Papers Please

When I broke the news to my family and friends that I’d be driving across the US, some suggested routes, others shared their own stories about crossing, and still others encouraged me to visit them as I drove through. My mom, though, gave me a new, in-the-wrapper CD and told me specifically not to open it until I got to the Texas state line. She said, looking concerned, “You’ll need it most then. It takes days – DAYS – to cross Texas.” Mom was right. Of course I went and took probably the longest route through Texas: 812 miles from El Paso to Odessa to Abilene to Dallas and out through Texarkana. Did you know that El Paso is closer to California than it is to Dallas? My goodness.

Fortunately I can find something interesting to look at nearly anywhere. Photography classes changed me – now I notice a hundredfold more about my surroundings. My teacher warned us it would be different after Photo One, and it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. This is all to say that it takes a lot to make me bored on the road. Really, a lot. Even the desolate landscape of La Jornada del Muerto had its interesting and scenically motivating points. In La Jornada, it seemed like I’d been transported into another world where everything was brown and rocky. I was afraid I might not be able to come back – but it was not boring. The land changed every 50 miles or so, like most places in the world. Texas, though, well, it goes on and on, and then on some more, and it looks largely the same. It’s like an endurance race for your creativity. You find yourself wishing it would look a little different, just for a few minutes. It doesn’t, but you keep wishing anyway, perhaps even imagining the herd of cattle or the farmhouse that could be there, if only you could redesign the scenery. Well, there is the ugliness that we have imposed on the land near Odessa, in the form of roughly 100 miles of oil refining, complete with foul air and strange advertisements particular to oil rigging. Technically, that’s a change, but it wasn’t what I’d had in mind.

Still, there were good moments, such as the Pecan Shack at exit 386. That was just fine. The exit numbers are directly related to the number of miles that the road has gone since its inception or the state line. All my roads started or ended at mile zero. The Pecan Shack had more allure than just nuts and sugar: the prospect of a person to talk to and something new to look at after 386 miles on Interstate 20. I got to visit my friend Dannielle in Dallas at her workplace, see a rather interesting giant hat, and have the first decent meal I’d had in a couple of days (not to mention good conversation!). I also visited Pecos, home of the first rodeo, kind hospitality and some delicious Mexican food. It’s always a promising sign in a Mexican restaurant when the building is unadorned adobe and has cafeteria tables. The humblest places have the best food. Alfredo’s did not disappoint – the green sauce was picante and muy auténtico. Another highlight was crossing the state line near El Paso. The sign said “Welcome to Texas! Drive Friendly – The Texas Way.” Love it.

Speaking of El Paso, I got there around 3:00 and got through it by 4:00. I learned later, after I had missed my chance for lunch or dinner, that El Paso has the best food for hundreds of miles around. Sigh… the problem with detours is that you don’t have time to find the yummy stuff. Visually, El Paso is a typical border town: it looks like a collection of ramshackle shanties got together and multiplied like rabbits. I think the city planners went on vacation for maybe the last seventy years. Of course, the fact that my route passed less than five hundred feet from Juarez, Mexico, probably didn’t make things look any better. The adobes sprouting up all over El Paso were mirrored on the other side of the highway by the cardboard and plywood shacks in Juarez. El Paso is one of the dustiest cities I’ve ever seen. Even in late February, dust was blowing everywhere, and the whole place was a sort of a tan color. How does anyone keep her house clean with that going on? It can’t be easy. All this, and despite my prior discussion about the humblest places having the best Mexican food, the thought, “wow, great tacos, I should stop” did not occur to me!

Instead, I went to the trading post. I’d been driving 270 miles by the time I reached El Paso. The Saddle Blanket had been advertising for the last hundred miles and I was desperate to stretch my legs. Normally I can get a new CD or a postcard or at least find something I am interested in at a roadside stop. But this place, well, how can I put it? Surreal? Let’s just say they’d assembled quite a collection. The goods ranged from the useful (saddles, blankets, baskets) to the very tacky (ceramic chickens that had women’s naked breasts) to the completely unfathomable (a life-sized skeleton that was mechanized to chatter and shake and light up incessantly). Although, now that I think about it, maybe you could use the skeleton more easily than the human breasted chicken. I don’t know. You’d need to see it to believe it.

