TEXAS: Because it's THERE
When I asked LA Texans what to do there, at least one said: "Get through it as fast as possible." Nobody had anything good to say about Dallas or Houston. Austin got pretty uniformly good reviews. Word on San Antonio was mixed.
Any way you cut it, you're taking the Southern route, you're going through Texas. Deal with it.
My motel in East Houston was the only one to give me free porn. - Well, it's the thought that counts....
The town itself is not completely without charm. An old section near the courthouse shows you what it must have been like before the oil boom. And it has an Angelika Theater, to my surprise. Otherwise, the most visible part of it is very much like Midtown Manhattan (except for the free-running trolleys, which are popular all over Texas, it seems.)
The local arty press made it pretty clear that Austin values its renegade reputation and I'm sure there must be some interesting things going on below the surface. But just passing through, there's nothing overtly special about the town. It's clear from some of the bars on key streets that the place must hop at night, and the BBQ I had at the Ironworks (where each table holds a roll of paper towels) was excellent (and the only one I was to have in Texas, alas.) Also, the town seems inordinately proud of its state house (one of the gloomier ones I've seen) and of, of all things, the LBJ Museum.
It didn't help either that it was BRAIN-BOILING hot. A fact which added a clincher to the following Hitchcockian encounter at the Visitor's Center:
Once the woman behind the counter had registered what I wanted (uh - a map and some information?), she said, "I'll bet you think Austin is flat."
A bit flustered by this non-sequitur, I nonetheless replied that, having just gotten off a maze of highways, I had no clear idea of Austin at all.
Patiently ignoring my tactless reply, she forged on. "Lots of people think Austin is flat. But I'm going to show you how to see for yourself that that it is NOT!" With that, she unfolded a very detailed local map and pointed out a mountain peak some miles from where we were (which happened to be the center of town.) I opened my mouth to ask one of the many questions I actually was interested in, but she had already turned to a brochure listing the city's top ten attractions, of which the mountain peak was number six. "I'll go photocopy just that part for you."
"Just that PART?" I silently cried. "Please oh please can I have the FIRST five attractions as well?" But she was already gone.
I asked a quiet young man at a desk where the arty section of town was and he said, "Well, there isn't one as such", then took out a very simple map of the center of town and quickly and clearly marked the key areas of interest. All of which were within minutes of where we were. I continued to mine his very useful information until, after a suspiciously long time, his colleague returned. Proudly she handed me the photocopy (which generously included all TEN attractions), then again unfolded the complicated map and firmly described how to drive up to the peak. "You'll have to walk a little to get to the top. You don't mind a little walking, do you?"
"Good. Now you should be able to get up there right now with no trouble."
In a petty act of rebellion, I bravely spoke up: "Thanks. I'll go get some lunch first."
Admirably retaining her composure, she said, "Oh well, that should be no trouble around here."
I thanked her - and especially her colleague - and fled.
As I headed for the Ironworks, I amused myself trying to come up with reasons anyone would be so fixated on one out of several local sights:
Meanwhile, it wasn't until I sat down that I noticed how much of a 'walk' was required to get to the top: NINETY-NINE STEPS. Remembering how hot it was outside, I added one last hypothesis: she had a really, really sadistic sense of humor
Whatever. There's a horror film in there somewhere. I'm sure of it.
I LOVED the river walk here. First of all, the river itself is more like a canal at that point, narrow and looping gracefully around, way below street level. But also, unlike other such areas, which try to fit as many 'attractions' (mostly restaurants and shops) on them as possible, San Antonio's has long stretches of quiet, untroubled pathways, paved with large flagstones and shaded by large, low-hanging trees. Enchanting. And even those stretches that do have restaurants integrate them gracefully into the river's serenity.
I was delighted too by the River Theatre, the result of a WPA project. A small amphitheatre descends right down to the river bank in concentric rows of grass-covered seats. At first I thought they must bring in a barge for the stage. Then I saw the stage - across the river. The audience sits on one bank, and the actors perform on the other. A gem.
The Alamo, too, to my surprise turned out to be very pretty, more like a small ornate convent than the high-walled fortress I'd imagined. Not very defendable, though. The highest walls are about ten feet. I sure wouldn't want to have to hole up there against far superior odds. No indeed.
Overall, what I saw of San Antonio was very sweet.
Now, all together:
"It was there I found beside the Alamo Enchantment strange in the blue up above A moonlit pass that only she would know Still hears my broken song of love. Moon in all your splendor, know only my heart Call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone."
THE ROAD TO EL PASO
About eight, I started on the 512 mile journey to El Paso. And immediately saw spectacular lightning in the distance. Stopping outside town to put up my top, I resisted the temptation of "Rudy's - The Worst Barbecue in Texas". But only because I was still full. So off I went and within minutes was again in terrifying rain. With some terrifying Texas drivers right behind me. Mercifully, they soon got impatient and sped off past me, so that, even though I was driving with near-zero visibility for the next hour, at least I had no one near me for most of it.
There isn't much on the road, though I did detour off into some small towns the next day. But mostly it's hundreds of miles of two-lane highway, running through the desert. After a while, it was mainly the truckers and me (and no more rain). The speed postings said '65 mph at night', but no one, including me, was going anywhere near that slow.
It was about 11 and I was almost alone on the road, lost in my thoughts, when I suddenly saw red and blue lights light up on the opposite side then cross the island. Directly towards me. After I stopped, a grey-haired officer came up to me and point out, quite officially, that I'd been doing 77 mph. "Sir, the speed limit's 65 in Texas at night." He then asked what I did. When I said I was an actor, he brightened and said, "What kind of things you do?" "Anything they'll let me." He smiled, then went off with my license.
For a moment I thought I'd fallen into another speed trap, which would have been REALLY bad luck on the Interstate. But in fact I think quite simply I was (as my sister later put it) "out of spec". That is, one of the few non-truckers driving that stretch at that hour. In the event, he gave me a warning and sent me on my way. To drive 65 mph for another hundred miles....
The next day, after snoozing at a rest stop in between the trucks, I stopped at Fort Stockton, which is equally proud of its historic downtown and its giant roadrunner statue. Nothing was open. But at any rate what most fascinated ME was the Comanche Motel and Hostel, a complex of trailer-like units joined together, white-washed and covered with American Indian symbols. Quite distinctive.
A bit further on, I stopped to find some springs, which weren't directly visible but probably fed the miniature nature preserve I found instead. Quite lovely, if tiny.
Otherwise, I found existentially awful small towns, with things like an old gas station where the uprooted pumps leaned backward like toppled tombstones or whole wooden buildings which leaned forward like rickety tables, not quite having fallen face down. In one, I FINALLY washed the red clay of Georgia off my car. The woman at the self-service car wash asked, "Don't they have these in California? Every time someone asks me how to use them, seems like they're from California."
EL PASO (LAND HO!)
After 512 miles of mostly barren road, El Paso, ugly as it is (and it's really, REALLY ugly) looked like an oasis, appearing suddenly on the horizon with its fast food joints, gas stations and cut-rate stores. That is, civilization.
I'd planned to get one more Texas barbecue in El Paso, but in fact nearly every restaurant was Mexican. (Geez, people, you've got the WHOLE COUNTRY right across the border - don't they do take-out?). After looking at the courthouse and fancy new detention center, and yet another abandoned Kress store, I hurried on to New Mexico.
Still, I was glad I'd seen El Paso, whose very name makes me think of old cowboy songs and Spanish guitars.
LAST UPDATED: July 2002