Tag Archives: road trip

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 2022 – 2

Now, Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays isn’t just about a crew of outré vendors offering everything to diaphanized animals to carnivorous plants, although that IS a major draw. This year as last, HFTH runs a silent auction for the SAFE Alliance, and this year’s auction table was just packed with entries. Naturally, the Triffid Ranch had entries both for SAFE and for the separate auction to defray Blood Over Texas expenses, and there’s no feeling quite like an auction winner coming by the booth to ask more questions about their new plant to make sure they’re doing everything right. Folks, THIS is why I do this.

And thus ends the 2022 Triffid Ranch show season, I want to thank everyone coming out to Horror For the Holidays for helping with a record show season, picking my brain for carnivorous plant information, and generally coming by to say hello, and major thanks are in order to both the incredibly hard-working Blood Over Texas staff and my fellow vendors, without whom we wouldn’t have a show at all. The next planned Triffid Ranch trip to Austin is next June for the Oddities & Curiosities Expo, but already plans are congealing for next year’s Horror for the Holidays, currently scheduled for December 2 and 3 at the Palmer Events Center. I look forward to surprising everyone next year as well.

Fin.

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 2022 – 1

Among many other things, the events of 2022, gave a great opportunity to go through inventory and pull out a lot of containers previously in storage. One of the regular questions asked at Triffid Ranch events is “Where did you get all of these weird containers?”, and this was a question asked a lot at last month’s Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show in Austin. The absolutely honest answer is also the most worthless: “All over the place.” The bottles, jars, pots, and other containers used for smaller carnivorous plants come from commercial sources, thrift shops, estate sales, and friends who ask “”Hey, could you use this weird container that is just taking up space at my house?” If it can keep a plant hale and hearty, it’ll probably get used, but the trick is finding containers that best suit Triffid Ranch customers, and that’s always a challenge.

The other question asked repeatedly, concerning the plethora of wine and liquor bottles used for sundews and butterworts, is “Did you drink ALL of this?” Considering the number of bottles put up on display at Triffid Ranch shows, I suspect the Fitzgeralds, Hunter S. Thompson, and Brendan Behan would have balked at this much booze. The secret is spreading things out: friends donate a few bottles at a time, local bartenders donate a few bottles at a time, and others are collected at parties and events where they’re already being pitched. (A little tip for those concerned that this might be personal consumption: I cannot drink and have less than no interest in other mind-altering substances, so if you read an obituary involving either alcohol poisoning or opiate overdose, know that my death was murder.)

That isn’t the only source, though. Right now, thrift stores, garage sales, and estate sales are full of those display bottles full of pickled peppers that used to be a stalwart at Pier One stores in the 1980s, and many of them are absolutely perfect for sundews. The trick is getting the peppers out of them, and that’s a secret I’m not sharing.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 2022 – Introduction

Shows and conventions come and go, for various reasons, and it’s the outstanding events that are still plugging along five years later. This year marked the sixth since one Bunny Voodoo came up to me at a Texas Frightmare Weekend and let me know about a little November gift bazaar in Austin, and I figured “You know, it’s time to start hitting shows outside of Dallas and Fort Worth.” All these years later, with all that’s happened since then, and Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays is still going strong.

Nearly two-thirds of a decade later, both Horror for the Holidays and the Triffid Ranch are a lot bigger than they were in November 2016. HFTH has grown considerably from its one-day origins in a little Austin club, now taking over a significant portion of the Palmer Events Center in downtown Austin. It’s stretched out to two days of outré gifts and other weirdness, and it even has its own official vendor and attendee hotel. (Let me tell you: coming into town in time for the World Cup, when every last hotel lobby and takeout restaurant television screen is blasting futbol coverage and everyone in the place is glued to the results, is an experience.) It’s also running right on Thanksgiving weekend, which means that if you pick just the right time to leave Dallas, it’s a remarkably relaxing road trip, especially now that the Mad Max: Fury Road cosplay ground known as “Interstate 35 Passing Through Waco” is no more.

