Heading South, Texas is as far as you can go before you are in Mexico. In fact Texas was once part of Mexico, and in some ways that defines the immigration debate for many Texans, who are on most issues famously conservative. People with family across the border have been in Texas for generations, and a great deal see the attacks on immigration as an attack on their race and hypocritical, since the European settlers were not here first. Many Texans have inter-married, with heritages intermingled in the same red-blooded Texan hearts. Many Texans know crops would not be harvested and their gardens would not get manicured but for what are euphemistically called "undocumented workers".
Texas, the largest of the lower 48, is famous for the superlatives that define it, but one superlative that does not apply is that it is the most Southerly of the States of the USA. That distinction belongs to Hawaii. And, interestingly enough the places that are the most Northerly, Westerly and Easterly points in the USA are all in Alaska. Anyway, I digress. I started off talking about Texas, and I got to see a lot of it on my travels.
The classic star-studded movie of the Alomo is reputedly full of historical inaccuracies, but the story is nonetheless very impressive. Mexico, recently freed from Spanish rule, encouraged Americans to settle in their northern territories. In time the immigrants saw their hosts as obstructive in protecting their interests, and sought independence. Part of their struggle against the Mexicans included a brave and tactically useful defence of a fort called The Alamo in what is now downtown San Antonio. Outnumbered ten to one the defenders lost the battle and, save for a handful of women and children and one slave, the survivors were slaughtered. However with the battle cry "Remember the Alamo", the Texans ultimately beat the Mexicans and retained the land North of the Rio Grande. Sam Houston was the general who led the successful war of independence, defeating a Mexican army just outside of the city that bears his name, at San Jacinto.
A statue of Sam Houston's stands in Herman Park in central Houston. Even the plaque commemorating him suggests he was not an easy person to get on with. It is also true of the city itself.
Yes, it is hard to like Houston, oil capital of the world. The downtown area is intimidating, with towering skyscapers over soulless streets. The reason that the streets are so empty is, in part, because the city is so hot in summer that the city workers have an underground network covering over 40 blocks that connects car parks to office buildings and retail outlets. The only people out on the streets are the buskers and homeless. I heard one say "I got as far South as I gonna get before winter, gotta find a roof soon".
Houston is a huge sprawl with interminable strip malls stretching for miles in all directions. Here and there vast McMansions bulge at the perimeter of their plots, hidden away down tree-lined cul-de-sacs often seperated by only one main street from huge expanses of largely shabby or uninspiring neighborhoods.
It is said air-conditioning made Houston possible, because in summer the heat and humidity are unbearable. The metropolitan area of Houston is also huge, so there is little practical alternative to driving anywhere and everywhere - there are no corner shops or neigbourhood bars you would walk to. Add to that the area can suffer from extreme weather conditions - tornados, floods, hurricanes. Then there are the snakes, the God'n'guns culture, the down-and-outs on every major intersection, the traffic congestion and the pollution - and you wonder how this city grew so large. It is the 4th largest city in the USA, and the fastest growing of all the major cities. That is despite the oil industry struggling with low oil prices.
The reasons are many. The economy is much more than the oil industry. Houston houses the weathiest and largest medical centre in the world. It is a shimmering enclave demonstrating that the medical industry can generate huge profits in a suitably benign legislative climate, even if it does not lead to overall improved healthcare outcomes. That other great American success story, the legal industry, also finds the legislative climate of Texas highly conducive to litigation - just check out all the billboards advertising SueVW.com and suchlike. Houston is also the only city to be mentioned on the Moon - NASA is headquartered here - and there are a lot of tech and consultancy companies in town. Plus a lot of retail. And all of this provides plenty of work, particularly low-paid work for migrants from countries to the South and other Southern states. Many people moved here from New Orleans when that city was devastated. And for a major metropolis housing is not too expensive, with the vastness of the flat, featureless land to the West beckoning a stream of new housing projects.
Houston also does have its attractions. In a country of brutal winters, the winter in Houston is mild. The wealth has also helped the Arts, and Houston has two world class galleries in the Museum of Fine Arts and the Menil Collection. The city has strong associations with Rothko and, hidden away in a leafy suburb, you will find the Rothko Chapel where the walls are huge canvasses painted by the artist. Despite the vulgarity of the huge mansions in the suburbs, the Montrose District where the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel can be found has attractive houses, shops and restaurants in pleasant, walkable tree line streets. Because of the sprawl and the relatively low density of much of Houston, the city does feel almost rural at times, with a suprisingly large number of trees. In particular Herman Park, which houses the zoo and a touching area devoted to cancer patients, and the huge, rambling Memorial Park are impressive.
The area West of Memorial Park is known as Memorial, and a long road called Memorial meanders through it and a broader trunk road called Katy Freeway. If you ask anyone why the area is called Memorial and who Katy is, people just shrug or maybe tell you that Katy is not a person, it is a place. Interestingly, though, Katy is named so as a variation on KT, standing for the Kentucky-Texas railway that terminates in Katy and gives the city its name. The freight railway system in the USA is extensive and efficient, compared with the largely unreliable and limited passenger services, and one of my strongest aural memories of the USA is the distant sound of the horns of freight trains crossing the continent at night.
The derivation of Memorial is more prosaic, the eponymous park was so named in memory of the soldiers who fought in the Great War, WW1. Many of the US troops who fought in that war were trained in a camp called Camp Logan on the site of what is now Memorial Park. A battalion of black soldiers were based there, and one of their number reputedly got arrested after asking why a black woman was being harassed and arrested by white policemen. Another soldier who went to ask why his colleague had been arrested was himself arrested, leading to a large number of soldiers marching on the police station. The situation escalated and a riot developed in which 20 people died - 12 white vigilantes, four soldiers and four policemen. Thirteen black soldiers were subsequently hanged for their part in the riot, prettty much randomly, and a number of others received life sentences. I am not so sure that would have been the same outcome were it white soldiers who had rioted.
