Boondoggled in Houston

Tedious Texas. The roads have grown steadily worse since leaving Mexico as we ride around the Gulf Coast. Big straight Interstates that are quite simply chloroform in concrete. Our butts twitch with discomfort as we fidget to find a comfortable perch for the next lot of oblivious miles. No wonder Texans drawl. We figured it must fill the time on these long tedious roads if you talk slower, put in extra long vowels and drag everything out slowly in that peculiar Texan drawl. Y’all know whut ah mean? In our heads, the catchy tune of ‘Wish I was in Texas’ sung by that luscious Texas Gal, Sandy Cheeks goes round and round to the beat of the lane divide markers on the highway. ‘I miss those wide open skies’ – Big skies were the road vanishes to a blank infinity somewhere up ahead in the wide blue yonder. ‘I miss my 48 acres, Barbeque and Pecan Pie-y-ie-y-ie-y-ie’ – There’s more than 48 acres to the spreads around here, ranches like the Diamond D, the Curly S and the Lazy B. The grub simply has to wait until we put some more of miles under our belts. ‘When I think of you Texas, all I want to do is cry…(break into howling & lots of yodelling)’ – we are nearly crying as we pull into another strip mall and look for a place for the night, howling and yodelling when we literally peel our hot sticky butts off the saddle and go in search of a cold horse trough to soak them in a vain attempt to reduce their baboon posterior appearance. Sandy Cheeks, for the uninformed amongst you, is in fact a squirrel. She is more than that – she is a cartoon squirrel from Texas who lives under the sea (hence the line ‘the ocean’s no place for a squirrel’). She is one of Spongebob Squarepant’s best friends. They do Karate and stuff together. We know this because we watched loads of it with our Nephew Mikey back in Belfast last year and that song, well once heard, it will haunt you forever.

Tedious Texas isn’t fair. The roads are mighty boring but then we didn’t come here specifically looking for a good place to ride. No we planned this side tour to take in some of the jewels preserved in southern Texas. First stop – the WW2 aircraft carrier USS Lexington, moored in Corpus Christi not far from the Mexican border. On round the coast is Houston with the Johnson Space Centre, where the famous Apollo missions were controlled from and where the shuttle and International Space Station are controlled today. Houston is also the site of the Battle of San Jacinto, where Texas won its independence from Mexico and the USS Texas – a vintage battleship that served through both world wars. From Houston we planned to ride to San Antonio and of course the Alamo before heading west and back into Mexico for altogether more interesting roads. At Corpus Christi we camped for a few nights at Padre Island National Beach. It was a beautiful spot – very rugged and windswept with a totally remote feeling even ‘though we were only 25 miles from a big city. It was a bird-watchers paradise with scores of little wader birds and sand feeders clipping along the waters edge on orange stilts, probing the sand for dinner. Overhead, squadrons of Pelicans patrolled the 60-mile long beach in various line astern / line abreast formations. They looked like tired, lost torpedo bombers trying to get back to the Lexington a few miles down the coast. Then we had a pet heron, a huge ungainly looking crock of feathers on sticks. He sat 20 yards from our tent, patrolling the dunes, totally oblivious to our presence, taking up a sniper position where he would simply stand still and wait for hours for some poor unwary beastie to cross his sights. Then with deadly precision that harpoon beak of his would fire and bam, another gecko bites the dust.

