Hey Flyover friends!

Yeah, Jenna and I are still out there exploring and loving the US of A. In fact, you can and should check in with Jenna’s epic cross-country adventure at Round-Trip America. I was able to join her for a few days in South Dakota and we had a grand time, simply grand. She’s doing tons of cool things, writing and posting gorgeous photos. Go see for yourself.

I also recently took a trip to Oregon, where I spent some time on the Oregon coast looking for storms. Big, exciting storms. Click here for a story about that trip. And Sophia in an Oregon Storm is a short video companion to the story, in which I am delightfully buffeted by the wind and rain. I love that kind of thing.

Just for fun. (Don’t yell at me if you don’t like your state’s stereotype. Yell at the guy who wrote the book.)

Can you visualize a business in this evocative space? Submit a proposal to the National Parks Service and it could be yours.

It’s not that we don’t love you anymore and it’s not that we’ve stopped traveling. It’s just that…oh hell, I have no excuse. I’m busy, yes, but am I really too busy to check in here now and then? Say hello? Tell you a little bit of this and that? I’m ashamed. And I miss our high-flyin’ Flyover America days. I know…you’ve heard it all before. We make promises we don’t keep… .

At any rate, among the trips I’ve taken recently was a jaunt to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The last time I was in Hot Springs, it was kind of, um, worn down. It’s a pretty part of the country, but the fabulous old bathhouses that comprise Hot Springs National Park (there’s Hot Springs the city and Hot Springs the park) sat mostly empty and dejected. You could peer in, but you couldn’t go in and they had nothing to offer but memories.

That’s changing, as the NPS is doing basic restoration on them (cleaning out the asbestos, fixing the wiring, adding heat and air-conditioning) and renting them out. I wrote all about it in a story for The Dallas Morning News. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about dropping out of the rat race and opening a business someplace lovely? This could be your opportunity. Just remember, though, that opening a business in a tourist town is its own sort of rat race….or maybe a country mouse race. Less vicious, perhaps, but no less exhausting.

I have used the faux word “meh” three times today. Can’t say I’ve accomplished much else. Hmmm. Must still be February. Luckily, in response to my late January anti-meh measuresChris Brown, the 2010 Flyover America Reader of the Year, sent some cool photos my way. The photos sharpened the edges of my meh a little–cause meh is just a blobular awful thing. I looked at that ice climber and thought…if he can make it up that sheet of ice, you can get through February. Yes you can! (And then I laughed because, clearly, I’ve gone insane.) Anyway, Chris caught this ice climber in action in Cheyenne Canyon, just outside of Colorado Springs, CO. Here’s hoping the photos give you a lift (if, indeed, you’re mid-meh yourself).

Doing well...

but a ways to go.

Sorry about this whole ice thing, Super Bowl visitors. Too bad they didn’t play the game last week, when temperatures were in the 70s.

But we know nothing will keep you away, once the airports are up and running again, so we’ll keep talking about the town. Well, at least my side of town. I live most of my life south of the Trinity River.

Here’s another nifty NY Times article about the Metroplex, this one about dining. I haven’t been all those places, but I’m a big fan of Bolsa (wish it weren’t so noisy, though). Fuel City’s tacos are excellent—although the little stand across the street from Bolsa, Taqueria El Si Hay, is also a favorite. For a little cultural excursion and take-out tacos and burritos as big as your head, Taqueria Chanos. (Or as the friend who introduced us to it calls it, “Goddam Fuckin’ Chano’s.” Because it’s that good.)

I’m not sure what to make of all the fuss about Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. I want to believe the one in Roanoke is better than the one in Cedar Hill, where I ate, because I found it kinda bland and unexciting. But I’m no foodie, perhaps I need a better palate to appreciate it. Call me crass, but I’d rather have Popeye’s.

Among my favorite places for inexpensive Tex-Mex is Gonzales, on Jefferson Blvd. (Jenna has been there and seemed to enjoy it.) Their flour tortillas are a meal in themselves, and I haven’t found a carne guisada I like as well anywhere else. We usually go there for Sunday breakfast. (By brunchtime it can be crowded.)

We’re ecstatic about Lockhart Smokehouse opening tomorrow (now today…and then we’ll call it Feb. 2, 2011) in the Bishop Arts District. You can get fancy-shmancy BBQ at Smoke, a restaurant of local acclaim—or you can do what we do, and go to the Belmont Bar next door (mentioned in my last post) and order a Smoke BBQ sandwich from the bar menu.

And for vegetarians and vegans and even carnivores like me who don’t mind a change, Spiral Diner is in Dallas and Fort Worth and I like it lots. Plus, on Fridays from noon until 3, my friend Laura Huebner gives chair massages at the Dallas Spiral and she is really really really good. And we’re supposed to get above freezing on Friday.

Mmm. Now I’m hungry. Let’s go to Gonzales. As soon as the ice melts.

