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Mission Chasing in Texas
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Mission Chasing in Texas

Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2009 - 2017

Day One: Flyin' to Tejas
Last year we had waited an hour and a half for a parking space at the Flyaway, this year, we took a taxi to the Flyaway. We departed Los Angeles International (LAX) on time and our Boeing 767 flew us across California, Arizona, New Mexico and somewhere over Texas the clouds cleared. I watched farm lands pass below us as we approached Dallas-Fort Worth, landing about on time. The terminal in LA and the car rental in Texas were both crowded but eventually we got through the long lines and were heading east into Dallas. I missed the turn and wanted to drive through Dallas anyway, so we drove around down town a little before resuming our search for the motel. Dallas has some interesting skyscrapers and I tried to photograph a few, but it was hard on unfamiliar streets to get a good position. After an hour driving off the freeway, and a bit lost by this time, my wife called out, "There it is!" as I almost missed our motel. We had a simple dinner at IHOP, about the only place we found open this Christmas evening, and returned to our room for a good night sleep.
Day Two: Rangers and Capitol and Wind
We awoke early, enjoyed the continental breakfast which included Texas shaped waffles, and were on our way about 8:30. We headed south on Highway 35, stopping at a rest stop where the wind was impossible to ignore. After a bit less than two hours we came to Waco, infamous for the Branch Dividian - FBI siege which began on February 28, 1993 and ended 51 days later in a deadly assault and fire on April 19, 1993. Not much remains and I chose not to go looking for it. Instead we toured the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum which sits beside the river and contained many interesting exhibits. It was in the gift shop where I completed the first of my three goals for the trip when I bought a very nice Texas Ranger hat. There are plans to expand the complex at some point in the future so maybe we will return some day. On the way out, we met two brothers, originally from Southern California, one now lives in Texas and the other lives in Orange County. We drove past an interesting piece of architecture which turned out to be Baylor University.
We continued south and stopped at another rest area, the Bell County Safety Rest Area. There was a large round window that reminded me of a water wheel. Inside there was an exhibit featuring simplified milling equipment with exhibits of the surrounding area. I think it was the nicest rest area I've ever seen. Outside, the wind blew hard as we continued south on I-35. One other thing I noticed about roadside architecture in Texas, where as I am used to seeing rest stops spaced along the road, Texas also has picnic areas along the road. There are no facilities, then it would be a rest stop, there are simply a few picnic tables and tash cans beside a parking area to the side of the road. Having flown to Texas, we hadn't brought any food, but in California, we sometimes wish for such places.
Finally we arrived in Austin and quickly spotted the dome of the State Capitol, the largest in the country - of course. We first stopped at the Visitor Center, the former Spanish Land Office. We had a nice lunch at a trendy little place called Little City, which was uncrowded, despite being one of the few places in the area open the day after Christmas.
The thing I noticed most about the tour of the Texas State Capitol was that it was very popular. Last May in Utah, there were three of us on the tour, today there were about one hundred. The guide did his best to tell the crowd about Travis and Austin and Houston, and the battles and treaties, and why the star is used as a symbol everywhere and on everything. We toured the chambers for both houses and finally ended up in the old basement and the new annex. After touring the interior, we walked around the outside. On the north side, where the annex is, the wind was blowing the flag so fiercely, the snap was echoing off the surrounding buildings.
We always try to see the Governors Mansions in the states that we visit, sometimes just driving by. In the case of Texas, the mansion began a major maintenance (probably George's wild parties) in October of 2007 and suffered a fire during the renovation. Today it looked more like a construction site than a home. So I shot one photo from across the street while a guard watched, and drove on.
About half way to San Antonio we had an incident that emphasized why I like to rent a car like my own. I couldn't understand why I was being pulled over by a police officer until he explained that despite the illuminated instrument panel of the rental car, my headlights were off. We pulled off the freeway long enough to figure it out and continued on our way. We found our hotel easily enough and nearby enjoyed dinner at Carino's Italian. Back in the room, my wife internetted while I fell asleep.
