I. Synopsis


Hi all! I just came back from a 3-week trip from Los Altos, California where I’ve been doing an internship (a bit south of San Fransisco, right in Silicon Valley), to New Orleans, Lousiana where the Missisipi River embraces the Gulf of Mexico. We did an audio installation in Siggraph 2000, the largest conference in computer graphics and interactive art. Another intern (from Sweden) and I drove a van fully loaded with computers and audio gears down to New Orleans in 2.5 days covering about 2,250 miles, and back in 5 days visiting NASA in Houston, Grand Canyon, and a few cities in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona along the way.

It is a very long trip with many interesting sites and things. I plan to write about various topics in a series of water buckets, so if you’re not interested, simply trash the following mails, maybe one each day or two.

II. On The Road


As I said in the previous mail, the trip from Los Altos to New Orleans is about 2,250 miles one way. On our way back, we took a longer but much more scenic route so the total odometer reading was about 5K miles. That’s about 8K km, more than the distance from Mo4 He2 to the southmost point of the South Sea.

I still like driving a lot even after this long trip. We were mostly cruising at over 90mph on our way to New Orleans, and that feels good baby! Didn’t go as fast on the way back because we didn’t need to and there’s much more to see. We basically took Interstate 10 across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Lousiana down, and it’s as boring as it gets for the most part. It’s all Gobi or desert in AZ and NM, and flat flat withered grass land in TX. Lousiana is kind of interesting at last, with rivers, lakes, and mostly swamps all around. It’s not like the swamp that the Red Army passed, more like a shallow lake with vegetation. The largest one we passed by is more than 10 miles long (don’t know how wide), and I-10 is just a super-long bridge on the swamp.

On our way back, we turned north at Houston onto I-45 to Dallas, 287 to Amarillo, then I-40 all the way back to California. I-45 and 287 are as boring as I-10 (now I think I can tolerate the flatness in Illinois a bit more–at least there’s cornfield around while Texas has nothing at all), but I-40 in NM and AZ is fascinating. Actually it follows the historical and legendary Route 66 in that part. I only heard of name of Route 66 before (from jeans of that brand, actually :-), this time I got to know that it used to be a long road connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, which has been replaced by several interstate highways including I-40 from the 1950’s. A couple driving in a 50’s-flamboyant-finned car along Route 66 is a symbol of the mobile spirit of America. There’s a very interesting memorial kind of thing outside Amarillo, TX for it that I’ll talk about later.

NM and AZ are also the home of numerous Native American reservations, as well as the typical setting for a western movie, where Indians, train robbers, and stage wagons ride on the vast mesa. It’s a view that I never got bored of. The best scene to me in this trip is sunset outside Albuquerque, NM. The city lies in a basin surrounded by smooth mountains and mesa, and we climbed to a pass west of the city around sunset time. Suddenly the whole plain unfolded before me, stretching out like a thousand miles with endless mountains and roads, while the setting sun shedding bleeding colors onto the clouds and the earth. It’s a manifestation of the grandeur of nature as well as human exploration. We went down a ramp longer than one mile and is perfectly straight, providing constantly changing perspective on the majestic view.

III. New Orleans — General Impressions


New Orleans is a quite distinctive city. The dozens of American cities that we’ve been to are somewhat the same, with few exceptions like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I think Chicago epitomizes most large- and medium-scale cities quite well, with skyscraper-filled business downtown, dilapidated residential area surrounding downtown, many mid-class suburban towns, and interstates running all across and around. Las Vegas, on the other hand, exemplifies and, alas, glorifies the concept of thousands of one-street towns. Then come the rest miserably boring and uncharacteristic places like Urbana-Champaign šŸ˜¦

New Orleans is kind of a distorted mixture of all these types. The downtown that we went to has some tall buildings, but most of them are hotels. There is but one major street (with railed buses in the middle) that’s wide and flashy. There’s one pedestrian street that’s narrow and more flashy. There’s I-10 as well as the Mississippi that winds through the city. All in all, it qualifies for a “tourist city”.

