I never gave much thought to what Texas would be like. You hear about it on the news, usually in conjunction with the word 'execution' and you vaguely know that everyone who lives there owns a cattle ranch and is quite religious but that's about it. Oh and the cowboy thing. *daydreams* Oh and once, in Nashville Tennessee, I met a man named Eddie who was on a business trip from Texas and it was THE SECOND TIME HE'D EVER LEFT TEXAS. And he was like, 43. Texas is big. You can fit the UK into Texas 5.3 times and Texas isn't even a country on it's own. Although it used to be. I don't know if that's a little known fact or not but I didn't know it. There's other imagery that comes to mind when you mention Texas and I don't know what that is for you but for me it's lassooing things and tornadoes and drawling accents and big belt buckles and guns, and every stereotype put forth by Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. As we approached the state border I realised I had this distant idea of The Lonestar State shut away in my brain somewhere, that had come from TV and things, and I really wanted to experience it firsthand. Which was lucky, because I was going to.
The top bit of Texas is known as the 'panhandle' and this is the bit that Route 66 cuts through on it's way from Oklahoma to New Mexico. The main city we were going to pass through was Amarillo, which is the 14th most populous city in Texas - it has a population of just over 190,000 which makes it bigger than Swindon but smaller than Norwich. When we got there it looked to me to be exactly the same in appearance as every other mid sized city we had already passed through (Oklahoma City, Springfield, St Louis, Tulsa...) but we didn't go into the middle of it so who I am to really judge? Maybe in the centre it was a beautiful place full of culture and brilliance, if you ever got past the 65 junctions on the way in that played home to drive-thru Starbucks, Jiffy Lube and Sonic Burger (the latter has tater tots!) But we never did. We were going to be arriving there in the evening, having driven 320 miles from Oklahoma City, with stops in Elk City (NOT A CITY! HAS NO ELK! IS STRANGELY DESERTED!) and the town of Groom (famous for playing host to the world's largest cross. Yes really.) along the way. As well as a museum dedicated to barbed wire (boasting the largest collection of barbed wire in the world) and the U-Drop Inn which used to be an art-deco cafe and is now a gift shop that sells a large amount of Cars memorabilia (it features in the film) and is run by a great Texas couple called Larry and Diane who keep a world map on the wall so you can pin your home country and WILL MAKE YOU A CUP OF TEA IF YOU ARE FROM THE UK (best thing ever. The tea was actually disgusting in 90F heat but hell - it's TEA! HOORAY!)
Basically, it had been a really long day and we were only going to be in Amarillo for 12 hours or so. Our agenda looked like this:
Get to Amarillo
Find reasonably priced hotel/motel/Holiday Inn
Get dressed for rodeo
Go to rodeo
The latter two items on the list has come about the previous evening, when Sonia and Dom had Googled things to do in Amarillo and discovered that the Tri-State Rodeo was coming to town. Just like in the movies! So obviously we had to go, and I thought this would be fine, because I had never been exposed enough to a rodeo before to know that a rodeo isn't the same as showjumping and also I had brought a shirt with horses on it and as we all know, every occasion that occurs during the course of any good road trip will have an outfit to match it. It was a long LONG day of driving but we left Oklahoma City really early in the morning and at some point during the drive, like so many before us, we came across the sign for the Texas state line.
There were a lot of stickers on the sign which was how we knew that at some point in time, people had crossed this line before us, using this road. If it weren't for the stickers, it would have been quite easy to believe that no human had ever come here before. The road was deserted and the air was thick with a.) weather (it really was very humid) and b.) the sound of locusts. The photo looks peaceful right? It wasn't. Loudest place I have ever been that didn't have humans in. Oh also, there was a signpost to the right of the photo that was full of bullet holes. Which was encouraging. We felt already like Texas was going to be something different to what we had encountered before.
