Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bob's Magic Horse

Take a second and click on the picture to the left. Look at this merry go round horse. Look at the fracture running down his neck. Look a the amazing detail in the hand carved flowers. (Click on the "Back" arrow when you've finished looking at it and I'll meet you back here.)

Here's how that San Antonio horse came to be here in front of your eyes.

Doug, one of our two traveling companions, did most of the driving on our San Antonio / Houston trip. He’s a little guy who reminded me of a bantam rooster. He drove the streets of San Antonio like Mario Andretti going for the checkered flag but, since he never actually killed anyone, I mostly let him alone except for the occasional sharp intake of breath and soft whimpering sound.

We were on our way to the Botanical Gardens and out of the corner of my eye, we saw an amusement park that looked so completely out of place that all I could do was say “Oh! Oh! Oh!” and point furiously. The long-suffering Doug, who had spent considerable amounts of time in the car with two photographers understood me perfectly. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in photographer means “Excuse, me Doug. But I see a subject I would very much like to photograph. Would you mind pulling over so we get out of the car and make some photographs?”

To his credit, Doug didn’t sigh or growl. He just pulled over and Sheree and I piled out of the back seat and walked into another era.

The Kiddie Park has been on this tiny strip of land in San Antonio since 1925. I love amusement parks, especially when they are deserted. There’s a very specific feeling that creeps in a place designed to entertain crowds of people when the people are gone. It is a pleasant desolation.

The gate was open so, even though there weren’t any people, Sheree and I walked in. It was the now-familiar San Antonio trick of stepping back in time and listening to the voices and songs of people long gone.

I was standing there, camera limply held in my hand, drinking this in. We’re talking about a place that has entertained children over three plus generations. The rides looked lovingly maintained but so very old. I have no idea why I felt emotional standing there but I did.

“Can I help you?” The voice jolts me back to reality. I see a tall thin man advancing. His arm is in a sling but there’s a manner about his approach that tells me I am about to meet the owner. For just a second I think of him with a striped shirt and armbands. Maybe a straw hat and a bamboo cane. Then the image is gone.

“…the gate was open,” I say. I do NOT want to be sent out of this place yet. “These things are beautiful.”

He looks at me for a long second. I suspect he’s formulating an opinion as to whether I am really a gang-banger cleverly disguised as a genial kinda round Canadian tourist with a camera.

“How old is this park?” I ask. I figure the bestdefense is to get someone to talk about themself.

The look continues for a few seconds and then suddenly his face cracks into a smile and I realize I’m in.

I have met Bob Astin.

“When I was four,” he says with the air of someone who has told this story before, “I came here with my dad. I asked him to buy it for me. He didn’t. So when I was 27, I bought it myself. Been here ever since.”

I am swept up for just a second in how much I immediately like this man. I recall riding merry-go-rounds as a kid and wondering how we could get one to fit into our living room. I remember the sound of the music and the gentle up and down motion of the horse. I remember looking up and watching myself in the mirror and scrunching my eyes up tight and rocking back in the saddle. Yeah. I remember the magic of a carousel. But I grew out of it. Bob didn’t.

He’s warming to his subject now. He takes me to the merry-go-round.

“These horses here?” he says with a daddy pride, “All original. Each one unique. Each one carved by an artist from wood. No additions. Been here since 1925.”

Is it wrong for me to think that this is so cool I can hardly stand it? I look at these horses. So many of them are cracked and lovingly reassembled. They, like the San Antonio Missions, are time travelers. How many little hands have touched these creatures? I cannot stop my own hand from running over the pitted paint and the cracks.

“Kids,” says Bob. “They climb on the legs. They break them.” He shrugs, apparently deciding that children are a force of nature. He doesn’t seem to mind much.

I am blown away by the thought that most of the children who rode here when it was brand new are dead now. Maybe they grew into men who died on a lonely beach during the second world war. Did some go off to nearby NASA and help put a man on the moon?