For various reasons, getting to, unloading, and setting up for Horror For the Holidays was particularly stress-free, with everything coming together on a particularly auspicious anniversary: the 25th anniversary of my leaving Portland, Oregon. In addition, for various reasons, this was a show loaded for bear, with a truckload bigger than any Triffid Ranch event leaving Dallas ever put together. Combine the two, with all of the space available at the Palmer, and this was a show for the record books.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – Finale

Every show away from the gallery brings up the eternal question about the volume of plants being hauled out: “Too little or too much?” Last year’s Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo pushed that to the limit, with nearly everything being hauled off, so the plan this year was to bring out as much as was humanly possible. With previous years’ interference gone, the plan was to pack the van as tightly as possible with as many plants as possible, short of strapping goldfish bowls to the roof. (Considering the heat that weekend and the perpetual traffic jam that is the city of Waco, the halfway point between Dallas and Austin, that might not have gone over well.) Seemingly impossibly, the crowds at the Expo were even larger than last year’s: most shows start to peter out about an hour before closing, but many vendors, myself included, were still making sales a half-hour after the official close of the show, and a lot of us went back home with nearly-empty cars, vans, and trucks. Many of us are loath to admit that we were almost glad that the Expos are only one-day shows: if the Austin Expo ran for two days, I’d have needed a 15-foot truck to hold everything.

And that finishes it up. Many, many thanks are extended to the crew at Oddities & Curiosities Expo for managing to pull this off at so many locations every year, more thanks are extended to neighboring vendors who had to listen to me extol the features of carnivorous plants for eight hours (all of my neighbors were an absolute hoot, by the way), and the most thanks to the people who figured that Austin summer heat was no reason to stay home that weekend. Thank you all again, and now I have to make plans to exceed everyone’s expectations for 2023.

Fin.

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 7

As of the beginning of May, the Triffid Ranch has been appearing at shows and events for 14 years, starting with the much-missed CAPE events run by Zeus Comics in Dallas on Free Comic Book Day. (Technically, they started even earlier, when the famed artist Lea Seidman hired me to be her booth bimbo at CAPE shows and I’d drag along plants to show what I’d been doing since I quit writing.) In that time, EVERYTHING has changed, especially in the world of shows catering to the strange and esoteric. The focus has changed from “this is the only place you’ll find this odd stuff” to “the audience needs a good reason to come out in person instead of buying online,” and some shows get this. Others don’t, which is why so many comics and memorabilia shows are now overloaded with essential oil and other MLM dealers, and others are needing to crowdsource to get operations money because they can’t guarantee enough of a turnout to pay the bills. (Mark my words: a lot of old-school literary science fiction conventions will be dead before the middle of the decade because they’re still waiting for 1985 to roll back around and make them relevant again. As it stands, they’re doing next to nothing to attract new audiences and their existing audience is dying of old age: I’m 55, and when I’m one of the youngest people at a convention, either as an attendee or a vendor, it isn’t a good sign.)
I’m very glad to say that the Oddities & Curiosities Expo gets this, and continues to be very careful about the variety of vendors it allows every year. I’m very honored to be one of those who makes the cut every year, and I do my utmost to raise the stakes on plant selection and variety each time so as to return the sentiment. I’m also glad of the audience, because they give extra inducement to push the limits every time. Thank you all.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 6

For most people attending shows and events in summer, especially a Texas summer, precious few are making plans for next year. For those of us vending, though, the vast majority are watching for announcements of registration for tables and booths with the intensity of a starving python and about half the table manners. For those whose livelihood depends upon moving across the country following events, it’s all about the logistics of which show and when, particularly when three big and popular shows run on the same weekend and chopping oneself into thirds simply isn’t an option. For those of us with day jobs to augment the hustle, the priority switches to “How many vacation days do I have next year, what is the absolute furthest I can drive after a show and still go to work on Monday, and how badly will the boss freak out if I have vehicle trouble and can’t get back for two or three days?” (Don’t laugh. I’ve seen it happen.)

