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Mustang_in_TexasWriting about our last trip to the US I so far avoided the elephant in the room (literarily), the enormous state of Texas. It is time to rectify that issue as it was the place where we started and finished our last American adventure.

It wasn’t my first visit to Texas. I travelled its width in 2001 during my first visit in the US when we drove the entire 879 miles (1,415 km) of the Interstate 10, all the way from Louisiana to New Mexico. Since then I have also crossed the Texas Panhandle along the 177 miles of I-40, but our 2014 trip was going to be my most thorough exploration of the Lone Star State to date.

Spirit_of_AustinWe started our trip in Austin, a blue progressive dot in the conservative red sea of Texas. One reason was the fact that British Airways started flying there directly from London but more importantly it is one of the cities which is growing as a tourist destination and has a reputation of being a cool place. It seems that for once we decided to go somewhere trendy. So how was Austin?

It welcomed us with glorious afternoon sunshine and high humidity. As a result as soon as we got to our motel room a huge thunderstorm ensued. It was an almighty deluge. The sky became virtually black, the temperature plummeted and there was hail and strong winds. It put to rest our plans for a late afternoon stroll around the town.

Luckily the following day started with beautiful sunshine and warmth. We began our tour of Austin with a visit to the Texas State Capitol. Located on a hill on the northern periphery of downtown it commands a sweeping view towards the Colorado River from its southern façade and is itself visible from many points in the city. It is a huge building. In fact, according to the State Preservation Board website, it is the largest state capitol in square footage. Its facade is clad in red granite and the interior offers symbolic decorations typical of any of the US state capitols. Local and national heroes lurk everywhere. A unique feature is the Texas star located in many corners, from the door handles to the chandeliers. We joined an enjoyable tour of the building and then had a picnic on the immaculately landscaped capitol grounds. Texas_Capitol

From the capitol we headed south along the dead straight Congress Avenue towards the Colorado River (not the one with the Grand Canyon). Along the way we admired a total architectural mix. From some old 19th century single storey buildings, through the beautiful 20th century Art Deco, to some modern shiny and bold skyscrapers. It is worth remembering that Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in America and its skyline is changing very quickly. We stopped in one of the many trendy cafés/shops and got ourselves coffee and tea. And I mean not the usual awful liquid you can get in the gas stations or in smaller towns across America but a proper tasty beverage. The shop was full of weird organic stuff and you could clearly see that Austin is different from than the rest of state. Congress_Ave_2

After a quick stroll along the river we headed back north, past the downtown, to the vicinity of the University of Texas campus. Located just a few blocks north of the capitol the university is one of the main reasons why the city is so different from the rest of typically quite conservative Texas. UT Austin is one of the richest and, with over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students as well as over 24,000 faculty staff, one of the biggest universities in America. All those students and academics give the city a very positive vibe.

Texas_PterosaurWe had lunch in one of the funky places on the edge of campus before strolling to the Texas Memorial Museum which features great natural history artefacts. Its most impressive display is the skeleton of the Texas Pterosaur which hangs from the ceiling of the Great Hall. With a 40 feet wingspan it is one big beast. The building itself is also quite interesting with many Art Deco motifs.

All around the campus one can spot countless little and large heads of a Texas longhorns. It is the symbol of the university’s American football team, the Texas Longhorns. Now, let me explain that Texans are absolutely mad about football. Sure, it is sport number one anywhere in America but here in Texas it is more of obsession or even religion than sport. Let’s just say that the Longhorns stadium has a capacity of over 100,000, which is more than most European football teams can even dream about.

Overall Austin looked like a really pleasant city. One thing which we couldn’t experience was its famous nightlife as we were there during midweek and we had to leave it early on Thursday to continue north past Dallas to other states on our itinerary.

But we came back to the Lone Star state for a few days towards the end of our trip. We drove from Louisiana straight to Houston to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Remember the famous call: “Houston, we have a problem”? Yes, it is the place and we had to see it. There are a few drawbacks. It is bloody expensive and some bits of it feel more like a Disneyland than space centre, especially on Sunday, but in general we had a great time there.

