In 1995 we were still living at East Barriere Lake. We’d just sold our newspaper and had agreed to keep working, part-time, for the new owners. First though we negotiated six weeks off because we wanted to take a kind of musical pilgrimage to Austin, Texas – The Live Music Capital of the World.
We also hoped to find some authentic Cajun and Zydeco music in small-town Louisiana. Eventually we decided on driving east to Alberta and then down through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. It was wintertime and a trucker friend had mapped out the quickest route to Austin.
In Alberta we visited Janice’s aunt Alice on her expansive, wide-open hobby farm in Bragg Creek, just outside of Calgary. Alice’s newly renovated ranch house offered sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains to the west and her well stocked wine cellar helped with the get-to-know-you stories.
Janice and I were accompanied by red wine hangovers as we entered The States the next day. While eastern Montana has panoramic, top-of-the-world views in every direction it’s also mostly treeless and barren, which was kind of appropriate for our states of mind.
Freeways in Montana had no speed limits back then. A couple of hours into the state, driving along at seventy miles per hour on the Interstate, I looked in the rear side mirror and saw a bright yellow car catching up very quickly. I kept watching because, not only was the vehicle travelling really fast, it was swerving quite a bit too. When the Camaro got beside me I looked down to see the driver had his seat steeply reclined. He was reading a book as he steered with his knees.
Another eye-opener was at Lewiston, where we pulled into the first available motel. Hundreds of real guns adorned the office walls and a live, loaded .357 magnum was visible beneath the proprietor’s glass counter; a highly unusual sight for us Canucks.
By the time we got to Wyoming the landscape had definitely become desolate. Eastern Colorado was bleaker yet. The only signs of humanity being the odd old farmhouse distanced twenty or so miles from its nearest neighbor. Janice queried, “Jeez, what if you don’t like your neighbour?” We were astounded to find that the entire state of Wyoming had a smaller population than BC’s capital city, Victoria. At the time, only 335,000 souls were scattered throughout the entire state.
We truned left at Denver and dropped down from the Mile High City, onto the plains of Kansas. At the time, we hadn’t yet driven the Canadian prairie, so the flatness of Kansas seemed endless. As we continued south, every time we’d see a bump on the horizon Janice would exclaim, “Oh, there’s a town.” Only to discover, as the apparition aquired more detail, that it was just one more grain elevator.
The area around the Kansas, Oklahoma border is called Tornado Alley. We were relieved they were out of season.
At Norman, Oklahoma, we stopped at Oklahoma State Iniversity to stretch our legs and to have lunch. The large collection of stately old brick buildings there made up the earliest slice of architecture that Janice had yet experienced.
We stopped for the night at a small southern Oklahoman town that I can no longer remember the name of. When we entered the motel office it smelled of curry. The woman that appeared behind the desk was the first East Indian person we’d seen since entering the US. We commented on the wonderful aromas wafting out of her suite.
Ten minutes after checking into our room there was a knock on the door. It was our gracious host with a plate-full of various Indian appetizers. So welcome and good.
That night, as is the custom in Oklahoma and other parts of the south, we went for an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner, served with crackers, hot pickles, fries, coleslaw and one of those red plastic, bottomless, Coke glasses. Some very large people with larger appetites served to make the experience more authentic.
The next day we had lunch in Waco, Texas, where we saw Chicken-fried steak for the first time; another common southern US menu item. We couldn’t believe the portion sizes when we saw them being served, agreeing that, from there on in, as long as we were in the southern states, we’d split one meal in restaurants.
Later that afternoon we arrived in Austin, Texas. Austin receives a five-star endorsement from us because of its incredibly diverse and highly charged, twenty-four hour music scene. There are one hundred-plus venues hosting live music from all over the world, nightly. Austin is also the state capital and is therefore blessed with many engaging examples of American history and architecture. Lushly planted boulevards, manicured gardens and fountains abound. There are two universities within city limits, where you might catch a Texas Longhorns game, or visit the set of Austin City Limits. The Colorado River spawns three small lakes, also within city limits.
During the South-by-Southwest Music Festival, in March each year, there are more than three hundred bands playing the various venues around town. During our stay everybody from Willie Nelson to The Tragically Hip entertained, three acts to a club, mostly with cover charges by donation.
One afternoon, while relaxing with a drink on our deck at the motel, we witnessed a battered van with New York plates pull in. One-by-one, seven young people extracted themselves from the van, with their guitars. It turned out they were a punk band from New York City. They had travelled all day and night, stacked like sardines in their bunks with their guitars and equipment, just to get the chance to play one set in Austin; with hopes of getting their big break.
