- Where We Started: San Antonio, Tex.
- Where We Ended: Fort Stockton, Tex.
- Miles Driven: 368 (5,575 total)
- New States: None
- State Tally So Far: 13 (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas)
THE DAY'S HIGHLIGHTS
There comes a moment on every cross-country trip where you realize you've reached "the West." There's no official boundary, no welcome signs and no new currency, but at some point, you realize you've arrived. On our 2003 trip, I remember clearly turning a corner on a highway in North Dakota and saw the rugged terrain of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and realized we'd arrived. On this journey, our arrival came with a a four-hour drive down Interstate 10 into the vastness that's otherwise called west Texas.
There's almost nowhere in the East where you can drive even an hour and not see a number of towns and a decent amount of traffic. Not in west Texas, where I was able to drive for two hours without touching the brake or the gas, thanks to cruise control, and where I was passed by approximately three cars in the 150 miles between Sonora and Fort Stockton. This painfully dull drive occurred mostly without incident, though I did require some raucous music for the last 50 miles to keep me energized. The good news: We're now 85 miles from Big Bend National Park, where we'll spend today. Much to our chagrin, we missed Big Bend on our last trip, and were determined not to miss it again.
Our day began in San Antonio, where we decided to hit the Riverwalk for lunch. Running alongside the San Antonio River, the Riverwalk is lined with shops, restaurants and an outdoor theater where the stage is on one side of the river and the audience on the other. Because the Riverwalk sits about 50 feet below the city, you almost forget you're still in a major American city.
We then decided to take a stroll over to the Alamo, and walked right into good luck. As we ascended the stairs and walked out onto Commerce Street, we saw a march headed our way. Turns out it was the 13th Annual Cesar Chavez March for Justice, honoring the late labor and civil rights leader. For a photographer, a march is like an all-you-eat buffet, so Joan snapped away as the march headed toward its conclusion at the Alamo.
At the end of the march, in front of the Alamo, there were places for interested parties to pick up more information on the various causes that were part of the parade. For the kids, there were rides.
After stalling for as long as we could, we acknowledged that it was time to begin the West Texas Death March. Now, we're big fans of breaking up long drives by finding interesting sites along the way, but in the 313 miles between San Antonio and Fort Stockton, we could find only two: the Treue der Union monument in Comfort, Tex., and Stonehenge 2, in Hunt, Tex.
The Treue der Union monument honors one of those fascinating, little-known stories that fill American history. During the Civil War, 60-plus men -- mostly Germans -- resisted being drafted by the Confederacy and remained loyal to the Union. Eventually, they decided to try and reach Union troops via Mexico, but in the Nueces Massacre in 1862, most of these men were killed in a battle with Confederate cavalrymen. Some were reportedly executed after being captured. The remains of some of these men are interred at the monument, the only one in former Confederate territory that honors Union sympathizers. The Treue der Union is one of only six national cemeteries allowed to fly its flag at half staff in perpetuity.
From this sober, serious site, we then went to a fun, silly one: Stonehenge II, a recreation of the original Stonehenge, located in England. This structure, in a field on a rural farm road in Hunt, is 90 percent as wide and 60 percent as tall as the original, and was built as a lark by two local residents. It is, however, much larger than the Stonehenge built for Spinal Tap in one of the funniest scenes from "This Is Spinal Tap."
From there, the only sight we saw for the next 245 miles of I-10 was dinner. But we had one thing going in our favor.
I had never seen an 80 mile-per-hour speed limit in my life, but apparently, officials in west Texas are also aware of how soul-crushing this drive is, so they decided to help us out. To them, a hearty thanks. According to Wikipedia, this stretch of an 80mph limit -- which covers the 250 miles between Kerrville and El Paso -- is the highest speed limit in the nation.
We arrived at our hotel at about 10pm, and started getting ready for Big Bend. For Joan, that meant sleeping. For me, that meant cleaning the dog shit off the bottom of my hiking boots.
- During the Cesar Chavez march, the marchers were chanting, "Si, se puede." That's Spanish for "Yes, we can," and is the motto of the United Farm Workers, which Chavez co-founded. It's now obviously more associated with Barack Obama, but I wasn't aware of this prior use.
- One of the items on my to-do list when this trip ends will be to introduce federal legislation to ban coffee houses from using any form of the word "grounds" in their name. We've seen dozens of versions of this tortured phrasing, but the worst may have been the one we saw a few days back: "Sufficient Grounds." Yes, a funny play on the legal term. But when was the last time you sought out "sufficient" coffee? I mean, it's better than "Insufficient Grounds," I suppose, but either way, not exactly a strong selling point. It just grinds me up.
- Sign of the Day" "Biker Friendly Hotel," in Ingram, Tex. I guess this implies there are a lot of hotels that are not biker friendly, though I'm not sure legally if hotels can turn away bikers. But found it interesting nonetheless. Maybe it just means they're especially friendly to bikers, the way pet-friendly usually implies more than just acceptance.
- We stopped to use the restroom at an Exxon in Boerne, Tex. As Joan was washing her hands, a woman walked in her with a child about nine years old, and asked her, in Spanish: "Uno o dos?" The child, old enough to be perfectly embarrassed by being asked this question in front of a complete stranger -- and relatively sure the Spanish was easy to translate -- snarled back, in English: "I don't know!" That's one Mom who got an earful once Joan left.
