Entering the Crescent City

We rose early on Monday the 29th and headed east to The Big Easy.  Before leaving Lafayette, though, Sam and I had breakfast at an amazing little place called Edie’s Express.  It’s not hyperbole when I say they served the best biscuits I’ve ever had in my life.  If you ever find yourself anywhere NEAR Lafayette, you gotta stop there.  It’s the business.

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We also stopped at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, a beautiful house of worship that serves as the mother church of the local Catholic Diocese.  It also has the oldest cemetery in the city, though we didn’t wander it.  It’s a gorgeous building!

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We made a brief detour in Baton Rouge so I could take a photo of a Coca-Cola sign downtown.  It’s one of only three left from this specific marketing push after World War II.  It was just renovated a few years ago and looks wonderful!

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As I-10 carried us east, the landscape began to really change.  The highway became a long bridge, elevated above the Atchafalaya swampland. Cyprus trees that lined the road looked like a forest on another planet.  Lake Pontchartrain appeared on the left and on the horizon, I could see the skyline of the approaching city.

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Since we arrived in town pretty early, we made our first stop the National World War II Museum.  The exhibits there are really well-done; there are actual aircraft hanging from the ceilings and vintage vehicles scattered throughout, along with engaging interpretive panels, galleries, and other artifacts.  At the start of the museum, you get a ‘Dog Tag’ card with an NFC chip in it.  You ‘tag’ a specific person from a computer terminal which you scan at certain intervals to follow along with their individual journey in the Allied campaigns. I selected a young man from Texas that was a forward observer in the 30th Infantry; Sam’s person was a Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia that spent time in Auschwitz.  It was an innovative way to filter the war down to an individual level.

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After spending about three hours (!) at the museum, we headed to our hotel.  The Marriott that served as our home base for four nights was right across the street from the MASSIVE convention center where Samantha would be spending her days.  Her event planning convention was one of four happening concurrently; the venue is 11 blocks long and is over 3 million square feet!  It’s also right next to the Port of New Orleans; I saw my first cruise ship as we ate lunch that first day.  It departed for the high seas, dwarfing the Creole Queen paddlewheeler in its wake.

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You’d think with my travel experience I would be itching to get out and explore.  However, I had an unexpected difficulty leaving the hotel those first two days.  It was a mixture of unfamiliarity with the city, the public transportation system, the multiple warnings I’d received from people about crime, and just general anxiety.  That Monday night we stayed near the hotel; Tuesday I spent the day working on my book.  After Samantha’s day at the conference ended, I knew she wanted to go to the French Quarter and show me places she’d been to experience them with me, but I was frozen.

It actually felt similar to the culture shock I’d had in some places while traveling internationally.  New Orleans felt SO DIFFERENT than other cities I’d been to in the US.  Even deciding on a dinner destination was almost paralyzing.  Bless my amazing wife; she was supportive and encouraging, helping me talk through my difficulties and bringing me out on the other side.  When I woke up on Wednesday, I felt much more at ease and ready to explore.

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Road to the Bayou State

When Samantha asked if I’d like to tag along with her to New Orleans, where she was to attend an event planning conference, I said sure.  I’d never been to the city before (or Louisiana as a whole, actually) and was excited for the experience.  What I didn’t expect, however, was for the city to feel like a completely different COUNTRY.  Before I got to experience New Orleans, of course, we had to get there.

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When we opted to go together, it was decided that driving would be our best option.  Not only is that better from a cost perspective, but that meant I could map out a two-day journey with various stops.  We could make it from Tulsa to New Orleans in a single day, but that would be a boring drive.  There was plenty to see along the way!  The first place I’d marked was in Antlers OK … which was a disappointment.  The historic bridge I’d wanted to see had JUST RECENTLY been torn out; in fact, the old steel from the span was still piled on the side of the road next to the new crossing.  I was heartbroken that I was too late.

