Mary Clark, Traveler

Edom and Ben Wheeler – Tiny Towns That Use The Arts to Survive

Potters Brown, Edom, Texas

Ken Carpenter Jewelry, Edom, Texas
Selections at Potters Brown

I love small towns that use the arts to survive and Edom and Ben Wheeler are two such communities, closely connected and near Athens and Tyler.  Edom owes its survival to Doug Brown, owner of Potters Brown.   Potters Brown Freshly trained as a potter, Doug arrived in Edom in 1971, looking for a quiet place to live and work.   His uniquely painted and glazed pieces  attracted shoppers from the DFW Metroplex which brought in more artisans which attracted more shoppers.  Forty three years later, his store still anchors the “arts district” of Edom, population 375. 

Doug Brown of Potters Brown

Doug was hard to miss in his pink overalls,  t-shirt and  headband as he offered to show off his kiln in back where he was firing that day.  In what was once a feed store, the works of Doug and his wife, Beth, support reds and purples, colors that are hard to achieve in the glazing world, as well as more traditional browns and blues.  Doug was proud that Edom had managed to promote the arts without changing the character of the small town.  “Not much” was his reply to the question of what had changed since he established residency there, failing to note the one-third increase in population since 2000.  

Next door is Ken Carpenter’s Jewelry, which recently celebrated 25 years in “downtown” Edom.  Originally in the restaurant construction business, Ken opened his store in 1990.  Lapis, green turquoise, and larimar are just some of the stones used in his strong pieces.  Like other artists of Edom, Ken supplements his income with appearances at art fairs around the state.  Ken Carpenter Jewelry

Edom supports six other stores and studios. Easily 10% of the population is involved in the arts.  If Paris had the same ratio, we would have 2500 artists.  Imagine what an art center we would be.  

The most prominent building in town is The Shed Café, proudly displaying a banner noting its being designated Best Café in East Texas by Texas Monthly.  It was still full as we entered at 2 o’clock with many locals and visitors enjoying  basic Texas fare such as  chicken fried steak, meatloaf, steak, hamburgers. 

We happened to hit the Second Saturday Art Jam event along the 279 Artisans Trail – named for the highway connecting Ben Wheeler and Edom.  This includes 11 artist shops, several restaurants, produce stands, garden centers and music venues.  After a short, pleasant drive, we arrived in the revived town of Ben Wheeler, the  result of an experiment by two  residents with a vision.  Here’s the description of the foundation contained in the Ben Wheeler website – “Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation, was created by Brooks and Rese Gremmels to serve as the vehicle for reconstructing, not only the physical aspects of Ben Wheeler, Texas but perhaps, more importantly, returning a sense of community to the town by providing it with various outlets through music, art, history, education, entrepreneurship, basic civil service and philanthropy.” 

The Foundation has been a kind of privately funded Main Street project with old buildings being renovated and filled with galleries and restaurants.  One dollar rent was offered to entice new shopkeepers.   The Harrison Knife Making school brings in students from around the country while Blue Moose Decoys can be purchased next door and hats across the street.   An old schoolhouse was moved in to house the local children’s library along with a wedding chapel.  Two music venues advertised live concerts the night of our visit.  

And there’s much promotion of its self-designated “Wild Hog Capital of Texas”.  As one resident said, “someone’s got to take ownership.”    At the festival in the fall, you can join a cook-off or compete to be crowned Hog Queen.  The Foundation has literally changed everything for this town of 400.  Sadly, Brooks Gremmels died this year from pancreatic cancer but the foundation and town remain committed to this project.

Serene setting at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Edom and Ben Wheeler can be visited in a day from Paris but a nice outing is to spend the night at  Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast just outside of Athens. Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast  Randell and Marilyn Tarin are the Innkeepers and faces of a new kind of B&B.  No longer are B&Bs just historical Victorian homes with flowered chintz coverings.  Randell and Marilyn retired from the Metroplex and built their dream home in the East Texas woods along with two tastefully decorated cabins. 

One of Two cabins at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Aside from providing our hearty breakfasts, the Tarins were knowledgeable local guides, steering us towards and away from certain restaurants and wineries.  They check it all out before making recommendations to their guests.  Even though we didn’t need their Elopement-Honeymoon Package, for which Randell is licensed to perform, the quiet, private setting was enough.  Remember this place when you just need to get away for a night.

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Magellanic Penguins – Struggling to Adapt

A couple of adult Magellanic Penguins

An entire island of penguins?  How could that not be cool?  Children and adults alike are pulled toward these little guys – strutting their stuff on land, sleek swimmers in the water.   On Magellan Island, on the Magellan Straits of South America, thousands of Magellanic penguins make their summer homes burrowed into the ground.  We got to walk among them on a morning excursion from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Melinka Ferry to Magellan Island

 There are two ways to travel to Magellan Island, assuming the trip is not cancelled due to high winds.  Pay lots more and arrive on a zodiac boat before the crowds or take the slow Melinka ferry, landing on the island two hours later.  We were in no hurry and enjoyed being on the Straits.  Many young adults in the international crowd chose to catch up on their sleep but we  were happy to listen to the lecture given in Spanish and English by a young woman who seemed to be in charge of us.  

