A Travellerspoint blog

Show Me the Way to Amarillo ...

sunny 38 °C

Big two day drive on today from Dallas to Boulder, Colorado. My plan - to crash for the night in Amarillo in north western Texas then make my way on to Colorado. Easy enough right?

Well I was sent a huge test this morning. I got up, got to the airport to pick up my car or so I thought. Money hasn't been running tight, but I having been managing it well in terms of moving it between accounts and making sure my credit card is kept clear. A credit card in needed to hire a card here. Well disaster struck today. I got to the rental desk and the priced was doubled because I'm under 25 (this is the first time this has happened), there's no way I'm paying the new price so I go and check out some other desks. "What's your job Sir?" "I'm a barrister." "Well Sir, you qualify for a UK Government discount." "I do?!" Fine, yes? Well no. The time came for my credit card to be swiped and it was - except it was followed by those seven deadly words, "I'm sorry Sir, your card was declined." This was not good. I had clearly hit my limit. Debit card? Not accepted for under 25s. I was now stranded at Dallas International Airport. "I know," I thought, "I'll call my bank and they can work something out." So, after exchanging a $10 into quarters I found a pay phone and dialed the number. Rejected. What? This time I try with my credit card, of course also rejected. I called the operator to find out how much the call to my bank would cost -"$48.75." Oh no. This was not good, there was no way I was paying that, let alone be able to pay it. I found a chair just to sit down and compose my thoughts and think of a way out of this mess. I ended up jumping on a bus to the international terminal, eventually found an international calling card machine and was able to get through to my bank. "What's your profession Mr O'Grady?" "Barrister." "You are eligible for a doubling of your credit limit." "Wonderful, thank you, you just got me out of Dallas."

About half an hour later I picked up my new car, an Oklahoma plated Hyundai Accent. The scenery on the way to Texas' north western corner resembled what I can only imagine scorched earth looks like - mostly flat, black and gold sun burnt fields. I was on the road pretty much all day and got into Amarillo at about 7.30pm. You only know you've hit Amarillo when you begin to see the endless roadside signs advertising motels. I found mine, pretty much a bargain and it turned out to be the most luxurious place I've stayed. I should mention that from about 100 miles out of Amarillo signs begin appearing saying, "Free 72oz steak." Let me explain. A grill here in Amarillo gives you a 72oz steak for free provided you can eat it and all the sides that come with it, in an hour. If you can't - you pay $72. I declined. Instead I thought I'd hit the 'Cadillac Ranch'. I didn't really know what it was other than that it is a piece of art in a field somewhere, where a number of cadillacs and half buried in the ground and people visit them to spray pain them. "That'll make a great photo in the day's dying light," was my thought. And it would have been great were it not for the fact that I got horrendously lost on Route 66 and the 15 minute journey took me 45. Well I eventually got there, I sped the 200m from the field entrance and began snapping away. Then I heard it. "Zeeep," "zeep." "Oh no." You see that noise was mosquitos. I had run into a swarm of them and this was not good news. To explain how many there were - I slapped my leg, normally you'd get nothing, in this field 5 blotches of blood appeared where the parasites were. Time to go! So as quick as I had made my way down I was out. I'll be back tomorrow though before I leave for Colorado.

Another early start tomorrow as I'll be bidding farewell to the Lone Star State!

M

Posted by MattOGrady 17:14 Archived in USA Comments (0)

JFK

sunny 38 °C

I only had today in Dallas, so it was always going to be a hectic rush. First I had to drop Nebraska off at Dallas airport. That was simple enough. Then I had to get downtown. It turns out Dallas doesn't really operate public transport wise on a Sunday. Getting into Dallas took three bus connections and long waits at very hot bus stops, some of which weren't in the most desirable areas of town. Well anyway I got in.

I headed straight to Dealey Plaza. Perhaps the name is not familiar. What about the grassy knoll? Or the Texas School Book Depository building? Still no? Dealey Plaza was the site where President John Kennedy was assasinated. I first walked along Elm Street where a simple white cross marks the place on the road where the the fatal shots hit the President. Even in spite of the cars rushing down Elm Street and the sound of car horns in the distance the site still retains an erie stillness.

