July 4th! Independence Day in America, and we were there to experience it. We woke up, as you will remember, in Albuquerque, and at the end of the day we would arrive in Amarillo. It’s a rather long trip, and lengthened by the day’s activities.
I, however, forgot to set my alarm, and was soon woken by the noises of Father moving about, rushing around to get ready. He, too, was depending on my alarm clock. I turned it around and as quick as a flash into the bathroom to shower and get ready. It was, as I have noted in my diary, 9:11am, and our bus would be leaving (to the dot, because we had such a tight schedule) at 9:30am. It would be a rush, and I’d be cutting it very fine. I take a while to get active, much less ready, in the morning. Father, being the country folk that he was, whipped on a fresh shirt, had his duffel bag packed, and was out the door before I was even out the shower. Rushing around like a headless chook, I was infinitely glad to have repacked my back the night before (as you’ll remember, once every 2 days or so was my routine here), so I merely had to put on the clothes I had laid out and get down to the bus.
Running out the front doors, I managed to sneak my bag into the pile to get thrown on board in the undercarriage, and then lined up to get a seat. Then, as quickly as I had got away from my room, I was running back to it. I had left my baby carrots and Gatorade in the fridge. I managed to do a round trip in less than a minute, and was back in the line for the bus, not even last. People saw me with my carrots and were puzzled by them. I explained it was for nutrition and vegetable intake, and they were either astounded that someone would think ahead like that, or were asking for some. Having hardly made a dent in them (and I had really eaten quite a few by that point), I was glad to share the orange goodness.
Climbing onto the bus, our tour guide (in one of the many extra lengths he went to on the tour, such was the great guy he was) had, in his limited time, brought dozens of cocktail napkins that had the U.S. flag on them and plastered them all over the bus, and compiled a giant one at the front. As much of a Bush-bashing, Republican-despising, West coast blue-y, laid-back guy that David was, on Independence Day, he was as proud of an American, as patriotic and red-white-and-blue-bleeding citizen as you could find. Strange, I thought. But soon, after being immersed into the culture of this important day, after speaking to enough Americans, I had to pull myself up a couple of times to not start feeling a little patriotic myself.
Before all of this though, at 4:30am, was the wake-up call for the optional in Albuquerque. It was a balloon ride over the city, over the surrounds, and back to Earth. It sounded alright, and I was moderately interested, but when I heard the price, I decided against it. $160 for an hour’s go. I was keen, but not $160 keen. Similarly, you had to wake up at 4:30am, get to the fields around 6am, fly around, be back to the bus at 7:30am, then pass time to the 9:30am departure. The extra 4 hours sleep (well, nearly 5 because of my absent alarm) was much more inviting. Looking back, I don’t regret not doing it, but given the chance, I would like to do it. But I won’t lose sleep. It’s just one of those things, for me, I guess.
Our first stop for the day, to take part in the celebrations of the independence that we Americans had the privilege of, were were stopping into Santa Fe. Our tour guide didn’t know what to expect, as he had never been doing our tour on Independence Day. But, he had called ahead and found out that there was a city fête on, and as a result, he said we should try some of the homemade food that would be there if only to get a taste of real meals, not something from a fast food outlet or from WalMart. Other than that, he said as we pulled up, we should go out and have fun.
We all had maps, and were free to navigate around on our own. Being the capital of New Mexico, I planned to walk around the fête, grab some lunch, then walk to the end of town to catch a glimpse of the state capitol, before passing the remainder of the time taking in the views of the city (it had some interesting architectural designs), a round in the fête once more, and back onto the bus.
The city centre was packed. Literally every Santa Fedian had come out. And why not? It was a public holiday, it was Independence Day, and the city isn’t exactly New York – full of things to do. Bustling about were more people wearing American flags than were flying. Shirts, pants, hats, bandannas, shoes, thongs, capes, singlets, jackets, sunglasses, earrings, tattoos, bikini tops (and I assume bottoms), belts, scarfs – every piece of clothing that you normally see walking down the street had been patterned red, white, and blue. Everyone carried a miniature flag, or had a lapel pin (or 20), or some sort of flag that hadn’t been turned into fashion.
