Riders on the storm - Dallas

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March 20th 2016
Published: April 29th 2016
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We set off on the I-90 initially, but moved quickly onto the I-10, heading in the Baton Rouge direction. Though we by-passed the place completely it was another name that reminded us we were well and truly in the USA! We passed a looooooong freight train on a bridge on the outskirts of New Orleans and my fondness for trains was being rekindled; the ones we were seeing were real workhorses, shifting cargo across the country and keeping it off the roads, which were degraded enough in this area as it was with all the traffic. Shredded tyres littered the verges and the roads and there was much more road-kill. There were bridges just everywhere and the roads skirted watery flatlands which were awash due to all the recent rain. We turned off the interstate onto Highway 190 just after Baton Rouge and though the traffic thinned the road condition didn’t improve. The Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge area was mainly agricultural with lots of cows and plenty of little towns and hamlets by the waterside, often with huge boats moored or under cover, and not much evidence of any wildlife, though Steve did see a ‘huge black bird’ on a nest and I wondered if it was a buzzard. There were many signs indicating the hurricane evacuation route. We had listened to weather reports with care but we really didn’t know how serious a threat the hurricane we had been tracking would be, where it would be most damaging, or what we should do about it. Can you just outrun these things or should we be taking more positive evasive action? Anyhoo, the day was hot and sunny and hurricanes really didn’t look as though they would be on the weather agenda today.

We were heading to Natchitoches as our overnight stop. It was another name that didn’t readily roll off the tongue and we abbreviated it to Natchos. We switched onto the I-49 and called into the Rapides Station Welcome Centre. It seemed a strange place to have a ‘Welcome to Louisiana’ rest-stop as it seemed more or less in the middle of the state to me and most of the other Welcome Centres had been on or near the State lines. Nevertheless, I was given a warm welcome, lots of information and was told that Natchitoches was pronounced ‘Nakatish’! Okay, then. As we continued our journey we noticed that a lot of the exit roads were closed due to ‘high water’ which had rendered them completely inaccessible. We arrived at the Quality Inn, Natchitoches, late afternoon and were once again impressed with the facilities. A lady there couldn’t understand why we were visiting the USA, she seemed completely disenchanted with it, particularly all the election activity, and she was the first (and only) person to express any dissatisfaction to us during all our time in the country. The check-in receptionist kept trying to find our postcode in New England (USA), not England (UK), and didn’t seem to understand the difference or why the database couldn’t find us. There were the usual fast-food outlets nearby but we were so fed-up of ‘fast-food and fries’ we created our own meal and I explored the area near the hotel. There was a lovely swamp/bayou (I don’t know the difference, if there is one) to the rear of the hotel and I saw lots of birds and a lot of turtles. I initially beat a hasty retreat thinking the rippling water might be indicative of a submerged alligator but ventured closer on realising they were turtles, though I might not have been quite so brave had I realised they could be snapping turtles which can, apparently, really bite!

We decided against further exploration of Natchitoches the next morning. I was feeling a bit light-headed and headache-y and wondered if I’d caught a bit of sunstroke in the cemetery at New Orleans. On checking out, the receptionist asked where we were heading and, on hearing of our destination, advised us to take extreme care as it had just been on the news that that darned hurricane was due to pass overhead on our route. Okay, let’s hang around here for a bit until calm resumes. I popped into the local convenience store and the cashiers updated me, saying the hurricane had now passed over and we just needed to watch out for residual flooding. Right, let’s hit the road before something else comes along. We prevaricated, not knowing what our best option was but in the end we joined everybody else on the Interstate - they were still travelling, so it must be OK, yes?

Well, not really, as it turned out. The day was much cooler (down to 55 degrees) and the skies were grey. We were back on the I-49 and were reasonably close to the Arkansas state border; I quite fancied dipping in there (I fancied visiting Texarkana) but we decided to take the direct route to our destination, given the weather situation. We passed a huge Scientology church near Brookwood and then lots more churches all around Shreveport, where we crossed into Texas. The grey clouds started to look different and more menacing somehow, sprouting what seemed almost tornado-like plumes to me but what do I know about these things, the wind began to pick up and the rain came down. OK, this isn’t so bad, we thought on realising we had caught the tail end of the hurricane. Not pleasant, but do-able and maybe the gods from all these churches will look down on us. Ha! The lorries threw up spray from the roads, everyone carried on over- and under-taking and it was pretty much business as usual but with very poor visibility thrown into the melting pot. That was until the wind started to rock the lorries sideways, the verge-side shrubs and trees whipped backwards and forwards, bending at impossible angles and the double-speed window wipers couldn’t clear the volume of rain and hailstones from the windscreen fast enough. Let’s. Just. Stop. Before we get killed ...

