Austin International, 5:09 a.m. Central

We have an early flight out of Austin this morning. We got here early, and thank goodness for that: the airport is jammed with travelers and a bit of a madhouse. The regular security line snaked along for hundreds of yards, filled with anxious people worried about catching their flights. It was the greatest advertisement for getting TSA precheck status you could imagine.

It’s officially Thanksgiving week, folks, and the packed airport proves it. If you’re traveling don’t take chances—get there early!

The Hill Country Building Boom

On Friday we drove from Austin out into the Texas “hill country” and traveled around towns with evocative names like “Dripping Springs” and “Driftwood.” For decades, such places were part of the wide open spaces to be found in this area, with a rolling landscape dotted with small trees, mule deer, and roadrunners.

That is true no longer. Now the area is home to housing development after housing development, with many other new housing developments visible on the horizon. We drove through some of them, and were amazed at the size of the developments and the number of houses being built. There were houses in every phase of development, from cleared land being staked off to homes in the framing stage to homes where workers were putting on finishing touches and landscapers were getting the lots ready for a for sale sign. And all of the activity was right next to completed homes where families had just moved in. I’m surprised we didn’t see any moving vans.

According to the 2020 census, Texas added more population from 2010 to 2020 than any other state in the country, assimilating almost four million people. The Austin area has gotten its fair share of the newcomers, and people who live around here have gotten used to seeing cars with license plates from other states. And the accompanying development isn’t limited to the cities, as our road trip to the hill country demonstrated: the Texas countryside is being transformed, too. Given the frantic pace of the development, areas like the hill country that are near the growing cities will look a lot different in three or four years than it does right now. The traffic patterns are bound to change, too.

When you decide to go deep in the heart of Texas a few years from now, expect to see a lot more houses, and the stars at night might not look quite as big and bright with all the house lights on the horizon.

Different Places, Different Standards

In Columbus, the city is subject to an executive order issued last month by the Mayor Andrew Ginther that declared a state of emergency and requires masks to be worn in public spaces indoors until further notice. Over the weekend, when we went down to the Cincinnati suburbs for a wedding, reception, and related festivities, we realized through first-hand experience that that isn’t true elsewhere.

On Friday night, when we went to dinner, a comedy club, and a bar, masks were rarely encountered. At the bar, where people were packed in to hear a live band play creditable covers of songs like The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, there was not a mask to be seen as patrons drank beers and shots, shouted at each other to be heard over the music, and generally seemed to be hugely enjoying their Friday night out to start the weekend. The same was true during the rest of the weekend, in restaurants, the hotel lobby, and gas station convenience stores. We saw an occasional mask worn by service personnel, but for the most part we were moving through an unmasked world.

It was definitely different to be back in a place where no one was messing with masks, like Stonington over the summer; one member of our party described it as kind of liberating. Whatever your reaction, the weekend drove home the point that entirely different standards exist in different places, and that driving south for less than a hundred miles can move you from masked up to wide open. It calls into question whether local regulations of conduct, like the Columbus executive order, can be an effective means of limiting exposure.

Were all of the people in the various venues that we visited vaccinated? Given the vaccination percentages I’ve seen, I seriously doubt it, and certainly no one was seeking proof of vaccination upon entry. Ohio, and the rest of the country, may be moving toward herd immunity one community at a time.

Road Breakfast

Normally I don’t eat breakfast, but I make an exception when I’m on the road. This morning we are in the Cincinnati area for a family wedding, so a road breakfast was in order. And when you Google “breakfast near me” you inevitably find a lot of good options if you are looking for a place that opens early, closes up shop by mid-afternoon, and serves all of the traditional breakfast fare.

We decided to go with the Original Pancake House on Montgomery Road. With a cheerful, old-school facade like that, it had to be good—and it was. The menu offered more than a dozen options in the pancake category alone, as well as pages of other breakfast dishes. But pancakes are in the restaurant’s name, and pancakes sounded good, so pancakes it was. Buckwheat pancakes, to be precise, with hot coffee and orange juice on the side.

