Smoky Mountain Rain: Day 3

Lunch at The Farmhouse Mercantile & Coffee Bar and Cosmic Blast Off food truck, Jessica Cuevas

In the antique style strip mall in Sylva, North Carolina we walked into a warm and cozy coffee shop, The Farmhouse Mercantile & Coffee Bar. walking in was relaxing and aesthetically pleasing, as our eyes roamed over all the decor and furniture. Everything from the restrooms to the chairs were done in contemporary country style. Even on the counter, where we began to order, was displayed a Yama cold drip tower. Feeling a bit adventurous, Yvette, despite not liking coffee, tried the London Fog; Morgan ordered the White Chocolate Mocha, and I went with my usual order of a Mocha Frappuccino.

We then boarded a rocket and were blasted off to the Cosmic Blast Off food truck and ordered the heaviest food anyone could get prior to a hike. Nonetheless, I ordered the Bronco Burger, the local favorite Blast Off Burger for Yvette, the Sweet Potato Quesadilla for Morgan. Each burger was freshly grilled and had the proper amount of juiciness. As for the quesadilla, it had a southwest flavor and a dash of sweetness from the potatoes. We then topped it off with hand-cut French fries, which added a pleasing salty finish to our meal.

We ate all this during a “parking-lot picnic,” one with a view!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Morgan Robertson

Despite it being a rainy day, we did not let it get in the way of embarking on our journey through the Great Smoky Mountains. After a caffeine kick off from a trendy coffee house, and lunch from a local food truck, we made our way further into the mountains. The more we drove up the curvy mountainous roads, the wider my smile became. This being my first national park, it is now the my basis of comparison for other park visits. 

There are a total of six entrances to the GSMNP, a park that spans over a total of 800 square miles. 

We did not see the entire Park, but what we did see was truly amazing. Winding roads led us past flowing creeks, enormous mountains, countless trailheads, some random wildlife…

…and much more. The GSMNP straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, and we traversed this boundary from East (NC) to West (TN)…

… amazed by the size and beauty of the Park.

After spending some time testing our rock-climbing abilities…

…and of course snapping pictures, we faced the hike to the tallest point in the park: Clingmans Dome.

The girls begin the “hike” up Clingmann’s Dome

Embarking on mine and Jessica’s first National Park hike, I shifted my gaze upward at the steep incline of the paved trail. Seeing the variety of trees, quickly moving fog, and the crisp cool breeze of wind helped keep us motivated to make it to the top.

One of the most interesting parts to me was an entrance to the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail. Stepping foot past the sign, I can now say that I have walked on the famous Appalachian Trail.

Peaking around the corner, was a winding cement trail that led to the top of Clingmans Dome observatory platform.

The LEAP Ambassadors were rejoicing when we knew we had made it to the top!

Eventually (editor’s note: an hour later…), we made it down from the top of the dome…

…feeling a little exulted that we accomplished mile-long, round-trip hike.

We also stopped at the Rockefeller Monument, where FDR, in 1940, dedicated the Park.

…part of our ongoing learning about the Park System and its creation. Here, we also had a chance to take another few steps on the Appalachian Trail…

…although we certainly made no attempt to get to Maine, the trail’s end!

Alongside the road were what seemed like hundreds of different lookout points. Wanting to stop at each one, I was reminded by Professor Yawn, who is more familiar with the park, that there are a vast number of exceptional sights to see, and that we had to keep moving. My personal favorite part of the parks is not found high up in the tree line but lying low rushing through the various pebbles and boulders were the sparkling rivers and creeks of the GSMNP.

This immediately sparked a child-like freedom in me to want to run, splash, and slip on the rocks. Finding pure bliss amongst the time old smooth river rocks and swirling currents, I admired the great creation that is the GSMNP. Of course, proceeding with caution, Yvette, Jessica, and I were able to pursue our adventurous personalities, while listening to the babbling waters which brought relaxing mindsets.

As I felt the crisp cool waters rush through my toes, I stared at the pebbles and rocks under my feet thinking of how long they had resided there. 

Surrounding the rivers and adorned with green trees, the vast mountains stand on a scale all to their own. With the day’s weather we were able to see great depth to the fog-covered mountain tops, breathing in every aspect of the enormous Mountains, it was difficult to focus on just one part.

