Hello friends and family!
I’m currently in a hotel room, waiting out the winter storm that has closed portions of I-40 along northern Arizona. After driving a few hours through white-out conditions, fretting over my own mortality, I’m enjoying my version of heaven: shitty cable TV, a vending machine dinner, and a six-pack of domestic beer that I picked up at a truck stop. I’m going further west as soon as this blows through. See, I thought about heading Florida-ward, but I missed big landscapes and free BLM camping and the precipitation-free climate and the van-dwelling desert people and the possibility of being abducted by aliens. So I turned around, thinking I’d head back west along the northern route, through Albuquerque and Flagstaff – not realizing that these places experience actual winter, and actual weather, and that my seat-of-my-pants strategy of just driving somewhere without checking the forecast first was going to be a real hindrance.
My last update ended with my entry into Texas. Now, Texas is a conglomeration of cowboy swagger and ahistorical myth-making and redneck pride, but who can blame it? The only state to have been part of six different countries (Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States and the USA), the need to be apart – to be different from the rest of the 50 states – seems to be the engine of Texan exceptionalism. The Republic of Texas, in a sense, still exists: the Texas flag flies higher than the stars and stripes on most properties, and fringe elements are always threatening to secede. It was this revolutionary impulse that kept me from spending time in any of the major cities before and during inauguration day. I had visions of a well-armed militia battling for the soul of the Lone Star State.
From the wasteland of West Texas, I followed the border with Mexico south along the Rio Grande. The borderlands speak to the weird biculturalism of Texas, where the American and Mexican meet and mingle. Most of the American towns I passed through were nearly abandoned, while just across the river the Mexican sister cities thrived. In these border towns, the only businesses that survive are those related to the cottage industry of Mexican/Catholic celebrations and ceremonies: dress and tux rental shops, banquet halls and ballrooms, florists and photographers. I bet you could have guessed that while many of these towns were in a state of disrepair, the Catholic churches were always in tip-top shape.
You can always tell where the Rio Grande is by looking up – the Border Patrol fly white blimp-like surveillance vessels above the river, which I initially mistook for UFOs. Discounting these eyesores, south Texas is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with all sorts of migratory birds wintering in the quasi-tropical climate. Now, I’m not a birder, but a dear friend gave me a bird identification handbook so I’ve been walking around various wildlife preserves with my binoculars and handbook, wearing sensible shoes and looking every inch the retired snowbird that I’ve become. The crossword and jigsaw puzzle fanatic in me has enjoyed the challenge of trying to identify birds based on their colouring, calls and behaviour. One big disappointment was missing out on a reputedly wonderful birding area due to the presence of Donald Trump, who had come down to make out with his border wall for the cameras. His supporters lined the highways, waving their flags, as I tried to reason with the sheriff: surely I could just go in and watch some birds? Alas. The wall loomed just a few hundred metres away – acting more as a psychological barrier, I’m sure, than a physical one.
I spent a few days down by the gulf coast. Every morning I’d walk the beach after high tide along the shell line, trying to find nice specimens to slip into my pockets. Unlike the rocks I illegally steal from National Parks, I don’t feel any guilt about beachcombing, because every day the ocean gifts us with a new set of treasures and washes the old ones out to sea. The coastal part of the state illustrates the paradox of Texas perfectly: a state obsessed with progress but still beholden to the past. The off-shore oil rigs blink at night like stars on the horizon, their plastic trash washing up on shore, but all along the coast massive wind farms loom over farm fields like forests. The conservative political culture down here denies the existence of climate change and yet it’s the coastal towns like Rockport and Houston that absorbed the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey just a few years ago, and which will continue to be threatened by the ever-increasing intensity of tropical storms.
It feels as though I spent weeks trying to leave Texas. I drove through wine country, then north up the panhandle for hours and hours, days and days. There is no charm to the landscape. Staying away from the interstates, I passed through countless small towns with boarded-up downtowns that centred around ornate, wedding-cake courthouses. A few days ago I spent the night in what I consider to be the worst town in America: Littlefield, the hometown of Waylon Jennings, where the only monument to the hometown son is a drive-thru liquor store slash museum. Allow me to describe it in detail. The town was like a Norman Rockwell painting after being left out in a hurricane. I drove up and down the main street three times, muttering to myself: this can’t be possible. No place can be this depressing.
Every single business on Main Street, a six-block-long strip, was shuttered or boarded up. I parked. As I started to walk up the street I realized nobody else was around because the street had been wholly surrendered to the pigeons. The sidewalk was caked in their shit and they burst out of the rotting awnings as I walked by. I kept walking, fascinated. Most houses had been marked with blue spray paint for demolition that was dated to have occurred a few months ago. They were mouths with teeth missing, black gaps of smashed windows and broken-down doors, trash spilling out from the threshold and into the medians, the curbs, and stuck in chain link fences. It looked as though the city had stopped collecting garbage, and had instead set out dumpsters in front of every few houses – which nobody used, judging by the sheer amount of plastic bags, beer bottles, fast food wrappers and coke cans that rattled around in the wind.
In Texas, car culture reigns supreme. I realized that the only businesses left in town were those catering to drivers: Sonic (a drive-in fast food place), a drive-thru liquor store (“beer barns” being a singularly Texas phenomenon), gas stations, and auto parts stores. I was the only person out walking. Aside from the main drag, not a single road in town had a sidewalk, even the highways. I picked my way across the remnants of sidewalks, broken by tree roots or inexplicably elevated a foot off the roadway or disappearing into an untrimmed hedge. It was safer to walk on the road or cut across parking lots or through vacant lots that were littered with so many shards of broken glass that it was like walking across a mosaic. In one lot, a stray dog either dead or dead-tired lay motionless in the weeds, its eyes open and glassy. The other strays chased after me, barking, and I imagined the non-remote possibility of having to kick a Chihuahua to death.
People hadn’t given a shit here in ages. Not a single house with a fresh coat of paint, a new driveway, a cute piece of kitsch in the front window – just shacks melting into the ground, trucks with decade-old flat tires, apartments that were worth so little that they weren’t even boarded up anymore against the weather and the animals. And this is what most rural Texas towns were like: abandoned by the young and healthy, abandoned to the old and poor. I didn’t understand how these people lived here amidst all this trash and feral dog shit and woodrot, and I was too afraid to strike up a conversation with any local residents in order to find out. I was worried that they wouldn’t see it – that they would accept this state of affairs as normal, as a common variation of America. That they’d think that every small town across the country was as rundown and half-assed as theirs, and that they’d think that this is what made America so great after all.