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Monday, 4 June 2012

Down by the Rio Grande - and stuck in the mud

In this second extract from Toad’s Road-Kill Café I’m about to set off from Laredo, where I’ve been entertained and shown around by ‘Miguel’, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. We’d done the city, we’d crossed the Rio Grande into old Mexico, and even been to see the border patrols at work along the river-bank. Now we were off to see a man who worked in environmental conservation along the banks of the Rio Grande.


If Only I’d Studied Physics…

Before he took me back to Casa Blanca, Miguel had one more thing he wanted to show me.  Old Fort McIntosh, down by the river, was occupied by the military right up to 1948.  Now it houses a museum and research centre run by Texas A & M – the Agricultural and Mechanical wing of the state university. There I met Dr. Tom Miller, a quietly spoken, easy-going man, the Director of the Environmental Science Center.  When you’ve had protracted experience of English universities, American academics are always a surprise.  They have firm handshakes; they possess most of the social graces; and they have a range of conversation beyond that riveting titbit they read in the last quarterly journal. 

Nevertheless, I was slightly taken aback to realise that it takes an Earth Sciences kind of person like Dr Miller to be intrigued by my plan to ride an imaginary line from the U.S.A’s southern border to its northern extremity.  Tom was the first person I met who knew, immediately, what I meant when I started on about the Hundredth Meridian.  It was like finding a soulmate.  “That sounds a great trip,” he said.  “Kinda wish I was doing it myself.” 

I should say here that I’ve always thought of myself as having an artistic sensibility, but now I faced the realisation that I had possibly missed my vocation in life altogether.  Maybe I should have studied science subjects rather than arts, spent my late teens hunched over a test-tube rather than a book of French poetry, and perhaps in my mature years, instead of trying to outflank the economic facts of life and earn a crust as a writer, I might have landed a nice job in charge of a research project into the ecology of the Rio Grande.  The more I heard about Tom’s job, the more I wished I had it. 

He wasted no time in filling me in on his favourite subject.  What most people expect of the western Great Plains, he remarked, is something like what they see in those Marlboro ads, the legendary aridity and treelessness that you read about in the pioneer literature.  And most Americans, if you ask them about the area, will tell you there is indeed nothing out there: just flat, dusty land divided by the odd strand of barbed wire.      
But the first thing you notice - in southern Texas, at least -  is that although the country isn’t exactly mountainous it’s certainly not flat – not in the way the English Fens are, for example; nor is it particularly dusty or barren.  People’s view of the landform, Tom suggested, is reactive.  “Think about it: if you’ve emigrated from a mountainous region like Appalachia, or from Sweden, or Scotland, then I guess the Plains would strike you as pretty featureless.”  As to the fact that a great swathe of Texas from Corpus Christi to Del Rio, between the Nueces river and the border, is thickly clad with shrubs and small trees, that’s all down to Man, he told me.  Originally it was covered with native grasses, but the early settlers ran cattle over it, and when they’d chewed up all they could eat sheep were brought in.  The sheep nibbled everything that grew, right down to the roots, which allowed the surface of the soil to break up. And that let in migratory weeds like the rugged, thorny mesquite and the thirsty cedar. 

It’s a wonder I heard the rest.  There’s something so enchanting about the way some Americans – Texans, for example – pronounce a word like “migratory” that it distracts you from what they’re actually telling you.  It’s not “mi-grey-tory”, as in England; it’s “my-gra-tory”: the “tory” part pronounced as if referring to our current government.   It lends a poetic something – a musicality – to the most commonplace word, and I found myself rolling it round my mouth as I drove along hours later, recalling the rest of what Tom said, some of which had to do with the fact that the south Texas brush country is now poor for grazing but good for hunting.  And that the mesquite, otherwise a thorough nuisance, makes great charcoal for barbecues.

What Tom had to say about the Rio Grande was really quite depressing.  It’s well known that what leaves Colorado as a clean, turbid, ice-cool torrent generally arrives at the Gulf coast a thin, putrid, chemical gruel – and this very year it had been stopped short of the ocean by a sand-bar, endangering what was left of its wildlife and threatening the livelihood of Mexican farmers along its lower reaches.  But maybe there’s hope.  In his outdoor lab, Tom had diverted a small sample of the river through a series of artificial lagoons and tanks in which he’d re-created its several ecosystems as they used to be.  He showed me crocodiles, turtles, snakes and all manner of exotic fish and fowl enjoying sparkling waters, tranquil rock-pools, the shade of river-bank plants and cool gravel-beds in his scientifically-controlled environments.  Back in the days when it ran clean, the river sustained sufficient organisms to be able to dispose of whatever debris the local humans and livestock could dump in it.  As any healthy river should, it managed to keep itself clean.  Now, assailed by too many people pumping too much waste, by run-off from ploughed lands, by industrial and agricultural pollution, it’s ailing, murky, dangerous to most life-forms.