Yvette even described one particular lookout as “not even looking real” but more as something that had been hand painted.

The worst part was tearing my gaze away from the perfect sights and heading back towards the van. Although my spirits were immediately lifted when the next amazing sight was viewable. In its entirety the park and especially the mountains seem intimidating but taking in piece by piece allows for a deeper understanding of the park.

Concluding our journey, we finished with a riverside picnic of turkey and chicken sandwiches, fruits, and chips.

Eating as quickly as I could while still enjoying the fun dinner with Yvette and Jessica…

…I emptied my pockets once again to run into the river. This time I ventured farther into the cold water and slick stones and ungracefully made my way to a semi-dry rock in the middle to enjoy the view. After receiving a whistle and a wave signaling it was time to come back, I continued my trek across the river to the other side and ended up across the bridge.  

With just a little time left, we still had time for more adventure, though, and we made the most of it. First, we saw more wildlife…

…including, in what was a highlight of the trip, a fairly close encounter with a bear. This bear was lurking near a path that we were traversing, and it popped its head out several times to get a better look at us!

We were amazed, while also being grateful that the momma bear, wherever she was, felt no need to intrude.

This left us with a fairly peaceful enjoyment of a nearby waterfall.

Living up to every possible expectation, the GSMNP was and will always be one of my favorite places on Earth. Completely amazed by the wildlife, greenery, and rivers I left the park with a whole new mind set and appreciation for nature. 

Postscript: On the way out of the Park, and in the spirit of seeing more mountainous peaks, we had to stop at the Sevierville County Courthouse and get a photo with Dolly Parton.

WAC Returns: Robert Gates and the World

After more than one year of COVID lockdown, the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston returned with an in-person event, one featuring former Secretary of Defense, former Deputy National Security Advisor, and former CIA Director (not to mention President of Boy Scouts and President of TAMU). Approximately 100 people attended this event, with many more tuning in live.

The Executive Director of WAC, Maryanne Maldonado, welcomed guests; she was followed by Board Chair Mark Anderson

… who introduced Robert Gates, a potentially lengthy process, given Gates’ extensive experience. Indeed, Gates’ almost unparalleled resume in foreign affairs was on full display during the hour-long session. Expertly hosted by WAC’s Ronan O’Malley…

…the discussion highlighted concerns over Iran’s quest for nuclear power while focusing on the activities of Russia and China.

Gates was convinced that, whatever one thinks of the original Obama-era deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, that deal is now obsolete. He encouraged the resumption of talks, but made it clear that events had surpassed what was agreed in to 2015, and a new approach will be called for.

Gates clearly has little regard for Vlad Putin, regarding him as a nationalistic holdover from USSR days. But he is more concerned about China, which he believes has surpassed Russia in both economic and intelligence capacities. Fortunately, China and Russia’s alliance is mostly superficial, primarily based on a desire to the US perform poorly.

Previously, Gates has expressed much warmth toward Joe Biden, albeit balanced by little confidence in the President’s decision-making capacities. He noted that he stood by those judgments, reminding people that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last four decades.” Biden, Gates noted, thought the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s would lead to improved civil rights records in Iran; he opposed aid to South Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War; he opposed to most of the weapon systems that brought the US to military dominance; and perhaps most tellingly, he opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Having said that, though, Gates has also indicated that the President is “impossible not to like,” is a man of great integrity, and is reliable. Moreover, he expressed optimism about many of Biden’s early moves and decisions, and he was impressed with Biden’s team of advisors.

Gates was, as usual, sharp and incisivie, but the real treat was getting back to an in-person WAC event. We had a chance to see old friends such as Ronan O’Malley, Jahan Jafarpour, Viridiana Otamendi, Sandija Bayot, and Maryanne Maldonado. In addition, we ran into another old friend: Ambassador Chase Untermeyer. Ambassador Untermeyer previous served as Ambassador to Qater, Texas Legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Director of White House Personnel.

Feeling a bit more knowledgeable and worldly following the World Affairs Council event, we ended the evening with Ethiopian Food in a nearby restaurant by the name of Blue Nile. At Blue Nile they had a vast variety of dishes ranging from vegetarian, lamb, beef, and poultry, with the option of making each of them spicier with Ethiopian spices.