It is sad that Britain, our home, was the greatest seafaring nation of all time and yet very little of this past heritage has been preserved. Whilst we do have some fine museum ships like Nelson’s Victory, HMS Belfast and a few destroyers and submarines, there are none of the great ships left from the Dreadnought era or from the 2 World Wars. They have all been long since broken up or sold to foreign navies and then scrapped having splendidly served their country, with only the odd black and white photograph to record their passing. Good on the Americans then for preserving some of their naval past. The USS Lexington, CV-16 ‘The Blue Ghost’ was commissioned in 1943 and named after a predecessor who was sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942. During WW2 she saw a lot of action in the Pacific theatre where she was struck by a Japanese Kamikaze and later on torpedoed in the course of a very distinguished career. She was called the ‘Blue Ghost’ because at one time she sported an all dark-blue camouflage scheme and also because the Japanese radio propagandist Tokyo Rose repeatedly reported her as having been sunk only to declare weeks later that she was still in service – coming back like a ghost, as it were. Planes from the Lex were accredited with destroying over 1,000 Japanese aircraft and sinking over a million tons of enemy shipping. After WW2 she continued in service as a training ship for carrier pilots until retirement in the early 90’s when she was towed to Corpus Christi to spend the rest of her days as a museum ship. Nothing prepared us for the size of the Lex; she totally dominates the city waterfront. You board the ship on one of the side elevators that were used to transport aircraft from the below deck hangar up to the flight deck – we felt like ants on a billiard table walking across the elevator, necks craned as we tried to take in the huge grey structure around us bristling with anti aircraft weapons and overhanging aircraft tails from the flight deck above. The hangar-deck is 3 football fields long and houses a few of the more vintage aircraft onboard where they are more sheltered from the elements. It’s hard to imagine what this deck must have been like when it was crammed with a full flight complement of aircraft. The ship was crewed by over 1500 men and we descended into the bowels of the carrier on our self-guided tour of their world. It was a trip into a labyrinthine city in grey metal as we passed through crew quarters, officer quarters, machine shops, armaments stores, dentists (she had 7 of these at one time), surgeons, operating theatres, mess canteens, bakery, post-office, laundry, tailor shop, barber shop, padres office, ships jail and the library. Then there was the business end of the ship – flight briefing and squadron ready-rooms, where the aircrew prepared for each mission; anti-aircraft stations for the ships protection against incoming air attack and damage control for co-ordinating the response to any resulting damage from successful attacks. Up top, the view from the stern of the flight deck took us past a flight line of carrier planes from the 1950’s up to the 1980’s on display, past the carrier’s massive bridge and on to the bow some 910 feet away. Lexington, like other US carriers of the era had a wooden flight deck, which made her particularly vulnerable to fire damage from Kamikaze attack (British carriers all had steel decks and didn’t burn so well when hit). Today the deck is suffering some fairly horrific damage from the elements. Corpus Christi has a fair claim to rival Chicago for the title of the ‘Windy City’, but here the wind comes in off the sea carrying salt water and sand from along the coastline, making it a very corrosive environment. After 4 nights camping on Padre Island, our bikes were starting to show signs of rust and corrosion on their steel and aluminium areas, so what must it be doing to the Lex? It will be a mammoth undertaking to preserve her against these elements.

A day’s ride took us on to Houston where the USS Texas resides. Commissioned in 1914 the Texas is a throw back to the late dreadnought era and served throughout the First and Second World Wars. Although she never saw action in any major naval engagements she had a very distinguished service record. She was present at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in 1918 and was saved from the scrap yard by the 1929 Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the numbers of new vessels allowed by each navy, but allowed for the refurbishment of existing units. So, modernised she went on to see service in WW2, missing Pearl Harbor but going on to serve in the Atlantic partaking in the invasions of Morocco, Normandy and Southern France. At Normandy she suffered her only casualty on active service when she was hit by fire from a German shore battery and one seaman was killed. In 1945 she was in the Pacific supporting the landings at Okinawa and her last service was a happy one, bringing troops home after the Japanese surrender. In 1948 she was designated as the first US memorial battleship and moored near the San Jacinto Battleground, where she sits today. In many ways the Texas was a lot more impressive than the Lexington. Where the Lexington was all wide-open spaces the Texas was crammed and cluttered with weaponry and crew compartments. Her main armament was 10 x 14 inch guns housed in 5 enormous armoured turrets. She had a similar crew size to the Lex at 1500 men but once again their world was a lot more claustrophobic than life on the carrier. She measures a mere 570 feet long compared to the 910 feet of the Lex so you have all the same crew requirements crammed into an area of roughly half the space. It was hard to imagine where a guy could go to get a little peace for a few minutes alone on this metal leviathan. Both ships were technological marvels of their respective ages and both served their country well in times of great distress in the world. Neither of the vessels serves to glorify war in any way. Both are fitting tributes and memorials to the men who served, fought and died in them. There are programs for youngsters to come and spend a night aboard each of the ships so that they may learn in real time and space what life was like for their predecessors called up in less prosperous and more stressful times than today.