Magellanic penguins can live up to 25 years with as many as 300,000 penguins roosting on this small island.  Male and female look exactly alike, weigh about 11 pounds and mate for life.  Couples are only together six months of the year, parting after babies are born, trained to hunt for food, and sent on their way.  Males and females will go separate directions for the winter, hooking back up the next year – same place, same time- with only the female’s ability to identify her mate’s call bringing them back together.

Upon arrival on the island, we had been strictly instructed NOT to stray from the marked path that led from the dock to an old lighthouse.  Looking at the island from the boat, I thought I was gazing at Prairie Dog Town in Lubbock, Texas.  With no vegetation for shade, thousand of penguins stood guard outside the hole that was their home.  They return to the exact same burrow each year where two eggs are produced by the female and hatched by both parents. 

By our visit in March, the babies had already been pushed out to sea to find their way up the east coast of Argentina, led by an adolescent.  All adolescents had also been sent packing.  No coddling or overprotective parents here.  Remaining were  adults, easy to identify by the broad black stripes on their chests.  The wider the strip, the older the penguin.  They had to bulk up – gain back weight lost in feeding babies all summer.  No fishing boats were allowed near the island,  but adults still would be out for 2 or 3 days to find food, swimming as far as the Atlantic and Pacific.  

Tourists on path through the Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island

Molting Magellanic Penguin

We only had an hour on the island and cameras were whirring.  Photographers squatted, lay on the ground, leaned over the ropes marking the paths.  Telephoto lens competed with point and shoot cameras.  The penguins seemed oblivious of us all – similar to a Galapagos Island experience 40 years ago.  Occasionally, a penguin would cross the path on its way to the water, doing that funny waddle until diving in and smoothly swimming away.  It was surprisingly noisy with sea gulls complaining as they were attached by skuas –  large brown birds that like sea gull eggs.  Penguins chimed in with their donkey brays.  And feathers were everywhere as all penguins molt each year.

Skuas, Sea Gulls and Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island

What our lecture on penguins failed to tell us is the real risk to the colonies because of global warming.  In February of this year, the New York Times ran an article by Harry Fountain detailing the increased heat and rain where penguins mate.  Baby penguins feathers are not waterproof for six weeks and many will die from hypothermia if soaked by rain.  I was shocked at the statistic that 2/3 of the hatchlings don’t survive to leave the nest.  Add this to oil spills, depleted fish supplies from commercial fishing, and unregulated tourism, and our little friends are struggling to adapt fast enough. Fortunately, organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to create protected areas with commercial fishing banned.  

Magellanic Penguins close to the water

After an hour, our leader shooed us back down the path to the boat.  It appeared our group had been respectful of the rules regarding the path and didn’t try to get closer than allowed.  But I’m sure the penguins were happy to see us go.  One probably gave the “all clear” sign as the boat pulled out.   Today, that island would be empty as all have moved north for the winter.  We can only hope they’ll be back –  same place, same time next year.

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Punta Arenas – Hanging Out At the End of the Earth

Rebuilt waterfront in Punta Arenas, Chile

 Punta Arenas lies on the Straights of Magellan, 880 miles due north of the icy shores of Antarctica and 2500 miles from the South Pole.  It has been a harbor for boats and travelers through the Straits since it began as a penal colony in 1848.  After the town burned in an 1877 mutiny, it was rebuilt sans prison and became a major trade center for the sheep farming industry and those who hoped to discover gold in the area.   It also helped to have a coaling station for steamships on the main shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – at least until the Panama Canal was built in 1914.  Colonists from Spain were expected but Punta Arenas also attracted a surprisingly large crowd from Croatia in search of gold and escaping a long drought in their home country. 

I envisioned a small town clinging to the last rocks of the South American continent but instead found a small city of 170,000 inhabitants reinventing itself in a new world of energy and tourism. It is the center of Chile’s only oil reserves, now being drawn out by fracking.  Half of the country’s lamb production still ships in and out of its free port but  new kids on the block include dozens of cruise ships which call during the summer season of November through March.  

Punta Arenas is filled with names associated with its adventuresome past.  There’s a Charles Darwin Colegio, Magellan Street, Los Navegantes Hotel, Colon Avenue (after Christopher Columbus) and even a street named Yugoslavia after the homeland of many of the Croatians that immigrated here.  Just two years ago, flash floods filled streets and damaged or destroyed 500 homes. The city has taken advantage of the disaster and rebuilt the water walk, using pavers to redesign streets and sidewalks and adding monuments, benches and play areas.  

Monument to area’s  important sheep industry

Many visitors fly into Punta Arenas and immediately launch into Patagonia to the north or ship off to Antarctica.  Our unusual two night stay had two purposes – to see the Magellan  penguins and meet some local Rotarians who had visited my brother in Davis, California during a Rotary exchange.  

From our hotel, we easily walked to Ivan Baria’s home where we were joined by Alejandro Toro and his wife, Lily, and children.  Ivan was restoring his Art Deco home that had been damaged in the floods.   Trays of hors d’oeuvres awaited, many made from the very popular mayonnaise, with hot dogs served later.  Offers of Pisco Sours were accepted and visiting began.  

Ivan Baria, Mack Walker, and Alejandro Toro

Their children attend the local German school, where Lily teaches English.  Sports are played against 17 other German schools in Chile and parents have to pay for students to fly to games.  They learn 3 languages, Spanish, German, and English, and all will visit Germany for a month. Alejandro’s son had obviously just been to Europe as he sported a sweat shirt claiming to be part of a Czech Praha Drinking Team.   Ivan had been an exchange student in Nebraska in 1976 where he first saw color TV.  His daughter just returned from her exchange experience in Minnesota.  Exploring the world was a way of life for his family.