The great thing about being an ecologist – and how I wish I’d known this at fourteen when we were forced to choose between Geography and History – is that you do field work.  Someone in Tom’s position needs to know his territory.  Not only does he have to build an intimate acquaintance with relatively unknown terrain – in his case the drainage basin of the lower Rio Grande – but he gets to do so in the firm’s 4 x 4.  He didn’t offer me a ride out along the banks – although if I’d been the travel writer my host thought I was I’d have torn up my schedule right there and talked him into it – but he did offer me guidance on getting out to the place where the Hundredth Meridian crossed the Mexican border, which is where I wanted to start.   “Take the highway out to the Columbia Bridge,” he told me, “then head for El Indio – you’ll recognise it: there’s a casino out that way, run by the Kickapoo tribe.  It’s a dirt road, but it’s passable.  When you get to the gate, just open it.”  It all sounds so easy when you jot it down in your little black notebook before driving back to your camp-site; and a guy with a handshake like that – firm, warm, friendly – you just know everything’ll be fine.

Broad Is The Way That Leadeth To Destruction – and Passable With Care

I set out from Casa Blanca State Park around seven next morning, without breakfast.  I would stop for food along the way. 

Believe me, you can work up quite an appetite looking for a place to get breakfast in the American West – especially if you’ve taken a vow never again to be suckered into eating the garbage they serve in chain restaurants – your Dennys, Arbys, Wendys and Burger Kings.  I have for some years adopted a policy of travelling stoically along life’s – or at least America’s – byways, hungering and thirsting until I find a family-run diner with a zig-zag row of beat-up, dusty pick-ups parked outside.  Because guys who drive beat-up, dusty pick-ups generally home in on the only decent diner in town.  It’s usually worth the wait.  It never occurred to me that in Texas, of all places, it would take an entire morning.  

I did, however, manage to remember to gas up before I left town.  Now that I was venturing into the wild I would try never to let the needle drop below halfway.  I’d been caught out enough times in rural parts, confident that the next place down the road would have a gas station, only to find that the town on the map consisted of nothing more than a café and a general store, both of them boarded up.   And while it was fresh in my mind – just to make quite sure I didn’t make a fool of myself more often than was absolutely necessary – I actually stopped on the roadside a few hundred yards short of the first gas station, got out, and walked deliberately around the car.   Aha!  So that’s where it was. This trip I wasn’t going to get caught, red-faced and foolish, trying to wrap a tangled hose round the back of the car as some languid high school kid smirked at me from behind the till for not knowing which side my filler-cap was on.  I’d even taken the ball-point pen out of my top pocket and written a large `R` for `Right` on the back of my hand.  

When I pulled in at the gas station I found that unleaded fuel was $1.46 a gallon in this part of Texas, which, even allowing for the fact that an American gallon is equivalent to six English pints, was less than a third of what I’d been paying at home.  But what had I read in USA Today on the flight from Manchester?  “Gas Prices Spring Skyward”.  Yep, they’d risen twenty cents in a fortnight and there was “no end in sight”.
With that satisfied feeling that comes from having a full tank, I hit the road. My destination was the point, somewhere along highway 1472, where it crosses the hundredth meridian.  Then ho! for Highway 83, which, in its various guises, leads all the way to North Dakota. 

Back in my part of England it was easy to tell, as I travelled to the airport, that it was only late April.  The crops had barely uncurled from their crouched winter posture; just the odd tree was tinted with a fuzz of green.  Here in Texas, barely a few hundred miles above the Tropic of Cancer, it seemed more like mid-June: the roadside grasses, heavy with newly-formed seedheads, were nodding in the warm breeze. Beneath the bright green mesquite the prickly pear cactuses bore exquisite primrose-coloured blooms.  High in a blue sky buzzards circled; and in a rare patch of open land, cattle grazed among swathes of Texas blue-bonnet – the stumpy little lupines of the plains, Texas’ own state flower.  Before long I’d passed a field where the first hay was being cut - and I was driving on gravel, and little rocks were pinging into the underside of the car. 

The gravel soon gave way to a mixture of crushed rock and earth, with every little hollow full of water.  I cheered myself by remembering that no less an authority than Doctor Tom Miller had said the road was passable; then, after lurching into a particularly deep slough, I started to wonder when he last made the trip.  My speed dropped to thirty, then twenty miles an hour, and for fifteen long miles I bumped and bucked, skirting round small ponds, trying to get at least one set of wheels onto firm ground, my right hand constantly flicking the wiper blades to clear the windscreen of brown slime.  All the while rocks and mud grated along the underside of the car, the front sill pranged into ridges of loose stone, and an occasional hideous scratching reminded I had strayed too close to the overhanging vegetation.

In the end, of course, I was confronted by one of those puddles that stretches across the entire width of the road.  I stopped with my front wheels half submerged in a rich brown soup.  Short of paddling through it there was no way to tell whether the car would make it or not.  And what if I fluked it, then got stuck a mile or two further on and had to come back – only this time I wasn’t so lucky?

So there I was, barely two hours out, two thousand miles to go, and stopped in my tracks by twenty square yards of mud.  It’s all so easy when you’re looking at the map.  It’s all so easy when you’re in the right kind of vehicle.  Out along the Republican river valley in Nebraska, as I cycled across a bridge over some sort of creek every mile or two, I’d spent some time thinking about the pioneers who had to cross every one of those creeks or ditches in their covered wagon, with maybe a sick child or a pregnant wife lying on a bed, and all their treasured possessions rattling around inside.  Now I was the one with the problem.  On a bike I could’ve continued; in a covered wagon it would’ve been no more than a moment’s extra effort for the oxen.  Right now, in my 16-valve air-conditioned sedan, I was stuck.  Two hours out, and I had no choice but to turn back.

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