3) Texas, The Golden Corral
– Nov. 16 – Dec. 11, 2013
As I strain now to recall the events almost an entire month past, the sun is rising in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This is the third sunset I’ve witnessed since leaving home, and before that I literally can not remember ever watching the sun rise – there were too many walls to obscure my view, too many surrounding buildings, too many things to keep me awake at night and in bed each morning in paralysis of knowing how many more things awaited me the next coming day. I had intended to journal once per week but not for the first time nor the last my intentions are dashed, and by that greatest disruptor of my own plans, myself. I suppose I have been too immersed in the present and not willing until this point to reflect on the past, and now, as we wake in New Mexico, or more notably, a new State for the first time in a full month, details of recent past escape me, timelines have become broken, and I sift through clues of it all like an amnesiac Inspector Holmes with scissors and glue to recreate, and hopefully with sufficient cadence and depth, what surely must have happened.
We had spent an entire month of our six months in America in the State of Texas, a place that had been both geographically and philosophically off of our intended path. ‘How had it happened?’, Kat and I would ask each other and ourselves from time to time, and I know that for at least a third of those days the cold weather was found culprit. There has been but one recurring perpetrator through our travels that we were not prepared for, not when we left home six weeks ago and not during our entire travels thereafter, until yesterday when we blasted above and beyond our full six months’ “emergency budget” to install a propane-powered catalytic heater into the trailer: cold winter in the southern States. We were prepared, yes, for cold nights, when our ten or so blankets would, and have, come into full use, but we were not prepared for cold days or even entire cold weeks, where temperatures would never rise above 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. In fact, our chase down from northern Oklahoma all way to middle Texas was in a hope of retrieving the warm weather sought by us, but that warmth has proven fleeting, and come in small doses. We were as close as a couple hundred miles from the Mexico border at some points, and so had not expected high noons to pass us without the faintest sight of the sun or without the temperatures breaking above the freezing point.
The heater to us now after such a time feels like the discovery of fire, or some new miracle household appliance whom many would insist that ‘once you own one you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it’. It truly marks the dawn of a new era of travel for us, and, so long as it continues to run properly, will change for the better the very way that we live, expanding greatly our possibilities of where and when to travel next, without weather forecast obsessions or doomed days relegated to quarantine in sleepy town motel rooms. By the way, Summit Inn in San Marcos, Texas, is a fine place to stay for only $37.99 per night, the cheapest price we could find and not with the most jolting of harsh energies from the available choices we considered. There was no vague sense of looming danger, which I can not say about some of the neighbouring establishments. The room was clean enough, and we had WiFi internet. There was even a small gym which I used once, and a continental breakfast that consisted of at least one of the four major food groups. What had begun as a two-night post there, for us to collect ourselves and hide out from the cold and rain starting Saturday November 23rd, turned into four full days. From November 23rd until the morning of Wednesday November 27th, Kat and I scarcely left our room at the Summit Inn. This allowed us, however, four days of continuous internet, electricity, water, hot showers and baths, and ample time to write, read, watch a Cosby Show marathon, and check out some websites of interest to us, including CouchSurfer.com and HouseCarers.com. On CouchSurfer we would meet a man named Joedy in San Antonio who was hosting an American Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday November 28th, and he invited us to join. On HouseCarers we met Dorothy who was offering her house up for a week, along with a bit of cash, for somebody to stay there over Christmas to watch and feed her dog Rosie, while she spent the holidays with family in Chicago. We are set to meet Dorothy on December 18th at her off-the-grid house, which runs completely on solar power and a bit of propane, somewhere in the mountains about 35 miles south of Taos, New Mexico. We will stay there and care for her house and Rosie until December 26th, with just enough time afterwards to make our way to Scottsdale, AZ to have Christmas with some relatives at my great uncle and aunt Dave and Sandy’s house. Charlotte, my five year old daughter, along with more family, will be flying in to meet us on January 4th of the new year 2014, which I am greatly looking forward to, as I have not seen her in person since Hallowe’en on October 31st.
When we left in secret the RV Nightly park next to the Circuit of the Americas race track which was host to the recent Formula One race in Del Valle, near Austin, we decided that it was finally time, after a week more or less of circling around it, to venture into downtown Austin. We arrived in the late afternoon and made a cursory exploration in and around 6th St. and Congress, what could be considered to be the very middle of it all. We met bicyclists on the streets who were raising funds for cancer research (http://www.texas4000.org) and who would, in May 2014, ride their bicycles from Austin, TX, to somewhere in Alaska. I don’t remember exactly anymore, but this trip would be at least a few thousand miles long (probably 4,000 miles I guess), and they would be averaging about 80 miles per day. We ate pizza for the first time since leaving home (we don’t have an oven and oven-baked meals are becoming a bit of a luxury to us), and I think the pizza, which only came in one size, and which we ate almost entirely, was literally two feet in diameter. That restaurant was Jackalope’s, on 6th St.
