August 27, 2009

Johnson Space Center - Houston, TX

No visit to Space Center Houston would be complete without the NASA Tram Tour of the Johnson Space Center. The Space Center covers more than 1,600 acres and employs 14,000 people. The federal facility houses Mission Control where astronauts are trained and the Space Shuttle program is managed. We had an opportunity to see the real mission control, but it was largely empty on the weekend. Although in another room, there were people communicating with the International Space Station. The employees include contractors, civil servants, and doctors.

In another area, we saw the Saturn V Complex at Rocket Park. It was amazing. When you see the rockets and shuttles on television, it really doesn't do justice to how truly big the whole thing is. However, the majority of it is fuel. The actual shuttle where the astronauts are housed is a small cramped space.

I was so amazed by the sheer size of the fuel tanks, I had to know just how much fuel it took to get into space. Luckily, the Kennedy Space Center gave me the answer, "At liftoff, an orbiter and External Tank carry 835,958 gallons of the principle liquid propellants: hydrogen, oxygen, hydrazine, monomethylhydrazine, and nitrogen tetroxide. The total weight is 1,607,185 pounds." To put that in context, let's say your car holds 16 gallons of fuel at a time and you refuel once a week. You could drive around for almost a year with the amount of fuel it takes to launch a space shuttle. That means in an eight minute launch, a space shuttle could use as much fuel as you do in a year! (That is, if your car ran on hydrogen, oxygen, hydrazine, monomethylhydrazine, and nitrogen tetroxide.)

The Johnson Space Center is an absolutely inspiring example of human ingenuity and invention. The sheer magnitude of what has been invented to allow space travel along with massive manpower required to maintain it is staggering. It shows an incredible dedication to higher cause of science, knowledge and exploration. Currently, researchers on the International Space Station are conducting experiments and asking questions we could never do on Earth. Along the wall of the Saturn V Complex, there are signs about past missions and astronauts you can read as you walk along the shuttle. You get a sense of how far we have really come and all we have achieved. More than that, you have such hope and inspiration for how much farther we could go.


August 25, 2009

The Cinema of George Lucas Exhibit at Space Center Houston - Houston, TX

It doesn't take much to get my nerdy little heart going pitter patter. But the special exhibit "The Cinema of George Lucas" at Space Center Houston had it thumping in my chest. It included nearly fifty props and special artifacts from Lucas' iconic career along with interactive activities based on his most famous films.

Memorabilia included Bail Organa's airspeeder and General Grievous' starfighter from Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, Mutt's motorcycle from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; the original screenplay from American Graffiti and the original Star Wars, and Howard the Duck's red electric guitar. But most importantly, it included the real R2D2 and C3PO!

I will say this now - I'm a Star Trek fan before I'm a Star Wars fan. Judge me as you will but I can easily spend an hour explaining why Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager is the most underrated captain of the franchise. Still, I remember watching the first Star Wars film (you know, the best one) over and over again when I was a kid before I ever heard iconic voice of William Shatner. And who doesn't love Indiana Jones? Sure, James Bond would kick his ass in a bar fight but Indiana Jones is still a great action franchise. So while I'm not the biggest George Lucas fan (his interpretation of "punk" in Howard the Duck probably made Sid Viscious roll over in his grave), I still have a deep love for all things geek.

For those wanting more of a hands-on George Lucas experience, there is "Live the Adventure!" The line was far too long for Anna and I (we wanted to make sure we went on the Johnson Space Center tour) so we passed. But for those interested, you can become part of your favorite George Lucas movies. Be Luke Skywalker speeding through the Death Star Laser Maze Challenge. Be like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom Obstacle Course or the Indiana Jones Mayan Ropes Adventure.


August 21, 2009

The Beer Can House - Houston, TX

What would you do if you were tired of mowing the lawn? Re-landscape with concrete. What would you do if you were tired of painting your house? Decorate it with beer cans. At least that's what you would do if you were John Milkovisch.

