Day 1 Friday 17 December
Christmas break, Dave has extra time off but with Covid variant Omicron escalating, overseas travel got complicated; back out on the wide open roads of America to see some of where we hadn’t explored…the Mid West. Often referred to as ‘fly over States’ we set out to prove that wrong. Flew to Kansas City Missouri arriving late afternoon over miles of wide flat land cropped back to a dry wheat coloured patchwork. Spotted our first Waffle House sign (a regular game) five minutes after picking up the huge white Dodge SUV rental. ‘Hillspring Jesus Hope for Humanity’, ‘Hooters’, ‘Chicken ‘n Pickle’ and several ‘Brad Bradshaw’ billboards (semi truck and car wreck injury law should you need him), backdropped the drive in to town. The hotel catered mainly to business travellers, full this weekend as ‘Cheer’ was in town…being English it needed to be explained; a cheer-leading grand national at the convention centre. Threw our bags in the room and with only one night in Kansas City we went exploring…already enthused that the city straddles two US States and is the alleged centre of America. Lots of neon, streets deserted at 6.30pm but it was below freezing so first stop the Crossroads art district where we caught one small gallery before closing then walked the historic district by old red brick low storey buildings to eat BBQ at Jack Stacks.
BBQ was sold high to us for Kansas City but it tasted pretty much the same as BBQ anywhere…in Memphis the best. It was our wedding anniversary, we got seated in an outdoor sealed gazebo the kind used for wedding functions and as the freight trains rattled by spied through flimsy plastic windows…we huddled, gazing longingly not at each other but at heat lamps too far to cast much warmth our way. We drove to 18th and Vine to the infamous Jazz District, winter deserted streets washed in the neon glow of bars and quietened clubs…meeting Rob MC outside a bar holding forth about his ‘jazz cat’ past and telling us to “be careful walking around…this is America.”
Day 2 Saturday 18 December
Woken by the alarm at 5.50am set by a previous guest. Breakfasted nearby, a converted Airstream indoors as the serving point for coffee and pastries. Wrapped up warm…minus 8. Driving to Topeka across agricultural land with a hard frost silvering the fields. Roadside signs berate ‘I am not a choice I’m a child’ and ‘Jesus came for you’. We stopped to look at “the world’s largest concrete teepee’. Everything in America is the world’s largest, the best in the world, the only one in the world…it’s amusing. More roadsigns ‘The Sod Shop’ (particularity amusing to Brits)…detouring to Ron and Linda’s ‘Truckhenge’. We arrive to the sound of gunfire…locals at target practice on the next door plot. Ron’s home is a Quonset hut, a blue painted concrete mixer heralds the stairs to a metal walkway accessing the first floor. Huge and open plan inside, the ceiling hung with baskets, an indoor garden and an handmade cage elevator down to Ron’s art studio where his daughter’s old bedsheets are repurposed as canvases with household paint. Ron’s a genuine outsider artist and we’re charmed by his eccentric talk and love of puns. Outside chainsaw carved tree trunks, upended trucks and graffitied boats, a shoe tree, buffalo bones dug from his lake fill boxes and old filing cabinets… installation art projects through which 4 peacocks and a rooster roam. We both love this place.
2 hours later we drive to the Evel Knieval museum…childhood memories of watching him perform death defying motorbike stunts. His truck was found rusting in Florida; fully restored down to all the hand-painted graphics, it’s an impressive sight. Posters (one from the Empire Stadium Wembley in London), his leather suits, stunt bikes and diagrams of how many bones broken for many of his jumps, it’s a fun wander in to memory and the friendly staff and Harley-Davidson Museum in the same building are an added bonus.
Drive to Tulsa. Flat land for miles, small communities, no-one walking, cars and trucks dominate; distances too great to walk. Most food bought in malls on the edges of towns, the family run ‘Mom and Pop’ stores closed, unable to compete. Deserted sidewalks give Burlington the look of a ghost town in winter.