As I look at these horses, I start thinking about how I am going to convey their stark beauty in a graphic. These are hand-carved horses. Each one is unique. Each one hand painted. These horses served as templates for their modern counterparts. These are the originals.

Bob and I talk for a while. How long, I do not know. But we are chatting like old friends. I suspect it’s because we both get the whole merry-go-round thing. Neither of us has forgotten the sensation of friendly motion and the wind in our hair and each ride that ended too soon. We both see these horses as utterly wonderful things.

I ask him if he will pose for me on the merry-go-round.

“People always asking me to do that,” he says. “Don’t know why.”

But his tone sparkles just a little and we both know why.

“Look straight at the camera, Bob,” I say.

“I’m lookin’ at ya,” he says. He isn’t sure whether to smile or not so there’s this odd expression on his face. It’s perfect.

I wanted the image to be a little off center to draw the eye. I want the image to be odd because the subject is odd. The background is black and white while he is in color to bring the modern man into the historical context. The flag is a wonderful background component, so I allowed a little color here.

The horses are the stars of the show, though. I cannot stop looking at them.

My wife comes and reminds me that our very patient travel companions are waiting.

I smile and nod at Bob.

He smiles at me and for an instant I see at once the face of the kid who wanted to have his own amusement park…and the man who bought one.

The Missions of San Antonio

I have a picture in my mind: there’s this little Franciscan monk wearing a black robe. He has a fringe of hair around an odd-looking bald spot. The sun is hot, maybe a hundred and ten degrees. This guy is lugging fifty and sixty pound rocks across an empty clearing and piling them carefully one on top of the other. Maybe he pauses to take a drink of tepid water. Maybe he takes a second to wipe his brow. Maybe he prays.

As my “eye camera” draws back from a perspective in the clouds somewhere, I see many of these dark shapes moving across a desolate clearing carved out of a savage desert. What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing?

They are building Missions – churches. They are literally building San Antonio.

There are four Missions here. They were all built in the 1700’s – I imagine by sweaty little guys in black robes with some help from the local Indian population.

These Missions are amazing to me. It’s history you can touch. And it’s history with the magical ability to touch you back. You can put your hand on the same warm rock that some anonymous person placed there over three centuries ago. I defy anyone to say that’s not magic.

Sheree and I packed up the cameras and crept out of our lodgings three mornings in a row to get these pictures. Even before the sun comes up, you can feel that Texas heat the instant you step out of the door of your air-conditioned home. It’s not a nasty heat. It’s an enveloping warmth.

When the sun starts to come up, the air fills with this wonderful energy and the sky is painted with such vibrant colors you can hardly snap the shots fast enough. (Photoshop users can make a dramatic sky much moreso by going to Image> Adjustments> Contrast and Brightness and working with those “Oooo” and “Ahhhhh” inducing sliders. A good rule of thumb is to move them only a little. Remember that you are simply trying to enhance the sky…not make it look like Armageddon.)

Sheree, being an intrepid sort, suggested we go back to one of the Missions for sunset.
I wasn’t getting anything that night that made my heart flutter until it was almost dark. Green lights from the trees nearby came on. They bathed the Mission with this other-worldly glow. I set the ISO on the camera to 100, set it on a concrete block (I don’t carry a tripod) and used the Self Timer feature to eliminate any camera shake. The exposure must have been thirty seconds or more. But when the shutter finally clicked closed, I had a wonderful image.

There’s really no way to capture what the Missions feel like at night or in the early morning. When I look at these images, I remember the peace drifting through the air around them. You can feel that these Missions have been here for centuries…and they will still be here long after we’re gone.

I remember the multitude of cats that crept out in the early morning hours to keep us company. I remember the excitement we both felt, standing in the middle of a field, watching the sun slowly creep along the stonework.

And I remember, most of all, thinking of all those little guys in black robes, sweating under an unforgiving sun to build a monument to their God in the middle of a desert.

