math, astronomy, cosmology, politics and his beloved Texas.

When we began planning this Grand Tour, he was excited to share the McDonald Observatory with us. It was on our route, a short drive from Marfa, and the prospect launched him into a monologue about how looking at the stars is all about looking back in time – billions of years back in time – in some cases. He was energized and told me he would give the observatory a call to see if something could be arranged. He wasn’t sure they would go out of their way, but he would call and see.

I could have predicted it, but the folks in charge at the McDonald pulled out all the stops. The director arranged for a personal tour, dinner (green enchiladas) at the Astronomers’ Lodge, an overnight stay at the guest residence, and reservations for the outdoor Star Show that night.

On our arrival, under a perfectly cloudless night sky we were treated to the director’s laser Star Show followed by an opportunity to view different sectors of the heavens through smaller telescopes set up to show us what an astronomer might see – quite a remarkable experience.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep at 6,790’, we woke to a stunning view of the West Texas landscape. Really beautiful from our perch atop the Davis Mountains.

I could have stayed there all day, but after breakfast it was on to the next event, a two-hour tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope with one of the astronomers and the chief engineer. While the Hobby-Eberly is the smaller of the two McDonald telescopes, it has been upgraded to probe the furthest reaches of the universe in order to unravel the mystery of “dark energy,” a theoretical force thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. I don’t understand it but apparently I’m not alone. Astronomers posit its existence but don’t know much about it.

Touring Texas has been revealing. It’s a world unto itself. Everything about it. In many ways it’s still the Wild West, but within its boundaries are natural wonders, elite universities, cutting-edge art installations, a world famous musical competition, and scientists reaching for the stars. Later on, in Austin, Gar and Mollie invited Dr. Frank Bash, the former director of the McDonald Observatory and current Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Texas to join us for dinner.

I know almost nothing about astronomy, so it was a intimidating to sit down with him. He couldn’t have been nicer. It turns out he knows a lot about airplanes and wanted to know which ones I had flown and whether I knew the story behind the design of the 747. I did… and so did he. He’s a huge fan of aviation and over dinner, much to my relief, we talked airplanes and never probed the mysteries of outer space.

Frank’s friendship with Garland began 30 years ago and was based on a mutual interest in astronomy, but it eventually led them to an off the grid “scientific” adventure in South America. At the time, Gar and Mollie were planning their own adventure by flying their Cessna Caravan around South America. In the process they agreed to pick up Frank in Peru and fly him south to Chile to reconoiter sites for a REALLY BIG telescope.

Today, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile is under construction with an expected completion date in 2025. When completed it will be the world’s largest telescope, a joint venture with partners ranging from the University of Texas to research institutions in Australia, Brazil, South Korea, and Chile.

M and I feel privileged to have met Frank and jointly share a friendship with our larger than life friends, Garland and Mollie Lasater. Texas is big – in land mass and personalities.

Next stop: Marathon, Texas

 

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Marfa, Texas

Following the Civil War, the west was untamed and expanding. On the Texas frontier the saying was “West of the Pecos there is no law. West of El Paso there is no God.” This was the wild west of Judge Roy Bean, the Buffalo Soldiers, and Quanah Parker and his Comanche warriors.

Today, little more than 100 years later, the biggest little attraction in this vast high desert landscape is Marfa, population 1747. Lying 400 miles west of San Antonio and 200 miles east of El Paso, Marfa is a magnet for fans of the cutting edge minimalist art of Donald Judd, the New Yorker who came here in 1971 intent on taking his art out of the galleries and museums in order to implement a larger vision.

Last month, on our Grand Tour of Texas, we pulled our big white Suburban up to the Hotel Paisano after a disappointing visit to Huecos Tanks State Park where we waited for hours to see what turned out to be graffiti-covered pictographs. Nevertheless, undeterred, the Lasaters and Bernards were ripe for a couple days of modern art in the middle of nowhere.