Here was a cultural experience that I look for when I travel. Every holiday, other than getting away from ‘it all’, is a chance for a cultural change. That’s how I look at things – going to a new country is a chance to experience something new. And, yeah, you can get a taste of things if you follow the tourist routes, but often you have to go and do things ‘as a local’ – that is, going to a bar or a restaurant or a park that the locals go to, and not the tourists. This time, with July 4, I had the chance to drown myself with the American way – because it was everywhere.
The central plaza, no longer a market place because the fête had taken over, was crowded, but not too bad. It certainly wasn’t as bad as a David Jones on a sale day. I wandered around for a while, surveying the local cuisine – hotdogs, sausage sizzles, slabs of meat packed onto BBQs, tacos, burritos, fajitas, pancakes. I decided that I would give steaks, ribs, and other red meats a miss for Texas, hotdogs a miss for New York, I had had a taco for tea the evening before, and the cue for pancakes was huge, so I went and got myself some fajitas. Served alongside that was either a can of Coke or a cup (a pretty big one) of fresh made lemonade.
Just pausing the story for a moment, you might remember my first little culture shock from the second post in this series in which I discovered a ‘biscuit’ in America is really a scone. Not long after that, I realised that American lemonade and Australian lemonade are completely different. On this front, I will readily accept that Australia is in the wrong – I knew that traditional lemonade is squeezed lemons, sugar, water, and nothing carbonated. That’s what you get when you ask for lemonade in America. If you want that fizzy thing we Australians call lemonade, then you ask for Sprite. Something worth remembering if you are ever State-side, because they are nothing similar, and asking for some sort of spirit in lemonade will get you nowhere except a fast road to a ridicule by the bar tender (didn’t happen to me, rather one of the ladies on the trip I spoke with).
Back to lunch – the fajitas were the best ones I’ve ever had. To be expected, of course. They weren’t made in a dodgey restaurant, instead on a BBQ right in front of you, where you could ask for specific things that were sizzling in front of you, request specific sauses, etc. And, going with the whole local cuisine, I got the lemonade – also great. Very tasty. The fajitas were the size of a round paper plate, loaded and loaded with insides. All-in-all, probably the best lunch I had had to that point, and it wouldn’t have cost more than $6. I certainly couldn’t go back for second, it was that filling.
After lunch, I went walking around. Occasionally I’d pass some tour people, but they were all in their cliques again, so I waved and kept to my own routine. Besides, I knew of no one who had even said the words ‘state capitol’ getting off the bus, so I figured no one would be interested in making that walk with me.
The walk itself was very attractive. Santa Fe, at some point in history, faced a problem: The city was becoming poor because a promised railroad had not gone through. To boost the local economy, tourism was targeted. Having a long Spanish history, the town leaders at the time said that to make the city stand out and bring people in, they should renovate everything but keep it in the design of early Spanish settlers. It’s called Pueblo Revival Style, and it looks like time stopped ticking around 1850. All the outside of ritzy buildings are rendered with sand, and have that yellow-ish oranage look, with white edging. Shops and what-not, for the most part, have wood log fronts, or beams pointing out walls, all looking rough and unique. It’s a sight to see, it really is.
I finally made the state capitol (also in the Pueblo Revival Style), took a few photos, looked around, then walked back. Had it not been a public holiday, I suspect I could have gone in and maybe taken a tour, or at least wandered about inside. Heading back, I wanted to get a photo of a specific church mentioned on the map, a few other interesting buildings, then find my way back to the by via a walk through the plaza. The walk down had taken a little longer than I expected, so I wouldn’t have much time for a second round in the fête.