Peering Near-Sightedly at the REAL Texas

What is it about Texas?

Something gets under your skin here. It’s an infection you want to get. Maybe it’s the wide open spaces. It could be the casual beauty of the cities or the pleasing Tex Mex blending of pastel colors. It might even be all the history you can touch at the Alamo, the Missions – all the famous faces and all the legendary places.

But I think the real secret of Texas isn’t the people. It’s not the history.

It’s the Bar-B-Q.

Texas Bar-B-Q is one of man’s great creations. Forget the wheel. The internal combustion engine? Pffft.

I invite you to give Texas Bar-B-Q just a few seconds of your consideration. Think about a plastic plate loaded down with enough glistening meat to make a vegetarian run screaming the other way. Think about savory sweet sauce, the kind of fatty juicy pork ribs that give your doctor nightmares. Consider thick slices of melt-in-your mouth brisket. Think about sinking your teeth unrepentantly into meat that falls off the bone…and being surrounded by other unrepentant carnivores doing exactly the same thing as you think to yourself “These are my people.”

I love Texas Bar-B-Q.

I love that the napkins come right off the paper towel roll and they expect you to help yourself. I love that the meat is heaped up on plates until they strain under the weight. In short, I love Texas Bar-B-Q…and I especially love Texas Bar-B-Q served up at Bob’s Cook House in Weimar (which is pronounced, with flagrant disregard for the English language as “WEE-mer”) Texas. (I’m pretty sure this is where the Queen eats when she’s in town.)

You’ll have to hunt for it. And when you find it, you’ll only see the sign that reads “Bob’s Cook House” if someone remembered to prop it up against the building. But wveryone in Weimar knows where Bob’s is. Just ask.

Treasures like Bob’s are worth looking for. They are worth hunting for. They are worth flying thousands of miles, renting a car and traveling through 104 degree heat for.

Chances are that Bob himself will be on hand to greet you with a big smile and a completely unaffected Texas drawl. (That's the aforementioned "Bob himself" to the left.) Both of the times we went there (yes…we went back…you betcha!) he told us about something that was on the menu that they were out of. Who cares? Bob’s is about food. Lots of food.

If you time your arrival right (and you HAVE to time it right because Bob now closes shop at 2:00 in the afternoon “due to football season”) you’ll see various members of the Weimar football team arrive for lunch. I stand to be corrected, but I think roughly half the team is related in some way to Bob. These guys look like they stepped out of a “small town Texas” movie. They are polite, they nod affably to a table full of strangers from Canada, and chat in muted tones with sweet looking cheerleaders and each other. They don’t throw things. They don’t swear and they tuck into the food with almost as much gusto as I do.

A policeman was chowing down when we got there the first time and warning Bob that the Bar-B-Q was making him sleepy and his crime-busting instincts would be dulled – which may or may not be a big deal in Weimer.

I know what he was talking about. Somewhere between the last morsel of brisket and the final scrapings of potato salad, a happy little “meat sweat” broke out on my cheekbones. This is the direct result of being unwilling to throw any of this feast away…but also not quite having enough room inside me to put it all.

In Houston and San Antonio, I had the sense that many of the people we met were “putting Texas on” for the tourists. Does that sound strange? Let me put it this way: it felt like a lot of the people we met were trying to act like they thought we expected Texans to behave.

Exaggerated accents and an almost annoying determination to work the word “y’all” into the conversation as often as possible made me suspect that most of them were really from New England.

But there’s no pretention at Bob’s. They took the time to get to know us, they greeted us like old friends upon our return and they fed us more than any mere mortal could be expected to ingest at any one sitting.

You see this woman to the right? It was a week between visits. She not only remembered us. But she also remembered what we ordered.

I don’t think Bob’s has a website. I only have their email because they wrote it on the back of a business card and asked almost shyly if we would send them copies of the pictures we took.

If you want to spend a few minutes having the kind of authentic Texas experience you were hoping for when you booked your flight…you would be nuts to pass by Weimar and not take your tummy to Bob’s Cook House.

