It’s easy to take things for granted when you travel for a long time. Every day you wake up to a beautiful view, every drive takes you to somewhere new to explore and, when you live in a Skoolie, every destination has someone who tells you that your bus is cool. Yeah, yeah, we know…
It all becomes normal very quickly. But has it become too normal? Are we taking what we are doing for granted?
Texas was a chance to test this idea. It is the largest of the States and sits like an enormous behemoth at the bottom of America, a sprawling mass of landscapes, cultures and something that John Steinbeck refers to as ‘uniqueness”. In Travels with Charley he says, “Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”
It all sounded very exciting!
A grubby introduction to Texan life
We knew it would take us an age to cross Texas in a Skoolie but over the course of the journey we’d leave the desert behind and find the Gulf Coast and the Deep South as well as music, art, fresh produce and delicious Tex-Mex food.
We crossed the border expecting great things. Our introduction, however, could not have been less impressive. It was instead a grit-covered misery.
Mile after mile of long, straight roads filled with 18-wheelers – oil trucks – thundering along spitting up sandy sludge. It coated the bus and made it impossible to see the windscreen. Not that there was much to see – alongside the oil plants that lined the road sat soul-less prefabricated box-homes for workers. Occasionally, we’d pass a small town and hopes would rise for an ice-cream pitstop but they all seemed to cater to a particular lonely and thirsty target audience… and suffice to say that two bored bus-bound kids was not it.
Discovering Texas in a Skoolie – a little history lesson on the lone star state.
The oil fields may have been ugly but they go a long way to explaining why Texas is different to it’s neighbours. Whilst the surrounding plantation- reliant southern states slumped when slavery was abolished and the civil war ended, Texans found a route out – building an industry around oil. They produce more per year than Saudi Arabia. They invested in economy, universities and technology and now have several companies in the Fortune 500 and lead the way across a number of industries.
The luck of geology isn’t the only thing in their favour. Texas’ ‘lone star’ on their flag is supposed to be a reminder of their battle for independence from Mexico. It is also a lone star in contrast to the fifty on the US flag. They are not scared to go it alone and they might… they are the only state that joined the union under a treaty which allows them to secede at will. Steinbeck tells us they threaten to exercise this right whenever things don’t quite go their way. Perhaps we can expect…and I hesitate to use the term… “Texit”…..sometime soon?!
A new day a new Texas
Just as we were starting to feel a bit cheated with the scenery, Texas upped it’s game. The Skoolie crossed an intersection and all of a sudden we were in Scotland.
Mountains appeared out of nowhere radiating a purplish hue remarkably similar to the heather on the Highlands.
The trucks disappeared and we were taken on a stunning, winding journey through a sprawling rusty coloured landscape that ended at the isolated Big Bend National Park. The roads were empty and silent and the mountains just grew bigger and bigger. It was joyous – the kick we needed to get excited about this new, massive state and all it offered.
The beauty of Big Bend
Big Bend is the only National Park that contains an entire Mountain Range. Unfortunately, as we discovered when we arrived, big vehicles are not allowed near the picturesque crags of the Chisos Mountains. What we had planned as a week of big views and tired hiking legs had to be reworked.
By way of apology, Big Bend instead gave us glorious sunshine and let us into a little secret – enjoy that mountain backdrop from the chilled out shores and hot springs of the Rio Grande.
Any thought of taking Skoolie-life for granted was quashed at Big Bend. Every moment brought us something – from the funny bobbing heads of the road runners on the campsite to the tinkling bells around the donkey’s neck on the nearby Mexican shore. Turtles swam in the rivers and at dusk the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed.
I lay in bed one morning waiting for my cup of tea (thank you lovely husband!) and a coyote just wandered past. A coyote! I called the boys, partly so they could also see this elusive creature but a little bit because I had no idea where they were and wasn’t entirely sure that small boys weren’t coyote fodder!
Kids taking Skoolie-life for granted? Never!
The kids of course always take things for granted, what child doesn’t. It can be frustrating to hear them wish away their time in America, dreaming of returning home and lamenting the benefits of bricks and sticks over wheels and windows.