Where Corpus Christi was a fairly easy-going city by the sea, Houston was an Industrial nightmare. The Texas and the San Jacinto Battleground are totally surrounded by mile after mile of petro-chemical landscaping; a conglomeration of silver pipelines, distilling towers, huge chemical vats, condenser lines and chimneys pouring out pollutants that gave the sky an interesting if somewhat unnatural colouring at sunset. It was a nightmare too trying to find accommodation, as the whole city was full of refugees and Federal relief workers from the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both of which had recently devastated nearby Louisiana. We met people who had lost everything – their homes, their jobs, their children’s schools in fact their whole society as they’d lost too neighbours and friends. What can you say to somebody in this position? Things are starting to happen to restore the situation but it all seems slow and there is a sense of unease that the Federal authorities are making lots of promises on which they will then renege when it comes to delivery. We met one guy, a teacher, who was a little more fortunate in that he at least still had his job. Everything else was gone. His house, all his possessions gathered up over a long lifetime all erased when the levee broke and buried his dwelling under 9 feet of muddy water. He taught maths and physics and had been told to carry on by correspondence courses with 11 pupils, all conducted by Internet. He had just been told that the government were prepared to reimburse him with 2/3 of the value of the cost to rebuild his home. He was devastated. Where to rebuild? Where would the rest of the money come from? A cheap, low-interest loan was mentioned but even that was putting him in debt for the next lot of years. On our late arrival into Houston we found a motel right on Interstate 10 that had a room for one night, premium rate as there were no other rooms in town. The guy said there were 12 ‘restaurants’ round the corner all within easy walking distance from the motel. The ‘restaurants’ all tuned out to be fast-food chains offering anything you liked provided it was deep-fried and came in huge quantities with a bucket of your favourite sugary beverage on the side. It helped explain the numbers of obese Americans we were seeing. All these outlets and not one of them selling anything that approximated natural, healthy or even just plain food. Next morning we took to the road in search of somewhere better to stay. We turned off down NASA Road One – the main road that leads to the Johnson Space Centre – a road lined with motels, but they all had the same story – all their rooms were pre-booked by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for use by evacuees or relief workers. We needed some fuel so we stopped at a gas station where we met a big teddy bear of a fellow called Brian Rochon, a structural engineer working with NASA. He had recently watched Ewan MacGregor & Charlie Boorman in ‘Long Way Round’ so he recognised us as long-distance travellers from the style of our bikes. He kindly helped us find a hotel and offered to accompany us on the tour of the space centre, where we saw the control room used for all the Apollo missions as well as mock ups of the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. We went for dinner at his ‘local’ – a pub not far from our hotel called ‘Boondoggles’ run by the charismatic, silver haired, Australian, John Devereux. Brian introduced us to John and over the next few days we became fixtures at Boondoggles, basking in the amazing Aussie hospitality afforded by John and his friends, all of whom were motorcyclists. John was immensely enthusiastic about our whole project and set about organising a detailed trail for us to follow across Texas and back into Mexico, ensuring we missed nothing of interest along the way and getting us off those tedious interstates and on to a set of altogether more interesting roads.