Just make sure you get there before two if it’s during football season. I understand football season is a "Texas thing."

So is Bob's.

Picturing Faith

I am a Catholic in recovery. When I was a kid, people thought Mass had to be said in Latin. (Apparently God spoke only one language back then.) I sat through many a Latin Mass on insufferably hot afternoons, looking out the window, tugging at my collar and telling myself stories set far, far away in lands where things were much more interesting. I was only ten, but I clearly remember wondering how it could possibly be worship to God if I didn’t know what I was saying, what the priest was talking about or what the congregation was singing. If I didn’t know what I was saying why would that mean anything to God?

I believe in God and Jesus and I know exactly WHO my Lord is. I get all that. But the whole Catholic thing is a life long source of fascination to me. This fascination only grows stronger here in San Antonio where they take the whole thing very seriously.

The Jesus you see depicted in the Missions and the churches here isn’t calmly looking heavenward with impassive eyes as spikes are driven into his bloodless hands. This Jesus suffers. The depictions of him being literally tortured to death show bone and blood and pain. Canadian church ladies would faint dead away if they saw what the Spanish have created here. I've decided against posting the really bloody pics here since kids might be seeing them. But they could have been drawn out of a Stephen King novel.

The Spanish Jesus isn’t white either. Going back one more time to all those years in Catholic school, I could never figure out why Jesus had blue eyes. I could see no reason why he had the same skin color as me either, when he wasn’t born anywhere near Canada. The Spanish Jesus can be brown or white or even a little on the yellow side. I like this a lot.

San Antonio is full of churches. And the churches are full of art and people and interesting pictures just waiting for some guy with a camera to come along and shoot to his heart’s content. Just do so with a little respect and there is a very good possibility some frustrated but hulking paritioner won't pound you into the ground.

So I did.

Shooting inside churches, regardless of your religious beliefs, calls for a few changes to the way you (or I) would ordinarily do things.

1) You need to be gentle in the use of your flash. A flash can be disruptive to people who are praying and I think photographers have to realize that, on at least one plane, they are guests in someone else’s house. Most cameras have a museum setting that allows you to take shots without using your flash. Yours may be called “candlelight” or “night portrait.”

2) Since churches often have really low light conditions, you may want to set your camera on a jam or the back of a bench, and use your self-timer. This allows you to set your aperture as narrow as you like. You don’t care how long the exposure is since the self timer means you don’t have to worry about camera shake. Remember that flash often blows detail and atmosphere right out of a subject.

3) Think about how other people have photographed the same thing you’re after…and don’t shoot that way. Try very hard to see a statue from a new angle. Look at it from the floor or above. Change the angle radically. Try skewing the picture, try messing with your White Balance settings to get new and wonderful effects. The picture to the left is a good example. With a straight on shot, the boy is a very minor component. Changing my angle allowed me to show a boy contemplating spikes as an out of focus Jesus is murdered in the background.

4) When shooting statues, try to use one facet of the artwork: a hand or a smaller component of the overall picture. If your intent is to take a good picture of a complete statue, you are simply taking a picture of someone else’s artwork. Try taking a new view of what they have done to create completely new art.

5) Take LOTS of pictures. I say this a lot. But it’s really important. Who cares if you take a hundred shots to get one good one? You still have that good one. It’s digital. Relax. Delete the rest.

Houston? We Have A Problem...

If you want to get out of Houston (and believe me, this morning we were MOTIVATED) you have a couple of options. You can either take a really expensive bus tour to NASA…or you get on a city bus, take a fifty minute ride and get there for about a buck and a half each way.

We opted for the bus. We nearly always opt for the bus. Yup. It’s a whole lot less expensive. But it’s also a great way to see the “real” city. When we get there we aren’t tied to some tour director’s schedule. (Sheree and I are nearly always the last ones back on the bus since we are taking pictures and chatting to people and stuff. We have survived many a steely gaze from tour guides.)

