'What are you going there for? What's in Texas? Man, it's going to be hot."
Late this summer, my partner in road crimes, Janet, and I decided to fly to Texas, rent a convertible and head to the Gulf of Mexico. We were sitting at the Cadillac Lounge in Toronto, listening to sublime country singer Scotty Campbell sing "an ole hillbilly song," and we shook on it.
I have always wanted to stand on that particular shore, just stand there and look south, for no better reason than, as Johnny Cash sings in Jackson, just to "mess around."
I'm going to buy firearms and play chicken with the Texas Chainsaw boys, I would argue. Buy a Stetson and dance in cedar chips to live tejano music. Meet a cattle rancher and a cowboy and learn to two-step. Stand there on that rough beach and meet the waves in a tangerine bikini and ankle bracelet decorated with tiny lassos.
Summoning the spirit of Davy Crockett, I announced, "You can all go to hell. I'm going to Texas."
Janet and I have become increasingly restless with straight trips -- ladies' spas and nature-loving are out of the question, as is sunbathing at someone's mildewy cottage while the host grills up a bunch of Johnsonville Brats.
We like to go to Niagara Falls and stay at hotels that, in lieu of a services sheet, hands out flyers alerting the guests to a sexual predator on the loose; or visit the mean bar that overlooks the Falls after a day at demented wax museums and houses of horrors.
Texas seems mean and wild enough this year. We have no real itinerary other than getting to the Gulf and using as a map the photocopy handed to us by Momo, the Alamo Car Rental guy in Houston, who looks like Sonny Liston and who circles the nearest bars for us, indicating those he "would prefer that we not frequent."
Houston, in passing, is Depression incarnate, and the nightmarish traffic attests to everyone's desire to pass right through it, despite all the roadside barbecues and their come-hither, pink-neon hogs.
After an hour and a half, it finally begins to feel as if we're in Texas when we pull into Brenham, a little town halfway to Austin, and the sun hits us like a two-by-four. Inside Sander's Place on Market Street, the Budweiser tastes like holy water, and when the first new country song leaks from the jukebox, I feel the small immensity of this solemn, audacious state.
The only recorded music we have is one volume of Merle Haggard's four-CD set Drinkin', Prison, Hurtin' and Cheatin'. We have picked Drinkin', and every photograph we develop on this trip will involve us hoisting glasses, bottles or Jell-O shooters.
We start up with Drink Up and Be Somebody, and Austin lights up like a lone star, its bars blinking one after the other. Congress Avenue, the main drag, is the place to be, its south side a carnival of antique stores, roughneck bars and hotels boasting century cacti and forlorn, life-sized Elvises.
Allens Boots, run by two men who say "ma'am" in a way that makes you blush, is fronted by a 10-foot-high red cowboy boot; the vintage stores have five-foot-high painted billboards, gigantic rabbits and whirling tops; and Yard Dog Folk Art, an astonishing gallery is filled with country pieties, including Brother Jeremias Mysliwiec's vertiginous paintings, and Jenny Hart's embroidered, crimson-edged renderings of the "famous, the infamous, and the fantastical," including Patsy Cline and Roger Miller.
Right past Pink Makes Everything Better (a waxing studio and art and clothing store) is Uncommon Objects, a second-hand scourer's dream. I buy a tattered plush pony, its ears gnawed to bits.
Güerofs Taco Bar, where we stop for the first patio beer, sprays water intermittently against its tin sides, and all the parking lots are filled with music. At D & L's Texas Café, Billy Lee and Redd Volkaert (Haggard's guitarist) play some pretty bluegrass, and we wink at them back and forth from the back among our lunch of oyster po' boys and the kind of beer consumption that makes us feel like somebodies. Somebodies, baking in brand new Stetsons.
