Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

September 2006

TravelTuesday, September 26th, 2006, (8:52 pm)

Leaving Houston, Texas, feels a lot like being released from jail early for good behavior. Make no mistake, I very much enjoy visiting with my friends there and just kicking back with them, but from as someone who has travelled extensively across the United States I feel that I’m not entirely unqualified to say that Houston truly is a bloody awful place.

It would seem that in Houston trees are as offensive as Janet Jackson’s left nipple is to a republican. The city seems to have a policy to cut down and destroy as many trees as possible, leaving in their wake characterless office buildings, parking lots, and ugly brand name malls that look like every other mall in America. Houston can claim to be the true site of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as, among the cities many unflattering accolades, it has chopped down and ‘redeveloped’ more forests and urban woodland areas than any other city in the United States.

The disappearance of vast numbers of Houston’s trees has also played not small part in the fact that the city now rivals Los Angeles for the title of having the worst air quality in the United States. Smog hangs in the thick air that surrounds the city which like all cities is getting hotter year upon year.

Of course it’s not hard to see why thick acrid smog poisons the air here. You can’t go anywhere without a car it would seem. Everyone drives everywhere, and everything seems so damn far away. Multi-lane highways link endless strip malls with yet more malls punctuated with apartments and office buildings and still yet more stores with huge parking lots spread before them like great lawns of concrete.

You would have thought than in one of the commerce hubs of America and indeed the world, Houston would be able to boast an impressive mass transit system, to rival that of London, Chicago, Tokyo or New York. But no, buses trundle from place to place near empty but for those who somehow don’t own a car. I’m even told that rather than invest in a new state of the art mass transit system the city will instead be expanding one of its already huge highways to twenty four lanes!

The need to commute everywhere by car might then have something to do with another unfortunate record Houston can claim. It is one of, if not the most, fattest city in America. Obesity is fast becoming the biggest health issue we are dealing with in todays western society, moving ahead of the now largely socially unacceptable behavior of smoking.

Another fascinating contradiction of Houston is the fact that in this city on the fringe of America’s so called ‘Bible belt’ and where a great many people attend church religiously, there seems to be as many adult video stores or strip clubs as there were gas stations. In fact, rather comically Erin, Jon and myself visited a huge 24hr adult video store on the way home from watching Jackass 2 at a movie theatre where they served red meat sandwiches and beer to you right there in your seat. I spoke with the guy at the counter of the porn store and asked him how many people actually visited in the middle of the night. He reported than it was mostly dead at such hours aside for pranksters like us, but the fact remains that in this city where the dollar is praised as much as Jesus, such a store wouldn’t remain open if there was no profit in doing so.

I did get to escape Houston for a day with Erin and Jon (both of whom are looking to escape the city for good themselves at some point to). The three of us headed to Austin. I’d heard a lot of good things about Austin and on this briefest of visits I was not disappointed.

We spent a couple of hours kayaking along the river through the city, basking in the sun not far from turtles that had much the same idea as us. Afterward we got smoothies from a cool place called Daily Juice where the the plastic cups they were served in were made from compostable bio-plastics, evidence that we were indeed in a city that thinks very different to its neighbors not so far away.

As ever though, my trip to Houston, as awful as the city itself is, was still thoroughly enjoyable. I find myself always wishing I had more time to spend with my great friend Erin and her oh-so-laid-back boyfriend, Jon. I also wish I had more time to hang out with the people people I’ve come to know through the Xanga blog community too. Hopefully some of them will take me up on my offer and come out to the UK sometime too, if nothing else I’d be able to introduce them to trees!

Next stop Colorado.

GeneralSaturday, September 23rd, 2006, (6:02 pm)

So we had our second ‘Xangbang’ (I think Sommer coined that phrase maybe?) at Karen and Albert’s home in Houston and this year it was even bigger than before! Loads of the Houston based Xanga people and even a few folks from further afield were there. Here are a few of my pictures.