In 1968, the retired upholsterer covered his lawn with concrete and redwood then decorated it with marbles, rocks and bits of metal. Next, he turned his attention to his house. For eighteen years, Milkovisch used around 50,000 discarded beer cans to cover his home's exterior. When asked what compelled him to do it, he said, "I guess I just thought it was a good idea. And it's easier than painting." Fiscally, it proved to be a smart move. It saved on the cost of paint and lowered the house's energy bills. Not to mention it was a great way to recycle all those empty beer cans he had lying around. I think Milkovisch was ahead of his time. Decades before today's green, eco-friendly culture, he found a great way cheaply save the planet while drinking beer at the same time. That's one hell of an inspiration for a conservationist kegger!

It's a very amusing and very impressive home. The sides are paneled with beer cans while curtains that hang from the roof are strings of circular beer can tops. Milkovisch wanted to make the house "sing" in the wind. There are also bits of Milkovisch's sense of humor everywhere. The outdoor planter - also covered in beer cans - has words like "Is," "Pie," and "Not" on it. They don't actually mean anything. Milkovisch just thought it would be funny to watch people stand around trying to decode some kind of message from the planter.

Inside, visitors can see how Milkovisch worked and learn about the life he shared with his wife Mary. (Fun Fact: When asked what she thought of his decision to cover their home in beer cans, she said, "I thought he was off his rocker but I'm used to it now.") You can see where he cut up cans and worked on his designs. There are also displays where you can read about Milkovisch's biography, the history of the house, and more amusing anecdotes of Milkovisch's clever sense of humor. (Fun Fact: At the beach, he would sometimes put an old faucet in the sand just to watch people come by and try to get water from the spout.)

While Milkovisch thought of his project as an amusing past time, it has become regarded by the Houston community as a city landmark and work of art. The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art acquired the Beer Can House after John Milkovisch and his wife, Mary, passed away. The Orange Show Center is now working on a massive restoration project to keep the house's original integrity.

Travel Distance: 27 miles
Total Trip Time: 1 hour
Soundtrack: Do I really need to say we were still listening to country radio?


August 19, 2009

National Museum of Funeral History - Houston, TX

One of the many reasons I love visiting my friend Anna is that she has always planned a visit to somewhere interesting and just plain weird. In Chicago, we tried to visit the International Museum of Surgical Science but that plan was derailed by the fact there is no parking in the city. Her plan for Texas, however, was brilliant and came to full fruition with our visit to the National Museum of Funeral History. Anna and I share a morbid sense of humor, so this was a treat for both of us.

The National Museum of Funeral History has little to do with death or any of the gory details. It is more about funeral business. The first exhibit is about carriage hearses. Interestingly, they don't mention much about the person who would have been carried in the carriage. It is about the vehicle itself - how it was constructed, the materials used and the time period that influenced the design. The same follows with coffins. Mostly, they about how they were constructed (there is a 1900's coffin factory display) and what influenced different designs. There is, of course, the occasional gruesome story. One coffin was constructed to fit three people - it was commissioned by a couple after their child had died. They planned for him to kill her and then himself and then be buried with their child. They never followed through with their horrifying murder/suicide pact and the coffin is now on display in the museum.

Not all the coffins are simple or gruesome. Some are extravagant like a coffin with real dollar bills and coins in it. In this case, I guess he can take it with him. There are also the whimsical coffins from the "A Life Well Lived: Fantasy Coffins- Kane Quaye" exhibit. Ghanaian sculptor Quaye created coffins to symbolize aspects of the deceased's life. It includes twelve coffins carved to look like a KLM Airliner, a Mercedes Benz, a Fish, a Fishing Canoe, a Leopard, a Chicken, a Bull, a Crab, a fish Eagle, a Lobster, a Shallot, and a Yamaha Outboard Motor.

Other exhibits are devoted to the funerals of the famous. In one area is an exhibit for Presidential funerals. It displays small keepsakes from the historical occasions. Most of these are items specifically for the occasions such as programs from the memorial service, mourning ribbons and newspaper article about the event. There are also personal items from attendees such as the boots worn by a member of the armed guard at the funeral. But like the coffins, there is also the occasional gruesome tidbit - like a piece of scalp taken from Abraham Lincoln's head after he'd been shot.

