Des & Sandie Nichols
SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS
The usual motivator for the traveler is the focus on the destination, on arriving at a specific place that one is eager to explore. Other times it is simply the journey, to absorb the joy of the route and the experience of the conveyance. But on rare occasions neither applies. Occasionally, just occasionally, the onward inexorable force of expedition just keeps you moving forward, an unstoppable force with the human GPS turned off.
After we left Hot Springs, Arkansas, we knew we had to head southwards on our planned route to Austin, Texas. We overnighted in Mount Pleasant, a place as plain as a digestive biscuit and, even though we had booked two nights, we made the immediate decision on arrival to keep the car hitched up and to set off again early in the morning. We had planned to book the next stopover while staying there, but we started driving with no next camp in mind. On the road, in driving rain (literally), we decided to call the popular campsite in Dallas, which was halfway to Austin. It was full; the Texas State Fair was on. So, as we already knew our RV site at Austin was also full and that we couldn't get in there for five days, we looked at the vast expanse of east Texas on a map for a suitable resting place, took out our mental dividers stretched to 100 miles and found Rusk.
Now Rusk is somewhere. It must be. Everywhere has to be somewhere. In fact, it is south-eastish when we really wanted to go south-westish, deep in the heart of Texas. A small town like so many others we have seen in America, it is yet another forgotten, faded and sad cluster of old, mostly empty, shops, and empty sidewalks. It has been illuminating for us to see just how many US towns, from the Florida to Maine to Mississippi, have decayed into a standstill, frozen out of the prosperity brought by the white-hot growth of the egregious banking giants, the internet whiz-kiddery and the big business barons in their shiny skyscrapers. Trickle down economics just don't trickle down this far. It as if the vortex of capitalism that has made this the richest nation on Earth has sucked out any hope and chance of prosperity for these little towns who simply were just not equipped to join the swirl.
On the first night, we found a Mexican restaurant in the center of this almost deserted town, Rancho Viejo. We walked in from the darkness and were blinded by the austere bright lighting that flooded everything to a cold white-out, just like restaurants in India. There is more atmosphere on the moon. In the corners, four TV's showed live trotting racing that no-one, except the manager, watched. Out of the twenty or so tables, there were two others occupied, one by a young couple and their very young doted-on child and the other by two middle-aged men conspiratorially leaning towards one another in deep conversation. We eventually, after much beckoning, had a waitress come over but she must have either been snorting far too much of the chef's chili powder or was perhaps just too daft to understand anything. We asked her if she had any Dos Equis Mexican beer, one of our favorites. She went over to the bar and then simply vanished. After five minutes she was tracked her down in the kitchen. "Pardon, but we did ask you a question...". "Oh" she said emptily. "I remember that but I forgot". And so it went on. In the end, the engaging manager looked after us personally, selecting our food (which was excellent) and fetching our drinks. "How's it going?" we asked, referring to his restaurant. "Well, it is slow but we have only been open six months". Then, encouragingly, he did ask how we had heard of the place, a step in the right marketing direction. "By chance. But we did notice though that you aren't on TripAdvisor - you really should be". "What's that?" he replied. So we immediately saw the problem in a Mexican nutshell about the challenge in moving these towns and their re-generation forward to cope with the modern world. We wish them well.
The Texas State Railway
The main (and only) tourist attraction here is the Texas State Railway, run by the State Parks, with seven old carriages dating back to the 1920's and pulled by a 1940's diesel engine. It regularly chugs the 25 miles from Rusk to another forgotten town called Palestine and back. This is definitely a case of 'the getting there is better than the arriving'. Each carriage is very different, from the windowless bench seats of the Third Class to the furniture showroom comfort of the Presidential Class and each provided a different social insight into the past. On the station platform at 10am, a rather camp fellow puffed out his chest for a thunderous, stentorian bellow of "Y'all Aboard" - and we climbed in and off we went. If you like dense woodland, you'll love this adventure. Trees and more trees are the speciality as they pass the window. Excitedly, we found they had a wine list and ordered what turned out to be a bloody disgusting Bloody Mary and watched more trees pass by for an hour each way. We managed to contain the excitement of it all without too much trouble. But we enjoyed it and the staff made it special.