I got my photos, went through the fête, and was completely lost. Where was I meant to get back on the bus? It wasn’t where it dropped us. Maybe I had my times wrong, and instead of 1:30pm, it was 2:30pm. It was about 1:20pm when I decided I had my times mixed up, and went for a walk. Around 1:30pm, I had a bad feeling I was wrong about being wrong and walked back to where the bus was meant to be. Walking just a little further, I saw it was parked around the corner. For the second time in the day, I was late for something. It was 1:36pm when I finally sat down, profusely apologising to David (who didn’t mind at all) for being late, and the last person on the bus. I was seated next to Anthony (again. We had an understanding by that point that we’d be next to each other for most trips) who expressed genuine concern for my whereabouts. Turned out that he had volunteered to go out with someone else (who he could not remember when he recounted this story to me late one night at a bar) and find me. I highly doubt they would have left me in Santa Fe (whereas they would have had no problem leaving me at the hotel in the morning), but it would have been bad should everyone gone out looking for me.
We were on the road again for a really long drive. I passed time by writing in my diary some, writing some postcards, listening to my MP3 player, and occasionally tuning into the movies that David had put on – Eurotrip and episodes of Family Guy. Anthony fell asleep next to me, which did not bother me at all. However, every now and then he would wake up with a noticeable shock, as if he had been startled. As the holiday went further, the shocks became more frequent and more violent. He said that it was because he was drinking so much alcohol, and he was even having nightmares to boot. I didn’t know what to make of it all, but could recall times, back in Australia, when the same sort of thing happened to me, without the alcohol. It’s a very strange sensation, and rather annoying for the one experiencing it. It didn’t bother me at all, sitting next to Anthony when it happened. I was more interested than put out.
A stop to break up the drive takes us to a servo station. It was here that Tony, aka Pilot, approached me about learning to count cards. As we lined up to pay for things (my goods were a can of Welchs grape flavoured soda and a 500g bag of peanut M&Ms – some serious health food!) I gave him a rudimentary rundown of the techniques, and told him it would be easier with cards. I was pleased that someone was actually making substantive conversation with me, and was also eager to show off my card skills.
To entertain us, David though he would give us a rundown of the next few cities we would be invading. Amarillo and Dallas I was already keen to see. After his talk about New Orleans, I was very excited to get to. I noted in my diary: ‘A talk about new Orleans – sounds great!’ Little did I know how great it would be at that point. I was more excited and enthused about it after David’s sprucing of it. Then I found out (or perhaps realised, and hadn’t taken note when I heard it before) that the tour ends for some people there. As I said earlier, Father finished up there, which was something I was disappointed in. We were getting along very well by this point, and I wasn’t excited about having to get another new roommate – my 4th.
To pass the time while I was just listening to music, I shuffled a deck of cards and practiced counting techniques. People came to know where I was sitting from the direction of the sound of shuffling cards. I got a tap on the shoulder – Pilot was wondering if I’d teach him some cards. I looked around, and few other people wanted in. So we made a make-shift table, and we started playing some cards. I tried to go with counting, but most people lost interest because it meant they had to think. So we moved on to poker, gin rummy, cheat, and bullshit. Taking part was Pilot, a guy from Sydney, another from Victoria, and an extremely attractive Irish women (a teacher no less). We had a bit of fun for a while, and that was that.
Another stop in the long trip to Amarillo (just outside of the city) was a wander about Cadillac Ranch. What this is is a public art display consisting of 10 Cadillac cards buried half way from the front end into the ground. People are encouraged to go up and spray paint whatever they want on it. It’s in the middle of a cow paddock, and other than the road right behind you, you can only see around 3 houses for the 180 degree view in front of you. It’s rather strange – but then again, a lot of art is strange to me.
I spray painted ‘Thomas’ and ‘Deus Lo Vult’ on there – I’m trying to make a banner out of the latter one. Some people did silly things, some were responsible. Someone, well before us, had written ‘Obama’ across one of them so that you couldn’t miss it. I was impressed by that – in the middle of the big Red state. We had all been warned to stand up-wind of the spray cans lest our shirts take on a new colour (and honestly, had we not been warned about this, I’m sure I’d have been wearing the paint).
Moving on after that, we finally got into Amarillo, and, to my pleasure, our hotel was Western themed. It was called the Big Texan Inn and you couldn’t miss it – a giant cowboy made of neon lights standing above what some would call garish (I would call tasteful) front of pinks and greens and yellows, all looking like a saloon from the frontier days. Inside, our rooms couldn’t be from any other state – there was a giant map of Texas, sketches of ranching cowboys and cows, and our shower curtain’s print: The Texas flag. To get to the bathroom, you had to go through those old swinging saloon doors. It was a great place to stay. The only drawback was that you might be in the biggest state, but the shower was tiny.
