Feature As President Bush prepares to return to Texas next week, the British author Tim Lott takes a trip to survey the landscape.
A rambling ride through the Lone Star State
A new American president has arrived, and so George W Bush can finally slip off his presidential shoes, put on his cowboy boots and return to what he has called "the brown, brown grass of home" - West Texas, where he lives on a ranch in the small town of Crawford. Texas might not be everybody's choice for a spell of R and R. Most people tend to view this vast state - the size of Germany, Italy and Denmark combined - as populated by rednecks, fundamentalist Christians and religious cult leaders brandishing high-calibre weapons behind barricaded walls.
As it happens, my elder brother Jeff has spent the last few years commuting between Louisiana and New Mexico, and traversing the vast Lone Star state in between. This made him the perfect guide to discover whether Texas had charms for quiche-munchers like us as well as red meat eating Republican ex-presidents. Could we cohabit with coteries of "Busharoos", cowboys by the six pack and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives with "Don't Mess With Texas" bumper stickers? We were going to drive 3,200km in six days in order to find out.
We headed off early in the morning from Austin, the state capital, on the first 700km leg of our trip towards Marfa, where James Dean's classic 1956 movie Giant was filmed. As we drove, we watched pickup trucks drag trailers of horses down the I-10 motorway. The light was eerily clear. It's a wonderful, limitless feeling, travelling west into the great emptiness. The landscape seems populated by little more than mesquite trees and hard-edged sunshine. Jeff told me that he once visited Marfa and saw white balls of light travelling along the road - he thought had seen a UFO. These were the famous "Marfa lights", a phenomenon observed by many visitors but never explained. Best guesses are headlights in the far distance given a peculiar refraction by the landscape. Or aliens.
In the distance as we drove we saw "walking rain" that leaves the clouds in dark streaks but evaporates before reaching the ground. The mesas unfolded past us and Jeff pointed out a dust devil spinning like an unquiet spirit across a flat, desolate, but starkly beautiful landscape. When we eventually arrived in Marfa, the hotel was festooned with James Dean posters, but was otherwise an authentic adobe style building in the middle of an urban space so spread out that is more like a paved wilderness than a city. We took a walk through the town where the sense of space and nothingness is entirely benign. There were crazily wide streets, vivid colours, electric blue skies. Jeff took photos of the giant chrome water tower that dominates the town. The place was so cinematic it felt more like a film set than a real urban space.
The second day's drive took us 370km to Las Cruces. Shortly before reaching the Tex Mex town, we stopped off at the McDonald Observatory, located on top of a mountain and officially the 'darkest place in the United States'. The views this high up are infinite and jaw-dropping. We did a tour of the giant telescopes and watched a live feed of pictures from the sun, flaring and undulating as if it were breathing.
As we arrived at our hotel in Las Cruces - we have left Texas and come on a short detour to New Mexico so that Jeff can show me where he lived before moving back to New Orleans last year - fireworks bloomed as if in celebration of his homecoming. Everywhere there are strange pink and orange adobe houses, separated by arroyos (dry river beds that flood in the rainy season). Jeff showed me the agave cactus, a quail crossing the road, ocotillo bushes, the azaleas. "In spring it all bursts into colour." It seemed strange and lonely, but romantic. We watched bikers on Harley Davidson's cruise past with no helmets and no protective gear. Dangerous - but that's what Americans think of as freedom.
We visited Mesilla Park Green, a little oasis furnished with Pecan trees. The courthouse where Billy the Kid was tried and then hanged is now a shop with a Billy the Kid fortune teller and cowboy souvenirs. To one side of the square, the authenticity of the ageing Catholic Church is belied by the chime of pre-recorded digital bells. The weirdest experience came on the third day, on the drive to Albuquerque via Acoma Sky City (560km). We drove past Spaceport America in New Mexico, which sets out to be the first ever purpose-built port for commercial space travel when it opens. It's only $100,000 dollars a ticket and the signs are already up at Upham on the I25. We continued past the oddly christened town Truth or Consequences (originally called Hot Springs, it was renamed after the game show offered to come to any place that gave itself the same name). The drive to Sky City, through endless red earth, mountains and giant mesas was almost spine chilling. A freight train sounding ghostly whistles snakes across an empty orange landscape topped by blue skies and red cliffs. Lightning in the distance constantly connected sky and ground.
At the pueblo, a young woman called Tahama of the Big Sun Clan shows us around this ancient Indian settlement, first settled in 1150. More than a dozen Acoma Indian families still live there. The San Esteban del Ray mission was built here by forced Indian labour. According to our guide, the builders cut giant stone monoliths from mountains that we could see in the distance. If they were to accidentally touch the ground they were considered to be defiled and the builders would go back and cut fresh ones .