After that strange experience, I was ready to leave El Paso and its rush hour traffic. I’d thought to get to Midland for supper, but after a nice chat with a fellow customer at the gas station, my heart sank as I realized it was probably too far. The same fellow welcomed me to Texas and after some talking, gave me a snack. And you wonder why I like these people? Snacks! I got underway and tried not to get chocolate on the steering wheel.

To make dinner even less accessible, the road was closed forty miles north of El Paso. What? Another detour? Hey, wait a minute – these white trucks with sirens and logos all match. And isn’t that an American flag up there? Oh, hey, it’s a border patrol stop. The frontier brigade had closed the entire Interstate and had diverted all traffic to a checkpoint with people in uniforms asking questions. Fortunately, I was prepared: my passport was in my purse. Ten minutes later, after doing plenty of people watching, I was in front of the agent. He seemed surprised when I handed him my passport, saying it wasn’t necessary (Really? What else are we doing here?) then asked if he could have a look at it anyway. He asked where I was going, why I was going there and where I’d been, and he liked my red car, but otherwise it was uneventful. It was like crossing the border anywhere else in the world, except it was inside my own country. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Back on the road, it seemed like forever, but I got to Pecos at nearly nine o’clock for some dinner, and then got underway making time to Abilene. Thank goodness the speed limit down in West Texas is 80 miles an hour on the Interstate. I arrived in Abilene way after midnight and pulled into the hotel. When asked for ID, I gave my handy passport to the young man behind the desk. He’d never seen one before. He told me he’d been to several places in Texas but no further. But then, I can see how that could happen. You could get in the car, drive until you were completely exhausted, and no matter how long that took, you’d probably still be in Texas. If you didn’t go by airplane, well, you might never be able to leave!

I leave you with some facts about Texas from my friend Dannielle.

1. Beaumont to El Paso : 742 miles
2. Beaumont to Chicago : 770 miles
3. El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas
4. World’s first rodeo was in Pecos , July 4, 1883.
5. The Flagship Hotel in Galveston is the only hotel in North America built over water. Destroyed by Hurricane Ike 2008!
6. The Heisman Trophy was named after John William Heisman who was the first full-time coach at Rice University in Houston.
7. Brazoria County has more species of birds than any other area in North America
8. Aransas Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of North America ‘s only remaining flock of whooping cranes.
9. Jalapeno jelly originated in Lake Jackson in 1978.
10. The worst natural disaster in U.S…. history was in 1900, caused by a hurricane, in which over 8,000 lives were lost on Galveston Island.
11. The first word spoken from the moon, July 20,1969, was ” HOUSTON ,” but the space center was actually in Clear Lake City at the time.
12. King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island.
13. Tropical Storm Claudette brought a U.S. rainfall record of 43’ in 24 hours in and around Alvin in July of 1979.
14. Texas is the only state to enter the U.S. by TREATY, (known as the Constitution of 1845 by the Republic of Texas to enter the Union ) instead of by annexation. This allows the Texas Flag to fly at the same height as the U.S. Flag, and may divide into 5 states.
15. A Live Oak tree near Fulton is estimated to be 1500 years old. [Note, the oldest known currently living tree in the world is in California!]
16. Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in the state.
17. Dr Pepper was invented in Waco in 1885. There is no period in Dr Pepper.
18. Texas has had six capital cities: Washington -on- the Brazos, Harrisburg , Galveston, Velasco, West Columbia and Austin.
19. The Capitol Dome in Austin is the only dome in the U.S. which is taller than the Capitol Building in Washington DC (by 7 feet).
20. The San Jacinto Monument is the tallest free standing monument in the world and it is taller than the Washington monument.
21. The name ‘ Texas ‘ comes from the Hasini Indian word ‘tejas’ meaning friends. Tejas is not Spanish for Texas.
22. The State Mascot is the Armadillo (an interesting bit of trivia about the armadillo is they always have four babies. They have one egg, which splits into four, and they either have four males or four females.)
23. The first domed stadium in the U.S. was the Astrodome in Houston

*Editor’s note: Some of the images below were taken from the driver’s seat. I had to make time!

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