Even though the emphasis today is on events held at the gallery instead of traveling shows, the Triffid Ranch is already making plans, starting with the 2023 Oddities & Curiosities Expo schedule. Now, we won’t get that until Halloween, and there’s no guarantee that the Triffid Ranch can or will get into any of the planned shows: I acknowledge that I’m up against some absolutely incredible artists and dealers. One thing is for certain, though: Dallas and Austin are going remain on the event schedule because of their popularity, and 2023 just might be the year that the Triffid Ranch leaves the state. If this means Little Rock, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City, well, that depends upon the time of the year. (I would have loved to have been a vendor at the New Orleans Expo, if only because of the number of much-missed friends in Nola, but this year’s show was at the beginning of the year, and that just wouldn’t have been possible for multiple reasons.) As everyone learns more, the details will be shared. I promise.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 5

One of the regular questions that comes up at Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows is “Do you have anything that’s native?” Well, that’s an interesting question, in more ways than one. Now, if the question applies to Texas in general, we have quite a few, from the famed sundews of the Bastrop pines to the Sarracenia of the Big Thicket in far east Texas. (I had been told for years that only one species, Sarracenia rubra, was native to Texas, and then Dylan Sheng of Plano Carnivorous Plants shared photos of big stands of Sarracenia alata in East Texas. Because Sarracenia habitat is notorious for poaching, and many carnivore bogs are now threatened both by poaching and habitat destruction, Dylan didn’t share the location and I’m the last person to press the issue.) As far as Dallas and Austin are concerned, though, there are no known carnivores in either area, so anyone insisting upon native plants is out of luck.

Note that I said “known carnivores,” however. The reality is that new carnivores are discovered all of the time in the most unlikely places, with about five new species described per year and a new genus every two to five. This doesn’t include previously known plants later confirmed carnivorous (Triantha occidentais in Oregon is a great example, as is the carnivorous passionflower Passiflora foetida), or known carnivores found in new places, such as the Venus flytrap colony found near Pensacola, Florida. This is why I emphasize the “known” part and encourage younger carnivore enthusiasts to keep exploring, because the odds are good of someone discovering a previously unknown carnivore hiding in plain sight.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 4

One of the regular questions asked at Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows is “Where do you get all of the great pots you have?” Well, that’s a funny story. They literally come from all over: garage sales, gifts from friends and cohorts (I was given a large number of odd pots by my late mother-in-law, and I’m hanging onto one especially wonderful pot from her for a very special plant), on the side of the road after someone moved out of a house or apartment, repurposed items never really intended to be plant containers…there’s no telling. All that matters is that they’re distinctive, and that they can hold potting mix and water.

The last part is the hardest. Most houseplants prefer well-drained soil, but carnivores prefer boggy conditions, and that means that the drainage hole has to go. Most container and urban gardening books have extensive instructions on how to drill holes in the bottoms of containers so they can be reused as flower pots, but ask “But what if I want to seal up a previously established hole?”, crickets. Let’s just say that the extensively reorganized backstock of pots for upcoming shows has a shelf dedicated to upcoming carnivore conversions, and epoxy putty is an old and dear companion.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 3

People previously unfamiliar with the touring Oddities & Curiosities Expo tend to ask me “So what else is at the Expos besides carnivorous plants?” I can give generic assessments on the amount of interesting things, ranging from antique taxidermy to pottery to candles, available at each show, but I can’t give particulars half of the time because I’m lucky to see the outside of the booth the whole day. By way of example, I didn’t know Dead Dave Designs was at the Austin Expo until I read about it on Instagram the next day. This is in no way a complaint about the intensity of the crowds, but the advantage I had in the Triffid Ranch booth being next to the restrooms in the event center hall was that I actually saw a few fellow vendors, such as Demetria of The Curiositeer, as they were using the facilities before leaving that evening. The crowds weren’t impassable, but they were consistent, and most of us vendors were still taking care of customers a half-hour after the show was officially closed.

Even better, with some shows, you see a lot of returning customers after a few years, but the Expos are always a mix of long-timers, old friends (literally, in some cases: I was able to talk with a friend from the beginning of my writing days in the late 1980s whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years), and a whole lot of new people who wanted to see what the big deal was about. I can only imagine the number of lifetime friendships started there over chance encounters over a hippopotamus skull, as well as the number of kids in a decade who learn “Your father and I met RIGHT HERE, in front of a moose head.”