One of the largest exhibits is "Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes." The papal exhibit includes a full-scale replica of Pope John Paul II's crypt, an exact reproduction of the coffin used in the funerals of three previous Popes as well as replicas of other Papal vestments. As a result of my good Catholic education, I already knew most of these traditions. But I was thrilled to see something I've never seen before - a Popemobile! Oh I'd seen it on television and seen pictures of it in books, but never had I seen real live Popemobile. For those unmarred by a Catholic school education, the Popemobile is a white Range Rover with a plexiglass case on the back where the Pope stands and waves to people.

There are smaller exhibits describing ancient and current funeral rituals from other cultures, such as Mexico's Day of the Dead and Egypt's mummies. But I was quickly distracted by exhibits on embalming. After reading Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," I got curious about embalming. (Really Weird Fact: The Father of Embalming, Dr. Thomas Holmes, went insane in his later years and lived with parts of cadavers he had embalmed - such as heads on tables in the living room.)

Embalming gained notoriety during the Civil War when 10,000 to 40,000 soldiers were embalmed so they could be transported home for burial. The process has developed and improved over time, often by accident. In nineteenth century Paris, a well-known man died and was embalmed before burial. Later the police suspected he might have been murdered and dug him to re-examine the body. They found arsenic in the body and charged the man's mistress with murder. The embalmer, Dr. Gannal, came forward and revealed arsenic was a component in his embalming fluid so the woman could not be found guilty on that evidence. As a result, Europe outlawed the use of arsenic in embalming fluid in the 1840's. The United States followed suit in the 1870's.

It is was a weird, morbid and educational museum. I left feeling oddly upbeat - like the museum's slogan says, "Any Day Above Ground is a Good One."

Total Travel Distance: 80 miles
Total Trip Time: 3 hours
Soundtrack: You guessed it - Country radio!


August 17, 2009

The Forbidden City of Forbidden Gardens Chinese History and Cultural Museum - Katy, TX

Between 1420 and 1922 AD, the Forbidden City in Beijing was the home of the imperial family. When it was first build during the reign of Yongle, it is said to have had 999 buildings along with 9,999 rooms and courtyards. The Forbidden Gardens Chinese History and Culture Museum has created a miniature version of the Forbidden City to educate people about the beauty and magnitude of this landmark without the long trip from Texas to Beijing.

There are two main parts to the Forbidden City - the Inner Court and the Outer Court. Each is marked by three main buildings. The Outer Court contains the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Each served an important function of imperial business (although Anna and I wonder why they weren't a little more creative in naming the buildings). The Inner Court has the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.

These six buildings were obviously not the only important buildings out of 999 total. While calling a building the Hall of Supreme Harmony may not reveal much about its purpose, most of the buildings' names made their purposes much more evident. The Hall of Literary Glory was a reading room and also was used as a lecture Hall. The Hall for Worshiping Ancestors was...the hall for worshiping ancestors (do I really need to explain that one?)

Even in its miniature form, the Forbidden City is expansive. Looking down on the buildings, courtyards and gates at this small scale, it is difficult to imagine just how huge and impressive the real thing must be.


August 14, 2009

Terra Cotta Army of Forbidden Gardens Chinese History and Cultural Museum - Katy, TX

As Anna and I were driving, I saw a green sign by the road that said, "Forbidden Gardens" with an arrow leading the way. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what qualified as a "forbidden garden" in Texas. But a quick internet search revealed it was actually the Forbidden Gardens Chinese History and Cultural Museum, built to promote knowledge of ancient Chinese history and culture.

Katy may seem like a strange place to find a Chinese History and Cultural Museum, but it is actually quite fitting. The museum was privately founded by Mr. Ira Poon, a businessman from Hong Kong. He chose Katy because it is close to Houston (Fun Fact: Houston has the third largest Asian population living in the United States). Also, the rice fields of Katy reminded Poon of China.

