10.07.2010 - 10.07.2010 38 °C
Today has been one of my most rewarding of my whole trip so far, so please indulge me with your patience as I account for what you might just think was a car trip.
Today I turned up at 8.30 sharp to collect my hire car – a smart four door burgundy Honda, quite larger than my Punto back home. You may recall, if you’ve been able to bear with me from the start of my trip, that many weeks ago when I was staying with my cousin in Portland he was involved in a collision because his floor mat slipped onto the accelerator. So first things first – I got rid of the floor mat! I just about immediately got to grips with driving an automatic, it’s quite cool and almost feels as though you’re driving a milk float. I switched on the sat nav, set my destination of Austin, Texas and input an immediate detour to see the New Orleans’ Lower 9th. Ah, then came my next job! Unfortunately I had to fire Jill. Jill was the lady who would be directing me, and an American just wouldn’t do. Perhaps I’ve caught the race-sensitive-bug, but Emily from Britain immediately got a promotion and would be my company on my 500 mile journey.
I drove through to the Lower 9th of New Orleans, and I was actually pleased that I wasn’t able to find any devastation. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but I didn’t want to intrude too deep into this community which has faced so much hardship. Still obvious, however, are the emergency markers on the houses – the infamous ‘X’s’ that indicate whether a property has been searched. I soon found my way onto I-10 and my road trip proper began. It wasn’t long before I broke out of the New Orleans city boundary and into the Louisiana countryside. Here among the vast and seemingly endless green swamps the only company were the occasional other cars driving through, prefab churches (temples to 1980s construction rather than any religion) and what seemed to be the mandatory ‘ADULT SHOP’ or ‘ADULT EXPERIENCE STORE’ adjacent to them – bringing a whole new spin to midnight mass.
I felt bad for my Punto that I would be taking my biggest single car journey in another vehicle. I was pretty spoilt by the Honda; it had air conditioning, steering wheel radio controls and the absolute ultimate indulgence of cruise control. Before I discovered the advent of how to operate the radio I decided to play a game with myself. Much as a child in a swimming pool dares himself to hold his breathe underwater for as long as he can, I wanted to see how long I could last without air conditioning. Well I held out for eight minutes. It wasn’t long before I got playing with my steering wheel controls. On the left side was cruise control. It took me about 100 miles to work out how to operate it, but oh boy was it incredible! And what’s more, a push of my left thumb could accelerate and decelerate the car whilst in cruise mode – oh the possibilities! On the right side of the steering wheel were the radio controls. The idea is great in principle; however in practice for the system to function properly it requires choice. Down in the depths of Louisiana there really is zero choice and the only radio option was 140.9MHz. I don’t know if you’ve come across 140.9MHz before, maybe you have? Well 140.9MHz is a Christian rock channel. I really had little interest in listening to it. However, I caught myself for a moment, reflected on where I was and didn’t turn it off, in fact I turned it up. Riding with the cruise control on through one hundred miles of winding Louisiana swamps, past churches and adult superstores, with Christian rock blaring in the background, in that moment I couldn’t think of an experience quite as quintessentially American as this, and didn’t want to be anywhere else.
It wasn’t long before Emily led me to the Mississippi River crossing at Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State Capital. For me personally and psychologically this marked a significant moment. Last week, for maybe a day I felt travel weary. I chose not to dwell on it for fear that an endless and destructive cycle would commence. Perhaps a combination of homesickness, of being overwhelmed at the task ahead of me rather than satisfied in completing a significant leg of my journey, of being conscious that every mile west took me further from home, of anxiety over exam results and maybe even inadequacy of what I had so far accomplished were the causes– but this was all washed away upon crossing the Mississippi. For me the Mississippi marked my proper venture west and significant incursion into the United States. What’s more, I was earning this journey. No one was doing the hard work for me, I wasn’t sitting back on a train or plane – I was quite literally sweating into my seat to make my way west, this was my hard work. I was getting a fantastic sense of accomplishment with every mile marker I passed and I was travelling to a place that captures every young boy – the wild west of Texas. This was very simply, what I had dreamed my American travels would be.
Before I knew it, about four hours into my trip, I-10 led me to hit the Texas border, so I pulled over into the visitor centre. It was a remarkable place and it puts Strensham M5 Services (by far my favourite service station!) to shame. The visitor centre was constructed over a swamp and, after picking up a few maps and guides, I explored it via a system of walkways. I photographed the Texas border, saddled up and hit I-10. I was aware that my fuel was hitting a half-tank so I pulled over to fill up. I was expected to get bitten at the pump, especially off the motorway, but I couldn’t believe when the bill came to some $17 (were they kidding?!). Can there be any wonder that America is addicted to oil when it comes in such a pretty gift wrapped box?
I had naively expected that the rough green swamps of Louisiana would be replaced by sparse and arid desert in Texas. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. Once I had passed Houston and made my way onto US 290 the scenery looked remarkably English – low rolling hills and neat hedgerows. The emptiness of this road allowed me to pull over occasionally to catch my breathe, take in where I was and be satisfied. This is what I had expected; ranches left and right, horses and cattle in the fields. I knew already that I would enjoy the Lone Star State.
I was told that I wouldn’t need to return my car until the next day, so I was keen to take my time, I really was in no rush. Here and there I pulled off the highway down county roads and into small towns to get a real feel for the place, because as much as America is defined by the towering concrete jungles of New York, so too it is by the small quite towns across the country. If I saw a lake or state park sign posted ahead more often than not I would go exploring.
As night was coming in I came into Austin. I rolled down the window to let the warm evening air in and, perhaps you reading this will consider it to be disproportionately so, but I felt remarkably proud of what I had done. I had driven for longer and further than I had ever done before (some 521 miles over nearly 12 hours), I had crossed the mighty Mississippi River and my first State Line, I had made a significant inroad into one of the largest states in the Union, I had seen a completely different aspect of America than I had had the opportunity to do before and just like every young person who turns on the ignition of their first car for the first time I had a thrilling sense of freedom that owning a car gives you, which on this occasion would let me explore a whole new side of America that I hadn’t even considered. What’s more I genuinely felt as though I had earned the right to be in my destination. Even Emily sounded proud as she gave me my last instruction to “bear right on Riverside Drive”. I will certainly get a car again soon and explore more of what Texas and the US country has to offer.
I had better scrub myself clean of the smell of polyester upholstery in case my Punto gets a wiff! Even cowboys have to rest, so excuse me whilst I take my 40 winks.