Postcard from Texas

Slowest stampede in the West
© Jacques Hughes 2023

Introductory sweeping generalisations

Well, yeehah y’all! Just a few words to bring you an update on the second biggest state in the USA.

They say there are three seasons in Texas: July, August and summer. We went in the last weeks of October to avoid the crushing summer heat, but even then it was a bit toasty on certain days. Houston was allegedly built on oil, but it was still a sleepy old town of just thirty thousand souls until the 1930s when it began to grow rapidly. Perhaps it was really a town built on air conditioning?

As always, we timed our visit perfectly: wait until the pound is at an historic low and then you’re good to go. Not everything was expensive. The long-term valet parking at Heathrow was a positive snip, but then after that, things started getting a little eye-watering. To be fair, full size car hire at £50 per day wasn’t too bad and we were lucky enough to get an iconic vehicle for our Texas road trip: a VW Jetta.

Hotel costs were mainly driven by two things: 1) my tendency to say, well, yes, we could go somewhere cheaper, but we are only here once and I need to reduce my potential inheritance tax and 2) the wonderful ability the Americans have to charge like an angry rhino if they see the opportunity.

Saturday best boots
© Jacques Hughes 2023

Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas all now have massive convention centres which are especially attractive when the north is getting a little chilly. Hotels therefore get booked up well in advance, leaving only a handful of expensive rooms for the schmucko late-booking tourists.

I am no snob – proven by my Wetherspoons attendance card – but when I am paying over $250 per night for a room, I do expect a certain quality of clientele. At one particularly interesting breakfast buffet congregation I did say to my wife: “I really had no idea that tractor mechanics have conferences too”.

One other factor driving up the hotel prices was valet parking. We were able to avoid this in most places, but in Austin there was no other safe parking nearby, so an extra $52 dollars was added to our daily bill. To add insult to injury, we then discovered that the hotel parking was actually on floors 2 & 3 of the hotel, but with no self- parking option. It was raining the day we left Austin, so we had the surreal situation of our car being brought out of the dry garage to the front of the hotel where we had to load our bags in the wet. The surly youth on check-out could not see the irony of their parking arrangements and apparently, no one had ever complained before….

A Mexican heritage with a big dash of German (and a splash of Czech)

The history of Texas is not long, but they have managed to cram a lot into the 200 years they have been around. There was lots of fighting with Mexico and the native Indians before the Lone Star State became part of the union in 1845. Then from 1846-48 there was even more fighting in the Mexican-American war where the US grabbed other places like California which they believed belonged to them, presumably for reasons of proximity. Watch out Canada.

During the civil war Texas, as a slave-owning state, left the Union and joined the Confederate states. Some Texan soldiers fought in the war, but Texas’ role was mainly providing supplies and horses. Even back then Texas was well known as a place where people went when they wanted to disappear…

However, Texas was always in need of more people to settle the land, so permits were granted to those who wanted to come and help to build the state.

The various protectorates which made up Germany as we now know it were going through tough times back in the 1850/60s, so the prospect of heading out to a new promised land was attractive. Companies were established to organise the emigrations and not surprisingly their brochures did not mention the stifling heat or the aggressive natives. Household contents were sold off and people left with just what they could carry.

The towns settled by the Germans in the attractive hill country between San Antonio and Austin can still be recognised in names like Fredericksburg, Braunfels and Gruene.

All quiet on Main Strasse, Fredericksburg
© Jacques Hughes 2023

Organised Atlantic crossings brought the Germans all the way over to beaches near Galveston where they were to be transported to their promised territories. Unfortunately for the poor folks who went on to build Fredericksburg, the wagons promised to transport them inland had all been requisitioned for the civil war. So, after being ravaged by disease and insects on the coast for a few weeks, the German settlers realised they would have to complete their journey on foot.

One question I always had about the pioneers was “how do you know when to stop?”. The most wonderful place could be just around the next hill.
The answer to this question in the case of Fredericksburg was simple. Fortunately, the company organising the new settlements for the Germans had a very competent man on the ground. He discovered that the land they had been sold by the Texans was right in the middle of Comanche country. As he beat a hasty retreat from the hostile area, he just happened to come across a great location with flowing water, fertile land and some friendly natives. The industrious settlers did the rest and built up the thriving community of Fredericksburg.

No green nonsense in the Lone Star state

Teslas may rule in soy-sipping California, but there ain’t many of them round the main cities in Texas. Very few BMWs and Mercedes as well. These vehicles are far too effete for your typical Texan who either wants a 5 litre pick-up with an extra loud exhaust or, if he is somewhat richer, then a 6.2 litre SUV such as the mighty imposing Escalade or the huge Yukon Denali XL.

