Welcome to week 7 of our 8-week trip through America, starting in Atlanta and ending in Dallas in November. I want to write this weekly blog to keep people up to date on what we've been up to and share some thoughts and reflections on America. Happy reading y'all!
Day 42 - Monday 23 October - Fort Worth to Tucumcari
As a short reminder, we left you in Fort Worth as total wrecks following a 4 day music festival at the Texas Motor Speedway. After one final night in the car, it was time to start the next ridiculous leg of our journey - through Texas and into New Mexico!
As we left the vast sprawl of Dallas/Fort Worth, the landscape slowly started to change, and before we knew it, the houses and fast food chains had been replaced by the Great Plains. No matter which way you looked, you could see flat grassy plains for miles and miles, interspersed with mounds and hills. The best way I can think to describe it is “a lot of beautiful nothing”.
We realised that, by total accident, we were now following Route 66, famous of course for being the Mother Road of America, stretching from Chicago all the way to Santa Monica in California. I don’t know about you, but I have had this somewhat romanticised idea of Route 66 ever since - I don’t know actually, probably some song I heard when I was a kid. I also realised that I knew practically nothing about Route 66 aside from what the road sign looked like and that there are apparently "kicks" to be found.
Our first real encounter with Route 66 and its crazy roadside attractions came just past Amarillo (yes, we sang the song). Billboards had told us of this place for miles. The Big Texan, where you can eat a 72lb (2kg) steak for free! What’s the catch? You have to eat it in one hour. Somewhat ominously, they provide a bucket and make it clear that if you are “ill”, it is game over and you have to pay. Same goes if you don’t finish it within the hour. Ralf and I looked at each other. We’d done stranger things. Shame we’d just had lunch.
The Big Texan itself truly belongs to that weird category of Route 66 attractions that were meant to entertain children whilst their exhausted parents took a break and ate themselves to death. Despite all the weird statues and fake Wild West decor, the strangest thing to me was that they had already given up on halloween, still a good week away, and started putting up their Christmas decorations. Mariah comes earlier every year.
We hadn’t quite had enough of “super weird” yet, so we swung by the “Cadillac Ranch”, an art installation made up of Cadillacs cut in half and covered with graffiti. I think that says it all really.
Our stop for the night was a town called Tucumcari, which we knew absolutely nothing about. Turns out, it has a rather interesting history. It used to be a main stop on Route 66 until, in the 1970s, America built its network of interstate highways, signalling the beginning of the end for Route 66. You can literally see the trucks and cars bombing along at 75mph whilst you trundle down Route 66 at 65mph, feeling like an idiot.
Tucumcari, like most other towns along the route, fell victim to the interstate and is now nearly a ghost town. Everywhere you look, there are old derelict motels, closed shops and restaurants, all nestled between the few brave souls that keep going, clinging on to the old days with dear life.
Our motel was luckily still open and actually fairly ok. We enjoyed some gorgeous sunset views before climbing into a real bed for the night. How I’d missed you.
Day 43 - Tuesday 24 October - Tucumcari to Santa Fe
I should probably explain why we decided to go to Santa Fe, seeing as (much like Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee), it was never on our original plan and New Mexico was REALLY far away.
There are a few reasons. Firstly, we really wanted to see something totally different in terms of landscape and architecture. Secondly, it would require A LOT of driving, often 6-7 hours a day, and we hadn’t had enough driving on the trip yet. Thirdly, we really like our car, and it's a Hyundai Santa Fe. If that’s not a sign, not sure what is.
After a long drive down a very lonely road, we arrived around lunchtime in Santa Fe and were instantly struck by the beautiful architecture in the “adobe” style. Rather than try and poorly describe it, here are a few pictures.
We wandered happily around the city, taking in the buildings, enjoying excellent coffee (many creative people live in Santa Fe, including George R. R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, and they demand good coffee), and visiting the oldest church in America, built 1638!
I bought several stickers.
After a beer or two at the main plaza, we made our way down a dirt road to our AirBnB just outside Santa Fe, up in the hills. Ralf and I had managed to de-synchronize our eating times so I still had to find dinner somewhere. I had my eye on a Mexican restaurant back towards town.
