The bright miles

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Monday, May 28, 2007

There is a monument to the mustang in Austin, upon its side can be found an inscription:

A man was only as good as his horse, and a man without a horse was no man at all.

Time and again I have felt acutely that America is no place for people without their own transport. In most lands the ancient art of walking slowly will get me around town, show me what i want to see. Not in the USofA. It had been another highlight of Austin to find a big organic supermarket within walking distance. But these opportunities present themselves only rarely.

Instead i have the greyhound. And the further west this trip takes me the more things seem to go awry with this great, gruff American institution. Buses fill up and break down. In Wichita Falls at 2am a bus driver, spoiling for a fight, tells a kid to pull his pants up, and when the kid shows disbelief bordering on attitude, the driver kicks him off. the bus station is closed and the guy is very stranded for the night. Those of us on board put our heads down and pretend the stupid altercation didn't draw our attention. I don't want to be left in that pit.

But, despite the powerlessness, the cramped confines, the awful smells and the wrangling for space with the overweight (leg room vs butt room, and the legs never win), the greyhound has been integral to this trip.

It has shown me a side of the USofA i wouldn't have seen in my own vehicle, and that the mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly educated world of couchsurfing can't access. The greyhound is blue collar transport. The people telling their stories talk about parole officers and pastors, about unemployment and relocation. The real America, that mythic, elusive idea, is probably closest to realisation right here on an overnight bus ride cross country.

I spent probably a solid days worth of time greyhounding across Texas. And it wasn't just the theatre within the bus that was striking; the full immensity of Texas was rolling past the smeared windows. It was magnificent.

The greeness of the gulf coast i have already mentioned: the long grey road rising high over the bayous on long concrete legs, while all around the green of the gulf coast was insinuating itself into and around everything, pulling billboards to the ground, breaking apart old cars, consuming old country houses. Water streamed by, brown and rich and busy.

I saw my first oil derrick in amidst the greenery. Like awful steel growth, little clusters of these will turn up anywhere there is crude to be extracted. In farms or towns, in the empty countryside. in the green of the east or the yellow of the west. there will be derricks, little groups of them monotonously nodding and dredging up the thick black blood of Texas.

Austin squats over land much more like the great big openness of Nebraska. Though the town is green and hilly the land around it is yellow, with gently rolling hills. Cows are scattered over the terrain, in loose groups miles from the nearest fence or farm or farmer. Occasionally a proud herd of Texan longhorn cattle can be seen, with those mighty and distinctive handlebars set into their docile brows.

To move on further west i had to go into and out of Dallas. Monstrous Dallas, which i saw only by night, green and gold lights shining out of black edifices. The blackness of Dallas is expanding, engulfing neighbouring towns. It is devouring on Fort Worth, just as Houston is feeding on all its neighbouring towns, assimilating them into its massive girth.

Beyond Dallas and Fort Worth we begin to roll into desert. The derricks are still about, turning rust-brown even in the dryness. Restless horses stomp through huge empty paddocks. We fly past thousands of cows packed into dusty pens and i imagine that these will soon be fed into the great steak machines powering the people of the south. Elsewhere, in the gaps between cow, horse, farm, farmer and derrick, families of graceful pronghorns are nibbling on the endless yellow fields. They are trespassers, but how could they ever be policed and kept out of these sprawling, endless properties?

Once and only once, i see a pair of cowboys riding out into the ridges, their dogs at their sides, their tall hats casting taller shadows.

Further on, up into the panhandle of Texas, the cities have receded and we enter a truer emptiness. Into this vast tableau things enter one at a time. A single windmill. A single heap of old cars. A single horse. A single house. A single windmill. The scene is yellow, but there are patches of green and purple glass blooming over this. Without them all concept of distance would be lost. Even so it remains difficult to apprehend. 

The bus rolls on, its passengers doze. Time also becomes difficult to apprehend until the sun sets purple or rises red. The night is an inky blue with strange shadows upon it. People disembark and i sprawl out. People embark and i contract against the window. Stories end and stories begin.

On the horizon are ridges, and the distinctive flat-topped silhouettes of desert mesas. They begin to loom and multiply. New Mexico is approaching, the land of enchantment.
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