There were actually a number of people there I hadn’t met or read before. I wanted to get around and chat to everyone, but you know how nights like that can be. They pass all too quickly. But I did at least get to say “hi” to most people and have at least some introduction to those I didn’t know.

Hats off to Heath for coming to the party on her own. I guess she figured we wouldn’t all be weirdoes but still, that was brave to do. She said she wore the ‘God save the Queen’ Sex Pistols T-shirt especially for me. So Heath, I’ll just say I appreciated that, and I told Liz yesterday about it and she said “Big up to you girl”. Our Queen is so hip ;-)

Above Anna talks to someone I was particularly looking forward to meeting, Ashley. She has a funny laugh which I heard often, but each time we chatted she had this look on her face like ‘how the heck do I take Simon, he’s kinda strange.’ It’s a funny thing, we were meeting for a first time, but oddly enough because of the Xanga blogging community link we weren’t really making true ‘first impressions’ upon one another. It’s more like you’re getting a chance to see how the person you’ve been reading for a while actually interacts with other people.

The picture above is hilarious because of Carey. Look at his expression then check out his hands! Below Roy(!) is picked up Chris in some strange ice-dance maneuver, and at the end of the night we started making strange stickers. What can I tell you, we’d had a few drinks!

Now that I’ve posted these pictures it has become apparent to me that I only seem to have pictures of me with girls! I did have a couple of ones with guys, but they were blurred or bleached by the flash to the point we look very sick indeed. In my defense I think I would argue that there was probably a healthy majority of females at the party, but I just know you lot aren’t going to buy that are you.

I want to extend my thanks to Karen and Albert for letting us all descend on their home in Houston. Karen made delicious sandwiches and other stuff and between them they were just great hosts, so I am sure I speak for everyone who came when I say a very big THANK YOU to them for their hospitality.

It was great to meet all you guys who were there, I only wish I could have spoken more to you all. So how do you top a Xangbang?

TravelSaturday, September 23rd, 2006, (10:55 am)

The sun was setting as I landed at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “Welcome to Houston” said the voice over the in-flight PA system as the chimes of hurriedly switched on cell phones began chirping like summer birds.

Having flown from central valley California I was already accustom to hot weather, but the air is thick with humidity down here in the Bible belt and even though I was ready for it, it still managed to take me a little by surprise on this dimming September evening.

My friend Shae was meeting me at the airport, but oddly enough though I would call him a buddy Shae and I had never actually met. We’re ‘internet friends’, an entirely modern notion in these days of great distances being shrunk by wonder of digital technology.

United Airlines had somehow managed to further damage my already battered luggage so now the extendable handle wouldn’t extend meaning I had to awkwardly hobble around with the bag while Shae managed to somehow become somewhat lost while trying to locate the parking lot.

Once in Shae’s Mustang we put the roof back and headed off into the Houston night to meet up with Clayton and my internet sparring partner, Reece. But before we got to Rudyards English style bar (not at all English by the way) Shae announced we would be making a slight detour. “I want to show you something really freaky.” He said in his slow motion voice.

Ordinarily I might worry if someone I had never actually met announced they wanted to show me something Freaky, but Shae is a man in the throes of starting church called the Refinery in Baytown, Texas. A Tattooed musician, driving an open top Mustang, and not fearful of the so called ‘bad words’, he is one might say, a modern man of God.

The freaky thing that Shae considered a ‘must see’ for a visiting man from England were a collection of Presidents heads hidden away behind some utterly forgettable industrial building near a Target store. Lined up next to each other like criminals in a mug shot book, the men that have lead America stood in stoney faced silence as if waiting for a sentence to be passed. Shae didn’t know what they were for but I later learned that they were the work of local sculpture, David Adickes, for a ‘Presidents Park‘ in Williamsburg, Virginia. Shae wasn’t wrong though, in this lonesome forgotten setting and shrouded in darkness, the Presidents as grandiose as they may have been, looked thoroughly freaky.

