Whenever people I meet here ask me what Texas is like, I proudly tell them everything I love. I start with the sky, how it seems to go on forever and is just as expansive as the landscape below. Then I might give a detailed description of BBQ, or the wildflowers in the spring, or Big Bend National Park, or the Cypress trees along the river banks, or Willie Nelson and Lefty Frizzell, or cities made of mirrors, or Hill Country swimming holes, or whatever Texas star falls into my mind at that specific moment in time. It’s especially entertaining to talk to Europeans about Texas, mostly because they do not even have words for some of the things that come up in conversation, like armadillos for example. Have you ever tried to explain what an armadillo is to someone who has no clue? It’s like a large rodent wearing armor. It’s like an anteater with bony plates. Eventually, you just give up and Google the image so that they can see what you are talking about. Then you bring an armadillo magnet back for your Dutch friend after a trip home for the holidays.
The armadillo is clearly a captivating creature because shortly after all of this talk about Texas and armadillos, two of my Dutch friends bought plane tickets and insisted I take them on tour of the Lone Star State. My plane left for Texas from Aruba one week after they arrived in New Orleans, so my advice to them was to take a bus from New Orleans to San Antonio where they could rent a car and loop around the Hill Country until I arrived. They’d bought a guide-book in Amsterdam about San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country, so I knew they would be fine without me for a few days. With its German influences and abundance of biergartens, I imagined they would feel a calm sense of European familiarity and be able to better ease into this Texas thing. Be sure to visit some swimming holes, I texted again and again from Aruba. They found their way to Blue Hole and Krause Springs. They even found Texas’ oldest honky-tonk, Gruene Hall.
My plane arrived in Dallas late Thursday evening after a full day of travel from Aruba through Florida. The next morning I drove down to Austin. The Dutch were in good spirits when I finally found them downtown. Our plan was to spend a weekend with my friends in Austin and then we would take off for West Texas. I’m grateful to my friends in Austin who took the lead there and planned a fabulous Friday and Saturday night out, along with a day spent at Barton Springs. Saturday night was a lot of fun, and we ended the evening dancing to “All my Exes Live in Texas” at the White Horse Saloon. Austin is the one city in Texas that is on everyone’s bucket list; people from all over the world want to see this music mecca. If all else failed on our tour of Texas, at least we’d made it to Austin.
Once we left on Sunday afternoon, I was totally on my own for the rest of the week, the sole native amongst two foreign tourists. There was a reversal of roles happening to what I was accustomed to living amongst the Dutch in Aruba. I was no longer the outlander on a Dutch island. The Dutch were my passengers now as we drove all over Texas, my home state.
We arrived in the west Texas town of Alpine late Sunday evening, which meant nothing would be open for dinner in this desert city with a population size of 5,988. The Dutch were optimistic, but I knew the pickings would be slim. We drove around for a while and checked every restaurant on the main street. As we were driving, I spotted a Sonic and filed it away in my mind as a last resort.
“We can always eat at Sonic if we can’t find anything that is open,” I said, reassuring myself more than anything that my friends would not go hungry.
“Sonic?” “What’s Sonic?” The Dutch asked after hearing this word for the very first time. It was like the armadillos all over again.
This was the precise moment when I realized the cultural differences between us were as big as the state of Texas. Amsterdam was another world away, and no matter how much my friends and I have in common—and we have a good deal in common— we were still born and raised in two different countries that seemed like two separate planets now. They would never understand Sonic. I laughed to myself even before I could explain what it was because I knew exactly where this was headed.
“Sonic is a place where you can park your car and eat,” I dutifully explained. They are all over the United States.
“Why would you want to eat dinner in your car?” The Dutch shot back. They were clearly baffled.
Europeans already think Americans spend too much time in their cars. They also think many Americans are fat and lazy. Sonic was not helping me to combat any of these stereotypes, not one bit. All of this came up quickly in dialogue back and forth between the three of us. I defended my land and people, “Look maybe some people who eat at Sonic are lazy,” I explained. “But most of the people who eat at Sonic are busy. Sometimes I stop at Sonic to get a grilled cheese when I am on my way from point A to point B with no time for dinner. It’s very convenient when you are rushing from one place to the next. Besides that, there is a nostalgic piece to this place,” I continued as we were already pulling up next to the car side speaker and menu. “Have you ever seen the movie American Graffiti?”