When asked what was good about Punta Arenas, Ivan explained everything centers around the home resulting in strong relationships and a safe place for children.  Alejandro and Ivan bonded during their trip to California and told wonderful stories that included my brother.  What struck me was how normal it all felt – enjoying an evening with friends – except it was at the end of the world. 

Southernmost Golf Course in the World
Exact replica of Magellan’s Ship,Nao Victoria

Ivan picked us up the next day for a “real” tour of the town.  It included a short ride up to the southern most ski area, open one month a year, the southern most golf course with its wind tilted trees, historic cemetery  and the two year old Nao Victoria Museum containing exact replicas of Magellan’s ship, Shackleford’s lifeboat and soon to be finished Darwin’s Beagle boat.  On a more personal note, we toured Ivan’s Croatian neighborhood where he grew up on a hill surveying the Magellan Straits.

Owner Silvia Harambour at Kiosko Roca

And for an insiders’ treat,  we arrived at Kiosko Roca at peak hour.  This small diner overflowed with students grabbing an afternoon snack while adults waited for take-outs.   It was named the best “picada” or “traditional hole in the wall” in Chile winning over 155 entrants.  The original owner’s daughter, Silvia Harambour, smiled easily and insisted we try their banana milk and choripanes, a sandwich with chorizo paste.  It was the perfect place to end the tour of Punta Arenas – a local spot filled with locals who hardly noticed the often heady wind outside. Thanks to the many modern conveniences, life is very doable at this end of the world.  

Author and husband on Southernmost ski lift in the world

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Family Offerings in Alexandria, Louisiana

New Land of the Jaguar section at Alexandria Zoo

Alexandria lies right smack in the middle of Louisiana, neither full blooded Cajun nor Creole, but a nice absorption of  cultures that have passed through.  And there have been many.  First the Choctaw, Tensas, Appalachee and Pascagoula Native Americans, followed by the French, and then the U.S. picked it up in the Louisiana Purchase.  As with many town names, it’s probably named after founder, Alexander Fulton, who laid out the plan for the city in 1805.  Thanks to its location among several national forests, its military history and sites to see, Alexandria is a good base for exploring central Louisiana and has something for the whole family.  

Draped Mirror at Kent Plantation House
Purple Funeral China at Kent Plantation House

For a taste of history, Kent Plantation House, a classic raised Creole cottage, is one of Louisiana’s oldest structure (213 years) and is filled with era appropriate furnishings.  The house is treated as if it were occupied, meaning its decorations vary by season and life’s happenings.  Mirrors  were draped in black net on our visit, signifying a death in the family.  Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Sandy Lott, filled in  other funeral customs such the use of purple as the funeral color extending to even  purple forget me not flowers on china and a purple cake.  A kneeler was placed in front of the casket for private prayers for the deceased. Sandy kept us entertained with the source of many of our sayings such as “shoo fly” and “cost an arm and a leg”.   I would love to see this home decorated for the Christmas season but it’s beautiful anytime.

One aisle in Silver dollar Pawn and Jewelry Shop

Stop by Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry Store, where Jimmie, “the Don of Pawn” DeRamus, will entertain and educate you for as much time as you have. He claims, “You can fact check everything I say.”   His ‘stuff’ fills 65,000 square feet and includes the MLK hearse, Jerry Lee Lewis’ diamond ring, a steamboat chandelier, five Bone Allen Saddles, and an Elvis Presley watch.  Movie producers call for props and educators are loaned what they need.  He takes his Christian faith seriously as evidenced by the proud display of the Ten Commandments on the outside wall. Everyone can find something of interest here.

Martin Luther King Hearse
Jerry Lee Lewis Diamond Ring

The small Alexandrian zoo is a surprise in a town this size.  Opened in 1926, accredited  Alexandria Zoological Parkhouses 500 animals and has the unique Louisiana Habitat section complete with alligators.  Land of the Jaguar had just opened when I visited and contained an active ocelot, an unusual Tyra, Chilean flamingos and a huge Giant Anteater.  In the Asian area, a beautiful white Bengal tiger lounged comfortably by the fence, allowing close viewing.  This zoo is a perfect size for younger children but engaging to all.

Bengal Tiger at Alexandria Zoo

Original Eli Whitney cotton gin
Cotton Picking Sacks

Just over an hour’s drive from Alexandria is Frogmore Plantation and Gin, an 1800 acre working, historical cotton farm complete with old and new cotton gins.  Reconstructed slave quarters include the cook cabin, overseers dog trot, and commissary.  The tour traces the history of cotton and, in particular, its harvesting.  Eli Whitney’s cotton gin removed seeds from the cotton and replaced 50 working slaves.  After slavery came share cropping.  Lynette Tanner, owner of the plantation, even talked about modern day cotton and China’s predatory pricing tactics.  Check before you go, but often the family can don long cotton sacks and try picking cotton by hand.  Your kids will never complain of chores again.

Surrounding Alexandria are National Forests with good hiking trails.  Unfortunately, our visit was during the government closing of parks and we only hiked a small part of the  Kisatchie National Forest.  But that was enough to realize the potential for sustained hiking in the area. The Wild Azalea Trail is Louisiana’s longest hiking trail, measuring in at 31 miles.  Bicycles may also be rented, allowing families to use cycling trails. For fishing, try Kincaid Lake Recreation Area.  

