State Capit(o)ls

They’re domed, they’re grand and we enjoy them: state capitol buildings.

Admittedly, our interest is a little weird, but we’ve learned that capitol buildings often provide insight into how a state thinks about itself. They’re typically filled with exhibits, portraits and a sense of place that compensates for all of the self-important young legislative aides scurrying across the polished floors.

imageOn Sunday, we visited two capitol buildings, both in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. The one with the five columns in front isimage the old capitol, which served as the statehouse from 1839 until 1905. It was restored after suffering damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now serves as a museum.
You can see one of its exhibits, which depict Mississippi’s history and, yes, discuss slavery, the civil rights struggle and other difficult aspects of the state’s past.image (We were even more impressed by the extensive displays about these topics at Mobile’s history museum, which we visited a day earlier.)

The dome with the scaffolding is Mississippi’s current capitol, located a few blocks away. Nearby are Mississippi’s magnificent governor’s mansion, the Eudora Welty library and other landmarks.

Earlier in our trip, we visited the capitol buildings for Iowa, Washington and Texas, shown here.

Des Moines, Iowa: IMG_0916 Olympia, Washington:


Austin, Texas:


I especially enjoy listening to the tour guides describe complicated historical events or respond to sensitive questions. Our guide in Austin, for instance, kept saying “we” when referring to the Texans who fought the Mexican forces at the Alamo. In Madison, Wisconsin, which we visited a few years ago, our young guide did her best to avoid mentioning the battle then under way to recall Gov. Scott Walker, who is now running for president. In Augusta, Maine, one of the Democratic Party leaders saw us wandering in the hall. She showed us around personally while describing her battles with Paul LePage, the state’s colorful Tea Party governor. It was an insightful — and hilarious — experience we never anticipated.

So, the next time you’re visiting a state and are looking for a fun (and free!) way to learn about it, go visit its capitol building. You never know who you might run into.

Signs for Staying Weird

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I bet that sign got your attention.

As someone who works in communications, I’m always interested in how people and businesses share their messages. Champa and I saw some funny examples Wednesday night as we strolled along Sixth Street, the heart of Austin’s bar scene. Here are a couple of the other signs we passed:

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There was even advertising above the urinals in the men’s bathroom:

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Here’s one interesting statistic from our evening: Of the nine middle-aged women sitting near us in the restaurant, eight had blonde hair. Welcome to Texas! Here we are, with me doing some research. (We’re drinking water. Really.)

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We hope Austin stays weird, as its slogan says. Great town! Now, on to New Orleans.

Our ‘Unprotected’ Border

If this video snippet that we shot along Route 9 in New Mexico looks like nothing more to you than an empty highway, look more closely. What you’re seeing is one of our country’s biggest controversies: its “unprotected” southern border.

We shot the video on Monday while driving from Tucson through Arizona and New Mexico into Texas, where we finally stopped for the night east of El Paso. (We’ve since moved on to San Antonio, to be followed by Austin and New Orleans.)

We expected this long drive to be highlighted by our morning stops in the tourist towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, as well as Douglas, all in Arizona. Instead, since we steered off Route 10 to travel along Route 40 and Route 9, we spent most of the day thinking about our country’s immigration controversy. (We traveled the route shown in blue on the map instead of the more conventional route shown in grey.)

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IMG_2707Route 9 straddles the U.S. border with Mexico, which makes it a focal point for the U.S. Border Patrol. It was pretty empty when we traveled it. Minutes might pass before we saw another car. Even though the road is in good condition and its speed limit is 65 miles per hour in most places, it didn’t attract many drivers.

IMG_2717What we did see was the Border Patrol, driving on the road, parked along the shoulder or otherwise making its presence felt. Champa and I kept count: along the 227 miles between Douglas and El Paso, we saw the Border Patrol 11 times.

IMG_2727After we entered El Paso, where Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez is so close you can almost look inside people’s homes, we continued to see the Border Patrol. For instance, we stopped at this checkpoint long after we passed through El Paso.

If you do the math, we saw the Border Patrol once every 20 miles or so. Of course, that’s only what we saw from the road. Presumably, there were many more Border Patrol vehicles closer to the border, not to mention aerial surveillance and who knows what else.

Is that a big presence, given the scope of the controversy? I claim no expertise and can’t even venture a guess, much less offer a solution for the complicated politics, ethics and other aspects of the immigration debate. All I know is that for us, two Americans from North Carolina, it was sobering to confront — and to ponder all the lives, resources and controversy represented by this glimpse. As we experienced earlier with Western wildfires and California’s drought,  we came face to face with an issue that had previously been an abstraction. Our road map didn’t list it but, yet again, we found it just the same.

Same Shops, Different Look

IMG_2506We stopped for coffee at a Starbucks near San Diego this afternoon. The interior looked pretty much like a Starbucks back in North Carolina, but the exterior, shown here, had a distinctly California feel. Likewise for the Domino’s alongside it.