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 2

One of the surprises this year has been how smoothly shows have run so far. The original Triffid Ranch business plan for 2022 was to expand both growing area and variety of plants available, only for everything to shift drastically in January. A new greenhouse, a new Sarracenia growing area, and a markedly improved container and supply storage system certainly helped, as did the surprise freezes in February and March that led to significantly larger and more energetic blooms on all of the temperate carnivores. On a personal level, losing 15 kilos and being able to start a new exercise regimen meant being able to get trucks loaded ahead of schedule. It’s to the point where, combined with the new hair style and color, returning customers asking “Where’s the other guy?” are asking this legitimately, instead of it just coming from scammers telling me “the other guy” agreed they could take a plant without paying.

Because the one factor that made being timely so difficult is now gone, it’s actually possible to make plans for 2023, especially as far as road trips are concerned. The Texas Oddities & Curiosities Expos are doing so well that the hope is to do what was originally planned for 2020 and take the Triffid Ranch outside of Texas. With luck, the scheduling for shows in New Orleans and Oklahoma City should allow the opportunity to make more epic road trips, and we should know if that’s possible when the Expo crew releases its 2023 show schedule on Halloween.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2022 – 1

It’s now been four years since the Triffid Ranch first set up at the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo, and three years since the first road trip to Austin’s Expo, and I have only one concern. Right now, the Expo is becoming a gigantic show on a par with Texas Frightmare Weekend, and attracts much of the same crowd. (In fact, several attendees came by specifically because they heard about the Expos at Frightmare this year.) The only difference is that the Texas Frightmare Weekend crew spend all year preparing for each show, planning events and activities so everyone attending gets the maximum entertainment value for their admission. The Oddities & Curiosities Expo crew doesn’t have big media guests, but still pulls off a similarly massive event…and manages to do this nearly every weekend through the year, traveling all over the United States to do so.

Now, looking at how the Expo crew manages a touring event like this without visible issues, some people might argue that this is the future of traveling conventions, and everyone with similar events had best get their acts together. Others might posit that the maturity of the internet makes big traveling events like this possible in the first place, and events like this wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago. All I can say is that it behooves us all to do everything we can to keep the Expo crew hale, hearty, and happy, because we all need to know how they do it and whether it involves bathing in the cerebralspinal fluid of virgins.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays 7 – 4

Finally, it should be noted that I’m always fascinated with fictional milieus based on real places, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the filmmaker Mike Judge lives in Austin. The Palmer Events Center definitely inspired one of his greatest films: between event security being absolutely absent other than at closing and a concession stand where payments for $4 cokes had to be made by credit card because employees couldn’t be trusted with money (and where the credit card reader didn’t work), I had to compliment some of the best cosplay at Horror for the Holidays that I’d seen in decades. To be honest, I was surprised that Center management didn’t get involved: it’s always good to see UT-Austin law grads and business majors doing what they do best. (It could be worse. For the first time in over 35 years, I had to sign a form confirming that I knew that smoking wasn’t allowed in my hotel room, because of the number of college football goofballs in town over the last two months who claimed they couldn’t read the “No Smoking Within 100 Feet of All Doors and Windows” signs on nearly every surface.)

That said, Blood Over Texas knows how to run a show, and there’s a reason why the Horror for the Holidays autumn spectacular has been doubling in size every year. Many thanks to the Blood Over Texas crew, fellow vendors, associated events (particularly the Bat City Scaregrounds crew, who regularly came by to keep people laughing), and all of the attendees who braved torrential rains and UT helicopter parents to make Horror for the Holidays what it is. Now to get ready for next year: I have a lot of peppers to get potted up to keep up with demand.

The next Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show is tentatively scheduled for the weekend of November 19, 2022. Details will be shared as they become available.

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays 7 – 3

Most of Texas is still coming to terms with longterm damage from the statewide freeze last February, and that includes the Triffid Ranch. A lot of plants that gave every indication of surviving when things warmed up in June finally gave up in October and November, and we’re all a bit shell-shocked over what the upcoming winter might entail. We might get an abnormally warm winter, based on every indication, but those same indications gave no warning of the freeze, either. Based on previous experience, we probably have about another three years before we get anything approximating significant snow or ice, but with changes in weather patterns over the last 20 years, anything is possible.