Dare you to find this view. The skyline is considerably larger since this old postcard was published. But you still won't find a body of water like that. Even when it's not just a dry bed, the Trinity River never looks like this.

We’re all atwitter here about the Super Bowl coming to town. It’s always odd/interesting to see one’s own home through others’ eyes–kind of like seeing a photo of yourself and realizing you don’t really look like you imagine. Or hearing your own voice…the less said about that, the better.

I have to shill my book, The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas as Yankees descend on us. But I feel compelled to discuss my hometown, too. So many misperceptions out there…

Firstly, the game will not be played in Dallas. It will be in Arlington, which is among the “mid-cities” between Dallas and Fort Worth. (I heard one NFL announcer describing Arlington as being “crammed in” between Dallas and Fort Worth.)

Arlington is peeved that everyone is talking about the Super Bowl in Dallas. They are trying to get everyone to use the term “North Texas.” We also call this the “Metroplex,” a term invented by an ad whiz back in the 1970s.

Of course, the new stadium—we call it Jerryworld—is practically a city in itself. A very expensive city, and it’s gonna be even more expensive for the game. According a story in the The Dallas Morning News, people will pay “$10 for a 16-ounce Miller Lite beer, compared to $8.50 at a regular Cowboys game; $7 for a 32-ounce soda in a souvenir cup, vs. $6; $10 for a Southwest barbecue chicken sandwich, vs. $8.50; $6 for a hot dog, vs. $5.50…”

People also paid $200 to stand in the parking lot and watch the game on big screens, which sounds loony to me. I hope the weather is pleasant for them. We’re expecting temperature in the teens this week. Betcha didn’t know that happened here, did you?

ESPN  is broadcasting from Fort Worth’s Sundance Square in front of a mural of a cattle drive. Fort Worth comes by its cowboy reputation honestly—it was on the Chisolm Trail and its Stockyards entertainment district is in an actual former stockyards. I love both Sundance Square and the Stockyards. Nothing wrong with them. But Dallas’ popular cattle drive sculpture on Pioneer Plaza is disingenuous. Dallas has always been banking and wheeler-dealering. The sculpture was controversial when it was commissioned in the early ’90s, but powerful developer Trammel Crow wanted it, so there it is. Dallas is more W Hotel than home on the range. It’s more Prada than Wranglers. It’s a little bit J.R. Ewing, but it’s Erykah Badu as well.

People who skim the surface of the Metroplex often come away with a crazy impression of it as either 1) all cowboys (because that’s what they look for) or 2) nothing but highways or 3) devoid of culture beyond bluebonnet paintings and twanging guitars. And titty bars, of course. We have a lot of those. Blech.

But really, with a little effort, you can find cool. The New York Times ventured into a couple of areas that are coming into their own, coolness-wise: the Bishop Arts District in Dallas and West 7th Street in Fort Worth.

I’ll toss out two insider tips for visitors: my  favorite places to meet friends for cocktails are the snazzy retro Belmont Hotel, near Bishop Arts, for a dazzling  view of the Dallas skyline; and  Tradewinds Social Club a friendly dive you would never find if you didn’t know it was there. I’ll share a few more suggestions through the week and am happy to take questions as well. Just post ’em here.

(BTW, A couple of years ago, I visited Door County, Wis., which necessitated flying into Green Bay. I flew over Lambeau Field during a game and was dazzled by the crowd. It was my introduction to that hometown passion, and for that reason alone, I am rooting for Green Bay. Otherwise, I couldn’t care less. Actually, I’m leaving town Super Bowl Sunday…)

Don't Cry!

Though the year’s dreariest month is about to visit, distractions abound. Here, some photos I snapped of bright or enjoyable or, even, flat-out happy moments from around the U.S. Have any you want to add to the pile? Share links in the comments or feel free to send a jpg my way at jenna@jennaschnuer.com and I’ll post some of them here.

A night out at the Carter Family Fold.

A wall in Los Angeles. Twenty-three percent of all buildings should be painted aqua.

Mac (the curmudgeonly bunny), the finest of all the animals that spin round Chattanooga's Coolidge Park Carousel.

The Iditarod is just over a month away.

When all else fails, there's always shave ice at Matsumoto's.

Oh my, is it the end of the year already? Even more oh my—it’s the end of the decade?

I say good riddance to this first decade of the new millennium or whatever we’re calling it these days. It’s had problems.

I’ve been reviewing my year in travel—I didn’t do as much as I would have liked, this darn economy. Still, I had a few really great trips. The Finger Lakes region of New York, where I learned about my foremothers in feminism. That was an eye opener. I had a swell visit to Nashville and particularly enjoyed my eight bajillionth, and eight bajillionth–and-one (yeah, I went twice in one week) visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  I spent most of my time in the new galleries covering the years I was immersed in country music, from the 1970s (I was an Urban Cowboy-era convert, and I’ll watch that movie any time) through the 1980s.