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We stopped briefly in Hugo (where I showed Samantha the circus cemetery) before we entered the Lone Star State.  We checked out the little Eiffel Tower in Paris TX, built in 1993 at 65 feet tall.  When Paris, Tennessee built their own tower at 70 feet tall the citizens in Texas added a cowboy hat in ’98.  Although the faux-Eiffel in Vegas dwarfs all other US replicas, none of the others have a hat.  So there’s that.

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Heading east on Highway 82, we drove past a historic marker next to the road.  I wasn’t going to stop, but something in my brain nagged me and we turned around.  I’m thankful that we did!  The marker was at the gate of a small cemetery for William Becknell, the pioneer that blazed the Santa Fe Trail before settling in Texas.

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Our next destination took us a bit farther east into Arkansas.  An old theatre in Magnolia had been on my to-see list for quite a long time and it was one I had wanted to see with Samantha by my side.  It’s the Cameo Theater, which no longer operates as a movie house.  She uses cameos often in her hand-crafted jewelry and I knew she would really like it.  It’s a beautiful cinema and a shame that it’s closed — though at least it’s being used as an exercise studio, apparently.

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We meandered down to Lafayette, LA before calling it a night.  We didn’t go straight to the hotel, or even to dinner actually.  We headed for dessert first and another surprise for Sam:  the last operating Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe in existence.  Back in the mid-1800s, Borden’s Dairy (Eagle Brand then) built a factory in her home town of Brewster, NY for their condensed milk operation.  It closed in the 1920s after the area was flooded to provide reservoirs for NYC water supply and later burned to the ground in a fire, but Borden’s was a big part of the city’s story.  As such, she’s always felt a historic connection to the brand.

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The Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Lafayette was built in 1940.  In 2009, long-time customers bought the shop, renovated it, and kept it going.  The landmark building looks like you would hope:  neon on the outside, pressed-tin ceilings and Art Deco lights on the inside.  There was an old-fashioned counter, several booths, and a number of small kid-sized tables.  The menu board was simple and we ordered with ease.  If it’s Borden’s, it’s got to be good — and it certainly was.

After a long day on the road, it felt good to stretch out — we fell asleep at our motel quickly, knowing that the next day’s drive to New Orleans would be much shorter.  And then the real adventure would begin…

 

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Eleventh Hour Bridgehunting

Most of my free time lately has been going towards research and writing of my book on Lost Tulsa Restaurants — and I’m happy to say it’s going well!  But all that time at the Tulsa Historical Society and other archives has taken away from my time on the road.  Not to mention it’s been crazy cold around here!  However, the forecast on Sunday was partly cloudy and near 70 degrees — so I opted to spend a day on the road.

More and more historic bridges are being replaced around Oklahoma.  There were a few that I’ve had on my ‘To See’ list for a while that I knew I needed to visit soon, or else it would be too late.  I headed west on I-44, past Oklahoma City, and then went south on Highway 81.

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I diverted through a few small towns as I weaved towards the Red River:  Rush Springs, Marlow, Duncan, Comanche, Waurika.  Many great murals and most of the downtown districts had a bit of life in them, much to my surprise.  Duncan has a Rock Island Railroad Depot Museum complete with locomotive, but winter hours meant it wasn’t open when I stopped by.  Most of the diners and local stores that piqued my interest were closed on Sundays, too; I gotta remember to take these trips on Saturdays!

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My first stop was at Chisholm Trail Lookout Point outside of Addington.  An obelisk was constructed around Oklahoma’s centennial to mark the location on the historic cattle trail.  It’s the highest point in Jefferson County and offers a view that was surely welcome to the cowboys driving their herds from Texas to Kansas.

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A few minutes later, I stopped at the spot that inspired the day’s journey:  the endangered Red River Bridge on Highway 79.  It connects Oklahoma and Texas with 21 camel-back pony trusses, clocking in at just over 2,200 feet.  It’s on the National Historic Register and is the only bridge of its kind remaining on a Texas state highway.  I hope that means it gets to stay around for pedestrian access, but, that is not guaranteed.  Since the new crossing is already under construction, I was able to walk around a bit and get some good shots.