Day Three: On a Mission with a Cold
I awoke to find that my scratchy throat from yesterday had become a cold or flu. We got ready a little slower than usual and headed downtown traveling north on Highway 37. I started to follow the signs to the Alamo, then when I saw the signs to the National Park, where four of the five missions in San Antonio can be found. I followed the signs to the park instead. It was when we returned to our hotel early after the second mission that we discovered that the hotel wasn't far from the missions - earlier we drove the two long sides of a narrow triangle instead of one short side.
We first arrived at Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion which is the northern most, and closest to down town, of the four missions. The Mission was transferred here from East Texas in 1731 after trying Austin for a year. We got an orientation at the small Visitor Center then walked the short distance to the mission. The one thing most apparent to someone from California, is that these missions are of stone and in an absence of earthquakes, still fairly well preserved. The church is the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States. We walked around the outside, then through the interior, and finally a small holy place of rock and statues to the side.
We next drove the short distance to Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, founded in 1720. This is the only one of the four National Park Missions in San Antonio to have been founded in San Antonio. The other three, like Concepcion, were founded in east Texas and moved here. San Jose is considered the Queen of the Missions and is larger than the other with a large quadrangle enclosing several acres and the church. Just outside the wall is the grist mill where a ranger was milling wheat flour. The Visitor Center was larger than the one at Concepcion and runs a 25 minute video about mission life.
From here we got directions to the closest places for my wife to get lunch and coffee and when we realized we were only two blocks from the hotel, we took it as a sign for me to take my cold/flu to bed. I slept most of the rest of the day and had microwaved chicken soup for dinner.
Day Four: Still On a Mission and Still Under the Weather.
I was awakened about 5 AM by the clap of thunder and fell back asleep. By the time I got up about 6, it had stopped raining. The cold/flu was still with me, but I felt a little more able to tour the remaining missions. We started by attending mass at Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo and reshot a few areas. Everything was wet and there were fewer people than yesterday.
We next stopped at the Espada Aqueduct on the way to Mission San Juan. A two-arch bridge carried water over another waterway and on to Mission Espada. It was the aqueduct that made agriculture possible in this arid climate.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was moved to this site in 1731 from east Texas. The site was larger than Concepcion, but the buildings are not as well preserved. The ranger was very informative and helped us plan future mission hunts.
The last of the four National Park missions we visited was San Francisco de la Espada which was founded in 1690 as San Francisco de los Tejos, the oldest of the east Texas missions. Like San Juan, the site was large, but the buildings less preserved. Often disused missions were used as sources for building material for alter buildings. As the southern most of the four National Park missions, it is least visited. A priest had a little shop adjacent to the church where he made and sold hand crafted glass objects that were quite beautiful. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at Espada Dam which fed the aqueduct we saw a few hours earlier. By modern standards, it's not a large dam, but in its day it provided important water for irrigation.
Since I was still feeling ill, we returned to our hotel far a half hour before heading off to San Antonio's first mission, the famous Alamo. Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first mission in the San Antonio area, but had been secularized and renamed the Alamo before the other four arrived. I was disappointed with the Alamo. If it were an ordinary mission, it would have been less crowded and allowed me to take photographs. Since it is the site of a famous battle, there is a line to get in the front door and photos are not allowed, making it the only mission church in my US Mission Trail web site without an interior shot. There are a few exhibits in the church and more in the long barracks which are the only two remaining original buildings. Most people are only interested in the Alamo because of the battle long after its days as a mission. There was little reference to its mission past, and I was unable to determine which buildings dated to mission times. It was filed with weapons and information about the battle and freedom fighters. If you want to see the Alamo because of the battle and movies and to say you've been there, enjoy your visit, but if you are interested in missions, it's very disappointing.