Unless you are a real history buff, you may not know of Alexandria’s important military past.  In the Red River Campaign of the  Civil War, the Union Army was stopped here from progressing further and taking Louisiana and Texas.  The story of Bailey’s dam is illustrated at Fts. Randolph and Buloh State Historic Site. And during World War II, this area was humming with soldiers and bigwig officers.  In the Louisiana Maneuvers, soldiers trained for entry into WWII at four bases and practiced throughout the nearby Louisiana countryside.   The Louisiana and Military Maneuvers Museum will tell you more. (409 F Street Pineville, Louisiana 71360
(318) 641-5733

In the past, you could have followed the Red River from northern Lamar County to Alexandria.  Today, just head to Texarkana and turn south.  There’s plenty to see on the way but save time for Alexandria and environs.  

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The Hostel Life – Are you ever too old? Torres Del Paine National Park Lodging

Paine Grande Mountain Lodge

 It was not our intent to stay in hostels on our trip to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia area of Southern Chile.  We had only heard of the beauty of the setting and challenging hikes.  A four day, private tour was booked which included food, lodging, transportation and a guide – a petite, young Chilean woman named Saundra.  While in the mountains, we were to stay in a “refugio” and a “lodge”, words we should have investigated more carefully. Saundra brought by the duffel and sleeping bags (should have been first clue) needed for the two nights at our lodgings on the trail. We re-packed minimal clothes and toiletries but maximum trail paraphernalia like walking sticks, rain gear, bandaids, moleskin, hats, and sun screen.

Dining room at Refugio Las Torres

The next day, after a ten hour hike (another story),  we arrived at Refugio Las Torres, at 8:45 pm barely in time for a hearty dinner of instant asparagus soup, roll, very good pork roast with garlic sauce, mashed potatoes and dessert.  It was obvious they most often cook for young hikers who are starved.  We weren’t the only over 60 participants but definitely in the minority.  At our table were three older Canadians traveling for a year, often via cargo boats.  After dinner, we carried our duffle bags to a separate building and had the first look at our rooms.

My introduction to hostels came in 1972 on a five month tour of Europe, where the youth hostel idea was conceived in 1909 by Richard Shirrmann, a German schoolteacher.  It was an inexpensive form of lodging with the all important opportunity to meet other young travelers.  Hostels today have  followed the expanded territory of backpackers.  In  Puerto Natales, a launching town for Patagonia, a population of 20,000 supports 20 hostels as listed on  In comparison, there are only two hostels listed for Dallas on the same site.

Our room at Refugio las Torres

Forty two years later, I’m looking at an old familiar site – three bunkbeds in a single room.  We were only four, meaning space shared with stranger(s).  Fortunately, our first bunkmate was a quiet, young Dutch man who came in late and left early.  With limited space, we kept bumping into each other trying to find “stuff” to take to the separate bathrooms.  My brother and his wife whipped out a pad to place on the beds “just in case” of bedbugs, as suggested by their 25 year old son.  My husband and I could only hope for the best.  The light at the women’s  bath was out.  All the fit, young women were prepared with miner lights,  strapped on their heads to navigate.  I only had a very small flashlight to put in my mouth, working for all needs except brushing teeth.  The night was long with much wind and snoring.

Next day brought a change of residence to “Paine Grande Mountain Lodge” on Lake Pehoe which sits alone at the vortex of two of our planned hikes.  We arrived in a catamaran with  wind gusts of 60 mph and rain showers.   The “lodge” had a large dining room with beautiful views but it soon became apparent we were again in a room with three bunk beds.  Our roommates didn’t arrive until 5 and I’m sure those two young men from Los Angeles were horrified to find their “parents”  ensconced on all the lower beds.  All they requested was to hang their clothes to dry.  Soon shirts, pants, socks and even underwear were hung over beds, storage units, and curtain rods. And, they, wisely, took the ear plugs offered by my sister-in-law.

Noise level in the lodge increased as groups of hikers hurried in from the cold.  Four German women arrived in heavy hiking boots, layered clothes, jackets unzipped, and covered backpacks slung over the shoulders .  One American woman dried her shoes and warmed hands in front of a wood burning heater as another put vaseline on legs and shoes.    A Spanish girl complained of pain in her legs and feet and several were limping.  A young buck walked by with towel around his waist.  Freshly changed young adults headed to the bar in flip flops where Spanish, English, German, French, Italian and Japanese were heard.  All were so comfortable with the mixed sex rooms and visiting seemed easy among them.

Taking advantage of Happy Sour – 2 Pisco Sours for price of one – we waited for dinner.  Ever though the lodge was unexpectedly full because of the gale outside, it still offered generous servings of a mild curry chicken with lots of vegetables, corn soup and flan.  The large, full dining room had about 85% young and 15% older guests.

Basic breakfasts at hostels

Wind blew all night and our room seemed barely heated. Sleeping bags sufficed for warmth but a closer bathroom equipped with paper towels was missed.  All quieted by 11.  The next morning, we were up early and the dining room was more equally divided 50/50 between age groups.  I guess they used up all their funds for dinner as breakfast was marginal – first time to try chocolate bran cereal – yuk- and coffee  served with hot water, small packets of instant coffee and fortunately, hot milk to mix.