Saturn_V_rocketThe highlight of the day was the tour of the Rocket Park which, amongst many others, includes the restored Saturn V rocket. It is made up of stages of three different rockets unneeded when the Apollo programme was scrapped and it is enormous. We joined a tour of the Saturn V led by one of the retired flight controllers, now probably in his late 60s or early 70s, who was a superb guide. Entertaining and informative, and crucially, someone who actually took part in many events he was talking about.

Other highlights of our visit included the Lunar Vault and the Starship Gallery. On the face of it, all looks like another science museum until you realize that you are looking at the real Apollo 17 command module. The actual last manned spacecraft to fly to the moon in 1972. In fact you can even touch it. Then, in the Lunar Vault, you can also touch a sample of the lunar rock. How cool is that? Sure, it is touched by so many people that you are probably touching the human grease but still, it is a piece of moon you can touch. One of only 5 such samples in the world.Apollo_17

There are many other exhibits, some more, some less interesting and there is enough to keep you busy for most of the day. Even the gift shop was fun as you can buy all sorts of cool stuff like, for example, astronaut’s freeze dried food…

From the Space Center we drove west straight to the picturesque Texas Hill Country. But first we had to navigate the enormous freeways of greater Houston. Some of the five level junctions are really impressive. In Texas the car is a religion and Texan roads are like temples dedicated to cars. Also, everything in the state has to bigger, bolder and more brash. On the other hand it is quite amazing how fast after leaving the cities and suburbs the roads become rural, peaceful and well landscaped. In fact the Texas Highway Department even has a wildflower management program and it buys and sows about 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed each year. The effect of all this is clearly visible when you drive along the Texas highways in spring (as we did). Millions of flowers blossom on the verges and in the wide median strip. Among them the most beloved by Texans are the strikingly blue Texas Bluebonnets, the state official flowers. There are even websites dedicated to reporting the blooming timings and the best viewing spots in the state.Bluebonnets_and-pickup

We spent the night in the vicinity of New Braunfels at the edge of the Hill Country. It is one of the fast growing cities of the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, a sea of low density suburbs. There we had an absolutely amazing BBQ in one of the local joints. I love proper American BBQ and this part of Texas offers some of the best in America.

Bad_Cofffee_in_TexasThe following day we headed west towards the heart of the Hill Country. It is a beautiful part of the state. Local quiet two lane roads navigate varied topography and join small peaceful towns. Unfortunately the day started with some intermittent rain which spoiled our fun a bit. At some point it was raining quite heavily so we stopped in one of the tiny settlements for a hot drink. Here my girlfriend had one of the worst coffees ever, accidentally getting some sort of weird caramel flavoured beverage which was supposed to be coffee but was far from it. Good I don’t drink coffee.

Northern_CardinalLuckily, the weather soon improved and we could proceed to the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Enchanted Rock is a prominent granite dome which offers some nice hiking and fabulous views from the top. We spent a few hours in the park, climbing to the top as well as circumnavigating the whole monolith. Apart from the views of the surrounding landscape we could also admire some local wildlife like for example the striking northern cardinals. These small red birds look really funky with their tiny “punk style” head feathers standing up, and most people will probably find them familiar due to the famous Angry Birds game. Enchanted_Rock_State_Park

Enchanted Rock was the westernmost point of our trip, from there it was time to head back towards San Antonio and Austin.

Texas_Hill_CountryThe next day was our last one in Texas as we had to fly back to London in the evening. Before going to the airport we headed to downtown San Antonio to see the Alamo. Now, I was never really that interested in seeing it as I was fearing Disneyfication of the whole experience. But as we were so close and had a few spare hours it would be silly not to visit the famous landmark.

What surprised me the most was its size. It is way smaller than I expected. But it was as touristy as I expected, with Disney style queueing system to enter the mission’s chapel. Despite that it was interesting to see the place we heard so much about, including from the guide at the state capitol in Austin, right at the beginning of our trip. From this perspective visit to Alamo was a nice closure of our 2014 tour of the southern USA.

And that’s was it. From Alamo we drove north to Austin from where we flew back to London.Texas_flag

The Other Gulf Coast

Louisiana_Hwy_27When people think about the Gulf Coast they mostly imagine beautiful sandy beaches, clear blue sea and colourful cocktails slowly sipped on the porch. Such associations are all true but those things are not really what I’m looking for on holiday (apart, of course, from the cocktails).