From the Texas border I drove east, once again meandering through a few small towns:  Ringling, Wilson, Lone Grove.  Ringling’s welcome sign looked like a circus tent even though the town didn’t appear to have any connection aside from name similarity.  The clouds above me were darkening; I kept waiting for it to start raining but it didn’t.

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The next bridge I visited is also at the end of its days.  The Greasy Bend Bridge over the Washita River is something of a Frankenstein; it’s three trusses long, with one being a totally different design than the other two, and the deck has had a number of band-aid repairs.  Even though a few pickup trucks crossed while I was there, I didn’t feel comfortable driving over it.  A new bridge is almost finished alongside; if I had waited a few weeks, I would’ve been too late.  I doubt this old one will be left standing.

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My next visit was to the Cumberland Cut Bridge near Fort Washita.  This one was bypassed some time back; it’s actually in great shape.  The yellow paint is still solid throughout & the street striping is still visible.  I’ve driven across way worse bridges that are still in operation.

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Clear Boggy Creek bridge in Caney, OK was a real treat.  It’s on a gravel road lined with a canopy of tree branches; I’ll bet it looks amazing in the spring and summer.  Furthermore, it’s right next to a railroad bridge.  I’ll have to come back down and sit for a while.  It looked like someone had done something similar on Saturday night; there was a smoldering campfire on the north end of the bridge on the side of the road.

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I’d driven by the Dairy Lane Bridge south of Atoka dozens of times, but had never noticed it before.  It’s a few blocks east of Highway 75 and passes over the Union Pacific Railroad track.  No trains went by during my visit, but I enjoyed exploring the old single-lane crossing.  It may have originally been built to serve a railroad itself, considering how tall it is.

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My last stop was northwest of McAlester on Tannehill Road.  The Tannehill Bridge crosses Coal Creek and has been bypassed, but it was left standing probably due to its namesake.  The bridge is dedicated to Cpl. Joe C Tannehill, a McAlester native and survivor of the Bataan Death March in World War II.  There’s an excellent marker on the south bank of Coal Creek in his honor.  The bridge is easily accessible for pedestrian use.

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Less than five minutes after I returned to the car, the threatening clouds finally delivered.  The sky had turned the dark grey/green that is normally associated with Oklahoma Springtime and the winds strengthened. Rain started suddenly and it was so dark I needed my headlights.

I scrambled down unmarked county roads, trying to find my way back to the Interstate.  I hoped aloud that the narrow lane didn’t suddenly turn to dirt, as the last thing I wanted to do is get stuck out in the middle of nowhere.  Thankfully, it remained paved, and soon I was back on the turnpike.  I was even greeted with a vibrant rainbow as the sky cleared on the way home; a match to my bright spirits after a day of exploration.

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2017 Year in Review Video

Happy New Year, friends!

I just published my annual video highlighting my favorite photos along with commentary.  It’s on YouTube and the link is below.

2017’s video clocked in at just under an hour this year; don’t feel like you have to watch it all at once.  Here’s to another year on the road!

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Groceries on the K-Line

On Christmas morning, Samantha and I were awoken at sunrise.  Not by a child jumping on the bed or excited shouts coming from downstairs (the only other person in the house being Samantha’s visiting mother down the hall) but by Sam’s iPhone.  When she answered it, the darkened bedroom was greeted with a bright Merry Christmas and the aforementioned excited shouting children 1,300 miles away.

I made coffee while Sam and her Mom sat on the couch, enjoying Christmas with their family back in New York with the help of FaceTime.  It was a somewhat surreal but altogether lovely way to bring everyone together.  Our local Christmas celebration wouldn’t take place until evening, as my brother Tyler had to work.  My mom arrived at noon and we watched old family movies together.  By the time my brother arrived at 5:00 PM, we were all chomping at the bit to eat and exchange presents.

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Our celebration was wonderful.  Though it lacked the kinetic energy we’d witnessed on the east coast, it was full of thoughtfulness and kindness.  I’m not writing here to talk about any new gifts, though, but to talk about an old gift that was had been unopened for nearly three decades.