We went on to photograph San Fernando Cathedral and the old Bexar County Courthouse across the street. San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the US. From here we went back to River Walk and walked along the other side. We decided against dinner on the River Walk because I still didn't feel like eating. We walked passed the Alamo, this time it was closed and illuminated in the night, and less crowded. We returned to our hotel, stopping for dinner at a simpler place near the hotel, and got some needed rest.
Day Five: Three More Missions and More Cold
I didn't sleep well as my cold ran its course. Our last full day in San Antonio was not spent in San Antonio. The weather had improved as we headed southeast on Highway 37 a few miles, then on Highway 181 to Kenedy which was a town that looked to be on hard times, but there was also construction and street maintenance so maybe it's coming back. I photographed a few old buildings and headed first northeast on Highway 2 a few miles then southeast on Highway 239, and the last few miles on 59 until we reached Goliad. We were stopped at an intersection while waiting for a funeral procession to go by and I noticed a sign pointing to the right saying "historic district." I turned right and a minutes later found myself in the middle of the nicest small town I had seen in a while. If this was near the San Francisco Bay Area, it would be filled with antique stores, boutiques, and Yuppies, but rather is was a quiet and friendly town off the freeway. We continued on to our real stop but would come back later.
A few minutes later we were in Goliad State Park which protects Mission Nuestra Senora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga. This mission began as Mission Espiritu Santo at Matagorda Bay in 1722 adjacent to Presidio La Bahia. The mission and presidio were both moved a few times before re-establishing on opposite sides of the river near the modern day town of Goliad. The mission closed in 1830 but was restored by the CCC between 1935 and 1941.
From here, we back-tracked about four miles west of Goliad on Highway 59 to Mission Nuestra Senora del Rosario. We had a little trouble finding it because it was across the road from a marker. I was so distracted by the marker which discussed Goliad in general, I didn't see the ruins until we had turned around and noticed it from the other direction. The site is fenced off to protect it and the ruins are not restored. This marked the seventh mission site we visited for this trip, but we weren't done.
We crossed back through Goliad, stopping for wonderful deli sandwiches at the Blue Quail Deli at the northwest corner of Courthouse Square.
Back past Goliad State Park a mile across the river and we came to Presidio Bahia, now owned by the Catholic Church. In its day, it was charged with protecting the nearby missions and the Camino Real or Kings Highway. It was founded in 1721 on the banks of Garcitas Creek near Lavaca Bay on the ruins of an earlier French fort. It was abandoned in 1726 and moved to a location near present-day Victoria and Mission Valley, and relocated here by 1749. The fort is considered an excellent example of a Spanish frontier fort and was the site of more battles than anywhere else in Texas. The fort is also known for the Goliad Massacre were Colonel James Walker Fannin and 341 of his troops were executed a week after their capture under orders of General Santa Anna. It became the American rallying cry against Mexico. The General's house was closed and we drove by the cemetery on the way back to the highway and continued southeast to Refugio. The town of Refugio was built on the site of the last mission built in Texas, Mission Nuestra Seññora del Refugio, founded in 1793. There is nothing of the mission there today except for a newer church and some markers, so we headed back to San Antonio along Highway 202 through Beeville with another beautiful Courthouse, Highway 59, and Highway 37.
We had one last plan for today and headed downtown to enjoy dinner at Tower of the Americas, a leftover from the Worlds Fair of 1968. The tower is 750 feet high with an observation level and a restaurant at the top. We hadn't thought to make reservations and the wait was two hours, so we went up to the lounge which has a few tables, no wait, but doesn't rotate like the restaurant. We looked out at one quarter of the beautiful panorama as we enjoyed our dinner. The day before I had asked someone about a modern fountain in town that I had seen pictures of and was told everything in San Antonio is old and historic. Well, I found it at the base of the tower, more of a water feature and cascade than a fountain. It looked smaller than in the photos I had seen, but that was a while back. We hoped to come back the next day. We returned to our hotel and got a good last nights sleep in San Antonio.