One of the big near-misses involved hot peppers: the original plan when the February freeze hit was to get pepper seeds started, and this came very close to happening the Sunday the first storm hit. Because of other commitments, that didn’t happen, which meant that attendees at the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show last week got something other than carnivorous plants for their troubles, Both the Black Pearl and Numex Halloween peppers were extremely popular, and the current plan is to have a few more varieties from the Chile Pepper Institute available in 2022. This year’s peppers are going to get special consideration: after the holidays, any remaining peppers are going to become bonsai.

To Be Continued…

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays 7 – 2

It’s all fun and games until someone gets a hernia. One of the many additional activities at the latest Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show was a silent auction to benefit the SAFE Alliance, and the silent auction included the Nepenthes spectrabilis enclosure Weintraub Gate. Next time, Horror for the Holidays gets a custom enclosure exclusive to the show, as Weintraub Gate was exceedingly popular, and helped Blood Over Texas gather a record amount for the SAFE Alliance. Next time, though, I’m going to promote that enclosure with the proviso “Be sure to bring your own cart and transportation,” as the last thing you want to consider after winning a huge carnivorous plant enclosure is “how the hell do I get this home?” More things for which to prepare in 2022…

To Be Continued…

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays 7 – 1

If nothing else came from five years of trips to Austin for the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays events, it’s an appreciation for packing. Every out-of-town Triffid Ranch show is a wrangle with making sure that everything that might be needed is there, because going back to get that one forgotten or misplaced item just isn’t going to happen. A cart with pneumatic tires usually needs an air pump at the worst possible moment, and being halfway through a show load-in is the absolute worst possible time to have to break to find a store with said air pump that’s open. Name tags get misplaced, shipping tubs break while handling, tables get left at the gallery, packing materials shift and allow fragile glass items to bump into each other for the next four hours…you name it, it’s been an issue.

(Many, many moons back, I came across a book on camping that instilled the most valuable lesson possible about long vendor trips. This book made a recommendation about backpack camping that started with doing lots of little campouts in the back yard or around the corner, and then pulling out everything and placing it into three piles. The first pile consisted of items used multiple times per day, the second pile of items used once or twice, and the third pile of items that weren’t used at all. The book continued, “If you’re smart, you’ll leave the contents of Pile 2 and 3 at home.” The obverse is also true: only with a lot of small trips can you recognize the items that you may only need once or twice a year, but that will completely mess up the entire show if they get left behind. That’s why the air pump always goes in the truck.)

That, incidentally, explains why the gallery exists. Above a certain size, not only do larger enclosures risk damage from road vibrations, potholes, and the Austin driver habit of rushing in front of eight vehicles to stop dead to make a right-hand turn, but that damage could turn deadly. A large enclosure full of live plants and wet sphagnum moss is ungainly under the best of circumstances, but if it fell apart during a move due to transport damage, that usually means irregularly sized sheets of broken glass. If that just happened in the truck, that’s an annoying and expensive cleanup. If that happens while actually moving the enclosure from the truck to a waiting stand or cart…well, the phrase “bled out before the ambulance arrived” runs through my head often enough that the enclosures brought to outside-of-Dallas shows tend to be smaller ones.

To Be Continued…

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 7 – Introduction

Five years ago, after years of sticking to events in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area, the Triffid Ranch took a big leap. After being introduced to one Bunny Voodoo of a new Austin horror-related gift market called “Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays,” it made sense to start taking the gallery, or a portion of it, on the road. Specifically, the first test involved getting a rental van and trekking the 220 miles (354 km) between the gallery and Austin, the Texas state capitol. The bright side: Dallas and Austin are connected by Interstate Highway I-35, requiring no major digressions to the destination. The bad side: I-35 is famous and more than a bit notorious for being in a perpetual state of repair, upgrading, and necessary maintenance, meaning that a “typical” trip to Austin uses a lot more white knuckles, gritted teeth, excessive stomach acid, and expanded vocabularies of appropriate profanities than someone outside of Texas would expect.

