Monday, February 28, 2011

west texas and beyond

The day began with breakfast in Rodeo, New Mexico, a few minutes across the state line from Arizona. Our desire to eat in restaurants that are not chains is a serious struggle in this part of the world. We get through several towns before we spot the Rodeo General Store with a small "cafe" sign propped on the window ledge. The store has all of three shelves and about five tables, a few of which are filled with locals sipping coffee and chewing the fat. The cook wears an apron "Born to golf, forced to cook". We are in the middle of the desert. We haven't seen a blade of grass since Los Angeles. Where would this guy golf? The menu is all eggs and meat. Everyone orders the McRodeo sandwiches (basically an egg mcmuffin) and I have a tasty, jalapeño omelette. We chat with the chef and the cashier about the cold snap that came through here a month or so ago. Several days of minus ten or colder in a place that rarely sees zero wreaked havoc on everyone's plumbing. Frozen pipes and no way to fix it once the plumbers ran out of supplies.

We continue along the I-80, which skirts the border for many miles. Mexico is the not-so-distant hills and it's torture to be so close. The road is completely deserted except for the roadrunner we see zip across it (meep meep). Flat, dead land stretches out for miles on either side with the occasional herd of cattle grazing (what they find to eat beats me). The only other vehicles we see are border patrol. I lose count after a dozen on a twenty mile stretch. On the crest of one hill, two trucks are parked side by side. One is fitted with a tower mounted with some sort of scanning device. The landscape is so bare, nary a bush and none of them higher than my knee. A man walking across this exposed expanse would be visible from miles away. Assuming someone could get past all this security, could they carry enough water to survive a trek through this parched desert? How desperate must one feel to think a possible future in America worth a deadly walk through the desert right into the gungho hands of the Border Patrol. It's just too depressing.

We go on, through Silver City, a place billed as one of the more authentic Western towns left in America. The man who first laid claim to the city (and the silver from which it got its name) lost it betting that he could outrun a horse. What is that saying about a fool and his money? This is the birthplace of Billy the Kid and the site of his first robbery. The house he grew up in was washed away, along with most of Main Street, in a flood a hundred years ago.

A quick call from a payphone to Darryl at Austin Veedub confirms that we just might make it home in the van. I'm so tired of being optimistic and then having my hopes dashed that I'm trying not to think about it at all.

We drive on. The Gila (pronounced Heela) Cliff Dwellings National Monument is forty-five miles up a dead-end road — the kind of road that would sour the most solid of stomachs. It is billed as a two-hour drive one way but we decide to tack the extra five hours on to the day because it is said to be worth it. By the road, Alice spots a mule deer. I see a baby partridge a few minutes later (The Partridge Family intro sadly the only reason I can identify the bird). A sign near the visitor centre tells us that this is also the birthplace of Geronimo, whose Apache name was Goyahkla, a man who lost all love for white man after his mother and wife and kids were butchered. His life story reads like a case study of just how poorly American/Native American relations were handled. But that is a tale for another day.

After a half mile walk along a gorge etched over millenia by the pretty stream running through it, we started up a narrow trail under beautiful sandstone cliffs. Near the top we were greeted by a volunteer park ranger who led us to the first in a series of caverns — a low, shallow one with a roof blackened by soot (the cookhouse). Built into natural caves on south-facing cliff walls, the Mogollon peoples erected walls of rock, mortar and timbers to keep out the wind and the cold. The spaces are divided into big and small rooms with windows and half-size doors, the roofs strengthened with timbers that have been dated to 1270. They didn't have the tools to cut down trees so they'd build a slow-burning fire around the base of a tree and burn for several days until the trunk was small and weakened enough to finish off with their stone implements. The process also protected the lumber from rot and pests. The walls don't go all the way up to the roof to leave enough room to allow the smoke to escape. Some of the rooms are tucked well back into the mountainside. It must have been pretty cozy in there with a nice fire and some animal skins to cuddle up under. Above the cliffs across the gorge (a steep climb down and up again without the aid of the park's handy dandy switchback trails) archeologists found evidence of vegetable plots. The Mogollon cultivated corn, beans and squash. One of the rooms still holds a cache of dessicated 700-year-old corn cobs which are half the size of today's. Ah, the wonders of genetic modification! There are also a few rust-coloured pictographs on the cavern walls. The most fascinating part for me was a two-story structure with tiny windows beside a huge, flat rock holding traces of uric acid and brain matter — the smokehouse and the tanning rock. The natural arch of the cave roofs frames a spectacular and different view with every step. What an amazing place.