By the time we got to the Texas border and had all got out to take photos, it was getting on a bit and none of us had been to the toilet in a while and it was hot so we'd all been drinking enormous fountain drinks all day - the kind where they have to make the base of the cup thinner just so you can get your hand around it. There was nothing for miles in any direction. Which is how it came to pass that I accidentally wee'd on a giant locust behind a tree, in a ditch, on (or just beyond) the officially state line between Oklahoma and Texas. Next to a sign that was full of bullet holes. You can keep your epiphanies experienced on mountain tops next to Buddhist temples at dawn. THIS is living. (The same cannot really be said of the locust).
We continued forward. We got to Amarillo and then, by and by, to the rodeo. We were suddenly surrounded by big men in cowboy shirts and shiny boots and cowboy hats that were being worn WITHOUT IRONY. Fashion in Texas is a far cry from anything I know to be a Thing. The cowboy boots were among the most impressive I have ever seen, and there was a boot shining place which consisted of a row of impressively clad cowboys sitting on high chairs with boot polishers kneeling at their feet, scrubbing. LIKE IN THE VICTORIAN TIMES! It was kind of amazing. And all the cowboys had really thick necks. The sort of necks that can break rope with a single well-timed exhale. There was a lot of testosterone in the air. We had stepped into a universe where everything was ten times as masculine as the rest of the world. It was masculine overkill.
The rodeo is surrounded by a funfair, which is pretty much like funfairs in the UK except the food is unlike anything I had ever seen. Here is a list of foodstuffs you can buy at the rodeo:
- a turkey leg. Not just any turkey leg, but a leg from the biggest turkey in the world. When you have the turkey leg, you walk around holding the turkey leg, intermittently tearing strips off it with your teeth until it is gone. This will take you most of the night. This website tells me that one such turkey leg contains 54 grams of fat and 1,136 calories.
- a corn. Yeah that's it, just a corn. A big....corn. You know how by the time you get the corn on the cob on your plate inany normal situation, it's been stripped of all the leafy bits that it grows in, and cleaned and slathered in butter? This one hasn't. It is a corn FRESH FROM THE FIELD.
- something called a Tater Tornado which from what I could tell is a potato that has been peeled into a big spiral and then put in a Styrofoam tray and covered in cheese. It is not named a 'tornado' because of it's shape, but because of the chain reaction that takes place in your arteries right before the heart attack happens.
- a deep fried Snickers bar. We're now straying into Scottish kebab shop territory and it's less shocking so I'll stop listing crazy food now.
After we had got over all the new and interesting food that was knocking about, and the style of dress, which was generally amazing (every shirt meticulously pressed, every belt adorned by a buckle covered in shining diamante sparkles, every pair of jeans sporting a genuine Levi's logo, every hat as crisp and new as the day it was made - these cowboys take PRIDE in their appearance) and had got our tickets and found some seats in the big rodeo arena - which is like a football stadium except in the middle there's a lot of sand and off to one side there's a pen full of bulls - and got some beers, because you need beers at the rodeo - it was time to start the show. Unlike at a typical ball game, we were surrounded by families. Husbands and wives and excited children and even babies were out in force. Obviously the rodeo is thought of here as an important family event and so when it comes to town everyone flocks there - not just one or two families but the whole community. We were sitting there among them all, in a shell shocked row, just staring all around with our mouths open. Then the lights went out and there was a sudden spotlight in the arena and a man on a horse with a microphone rode out and introduced himself as the host, and then a second horse rode out with a blonde woman draped in an American flag on it and she came to a halt in the centre of the ring and everyone stood up, and then it was time to pray.
I won't lie, the praying thing shocked me a bit. I mean, I was expecting there to be a speech made about the bravery of the Troops and then the National Anthem, and that did happen afterwards, but the praying - wow. That one was new on me. I had never been to a large sporting/entertainment event like this where everyone was expected to bow their head and pray and yet if we hadn't have done it we would have been the ONLY ones not doing so. We ducked our heads, eyes to the floor, and tried to blend in. The prayer was introduced by the compere/cowboy on the horse with the microphone, who announced with great pride that the US Government may have taken prayer out of the public school system but it would never be taken out of the tri-state rodeo. And that's when everyone cheered like they were cheering for their favourite baseball team, and then he led the prayer, you know, OUT LOUD, and in between trying not to listen and watching the horse with the blonde woman and the spotlight on it do a very long and obviously very satisfying wee in the middle of the arena, I wondered exactly when it became assumption that every single person attending this event would a.) be religious and b.) belong to this particular religion.