Mind you, all of this is worth it. The first Horror for the Holidays show with a Triffid Ranch booth (the second so far) was held in a local club with a reputation for hardcore shows, and It worked beautifully for several years. Problem was, it became far too small for the audience, so in 2019 it moved to a new venue on the edge of Austin. After that, COVID-19 hit, necessitating a virtual show in 2020, and then the new venue was claimed by the city for emergency equipment storage, requiring yet another move. This time, it really moved up, relocating to the Palmer Events Center in downtown Austin, the same location used by the Oddities & Curiosities Expo crew. In a half-decade, the show had gone from a one-day gig with maybe a dozen vendors to a major event.

This time around, the venue wasn’t the only change. In the beginning, Horror for the Holidays ran shortly after Halloween before settling in the weekend before American Thanksgiving. This time, because of venue availability, it ran the weekend after American Thanksgiving, a weekend not normally known for horror events. It’s a true testament to the Blood Over Texas crew that not only did they make it work, but they made it work even with a torrential downpour the morning of the first day, and thunderstorms in Austin tend to be as wildly overacting as Dallas ones.

To Be Continued…

The Aftermath: Armadillocon 2021 – 2

One of the biggest surprises about the dealer’s room at Armadillocon 2021 is how much things have changed since my last visit in 2000. For the longest time, the main dealer emphasis at litcons (conventions where the main emphasis was on printed fiction and nonfiction instead of other media) was on books and periodicals: back in 2000, convention dealers were the main access to rare or obscure books and almost the only way to learn more about up-and-coming magazines. Obviously, a lot has changed in the intervening two decades: book purchasing is a matter of a quick Amazon search, and the crash of both traditional magazine and zine distribution in the early Aughts is why so many new short fiction outlets are online-only, with the occasional hard-copy Kickstarter so the publisher isn’t stuck with cases of unsold copies. Both of these developments mean that the current dealer pivot is toward art, reference materials, and inspirations, and carnivorous plants seem to be quite the inspiration.

As to what the future holds, that’s a really good question. On an immediate level, everything with Armadillocon’s schedule depends upon availability of Austin hotels, which are apparently packed every weekend with football-obsessed alumni this time of the year. The general response to the Triffid Ranch table was overwhelmingly positive, but the biggest issue involves getting down to Austin in the first place: if subsequent shows are held in October, this isn’t a problem, but if the 2022 convention runs at the end of August, unfortunately the heat risk to the plants is far too high, We’ll figure it out.

In any case, many thanks are owed to the folks who came out to Armadillocon this time around, particularly longtime online cohorts who finally had the chance to make in-person acquaintanceships. Special thanks to Lillian Butler for making the dealer’s room situation happen, and now it’s just a matter of waiting for a final 2022 schedule. As far as other litcons are concerned, the schedule for 2022 in-person and virtual lectures and presentations is currently open, and for those who couldn’t make it this time, make plans for the Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show at Palmer Event Center in downtown Austin on Thanksgiving weekend. And so it goes.

Fin.

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 5

Come into the story midway? Try starting at the beginning.

And in the end, the Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo was over. Eight hours after the doors opened, the gigantic crowds finally trickled out, and all of the vendors took assessment of what we had left and what we had to replace before our next shows. I just looked at one neighbor and said “If I’d sold just a little bit more, I could leave the van and fly home.” Slight exaggeration, but it came close.

Obviously, everyone who came out was VERY happy. It wasn’t just a matter of people wanting to get out of the house: The Expos keep proving that not only is there a market for the macabre in Texas, but that audience keeps growing. Between these and Texas Frightmare Weekend, Halloween really will be that day when we let the amateurs have their fun. As someone who took decades of grief over “why can’t you just be normal?”, vindication is sweet, especially when it’s shared with friends, cohorts, and fellow unindicted coconspirators.

With such a massive show, many thanks are in order. Obviously, the crew behind every Oddities & Curiosities Expo deserves accolades for pulling off such massive shows without so much as a hiccup, but the fellow vendors do as well. (A tip: go check out Nicole Pangas Ceramics not just because her work is fascinating, but because we Michigan kids stick together. Meanwhile, I’ll always plug The Curiositeer because you always take care of your little sister, even if neither of you share common DNA.) An additional plug for Green Mesquite BBQ on Barton Springs: I only survived breakdown on Saturday evening because I knew I had a few kilos of sausage and pork ribs waiting for me at the hotel once I was done. Most of all, thanks to everyone who came out, whether or not you bought anything, because your interesting and unexpected questions are why this whole shebeen goes on tour. Now to get back to work and finish restocking, I haven’t come back from a show with so little since Texas Frightmare Weekend 2018, and this was after just one day, not three. I don’t think any of us would have survived if the Expo had run on Sunday as well, although I’m willing to test that in Dallas next year.

