13.11.2017 - 26.11.2017 -21 °C
Austin is the State Capitol of Texas. Few Americans know that. Even fewer people in countries outside of the US know that. All they know is Texas has the biggest of everything. This is not completely true – but there is some big stuff here. Austin is only the 4th largest city in Texas but when some cunning politicians tried to move the archives to Houston which would transfer the capital there, a mad woman called Angelina Eberly blew the side of the General Land Office Building out with a 6lb cannonball while the thieves were at work. The city erected a statue of her downtown and nobody ever messed with her again. Its an appropriate city symbol.
The biggest bat colony in the US lives under a bridge right in the heart of the city. Every night thousands of silly tourists watch about 1.5 million bats head out to feed. This has become big business. The most common question asked is, “What is that smell?”
Weird is big in Austin. For example, the Little Long Horn Saloon has a version of Bingo that involves chickens, chicken feed, and what happens after chickens eat. For $2 you get a ticket with a number on it that corresponds to a number on the table. The owner, Ginny, unleashes the chicken and the crowd waits for it to poo on a number. Serious coin to be won here – the locals flock to play. Another example is the Museum of the Weird. Definitely worth a visit and … Since 1963, Austin has celebrated the birthday of Eeyore, the fictional character from Winnie the Pooh on the last Saturday in April. It also features the race circuit that hosts the US F1 Grands Prix. It’s an iconic circuit. This is a great place.
The US is very pet friendly. For example, the Austin hotel next to ours near the airport is the Park & Zoom. They offer valet service for your pet and car, exclusive dog swimming pool and a program to improve your pets attitude towards you. I suspect many people ask if they can leave their children there. The city boasts 466 pet friendly restaurants. Many don’t require your dog to be on a leash and most have a pet menu. Pet friendly businesses are a fast growing category as more realize pets rule the family and often are the largest spenders.
The subject of pets reminds me of a radio advertisement we heard. We flick through countless radio stations while driving in attempt to find something to listen to. We seldom succeed. In the southern states Country & Western and new age Gospel stations prevail. Occasionally we pick up a gem like this. An entrepreneur has developed 29 varieties of pyjama’s for the whole family – including your cat and dog. This certainly is a country of opportunity. One morning we saw a guy who had donned the wrong pyjama’s. He arrived at the Fast Food shop for breakfast dressed in his dogs garment. I peeped into his huge F250 truck to see what the dog was wearing. Seems like the dog refused to go out in public.
Texas has lots of oil reserves … and they aren’t going to run out any time soon. Confusingly, a US gallon is 3.8 litres not 4.5. Petrol price is US$2.30 per gallon – that’s very cheap - NZ0.87c per litre. As a result, the populace is continually mobile. I suspect they all rush out and drive whenever I am on the road. Austin’s enormous flyovers maintain progress – the city would be paralyzed if they relied on traffic lights. But it makes a crazy dodgems environment as drivers zoom from one side of the highway to the other looking for their exit. Given half the traffic are gigantic trucks whose wheels are about the size of our rental car, I’m terrified most of the time. Dallas is worse. I was mentally scared in Dallas and don’t want to talk about it until counselling is complete.
There is basically only one category of food in Texas – meat. It does come in mind boggling variety – from Texas BBQ to hamburger patty with lots of spicy Mexican options between. Vegans are tolerated but must feel ill catered. I suspect they principally exist on moral indignation. Austin is the home of Texas BBQ. There are hundreds of these specialist restaurants but about 6 are serious tourist attractions. Many have ques of salivating diners waiting outside dreaming of the surprisingly tender poor cuts that are used. (Eg. Skirt / flap.) A typical plate of consists of enough protein to feed a family in NZ for 3 days. It is possible to get corncob, potato and salad / coleslaw in a bucket on the side. The meat is slow roasted / smoked for many hours, sometimes 2 days. It melts in the mouth and, from the appearance of the dominant customer group, immediately forms another layer of body fat. It’s a metaphysical marvel.
Texas steakhouses are the next level of dining preference. Again, quantity is a big factor in customer expectation. The meals are obscenely huge – but supremely delicious. Unfortunately, I now understand ‘delicious’ is another word for ‘positive weight accumulation’. Let’s be fair. The whole US has a serious weight issue but the others are very understanding and see this as an additional profit opportunity. There are products, spaces and assisting apparatus designed to accommodate this portion of society. I have also become very understanding. The food in the US is outstandingly delicious and moreish in the extreme. It’s a never-ending variety of sugar, fat and sodium. Scrumptious. There’s healthy stuff too. The labels’ explain its made from reduced sugar, fat and sodium – and it’s not nearly as tasty. We went to a ‘Dairy Queen’ franchise for lunch one day. After accepting our modest order, the cashier convinced me I hadn’t lived until I experienced their new ‘Health Blizzard’ – a whipped ice cream full of fruits, nuts, chocolate and ‘other’ beneficial nutrients. It was fantastically fabulous!!! I wanted another – until I felt the increased tension on my belt and checked the nutritional details … 1160 calories! The additional information made me wonder if I should call my doctor immediately. The US doesn’t have an obesity problem, they have an addiction problem. I’m hooked already.