Waiting for the Catamaran with backpackers

After the morning hike, we waited with a line of backpackers for the return voyage on the  catamaran.   An equal number of backpackers emerged from the boat to start their hikes, with one lone Asian couple carrying a suitcase.  I actually felt quite proud that we had survived two nights in hostels but was looking forward to our private bath and hot water at the next hotel.   Some experiences truly favor the young but I say never say never. It’s only a night.

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Berlin’s DDR Museum Chronicles Life Under Communism in East Germany

Two-stroke, two cylinder Trabant Car from days of Communism in East Germany

I grew up during the Cold War and knew little of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain.  Information was hard to come by as propaganda dominated the Soviet block.  And the American press was happy to report of only hard times suffered by Eastern Europeans.  Yet, life went on – citizens worked, students were educated, couples married, and families vacationed.  Today, with photos, facts and displays, a wonderful, small museum in Berlin chronicles every day life under communism to the amazement of its many visitors.

On display at the DDR Museum was the most famous consumer product in East Germany.  The tiny 4 passenger  Trabant  had a two-stroke, two cylinder engine and used a plastic called auroplast to make the car lighter.  It was jokingly referred to as a “plastic racer” but could reach 60 mph.   The next joke concerned the length of time needed to take delivery of the car.  One should order the Trabant when the baby is born so that he/she will have a car when she leaves home for college.  In truth, this was not far off as the average wait was 16 years.  Drivers traveled with their own spare parts as they were expected to provide those to any auto repair shop.   It is ironic that America’s cars are just now using plastic in construction but our purpose is to improve gas mileage, not to cheapen the product.  An innovate entrepreneur in Berlin used our fascination with this car to collect and pain Trabants, and now rents them to tourists.  One pulled up in front of us at the East Side Gallery portion of the remaining Berlin Wall.   It was loud and barely held the two Americans inside. 

With a farmer father, I was particularly interested in the agricultural collectivization and proud the East German farmers did not capitulate easily to communal farms.  The government tried to entice them to join farm coops by providing seeds and modern machines.  When that failed, the army arrived to arrest resisting farmers and  secure the transfer.  By 1960, collectivization was complete.  On our farm in Plainview in that same year, my father was experimenting with growing potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions in addition to the traditional wheat and cotton.  His farm was among the many American farms that were so efficient,  Russia had to buy wheat from us in 1972.

Inside East German homes in 1971, only 8% had telephones and 36% had toilets.  I thought this a misprint.  Yet, 18 years later in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, just 16% had telephones and 76% had toilets.  The government provided cheap food and prefab housing (an eleven story building could be built in 110 days) but no coffee.   To enhance this basic existence, East Germans became the biggest drinkers in the world.  In a year, an average person drank 286 bottles of beer and 23 bottles of schnapps, at a time when there were no purity laws for the beer.

Typical Living Room under Communism in East Germany

A typical living room was displayed and truthfully, it didn’t appear so different than the 50’s style I grew up with.  Because the government chose the style, nothing changed in the next 40 years.  At first glance, there appeared to be a healthy number of media outlets – 39 newspapers, two TV channels and four radio stations but the government briefed the editors daily on what could be reported.  Music on the radio stations and nightclubs had to play 60% bands from East Germany and its socialist neighbors.  Discos circumvented this by playing only a fraction of the East German song before playing Western music.  

Forbidden Books in East Germany

The youth listened to rock and roll in churches even though the Stasi  (State Security Police) took pictures of them exiting the church.  The museum had an interrogation room and listening devices that the Stasi  used on their citizens.   East Germany also made extensive use of citizens spying on their neighbors, resulting in 250,000 political prisoners over the years. These were later “ransomed” to West Germany.

Some interesting details included a mass nudist movement in the country with much skinny dipping, explained  as one of the few ways East Germans could freely express themselves.  Young children had communal potty breaks at which none could leave until all were finished.  Pictures of tanks and soldiers were used to teach math.   Women were encouraged to have babies, enticed by free child care, credits on debt and generous maternity leave.  Travel was limited to the Eastern Block countries.  Russian was the second language taught.   The government decided what clothes were fashionable and could be worn.  And, there was a frank acknowledgment of steroid use on athletes in the 1970’s.  

Photo of Berlin Wall at DDR Museum

Exiting the museum, one stood in front of a large photo of the Berlin Wall.   For a brief moment, I held my breath as I waited for the automatic doors to open.  We then walked into the booming Berlin of today.  What a contrast.  The air somehow felt freer.

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Crystal Bridges Museum and the Spirit of Alice Walton

View of Eleven Restaurant from wing of Crystal Bridges Museum

Alice L. Walton is the 8th richest person in the United States, having inherited a great deal of Wal-Mart stock from her father, Sam Walton.  Divorced, with no children, she splits time between her ranch outside of Ft. Worth, Texas and Bentonville, Arkansas.   Most visitors to Bentonville  have business with the corporate home office of Wal-Mart – second largest corporation in the world. But with the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum two years ago, Alice Walton wanted to add another purpose to that journey and she succeeded beautifully.

