Monday, 22 November 2010

Travels in Texas, 2002 - from the vaults

On the 47th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I wanted to share some memories of Texas from the Sandwagon vault.

Be gentle with me. It did write this eight years ago!

Perfectly horizontal streams of pulsing smoke floated 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. There were workers heading home for dinner standing alongside families. Everyone was taking time out to share this wonder of urban wildlife. Half of the crowd lent 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 delicate, continuous drum beat of several thousand flapping bat wings filled the air.

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 had to fight 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 to see houses the size of Southfork. Perhaps the closets inside them spewed forth a lifetime’s supply of Stetsons. However, the roadside hazard of a fast-food chain selling ‘Chicken and Biscuits’ did surprise me. Visions of chicken nuggets 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 fast-food discovery was matched a few evenings later by truly gargantuan jacket potatoes as long as fish and chip shop-style battered cod. Since then, neat rotund spuds back home in the UK have never quiet looked the same.

Finally, Fort Worth’s train station became as memorable a hallmark of my Texan adventures as the incongruent Phil Collins soundtrack played by the local radio stations. I arrived for my train during what should have been the morning rush hour, but the entrance hall was eerily empty. It was 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.

These memories of Texas are as vivid in my memory as seeing Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, its book depository and that grassy knoll. And here is the rest of it.