Hitting Route 66 at sundown, stopping to see a Muffler Man, a roadtrip favourite for Dave, he found them mapped on ‘Roadside America’. Buck Atom found broken discarded in a Canadian junkyard, brought to Virginia where it was rebuilt by fibreglass artist Mark Cline who made a mold of the body. Lots of work later, a collaboration with a shop owner in Tulsa who was looking for a Muffler Man style mascot for her store Cosmic Curious and with another artist creating the silver rocket, Buck Atom was born and unveiled in Spring of 2019. At over 20 feet high, Buck and the store were a fun diversion. Ate at a small Vietnamese place in Tulsa, basic canteen style but good food. Our Airbnb is an old house, deserted when we arrived, no lights on. Heavy wooden doors lead off the landing behind one of which was our room. Bibles on the tables, an old kitchen, eerie. The WiFi code ‘Sabbath’. Traffic under our window, curtains that didn’t fit; comfortable enough.
Day 3 Sunday 19 December
Cold start again…minus 6. We’re wearing the same clothes, layered in yesterday’s warmth. Got up early to see the Cain Ballroom and ate breakfast nearby where we met Jeff, owner of a local manufacturing company making modular buildings. A random conversation led to all sorts of discussion about America; the best way to learn about and understand a country is through its people. An interesting man living in an interesting city. Although a breeze through we got a feel for Tulsa and liked it; there’s community spirit, innovation, some great street art…we plan to come back when the Bob Dylan museum opens and to visit the Woody Guthrie museum. We drove around to see the Leon Russell murals (of which there are several) and to his Church Studio, not currently open to the public…music landmarks always a feature of our roadtrips. To the Golden Driller, looming against a bright blue sky. 76 feet tall, this version built in 1966; Tulsa once sitting on the world’s largest known ocean of oil with drilling derricks everywhere.
Leaving the Golden Driller and back on Route 66…more roadside sign beseechers ‘Pray Without Ceasing’, the world’s largest gas pump, a restored train, retro motel signs, a round red barn….gun shops, pawn shops, low level strip malls, acres of plastic signage for fast food…typical highway America, but Route 66 has more interesting oddities en route and some surviving mom and pop stores selling antiques and bric-a-brac. Does Route 66 feel iconic? I’m not sure… but we loved it.
And on through Oklahoma, driving through photogenic Bristow with its brick buildings, Trump banners, trucks and gas stations. Arriving in Oklahoma City our first stop Factory Obscura Mix-Tape; an indoor sensory maze, 30 minutes crawling through tunnels, carpeted caves; bizarre hand made installations and trippy lighting…fun…kids will love it. In the Plaza district; street art murals, small boutiques, hipster influenced…not enough to hold us long but the murals were great. Ate at the Collective food market but it’s mainly burgers, pizza or fried food. At $4.25 a slice the pizza more expensive than New York. Checked in to the motel which looked great but paper thin walls, traffic noise and guests banging in and out, shoes ringing on the metal staircase, useless heating on a frigid night; bang goes the dream of roadtripping on a motel budget. We discovered that we and the room next door were the only guests…but they put us in rooms next to each other.
Visited the Oklahoma bombing memorial which at late dusk was an emotional pull. 168 people killed by Timothy McVeigh…their senseless deaths portrayed by 168 empty chairs made from a clear lucite material lit so they glowed softly each decorated with a Christmas wreath. Designed with such sensitivity that it feels serene. We drove around the city, every major street draped with coloured Christmas lights. We saw a slim shadow in a cowboy hat loading his truck and we struck up a conversation. A geologist, Dave recently opened a specialty rock and mineral store. Fascinating hyperactive energised by his love of geology he showed us around with infectious enthusiasm. I told him he looked like a former Hollywood stuntman…because he did.
Day 4 Monday 20th December
Out of the noisy motel early and to breakfast at ‘Neighborhood Jam’ in Midtown Oklahoma city where we met Calvin our waiter, who was interested in where we were from and where we were going. Treating me to a free biscuit because I wasn’t sure what it was….more like a salty English scone, a biscuit to us is a cookie in America. Leaving the city we drove through cold frozen landscapes to the small town of Norman, en-route to where we were eventually heading but a quirky stop to see the James Garner statue, dressed as his role in Maverick rather than childhoood favourite ‘The Rockford Files’. I stood on the train tracks, cold…frosty, a white light early morning. Local police idled by waving at us. We drove on looking for a VW Beetle turned in to a giant spider, allegedly slowly sinking…couldn’t find it, must’ve sunk.
