Category Archives: South West USA

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

The Bone House, Texas

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Someone else I first came across through Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications was Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion. Dan’s organisation, based in Huntsville, Texas, specialises in building affordable homes out of recycled and rejected materials.  When I met him at what is probably his most famous, the Bone House, he told me that, when people first hear about the rejected stuff concept, many think it is ‘icky’. However when they see the houses that preconception changes. By not only utilising, but celebrating the quirks and faults of the materials they have, and by being creative and ingenious about how those materials are used, Phoenix Commotion doesn’t make houses that are as good as anyone else’s, they make houses that are better.

The organisation does good on many levels. The first is to draw attention to the amount of viable building materials that end up inaccessible and no use to anyone in landfill sites. One material hits the landfill it is hard to get it back, but Dan has an ever-expanding network of enlightened suppliers prepared to donate ‘waste’ rather than dump it. Obviously the more firms that recognise the potential of their ‘waste’, the better.

They use apprentice labour, providing their workforce with the training and construction skills they can use to get better-paid jobs within the organisation or elsewhere afterwards. The combination of low labour costs and cheap, often free, building materials means the houses can be kept affordable – within the means of the growing category of would-be home-owners who are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder and settle. All very good, and tidy.

Last but not least, they put some playfulness back into house-building. There’s a Tree House of course, some others have themes – like the License Plate and Budweiser Houses, and all have touches of ingenious brilliance that also make you laugh – like creating bathroom walls out of smashed mirrors, studio walls out of DVDs, floor surfaces out of metal bottle caps, wine corks, sheets of music, and counters and stair treads out of beef bones. Ah yes, the bones: Not sure about the patio suite, but I love the bone stairs and, as Dan says, the only difference between beef bones and ivory is that beef bones are free.

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Santa Fe to Fort Worth & Dallas

Screen shot 2013-01-12 at 10.09.58Santa Fe to Fort Worth via Wichita Falls (B): 615 miles, 9 hours, 25.

If you fall victim to catchy tunes do not plan a route through Amarillo – that’s all I’m saying. Loved this journey for the flattest of flat roads, big skies, Russell Truck Stop on the New Mexico / Texas border where we met optimistic travellers in a West Virginia mobile pizza delivery van off to California in search of a new life, and the general weirdness. Broke the journey in Wichita Falls.

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Czeching Out West, Texas

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Yes, Czech Inn, Czech Stop, Merry Czechmas, Czech Point Antiques – they sure do have fun in West, Texas, a small town with a population that is, says the son of the owner at the Czech-American Restaurant, as he serves up cabbage rolls, “99 percent Czech”.

Texas is full of immigrant populations. I’m uncertain whether to include among the immigrants the Spanish who got here in 1519, or the Mexicans, given that for a time Texas was part of Mexico, or even the North Americans who the Mexicans -when they ran the place – allowed to settle in Texas. I’m sure immigrant populations from a North American perspective, probably includes Mexicans and foreigners in general. Anyway, there’s a lot of them in this portion of the Land of the Free, and among them, many whose ancestors came here in the late 19th century from what is now Czechoslovakia.

“It’s a little different here in West”, says the receptionist at the Czech Inn, who lives somewhere else. “They do things differently here.”

“They sure do” says the man leaning on the counter, who inspects things and has to drive a lot, and comes here once a week.

“Everyone is related to everyone” says the receptionist. “The people that own this are related to the people that own that. Everything is family-run: the hotel, the bars, the dress shops . . .”

It’s hard to tell whether they think this is a good thing. She does add that they all look out for each other; the young look after the old, work the fields and so forth.

(Aside from the other ones a bit like it – Praha – obviously, and Flatonia) West definitely is a very different kind of town. For a start there is a refreshing lack of chain stores and restaurants, and while there is a massive Sonic Drive-In looming over the low-slung Czech Stop, the crowds are in the bakery, licking their chops as they wait for fresh-baked kolaches. I don’t know precisely what they are, but they’re delicious, warm and fluffy and filled with everything from cream cheese, jalapeno and sausage to cream cheese and pumpkin, and probably very bad for you. Two elderly ladies who engage me in one of by now very frequent ‘you’re not from round here’ conversations, explain they make a long detour whenever they’re passing through Texas, just to come to this bakery and get a box-load.

There’s plenty of places to buy Czech food whether it’s Czechoslovak fries or sausage klobasniki made to recipes brought to Texas by Czech grandmothers. The Village Bakery claims to be the first of its kind in Texas, but it’s one of a few that include  Geriks Ole Czech Bakery. People not only eat a lot of kolaches round here, but they actually speak Czech, read Czech papers and stick up Czech signs – as well as drink Czech beer, as I discover in the cavernous Nors Sausage House when served a Staropramen. Exploring the old Western style streets of this quiet, dusty and friendly town is a top treat. Even the mill, producing feed for hundreds of farms around the region, is beautiful in its own, Marfa-ish way.