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In 1990, Tyler and I received a train set for Christmas.  It had been given to Dad by Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods company.  That year they’d offered the set as a premium for buying their various products for grocery stores, which is exactly what Dad did as the head buyer for local chain Price Mart.  In fact, here’s a little bit about the specific limited edition train set we set up that morning twenty-seven years ago:

“In September of 1989…Procter & Gamble (P&G), one of the biggest and most successful consumer goods companies in the world, opened a new era of business for K-Line. […] P&G approached K-Line with the idea for an innovative, premium incentive to reward grocery stores who purchased a certain amount of P&G products. P&G commissioned K-Line to produce a train set decorated with the names and logos of certain P&G products. In order to produce all the K-2090 sets, the K-line facility at Chapel Hill operated 3-shifts per day, six days a week and rented even more production space in nearby warehouses.”

(Source)

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Dad was actually given TWO sets that year; one we set up immediately (Dad seemed to enjoy it more than we did) and the other we Put Up For Good.  The set we played with diminished over the years for all the reasons you’d expect with two young boys & so many life changes.  The only evidence I’ve had that it ever existed in the first place is an old home movie and a Jif Peanut Butter car that sits in my bookshelf, a discovery from Dad’s apartment after he died in 2011.

I certainly thought the second, whole set was long gone.  That is, until last week.  I learned that Tyler still had the second train set, still unopened.  He’d carted from place to place for years and was considering selling it.  With great care, I urged him to do no such thing…in fact, he could bring it over on Christmas and we could set it up together.  Which is exactly what we did.

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After dinner and gifts, Tyler and I sat on the floor in my den and assembled the track.  I wired the transformer while he carefully took the cars out of their boxes.  Sam, our mothers, Tyler, and I all held our breath when I finally flipped the switch.  After 27 years of troubled storage, the O-Gauge train set came to life.  I couldn’t have stopped smiling if I’d tried.

The train consists of seven cars: the locomotive branded for Associated Wholesale Grocers, a boxcar branded for Duncan Hines Cake Mix, a Sunny Delight tanker, two hopper cars (branded for Folgers Coffee & Jif Peanut Butter), a flat car for hauling a trailer, and a Crisco Shortening caboose.

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The Puritan Oil trailer, which sat on the flat car, was damaged.  The metal roof was oddly warped and the bit that fastens to the flat car was broken.  I’m going to have to find a local hobby shop and see if anything can be done to save it.  For now, though, this irreplaceable piece of family history is in safe hands.  It will be part of a new Martin tradition: next year, I hope to have a few buildings to go along with it.

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Of Christmas Past

The town of Pawhuska was founded in 1872 on the banks of Bird Creek, within the Osage Nation in Indian Territory.  It was named in honor of a tribal chief, Paw-Hiu-Skah (meaning White Hair).  A post office opened in 1876 and by Oklahoma statehood in 1907 there was a newspaper, railway station, and almost 2,500 residents.  It’s where the first Boy Scout Troop was organized in America (pre-dating the actual Boy Scouts of America) and home of the Cavalcade, the world’s largest amateur rodeo.  It was also the centerpiece for the terrible Osage Indian Murders; if you haven’t read Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s a tremendous (devastating) read.

Christmas 1981

For me, though, Pawhuska has been the city of my father’s family.  My grandfather, Hardy Martin, ran Redbud Grocery for many years before “retiring” to the country with a meat processing shop.  Uncle Jody bought Hometown Appliance in the 1990s (which he runs to this day) and the rest of the Martin family has contributed to the community in a variety of ways.  My earliest Christmas memories come from a small converted schoolhouse north of town, where my grandpa Hardy would hand out presents dressed as Santa Claus.  We drove up there every holiday season.

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As I grew older, I saw a town in decline.  By the time I could drive myself to the Osage Capital, the population was roughly half of what it had been during the Oil Boom days.  The charming downtown was mostly empty; the Wal-Mart on the edge of town had driven many of the small businesses out.  By the time Dad moved back there to care for grandma, even the Waltons had waved goodbye.  The town held on, but it seemed to be on an inevitable downward path.