Day Six: Adios San Antonio
We got up and started packing, ate and loaded the car, and checked out. We stopped quickly at Mission San Jose because earlier we had neglected to get the printed guide on that mission and we were trying to find a book in the gift shop on US missions in general, but didn't find one. We drove north into town and parked at Hemisfair Park (the former worlds fair grounds mentioned yesterday) and this time we rode the Tower of the Americas to the Observation Deck for a view of the city in daylight. San Antonio spread out in all directions and while I tried to find one of the National Park Missions, I could only find the Alamo a few blocks away. Once back at ground level, we watched the Skies Over Texas 4-D Theater Ride which is a summary of Texas with a lot of the usual 4-D gimmicks to make the audience scream.
It was a short walk to the Convention Center end of River Walk which we took to the junction with the main loop where we had a wonderful lunch at Casa Rio Mexican Foods, the oldest restaurant in San Antonio. We sat and ate our lunch as the boats and ducks glided past.
After lunch, we headed for the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, actually two museums. Established in 1881, it claims to be the oldest saloon in Texas and the world's oldest store. It is unique. The two museums are Wildlife and the Wild West and the Texas Ranger Museum. We had seen a Texas Ranger Museum a few days earlier in Waco, but this was different and also exhibited a reproduction of the car in which Bonnie and Clyde were killed. The Wildlife part did have many mounted heads and whole bodies of animals from all over the world. I admit I prefer my animals live, but this is an impressive collection.
We walked a few blocks to the Spanish Governor's Palace (1722-1821) which was a fine home in its day and is considered the last remaining example of an aristocratic early Spanish home. We stopped to get a better look at San Fernando Cathedral which we hadn't gone into two days earlier. It was large and very beautiful. We then tried to take a water taxi back to the Convention Center, but we didn't understand the procedure and thought there were several places to join the tour. It turned out there are only two places to board the boat tour and they were near our destination with long lines. It turned out you can take a taxi by just standing by a landing, but we didn't understand until we were almost back to Hemisfair Park, so we walked the rest of the way. A bit before 5 pm, we got on Highway 37 and 35 north and an hour and a half later we drove past our hotel just off the highway. Half an hour later, after passing it again on the other side on a one way loop frontage road, we finally arrived at our hotel in Austin where we settled in for the night and planned how to squeeze two days of touring into one. We had seen eight missions or mission sites or ruins in four days and hoped to find a mission site in Austin tomorrow.
Day Seven: LBJ, All the Way
We got off the next morning about 9:00 heading west on Highway 290 arriving in Johnson City about 10:00, an hour after Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park opened for the day, the last day of the year. We first toured the former president's boyhood home where he spent much of his youth. It was a simple house, as we learned, so was the man. It was a fifteen minute guided tour and we then went on to the adjacent Johnson Settlement which is a collection of building once belonging to relatives and ancestors of President Johnson. We were followed by four friendly chickens as we wandered between barns, cabins, and other ranch buildings.
We then drove about 14 miles to the rest of the historic park, the LBJ Ranch, and adjacent state park. The tour busses that carried visitor through the site when Mrs. Johnson was still living at the ranch have been replaced by a driving tour of the site and walking tour of the first to be readied room. The plan is to open more rooms in time. The self guided tour is assisted by the loan of a narrated CD as we stopped by Junction School which helped form President Johnson's belief in a good education as the fundamentals to a productive citizen. The birthplace house was reconstructed at the request of the president in 1964. A drive though ranch lands, around the landing field, and past the Show Barn ends at the house. The old hangar and garage have been converted into a Visitor Center with four vintage cars, including an amphacar, only the second I've ever seen. From here the ranger took us through the President's private office. We stopped again at the family cemetery to pay our respects to the President before heading back to Austin. I forgot to visit the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, part of the state park, on the way out which I had meant to see.
