Blog 5: Texas

November 1, 2013

            Over the many years that we’ve been shunpiking through east and central Texas (and sometimes it seems that each drive lasts for years), we have come to take certain things for granted. The difference between a small town and a tiny town in Texas is that when you are approaching the small, signs warn you to slow down to 50 mph, and for the tiny to slow down to 60. The second difference is that in the small towns you can count on there being a cafe at the crossroads and maybe chain eatery on the way in and the way out of town; in a tiny town it’s picnic or drive on. These days in towns both small and tiny the majority of businesses are vacant and the windows announce “For Rent”; in the tiny towns the buildings are boarded up. In Texas county seats the square that surrounds the court house hosts two or three antique shops, a storefront church or two, someplace that sells sundries, and a salon that does hair and nails. The barbershop is on a side street. There are no parking meters. In the cafes the waitresses are unfailingly nice; there is at least one man wearing bib overalls; the younger women wear pants and the older women dresses; the menu offers burgers, meatloaf, and chicken fried steak. The pies are home made.

            In between towns the farmhouses are generally of three types: vine-covered and crumbling; single or double-wide mobile homes, often parked a stone’s throw from the ancestral ruined house; and McMansions, two story, multi-winged, stone gated and white fenced, shouting at the folks whizzing past, “Look at me: I’ve made it!” McMansions have three-car garages at the end of long, curving, paved driveways, and there are never any vehicles in sight. The four acres of lawn around every McMansion were cut yesterday to a height of precisely 3/8 inches.

            You don’t need an altimeter to tell you that the hills in East Texas are measured in inches, not feet. Curves in the road are posted with big warning signs, sometimes even with flashing yellow lights, because curves occur so seldom that the highway department fears that drivers may be lulled into inattentiveness. The posted speed limit is 75, and while most drivers adhere to it, every few minutes someone will zip past at 15 or 20 mph faster than that. The ratio of pickup trucks to cars is 4:1, and many of the trucks have double back wheels. Roads generally have wide shoulders, and trucks driving at 70 routinely pull over to let faster vehicles pass. Signs saying “No fishing from bridge” are superfluous, because most creeks are dry as a bone: maybe they think people fish for lizards, or grasshoppers.

            From the Arkansas border to the Rio Grande we progress from pines to live oaks, from fields of cotton and milo to pastures and cattle. From near San Antonio to the Rio Grande the houses thin from 3 per mile to one per 3 miles, and then to one per 15 miles.

            This year, for variety, we shift our dash to the border 70 miles to the west. The roads from west of Waco to Johnson City are another thing altogether: they have actual topography! The Texas Hill Country is mostly low limestone ridges and valleys, a rolling, roadcurving landscape covered by scrub trees and brush. The valleys are farmed, and the hillsides are good country for hunting deer and javelina. Every few miles we pass a business that offers deer dressing, taxidermy, guns and gunsmithing. The road aprons are all wild flowers, bluebells in the spring, yellow autumn flowers that look something like mustard. Linda and I have driven through the Hill Country before, and we’ve looped out this way this year because we know this country is truly beautiful, even though it is not photogenic. There are few centers of interest to give umph to a picture, just mile after glorious mile.

            From Fredricksburg we cut diagonally southwest toward Uvalde. And this road makes the earlier stretch of Hill Country see tame. The difference is not one of kind, but of scale: here the hill country landscape has been enlarged by a factor of ten. We see nothing you could call a mountain, no soaring peaks, no icy tarns, no thousand-foot granite rock faces: just really big hills, covered with cedar and oak. The road runs the ridges, from which we peer down into gorges, ravines, rivers like silver threads. We see hawks on the wing, and vultures —black vultures now, not turkey vultures—circling overhead, eyes and noses alert for the raccoons, possums, armadillos, squirrels, foxes and deer that have tried unsuccessfully to dart across the road.

            A few miles before Uvalde we come around a low hill, and we are back on the Great Plains, with a road that stretches as far ahead as we can see without one single curve. We spend the night in Uvalde, see all the sights in the time it takes to read a menu, and in the morning drive another couple of flat hours into Laredo, leaving ourselves a half day to manage paper work we will need at the border. Saturday morning, our US auto insurance put on hold, our Mexican auto insurance papers in the glove compartment, our Verizon plan expanded to include Mexico, and the thermos filled with hot coffee made from the last tap water we will put into our bodies for the next five months, we head for the international bridge.