It appears Mexicans represent about half the Texas population. Their food preferences are available everywhere. Supplementing these are the well-known ‘fast food’ outlets. The requirement to work in these establishments is an air of impatient surliness and the inability to speak clearly. At every food outlet from the BBQ to the snack bar, customers are bombarded with questions. A local is prepared with the answers – a visitor is stunned with varietal overload and no idea of the implications of poor choice. It’s probably all that saved me having to buy a new wardrobe. The embarrassment of declining the options is observing the astonishment of the order taker. They stand aghast saying something I’ve interpreted as … “You don’t want the stuff that is included for free?” They show serious concern when I decline the gallon of sugar fizz that seems obligatory with each meal. Even coffee comes in paper cups that could be used as large flower vases. Flypaper & I often purchase a minimal meal – and share. I feel so inadequate.
Driving through the outskirts of El Paso the most horrendous smell assailed us. Flypaper looked at me and expressed doubt when I denied responsibility. I reasoned even the spicy Taco for lunch couldn’t have produced this much distress. Having eliminated the in-car sources we looked out the window. Alongside the highway, for about 10 miles were successive enormous cattle feed lots – both beef and dairy herds. A little research revealed some of these lots hold over 30,000 cattle. Collectively 100’s of thousands of stock. Daily, an average cow produces about 7 gallons of milk (25lts) and 18 gallons (60lts) of manure. Manure management is another very ‘big’ thing here in Texas … but its not something we heard boasted about. Seems like they just realized putting that much raw fertilizer on the feed pastures results in a large percentage going straight through to the water table. Much of this leaches straight into the Rio Grange River and on into Mexico … so that sort of effectively reduces the problem considerably.
We left Texas and travelled through New Mexico into Arizona to stay with friends. They live on a 10 acre lifestyle block in the wilderness not far from the Grand Canyon – which we visited. We’ve been to the canyon way back in 1978 – disappointingly, it hasn’t changed much. (Although the tourist infrastructure has developed to cater for millions of visitors.) Obviously, the intellect of the visitors has deteriorated as they now publish a book entitled “Off The Edge”. To date 685 visitors failed to return home. The book details every fatality and is updated each year given about 12 additions need recording. Many are skeptics not believing it is a mile to the canyon floor – so they lean out to check. That’s the American way – question everything. Some die of a condition known as hyponatremia – drinking too much water with inadequate salt intake. (This is quite common all over the ‘developed’ world as gullible people roam around sucking water continuously.)
Our friends have given me lectures about the flora and fauna of Arizona. I now know that Humming Birds hum because they don’t know the words and the difference between Crows and Ravens is very slight. Evidently one has and additional ‘pinion’ feather … therefore its simply a matter of ‘apionion’. Travel certainly broadens ones knowledge.
In Arizona I learned one shocking and disturbing truth … if I lived here with my ‘Wild West’ friends I may have voted for Donald Trump. By nature, I am Democrat(ish) – it’s platform involves support for free market capitalism, free enterprise and fiscal conservatism. It does lean a bit to the left which, as a filthy capitalist, would worry me. But the Republicans we know here have all the good toys. Cars, pickup trucks, motorhomes, quad bikes … and guns – lots of guns. All stuff that makes me feel invincible and free. On Saturday night our hosts threw a party in our honour. They invited all the neighbours. A more interesting and friendly group would be hard to imagine. They ranged from successful business people including automatic weapons manufactures through IT specialists, military personnel, tradespeople and professionals. Some carried serious and obvious twin holstered Colt style pistols (that caught my attention) and I’m advised most would have had concealed firearms. I guess they were unsure of foreign intruders and their tendency to be dangerous. I would not like to arrive wearing a frock and tea towel. Our fellow resident guests were Dutch. Even though the Dutch once rivaled the British in terms of global exploration and colonization, our friends will admit to being seriously competitive in the motorsport scene but have no asperations to invade the US. I, on the other hand, would like to rule the US. It’s a place that could easily provide satisfaction to many of the dreams and the desires I aspire to. And its obviously not too hard to do.
My conversations that night were uninhibited. I challenged their gun culture, their lack of concern for global warming, their unconcern for the dwindling oil reserves and reluctance to embrace new forms of energy and their global military presence. Throughout the entire evening I felt like a naked chicken on a rotisserie waiting for the chef to hit the igniter. But – I discovered these ‘salt of the earth’ people had never had the opportunity of discussions of this nature. Here, no-one would be so stupid as to challenge accepted ideology – but we could. There was a guy who had been part of an elite military group tasked with rescuing US military personal from foreign soil when missions went wrong. He had been trained in every military discipline and specialization I always dreamed of – from high altitude parachuting to submarine warfare. I undertook and failed an SAS audition (one in 100 succeed. I was 97 and woke up in hospital) and was totally captivated by the experiences of my new friend. There were experiences that he justified as ‘following orders’ I could never have carried out and he did have ongoing conscience issues that I don’t envy – but I feel privileged to have talked about them. In my view, he is a hero that we can’t comprehend in our idyllic cotton wool society.