Oh, and the hotel’s pool was in the shape of Texas.
The dinner for the night was a group one, and just across the carpark at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Now this is something. It’s like walking into a hunting lodge – there are game heads all over the walls. There’s a gift shop, because this place is famous across Texas. Even people in New York had heard something of the place. That something was a little competition that the place runs. If you can eat a 72oz steak (a tick over 2kgs!), a prawn cocktail, a salad, and a giant baked potato, within an hour (they don’t make it easy), you get the meal for free. But if you don’t eat it all, you have to pay $10 per ounce that you don’t eat. So it could end up being an expensive meal.
When the form went round, earlier in the day, for the meal you wanted, you could choose to take part in this disgusting challenge. It ended up 4 people wanted in – 3 blokes and a woman. @ of the guys were Australian, and looked like they could give the challenge a good go. The other guy was a Pom, stick thin, but about 7ft something tall. The woman, from Australia, Tory, was an inch taller than me, and an inch in diameter. Everyone had written her off, then eventually the Pom, when the betting for was going around, and one of the Australian blokes had become the favourite.
When Contiki got to their tables, there was an American half-way through his challenge. Half an hour later, he was finished, done and dusted. He got his free meal, but the overwhelming pride that was in his wife/girlfriend’s eyes was what the real reward was. Her look was that of “This is my man, and he just ate 2kgs of steak on Independence Day.”
I had my first steak in years. I never have it at home. I think the last time I had a steak was … 8 years ago? 10 years ago? I just really don’t like steak. But, being in Texas, at a ranch house, and on holiday, I had mine. And it was beautiful. Good enough that I believe I had another on the holiday somewhere. It was really good, and now I’m boycotting steak in Australia because I doubt I can get one as good as I had at the Big Texan Steak House.
As for the challengers, the favourite underperformed, the other Aussie bloke too, the Pom as well, but Tory ate the shrimp cocktail, the potato, the salad and 68oz (all but 4oz!) of the steak! We were all blown away – and so too were the staff and the 200 other people at the restaurant. She got a loud cheer when her hour elapsed and she left. It was a great achievement that everyone on tour was talking about for some time. Never mind it took her body about 6 days to get back to normal – she had a story that was making the rounds.
With my dinner, I tried to have a gin and tonic. I was so ill at just the smell, I couldn’t drink it without pouring it into a half-full glass of water – and I only did that because I had paid for the damn thing. It was vile, it was disgusting, and it was all the fault of one wild night in Vegas. I doubt I’ll ever touch that drink again – I definitely did not for the rest of the trip.
I thought it ironic that I broke my swearing off of alcohol with a gin and tonic that I could hardly stomach.
After the last rounds, we all headed out to the car park and bused it a place called the Midnight Cowboy. It’s a bar that plays country and Western music in one room, and RnB in another. Both have dance floors, and about 5 bars surrounding them, so you will never be dry. When the 48 of us rocked up and walking in, there was a whole of 5 people between both rooms. Elsewhere there were block parties and house parties, and BBQs going on to celebrate July 4 that no one needed to go to bars. So we brought the life of the party to this place.
We had, if I have mentioned it or not, a 19 year old German (thus, under-aged) amongst us. To get him in, we had to break the law, and be crafty about it. David said that in the past the following technique had worked: Have us unload around the corner, go in in small groups, or as individuals, but all the guys go first. Then, with this under-aged chap, have as many of the women hanging off him as possible. The security will be too distracted to notice, having just checked the IDs of 20 or so guys, to maybe even ask for the German’s ID. And if he did, he might not notice he is well under-aged.
Well, the technique worked, and we were all drinking and partying like there was no tomorrow. I quickly found the new beer I would be drinking – Bud Light. No, it’s not a light beer as we know it. It’s actually one of those low carb beers, but still full strength. The way I got onto it was an ingenious piece of marketing on their part – they had an attractive woman in a tank-top that was obviously 2 sizes too small, and shorts that were about the same, in high heels, right in front of you as you walked in, shilling the stuff. My diluted gin and tonic gave me enough courage to go and ask for one, and it wasn’t half bad. So I found my new drink.