As an appetizer we had a beef and a vegetarian Sambus, it is like an empanada, and to my surprise the vegetarian was my favorite despite never having tried lentils, with which the Sambusas are stuffed.

For dinner Quinn ordered the Yessiga Wot, a beef dish cooked in their Berebere sauce, I had the beef tibs, beef cubes cooked with vegetables and spices, Ms. Stephanie had the chicken tibs, and Professor Yawn had the Spicy Doro Wot, a popular traditional chicken dish.

All the dishes were served with Injera, a spongy bread the size of a flour burrito tortilla that is used as a tortilla to eat the food. 

It is a tradition for LEAP students to try new cuisines that are themed related to the prior event and, as expected, it was my first time eating Ethiopian Food (Quinn’s too). It is always nice to end our day trying something new.

Independence Day in Huntsville, Texas

The City of Huntsville knows how to put on a party–especially a birthday party. In this case, it was the nation’s 245th birthday. To celebrate, the City’s Parks and Leisure department offered residents numerous activities, including rock-wall climbing, mechanical bull riding, face-painting, balloon art, dunk-the-local celebrity, watermelon-eating contests, numerous vendors providing food and fourth-of-July fare, and more.

Parks Director Penny Joiner Welcomes Residents to the Independence Day Celebration

Residents had their pick of activities. One of the most popular was the bull-riding, which could be adapted for the participant’s age (and fear). Kids often took a ride on the bull, then headed straight for the line again, to go at it another time. Of course, some adults found the fun irresistible, too.

When kids weren’t on the bull, they headed to the rockwall, where the goal was to climb to the top and ring the bell. A few made it!

Not all the kids made it all the way up, but they had fun, with staff lending encouraging words.

The crowd size was steady, peaking around five-thirty, but was never so large as to be overwhelming or intrude on the fun.

If residents got tired or hungry, there were vendors on hand to stem the cravings.

And every forty-five minutes, there was a watermelon-eating contest to occupy the crowd, either by participating or enjoying the show.

The good news is no one got sick! The better news is that everyone had fun.

Of course, even with all the fun, sometimes the agony of defeat was difficult to handle.

Of course, there was always staff on hand watching over things…

…or providing instructions…

But a lot of the fun was just seeing people who were enjoying themselves.

If people needed a break, there was a coloring booth, which occupied many.

And if people were feeling feisty, they could attempt to “dunk the local celebrity,” which included folks such as KSAM’s Glenn Edwards, the City of Huntsville’s Deputy City Manager Rick Rudometkin, and the City’s Chief of the Fire Department, Greg Mathis. Greg was dunked the most, perhaps because he had the most fun with the participants.

It was a great day, spearheaded by Penny Joiner, Kristy Wheeler, and with help from many other City of Huntsville staff, including intern Jade Jones.

Reflecting on Sacrifice on July 4th: The Houston Holocaust Museum

By Jessica Cuevas

Recently, Quinn and I had the opportunity to go on a private tour of the Houston Holocaust Museum, courtesy of the World Affairs Council. Although the tour was on Juneteenth, we thought a post date of July 4th would be appropriate, as a reminder of the sacrifice and responsibility that comes with being free and aspiring to be a better people and nation–the legacy of both Juneteenth and July 4th.

To begin the event, Quinn (who is half Jewish) and I went to a Jewish Deli, Kenny & Ziggy’s. We stayed pretty basic (I always stay basic in terms of food…), but we enjoyed the restaurant, trying something new, and staying with the theme of the day’s education.

Following our themed lunch, we arrived at the Holocaust Museum, met our fellow young professionals (including old friend Rebeca Becker), the always-friendly World Affairs Council staff, and were greeted by our knowledgeable docent, Rhonda Goldberg. She noted that this Museum opened in 1996, and it is the nation’s fourth largest Holocaust Museum.

The tour was a little less than two hours and it started promptly at 2:00 PM, with the Memorial Room exhibit. Within this small room there was a whole wall, created by artist Patricia Moss-Vreeland, dedicated to hand-painted and light-reflective tiles featuring tears to represent the 6 million Jews lost because of the Holocaust.

