I was in Vancouver, WA for a work conference and hackathon, which the team did quite well in. The Vancouver office has all the comforting trappings of suburbia within one block: a Whole Foods, Target, Chipotle.
We explored Portland again. We compared several local donut shops, all delicious. We biked along the waterfront and along the Tilikum Crossing bridge. We sat at Poet’s Beach. We wandered through Powell’s Books, the largest bookstore I’ve ever seen. We rode the aerial tram to the top of a hill.
We ambled through the Japanese garden and the rose garden. J ran down a grassy hill. Unbeknown to him, there was deep mud, and he got covered from his shoes to his neck.
We went to Mt. St. Helens, and the winding mountain road was a true joy for me to drive. Everything flowed effortlessly from mind to steering wheel to pavement. We took a break at the Forest Learning Center. The force of the 1980 eruption generated shock waves that shattered tree trunks. There was a mad dash by logging companies to salvage as much wood as possible.
Next we visited the Johnston Observatory, named after the geologist who was a proponent of keeping the mountain closed to keep the public safe in the days leading up to the eruption. He was caught in the blast, and his famous last words were “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” We entered an auditorium to watch a video about the eruption. In front of us was a vibrant red curtain. A projector screen descended in front of the curtain, and the movie began playing, with its dated transitions and double-vision effects. There were a number of point of view shots of tumbling down the mountain, as though we, the audience, were a landslide. At the conclusion of the video, the curtains lifted, and through the floor-to-ceiling window, we beheld the grandeur of Mt. St. Helens with half its face blown off. We braved the sun and 90+ degree temperatures for as long as we could, hiking along the Boundary Trail. The path was completely exposed, just dust, wildflowers, and the towering volcano.
Houston is stiflingly hot and humid in the summer. The city is sprawling, like Los Angeles but without Hollywood. The public transportation is lacking, so I need to drive 40 minutes to travel to a different place in Houston. Also, drivers here rarely use turn signals and drift out of their lanes. The good news is, there is ample parking everywhere. Property is plentiful and cheap. And the city is surprisingly green.
I’ve biked around downtown, Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou. I’ve surveyed downtown from the tops of different skyscrapers, ate at local favorites. And I’ve visited local attractions, both popular and obscure. Here’s my thoughts on them.
The main gallery is closed this year. We visited the satellite buildings, which featured works by modern artists that I am not particularly fond of. There are so many artists with more talent, but less fame.
First up was an uninspired neon light installation by Dan Flavin.
Next, we visited the Rothko Chapel, a dark, moody, octagonal space. The walls had Rothko paintings, and in typical Rothko style, the canvas was completely covered with black paint and nothing else. I’m sure someone would tell me to notice the different strokes and depths, the hypnotic effect of staring into a monocolor canvas. But to me, this is grasping for enlightenment where there is none.
Another gallery featured the works of Cy Twombly. There were large canvases of blank space and blotches of color overlain with moody poetry.
My favorite gallery was the Fabiola room, renditions of the same portrait of a shawled woman done by different artists, some amateurs, some experienced. The media varied: acrylic, beads, wood carving, stained glass.
The Houston Zoo
The Houston Zoo brought out my inner child. There were elephants caking their sensitive skin in mud. Warthogs frolicked by a stream. Indoor spaces brought the sweet relief of air conditioning.
The most exciting event at the zoo was a spontaneous, violent episode. A bird flew into the bobcat’s cage. The bobcat pounced, rendering the bird unable to fly. When the bird flailed or twitched, the bobcat would swat at it.
The aquarium is by far the most depressing place in Houston. Huge fish are in comically small tanks. There’s no room for the fish to swim, so they just hover in place. The eels coil themselves because the tanks are too small to fully stretch. Perplexingly, at the end of the linear aquarium route, there is a white tiger. But there’s nothing natural in its enclosure– no grass, no dirt, just concrete, stone, and a wading pool.
I took a tour of NASA’s campus. They raise Texas longhorns on their property. There are bikes scattered about that any employee can use. I saw Mission Control, where staff famously heard the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” The docent gave a rousing speech on the historical significance of Mission Control and the importance of space travel.
There is a replica of the shuttle, Independence, and the oversize plane used to transport it.
In the Rocket Park, the ginormous Saturn V rocket is housed.
At the boardwalk, lanky birds dive-bombed into the water. There was an amusement park. I rode the train, a dizzying spinning ride, the ferris wheel. I sat in the backseat on one of those rides that swings back-and-forth like a pendulum. Whenever the carriage swung backwards so that we were perpendicular to the ground, I felt as though I would fall out.
