In the Blogs

White Sands National Monument, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico (Photo: Tim Murphy).White Sands National Monument, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Here's the Beef: Barbacoa is Spanish for "food coma" (Photo: Tim Murphy).Here's the Beef: Barbacoa is Spanish for "food coma" (Photo: Tim Murphy). Our guide in San Antonio was a geography student with an affinity for roller derby,* high school football, and Mexican Coca Cola (the kind that comes with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup). Oh, and Texas secession.

"We probably talk about Texas forming its own country more than we talk about Barack Obama," she confided, speaking for her friends. No kidding; later on, as she showed us around San Pedro Park, she pointed to an old brick structure and noted, "This building's been around since before the United States was part of Texas."

Rachel's case for secession wouldn't find much common ground with Rick Perry, though; to her, breaking away would only be the mildly humorous first step. All 50 states should break apart, and then keep on subdividing from there, into counties, and then towns, and then small, walkable, autonomous communities where everyone knows everyone and no one would ever, ever, think of building a WalMart. There's something of a small-government streak there, but mostly it's just fiercely anti-corporate (Mexican Coca Cola notwithstanding), in a way that reminded me of the folks who want to restore Vermont's independence so that they can ban chains and eat nothing but locally grown produce.

*A fun fact: To compete in a formal roller derby league, you first need to come up with a nickname and then have it approved by the association. For instance: "AC Slay-her," "Abraham Drinkin'," "A Kate 47," "Admiral Jackbar," and "Ammo-Zon"—and those are all just the letter "A." Check out the full list here.

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim Murphy)Marfa, Texas—I have some closing thoughts on Texas' ultra-weird Big Bend country in the pipeline, but while you wait, here's a really quick sketch I found in my notebook, from the Marfa Lights Festival in (you guessed it!) Marfa:

"We do not preach a religion; we tell people about Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior," says Betty Scarbrough, of Alpine. She's wearing a white t-shirt with "Free Hugs" written in blue letters, and, as you may have guessed, giving out free hugs.

"People from all over have forgotten how to hug," Betty tells me. "We'll tell people 'We'll give you a free hug; we're not trying to convince you of anything.' Last year, I hugged a man, he said it was the first time he'd been hugged in 40 years! Can you believe that?"

At the big Christian music festival up in Midland, Rock the Desert, they had a prayer tent about 10 times the size of the one here, but then, Marfa only has 2,100 people, so what would be the point? They've been doing this fair for two years; a family in town asked them to come and they said yes, of course, so they come on over from Alpine. "It's just a way of going out to different places" and making a difference.

So that's the idea behind "Free Hugs." But how does it work logistically? As this delightful Times trend story notes, there's no right way to hug. What happens if someone goes in for a bro-hug*?

"Usually I will reach out, I will embrace them," Betty says. "I know that some people are not front-huggers, so I get them from the side, like this."

*Until I sat down to write this post, I, like you, was hopelessly unaware of the fact that the bro-hug has become become the subject of serious academic research. This Denver Post piece gives a pretty good introduction to the debate. Money quote: "At least two professors -- Kory Floyd at Arizona State University and Mark Morman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas -- have dedicated part of their careers to studying the male hug. The two often collaborate on research." Collaborate? I believe the term is "scholarly embrace."

Obviously: asdasd (Photo: Tim Murphy).Window Shopping: This art installation, just outside the West Texas town of Valentine, is called "Prada Marfa," for reasons that should be obvious. Kind of brilliant, right? Just don't expect to walk out with a new pair of kicks; after an initial rash of vandalism, the items inside, from the Fall 2005 collection, were outfitted with security devices to prevent theft (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Witness: Quick: Find the extraterrestrial life form in this photograph! (Photo: Tim Murphy).Quick: Find the extraterrestrial life form in this photograph! (Photo: Tim Murphy).Marfa, Texas—Long before it became an improbable hub for minimalist architecture, Marfa (population 2,100) was known for its lights—the oft-witnessed, never fully explained multi-colored orbs that hover and dart over the Chinati Mountains at night.

Some say the lights are the result of gases rising out of the Chihuahan desert. Others say they come from Apache campfires or visiting space creatures. In Marathon, about an hour down the road, a man named Eric suggested that the lights come from military helicopters (you can imagine how terrifying that must have been in 1883, when the phenomena was first reported.)

In 2004, a team of students from UT–Dallas conducted a four-day field study to show that the lights might come from automobile traffic reflecting from the state highway, which is totally lame, but, what's the word, plausible?

No one ever pulled off to the side of a highway to watch car headlights, though, so Marfa is sticking firmly behind the "unexplained" aspect of the unexplained phenomenon. At taxpayer expense, Presidio County constructed a viewing platform and visitors center on the outskirts of Marfa, where out-of-towners can throw down a few quarters to try to see the lights at night. It gets brisk traffic: When we stopped by in the early afternoon (before the lights would even be visible) there were at least a half dozen people there, including a few, like Richard Brown of Odessa, who claimed to have actually seen the things.

