UHAUL, Amtrak, and My Moving Experience

                The relocation experience is always interesting.  For my latest move, I really had no strong connections to my workplace or the surrounding area, so the process was fairly clean and easy.  I guess if a person is deeply ingrained in their job or community, moving is probably much more difficult. For me, loading my belongings into a UHAUL truck was actually somewhat liberating. Escaping the confines of my apartment complex and office cubicle meant the realization of new challenges, new scenery, new beginning. Maybe it’s something in the blood which drives this mindset and transient lifestyle. Who knows?

                Fortunately, I chose the twenty foot UHAUL truck as this size was perfect for my belongings. Despite my usual precautions, I figured the twenty-seven foot truck designed to accommodate the belongings of a four bedroom house would probably be too large for my possessions occupying a two bedroom apartment. Additionally, I was planning to tow my car on an auto transport, so I definitely wanted to choose the correct size. Surprisingly, the road trip was uneventful despite the ten miles per gallon gas mileage.

                After unloading and returning the UHAUL, I planned to take Amtrak back to my previous location to finish cleaning my apartment and drive my other car to my new location. Granted, I had never ridden Amtrak, so I was curious to see how it worked. The train experience start roughly as I initially parked in a private parking lot. The Amtrak staff gruffly explained the nearest public parking location was approximately four blocks from the station. After glancing at the clock, I figured fifteen minutes was plenty of time to move my car and prevent the possibility of towing. Unfortunately, the parking garage I found was several blocks from the station and required about fifteen minutes of brisk jogging with luggage to reach the train in time for departure. No worries; just a minor hiccup on this journey.

                After some scrutiny of my boarding pass, I was allowed onto the train. I quickly settled into a window seat in the coach section and began taking stock of my surroundings. Behind me, an Amtrak worker was unsuccessfully trying to convince passengers to upgrade their coach seat to a sleeper cabin. For the most part, a few passengers would come onboard at each small Texan station; Austen and Dallas supplied the most passengers. Points of interest along the trip included George H. Bush’s Crawford ranch and the filming location for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There was also a well-worn footpath alongside the railroad tracks which was probably a route for illegal immigrants.

                Without anyone sitting next to me, I was content to observe my surroundings. The café car attendant’s announcements over the intercom persuaded me to try a breakfast sandwich. Of course, all menu items were significantly overpriced as this operation held a complete monopoly over food service. My twelve dollar hamburger was surprisingly tasty, yet I still felt like I got the short end of the stick afterwards. For some reason, there was a major emphasis on community dining and reservations from the restaurant car attendant; I think they probably just liked talking over the intercom.

                As my luck would have it, a gentleman sat next to me at the Longview stop. After a little conversation, we discovered we had both had connections to the Air Force. His story was quite remarkable as he told me about his experience with Tops in Blue, the musical entertainment show of the Air Force. He spent the majority of his time on active-duty as a member of this group traveling to different overseas locations to perform shows. He then spent the next twenty years recruiting musical acts to a Dallas hotel. His stories were almost unbelievable, but I knew they had to be true. Needless to say, this conversation helped pass the time. I arrived at my destination and, reluctantly, bit the bullet for a cab to my place. Seventeen dollars seems a little steep for a fifteen minute taxi ride, but I guess they set the rates.

                I thought cleaning my apartment for the last time might trigger some nostalgia, but it didn’t. I was surprisingly content to close this chapter of my life and begin the next.


Yanks and Rebs

I’m not exactly sure what triggered my sudden fascination with Civil War history, but having three weeks of vacation to spend in the Piedmont region of Virginia probably contributed. I wrote about my trip to Tredegar Iron Works in my last post, and that was definitely a neat place. I also had a chance to visit the Mannassas battlefield as well. The first and second battles of Bull Run were fought at this location and really served as the first major conflict of the Civil War. The battlefields were setup with artillery pieces positioned similarly to the actual battle, and there was a pretty big area for walking and observing the preserved buildings from that time.