Out to race the night, through the Whiskey and Antone's, flush with chameleoning -- as everyone in Texas looks different and somehow beautiful and Mars falls so close from the skies -- it is as though a golden sphere has unchained itself and, somehow, left the universe singing. Swinging Doors and Little Ole Wine Drinker Me reverberate, and we hug the Colorado River, leaving Austin and heading southwest toward San Antonio, the ride -- represented by half an inch on the Alamo map -- punctuated by roads with names like Old Potato.
In San Antonio, we swing doors at a Holiday Inn with a pool that is pure Blue Lagoon. We are enamoured of the two completely hostile French tourists in Speedos, who demonstrate their handstands until their bodies wrinkle. We drink wine by the River Walk (once the site of General Santa Anna's army encampment), watch the boats cruise by and listen to elderly tourists complain about Mexican food, their heads wreathed in plastic flowers. We drink so much wine that Merle himself would puke. As he declaims, Some of Us Never Learn.
We visit Schilo's Deli, a mishmash of Kraut Dogs and pastrami, served up by a bouffant blonde named Flo among cops and fanatical locals, all scarfing, thigh to thigh, at the mirrored bar. Our pockets filled with cellophane-wrapped toothpicks, we walk the block or so to the Alamo, a place I'm not likely to forget.
There are innumerable books about the Alamo, but after scouring the DAR-run gift shop, I would recommend The Story of the Alamo, a comic book by Bill Hughes that's available only on site.
Like the Alamo checklist that is handed out to children and me (which guides you to everything from the Veramendi Doors to Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis's ring), Hughes's graphic novel is simple and stirring. It also teases history enough for the requisite drama, depicting Crockett's (likely) improbable, fiery last speech about "the cooling rains of freedom" in conjunction with a Luciferian Santa Anna, cast in darkness, exclaiming "Kill him! Kill them all!" above a gauntlet of swords.
The guide also delivers a moving speech in the courtyard where most of the dead once lay, although with some political modifications. After his impassioned recitation about the blunt, fearless cries of the warriors, including Steven F. Austin's "Come and get it," the almost parboiled guide dutifully notes (well, mutters) that Santa Anna's army was brave too -- which is true enough, but this attempt at parity undermines the narrative of the Alamo, which derives its greatest strength from its very divisiveness. Being right isn't always about winning, as Crockett said, but winning isn't always about being right, either.
The old mission building is essentially a graveyard, and the visitors are subdued, unlike the tourists I last saw at Ground Zero, making heavy metal signs for photographs and hanging off the fence like apes. "Take off your hats, gentlemen," a sign by the entrance reads as a mild rebuke, and no one disobeys.
We visit the Ibiza restaurant for Rita Rocks (10-pound margaritas) and Dirty Nelly's Irish Pub, where everyone periodically sings God Bless America, swills beer and adds their peanut shells to the floor where they gather in dusty archipelagoes. The sign by the bar reads: "If Your Throw Peanuts We Throw You Out." I toss a few anyway because, as Drinkin' maintains, I Can't Hold Myself In Line and Wine Takes Me Away.
Early in the morning of our third day, we start the five-hour ride to and past Corpus Christi. The scenery is one rolling lampshade, all ranches and cotton fields. A pickup truck passes, carrying crates of crepe myrtle and driving so fast, the buds look like they're screaming. Corpus looks worse than Houston, a Miracle Multi-Mile of Hooters, Bed Bath and Beyonds, and chain taco stands, very unlike the genuine tacquerias we have visited, which are stark and so authentic that the food is barely recognizable to us Taco Belles.
Listing palm trees; a dead dog and a squashed armadillo; a roadside anti-abortion headquarters announcing the number of fetus murders in the manner of McDonalds. Tracing the map for the Laguna Madre, I feel the volatility and stasis of this unknowable place, its red-white-and-blue flag seems, in certain moods, like a grisly banner, and Haggard's I Threw Away the Rose shoots out the windows and past our silence, into the flat lands and the raised ears of grazing cows.