When we go on our own, we can take our time and take as many pictures as we want.

I remember reading about the “Number One Way To Annoy Your Traveling Companion When You Go To NASA." You are supposed to get yourself lost and keep repeating the phrase “Houston…we have a problem” until your pal punches you.

Still there’s no ignoring the fact that this is where history was made. It’s incredible that a bunch of people decided their goal was going to be to put a man on the moon and they did. They were using computers with a tiny fraction of the power in this Dell laptop I am writing on right now. They communicated with vacuum tubes and did many of their calculations on slide rules.

And they put a guy on the moon.


NASA is well aware of its historical significance. Everywhere there’s John Williams-like music playing. It’s stately and full of self-importance. At first, it’s pretty cool. After a few hours it gets annoying. After a few more hours you are inwardly wondering what would happen if you crept into the control room and switched the John Williams stuff for Bavaria Bob’s Oompah Band.

There’s a tram available to take you around "private" NASA places. You go through a security check that makes no sense at all. Here’s why: you remove your belt, empty your change and make sure there’s no metal anywhere. In order to do this, you need to put your backpack on a table. No one looks at this. No one opens it. No one looks inside it.

Once I passed through the metal detector, the round bored looking security guard handed me my bulging backpack and pointed the way to the tram upon which I would shortly be heading for the very heart of NASA. The fact that there could be twenty pounds of explosives and ten semi-automatic weapons in that backpack instead of camera equipment apparently never enters anyone’s mind.

Ah well.

The tour is interesting. We get to see the places where they try to make astronauts in training puke (otherwise known as a 'mission simulation') and we see real rockets and pictures of endless astronauts. There is a point in the tour where the bus stops in front of a pretty ordinary looking clearing with a few benches surrounded by trees. They guide explains that this place is a monument to people who died while in the space program. There are a lot of trees and for once John Williams is taking a break and the silence actually feels much more reverent to me. Say what ou want, but these people believed in something and they died for it.

We see genuinely historic places. Here is the room they used when the first man on the moon. It was RIGHT here that they ran the mission from. It feels like something out of the sixties: old furniture, all light orange. A bland room is in front of us behind a big glass wall. There's a bright red phone that probably connects to Someone Really Important. It is full of old looking computer equipment. When you look at the equipment you can almost imagine tapes spinning on reels.

As the presenter ensures we are absolutlely positively "no doubt about it" aware of the history that was made here, I stand at the back of the room. I become aware of a rough texture under my fingers. It's that wallpapery crap they used to put on walls. And great strips have been torn off.

My wife is a believer in the "Super Conscious." That is the notion that ideas occur to multiple people at the same time. I realize with a start that hundreds of tourists have stood here and torn little pieces of wallpaper off so they can take a bit of Mission Control with them.

I look around me. The security cameras are facing other directions. The guide is looking the other way. I tear a tiny scrap of wallpaper crap off as I look intently at the guide, nodding attentively. I have someone in mind who will be really excited to have this.

NASA makes for a great three hour visit, we decide as we wait for the 24whatever under one hundred and ten degree heat.

When we get back to the hotel, the news is full of dire warnings from New Orleans about Gustav. We get a message that our Amtrak train has been cancelled. We have two options: stay in Houston or rent a car and drive to San Antonio.

We leave tomorrow morning.

Dodging Hurricanes in the Gulf

It's been really difficult to get online these past few days. The reason? We started our trip in Houston. Our plan was to go onto San Antonio and finish up in New Orleans.

We were intitially slated to arrive in NOLA the same day Hurricane Gustav was. We'd planned to travel between these places on the Amtrak. First Amtrak cancelled our reservations and then we lost our hotel reservation. We know now that Gustav didn't do anywhere near the devastation we'd been exepecting. But we didn't know that then.

I am going to be posting chunks from my travel journal here. I am not sure the pics will make a lot of sense. The one that opens this blog was "stolen" from inside the Alamo. (You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Alamo...but I did. Heh heh.) The journal starts with me sitting in the Seattle airport.