I also had the chance to visit the Wilderness Civil War site when there were some demonstrations taking place. There was a Union Cavalry demonstration as well as Ulysses S. Grant discussing the Wilderness Campaign strategy with his Generals. I toured the Ellwood house which served as the Union headquarters for a time. There was a Union camp setup complete with sutler, headquarters, and sleeping tents. One of my favorite parts was hearing the story of Stonewall Jackson’s arm burial and grave. I guess this legendary Confederate general was wounded and later died due to injuries sustained in the area. It sounds like Wal-Mart had been trying to build a store on one of the Wilderness battlefields a while back, but preservation efforts prevailed.

I then drove to Chancellorsville to see the sites here. This battle proved to be another  surprise rebel victory. The Confederates were able to once-again out-maneuver the Union armies and deal a blow to them. The museum was interesting, and the tour was pretty good.

After visiting these sites, I decided to pickup a copy of Marching Through Culpeper to further learn about life during this period. While I haven’t finished the book, it does really provide insight into the time period and region where a lot of battles and maneuvering occurred. I had always imagined the North as possessing the moral high ground during the war, but from some of the stories;it seems like the Union often took advantage of situations. Regardless, I have enjoyed visiting these sites over the past few weeks.

After a brief hiatus from the blogosphere, I am back for a time. Some recent highlights include a stop at Graceland, where I discovered way more people love Elvis than I realized. It seemed that about 90% of the place was akin to an amusement park, and the other 10% was the house. Still, I guess the $50 was probably worth it to experience a part of American music history. I also stopped by Andrew Johnson’s homestead on the drive. I honestly did not remember he was the seventeenth president of the U.S. It sounds like he had a real “up from the bootstraps” ascendency from local tailor to the top elected position in the country. Still, I’m sure replacing get Licoln was no easy task. I guess some of his Reconstruction policies were questionable and led to impeachment. But you can’t please everyone, right? I actually explored some more Civil War history at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Their Civil War Museum was pretty good, and the iron works building really great. By no means am I a Civil War buff, but I definitely enjoyed the history at this site. I guess this visit must have sparked an interest in Civil War history because I then read Gettysburg by Newt Gingrech and William Fortschein. Granted, my mind blanks after Lee, Grant, and Stonewall Jackson, but this book was pretty good. Basically, the Battle of Gettysburg is retold from each side, and the South actually wins in this alternative historical account. The Camel Club by David Baldacchi provided the background entertainment during the long drive. I do enjoy some drama in a book, and this one provided some. Like Tom Clancy with military topics and John Grisham with the law, I can appreciate the intelligence and terrorism drama of the book.

Cottonmouth Encounter on the Bayou

My recent kayaking excursions have led to some pretty interesting encounters. This past Saturday I decided to explore Grassy Lake Bayou near Conway where I was fortunate to meet some others headed to the bayou. The paddle started innocently enough; cypress trees and swamp water as far as the eye could see. We passed a heron rookery where these birds nest and raise their young ones. One or two blue herons were visible at the time. A little ways further into the float we decided to take the spur route to see what this section had in store. To my surprise, this area was filled with ducks, white egrets, and smaller song birds. A fellow paddler informed me these ducks feed on the millet planted throughout this waterway. Since the Mississippi flyway covers this area, I believe the ducks migrate through the area at some point during the year.

After stretching our legs for a little while, we decided to brave the rest of the loop. We saw at least three beaver dams along the way; however, the beavers must have been hiding because they were nowhere to be seen. We also saw a few harmless water snakes along the trip, and then we came across another snake. This one was a little more dangerous and quickly identified as a cottonmouth! One of the members of the crew is a snake enthusiast, and she scooped the snake onto her paddle. While attempting to move the snake to a different location, the cottonmouth fell off the paddle and into her canoe! Needless to say, this caused quite a situation. Fortunately, this cottonmouth was not an aggressive snake and did not try to bite the canoe occupant. After attempting several different methods of removing the snake, a muck boot proved to be the answer. The snake obediently slithered into the boot and was subsequently tossed back into the bayou. Needless to say, I was quickly paddling the other direction! After  this excitement, the rest of the trip was relatively uneventful; however, I definitely experienced some authentic wildlife and nature during this trip.