So, during our 2014 exploration of the Deep South, we skipped these clichéd aspects of the Gulf and headed for swamps, marshes and industrial installations.

We left New Orleans and headed west on Interstate I-10. Very quickly (just a few miles outside the metropolitan area) the landscape got quite wild. Basically, after leaving suburban Jefferson Parish the only signs of human activity are the road and the utility lines running on multiple bridges and causeways. It feels as if you are driving on water. The experience is similar to the famous Overseas Highway (US Hwy 1) joining Key West to the rest of Florida, especially in places where I-10 and then I-55 run alongside Lake Pontchartrain.

For example, driving on I-55, we crossed the 36km (22 miles) long Manchac Swamp Bridge. Some people might call it boring but I found it an amazing drive. An endless ribbon of concrete suspended a few metres above the brackish swamp and cutting through forests of bald cypresses growing straight out of the water. It all looked absolutely awesome in the low light of the setting sun and with minimal traffic. This was Louisiana as I have always imagined it. Atchafalaya_Swamp

After spending the night in a small motel in the town of Hammond (where the lady at the reception was genuinely surprised to see a passport and said: “we don’t see many of those here”) we headed west again, crossing the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, and then drove on yet another long bridge over the swamps. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is “only” 29km long but still very impressive, crossing empty, wild and heavily forested Atchafalaya Swamp, the largest wetland in the United States.

Sam_Houston_Jones_State_Park_TrailNow, as much as I like bridges (which is a bit of an understatement as I should probably really call myself a bridge geek) it was time to leave the main freeways and get closer to nature.

We got off the interstate at Lake Charles and in 10-15 minutes entered the Sam Houston Jones State Park. This relatively small park (covering only about 1000 acres) offers a good introduction to the Louisiana landscapes. The park consist of woodlands, lakes and rivers but its most prominent feature is numerous bald cypress trees. We spent a few hours in the park (even getting “mildly” lost for a while) but failed to see a single alligator despite the multiple warnings about not feeding them. However, we did see our first wild armadillo and got very excited for that reason. Sam_Houston_Jones_State_Park

After leaving the park we changed the direction of our travel and now headed south as it was time to finally reach the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. However close it looked on a general road map of the state it was still about a 30 mile drive passing endless marshes occasionally punctuated by tiny settlements or huge natural gas and oil installations By the way, let me explain the difference between swamps and marshes. Swamps are basically wetlands which are forested while marshes are dominated by grasses and reeds.

As we were driving south along the Louisiana Hwy 27 we left the wild dark swamps well behind us and were now enjoying open vistas over the marshes which really looked like a sea of grass. Along the route there are a few places with boardwalks over the marshes and while walking along one of them we finally spotted some proper, large, wild alligators. One of them was a really large beast indeed. Luckily they were not very active as they seemed to be enjoying an afternoon siesta.Alligator

We finally reached the Gulf waters where Hwy 27 joins Hwy 82. There was a small settlement consisting mostly vacation homes, empty at the time of our visit. Only a few folks were fishing and walking along the beach and it was all a far cry from the typical crowded beach resorts. This was the coast as I like it. Especially in the last few hours of the day when the sun is low and casting long shadows.

Meeting_Gulf_CoastNow we turned again and followed Louisiana Hwy 82 west along the coast, towards Texas. It was an amazing drive, straight towards the setting sun, one of those iconic American experiences. Especially as this sort of marshy, sparsely populated, low-lying coast is rather rare in Europe. The few settlements we passed on the way to Texas consisted mostly of a small number of houses on stilts. There was even a church, school and a fire station, all build on stilts. It really shows how vulnerable this coast is in the face of hurricanes. As much as I enjoy travelling in places like this I would never live here. It is just way too exposed. Additionally, if the current trends continue, most of this landscape will disappear under the waves in the next few decades.

Another factor which made our drive unlike anything I have experienced before was the offshore oil rigs visible on the horizon. In the distance they really looked like some alien spaceships, especially in the evening with their industrial lights switched on.