Since I have been in the States, the daily stories of shootings and police killings is very un-nerving. The school my kids are in was even subject to a lockdown, a response to a perceived threat to their collective safety, preperation for which friends tell me is an integral part of schooling in this country. The police and many other killings seem to be due to an almost ecstatic desire to let things get out of control. I have seen the footage from several killings and the overwhelming question is, why on earth did the policeman let the situation escalate when it was so much easier to defuse it? Mind you, the huge number of people who carry guns, often concealed (legally), is enough to make anyone wary of a dispute arising. My local sports store has around a hundred different hand guns on display as well as several assault and hunting rifles. Why would anyone need a semi-automatic assault rifle in a Houston suburb?
Coming from largely godless Europe, the extent of religious conviction in the USA is overwhelming. There are churches everywhere, often with HUGE car parks that get packed one day a week and cause major traffic disruption when they empty out. There are billboards on every freeway addressing issues such as abortion, life after death and such like. The radio is full of overt religious broadcasting, and TV evangelists can be hilarious - one advert has a 90 day programme which opines that if you find Jesus through the ministry of this particular church, you will get rich; another offers sacred water on various price plans.
And this leads me to one of my overwhelming impressions of life in the USA. And that is that many people seem to live in a sort of subliminal fear. They don't, on the whole, live in fear of losing their jobs, unlike many Europeans. The jobs culture is buoyant, although amongst specific demographics (native Indians, bible belt white males, and older people) the unemployed make up almost half the population. There are many other things Amercans are fearful of. Big Government is one that fuels home-made terrorism and some seriously scary reasoning. Security seems to be a constant obsession. Another fear is of eternal damnation - one roadside poster reminds me that I could die this week, and would in the event certainly face the clear outcome of either heaven or hell. Another fear is of not being able to pay the bills, because many people live with awash with credit, debt and mortgage payments. And then there are the kids college fees. Or the risk of huge medical bills and loopholes in their extortionate medical plans. Of being too ill to work. Of foreclosure or liens. Of arrest and imprisonment (again, for some demographics in particular). Of having a bad credit score or income being insufficient to make the payments. TV adverts prey on all these fears - there are exhortations to do things before it is too late, reminders of the consequences for loved ones... Religion often seem to be the only sure source of re-assurance.
I don't want to paint a picture of doom and gloom. The USA is a prosperous, orderly and optimistic nation and there are many aspects of living here I like. It has areas of really outstanding natural beauty, some world-class cities and a rich, varied culture. Houston's attractions make it a place where, if your work brought you here and your skills were in demand, you could live a good life.
The world is full o' complainers. An' the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own.
"Blood Simple", Coen Brothers
The section of Route 66 that passes through the Panhandle, that part of Texas that juts into Oklahoma, has largely been replaced by an Interstate which crosses a huge plain. However this section is not without a lot of interesting Route 66 stopovers, and the mid-point of Route 66 lies in the Panhandle. Coming from the East, once you cross the state line, the first town you hit is Shamrock.
Like many of the towns that have been skirted by I40 - the interstate highway that has largely supplanted Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Barstow in California - Shamrock is in a slow decline, but it is not going quietly. It has good motels, a fine steak house, the Pioneer West Museum in the old Reynolds Hotel and a couple of lovingly restored gas stations. One restored gas station, previously the U-Drop Inn, is a beautifully restored slice of Art Deco that made an appearance in the film "Cars" as Ramone's body shop. Another, hidden away a couple of blocks from Route 66, is an old Magnolia gas station.
Shamrock's most famous son is Bill Mack, a singer and songwriter of whom I know very little. The town is also proud of its water tower, and has a plaque commemorating its origins. Below the water tower, Main St runs along US-83, which intersects with Route 66, and runs clear to both the Canadian and Mexican borders. The cinema has closed and the dollar store reigns supreme amongst those stores that are still open. However it is still open for business, unlike some towns I have driven through where every last business on Main Street is shuttered and closed.
McLean was founded by an Englishman who was to die on the Titanic. Route 66 was routed through the community in 1926, and the town thrived until it was bypassed by I40 in 1985. Now it is something of a ghost town with just a few hundred souls and very few businesses still operating. However it strives to keep alive both the spirit of Route 66 and its own associations with the historic road.
Groom is notworthy for two famous Route 66 roadside attractions. The first is a water tower trying to do a Leaning Tower of Pisa impression, the other is the largest cross I've ever seen, a feature of a layby specifically for the righteous.
Amarillo is the biggest city in the Texas Panhandle and the area is criss-crossed with alignments and features associated with Route 66. The mother road has largely been replaced with I-40, but the fragments are never far away. One of the most impressive roadside attractions of Route 66 is just outside Amarillo, the legendary Cadillac Ranch. Cadillac Ranch comprises ten old Cadillacs, buried in a wheatfield, an installation that has inspired many references in popular culture, including a song of the same name on Bruce Springsteen's "The River".
Amarillo used to lie on the route of the cattle herds, driven up from Texas to feed the growing population of the Mid-West. The cattle have largely gone, but you can't go far without finding a decent steak. The Big Texan Steak House on I-40 offers the opportunity to have a free steak, but the steak in question is 72oz, and you only get to eat for free if you eat it all.