Monday, November 19, 2007

Blue Highways to Texas, 2003

October 9, 2003 Ann Arbor to Eagle Pass, Texas

Dear Friends and Family,

We spent the night in a luxurious motel room (a suite, really) here in Eagle Pass Texas, ready to cross over into Piedras Negras, Mexico. What a change this king size bed and the extra room with couch, desk and refrigerator, from Howie, who has little more than a bed and storage space, and where we have to be careful not to bump our heads when we turn over in middle of the night. Not to downgrade Howie! She is serving us well, and we are growing very fond of her.


For those of you who haven’t met Howie, she is the full size 1990 Ford Econoline cargo van that we bought from Howard Bond. We had been talking for years about getting a used van, outfitting it for camping, and making a trip like this, so when Howard, in one of his newsletters, offered the van that he had been using for his workshops in Colorado and the UP, we jumped at it. Howard had already outfitted her to suit a photographer, with secure storage for cameras and tripods and other valuables, a platform for setting up a tripods on the roof, and bunks for himself and Margaret, and even a pot to pee in. She was even white, to be cooler in hot climates! She had 100,000 miles on her, but almost all highway miles, and Howard had taken such meticulous care of her that she only looks and acts half her age. About all we had to do to make her suit us was (since we are both a little larger than Howard and Margaret) was to make Howard’s bunk extendable into a double bed and take out a partition between the driver/passenger compartment and the rest of the van so that we could push the seats back a bit further. We also went down to Elkhart, Indiana (RV heaven) and bought a super captain’s chair for the passenger side (the driver’s side already had a pretty good one). You can guess who sits in that one most of the time!

We’ve been taking a lot of back roads and “blue highways” and so getting a good look at the midsection of our country in a way that you don’t see it from the expressway. . . . From St. Louis we headed down route 67 toward Memphis, which took us through the Ozarks. We were enjoying the scenery, which reminded us a little of western North Carolina, when we realized there was something very different about this place. There were no billboards! How nice not to be bombarded with blaring announcements of auto dealerships and flea markets every 500 feet. We wondered if Missouri had a law banning billboards in this region. In Arkansas the green hills gave way to rice paddies and cotton fields (and interesting junkyards!) and we realized we were in “the South.”


One of the best things about traveling the way we do is that you meet such interesting people. Mary Beth was one of those. As soon as we drove across the Mississippi into Memphis, we stopped at the visitor’s center. Mary Beth was standing behind the counter looking like she wanted something to do, so Jim walked up and said, “You look like you’re just waiting to talk to us.”

“I am,” she said. “I’ve been waiting all morning.” She turned out to be a kindred spirit, down to sharing a love for the comic strip “Arlo and Janis.” In fact, she had just bought her “ex-hippie” husband, who dreamed of going off sailing, a little sailboat. She told us all of the best things to see on a short stop in Memphis, excluding some saying “You won’t like that--it’s too touristy!” We didn’t get to them all, thinking that we would come back to Memphis sometime, but we ate the best BBQ’d ribs we’ve ever tasted on Beale Street, and listened to some great blues played by some old guys in a public park. One of my most moving experiences was standing in front of the Lorraine Motel looking at the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot. I couldn’t help thinking how our country might be different if our best leaders hadn’t been assassinated in the 60’s. The entire motel is now the centerpiece for the Civil Rights Museum. A local panhandler pointed out the windows in the building across the street, now abandoned, where the shots that killed King came from.


We wondered what new scenes of Southern life we’d see when left Memphis on Highway 61 and crossed the line into Mississippi. What we saw was traffic--tons of it--and billboard after billboard advertising casinos. They proclaimed “loose slots” --illustrated by seductive images of women--and shows by lots of stars we remembered from decades ago plus some contemporary ones: Alice Cooper, The Moody Blues, Lisa Marie Presley . . . The traffic was so crazy with cars weaving wildly in and out that we thought we were on I-94 to Detroit.
Then we saw a stretch limo pull into the median pull out to make a u-turn, and about 20 cars followed it. Undoubtedly one of the celebrities with his or her entourage of paparazzi.


When we left Tunica County, the billboards disappeared, replaced by mile after mile after mile of perfectly flat river delta land blanketed with cotton fields. As we drove through them, we pictured another era when we might have seen men and women and children dragging their heavy bags through the fields picking the cotton. Later we saw how it is done now, with giant machines stripping the white puffy balls from the plants and delivering them to a compacter that produced huge bales the size of semi trailers. The names of the towns we drove through make a kind of poetry--Alligator, Hushpuckena, Arcola, Percy, Panther Burn, Nitta Yuma, Anguila, Blanton, and Onward.

We left Hwy 61 in St. Francisville, Louisiana, to take the ferry across the Mississippi to New Roads, from where we wound through cypress groves and bayous , across the bed of the Atchafalaya--which would be the Mississippi today if nature had her way. After crossing the longest bridge we’ve ever seen (it is at least 15 miles long) across the bayous, we arrived in Lafayette (Laff-yet) LA, center of Cajun country. We were a little disappointed in the town of Lafayette itself, but we were struck by the number of French speaking tourists we saw. We enjoyed the tongue in cheek bilingualism of the town, especially the sign over the university stadium urging “Geaux Cajuns!”

Our interest picked up when we headed down to New Iberia (where the legendary jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson was rediscovered, given a new set of teeth, and put on the comeback road) and headed across the marshland of the Louisiana Gulf coast. Another woman in a tourist information office gave us a serendipitous suggestion, which sent us to the perfect campsite. But before we got there we stopped to visit the Rockefeller Nature Refuge. We had stopped where we saw some interesting scenery by a boat access area to the marshland. Angie was getting an egret to pose for her when a local pulled his car over and said, ‘You’re pissing into the wind here. If you want to see some great scenery, go up past the ranger station to Place Lake Road, turn left and take it up to the end.” We followed his directions and found ourselves on a one-lane road that went right out into the marshes with water on both sides. As Jim squeezed past a pickup that belonged to a couple of old guys that had stopped to fish, he rolled down the window and asked, “How far does this road go?” The old fisherman grinned and replied “All the way to the end.”

We camped on Holly Beach, near the Texas border, and as I mentioned, it was the perfect campsite. Beach as far as you could see in either direction, hard white sand to park the van on. Nobody else on the whole beach (well, a couple of temporary visitors). And our private drama when the police came in to arrest three drunks who had driven onto the beach to do wheelies. The rest of the time, though, it was perfectly serene. We set up our mosquito cabana, lit a bonfire, and spent the evening watching the gentle waves roll in from the Gulf under the full moon. Of course, every paradise has its flaw, as we were reminded when we ended up sharing our bed with millions of mosquitoes which some how got into our van in spite of the screens. We got up in the morning looking like we had the chicken pox,

Jim had been warning Angie for days about the boredom of driving across Texas. “We’ll get back on I-10 and just gut it out and try to make it in one day,” he said. But once we got past the truly amazing oil fields and refineries between Port Arthur and Houston we were pleasantly surprised by the lush rolling country we passed through. They call it the Hill Country of Texas, although is more like the rolling plains of Iowa than real hills. Only during the last hundred miles, when we left the expressway to head for Eagle Pass did we drive through the miles of chaparral and mesquite that we had been expecting.

Love to you all!
Jim and Angie

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