Tuesday, November 13, 2007


After two nights at the Guadalupe Mountains, we set out for Houston bright and early on Friday, October 26. We saw our first ever 80-MPH speed limit signs in west Texas – we would have liked to get a picture, but you’d have to be crazy to stop at the side of an 80-MPH freeway!

If there’s any highway that deserves to be 80 MPH, though, it’s I-10 through west Texas – there’s absolutely nothing out there. The only part of our trip so far that could rival it for nothingness was I-80 through Wyoming. The trip was so boring and our speed so fast that instead of camping somewhere along I-10 that night, we just drove straight through to Houston.

Our time in Houston consisted of a lot of hanging out with friends we hadn’t seen in a long time and also a lot of much-needed downtime. Saturday, October 27, was Brian’s ex-roommate Mark’s wedding. We got to see all sorts of people that we used to work with at Mission Critical Software / NetIQ but hadn’t seen in years. It was fun to catch up and hear what everyone’s doing. David recently moved to New Braunfels and built himself a house with his own hands and heavy equipment. Most of the others at the wedding still live and work in Houston, mostly at Tidal Software. Oh, and a random coincidence: We used to work with a guy named Chris at Mission Critical, and he was at the wedding, too. But he wasn’t a guest – he was the drummer in the band! Totally by coincidence, his band had been hired to perform at his ex-co-worker’s wedding. Small world!

Dogs and kids were popular topics of discussion during our time in Houston, since of the four couples we stayed with, three have dogs, two are pregnant, and one has a 2.5-year-old and a 10-month-old. Debbie and Mike’s due date for their boy was four weeks away, and Liberty and Michael just finished their first trimester. Gene and Valerie are the couple with the two kids. We got to do some babysitting for Charlotte and Audrey, their two daughters, which involved pushing Charlotte (the older one) around the kitchen in a box at high speed while she giggled and shrieked, and tearing apart the bathroom with Audrey. A bottle of Scope was especially entertaining. It’s bright blue and bubbles when you shake it – mesmerizing!

We got to play with dogs, too. Elizabeth and Gus’s shih tzu Ginger wasn’t feeling well the first weekend we were there, but the second weekend, it was chasing its doll all over the house, playing tug of war, and just generally goofing around. Michael and Elizabeth’s Staffordshire terrier Yogi seemed in fine health – he went on mile-long runs with us a couple of mornings, after which he’d lie on his back on the floor, tongue lolling out of his mouth, like he’d used every last ounce of energy in his little dog body. In the evening, he’d climb right up into your lap so you could pet him. He’s an interesting dog – very gentle and friendly, but quite capable of ripping another dog to shreds with his powerful jaws should it decide to attack him.

We also got to do some building work. Debbie had an IKEA chair and ottoman in need of assembly – it sounded like fun, so we did it. It’s amazing how simple it is to put together IKEA furniture! Debbie’s one happy pregnant woman, sitting on her newly assembled chair and ottoman:

Then Gene wanted to replace the fence around the deck outside his icehouse with a wraparound bench. This was no IKEA project – we were going to design and build it from scratch with lumber and nails. Gene’s icehouse borders on a lake that he built many years ago, digging it out of his property. Between the icehouse and the lake is a deck, from which you can catch catfish, jump into the lake for a swim, set off on a paddleboat journey around the lake, etc. Gene built a short fence around the outer edge of the deck to prevent people from falling in, but now he wanted to rip that out and replace it with a bench all the way around.

Over Miller Lites out of the icehouse keg, we ciphered on this problem for a long time, deciding on the design for the frames for the back of the bench and the seat, the right sizes of lumber to use, and so on. When we had it mostly figured out, we set the designs aside so we could focus our attention on our beer drinking.

Gene ordered the lumber on Friday, and we built a test frame that evening out of lumber that was already lying around. It looked good. Saturday, we got the new lumber and set to work. Our main tools were a power saw and a nail gun. Gene swears by the nail gun as his tool of choice for fastening boards – I have to say, it’s a speedy way to put things together. Screws might be more durable, but like Gene says, you can put in 15 nails with a nail gun in the time that it would take to screw in a single screw. And you just feel powerful when you hold it:

So we sawed the wood to size, built sections of frame with the nail gun, and put them up. By the time we had the frame all the way around the deck, it was getting late, so we decided to finish off one section by adding the back boards and the bench. Then we sat back and enjoyed the result of our handiwork:

There’s not really anything to do outdoors in Houston – it’s really just a city of concrete and strip malls. But what it lacks in natural beauty, it partially makes up for in dining – nowhere else that we’ve lived have there been so many great restaurants close by. So of course, part of our trip was focused on eating. We ate lunch at Chuy’s, a Mexican restaurant that’s a favorite of Rice students – we enjoyed chips and creamy jalapeno, along with enchiladas. We tried to go to Luther’s near Reliant Stadium for barbecue, but found that it had been bought by Pappas and was now Pappas Barbecue. We went to the Ragin’ Cajun for cajun food and had shrimp-and-crab gumbo and a crawfish po-boy. Elizabeth and Gus took us to Jarro’s, a hole-in-the-wall that started as a Mexican lunch cart and was so popular that it grew into a restaurant. And Michael and Liberty introduced us to Candelari’s, a great pizza place that we’d never eaten at before. We were having some trouble keeping our pants up after three weeks of camping – not anymore after our time in Houston!

