Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Big Texas! :There's No Basement in the Alamo!

An old favorite, from August 2008...

Big Texas!:There’s No Basement in the Alamo!
By Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
August 2008

kodak film- flash bulbs

Texas is a mythical place, larger than life and bigger than all of the original 13 colonies combined. Texas almost seems ridiculous to be so big—like it should’ve been subdivided into North, South, and West subsets like the Virginias, Dakotas, and Carolinas. One side of Texas is western, dry and familiar. Another part is green and fermented, with spanish moss in the trees, plentiful rivers, and hills.
What we did on our summer vacation--What we did was pack up ourselves and the dogs and drive 2,400 miles, round trip, to the gulf coast of Texas, practically Mexico, for a family reunion. On the map it didn’t seem quite so far—a mere 2 states over. But as we finally saw the very first road signs mentioning our specific destination we both were dumbfounded that we’d been so brave and foolish to drive so far. By the end, by the time we’d made it back home, we’d driven for 6 solid days, 8 or 9 hours a day. It was a lot of highway, an amazing range of landscape and ecosystems, and new places never before seen. It also was about $500 in gasoline.

First of all, the Packheiser Reunion. My husband’s mom has many siblings, more than two hands can count. Do the math and that makes for many spouses, cousins, extended family, and a big reunion every year in a different locale. There are Packheisers from sea to shining sea. Each year they meet up in a different region during the Independence Day holiday week. Three years ago the Packheisers reunited in Arizona’s Verde Valley. You may remember us from our matching Packheiser Reunion t-shirts and our “boom-shaka-laka” routine” in Clarkdale’s 2005 4th of July Parade. Or how they landed on Jerome like a swarm on locusts. Locusts in matching t-shirts. Those wacky Packheisers. This year the destination was South Padre Island, a Spring-Break mecca along Texas’ southernmost stretches, minutes from Mexico.

We started our trip chipper and enthusiastic, in a rental car with air-conditioning and cruise control. Driving local highways through Arizona’s White Mountains on Highway 260, we soon crossed into New Mexico, continuing on small highways through small towns.

pietown relic

Along Highway 60, outside of Magdalena, NM, one may catch a glimpse of the “Very Large Array”–gigantic satellite dishes, tuned to communicate with outer space. Rural New Mexico has a glorious landscape, but most of the towns along the way were ghostly relics. Empty storefronts, vintage signs advertising long-closed businesses, no glimpse of pedestrians or residents. Every time the speed limit dropped indicating we were coming up on the next town I sat up a bit straighter in anticipation, and every time was surprised to find more of the same. Has the American roadside of yore gone extinct?

owl cafe interior-1

Our first goal on the map was a lunch-time cheeseburger at the famous Owl Bar & Café in San Antonio, New Mexico. It had been recommended by a friend as a mandatory stop. “The green chile cheeseburger will change your life,” she said.
The Owl Café is a historic roadside dive, dimly lit interior, like a cool dark cave, out of the relentless southwestern sun, and while the cheeseburger didn’t change my life, it was damn good, and the price cheap. By 5:30pm we had arrived in Roswell, our first overnight stop, and the eve of our 13th wedding anniversary. We had been quite excited about Roswell, due to all that alien stuff. In 1947 a UFO crash-landed in the desert about 40 miles west of Roswell. The enigma and the ensuing cover-up has given the city license to a mystique ever since, similar to Nevada’s Area 51, and the Bermuda Triangle. There are dozens of alien–themed gift shops downtown. I cannot say Roswell lived up to our expectations. First off, the city was far bigger than I’d realized, population 50,000 or so, and real seedy. The “vintage motorcourt” I’d found online was nothing more than a standard issue junky motel, nothing special at all, with an IHOP and Home Depot across the street, and construction workers standing outside of their open rooms, drinking cheap beers and wearing no shirts.

western inn pool-night exposure

The motel, despite being advertised as “completely renovated”, featured shoddy electrical work, loosely installed plumbing, threadbare 1980s office furniture, filthy carpets. We dig funky and old, and can tolerate lots of imperfections if there is something “authentic” about a place, but this was just a dump, dirty and rough. We skedaddled out of Roswell early the next morning, not even waiting for the highly regarded “UFO Research Center and Museum” to open for the day.

welcome to texas!