After watching a 20-minute educational film about the history of the ancient Chinese empires and the Forbidden City, we wandered around to see the different exhibits. We could examine weaponry, carriages, and art from the empires but the two most impressive exhibits were the Terra Cotta Army of the First Emperor and a miniaturized version of the Forbidden City.

Before his death in 210 BC, Emperor Qin commissioned an elaborate burial site including a 8,000 terra cotta soldiers to protect him in the afterlife. The statues are life-sized, some standing almost 6 feet tall, and no two are alike. The Forbidden Gardens in Katy features 4,000 soldiers that are a third the size of the originals.

It's an amazing site to take in all at once. Thousands of clay soldiers stretched out, standing at attention while a plaster Emporer Qin commands them for a distance. The neat and careful rows are impressive in their symmetry and careful detail.

There are largely soldiers on display so you can examine the intricacies that would be in the original. Each statue is unique. The way they braid their hair or wear their armor is different in each soldier. More amazing to me was the difference in facial features and expressions. It's not that they are different soldiers - they are different people!

There has been some damage to the soldiers as the result of bad weather and a hurricane but it doesn't take away from the exhibit.

Check out The Yellow Brick Road Trip on Monday to find out more about the Forbidden Gardens and the miniaturized Forbidden City exhibit!


August 12, 2009

Katy Budget Books Sign - Katy, TX

Texas advertising is all about going big. I noticed stores especially had a tendency to advertise with huge, inflated animals. During on trip on the high way, I counted about eight gorillas, eight eagles, four dogs, two cowboys and one Godzilla strapped to buildings and parking lots announcing sales and ridiculously low prices. If you don't want to rent an oversized animal for advertisement, you could build a giant armadillo like Goode's Armadillow Palace. Or you could just make your sign a giant noticeable object. Like a book.

I needed to stock up on reading material so Anna took me to Katy Budget Books. The first thing I noticed was the large sign designed to look like a huge book. I don't know if this is symptomatic of Texas' need for everything to gigantic or just a good way of helping people find one of the best bookstores around. There was a huge selection to choose from and the people were really helpful. When my pen burst on me and covered my hands in ink, the nice gentleman working there gave me a new pen to write with and showed me a sink where I could clean up a little. It was definitely a great place to stop, and not hard to miss with the sign.

But even though the Katy Budget Books' sign is big, it's not the world's largest book by a long shot. The World's Largest Book is located in Burma and has 1460 pages. Each page is three and a half feet wide, five feet tall and five inches thick.

It's not the largest book in the Midwest. The front of the Liberal Memorial Library in Liberal, Kansas was built out of concrete to look like an open book. The Book Front was designed by the building's architect George L. Pitcher and completed for the dedication of April 14, 1955 on the 40th anniversary of the library venture.

Everything may be bigger in Texas, but when it comes to making gigantic literature the state doesn't even come close.

Travel Distance: 10 miles
Soundtrack: Still listening to country radio


August 10, 2009

Large (But Not World's Largest) Armadillo - Houston, TX

With our nails freshly painted and our bellies full of cupcakes, Anna and I had some stocking up to do. We needed fresh provisions. As we were making our rounds to pick up the necessities, I saw some weird things, like a puddle of urine in aisle two of a store, a chipmunk in the yogurt display of Target, and a palm tree farm (explaining why there were palm trees everywhere even though they don't grow in Texas).

These things were weird, but this is Texas. And the truly weird things can not be seen in a grocery aisle. No, they are gigantic roadside attractions. Like a Large (But Not World's Largest) Armadillo in Houston, Texas.

Goode's Armadillo Palace in Houston isn't easy to miss. Especially with a giant, horned armadillo perched on a rock out front. Armadillo is Spanish for "little armored one" and this particular giant's shell is made from reflective metal so it literally glimmers and shines in the sunlight. The longhorns are an artistic addition and true to Texas heritage. The armadillo is the official small mammel of Texas while the large mammel is designated as the longhorn. Adding longhorns to the giant armadillo is a way to honor both of Texas' special creatures.