I began hearing of this museum from friends and the press.  All wondered how such a first class art museum could land in a town of 38,284 inhabitants.  The answer lies with Alice Walton, who used to paint with her mother on childhood camping trips, beginning a life-long love and collection of water color paintings. There’s something about being a multi-billionaire that causes one to consider their legacy.  America has been blessed with Carnegie libraries and Rockefeller Foundation grants.  Following in this tradition is Walton’s desire to build an accessible art museum featuring American Art.  Walton knew museums drew from a 300 mile radius for visitors.  If a circle were drawn around each major art center in the U.S., a large blank area existed in northwestern Arkansas and Ms. Walton wanted to change that. 

View of Crystal Bridges Museum from above

Placed on the 120 acre family home place, Walton worked with architect Moshe Safdie to minimize intrusion of the museum on the beautiful natural surroundings of hard wood forest .  They were so successful that I was shocked as I parked on the upper level and walked  to the small building above ground.  Below, nestled in a ravine, was the complex of five connected buildings, much larger than expected and completely invisible from the road.  With glass walls peering into the ponds below, reflections doubled the beautiful late afternoon lighting.  

Sign welcomes visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum

From the moment of arrival, I felt Alice Walton’s presence.  Entry was free thanks to a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart with only a small cost to view the visiting private collection of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.  We had dinner reservations at the restaurant Eleven, placed on the bridge across the stream.  Soft live music warmed the space.  My companion knew the chef and he soon came out to visit.  I asked if Ms. Walton ever came to the museum.  Quite often, he said.  In fact, she would sit down with patrons and visit to be sure they were enjoying themselves.  “Did she happen to be here this evening?”  “Maybe,” he said.

Eleven Restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum

After dining, we joined our guide for an evening tour, a wonderful time to see the museum.  Thanks to an endowment of $800 million from the Walton Family Foundation, largest single gift to a museum in American history, Ms. Walton and her advisors have been able to outbid others to present a cogent history of American Art.  A few pieces stand out.  Straight from the New York Public Library at a reported cost of $35 million is Asher Durand’s masterpiece “Kindred Spirits,” a mid-1800s ethereal painting of two men on a cliff pondering the distant Catskill Mountains. In sharp contrast is “Rosy the Riveter”, a crowd favorite by Norman Rockwall, portraying the strength of America in a single woman worker whose feet push firmly down on Hitler’s Mein Kampf .  A new arrival is the realist Edward Hopper’s somber Blackwell’s Island painted with his usual rich colors.   I thought it appropriate to display some works of Thomas Hart Benton for whose uncle the town of Bentonville is named.

Feet of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

As we were leaving, we walked through a gallery with a show of water colors that had just opened that night.  These were from Alice Walton’s own collection which will be permanently given to the museum upon her death.  Turning to the gallery’s guard, I asked if Ms. Walton had been there that evening for the opening.  He said, “Oh, yes.  About 6 pm” – the exact time I asked the chef of her. 

Plans continue for the site.  Our guide announced a recent purchase of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in New Jersey  to be dismantled and rebuilt on the grounds.  Shows and lectures fill the calendar.  Yet the art world buzzes as to whether the museum can become and sustain itself as a big player in America.  I can’t contribute to that discussion.  But while I missed meeting Ms. Walton, I do know it’s easy to feel her influence and commitment to bringing our country’s art history to those outside the big cities. Paris is 254 miles from Bentonville – just inside that 300 mile circle Alice Walton drew.  A four hour drive brings you face to face with America’s art in a stunning setting – not bad for a small town in Arkansas.  

Edward Hopper’s Blackwell’s Island
by Thomas Hart Benton
by Andy Warhol

Crystal Bridges Museum 

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How did Siddhayatan Hindu-Jain Tirth & Spiritual Retreat arrive in Windom, Fannin County, Texas?

Acharya Shree Yogeesh at Siddhayatan Retreat Center

Master Acharya Shree Yogeesh comfortably sat in a cross legged pose on a dais in a corner of the large room.  An ivory wool shawl draped over his white cable knit sweater.  White socks peeked out from his equally light, linen loose-fitting pants.  His smile welcomed all into the room and encouraged us to sit on the floor in front of him as we prepared to interview him.  On the wall were a mantra in an ancient language and a large print of the Master with his awards below.   Behind us were volunteers who work at the Retreat Center.  Were we in India?  Maybe Nepal?  No, the Siddhayatan Hindu-Jain Tirth & Spiritual Retreat  was a short 20 minute drive from Paris on Highway 56, just west of Windom. 

Shoes left at front door of Main Building at Siddhayatan

I had heard of Siddhayatan from Kelli Ebel, a PJC instructor and friend.  She arranged for a group of Paris yoga students to take a class there, enjoy a vegetarian meal, tour the grounds and visit with Acharya Shree.  The yoga class was led by a fairly recent convert to Yoga practices. Even though Anubhuti , a nun in training, only learned yoga three years ago, her limber body and soft voice easily led us through the flow of positions. Basic vegetarian fare of rice, lentils, potatoes and flame warmed chapatis were served, prepared by the volunteers and those attending the retreat.  Indian sugary sweets capped the meal.

Recently converted horse barn into 20 rooms at Siddhayatan

Kelli led us on a tour of the grounds and helped us see the vision that had brought Acharya Shree to Northeast Texas.  It was a warm, winter day with a slight breeze and the Bonham water tower could be seen in the distance. A long ranch style home serves as the center with its great room used for eating and lectures.  In a large horse barn,  stalls have been converted into 20 simple rooms with two single beds and shared baths.  Forty beds had been donated by a Ft. Worth pediatrician.   To accommodate the expected increase in guests, concrete had recently been poured inside a huge hanger to be used as a lecture hall for 300 or more attendees.  A new dining hall was nearing completion while the yoga-meditation building stood nearby.   