I wanted to mock it just like I had wanted to mock everything I had seen since entering Texas, but the next morning, as I watched the Sunday morning news programme, which was heavily laden with references to Jesus and the church throughout, I began to think that it's just a different way of life here, and a different way of thinking. Not a very diverse way of thinking, admittedly, but a way that has evidently been the accepted Way here for a very long time, and everyone we had encountered the previous evening had seemed perfectly happy. Everyone was enjoying the absolutely massive turkey legs and everyone was voluntarily praying - there was noone who looked like they were being forced into it. Although I suspect that any Muslims or Jewish people or anyone not prepared to exert their obvious and overpowering masculinity by tying a bandana around their very thick neck and strapping on their leather holster (and we saw a few) wouldn't dare come out in public on a night like this, in a place like this, so it's hard to really tell for sure. Like anywhere, the quirks of this place just stood out a mile to us out-of-towners but in contrast with virtually every other state we went to, the quirks of THIS place seemed to stand out further. I guess that in the end, Texas is just...Texas. And that's fine.
Having said that, I was quite happy to leave.
The next morning, we drove out of northern Texas towards the border with New Mexico (where we encountered an almost immediate cessation of sparkling white Baptist churches on every corner and huge billboards on the side of the road that read 'GOD DOESN'T WANT YOU TO KILL YOUR BABY') singing along to Christian Rock music on the radio and during this time we all agreed that actually, the sentiment of the whole thing was quite harmless and nice. Everyone seemed to love their neighbour and the atmosphere had been generally harmonious and pleasant. Except the atmosphere immediately around my brain at the point at which the rodeo pens opened and the leaping on and neck-twisting of calves who were evidently terrified, by fully grown men began, at which point I stormed off back to the hotel in a fit of I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING, IT'S SO CRUEL, got lost on the way and made friends with an ACTUAL SHERIFF who called me a taxi, let me sit in his deck chair and then told me all about his gun during the wait (I asked - it's not every day you make friends with a Texas Sheriff so you should definitely ask him about is gun if you can). But aside from that, and the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me Texas was not a place I recognised as being particularly liberal or particularly lenient or particularly safe, it was great.
Would I go back to Texas? Immediately. It's weird and I want to see more of it. Not the rodeo though. Once was enough.
The music accompanying this blog post is:-
Macklemore - American
Gnarls Barkley - Who's Gonna Save My Soul
Kenny Loggins - Danger Zone
If I did this in linear order it would be boring, so I won't. And I'm starting with the armadillo because I had hoped to have my travel diary to rely on, but I don't. Mostly because, as it turns out, you can't road trip for 12 hours a day 7 days a week and still be alive to tell about it at the end of each one. On the upside, I never slept so well as during that time, despite the questionable stains on the motel bedsheets and the train bullhorns that insisted on sounding along the tracks all night long (questionable motels are always next to train tracks, it turns out). On the downside, the sum total of handwritten experience I shall have to look back on when I am old and have taken an arrow to my knee is this:
I need to stress at this point that the armadillo was ALREADY DEAD WHEN WE GOT THERE. WE DID NOT KILL IT. I would never kill an armadillo. At least not on purpose. In fact, I find it quite hard to imagine that you COULD hit and kill an armadillo on a winding road where the speed limit is 45mph. Armadillos are quite big. I think. I mean, I've never seen a live one but this one was not particularly small. Or maybe it was just spread out. Quite a lot of it's insides were on the outside now. But still. It had a hard shell. How could this have happened? Luckily, as Sonia had sensibly signed up for free international data before we left the UK, and that particular road in Missouri was not quite devoid of all signal from the civilised world, we could Google it. This is how we discovered that Armadillos, when they are startled, freeze on the spot and then suddenly and without warning leap several feet into the air vertically. Putting them at the perfect height to get smashed by a front bumper. In fact, according to Wikipedia, they are common roadkill in the United States. According to this same source of information they are also natural reservoirs for leprosy, as they are one of only a few species to carry the disease and they can pass it on to humans. So what happened next was really a little unfortunate.