Marfa Marfa Marfa: Marfa Shorthorns at Alpine Bucks, 9/3/2010 (Photo: Tim Murphy)Marfa Lights: Marfa Shorthorns at Alpine Bucks (Photo: Tim Murphy).Alpine, Texas—It's a little cliched to say that high school football is kind of a big deal in Texas. There's a book about it. And a TV show. And a movie—two, actually, if you count James Van Der Beek's receding hairline in Varsity Blues. So I'll spare you the exposition on how football budgets dwarf English department budgets (I mean, have you ever read Beowulf?), on how Friday night games can become culture war hot zones, on how everything just means so dang much.

Instead, I'd just like to note three small details:

1.) When Marfa High School's marching band took the field at halftime of "the West Texas Rivalry" at Alpine on Friday night, its drumline consisted entirely of Shorthorns players still in uniform. Which was awesome.

2.) Any time a player went down due to injury, everyone—everyonein uniform immediately dropped to one knee with an almost martial discipline and stayed like that until the afflicted got back up.

3.) The idea of Frito Pie (in the case of the Alpine High School concession stand, that's "a bag of Fritos smothered in processed nacho cheese") is one of the four or five greatest arguments for health care reform. I'm not sure why President Obama doesn't talk about this more.

Okemah, Oklahoma—It's hard to imagine a quiet town like Okemah spawning a rabble-rousing, labor-loving, leftist. But then, once you walk around for a bit, it's also really hard to imagine Woodrow Wilson Guthrie coming from anywhere else.

The legendary folk singer's childhood home in Okfuskee County sits halfway up a hill ("the hill," if you ask for directions in town), one block south of the public library, roughly equidistant from Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and the surface of the sun (about an hour each way, I think).* If you drove 14,000 miles to see the home of a folk hero, it'd be more than a little dispiriting to discover it'd been turned into a McMansion with a swimming pool for the poodle and quarters for the servants. But don't worry; Woody Guthrie's childhood home is totally the mess you'd hope it'd be.

The house was torn down decades ago, leaving only the stone foundations, and, in true Guthrie fashion, it's been commemorated by a piece of folk art. A woodcarver named Justin Osborn, who lives and works right across the street on a plot cluttered with his creations, carved up an oak in the front yard of the old Guthrie house and made a monument: There's an acoustic guitar carved on top, "This Land is Your Land" in big letters on one side, and "Okemah" carved on the other.

Yoop We Can: Potatoes + Rutabegga + Beef + Butter + Butter +Butter = a Pasty (Photo: Tim Murphy)Yoop We Can: Potatoes + Rutabaga + Beef + Butter + Butter +Butter + Butter = a Pasty. This little fella's from Wakefield, Michigan (Photo: Tim Murphy).Emporia, Kansas—The most out-of-place coffee shop in the United States, so far as I know, is in Cairo, Illinois. I'm a little less certain about the greasy-spoon equivalent, but so far I'd cast my vote for The U.P.Er's Diner in Emporia, a short walk from the red sandstone home of William Allen White*, and approximately 900 miles southwest of its target audience.

Since we left Michigan's Upper Peninsula (or "U.P."), more or less everyone we've met who's so much as heard of the U.P. has had a story about the place, or at least a shared reaction: "Oh man, you went all the way up there?"; or "That place is insane!"; or "Da U.P, eh!" Even in Duluth, which shares the same iron ore heritage and Superior lakefront, the U.P was spoken of in excited tones, as if it were some sort of bizarro sub-culture totally disconnected from the rest of the Northland. Which it kind of is.

The U.P.Er, founded by a transplant from Iron Mountain, is an odd fit for Emporia. There's not an especially large community of Yooper ex-pats in the Flint Hills,** and I can imagine a sizable number of pedestrians have no idea what the giant, green, vaguely sea-monster-shaped landmass on the sign outside is even supposed to be. In its own way, though, it's the quintesential Yooper creation, because it carries with it this outsized sense of place, as if the peninsula and its cuisine were something that all Kansans should just be instinctively familiar with: Thai, Tex-Mex, Tapas, Yooper. You know, Yooper. From da U.P.! The whole place is a shrine to Yooper culture, with maps and old black-and-white photos and pictures of fish covering the walls; I wouldn't go so far as to say Yoopers should have their own state, but the state of mind is undeniable.

Rambling: Woody Guthrie monument, Okemah, Oklahoma (Photo: Tim Murphy).Brick by Brick: Woody Guthrie monument, Okemah, Oklahoma (Photo: Tim Murphy).