They had no idea what I was talking about and had never seen the movie. I told them about car hops on roller-skates and burgers and milkshakes. I told them about hot rods and hot dogs. None of it rung a bell. It was like I was speaking another language. And they did not believe my bit about convenience either. I’d never imagined my American culture being scrutinized this way at a Sonic of all places. I felt like an insect under a magnifying glass. It’s one thing to feel like an alien in another country, but it is a peculiar feeling indeed to feel like an alien in your native land. That was how it was at that precise moment. As much as I wanted to focus on the nostalgia in defense of it all, the truth was right in front of me as I looked around. There was no Ford Thunderbird or Coca Cola served in a glass bottle in sight. All I could see were giant white Suburbans and styrofoam cups, cups shoveled into and eventually thrown out of car windows. These were people eating dinner with their families inside cars while the engine was still running.
We woke up that morning and enjoyed the cool dry desert air, a drastic change from the Tropical Zone where we live. We plotted out our course of action over breakfast, which is the way my friends prefer to travel, never knowing what the next day will bring. They wanted to stay the night in Balmorhea and had already selected a motel. They had me call the number to the motel over breakfast in Alpine because there was no way to confirm the room online with a credit card number. The next thing I knew I was talking to a woman with a raspy Texan twang who confirmed they had a room available, but warned that she only accepted cash. “We can’t stay at this place,” I urged. They don’t even take credit cards. There isn’t a website. Have your read any of the reviews online?” Yes, the place had some mixed reviews, or so they explained, but they really liked the location because it was next to a river. River? What river?
In the European country of Norway, not far from the Netherlands, Texas is slang for crazy, as in lawless and out of control. I knew more so than my travel companions that we were about to see helt Texas, or completely crazy, as the Norwegians call it. There was no changing course now.
We stopped in Ft. Davis for coffee and pie on our way to Balmorhea, and I downloaded old country songs onto my iphone for the road, including a request for “All My Exes Live in Texas.” The scenery started to change as we entered the Ft. Davis Mountains. We spent the day at Balmorhea State Park, home to the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool, and I struck up a conversation with a guy while kicking around in the springs. He said he was here with his sister and pointed to a middle-aged woman with bright red hair who was snorkeling around us in a circle, much like a shark. I have no idea what was under the water, but it must have been mesmerizing because she never lifted her head up the entire time we were talking. The guy invited us back to his RV for lunch, but my friend was overwhelmed with this random familiar gab back and forth and hesitant to accept the invitation. “This is how we do it in Texas,” I explained. “Everyone is friendly here. You are going to get a lot of offers like this over the next few days.”We followed the man and his sister back to their RV and sat down to lunch at an adjacent picnic table. The sister served up ham sandwiches on white bread, tortilla chips with queso, and a box of chilled white wine. We soon found out this guy was a cop and had spent most of his career in South America, Narcos style. I guess you never know who you will meet in the Texas desert.
After lunch and another dip in the springs, we decided to go see this motel. Should we stay in Balmorhea, The Oasis of West Texas? Or would we hit the road to find better accommodations? The condition of the room would determine our fate. But when you are traveling with girls who are in the habit of choosing adventure over comfort, you know the answer before you even walk through the door of the motel lobby. I was traveling with the Dutch, and these people have a long history of traveling all over the world, a world that is mostly defined by third-world conditions. Wayward accommodations are like some weird challenge amongst seasoned travelers. Not even the Cactus Motel in Balmorhea could deter them.
I knocked on the lobby. A little old lady with cropped white hair opened the door and invited me inside to a room that looked exactly like a scene you might see on the TLC channel if you were tuned into an episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” It smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was an ice cold open can of Miller Lite sitting on the counter. I asked if we could see where we would be sleeping before we paid, and we were led a few doors down from the lobby into a room that quickly passed the Dutch inspection, it was clean and just the right amount of whatever kind of quirky they were seeking to experience. We followed our Texan hostess back to the lobby, and I invited my friends to come inside with me so that I could pay for the room in cash while they took a look at the lobby, just in case it might change their minds.
With true Texas hospitality, our hostess invited us to come and watch her feed the turtles in the river out back after we settled in. After unloading our car and dropping the bags inside our room, we walked around the motel in complete awe as we inspected all of the junk on display, including a giant sign: We Don’t Dial 911 in Texas. The Dutch stopped to take a photo when the motel owner passed by holding a paper plate covered with aluminum foil. She crossed a little bridge built over a stream–clearly not a river– and called out to us from the other side, “Come watch me feed these turtles.” This seemed to somehow be the highlight of the day around here.