By the time we reached Sabine River, which down here marks the Texas-Louisiana border, the sun had just set and the light was quickly fading. Still, it was bright enough to see how the area was dominated by the energy industry. There were huge gas liquefaction plants under construction as well as an enormous oil refinery. All those miles of pipes, hundreds of tanks and thousands of lights created an otherworldly sci-fi atmosphere, especially with the deep red sky behind them. Industrial_Coast_of_Texas

Now, I know there are all the environmental issues, from global warming to coastal erosion, but on that particular evening, and from a purely visual perspective, all this industrial labyrinth looked absolutely amazing. Also, it is how big chunks of the Gulf Coast really look like, especial in Texas and Louisiana and I always want to see the real America not only the stuff from the tourist brochures.

This was pretty much our last taste of Louisiana and the wider Gulf Coast region as from now on we were heading inland towards Houston and then the heartland of the Lonely Star state.

I know that this chapter doesn’t describe any particular highlights but I really enjoyed our, a bit aimless, wanders between New Orleans and Houston, and I believe that if you have an open mind you can enjoy it too.Dont_Feed_Alligators

Wild Wild West

Kansas is one of the states I always wanted to visit. Maybe it’s not a place full of well-known world-class attractions but its name and image evokes classic pictures of America. The idea of going there was chasing me for the last few years, so planning my US trip for 2011 I decided to include it in my itinerary.

My tour of the southern plains started in Kansas City (KC) which, confusingly, is located in Missouri. Well, to make things even more complicated there are actually two Kansas Cities neighbouring each other, one in Missouri and one in Kansas. The one in Missouri is the proper city, with the classic American downtown, while the KC in Kansas is rather just a suburb. KC was traditionally seen as the gateway to the west. Cattle driven from Texas and other places by cowboys were slaughtered here or loaded into trains heading east, and migrants going west changed from trains to horse wagons.

Two main attractions of Kansas City are located next to each other, just south of downtown. The Union Station, a classic American train station representing the golden age of railways was one of the most important and busiest stations in the USA, and the Beaux-Arts building was the second-largest station in the nation when it opened in 1914. Nowadays it is nicely renovated and home to a family-friendly science museum (including 3D cinema and planetarium), Irish Museum, shops, restaurants and café. What is the most impressive is the size and architecture of the building itself. It indicates how busy a station had to be during its heyday. Ironically, it is now serving only four trains and around 400 passengers a day. Right next to the station is the Liberty Memorial. Opened in 1926, it is a monument commemorating soldiers fallen during World War I. Built in Egyptian Revival style, it is an impressive structure indeed, topped by tall tower. Surrounded by a nice park and located on a hill overlooking downtown KC, the monument grounds are a great place for a stroll or a picnic.

From KC I drove west, entering the real Kansas. First stop, Lawrence, which is a small town, home of University of Kansas, and located about 60km from KC. It offers a relaxed atmosphere, some good food, coffee and shopping. Among the shops is Kansas Sampler, offering all things Kansas, like clothing (especially connected to various Kansas sport teams), magnets, cards, food etc; a great place to fill your suitcase with gifts. Another shop, which seriously puzzled me, was called “Brits”. Selling all sorts of British goods, it wouldn’t be out of place in touristy part of London. But in the middle of Kansas? Weird.

Next stop Topeka, capital of Kansas. Apart from the state capitol, it is not a particularly interesting place. Of course I did visit the Kansas State Capitol, but unfortunately it was undergoing reconstruction work, so tours were severely limited. It is a classic capitol building, two wings dominated by a massive dome, and it’s one of the tallest among all the capitols.

West of Topeka, settlements become smaller and distances between them get longer. This is Kansas how I have always imagined it. And I was absolutely loving it. After leaving the major freeway (I-70 to be precise) at Manhattan (yes there is a Manhattan in Kansas), I took Kansas Hwy 177 south. Called Flint Hills Scenic Byway, it is a really great drive. The road is winding between and on top of the gently rolling hills covered with natural pastures. Due to cherty soil, the land is better suited to ranching than farming. Because of this, the Flint Hills is still largely native prairie grassland, one of the last great preserves of tall-grass prairie in the country. Lack of trees allows for some amazing uninterrupted vistas which for me are an important part of the American experience. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near the Strong City shouldn’t be missed. Offering self-guided walking trails, which let you get close to this amazing environment, as well as historic 1881 ranch, it is run by the National park Service and a charity called Nature Conservancy. From there, a scenic stretch of Hwy 177 continues to the outskirts of Wichita, which being the largest city in Kansas was convenient place for an overnight stop.

Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita was probably the best unexpected attraction during my trip. I would have missed it if I didn’t stop overnight in Wichita as I found a leaflet about it in the motel I was staying in. Initially I thought it was simply a collection of old buildings but it is actually much more than that. It is a living history museum with actors in period clothes creating an authentic Old West atmosphere. It is absolutely brilliant. There is a saloon where you can buy the old-taste lemonade, blacksmith shop where you can watch a blacksmith at work, newspaper office with presentations of old printing methods, plus many other buildings like the sheriff’s office, dry goods store, train station, hotel, drugstore or bank, which you can enter and explore yourself. You can also join the horse wagon rides and watch occasional shoot-out on the main street. Most of the buildings are authentic and brought to the museum to save them from destruction at their original locations. I was there for a few hours, which passed surprisingly fast while I had a lot of fun. After few minutes in the museum it is really possible to forget we have 21st century already. For anyone anywhere close to Wichita this place is a must-see destination.

Leaving Wichita I turned west again. Density of population went down quite dramatically and I could feel I was entering what was once called the Wild West. I chose US Hwy 160 which in this part of Kansas is called Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway. It was another great drive but landscape was quite different from that of the Flint Hills. Hills here were less round but rather more dramatic buttes with steep colourful slopes and flat tops. Ranching dominates here as well but vegetation was drier than that in the Flint Hills. The road was straight but going up and down, without end.

Moving further west and north, going towards the famous Dodge City, I entered the classic wheat-growing regions of Kansas. With roads stretching indefinitely towards the distant horizon and endless fields on the both sides of the highway you could feel like crossing some sort of wheat ocean. Only the telegraph poles and some distant wind farms provided vertical attractions in this mostly horizontal landscape. With the sun setting and country music playing, there is no better way of travelling. Forget luxury cruises or flying first class, forget nice restaurants or posh hotels. Cheap motels full of truck drivers and fast food joints, where a small size drink comes in a one gallon cup, is the way to go in these parts of the country.

Dodge City, with a population of 27,000 souls, feels like a real metropolis in this empty bit of the great plains. It was once the wildest of the frontier towns with characters like Wyatt Earp, James Earp, Ed Masterson and Doc Holliday serving as law enforcement. Nowadays Dodge is a sleepy western town where pick-up trucks dominate streetscape in the same way as yellow cabs do in the Manhattan. You can explore its colourful past in the Boot Hill Museum, whose name comes from Boot Hill Cemetery where cowboys were once buried with their boots on. It is another living history museum but much smaller than the one in Wichita. The big difference is also the fact that buildings here are reconstructions rather than original ones.

Crossing from Kansas to Colorado is surprisingly anti-climatic. Most people thinking of Colorado think of spectacular mountains. In reality the eastern third of the state is effectively an extension of Kansas with a flat landscape dominated by farming and ranching. But there are interesting things to see, too. One of them is Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta. It features a reconstructed 1840’s adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travellers, and Plains Indian tribes came together for trade. Kit Carson was employed there as a hunter, and the explorer John C Frémont used it as a staging area. Today, living historians recreate the sights, sounds, and smells of the past with guided tours and demonstrations. It is all really well done and the fort is nicely located on the banks of the Arkansas River.