I went up to the assasination museum on the sixth and seventh floors of the Depository Building (the sixth floor being the place from which Lee Harey Oswald is alleged to have shot the President). The museum dedicates about a quarter of its exhibits to the President's policy agendas, half on the assasination itself and the final quarter on the assasin and conspiracy theories, although perhaps the most captivating feature is the preserved corner of the building where the shots were fired from and the view down to the cross marked on Elm Street. The exhibits confirmed what I had gained when I visited the Kennedy Library in Boston about a month and a half ago; he was an exceptionally gifted individual and although the tangible achievement of his short Presidency were limited, his greatest gift to his country were the challenges he set it and the hope he inspired in its people. For my part, having now spent some time learning about Kennedy and his Presidency I cannot help but be both inspired and intimidated by his abilities and leadership. In recent years I had always though of executive power as a corrupting influence and an ineffective way to bring about change - the short years that John Kennedy led his country have seriously challenged that view and have left food for thought.

I must get some rest as tomorrow I begin a two day drive to Colorado, via Amarillo.

M

Posted by MattOGrady 10:06 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Across Texas to Dallas

sunny 40 °C

Today was a case of getting up early, early enough that I couldn't get breakfast at the ranch so that I could get to the airport - drop off my white Texas plated Hyndai Accent at Austin airport, pick up my new car and drive north to Dallas.

I made the drive from Bandera to Austin in good time and had soon enough dropped off one car and picked up another. I would be driving to Dallas in a red Nebraska plated Chevy Cobalt. Wherever I can I have tried to avoid driving on the interstates, America just can't be seen at 65mph. As it was today, I cut off the interstate as soon as I could and hit a US highway that ran pretty much parallel to the interstate but some three miles east of it. In little time the hills of central Texas were plataeued into the endless fields of maze that line the route north.

What with stopping occasionally to explore small town America I got to Dallas later in the evening than I had expected. Already I can tell Dallas won't be one of my favourite places I've visited. It is a huge spralling metropolis that has fused with the city of Fort Worth in the west. If you look on a map you'll see that Dallas is mostly a huge motorway and you'd be nearly spot on. I'm only here for one day before I begin my journey north so I will make the most of it whilst I'm here.

M

Posted by MattOGrady 08:09 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Boots On - On Horse

sunny 43 °C

I'm having to get used to early mornings here on the ranch. It seems everything is done in the hours before 11am and after 1pm. This is pretty understandable considering the heat here in the country. After breakfast I made my way down to the stables for some morning riding, and yes of course I had my boots on. Breaking them in riding a horse in Texas was the right thing to do. I got to the stables and the horses were all lined up. I walked my way along the line and stopped when I came to a horse that looked odd. It took me a moment to realise that the reason it looked odd was because it only had one eye! I just knew that me and this disabled horse would end up being paired together so I stopped and had a quick chat to it, just to let it know that if it just followed the other horses, didn't try to run off or anything like that, I would mind my own business and just get on with enjoying the scenery and my boots. And yes, low and behold who should get the disabled, one-eyed horse? That's right me! I was glad we had had our chat and reminded it about it once I was saddled up.

It was a slow and ambling ride and we snaked around the hills. Believe it or not I was actually quite accomplished as a horseman in my youth and this was really no test whatsoever. There was a moment when my horse thought about bolting. Clearly it had forgotten our deal, so it got a huge yank of the reins. It didn't play up again, but it was too late, one eye or not, I was going to be bossing it around. By the time I got back my boots had been worn in and Iwas ready for lunch!

I was pretty much free in the afternoon so took myself into Bandera to check out the town and the only way I can ask you to picture it is to think of any western film you've seen and you will roughly have the image that I've been looking at. I think Texas is great, as I've said it's my favourite State so far, but it is very difficult to explore anywhere soon after lunch because of the intense heat. It was actually because of this that I made my way back to the river where I had been yesterday. I spent a good hour just lying back, swimming and paddling around in the cool water. I made a concious effort to remember that moment just being free of any pressures or responsibilities. I haven't said yet, but I passed all my exams, which means I will definitely be starting work in October - so I'm sure that at some point in the future I will be calling on that moment in the river to bring the blood pressure down.