In India, an acharya is a guide in religious matters or a highly learned man.  Acharya Shree Yogeesh’s name thus reveals his recognition as a living enlightened master.  He became a Jain monk at age 14 and holds a doctorate in Philosophy.  The Windom center is his fourth to serve a community.  He has established a school in India as well as ashrams in India and California and he lectures worldwide.  Acharya Shree assured us they’ve been well received in Texas.  When people find out he’s from India, they all say, “oh, yes, my doctor’s from India.”  He smiles when telling that story.

New Dining Room Almost Complete at Siddhayatan

Acharya Shree’s reply on why he came to Texas at all had some surprises.  He wanted fertile land and Texas is long on that.  “Texas has a lot of freedom,” he says and fewer laws means more freedom and less stress.  Texans are patriotic and volunteer to defend their country.  He recognizes this as important and necessary.  But what is missing here is we don’t follow the principles of non-violence. Even Acharya Shree knows this could be a quixotic adventure but feels strongly if he can bring awareness to one person, he can change the world.   

View of Bonham from the retreat center
New Lecture Hall at Siddhayatan

The Windom site was chosen because of its location at the highest point of Fannin County where the wind often blows, a reflection of God’s spirit or Om.  This gives the name of Windom or Wind – Om a completely different meaning.  His center has classes and retreats in such subjects as Yoga, Meditation, PTSD help, Silence, Stress Relief and Fasting and includes a children’s retreat.  Acharya emphasized his Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life, pulling yourself away from the violence in our culture onto a peaceful path.  Any follower, regardless of religion, can benefit from this move.  Visitors come from all over the U.S. and the world.

What makes this location unique is the plan to create North American’s only Hindu Tirth where pilgrims can experience a long walk (journey), be reminded of spiritual values (symbolism), and be in  a place of spiritual and healing vibrations.  According to the Hindustan Times, “miniature versions of famous tirthas of India will be constructed, thus giving visitors not only a chance to visit one tirth, but the opportunity to visit ten tirths at one time. Each tirtha will occupy at least 4 acres of land containing original soil and water from India’s famous tirthas.”   
For now, the tirth is a dream but Acharya Shree Yogeesh believes our lives are a turtle race.  With slow, steady, and thoughtful steps, all can be accomplished.   Anyone wanting to make that first step toward a less stressful  life should consider Siddhayatan.  Only its name is intimidating.

Helping Souls and Truth Seekers Become Healthier, Happier and Advance Spiritually.

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What’s Happening in Ft. Worth – Changes in Just Ten Years

Mural at Sundance Square, FT. Worth

Our family has long favored Ft. Worth over Dallas.  Its broad, brick streets, lively downtown, connection to the cattle industry, cowboy culture, and art scene appealed to my West Texas heritage and my husband’s laid back nature.  With a son attending TCU, many trips were made across the Metroplex but it had been ten years since the last visit. Changes were notable while, gratefully,  the charm remained.

The Cultural District, owned primarily by the City of Ft. Worth,  continues to expand its contrasting architectural wonderland.  Previous museums were designed by some of the world’s best known architects – Louis Kahn’s near perfect original Kimbell museum,  Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie’s addition to the Amon Carter Museum, and Tadao Ando’s serene Modern Art Museum.  The  Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s  building, opened in 2009 with south of the border tones by the father and son team of Ricardo and Victor Legorreta of Mexico City,  acknowledges the area’s Hispanic beginnings.  Add in the newest addition to the Kimbell Art Museum’s by Renzo Piano, opened in 2013,  and you have a very eclectic campus, a kind of “World Fair agglomeration” as Dallas Morning News Architecture writer, Mark Lamster, would call it.  He concurs you can get a real overview of modern design in a very short space.  Go for the architecture and stay for the art.

Montgomery Ward Development

One of the most obvious changes in the last ten years lies in the Seventh Street connection between downtown Ft. Worth and the Cultural District.  Once the largest building in Texas, a huge, regional mission style Montgomery Ward store and catalog warehouse had been empty,  surrounded by other vacant buildings and open lots.  Today, the West Seventh Street Urban Village is a happening place.  Condos, restaurants, and retail now fill the Montgomery Ward building, serving as an anchor for the area.  Across 7th Street are more new and old apartments, restaurants, stores and bars.  I expect this area to be a success with a Target store only two blocks away along with a new small Food Truck Park. 

Cafe Modern

After an evening meal at the superb Café Modern in the Modern Art Museum, we heard live music from that nearby Seventh Street District and walked over to explore.  Incandescent lights strung across streets encouraged the festive mood and the area appeared to be gearing up for a fun Friday night.  We decided to relinquish the sounds to a younger generation as a quiet drink in our downtown hotel bar sounded more relaxing.  In returning, we crossed the brand new 7th Street bridge with its 12 lit stainless steel arches, not realizing it only opened in October,
replacing the aging 100 year old bridge.