We hoped to see the Johnson Presidential Library, but we didn't get back in time. It took some effort and asking the right people, but I finally found the last site in the mission part of this trip. Three of the missions in San Antonio had moved there after an unsuccessful year trying to make it in Austin. Missions San Francisco de la Espada, Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion, and Mission San Juan Capistrano had all moved to the Austin area from east Texas where there were problems with the French. The Native people around Austin we not interested in Christianity and more trouble than the French, so the Missions moved to their present locations in San Antonio. Since no permanent structures were built during the year in Austin, there is nothing to see except a marker on the crest of the hill just south of the east end of the Barton Springs Pool. Zilker Metropolitan Park itself was a surprise to me. It is both a natural and manipulated landscape with athletic sites, pools, train ride, activity buildings, canoe rentals, Austin Nature and Science Center, Zilker Botanical Gardens, Umlauf Sculpture Gardens, hiking trails, and Barton Creek runs through it. Whether you call Barton Springs one mission site or three, or just another site for Missions we had already seen elsewhere, this completed my mission hunt for this trip, my main goal for the trip. I hoped to complete the last goal in two days.
From here we looked for somewhere for dinner and stumbled on Magnolia Café South on South Congress. It is a chain of two homey family restaurants which nicely satisfied our hunger. The sign says, "Open 24 hours a day, eight days a week," and another said, "Sorry, We're open." I like a place with a sense of humor.
It was New Years Eve, but we aren't bar people and didn't know anyone in town to invite us to a party, so we retreated to our hotel and spent the evening planning the rest of the trip. Some of the guests were a bit loud and the desk clerk offered to move us up a floor, but we were unpacked and it was too much trouble moving.
Day Eight: Making Tracks for Dinosaurs
We were on our way north along Highway 35 before eight this morning. At Waco, we turned northwest on Highway 6 to Meridian where I stopped to photograph yet another beautiful Courthouse. I guess in a state filled with similar structures, you just get used to them. While photographing the Courthouse, I missed the turn and went a few miles down the wrong highway before getting set straight and continuing north on Highway 144 to Glen Rose which also had a beautiful Courthouse. I drove around a bit till I found Highway 67 and followed it to the signs at F.M 105 and Park Road 59 which leads to Dinosaur Valley State Park.
One hundred thirteen million years ago, this was the ocean shore. Dinosaurs walked along this shore leaving tracks that are now revealing themselves to scientists and tourists. We paid our modest fee and went inside. The first track location was a little disappointing as a finder tube pointed to the track under a few inches of water on the bank far below with no other way to see it or get closer. The second location was better and after an easy hop between stepping stones across the stream, there were two trackways. The third was even more disappointing as the edge was fenced off and reference made to the tracks that we couldn't find. We skipped the fourth which was next to a camp site. Still, I was very happy to have seen the one set of trackways and there are two life-size models of dinosaurs near the entry left over from the 1964-65 New York Worlds Fair.
The next stop wasn't quite so scientific, but was possibly more fun. Near the park entry is Dinosaur World. I had never heard of this before and later we learned why - it only opened last March. It is part of a small chain of three parks (others in Florida and Kentucky). There is a small museum with mostly copies of fossils but lots of information. For children, there is a play area and Fossil Dig where participants can look through sand and find their own fossils. There is a gift shop loaded with dinosaur related objects, but the main feature is the Dinosaur Walk. This meandering trail takes visitors past dozens of dioramas of full-size dinosaurs, usually in groups of two or three. Only occasionally did a fence or distant utility line spoil the illusion. It was great fun for a dino fan like me.
The woman at the cashier recommended the Big Cup Eatery, a local restaurant, for lunch. I'm not a food critic, but I had among the best enchiladas I ever had. The rest of the day we drove to Plano where my wife's friend was expecting us. Her friend and family, and later a few other friends, moved here from Los Angeles about two years ago. More people happy to leave that city behind. We found our hotel easily enough and settled in.
