The guesthouse claimed to offer “24-hour coffee”, but this evidently did not include the hours from 7 pm to 7 am. I was up early, and waited for it to come on-line. Some folks were still staggering in from their Saturday night out, now looking far from ecstatic. After I had paid the bill, I asked where I could find a mailbox and was told that they didn’t have much call for them in the Vieux Carré. People didn’t use them much because they kept on having drinks and stuff thrown into them and so mail rarely ever survived to the sorting office.
I drove around the French Quarter to have a look at the aftermath. The garbage trucks were out in force but, by the looks of things, had only just made a start. Several proprietors were hosing down the sidewalks in front of their premises. A girl with a face like a drag-queen but who was clearly all-woman underneath – she was wearing a loosely crocheted black top pulled down over her thighs, and not another stitch – was already touting on behalf of the hookers at the Casbah Bar. I got out of the car to take a photograph and a camp voice called out “Good morning South Carolina”. I turned and saw a middle-aged man in vest and shorts strutting along with his left hand on his hips and waving to me with his right.
“Actually, I’m not from South Carolina, I’m from London.”
“Oooooh. London. Even better. I love London.”
“Yes, it’s good isn’t it.”
“My favourite pub in the whole world is in London. Do you know it?”
“Possibly. What’s it called?”
“The City of Quebec. You must know it.”
“Nope. Never heard of it.”
“It’s near Marble Arch, you must go there some time and say hello from me.”
I don’t like letting people down, but it did seem highly unlikely that I would ever get around to passing on his greeting.
By the time I reached Lake Charles, it was already lunchtime. I spotted Steamboat Bill’s, “The home of the best crawfish in Louisiana”, which sounded just the ticket. It was busy with families on their Sunday lunch outing. It turned out that they didn’t have any crawfish, so I had to settle for the pop shrimp instead. Either the best crawfish in Louisiana didn’t get past the base 1 requirement of actually existing, or the sign outside wasn’t being entirely honest. Remembering the “topless and bottomless girls inside” claim from New Orleans, I concluded it was the latter and that truthful signage was not a strong characteristic of Louisiana. I motored west glad in the knowledge that I had survived most of the Deep South without encountering any rustic banjo players wanting to find out whether I could squeal like a pig.
The first exit on the Texan side of the state line was no. 878. This didn’t mean that there were another 877 exits to go. It meant that the Interstate stretched almost 900 miles across the state. The exit number pertained to the number of miles from the western end of the state. Texas is huge, about the size of Turkey. Today would be just about wearing down the miles. I was relieved that my trip wasn’t taking in Alaska. You could fit Texas into Alaska twice and still have enough land left for an Alabama and a couple of Rhode Islands.
The driving was made easier by a couple of factors. The speed limit was 75 mph and the Texans were the best drivers that I had encountered so far. Not only did they use their indicators, they also always pulled over to the inside lane whenever they weren’t overtaking. There were no slouches on the road, aimlessly drifting along at 45 mph in the outside lane. Everyone had the definite air of meaning business. The litter warnings on the side of the road summed up the mood: “Don’t mess with Texas”.
This in-your-face attitude was encapsulated by a story from Corpus Christi. In May 2001, fourteen sex offenders had been ordered to plant signs outside their homes announcing “Danger. Registered sex offender lives here.” They also had to fix stickers to their cars echoing the same sentiment. Don’t mess with Texas indeed.
Rather worryingly my air conditioning was failing. All day it had been sporadically pumping out white plumes of steam, but now it had more or less packed up altogether just as I was entering the hottest phase of the trip. After six hours of uninterrupted motoring, I stopped for gas at Johnson City, hometown of Lyndon B Johnson. It wasn’t clear to the passer-through at what stage he had lived there, but there could be no mistaking the fact that he had at some point in his life. It also wasn’t clear whether, by some remarkable coincidence, it had been called Johnson City before LBJ’s rise to fame or had been renamed in his honor. If Truth or Consequences NM (until 1950, known as plain Hot Springs NM) could vote to rename itself after a radio show, then it seemed plausible that this Texan outback could call itself after a President.
