Outside the train is vast farmland surrounded by hills covered with red forests. Strange clouds drift across the sky, and the sun comes in and out of my vision as the train turns gently from south to southeast back to southwest. We passed a wide river a while back and are now blessed by small creeks. Sometimes the tracks dip into dense forest, and the shadows of the thin trees mix with the little sunlight that escapes between them to create a mysterious setting - fitting for either childlike play or a musical fight between masters of the katana. Calves playfully run in circles; horses shake their manes; unidentifiable birds silhouette the sky; and a large group of cattle walk single file back to their field after having drank from a stream. My only stress is a forceful longing to be outside the train where I could enjoy this wonder more primally - but I am tolerant of my otherwise fortunate predicament. I’m leaving Texas after two weeks of mixed experiences. I’ll be back.
San Antonio: Saturday, November 6
Empty E Commerce St. in Downtown
The train pulled into San Antonio at 3:30am. Downtown was empty. It was a warm morning. The loudest sound was the chirping of what must have been a thousand birds - either recently born or migrating en masse. I walked quietly from the station into downtown’s historic area, which - for my purposes - consisted of the Alamo and a Denny’s. I had some eggs, saw the Alamo, and walked around downtown for the next 7 hours.
It was both calming and somewhat thrilling to walk around the city alone with no one else around. The imagination can run wild when the only task is adding features instead of removing them. I dreamed as I walked - gunfights, zombie attacks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle encounters (not related to empty cities, but I couldn’t help it), romantic encounters, epic tales. I watched the sun rise over the Alamodome and had coffee at a cute bakery called Frosted Delights by Joyce before checking in with my Airbnb host.
Empty Alamo and Historic District
Finally, I took a cab to my home for the next few days and slept a good 30 hours. I welcomed the rest after New Orleans and my half-marathon in downtown. The rest of my stay in San Antonio was spent in my room catching up on some work.
Austin: Thursday, November 11
Austin, Texas is strange.
They make pizza here.
Every shop’s sign is a work of art. Every tattoo is interesting and beautiful, and everyone has them. Bumper stickers proudly cheer, “Keep Austin Weird”. The most popular movie theaters don’t have a “Twenty™” where they show extended commercials for television shows. Instead, they show reels of odd videos from Youtube. The best coffee house in the city is across the street from a huge cemetery in which thousands of dead mental hospital patients are buried - among them is the founder of the city of Dallas.
The cemetery. I first thought it was a new cemetery, since there are so few graves. I learned of its sad history after a quick Google search.
This love affair with strangeness isn’t some hidden aspect of Austin’s culture. Austin’s bathroom walls are full of extended debates about the reality of counter-culture. “You think you’re unique? No! Society gives you just enough counter-culture to make you feel safe, while it feeds you more and more materialism. Wake up! Ask questions! Open your eyes, mouth, and heart!” If great cities send a message of ambition to their citizens, Austin’s is most certainly “Be unique”.
Austin is full of food stands.
The view from Hostelling International-Austin
The hostel is Austin is excellent. If you’re visiting Austin, there’s really no reason to stay elsewhere: It’s around $25/night, very comfortable, never lacking in interesting travel characters, 10 minutes to downtown, and has a great view of Austin’s skyline from across the lake.
Dallas: Wednesday, November 17
Dallas is huge. It’s hard to even think about it as one place - because everything is so spread out but also (and I think more significantly) because it doesn’t seem to have any strongly defining characteristics. It’s just a place with a lot of people and tons of shopping centers. (Dallas has more shopping centers per capita than anywhere else in the USA.) Living in Dallas must be fine - there’s something for everyone (if they’re willing to drive to it), and you’ll likely find like-minded people somewhere. But as a visitor, I found it lacking in personality. Still, I had some good times.
I went to a rodeo in nearby Fort Worth. As with many kinds of events, the rodeo began with a rendition of the USA national anthem - introduced by the announcer as “the greatest song ever written”. Sometimes - at baseball games, for example - I feel like the national anthem is a formality. But at this rodeo, it was taken seriously.
Photo by Sabine.
A woman on horseback held an American flag high and raced around the arena several times to energize the crowd. Then she took center stage and everyone - even the horse - adopted an air of solemness as we sang The Star-Spangled Banner. It felt good to sing a national anthem free of implied cynicism, but I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable.
The rodeo itself was partially entertaining and partially disconcerting. I learned that a rodeo is actually a collection of several events - whose names I forget. The first and most prominent event entailed a cowboy riding on the back of an annoyed bull, which trashed and bucked in an attempt to dislodge the cowboy. If the cowboy was able to stay on the bull for 8 seconds, he was declared a winner. There were very few winners (except maybe the bulls).
Photo by UPI
One note of interest here is that the cowboys riding the bulls had payed to participate. They were just random guys - many from out of state - who paid a fee to be thrown off a bull and potentially trampled afterwards (This only happened once, though; and he was alright-ish). Of course, fame is its own reward - and there seemed to be quite a bit of it to be had.
In another entertaining event, young women on horseback raced around the arena on a pre-defined route. The fastest lap was declared the winner. An eight-year-old girl won second place - she was a thrill to watch. Seeing someone so small maneuver a large animal around tight turns with such grace and force was something I’ll never forget.
My least favorite part of the rodeo was the event in which cowboys on horses chase down scared calves and tie their legs together.
Photo by Sabine.
I’m probably succumbing to a stereotypical “city-boy” response to this event by being repulsed. Surely there is a long history of events like this helping young men develop skills which are useful on farms, and I “just don’t get it”. But I can’t ignore my feelings.
A grown man throws a lasso around the neck or torso of a child cow, jumps off his horse to the fleeing but leashed calf, flips it onto her side, wrestles three of her legs together in one hand, ties them together with the rope, and throws his hands up in triumph. There is nothing gentle about it, and I was glad that this event ended as quickly as it did.
Of course, none of the above criticism has to do with Dallas in particular.