In the spirit of ‘Dave standing under giant things’ in Wynnewood, Oklahoma we visit another Muffler Man at Steppin’ Out Western Outfitters…miles of cowboy boots, cowboy hats, hard weather coats, leather belts, friendly staff asking where we’re from. On to Davis Oklahoma stopping for a cholesterol hardening ‘Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pie’; one apple one cherry.
Next stop Magnetic Hill on Pit Road in Springer… a slight gradient between fields where we tested the claim that this ‘gravity hill’ has a magnetic pull which will drag your car backwards when in neutral. It did, and accelerated…we tested it several times, laughing and exclaiming. It’s surreal but scientifically the layout of the surrounding land and landmarks creates an optical illusion making a slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope…but let’s just choose to believe there’s a magnetic force in the ground. We drive on, by ‘Fuku Japanese Grill’, ‘Snowflake Donuts’…over the State border to Gainesville Texas to see 4 Muffler Men and a woman…sadly my photo of the woman didn’t come out…the sisterhood will cancel me.
The sun came out and bounced off the chrome of huge trucks. Old Glory Road, Spanish Oaks ranch; roadside entrances with fancy initialed gates. Following East Lone Oak Road bridging over Lake Vineyard where silvered branches of dead trees reached up out of the water. Passed ‘Auto Ranch’, acres of rusting wrecks. Approaching Dallas, a giant Stars and Stripes shadowed by a bigger Lone Star State flag flapped outside a car dealer. Our first traffic jam; a tangle of overpasses underpasses sprawling lanes of cars…an ugly mass of metal and fumes. 40 minutes to reach the centre. Checked in to Aloft Hotel, wandered to Dealey Plaza to the road where JFK was shot by US Marine veteran Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 from the 6th floor window of the Texas School Book Depository; a beautiful red brick building that glowed in the sun. Some alleged that a second shooter was placed nearer the road at the Grassy Knoll; accounting for the trajectory of the shot and the distance from the books depository I can appreciate the theory, but then Oswald was a trained Marine sniper. A tattered white X where the car was in the motorcade, tourists pose for photos although the road is well trafficked. The nearby JFK memorial is looming brutalist concrete, roofless and empty other than a plain black marble slab. There’s an overall feeling of neglect; dead leaves dying grass, the weather streaked concrete.
Dallas isn’t glitzy but the historic district holds some architectural gems… but the city is too sprawled, inter-cut with huge traffic lanes designed for the car and not pedestrians. It feels jaded. I guess once the oil companies bought out the oil men, Dallas had served it’s purpose and the wealth moved on. We ate Thai food at a canteen style place; a young man on a neighbouring table so similar in voice and mannerism to our New York friend Jon it was mesmerising to watch.
Day 5 Tuesday 21 December
So tired we slept 9 hours…it’s been a lot of time on the road. Drove to Deep Ellum, a Dallas neighbourhood for breakfast. Some street murals but Dallas is so sprawled and anti-walking we just wanted out. My favourite thing in the city, a giant eyeball installation in a private park. We left via Bishop Arts district on the outskirts; leaving Dallas in the same tangled mass of traffic as arriving. Took the I-35 to Waco to stop at the National Mammoth monument which sits in wooded parkland near the Bosque River. A nursery herd of Pleistocene Columbian mammoths were discovered by Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin in 1978 when they were searching for fossils and arrow heads in a ravine. For 30 years Baylor University staff, students and volunteers excavated the site and opened it to the public in 2009. 6 Columbian mammoths and a few other Ice Age animals are on view in an indoor area for a small ticket entry price…Mammoth bones from 65,000 years ago, an extraordinary discovery, a privilege to see.