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 4

Come into the story midway? Try starting at the beginning.

Visitors to Texas in May and June might notice what appears to be snow accumulating in random spots, particularly in places near water. No, this is not snow, and natives and longtime residents will scream that fact with an underlying cosmic horror. THIS IS NOT SNOW. What you’re witnessing, as I personally experienced when stepping outside my hotel room for the Oddities & Curiosities Expo in Austin, is the reproductive cycle of what could qualify as the most typically Texan lifeform in existence, the cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides).

Most residents have a decided love-hate relationship with cottonwood trees, and take great pains to relate the “hate” part. P. deltoides is found all over Texas and New Mexico, usually concentrated around water in otherwise dry areas. They’ve found a second life as opportunists in urban and suburban areas, where their roots head straight for the nearest water, gumming up sewer and drainage lines. The trees themselves are very short-lived on average, and tend to drop large branches during storms, usually directly atop houses. The “fluff” transports seeds long distances, and after the seeds drop off in gardens and on the edges of ponds and streams, the fluff clogs air conditioner vents and car air filters. The fluff also sets off allergies and contact dermatitis among those sensitive to such things, and most summers are spent fighting horrendous itches that only get worse after a shower or swim. The wood is so lightweight that downed branches make poor firewood, and burning green cottonwood makes everything smell like cat urine and/or an anime convention. They choke out other trees, destroy sidewalks and driveways, and cut off light to gardens. Worst of all, they grow so rapidly that someone who accidentally lets one grow next to their house finds out the hard way exactly how expensive they are to remove, especially when grafted into a sewer line or (worse) septic tank.

And then there are the positives. Yes, cottonwoods are very short-lived, but in the process, they produce valuable habitat for everything from beetles to raccoons, through all stages of their life cycle. The seeds borne on the fluff are a valuable food source in summer for birds and ants, and many late-nesting birds use the fluff for nesting material. The trees provide shade without killing the grasses and bushes underneath, and usually come back from storm damage faster than introduced trees. They take in tremendous amounts of water, but through transpiration create microclimates for other organisms that otherwise couldn’t handle Texas summers. The wood that’s so terrible for firewood makes great habitat for everything living and growing around a decaying log, and ultimately breaks up Texas clay and chalk and produces increasingly rich soil in the end. The Spanish word for cottonwood is “alamo,” and many Texas cities started around missions and villages founded around the water sources that the cottonwoods revealed. (As palaeontologists are sick of repeating, the titanosaur Alamosaurus wasn’t named after THE Alamo, but after Ojo Alamo in New Mexico, which translates to “Cottonwood Spring.”) Yes, they’re cantankerous and annoying, but ultimately they do good, like so many of the humans here. I just wish the fluff wasn’t so ridiculously itchy.

To be continued

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 3

Come into the story midway? Try starting at the beginning.

There’s a lot of good things to be said about the general organization of the touring Oddities & Curiosities Expo shows from an attendee’s POV, but most people don’t have a perspective from the vendor’s side. There’s a lot to be said about the professionalism and efficiency of the Oddities crew from setup to final breakdown, but they do one thing I’d love to see at other events, all over the place.

Complimentary cart service.

You see, Oddities & Curiosities vendors carry all sorts of interesting stuff. Besides the narcissistic jerkwad with the carnivorous plants at the Texas shows, you have everything from ceramics to vintage taxidermy, and not all of it is easy to move. Unless you came prepared with a cart, this is a major problem for a lot of customers, where they’d love to get something nice and hefty but don’t have any easy way to get it to their cars, and it’s way too heavy to carry. The vendors would love to help, but between surging crowds and only having one person to watch the booth, the only option is to arrange pickup after the room closes for the day. If that’s not an option, then the customer walks away from something they really want, the vendor watches a sale walk away, and nobody’s happy. This is especially bad at events such as reptile and amphibian shows, where the critters aren’t anywhere near as heavy as new cages and accessories. The world for a handcart and someone to hold open doors.