While Goode's armadillo is two-stories tall, it is not the largest. The actual World's Largest Armadillo, named Killer, can also be found in Texas. Killer, created by sculptor Marc Rankin of Strawn, was built in 2002 for a celebration at Six Flags over Texas. Constructed from scrap steel, Killer is 48 feet long and weighs 4 1/2 tons. (Fun Fact: A typical Giant Armadillo weighs an average of 28kg, so Killer weighs as more than 145 live Giant Armadillos put together!) The World's Largest Armadillo now resides at Fall Creek Farms in Granbury, Texas and still has the title in the Guiness book of World Records.

Total Travel Distance: 30 miles
Soundtrack: Country radio (What else are you going to listen to in Texas?)


August 7, 2009

Ooh La La: The Dessert Boutique - Katy, TX

One of the best parts of traveling is and always will be eating. Whenever someone comes to see me, I automatically take them to my favorite local spots so they can stuff themselves silly. Luckily, my friend Anna thinks the same way and on my first day in Katy we sampled the fare at Ooh La La: The Dessert Boutique.

While I am not a cupcake connoisseur, I have had my fair share of delicious sugary confections. I have sampled a wide range of cupcakes from the chemically-altered generic grocery store brand to the fluffy, heavenly goodness of New York City Magnolia Bakery treats. (Fun Fact: Magnolia Bakery only lets customers purchase a dozen cupcakes at a time because they are so popular.) Still I can say without a doubt, that Ooh La La in Katy, Texas has some of the biggest and tastiest cupcakes I've ever had.

The variety was a little overwhelming. There were so many delicious treats but I knew I had to have a cupcake. Chocolate, vanilla, red velvet, peanut butter, lemon tart and every other kind of cupcake imaginable glowed in succulent sugary goodness under the display case lights. What to choose? Eventually I settled on a "Peter Rabbit," a carrot cake cupcake as big as my hand. As soon as it was in front of me, I swear I heard an angel weep for joy. Or maybe it was the screaming child at another table. Whatever, that thing looked good.

And it tasted good, too! When they say, "Everything is bigger in Texas," I'm glad that also applies to cupcakes. The icing was perfect - soft, sweet but not overwhelmingly saccharine. The cake was fresh and moist so it seemed to just melt in your mouth. In short, Ooh La La cupcakes make Katy, Texas a happier and tastier place to be.


August 5, 2009

Three Awesomely Bad Horror Movies about Airplanes

All good things must come to an end and so I eventually had to leave Chicago and my wonderful friend Anna. But then about three days later I was back on a plane at Kansas City International Airport heading towards Houston, Texas.

While Anna and I became friends in Oklahoma almost a decade ago, we have been scattered to the wind. My family has re-located and so has hers. Now her parents reside in Katy, Texas and I was thrilled to be visiting them. Anna and I prepared a list of absurd museums and roadside attractions to visit along with our usual get-together activities: pedicures and horror movies.

So in honor of our tradition, I thought I'd share a list of my three favorite awesomely bad horror films involving road trips. Then I realized that topic was way, way too broad. How do you really narrow that down with so many amazingly terrible movies to choose from? So I narrowed it down a little more - my favorite three awesomely bad horror movies about airplanes.

1. Red Eye

I'll pretty much watch anything that has Cilian Murphy in it. Whether he's wearing a dress in Breakfast on Pluto or a bag over his head in Batman Begins, Murphy is a good actor and a joy to watch. Murphy plays Jackson Rippner who is threatening to kill the father of Lisa Reisert (played by Rachel McAdams) unless she helps him set up a political assassination. For most of the movie, she tries to find clever ways to escape him and get help while the devious Rippner tries to keep his control. My favorite awesomely bad part of this movie is Reisert's choice of weapons. Like when they are in a house and she runs through a kitchen full of knives to grab her field hockey stick. Or on the plane when she gives him a ball point pen tracheotomy (similar to the one seen in Saw V).

