America at Last – Part 19
By Parson Thru
Austin – Dallas & Fort Worth: 202 miles
We dragged our cases out of a cab and up the concrete stairs to the Hotel Texas in the Stockyards district of Fort Worth. We were hot and sweaty after the trip up from Austin. We struggled into reception where we were met by a very familiar smell from home – curry. Behind the counter, the owner was busy speaking on the phone in what sounded like Hindi. We parked our cases and drank from our water bottles as we waited.
Several minutes later, the Indian lady was still engrossed in her conversation and, from the laughter and conspiratorial tones it was obvious that this was gossip and not business. We sidled up to the counter and she blatantly turned away from us to avoid the distraction. It was almost funny. We browsed the tourist leaflets and picked up a couple of ideas. Eventually, realising we weren’t going away, she pushed registration forms under our noses and we filled in the details and produced our passports. The smell of the place brought back warm memories of Indian corner shops in the Hyde Park area of Leeds. Twenty minutes after arriving, we had a room key and hauled our cases up the sweltering stairs and along the corridor to our room. Not quite the welcome we’d anticipated.
We’d just completed the last leg of our Greyhound tour of the States. We’d rumbled along Interstate 35 North past some impressive ranches and stopped off in Waco, where we witnessed its God obsession from the safety of the bus. We didn’t speak for much of the ride. I couldn’t really account for the mutual sulk other than maybe travel-fatigue. At Dallas South, we pulled into a stop where a gangly youth in cowboy hat, carrying a filthy bedroll of quilted nylon climbed on the bus. He looked like he’d never washed in his life. As he walked down to the back seat, he dragged the bedroll over the heads of everyone on the right side of the aisle, including the sleeping Natasha. He looked pretty rough but reeked, more than anything else, of cowboy – the real deal. You had to remind yourself that this was rural Texas.
In around four hours we arrived at the bus station in central Dallas, where we learned that the next connection to Fort Worth wasn’t for another five. The terminal was dark and had a shady feel to it. We both looked dirty and a little crazy and blended with the other long-distance travellers. People left us alone, but we didn’t relish five hours of waiting in there, so said goodbye to our last Greyhound and wandered outside into the brilliant sunshine. There was no sign of the local bus to FW. We consulted the Lonely Planet. Our best bet was a train from the station a few blocks away in Houston Street. We turned a corner and began walking. Dallas was humid and ordinary. We’d been expecting a stunning skyline but, apart from a couple of impressive buildings on the way in, we were underwhelmed. Same thing happened in Houston.
As we crossed a junction, a stark white concrete structure to our right caught my eye. It carried the words “John Fitzgerald Kennedy”. Oh my God. We just walked right into it. It was early Thursday evening and traffic was fairly light. I ran over the road to take a closer look, snapping away with the camera. I was barely eighteen months old when the shots officially attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald ended the Kennedy era. We stood and looked around us, trying to pick out the buildings of Dealey Plaza. There was something familiar about the brown brick mid-rise across the street but, looking at the map much later, the memorial is a block away from where it all happened. Standing there brought me sharply back to Ground Zero and our first few days in New York. We took a last look and pulled our cases the last couple of blocks to pick up a train to Fort Worth.
Now we were unpacking and settling ourselves into yet another hotel room. It was still warm and bright in the early evening when we left to walk the couple of blocks to the Stockyards. I’d picked up a leaflet somewhere with adverts for clothing stores. If I didn’t get those boots here, I wouldn’t get them anywhere. We were booked to fly out of DFW in a couple of days.
The streets intersecting at the Historic Stockyards are a living museum, enhanced with bars, eateries and shops. We strode into the first Western clothes shop we came to – Maverick’s. We were greeted by a regular Southern Belle, who guided us round the store with a smile and a bright sunshine voice. She asked if we were going to Billy Bob’s on Friday night. Billy Bob’s is the world’s largest honky-tonk and has been played by the biggest names in the business. She told us that a local hero was playing and almost the whole town would be there to see him. His name was Ryan Bingham. Nothing registered and we were about to buy tickets for the rodeo at the Coliseum across the road. Damn. We so regret that now.
We looked in on Leddy’s, picking up several pairs of gorgeous boots which lost their allure when we spotted price tags of around $2000.00. Bargain-basement was $995.00. You had to admire what a real craftsman could do with a snake, but they were out of our league. The immaculately cowboyed, but discreet staff had already spotted this, but lost none of their Southern hospitality. This is America, after all – one day we might come back and buy up the whole shop.
The remainder of Thursday evening was passed at the Love Shack, an outdoor bar and music venue, where we dined on burgers washed down with Shiner Bock beer and great music. The singers and bands had a sound that set them apart from what we associate with Country Music – something refreshingly different to our ears. Around midnight, we headed back to the hotel, where we’d forgotten about the all-pervading smell of curry. We opened the window and turned on the ceiling fan in the hope of drawing some air from outside.
Friday was our penultimate day. We didn’t return to Dallas as planned, but took a local bus through the timber-shacked suburbs of Fort Worth to Downtown. The boot quest that had been in the background since Nashville was unresolved. A waitress told us to look in the Cultural Center area of West Seventh Street where we’d find a boot emporium. Sundance Square with its upmarket hotels and expensive shops didn’t yield anything except the Sid Richardson Museum of Western Art, where we passed a couple of hours among its impressive collection of 19th Century paintings by frontier artists such as Remington.
