This is the third and final blog of the drive from Atlanta to Los Angeles, San Diego and back, a way of filling and slightly exceeding a mid-semester break in teaching at Emory University.
Saturday 14 March
It was not the earliest of starts as we made the trip to downtown El Paso, parking as close as we could to the Santa Fe Bridge. We were unable to take the hire car out of the country. It cost us 50 cents to walk across to Juarez. Texans were politely requested not to take their guns into Mexico, a remark doubly ironic (I read later that Juarez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, mainly because of its gang and drug-related homicides). The contrast with El Paso was dramatic. Juarez was more than poor: its roads and pavements were pitted with jagged craters and its buildings in desperate ill-repair. The traffic, consisting almost entirely of second-hand vehicles and ‘reject’ buses, was chaotic but unyielding. Men hung around each street corner and buzzed like flies around the central square. Old and new churches alike were pleasing on the eye, although I always find splendid religious icons amidst rank poverty disquieting. To me churches and lotteries remain symbols of cruelly fantastical hope, the one Marx’s ‘opium’, the other a cynical tax of the poor. We walked through the native and tourist shopping areas, haggling for a silver Aztec broach for Annette and emerging too with pots and a rug for the dinning room at home. The temperature climbed to the high 80 degrees F as I sipped beer in the shade of a café. Annette opted for coffee but surrendered it in favour of a soft drink when a kind of do-it-yourself kit arrived (tepid water, instant coffee, mug and spoon).
Conspicuous poverty depresses affect and body too. We retreated to our El Paso base. From our hotel room we booked a hotel in San Antonio for the following night (relatively expensive at $119 plus tax). We ate economically at the hotel, listening to an appalling Mexican wedding band in an adjacent room. A friendly Dutch teenager sidled up to me while we ate. ‘Isn’t Heineken the best beer in the world?’ he asked. I was temporarily lost for a reply.
Sunday 15 March
Sunday was destined to be a long day. We cleared El Paso by 10am and started out across Texas. It was neither as flat nor as tedious as we had been led by friends to suppose (but then no Americans outside of Texas seem to appreciate either it or its citizens, which perhaps explains why a movement for its independence survives). Fort Stockton promised us a diversion, since it is an historic fort, but it proved less than historic in aspect – like an abandoned 19th century barracks – and we drove on disappointed.
The I10 proceeded, for the most part in the straightest of lines, towards San Antonio. We reached the city, with it multifarious Interstate exists, early evening. A mix of good fortune and solid advice got us through the one-way traffic system and to the pre-booked hotel, another Holiday Inn. But it was a chain hotel with a difference: called the ‘Crocket Hotel’, it was a stone’s throw from the mighty Alamo. It also had valet parking, an American convention that had always irritated me. Leaving the Alamo for the next day, we strolled to the Riverfront, a superb modern no-expenses-spared development, brightly lit and inviting. We found a decent restaurant and treated ourselves to a meal among Texan ranchers and Aussie yuppies. We had clocked up another 570 miles.
Monday 17 March
We rang old friend Dick Levinson early to get him to cancel our Emory classes (we would now be back late). A tad guiltily we walked round the Alamo, where the Texan ‘martyrs’ (and others, including a dozen Englishmen) died at the hands of Santa Anna’s Mexican army in 1836. Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were thought to be among those who fell (although I have since read that Crockett may well have escaped and been put ignominiously to death on his recapture). Only the church and part of the barracks had survived, but the reconstructive work had been well executed and a few artifacts, like Crockett’s rifle, were on show. American visitors seemed sentimental without being overly respectful. We sat down to a Mexican brunch.
My head felt muzzy and suspect, so I dozed for a while before we returned to the Riverbank for Kenyan coffees, lazily reading and watching passers-by. I homed in on a bookshop in a nearby mall that had been cleverly integrated with the channels of water constituting the Riverbank project.
The evening was spent in a jazz restaurant at a table we had reserved for 8.30pm. The meal was lukewarm but appetizing – reminiscent of Ronnie Scott’s fare in Soho; the light beer was bearable; and the jazz was excellent. It was a sextet led by local club-owner Jim Callum, who is highly rated in the American south. A new young trombonist was the solo star. I chatted to them between sets. I told them of Ronnie Scott’s recent suicide; the response was: ‘Hey, guess what? Ronnie’s topped himself!’ I came away with two of their CDs. It was a good evening.
Tuesday 17 March
We could not afford to hang about now. It was a 600-mile drive east with few redeeming features or moments. But we did end up in New Orleans, which we had visited several times before and always found vibrant and pleasurable. In American terms it is an old city, but it is in fact younger than the late 17th house we owned in Epsom at the time. It was tough finding a motel this time round. We entered the French Quarter more in hope than expectation in mid-evening but had to turn back to I10 in search of somewhere less extortionate. It was a Best Western just out of town that we settled for. Unusually tired we nevertheless made ourselves loop back to the French Quarter for the evening meal we had promised ourselves long, long ago (somewhere a 100 miles west).
The lack of accommodation was soon clarified. Befuddled for an instant, we were soon brought to realize that it was St Patrick’s Day. True to its reputation, New Orleans was partying. Cars, floats and well-lubricated sounds surrounded us; and – another local tradition – necklaces of green and yellow beads were hurled down from balconies to women passing by. To our delight Annette retrieved three. Bourbon Street was its usual mad, packed exhilarating, sleazy self. We ate at nearby Pierre Anthonie, having local dishes (mine was blackened tuna steaks), then sauntered down past the less frantic Jackson Square to Café du Monde, one of the most renowned cafes, where we supplemented our drinks with beignets. It was a late night.
Wednesday 18 March
The rain came as we pulled away from New Orleans and left Louisiana for Mississippi, where I tend to stick roughly to the speed limit having picked up a parking ticket there previously. The hazy marshlands, the setting for James Lee Burke’s wonderful Dave Robicheaux crime novels, were as intriguing as ever but our minds were attuned to Atlanta. Through Alabama into Georgia. When we pulled into Turner Village, our home for the semester, we had added a further robotic 475 miles to our running total.
It had been a journey of 5285 miles in 13 days and we felt an acquaintanceship with the USA we had lacked previously. What a way to get to know a country. I recalled actor Anthony Hopkins celebrating the freedom of hiring a car and making for open roads. It was not exactly a holiday, more a set-piece time-out and extravaganza. I would recommend it. Normal teaching resumed for me on the Thursday.