The next day we went on separate bike journeys through the entire downtown area, agreeing to meet back at the trailer by a certain time. Though we never ran into each other during the course of those three or so hours, we eventually met up to discover that we had by pure coincidence travelled the same areas in relatively the same order. I think Kat was just slightly behind me the entire time, again only by chance, so it was funny to recall our travels back at the trailer only to realize they were the same. There was a music festival happening all weekend, and this was now Sunday, November 17th, the last day of the festival. We did some busking on the street just outside of the festival with a guitar and some harmonicas, where we earned very little money, but through this met somebody who was working for the festival, moving audio equipment away from the main stage as things were wrapping up. His name was Jeremy, he was about our age, and he worked for a company called Music Lab. He invited us to come check out Music Lab the next day, a place he described as ‘a music store and a rehearsal space’, and so we agreed that we would.
One of the areas that Kat and I had explored separately but almost in unison was a part of town called South Congress. This is just on the other side of the Congress Bridge and Statesman Park, a place that Uncle Paul had told us was known for thousands upon thousands of bats flying up from under the bridge every night at dusk to feed on insects. People would stand on the bridge every night with cameras and flashlights, as we did this night, to watch unseen numbers of bats come rushing out. We figured that this event would pass in a flash and were worrying about missing it and having to try again the next night, but when we arrived, the bats were already rushing out, and when we left maybe twenty or thirty minutes later, they were still coming. People had told us that the numbers were much higher in the summer, and what we were seeing was the remaining few bats who had not yet migrated to Mexico for the winter.
South Congress was a distinctly separate part of the city which had been somewhat reclaimed for its kitschy novelty of being in all appearances a 70’s throwback town. Its quirky atmosphere had transformed its likely hippie past into a viable market for modern day consumerism (a strange and regrettable transformation, anywhere, I had always believed), and so we took it all in for its sights and sounds, which were very cute and loveable, but kept our spending money for other places where its reach would be further extended. At night we drove past South Congress to Music Lab to meet Jeremy. Music Lab was a much larger and much more impressive establishment than we had anticipated. It is perhaps famous, though I was not aware of it before arriving. There are two locations, both in Austin, and Jeremy worked in the larger building, which I believe was around 85,000 square feet. When we arrived, Jeremy had already gone home for the night, but his co-worker called him at home, which as it turned out was only a mile away, and he graciously came back to give us the full tour. The store itself was rather modest and mostly sold guitars and drums, but a great deal of the space was devoted to dozens of rehearsal spaces for bands, and also a vast warehouse of all types of gear, reserved and inventoried for Big Name acts when they were touring the country and needed equipment. For example, a green piece of duct tape on an equipment case might mean “Elvis Costello”, and so any equipment cases in that part of the warehouse with green duct tape on it was reserved for Elvis Costello. A red piece of duct tape might mean “Bon Jovi”… and so forth… There were two very large rehearsal spaces, one larger than the other, and we were told that The Cure had most recently used the larger of the two spaces. Kat and I had seen Leonard Cohen in concert in Hamilton back in April, and Jeremy told us that Cohen had used the same room for his rehearsals leading up to that tour. Jeremy was not only an interesting person but very hospitable as well. He offered that we come back to his house after Music Lab, to hang out, use his washer and dryer, have showers, and we stayed there late into the night before driving back to the YMCA parking lot we had at this point become accustomed to sleeping in or around, as that area was away from the downtown, and particularly quiet.