Museum of Natural Science
The museum was new, well-lit, superbly staged. The highlight for me was the prehistoric sloth, larger and stronger than a bear, able to fling a saber-toothed tiger with its massive arms. Its skeleton towered over me. What a contrast to modern-day sloths!
There was a pendulum that kept the time. Blocks surrounded the pendulum in a circle. After minutes of teasing the audience with near-misses, a block was knocked over, and everyone cheered.
Given all the local oil companies, there was a floor dedicated to energy and resources extraction, featuring immersive rides and projections. Information is presented without political commentary; for example, one display explains how fracking works with no mention of any controversy.
The Health Museum
The current exhibition features interactive art pieces on sound and the body. For example, there was a bed with speakers embedded in it. Anyone lying in the bed would feel the deep bass vibrating through their bones.
Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum had a large collection of classical European and Asian art. There was a two-story bamboo structure that looked like a giant nest. People could walk through it, though traffic was rather slow on account of all the septuagenarians taking selfies.
The hall connecting the two buildings had an installation by my favorite artist, James Turrell, who used light to create the illusion of walls where there were none.
The sculpture garden had an upper area that afforded a view of the surrounding blocks. Among the sculptures was a mirrored bean, Cloud Column, also by Anish Kapoor who made Chicago’s Cloud Gate. But Houston’s bean is vertical, raised on a pedestal, smaller, and less amenable to taking selfies, so that’s probably why I had never heard of it.
Contemporary Arts Museum
I was not particular impressed by the current exhibitions. There were canvasses with cheeky phrases painted on them, such as a row of paintings that each said “stop copying me.”
I biked along the bayou, and I could not help but smile at a duck speed-waddling towards me on the trail. Instead of mallard ducks, there are muscovy ducks, black and white-bodied with red bills. The strangely colored ducks are another reminder that I’m in the South.
Buffalo Bayou Cistern
The cistern was an underground water reservoir. Now the dark, moody space is used for art shows. When the perimeter lighting is shut off, the water is a perfect mirror, so that it appears the pillars are stacked on top of the reflected pillars. When we let out a yell, the echo reverberated for about 15 seconds.
The current art exhibit by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Spatial Chromointerference, felt absolutely surreal. The artist projected colors and stripes. White cubes floated in the water.
The Galleria is an upscale mall. At night, the palm trees lining the roads are lit with Christmas lights, and the gentrified neighborhood makes me feel like I’m back in California.
Art Car Museum
Elaborately decorated cars are on display in the museum, on loan from the artists. The cars are fully functional, and covered in all kinds of flea-market finds.
I visited Austin over the weekend. It was 100°F and sunny, so we were indoors most of the time, playing board games and video games. Austin is small and walkable, with good public transportation and great food. Despite a booming population, the city has retained its distinct personality and the buildings have non-uniform architectural styles.
On an early morning, before the sun and the heat, I biked around the UT-Austin campus and downtown. The roads were completely empty. We saw the state capitol building, a beautiful domed red granite building, surrounded by sculpture gardens.
I walked along Lady Bird Lake, where turtles and herons sunbathed on logs. We caught a sunset on Mount Bonnell, overlooking the Colorado River.
J and I camped on Orcas Island for a few days. We hiked around Moran State Park. By now, the snow has melted and the waterfalls are gushing. We hiked past the modest Cascade Falls, and did a loop around Cascade Lake. We were the only ones on the trail that circumnavigated the green lake. Our surroundings alternated between exposed, emerald moss and dense, thick trees.
At the summit of Mount Constitution, there were panoramic views of other San Juan islands, and the calm waters of Puget Sound spreading into the horizon. There was a lookout at the top, hand-crafted, made of gray stones. We saw hawks circling below, and alpine lakes nestled between the trees.
We also hiked around Obstruction Pass. We read that there was stinging nettle that makes people itchy on contact. Surprisingly, stinging nettle is edible and looks like harmless cilantro. The beach was rocky, shoreline blackened, covered in algae and bullwhip kelp. Near the shoreline, there was a carcass of a harbor seal, perfectly plump and intact, save for its head, which was picked down to the skull. On a distant island, a single fire covered the island’s entire beach in smoke.
Our little getaway felt surreal to me. Just a 40-minute ferry ride from Seattle, and time slowed down. We rose and slept with the sun, soaked in hot tubs overlooking a bay. There were excellent bakeries and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s hard to mess up breakfast, but it’s also hard to make a memorable one, and Orcas Island delivered.
The island was authentically bohemian. More than half the signs were unironically in Papyrus font. The deer, foxes, and other fauna that populate the San Juan islands got there by swimming from island to island.