Toltec Mounds and King Cotton

With no concrete plans one recent weekend, I decided to visit two historic sites near Little Rock. Toltec Mounds was my first stop. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but the museum and outdoor trails were pretty interesting. According to artifact dating, Native Americans created a ceremonial gathering place at these Toltec Mounds from 660 until 950 A.D. There were a total of eighteen mounds at one time, but only three stand today. One theory proposes that the location of these mounds allowed the Native Americans to determine the winter and summer solstice as well as the equinox. Knowing these dates helped with timing their crop planting and harvesting. Additionally, this location was also thought to be a gathering place for local tribes to celebrate special occasions. The outdoor walking trails are pretty neat; they wind through the mounds and perimeter of the park. It is unknown why the location was abandoned, but needless to say, these people were pretty clever to survive on the land for that long.

My next stop was the Plantation Agriculture Museum. Surprisingly, I was greeted by the curator upon walking through the front door as I think it was a pretty slow day for the museum. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time learning about cotton in Arkansas. Cotton was a way for life for many in the state in the 1800s, and the process of plowing, cultivating, and harvesting the crop required much labor. Since I am a generation or two removed from agricultural and manual labor, I don’t think I possess quite the appreciation for the effort required to farm. However, looking at the information and pictures in this museum I almost had a longing for the satisfaction of a hard day’s manual labor. These workers picked cotton from sunrise until sunset, and over time, the process evolved from slavery to sharecroppers to the cotton gin.

There was actually an entire cotton processing operation setup in one building. This processing involved separating the cotton from the seeds and then compressing the cotton into bails. Another building highlighted information about the storage and transportation of cotton. A local enterprising cotton farmer established a warehouse along railroad lines for convenient transportation. Overall, this museum was pretty cool. While modest in size, all the displays were really interesting and well-organized. After touring this place, I definitely have a new respect for cotton workers and now realize how much effort was probably required to make my favorite pair of jeans.



Books, Newspapers, and Television… Oh my!

I’m not exactly sure when I started to develop an affinity for coffee table books, but reading this literature has become a hobby over the past few months. My gateway book was innocent enough, an oversized hardback detailing the history of Shaker furniture. The pictures and background information provided just the right amount of material to pique my interest and hold my attention. While a novel requires my full concentration to comprehend the content, I can mindlessly browse through these books without missing too much information. This interest was further fostered by books detailing the Civil War, world religions, golf, etc…

Of course, I still enjoy reading the good old-fashioned newspaper every once in a while. A Sunday edition of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette is generally worth the two dollars. Granted, news around these parts is generally pretty low key; I mean, the Arkansas Razorbacks and pollution of the Buffalo River can only generate so many articles. Right?

My other source of entertainment is television. Despite the outrageous cost of cable and cringing every time I see my AT&T bill, I’m a sucker for sports, old movies, American Pickers, cooking shows, and, of course, that occasional of Fox News fix. Unfortunately, since I pay so much for cable, I think I need to “get my money’s worth,” which inevitably leads me to watching too much. Has television become an idol in my life? I hope not. But if time spent on an activity is an way to judge priorities, then I’m not completely sure.

It’s hard to believe that all this entertainment can be accomplished while sitting on a cushion of my couch. I guess I spend a lot of my time either sleeping, working, or enjoying down time on the couch. Of course I routinely exercise, cook, and socialize, but I guess the correct term for me would be introvert.

Museum Frenzy

I’m not exactly sure what inspired my recent interest in museums, but I must have visited five or six of them within a week’s time recently. Part of the reason was my road trip through Texas where I managed to stop at the Holocaust Museum and Museum of Natural Sciences in Houston and the Dallas History Museum and Dealey Street JFK Museum in Dallas.