About an hour past Corpus lies Port Aransas, or Port A, a beach town by the Gulf that promotes its family activities and "Angler's Paradise." The place is dead when we arrive, as filthy as escaped convicts, in a heat that threatens to break the car's read-out. We have yet to take the top down, and our marvellous head scarves, beach frocks and trippy shoes are buried under a pile of grimy shorts and guacamole-stained T-shirts. It occurs to us that road fashion is haute chic, as it can only be fully effected while hitting a vacation the way Merle hit the sauce. In spite of its brochures, Port A is heaven on Earth, something like Coney Island without the Cyclone: all pale, cool-coloured shacks, fish restaurants, spice shacks and a strange number of gigantic rubber sharks.
Even our dumpy motel, where the clueless girl at the front desk offers us a paper towel and a Styrofoam cup for our visiting pleasure, is a fair enough haven, situated between Castaways Restaurant, where all the creatures of the sea are deep-fried, and the Salty Dog Saloon, the best bar in the world.
We are immediately captivated by the bar, and within 10 minutes have become accustomed to the nets and other demented aquatic decor draping the ceiling. We have met Sea Dog, the local mariner; Reesa, the Loretta Lynn-haired waitress; and Anna, the karaoke hostess, who is given to screaming "You can do eet!" in the manner of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre's Alfonso Bedoya (or Rob Schneider, depending on your film tastes).
We spend two days here and eventually meet Lee, an Oklahoma City firefighter (no cowboy, but close), who's in town with his two Harleys and his fishing gear. He is gentleman enough to applaud my atonal rendition of Who'll Buy the Wine and smart enough to know that Janet's version of The Bottle Let Me Down kills. (Of course, Janet does sing lead in a Toronto country band, Ride 'em Cowboy.)
Lee shows up at the motel in the morning and offers me a helmet-less ride to the beach. Port A whips past, and I see the Gulf of Mexico from the back of his red Sportster. It is as I imagined, a blue vista that is so calming, it's like a colossal muscle relaxant. Janet and I head back later and traipse into the small waves and the dense weeds and watch fish jump up in silver arcs.
Back at the Salty Dog, Thor, a former "international exotic dancer" and unregenerate hippie, sings Born to Be Wild while pretending to play an unplugged Fender; Anna ends an unsuccessful tejano night and repeats her operatic rendition of Lady Marmalade in the style of Selena; and the Castaway waitresses dance a train.
Dogs run wild under the tables. I pick up a pug named Mamacita and think about the Gulf. Not standing there, staring into space, but of catching my first glimpse through a scrim of black-eyed susans and sand walls, as the bike tears along the scorched grass.
I wonder if it's time for Janet and me to mellow out. Instead, we decide to drive home at sunrise, ragtop finally down, the skies stretching out from black to lavender. Her black hair billows like a pirate's flag and reminds me, as Drinkin' ends and cuts back to the beginning, there's No Reason to Quit.
If you go
D & L's Texas Café: 1321 S. Congress, Austin; (512) 445-4441. Great food served up by Amy, Ashley and Virginia, the two-stepping waitresses. Live music on most days; open 24 hours on weekends.
Allens Boots: 1522 S. Congress, Austin; (512) 447-1413. "Western Apparel Since 1977" -- Everything from 10-gallon hats to Mexican buckled belts to plain and embroidered boots. An urban cowboy/girl Shangri-la.
Austin Motel: 1220 S. Congress, Austin; (512) 441-1157. The Elvis-crazy lobby alone is reason enough to visit this ultra-cool, family-run establishment, which has been in business for 60 years and is booming.
The Alamo: San Antonio; http://www.thealamo.org. You cannot and should not miss it: a shrine that is virtually haunted by its horrible, glorious history.
Schilo's: 428 E. Commerce St., San Antonio; (210) 223-6692. "Where good times and good food are famous." If you miss the Pig Stand, drop in here for some wild German deli, served up by an indescribably divine waitress-staff.
Salty Dog Saloon: 230 N. Alister St., Port Aransas; (361) 749-4912. According to the Lonely Planet guide), "You can meet a seaman" there!
Lynn Crosbie 's Pop Rocks column appears Saturdays in The Globe's Review section