Detoured on the 84 to get away from the I-35. From the 84 on to the 281 to get in to the Texan Hill Country. Going by the ‘Heaven Bikers Church’, on through Evant, a lot of which was closed up….a sign in Marble Falls read ‘No Rules Just Jesus’ another for ‘One Swanky Shop’. Arriving in Wimberley Texas we ate at Chili’s on the creek, outside with the sun on our backs…a welcome change from the bitter cold of the past week. Went to HEB supermarket to buy breakfast supplies. Checked in to ‘The Cowboy’…a fabulous Airbnb with friendly owners. A relief from constant driving, time to kick back; a garden and greenhouse to breathe in the scent of flowers, a deck over a dried out creek, ancient oaks and deer nibbling on the neighbouring plot. Bliss.
Day 6 Wednesday 22 December
Roadsign “Hit by a truck? Call Jeff 444 – 4444” depends how hard you were hit to make that call. Drove to The Alamo, crowded, lining up to file in. Interesting to see the historic mission and fortress founded in the 18th century; to stand where American folk heroes Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett (as well as many Mexicans) fought and died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, overrun by the Mexican army attempting to recapture the city. The sun dazzled on the Garrison leaders carved in to the Alamo Cenotaph featuring names of 187 defenders…some proved later not to have been there. History is a fallible ally. Walked the river walk packed with fellow day trippers; restaurant touts jostling for attention, river boat tours, keyrings, t-shirts…everything, but nothing you need…so we got out of town and back in to the country, dropping by Buc-ee’s on the way in New Braufels…a Texan favourite a bit lost on us; like a big branch of Target but with a beaver logo on everything and the largest petrol forecourt we’d ever seen. Friendly food counter staff dressed like farm hands in faded dungarees and corn yellow cowboy hats. Grackles hopped about, the males a deep oil slick blue/black the females a rich brown turning russet in the lowering light. Back in the garden with our faces tilted to the sun. Cooked black bean, feta, mango, chili and red pepper tacos…tastier than anything we’d eaten out so far.
Day 7 Thursday 23 December
To a local laundrette and whilst our clothes were soaping walked to the post office; Chevy pickups, cars and trucks rolled by…people looking at us bemused, unused to roadside walkers. Mailed a Buc-ee’s T-shirt to Bruce in Seattle…he loves that store. Back to the laundrette to swap our clothes to the drier and a walk over to HEB to buy more food for Christmas Day. Laundry done we parked in Wimberley, explored the shops mostly selling the same stuff; didn’t want a pair of thousand dollar cowboy boots or a chicken painted on a tin sign. A constant stream of slow moving traffic crawls through town; a tourist destination for neighbouring states due to its proximity to Austin and San Antonio. Back at the Airbnb we set up with a tray of food, sat in the garden, 21 degrees with the wind chimes dipping and turkey vultures riding the thermals. Next door drinks with the owners round the fire, Ed and Scott. A little black cat slunk out of the dark wound round our legs. Heading back I walked smack in to a low hanging oak branch decked myself, flat out on the ground. Dave looking down at me: “What are you doing?” The cat followed, disappointed when we shut her out, hurling herself at the window in the door…yowling on the doorstep, settling on a porch sofa. I felt guilty.
Day 8 Friday 24 December
A lazy lie in, the black cat’s disappeared. A scramble in the dried out bed of the River Blanco. Sun bleached rocks and stones worn smooth…twisted uprooted trees thrown back in the wash. We counted 13 raptors circling above…from the white marks on the wing they looked like Turkey vultures. Gunshots nearby…Texas target practice. Back at the house, Dave cooked a chili. We ate it with corn tortilla chips, sour cream and grated cheese sitting on the deck overlooking the dry creek. 22 degrees Celsius on Christmas Eve. A susurration of wind gently nudging the wind chimes. Watched a movie about an asteroid on a collision course with earth…too sated and content to care.