I didn’t really have time to tour the city until the last day we’re there. We arrived on Thursday 7/20 evening, work-till-drop’ed for the opening on Sunday afternoon, and never stopped tweaking the thing until it ended on Friday. We only had some chances just to walk through parts of the city. The most visited place for us (at least 10 times) is a long arcade along the river called Riverwalk with dozens of fast-food booths and hundreds of small stores along sides, because it’s in the middle between the hotel we stayed in and the conference venue.

Another reason why we wanted to detour to the AC’ed Riverwalk is the weather. The summer of New Orleans is 90/90: 90-degree Fahrenheit(86 is 30 Celsius), 90% humidity most of the time. In afternoon it’s always over 100 even in the shade. One night there was a huge thunder storm at about 6pm that lasted more than 1 hour. When I got out of the conference hall at 9pm, there’s virtually no water left on the street–all had evaporated, or the city’s drainage system is too efficient.

Sorry that this has already got too long and it’s over midnight. Will cut to the chase in the next part: Jazz on Bourbon Street.

IV. New Orleans — Jazz in Preservation Hall


Gosh it’s been such a long time! Finally I’ve got some free moments to write something. (RBs: I’ll finish the 4 Purdue journals after this šŸ™‚

Another reason that I decided to write this chapter is that I had a very interesting lunch chat with my boss about New Orleans. He lived there for a few years after undergrad, paraded in two Mardi Gras and had two cars stolen there. He had some interesting remarks about the city, such as the people is the laziest you can find, and Mardi Gras is nothing but a legitimate total chaos in which 3 million people get drunk (it’s legal to show and drink alcohol in the streets–probably the only American city like that. No 4 Gang: ask Xu Ling about that!).

Back to where I left off 6 months ago. We went looking for a tourbook site called the Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, very close to the notorious Bourbon Street. It’s said to be one of the oldest American jazz concert hall, and it’s New Orleans–the birthplace of jazz, so I thought it would be something like Carnegie Hall. And boy I was wrong about that!

We almost missed it on the street. There’s no sign (or maybe just a tiny one that no one can see). The entrance is no wider than an apartment door. There’s a really beat doorman sitting on a barstool charging $10 (or maybe $5?) per person. We’re then in a narrow corridor, and to the left is a really small room–how small? Go check out yourself!

Let’s cut to the chase why the 3 hours that we spent there are still so vivid in my mind. Not because the stark contrast between the reality and my imagination, not because everyone was sweating like icecream in an oven, not because the music is good–

It’s just the feeling of being there as if it’s 2 hundred years ago that I can’t get out of my mind. That gotta be the way how jazz started. Well Louis Armstrong moved north and Miles Davis is cool, but the stuffed room and sweating crowd in New Orleans is where you find the root. That’s what jazz is really about. It makes you relaxed and swing and smile.

Getting out at midnight, the 80 degree street felt like a fridge. Submerged by the wild crowd, gaudy stripbars, and deafening rock music, I felt completely lost. I wish I could go back to the pure and simple and small Preservation Hall–at least I can do it now in my head.

V. On The Road Again


I haven’t heard a lot of Willi Nelson’s songs, but his “On The Road Again” is one of my favorite songs of all time (and he played himself really good in “Wag The Dog”), simple and true:

On the road again
Just can’ wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends
And I can’ wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Going places that I’ve never been
Seeing things that I may never see again
I can’t wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world be turnin’ our way
And our way
Is on the road again

We’re on the road again after the show in New Orleans was over, me and Michael, our Swedish intern. Oh BTW, did I talk about being inspected in Texas? That’s the funniest thing in our journey. When we’re going down to New Orleans, we drove an extremely long distance in Texas–the most boring part of our whole trip, because there is virtually nothing as far as eyes can see. One night we’re driving on a part of I-10 that’s pretty close to the Mexican border and almost as dull as George W. Bush, and all of a suddenly we saw some kind of sign that ordered everyone to pull over. Turned out there’s an inspection station on the side. We stopped, an officer came to the driver’s side and asked:

“Are you American?”
Michael answered: “No, I’m Swedish.”
The officer was obviously surprised, so he paused a bit and turned to me: “Well are you American?”
“Not really,” I said innocently, “I’m Chinese.”