Later, walking to Sixth Street, the site of most of the live music venues, we stumbled upon a rough area of town. There was a shady looking character on each of the four corners of the intersection, giving us some hard stares and relaying signals to one-another through nods and hand gestures. Janice became very nervous of the situation. I calmed her by reasoning, “Relax, this is Texas. I probably look like a cop and, regardless, they have no idea whether or not I’m packing a concealed weapon.”
We made it unscathed to Sixth Street where we were so very impressed with the quality of the music we were hearing. Wandering from club to club we became more and more impressed at each venue. About ten o’clock we decided to take a taxi to Antnoine’s, famous for being the place where Stevie Ray Vaughn got his start. It being a week night, we lucked out because there was an incredible gospel troupe playing, backed by some of the best musicians Austin had to offer. They had us gawking and dancing for hours.
Photo: Janice dances to the gospel show at Antoine’s.
The next day we headed south to Corpus Cristi, which was on our way to our southernmost destination; South Padre Island. Being from small-town BC, where we leave our doors open and keys in cars when we run errands, we foolishly left some valuable belongings in our vehicle overnight, parked beneath the hotel. In the morning I discovered two windows smashed out and, of course, almost everything gone, including the truck’s manual.
Not only had they got my camera gear but all of Janice’s shoes and my outerwear. On top of that I’d left a bit of herb in my coat that they’d stolen. I knew from experience that Americans were much more secretive about their smoking than we are in Canada, especially in BC. It was for that reason that it might prove a challenge to replace.
Anyway, we called the cops. One of those great big, burly, belly-heavy state trooper-looking guys showed up, but he wasn’t much interested in our case, advising, “You can’t leave anything in a vehicle within 500 miles of Mexico.” I replied, “Ya, but you’ve got a gun, let’s take a walk on the beach and see if we can find them.” He declined.
Janice and I deduced later that it must have been either a cross-dresser who broke in or a male-female team, otherwise, why leave my shoes and her clothes? We did take a walk on the beach later hoping we might find someone trying to hawk the camera but all we found was a nice restaurant on the wharf where we had a late lunch.
A couple of days later we were in Galveston, Texas. I decided that I should get the truck washed. Janice was busy doing something else so I looked in the Yellow Pages for the closest car wash and then found my way to that address. When I got there a young black guy with an I.D. tag waved me into a stall and immediately started to wash the hood. I asked what he was doing because it appeared to be a semi-automated car wash; one of those places where the user places coins in the machine and then employs a pressure wand. The attendant explained that it was better to do it by hand, saying that he only charged $5, the same as it would cost me to do it myself.
I was slightly perplexed. He seemed to be the only one aroud the business. I noticed as I looked up and down the street that I was probably the only white person thereabouts. He flashed his I.D. badge again and asked me if it was going to be alright to proceed. I gave him the OK, so long as it was five bucks, all in. He agreed.
I took the truck keys with me as I ran across the street to a filling station in order to buy cigarettes. There were bars on the windows and doors of the establishment and, inside, the clerk was in a glass booth - like in a prison. Money and product were exchanged on a little steel lazy susan. Another sight that we would never have seen in Canada at the time.
I had seen an even more tense situation in a rough part of Austin a few days earlier. When I walked into the service station there to pre-pay for my fuel, a disturbed looking young attendant, dressed in full camo glared at me from behind the counter. He had a sawed-off shotgun sitting on top of the cigarette rack beside him. I didn’t have to ask if it was loaded.
I returned to the car wash and struck up a conversation with the dude washing my car. He was humourous, razzing me about my ending up in the wrong part of town. He also confessed that he’d snowed me about who he was. Inviting me to take a closer inspection of the I.D. badge that he’d flashed a couple of times earlier, I realised it was actually his I.D. for the dog track where he worked at his real job.
He went on to explain that he staked out this spot at the car wash in order to make some extra cash for his family. Every weekend he dragged his mop, bucket and rags from home, attempting to hustle anybody who showed up. The absentee car wash owner would likely be less impressed with his ingenuity than I was.
At the hotel the next day Janice and I were sitting around the pool in the sun when we decided that it was warm enough for a dunk in the unheated water. The two resident female Americans chuckled at, but shrugged off, our crazy Canuck behaviour.
