Swimming across Texas

To really experience Texas, you have to drive across it without air-conditioning in the middle of July.

No, not really. But we did.

The unrelenting heat may have coloured my impression of the biggest state in the Lower 48 somewhat, but now that I’m sitting in cool evening air at 7100ft high in the Rockies, I like to think I’ve regained a little perspective. The twitches have completely stopped too, which is a good sign, right?

Contrary to what we’ve all seen in countless Hollywood Westerns, there are trees in Texas, but most of them are in the east. The first hour in from Louisiana found us just north of Beaumont in what Texans call the ‘piney woods’, where waters are still inhabited by alligators and the local restaurants feature plenty of Cajun-style cooking.

As we sweated the last few hundred metres into Village Creek State Park in search of a swim, I wondered at our intentions to take a dip with the ancient, toothy reptiles, but heat was winning over trepidation. But when I heard it was just over a mile to the swimming hole, I baulked — the short-term pain of a walk in the searing mid-afternoon sun felt insurmountable, and the promise of hours of full-body immersion in moving waters just didn’t fully register in my heat-addled brain.

I asked a young couple who’d just arrived in a pickup truck about the walk as they set off down the trail dragging an alluring little red and white ice chest. “Yes, ma’am, it’s just over a mile, but it’s a long mile. You gotta get past the sand. It’ll take you ’bout 45 minutes.” Forty-five minutes to walk a mile?! “Yes, ma’am, it’s just a mile, but it’s a long mile.” Right. Can you actually swim once you get there or just wade? “Oh, it’s a beautiful spot once you get there. Real nice swimmin’ hole. But it’s a long way…” I overruled my body’s recalcitrance to go in search of relief, and off we went. I guess cowboy boots must slow you down, ’cause it was an easy 15-minute walk, and the swimming was indeed sublime at a wonderful intersection of two rivers.

Whereas southern humidity may sap one’s will to do much of anything and lead to hours of romantic malingering, Texan heat steels resolve — a certain bloody mindedness sets in, even if it’s only to get the hell out of Texas. I think that first day north of Beaumont our resolve was set, and the resolution was to swim our way across Texas.

The second day we barrelled across east Texas towards Austin, the only destination we actually had in this enormous state, choosing a route carefully to avoid both freeway-mad Houston to the south and the prison-riddled Huntersville to the north, and to take us through the curiously-named town of Cut and Shoot. Even travelling at the speed limit on Texas-sized two-lane highways is unnerving — the square tonne of air pushed by each oncoming semi-truck would snap our windscreen wipers with a sound alarmingly like gunfire.

An hour east of Austin is the picturesque town of Brenham, home to Texas’ favourite creamery, Blue Bell, and an obligatory stop on many a travellers’ journey to the Texan capital. Its fame for unctuously creamy ice cream is well deserved, and was a welcome cool respite from our terrarium on wheels.

Austin lived up to its reputation as ‘not really Texas’, even for those of us who were unable to take advantage of the much-touted ‘live music capital of the world’. We scored a site at the highly-rated Pecan Grove RV Park right in the centre of town — just minutes away from the cool bit of civic genius that is Barton Springs pool.

Barton Springs is a three-acre pool built to capture crystal clear spring waters bursting from the unlikely rocky soil and it’s been city property since 1917. Some three million gallons of artesian water move through Barton Springs pool each day — this is no half chlorine, half urine public pool. The water is a steady 68F/20C year round, which made it the first truly refreshing dip we’d found in weeks of pool and river hopping, and after a month of 100F+ temperatures, locals were soaking it up just as avidly as we were.

Although the next day also found us back at Barton Springs, we did venture elsewhere in this funky city both benefiting from and fighting the bland gentrification of the Dellionaires and Dot Commers who’ve upped stakes from California and moved to Austin to snap up affordable real estate. It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that most of our explorations were of the Mexican supermarkets and local restaurants, all of which were rather pleasing after the offerings of rural east Texas.

If the range of better-than-average restaurant fare ranging from Tex Mex to BBQ doesn’t grab you, one of the food trucks surely will. Austin has perfected the breakfast taco with your choice of salsas or pico de gallo, and these along with migas (scrambled eggs with bits of corn tortilla shredded and mixed in, along with tomato, cheese or other bits) now have a faithful spot in our ever-expanding brekkie repertoire.

After a couple days doing our part to help with the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ campaign, it was time to face the Rest of Texas. We chose a northwesterly route in order to at least visit a couple of canyons on our way to New Mexico as we’d been warned that ‘there’s nuthin’ on the I-10 all the way to El Paso.

Within an hour of leaving Austin, we were in dry, agricultural countryside. Mostly cotton and wheat fields, already harvested, as far as we could see, which is quite a ways from our high vantage in the RockVan. The bare topsoil didn’t stand a chance against the dust devils, and we watched many Dust Bowl-esque scenes play themselves out as we sped along the highways. This was the Texas we were expecting, but it was somehow worse than the fantasy stereotype.

The more barren the landscape became, the more we encountered the uniquely desert practice of ‘gardening is making art with found objects’ — I guess people just really want to decorate a place, and if you don’t have any trees and nothing will grow, why not garden with tea pots instead of rose bushes?

Lone oil derricks outnumbered cattle in the fields, as it seems most of them are in feedlots these days, and presumably oil’s more profitable per acre than beef cattle ever hoped to be. This has always been a dry land, but the current drought is so severe that ranchers are selling cattle early and suffering 20-80% losses on wheat crops.