Now the officer was really surprised! Then he flashed his beam in our car–a full-size van cramped with boxes of computers and audio equipment and magnetic trackers, so full that we can’t see anything in the rear-view mirror. He looked a little suspicious now:

“What are these?”
“Where are you guys from?”
“California.” It just kept going wilder.
“Where are you going?”
“New Orleans.”

This must be the weirdest case that officer had ever dealt with. A Swedes and a Chinaman going from California to New Orleans passing Texas in the middle of the night in a van fully loaded with gears. After a while he figured out that although it seemed as strange as it gets, it’s not what he’s looking for, which is probably smuggler, drug dealer, or illegal immigrants from Mexico. So he relieved: “Oh, so you must be going for Mardi Gras!” I didn’t know what Mardi Gras is back then, and Michael said “No, it’s too early.” –seven months early!

Texas isn’t always that boring, though, like NASA is a fun place, especially for the cows grazing right beside a rocket park. On our way back we couldn’t stand I-10 any longer so we headed north from Houston, also because we would go to the Grand Canyon. There’s a very interesting place called Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, the only large city in northwest Texas. I was reading AAA Tourbook when we drove across Amarillo, and it mentioned the Cadillac Ranch as a prominent “environmental sculpture” piece in the 50’s. It doesn’t tell where it was exactly located, so I kept a constant lookout for it. Suddenly there it was on the other side of I-40, standing out in the most vast and vacant field I’d ever seen. We exited and made a U-turn. There’s a long walkway leading to the landmark from the ranch entrance, providing great vista points along the way.

The scene is kind of surreal. There’s a large rectangular bare ground in the middle of the ranch. From a distance you can’t figure out what’s on the plot. What you see is a few–to be precise, as Dupont’n’Dupondt always say, 8–colorful blobs sticking out of the ground. I knew what they are from the tourbook, but I couldn’t believe what I saw until I went up to one of them and touched it. Yes it is indeed a 50’s Cadillac with its nose planted in the ground and finned tail pointed to the sky. Rainbow-colored graffiti covers the car all over–I don’t know if the original artist or the later visitors do it, but that’s what makes the cars alive. So there they are, eight flamboyant Cadillacs diving into the bleak and blank Texacan ground like a fleet of dolphins. The tourbook says that the sculpture was intended to look like dolphins swimming in the sea of wheat during harvest seasons. To me, it’s more like a dolphin suicide–not to protest oil leak in the ocean, but because they got incredibly drunk. In a word, it looks very American: flat field, wide-open land, empty atmosphere, busy Interstate, Cadillac, and–of course, American graffiti!

The rest of our journey was rather uneventful. The only thing worth mentioning is that Michael got his first speeding ticket of life after we visited the Grand Canyon, which is so humongous that all other objects, especially a police car, become infinitesimally small. We then had to find the municipal court in Flagstaff to file an exemption from court appearance since Michael would soon go back to Sweden–with a forever-blemished record–poor boy! While we’re looking for the court we bumped into a city jail right in downtown Flagstaff. A staff asked: “Are you visiting anyone?” I almost laughed out “yes we’d like to talk to Mr. Grand Canyon” before Michael pulled me out in a hurry.

Well that’s all, folks! I’m glad I finally finish this thing after almost a year. I’ve forgotten many details about the 2-week trip, but one thing I won’t forget is the enormous vastness and varieties across the land. Many tourists and New Yorkers think that America is just a suburb of the Big Apple–in a sense it’s true because the Suburb is where the American Beauty lives. And to think about all the fascinating places in China and the rest of the world, ten thousand cats don’t have enough lives to live!