At our destination for the evening we met up with some fellow internet ‘blog buddies’ Clayton and Reece. I had been looking forward to meeting Reece for quite some time because in the last few months since I had come to know him (as much as one can know someone they meet online) we had publicly locked horns on more than one occasion. He would often take jabs at my age from his much older and far more conservative perspective. In turn I would throw back comments equally aimed at ruffling his feathers. Our bouts were well known among our mutual friends and so our meeting proved to be something that many people asked me about. “So how did meeting Reece go?” They would ask. My answer was always the same. “Oh fine, he’s a really nice bloke.” I’d say, even though at one time Reece himself objected to me calling him a bloke. But truly the man was in person nothing like I imagined he would be. Online he is a fire-starter not afraid to throw out shocking comments that might, and sometimes do, offend people. I had imagined him to be a huge man, capable of injuring a bear or at the very least hurting its feelings. But as he met us on the sidewalk I was surprised to see a tall, white haired and bearded man who looked like he would be as amiable as he indeed turned out to be. “Assalamualaikum, brother Reece.” I said, knowing his unfavorable feelings about Islam. “Hey now, none of that.” He replied, in a Texas accent he later attributed to his age and lone star state upbringing.

Clayton, Reece, Shae and I chatted, exchanged stories and drank beer for a while. Eventually Reece took off leaving us to find an excuse for another beer which this time we accompanied with flavored cigars from my collection of cheap Phillies Blunts. The night passed as quickly as those kind of evening always do so we finished up our beers and went on our way. Shae decided that we should take a detour on the way back to his place and go via the yellow painted Baytown suspension bridge. Driving over any kind of suspension bridge at night in an open top car is always just a cool experience, I can’t really tell you why, it’s just something you have to experience yourself some time.

The next day I met Shae’s wife Jessica and there three kids Evan, Olivia, and Aidan. We headed out for breakfast then, at my request, we went to see the Lakewood mega-church at the former stadium of the cities basketball team. This wasn’t some spiritual pilgrimage, but more a visit to a religious circus where the prosperity preaching Joel Osteen is the main attraction for thousands who flock each week to listen to his feel good sermons delivered in the pearly white smile style of many an American motivational speaker and streamed on the internet for the world to watch. The vast building was impressive in many ways, but in the city which lies on the edge of Americas so called ‘Bible belt’ I couldn’t help feeling that this was a fine example of what I call ‘churchetainment.’ that is to say church wrapped up in the kind of slick glitz and glamor that America has grown accustom to consuming on a frightening scale.

Inside the vast arena thousands of seats faced a large stage area on which the pulpit stood. Behind that was a sunken area for the musicians and on either side a stairway stage for the choir to sing their Texan hearts besides a faux rock waterfall feature and in front of a backdrop of fluffy clouds set against a heavenly ‘blue’ sky. At this level and under a vast bank of lights suspended above, the church felt more like the stage for concert on the farewell tour of an aging country singer who needs the distractions of a cheesy show to divert attention away from the fact that they’re just not as good as they once were.

Had I not considered it to be a wholly insulting thing to do to my Christian friends around the world, whose invitations to visit their churches I have always politely and steadfastly declined, I might have gone to watch one of his three Sunday services just to see for myself the clockwork performances that the Joel Osteen camp have now perfected. After all, I might not appreciate his work, but there’s still something fascinating about watching any great performer live.

We all hung out a little more that afternoon before Shae dropped me off at Karen and Albert’s house for this years comically titled ‘Xangbang’ which I’ll write about in another post.