Day Nine: Who shot JFK?
We slept a bit later than usual, another rough night with this cold. About ten we headed toward Dallas looking for the Sixth Floor Museum which was my third and final goal for the trip. We found it easily enough and parked right behind. We paid our fee and took the elevator to the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Repository. Photography was not allowed so you will have to take my word for it that it was filled with photos, explanations, recreations, and even a model of Dealey Plaza accompanied by an audio tour. From the window adjacent to the one used to shoot President Kennedy, you can see the Xs painted on the street indicating where the first and lost shots hit the president as his limousine drove past. After, we walked to the grassy knoll to imaging where a second gunman could have stood with a good view of the street and the window.
We walked the short distance to the Old Red Museum, in the former Old Red Courthouse, which contained exhibits on Dallas history. One interesting exhibit talked of the attempt to navigate the Trinity River all the way to Galveston Bay. One river boat made it, but wasn't a successful operation and was sold. A large children's area offers hands-on learning.
We had hopped to visit Reunion Tower for a panoramic view of the area, similar to the Tower of the Americas that we had seen in San Antonio. It turned out we were a few weeks early for a reopening following a major renovation, so we walked a few blocks to Pioneer Plaza. This is a giant bronze sculpture of a cattle drive featuring three house and riders and 50 cattle (the literature says 41, my wife counted 51, I counted 50) that commemorates cattle as a major agricultural industry.
From here was walked back to the car and headed back to our hotel and then had dinner with my wife's friend. It was all a nice visit but my cold was still with me and it was good to get to bed early.
Day Ten: The Fort Worth half of Dallas-Fort Worth
My last night in Texas was miserable, thanks to my cold. We got ready, packed, I went to the drug store, and finally we checked out. We had seen the highlights of Dallas but had not yet been to Fort Worth, so we headed west.
We found the Fort Worth Stockyards without too much trouble and started exploring. We only had two and a half hours, so had to pass up on everything except lunch at Habanero's Grill and Cantina. We were too late for the 10:30 (verify) and leaving too early for the 4:00 cattle driving demonstration. We passed on the stockyard maze and the train ride as well. There were countless places to eat and spend money, and a number of small museums.
We drove through downtown on the way out of town then headed east toward the airport. The airport was harder to find. After stopping for gas, we had to hunt for the freeway entry, then drove through the airport and were heading back toward Fort Worth before I could get off and with some difficulty, back on to try again. Finally we checked in the rental car and luggage, get through security, found our gate, and relaxed - relaxed between spasms of coughing.
Two hours late, and following a gate change - I guess normal for these days, we were on our way. Thanks to this cold, I was just starting to fall asleep when my ear started to split as we reached altitude. Eventually I managed to sleep most of the way home. I awoke as we began descending toward LAX. Off in the distance I saw fireworks that could only have been Disneyland. We landed and then taxied a half hour until a gate was free. We claimed our luggage, waited about twenty minutes for the shuttle, and took the taxi home. My wife's cat met her at the door and my older cat met me at the door. The (4 1/2 year old) kitten took a few hours to remember us. I slept most of the next day and started feeling better. Texas was great, but it was good to be home.
We had spent ten days in Texas, and I was sick for nine of them. We covered a swath from Dallas-Fort Worth in the north to Refugio near the Gulf. We saw the state capitol and eleven mission sites (although three were the same spot). We saw a lot of scenery, some fiberglass dinosaurs and real dinosaur tracks, and a number of museums. We saw where President Johnson was born, grew up and was laid to rest and where President Kennedy was shot. I mailed home a box of literature to plan our next trip and carried home a box with a cool hat. The weather was mostly ideal, the people were friendly and helpful, and the women were beautiful. They could improve street signs. Despite being sick most of the time, we enjoyed the trip and consider it a success. We hope to visit east Texas real soon, so ya'll come back now.

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