The day of our tour was sunny, and there was much light coming through, but Mrs. Goldberg pointed out that the mood of the art piece changes with the weather. On a dark or rainy day, for example, the public’s perception of the “tears” would be different.

Even more somber was a short, half-moon pedestal that contained six small square sections holding a sample of the soil from the six extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. This room is for survivors or for those who lost someone dear to them, providing a place for meditation and to remember those who died.

The Morgan Family Welcome Center offers a Welcome Center Video, which provides information on the lives of Jews before World War I and the anti-Semitism they experienced. It was difficult to learn of the hardships they faced, and I actually began to experience a heaviness in my chest–a sense that increased when we moved to the “Bearing Witness Exhibit.”

What followed was a valuable lesson in history, as we learned more of the Jews losing civil rights, having to register with the State as Jews in Germany, and, eventually, being shipped to the camps.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the tour was walking into a train car like the ones used in 1942 Germany, and standing there, imagining how hundreds of Jews were packed into such a car, to be shipped to forced labor and, ultimately, death.

The next closest thing to this was a replica of the Danish Rescue Boat, K123, where Jews had been transported out of Denmark to a safe place in Sweden. Although we were not able to board it, the place where the fisherman would hide the Jews was visible and it is just hard to imagine that this happened in such a small space.

Learning of the Germans’ plans for the “final solution” was sobering and depressing, but there were moments of redemptions, too. We learned of children who escaped (two of whom ended up being active members of the Museum), Jews’ lives after the War, and the Nuremberg Trials. As aspiring lawyers, this last aspect added a layer of interest.

The tour ended on a note appropriate for today: the Human Rights Gallery reminds us of our rights, highlights the accomplishments of Civil Rights leaders, and inspires us to stand up for ourselves and others.

Before leaving we had the opportunity to converse with Mrs. Goldberg, and we asked about the beautiful butterfly display that hangs from the ceiling, down all three of the museum’s floors.

Photo by Pooja Salhotra

There were 1,500 butterflies, representing the 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust, approximately 25 percent of the total lives lost.

This was a very somber learning experience of the events that happened before, leading up to, and after the Holocaust that provided me with a different insight to this tragedy. It was my first time being to the Holocaust Museum and despite Quinn having had visited it before, he had a different take since there had been changes to the exhibits.

Because the Museum was closed the day we visited, and because we were visiting with a small group, the experience was perhaps more somber and intimate than normal. We also benefited from Ms. Goldberg’s insights and knowledge, including her closeness to many Holocaust survivors, and this added to the poignancy of the experience.

On behalf of Sam Houston State University and the LEAP Center, we thanked the World Affairs Council staff, Ms. Goldberg, and we said goodbye to our new friends.

Old Time Help at the Old Town Theatre

Fresh off volunteering at the Wynne Home Arts and Visitor Center, we also wanted to help out in the downtown area. So, with rivet-gun in hand, we headed to the Old Town Theatre to do some light cleaning and affix numerals to the Theatre’s chairs.

The theatre is the only vintage venue in Huntsville, and it is the community’s finest example of Art Deco architecture–while also featuring the art work of world-renowned muralist Richard Haas.

And while it may be an local architectural treasure and a work of art in itself, it also had a disordered numbering system on the seats, which makes ushering pretty difficult.

So, we set about correcting that. With only one rivet gun, we set up a system of three people helping: one advance man putting in the number plates and rivets, one riveter, and one person taking left-over parts….

Yvette the Riveter

While three were riveting, others were cleaning, and we took turns doing all the tasks, so that we’d all be cross-trained. Stephanie did her best Carol Burnett impression….

…Quinn tried to get a break from Yvette and Morgan, and Morgan even tried her hand at vacuum repair.

About three hours later, we had a mostly-clean theatre, seats with a correct numbering system, and more skilled volunteer force….

…and some ideas for some fall activities–all of this in time for our sold-out Gene Watson show!

Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Speechwriter, Talks Politics

LEAP is always eager to hear from World Affairs Council speakers, and that is especially true when Ben Rhodes presents to the Council. Rhodes, a former speechwriter and advisor to President Obama, discussed his latest book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, with the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos as the moderator.