I played a couple of games of pool with some women (I was surprised that they asked me to, instead of getting in by the fault, or doing the normal ‘guy thing’ and asking them to play a game with me). I was afraid, because I’m not exactly good (but I’m not awful) at pool. It didn’t matter after the first round of goes, because it looked like I was one of the more proficient players at our table.
One of the women I was playing with I had been speaking to on the bus (the same I had convinced I was a genius in my ways of thinking about the Grand Canyon flights). She had inquired as to how much I had won in Vegas. With a big of cognitive slight of mind, I told her how much I had technically won out of all my hands. She was blown away by the number (as was I – though blown away by the number when it was all losses), and said that I should be buying drinks. I said I’d buy if she wanted, and thought nothing of it. Eventually, at the Midnight Cowboy, she came looking for a drink. I had no problem, and brought her some girl’s drink. She was rather good at pool. Eventually, she had had enough of pool and went chasing after some of the women on our tour (she is gay – something I’d known since Vegas, but some people never knew).
I had given myself a reprieve from my ‘no more alcohol’ pledge from Vegas, but had enough of a brain to drink to moderation. I have written in my diary: ‘Had fun and some drinks – not Vegas drinks though.” Probably a good thing, because I watched some people drink themselves into oblivion and get very messy. Maybe the prices had something to do with it – $2.35 for a bottle of beer, $3 even for a spirit free-poured! I cry a little inside when I see the prices here in Australia. Father was hitting it hard, and so too was David.
Soon the establishment got busier. I had noticed one guy in particular when he left, and he was walking back in with a crowd. I heard that when we got in, and started having fun, that people were telling their friends to come down because this was the place to be. Some of the ‘guys’ from our tour were getting into scull-offs with local Texans, which endeared us all to them; other more suave men from the tour were making moves on some women; all the women on our tour were taken by the cowboys who were there. For most of the night it was a good, responsible time.
The place closed at 2am, and we were all asked to leave. Some of the cowboys wanted to take women on our tour ‘home’ – whether it was our hotel or their home was unclear. A few offered to drive us all to the next bar, which happened to be a strip joint too. David had warned us at the start of the night that we should be careful with what we all do, but he wasn’t going to stop anyone from doing anything because that often leads to trouble for him (even though he has the best, and proper, intentions). Thankfully, the women weren’t so drunk as to lose all inhibitions and waited for the taxis to take us to the hotel.
Let me tell you something about taxis in Amarillo – there are, maybe, 4 or 5 in the whole city. We had a tick under 50 of us, so when David called through to the company, they sent the whole fleet – the 4 or 5. We piled into them all – my cab had 14 people in it, another had 18. It turned out to be a very cheap fare, around $5 each. As the nearest to sober (or perhaps the furthest from drunk) I was responsible for money. I yelled that everyone owed $5. I got a flurry of money and ended up with $90 in my hand, for something like a $40 fare. I dodged out of paying and gave the women all of it, because no one wanted their money back, and she was very pleased.
I made my room and opened up. All the lights were on, even the bathroom. And there was Father, passed out on his bed. I knew he had been hitting it hard, and then I had lost him in the bar. I figured he was just in another area or something. Turns out he went home early because he had drank so much. He can’t remember how he got home – which was the case with a few people that night. But at least he had got home, and to be, even if he hadn’t changed out of his evening clothes. I laughed to myself, then got into my own bed, having turned off the lights and changed. I was pleased that I had had a good night of responsible drinking, mingling with the group, and being the socialite I didn’t mind being. I wasn’t the centre of attention at all, but I had enough socialising as I could handle. I did, however, have a sting in my head that I hadn’t had enough ‘fun’ – and by fun I mean I hadn’t drunk enough to turn myself into a Vegas drunk. I thought that I hardly touch alcohol when I’m at home, and here on holidays, I’m holding myself back. Maybe on the next big night, I thought as I went to sleep.