Heading south into Texas, a large bullet-spreckled sign welcomed us to the “Proud Home State of President George W. Bush”. Soon we connected with our first patch of interstate road, several hours on the I-10. We stopped to gas up and grab some lunch in a historic and functional town called Ozona. They had a lively old downtown, and a large shady grassy park with gazebo where we stopped to have a picnic. “I thought every town we passed through would be like this one,” I said, as we slurped some cold soda, “Funny though, it’s like only 1 out of every 30 actually is.”

ozona tx- small town goodness

As West Texas turned into the rest of Texas, the familiar high desert scenery had faded into rolling green hills, abundant rivers, live oaks, and limestone cliffs. Our destination for the night was Austin, home of the state capitol and the University of Texas. The Austin Motel, with its famously phallic neon sign, is a much beloved 1930s vintage motel located in the hipster-full “SoCo” (South Congress Street) neighborhood.

austin motel pool

The pet-friendly Austin Motel did not disappoint. Our room was appointed with kitschy furnishings and a blue-green color scheme that reminded us of home. The motel is within walking distance to everything cool- lots of clubs, cafes, shops, and interesting neighborhoods, not to mention the “Largest Urban Bat Colony in North America”, 1.5 million bats that roost beneath the Congress Street bridge. Around sunset time, people gather in a designated “bat observation area” below, and line up along the bridge above to witness the bats disembarking into the night. A few moments after the sun settled beneath the horizon the bats began to disburse—from one section of the bridge at a time—in great whirling, squeaking waves, around and up, high into the sky. Folks cheered, hollered, jumped in glee, babies screamed, dogs barked. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. In the distant sky to the east you could see the bats like a long ribbon of black, like cursive handwriting in some unknown language.

waiting for bats

Dinner at Sol Y Luna, a Mexican restaurant adjacent to the motel-- we guzzled down a pitcher of mango margaritas, delirious and dehydrated from the long highway hours. By the time we hit South Congress the tequila had hit me, and we joined in with the strolling parade of hipsters, weirdos, tourists, panhandlers, and musicians crowding the sidewalks on a summertime Wednesday night.

SoCo hot rod, Austin Texas

A late night swim in the motel’s luxe pool cleared the fuzz ‘n’ buzz from my head. The pool sits along the busy street, so you feel not far from the action, though it is hidden like a secret oasis behind lush landscaping and old shade trees. A good night sleep in Austin helped us push on the final 6 hour sprint south to the reunion.

foggy beach looking North

South Padre Island is a popular destination for Midwestern college students and folks east of the Mississippi. It’s a slim slip of a barrier island along the southeastern-most gulf coast of Texas, and full of souvenir shops, multi-story hotels, and tourist traps. It’s also home to “Sea Turtle Inc.”, a rescue center started in 1977 by “The Turtle Lady”, Ila Loetscher. The center’s primary goal is nurturing injured sea turtles and assisting a variety of young hatchlings towards success in the wild. Guests may visit the center and see the resident animals, as well as witness daily releases of hatchlings heading out to sea. The Gulf of Mexico’s western coast is natural breeding area to many varieties of protected sea turtle species.

land shark!

South Padre is also renowned and respected for its excellent waves and kite-boarding opportunities, and for its tremendous riptide which repeatedly dragged us far and away from where we started out. Its beach sand is also highly regarded, ranked best for sand-castle building by “professional sand sculpture artists”, due to the fineness of its grain, moisture retention and other qualities essential to really top-grade sand sculpture.

south padre island -beach/ holga

The northern portion of the island is uninhabited and visitors are allowed to drive vehicles onto the sand for miles, finding remote camping, and access to fantastic shell-covered beaches. The tropical humidity and salt air made us feel young again, rehydrating our squinty Arizona wrinkles and giving our hair a glossy curl.