It is midnight. I am sitting in the Seattle Airport on a five hour layover. I am waiting for a flight to Houston where we will meet another couple. Our plan is to spend a few days in Houston and then move onto San Antonio. After that – the plan is to go to New Orleans and then back to Houston.

There’s a surreal feeling in airports especially at this hour. An African man is yelling into his cell phone. I have no idea why. He doesn’t look angry. I suspect “loud” is his natural state. A child, maybe three or so, is screaming. The parents look at him like he’s an alien they have no control over. It’s amazing to me that these people don’t get taken away by the child police.

It’s delightful in a way, really. Everyone here is going somewhere. We are all travelers. We are all going somewhere. We are all going. I like going. I like that feeling very much.

I am not sure how I feel about traveling with another couple. We’ve never done this before. I am not a social being. Never have been. Never will be. I am lucky to be able to spell the words “social being.”

Still…I have decided that I am going to learn this social skill stuff. Learning how to coexist with other humans on a continuous basis may just be useful one day. And it doesn’t hurt that the people we’re traveling with are pretty cool.

No one can figure out why we are going to Houston.

When we told the customs officer we were going to Houston, he rolled his eyes and asked “Why?”

We told him we were going there as tourists and he looked at us with a surprised look on his face. “Really? Ain’t nothing in Houston.” He shrugs, writing us off as crazy Canadians, I guess. He stamps our passports and we get on the plane.

Houston is hot and humid and there is not much on the surface of this place to do. It seems to be a town devoted to business and, like many other business towns, it is clean, functional…and devoid of interesting people.

We are walking through the downtown core. In most other cities, this would be choked with pedestrians moving quickly and trying desperately to avoid actually touching another person. Not here. I feel like I have walked into a George Romero zombie film, like all of a sudden, these rotting corpses are going to start flowing out of darkened entryways looking for brains to eat.

There are so very few people about. It’s creepy in a way. Where are the tourists? Where are the people?

We locate the Tourist Information building. This is the domain of Mildred. Her name is on a sign behind the counter. She is a sharp birdfaced woman who looks a little like she just swallowed a hairy insect. We stand at the counter and she comes over.

Her greeting smile looks more like a grimace and before she even opens her mouth, I know what she is going to sound like. Sure enough – there’s a reedy complaining sound to her voice.

“Help you?” she asks. Her question carries the same tone you’d expect to hear in the voice of a lifeguard asking you if you’ve just peed in their pool.

My companions and I ask about Houston and for suggestions on what we should consider doing while there.

She purses her lips for a really long time and the idea I am imposing on her valuable time gets much stronger.

“Well I can get you some brochures,” she says.

We smile but she doesn’t move. I smile (again) and kind of nod and she sighs (again) and ambles off. She returns with a pile of papers. She brings out a white map and a red pen and looks peevishly at the map for a long second. I am wondering if she is one of those people who delights in making marks on a map, telling you where all the important stuff is...and makes scrawls all over it that you can’t make head or tale of later. She smiles. Sort of. And I know instantly this is what she has planned for us.

“You’re here,” she says, drawing a small square on a blank part of the map. “If you go down Blather Street past the Quickamonga turnoff, make a right at the Blahblah Boulevard you will wind up in Blahblahblah Park which is open two to five on every other day except Thrusday.”

I look down at the map. Sure enough – there’s a mass of confusing lines drawn all over it. We stand there looking at her.

“Are there any festivals?” my wife asks.


We had sort of expected a little more information. But we nod. We are polite.

She produces brochure after brochure. In a remarkably short period of time, we have amassed pile of brochures and the white map looks like someone in the midst of a seizure was writing on it.

“How do we get to NASA?” I ask.

“You take the 246 or the 249 from here.”

Mildred draws an “x” on a map.

“Could you write ‘Bus’ there?” I ask. She gives me a sharp look. “So we can find it later?”