While I was floating in the pool I could overhear the two women talking. One was complaining she couldn’t swim, even if she wanted to, because of having her appendix out. Confused, I asked Janice why the woman couldn’t swim because she’d had her appendix out. Janice looked at me like the cat that swallowed the canary. She now had the proof she needed about the hearing loss that I’d been denying for months. Apparently the woman was explaining she couldn’t swim because she’d forgotten her bathing suit.
That night, while having dinner in a local restaurant, we overheard the couple at the table next to us speaking a foreign language. My hearing impairment revealed itself for the second time that day when I inquired of them if they were French. Somewhat amused, the male responded, “Nine, ve’re from Chermany.”
While Janice, he and I exchanged a few pleasantries his partner remained curiously silent. It turned out that she could speak very little english and was trying desparately to understand her husband’s exchange with us. We could tell by how attentive she was, hanging on every word.
Eager to further engage us, the man explained that the biggest disappointment of their trip to North Amercia thus far was that; restaurants here always seat people at tables individually or as couples. According to him, in Germany, the custom is to seat singles or couples at large tables, with other diners, unless an exclusive table is requested; which it rarely is, except for special occasions. Our North Amercian custom was a surprise to them. They perceived this cultural difference to have contributed to making their trip somewhat lonelier than they had hoped for.
We discovered that their names were Gunter and Ria. Because we had engaged them, they insisted on buyng us a drink, as is their custom. We accepted, joining them at their table. It turned out they were both architects who lived in a small village near Munich. This was the tail end of their annual month-long vacation.
When Gunter asked what our choice of drink might be, we decided on tequila. This got a rise out of Ria, “Ja, Tequila!” Apparently she liked the stuff. Gunter explained that she’d never had tequila but was eager to try anything she perceived to be ’North American’.
Of course, as our custom requires, we reciprocated with another round and, before long, despite the language barrier, we were having some good laughs.
After dinner, all four of us continued on to the Liberty Bar down the street, just across from the beach. By this time it was dark and a wicked thunderstorm had developed, the wind slashing whitecaps off the darkened waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
We seated ourselves, drenched, inside the bar. We ordered more tequila, along with some Miller High Lifes. A small, shoddy, stray dog appeared at our feet. It had obviously been frightened inside by the raging storm so Janice pleaded with the bartender to let it stay. We were the only ones in the establshment save for a couple of regulars seated at the bar, so the bartender reluctantly agreed. Shivering on demand, that rascal dog had the ladies’ attention for the duration.
Photo: The rain stopped temporarily but lightning ripped all around as we pose with Gunter and Ria around the Statue of Liberty.
We reluctantly parted ways with our new friends about midnight. They had to be back in New Orleans for their return flight home the next evening.
Nusring our hangovers the next day, while driving along I-10, towards Lake Charles, Louisiana, we could hardly believe it when Janice spotted Ria and Gunter approaching from an on-ramp. We flagged them down and talked for a few minutes but their schedule was very tight so they had to keep moving. We all vowed to get together again one day…
Janice and I stopped over at Lake Charles and took in some of the sights, including some very grand old homes that lined the lakeshore. As we relaxed in our motel room that night we felt for Gunter and Ria, knowing they had to be every bit as hungover as we were. They still had a long drive to contend with, let alone the flight back to Germany.
We stayed for a couple of days in Lafayette, where we befriended our hotel manager, John-Lee. The first night, one of his friends was hosting a lingerie party at the hotel. He promised that, if we paid the $5 cover charge, not only would they feed us but the drinks would be inexpensive too. It was only slightly entertaining watching some female friends of his parade the lingerie but, afterwards, John-Lee regaled us with some highly animated aligator wrestling stories, and other outlandish tales of Louisiana’s bayou country.
On the last night of our stay he tried to convince us to stick around and accompany him and some friends to a party where a local band was playing. He said they were a great party band – but then went on to say, basically, that their music was top forty. That music description didn’t really do it for us and, not having found anything else musically interesting in the newspapers, we decided that we’d continue on to Baton Rouge where we hoped to find something more enticing.
We checked into a fairly large hotel complex in downtown Baton Rouge and had just gotten back into the truck to go and see a few sights around when the radio station we were tuned into announced that Greg Allman ‘and friends’ were playing at the Lafayette Community Hall that night – where we’d just come from!
We went for some exceptional Moroccan food at dinnertime, purusing the live music listings in the local paper at the same time. There were only a couple of items that interested us but we settled on a Jazz/Latin/Fusion band, partly because the venue was downtown, hopefully not too far from our hotel.
When we found the club it turned out to be in the same hotel we were staying at! The band, from Dallas, Texas, had people dancing all night. One little latin guy, obviously a very accomplished ballroom dancer, along with the band, kept us entertained all night. It wasn’t Greg Allman and friends but it was memorable.