Following eight years of working long hours for the Obama administration, Rhodes found himself with a lot of time on his hands, a need for decompression, and wrestling with the Presidency of Donald Trump. So, he decided to write a book and, as he says, announce himself as a writer to the world.

What struck Rhodes, as he reflected and traveled and reflected some more, is how parts of the world were “turning to nationalism and authoritarianism,” particularly Hungary, Russia, China, and the United States. Key to this period, according to Rhodes, was the great recession of 2008, which is “when the narrative of liberalism and democracy collapsed.” With this narrative, Osnos readily and frequently agreed.

Rhodes is, at times, a bit morose, identifying this period as “the fall” to which the title alludes. This fall emboldened China and Russia, freeing them to mock capitalism and democracy, and emboldening nationalistic elements in Europe (particularly Hungary). He characterizes presidents from GHW Bush to Obama as “collectively wrong” and “hubristic,” while also criticizing the NBA, the media, and “the entire mass entertainment industry.” (see here for other views he’s expressed about the media).

Rhodes responded best during the Q&A period, during which Ronan O’Malley stepped in.

Rhodes argues that the China-Russia relationship is “shallow,” united by their “interest in the discrediting of democracy.”

When asked about the “personalization” of politics and regimes, Rhodes suggests that the rise of social media contributes to this movement, while also noting that the election of Biden was a countermovement to this trend.

Rhodes struggled to find silver linings. “There is one megatrend in the world,” he lamented, “and it’s not good.” But he argues, not entirely convincingly, that the “mass mobilization” in the world is happening and good; that people “are much more aware” (polls indicate otherwise); and there are civil rights in certain world regions than there were 30 years ago. It’s not a lot to hang on to, but it’s what we can look to, he says, “after the fall.”

Volunteer Service is a Wynne-Win!

On Saturday, June 27, the LEAP Ambassadors drove in from most parts of Texas to help out our adopted community of Huntsville. One of us drove from San Antonio, one drove from Tyler, one drove from Houston. Our destination was the Wynne Home, for an afternoon of painting and cleaning.

To build some energy, we stopped by the friendly and local confines of Mr. Hamburger, where some of had our first taste of this local favorite. We enjoyed the burgers and shakes!

Apart from exploring local culinary options, our mission today was to help out at the Wynne Home. The Wynne Home has a staff of 2.5 employees, and is, therefore, heavily reliant on volunteers. And in this regard, the Wynne Home is a hub of sorts in the community. The Texas Thyme Unit of the Herb Society of America assists the Wynne Home with its Ella Ruth Herb and Children’s Sensory gardens, the Friends of the Wynne support the arts at the Wynne Home (and in the community), and numerous citizens volunteer their time to serve on the Wynne Homes committees. So, it was an honor to help out by doing some touch-up painting in the children’s garden and some basic cleaning.

The Children’s Sensory Garden has a number of plants, and students are invited to touch, smell, taste, and even hear the plants and each of those sensory sections.

Among those plants are stones for hopscotch, and these were a little worse for the wear.

Hopscotch stones for the Wynne Home's Sensory Children's Garden.

Concrete mushrooms also grow throughout the garden, and these, too, had seen better days.

With improvement in mind, we tackled the easy ones first: the stones.

Intern Sebastian Morales paints at the Wynne Home.

The colors chosen by the Wynne Home staff were vivid, and even with just the first coat of paint, the colors were popping.

Although the temperature was only 93, it seemed much warmer. We estimated the humidity to be approximately 4,000,000, and so an unexpected challenge was having our sweat drip into the paint and dilute the colors. Fortunately, the Ms. Sarah Faulkner kept us hydrated, and we continued to plug away.

We quickly learned who was in the best shape, and to protect reputations, we will not discuss this matter further. Although we would note that we had to help Professor Yawn up the Wynne Home stairs after about an hour…

One of the nice things about painting is that it provide some immediate gratification, as you see the designs take shape and the colors become more vivid.

Following the painting, we turned our attention to the Wynne Home sign up front, which had weathered snow, ice, heat, humidity, and high winds, just in the last six months!

After much scrubbing, we were happy with the new-ish look, and we at times felt we were in the clouds!

It was a wonderful day. The Wynne Home was beautiful prior to the touchups, and we felt we had a little role in beautifying it further!