The cemetery has five layers of graves, 12-metres deep, with grotesque facial features on raised bumps around wall of cemetery to scare evil spirits. The interior of the church here features a giant depiction of purgatory on buffalo hide. The walls were painted with rainbows and parrots. To me it looked more like a giant child's playroom than a sacred space. The next day we drove on to Dallas. Compared with the majesty of the scenery around Sky City, the landscape blanded out - it became more flat and green. Just before Amarillo, there was a strange vision in a roadside field - ten parallel shapes pointing upwards to the sky. We left the car and walked into all encompassing sky and land. The objects came into focus - ten different models of Cadillacs, covered in graffiti, half buried in the Texas dust. Families with spray cans had added their own markings to the rusted paintwork, a practice that is apparently considered part of the artwork. This - unsigned and unheralded - was the Cadillac Ranch, an artwork built in 1974 by a San Francisco Art Collective. Framed against such a wilderness, the effect was both unsettling and witty at the same time.
Returning to the car, shortly afterwards we stopped at the equally bizarre Big Texan Steak Ranch for some food. An institution for nearly 50 years, the vast eating space is festooned with trophies of elk deer, bears. vultures, buffalo, guns, wild boar, maybe 100 heads in all. Here you can order prairie oysters (bull testicles) and rattlesnake. The restaurant's big gimmick, however is the free 72oz steak dinner. It's only free if you can actually eat it - plus three side dishes - in an hour. I ordered the smallest steak on the menu along with some deep fried okra and a potato salad while a little slim guy took up the challenge. I checked out his steak - it completely covered a large plate. As we finished our coffee 45 minutes later he was still going. At one point he looked like he was going to cry. With two minutes to go, he finished the steak, but he wasn't going to make it through the sides. He heroically attacked the bread roll anyway before the whistle blew to mark the failure of his attempt.
Our last day was also the most moving of experiences. We drove from our hotel to Deeley Plaza in Dallas to see the famous underpass that is embedded in the collective memory of anyone over 50. We visited the famous grassy knoll to be hustled for change by a man who claims that he was here on the spot when he was 12 years old. He is carrying a picture of a boy on that day - but it could have been anyone. Looking down onto the road from the knoll, we could see two crosses, marking where the two fatal shots came.
Standing at the entrance to the museum in front of a giant photo of JFK and Jackie in the car moments before the assassination still had an enormous impact - the happiness and hope that seem to be embodied in that moment, them smiling in the sun. The beauty of the cars themselves seemed to speak of a happier time. The museum brought up hidden, ingrained memories. I found it moving to the point of tears, standing looking out of the window where Lee Harvey Oswald pointed his rifle at John F Kennedy 45 years ago. And fired, changing the world forever.
We drove then to the home of a very different president, George W Bush. In Crawford, where he has his ranch there was nothing but a crossroads with a diner and a gift shop called the Yellow Rose, selling Bush memorabilia. It was festooned with slogans such as "Evil Prevails When Good Men Do Nothing" and "Support Our Troops". We had a burger in the Coffee Station Diner. There were photos of George and Colin Powell everywhere. A big beefy guy watching us looks like he thought Jeff and I were up to no good. We ate a cheeseburger - quickly - with deep fried jalapeños. It was the only place in Texas that I have felt anything like a negative atmosphere. I felt pleased to be leaving. In an hour, we were relieved to be back in Austin, the unofficial motto of which is "Keep Austin Weird."
I said goodbye to Jeff, and thanked him for his nifty tour guide skills. I had an hour before leaving for the airport and took the opportunity to check out the shops on fashionable South Congress Avenue. This was a very different deal from all the stores in the little backwater towns of Texas - "funky" is a word invented for places like this. I visit Yard Dog Folk Art, an antique shop called Uncommon Objects, Big Top Candy Shop, and a place to buy authentic Western boots. There was an old chrome airstream mobile home called Hey Cupcake selling - cupcakes. In one folk art shop, there was a startling Hurricane Katrina triptych showing men lying dead in the water, cities in flames and ruins, and in the main picture, the ghost of a young black girl set against screaming newspaper headlines. New Orleans, now his home, is the town Jeff was now flying towards. He told me it is being re-born.
Perhaps the same thing is about to happen to America. But in the meantime, in the empty, conservative heartlands, there is still plenty to fascinate and absorb the visitor. Despite sitting in the seat of a moving vehicle for about six hours a day, I had not been bored for a moment. It must have been the company - of both my brother and one of the most remarkable landscapes on the planet.