Thursday, 22 January 2009

Travels in Texas, 2002 - an article from the Sandwagon vaults

Perfectly horizontal streams of smoke, consistently dense and pulsing, were floating along the Colorado River. As I walked closer, it became obvious that these were not physics- defying smoke signals but streams of Mexican Free-Tail bats, storming off down river to obey their daily instinct to feast on clouds of flies.

I watched the show with locals and visitors, workers heading home for dinner alongside families sharing this wonder of urban wildlife. Half of the crowd leant over the Congress Avenue Bridge, looking down onto the flux of Free-Tails in flight, while the rest stared up from the river banks into the concrete arches that make such perfect roosts. The audience’s collective ‘wow’ mixed in the air with the delicate and continuous drum beat of several thousand flapping bat wings.

Guidebooks had recommended a visit to the Texan state capital on a summer’s evening to see the world’s largest urban bat colony in action. The reality exceeded my expectations – as did the Lone Star State itself. Texas revealed itself to be as much of an unknown culture for me as an indigenous Amazonian tribal village, and I fought off the distractions of my superficial research and those subconscious flashbacks to TV’s Dallas. There were genuine adventures to be had here, beyond the fiction.

I’d been prepared for houses the size of Southfork with closets spewing forth a lifetime’s supply of Stetsons. The roadside hazard of a fast-food chain selling ‘Chicken and Biscuits’, however, was a surprise. Visions of chicken nugget and Garibaldi combo meals with a side of HobNobs amused me so much that I swerved my hired Grand-Am. Thankfully a Texan friend saved me from more near misses.

“Yes, biscuits,” she said, bemused. “What’s so funny? They’re just the bread part of a fried chicken sandwich, you know.”

I didn’t know that, until I came to Texas.

This culinary discovery was matched a few evenings later by truly gargantuan jacket potatoes as lengthy as fish and chip shop-style battered cod. Since then, neat rotund spuds have never quiet looked the same. Neither has aging soft-rock star Phil Collins!

My Texan driving adventures should have been accompanied by strains of Country music played by chirpy local radio station DJs. That was until – hours into the Austin to Fort Worth leg – I gave up station surfing and gave into the Genesis front man. There was no escaping Phil.

Lastly, Fort Worth’s train station became as memorable a hallmark of my Texan adventures as the incongruent soundtrack. It was rush hour at Trinity Station. The entrance hall was eerily empty and so devoid of activity that the stunning aqua and steely grey of Art Deco pillars, walls and ceiling bore down ominously on me, as if mourning busier times before air-conditioned cars replaced train tracks.

This and all of my memories of Texas still surprise me, and they all remain as vivid as those of my destination that day at the station – Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, its book depository and that grassy knoll.