It was what you might call a Texan stand-off. Justin, my partner on this trip of trips had just turned into my partner-in-crime. Lulled into a meditative state by the endless grasslands by the side of the open road, he had failed to notice the needle creep up to 97 mph.
The blue and red flashing lights of a black and white saloon appeared in Justin’s rear-view mirror. He eased the car onto the hard shoulder, trying to calm my fraying nerves.
The driver-side window framed State Trooper Roberts’ impassive face perfectly. The Texan sun glinted menacingly off his Rayban sunglasses. Images from “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV series flickered through my mind. Trooper Roberts made us aware of the error of our ways in that familiar Texan drawl, but it was impossible to detect any hint of emotion in his official words. Might the God of leniency be on our side?
“Suuur, you were doing nahnty sehven maaahles an haaaahr. We gotta take you to see the JUUUUDGE.”
I was alarmed. This was alarming. There were alarm bells ringing. “Juust follow me, Okaaay?“
Two fraught miles later, we pulled in outside the Judge’s office in Clarendon, Donley County, TX. My alarm dissipated, as the judge put her own Texan drawl to work. While keen to impress on us the severity of the crime, she also turned out to be just as interested in discussing the challenges of cotton farming, and getting back to the washing from which she’d been rudely dragged away.
“What d’ya think, Trooper? Should we give these guys a break?”
Thankfully, Trooper Roberts took our side, explaining in effusive terms how polite we (well Justin, really) had been. In an admirable display of Texan kindness, the fine was halved and we were on our way.
Those Stetson Stereotypes
It was Jeremy Paxman in his book “The English” who pointed out that, uncomfortable as it may seem, stereotypes tend to exist for a reason. Namely that there’s more than an element of truth to them.
Texas is a state that can’t help but live up to its stereotype.
From real cowboys in the Amarillo Stockyard auctions to state Trooper Roberts and his generosity the image of a rough tough people with big hearts has been splendidly confirmed. Even at Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk in Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards district (which given the gratuitous use of the word “Historic” you might expect to be a touristy mush), we were confronted with delightfully intense Stetson-clad couples indulging in a spot of line dancing. I briefly considered starting a conversation with one of the tougher-looking cowboys with the line “Has anyone told you that you look like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain?”, but decided against it. I would like to see my family in Scotland at least once more before I die.
For Thanksgiving, we had another dose of the legendary hospitality that is Texas. In Colorado, we had crossed paths with a young couple from Dallas. I mentioned that we were going to be in the area for the day of Thanksgiving. In no time, we had an invitation to spend it with his evangelical preacher father and his 15-strong family. There are places where Americans worry about the heritage of Thanksgiving. Not in Texas. It was a dinner which gave us a real insight into how far the Church permeates the lives of many families here.
With a history which includes a period of independence in the early 19th century, the locals in the huge state of Texas are proud of what they see as hard-won freedoms.
And right now, there’s a bunch of them that think they may have to fight for those freedoms again.
Take Greg for instance. We met him in a bar in Fort Worth, a former cowboy town now hardly distinguishable from the urban sprawl of Dallas.
Greg was angry.
Having lost his engineering job with Halliburton, he had managed to ease the pain by indulging in a three-week Ollie-Reed-style bender, and a quickfire affair with a 19-year-old girl whose fiancee was overseas with the army (yes, it was complicated). Strangely, Halliburton wasn’t the object of his anger. The anger was reserved for the politicians.
“We waana buury our politicians in our backYAAARDS!” he told us with piercing eyes. “Haver you heard of the noo Tea Party guys? Ah’m one of ’em! We was on the streets with fifteen thousand others laaast week!” Given the speed at which we were careering along Fort Worth main Street in his pick-up truck, I felt rather as if I might end up in a backyard.
With Steve Earle‘s “Copperhead Road“ (an anthem for disaffection) still booming in my ears the following morning, I jumped onto google. All was confirmed. There’s an undeniably fundamentalist streak to their manifesto, which echoed another movement that I’d seen on the streets of Denver – “End the Fed”. They’re arranging events on the streets inspired by the former Republican candidate Ron Paul’s recent book calling for the re-establishment of “sound money for America”. In Denver, the leafleteers walked the pedestrian malls with faces covered behind bandanas.
Even the quiet, kind Christian family that hosted us for Thanksgiving in Dallas talked of the potential for “civil disobedience” (when things “go against God’s law”) and a coming Cultural Civil war. It would be fair to say that Obama is “unloved” in these parts.
While these are all isolated examples, they are not unique. Part of the purpose behind this roadtrip was to get away from the easy attitudes of the East and West coasts and see the deep interior of America. And since leaving the sea a fortnight ago, we have rarely got into a taxi or met someone in a bar who hasn’t swung the conversation round to the disgruntlement they feel at what they see as the government’s interventionist agenda.
How mainstream Americans come to terms with the shifting sands at the top of the global pecking order will be fascinating to watch. It’s hard not to contrast American bewilderment with the growing confidence I saw in China earlier in the year. More on that in due course.
N’Orleans – a tonic for the Soul
Eight hours after leaving Dallas, we arrived in New Orleans, the Big Easy. Armed with recommendations for how to make the most of this incredibly vibrant city, 48 hours here have whizzed by. The contrast with Texas and Colorado has been stark. The sense of energy permeating the streets is infectious – the idea of sleeping suddenly seems faintly ridiculous.
I was lucky enough to join one of the huge parades here yesterday, venturing into areas of the town where the positivity of the bands and the thousands of people dancing on the streets obscures the occasional dilapidated building that serves as a dark reminder of the tragedy of Katrina in 2005. (A journalist I met on the parade published these fabulous pictures).
Justin didn’t quite make the parade – his mega-metabolism sustained him through to 9.30am imbibing with the Nowhere chapter of the freak/mutant/punk Black Label Bike Club. New Orleans being a village, we bumped into them again last night. Their incredible Tall Bikes and activist attitude are imbued with a strange mix of hope and despair. The BLBC (see this video) represent a dark, but somehow more creative, response to America’s dilemma here. Words just ain’t their style.
We are now in Alabama, where we’ve already met the archetypal large-scary-man-who’s-stockpiled-50-AK47s. Another fascinating experience. But that can wait for another day.