Presidents Park
Amusing history of the Presidents heads
Lakewood Church, Houston
Joel Osteen’s official website
Joel Osteen : True or false?
Business Week : Joel Osteen interview
Larry King interviews Joel Osteen
Texas Monthly : Prime Minister
What I think of Joel Osteen
Me doing a Joel Osteen impression at Lakewood
Shae Cotter, Jessica Cotter, Clayton, and ‘Sir’ Reece

TravelFriday, September 22nd, 2006, (12:13 pm)

My trips to America are all about the people I see, not the places I visit. That truth is never more evident to me than when I am in Fresno. A seemly soulless place in central valley California that presumably hides it soul in the same place as Saddam Hussain’s weapons of mass destruction. The only difference being that no one is concerning themselves with looking for Fresno’s soul.

It’s true, Fresno has no art and culture, or at least on first impressions it doesn’t. Ironically, if you visit the cities own visitors bureau website and click on either the ‘arts and culture’ or the ‘attractions’ options under the ‘What to do’ tab, you’ll be presented with a ‘404 not found’ error.

When I tell people I’m going to Fresno they usually furrow their brow, draw in their chin and say “Fresno?” in that ‘you have to be joking’ kind of way. But while I understand that the generally hot and featureless Fresno is no tourist trap, it is home to some of my friends whom I can honestly say, as if this wasn’t already apparent, that I’d travel anywhere to visit.

This part of my trip involves children. Anthony & Paula’s kids seem to enjoy having me around, though they take little notice of me when I tell them not to do something. This year Anthony got an iPod while I was around and the kids all begged for iPod time. The youngest, Joel, is three (I think) and he could identify iPod ads on TV even before Anthony had one. I asked him what an iPod was and he explained it was something that worked with your eyes and had something to do with the dancing man.

Rick and Karen’s children, Grace and Toby, are always full of seemingly inexhaustible energy when I see them. They spend their time telling me stories, showing me their stuff, then running off with my camera to take strange blurry pictures which often involve a shot looking right up one of their noses.

As always I met up with my old friends Josh and Kevin. We usually try and plan some kind of ‘guys trip’ some place, even if it’s only out to the desert or something.

This year we went to the ‘beach house’ which would more accurately be described as a beach trailer, but such details were unimportant. Located near Pismo beach we used the ‘beach house’ as home base for our three day visit to the coast.

We went to the farmers market in San Luis Obispo which is well worth a visit if you’re ever around that area on a Thursday evening. The shops all stay open and Higuera Street is closed to traffic to allow the stall owners to set up and sell whatever to the many people who flock there.

One of the stranger and frankly kinda gross things that you kind of have to see if you visit San Luis Obispo is ‘Bubble Gum Alley (pictured below).’ This is basically a small alley way where the two walls on either side are completely covered in used gum. At first it looks like colorful pebble-dash cladding, but then you soon realise that it is in fact gum. Apparently gum began appearing on the walls in 1960 and since then it has grown into somewhat of an attraction.

The next day the weather was glorious so we headed to the beach at Montana de Oro State Park. To get to the beach we had to walk through a eucalyptus tree forest which was quite simply amazing.

It’s difficult to sum up the beach trip. We were just three old friends hanging out and enjoying the kind of banter three friends have after 15 years. This year though I think we broke a record. None of us are really smokers, but between us we managed to polish off 2 packs of Marlboro lights and 2 packs of Phillies cigars! That’s a whole lot of tobacco consumption in a three day period!

On returning to Fresno Anthony and I headed out to see a U2 tribute band called Zoo Station play in downtown. Ordinarily you would expect a tribute band to be okay, but not great, but these guys were excellent. The lead singer had Bono’s moves down! He strutted his stuff upon the little stage and left me feeling like even this little tribute band were too big to play places like Fresno.

Everyone was rocking out and singing along as I swept a glance over the gathered crowd, it then hit me. “Oh no,” I though “Surely this isn’t my crowd?” A sea of faces no younger than 30 were more lost in music than sister sledge, who they all would probably remember too. Fresno baby sitters were probably cleaning up as the cities Moms and Dads were out casting their inhibitions and what little street cred they had to the wind as they danced and sung to songs from their youth like “Gloria” and “I will follow” and here I was among them, taping my feet and nodding my head in acceptance that, tonight at least, this was indeed my crowd.