Aside from eating and drinking, visitors can head to the Katy Depot to read all about the Crash at Crush, a publicity stunt that involved crashing two 35-ton locomotives in 1896. Everyone in West is very proud of this event. There’s also train-watching – it runs right through the middle of the town making its mournful hoot. And every year there’s a Westfest, that combines kolaches, Pilsner, folk dancing, Western stuff and general merriment. Reckon that would be worth catching.

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God, Steak, Texas

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“Tell me if there’s anything to look at” I say, getting back to my book. Actually, the long, flatter than flat, Texan highways give me nothing but pleasure. The  white line along the edge is mesmerising; the dot that becomes a truck is mesmerising; counting pylons is mesmerising. The fact you can look over your shoulder and back again and the view’s the same . . . There are attractions along the road, it’s just they’re spaced one hundred miles or so apart.

When we crossed back into Texas from New Mexico west of Amarillo to head southeast in the general direction of Dallas and beyond, the wind was whipping up a dust storm and there was a dirty smudge around the horizon.  Advertisers are onto a good thing here; they know drivers are bored, eager  to read anything. So although there’s nothing and no-one around as far as the eye can see, nowhere selling anything, they snatch this opportunity to play with their minds, taunting road-users with the  72oz steak on offer 40 miles away, or the Macdonald’s burger 78 miles down the road. Sometimes, at the end of the ten minute drive between spotting and passing a lofty pole, the billboard turns out to be carrying messages of a more philosophical nature – Protect Your Heritage (horse and cowboy), Don’t Mess With Texas, or God is Alive. These are hard times; poles are frequently shared, so it’s not uncommon to see a big picture of a steak next to, say, Jesus is Lord.

In fact, driving along, it becomes apparent that what most interests Texans is big steaks and God – which might go some way to explaining to the steady spread of the cowboy church. I’d been spotting cowboy church signs outside sale barns and stock sheds around the country, but the majority of them are here in Texas, where there are now estimated to be well over 200. They are essentially churches, but with a message that’s pertinent to the cowboy way of life. Their roots are in the Christian outreach programs on the rodeo circuit, which started because it was easier to take a preacher man to cowboys, rather than wait for cowboys to leave the stockyard or saloon and come to church. When the attendance grew, the cowboy mission set up fixed places for services, usually on or by ranches or markets. They do baptisms in stock tanks, sing country gospel and keep it all short. I stood outside a cowboy church on a rubbly hill looking at a metalwork cowboy kneeling by his horse (also, a ‘watch out for rattlesnakes’ sign). It was all still and quiet, and the traffic, the pace of life below, made it poignant.

I have to make an honourable mention here to the super-friendly staff at the Super 8, Kenley Avenue, Wichita Falls, Texas. I did not want to go to a Super 8, nor Wichita Falls, but hey, guess what? Funny, normal, helpful staff turned a miscalculation of driving time into a good thing. I can not, hand on heart, recommend the motel as a top choice to anyone whose budget is uncapped, but I can recommend the Texas Roadhouse, which the girls at the desk recommended to us. Actually they were horrified we’d been driven through Texas before and hadn’t even tried one. I can’t believe we hadn’t either – they’re everywhere and very good (if you like great big slabs of grilled meat).

And a thank you to the officer who cautioned us for speeding so we wouldn’t do it again and posed for a picture.

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Santa Fe

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Made two stops in Santa Fe before returning to the fireside at the Inn of the Governors. First stop Santa Fe Indian Trading Company where there was a fair bit of tat, some listless art works and an atmosphere that was somewhere between disinterested and frosty; second, the Plaza Cafe virtually next door for comfort food (chile con carne that has a good old bite, with corn bread) and friendly faces. I guess it must get tedious living in an artsy tourist city and having people come and visit it, but I’m not too sympathetic.

The local paper captured the flavour of local life, inevitably. I read through Events: ‘Farm Women Tell Their Stories’, ‘An Evening of Chanting’, ‘Stories of Old Santa Fe’, ‘Creating Spaciousness – Ancient Practices to Enhance Our Modern Lives’, ‘Orchid Culture Workshop’, ‘Free Foreclosure Education Workshop’, ‘Understanding your Medicare Options’. Under Classifieds I find ‘Cat Lost’ and ‘Cat Found’, and in the Properties section I see that Santa Fe style homes with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Kiva fireplaces and old-growth aspens are the hot properties de jour. There’s a story about how someone found a poodle, made some dog coats our of Indian blankets that Neiman Marcus snapped up, who now lives in Santa Fe with her pets and Mexican pottery collection, gardening and playing bridge. American dream.

I was thinking of buying a rug or some jewels, but I couldn’t afford it so I had another margarita instead.

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