Monday, September 25, 2006

36 hours in College Station

Whatever could have prompted the New York Times to run a travel article about 36 hours in College Station, Texas?

The Times sent travel writer Finn Olaf-Jones and freelance photographer Frank Curry to whoop it up in College Station for a day and a half. What could've been their motive? Perhaps it was a dare: R.W. Apple was hazing the new kids. Mr. Jones has a hard-won reputation as a cheeky Sherpa-following adventure-seeker; he's even written about treks to Everest, travel writing that alienated the touchier of his companions. In fact, one of the leaders of his Everest party, the fellow who attacked him and forced him to abandon the adventure, had a history as a self-styled chemist. So you know this is one rough-and-ready reporter on the travel beat. Not since Hunter S. Thompson hit Vegas has a travelogue gone so far awry.

But, nonetheless, I can almost hear the grumblings in the editorial meeting on 43rd Street:

"You New Media geeks think you're so goddamned rugged: well, then, let's see if you're still singing that tough-guy tune after a day and night in Aggieland."

Base camp? Oxygen? That's no challenge compared to the stark East-Central Texas landscape, a horizon interrupted only by the blocky Texas A&M Oceanography Building and by Lady Bird's highway wildflower plantings. Swimming with the stingrays? That's nothing -- nothing! -- compared to the perils of College Station flora and fauna. You just bite into those "soon-to-be-famous" fried chicken fingers from Layne's: you'll know true peril.

Or maybe Mr. Jones is just an expert on squeezing a peak experience from a brief visit to a small town; after all, he's written another New York Times piece on Solvang, California. If you have the intestinal fortitude to eat pickled herring at the Little Mermaid en route on what is no doubt a much longer journey up Highway 101, then you'll probably survive the trip to College Station.

Did Mr. Jones enjoy his trip? He did offer up gems like, "Don’t miss halftime [of a major sporting event]; you’d have to go to North Korea to match the choreographed pageantry of A&M’s band and corps of cadets." So he had some inkling that those much fetishized Senior Boots are a force to be reckoned with and fresher leather than the annual Folsom Street Fair.

Oddly enough, he sought the high-end bistros -- he dined on chili-crusted crayfish salad -- rather than enjoying the more adventurous (and advisable) local cuisine: Gas station BBQ at Junek's Chevron or the 3 meat plate at C&J. Urp. Doesn't he know the NO PRAWNS rule?

Pity the fool!

Or, as R.W. Apple himself would say, "No matter where the New York Times has sent me -- from Africa to Vietnam to China to Utah to wherever -- there's something to eat."

But in the end, I'm afraid Mr. Jones's College Station was almost unrecognizable to me. No stories about hoofing it over to the graves of Reveilles 1-N by Kyle Field. Reveille is the school's mascot, a Border Collie; past doggies who have served in this role are buried facing the Kyle Field scoreboard. An eternal flame burns graveside in their collective memory.

The current Reveille -- the living one, natch -- accompanies a lucky Corps of Cadets member everywhere he or she goes, including classes. The dog barks, the class walks. And by "walk", I mean the students get up and leave the class, en masse. The dog talks, the Ags and Aglets listen. Faculty should be so lucky.

"Will this be on the test?" the students ask.
"Woof" is all they need to know.


Mr. Jones apparently visited the Dixie Chicken without commenting (either ironically or otherwise) on the fact that those numerous pitchers contain Miller Light. The bar's distinctive odor also escaped his critical notice (perhaps he has no nose?). Nor did he consume a Death Burger as an amuse bouche (which in this case means "digestive padding") for his Miller Light-intensive entertainment. And he did not rub noses with the on-site rattlesnake (one of the few poisonous creatures in the area that seems to be well-contained). In fact, I have the feeling that our Mr. Jones holed up in his comfy lodgings, put some coins in the Magic Fingers, and used the free hi-speed wireless Internet connection to peruse the Chicken's website and phone it in.

I feel sad that he missed so many of the high points of College Station. Loupot's, the bookstore with no books. Instead you can browse the many Aggie gift items and athletic clothing options: maroon mugs, maroon shot glasses, maroon sweatshirts, maroon sweatpants, maroon running shorts with "Aggies" emblazoned across the ass, and maroon Sarge t-shirts. Even golf towels and tees (the towel's a real bargain at only $1.00!). Maroon, maroon, white, and more maroon.

You might also remember Loupot's as the bookstore famous for boarding up the wrong side of the windows when Hurricane Rita was coming to town.

Maroon and white: it's a theme and it's everywhere. Even at the stylish Vineyard Court, particularly apt lodgings that escaped Mr. Jones's notice. Vineyard Court! Where each room has a different Texas A&M related theme with suitable plaque on the door. The Reveille Suite. The Presidential Suite. The George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Suite. The 12th Man Suite.

I've stayed in several different themed rooms at the VC, and I must say, the little touches are killer. In the Reveille Suite, there's a ceramic Reveille on top of the fridge, whose sweet pointy snout is echoed in the line drawing of Reveille on the wall. Doggies everywhere in the Reveille room. The housekeeping staff makes sure the place smells like wet doggie when they freshen up your room.

You can make your Dualie (one of those dual rear wheeled pickups that everyone drives) smell like wet dog too. It's a detailing option at Wolf Pen Creek Carwash.

Tell them, "Make mine smell like eau de Border Collie" when you drop off your Chevy. My colleague John Leggett used to avail himself of that option; I think it made him feel like Laredo, his beloved pup, was perpetually riding shotgun.

