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Intolerance in a Tolerant City

I spent four days in Austin getting caught up with my website and visiting with Ace and Joan and their kids, Julie, and Lou.  Then, on a warm and humid morning, I said goodbye to my old friends and left.  As I was heading down the road, though, I decided to drive into downtown Austin.  I strolled around the downtown area for a half-hour, walking up Congress Avenue to the State Capitol building, then returned to my truck just as my parking meter expired.

 

Here's Austin's own Nanci Griffith singing about ignorance and intolerance.  This is It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go.

 
   

One reason I like Austin is that, unlike the rest of Texas, it's fairly easy-going and open-minded.  I've traveled through Texas and the South many times (see My Previous Roadtrips).  And while I usually have a good time visiting Texas and the South (due partly to the concept of "Southern Hospitality"), I don't think I could ever move there because of the intolerant attitudes I've seen there during my numerous visits.  While I always enjoy visiting the South, how the concept of "Southern Hospitality" can intermingle with the heightened levels of racism and intolerance that are common there is a paradox I've never figured out. 

 

Above:  The Texas State Capitol building in Austin, the former home of George W. Bush. 

Through my travels around America, I've noticed that friendliness is more polarized in the South and in Texas than anywhere else in the U.S.  While almost everyone in Oregon is fairly friendly, you don't meet a lot of people on either end of the "friendship spectrum," being either overly friendly or hostile.  On the other hand, while most people in the South are very warm and friendly (much more so than in Oregon), a small handful are extremely obnoxious, racist and intolerant (again, much more so than in Oregon). Nevertheless, as much as I appreciate Southern Hospitality, I've never liked people telling me what to think, read or believe when it comes to religion, politics, or anything else, an attitude that I've encountered often in the South.  That's one reason I like living in the Northwest. 

 

During my previous visits to Austin, I had always thought of the city as an oasis of friendliness and open-mindedness in a sea of general parochialism.  Before I left, though, my attitude about Austin's tolerance took a big hit.

 

I stopped at a grocery store on the south side of Austin to buy some food on my way out of town and sat in my truck for a while with my window rolled down, writing a list of things to buy.  As I made up my list, an old, clattering station wagon pulled into the parking space facing but kitty-corner to my truck.  I glanced up and noticed the driver, a grizzled guy with a ponytail who was about 40.  He sat in his car and listened to the radio for several minutes, which I thought was odd, but I continued working on my list.  Then he started muttering some nasty things about gays.  I wasn't sure if he was directing these comments towards me or someone else, but I didn't acknowledge him because he was obviously unbalanced.

 

I finished my list, got out of my truck, went into the store and bought my groceries, then I returned to my truck.  That's when I noticed a two-foot long scratch in my door that someone had intentionally made with a key.  Yep, I'd been "keyed."  I knew who had done it, too, and I angrily looked around for the rusty station wagon, but it was gone.  The only thing I can figure is that this guy wrongly assumed I was gay.  He may have spotted my "Oregon Trail" style license plate, a colorful plate with a setting sun, and assumed it was rainbow.   Or something.  Who knows.

 

Of course, I've read about this kind of thing (and much worse) happening, but it's different when it happens to you.  I'd driven my beloved truck for 16 years and over 200,000 miles all over the country, but this was the first time it had ever been vandalized and I was really ticked off.  It's scary to think that there are people with so much fear, arrogance and hatred running around.   I waited for a while there in the hot, steamy parking lot, hoping that he'd return.  I finally gave up and, still fuming, got into my truck and left.  Goodbye, Austin.

 

   

Above left:  Downtown Austin is a mix of old and new, the South and the West.  It's also home to the University of Texas and has a great music scene.  And, of course, Austin City Limits is taped here (though, disappointingly, on the top floor of a tall building).

Above right:  In downtown Austin.

Down on the Bayou

Still thinking about that scratch, I left Austin and headed east towards Houston.  Along the way, the skies clouded up, then a nasty thunderstorm rolled in and started dappling my windshield with raindrops.  Houston traffic can be horrific even on a good day, and an intense thunderstorm at rush hour made the drive that much more "exciting."  I was planning to camp that evening near one of my favorite Texas cities, Galveston, but the clouds were even darker off in that direction, so after surviving Houston, I continued on Interstate 10 and drove into southern Louisiana, a land of endless swamps, marshes, and armadillo road kill.

 

 

Here's some toe-tapping Louisiana Cajun music.  This is Buckwheat Zydeco singing Allons a Boucherie.

   

Other than the fascinating road kill, one of the things I love about Louisiana is the music here.  Many of the radio stations in southern Louisiana play Cajun/zydeco music with its infectious and fast-paced accordion, fiddle, and washboard.  You don't hear this unique style of music anywhere else in the country, unfortunately.  Some of the radio stations in Louisiana  even have Cajun D.J.'s ("All Cajun, All the Time"), so unless you know French, you can't understand a single word they're saying.  Even if you can't understand the D.J.'s or the advertisements, though, the toe-tapping zydeco music blaring out of your car speakers is fun to listen to, especially if you're cruising down a highway like I was.