She sighs and finally acquiesces and writes the three letter word beside the number. But it’s not a total victory. She’s done it so quickly that the word is hardly legible. Mildred does not like having her strategy compromised.

“Can I have a bag for all these brochures?” my wife asks with a tone that usually makes complete strangers do anything for her.

Mildred looks at her. “We don’t usually do that,” she says. Then she pauses to consider the request. “Alright,” she sighs.

She shuffles off to get a map with an air similar to a teenager being forced to take out the garbage.

While she is gone, an old guy walks up to us. He has the words “Walking Tours” on his cap.
“Wondering where the people are, huh?”

I nod and resist asking him if someone has dropped a bomb that vaporized all the people. Texans so far have not appeared to have great senses of humor. And many of them are armed so….

“There’s tunnels,” he says with a sly look.

I am thinking of H G Well’s Time Machine where people live underground like latter day moles as they wait to be eaten by the creatures raising them.

We decline the tour and Mildred grudgingly gives us directions to where the entrance to the tunnels are. She spares one last look at the pile of brochures and the swell plastic bag she has given us. “Hope you are going to be using all them and they don’t just get wasted.”

Sarcasm is a gift and I bite back several remarks in which only I will see the humor. We depart for the tunnels. There’s no need to go into our experiences in the tunnels. It’s basically a large underground mall with offices . Big deal.

So far I am not impressed with Houston. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe it’s possible to have a good time anywhere. (Well, for everyone except Mildred, maybe.) But Houston could test that premise.

A Time When Men Were Men and Women...ummm...Weren't...Men

I hate camping. To tell the truth, I have always hated camping. I've just never grasped the concept: you leave a perfectly good house with all your stuff and on purpose go to a place where you have to haul your own water, endure ferocious insects and pee outside.

Don't get me wrong: I find the idea of squatting around a campfire bristling with male outdoorsyness at the end of a long day riding herd on a gaggle of cattle, sipping cowboy coffee and trading tales of loves lost and conquests made quite appealing. But camping is never like that. It's sticky and nasty...the food usually stinks...there's generally something small and furry trying to crawl into my mouth while I am sleeping.

Em Te Town ( is kinda like that. It's about two hours out of Edmonton. The sign says "Step Back into the 1800's." It's a western theme town someone built out at the end of a long gravel road very close to the place marked "Nowhere" on your map.

We drove up, my wife and three grandchildren and me, and saw a bunch of old buildings. There's a church and a saloon (where you can get real beer!) and a creek and a ton of antiques. Someone spent a lot of time building this place.

We walked into the Saloon (because this is where you have to check in) and got the key to our cabin. It is the most expensive lodging on the whole site. It has electricity and has been presented to us as the "penthouse" of accommodations available in Em Te Town. So it was with no small anticipation that we piled into our car and drove to Cabin 6.

We know it is Cabin 6 because someone has scrawled "Cabin 6" on the door with a big black marker. The key is to a lock that hangs very importantly on a hinge. Said hinge is on the OUTSIDE of the door and could be removed with a screwdriver quite easily, despite the really big lock. This security flaw aside, I am still about half hopeful that the inside won't suck.

We open the door and look in, all of us standing on the old wooden porch, peeking into the cabin. It's rustic, alright. There's a swaybacked couch against a window that looks like something most people would throw out. Along the window sill are candles with a Christmas-like Three Wise Men motif. It's August. There are three tiny (read this as "coffin-like") rooms with really small beds along the back and a big wood burning stove.

We enter the cabin with much talk of this and that and I am already thinking about the spiders living in the couch and the possibility of venomous snakes lurking under the covers of the bed, just waiting for a warm body to slither up against.

I see a sign posted on the wall about the Rules of Em Te Town and this particular cabin. These rules reference a furnace and give detailed instructions on how to turn the furnace on. Being male and reasonably sure I can recognize a furnace, I start poking around the cabin. I can't see it. I don't want to raise the issue with Sheree because I have the idea that she will just point and I will see a furnace spring into existance.