It seems Marfa was destined to be an artistic destination from the beginning. According to Darwin Spearing’s Roadside Geology of Texas, the town was given its name by the wife of Southern Pacific Railway’s chief engineer. She was reading Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov as she passed through town, and Marfa was the name of one of the Karamazov servants. If you don’t like that one, other sources claim the town was named for Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff. Either way, this little West Texas town has an established literary pedigree.

For a small town with literary antecedents and world famous art, it’s not surprising that its hotel has a star laden past as well. The Hotel Paisano broke ground only days before the 1929 stock market crash and it’s history is full of boom/bust stories. In 1955, it was headquarters for the cast and crew of the classic movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and today its hallways are lined with large photos from the film’s archives. Shortly after the Giant crew left town, the Paisano fell on hard times but was saved from demolition in 1978 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places .

Today, the hotel is completely renovated and restored to its original state with tile floors, a courtyard fountain and lots of cowboy and Giant movie memorabilia.

On our first morning in town, following coffee in the lobby , we met our guide, Sterry Butcher, a local who works for the Chinati Foundation and writes a column for Texas Monthly. She’s the real deal, and because the foundation is closed on Monday and Tuesday we arranged to have her give the four of us a private tour of Donald Judd’s world at Chinati.

The town’s modern day reputation is due to Donald Judd, the New York artist who “discovered” Marfa in 1971 and moved there permanently in 1973. There, he partnered with a non-profit foundation to purchase an abandoned Army base, including its buildings, as the locus for his art – first, a series of 15 concrete boxes arranged along a north-south axis in the field adjoining the Army barracks and then 100 milled-aluminum boxes arranged in two remodeled artillery storage structures nearby.

Donald Judd died in 1994, but by then he had established his site plan and begun populating it with the art of his expansive vision.

While it’s true that Marfa’s artistic reputation is due Judd’s vision, that vision was not entirely self-referential. He admired the work of many other artists and envisioned an environment in which his friends could exhibit their work in discreet spaces on the same property. He accomplished that by renovating several U-shaped barracks buildings and inviting several friends – Dan Flavin, Bridget Riley, Carl Andre, Robert Irwin, Claes Oldenburg and others – to each take a building and create a work of art.

Here are examples from Bridget Riley, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin:

The founder’s work has been carried forward by two cooperating foundations – The Donald Judd Foundation displays his work in two downtown buildings known as The Block, and the Chinati Foundation, located on the former D.A. Russell Army Base at the edge of town is where the concrete boxes and barracks installations are located.

As you might imagine, in a town devoted to high concept art there are also a couple of good restaurants. On the day we were there, Anthony Bourdain was filming his Parts Unknown series on CNN. We just missed him at the Hotel Saint George bar and later at the Chinati site where M heard his crew was considering us as extras.

Anthony Bourdain obviously knew Marfa had food worth chasing down, and though we didn’t cross paths with him again we found a local bistro called Cochineal that I’m sure he visited. It’s a busy place and we were turned away on the Night One but able to get a reservation for Night Two. They serve main courses too but most of the diners choose to share tapas plates with an assortment ranging from duck breast to chili shrimp and roasted beet salad. Delicious.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the hype, but as we were leaving the restaurant Gar suggested we drive out of town to a location where locals claim an atmospheric phenomenon known as Marfa Lights can be seen on special occasions. I thought we would pull off the road somewhere and scan the horizon but was surprised to find a parking lot full of cars and a structure in place to accommodate the many curious viewers. We were unsuccessful that night but Sterry, our guide, claimed to have seen them many times. Maybe we’ll get lucky next time.

Next stop – McDonald Observatory just north of Fort Davis for a tour and Star Show.

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Texas – The Grand Tour Begins

The portrait over this bookcase is a good likeness of my friend, Garland Miller Lasater, Jr. It’s a wonderful picture painted by his friend, the artist Scott Gentling, but no painting can begin to capture his larger than life Texas persona. I didn’t stage the photo; I just took what was there but the books beneath the portrait speak clearly to the scope of his interests – art, travel, science, philosophy, nature and other cultures.