 

Around 4 p.m. that afternoon, I pulled into Sam Houston Jones State Park, north of Lake Charles, Louisiana.  I'd never been to this park and discovered a beautiful, swampy bayou filled with turtles, egrets -- and probably some alligators if I looked long enough.  The deafening cacophony of chirping crickets and bellowing bullfrogs cracked me up that steamy evening as I cooked up a tasty dinner of brats and beans, and I almost couldn't stop laughing.  As I sat at my picnic table and ate dinner, I watched a wall of lightning bugs dance around the Spanish moss, like something out of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" at Disneyland but without the long lines. 

 

Camping on the bayou was a phenomenal experience, so much that I decided to put Sam Houston Jones on my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in America.  This definitely wasn't Oregon.

 

   

Above left:  I have a daily ritual of loading my cooler with one bag of ice, this time in Giddings, Texas.

Above right:  Highway 290 east of Austin.

 

       

Above left:  I crossed paths with a thunderstorm in Houston and could barely see out the windshield, even with the wipers on "High."  Driving 60 miles per hour through Houston at rush hour in a construction zone during a heavy downpour and unable to see...  Gee, it just doesn't get any better than this!  

Above center:  My campsite at Sam Houston Jones State Park in southern Louisiana. 

Above right:  Cooking brats (as in bratwurst) on the bayou.  It was about 95 degrees here and the air was so thick you could cut it with my Swiss Army knife.  It was just a wee bit different from Oregon. 

 

   

Above left:  While I was eating breakfast the next morning at my campsite, I watched this egret looking for his (or her) breakfast.  This is a backwater of the sluggish Calcasieu( pronounced"CAL-ka-shoe") River.

Above right:  A sweltering bayou, a cooler full of ice, and thou. 

 

   

Above left:  Replacing my headlights at my campsite.

Above right:  Then giving my truck a bath.  This is in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Bon Temps in Soggy Louziana

I got doused by one torrential downpour after another as I drove across Louisiana the next day, and I had to pull off the highway several times to seek higher ground and let the floodwaters recede so my Toyota wouldn't float away.  People make jokes about how flat the Midwest is, but I think Louisiana is the flattest state in the U.S.  However, it's also one of the most interesting, with all the bayous, bald cypress trees, incredible wildlife, and Spanish moss -- not to mention those indecipherable Cajun DJ's.

 

Above:  The Mississippi River bridges in Natchez, Mississippi.

I've driven through Louisiana several times but usually take the coastal route on my way to, or from, the Atlantic coast.  Instead of doing the Atlantic coastal drive this time, I decided to head north and visit Appalachia, a place that I've never really seen.  I always try to take different routes whenever I drive across America to see places I've never been, and Appalachia was one of those places.  Therefore, instead of driving through New Orleans on this trip, I headed northeast across Louisiana towards Natchez, Mississippi.

 

In terms of culture and atmosphere, Louisiana is about as far from Oregon as you can get in the U.S.  Many of my friends out west or in the Midwest think Louisiana is bizarre and backwards.  Whenever I've talked about traveling through Louisiana to my friends, their facial expressions always say, "Why would you ever want to go there?"  Well, no, I don't think I'd want to live in Louisiana -- steamy summers aren't really my thing.  But with its unique culture, I think Louisiana is one of the most fascinating places in America.  

 

After a few hours of trending northeast, I left Louisiana, crossed the muddy Mississippi River, and drove into the stately old city of Natchez, Mississippi.  Due entirely to cotton, the river port city of Natchez became one of the richest towns in the U.S. in the early 1800s and many stately mansions were built here.  But Natchez fell on hard times after the Civil War thanks to soil erosion and a critter called the boll weevil that decimated cotton crops.  However, visitors still come to Natchez from all parts of the country during "pilgrimages," when many of the spectacular antebellum (that's Latin for "Before Bellum") mansions are open for touring. 

 

Most of these impressive mansions have elegant names, usually referencing either women or trees.  That includes "Lady Victoria" and "Secret Oak" -- and my favorite, "Victoria's Secret."  The rest of the city really isn't that great, to be honest.  In fact, it's pretty run-down, and it's obvious that most of Natchez has seen better days.  However, the elegant mansions of Natchez have an alluring charm.

 

After poking around town for an hour, I drove onto the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful two-lane highway that starts here in Natchez, and camped a few miles away at a free National Park campground.  I like campgrounds partly because they're cheap.  And free campgrounds, I think, are the best kind. 

 

       

Above left:  It poured a LOT in Louisiana.  Each time a deluge started, I pulled off the highway and waited it out.  That was wiser, I decided, than driving through a river that was formerly the highway.  The torrential downpours in the South were spectacular, very much unlike our drizzly weather in the Pacific Northwest.

Above center:  Looking back into my truck's bed while waiting for another Louisiana thunderstorm to pass by.

Above right:  Street scene in steamy Alexandria, Louisiana.

 

   

Above left:  Natchez is a city of stark contrasts, with a dingy downtown area ringed by graceful antebellum mansions, including this one named "Rosalie."

Above right:  Entering the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway near Natchez.

 


 

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