Texas

The train trundled through El Paso and into Texas, hugging so close to the Mexican border that my phone switched networks. The arid landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico gave way to more colour and life.

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Amtrak trains seem to mainly follow major highways, allowing me to see the advertising boards for rest stops along the way. For mile after mile of empty road, the boards promised “Moccasins”, “Gifts”, “Girl stuff” and “T-shirts!” (only the t-shirts were exciting enough to warrant an exclamation mark). Eventually, the shop would turn out to be a depressed shack with no cars in the car park.

I was due to arrive in San Antonio, Texas at 4:50am central time, or 2:50am Pacific time. The timezones had been quite confusing. I left LA on Pacific daylight time and awoke the next morning in Arizona. Arizona is on mountain time, but doesn’t observe daylight saving time, so I spent a few minutes figuring out whether that meant it was the same time as California or two hours ahead (it was the same). Crossing into New Mexico kept us in the same timezone, but they do observe daylight saving, so we were now an hour ahead of both Arizona and California.

In the evening we crossed into Texas, but the clocks didn’t change because west Texas is also on mountain daylight time. At some point during the night, we crossed into central time, moving our clocks an hour ahead again.

Thankfully, the train was running a couple of hours late anyway, so the attendant woke me at around 6am (central time) with my 30 minute San Antonio warning. I headed straight to the airport to pickup my rental car (from Alamo, naturally). The attendant there, upon learning that I used to live in London, told me he was concerned about his relatives there getting “caught up in an uprising”. This is what the constant fearmongering bullshit of Fox News does to people.

Dining on the Amtrak is a social experience: the attendants actively fill tables so that nobody dines alone. One of my dining companions advised me to check out the river walk while in San Antonio, so that’s exactly where I headed first.

Following serious floods in the early 20th century, dams were built on the San Antonio river and canal sections added, forming a scenic walk through the city. It is now lined with cafes, bars and restaurants, with picturesque bridges, well-maintained gardens and river taxis.

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I followed the river walk along to the Alamo. The Alamo was, in 1836, a religious mission and makeshift fort that became the scene of a bloody siege. Texan soldiers defending the Alamo, including Davey Crockett, were eventually slaughtered by Mexican attackers that outnumbered them by almost 10 to one. The ruthlessness with which the Mexican army left no survivors led to a wave of new recruits for the Texan army from both Texas and the USA. Within weeks, the emboldened Texans had ejected the Mexican army and the Republic of Texas was born.

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Although the republic lasted less than a decade before it joined the USA, Texans are proud of their status as the only state to have once been an independent nation.

Texas is a very big state, around twice the size of Germany, so my three day car rental was only going to allow a brief scratch of the Texan surface. I had a motel booked in Dallas for the night, so I continued north from San Antonio for about an hour to Austin, the state capital.

The People’s Republic of Austin, as it is sometimes disparagingly known as by conservatives elsewhere in the state, is (along with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio) a liberal stronghold in an otherwise republican state. It has a large student population courtesy of UT Austin. However, this being July 4th, everyone was elsewhere and the streets were deserted.

I parked at the state capitol building, a magnificent red granite structure that stands taller than the US capitol in Washington. From here I walked north to the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. En route I noticed that every building in the city is named after a man with a middle initial:

  • The Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium
  • The Mike A Myers Stadium and Soccer Field
  • The Stephen F Austin Building
  • The William B Travis Building
  • The Ernest O Thompson Building

From now on, my studio apartment will be known as the Robert P Cowen Bedroom and Kitchen.

I didn’t really have much idea of what a presidential library is, other than from references in the West Wing and Veep. LBJ’s is an excellent museum about America’s 36th president. It tells the story of a man of modest background who became a teacher at a school for Mexican immigrants in Texas, before becoming a master of Senate politicking and eventually assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. While detailing his many proud legacies, especially the civil rights acts that changed this country forever by outlawing segregation, the museum also acknowledged the personal turmoil caused by Johnson’s decision to expand the war against North Vietnam.

I finally reached Dallas in the early evening, just in time to head to the state fair to watch the July 4th fireworks. The state fair was basically a British fun fair with corndogs. I killed time until the fireworks, then decided to make a break for the car park before they were over, in order to beat the crowd. Unfortunately, I have a very poor sense of direction, so I walked in completely the opposite direction for 10 minutes, by which time the fireworks were over and I was now a part of the crowd. Even once I eventually found my car, it took another hour to get away from the fair ground, although this tedium was diverted slightly by the constant firework displays in every direction.

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In the morning I headed straight for Dealey Plaza, the scene of President Kennedy’s assassination. The Texas School Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point when he fired on JFK, is now an excellent museum to Kennedy’s life, death and legacy.