How could we resist? The turtles turned out to be the behemoth snapping kind, hideous monsters that were much too large for the murky creek where they resided. There was a clan of about 10 – 15 in the narrow shallow stream, and they were very active, spinning about one on top of the other—mating, or so answered the lady to the child standing next to her when the little girl asked what the turtles were doing. She tossed out one fried chicken drumstick after another and the turtles snapped their beaks upwards out from the water like crocodiles in the Niger River.
“Can they eat fried chicken?” I dubiously asked.
“Chinese food, burgers, pizza, they’ll eat whatever I bring ‘em,” she assured me.
I did all the talking. The Dutch seemed too stunned to speak; they just stood there with their mouths agape watching the helt Texas turtle orgy. They may have traveled all over the world, but they have never been to the Oasis of West Texas. I don’t think the small town of 479 gets too many European visitors. We had ventured far from the beaten path, and I felt fortunate to have found this lady. “She is quintessentially Texan,” I emphatically stated. “She reminds me of many Texan women I have known over the years.” She may have a lightbulb or two burned out on her string, but she lives by her own rules. You’ve got to admire that. She does not give a damn. No one tells her what to do. There are no rules to follow here in her world. Snapping turtles can eat fried chicken wings. The garbage does not need to go out today or even tomorrow, maybe some of this so-called garbage is not really garbage at all. Day drinking is acceptable, and cigarettes are still doctor recommended. She is the queen of her motel kingdom.
My friends wanted to go to the Balmorhea Lake to watch the sunset. We sat on a picnic table and laughed about the old lady and her turtles. We watched as three guys pulled up in their big white pickup truck, which is like the modern stage-coach in Texas. They eventually carried all of their fishing gear down to the lakeshore. We glanced over at them from time to time and made up stories about their lives, most likely escaping domesticity, we all agreed. After sunset, we decided that we needed to find a place to get dinner.
As we were headed back to our car, we heard one of the guys shout from across the way, “You girls want to have a beer with us?”
The Dutch looked to me for guidance. “Why not?” I answered. “You will learn a lot about this part of the world. Just think of it as a study in anthropology and be prepared to be offended,” I warned. “This is Trump country after all.” We’ve driven far away from the blue cities.
They offered us a Coors Lite and then asked if we wanted to see baby quails that they’d just rescued. One of the guys darted to the pickup bed and brought back an empty case of Dr. Pepper, which served as a makeshift home for the baby birds. The Dutch doted over the baby quails. I told them that quail would most likely show up on their dinner menu soon. After drinking a beer and a playing a guessing game as to the whereabouts of these strange accents from the mouth of these foreign girls, we remembered that we needed to eat dinner.
“You are never going to find anything open at this time,” one of the self-proclaimed country boys stated.
“Why don’t you call your friend at that place over off Interstate 10 and ask her to keep the kitchen open,” asked one of the other.
After a cell phone call on the side of the road, we were off to Saddleback Steakhouse for dinner. The Dutch loved the place because of the western ambiance, and the food was really tasty as well. We ordered up burgers and fried pickles, which really hit the spot since we were starving. We listened to stories about guns and hunting. We investigated cell phone pictures of deer with their brains blown out. The Dutch asked a lot of questions. They were authentically interested in hearing about the everyday lives of these men, especially their work on oil rigs. I was on edge the whole time once gender roles and homosexuality came up in conversation, but I guess neither group was too terribly offended, because after a few tense moments of heated debate–when these two girls from Amsterdam were clearly not going to put up with any nonsense about denying gay rights–we were all off to the Circle Bar next door for another Shiner and a game of shuffleboard.
Early the next morning, we were headed south to Presidio to take the River Road, or FM 170, to Terlingua. We drove down Highway 67 until we saw the Mexican flag across the border in the Mexican city of Ojinaga. “We had lunch in Mexico the last time I was here, but it is too dangerous along the border these days to cross over” I explained. From there, we filled up the tank and headed east. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no one else was on that road but the three of us. It’s like no one in America knows that road exists. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the country, and I’ve never seen anyone else driving on it the two times I’ve taken it. The water flows between two worlds the same way it has for generations. A river that is home to history as epic as the rugged scenery on either side of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and it is completely abandoned. “How is Trump ever going to build a wall here?” the Dutch asked as they took the wheel to drive the roller coaster road.