Fredericksburg, my destination for the night, positioned itself as a Bavarian village but whoever described it as such hadn’t spent much time in Germany recently. I went into a motel and enquired about rooms, and they offered me the choice between two queen-sized beds or one king-sized. I told them that I just wanted the smallest and cheapest room they had. They showed me one on the floorplans of the motel that looked like a box room and said that I could have it for 90 bucks. When I got to the room, I found that it was about the size of a tennis court. Very Texas.
I used the telephone to call the Old Texas Inn in Fort Davis, where I was going the next day. They had a room available, but told me that they wouldn’t be there after 4.30 pm. I would have to go up the staircase to the left of the building when I arrived, and my key would be waiting inside in an envelope marked with my name. I enquired about food and drink, and they said that guests at the Inn had complimentary membership of the saloon across the road and so I’d be able to drink and eat there when I arrived. It sounded splendid, a night in a genuine old west cowboy town.
Downstairs the receptionist directed me to Barron’s, the drinking club affiliated to that motel. There were three others in there, including the barman. He was a jolly soul and wanted to know about our music scene and whether there were any good English bands. I proffered the Beatles and Rolling Stones, which was met with a “But those guys are American man”. I was too gobsmacked to argue and instead asked him where I could get some food, and he suggested the motel restaurant which would be open for another half and hour. It gave me an excuse to leave.
At the restaurant I chose chicken fried steak, a very bad idea unless you’re a fan of spam fritters. Glancing around the room, none of my fellow diners looked like they were deriving much pleasure from the experience of going out for a meal. Most of them had the air of doing something because they felt they had to. Two teenage beauties arrived at the booth next to mine, and the young waiter was over before their backsides had hit the leather. He reminded me of the Scorpio character from Dirty Harry, and he had the additional disadvantage of a huge red spot right on the end of his nose. Judging from their body language, he didn’t make much of a more favorable impression on the girls. It took me a while to pay. It was one of those places where you take your bill up to the cash-till. I waited for a few minutes as the cashier finished off a phone call. She was chatting to her boyfriend, and was being disconcertingly intimate for an unsuspecting listener such as myself. She seemed irritated when she noticed me trying to shatter her reverie, and rang up my bill and took the money without breaking off the conversation.
Outside, Scorpio was puffing disconsolately on a cigarette. He’d already struck out with the two girls, who had only come in for a soda and left before me. He asked me how I was doing, and we started chatting about where would be a good place to go for the rest of the evening. He turned out to be a very friendly chap who didn’t want to murder me at all. He made a number of suggestions, before concluding that “if ya want somewhere lively where there’ll be some folks, then Barron’s Bar would prob’ly be ya best bet”.
I returned to the bar, which was now a little busier. All the stools at the bar were occupied, so I took a table. In the darkness at the far end were a couple of pool tables lit from above. Faces kept on popping down into the light to take a shot and then disappearing back into the darkness. A dodgy-looking glammed-up cougar was getting seriously sloshed at the bar and kept on dragging different male drinking companions on to the floor to dance to the jukebox. Near me sat two haggard but young-looking women and a small boy. From their conversation, it became apparent that they were grandma, ma and son. I felt slightly out of place in shorts. All the blokes in the bar were wearing jeans and cowboy boots, and there was a fair smattering of Stetsons too. One lad came in wearing tracksuit bottoms and a baseball shirt. He went over to the jukebox where a girl was selecting a record, put his arms around her, cupped her breasts, gave a quick jiggle, and told her that he’d see her later. The old romantic. Probably had some poetry to finish scribbling before bedtime.
There was plenty to watch, but again little chat to be had. I didn’t even get off my backside as the jovial barman kept bringing me refills whenever my glass fell empty. Realizing that this was about as good as it got in Fredericksburg, I bade the barman farewell and walked back to the motel. By the time that I had got across the room to clean my teeth and all the way back again to bed, I was exhausted. I tried to watch a bit of TV, but the commercial breaks were too long and too frequent so I kept losing the thread of what was going on. In the end, I gave up, closed my eyes and tried not to think of chicken fried steak.