Dallas to Austin and El Paso, TX, September 1st & 2nd 2014
Texas is a different world, an unimaginable place in, say, Manhattan. It sits culturally apart from the rest of the States, has its own mindset. We drive south to Austin, stopping at Style Station on the way, a used clothing treasure trove just off the freeway recommended to us by The Mastersons and our buddies, The O’s. Having been forewarned that its proprietor, Art, is big on radical politics and conspiracy we are pleasantly surprised by his hospitality and extraordinary knowledge, from the history of the British monarchy to the convoluted and corrupt machinations of US manufacturers in the Second World War. He’s quite an amazing man and tells me about an electric trolley car system that served the area until it was dismantled by the motor industry in 1948. He has, against state policy, installed his own solar panels and powers most of his shop with them. The place is stuffed with marvellous things, western wear and cowboy boots, great fabrics and neckwear, even some old stereo amps and vinyl. The constant flood of fascinating and arcane information makes it a little hard to concentrate on the business of shopping but I make a few selections and he heavily discounts my purchases (for being a musician) so perhaps it’s all an elaborate sales technique. His charm is infectious, if exhausting, and he is obviously very, very sane. He wishes us luck and we do the same as we weave through the prickly pear cacti that guard his domain.
We’re in Austin bang on schedule for load-in at the Cactus Café, which is situated in a student union building on the enormous campus of Texas State University. Here, you can buy Ralph Lauren polo football shirts in the college team colours and college football branded Justin cowboy boots. It’s a bewilderingly richly endowed institution – the campus is sparklingly well kempt. I guess around here, you’re expelled for sticking your band’s poster to a lamppost. The tech guy arrives an hour and a half late. I kill time sitting outside in the still roasting sunshine. The show suffers a few hitches – a dodgy line and a broken string but the small crowd is fully engaged, vocal and good humoured. I meet ’86-er Jason, who’s super cool and super smart and I’m sorry we have to hightail sharpish to get sleep hours before the haul to El Paso in the morning.
The previous guest in my room has kindly set the alarm clock to squawk at six thirty and I twist like a caught fish for the remainder of my morning. Pulling back the curtains reveals a shock – the first cloudy sky in two and a half weeks. A dense quilt the colour of a fading bruise hangs a sullen canopy over Austin. The air is smoggy with warm moisture as we head out through the low trees and pasture of east Texas on another nine hour schlep, this time all the way to the limit of the Mexican border.
We cut across country on highway 290, the first time we’ve found ourselves off the interstate for any length of time. We pass through what seems to be the Texas wine region, with wineries every half mile and what looks like fertile, well watered land. The vines themselves look very young, only a few years old. The scenery changes imperceptibly, the shallow undulations giving on to more mesa-like features and drier terrain. A gang of carrion crows picks crimson gobbets from some nameless roadkill as eagles hang like dark spirits overhead. When we drive through the German-settled town of Fredericksburg an enormous house floats towards us in our path. Escorted by four squad cars, the tumbledown clapboard abode is pulled along the main thoroughfare on a trailer as men in cherry-pickers either side lift the overhead cables in their gloved hands to give the pitched roof clearance as it weaves beneath the overhead stop lights. It’s a comical scene because the house looks more valuable as tinder than a place of residence. We speculate that round here such a building, possibly erected in the 1930s, might have historical significance.
The soil starts to whiten under the scrub as we ease into the less verdant west. Bluffs with a flaky appearance rise here and there but we are yet to see much cactus action. Sometimes the road looks as if, rather than being cut and laid, it’s been spilled onto the landscape like a river of wax, the pale concrete dribbling into the verges. The sun breaks out and soon all sign of cloud has vanished. The sky is pale and fragile and hard shadows swing across the dashboard as we take the bends around the outcrops.
We enter the vast wilderness of West Texas, the landscape now unmistakably American. The vegetation suddenly changes, the trees are gone and squat, hardy little shrubs flare up everywhere like green bonfires. The rock strata are a creamy white, the top of every rise levelled off perfectly parallel with the horizon as if planed by God. The traffic is very light and the shadows short. This is yet another sort of nowhere, rugged, beautiful and malevolent to the soft of heart.
Hours later I wake up. We’re still horsing west at eighty, still in Texas. Out in the distance ridge-lines of mountain ranges cut up into the sky. A train, four engines pulling a hundred wagons, slips sluggishly past on the north side of the freeway. What immense freedom, for all its evils, the combustion engine gives the individual. When I was six my family drove to Turkey in a Land Rover, camping all the way. We saw Romania and Bulgaria, we saw the Mediterranean and the Bosporus. This little van we’re in – we can take it anywhere in the surrounding vastness, from the great cities and forests in the east to the coves and beaches of the Pacific coast. We are free in an elemental sense – no borders, no walls. Yet a few miles south the forces of social control are building a wall between one country and another, stirring up fear and loathing of the foreigner, the alien, the stranger. As we come in to El Paso, Mr. Niz puts on the Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad of the same name. Forests of billboards crowd round the road as the music fills the van with Tex-Mex lore. Signs saying Jesus Saves, El Taco Tote and Alamo Auto wave their slogans into our windscreen as arcing loops of highway intersections fly overhead like firework traces. The sudden city in the wilderness, the shining citadel at the end of the epic slog: shelter from the storm of the sun, sanctuary and safe haven. People, their different tongues and their lamps that light the night in the falling darkness.