24.06.2009 - 01.07.2009 40 °C
I really didn't mean to leave things this long, but my life has not been my own. My last post saw me in Natchez, on the Mississippi, a bit over three hours north of New Orleans. Since that is for my next trip, I decided to cut across the river and head west, through Texas. That is one BIG State - it took two days of full time driving to get to Austin, with not much to detain me. Stayed overnight at a place that sounded much nicer than it was, Livingston: it has a lovely lake, but finding somewhere to stay lakeside was too much of a mission, so I gave up and slept in a Super 8, last of the trip as it happens. My guidebook raved about a place to eat, up some road, but try as I might, I never found it and stuffed my face with fast food.
I took breakfast in Hunstville, a small town with two claims to fame: General Sam Houston lived here at one stage and for many years it was where Texas gave people the lethal injection. Apparently, too many people escaped, so they moved the facility elsewhere. I only stopped because the diner at which I had breakfast looked so traditional, I had to check it out. Bad move - the food was awful. Round steak sounded good, and maybe in other places it is good but here, well, I'd call it mince. Best thing about the diner was the endless free coke.
Somewhere along the line, I heard the news that Michael Jackson had died, in amongst the endless replays of Miley Cyrus's The Mountain: it seems that no matter what radio station I tuned to, this song finds me. Does she know no other? Buried in all the news about Michael Jackson and chirpy songs about over-coming mountains, I also heard that Farrah Fawcett-Major (I still add her former husband's name - its how she was when I was growing up, watching Charlie's Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man) had passed away. This news actually meant more to me than that about Jackson.
Austin made up for the depredations suffered on the trail. I spent three nights at the HI hostel, which is in a brilliant location, right on the shores of the Lady Bird Lake, just out from the centre of the city. It was a bit shocking to get there and find the temperature had gone over 40 degrees, although I couldn't really agree with the person booking me in when she moaned about the humidity. Texas is pretty dry, so just a bit of humidity struck her as being excessive. Someone at the hostel must have been a Michael Jackson fan: its radio was tuned to a station that played his music exclusively the whole time I was there.
I really enjoyed my time in Austin - famous because of its live music scene, but when I was there, it all seemed a bit pub rock and banal. No worries, I found plenty to do. Every day, I drove in a different direction, and there was lots to see - the State legislature is pretty special, but I must confess my main activity was hanging out in shops, including the various great coffee shops Austin has. I found a huge boot shop, which has this amazing aroma, emanating from the thousands of pairs of proper leather boots. I wasn't tempted, but did try on quite a few cowboy shirts: could never quite get one that I liked and that fitted me, so came away empty-handed. Next door was a second hand shop with more random stuff than I think I have ever seen in one place (including genuine bumper stickers from Richard Nixon's presidential campaign). Across the road were a number of old Airstream campers, rounded silver bubbles, converted to sell cupcakes, hotdogs and the like. I took lots and lots of photos to illustrate my time in Austin, but they never made it home. The only specifically touristy thing I did was to hang out on the bridge one evening to watch the bats - millions of them live under the Congress Avenue bridge and, as night falls, take off to do whatever it is that bats do when they're out and about.
One stand out find was Green Mesquite, an old-skool barbecue place which has been "horrifying vegetarians since 1988". I went a couple of times, so I could try their smoked brisket, their pulled pork and their ribs (with beans and corn on the cob both times). On one night I was there, they had WST Bluegrass, a band that has had a Sunday night residency ever since they started. Pretty good, and made magic when a girl from (I think) Michigan who was just dining there got up and joined them for a few songs. Driving around, I found a place that had been serving barbecue in Austin since the 50's, making huge claims about how famous and great it is, so I thought I'd give it a go. Not so great, as it turned out - the lack of custom should have been the clue.