Dealey Plaza is relatively unchanged in the 54 years since the assassination; the only significant additions are memorials to the event itself. Simple white crosses are painted onto the road to represent the locations where the two bullets hit Kennedy (at least one other shot missed, and debate still whirls around whether there was a fourth gunshot by an unknown gunman). Plaques mark other points of significance, including the plinth on the grassy knoll that Abraham Zapruder stood on to record his famous footage.

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After a hearty southern lunch of ribs, mashed potato and barbecue beans, I decided to head for Fort Worth, even though this was in the opposite direction to my eventual destination of Houston. The Fort Worth stockyards had also been recommended by dining companions aboard the Texas Eagle train, although I had little idea of what they actually are. It turns out that the stockyards are some sort of wild west themed area. It was briefly diverting to wander around for a few minutes, but not worth the $7 parking.

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***

I awoke the next morning in Houston, a city named after Sam Houston: a man who in his 70 years managed to find the time to sit in both the US House of Representatives (for districts in both Tennessee and Texas) and the Senate, be governor of both Tennessee and Texas, and to be the first president of the Republic of Texas (and also the third president a few years later), either side of leading the army that secured Texan independence from Mexico after the Alamo siege and negotiating Texas joining the USA a decade later.

He also sounded relatively decent, opposing the Texan nationalists who wanted to expel the Native Americans from Texas and supporting the abolition of slavery. This latter position ultimately ended his career as Texan governor when he refused, in vain, to allow his state to join the Confederacy in the civil war.

I knew none of this until I just looked him up on Wikipedia, but with that back catalogue of contributions I think we can all agree that 19th century Texans were not overreaching when they named a city after him.

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Houston is a sprawling city with a dense, shiny high-rise downtown of interesting architecture. My main purpose for being there was to catch the Amtrak to New Orleans the next day, but it is also the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where mission control, planning and astronaut training take place.

The visitor centre is an interesting, hands-on museum of space science, with road train rides across to tours in the actual space centre. I took the tour around the original mission control facility. This room was the ‘Houston’ in the often misquoted “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” from Apollo 13. It’s also the ‘Houston’ in “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, which is, if you ask me, the most significant phrase ever uttered by a member of our species.

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The total computing power available to the heroes that sat in that room in the 1960s was pathetic by modern standards and came entirely from three room-filling computers downstairs. They had access to 8MB of RAM, which is roughly two digital photos. The Apollo program will stand forever as a testament to what humans are capable of.

Outside the visitor centre sits a Boeing 747 with a space shuttle riding piggy-back. The space shuttle is a full-size replica (bafflingly, none of the surviving three space shuttles were retired to Johnson Space Center: one is at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, one in New York and the third near Washington-Dulles Airport in Virginia), but the plane below it is the real one that used to carry the shuttles across the US if needed.

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All of the shuttles were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and ideally would land on the runway there too. However, if conditions didn’t allow it, the shuttle could also land in California or New Mexico, so would occasionally need relocating thousands of miles back to Florida. This was the job of this stripped-down and reinforced American Airlines jumbo.

***

I write this from the panoramic lounge car of the Sunset Limited Amtrak between Houston and New Orleans. An hour or so ago we entered Louisiana, the fifth state of my trip.

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It is exactly ten years ago this week that, along with four intrepid cyclists and Ed, we began a trip through 12 US states, one Canadian province and the District of Columbia. Read about it here.

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San Francisco to San Antonio

This morning I awoke to the gentle rocking of the Texas Eagle Amtrak train. Opening the curtains in my ‘roomette’ I saw a cartoonish landscape of arid desert, only interrupted by the occasional three-pronged cactus and hazy mountains in the distance, towards the Mexican border.

I awoke to this view #amtrak

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Amtrak – the US’s national intercity rail system – seems to be America’s best-kept secret. Everybody I’ve mentioned my travel plans to has expressed surprise that it’s possible to take a train from LA to Texas, let alone knowing about the network that stretches from coast to coast and border to border, covering 46 of the 50 states.

And somehow, when every other interaction with public services in this country screams of underinvestment and over-bureaucracy, the US have managed to maintain a railway network that is comfortable, affordable and even retains the romance of the great railway journeys of another era.

From stepping into the art deco splendour of Los Angeles’ Union station to the lounges and dining cars of the train itself, this is the continental equivalent of crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner. It’s much slower than flying (it took all night for the train to cross California), but the reward for this patience is days and nights of gently transitioning vistas.

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In short, this is exactly how to travel across the US if you have a free month which, as luck would have it, is exactly the situation I find myself in.