This evening's activity was the main reason I had come to the country. That was to enjoy a quintessentially American activity - the rodeo. At about 7pm a made my way down to the rodeo park and a large crowd was gathering. Before things got going I walked about and mingled with the cowboys and the ranch hands, watching them prepare the animals and the riders for the rodeo. Then on 7.30pm sharp the commentator invited the audience to stand and remove hat, "to honour America," with the singing the national anthem. At the anthem struck up over a squeaky PA system, which if you strained hard enough you just about heard, six cowboys rode into the area carrying the Star Spangled Banner and circuited the ring. With spectators and rodeo riders standing with cowboys hats held over their hearts and military veterans saluting the flags, that was just about as American as you could get.

The rodeo started off pretty tough and within a few minutes the bull was out failing and kicking people off its back. Then out came the fifteen year old I had sat with yesterday. I was sat with his Mum and Dad and to say that she was on the edge of her seat would be an understatement. She needn't have worried as within about two seconds he was off and scrabling over the gated fence. Soon after the bulls came the "muton bustin'". Muton Bustin' is small children, aged about four years old, riding quite large sheep around the ring. These children are absolutely fearless. Those who didn't fall off early and were trampled were charged towards the end of the ring and crashed into the barriers. Nearly all though proudly got up triumphantly punched the air and were joined by beaming mothers, I assume beaming gratitude that their sons had survived as well as being courageous enough to get onboard. After quite a considerable time of watching children being smashed into barriers (which is incredibly entertaining I should say!) the barrel racers, lasooers were out and eventually joined by the big bull again. I was pretty pleased with the evening.

So I mentioned before I was sat with the young rodeoer's parents and said yesterday that I spent a lot of time talking to his father, Larry and I did so again this evening. I want to spend a little time just noting our conversations because he gave an interesting perspective into life in America. Larry was a retired member of the Air Force, was from Texas and was also in Bandera on holiday. Talking about politics is not a taboo or sensitive topic of conversation in America and people readily offer their views. Larry had recently required the use of the the American healthcare system and told me that he must pay $400 per month to pay for his family's insurance. He said that that put a great strain on him ad his family. He was interested in understanding the healthcare system in the UK. I offered him the perspectives I had gained from my experiences both at home and in the United States. He had experience of the UK system as well. His eldest son had need a serious operation whilst in the UK and he received his treatment from a NHS specialist in London. What did he think of his care and treatement? It was of an exceptionally high standard. Did he think he would be able to recieve that treatment here in the US? He said almost certainly not; firstly because his insurance was unlikely to cover it and in any event they could not afford it. This point helps demonstrate a profound differenece between those who work in our respective healthcare systems. Here in the United States it is rare for doctors to join their profession with noble alturistic notions of using their skills to help others - here moreoften than not the profession is joined because it pays big bucks. This helps explain the poor bedside manner of so many healthcare professionals here - it is money and the need to maximise margins, not public service which drives them.

From the rocky coast of Maine to the hills of Texas I have had the opportunity to talk to people about healthcare in the United States. No one I have met has advocated the system as it exists (although some are satisfied with the notion that obtaining healthcare rewards hard work I cannot help but find this view unpersuasive and narrow as it neglects to appreciate that it is usually only those with the highest paying and most stable jobs that are in reciept of such a 'reward', and thus it has limited availability). Why then is this system so undesirable? The American healthcare system is a system of prohibitive costs that excludes a significant minority from the necessity of receiving treatment and no one I have met had failed to overlook this. Why are its costs so high? There are a number of reasons that I have observed, which I should mention in passing to help in this process of explanation. Firstly, higher prices are demanded for goods and services (a factor in this is that each party snatches a profit from the patient and the lack of a comparable system of economies of scale as it exists in the UK). Secondly, there are a seemingly endless list of unnecessary diagnostic tests that a patient is put to before they receive their care, which obviously raises premiums. What cannot be escaped from in accountaing for this is the practise of so called 'defensive medicine', where a doctor seeks to limit the extent of their legal liability by ruthless and relentless testing. Thirdly, the system of healthcare here is adminstrative heavy; it has many tiers, exists across a number of jurisdictions and demands high staffing costs. What then are the consequences of this system as it has developed? I have met people who have experienced or who have told me of people they know who have experienced some of the following; simply not purchasing health insurance at all because it cannot be afforded and in the blind hope that they will just not need treatment, some have sold their homes to pay for treatement, some have needed to declare bankruptcy because they cannot meet their medical bills and others decide to get by with their illnesses. You may be wondering whether there are exceptional characteristics of this system that counterweight these features? Unfortunately there is no evidence to show that there are improved medical outcomes or a higher quality of care.