But if I had to name the one trip in 2010 that was the biggest revelation for me, it had to be the week I spent in Georgia—first in Savannah, then touring Coweta and LaGrange Troup counties, outside Atlanta.

I’d never given Georgia a whole lot of thought, really—for no particular reason, it just never really penetrated my consciousness. But even though I barely tasted the state in my short visit, the sense of history and culture hit me like a frying pan in the face. In a way, it reminds me of Texas in its deep pride, its colorful and complicated history, and its eccentricities. And it’s women–tough cookies, like Texas women.

A few images from the trip, as a little year ender. Happy New Year, Flyover Americans. See you on the other side.

Newnan, Georgia welcomes travel writers to town.

Oh, Savannah. Full of beauty and intrigue.

Flannery O'Connor's childhood bedroom, Savannah.

Dunaway Gardens, a great story in itself. I'll tell you about it sometime.

Hills & Dales, the life work of a very hardworking woman.

Music for Wandering

Photo by Double Feature (via a Creative Commons license).

I know my talents. Discovering music groups is not one of them. I do not hang out at small music venues in the hopes that the next Replacements will take the stage. (As if there could ever be another Replacements.) Any talent I’ve ever had for it ended with high school. My music collection—and it is a fairly sizable collection—has been built on the suggestions of friends, the music-picking gifted but otherwise idiotic guys I’ve dated, opening acts of favorite bands, and recommendations from magazines or other media.

Those recommendations cost me when I go on one of my music-buying benders. The last one started a month ago in response to an overwhelming to-do list. Escape was necessary. I found myself scouring “best of” lists and wandering through the lineups of music festivals past. It sort of kicked off a month before when a music-obsessed writer friend who runs a concert series at his house (yeah, I’m jealous, too) sent me enough new-to-me tunes to fill a diner booth jukebox. But the to-do list sent it into overdrive.

The streak has been heavy on music out of (or inspired by) Americana or the South. That’s nothing really new for me but…there’s been so much good new stuff lately that it’s really dominating my music buying. (Or, newish—Happy Chanukah, by the way.) I started thinking about why the South’s music appeals to me so very much. Why it feels so right on my ears. A (culturally) Jewish girl born in Brooklyn and raised in Jersey. It doesn’t make sense. But I think, most of all, it’s just that it’s so damn anchored in place and story. That it makes me want to take off and see things. Or, when I can’t, that the best of it encourages part of my brain to take a break and wander off on my behalf.

If you’re in the mood to wander…

Found on Garden & Gun: The Secret Sisters’ debut album

Found on Paste‘s 50 Best Albums of 2010: Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall

Found through my beloved the wonderful Steve Martin (no matter what the stupid 92nd St. Y says) and my good-at-finding-new-music friend Margaret Littman: Punch Brothers Antifogmatic

Oh, and you should also buy “Something Better,” the first single by The Dirt Drifters. Cause a) they’re really freakin’ good and b) one of the band’s member is a friend. Get in on them now so, when they go big, you can say you were listening to them way back when.

I just got a press release from my alma mater, the University of Texas at Dallas, suggesting a story about buying low-tech toys for kids. It says:

Although high-tech toys are popular – and oftentimes expensive – they don’t always provide the interaction necessary for children to learn communication and social skills.

“These toys can sometimes be overwhelming for children and only appropriate for solitary play,” said Suzanne Bonifert, who heads the speech-language pathology program at UT Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders.

The release goes on to recommend a few toys; my favorite suggestion is Mr. Potato Head as a way of teaching kids about body parts. (Hmm, has anyone ever made an anatomically correct Mr. Potato Head? But I digress….)

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, New York.

Anyway, that got me thinking about one of the coolest places I visited this past year, the fabulous National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Everything about this place is fun and forward thinking and exciting—from quotes about play displayed throughout the museum (It is a happy talent to know how to play–Ralph Waldo Emerson and Deep meaning often lies in childish play–Johann Friedrich von Schiller); to the replica of Sesame Street, where kids can interview Elmo on closed-circuit TV; to the superheroes exhibit where you can develop your own “superpowers”; to the giant, walk-though pop-up book; to the real books placed all over the museum and available to be checked out through the local library system.

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, New York.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Toy Hall of Fame, because I don’t know from newfangled computer toys and prefer reminiscing over The Game of Life (inducted this year), the Easy-Bake Oven (2006), and Lincoln Logs (1999). I particularly love that the definition of “toys” is broad here, so they also include the lowest tech of toys. A Cardboard Box (2006). A Stick (2008).

Of course, you can’t stay old school forever. Nintendo Game Boy (2009) and the Atari 2600 Game System (2007) are also in there. And the museum recently opened eGames Revolution, a hands-on exhibit tracing the history of video games.

Recent research indicates that experiences and memories bring more happiness than things. So maybe this year, you should skip the Wii, buy your kids a Mr. Potato Head and spend the rest of your gift budget on a trip to Rochester.