I don’t remember much of what we did the next day, which was Wednesday, November 20th, but we had considered leaving Austin to head for San Antonio. By the time it was dark, we thought we would seek out an area that Jeremy had mentioned, called Barton Springs, not sure if we would find it. In a roundabout way, we eventually did find it, and were very glad to have made the effort. We explored it on foot and with flashlights, but would see it and experience it better in daylight, and over the next two days. The first night we were told by a police officer that we could not stay in the park past 10pm, but the very next morning we met a fellow wanderer who was living in his van indefinitely, originally from San Diego, and the place where he had been parked overnight in the park was closer to the springs and further from the road. He had had no problems with parking there overnight, and so we would spend the next two days and nights, the 21st – my sister Jessica’s 29th birthday – and the 22nd, parked by the springs. Barton Springs is an impressively large natural pool that maintains a water temperature of somewhere around 70 degrees Celsius all year round, being filled by underground spring water that rises up and then is contained within the pool. I don’t know it’s real dimensions but it’s very wide and it would be hundreds of feet in length; it probably averages about five feet in depth but there are certainly both deeper and shallower parts. The pool is open six days a week – Thursdays being devoted to its cleaning – from very early in the morning (I forget what time) until 10pm, and is free to use – including their change rooms and solar-heated spring water showers – during the winter months. Even in the summer I think it was only $4 a day, but we used their facilities for two full days at no charge. The first day – November 21st – was decently warm, and Kat and I both swam in the springs, which felt a bit cold in relation to the air temperature. The second day, however – November 22nd – had been very cold, and I decided to swim despite the cold air temperature. The water, in contrast, felt quite warm. The lifeguard said that I was only one of four people who came out to swim that day, and this was near the end of the day. That entire day had been cold and without sun, so when we awoke for our third day at Barton Springs, the showers, which were basically outdoors, were freezing cold, the solar panels having acquired no sun the day before. When we looked into the weather, it was to remain freezing and raining for the next few days at least, and so this is when we decided to drive south from Austin to find a motel somewhere before the city of San Antonio – the Summit Inn in San Marcos, where we spent the next four days.
When we left the Summit Inn on the morning of Wednesday, November 27th, we had two goals: to find the Guitar Centre in San Antonio, where we had special-ordered a melodica for Kat (a musical instrument powered by breath, like a recorder, but with keyboard keys, and creating a reedy sound similar to a pump organ), and then to find Joedy’s house, the man we had met on CouchSurfing and whose house we would stay at over the next few days, including American Thanksgiving. When we arrived – with melodica – at Joedy’s, we discovered that there were two other “couch surfers” there already – Emile, a twenty year old from northern California who was hitch hiking around America for the next several months, and Sam, a nineteen year old from Vancouver Island who had been hitch hiking for a while but was to take an airplane somewhere into Mexico the next morning and continue his travels there. We had learned that Joedy’s guest list for the following evening’s Thanksgiving consisted of about half friends and half couch surfers and others who he had never even met. He explained that his family was in Corpus Christi, a couple hours away, and seeing as he was an experienced cook, and also accustomed to cooking for large groups of strangers from his Navy experiences abroad, he wanted to invite anybody he could to his Thanksgiving dinner. This is how he came to contact us on CouchSurfers – he had contacted us, not the other way around.
The next day, Joedy had driven Sam to the airport before Kat and I awoke, and by the time we were up, Joedy’s cooking was in full progress, the entire kitchen being utilized. Friends and guests arrived one or two at a time over the course of hours, and by the time we sat down to eat there were more than a dozen people around the table, and much more than a dozen plates of all types of food – all of it prepared solely by Joedy who had expressed early on that he wanted no help. The food was exceptional, and it was funny to us that we had not even planned to find anything to do on the American Thanksgiving – our own Thanksgiving having passed some six weeks earlier – and here we were amongst friendly people and surrounded by good food and good times. We chatted with everybody there, and a young man named Anant has since stayed in touch with us and said that we could stay at his house in Portland when we come through Oregon.
We spent another day and night at Joedy’s, and the following morning after that, on Saturday November 30th, we decided to move on, though that same night some of the same people were having a party at Lauren’s house in a different part of town, Lauren having been one of the guests at the dinner and also friend of Joedy’s and fellow San Antonian. Somewhere in that time with our camper grounded outside of Joedy’s house, we had taken the car in to San Antonio to see downtown San Antonio, including the Alamo. This turned out to be a mistake for us, it being “Black Friday”, an obtusely irritating national spectacle of depraved consumeristic addiction where no corner of commerce, including, evidently, historic attractions, is spared its gluttonous degeneracy. I think we lasted about three hours before driving back to Joedy’s, but not without getting incredibly lost first, and enjoyed none of it. We later heard that among fist fights and tramplings at Black Friday events across the country, one Walmart employee was actually killed in this disgraceful show of obscenity, probably just so somebody could get a flatscreen TV or a microwave or an iPad at a reduced price. May future generations view this era of ignorance and waste that is the twenty first century with every bit of shame it deserves.
On Sunday morning, the first of December, Joedy and Lauren invited us out to the Guenther House, a quaint breakfast place by the San Antonio River and the river walk. We had breakfast with them before saying our goodbyes, and then Kat and I biked five of the ten miles of the river walk that follows the San Antonio River, then turned around and biked five more miles back to our car. A scenic trail to say the least, we got lots of great photos, and agreed to come back to bike the other half of the trail. We had biked from the Guenther House and the Blue Star Arts District – a revitalized loft and arts area built on the remains of an old industrial zone, as far as the San Jose Mission, a popular tourist attraction.