- Random iPod shuffle song of the day: "Endless Column," by the Blue Man Group. I saw this show in Chicago a few years back, and liked it quite a bit. I'm not one who generally enjoys shows like that, but it was very creative, visually compelling, and the music -- percussion-driven instrumental rock -- is right up my alley. This song isn't one of my personal favorites, but I do like the group. Best tunes: "Opening Mandelbrot" and "Drumbone."
- While cruising down I-10, Joan decided she wanted some Police. Not the kind that pull you over -- I've had a perfect record on that front so far -- but the band. So we played them for a few hours, including "Spirits in the Material World." It's amazing how songs can bring you back to specific moments in your life. "Spirits in the Material World" 's the song I was playing in my car when, in high school, I slid on ice and crashed into a tree and pretty much totaled my car. So, as you can imagine, I tense up every time I hear that song while driving, especially when I'm going 80 miles per hour. But, in the end, I did not become the king of pain, and was able to continue to savor every breath I take.
- We also listened to some Texas artists on our long drive: Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Edgar Winter and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I didn't have any Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tanya Tucker, or Lefty Frizzell. By the way, inducted into the West Texas Music Hall of Fame: Seals & Crofts and England Dan & John Ford Coley. OK, so "Summer Breeze" is a classic 70's soft rock tune. But c'mon.
- Now, I mentioned earlier that I have a playlist on my iPod that I turn to when I'm getting weary on a night drive. It's guaranteed to keep me alert. I won't list the whole thing here, but a few of the tunes:
- "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll," AC/DC
- "Living After Midnight," Judas Priest
- "YYZ," Rush
- "The Main Monkey Business," Rush
- "One Thought at a Time," Massive Attack
- "Exotic Talk," RJD2
- "Discipline," King Crimson
- "Dazed and Confused," Led Zeppelin
- "One of These Days," Pink Floyd (a rare good driving Floyd tune)
- "Red," King Crimson
- "Free Bird," Lynyrd Skynyrd
- "Rock and Roll," Led Zeppelin
- "Run to the Hills," Iron Maiden (yes, I made fun of them in an earlier post, but this is a good tune)
- "Confrontation," Tangerine Dream
- "The Way We Were," by Barbra Streisand (OK, just kidding. Wanted to see if you made it this far)
- Lunch: Boudros, San Antonio, Tex.: On a recommendation from Frank Hughes, we checked out this Texas bistro, and give it a big thumbs-up. The table-side guacamole and the beef-based salsa were terrific. Joan loved her salmon salad, and I liked my tuna salad. The difference: Joan got her dressing on the side, and they dumped a vat of dressing on mine. Jim Nutrition Rating: 2 stars (out of 5). The tuna salad was a good, healthy call, but the chips with salsa and guacamole more than canceled it out. Restaurant Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5).
- Dinner: Sonic, Sonora Tex.: Yes, I said we would not eat at a Sonic because of fear we would just be contributing money to those horrible TV ads. But I didn't account for being in the middle of west Texas at dinnertime, and finding that, in the first town we'd seen for 50 miles, Sonic was really the only quick option. Jim Nutrition Rating: On advice of my nutritionist, I will decline to answer this question on the grounds I may incriminate myself. Restaurant Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5). You know, it was pretty good. I had a sandwich that included a meat patty -- sorry, I can't be more specific, on advice of food counsel -- was quite good. So were the fried accompaniments that I cannot name. Joan later reminded me that the food at Sonic wasn't why we disliked it so much on the last trip; it was because I spilled a lemon slush all over my lap, and -- like Kramer with the hot coffee on "Seinfeld" -- apparently blamed Sonic for my idiocy.
- Best Western Swiss Clock Inn, Fort Stockton, Tex.: This hotel was like the apartment house in "Rosemary's Baby": At first, it seemed friendly and inviting, but before long, you start to realize something is amiss. No, we weren't staying with Satanists, but soon after arriving to a surprisingly large room and comfortable bed, the cracks started to show. First, we noticed that the latch that double-locks the hotel room door had been broken off. That annoyed Joan a little, and then I really helped out by saying, "That couldn't have happened for any good reason." At that point, she went from annoyed to worried. So we used the one lock we had, and put a chair in front of the door so that we'd hear anyone trying to make an entry. Then, Joan couldn't get any cold water out of the shower. I did, but only because Joan called to complain after her shower, and was told the hotel was having a problem with the water heater, which required you to run the water for 5-10 minutes to get it hot. They also put us at the back, creepy part of the hotel. And the insulation between floors didn't seem to exist. The guy above us seemed to have, as the ads say, a going problem, as he was padding around his room all night.The people were pretty rude too. And what's with the Swiss clock motif in west Texas? Hotel rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5).
- Leftover story from the La Quinta Inn in Austin: As Joan was checking out, a man was trying to check in. They told him they had a room for him, and he said, "Is it OK even though I have a local address? The other La Quinta in town wouldn't give me a room because I have a local address." Interesting. Maybe the first La Quinta had a prostitution problem? Never heard of that rule before. Thankfully, I guess.
- I am continually finding hotels with outdoor ice machines where you are required to insert your room key to be able to get ice. Am I missing something? Even if I'm not staying at the hotel, is it really a big deal for me to steal some of your frozen water?
COMMENT OF THE DAY
- Today: Big Bend National Park.
- Tomorrow: El Paso, Tex., and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
- The Day After Tomorrow: White Sands National Monument, and to Tucson, Ariz. (For those who are wondering, we're going to hit Santa Fe after Phoenix; more on that later).
BONUS BEAGLE PHOTO