2. Final Destination

When it comes to awesomely bad horror movies, the Final Destination series is among the best. The first film is about Death stalking survivors of a plane crash, the second is about Death stalking survivors of a car crash and the third is about Death stalking survivors of a roller coaster crash. Noticing a trend here? I think the entire purpose of this film is just to see how sickly creative horror writers can get. Like they are sitting around a room, getting drunk and saying to each other, "How many ways can we behead a guy?" And as they pass around the bottle, a Final Destination film is written. Whatever mental illness or amount of alcohol it took to create these films, I am so glad they exist. Because they are just terrible and the ways people are die are absolutely bizarre. But that's what makes them awesomely bad and so much fun to watch!

3. Snakes on a Plane

This horror/thriller/comedy and all-around bad movie was re-written and re-shot to incorporate the comments of the film's Internet fanbase before it was released. And therefore this film is the ultimate warning of why you should never take anything said on the Internet seriously. Personally, I think this movie was made just so Samuel L. Jackson could say, "I'm sick of these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!" And that was the only thing that made it worth watching. And the scene about sporks. That was pretty awesome, too.

These three films are my personal favorite awesomely bad horror movies about airplanes. But there are hundreds of other great awesomely bad horror films you can add to this list. Some involving airplanes and some not. Some awesomely bad, some intentionally awesomely bad (like Dusk til Dawn) and some awesomely good (like Psycho). Go ahead, post your list. I'd love to see them!

Total Travel Distance: 1,290 miles (From Chicago to Kansas City, then Kansas City to Katy)


August 3, 2009

Real Pirates Exhibit at The Field Museum - Chicago, IL

One of the highlights of my trip to Chicago was the "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship" exhibit at The Field Museum. It is hard to explain just how deep my love of pirates run. I could tell you about my pirate re-enactment with paddleboats on a canal in Amsterdam, but then I'd have to kill you. So let's just suffice it to say: I love me some pirates.

The exhibit is built around the Whydah, which began as a slave ship and later was used by pirates. The opening deals primarily with the viscious tragedy of the slave trade. It describes how slaves were brutally captured, transported and sold in heartbreaking detail. Artifacts such as chains are on display and excerpts of first person narratives are posted to help viewers to understand just how real and viscious the human slave trade was. Or should I say is. Sadly, the slave trade still exists in the world although it has become less recognizable.

Pirate Captain Sam Bellamy (nicknamed "Black Bellamy") later took control of the ship. While black men were once slaves now they could be crewmen. Pirate crews were actually much more racially diverse and provided a greater sense of equality, freedom and opportunity than most people were able to find on land. The potential of riches and the chance to be one's own man encouraged many to sign the articles, or officially swear in as a pirate.

But good fortune couldn't last forever. On April 26, 1717, the Whydah sank in a storm. Of 146 crewmen, only Thomas Davis, the carpenter, and John Julian, the pilot survived. John Julian, a 16-year-old Miskito Indian, was sold into slavery. Thomas Davis was set free according to his lawyer's claim he had been pressed into piracy by Bellamy's crew because they needed another carpenter.

The exhibit was almost exculsively about the Whydah. There was not much information about piracy in general. I was disappointed to see only one sign about female pirates and that mentioned only Anne Bonney and Mary Reed by name. While I understand the need for brevity, I was disappointed that an exhibit that took so much time to show how pirates were creating a more racially equal community at sea failed to give anything more than lip service to the great freedom piracy gave women.


New Blog Layout!

Hey, everyone! What do you think of the layout for The Yellow Brick Road Trip? Sorry for the radio silence the last couple of weeks. I'm embarking on some life-changing adventures and fell behind on my posting.

In about two weeks, I'll be moving into my own apartment. No roommates for the first time! Just me and the cat in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. But still in Kansas of course. Also, I am about to become a full time law student. I am leaving behind my multiple jobs to pursue intensive higher education.

As I result of my impending exit date, I have spent the last several weeks hunched over a keyboard furiously trying to finish all my projects before I take off for good. Rest assured though, I may be leaving my cubicle behind but I won't be leaving this blog! I am going to a new place with new curious attractions and still have many more stories to tell from my adventures this summer.

In the meantime, enjoy the new layout and check back later today for a new adventure on The Yellow Brick Road Trip!