Day 9 Saturday 25 December
Christmas Day lazy morning then a drive to Jacob’s Well but entry access closed up. Drove on to Dripping Springs which looks like a restored frontier trading post…pretty. Back and relaxed in the garden again….28 degrees now. Glorious day. A nearby volley of gunshots broke the silence…someone’s got a new gun for Christmas. Dinner of steak in garlic butter…when in Texas, and Dave’s cooking again. We ate in the back porch.
Day 10 Sunday 26 December
Leaving Wimberley heading to Houston…don’t want to go and wished we’d booked longer under the 200 year old oak tree with the chickens still refusing to lay and the sun burning through the grasses. Wondering if because of the wide scale spread of Omicron if our flight back will get cancelled…thousands of flights globally shutting down, families with holiday plans to reunite with loved ones thwarted a second year running by the virus. If they’re cancelled we’re looking at a 1,600 mile drive back to New York City. On to the I-10 highway calling out signs; “New Texas Meal Deal Blizzard $7.99!” (What’s a meal blizzard?). “Fireworks Buy 1 get 5 free!”. “Great Gonzo’s Toobs and Shuttles!” On Highway 80 a dead domestic cat and a dead cow….a small plane buried nose deep in to the ground advertising a skydiving centre. “Beef it’s what’s for dinner. Eat beef”. Fueling up in Luling, two guys in full hunting gear. We met ‘Juan in a million’ at the petrol station…originally from Mexico: “You sound like that woman in Frasier!” (Daphne…he wasn’t wrong). Me: “Can I take your photo?” Juan: “Yes! Get my bicycle in it. Did you get my ears? I’ve got big ears now.”
A four hour drive to Houston and straight to The Rothko Chapel which was serenely beautiful. 14 moody blue/black Rothko paintings hang inside. No photos allowed (this credited to Paul Hester). A serene contemplative space for me….Dave found it depressing, which I also understood.
And a 5 minute walk away the Menil Museum designed by Renzo Piano. Beautiful building, lighting, layout and free entry to some of the incredible private art collection of 17,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings once owned by the de Menils couple…gifted to the city on their deaths so everyone could see art for free. Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso, Pollock, a room full of Max Ernst another of Magritte, African sculptures, on and on…it was amazing. Several other buildings house further collections. Checked in to Sara’s Inn, Greater Heights neighbourhood. A traditional B n’B missing the second B due to covid so no breakfast and no staff but an unusual room in a painted lady style building. Room was comfortable but overstuffed with antique furniture…3 footstools, a writing bureau…I foresee 4 nights of toe stubbing. (We switched rooms the next day). Walked 10 minutes to eat, it’s now 26 degrees. We buy ice creams and meet Legacy Man rollerskating with his beatbox in day-glo shorts, ripped and oiled. Writes synth music, can sing in Japanese, Dad to twins; judging by locals saying hello, a well loved local.
We walked a mile to White Oak Bayou bridge for the sunset, meandered back through streets of Christmas decorated houses…a wealthy area but Disney perfect…several streets of gated communities which Dave described as Stepford Wives, laid out in grids of well tended gardens perfectly painted homes.
Day 11 Monday 27 December
Advance online booked tickets for the Space Center at 11am. Still had to join a huge line for 40 minutes but worth it at $30 each for the mind-blowing things to see. Soil from the moon, Elon Musk’s Space X, spacesuits, Robonaut; a NASA designed robot that’s already been in to Space. All the movies we watched are coming true. Another long line up a steel stairway to access a full scale replica of the Space Shuttle. The NASA tram tour (included in the price) to the George W.S. Abbey Rocket Park to see one of only 3 remaining Saturn V rockets. It’s HUGE…a staggering amount of wiring to the massive rocket propulsion thrusters; you can’t help but ponder at the fragility. Around 3 hours later we leave… mind blown.
A 15 minute drive outside of Houston is the DeLorean motor company in Humble, closed because of Covid but a line of 6 or 7 cars parked out front.
To the beer-can house festooned with beer cans, bottles, other beer can parts; created 1960s to 1980s by John Milkovisch at 222 Malone Street. Outside of Covid there are tours but I was content to look at it from the street, listening to the jangle of hanging metal hustling in the wind.