Before turning around to bike back, we stumbled upon something truly American, and being hungry, could not turn down in all of its gross proportions: Golden Corral. The Golden Corral franchise in all of its splendour is a gigantic buffet for gigantic people. In fact, the word, corral, used as a noun, means “an enclosure or pen for horses or cattle”; its use as a verb being “to confine or seize or capture”. Perfect. Finally, let’s all call this what it really is, and at least admit out loud what here could be a microcosm for the fattening and confining of ‘the greatest nation on earth’, and in perfectly bold cap locks: GOLDEN CORRAL. Us being hungry from a long bike ride found ourselves among the millions of morbidly obese specimens who had been confined to this penultimate trough for human feeding, being fattened like cattle, their minds dulled and their worries eased, so long as they could gorge themselves to death in this Land of Plenty. Morbid obesity is the Number One cause of unnatural death in America, and one afternoon spent at a buffet bar in Texas will prove that beyond any question of doubt. Save the facts and statistics, forget the numbers and graphs, but come to Texas, come to Oklahoma, come to America, where we have been “confined and seized and captured” in our “enclosures or pens for horses, cattle, etc.” The proof is in The Corral. For $8.99 a head, Kat and I ate until we could barely waddle back to our bicycles and somehow made it back to the car. We slept in the parking lot of the San Jose Mission.
Two irritations had followed us for weeks now. The first had been the bike rack which held our bicycles and I had bought off Kijiji.com for $35 in Waterloo, ON, before leaving, but sat on the trunk of the car and sandwiched our bikes between the car and the trailer, making tight turns impossible without causing some damage to our bikes, the car, and the trailer. The second was the brake lights to the trailer (which are the same as the turn signal lights), because they were no longer functioning. This problem had occurred back at home, and we had paid $105 to get the wiring inspected and fixed. Now, a month into our trip, the same problem had come back, and the company who had done the repairs would not offer us their warranty or any refund because they could not physically inspect our trailer to see if it was in fact their own workmanship that had failed. We had been driving without brake lights or turn signals for a little while, and avoiding any night driving for that reason, but on Monday, December 2nd, we pulled in to Alamo Truck Company to get these matters resolved. I was able to watch the work on the wiring and now feel able to perform the same tasks myself next time, should the wiring fail again, and hopefully it won’t. As for the bike rack, our solution was to install a hitch on the back of the trailer, and purchase a bike rack that would mount from that hitch, not only removing the bikes from between the car and trailer, but solving another problem also, by taking some excess weight off the back of the car and the tongue of the trailer hitch. As we would find out soon enough, the weight of the bikes on the back of the trailer, though alleviating pressure from the trailer tongue to the car hitch, would actually add too much weight to the back of the trailer, and would cause the car to start fish-tailing at speeds exceeding about 40mph. By the way, highway speeds in Texas and perhaps elsewhere, can have up to an 80 mph limit, almost 130 km/h, so we were swerving at only half that limit, creating potential danger for ourselves and possibly others.
It is one thing to experience the Golden Corral once. There is a sort of novelty to it, a southern initiation of sorts, where one can dine almost ironically, blending in yet from a safe distance. It is another thing altogether to go back the very next day to pig out all over again. This was our mistake, do not make it yours. Washing dishes is a nuisance on the road. While we do have a small water tank, our faucet is operated manually by a hand pump, and the water temperature is the same as the air temperature, so in our case, just above the freezing point. Washing dishes in the trailer is a hassle to say the least, and only so often can we tolerate carrying our dishes into some restroom or other to get them clean again. By the end of the day after fixing the wiring, installing the hitch, and purchasing the new bike rack, and it getting dark around 5:30pm, we found ourselves hungry, yet with no clean dishes. This was our rationale for returning to the very same Golden Corral restaurant we had been to exactly one day prior. Our first encounter had been humorous, and even enjoyable in a perverted sort of way, but coming back again the next day brought with it mixtures of fatigue, depression, and disgrace. We saw some of the same faces there as the night before and wondered if they ate there every day. All indications implied ‘yes’. I wondered if they recognized our faces and made the same presumptions about us. And I feel that these reflections of mine might appear to any readers to be too dramatic or nasty, but living the gauntlet of a two-day Texas food binge is, believe me, both dramatic and nasty. We vowed that this would be our last stop at the aptly named and culturally symbolic GOLDEN CORRAL.
