West of the Brazos
by bj max
The Brazos is an insignificant little stream as far as rivers go and if you blink you will miss it. But thanks to John Wayne and Hollywood it is known far and wide. The Brazos is sort of the official unofficial passing from “Back East” to “Out West”. We, being a contingent of the Happy Bottom Riding, Yachting and Snipe Huntin’ Club, rolled across this imaginary line near the little town of Herne, Texas last fall and as a toast to this solemn moment, we hoisted bottles of Tennessee Spring Water.
Up bright and early and off to San Antonio for our second day on the road. Had dinner at Johnny Reb’s Dixie Cafe. Met two genuine cowboys in the café parking lot. They had been rodeoing over in Kilgore but said they finished out of the money. From the looks of their beat up old pickup and ratty saddles, finishing out of the money was not uncommon for them. Real cowboys, I noticed, have a striking resemblance to real rednecks, the only difference being their headgear. But, like everybody else in Texas, they were friendly, another redneck attribute.
The forty mile stretch of highway from fifteen miles north of Austin to San Antonio will forever be known in the annals of our little outfit as “Hell’s Highway.” What an awful ride. The traffic was running at least 20 MPH over the speed limit and it was three lanes wide, except for a stretch in Austin that became six lanes wide with four of the six being elevated making it seem like riding through a canyon of moving, dodging, darting and speeding crazy people. Welcome to Texas Boys. It ain’t the easy way but it’s the cowboy way. Austin, San Marco and San Antonio is urban sprawl in its most magnificent form. What a nightmare. Actually, San Antonio proper was a peaceful ride after exiting I-35 into the downtown area but the I-35 corridor was merciless and seemed bent on murdering anybody gutsy enough to put a tire to it’s scalding hot concrete.
Somehow we survived and rumbled in to our Hotel on the Riverwalk in one piece. As I dropped the kickstand I gave thanks to the Old Master for protecting us. The tension of the hell ride had my neck muscles in knots and it would take two fifty milligram hits of hydrochlorothiazide and a stiff shot of Old Fermaldahyde before my nerves stabilized. After calming down some and cleaning up a lot, we walked up the river to a BBQ joint, had a nice peaceful meal and all were back in the hotel by eight.
We spent our time in San Antonio prowling the famous Riverwalk but the highlight was a visit to the Alamo. About the only thing remaining of this icon to American freedom is the well preserved mission itself and we were asked to remove our hats when we entered. Inside was a display of historical artifacts including Davy Crockett’s rifle, ol’ Betsy. Next to the rifle, encased in plastic, was an actual lock of the great woodsman’s hair. Taking a lock of someone’s hair as a keepsake was a common practice in Davy’s day and there it was for all to see. I took notice that Davy’s hair was the same color as mine, back when I had hair that is. Our proximity to our famous neighbor’s possessions left us awestruck and silent and I wondered if we should do something religious, like pray or take up a collection or something.
We spent two days in San Antonio then headed south down towards Laredo and the Rio Grande. We cruised into this south Texas border town of lore around ten AM. But the streets of Laredo weren’t near as romantic as depicted in song. In fact, they looked a lot like the streets of Memphis or any other city for that matter and they seemed to threaten, daring you to come in….
Our hotel, located one hundred steps from the Mexican border, was top shelf even though it was situated in a not so fine neighborhood. The La Posada was surrounded by a strong steel fence and when we pulled up in front I imagined all the hooligan’s milling about to be mentally calculating the street value of each of our motorcycles. To our relief, the manager appeared, gave us a warm greeting and directed us to a secure parking garage. At the entrance, the gate magically opened and we rolled into an underground fortress complete with armed guards. This service cost us an extra five bucks per bike but the peace of mind it brought made it a steal, no pun intended. We wrestled the bikes into tight parking slots, shut down the engines, disconnected ourselves and made for the lobby.