By dusk, we're just outside El Paso. On the south side of the I-10, we pass miles of the feedlot equivalent for dairy cows, tens of thousands of cows standing in fenced pens of dusty mud. The smell is overpowering. The sight makes me want to swear off dairy. The I-10 turns toward the border and runs alongside it for a several miles. We see a sign that claims "Next 17 miles - Safety Corridor." What exactly is a safety corridor? The narrow Rio Grande is the only thing standing between the two nations. Well, that and a million border guards and all the high-tech gadgetry the US government can get their hands on. You could literally park on the shoulder of the interstate and throw a rock into Mexico. The buildings on the other side are of another caliber, low, colourful cinder block and no windows. Apparently El Paso and Juarez are now the most safe and the most dangerous cities, respectively, in the world. Juarez being such a hellhole makes it a little easier to swallow that we can't be on the other side. As the sun sets over Mexico, a sea of amber lights appear, stretching from horizon to horizon across the Rio Grande.

We stop to ask about a room but by some stroke of bad luck (I'm starting to take it personally) the girls' softball league, the boys' basketball league and some evangelical group have all decided to get together on the same bloody weekend. Dinner first. We head to Fabens, a little town outside El Paso. We're looking for the Cattleman's Steakhouse, meant to serve up the best steak in El Paso. We get off the interstate and, after a false start, find ourselves driving five miles along a deserted and very, very dark country road. I never thought we would find it but, sure enough, lights and a sign suddenly appear on the side of the road outside a tall wooden fence. We pull in and drive up the endless driveway through a compound that has all the trappings of a real ranch. The parking lot is packed with cars (and one saddled horse). Families are getting out of cars and heading toward the rambling one-story building. Where did all these people come from? We certainly didn't see them on the road.

The entrance is lined with glass cases, the first of which is a huge display of artillery (?), next are some framed photos of cattle and, further down the hall, the cattle in another incarnation, plates of cling-filmed raw steaks with little name tags. The place is all pine planks, chunky wooden tables and chairs and dining rooms full of Texans and Mexicans and everyone in between. We hear Texan drawls and Spanish but mostly English with a Mexican accent. The staff are all Mexican-American but, unlike most restaurants we've been to, we never hear them speak to each other in anything but English. After we place our order (I get the 10oz sirloin while Wil opts for the 1-1/2lb t-bone) Frances points at the long window behind me and tells me to have a look. I do and I see a display of antique carriages set amongst some bushes about halfway up the window, all of it illuminated by lights set into the grounds. Very nice, I think. And then something moves. A silver-coloured dog is chewing on something behind the carriage wheel, and then another dog just like it appears. And then I realize I am looking at wild coyotes through the window. Soon there are four or more of them and they are fighting over scraps on the ground, completely oblivious to the half-dozen people in the restaurant who are pointing and trying to capture them on film. They bolt away, only to return a few seconds later to sniff around.

James, our waiter, who seemed to slip Sir and Ma'am into every sentence, making me feel positively ancient. He brought us plates heavy with meat and mutant baked potatoes as big as the steaks. As promised, the meat was fantastic. The place definitely lives up to its reputation. If you're ever in El Paso...

On we go, through vast, boring west Texas. Again! Have I mentioned that Texas is huge? We decided to just drive and see how far we got... Through ranch country, places with curious names, like Ozona and Junction. How lame, I thought, not even a qualifier like "Mesa" to pep up the name, just plain ol' "Junction". Our attempt to avoid chain restaurants proves impossible so we opt not to eat at all. As we turn the atlas page from Texas (western) to Texas (Eastern) we realize that making it to Austin today isn't out of the question. We decide to just hammer out the miles. One little town we drive through has a general store with four saddled horses tied up to the handrail outside. What's ranch country without cowboys?