First stop on the ‘Devereux Trail’ was Austin, the state capitol. We arrived on a golden Sunday afternoon and had a ride around the Capitol buildings and on up around some pretty countryside near Lake Travis. Unfortunately we awoke to a heavy grey Monday morning that decided us to ride south to San Antonio with the promise of bluer skies. It was another boring, albeit short, Interstate hop to San Antonio and along the way we were pestered by a guy in a wine coloured pick-up truck. He kept pulling alongside to get a good look at the bikes and then dropping back. We pulled into a gas station for a break and he pulled in after us. “You guys a’ridin’ them bikes frem Chilly to Aleska?” he drawled. We gave him a brief account of our trip. “Sure must be sore on yer butts doin’ all them thar miles if’n ya don’t mand me sayin’” We said yes it could be tough sometimes especially on these tedious Texan Interstates. “I might be able ter help yer with thet n’all” he said disappearing into the back of his pick-up to emerge a few moments later with a bright yellow talc bottle labelled ‘Anti Monkey Butt Powder’. We’d just run into Andy Thompson, Main Monkey of Anti Monkey Butt Corporation. Andy was a lovely chap. We followed him back to the World HQ of the Anti Monkey Butt Corporation where we were duly adopted and gained the latest sponsor to our Panamerican Adventure! Andy & some pals have spent years riding dirt bikes & mountain bikes in the US and down in Baja Mexico. These activities involve lots of time sat on a plastic saddle with consequent sweating and irritation of the posterior region such that it can assume baboon like appearances and so Andy developed ‘Anti Monkey Butt’ powder – a mixture of talc with powdered calamine added to minimise and sooth friction burns from long duration exposure to life in the saddle. It’s been a big success too with added markets in the field of equestrian activities and other extreme sports. We’ve been using it ever since to good effect. Great product, Great name, lovely people! Thank you Andy – as it says on the T-Shirts, ‘Anti Monkey Butt saved our Asses!’

San Antonio proved to be a delightful stop. It has a lazy easy-going attitude that suited us down to the ground. We plonked ourselves in the delightful Columns B&B, such a refreshing change from the motel life we have grown accustomed to in the US, where our hosts Art & Ellenor set us up each day with an excellent gourmet cooked breakfast. All the main attractions were within good walking distance too, so the bikes had a rest for a few days as we took in the delights of the city’s Riverwalk area as well as visiting San Antonio and Texas’ most famous landmark – the Alamo. ‘Alamo’ is actually the Spanish word for the Cottonwood tree and the name was believed to originate from when the mission was occupied by a Spanish Cavalry troop in the early 1800’s. They had just opened a new free museum at the Alamo telling the story of the build up to the siege, the story of the battle, the defeat and the aftermath that lead to Texan independence. Texas back then was a vast unsettled territory, part of the newly independent state of Mexico. The Mexicans were keen to encourage settlement and so European immigrants and Americans were encouraged to come to the area. Provided they recognised the Mexican constitution and swore to be good Catholics, there were no problems and everyone was happy. Things got out of control when General Santa Anna took over as dictator of Mexico. He disbanded the government and tore up the Mexican constitution of 1824. He tried to dissuade further immigrants from coming to Texas, sending soldiers under General Cos to enforce this policy and police the area around San Antonio. It was too much for the Texans who rebelled and forced Cos out of the Alamo in late 1835, occupying it in the name of the 1824 constitution. Santa Anna was enraged and marched into Texas in early 1836 with a huge army bent on revenge. In February they bottled up the defenders in the Alamo and the rest is history. The siege lasted for 13 days at the end of which an early dawn attack quickly overwhelmed the defenders with no quarter given. A few weeks later Santa Anna was defeated in the disastrous Battle of San Jacinto near present day Houston. The overbearing ‘Napoleon of the West’ failed to put out pickets and was caught totally unprepared by a much inferior but furious Texan army under Sam Houston, bent on revenge for the slaughter at the Alamo. His army was utterly routed and Santa Anna himself captured trying to escape dressed as a private soldier. The whole campaign was a disaster for Mexico and in its aftermath the country lost not only Texas but also all of California, New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma to the USA. It is a little sad that today the Alamo is surrounded by high-rise developments in the heart of downtown San Antonio. Still when you walk the grounds and lower your eyes from the backdrop of the umpteen-story Marriott Hotel, it remains a sacred place. It is especially moving in the old church, now the shrine and place of remembrance for the defenders of the Alamo. Inside there are flags representing the states where the fallen men originated. Added to this were the flags of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all of whom contributed recent immigrants who died trying to defend their newfound land. Walking away from the Alamo we noticed a little bronze plaque on one of the walls, bearing Masonic emblems. It commemorated the fallen Freemasons in the struggle for the liberation of Texas and gave the names of those masons who fell in the siege. It was staggering – all of the principal players were there – Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie (of the knife fame), Travis, Bonham – every one a Freemason. It was funny too as a few weeks previously in Mexico City we had visited the Palacio Nacional where the original Mexican Parliament Assembly room was similarly adorned with Masonic emblems – the eye in the triangle dominating the central ceiling spot and overlooking all the proceedings. Was the Alamo the outcome of some big Masonic fall-out? There’s one for the conspiracy theorists!