I asked Larry what he thought of a system in which individuals paid a contribution, those on higher incomes more, which could be accessed by people as needed on the basis of their need and which was administered by an organisation with the task of lowering costs. He said he would be in favour of such a system. What if the organisation was the government? He said although perhaps he would not advocate it, he would not oppose it. This answer from a conservative Texas Republican helps demonstrate the pragmatic reality with which most Americans, who will seriously consider fundamental reform not just talk about it, are prepared to bring to the issue of healthcare. They know the system as it exists has failed - that it must be changed - but they cannot agree on or summon a solution. That I suppose is the responsibility of their leaders. Larry echoed what I have said here previously, that this system is socially and economically unsustainable. I now cannot help but conclude that this burden that the United States has imposed on itself, left unsolved, will be a factor upon which its decline as a world power will hinge.

Ok - so on a lighter note! My cousin recommended that I travel to Glacier National Park in Montana, on the Canadian border. I hadn't considered it at all, but I've been having such an enjoyable time exploring the country by car and seeing America's natural beauty, that I've decided I will head north from Colorado for a three week roadtrip to Glacier, via Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Once I have reached Glacier I will have driven the entire length of the continental United States - from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, quite an accomplishment I hope you will agree. First though I must complete my time in Texas.

M

Posted by MattOGrady 23:19 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Ranchin'

sunny 43 °C

Pretty much the first question I asked when I arrived in Austin last week was, "Where are the rodeos?" In my mind at least, rodeos and the outdoors encapsulates the romanticism of the west of Texas in particular. You can understand my disappointment then when the answer I got was, "We don't really do them here I'm afraid."

I've spent some time whilst I've been in Austin researching ways to get into the country, see some rodeos, ride some horses and generally prance around in my new boots. The best way to do it was clearly going to be to stay on a ranch for a couple of nights. With that I drove about two and a half hours south west from Austin to a place called Bandera. It seems wherever I travel in Texas the scenery changes suddenly. Driving here in 'Hill Country' the flat metropolis of Austin was replaced not by rolling hills as on the ride up from New Orleans, but hills nonetheless, and landscapes that I expect resemble the Australian bush.

It wasn't too long before I rolled into Bandera, but I couldn't help but feel as though I was cheating. With saloons left and right and the odd horse slurping water from a trough, I really should have made my way here on horseback! I drove through the town and not three or four miles past the city limit was the ranch, the Twin Elm Ranch', where I would be staying. Within minutes of dumping my things in my room a ranch hand asked me if I wanted to go tubing. "Tubing, what is this 'tubing' you talk of?" "Toooo-bin Sir, is where you get on the too-be and go down the river." "Well go on then." Now, I'm not sure why, but I was expecting it to be something like a banana boat. I was wrong. I was driven a mile or so to a river, given a very large inflatable ring and wished well. Tubing is actually just sitting on a ring and floating down river. It was utterly blissful. The arching trees shielded me from the 42C sun and the warm water splashed up to keep me cool. I could have been on that river forever and not noticed. Several rapids later I made it to the end, took no time to dry off in the heat and was back at the ranch.

Dinner was served at about 5pm and around the long dining room table there ample opportunity to talk to the people who were also travelling to Bandera and the staff who worked on the ranch. I was speaking to one fifteen year old boy who was there with his family and he told that he had put his name down to rodeo the bull at tomorrow night's rodeo. Was he kidding? "Have you done this before?" "No, Sir." "Does your mum know?" "Oh yes, Sir." I was then asked by some of the ranch hands if I wanted to give it a go. I practically spat up my food in a jerk of pure hilarity and sheer dread at the idea of me getting on a bull and rodeoing it. "I'll leave it to you guys." "If you insist, Sir." "Yes, I insist." I ended up talking to the rodeoing fifteen year old's father for quite a bit of time at dinner and afterwards about his experiences in America and he was very interested in the UK. I will make some observations about our conversations a little bit later, as they will be more informed and have a better context.

That evening I headed up to a corner of the ranch where a fire had been started. I took my place around it and was handed a poker to cook marshmellows, eazed myself into my chair and listened to two travellers from the UK play their guitars whilst gazing up at the twinkling night sky. This is exactly what I had wanted from Texas - sugar and stars.

M

Posted by MattOGrady 07:32 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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