New Sundance Square

Sundance Square in downtown Ft. Worth was also just introduced in November, 2013 after two years of renovation.  Actually, renovation is too small a word.  The former square had only been two large parking lots that could be cleared for events or fairs.  It is so changed, I had to take a moment to get oriented. Two new office and retail buildings have been built on the east and west sides of the square providing a density that had been missing according to Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group.  Between the two new structures is a more traditional bricked square with the now obligatory ground level 216-jet fountain  that lights up at night and four 32-foot-tall umbrellas to shade lunch time picnickers.  The only familiar item, the trompe l’oeil  Chisholm Trail Mural, continued as a focal point.   I have to admit I was underwhelmed by the finished product.  It wasn’t bad. I just expected more.  

I can’t note the changes in the last 10 years without mentioning a wonderful coffee house in Southside, another emerging urban design district south of downtown.  Avoca Coffee Roasters was named one of the best places for coffee in Dallas by D Magazine.  You read that right.  Dallas coffee shop owners were not happy to have a Ft. Worth coffee house win that distinction.  As you may recall, I’m very particular about my cappuccinos.  Our Avoca’s barista knew what she was doing and I was served a strong cappuccino with perfect proportions – worth the short drive from downtown.

The good news is all the great draws of Ft. Worth are still there – the beautiful Bass Performance Hall, Ft. Worth Zoo (far superior to Dallas’), Japanese Gardens, free downtown Sid Richardson Western Art Museum, Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Food, the Historic Stockyards, Cattlemen’s Steak House, TCU football, etc. With its plans for Urban Villages and Design Districts, Ft. Worth’s forward thinking should keep it worth many more visits, even if they’re spaced a decade apart.

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Seattle’s Space Needle – Forty Seven Years Later

Seattle’s Space Needle from Below – 

 I spent my 16th birthday on an unseasonably cold evening at the revolving restaurant in Seattle’s Space Needle.  Four years earlier, The World Fair of 1962 had spawned this intergalactic structure based on a napkin doodle made by Eddie Carlson while visiting a restaurant atop a TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany.  The idea of a revolving restaurant came from the project’s architect, John Ridley, making it the second such moving eatery in the world.  Construction began a mere one year before the fair opened – indicative of a different era of contract deadlines.  Despite the last elevator part arriving one day before, the Space Needle opened on time.  

President Kennedy signaled the start of the Fair by tapping a telegraph  key that triggered a radio telescope in Maine, which picked up an impulse from a star 10,000 light years away. This impulse was directed towards the fairgrounds to start the festivities.  The future had arrived – thus the theme of Century 21.  

View of Seattle from Space Needle

Forty seven years later, I again rode the Space Needle’s 10 m.p.h. elevator to the observation deck and joined a very international crowd absorbing the 360 degree view.  Eddie Carlson would have been shocked at the twelve dollars needed to buy a ticket as he couldn’t believe people would willingly pay to ride an elevator in the German tower.  It’s well worth the price just to get oriented in Seattle where the Pacific Ocean meets the Olympic and Cascade mountains with lakes interspersed.  Ferries laden with cars trundled across Puget Sound,  cruise ships lay below awaiting late afternoon departures to Alaska, traffic was surprisingly fluid on Interstate 5 through downtown, and snow covered Mt .Rainier could be made out in the haze.  

Little of the original fair remains.   Seattle was smart to maintain the Needle and the Monorail as they are heavily used by tourists.  Next door is the Pacific Science Center, former United States Science Pavilion, which started the now common trend of a museum established for science purposes.  Dallas’ newly opened Perot Science Museum is a direct descendant.   On a previous visit, we were highly entertained by getting to pose  as a rock band at the nearby Experience Music Project Seattle, founded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.  As I hammered the keyboard, my husband played the guitar and we sang “Wild Thing” before a video camera.   No scouts were impressed.

World Fairs continue today although the name has morphed through World Expositions into World Expos.  They began in Paris, France in 1884, used first to promote industrial inventions and products.  The 1893 Chicago and 1904 St. Louis fairs were of this genre.  Later emphasis was place on cultural exchanges as well as science and Seattle fit in this category.  Today, countries use the expos to showcase their accomplishments and demonstrate the ability to organize such an event as well as  attract visitors.  The next big expositions are set for 2017 in Astana Kazakhstan and Dubai in 2020.  Remnants of world fairs are found all over the world – Paris’ Eiffel Tower, St. Louis Art Museum (originally Palace of Fine Arts), Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Atomium in Brussels, and the Unisphere in Queens, New York.  Many of these icons are dated but still hold their charm.

View of Space Needle through Isamu Moguchi’s sculpture

The Space Needle is beloved by Seattle residents and has been protected from encroachment of tall buildings, making it visible for miles around.  It’s a wonderful landmark.  We could easily spot it from the ferry docks  and as we sat on the old Gas Works Park, north of downtown Seattle.  At the Volunteer Park Conservatory,  artist Isamu Noguchi placed the view of the needle in the opening of his Black Sun outdoor sculpture.  The needle definitely deserves more than its  #35 ranking on Travel Advisor’s places to see in Seattle.

Other than being a bit smaller than I remembered, the Space Needle provided  a step back in time.  I discovered I was in good company in 1966 when  11-year-old Bill Gates, now Microsoft chairman and co-founder, won a dinner at the Space Needle restaurant offered by his pastor. Gates had to memorize chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, better known as the Sermon on the Mount, and he recited it flawlessly.  He probably wasn’t there the night of my birthday but  I got a great meal and a lovely watch.  I later forgot my watch in a bathroom in Bolivia but I have never forgotten the Space Needle birthday experience and it’s still worth the cost of the elevator ride.

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