What you can’t see in the portrait’s background are a few fine pencil lines of physics diagrams and mathematical formulas – two of Gar’s passionate interests. This is not an ordinary (if there is such a thing) Texan, and though the contents of Jimmy Nelson’s book in the stack on the top shelf has nothing to do with us, Before They Pass Away is an apt description of the reason we needed to get together.

I hadn’t seen Garland in over ten years, and Marilynn had never met him or his wife, Mollie (left), a force all her own and the main event in a future blog. Standby for Mollie’s story and how old Texas blends with the Ivy League and cutting edge educational philanthropic commitment.

Over the years, Gar and I had written, talked, and stayed in touch but hadn’t spent any real time together. We’ve been friends since we were young Marine Corps fighter pilots, but at 80, our fighter pilot days are behind us – way behind us – and we don’t have a lot of time left to tell the old stories or make up new ones.

Gar suggested a Grand Tour of Texas. We would meet in El Paso in the far corner of West Texas and work our way across the state, seeing the sights, natural and man-made, until we ended up at their home in Fort Worth. He proposed we rent a big SUV, buy four chairs and a table for roadside relaxation, a cooler with water and snacks for refreshment, and a Jambox for the soundtrack. I suggested Jerry Jeff Walker and he offered up Bruch and Dvorak – an eclectic mix – just like the four of us.

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M and I were jazzed and El Paso seemed like the perfect place to start, since it’s the ancestral home to the paternal side of Marilynn’s family. We decided to fly-in a day before the Lasaters to check out the town and do a little family recon. M had the address of the house her father grew up in and a picture of her grandparents’ gravesite, and she wanted to see both as part of the quest to know more about her family heritage.

We dropped our bags at the hotel, Ubered over to the cemetery, and with the help of a groundskeeper found the family plot that included both her grandparents and great grandparents (below). It was neatly tended, caused a little emotional hiccup, and closed the loop for M. An interesting aside here is that all the men in her family worked for the railroad in one capacity or another, and Sydney, her great-grandfather, was an engineer who died of steam burns when his engine overturned on Christmas Day in 1923. It sounds like the folk tale of Casey Jones and the Wabash Cannonball, almost too dramatic to be true.

Following our visit to the cemetery, we opted to have our first on-site Tex-Mex dinner in the large open-air bar at the Hotel Indigo. M had a margarita and I couldn’t resist a shot of tequila and a beer. The guac was perfect, the lime juicy, and the corn tortillas freshly pressed and starchy.

Imagine my surprise when the check arrived and my tequila shot came in at $79.80.  One and a half ounces of tequila for $79.80? It had to be a mistake, so I chased down the bar manager to get it corrected and was told I should have asked the server the price. When we ordered I noted there were no prices on the bar menu but when I asked about the brand, Dragones Joven, all the waitress said was that it was “a very good tequila.” And it was. Crazy. Wouldn’t you think she’d have done a little caveat emptor if the price was going to be the same as a good rental car? Alas, as Billy Pilgrim said when Dresden was burning, “So it goes.”

The following morning, despite my tequila buyer’s remorse, we decided to check out the local scene while waiting for the Lasaters to arrive. We discovered downtown El Paso to be an uncrowded mixture of old (Plaza of the Alligators) and new architecture (El Paso Museum of Art) and very walkable. We especially liked the Plaza de los Lagatros, a memorial to the time when the pond in the plaza had real alligators swimming around to the amusement of the locals.

Our Grand Tour of Texas was shaping up, and with the arrival of our traveling companions the excitement was building. After a Tex-Mex reunion dinner at L and J’s Café and a good night’s sleep we were ready to go. Gar and I provisioned the Suburban at Walmart, picked up Mollie and Marilynn, and set off for our first road destination – Marfa – the trendiest little art town in the middle of nowhere Texas.

 

 

 

 

 

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