Our first attempt to find water beyond Austin failed when we arrived to find the reservoir at San Angelo State Park completely empty. Eyes rolling, we pushed on another 72 miles to Abilene State Park, where a Civilian Conservation Corps project from the early 30s resulted in a large pool in high desert. Although heavily chlorinated, it was again sweet relief, and provided the brood an opportunity to jump from a 3m high dive, and Oscar to even cash in on his burgeoning Texan nerve and learn to flip off the low dive. As is usual in the state parks, we were a local curiosity, with the nice folks of Abilene scratching their heads at how the heck these foreigners even found their little oasis.

Abilene itself was not particularly memorable except for the Frontier Texas museum — a delightful interactive exhibition of life on the frontier from 1780-1880. Holograms of characters from the period tell their stories in informative and entertaining style, giving kids and adults alike a much greater sense of that first turbulent 100 years when the whites’ flawed project of Manifest Destiny met and subdued thousands of years of Native American tribal inhabitation of the region.

Another few hours north found us at both Caprock and later Palo Duro Canyon State Parks (the so-called ‘Grand Canyon of Texas’, really more of a demi-canyon if you ask me), which offered visual relief from the endless flat Texan plains carved out of the Red River Valley. A half-full reservoir at Caprock maintained our glass-half-full enthusiasm for the road trip.

That night, we sat under a moon so bright it reflected off us like beacons, leading to a disconcerting full facial moth attack, and decided to have just one go at Texas kitsch at a famous steakhouse in Amarillo before high-tailing it out of the state the next day.

We arrived at our chosen RV park just east of town (chosen largely because most of the others were reported to stink from the feedlots to the west) and spotted a huge water park across the road. The children went ballistic, begging to go on the gargantuan slides in sight. In the heat of the moment, we easily agreed, though paying for manufactured entertainment isn’t normally our style. The kids couldn’t believe their luck, and were on model behaviour, not to mention into their bathers before any further discussion could be held.

As we registered at the RV park, Stuart asked whether there might be a site with some shade. Our host chuckled rather spitefully and said, ‘honey, you’re in west Texas! If you wanted shade, you shoulda packed a tree!’ We offered weak chuckles and slunk off to our site in full sun, turning on the air-conditioner in the futile hope it might combat the conditions.

Meanwhile, water beckoned. The water park seemed outrageously dear — $85 for five, but we were committed, and feet were in water seconds after our hands were stamped. The curvy slides were a good warm up before we clambered up to the slide Atticus dubbed The Taco, a piece of apparatus so spectacularly frightening and likely to cause grievous bodily harm I was momentarily shocked it was legal — until I remembered I was in Texas.

Nobody died, but it was as terrifying as it looked, just enough so we all went on it multiple times.

Back at camp, our host at the RV park alerted us to the free limo service to the Big Texan steakhouse, so at 6:30pm we were duly collected in the longhorn-adorned gas guzzler and on our rather fitting way for a true piece of tasteless over-consumption.

To the Big Texan we went — a Route 66 institution that advertises for many miles either side of Amarillo, mostly using the lure of the ‘home of the free 72oz steak’. Small print alerts you to the fact that you have to eat the entire steak and two sides within an hour to get it for free. We figured we’d go along, order the 72oz steak for the five of us, and take the leftovers back to the RockVan to be in meat for days ahead, thereby subverting and politicising an otherwise wholly kitsch activity.

Sadly, the 72oz steak for all five of us would have cost $200, so we opted for smaller meals each, which still meant no steaks smaller than 8oz (4oz seems about perfect, but nowhere serves a steak that small). We watched a big guy up on the pedestal attempt the 72oz challenge and fail in spite of the random cheerleaders who appeared sporadically out of the crowd.

The next day we awoke excited to blow outta Texas. A stop at the Cadillac Ranch offered more opportunities to reflect on the fact that perhaps Texas is best suited to farming automobiles.

We also passed the dreaded feedlots we’d been smelling for the past 18 hours and despaired for America’s food system. When migratory ruminants are penned and fed grain as the people worship at the altar of cheap food, Houston, we have a problem.

Twenty-three miles from the New Mexican border as my eyes were straining to pick out our salvation on the horizon, the only thing that blew out of Texas was our left rear tire with an almighty bang. Stuart managed to ease the RockVan off the high-speed I-40 over the nature strip and onto the old Route 66, where we rather appropriately waited at a 1940s pace for help to arrive. Five hours later, we turned reluctantly around and limped the RockVan back to Amarillo on five tires and bated breath. It was a Saturday.

Our non-standard sized tires meant a bonus 48 hours in Amarillo. The lovely guys at Discount Tires assured us there are plenty of things to do in Amarillo — there are water parks, malls, and a big cinema nearby. In fact, it seems the only things for a traveler to do there is immerse herself in consumption and generic entertainment. Hell, if it’s over 100F, why not let the kids watch two movies in a row at the cinema next to the hotel? To be honest, our occasional breakdowns have been our best opportunities for writing and catching up on emails.

Our last dinner in Texas was at Kabuki Romanza — a teppanyaki restaurant right next to the Holiday Inn where we’d taken shelter from the heat and stench of confined cattle. Every half hour, a ‘water and light show’ would ironically darken the dining area and give everyone a subconscious need to wee. When the ‘chef’ came out to prepare our food, he handled it like a short-order cook, indifferently shovelling the biggest portions we’d seen yet onto our plates, and then a bit more. Near the end of the meal, one of the children vomited, which we took as our signal to go.

Monday morning sure looked fine as we deja vu’d ourselves back down I-40 past the Cadillac Ranch and those awful feedlots one last time on a new set of tires. We tried very hard not to look the horizon in the eye this time — didn’t want to seem too eager. But when all six tires made it over the state line into New Mexico, you could have heard the Jonai wOOt all the way to California.

And just for good measure, our first stop was for a cleansing swim.

Tammi Jonas blogs at Tammi Tasting Terroir on all things food and community. You can follow #RoadTripUSA on Twitter, where she’s @tammois and Stuart is @solarvox.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

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