That’s where the Oddities & Curiosities crew particularly excels. As I watched, several members patrolled the aisles with handcarts and blankets, ready to move someone’s new purchase out front so it could be picked up and taken home with a minimum of aggravation. This was particularly pertinent to a neighbor at the Austin show, who had an absolutely beautiful hippopotamus skull for purchase but no way to break free to move it for a buyer. The Oddities crew was right on it, with everyone happy, and a crowd of interested passersby turning the trip to the front doors into an impromptu parade.

Because of the sheer glee of customers happy with their purchases, I’d like to see more of this at other shows. Speaking from experience, I’d like to see a cart rental service at ZestFest alone: you have no idea how much just “a few” barbecue sauce and salsa containers weigh until one arm is permanently longer than the other and you’re walking like a Japanese waltzing mouse for two hours after the show.

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 2

Come into the story midway? Try starting at the beginning.

Even with longtime and native residents, there’s always something about Texas summers that brings out the desperate optimist. It won’t be that bad this time. June will be nice, and the real heat won’t hit until July. Oh, we’re going to get a break in August. No, really: we’ll finally start cooling off in November. You know, New Zealand, South Africa, and Antarctica are really nice this time of the year. My first summer here was during the Heat Wave of 1980, which set records only exceeded in 2011, so after that trauma, it’s hard not to engage in magical thinking and see all sorts of hints that yes, it won’t be that bad.

That magical thinking doubles when traveling between cities, as with the trek between Citadel and the Bullet Farm, erm, I mean, between Dallas and Austin for the Oddities & Curiosities Expo on June 19. The trip always takes longer than predicted because the midway point runs through the town of Waco (contrary to popular perception, the town’s name is pronounced WAY-co), and any time gained from an otherwise clear highway the rest of the way is burned off from the perpetual hours-long traffic jam passing by Baylor College. Then there’s the fun of having a van full of live plants and glass, stuck in motionless traffic as the van’s thermometer keeps reminding you that the hoped-for cool temperatures for that Friday are turning back into pumpkins and mice. By the time the perpetual traffic jam in downtown Austin let up enough to allow traffic off the highway and into downtown proper, those “unseasonably cool temperatures” teased the previous Monday hit 106F (40C), and with maybe 15 minutes to unload the truck at the Palmer Event Center before they had to kick everyone out for the night. Ah, Waco. Is there anything you can’t do?

To be continued…

The Aftermath: Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo 2021 – 1

Come into the story midway? Try starting at the beginning.

Much is made about the perceived rivalry between Austin and Dallas, but both cities share one very important common trait: dust. Oh so much DUST. Most of the year, the southern wind that blows across the center of Texas from the Gulf of Mexico picks up untold tons of dust from the Austin area. It’s mostly carbonate rock dust, both from natural erosion of limestone and chalk deposits in Central Texas (there’s a reason why one of the major rock formations in the state is called “the Austin Chalk”) and from incessant construction, and it’s supplemented by passing over the cement kilns that make up the main tourist attraction for the town of Midlothian, which swears that the kilns no longer use toxic and/or low-level radioactive waste as fuel. It comes down in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and lingers like a hipster houseguest, working its way into eyes and throats, gumming up lubricated surfaces, and making Dyson vacuum cleaners and air filters work for their living. We get revenge, though: starting in October, the winds shift and start blasting out of the north, and all of that dust that accumulated on every surface all summer long blows right back to Austin. Enough remains, though, to remind us: when it finally gets cool enough in autumn to justify turning on heaters in Dallas, the accumulated eight months or so on heater coils burns off, and the whole city smells a little like Austin for a day or so.

All things considered, we could have worse things than dust. There’s the distinctive chemical plant fug of Manistee, Michigan, or the burned green bean aroma of the multitude of microbreweries in Portland, Oregon. We SAY this, and then we make road trips in either direction, get out of our vehicles, and spend the next six hours washing off, brushing off, or vacuuming off what was once Cretaceous seabed mixed with bits of dinosaur dung. Yeah, and it tastes like it, too.