My position is that there is a right way and a wrong way to eat pancakes. I like to first apply butter to each pancake in the stack so it can melt, then liberally douse the stack with syrup and let the syrup seep in to the pancakes before slicing the pancakes into squares for ready consumption. To its credit, the OPH had excellent syrup, hitting the sweet spot between too-thick syrup that causes the pancakes to break apart during syrup-sopping maneuvers and syrup that is too runny. And the pancakes themselves had a great buckwheat flavor.

Road breakfasts like the one this morning help to make travel time special.

What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

On The Chicago River Walk

The Chicago River cuts through the heart of downtown Chicago as it heads out to Lake Michigan. The river has clearly been a focus of civic improvement over the past few decades–which is a big change from the days when the river was an industrial waterway and the big effort was to dye it green on St. Patrick’s Day. One improvement has been to work on the Chicago Riverwalk, which you can see along the river to the right of the photo above. We got a chance to explore the Riverwalk yesterday on a glorious autumn day, when the temperature was in the upper 40s under blue skies and bright sunshine.

The Chicago Riverwalk, like any urban path or trail that it left uninterrupted by crossing streets and traffic lights, attracts a significant number of joggers, dog walkers, and casual strollers, like us. If you like to get a close-up view of urban infrastructure, and I do, it’s a great walk that takes you under multiple bridges and past boat docks. I can happily report that the bridges looked to be well tended and in good shape, other than an inevitable coating of rust, and there were lots of boats out on the river, including both tour boats and smaller craft. You could also rent kayaks and take them out on the river, although it was a little cold for that. You know you are in Chicago when the tour boats tout that they are the one recommended by architects or offer the best architectural cruise.

Along the Riverwalk there are lots of places to eat and drink and get a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut on a brisk morning. Given the number of tiki bars and signs identifying the boundaries for alcohol consumption, I’m guessing that the Riverwalk is a favorite place for partying during the summer. We were mostly interested in checking out the older buildings and new skyscrapers as we walked along. You’ve got to give credit to the Chicago architectural authorities: the new, gleaming towers blend seamlessly with the older buildings, creating a very attractive cityscape as you move along the river. You can see the familiar clock tower of the Wrigley building in the photo below, nestled among the more recent additions to the skyline.

By the time we reached the end of the Riverwalk, the colossal office buildings had given way to condominiums and apartment buildings, and some boats were out patrolling the waters. I was impressed that, along with the tiki bars and beer joints, the Riverwalk planners had ensured there were lots of trees, some small green spaces–the dogs being walked certainly appreciated that–and playgrounds and plenty of benches where you could sit and enjoy the view. Because it was chilly, though, we kept walking to stay warm.

Our Riverwalk exploration ended after we passed through this cool tunnel, which features colorful panels depicting various scenes from Chicago’s history. With our coffee cups empty, we decided to turn around and head back to the hotel. Because the Riverwalk was such a pleasant stroll, we elected to retrace our steps along the lapping water rather than head up top to street-level and the hurly-burly of big city traffic. And the Chicago Riverwalk was just as pleasant and interesting on our return journey.

Under Wacker

Yesterday we drove to Chicago–at about an eight-hour drive, it’s at the outer limits of the fly/drive decision point–and our final destination was a hotel on Wacker Drive, which runs along the river through the heart of downtown. The GPS brought us in to the downtown area on the under Wacker path, which meant our first exposure to downtown was in the dystopian bowels of the city, shown in the photo above. Kish aptly described it as looking like a scene from one of the dark Batman movies.

And here’s the thing: the GPS doesn’t distinguish between above ground and below ground. As we drove in, it was pretty clear that the GPS thought we were above ground, and was instructing us, in increasingly insistent tones, to take left turns and right turns that simply didn’t exist in our little underground tunnel of concrete. And it didn’t help that there seemed to be construction on all of the ways out of “under Wacker” and back aboveground. I was incredibly happy when we finally figured out a way to get back into the daylight.

I’m a big fan of Chicago, and always have been. If I were in charge, I’d be sure that people visiting this great city don’t get their first exposure through a dark, creepy, underground tunnel with a bossy GPS voice advising about taking non-existent turns.