From San Antonio we continued following the ‘Devereux Trail’ taking winding and altogether more interesting roads, away at last from those infernal Interstates, into the Texas Hill Country. We met an old guy in a café in the little town of Bandera who amused us some more of that lovely old Texan drawl. He was a big old guy and it turned out the old lady sat across from him was in fact his mother. It was her birthday and they were out for a lunchtime treat. He was part deaf so to compensate he spoke extra loud, so everyone else in the café could hear too, interrogating us as to where we’d come from on the funny motorcycles and what we were doing in Texas. He was eating some stretched Pork Tenderloin and he gestured towards us with his loaded fork at the same time chewing on the remnants of his last mouthful. “Here” he said, “Ya oughta tra suma this here fahn pork belly. It’s reel speshal an’ they cuke it just right en here”. “Is it good then?” I asked. “Nope” he replied and then there was a pause for effect…”Gude. This pork’s not gude. It’s damned gude!” John told us to check out the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum run by another Aussie – Alan Johncock and his wife Debbie. Set in the hill country at Vanderpool we were staggered to find an awesome collection of some 100 old British bikes, all gathered under one roof. John has been collecting the bikes over the years and what’s neat is that they are nearly all in running order and are ridden. Not only are they ridden but some are raced at classic bike meets around the country. There is a café too where you can get homemade Aussie meat pies. Sadly we couldn’t spend more time at the museum, as on our way there we bumped into a guy called Bob headed for Fredricksburg and the Houston BMW club annual rally. His invite to come join them for the weekend was too good to refuse and so we rode further into the Hill Country on some excellent twisty roads where we received a very warm welcome from all the folks at the rally. The Texas Hill Country was mainly settled by German immigrants as witnessed by family names on businesses and German bakeries and restaurants. We had a very pleasant weekend mingling with biker folk, quaffing beer and wine and swapping tales from the road late into the evenings.

On the Sunday we left the Hill Country and set off south and west riding the Wild West Highway 90 over the Pecos River, past the little town of Langtry (called after Lillie Langtry & haunt of the notorious Judge Roy Bean) towards the small town of Alpine. We had 2 reasons for going there. First our bikes have worn out their chains and sprockets and we picked up some replacements in San Antonio from the BMW dealer there (who also kindly washed our bikes). The ‘Devereux Trail’ lead us to a guy in Alpine called Chris King who runs a mechanic shop there, specialising in restoring old BMWs and preparing GS bikes for rally and competition. John rated him very highly. Secondly, Alpine is the gateway into the Big Bend National Park and just about everyone in Texas said we had to go there. Generally I’m quite fussy about who works on my bikes, as good mechanics are hard to find but we Chris King is one of the finest mechanics we ever came across and it turned out he’d worked on everything from P51 Mustang aircraft to BMW motorcycles. In an afternoon both bikes were fitted with their new chains and sprockets – a job easily accomplished in his workshop. We spent several days with Chris in the course of which we repaired some damaged pannier locks and Chris knocked us up some tool rolls from some 4” PVC drainpipe. These are now fitted to the front of the engines and have the benefit of taking heavy weight and moving it down low. The work was all performed under the watchful eye of his dad, Bob, and Doodles the biking Basset Hound whose normal seat is in the sidecar of one of Chris’ old BMW outfits. Alpine was a beautiful stop over and we found everyone here very easy going and laid back. No one locks their doors and we were staggered to visit a bakery in town that operated an honour system on its day off. The bakery was closed, in that there were no staff, but the premises were open and everything was all priced up – you just took what you wanted and put the money in a cookie jar. To be honest the USA is the last place we expected to find such a system in operation and it was a very pleasant shock indeed.