The Holocaust Museum was my first stop and definitely worth the trip. Having visited the Auschwitz concentration camp a while ago, I have a memories of the setting and environment where these events occurred. The history and stories depicted in the museum definitely give insight into the personal aspect of the time. Specifically, stories of Houston-area Holocaust survivors are told. It’s truly hard to imagine the extent of evil and wickedness necessary to such an operation; I guess I didn’t realize there were literally dozens of concentration camps throughout Germany and surrounding areas.

The Museum of Natural Sciences was also a good experience. I thought the exhibits with the different animals and geography examples was pretty cool. I’m not a huge fans of dinosaurs, gems, or mummies, but there were definitely enough exhibits to keep me occupied for a couple hours.

I then proceeded to Dallas and the Dallas history museum. Surprisingly, this place was actually pretty cool. I guess I didn’t realize how new Dallas was to the national stage. Granted, Boston, New York, and some of the East Coast cities have much more history, so Dallas was at a disadvantage there. I guess the railroads and airlines really spurred growth in this area. The museum has four different areas with each dedicated to a different time period from founding to modern day.

Of course, the Dealey Plaza JFK Memorial Museum is also a must see for Dallas, and this place was also pretty neat. I definitely learned a lot of new information during this tour to include the many alternative theories of other suspects for the assassination. It seems awfully convenient that Lee Harvey Oswald was a Soviet sympathizer during the height of the Cold War, but what do I know. Nonetheless, definitely a tragic event in history. I liked how the exhibits examined the events of the day in quite a bit of detail; From JFK’s travel arrangement to the assassination the all witnesses, all pieces were really described in-depth. Overall, definitely worth the admission cost.

The final stop on my whirlwind museum tour was the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.  Granted, I remember almost none of Bill Clinton’s presidency, but this tour provided a good overview. Basically, there is a timeline of major events as well as highlights of certain achievements while in office. I really likely the foreign policy historical parts dealing with Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Africa, etc… Some of the other parts included economic policy, crime reduction, environment, etc… I do think it is pretty amazing that Bill Clinton rose from small-town Arkansas to the President of the U.S. I guess that’s what education, political savvy, and good public speaking skills can accomplish. Overall, it was definitely an enjoyable time learning about the events of these eight years.

After these visits, I think my museum meter will be pegged for a while. Nevertheless, I feel much more enlightened about historical events and will continue to visit interesting historical sites as the opportunity arise.

Alabama Sights

I just finished spending some time in the state of Alabama. Since I live in the deep South, this experience wasn’t that big of a change; however, there were some unique parts. I passed the driving time by listening to an Edward Snowden audiobook. I never knew exactly what to make of his story. It almost seemed like he managed to pull off the equivalent of a high-stakes jewelry heist in the cyber world, but he’s portrayed as irreparably damaging national security. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I guess the verdict is still in the air.

In Montgomery, I did find it odd that the First White House of the Confederacy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s church were literally on the same block. I mean, one was the headquarters for the Confederate South and all it represented while the other was epicenter for the Civil Rights movement a century later. I enjoyed visiting both of these spots during my walk in downtown Montgomery. I also saw the spot where Rosa Parks started the Montgomery bus boycotts as well as the Montgomery Capitol where the Selma march ended. Lots of history was packed into this downtown area.

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was another highlight of my trip as I managed to sneak onto the course after a half day at work. I think the course doubles as some sort of nature reserve as there was lots of wildlife in the area. I saw a some different looking brown-faced squirrels during the round; not sure if they’re unique to this area. Also saw some blue heron types of birds as well as the iconic cypress trees. While my score was nothing special, it was definitely a memorable time on the links.

My final stop was the  Barber Motorsports museum in Birmingham. I am not a motorcycle enthusiast by any means, but this place is supposedly the largest motorcycle museum in the world. They basically have motorcycles displayed from all time periods and countries, and the history was really interesting. I especially liked the Ducati sport bikes and early European motorcycles. Unfortunately, I visited on a day when there was not a race at the venue, but maybe some other time.