On Tuesday, December 3rd, we awoke to explore the San Jose Mission, and then biked the remainder of the San Antonio river walk. Gorgeous scenery. We took either too many photos, or not enough.
On Wednesday, December 4th, we were ready to drive to New Mexico, but something was stopping us – that now too familiar dictator, the cold. San Antonio had been just marginally warm enough to feel comfortable in, but all of New Mexico would be freezing cold, basically all winter. This was when our decision was made to find, and obtain, the most effective and long-term heating system possible for our small sized trailer, at whatever cost. We had gone more than a month without any heating solution except for an electric space heater for those seldom times we actually had electricity, and a tiny “Little Buddy” propane heater which was not sufficient and not even intended for enclosed spaces as it emits too much carbon dioxide. Continuing without a heater was no longer an option. We did some research and found a heater called an Olympian Wave 6. It was a catalytic heater which radiated heat for a slightly larger space than our trailer and created minimal carbon dioxide; it could be installed in our trailer and fuelled by a barbecue-style propane tank which would sit outside in a small storage container on the tongue of the trailer; it cost about $300 but we could drive 40 miles north to a town called New Braunfels and get it for $219 plus tax. We drove to New Braunfels, the trailer swaying and I driving nervously the whole way. When we arrived at Camping World, they were already closed for the day, so we, splurging somewhat, went to the cinemas to watch what we decided to be the least innocuous film of choice, a somewhat forgettable comedy starring Vince Vaughn called Delivery Man (or Delivery Guy, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter). We slept in the parking lot and drove to Camping World in the morning.
The downtown heart of New Braunfels is cute, but it must be discovered after commandeering through a vast butchering of profane commercialized space, by far the largest expanse of box stores and outlet malls I have ever seen, which continued for several, several, miles, in any given direction. One would have to have bought in whole-heartedly to the worship of the Consumerism idol for their entire lives to not feel just a little bit sick at this obscene splaying of disrespect to anything natural or beautiful about this amazing and sacred and precious planet of life which we are all lucky to say the least to be a part of. We awoke to a gas station with 260 fuel pumps and had ruined acres of whatever habitat had existed there before, a depressing place called Buck-ee’s, adorned with a logo of a deceivingly oppressive, cartoon, smiling beaver face, which seemed synonymous and may as well have been interchangeable with a swastika. The swastika, similar to a smiling cartoon beaver, was once an icon of good fortune, until usurped by The Enemy and paraded alongside every terrible and horrifying act imaginable by Man, and now tarnished, can never return to its original place of happy meaning. I will never see a cartoon beaver the same again.
I need to wrap this up. Camping World did not have our heater in stock, and would have to order it, and this would take five days. We agreed that it was worth the wait. We were allowed to camp out in Camping World’s parking lot, and hook up to their electricity. We could use their water and bathrooms and WiFi, but only during their store hours of 8am-6pm. We frequented the New Braunfels Library for more WiFi and a bit of sanctuary from parking lots. Days went by. We met a nice couple who had recently retired, Randy and Shirley from Pennsylvania, who were now RV-ing around America, and we shared an interest in ghost towns. Lots of staff including Linnet, Brandon, and a man named Rex Davey (neither of us meet very many Davey’s, we agreed) were helpful and friendly and we came to know some of them over the course of our time spent there. We purchased something while waiting for the heater which I had not previously been familiar with, something called a ‘sway bar’, that connected to the tongue of the trailer and the hitch on the car, and for a bit more than a hundred dollars, solved our fish-tailing problems once and for all. The heater eventually arrived but could not be installed until the next day. Annoyed but with no other option, we waited a sixth day. The sixth day at Camping World came, and the person installing the heater told us that according to the speculations, our trailer had insufficient wall space to mount the heater anywhere inside of it. Long story short, we agreed to have everything installed, the tank, the gas line, the regulator, and a bunch of little parts that in total added greatly to our final bill, and we would agree to use the heater without mounting or attaching it to any wall. After leaving, I mounted the heater onto an area that is definitely safe, and above it mounted a smoke detector as an extra measure of caution. If we crack the roof top a little bit while running the heater, whatever little amount of carbon dioxide is created has the chance of escaping, and the trailer is still kept sufficiently warm. This heater has made the biggest difference to us out of any of our purchases or decisions since our obtaining it, and we are now be free to drive into the freezing winters of New Mexico. After that, it seems that Arizona and California will both be much warmer, but on days when they are not, we will be ready with our heater.
We drove an entire day, north west, through Texas, until we crossed the border late in the night of Wednesday December 11th into New Mexico, and slept in Carlsbad. Tomorrow we visit Carlsbad Caverns.