Lack of Netflix and a sofa aside, Texas was a great experience for the boys. For our desert-depressed eldest, the leafy green State Parks with their crystal clear rivers were a reminder of the open space of Montana that he loved so much. “There are trees!” he shouted gleefully as he ran from the bus like a dog who has been staring through a glass door that has suddenly opened. Freedom!
The other side of the trees was a sight that brought glee to Guy too. Texas State Parks offer free fishing and the turquoise waters were freshly stocked with trout. Soren was next with the glee when the local fisherman advised Guy to give up with trout bait and just use marshmallows, “they look like the pellets at the hatchery”.
How the other half live.
Moving on again, the vastness of Texas was once again apparent and the long drives between State Parks were never-ending. The weather had turned and there is nothing like driving rain to make a dull drive even more boring. A particular highlight was the 180 miles without a turn – we saw more road kill than other people.
Ornate ranch gates popped up now and again. No homes in sight but plenty of fencing. The amount of land that some of these ranches cover is immense, the money unimaginable. Our brother-in-law has paraglided in Texas before, accidentally landing on a private ranch. He said that it wasn’t uncommon to come face-to-face with an African plains beast specially brought in for the thrill of someone’s personal hunt.
We needed a way to get back on track and thankfully we had an ace in the hand.
The surprise of a lifetime for the boys in Texas
At home in the UK we see my mum about once a month – she misses us dreadfully. She visited us in September in Canada but decided it was time to come out again – only this time as a surprise for the boys.
We came up with a plan to pick her up at her airport hotel in Austin, Texas, pretending she was an eBay seller we were meeting who had a present for Soren’s birthday. We found her loitering outside with a slightly dubious disguise and whisked her onto the bus ready for the big reveal. It was wonderful.
Unlike her trip to Canada, this time we had warned her it would be less of a ‘holiday’ and more just a chance to be part of our day-to-day existence.
We had to continue with home-schooling, we had to stick to our budget and we had to drive long distances, Texas wouldn’t do itself and we had a lot of land to cover. No problem she said and it wasn’t. She slotted in so easily it was just as if she was visiting us on one of her regular trips to Brighton.
But of course it wasn’t. She had driven hours, flown even more hours, spent a lot of money and taken time off work – it wasn’t just a regular trip to visit us. As the rain lashed against the windows in Goliad, site of one of the many battles in Texas that I really tried to engage myself with but could not muster up the energy, and I cooked up yet another bowl of boring noodles for lunch before we hit the road again, it suddenly occurred to me that this was a pretty rubbish holiday. I voiced my apologies. “But I’m in Texas!” she said. “I’m travelling in a Skoolie. You may find it normal but to everyone else it’s exciting just being part of it!”.
Point taken. Just days later I saw through her eyes what kind of trip we were on. We biked on the deserted shores of Padre Island; fished from the rooftop at sunset on Goose Island pier, watched the heavy flying-boat-shaped pelicans skim the waves as they touched down at Magnolia Beach and spotted alligators lurking in the shallows amongst the ibis and egrets at Brazos Bend.
We were entertained by Texan friends, tasted mangoes with chilli and lime salt (delicious) and drank cold beers with pizza to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day in Austin. Most importantly, her boys climbed into bed for cuddles with her every morning. This was an amazing holiday.
In fact the only let down was the food. Mangoes aside, we did not experience the delicious food of Texas. Our farewell meal for Ros was at an IHOP. Terrible!
Happy birthday number 2 son!
Back in the UK a birthday means a party with pals. You take it for granted that you can find someone to help you celebrate. Especially when you are seven. Who do you invite when you live on the road though? Yes, Noni was here but she’d already become part of bus life. We needed kids!
Luckily for us, the only friends we have really made in this part of our trip – the wonderful Airstream pals from Arizona – were wintering in their family home in Magnolia Beach. We scheduled in a birthday stop and their wonderful hospitality ensured Soren not only experienced the joys of smashing a pinata with his pals and eating treats all day, he got to do it inside someone’s house… that is beyond exciting when you are used to living in a bus.
Life got even better when he was invited to have a sleepover and, when asked if he would like a shower the next morning, stole my birthday wish and said, “can I have a bath instead?”!
See Y’all later Texas!
We left Texas full of the joys of travel and life on the road and a few tears (airport ones – poor Noni can’t stay with us forever despite how hard she tries!).
Next up New Orleans, the Deep South and the Louise in Louisiana!