Yemen, Phil Jackson, and I

I’ve had the opportunity to read to some pretty interesting books lately. Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets is a book about a reporter working in Yemen during the Arab spring and some other turbulent times. I guess I am interested in the Middle East since I spent a little time there. My experience was definitely forgettable; heat, mortars, and monotony don’t make for the greatest situation. Regardless, it is always interesting to see a new other country and people group.

I generally go to work and have a very comfortable existence; I guess I just have a hard time imagining life in a third world country undergoing a revolution. Right, a democracy allows everybody’s voice to be heard, but I have never felt like I genuinely contributed towards a political revolution of any kind… Well, there was my Trump vote, so I guess that’s something. But I feel like these experiences in Yemen were more blood, guts, and raw emotion than the sterilized and sanitized U.S. environment. Granted, I don’t think it’s a good idea to bomb government buildings like the Weather Underground, but these people definitely believed in their cause.

Another recent read of mine is Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. Basically, Phil Jackson describes some of his basketball and life philosophies which are a combination of Easter Zen and Native American beliefs. Since I came of age during the reign of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, I am familiar with the triangle offense and Phil Jackson’s coaching style. I think his concept of selfless teamwork during a time of star NBA players is pretty amazing.

I have been around the game of basketball for most of my life. My skills did not take me much past high school, but I still enjoy playing and watching basketball occasionally. I guess I am a fan of genuine, no-frills basketball. It seems like so often when I watch the NBA or college, there is so little game action and too much advertising and analysis. No longer is it the Boston Garden; it is now the TD Ameritrade Center. Where are the true rivalries? It seems like corporate America has taken away some of the heart, soul, and grit of the game. I think teams and players genuinely despised each other in the past… the Knicks and Reggie Miller, Celtics and Lakers. I guess I just don’t see this level of passion anymore, and have slowly developed less of an interest in the sport.




Does Size Really Matter?

While this question is sometimes asked in regard to male nether-region proportions, I am referring to something different. When I see football field-sized American flags during the National Anthem or huge flags flying at car dealerships, I sometimes wonder if bigger is better. Granted, I am all for patriotism and love of country, but I think some of these symbols might be a bit excessive as there is often a fine line between good taste and gaudy. I mean, is the NFL really that patriotic? Maybe they just want more fans and viewers  just like car dealerships just want to sell more cars. I think sometimes the symbol of the American flag can be used for ulterior motives.

Along these same lines, I stopped by the local Golden Corral for a Veteran’s Day meal this past week. I have been to some of these meals in the past, and I often experience mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am grateful for those who have sacrificed to preserve the freedoms currently available in this country. On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a Disabled Veterans Organization member holding the door at the entrance urging vets to refile and maximize their VA disability claims.

My initial thoughts during these types of dining experiences are usually somewhat condescending for some reason. After hearing stories of benefits fraud and those trying to milk the military for as much as possible, I guess I am somewhat jaded to the whole military hero idealism. However, after talking to some of these veterans for a little while, I think my preconceived notions slowly changed to a sincere appreciation for their military service. To hear them reminisce fondly about their service days, recall war stories, and instantly bond over certain shared experiences is truly unique and educational.

I recently read America by Dinesh D’souza. It is enlightening to hear the other side of the story regarding events in American history. When politicians seem to be apologizing for America’s place in the world, it is important to remember this country helped defeat dangerous European powers during the world wars, stopped the spread of Communism in Korea and Vietnam, won the Cold War, and has been involved in the Middle East for some time. The U.S. has stood for democracy, justice, and free markets for a long while, but it seems like many in the mainstream media would prefer a weak, spineless America who plays well with others as its utmost priority. This book basically examines the progressive movement in America over the last few decades, and major arguments for and against different political issues are discussed. D’souza discusses topics such as slavery reparations, Native American rights, anti-colonialism, and leaders of the progressive movement. He also reveals the relationship that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had with Saul Alinsky, the infamous Rules for Radicals author.

In summary, I guess I am a little more skeptical now and no longer blindly assume all flag-waving is purely patriotic. Sadly, it seems like the actions of a few have ruined this ideal, but it really shouldn’t detract from all the great accomplishments and sacrifices of other service members.