We spent a couple of days at nearby St. Francisville in order to visit some of the antibellum homes in the area. There, we were surprised to see that one grocery store was for blacks, the other for whites. Such a flagrant display of segregationism was unfathomable to us Canucks in 1995.
The next day, under leaden skies, we started back towards Austin where we were to meet June and Denny Maynard, some long-time friends from North Vancouver who were flying in for the South-by-Southwest Music Festival.
Within half an hour of hitting the road the radio began issuing severe weather warnings. By the time we’d reached Eunice the warnings had turned into a tornado watch. We stopped for fuel where other customers there said they were heading for home, to hunker down in a safe place. The service station attendant had a little concrete bunker thing for a worst case scenario.
This was our first experience with severe weather and we were more than a little concerned. Janice suggested we stop at the police station to see what they suggested. When we walked into the police detachment we were greeted by the only guy on duty; a huge state trooper dude that looked as if he would have trouble extricating himself from his chair. We inquired what we should do in the face of the warnings. Still seated, in the deepest southern drawl we’d heard yet, he said, “Just ’cause thar’s tornado warnins’ don’t mean they’s gonna touch down – ya’ll just keep on drivin’.”
So we did. We came across a few funnel clouds on the horizon, that scared the crap out of us but, to our amazement, many locals seemed to be completely oblivious to what was going on. They certainly didn’t seem to be heeding the weather warnings anyway. Just before we entered the worst of the storm we saw a middle-aged man on a lawn tractor, dressed in overalls, but shirtless, calmly criss-crossing a large expanse of open grass.
Eventually we made it safely to Beaumont, Texas, where we went to do some laundry. There we watched a single dad stuff a washing machine so full that, when he returned to transfer the stuff to the dryer, the clothes in the middle of the washing machine hadn’t even gotten wet. We went for dinner that night at a Chili’s restaurant because Janice wanted to try one of those Bloomin’ Onions. The onion was good but the other itmes were mediocre at best.
In the morning we struck out for Austin where we met June and Denny at their hotel, before walking to an afternoon CD release party at La Zona Rosa. There they fed us excellent BBQ while three distinctly different alternative country bands entertained us.
Later we went for dinner at Threadgills, (famous for the quality of live music that accompanies dinner, as well as the fact that a much-aired Amercian Express commercial was filmed there).
Threadgills was a non-smoking establishment and we still smoked at the time. I was outside having a cigarette with three or four other strangers and, chatting a little with them, I wasn’t surprised to find that most of them were musicians. I broached the subject of pot, explaining that I had been ripped off in Corpus Cristi, asking if anybody could help me out. They were evasive. I said, “Come on, I know you guys smoke as much as we do. It’s just not as out in the open here.” One guy finally responded, “This must be Kismit! Come with me.”
I’d never heard the expression before but, a little confused, I followed him. In the parking lot he reached under the seat of his car and brought out a bag with some pot and a little pipe. “Here, my fiancee has asked me to give it up.” Thanking him effusively, I asked, “What’s Kismit anyway?” ”Oh, it’s a Jewish term. Something akin to fate,” he responded. Fine by me, eh!
After dinner we all attended a street concert with famed singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen before we said our goodbyes to June and Denny. Janice and I did a little more club hopping and ran into an amazing young band named Valejo, from Alabama. All four musicians were incredibly talented. The drummer was only sixteen years old but had some of the best chops I’d ever heard. Managed by their dad, they had to leave the club between sets due to being under age. I bought one of their CD’s and have never tired of it.
The next day Janice and I drove northwards, ending up at San Angelo, Texas, near the New Mexico border. We had just come from a dip in the motel pool and were sunning ourselves on the lawn when a woman approached to ask the time. Knowing that the state of Texas had just passed a law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons legally, I asked her if she carried one. Opening her purse, she brought out a small 9 mm pistol and said, “Sure, just about everybody does.” When she asked where we were from and we told her British Columbia, she looked off dreamily, saying, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go overseas.”
The Texas/Louisiana trip was definitely a winner. We found people in the US, generally, to be as hospitable and welcoming as anywhere else. Of course there’s the odd brash, bullyish individual, but we don’t consider that to be an exclusively American trait.
We did decide after that trip though that staying in motels every night, eating restaurant food for just about every meal, just wasn’t for us. It was expensive to travel that way and, besides, we’d rather eat Janice’s healthier, freshly prepared food. We decided that our next extended road trip would be in some type of an RV…