We had just taken a car selfie to celebrate the fact that the atmosphere was calm again after my 35 minutes of senseless screaming and unwavering conviction that I was about to drive us all into a ditch. Sonia and Dom were in the back, looking for signs to a town called Lebanon, which was significant because of something that might be to do with the fact that they had been on some kind of adventure in the ACTUAL Lebanon once and wanted to make comparisons. I was eating M&Ms and letting my mind wander towards the sort of pleasant blankness that you only get from driving across the middle of nowhere. And then Erica, who was in the front passenger seat, exclaimed 'I think that was an armadillo!' in regards to the dead thing at the side of the road that I had just driven past. We had been driving past dead things all day, but they were mostly birds and squirrels and other boring animals that we had seen before. This one looked different and I was pretty sure it was an armadillo too but didn't want to say so in case I was wrong. The guys in the back got very excited and after another minute of driving I hesitantly asked if they wanted me to turn the car around. This idea was immediately approved, which was a good thing, as I secretly REALLY wanted to do it, but didn't want to be the Freak who made everyone go back to check out what Dead Thing the Dead Thing was.
It was maybe another hour later, after the recounting of the dead armadillo story had been put on Facebook and people had begun leaving us comments to the effect of 'are you mad' and 'did you know you can get leprosy from armadillos' that we stopped, really stopped to think about our actions. Or at least, we stopped to get coffee and thought about our actions while we were there. It was at this point that the reality of what had happened that afternoon really hit home.
My Grandmother had a jar that she kept in her kitchen, and she kept mints in it. Grandmother's do this a lot, it's a typical grandparent thing, I think. But it wasn't a simple tupperware container or plain glass jar that she chose to house the mints. It was a white ceramic jar with a dark wooden lid. On the outside was a pattern, like onions and weird diamonds. It wasn't particularly pretty and I never gave it any thought - it was just so familiar because it was the jar with the mints in. And there were ALWAYS mints in there. I loved them so much - they were so nice to suck on for 25 minutes out of every day, and so sweet - but very bad for your teeth and for that reason Grandma said that my brother and I could have 3 mints a day while we stayed with her. Looking back, even that amount seemed far too much but to a kid who only wanted the sweets inside the jar, it was a cruel punishment. I used to sneak mints - sometimes by the hour. I definitely always had many more than I was supposed to.
My Grandma died when I was 17 and my Mum inherited the pot, along with a lot of other things that she couldn't bear to throw away because they were just so 'Grandma'. At first she thought she might keep mints in it, but that plan never came to fruition and besides, my brother and I had grown out of eating sweets out of jars by then. So the jar sat empty, apart from a solitary mint that had fallen out of it's wrapper and become welded to the bottom of the jar. There it was to stay for many years, becoming even more sticky and disgusting as time passed. None of us could bear to get rid of it.
From Jar to Skin...
I can't remember how or when I decided that I should have the pattern from the jar tattooed on me. It just became something that I felt HAD to happen. It was such an iconic pattern to me that to have it tattooed on me seemed natural (I already had so many tattoos, and I have always liked having iconic patterns from my childhood surroundings as tattoos - patterns on cushion covers and on pictures hanging on the wall etc). My oldest friend was learning to tattoo and she had known my Grandma. It felt natural that she should do the tattoo and so it all fell into place, just like that, and everything worked out perfectly. She came to my house and brought all her tattoo kit, and we set up in my conservatory one September day, 10 years after my Grandma died, and we chatted and listened to music, and the autumn light flooded in through the windows and she tattooed the pattern onto the back of my left forearm and it was just right - it looked like it had always been there. As any good tattoo should. A near perfect afternoon, a wonderful memory, and something lasting to show for it.
A Trip Up North...