I had mixed feelings when I found that I had a bit of a disaster with my travel plans. The plan was to drop the car in San Antonio and spend a couple of days there. I was patting myself on the back for the great score I'd had on priceline, which lets you set your own price for a hotel. A five star hotel for $70 seemed pretty good to me, and a nice way to spend my last couple of nights on the road. It was only when I was getting ready to leave the Austin hostel that I realised I had made a small error: the hotel name should have been the clue - the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown. Clearly this was not a hotel in San Antonio at all, yet that fact passed me by.
So I had a couple of random extra days in Austin, and then a very late drive down to San Antonio. For once the normally infallible google maps let me down, and directed me to the tradesman's entrance to San Antonio airport, which was not good when it was after midnight and my car was due back at midnight. Luckily, I found a gatekeeper who sent me round to the right side of the airport. I think it was at the airport that I had my only encounter with the police: there were about five cops, hanging about. I thought if anyone knew about transport to the city, they would, so asked about the shuttle. They assured me there was no such thing, pretty much as one drove past us and stopped.
And so, I was in downtown San Antonio, at around 1:00 in the morning, with a train to catch. I had originally hoped to drive all the way across the USA, and I am sure that in the three weeks I had it is possible, but it would have meant many hours on the road every day. Thus a train from San Antonio to Los Angeles seemed the smart thing to do. I had actually been a bit curious as to whether there was one train or two, because the Amtrak website had said I could take the Sunset Limited (which originated in New Orleans) or the Texas Eagle (which came through from Chicago). They had the exact same timings, but one was twice the price of the other. Turns out they connect and join up in San Antonio, so just the one train, but with two prices. Amtrak really surprised me: they have a reputation for being late, this train in particular. It was due out of San Antonio at something like 5:00 a.m., but it was there by about 2:30. Not that I could get on: the train manager was quite insistent that all the passengers had to be let off and he had to find seats for us all, a process which took at least an hour.
I was on that train for 30 hours or so, passing through El Paso and Tucson, among other places. At several points, we ran right along the Mexican border, so I have finally seen Mexico (have never been - left home to go there once, but got to Los Angeles and was a bit scared of Mexico, so hired a car and went to Seattle). The only substantial stop was El Paso, where I could get off and walk around for a couple of hours. Not really much chance to see anything in that sort of time, but I was pleased to find that the trend towards good coffee shops had reached this far, and could have a nice lunch. The train did have a dining car, set up as a fairly formal restaurant, where I was conducted to a seat by a waiter when I went in for breakfast, and was joined by a fellow on his annual trip on one of the big train trips. All in all, it was a very pleasant experience, watching half of America go by out the window, although next time I think I might take the train that runs to the north, through Albuquerque.
The train delivered me to the beautifully Art Deco Union Station in downtown LA, with a day to kill. Leaving my bags at the station, I wandered downtown LA, which was much more interesting than the last time I had been there (which was to catch a Greyhound somewhere). It has had a long period of decline, so there are interestingly decrepit looking old hotels and big old office buildings which no longer serve their original function. There is a surprising number of good cafes scattered about, which probably came in when lots of little art galleries, theatres, museums and the like moved in. I was pretty tired, not really up to visiting things like the Museum of Contemporary Art, so spent the morning just wandering, taking in the sights. I had the names of a couple of very traditional diners to check out, but never managed to find them.
By early afternoon, I was knackered, so made my way to the Richard Riordan Central Library, a grand old place, apparently built to an Egyptian style. It says something about its location that it was hit by arsonists so badly in the 1980's that it had to close for six years. I reckon I could easily spend a week wandering around and getting used to downtown LA but, well, I had a flight to catch. I had a very nice pizza and my penultimate American Pale ale and caught the FlyAway Bus from Union Station to LAX. I fell asleep immediately and had to be woken by the driver. There was just time for an incredibly expensive final American Pale Ale (the first time I was tempted not to tip, but the custom is so great that one must always tip, in order to show one's gratitude: I left a penny and a few thoughts scrawled on the tab).