After checking in and washing off the road grime we made our way down the street to the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. Crossing the border was a snap and in no time we were strolling the streets of Nuevo Laredo in Old Mexico. There were a few in our group that weren’t comfortable in Mexico but I wasn’t one of them. I found the people of Mexico to be friendly and I felt completely at ease among them. Of course the Corona I sipped as I shopped may have had something to do with that easy feeling. We browsed the shops and stores, fought off the street vendors and in general had a good time. During our exploration Charley Gibson and I stumbled across a tobacco departamento where genuine Cuban cigars were available. We grilled the estanquero about transporting Cuban cigars across the border and he assured us we would have no trouble. Although a bit leery, we couldn’t resist and bought one each.
There were no bargains in Old Mexico as I had imagined other than vanilla flavoring. Two dollars would buy you enough of the pure version to freeze a thousand gallons of ice cream. Beer was two bucks a bottle but cigarettes were relatively cheap. There were lots of open air cantinas and cafes and several carros pulled by half starved horses were available to drive you around. Got a great shoe shine from a ten year old kid named Paco. Cute kid, about nine or ten and he worked his butt off….
Back at the border crossing, the border patrol lectured us about current US/Cuban relations and threatened to confiscate our cigars. But after explaining that we were just poor dumb rednecks they reluctantly let us through with a warning that if we got caught there would be a big fine. We promised that we would make ashes of the cigars PDQ and we did.Later that evening everyone gathered in the motel plaza for dinner in the Tack Room, one of three restaurants located within the walls of the motel. As we lounged around nursing margaritas and puffing on genuine Romeo y Julieta number two Hermosos, I suddenly realized that I had left all my money in our room. All my money. That’s like saying all my hair. I excused myself and took off back upstairs.
Our rooms had two entrances. There was a set of french doors leading out to an open walkway that overlooked the plaza and the main door that led to the inside hallway. As I searched for my travelers checks there was a tapping on the glass of the french door. I pushed the curtain back and two burley Latinos smiled and pointed at the lock and signaled that I should open up…I shook my head, Uh uhhh brother. My Mama didn’t raise no fool. I continued my search and they continued to tap. I ignored them, located my checks then hurried out and down the hallway, made two right turns, squaring the block so to speak, and came up behind these guys who were still stooped at my door trying to see in.”Hey!” I yelled. “Can I help you guys with something?” They jumped like they’d been shot, then hurried towards me at a fast walk. But they were smiling so I stood my ground. They asked for some ID but I refused until they flashed badges identifying themselves as Texas Rangers. My heart sank. I’m done for. They’ve changed their minds and come to get me and Charley and our cigars and haul us back to Mexico. I’ve heard about them Mexican jails. Genuine Texas Rangers. If I hadn’t been so petrified I woulda’ been thrilled.
But, thankfully, it was just a simple case of mistaken identity. The cops had received a tip that a certain outlaw was holed up in our room and even though I fit the profile, my alibi was solid. I could see they were disappointed so I apologized for not being a criminal and wished them better luck next time. As we walked back downstairs two more Rangers joined us and down in the plaza two of their under-cover partners were sucking up to my friends, pumping them for information. The place was crawling with cops so the guy they were looking for musta’ been a real desperado. Made me feel kinda’ proud.
I liked Texas. But then, to anyone that knows me that wouldn’t come as a surprise ’cause, as the song says, my heroes have always been cowboys. Yep, I was born to be a cowboy. Woulda’ been one too if I hadn’t been born here in redneck land. And I’ll be going back to Texas too, cause Texas is just too dang big to see in a week. I want to check out Big Bend National Park, The Hill Country and I want to attend the Cowboy Gathering in Fort Worth some day and maybe meet the great Red Stegall. And a little piece of advise to that guy out there running around impersonating me……. Stay outta’ Texas buddy. They’re looking fer’ ya’.
Riding along singing a song, I’m a happy roving cowboy…..Yee-Haaaaaaaaa!