It was a long, long walk from Sundance to the Cultural Center. We trudged from one false horizon to the next along endless streets designed to be driven down. The only excitement was an American supersized downpour that caught us wide out in the open. Great diagonal curtains of rain moved along the street, bringing night to the afternoon and enormous flash floods cascading down into the gutter. Storm-drains swallowed water in vast quantities and would have swallowed a full-grown man, had one been swept in that direction. We stood against the wall of a bank, drenched. There was nothing to do but watch. Minutes later, the rain eased, car headlights were extinguished and pavements were steaming in the sun. We slopped on along West Seventh Street.
Another fifteen minutes in the heat and we were at the Cultural Center and its boot shop. We looked at each other. Somehow we managed a smile and turned around to walk back. That’s where the depth of our relationship pays off. In an hour, we were back in the Stockyards.
Live music was already coming from a number of bars. The ones around the Texas Hotel looked like they were the preserve of local drinkers and weren’t in the least welcoming. We gazed into dark interiors as we passed. Like other cities we’d come through, there was a ready supply of talented musicians with impressive credentials living off tip-boxes. Looking back, it seems something of a luxury to be able to browse the bars and enjoy your fill. We crossed the road to a clothing shop and saddlers called Lusky’s / Ryon’s. The whole back wall is covered in a mural that overlooks a rubble parking lot. I pulled on the door but it was locked. Looked pretty interesting through the window, though – we noted it for later.
The covered wooden sidewalk is like something out of a movie. Large Dodge and Ford Ranchero pickups stopped at the crossings where their occupants waved us across from behind tinted screens. We learned to look out for the Mexican drivers, who didn’t stop. Around seven-thirty, we arrived at the “world famous” Coliseum in good time for the rodeo. The big old auditorium was filling up steadily and we bought beers and popcorn before taking our seats. The place had all the trappings – Stars ‘n’ Bars, Ole Glory, hard white cowboy hats everywhere, including some very serious ones around the stalls holding the bulls. No bull-shit here. There was a real risk of someone being gored or trampled.
In the middle of all this, a large family in traditional Pashtun dress filed in and sat behind us. They looked like they had just walked in off the Hindu Kush. The kids all had their popcorn and coke and settled in among the adults, eyes everywhere, faces excited and beaming. Most noteworthy, in this world of prime-time news hysteria, was that none of the two thousand assembled cowfolk batted an eyelid. Maybe it says more about my preconceptions.
The show kicked off with a girl riding a white horse around a darkened arena holding the Stars ‘n’ Stripes aloft as we all stood for the national anthem which, oddly enough, brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. I thought of all the flags we’d seen on buses, trains, car bumpers and flying above buildings across the country in the last three weeks. I thought of the warm and friendly America and its hard and dangerous underbelly; of all the people striving and getting on with their lives and the symbolism of that flag. I thought about our own freedom.
After a rousing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, we were straight into bull-riding – plain crazy and dangerous. The rider’s job is to stay aboard for eight seconds – harder than it sounds. Straddling the stall, helpers or hands hold a very mad bull in place with a system of ropes. Once the rider’s on they let go and hell breaks loose. The hands leap on the fence, the bull bucks and leaps with wild energy. The balance and strength of the rider has to be seen. The numbers on the clock are a blur and, amazingly, the first rider makes the eight seconds. Then he has to come off. As he tumbles to the ground, hands dressed like clowns jump in around the bull. No way! They wave their arms to attract the crazed animal, who is only too pleased to oblige. He charges as the rider scrambles away to safety. The clowns work together to confuse the bull, who snorts and then heads up the arena into space.
He stops to look, confused and agitated, through the railings at the spectators. It’s at this point that I remember seeing footage of one of these clearing the railings and going crazy in the crowd. Not pretty. The bull now pauses, seeming to consider its options. Then, kicking sand, trots towards the most impressive site in the auditorium.
At the far end of the arena, out of the spotlight and in half-darkness, stands a huge chestnut horse. Tall in the saddle, white Stetson hat atop an immaculately pressed red shirt sits a granite-like cowboy – at once impressive and understated. Horse and rider are stock-still surveying the antics of the bull. As the bull nears, the rider kicks his horse forward. There appears to be no hurry in contrast to the excitement at the opposite end of the arena. The cowboy takes a perfectly looped lasso from his saddle and begins to gently whirl it low by his side. The horse sidesteps the lunging bull and, as it turns, the lasso neatly catches it around the horns. Horse and rider drag the unhappy animal at a trot into the stockade to ecstatic cheers from the crowd. The man in the red shirt barely acknowledges it. Just doing his job. We watched half a dozen more bull-riders. Many didn’t make three seconds, but what guts.
During the interval, children were invited down with their parents to chase a young calf and snatch a ribbon from its tail. One of the dads in the arena cheering his son on enthusiastically was wearing traditional Pashtun dress as the rest of the family whooped and clapped behind us.
We finished off the evening over the road at the Love Shack, listening to a band out on the patio. The two dollar tip was voluntary. Gary, a travelling fiddle player, wandered up to the stage where he was welcomed by the band, and boy could he play. Have I mentioned yet how nice people are here?