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Christmas 2010 was a personally somber affair, as Grandma Gail had recently passed and my first marriage had just ended.  Christmas 2011 was the first one without Dad.  The emptiness of Pawhuska mirrored the emptiness of my heart.  I saw my reflection not only in the vacant store windows, but also between the crumbling bricks and within the demolished houses.  A mongrel of emotion roamed the streets, curled in my cousin’s driveway or waiting for me in the alley near the courthouse steps.

Christmas 2014

Then, in October 2016, a miracle.  Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman cook and author, opened The Mercantile on the corner of Main St and Kihekah Ave.  The dilapidated storefront had been renovated and re-opened as the mecca for all things Pioneer Woman, providing a retail anchor and dining hot spot in the heart of town.  Ree’s following was international: the guestbook had signatures from all over the globe, much like the Route 66 attractions I knew so well.  Over the last year, that jolt of energy has translated into dozens of new and revitalized businesses.

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When I drove into Pawhuska this year for the annual Martin get-together, my heart swelled with happiness.  The streets were lined with cars sporting varied license plates.  A bright neon sign buzzed next to the under-renovation Triangle Building, long my favorite structure in town.  A B&B was open across the street from my uncle’s store.  Everywhere I looked, the trajectory had reversed.  The town had survived loss and was enjoying renewed life; much like I have since Samantha came along.  Someone that believes in you is the best gift you can ever receive.

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The Value of Expression

My friend Bruce shared an image on Instagram recently that sent me deep in thought.  On the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, a stairwell pillar was covered with the following message:

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However, when you shift to look at the OTHER side of the column, the message changes:

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This settled deep in my soul and sent my mind back a decade.  In 2007, I was married to my first wife, working for AT&T, living in a new-construction house in the suburbs, and deeply unhappy.  I couldn’t figure out what was really wrong…I just felt empty and unfulfilled.  We both did.  So a big change was made:  we sold everything at an estate sale and made plans to travel the world.

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2009 – testing out the travel backpack

I took the old blog that I’d created as an alternative to MySpace and started writing about travel preparations.  I bought a little Panasonic point-and-shoot camera and got familiar with it.  In April of 2009, we waved goodbye to friends/family and headed for California.  Over the next ten months, I gained and lost.  I gained an appreciation for new foods and lost 40 pounds.  I gained insight into the human experience and lost my prejudices.  I gained a creative outlet and lost the hopeless voice.  After returning home in February 2009, an intense period of loss further propelled my creative journey but that’s an entire story unto itself.  The biggest gain from my time abroad was the camera that had become an extension of my body.

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2011 – Picher OK

A few months into the international trip, I upgraded my camera.  I started taking photos I was really happy with; photos I could see up on not just my wall, but maybe even public walls.  When I got home, though, my international experience didn’t translate to Oklahoma easily.  I had to find my creative voice within the familiar…and that took time.  I started wandering around Tulsa with purpose.  In 2011, my friend Darci encouraged me to explore the ghost town of Picher with her.  In 2012, I started getting comfortable taking photos at DragonCon & I didn’t deliberately set foot on Route 66 until the summer of 2013, which is also when I explored parts of the American West for the first time.  When I met Samantha in October 2013, I was just beginning to understand how my international traveling experience would evolve into how I travel the Midwest today and capture the journey.

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One of the first photos I took of Sam – Blackburn OK 2013

All of that to say this:  it takes time to find yourself.  It can be painful, disappointing, and frustrating at times.  I still struggle with feeling inadequate and unsuccessful, but, that usually comes when I’ve compared my work to someone else’s when I don’t fully understand their journey.  Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Look at yourself TODAY versus where you started from; THAT’S where the true measurement lies.  When you turn around and look behind you, that is the only comparison you should make.  It’s tough, but it’s the only fair lens. My journey is different than anyone else’s & it informs my work on a daily basis.

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Find the outlet that allows you to express yourself.  Don’t let anybody tell you it’s worthless.  If you’re not able to support yourself on your art alone, that’s fine.  I sure don’t…but that’s not why I do it.  Don’t ignore the little voice begging for expression.  Give it time, energy, and patience.  One day you’ll look back at your path and be amazed.

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