We had rain on both days we did longer road trips up to Dallas from Austin and then back down to Houston for our flight out. Now, either the Texans are not used to driving in the rain, or their general machismo does not allow them to slow down for weather conditions.

In a torrential downpour it is quite impressive just how much water an 18-wheeler truck can throw up when going at 75 mph. Bloody frightening too. Fortunately, none of them had to brake hard near us, but, as we got close to Dallas, cars were sliding off the road in impressive numbers.

Austin is booming
© Jacques Hughes 2023

As the exodus from California continues, towns like Austin are benefiting greatly from the number of high-tech companies relocating to somewhere else warm but with much lower taxes and less socialism. Since the towns are expanding, so are the road networks, with major digging and bridge building taking place on a large scale. The contrast on driving home from Heathrow to Birmingham was striking: not a single road widening or junction improvement underway.

Oh wait…I tell a lie…there was one improvement: in the weeks we were away they installed average speed cameras on a single carriageway stretch near to home where speeds are already low. Yet apparently we have £100bn to spend on a short railway line.

As a final green contrast: while we Europeans are beating ourselves up over yet more environmental targets and imposing paper straws on everyone, disposable plastic everything seems to be the order of the day over in the USA.

Do you recycle? Hell, no. I got me a pick-up truck.

Good honest food and drink. Some of the time

Covid seems to have provided the perfect excuse for making everything disposable, though I am guessing that certain BBQ establishments were always 100% easy wipe down.

Ribs, chopped beef and sausage are good too
© Jacques Hughes 2023

We did have some great meals for not too much money. If you happen to be down Texas way, then I can heartily recommend Terry Black’s BBQ places. Just don’t try and order the same amounts the locals do….and Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken restaurants are most tasty and good value too.

However, we did have quite a few meals where the food was mediocre, service virtually non-existent and the bill a lot higher than expected. Prices which initially seemed OK are then magically transformed by an 8% sales tax and the now customary 20% gratuity on top.

Beer. Well, over the course of three weeks, the law of averages suggests that I was going to find a couple of decent ones. The craft beer revolution continues apace in America, which is great in a land that used to think that Bud & Michelob were tasty beverages.

However, Americans still appear to be unaware that there is little point in brewing decent beer with flavour if you serve it freezing cold. At least in Texas you could order two beers at once, allowing the second one to lose some of its taste-numbing chill. In South Carolina, I seem to recall you could only buy one beer at a time to prevent bingeing.

Hazy IPA. Not for export. Possibly not for consumption, either
© Jacques Hughes 2023

In addition, our transatlantic cousins still have a strange view of beer strength, believing that stronger beer is always better. Hence, if they actually show the ABV, you often see beers at 7% or even up to 9% and beyond. Makes for an interesting evening, especially for the drivers.

One other Texas top tip: avoid Micheladas. Think Bloody Mary but instead of vodka, beer. Very popular down Mexico way, apparently.

A serious bar for serious drinkers. No smiling allowed
© Jacques Hughes 2023

Speaking of Bloody Mary…..It’s 11.30 a.m. in San Antone on a Sunday morning. Your wife has gone to buy some things. You find yourself sitting at the longest and darkest bar in Texas. This calls for one of the “house specials”: a Texas Bloody Mary.

“How is it?” asks the young lady behind the bar as I wipe the tears from my eyes and gasp for breath. “Hot”, I whimper.

“Yup. We make it with chilli vodka and our special super spicy tomato mix with fresh and dried chillis chopped in it….”.

Good. Different. But I only managed one…had to switch to beer.

Country music – your permanent Texas backdrop

Gratuitous redneck joke time: apparently crimes are hard to solve in rural Texas because there are no dental records and everyone has the same DNA.

In this part of the world the sun is always shining and the radio is always playing good ole country music. We found country great in short bursts, but after about twenty minutes, it all starts to sound the same. However, after a quick ten minute aural detox you are ready to get going again and listen to some more tales of misery and woe.

Now back home in the UK I have discovered the joys of Absolute Radio Country (I bet they wanted to call it Absolute Country) and my Holly Dolly Christmas CD is ready to delight the whole family.

Way better than some alternative choices
© Jacques Hughes 2023

After three weeks of heat, country music, BBQ and 7% beer in Texas, you find yourself entering a zen-like state. At this point you realise that in any situation at all, the only question you need to ask is: “What would Willie do?”

© text & images Jacques Hughes 2023