And so after nearly two weeks of mainly just kicking back and chillin out with my Californian friends, I was packing up my stuff and getting ready to head to Houston, Texas.

At Fresno airport a TSA staffer asked to see my ID for security screening. I produced my British passport to which he exclaimed “An Englishman in Fresno of all places!” Then proceeded to inquire, “So what brought you to Fresno then?” I briefly explain about the number of friends I have who all once lived in Fresno, then left, then returned for reasons that I still struggle to understand. “Uh ha.” He said nodding and inspecting my ticket for my onward journey. “So you’re next stop is…” “Houston” I interrupted. And with the same expression that people give me when I tell them I a visiting Fresno he looks up at me and says with a furrowed brown “Houston?” I nod. “Uh ha. Fresno to Houston. Well heck, you sure are packing in the beautiful places now aren’t you.”

Next stop, Texas.

visitors bureau website
Anthony’s (new) blog < -- Check it out! Josh’s ‘my first blog’
San Luis Obispo Farmers Market
San Luis Obispo Bubble Gum Alley
Montana de Oro State Park
U2 tribute band – Zoo Station
TSA – Transportation Security Administration (or Tosser Security Agent)

TravelSaturday, September 9th, 2006, (11:35 pm)

Well, that was Oregon. The next part of my trip takes me to California, but I thought I’d post a few odd pics looking back at my time in Oregon.

I’m often struck as to just how vast America is. I think you would be stretched to find locations in the UK where there are trees for as far as the eye can see. I guess there are a few places like that in Wales and Scotland.

Takilma Oregon (pictured above), near the tree houses the area was very… let’s say, colorful. I’d like to do a photo-journal of small town like that, but all to often we’re passing through towns like that on a schedule to some other place.

On the way back to Portland from the tree houses I saw a place just off the highway called London, so I figured, being an Englishman I had to go check it out. It turned out to be an ‘unincorporated town.’ In other words it was so small it wasn’t considered a town anymore. It was about as far removed from London England as you could hope to get.

Surrounded by mile upon mile of Christmas trees London had a church, a gas station, and a convenience store/cafe along with a handful of houses. If there was anything more to it than that then we missed it.

Missy and I took it fairly easy back from the tree houses, taking our time meandering back to Portland. On the way we decided to stop in at the city of Eugene.

Melisa McDanielOne of the other tree campers, who had also returned home that day, was the manager at a restaurant there called Ambrosia, and she invited us to swing by for their wine tasting evening. I’d never been to a wine tasting evening before so we figured ‘why not.’

Tom Kelly, from a local wine importer called Small Vinyards, used the kind of terms you would only expect a wine taster to use. He described one wine as having the taste of a “muddy riverbed” which surely isn’t very complimentary.

I was curious as to how he even knew what a muddy riverbed even tasted like as he didn’t look like the kind of guy who would have strayed far from a store selling Gucci, let alone swam in a river with a muddy bed. Nonetheless the night was very entertaining, and it’s fair to say that thanks to the fact Missy was driving back to Oregon, I was pretty merry by the time we said goodbye.

The thing about coming out to America is that for me it’s not so much about the places I see, but the people I hang out with, the friends I have here. That’s what I look forward to. Just being able to kick back and have good conversations and a few laughs in good company is as enjoyable to me as seeing some cool place like the Redwood state park or the beaches.

I got to hang out not only with Missy but also Danielle and Jared (pictured above) who one evening took me to a soccer game. As shameful as this is to admit for an Englishman, that game in Portland was the first ever soccer (the rest of the world correctly call it football) game I have been to. I really must get to a Liverpool game in England. There is no excuse for not going to one.