A year later, I was walking through the centre of Lancaster with two of my friends - Catriona and Emmy. Catriona lives in Lancaster and we had gone to stay with her. It was my first time there - I was in the process of falling in love with the cobbled streets and hidden coffee shops. We happened to walk past a charity shop and suddenly Catriona let out a shriek (I thought something awful had happened) and pointed towards the window. Sitting on display, as if someone had placed it there for me and me alone, was a pot with the EXACT SAME PATTERN AS THE GRANDMA JAR (and my tattoo) on it. The pot was a different colour and a different shape - like a butter dish but deeper (or a casserole dish, but smaller) and the lid was ceramic and not wooden like the Grandma Jar, but the pattern was just the same. It was unmistakable. Not a coincidence. Not a similar design. The same.
Wherever this pot had come from, it was the same place the Grandma Jar had come from.
I had never given any thought to the origin of the Grandma Jar. It had obviously come from somewhere and had a story behind it, but to me it was always just...the Grandma Jar. It had started with her and ended on my arm. To me, it was unique. But now I could see that of course it wasn't.
I went in to the shop and bought the pot immediately. It cost £5, which was a small price to pay for something that had such a strong link to my past (and my present - I showed the shop owners my tattoo and they evidently thought I was very strange). It was (and is) absolutely beautiful. I use it now as a jewelry box.
Aside from the shape and colour of the pot, there was another difference between this and the Grandma Jar that set it apart and opened up a whole new chapter in this bizarre little story.
It had a stamp on the bottom. Something the Grandma Jar never had - perhaps it had rubbed off.
The stamp read 'Egersund' Norway'. And there was a picture of a viking ship.
Now I had something to go on! For ages, people had been spotting my tattoo and coming up with their own theory about what the strange, onion-like symbols meant. Someone swore up and down that they were African tribal symbols. I realised I had no idea as to the true origins of the pattern. It only existed on my arm in relation to it's personal significance to me, which bore no relation to Africa or anywhere else - just my memory of my Grandma, her house and the familiar things that surrounded me there.
However, now that I had seen this stamp, I had to Google it to find out what it meant. And this is what I discovered.
Egersund is a small coastal town on the south west tip of Norway. It has one of the best natural harbours in the country. It has a population of 9,500 and has one of the oldest placenames in all of Norway. People have been living in the area since the Stone Age. I had never heard of it. Why would I have? I have never been to Norway. I have no connections with the country and neither do my family. And yet a piece of pottery sat in my Grandmother's house for decades that came from this region. I have no evidence to suggest that she ever went there (I suspect not as she wasn't one for going abroad and I know she never really travelled. She was a Nurse during WW2 and lived in Lincolnshire, moving to Warwickshire later on in life). I wish I could ask her where it came from. Maybe a gift from someone who had been on holiday in Scandinavia? And why pottery? What is the significance? I did a bit more digging.
This is where I discovered the existence of Egersunds Fayancefabriks Co. - a pottery factory that opened in the town in 1847 (founded by Johan Feyer, an Industrial Pioneer, who himself trained in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England). It proceeded to become the town's principle employer until it closed down in 1979. The pottery that was produced there has since become valuable - there are collectors out there, it seems - people who love it for it's history and maybe also it's quirks. Just like I do. Click here for a more comprehensive history of the Egersund pottery, written by a collector. It's a fascinating read.
I wondered exactly how much pottery exists out there (wherever 'out there' is) that resembles the Grandma Jar and my now beloved jewelry pot.
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Click the link and just look at it all! So much pottery, some of it that looks just like mine! It's quite overwhelming, just seeing it all - scattered across the world. And of course, I want to own it all! Especially this one:
The items that most resemble the Grandma Jar and my pot are often labelled with '1960's' - so now I have a better idea of the era from which they came.
I do not know how a remarkable piece of pottery from Egersund, Norway ended up in my Grandmother's kitchen. There is no living person who can tell me why. But I'm very glad it did end up there. Because it's created a new adventure for me, and hopefully one day I'll get to go there, and if not complete the puzzle, then at least freak some Norwegian people out with my tattoo!