Buffalo Wild Wings (BW-3) isn’t strictly a Houston restaurant, but Houston is where we first at BW-3. Because there aren’t any BW-3 franchises yet in Seattle, we were feeling especially deprived of good hot wings. So we dined with Debbie and Mike at a BW-3 in Beaumont while watching the Red Sox in the World Series. And then at Gene’s house we fried up our own wings and covered them in BW-3 sauces. We even made some turkey wings – those things are big! Gene insists that the time Brian burned his chest frying wings, he was using turkey wings, so we had to make turkey wings again to relive the memory. Brian insists that no, he was making chicken wings at the time, just dropping them too far into the boiling oil and making a splash. Both Gene and Brian had had a few beers at the time, so the memory’s a little fuzzy, and thus the argument will probably never be resolved.

Elizabeth and Gus took us to the Texas Renaissance Festival. Unfortunately, Sarah’s wench dress is packed away in our storage unit in Seattle, but Elizabeth had two wreaths of roses that Renaissance women apparently wore in their hair, so Elizabeth and Sarah each wore one.

Elizabeth is a TV reporter, so we got the royal treatment – free admission, free food and beer, free RenFest koozies to keep our beer cold, and press pins that would supposedly ensure VIP treatment throughout the festival. The people watching was fantastic, as always – many people dress up in Renaissance outfits, but some people just come dressed in random outlandish costumes like a black baby dragon and a Goth-looking guy with big wings attached to his back. We watched the Sound and the Fury theater group’s bawdy takeoff on Shakespeare and drank a bottle of honey mead while watching belly dancers in the Greek area of the festival.

Yes, that’s a snake around her neck!

We were at Michael and Liberty’s house for Halloween. We went to a dog park, where some of the dogs were dressed up – there was a doggie skeleton and a Superdog, among others. Since Liberty had some disguises available, we joined in the fun:

At some point during the week we went to a matinee showing of “Into the Wild”. We’d both read the Jon Krakauer book, so we were excited to see the movie version. They did a good job with it, starting out with the main character Chris McCandless in Alaska, and then telling his story through two interspersed timelines – one of his adventures leading up to Alaska and the other of his time living by himself in Alaska. I think we share some of Chris’s defining attributes – a yearning to explore the outdoors, opposition to materialism – albeit to a much milder degree. Since tragedy seems to make an adventure movie-worthy, hopefully no one ever decides to make a movie of us.

We also did a little bit of catching up on stuff that we hadn’t had a chance to handle during our first three weeks of traveling. Our tent had started to fail during our travels – one of the poles was broken, and all four zippers had places where they would become separated. We took it to the REI store in Houston to see if it was possible to repair it, and they said that they could either send it off to be repaired or just give us a credit toward a new tent! Since we were skeptical about the zippers really being fixable, we took them up on the new-tent offer. Sarah commented that this was the second time in three weeks that we were giving up our home – we’d spent somewhere around 200 nights in our old tent, and now we were trading it in! The new tent is an REI Half Dome 2 HC, an improved version of our Half Dome Plus 2 that was falling apart. I’m sure that once we camp in the new tent for a few nights, we’ll love it, but we’ll still miss our old one for a while.

We also needed to fix the car – the check-engine light had gone on somewhere in New Mexico, so we figured we’d take the car to a mechanic in Houston to read the engine code and look the car over. From talking to our friend Tim, though, we found out that we could read the engine code ourselves. Just use a paper clip to connect a couple of wires under the glove compartment and turn the key in the ignition – then the engine light flashes long for the tens digit of the code and short for the ones digit. Brian did it, and six longs flashed, then seven shorts – code 67, which turned out to mean “catalyst system efficiency below threshold”. We talked to Sarah’s dad, who’s a mechanic, and he said it was no big deal – we can just get him to look at it when we’re in Maine for Christmas.

Brian tried to turn the light off, just to see if it would come back on again. He removed a fuse that’s supposed to reset the code, but no dice – the light stayed on. Then a few days later, the light went off on its own! It hasn’t come back yet. Good thing we didn’t spend money to take it to a mechanic!

We also found a new sleeping bag for Brian. Sarah had gotten a Western Mountaineering Ultralite sleeping bag a few months ago, used just once, off Craigslist. The previous owner was a Microsoft employee who had decided to try backpacking and bought herself all the gear, then decided she didn’t like backpacking and was selling the stuff off. So Sarah bought the sleeping bag, and she’s been enjoying it since then – it’s way warmer than her previous bag. But now our bags don’t zip together anymore, so Brian’s been looking for a bag with a compatible zipper, ideally on sale. Brian finally found the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite on sale – it’s just like the Ultralite but a bit roomier.

We resupplied at Wal-Mart and were appalled that the Christmas decorations were already out and Christmas music was playing. I guess it’s a cliché to say that the stores seem to start Christmas earlier and earlier each year, but it sure does seem that way. Get your half-price Halloween candy, and pick up a fake Christmas tree in the same aisle.

And that, in a nutshell, was our time in Houston. The next stop was going to be Boerne, Texas, to visit our art-student friend Tim in his cabin on a ranch-turned-art-foundation.

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