The ‘Devereux Trail’ was coming to an end but there was one more surprise in store. Chris introduced us to Susan who rides a BMW R100RT and whose husband Matthew is an Astronomer at the nearby McDonald Observatory. In short time we were invited to spend an evening at their house on the observatory to partake in a little stargazing. The skies in this part of Texas are some of the best in the USA as there are no big cities for a long way around to pollute the evening sky with their light. What followed was an evening of sheer magic as we got to drive and observe through a 30” telescope some of the jewels in the Texas evening sky. We started with the Andromeda Galaxy – a galaxy similar to our own but light years away and a faint smudge in the night sky. We then went on to look at various arrangements of star clusters. Next were some binary stars and then we came to a red flickering star with a cold blue disc beside it. The cold blue disc was the planet Neptune. We looked at Uranus – another slightly bigger grey disc and then moved on to Mars. Here we could see the dark desert areas on the red planet contrasting starkly against the white polar cap. Finally we looked at the moon and she was beautiful. It was a ¾ moon and we had to drive the telescope with it’s motor to scan over the cratered powdery surface, wearing sunglasses to cut out the intense bright light. The whole experience was one of the most magical moments of our entire trip and we can never thank Matthew & Susan enough for their wonderful hospitality and setting this up for us. The observatory has a number of large telescopes and next morning we went to view some of those that had been working the previous evening. There is a 1968 vintage 107” monster and Matthew drove it over so we could peer inside. It was an enormous structure and looked like a ‘Ming the Merciless Death Ray’ from a 50’s sci-fi movie. The telescopes work on the principal of using a huge mirror to collect light, which is then magnified and focussed for the viewer. 107” refers to the diameter of the collector mirror so you can guess how big the telescope was. This telescope had some interesting stories to tell. When we looked inside, there were 3 bullet holes in the mirror as well as a larger damaged area caused by a hammer! Apparently many years ago one of the technicians working here went crazy. We weren’t sure if it was personal problems or the guy just went off his head but he got the idea that the telescope was to blame and tried to kill it, first with a hand gun and when this failed to shatter the mirror he took a hammer to it. Somehow he was overpowered and the damaged mirror has since been dressed to work around the defective areas.

Our final stop in Texas was the Big Bend National Park. We camped in the Chisos mountain basin and had a tranquil weekend hiking and sight seeing in this remote corner of the USA. Big Bend is one of the least visited of America’s National Parks and is a real treasure. Here we shared some giant-sized hospitality from the campground hosts, Lewis and Susan McCool – probable descendants of the legendary Finn McCool the Ulster giant who built the Giant’s Causeway! Lewis was a retired newspaper editor, from Colorado now volunteer campground host in this spectacular site, the centrepiece in a crown of lofty ruddy red mountain peaks. We rode out to Boquillas Canyon cut through by the Rio Grande, a muddy cold-coffee turbulent river that marks the border with Mexico. Prior to 9/11 the border was fairly open here and we chatted across the river with Victor, a Mexican guy who used to run a ferry here taking folk over for day trips into Mexico where they could buy souvenirs or pig out on Mexican food. Now the US border patrol has closed it all down in case Al Qaeda try to sneak in this way and all that remained were a few unmanned souvenir stalls with a coffee jar to leave your money in – all based on trust, just like the bakery in Alpine. At the end of the day one of the Mexicans will swim over and collect the day’s takings.

So that was Texas and what a trip we had here. 2 weeks of some of the finest hospitality anywhere from some of the friendliest folks on Earth. Texas wasn’t good…It was damned good!!! Fine as it was, we were pining to get back into Mexico. Travelling in the US is so easy and we yearned for that slightly rougher edge to our travels. We rode the River Road that follows the Rio Grande from Big Bend on a cold grey morning and set out for Chihuahua (of the little doggie fame) and our re-entry to Mexico. The border crossing at Presidio was easy and once again the Mexican Aduanas were all very friendly and helpful and we were soon streaking across warmer desert roads leading us into the heart of Northern Mexico…

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