Rediscovering Chicago

We’re in Chicago for a wedding weekend, and it’s giving us a chance to rediscover the City With Big Shoulders, the Second City, the Windy City, and that Toddlin’ Town. I used to come to Chicago regularly for work, and we visited often when Richard was in college here, but more recent planned trips were cancelled when the pandemic intervened–so it’s been a while. But now people, myself included, are deciding that we’re just going to have to live with COVID and all of its variants and get on with our lives–in a prudent way, of course.

It feels good to get out and get back to a really big city. When you haven’t been to a really big city in more than a year, the experience seems fresh and new and exciting. And Chicago is such a great place, for so many reasons–like the cool view from our hotel room window, shown above–it’s a good destination for those of us who want to shed the outer protective coating of COVID Caution and start to get out more.

We drove in, and the first sign that the pandemic has created significant change in the world is that, when we reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, it actually functioned as an expressway rather than a snarled traffic disaster seemingly designed to cause the blood pressure of drivers to go through the roof. Astonishingly, there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and we were able to get to our destination without any stoppage. That’s literally never happened before in countless driving trips to Chicago. For the first time, perhaps, Dan Ryan (whoever he is, or was) is glad that the highway was named after him.

Downtown Chicago was not as bustling as the Chicago of yore, but there were still a lot of people out and about, on the River Walk, on boat rides, and just walking the sidewalks and enjoying some crisp fall weather. We appreciated being out among people, and revelling in the taste and feel and smell and sound of pre-pandemic activities. You still need to mask up when you go into buildings in Chicago, but the great outdoors, and the terrific views of cool buildings that Chicago architecture affords, can be enjoyed blessedly mask-free.

If you’re interested in breaking out of your personal COVID zone, and feel like it is high time to reintroduce yourself to our great American cities, Chicago is a good place to go.

Defending America’s “Town Of Motels”

Is Breezewood, Pennsylvania getting a bum rap? The little town off an exit ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where travelers pass a half mile of motels, truck stops, gas stations, and souvenir stands before connecting to the highway that takes them toward Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, has become a social media meme through the above photo. In the meme, Breezewood is presented as ugly, chaotic, and loud–a prime example of tackiness and American wretched excess.

That photo doesn’t exactly depict a garden spot. But now Breezewood’s defenders have risen to respond to the harsh criticism–as in this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defenders argue that the sneering dismissals of Breezewood reflect a cultural snobbishness about seeing the exposed machinery of American life: the gas stations that must exist to power American car culture, the hotels that are needed to house travelers that are the mainstay of the American tourism business, and the assorted rest stops and restaurants that service the needs of those travelers. And, of course, all of those businesses shown in that photo provide people with gainful jobs, and have allowed Breezewood to continue to exist when other American small towns have withered and died.

My own memories of Breezewood are different from the contemptuous prevailing meme, too. When UJ and I were kids Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take us on driving trips from Akron, Ohio to spots on the east coast, like Washington, D.C. or the Jersey shore. We would climb into the back seat of Grandpa’s Oldsmobile 98, try not to fidget while he carefully navigated the car along the growing network of American highways, always obeying the speed limit, and wait until we reached Breezewood where we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn close to the Turnpike exit ramp. In those days, a sign announced Breezewood as the “town of motels,” and we were always glad when we saw that sign because it meant we could get out of the car, go for a swim in the hotel pool, eat dinner, and visit Crawford’s Museum next door to the hotel–a “museum” of stuffed animals and curiosities that was basically designed to stir the imaginations of a young kid. The next day we would wake up, have breakfast, and continue our leisurely journey.

In short, I liked Breezewood and have fond memories of it. I’m glad there is pushback against the Breezewood meme. It shows that reality is always more complex and nuanced than a photo and a few words that convey a smirking putdown.

The Great Southwest Cancellations

From Friday through Sunday, over this past weekend, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights. That number included 3 out of every 10 flights scheduled to occur on Sunday, and the disruptions continued into Monday, when another 337 flights — or about one in every 10 flight scheduled — were cancelled.

