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