So I go to look for Sid, the affable groundskeeper guy, to ask him where it is. Sid is a skinny older man who wears a lot of plaid and has a hat that looks like it has been passed down through at least five generations.

He comes into the cabin and peers around.

"No furnace," he declares. "We had to tear it out."

I look at Sid for a long moment.

"Furnace was condemned after we took the place over. So we tore it out. Haven't replaced it yet," he says as though that explains everything.

"," I start.

"You gotcha a good wood burning stove though," says Sid crossing the room and patting the iron antique with a certain affection. "Tell you what. Why don't I bring you some wood?"

I am not sure how to make a fire. This is one of the most closely held secrets of my life. I have never known how to build a fire. And the idea of having to build a fire inside my own HOUSE isn't attractive. Sid, who has already delivered a very small pile of firewood which we purchased upon arrival for seven dollars, goes off to get the wood and I look at Sheree.

Sometimes I think Sheree expects she married Grizzly Adams. She expects that guys know how to do outdoors stuff. She certainly does. It's a reasonable assumption, I suppose. But I don't. Never said I did. Never wanted to. I feel a long weekend coming on.

When we finally go to bed, stalked by several flies who buzz around our heads, we find the mattress is hard and thin and where it isn't hard, there are springs. The cabin is too hot and then too cold and I have decided to simply endure the night.

After seven years the night passes and I realize Sheree hasn't slept much at all. I know this because neither did I. This means neither of us is going to be in a very good mood today. I hate it when that happens.

"Why don't you build a fire?" suggests Sheree.

Shit. I briefly consider pretending I didn't hear her. But that never works on her. Never.

"...a fire?" I start, definately not Grizzly Adams. "I don't know how to build a fire."

"Every guy knows how to build a fire," she says. "I can't believe you never learned."

She looks at me for a long moment and then walks away. I set my jaw and go about building my first fire. I have an idea of how it's done. But in practice it's not unlike trying to perform brain surgery after seeing Boris Karloff in a mad scientist movie. I have a vague notion that you need paper and little twigs and that you need to spend a lot of time blowing on it. After a while the fire simply happens.

I do this and watch the embers die -- probably because I have dumped optomistically huge logs on them. Not the way. I go back into the cabin uncertainly, feeling like a dork. But I really have no idea what to do. My father always started a fire with liberal amounts of lighter fluid.

Sheree notices me standing there and, after a long-suffering look, tells me to take paper and twist it into an "8" shape and then put twigs on it.

"Ah," I say as though that explains everything. I go out to twist the damn paper.

Caedmon, my ten year old grandson, comes out to help and eventually we get a blazing fire going. I am eagerly awaiting Sheree's return from the shower to show her that I am, in fact, male and able to generate fire.

When she comes back she looks at the fire and then looks at me. Then she goes inside. I sigh and determine to enjoy this little rite of passage on my own.

We spent the rest of the weekend looking at stuff. We went into Buck Lake to buy marshmallows and other necessities and we looked at the two horses. One of them came to Caedmon, ignoring the rest of us, and did the oddest thing.The mare goes directly to him and greets him like an old friend. It is a sweet and unexpectedly tender moment. I see his face soften and watch as he gently touches the horse and the horse presses its head into him. The moment makes me feel something powerful and proud deep inside where the grandpa part of me lives. It is a magic moment that almost makes up for the sleepless nights. Almost.

Our last morning greeted us with thunder and lighting and buckets of rain. My oldest grandson, Perrin, returned from a trip to the outhouse with a "why oh why did you bring me here?" look on his face.

As we drive away from Cabin 6 one of the kids asks if we can do it next year. I suppress a shudder. Then I remember that I can now actually build a fire...and the pics turned out well...and there's the very off chance that I will develop some survival skills within the next year.


But they can keep Cabin 6.

And the spiders.