***

On Saturday morning I took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The eight hour journey was interrupted only briefly by a rest stop in the central valley, at which the temperature was a full 15°C hotter than it was in SF. Northern California is roughly at the same latitude as north Africa, but the geography of the San Francisco bay leads to a microclimate that is much cooler than it ought to be.

I was in LA to catch a thrice-weekly train on Sunday evening and had considered going down a day earlier, but couldn’t figure out what I would do for two full days. I wasn’t going to make a solo trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios and I have no interest in riding a bus past the empty homes of movie stars I’ve never heard of.

Los Angeles is huge and almost impossible to navigate without a car. I took a Lyft to my AirBnB in the Glendale/Silverlake neighbourhood, then set out on foot in search of somewhere to eat. I walked along the Los Angeles river, which better resembled a storm drain, passed under a freeway and then found a bleak parade of shops and restaurants. According to Google, the most popular eatery for locals is the Red Lion: a pub which, in spite of its name, insists that it is actually German. I ordered a Lyft to Hollywood.

I didn’t know very much about Hollywood the neighbourhood (as opposed to the media shorthand for the movie industry). It broadly consists of two long boulevards – Hollywood and Sunset – populated by an incongruous mix of glamour, tat and sleaze. The Hollywood Walk of Fame meanders around the sidewalks, representing the stars of movies, television and music with literal stars embedded into the ground.

I went to a burger restaurant for dinner, eating an Impossible Burger. This is a vegetarian patty made somehow to taste almost exactly like actual beef. It’s only available in California at the moment, but was really quite impressive; not *quite* the same as beef, but a decent imposter.

I woke early on Sunday morning and took a Lyft up to Griffith Observatory. Apart from being an interesting science museum, there are also spectacular views across the city and my first sight of the Hollywood sign.

The observatory itself was closed, so I decided to follow the four mile hike across to the Hollywood sign. It was built in the 1920s as a promotional stunt for the Hollywoodland housing development below it, but became such a landmark that it became a permanent feature, eventually being shortened to ‘Hollywood’.

#Hollywood

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Once I’d got as close as I could to the sign without breaking any laws, I took the obligatory selfies and decided to walk back down the hill via the Hollywoodland residential area. This took a lot longer than expected because the roads twist and wind back and around themselves. The houses were architecturally diverse and more modest than I would’ve expected; these were not MTV Cribs.

Eventually I reached Hollywood, immediately remembered how unimpressed I had been the previous evening and summoned a Lyft to drive me to Santa Monica.

For some reason, I had pictured Santa Monica as a classy seaside resort with a nice boardwalk and elegant hotels. It is not like this. It has a pier with a Bubba Gump’s and a series of burger shacks, each claiming to be the last burger on land before being contradicted by an even more westerly burger shack. The pier was teeming with lardy tattooed tourists stuffing their faces with burgers, fries and waffles. I looked on with disapproval, then went for a McDonalds and an ice cream.

A crowd formed at the end of the pier, applauding and recording something below them. A man, accompanied by a violinist, had just proposed next to the Bubba Gump’s. She said yes.

I walked along to Venice beach, which was tacky in a different way, the boardwalk lined with street performers of limited talent. I dipped my feet into the Pacific to symbolically mark the start of my coast-to-coast adventure, then raised the Earth’s albedo a notch by sunning my pasty white chest for an hour. It is now red and sore.

Ceremonial dipping of the feet into the Pacific #CoastToCoast

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Unable to take any more direct sunlight, and still with several hours until my train, I took yet another Lyft, this time to Little Tokyo, which is adjacent to Union station. The distance between Venice beach and downtown LA – 15 miles – is more than double the width of San Francisco. LA is just annoyingly big and everything is way too spread out.

Little Tokyo, though, was excellent. The international school job hunt that culminated in me moving to San Francisco last year was inspired by an excellent holiday to Japan in 2015. Little Tokyo is a microcosm of the food, the culture and the crazy of Japan.

I ate an exquisite bowl of assorted sashimi (raw fish) in a hotel restaurant, then popped into a bar down the street where happy hour pints of Asahi were only $3. I sat at the bar, occupied entirely by Japanese people speaking Japanese. I chatted to a man called Shin about my travels in Japan and met an elderly man called Yoshi who described himself as a teacher of ‘female performance’; this turned out to be a euphemism for drag queens.

Three pints later, I said my arigatos then walked to Union station (at last, somewhere in LA that is walking distance from somewhere else) and climbed aboard a massive double decker train. I found my roomette – a tiny cabin with two seats that fold together to make a bed – and settled in for the 30 hour journey to San Antonio.