We arrived to Big Bend that afternoon around 3:00 PM and hiked up the Lost Mine Trail and then headed back to Terlingua in time for dinner at Starlight Theatre, Restaurant, and Saloon. My friends ordered the mixed grill: venison, wild boar sausage, grilled quail, and 7 oz filet. After a delicious dinner and unforgettable ambiance, we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep since our tour the next morning was scheduled for 11:00 AM in a neighboring town about the driving distance of the state of Delaware.
I was getting dressed for bed when I heard a loud shriek and then turned around to watch as a giant scorpion scurried in our room through the front door. This scorpion was as big as the lizards that dart about sporadically in my yard back in Aruba, and we all froze in fear, giving the tiny beast time to hide inside our luggage. I knew I had to protect my friends from the West Texas predator. None of us would be falling asleep until he was dead. I spotted a pair of platform shoes and grabbed one to use as my weapon. Shaking every last article of clothing from the luggage, I jumped as the scorpion finally dropped to the floor. I hovered above it just long enough to channel my innate Texan valor, took a deep breath, and then clobbered the creature against the concrete. He was still alive when I lifted the shoe–writhing about in agony. His size made him more difficult to kill, but the wide sole of this stylish shoe had easily made its target. I took another smack at the beast and he was flat dead, the poison shot in a stream across the floor.
The next day, I drove faster than double struck lightning all the way to Marfa. Even so, we still did not make our tour on time. There is just too much space to cover when driving from one town to another in West Texas. Luckily, there was another tour in an hour, so we went to Hotel St. George for a cup of coffee to kill time before the tour began. After we were back to Chinati and on tour, we had just finished the part with the bunkers that house the Dan Flavin lights when our docent stopped to tell us that we would all be going to our cars and following her downtown for the second part of our tour. “You Americans and your cars,” my friend nudged me. “What is with your country and cars?” “You drive in your cars on museum tours,” they both laughed. I really had no answer for this question except that much of life in Texas is unpredictable and unexpected, and I reckon’ I like it that way. That and there is too much distance between places in a state the size of the country of Spain.
We ate lunch at The Food Shark after touring Chinati and splurged on a nice hotel in Marfa, The Hotel Paisano. The rest of the day was spent walking around town. Sunset was spent at the Lost Horse Saloon and then off to see the Marfa Lights, which were very active that evening. We took off the next morning for a long drive back to Dallas through Midland, or Mansland as the Dutch called it. I stopped in Sweetwater, Texas so that my foreign friends could sample authentic BBQ. Then I made my way through the bright light city maze that is downtown Dallas and to my childhood home on Goliad Street. I told my friends about the Battle of Goliad, otherwise known as the other Alamo, as we drove down my street. My dad stayed up late to welcome us.
The next few days were a whirlwind of activities in Dallas. There were tours of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth, along with the Ft. Worth Stockyards. We went to the Continental Avenue Bridge, and Reunion Arena, and Gilley’s, and Deep Ellum, and out to eat for Tex Mex, and chicken fried steak. My friends sampled the John Wayne at our staple neighborhood restaurant, Gold Rush Cafe. One of the last things the Dutch requested was a trip to WalMart. It was their last night in town, and we had just seen a movie at the Angelika. It was over a late night conversation drinking coffee and eating dessert after the movie that they pleaded with us to take them to Walmart. And so my dad and I realized we could still fit Walmart in on the itinerary. “There is a 24 hour Walmart near our neighborhood on I30. You are guaranteed to find what you are looking for there.” I assured them.
“What was your favorite thing about Wal-Mart?” I asked as we were driving home well after midnight.
They answered right away without a second thought,“The lady pushing the cart with several giant rolls of carpet jutting out of it in every direction.”
“Why was she your favorite?” I asked.
“Why does she need to buy all that carpet right now? It’s 11:53 PM at night. What is she doing in there? Why isn’t she asleep?” They had never-ending questions about American consumerism and culture.
“You can find anything you want anytime of the day in the United States, guns, carpet, humidifiers.” I boasted. Welcome to America. I hope you have enjoyed your stay.
Wal-Mart was a weird and wacky ending to a wild tour.