-by La Huerita
uppose you’ve lived in the Mexican and Caribbean tropics for years and years, the beach never far away, palm trees rustling, the cicadas buzzing in the shrubs. Suppose it’s been blue skies, bougainvilla blazing under the hot tropical sun, the difference between summer and winter only a matter of 5 or 10 degrees. Suppose you have had no need to wear long pants, dress or pantyhose for at least a decade, and haven’t owned anything heavier than a sweater in all that time (it can get chilly enough for a sweater in the evenings along the waterfront…)
In such a case, can you imagine how foreign and northern and colorful autumn might seem in northern Florida?
Florida? Fall-colorful, northern and foreign? Yes, that was exactly how it seemed to me as we turned west early on Thanksgiving morning onto I-10 along the lovely corridor of the Florida panhandle.
Along both sides of the road grassy berms gave way to a riot of sweet gums and maples and the dark green of pines. Spanish moss hung from every branch, and palmettos thrust their sturdy fronds into every available space.
As the sun rose behind us it shifted every color to red, so that the pines were purple, the yellows turned orange, the oranges became deep burgundy and red, and the Spanish moss spun itself from branch to branch in soft drifts of pastel pink. And all was accompanied by the crisp smell of cool air and damp earth, with the silence of early morning emphasizing our own awed silence.
It was magic to someone newly returned from endless summer. I had not seen a pine tree, or autumn color, or deciduous trees, in nearly 12 years.
It was cold, too, for someone who no longer owned a pair of long pants. We made a breakfast stop in Tallahassee and hung around until a store opened so I could grab some jeans and a pair of socks. And a light jacket as well, just in case. I ate grits and American-style sausage and whole wheat toast, and thought I had died and gone to heaven. (I was sorry later, but that’s another story.)
We had no schedule to meet, nowhere we had to be right away, no particular destination other than the end of I-10 in California and the nearest airport back home to Mexico. So we took our time, we dawdled, we stopped any time we wanted to see something.
We bypassed Florida’s Emerald Coast in favor of Thanksgiving lunch at a casino in little Biloxi, Mississippi. $12.99 for the works, including pumpkin pie, and it even tasted good. A place of great charm and beauty, even though it’s still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi/Gulfport definitely needs more timeshare resorts.
New Orleans is only an hour or so away, so we drove on toward the French Quarter.
Let it be known that the moment we crossed into Louisiana the road turned into a hell of potholes and rough pavement. Between the Mississippi/Louisiana border and the Louisiana/Texas border our new car’s muffler fell off 3 times AND we had a flat tire. (Louisiana’s shameful portion of I-10 can be partly avoided by taking the I-12 from Slidell to Baton Rouge, which is a better road but bypasses New Orleans entirely.)
The wonders of the French Quarter were not enough to atone. We wandered, we ate, we listened to music, we checked out every timeshare resort, we got the heck out and limped into Baton Rouge before nightfall.
The moment we crossed the border into Texas the next morning the road made a miraculous recovery. Lovely highway, wonderful rest stops, pretty country all the way into Houston’ (HINT: try not to hit Houston during rush hour. It’s a wonderful city if you can avoid the traffic.) We decided not to try to stop and maneuvered our way along the freeways to the other side of town, where we found a rest stop and gave ourselves a little break. We were the only people there, which is perhaps why a coyote was hanging around. It seemed not the least afraid of us, and posed for pictures before it ambled off into the bushes. The last we saw of it was its bushy tail waving goodby.
Keep your eyes open along the road to San Antonio for the added bonus of passing the mysterious Woman Hollering Creek. There are explanations for the name, but I’d rather not know; some things are better left to the imagination.
We spent a couple of days in San Antonio, relaxing and seeing the sights. Those sights, for us, consisted mostly of the Alamo (which we found vaguely disappointing somehow) and River Walk — a very pleasant network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River, one story beneath the streets of Downtown. Among other things, there are enough good restaurants along the River Walk to keep you fat for a long time. Perhaps it was the time of year, but neither place was at all crowded and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
The thing about Texas is that it’s big. Really big. You begin to understand this when you leave San Antonio for the drive across West Texas.
We left while it was still dark, thinking we’d avoid traffic and get a good chance to admire the stars, which are indeed big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. The road begins to rise and wind not far out of San Antonio, and we suddenly found ourselves in heavy fog. Night time and fog are not a good combination. Headlights are useless. We slowed to a crawl, trying to see our way along the unfamiliar road. At length we saw the tailights of a semi turning on to the road in front of us.
Saved! We followed those tailights as closely as we dared around hairpin turns, up hill and down dale, at about 50 mph, for almost an hour– praying that the driver actually knew where he was going.
He did, and when we followed him into the parking lot of a truck stop we blessed him and bought him breakfast.
We drove through West Texas for about 40 days and 40 nights before we finally made it to the New Mexico border. It was stark and beautiful country, with ice on the fences and posts (and the road) almost all the way. My jeans and socks and jacket were not warm enough, even with the heater on. By the time we got out of Texas all we wanted was to be in Arizona where it’s warmer, so we drove through New Mexico without stopping and made it to Tucson just after dusk.
After that, it was a dawdle all the way. We made side trips, we fooled around, we went up to Laughlin and Las Vegas and then drove back down on a scary road on the California side of the Colorado River.We visited tiny little desert towns such as Quartzite, AZ, where we discovered the quirky grave of a Syrian camel driver (one of the first hired by the US Army for an experiment in the Southwest), eventually made a stop in Palm Springs, found I-10 again and drove it all the way to Santa Monica, CA.
From there? What seemed like the longest plane ride I ever took: HOME again, at last, to the tropics. Home to our little casa in Mexico. And I haven’t worn long pants or socks or a jacket since!
For all of La Huerita’s columns, click here.
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