Moving further south, there is the Texas panhandle, one vast expanse of bleak, flat land. Driving the Interstate 40, one can think there is nothing really to see but there are some hidden gems. And I don’t mean the largest cross in the western hemisphere (located in Groom and not really hidden, as you can see it for miles from the freeway), or the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. Cadillac Ranch is a quirky and interesting public art installation, and a great photo stop, but the real treasure of the panhandle is the Palo Duro State Park, sometimes called the Great Canyon of Texas. Well, it’s not really the Grand Canyon, but with depths of up to 300m, an average width of 10km and a length of almost 200km, it is an impressive geological feature. The park offers walking, biking and horse-riding trails among colourful rocky outcrops in the form of hoodoos, buttes, steep-walled mesas and other crazy shapes. As Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote, “It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and colour.” The best time to visit is late afternoon when the temperature is lower and the light is good for photography. If you have only a bit of time, it is still worth stopping by and admiring this amazing landscape from the few viewpoints along the access road. If time allows, it is a great place for camping too.

For those interested in route 66 experiences, I recommend a stop in Shamrock, where a renovated art deco gas station, the “U-Drop-Inn Cafe”, serves as tourist information.

The next state on my journey was Oklahoma, which is also the 40th state I have visited (yeah, just 10 more to go). I crossed from Texas to Oklahoma in the town of Texola. It is located only 28 seconds from the 100th meridian which forms a border between the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma. During the early times its inhabitants lived in both of the states without ever moving, as the town was surveyed eight times. It was also aptly named Texokla and Texoma. To be honest I would never have stopped there if I wasn’t in search of historic Route 66. It is possible to drive some surviving bits of it, just west of town, but it was actually just a disappointing stretch of old two-lane concrete highway. Nothing special. I have to admit I never understood all the fuss about Route 66 but had to check if I was right in my scepticism. I was. There are more scenic roads in America, there are longer roads, and there are more impressive roads. Roads which actually still exist as opposed to Route 66. I blame clever marketing for all this madness.

Texola itself was surprisingly interesting. With only 36 inhabitants (according to 2010 census) it is practically a ghost town. Many buildings (including gas station which was once serving Route 66 – for those into these things) are falling apart or are completely overgrown; usually both. A great photo opportunity, but I seriously wonder where these 36 people live.

Oklahoma is greener than Texas and less flat. I recommend going off the main freeway and enjoy driving its peaceful state highways. For example Oklahoma Hwy 152 is a great alternative to busy interstate 40. Probably the most unexpected attraction in the state is Wichita Mountains. With a maximum of 750m elevation, they are not true mountains but the granite peaks are still rather unexpected and dominant in the gently rolling state. A big part of the region is protected by the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge which, covered by the remnants of mixed grass prairie, is host to herds of bison and longhorn cattle as well as a colony of super-cute prairie dogs. Kids will love them. One place not to miss is definitely Mount Scott. From its rocky 751m peak you will get probably one of the best views in the Great Plains. Absolutely spectacular, especially just before the sunset. You can drive all the way to the top and the mountain road drive is fun in itself.

Bordering the wildlife refuge is Fort Sill. An active military installation, it is also a National Historic Landmark. You can visit it, but you will be asked for ID at the checkpoint. Fort Sill was built by General Sheridan in 1860s during the, so called, Indian Wars and it is one of the best preserved military outposts from that period. Many of the original stone buildings (most of which are still standing) were constructed by the famous 10th Cavalry, a group of black “buffalo soldiers”. Among the scouts stationed in the fort were Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok. Geronimo was prisoner here and is buried at the fort; his grave is accessible to visitors. In short, Fort Sill has a fascinating history which is impossible to condense here.

I finished my Wild West experience in Oklahoma City where, as per tradition, I couldn’t skip the state capitol. It was a strange experience as it was Sunday, and apart from the guard at the gate, I was probably the only person in this vast building. It is actually the last capitol finished in the United States as its dome was only added in 2002. It is also the only capitol with its own active oil well.

Oklahoma City become unfortunately well known in 1995 when its federal building was bombed. Today, the well-designed Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorates 168 victims of that event. Located in the downtown, right in the place where the building was standing, it is a nice place to stroll or for a moment of reflection. On the neighbouring building, now hosting a museum, you can still see a damaged fire-escape staircase. To cheer things up during my visit, the whole city was in the heat of NBA playoffs because its team, Oklahoma City Thunder, was doing very well.

The Wild West is difficult to really define. Is it a place? Is it period of time? All I can say is that my trip across Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of Texas and Colorado had something which made me feel I’m a bit closer to understanding what the Wild West really is.

And I want to go back!