Texas vignettes (Texas II, Travelog entry 21)

Ruby’s BBQ

 

Ruby’s BBQ is a little shack with a cool vibe. Various concert flyers and odd scraps of art adorn the walls, along with a cow skull with horns. Some of the art appears to be framed napkins. Egon notes approvingly that they are playing Robert Gordon on the stereo. We order a pile of meat and some beans at the counter, and bring some beers to a table at the front. Serious barbecue places are not big on formalities, or vegetables.

 

While we’re sitting there we notice that the odd doodle of a cactus hanging on the wall by our table is signed by Townes Van Zandt, one of Egon’s all-time favorite musicians (he tells me that TVZ died on January 1, 1997, exactly fifty years after Hank Williams; this is the kind of stuff he keeps stored in his head at all times, ready for instant retrieval).

 

Investigating the other odd pictures and napkins and whatnot on the walls, Egon finds more musicians’ signatures, like Los Lobos, Jimmy Vaughan (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother), Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and several others. He gets to talking with the staff, who tell him that TVZ was a regular at Ruby’s. The thought of eating in one of TVZ’s haunts, perhaps eating the same dishes, makes Egon all giddy and excited, like he was at Graceland.

 

Egon proudly tells the staff about getting TVZ to play at his club Blårock in Tromsø, north of the arctic circle, and in case they don’t believe it, he whips out Harry Kúre’s iPhone which is encased in a custom cover printed with a photo of the very TVZ at Blårock. The cowskull visible behind TVZ on the wall of Blårock recalls the cowskull on the wall of Ruby’s, and a psychic link is established.

 

The food comes on butcher’s paper and is so delicious we go back for seconds, washing it all down with Anchor Steam beer (from San Francisco). The brisket is especially flavorful and juicy. The place is unpretentious but excellent, and they play great music the whole time we’re there. I suppose this is just how TVZ felt sitting in this very spot.

 

Music

 

Austin is famous for its vibrant live music scene and all kinds of great artists play there but on this arbitrary Tuesday evening none of the concert listings jump out at us. Mike Watt is playing, but we’re not in the mood to spend the whole evening at a concert anyway, so we decide to check out some live music bars at random. The live music bars along Sixth Street are not as tightly packed as on Nashville’s Broadway, but are rather interspersed with game parlors (with pool and other table games), eateries, and other businesses that suggest a youthful clientele.

 

To our befuddlement, every band in every bar on the street is a Stevie Ray Vaughan imitation. This is how my brother Ian had described it back in DC but we didn’t realize at the time that he wasn’t exaggerating at all. It’s all dull blues covers played technically well by guys in cowboy hats with soul patches and wifebeaters. Egon says it is just as boring as a mediocre night at a blues club in the Norwegian countryside.

 

We head back to our neighborhood south of the bat bridge and find a little upstairs place with a cool band playing rockabilly.

 

Crab cakes

 

For breakfast we try a chi-chi spot near our motel and I’m startled to see that they have eggs benedict with crab cakes, the very dish I unsuccessfully tried twice to eat in New Orleans. We are far from the coast, so I am skeptical about seafood, but I can’t resist and they don’t disappoint. They also have espresso, which we have been hankering after for quite some time now, so we order doubles but they are the size of americanos.

 

Cowboy Boots

 

Egon’s been hoping to score some boots while we’re in the US so we walk into Allen’s, a giant boot store. They only sell one brand, which is their own, high quality handmade cowboy boots, aisle after aisle in a space the size of a barn, organized by size. So you go down the aisles until you find your size, and you see what styles they have: cowhide, ostrich, snake, alligator, pointy toes or box toes, medium heels or high heels, lots of stitching or massive amounts of stitching.

 

Like I have said I’ve never been much of a cowboy so I have never given cowboy boots a second look but in this store, on this trip, I find myself admiring a pair of alligator boots. They look classy, I think, and I buy them on an impulse. When I find Egon again he’s quite surprised at me. He turns out not to have given the cowboys boots a second look. He’s actually interested in engineer’s boots, so here I am outcountrying him. There’s no zealot like a convert.

 

Houston

 

This is out of turn, because I was eager to describe Austin, but before we reached Austin we had to drive through the Houston metropolitan area. Our timing was poor and as a result we hit it at rush hour. The highway system around Houston is massive, seriously Texas-sized. A running Norwegian joke for us on this trip is that everything is bigger in America, and there is nowhere that is more true than Texas. The cars are huge, including a stunning number of enormous pick-up trucks. The freeway we’re on has seven lanes in either direction, and traffic is backed up for miles in either direction. The traffic is bumper to bumper and crawling along, alternating between 5 and 30 miles per hour, enough that you need to pay constant attention to avoid fender benders. Anyone who keeps a safe following distance will instantly have that space filled by a car changing lanes, the driver hoping beyond all reason that your lane will start moving faster than the one he was just in.

 

There are huge numbers of exits to crossing highway systems, both on the left and the right, and the freeway frequently splits into different highways going in different directions. Massively built overpasses snake over each other in multiple stories, in freeway intersections which are like gargantuan plates of spaghetti.

 

It looks like we are going to be stuck in this stressful mess for a long time, when a “carpool” lane opens up on the far left. This lane is clearly marked as being reserved for “carpools,” and there are signs indicating big penalties for misusing it. It is separated from the main highway by a barrier, to avoid cheats, and every few miles there are cut-outs where you can enter or exit.

 

A carpool is defined in the US as a car with two or more people in it. This means we qualify, so at the first available cut-out, we change lanes into the carpool lane and suddenly we are able to cruise along at 70 MPH. There are practically no cars in the carpool lane. In other words, the 14 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic we see extending to the horizon in both directions consists entirely of cars containing only the driver.

 

Most of these cars are pretty big, and many are huge, SUVs or gigantic pick-up trucks. It is kind of astonishing to think how much metal and rubber and upholstery and power are being used to carry a relatively small amount of humanity.

 

We blow past millions of these crawling, fuming, single-driver cars and finally hit open freeway again once we are safely far from Houston and rush hour abates.

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