South Padre Island sand castle

shell beach

“Cyclone season” officially began on June 1st, and the family reunion was (only slightly) marred by relentless tropical rains which fell day and night, letting up just long enough for some beach time with the kiddos, and a grand fireworks display.

red flag

silly 3

Texas-brewed Shiner Bock beer was consumed and folks stayed up late laughing, telling stories, and enjoying each other’s company. It was good to see parents, aunts, uncles, and meet some new family additions. The 1980s-born cousins united in wearing gigantic sombreros paired with scanty short-shorts for a fashion statement that we’ll all be raving about for years to come. The Packheisers rocked South Padre, stormy weather and all.

twins and friends

After a few days of family fun, it was time to get back on the long road home to Arizona. We left the tropical storms of the coast, with a quick photo stop at the Alamo in San Antonio, then a different route, more northerly, to hook up with good ol’ I-40 and sail along favorite old Route 66 haunts. One overnight stop was Fredericksburg, a lovely Hill Country town founded in the 19th century by German settlers.

fredericksburg 3

The architecture in Fredericksburg is of brawny local stone, solid, traditional and built to last. On a sunny Sunday afternoon Main Street was filled with city slickers buying homestyle jam, and drinking beer on the streets.
They have an open-container law that allows it.

fredericksburg-main street 2

Fredericksburg was a nice bit of something real and solid to chew on, all leafy green shady, and white stone solid, giving us some energy for our voyage home. The next day we continued north, connecting up spidery backroads to Interstate 40, with a special stop planned for the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo.

ellen jo & floyd at the cadillac ranch

The Cadillac Ranch was conceived in 1974, an art project and commentary on consumerism by an artists’ collective known as “Ant Farm”. With farmland donated by a local philanthropist and prankster, Stanley Marsh 3, the Ant Farm planted a series of vintage Cadillacs face first, arranged by year and size of the tailfins. The first, a 1949 model, is modestly tailfin-free, the last, a 1963 model also mild. In between, the tailfins swell to epic stature, before fading away. The installation, visible from I-40, was moved from its original site to a spot further west in 1997.

cadillac ranch -holga/BW

Graffiti on the Caddies is encouraged and, knowing this in advance, I’d packed a bag full of spray-paint rattle cans, and carved up a stencil to use before we left home. We arrived at the site in late afternoon, during a howling high-plains wind, the air full of manure stink. The wind did not make for optimum spray-painting conditions, and most of the color ended up across the back of my left hand, just before my stencil blew away. The Cadillacs are covered with 30 years worth of paint, all thickened, lumpy and bumpy. I took to just wielding the rattle can, free style, joining the small crowd of others tagging their words and thoughts onto the autos. Our final overnight stop was 2 hours to the west, in Tucumcari, New Mexico, at the famous Route 66 Blue Swallow Motel.

blue swallow at night

We’d stayed there once, back in 1999, and for years have lived with fond memories of its vintage style rooms, adjoining garages, and glorious neon road sign--always eager to return some day. Back in its mid-century heyday, Tucumcari was a prime spot on 66, boasting plentiful motel rooms, restaurants and encouraging folks to stay with the ubiquitous slogan “Tucumcari Tonight!” The owner greeted us by name when we arrived at the Blue Swallow, showing us to our room. It was just as we’d remembered it, if not better. Clean, comfortable, and obviously well-loved and tended to by the owner and his family. The neon brilliant in the night sky. Tucumcari, however, seemed worse for wear since a decade past, with many motels and restaurants closed down, and plentiful weirdos wandering the Mother Road, some shoeless, shirtless, hopeless, no service.

ranch house

The motel next door had long ago been abandoned, with thigh-high weeds in the parking lot, a pool full of garbage, and open rooms inhabited by feral cats.

that's some-brero, Floyd!

From Tucumcari it was 7 hours to our own bed, a quick shot across 40 into Arizona. As always, the “Welcome to Arizona” sign with the state flag motif, caused me to burst into tears of joy. From that moment on it was easy sailing, almost home, propelled by sheer glee, every mile more familiar and closer to Clarkdale. We pulled into the Verde Valley at sunset, feeling more like ourselves than we had all week. The rental car was full of messy luggage, souvenir t-shirts, many pounds of sea shells, 17 rolls of spent film, and 2 very anxious pups. Rolling into Old Town Cottonwood towards Clarkdale, I finally realized it.. “I guess I thought every town was gonna be like this—lively and happening-- like our towns. Really, this is a good place where we are.”
The American Roadside is alive and well in Arizona.
“Of all the places we saw, this is the best place on the map,” said Chad. It’s always good to go away, but it’s even better to come back.

For more information:

Ellen Jo Roberts is a sucker for a roadtrip. She lives in 94 year old house in Clarkdale AZ, with Bike Daddy Chad, and some well-traveled pets and vintage Volkswagens. Read all about it at

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