Whilst eating my lonely tacos, I started reading about Santa Fe and discovered that, according to some random magazine article, Santa Fe had the best bar in New Mexico … and it was a dive bar! No way I was missing that opportunity.
The bar was hidden at the bottom of some frankly very scary steps. I wondered briefly whether this beer would be my last.
The bar was actually fine, although I am pretty sure I could find a better one in New Mexico. I chatted to a few people, including a small group of colleagues who worked for the transport agency. I described our plans for the next day - a trip down to El Paso, and maybe a quick hop across the border to Juarez. As I described our vague plan to the group (which included a couple of people with Mexican heritage) I saw fear in their eyes.
They told me in no uncertain terms that we should NOT cross the border, as we are “quite obviously not from there” and we would likely lose our shoes and maybe more. They also suggested that we hit a Mexican restaurant in Mesilla, near El Paso, and we would be much better staying there than a motel. We had already booked our motel in El Paso, which was non-refundable, so the chances of us ignoring El Paso and staying in the tiny town of Mesilla were zero, right?
Day 44 - Wednesday 25 October - Santa Fe to Mesilla
We fondly waved adieu to Santa Fe, one of our favourite places so far, and drove south towards the border with Mexico.
We didn’t quite make it, but we drove tantalisingly close to a town with the best name I have ever seen: Truth or Consequences. The town used to be called “Hot Springs” (boring) before the townsfolk legally changed it to “Truth or Consequences” in the 1950s. Why? I hear you cry. Some radio presenter had a show called “Truth or Consequences” (which I assume is a radio version of truth or dare?) and essentially dared a town to change its name to the name of his show. Clearly the mayor was drunk and thought that would be a fun idea - and they were right! Amusingly, it is located next to the town of “Elephant Butte”, and that name was not a dare!
But alas - our route took us instead down some beautiful roads where we didn’t see a soul for hours, and we had to stop and marvel at some of the natural beauty along the way. And speaking of natural beauty, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the White Sands National Park.
Again, it is hard to describe this place, so I will let the pictures do most of the talking. In short, it is a huge area of totally white sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. The sand is gypsum, which is what plaster and drywall are made out of. It is credited as one of the world’s great natural wonders. And it really is quite something. Driving through it feels like you are on a road surrounded by otherworldly snow. You can get out and climb the dunes, even go sledding if you are so inclined. It is extremely easy to get lost here, and I have a famously awful sense of direction, so we didn’t wander too far from the car. Enjoy the photos.
I bought a sticker.
If you remember, the people from yesterday had recommended a Mexican food place in Mesilla, which was conveniently on our route to El Paso, so we left White Sands and continued on through the area where the first atom bombs were tested (!)
We pulled into Mesilla and we instantly fell in love. It is a small town with a fascinating history and beautiful adobe architecture, much like that of Santa Fe. We walked around in awe. The central plaza was cute and had a building with a huge Billy the Kid painting on it. Huh? Turns out, it was the courthouse that he was convicted in. We didn’t expect much, but certainly not that. It is a town where over half of the population identify as Hispanic, and you can really tell. The cultural influence is everywhere, from the food to the street names (which are all in Spanish).
We grabbed a drink in the old post office, which bizarrely doubled as a mini zoo: it isn’t every day that you walk into a bar with parrots and piranhas! It was here that we called it - there was no way we were leaving tonight. A quick search on AirBnB found us a beautiful house in the classic style just a short walk away from the main plaza. We were set for the night. Screw El Paso.
I have to briefly mention the restaurant we went to. For those who know me well, you’ll know how much I love anything fried and salty. Tortilla chips fall firmly within this category. This restaurant had something beyond my wildest dreams. An UNLIMITED TORTILLA CHIP BAR. I could literally shovel tortilla chips into me, with a wide array of delicious salsa. Ralf had to physically restrain me. The other food we ate there was also good.
We paid a visit to one of the local bars, but nobody wanted to talk to us. We took a walk to the local shop to get some beers and other legal things in New Mexico ($4.20) for home so we could sit outside in our garden and enjoy the end of the most wonderful day.