The Conductor and the Engineer.
Thirty five miles away, we learned, is Nacogdoches, which has the proud boast of "the oldest town in Texas". The Spanish set up here in the 1760's but found it too costly. However, it seems to have prospered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and saw the building of a university, grand Town Hall and popular Opera House (the Marx Brothers honed their comedic skills here) but the 'city' has now fallen into the same state of neglect that Rusk and others around here have suffered. The once-noble buildings in the red-brick Main Street, that were once glamorous hotels, noisy bars and bustling stores, are now either musty mausoleums of a lost age or antique shops packed to the rafters with junk that one day might become collectible treasures. Might.
In spite of this, we are truly enjoying every minute. It is fascinating to learn more about another part of our new country and put clear images to what were formerly just names on the map. Traveling isn't just about the high spots of overplayed touring nirvana. Traveling is about taking yourself to places you don't understand. Traveling is about taking yourself to places you don't even approve of. It is about delving and probing into those stubborn little corners that tell the real story. Some are hiding very little. Others conceal a veritable gem. Some surprise you. Some will even shock you. It is never about preconceived opinions, nor re-enforcing prejudices. It is about discovery and understanding. And we are so lucky to have the time to explore.
We drive the 200 miles to Austin next, with some anxiety as the national news has been leading on the flooded Colorado River just outside the city. So that is where the driving rain ended up. We are confident we shall have much to report so please stay with us. And we cannot thank you enough for following us on this journey across the USA. The best things are best shared.
CATS ACROSS AMERICA
Sandie keeps saying that we seem to forget to mention the cats in all this. True. So here is a very quick update on Sooty, Artie, Lily & Claude and their adaptation to this life on wheels, after over 15 months of stop-start RV camping.
We were extremely anxious about whether they would settle into a mobile home existence. Cats are known for their intense dislike of riding in cars but our fears about their life on the road never materialized. They have been brilliant from the outset from Key West all that time ago. Sandie's design for their outside 'conservatory', a cage reached through a cat-flap by the stairs, has proved a major key to their calmness. They can come and go when they like and sit with us in the evenings as we enjoy a G & T by the fire.
On travel days, they are housed in two large dog crates. You would think they would hate this but now just jump into them on request as we upstakes and set off. They have truly been absolutely amazing. If you get the chance, please watch the video below...
Sooty has upped his exercise to three walks a day and is becoming a star at every place we park. He is getting fitter. Ergo, so are we.
Sooty, Lily and Artie
We stayed in Hot Springs for one more day, for one reason only. Sandie had found a stray ginger kitten, a hungry bundle of fur who came to her like a long lost friend, emerging from under the bus to accept some TLC and a lot of food. Sandie has that way about her. Cats know she is their ally. But the cat had then disappeared. There was no way Sandie would leave without finding the hapless, homeless creature. And she had already found it a home. Two days before we had met two amazing people, David and Candice and, when we told them the story, without a hint of hesitation they both said "We'll have her". So all that needed to be done was to find the cat. It poured with rain all day, but that only stiffened Sandie's resolve. She searched the large park all day until she found the poor thing late in the afternoon. Both she and the kitten were wet through and Sandie put her gently into a cat carrier and placed her in the car. A call to David, an extremely accomplished doctor, brought an immediate response - "Meet you in Walgreen's car park downtown in 20 minutes...". We met up at dusk in a scene straight from a Cold War movie, as if we were doing a handover in the drizzle at dusk at Check Point Charlie.
An hour later we received the photo below. The cat, already named Phoebe, planted herself immediately in the lovely Candice's arms and they stayed together in embrace all night. A wonderful story. Thank you David & Candice. And Sandie, you never fail to amaze.
From this, the first, nervous encounter...
To this... what a difference a day makes.
With David and Candice earlier in Hot Springs. And there's that Al again. I'm warning you Capone, you dirty rat. Keep your eyes and your hands to yourself.
With David & Candice in Hot Springs. And there's that Al again. Hey, Capone, you keep your hands and your eyes to yourself, you dirty rat.