Pulling into Austin feels like coming home. Second only to Puebla. It's funny to think we've spent weeks getting to know two cities we only meant to breeze through. I'd say we got pretty lucky as to which two cities it was. We get ourselves a room and then headed over to South Congress, where we've had great luck with food. One of my favourite things about this town is the food trailer courts. If there is a better use for a vacant lot I can't think of one. A bunch of picnic tables clustered in the middle and, around the perimeter, a line of trailers, some barely big enough to hold a person never mind a kitchen, some elaborate (and beautiful) airstreams. The food is always interesting (sometimes only slightly more so than the artful descriptions on the boards leaning on the trailer). There's usually at least one taco stand, often some Thai, a sausage place, fries and burgers and at least one sweet (ice cream, chocolates or — all the rage in Austin — cupcakes). We walk and walk but don't find what I want. Wil and the kids finally get a artisanal hotdog to curb their hunger but I'm not willing to compromise. We walk some more. It feels great to use the legs after being trapped in the Town & Country all day. The heat, however humid, is a welcome change but my patience is starting to wear thin. We concede and buy some salad fixings, a little Chocolove and a bottle of wine to bring back to the room as the kids go to the candy store to fill up baggies of penny candy. As we're driving back to the hotel, we come across another trailer court with "A Little Thai" a few blocks away. I wolf back a Pad Thai, Wil sips up a Tom Yum as the kids happily chomp on spring rolls.

In the morning the kids all got a haircut at Bird's barbershop. I decide not to get involved in the child/hairdresser interaction and I am surprised by the results. The girls are thrilled. We pick up an air mattress at REI (MEC for Americans) to replace the one in the disappearing bag and take the kids bowling at Westgate lanes. Afterward we drive to Driftwood for the last thing on our Texas to-do-list. Barbecue.
The Salt Lick is in the middle of nowhere. A compound of low white gravel, sun bleached fencing around a parking lot that is chockablock. Lots of people heading for the restaurant are dragging coolers full of ice cold beer behind them. The place is BYOB. The story is that the man who started the place was sick of travelling around for work so he and his wife came up with a list of jobs he could do to stay put. There were 50-odd things on the list. Barbecue was number 14. He built a pit with his son and every Thursday went to start the fire and cook up some meat. He slept on a little cot beside the pit and only went home when everything was sold. He started selling out faster and faster. Soon enough, he was building a gazebo around the pit and the rest, as they say, is history. Now the place is massive. Our dining room, one of several, is wide enough for three picnic tables that seat ten twenty tables deep with lots of room to circulate. Outside, a guitarist picks out a tune for the al fresco diners. Everyone is enjoying the sunshine and 85 degree weather. We get ourselves some fresh-squeezed lemonade from a stand of Mexican girls at the door and order all-you-can-eat barbecue with all the fixins'. The waitress brings us a big plate of pork ribs, sausage cut on the diagonal and brisket, all dripping with yummy barbecue sauce. There isn't a dry piece of meat on the plate. With it comes a big bowl of potato salad, a big bowl of cole slaw, a plate of dill pickles and raw, sweet onion, more barbecue sauce and a habañero sauce. The plates of mammoth beef ribs being deposited on other tables look like something out of the Flintstones. Fingerlickin' doesn't do it justice. Without a doubt the best barbecue I have ever had.

We head back into town to Zilker Park, Austin's answer to Mount Royal, except that it's in Texas so it's huge and flat. The northern edge of the park runs alongside Lady Bird Lake, which is really a reservoir. Everyone with a kayak, canoe or scull is out on the water having a blast. Sadly, the park's public pool, fed by hot springs, is closed for the winter. We lounge around in the park watching people play soccer and beach volleyball. I don't understand why people feel compelled to wear bathing suits when they're playing a sport that has nothing to do with swimming in the middle of the city? Henri plays with his new balsa wood glider as the girls do Alice's favourite thing — what she calls "meeting people in public," which basically entails chatting up people with dogs. The smaller the dog, the thicker the girls lay it on. I am loving eavesdropping on my kids's conversations with strangers these days. It's always interesting to hear what they consider important to convey about who we are, what we're doing and how in the hell we got here.

We go back to our 'hood, to pick up a cupcake at the "hey cupcake" trailer for the kids. Noone is that hungry, after the massive meat fest that was lunch. I propose to Wil that we bring some food back to the room for dinner to save some money. Wil replies "We have no money to save."

We're both dreading tomorrow, the day of reckoning, when we have to pay for the rental car AND the car repairs. Tomorrow will probably set us back as much as the whole trip was intended to cost. Sigh.

Favourite t-shirts and billboards this week:
"Pick Jesus", "Runs with scissors", "oil is dumb", "Jean shorts are never okay" and
"Allergic to Church? God can help."

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