Bill Bryson in The lost Continent was looking for the prettiest town in America but falls short of finding one with all his desired attributes so goes about constructing his dream town of Amalgam from different towns with the bits he takes a shine to. A motel here, a Main Street there, a barbershop, a five-and-dime, an authentic and original movie theater, not the dreaded multiplex with screens the size of “bath towels.” A picturesque downtown with real stores were cherry-picked and, well, amalgamated.
As I pondered this we were on a long straight stretch of county road through rural Georgia. A gaggle of police cars with blue lights flashing appeared in the distance. A fierce-looking state trooper waived us down. My eyes fixed on the gun in his holster that bobbed on his disproportionately large hips. He approached, proceeded by his belly and a big cigar and grimly informed us that he was going to do an “equipment check.”
So it’s to be Georgia where we are disappeared by the local police – not Louisiana, not Alabama, not Texas as some so-called friends and erstwhile relatives had led me to believe.
Step out of the car. Hands behind your head. On your knees. Bang! was the scene that flashed through my mind and knocked out all thoughts of a pretty home town.
Before I had a chance to beg for my life the trooper had checked our headlights, blinkers, brake lights and horn. When he’d decided we were fit to continue to drive through his state his pudgy face softened into friendliness.
“You’ve come a long way,” he chuckled on seeing our Washington license plates. Little did he know that that was our second pass ’round the country – on track for 20,000 miles by the time we looped back to Washington State.
Jimmy replied, “We didn’t do it all today,” and they laughed companionably.
“Well y’all drive safe. God love ya!” and his toothy grin was topped off by twinkling eyes.
God and the State Trooper seem to love us enough to let us pass through Georgia.
If God really loved me He’d find me a house in Amalgam.
What’s left of the glacier at Glacier National Park
Traffic jam at Glacier National Park
Snow Tunnel at Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park
In Kalispell, Montana, near Glacier National Park, we met a couple escaping the summer heat of Texas so we used our usual conversational gambit on them.
Me, “We’re traveling around the country looking for the perfect place to live.”
Him, “You should move to Comanche, Texas. It’s cheap. It’s quiet.”
Her, “Now why would they want to live in Comanche?” This is the lady who lives there with the cheapskate.
Him, “A lot of retirees are moving there. There’s no income tax.”
Himself (a.k.a. Jimmy), “I like the first thing you said. It’s cheap.”
Him, “Yeah and property’s cheap, too. It’s quiet.” Yes, you said that already. “You’d love it there.” I’m not so sure. Vast tracts of Texas are quiet. That’s not necessarily a recommendation. Just lonely.
Her, “Oh hush. They wouldn’t want to live in Comanche.”
Now the obvious question at this point was why wouldn’t we want to live in Comanche? But they were in a hurry to get going. They were hitched up and ready to launch into Canada, so we’ll never know why they were divided on their opinion. Was it because she had admitted to being originally from Louisiana and we Americans never lose our devotion to our home state?
For every little thing that is bigger and better in America, according to Americans, it’s that much bigger and better in Texas, according to Texans.
When describing a spider and saying 14 inches, a Texan will hold his hands out at full arms breadth. And of course there’s the story about the Texas rancher bragging about his family’s property to an East coast farmer. “My Daddy can drive his truck from dawn to dusk and still not cross our property.” To which the East coast farmer replies, “Yeah, my Dad had a truck like that.”
There is no doubt that Texas is a big state, 268,601 square miles (bigger than Spain and Portugal combined), the largest state after Alaska so driving is a daily pastime. “We might drive a hundred miles to the grocery store. To a European, that’s a vacation,” our neighbor in the campsite boasted to us. We drove 49 miles to the interstate the next day and didn’t encounter another soul on the lonely road.
The 22 million of population in Texas is concentrated in the east of the state. Parts of west Texas have a population destiny of less than one person per square mile – no urban sprawl, in fact no urban – with vast tracts of desert and mountains.
The parched and empty landscape is tranquil in winter but deceptive. Wide dry river beds and deep gulches, new patches of road and new bridges where the gulches run through, give an inkling of the ferocious rains and flood waters of summer. During the previous September floods had caused extensive damage in Big Bend National Park.
Texas weather and conditions include tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, floods, wild fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, plagues of locusts, snow, searing desert heat, biting cold and sometimes all at once. Texans are given to exaggeration though, as a tsunami erupting from the Rio Grande in west Texas where we learned of this lively weather seems unlikely.