We managed to pull off the interstate and into a Denny’s car park where we sat in the car waiting for the weather to ease up and the loud, rumbling thunder to abate. On deciding that wasn’t going to happen any time soon we dashed into the restaurant, only slightly soggy from our 20 second sprint, and just managed to have our meal served before the building was struck by lightning and all power was lost. We motley assortment of travellers in the restaurant just sat it out, in the dark, and us Brits amused the ‘seen it, done that’ Americans by taking pictures of the rain, coming down like we’d never seen before. The typical Southern hospitality of the waitresses was wonderful, even if they couldn’t offer us anything more (because no power). They provided clean tea-towels to dry our hands on (because no hand-dryers in the loos) and wrote out paper bills and receipts for those who needed to leave (because no till). One driver wandered in after the power cut and, though he couldn’t have anything to eat or drink, he was welcomed anyway. In the end, the linemen turned up quite speedily and things were back to normal within the hour. I told them we could be without power for weeks if such a thing happened at home and whole communities would be cut off. They couldn’t quite comprehend that and it sounded unbelievable even as I said it ..... We eventually hit the road again when we were assured the worst had passed. The sun was trying to shine and patches of blue sky peeked through the clouds. We got off the I-49 as soon as we could and took to Highway 80 where the ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘Christ is Risen’ billboard adverts were replaced with ‘Buy your bullets here!’ at Forney Guns and Ammo. We arrived at the Magnuson Hotel Park Suites in Dallas in the late afternoon, pleased to be in one piece. The TV weatherman told us that unseasonal snow was being predicted for some parts of the country and the rivers around Dallas were on high flood alert. We were just thankful to have survived a hurricane! The following morning I was woken by the sound of water dripping through the ceiling in the bathroom. ‘Is it raining in?’ I thought, but no, it was just a leak from the bathroom above where the occupant was having a shower. I chatted outside with a man who drove the length and breadth of the country to promote the company he owned but he was still amazed at our journey, going places he had never been to and recommending ‘must do’ roads along our route, just for the scenery. He was lovely.

Dallas is probably best known for all the wrong reasons. Our hotel was a drive away from the city centre but, once again, car parking was easy, central and cheap. We couldn’t work our way round the city centre as easily as we had in other places and a policewoman we asked directions of sent us in completely the wrong direction! We eventually found the stop to catch the city centre sight-seeing trolley bus tour but had just missed one. No bother. We bought our tickets which, even though they were discounted to $20 each for some reason (were we looking old and tired?!), were not nearly as good value as the three day New Orleans tickets. We used the time to explore the area where the JFK assassination had taken place and it was remarkable to see those places from all the old TV and newspaper clippings in the flesh, as it were. We walked down the cavalcade route and onto the grassy knoll, saw the book depository (now with a museum on the sixth floor, from where the fateful shots were fired), we went across the bridge where the railway men had stood (though this was hidden somewhat off-route from the main tourist areas and we were the only ones up there) and explored the Dealey Plaza (civic leader and newspaper tycoon Mr Dealey came from Lancashire apparently). The place seemed full of mainly tourists and those associated with tourism. Where are all the ‘real’ people we wondered? We went into the Red Museum, a lovely building, initially to use the loos but then spent a bit of time having a look round, it was so nice.

The trolley bus we eventually caught took us around the city and out over a new bridge across a levee (I hadn’t realised other cities apart from New Orleans were so dependent on the levees), and we saw an enormous sculpture of many of the Texas Longhorn cattle, in bronze. It was really lovely but had met with some opposition; I couldn’t work out why, it was so good. What was there not to like? There was plenty of other street art too, including a huge eyeball, who knows why? We learned how Marcus Neiman, when looking for a venture to invest in, had turned down the Coca Cola enterprise – he didn’t do too badly anyway and his shop took pride of place on the ‘exclusive’ street. We heard how the Dr Pepper drink had been created in Dallas, and Lay’s crisps. We learned that, after the assassination of President Kennedy, Dallas fell out of favour with the Americans (surprise!) and failed to prosper. It took JR Ewing and the ‘Dallas’ series to stimulate its renaissance and revive its fortunes; Dallas is now a thriving city once again as a result. The power of telly ... We learned that many of the buildings had linking, enclosed bridges to carry pedestrians across the streets and keep them out of the heat. Where bridges are impractical an underground tunnel system operates so that residents can move around below street level. So that’s where all the ‘real’ people are. OK, it was hot, but not scorchio and it seemed an extreme over-reaction to a bit of sunshine. There was a fairly new park, built over a freeway, that provided city-centre green space that seemed quite well used. Overall though, I thought all the empty streets removed the life and soul from the city and the contrast with New Orleans, where the streets had buzzed with atmosphere and activity, was stark.

We later revisited some of the sights on foot. The JFK memorial in Founders’ Plaza was a strange, huge, grey concrete thing, supposedly designed to appear to hover above the ground and act as a sonic sponge to provide a quiet area for contemplation. It didn’t work for us. We saw a replica of the original cabin established by one of the first settlers on the initial trade route. We sat in a park where the signs told us the purpose of the fountain, but it wasn’t working. We saw the 2 hour queue for the Dallas aquarium and the many museums seemed popular. But, all in all, discounting the tragic historical events, we found it a bit characterless.

Adjacent to our hotel there was a Denny’s, and a Furr’s. We’d never heard of Furr’s but we thought we’d give it a try. For a fixed price (about $14 each), there was an ‘all you can eat’ buffet and it was wonderful! There were sooooo many options:, soup, meatloaf, pizza, pasta, pot pies, chicken, steak, liver and onions, pork chops, shrimps, fish, ham, tacos, enchiladas and vegetables (OMG – VEGETABLES!!), rice, gravy, sauces and fresh salads (did I mention vegetables?). And they did desserts – puddings, pies, dumplings, cobblers, cakes, cupcakes, ice-cream, yoghurts and sorbets. And as much soft drink as you could, well, drink! I can’t remember the entire menu but you get the drift ... a-maz-ing! My taste buds were alight. Sadly, it was the only one of its type we came across during the rest of our travels but, as you can tell, it made a lasting impression!

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29th April 2016

You should be used to looooooooonnnnnnngggg freight trains living where you do. I've watched a few go by on the way to your house!
30th April 2016

Ha! Those are just loonngg trains. These were looooonnnnnggggg trains! Jx

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