Last Monday (on what is now National Bin Laden is Dead Day apparently) we left Louisiana and drove into its huge western neighbour. Straightaway things changed – we saw huge signs reading ‘Guns’ and ‘Ammo’ for a start, never mind a store that seemed to be selling second-hand surface-to-air missiles on the side of a road near Beaumont. Plus there were miles of refineries and more industrial activity than we’ve seen anywhere in the US so far. Was Texas really going to be all the clichés - big, bad and dangerous to know..?
We had no burning desire to go into the nearest big Texan city (Houston) so we kept north of it and had a quiet recover-from-all the fun-of-Louisiana-and-do-some-laundry night in a hotel in Dayton (near Liberty), TX. There was nothing much to see there beyond the biggest cargo trains we’ve ever witnessed but the next day we called in on a friend-of–a-friend in a nearby pretty leafy area north of Houston called, suitably, the Woodlands. There we had a good cup of (hot) tea (Scottish friend of Scottish friend – knows how to make hot tea), a sit in the sun and a good chinwag.
Back on the road we drove west to Austin on the 290 (lovely – hardly any traffic) and got there late afternoon. Austin is a big place for music and laid-back nightlife but obviously a lot of that (as elsewhere in the States) is for over 21s so there’s only so much of it we can see and hear with the small one on board. Instead we drove through the downtown, past the Capitol building (little old Austin has been the state capital since 1839 when someone decided it would make a better capital than “swampy and disease-ridden” Houston… so it says in the Rough Guide) and then down Congress Avenue. At its lower end Congress turns into the very laidback South Congress Ave with its hip motels, vintage clothes shops, bars and music venues and we nosed about there for a bit, found the hip motels were full of music tourists (like ourselves…), had a delicious Italian meal in a courtyard out back somewhere and then left the childless adults to enjoy the nightlife as we sloped off to a motel further down the road (where h could catch her favourite show ‘Dancing with the Stars’…). It’s not rock’n’roll exactly… but what can you do… family travel is what it is… Here are our photos of the first couple of Texas days:
Tuesday we headed just south to San Antonio – not somewhere we’d planned on going but another friend (and former Texas resident) had suggested that we call in there (though her actual phrase was ‘get your asses down there’). San Antonio is only an hour or so from Austin so it was a short driving day which left us loads of time to enjoy the very ample downtown area in S.A. (and the fantastic old hotel where we’d managed to score a cheap, and giant, room). First we visited the Riverwalk area (a phenomenal development – like a modern Venice really, endless little bridges, a serious flood prevention system, heaps of restaurants, many tourists/visitors). The Riverwalk (along with the Alamo and the large university to the north) draws in a lot of visitors to the city and our feelings about this late twentieth century development were mostly good (there are some lovely details in the design, a lot of shade, a lot of variety) but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little sanitised and corporate in places too (and the big modern hotels can be so ugly… and so… unnecessarily dominating). Still it’s early days for it really – maybe the area will look a bit more natural in a few years time. We picked one of the many restaurants (an Irish – can’t go wrong with the Irish pub…) and had lunch (yes, we are always eating – though inside for me as the Riverwalk is a little too infested with dastardly pigeons… they were on the tables in places – ugh!) and then we took a ride with the riverboat tour people (pretty if very un-Venice in places – “and this is the mall…”). After that we visited the Alamo briefly (downright strange – visiting a monument to a battle against the Mexicans in a place so full of, well, Mexicans) and then escaped from the powerful heat of the afternoon to the rooftop pool of our once-swanky-but-now-reduced-to-Travelodge-conferences-and-skinflints-off-the-internet hotel. Easily the nicest pool experience we’ve had so far – just bliss.
In the evening we walked down to La Villita a small area in downtown San Antonio that is one of the oldest parts of the city. These days it is craft shops (and again just a touch over-renovated for me – it didn’t look real somehow) but the shops had all closed for the day anyway. Instead we found a really good Mexican restaurant and all of us (even h – quite the adventurous eater these days!) ate and drank well (Mojitos? Oh if you insist… that was just us though, obviously). Texas is full of Mexican restaurants – we were told to expect a lot of BBQ but it is Mexican, Mexican all the way from what we’ve seen this trip. Here are our San Antonio photos:
The next day we got back on our planned route and set off north west (along Interstate 10). Not long out of San Antonio the traffic and advertising hoardings petered out and we found ourselves on a pretty long, fairly quiet road through dry, dry land. We stopped anywhere there was a stop really (to break up the journey) – lunch in Sonora (very clean and tidy, very active local history society, rodeo), a look for WiFi in Ozona (good photo opportunities, amusing shopfronts, rodeo) and then finally a stop for the night in Fort Stockton (home of the giant roadrunner, Pepe Paisano… oh and a rodeo). We didn’t visit ‘historic Fort Stockton’ I’m afraid (we just can’t visit everything – we haven’t visited any of the local caves either) but we were out and about in the town a bit (looking for this and that, as you do on the road) and it was busy and hot and very much one of those little towns where Walmart (and a crappy one at that) pretty much is the town’s shopping centre. There was a fair selection of restaurants though and about a hundred petrol/gas stations… and was everyone in town except us driving a big shiny pick-up truck or did it just feel that way..?
Usually the ‘complimentary’ motel breakfasts in the mid-range establishments feature the same characters around the cramped tables (harassed families, cheap work travellers, retired folk in heavy make-up and/or crisply pressed slacks) but this morning we met a lovely biker (biker as in riding Harleys) who, with two friends, is touring the US and Canada in exactly the opposite direction to us. These three solid and very dapper guys had started in Seattle and were working their way towards Florida and we did that whole ‘hey, you’re on the road – we’re on the road’ thing and it was really nice (plus they obviously have a Scottish friend who’s told them a lot of nonsense about Scotland… they seemed to think we all carried guns over there). We see a lot of bikers (especially on this recent southern stretch of the road) but these three were different most notably because they were all three very black (black as in skin not as in leathers). I wish I’d asked to take their photo – one of them was so smart he looked like he was going nightclubbing with Sinatra or something instead of out onto the dusty Texas highway.
We, not so smart in shorts and t-shirts and, by now, one slightly bashed-up off-white cowboy hat, packed up once more and drove up the 285 towards Pecos and out of Texas. We passed what’s left of the local oilfield production, some little ghost towns (oil ones) and a lot more flat land. And then at something like midday today we passed into a new timezone (Mountain time!) and a new state (New Mexico). Here are our West Texas photos:
So Texas – a varied place with a lot going on here and plenty of great big empty spaces there… how was it for you?