Strangely, my eye was feeling like there was something in it that I couldn’t quite get out, and I was about to find out exactly what that was …
Day 45 - Thursday 26 October - Mesilla to the Desert
I woke up in the morning and I could not longer open my right eye. It was swollen and welded shut by some kind of goo. Perfect. I had somehow managed to get myself an eye infection. Needless to say, I didn’t feel too great. Dr. Google recommended some eye drops, and we were luckily very close to all the main pharmacies etc. We searched high and low, and in every single place, the one particular eye drop I needed was sold out. Must be a pink eye epidemic in town.
Not to worry - one-eyed Dan could still basically still see, and that was good enough for me. The good news for Ralf was, this was one of our longest driving days, and he’d have to do it solo. This kind of driving was luckily incredibly easy - through El Paso (taking a look at the border wall with Mexico) and then on through back roads with no traffic whatsoever towards Big Bend National Park.
There is something incredibly odd on the road to Alpine, the last real town before heading further into the desert and towards Big Bend. It is a Prada “store” which functions as a kind of art piece. It has never been open, but displays some of Prada’s products through the window. This place is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing around for miles and miles. It’s kinda cool.
I tried to buy a sticker, but it was closed.
Alpine was a nice little town, and we stocked up on supplies before a spontaneous night in the desert. Our original plan was to sleep in the car in or around the national park, but Reddit told me that they don’t allow that and I didn’t fancy a knock on the car window in the middle of the night, either from a bear or from the police.
So I found an AirBnB in the middle of the desert, just outside of the national park. It was a tiny hut with just enough room for a bed and just enough wood to keep a bear out. It was awesome. Ralf and I felt like the ultimate digital nomads, sat with our laptops in the desert with that view. I have never experienced silence like it, until the wild dogs/werewolves started barking at the full moon. It is also one of the best places in the world to see the stars, and I was super excited for that. And then the moon came out, and shone like a floodlight across the night sky. Goddamit!
I went to bed mildly disappointed, and prepared to fight any bears that might show up to eat our breakfast bars.
Day 46 - Friday 27 October - Desert to New Braunfels
I was awoken at 7am by a loud banging at the door and strange noises outside. Well, I thought, finally time for me to deal with the bear. I began channelling my inner Leo Dicaprio. It took me a minute or two to realise that the strange noises were simply Ralf’s attempt at speech early in the morning. It was still pitch black outside, and the moon had finally buggered off. And there were the stars! All across the sky. It was something I won’t forget in a hurry.
We could see the sun beginning to rise across the horizon and, full of awe and wonder, we drove down the desert roads towards Terlingua.
Terlingua is an old mining town that went bankrupt in the 1940s and everybody simply left, making it one of America’s “ghost towns”. And sure, there are some derelict houses and buildings, and an old cemetery. But it is hard to feel like you are in a ghost town when there are tourists everywhere, plus the shops, cafes, hotels and restaurants that cater for them. I am sure it was a cool place a while ago, before the RV parks and the pizza joints moved in, and I saw no ghosts (although that could have been because my eye was welded shut with goo, I have an open mind).
Big Bend National Park was a short drive away and it is truly stunning. I asked Ralf how best to describe it in the blog, and he advised me not to try. I never take his advice, so here goes. It is an old volcanic area so the earth is sometimes a kind of black sand, and the mountains loom up on all sides. It feels like what I imagine the moon might feel like. Unfortunately, we couldn’t really stop to take any photos either so here are some from the internet:
Still full of awe and wonder, onwards we drove, ever eastward towards San Antonio, and we had over 400 miles to cover today. We settled in on the back roads for a nice easy drive, no traffic and beautiful views.
This time, it was me who woke Ralf from his slumber with a shriek of delight. In the middle of the desert, like a mirage appearing out of nowhere, there it was. The world’s smallest Buc-ees! Of all the things I expected to see on this long and lonesome road, this was the last. Look at our happy faces.
