Friday, August 13, 2010

Texas: It's a Big State - a Day on the Road

Texas is not a small state. Not at all. If you want to get anywhere, say from Austin to Amarillo, you're in for a long haul. I started driving at eight thirty in the morning, and finally pulled into the motel parking lot at nine fifty at night. But I'm not complaining, I can hardly think of a better drive I've had.

Within minutes of leaving Austin behind the landscape changed. Sure, I saw ranches on side streets, and on route to touristy restaurants, but I still didn't feel like I'd seen Texas. Looking out along the 183, I knew I had arrived. The horizon stretched on, and small shrubs covered the land as far as could be seen. The road passed ranches – real ones, the type where you need to drive your four by four just to check your mail. This was what I had been led to believe Texas was, and as the morning sun cast a warming glow over the entire state, I couldn't think of a better place to be.

Listening to the radio – something we've done far too little of – the local airwaves provided the backdrop for our daily adventure. Katherine held the map of Texas in one hand, and a tourist book containing little paragraphs about even the most obscure towns in the other. Along the highway there was said to be a town hiding a hot springs near by. The passing water was called Sulfur River, and there were town banners reading, “we love our springs,” but there was nothing – no springs to be seen. Even the towns public pool was named after them, but if they exist, then they're hidden far too well for me.

We would have to leave the 183 for the 36 on our journey up to Abilene. The in two roads met in the small town of Rising Star. Texas has a number of great town names (Happy, Goodnight) but none struck me as much as Rising Star. I wanted to poke around, and see what there was to see, but with a population in the triple digits, this amounted to everything I could see from where I stood, and a small grocery store.

The store reminded me of those I'd seen in Africa, and half forgotten. A few can on the shelves, warm soda six packs aging away, and some local produce – it's age just as unknowable as anything else. This was America. This was the type of town where you'd be proud of your high school, and every one would know everything about everyone else. Thirty minutes down the road a supermarket existed, and life carried on, but here – in Rising Star – I allowed myself the fantasy of a simpler time.

An hour passed before we hit Abilene – the mid point on our journey to Amarillo. There seems to be a lot to see and do here, all things being relative of course, but we were just passing by. We wanted one thing to look at, and say, 'we were here.' The blurb mentioned something of an air force museum, listing an intersection. It took some trouble to find on the GPS, and even once we were there we could see no museum. There was one building, but the parking lot was covered in signs reading, “Military property: no unauthorized access.” I could only assume that I had said access as a museum patron – future one at least – and in I headed. I was only slightly afraid that someone was going to release the hounds on me, but when a long grey haired man stepped up an introduced himself as the resident hippy, everything seemed as if it would be alright.

The museum focused mainly on the B1 bomber, and the nuclear bombs it once carried. Today you can still see the test bombs, the engines, and a video made back in 1995 detailing the special features of the aircraft. This was made during the era that trading cards were being pumped out to support war, so – yes – it is as fantastic as you might expect, with a soundtrack that is a mix of Top Gun and those videos you used to watch back in grade ten science class.

But what stood out to me here was not anything about the modern day, or the pilot after whom the museum was named. What interested me more than anything else was the samurai sword and armour sitting unlabeled in a windowed case. I asked the origins of the piece but he (the hippie / curator of this small exhibit / former in air refueler pilot) didn't know. When he took over the artifact from the nineteenth century was hidden away in a box. It's presumed that they were stolen during the second world war. It's hard to imagine anyone willing giving away their samurai gear – and to think it was just hidden away until recently.

I would like to be in charge of a place like this – running it, setting it up. I would start by making a sign. Days pass with no one ever coming in. Weeks if the registry is to be believed. Then again, maybe I'd not make a sign. Maybe I'd just do my thing, so long as I could keep collecting pay cheques.

As we were about to leave we were told about Phantom Hill Fort. Twenty minutes outside of town along the 600 are the ruins of a calvary fort. It looks like a graveyard of chimneys now – all that remains from most of the wooden structures. One guard house still stands, somehow. There were also two buildings reinforced with brick. An old covered wagon, canvas top long since rotted away, sits on the field along with a canon.

This land is owned, and private, but a small car park exists, and you can open the gates and wander in freely.

There's one three things you need to watch out for. One – giant grass hoppers that want to make your hair their home. Two – terrifying spiders four inches square. Three – we were warned about rattle snakes, and told to stay on the path. Regular me would have ran through the grass looking for better shots, but warned and cautioned I did no such thing. The dirt path was my life blood. For added hilarity, the grass hoppers make a rattle sound when they jump.

Then it was back on the road once more, our big push to Amarillo. There were to options – the 84 to the 87, or the 83 to the 287. The first offered many small towns, such as Post (cereal anyone?) with penalty of safe gas station harbours. It was also a main highway straight on. The latter – not many places, mostly just hundreds of open miles. Barely a gas station is sight. The choice was obvious – we took the road less travelled by.

The land scape was even more beautiful than what we took in this morning. Now and then we'd pull off to the side of the road to stretch, or take a photo or two. On one such stop we saw dozens of tumbleweeds making their way from one side of the asphalt to the other. If I wasn't feeling it before, I definitely knew I was in Texas now. Cartoons have lied to me. It appears to be a little tree, more so than a circular ball.

Stopping on the side of the road is a fun thing to do – one lane of traffic each way, speeds of seventy miles an hour. But, it's hard to see everlasting blues meeting far reaching greens, and not want to stop. That is, after all, the point of a road trip – to get out every once in a while.

Our last diversion would be a small town which still has many a red brick road, first put in back in the 1920s. When we reached it it seemed like a big town, pop. 7364.

Amarillo let us know when we had arrived. There was no fooling with this one. Suddenly our open roads were replaced with dense highway, and the occasional power line breaking through the natural skyline was replaced with neon signs for all number of hotels, motels, and fast food of all sorts. It was a jarring kick back into reality, and an upsetting one – truth be told. It was uncomfortable being forced back into the consumeristic world that only a day ago had been my greatest friend. But now? Now I craved open road, big sky, and weeds that rolled along at their own pace. It's easy to understand why Texans are so proud of their state.

Now that we were here, it was time to check out the reason we'd detoured all this way – The Cadillac ranch. When we got there the sun had just set – the bigger red ball you'd ever seen descending down below city line. Pictures were taken, and some effects with long shutters and varying flashes were used. But, you know what? It was a bit too dark for perfect images. We'll have to return tomorrow.

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