If the wild extremes of weather aren’t enough, they have their share of horrifying creatures in Texas – tarantulas, black widow spiders, funnel-web spiders, vinegar bugs, scorpions and ninos de los terras, which I was given to understand were scary little snakes, but the only reference I can now find to those words is children’s shoes. Still dangerous but slightly more warm and fuzzy are mountain lions and bears and even a big cat that was thought to be extinct but lives an elusive existence amongst the 309,331 square miles of Big Bend National Park, but that’s all according to Texans.
Our first sighting of the comical roadrunner was of said bird running on the road – Beep! Beep! – just like his cartoon persona. Also new to us were javelinas – cute little bristly pig-like creatures that are not pigs.
Click pic to enlarge.
We had attributed all of these real and imaginary creatures and phenomenon to Texas but we were new to the Southwest and all the marvels it had to offer.
“And how about your skin?” I questioned our waitress, Rebecca, who had moved recently from the humidity of Florida to the arid atmosphere of Ft. Davis. “How does the dry air affect it?”
“Well my lips are so dry and cracked they feel like they are going to fall off and my arms and legs are parched. Other than that I’m perfect,” she said endearingly. But she lives in a tree house so I’m not sure I can take her word for anything.
So how ‘bout it. Any Texans out there? Just what are ninos de los terras? Am I even spelling it correctly?
Jimmy turned his head to me with that startled expression I could read only too well. Oh, bugger. “Where is your green card?” I whispered, already knowing that it wasn’t on his person.
“It’s in my passport.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“Under the slide.” I blew out the breath I was holding and my shoulders slumped in dismay as he turned back to the Border Control patrolmen, who had already scanned the back seat and open boot compartment of our SUV for stowaways. “It’s in the trailer,” he told them.
“Can you pull over please and get it out for us?” The trailer on the road in front of us had stopped at the checkpoint for only a few seconds and then moved on. We were at least 10 miles from the Mexican border. Why was there Border Control here? As we pulled over I said, “Show them your Washington driver’s license. That should do for ID.” We were naïve about the policing of the Mexican border in Texas.
Jimmy stepped out reaching for his wallet as I leapt out of the other side of the car even though Border Control did not seem the least bit interested in me.
The dark complexioned patrolmen were dressed in plain green fatigues and I have a mental image of them clutching machine guns to their chests. Of course they weren’t. I just thought they should. I felt like I was in a movie.
Jimmy offered his driver’s license as he tried to explain how difficult it would be to get his passport and green card out of the trailer. “I’ll have to get the supports out of the locker and snap them into place in order to pull the slide out so I can go in the trailer and get under the dinette seat and get the file box out to find my passport.”
Well that wasn’t the response Jimmy had hoped for. The patrolmen were pleasant enough but they meant business. Dark hair, dark mustaches, dark glasses, their faces softened a little when they smiled but they weren’t prepared to be too friendly yet. The taller of the two of them, about my height, clutched Jimmy’s license possessively. The other one came up to my nose.
Why is it I find short men with olive skin tones and black mustaches so menacing? Was it because we’d had a run in with a restaurateur of similar stature and complexion in Toledo, Spain? (We were completely in the right and he was completely in the wrong for your information.)
“Can you use my driver’s license instead of my green card?” asked Jimmy expectantly.
“We can run an identity check with it. It could take a while.”
“Fifteen minutes, two hours . . . ?” and then he shrugged.
“I’ll get my passport.”
Being an American citizen with an American passport (somewhere in the depths of our stationery-cum-file-drawer locker) and standing on American soil I, perhaps foolishly, decided to bait the Border Patrolmen. Jimmy would have dug me in the ribs with his elbow at this point but he was busy trying to protect his own identity and grunting as he pulled out the slide (our bed-in-a-drawer that slides out the back of the trailer). “Don’t you want to see my passport?”
“You trust me then?”
“I don’t sound American.”
Jimmy had pulled the rear slide out and walked around to the door. The Border Patrolmen hustled after him and stood outside the door. They obviously didn’t trust him.
I kept Menendez and Martinez company while we waited for Jimmy who was crashing around in the trailer.
I was feeling distinctly left out of the process now, so called in to Jimmy “Can you bring my passport as well?” They could look at it whether they wanted to or not.
Once the green card was scrutinized and the American passport was ignored smiles broke out and we established that there would be more border Patrol checks starting with El Paso, then New Mexico and Arizona and on into California.
The passports now reside in the glove compartment much to Jimmy’s annoyance instead of well hidden and safe in the trailer. Don’t tell anyone you know where they are.
“You should have just told them we were both American citizens. They would have let us straight through.” But do you think he would do that? Of course not but then he would be the one to get into trouble wouldn’t he?