Buoyed from our unexpected visit to Buc-ees, we made it to San Antonio in the early afternoon. It’s a beautiful city, home to the Alamo (a missionary that was famously defended by the Texan forces against the Mexicans until it was overrun in 1836) and a gorgeous river walk. The Alamo has the feeling of a sacred place, not only because it was a missionary but because of the importance of the Alamo in the history of Texas as a country/state. I overhead a conversation between an Hispanic father and his young son who lived in Texas which sums it up fairly well:
"Dad, did Mexico and America fight each other?"
"Yes son, they sort of did."
"Did the good guys win?"
I'll let you decide.
By total coincidence, San Antonio was also celebrating el Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) on this Friday, and we managed to show up just before the annual parade on the river. Rather than pay $50 for a seat right next to the river, we decided to pay $5 for a beer … right next to the river. Two people asked to join our table and offered to buy us a beer for the privilege - how could we say no? They offered us some good tips for the upcoming days, including visiting a town with a music hall and registered population of 3 people - more about that next week!
The parade was fine, I guess there are only so many times you can watch a boat float past with people dressed as skeletons on it. But we were glad we stayed, and happily drove onwards to pick up a local speciality, puffy tacos, before reaching our accommodation for the night, about 30 minutes north of San Antonio.
Eye update: My eye was slightly better, but I still didn't feel great.
Day 47 - Saturday 28 October - New Braunfels to Kyle
Why did you choose to stay in New Braunfels and not San Antonio, I hear you cry? Well I will tell you for why. New Braunfels is home to Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas. In fact, the whole “Gruene” area is pretty famous for being a little step back in time to an era when there were a bunch of German immigrants in Texas (hence the name “Gruene”, being the German word for “green”, and also the surname of the dude that built it).
We did not quite expect to find the place as busy as we did on this particular Saturday morning, but it all quickly became clear - there was a pottery festival in town, inexplicably drawing in the crowds.
Nevermind - we only had one real destination in mind. Beforehand, we got a bite to eat in the Gristmill restaurant (as recommended by our friends from the night before) and it was an outstanding experience - the restaurant is in the ruins of an old cotton gin, which has been converted whilst still somehow keeping the feeling of the original building. Highly recommended if you’re in the area.
The dancehall itself was also a great experience. The building was built in 1878 and you can’t help but admire the history and the architecture. A band was playing old fashioned country and boogies, and people started to dance the famous “two-step”. Ralf and I gladly watched from the sidelines.
I bought 2 stickers.
We drove northwards to our accommodation, in between New Braunfels and Austin and, after depositing our stuff, headed on to Austin via … you guessed it … another Buc-ees!
There were 2 things I really wanted to do in Austin - see the famous bats fly out from under the bridge at sunset, and check out some live music on 6th Street. Sure, I was feeling exhausted after my infection, but I couldn’t miss this.
We made it to the bridge on time and stood alongside everybody else as the sun went down, the crowd bristling with anticipation. We had heard that there are up to 1.5 million bats that fly out from the bridge during summer to eat the mosquitos and bugs of the city, a mutually beneficial arrangement. We saw the sightseeing boats arrive under the bridge, along with the braver people who decided to kayak along the river. The scene was set. We waited … and waited … and then the boats full of paying customers started to leave. Not a good sign. We waited a little longer, and still nothing. It had rained earlier in the evening, and apparently that can cause the bats to stay in rather than swarm out. Lazy. Here is a picture from the internet instead.
We cut our losses and walked towards 6th Street, the place to be for Austin’s nightlife. I was hoping for something similar to Nashville, and again Austin was a little bit of a disappointment. I don’t blame Austin though. There was a football game on, so a lot of the bars had that playing rather than live music. It was also the Halloween weekend, and Americans can go nuts for that, so a lot of the bars had Halloween parties that we were not dressed for (unless tired, semi-infected tourist can pass as a costume these days).
After a brief wander up and down 6th Street, we were both lacking in energy after a heavy week:
Total distance travelled: 1,800 miles / 2,900 km
Total time in the car: ca. 28 hours
Total number of working eyes between us: 3
So we went back home to an early night to prepare us for our last full week in America - can you believe it?!
Next week: we get all German again in Texas, Nicki joins us in Dallas and we head to Oklahoma to visit my cousin Z, his wife Steph and the latest addition to the family.
Thanks for reading y’all!