We were caught by The Great Southwest Flight Cancellation when our connecting flight from Baltimore to Columbus was abruptly cancelled in the early morning hours on Sunday, leaving us to scramble for a way to get home. Fortunately, we were close enough to drive home and were able to rent a car at the Charleston airport–thanks, Budget!–and make the nine-hour drive back on Sunday so I could be at work on Monday.

Why, exactly, were so many Southwest Flights cancelled? According to the story linked above, Southwest “blamed the cancellations on air traffic control problems and limited staffing in Florida as well as bad weather” and “told CNN late Sunday that getting operations back to normal was ‘more difficult and prolonged’ because of schedule and staffing reductions made during the pandemic.” But the article also quotes the FAA as saying that there have been no air traffic control related cancellations since Friday, and noting only that there was severe weather Friday afternoon. (We didn’t experience any weather issues on our drive back to Columbus on Sunday, by the way.)

The apparent disconnect between the stated reasons given by Southwest and the response of the FAA is feeding the theory that the “real” cause of the cancellation spree was a pilot “sick out” caused by the company’s decision to impose a mandatory COVID vaccine mandate. The Southwest Airlines pilot’s union filed a lawsuit on Friday, alleging that the mandatory vaccination requirement should be enjoined by the courts because it violates federal labor laws by imposing new conditions of employment. But the pilot’s union denies that the cancellations over the weekend were a planned labor action in response to the vaccination mandate.

What was the real cause of the Great Southwest Flight Cancellation weekend? We probably will never know. But the pilots’ union lawsuit suggests that we may see more labor issues arising–and more disruptions–as companies, unions, and workers deal with vaccination issues.

Sheep And Goats

On our trip to Charleston we visited a former plantation that keeps some animals on the grounds, including sheep, goats, horses, cattle, chickens, and peacocks.

The sheep are allowed to roam the extensive lawn, and they earn their keep by neatly clipping the grass. Thanks to their diligent grazing, the lawn looks freshly mown.

As for the goats? Well, they are kept in a pen. When we walked by the enclosure, the goats were standing stock-still on some elevated boards. We asked one of the hands why the elevated boards were in the goat pen. He shrugged and said he didn’t know why, but the goats seemed to like standing there, balanced on the boards.

Goats clearly are the eccentrics of the barnyard.

Harbor Portraits

Last night we took a sunset cruise around Charleston’s harbor. It was a warm, pleasant evening with lots of clouds in the sky, but happily the rain held off and we were able to enjoy a light breeze and the scenery. The cloud banks prevented us from actually seeing the sun drop below the horizon, and instead we were treated to the colorful impact of the dying sunlight on the many clouds. As we sailed along it was like traveling through an ever-changing modern art painting. Pretty spectacular!

Clip, Clop

Yesterday we walked around the historic section of Charleston, including the beautiful St. Philip’s Church and its adjoining cemetery. The cemetery has some magnificent live oak, magnolia, and myrtle trees and is home to the gravesites of some notable American historical figures, like John C. Calhoun.

There were many horse-drawn carriage tours on the streets of the old section as we meandered along, so our stroll occurred to the accompaniment of the clip-clop sound of horse hooves on stone streets and the smell of large working animals on a warm autumn day. It’s a peaceful sound and smell, especially in comparison to the roar of pickup trucks rumbling by, revving their oversized engines and spewing exhaust. The sight, sound, and smell of passing horses contributed to the historical feel of the area, and made me reflect on the fact that what were common, daily sounds and smells to our ancestors are now sensed so rarely—so rarely that they are a conscious means of creating a historical feel for tourists in an old American city.

I enjoyed hearing that clip-clip sound.

Over The Low Country

We got a bird’s eye view of the countryside around Charleston, South Carolina as we flew in this morning. It’s easy to see why this area is called the “low country”—it’s as flat as a pancake.

And it’s hard to believe that the ocean that laps up against those sandy beaches is the same Atlantic Ocean that pounds the rocky shores of Maine. Down here the water is a pleasant and warm green; around Stonington it’s blue-grey and even looks icy cold.