IMG_2509Across the parking lot was a branch of Wells Fargo Bank, with an appearance quite unlike its counterparts back east. You don’t see many red roofs like that in North Carolina, except maybe at a La Quinta hotel or an older Taco Bell.

IMG_2475Not far from the shopping center was this street in La Jolla.  With its fabulous border of palm trees, it looked quite unlike 15-501 or any other road in Durham. The Art Deco vibe reminded me of Miami’s South Beach.

As we’ve traveled across the country, we’ve marveled at the changing physical landscape, with cornfields in Indiana and Iowa giving way to vast ranges in the Dakotas and majestic peaks in the Rockies. More recently, along the West Coast, giant redwood forests have been followed by scrublands and crashing coastlines. But it’s not only the landscape that’s changed along our journey; so have the architecture and built environment.

IMG_2352We’ve seen our environment change not only in coffee shops and pizza joints, but also in homes and other structures. In Pasadena, for instance, we stayed overnight with our friend Susan, shown here with her daughter Kai. Her home was built in a traditional California style, with a small pool in the back. (Close observers will recognize the pool as the favorite of a certain gnome.)

To be sure, some businesses and structures here look the same as they do in North Carolina and other parts of the country, albeit with tweaks to meet local building codes. We’ve tracked this as we’ve moved along, trying to figure out where and how things are the same or different, and why. It’s reminded me of those high school exams asking you to “compare and contrast,” although it’s been much more fun.

Tomorrow (Friday) morning we’re driving to Las Vegas, and we’re already wondering whether the Starbucks will feature flashing neon. The oddsmakers say yes. Stay tuned.

The Lake with No Water

FullSizeRender 255On Monday afternoon, we saw a lake with no water. The sight was chilling and showed starkly the severity of California’s drought.

Until this year, Lake Laguna — yes, that translates as Lake Lake — had provided a provided a thriving urban oasis for residents of San Luis Obispo and others along California’s central coast. People brought their boats and children played on the shore. Homeowners constructed docks next to their backyards.FullSizeRender 261

Now those docks rest above a parched lakebed. Children play in the lake, not beside it. Fish are long gone. Signs warning swimmers to take care without a lifeguard remain affixed to docks that rise high above the ground.

Champa and I visited the park while in San Luis Obispo. We had a couple of hours to kill and saw it listed on a website as a nice place to take a leisurely hike. The website did not include the new information that Lake Lake no longer looks like a lake.

We chatted there with a young woman playing with her dog, who told us she has lived in the area her entire life and had never before seen the lake become dry. She FullSizeRender 258described the fish stinking as they rotted a year earlier and wondered aloud whether the lake would ever return.

The drought is unavoidable here in California. But until today, it had been somewhat abstract to us. No longer, and the experience only increases my disgust with timid presidential candidates who insist in the face of overwhelming evidence that climate change is uncertain. Perhaps the next Republican debate should be held here at Lake Laguna, the lake with no water.

French-Fried Artichokes

FullSizeRender 259Sometimes you just have to eat french-fried artichokes for breakfast, with chipotle sauce on the side.

That’s what we decided when driving through Castroville, the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world. We saw this road sign and said to each other, “Well we’ve never tried that before.”FullSizeRender 256

Good decision. Friends, you have not truly lived until you’ve eaten a greasy plate of fried artichokes in the morning. The shop also offered artichoke bread, artichoke cupcakes and cream of artichoke soup. (When Champa saw the menu, she started imitating Bubba from Forrest Gump, reciting the many dishes you can make with shrimp.)

As with food at the state fair, we didn’t make the mistake of thinking too hard about the nutritional value of our meal or, for that matter, about our health more generally, at least FullSizeRender 253for a few minutes. As recent members of a university community, we just considered ourselves cultural anthropologists doing original research on regional culinary traditions.

We’ve been doing this regularly during our trip, looking for local vendors and shops offering foods we can’t buy back home.

IMG_2271On Monday afternoon, for instance, we saw this hot dog stand at Avila Beach, near San Luis Obispo. They were selling a “California hot dog” and other items such as shave ice that you don’t usually see back east.

If you’ve read this far, we welcome your suggestions about regional foods we should sample as we head south to San Diego and then east through Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and points beyond. We’ll eat them only for anthropological reasons. We promise.

What should we try?

Where We’ve Gone So Far

Rock stars in Cleveland. Corn fields in Iowa. Badlands in South Dakota. Redwoods in California. Since we left Durham a month ago, our journey has taken us to lots of places. We’ve creatimageed a map to help you (and us) keep track; just click on this link:

We’re now wrapping up a final day in Berkeley before embarking tomorrow (Sunday) morning on the second half of our U.S. journey. We’ll be stopping in San Luis Obispo, Pasadena and San Diego, then turning east across the southern part of the country,

Once again: off we go.

We're still working — but now as Peace Corps volunteers. Join us on the journey.

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