These people tend to drive very large pickup trucks – we call them ‘utes’. A Ford F250 would drive right over a Toyota HiLux in NZ without feeling the bump. I’ve driven these huge SUV vehicles. They make me feel invincible and powerful. Like I could suck out an oil well in no time.
During my stay I fired 5 pistols. There are more accurate shooters around, but I can advise you - don’t mess with me under 25 yards. I also had my first experience in a ‘real’ gun shop. For $500 I could have wiped out all the politicians in our city and resolved a few outstanding disagreements. What’s not to like about this culture?
Each morning when Flypaper and I used our bathroom we were faced with an image of ex-President Obama on the toilet roll. I swear I was respectful and chose an alternative option. Flypaper on the other hand, thought it was a concept with satisfying outcomes. She’s drawing up a list in anticipation of finding a printer. If you suspect, you may be on her list (or indeed, want to be on her list) please email a good portrait.
The political discussions were particularly delicate. I pointed out 90% of global opinion and 66% of US citizens consider President Trump is a turkey – while I personally, remained totally unopinionated. My hosts, and their neighbours, are not phased with this weight of opinion. They know it is skewed by the evil media and through the manipulations of wicked Hillary. Let me say, unequivocally with hand on heart, I am also skeptical of media influence. However, I have seen a particularly ‘hot’ picture of Hillary when she was 28 and don’t believe she could have developed such wickedness since then. My lovely hostess held the ‘trump’ cards (pardon the pun). She showed me the unedited direct tweets between her personally and Don T. Don daily asks for her opinion – and in my opinion, she has some good ideas about running both the US and the rest of the world. We have exchanged views and believe me, we could sort it out in no time. However, when I looked carefully at the tweets, I became concerned that the author wasn’t always Don T – but one of his ever-temporary henchmen. I also suspected some of the claims made were difficult to justify should one apply logic and sound reasoning. She quickly pointed out that this was my mistake and these processes were the authours of the past administrations misdemeanors. In the face of wonderful hospitality, impressive neighbourly support and the prosperity evident in their community, I cannot disagree. I was seduced by automotive decadence, local beer and the pleasures being heaped on me. A full belly of meat is hard to reject. Shooting stuff clinched it. Seriously, if I lived here, I would join the ranks of the Republicans. The fraternity and friendly support of the neighbourhood would make me want to belong to this wonderful group. After immersing in the US gun culture for almost a week I concluded … the West may no longer be wild – but I believe it could get very angry.
American readers are going to be questioning all of the ‘u’s in many of the words I use. (eg, neighbour, colour, flavour.) My friends, this is English. English as spoken and written by members of the British Commonwealth. New Zealand is proudly a member of this Commonwealth. I know it’s hard to understand – but you have some matters that are equally difficult to grasp. Let’s just live as friends with strange differences.
On the journey across New Mexico we searched for a place to enjoy the picnic lunch provided for us by our Arizona hosts. Our GPS identified a ‘Serviced Rest Stop’ known as, (this is true) The most complicated rest stop in the world’. We decided to forgo the ‘Scenic Lookouts’ in favour of the challenge. On arrival, the ‘Most complicated blah blah’ had been developed into a Casino. Bugger! We took the next sideroad and chose to stop in the shade of a tree near a small rural and obviously poor community where the only visitors drove old V8 pickup trucks and slowed as they passed. I was conscious I was not carrying a weapon.
A word of advice. Albuquerque Old Town is to be avoided. It only caters for women with a penchant for Indian jewelry and cluttering trinketry. There are no gun shops or automotive dealerships in the whole precinct!!! (And Flypaper wouldn’t let me have dinner at ‘Hooters’ either.)
Wichita Falls is mentioned in a well know song, but it should be recognized for something much better … The Worlds Littlest Skyscraper. Built by a conman, Augustus Newby, who escaped conviction when the judge did something the investors failed to do. He put on his glasses when he read the prospectus. Investors thought the height was 480 feet – the document correctly quoted 480 inches. Only in America.
Much of our journey included the south western 1/3rd of the famous Highway 66. There is so much worthy of comment on this highway it justifies a book. On this and other roads, among countless other interesting things, we have been made aware of penitentiaries. Ominous buildings surrounded by razor wire, buildings disguised with politically correct names (eg. Correction facility), apparent industrial complexes with towers at each corner featuring search lights and machine guns, etc. In Louisiana we saw ‘chain gangs’ tidying up the highway. A sign on Hwy 66 was particularly appreciated … ‘Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates’. This sign, like nothing else, encapsulates the US we have seen. Friendly, informative, helpful, and, just a little bit ominous. I love the place. But, if I lived here, I probably would carry a concealed weapon. As a visitor I rely on Flypaper to keep me safe. She will affect a furious defense while I run.