Ending the day at artist James Turrell ‘Twilight Epiphany Skyspace’ on the Rice University Campus, timing our visit with sunset to watch LED coloured light projections on to the 72 foot square knife-edge roof with a central opening to the sky. We sat on marble seats on the ground floor in the middle of the structure looking up whilst others were seated above us surrounding the edge on narrow benches. It looked better from a distance, like a spacecraft landed on the manicured lawns, its colours turning from yellow, orange, grey, green and blue.
Day 12 Tuesday 28 December
An odd undertaking (pun intended) to visit the The National Museum of Funeral History; so much more than we expected and fascinating. Exhibits of Presidential funerals, A 1972 Japanese ceremonial hearse, brightly painted Kane Quaye Teshi Ghanaian crab and animal caskets, an embalming fluid exhibition. Victorian velvet lined coffins, carriages and an oversize casket made for a family of 3; the baby died so mother and father decided to commit suicide to be buried with their child…ordered and paid for the custom built casket, changed their minds, left the State…and 20 years later tried to get a refund.
We drove to see the 36 feet high stone Beatles statues by sculptor David Adickes in the beer garden plot of 8th Wonder Brewery in east downtown Houston. A foodtruck called Eatsie Boys made us laugh. And to the Graffiti Park on Chartres Street in Houston’s East End where young men sold t-shirts and baseball caps out of the back of their cars and big SUVs rolled in playing loud music, swaggering to check out the murals but friendly when you talked with them. We ate pizza fresh from the oven at a slice place on a corner, oil slicking our fingers and the cardboard plates.
A short drive to see more of sculptor David Adickes…a series of giant President heads once the attraction at theme parks in South Dakota and Virginia (both now closed), lined up tangled in weeds and wildflowers on his studio lot behind high chain-link fences. Closed to the public but gazing ominously across the lot and easily seen.
Day 13 Wednesday 29 December
Back to explore more at The Menil, to the drawing institute, several other galleries closed due to Covid staff shortages. To the Museum of Contemporary Art for the ‘Dirty South’ exhibition. Nadine Robinson’s massive sound system ‘Coronation Theme: Organon’ stacked to resemble the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jnr was a pastor. And a series of atmospheric photographs by Earlie Hudnall Jnr (born 1946) my favourite being ‘Black Water Baptist Church Mississippi (1990). An impressive exhibition.
Dave point blank refusing to play ‘Dave Standing Under Giant Things’ anymore. I really tried but frankly it’s embarrassing begging then yelling at him in front of people who’ve come to see the Anish Kapoor installation…hah! To POST, formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office on Franklin Street now a food hall with a rooftop park, co-working space, plans for shops and a music venue.
In Downtown Houston we wandered the historic district, streets flanked by modern skyscrapers were deserted and eerily quiet. Property plaque markers on pavements made for a good game of filming myself putting my foot over them childishly chanting “na na ner nah nah” We took a supermarket bought picnic of kale and orange salad with cranberries and walnuts, a sandwich and chocolate cakes to sit in the park to wait for the Mexican free-tailed bats to fly out in their thousands from under the bridge at Waugh Drive. They estimate 250,000 bats (sadly more than 30,000 found dead after the February freeze in 2021). A crowd had gathered, sat on the grassy banks waiting for the bats to emerge at dusk, we all peered under the bridge, getting restless after 30/40 minutes….then suddenly they swooped out in a huge black chattering mass, flitting, diving, heading together to feed, a wonderful sight….a few picked off by two cunning Herons waiting in the trees. And in just a few minutes they were gone and the sky turned black as the sun disappeared. Magical.
Day 14 Thursday 30 December
Leaving. Another roadtrip in covid times. Got up at 4.30am for an early flight back to New York City…thankfully no flight delays although hundreds disrupted through staff shortages. The Omnicron variant wreaking havoc. I reckon there’s going to be a few more US roadtrips before we’re really travelling overseas again…fortunate to have this huge country to explore, so much of it still new to our eyes, so many glorious landscapes and friendly people to meet.