Perhaps what we're seeing here is the difference between a travel writer visiting College Station and pretending it's somewhere else (a place with bistros and local wineries, where the locals spend the evenings doin' the Texas Two-Step and the weekends skeet shooting) and a misguided researcher living in College Station and pretending she was only visiting. After all, Lonely Planet Guides don't tell you to investigate the range of Duane Reades while you're in Manhattan. Even at their hippest and most alternative, they want you to go check out the Chelsea Hotel or get your hair braided in Harlem.

And therein lies the fundamental mystery of travel: do you want to see the tarted-up version of the place (all dressed up and nowhere to go) or do you want to lift the bandaid and see the festering boil? Do you want to give your intestinal flora a workout at the Longhorn Tavern (with its plate-covering chicken-fried steak and big ol' wedge of iceberg lettuce doused with bottled dressing) or do you want to eat at one of the nicer (but more transient) eateries where you can close your eyes and imagine you're somewhere else, somewhere that "slow food" evokes something other than your great aunt Bernice who chews every bite exactly 39 times with her new chompers?

At the Longhorn Tavern, I watched a rangy cowboy pour a perfect 3 inch high cone of sugar to cap his iced tea. You won't see that at Square One Bistro.

Don't you want to watch the fellas play dominos at Martin's? They'll look at you like you ain't from around here. Don't you want to debate the wisdom of cancelling Bonfire, now that the fallen have been respectfully memorialized [sic]? Are you afraid they've perished in vain? Don't you want to know about that bakery in Snook that sells fresh homemade kolaches? Or the gas station in Hempstead that sells the homemade sausages?

Shoot. You could even buy some Orthene at the local HEB, find a fire ant mound, pour it on, and watch the li'l devils boil out.

But ultimately we have to ask our friends at the Times:

"Who the heck goes to College Station on their vacation anyway?"


Anonymous Erich Schneider said...

Going to conferences was always a treat for me as a TAMU grad student due to the opportunity to eat kinds of food I couldn't otherwise get there. When I was there (1992-1998) there were no Japanese restaurants at all, two fairly lame Thai places I never ate at, and no Indian restaurants worth the name. I found the latter pretty puzzling, given the large Indian student population, but an Indian student told me "Indians are very picky about how their food is made and thus don't eat out much".

There was one quite good place in Northgate, whose name I forget, that had vaguely "California cuisine" and was a lifesaver when, for example, I wanted wood-fired gourmet pizza instead of what the local "Beer Universities" offered (the places where you could get a "doctorate in global beer studies" by drinking 200 different international beers).

It was also possible to find tiny stores catering to the international student population that could liven things up. I don't know how many years it was before I found out that the convenience store a few hundred feet down the street from my apartment had a tiny room in the back with a cache of Indian and Pakistani ingredients ... if only I had been better at cooking Indian food back then. And I still have a couple of plastic bowls I bought at "Live Seafood", the Korean grocery on Highway 6.

But whenever I happen to be at a "Southern" themed restaurant in LA I make sure to order a chicken fried steak and think of College Station. I certainly put away plenty of them at the Chicken Oil Company. And I have yet to find a vegetarian taco as good as Freebird's World Burrito's avocado tacos.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

The question is, would you eat sushi in College Station? The catfish nigiri? The Aggie roll, make mine well-done? That's gotta be breaded and deep-fried, hold the seaweed.

Cafe Eccell -- home of California Cuisine in Texas-sized portions and favorite place to take visitors -- is still there. Their credit card receipts say "DeLuxe Burger Bar" though, thus making one's expense reports mildly hard to explain. "Just how many burgers did you eat?" my boss asked me.

The town still exhibits the two most conspicuous warning signs of someplace you'd rather not live. B/CS boosters'll tell you: (1) "I never have to look for a parking space" and (2) "I never have to wait in line."

Anybody tells you that, you just stroke your chin thoughtfully and reply, "I bet getting your truck detailed is real reasonable too. They got that new wet doggie scent yet?"

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Thompson said...

Well, my in-laws went to College Station on vacation one year, but they are Aggies and were attending a reunion and homecoming game.

As for the plywood on the wrong side of the glass at Loupot's, read the comments on the post at my site -- it includes a reasonable explanation of why they did it that way. The guy actually had a good sense of humor about the whole thing.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

dear Readers,

Lest you think I'm not a responsible citizen journalist, I did read the reasonable explanation for the Loupot's window at Jim Thompson's site and thought the picture was mighty darned nice anyway.

Remember: There's usually a reasonable explanation lurking behind any bit of absurdity. But a reasonable explanation can't help but detract from the intrinsic entertainment value of these things.

Then again, I can't be too tough on someone who mourns the passing of Governor Ann Richards. Mollie and Ann made living in Texas bearable.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Dr. Doom said...

Hi Cathy. I spent four years in College Station. I don't know how many hours that is, but since you're a smart Yankee, I'm sure you can do the math. Anyway, now I live in San Francisco, just like you. And I miss College Station. Obviously, not just like you. Whoop!

8:53 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Dear Dr. Doom,

I miss the melt-in-your-mouth BBQ brisket sandwiches at Junek's Chevron Station in Wellborn. I do. With onions and a few dill pickle slices. Divine. Nothing like that out here. Darned foodies.

I miss the polite young men who say, "Howdy Ma'am" without a trace of irony or snarkiness.

I miss Lady Bird's wildflowers on the Highway 6 median strip. They only bloomed for a couple of weeks in the spring, but for those couple of weeks, the median strip was raucous with color.

I miss the itty-bitty goldfinches and noisy woodpeckers tweeting it up in my backyard.

There are plenty of things to miss, Dr. Doom. We'd probably agree on some of them.

Not quite sure I miss the WHOOP! yet though.

And I'm not quite sure I've ever correctly identified the meaning of GIG 'EM. Please advise.


3:25 PM  
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8:41 PM  

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