Of course I also got to hang out with fellow ‘Xangan’ Christine, otherwise known as ‘CrazyWomanWriter.’ She introduced me to her boyfriend, Gavin White. Actually I was looking forward to meeting Gavin because he had an interesting job… he’s a politician! He’s the chairman of the Multnomah County Democrats, and some have said a ‘coming man’ in the world of politics. A charming guy in his late twenties he came across as a thoroughly ‘good bloke’ with honest and heartfelt convictions and aims.

We all met up for Sushi at my favorite Portland Sushi place on N.E 23rd street. Gavin arrived fashionably late and was then subjected to a political grilling by me which was fun if only for the fact that he carefully considered every word of every answer and managed to skillfully not answer any questions he didn’t want to while making it sound like he had indeed answered them.

Somewhere in the course of conversation the subject of our pasts came up. I quizzed Gavin about his past and asked whether he was fearful of someone in the press digging up something torrid from his past should he ever make it to the kind of political position that causes reporters to go fishing for such tales.

He considered his response then spoke about how as a teenager he remembered the scandal that surrounded the revelations that President Clinton had smoked (but not entailed) Marijuana.

“I remember how caught up on the whole inhaling detail the press was back then, and with that I decided to avoid things that might cause similar distractions in my future.” He said.

Right there I was impressed. Throughout the conversation at the sushi place and the coffee house we moved on to, his answers were always interesting or funny, whatever fitted best. But this answer was, in my opinion, something that reflected the true character of the guy. Christine had spoken highly of him before we met, and now I understood why.

I hope Gavin goes a long way. All the way to the whitehouse would be good, not just because he promised to make me ‘Secretary of Rock,’ but also because of the possibility of having golf cart races around the grounds of camp David or the Whitehouse.

On my last day Missy and I headed to Saturday Market. Saturday market is actually there on a Sunday too, but such details would do little to ruffle the feathers of a true Portlander. The market is a cultural must if you ever visit Portland on a weekend. It’s full of little stalls with artsy people selling handmade things from hemp bags to wooden pens, and duck tape wallets to tie die t-shirts.

After that we headed to the airport for lunch (more sushi) then said our farewells. Next stop California.

London, Oregon
Ambrosia Restaurant
Small Vineyards,
CrazyWomanWriter aka Christine
Gavin’s blog
Wiki: Gavin White
Portland Saturday Market
Duck Tape Wallets

Photography and TravelWednesday, September 6th, 2006, (11:47 pm)

I’ve stood among the Californian Redwoods and Giant Sequoias before, the tallest trees in the world. But while the treehouse we were so close to the Californian border and the Redwood national forest that it seemed like an opportunity missed to not see them again. The trees truly are awe inspiring and to stand among them is an experience that has yet to grow tiresome for me.

Stepping into a grove of Californian Redwoods really is like walking into one of natures own cathedrals. The forest the air is thick with the smell of pine and the fallen needles make for a soft carpet like feel under foot.

It amazes me to think that a Redwood grows from a seed the size of a tomato seed yet it can grow to around 360 feet tall, that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

Redwoods typically live for around 500 to 1,000 years, though some live up to around 2,000 years old, and with a base some 22 feet in diameter they are incredibly resilient trees able to withstand even the effects of fire due to their foot-thick bark.

The coastal Redwoods (where we were) are the tallest but the nearby Giant Sequoia’s grow to around 3,000 years old and though they don’t reach as tall they have a huge base some 44 feet in diameter!

As we began to descend into Crescent City you couldn’t see the sea at all. Heavy coastal fog hung in the air making for a dull and overcast day for those at the beach. But the fog was so low it took no time to at all to climb out of it and reach clear air and blue skies along the weaving coastal highway 101.

As we drove along highway 101 through the coastal Redwoods, sea fog swept in and presented us with an amazing scene as great shafts of evening sun shone through the trees. What few words I can think to describe this seem completely inadequate. It was simply breathtaking, but even that sounds cliched.

Redwood State Park
United Nations world heritage : Redwood National Park

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