April 15th 2023, Bandera,Texas.
It was such a relief to leave Mexico and enter the United States. Two nights before I departed Monterrey, a young woman spat at me in the street — full force so that I felt her spittle hit the back of my neck and head. I can say with complete certainty that that has never happened to me before. She had approached me from the rear at around seven in the evening on a busy pedestrian street, a nice street with trees and seating, goods shops and a pleasant atmosphere. She touched my lower arm, lower back area. I turned around. She was not an urchin, she was not filthy and not obviously poverty-stricken, at least not in any visual way. I said “no, no, no; don’t touch me” and turned away, and she just spat at me and ran off. I can only assume that I represented, or she thought I represented, something she hated. So yes, by the time it came to exit Mexico, I had had enough.
The crossing at Laredo was the busiest I have seen at the innumerable frontiers I have crossed since beginning this Odyssey but it was run efficiently — on both the Mexican and US sides. Six or eight lanes of cars and trucks merged inch by inch into two lanes that eventually crawled across a bridge over the Rio Grande. Somehow I expected the river that separated much of south-western Texas from Mexico to be more dramatic; it has a name after all. But no, it was just a wide, and not very wide, maybe 50 meters wide, muddy brown river with a nice looking linear park on either side. You could easily swim across it, I’d say.
Before the actual frontier, there was on the Mexican side a set of booths that appeared to be empty. The windows were blacked out, none of the doors was open and there appeared to be no one around, save for as single official wandering among the vehicles and doing nothing in particular. “Donde esta adouna?” I asked him, anxious to have the Mexican customs people sign off the bike officially leave the country so that I could get back the 8,573 Mexican pesos (€435) they grabbed hold of on my credit card, but did not fully take, on entering the country. He pointed to one of the blacked out booths and helped me get to it. Out popped a woman who, within a matter of maybe a minute and no more, inspected by papers, checked the bike’s VIN number was the same as when I entered the country, keyed something into the machine in her booth and handed me back the papers. “Finito?” I asked. “Finito.” she said. Relieved, I hopped back on the bike and re-joined the queue to enter the US. (Three days later, €378 was returned to my credit card. Who knows what happened to the missing €57!)
On the other side of the bridge, the two lanes fanned out onto a crescent-shaped forecourt faced by about a dozen individual booths, 10 of them manned by US Customer and Border Protection officers questioning drivers and checking vehicles. When my turn came, the officer was very friendly but probing in his questioning. There was some inspecting of the bike but eventually he said: Your visa is in order but you also need an I94 so if you come with me, we can get that sorted. What fresh hell is this, I wondered, as he walked and I rode to the main building and another queue?
Eventually Officer Bowles, Officer Rudi Bowles (“It’s Rudolph but everyone calls me Rudi”), dealt with me and what a thoroughly pleasant and friendly guy he turned out to be. We must have chatted for an hour and while the conversation began as a subtle probing of my story, I think he quickly accepted who I was and what I was doing and he was fascinated. He was 59 and going to retire next year and was blown away by (a) my age and (b) the journey I was on. He called over a colleague, Tiffaney Santoa, who was a Harley rider, and soon the pair of them were recommending routes through Texas and said I definitely had to go to Fredericksburg and try some of the wine there. When he eventually got around to stamping my passport, he squeezed his hand out under the glass screen to shake mine and wish me well and, just as I was riding out of the complex, two other officers flagged me down. Officer Rudi was running across the car park trying to catch me. Panting, he said “I forgot to give you this — the i94; keep it with your passport!” And that was it — I was in the States, free to go wherever I wanted and legal too.
Sometimes places instantly live up to their cliches. Like, you go to France and on day one see a fellow riding a bicycle, wearing a blue and white striped top and with a string of onions around his neck. Or Berchtesgaden on a Sunday morning and see the place is full of middle aged blokes in lederhosen shorts, felt hats with pheasant feathers in them and sporting exaggerated Edwardian waxed moustaches. I’ve seen both!
I headed up Interstate 35 in the direction of San Antonio and, having spent the night in a motel in Devine (a real motel, not one of the Latin American variety) set off next day along route 173 towards Fredericksburg. In no time at all I was in Bandera — “Cowboy Capital of the World” it proclaimed with typical Texan exuberance. And in fairness, it may well be. I asked several people about the claim and they all said the same: Bandera (pop. 839) is surrounded by ranches that are home to, well, cowboys. “Y’all as likely to see hosses tied up here on main as cars,” as one young woman put it to me. There were no hosses when I was there but there were plenty of Harleys. Like dozens of Harleys. It was Saturday morning and every Harley owner for miles around appeared to be out on the road showing off their chrome and garishly coloured over-the-top bikes. I think of them more as flying armchairs than motorbikes. One of the riders was a fellow named Stan (pictured below on his Honda), whom I met outside a timber-clad cafe-cum-diner named Busbees BBQ and Catering. “Alaska?” he said. “Awesome!”
And just then as we were chatting, right on queue, around the corner came a convoy of maybe a dozen, or 15, pickup trucks and jeeps, all festooned with Trump flags. They proclaimed two things: (1) that he won the last presidential election but Biden stole it, and (2) Vote Trump 2024! And while their outsized flags fluttered from long poles at the rear of their vehicles and you couldn’t but notice them as they drove slowly down main Street, no one walking on the sidewalks lined with cute tourist shops seemed in any way interested. Everyone just carried on as normal.
The little town — no more than a main street — is really is proud of its cowboy heritage but it sells it badly. While there are a few shops specialising in cowboy gear — especially Stetson hats and leather boots — there was a paucity of information about the place itself. There was just a fairly miserable display of photos and information beside one of the cowboy outlets which could have been made much more interesting and engaging. After all, the town had produced Ray “Mighty Mite” Wharton, 1956 World Calf Roping Champion. Clay Billings was a champion barrel racer, pole bender and breakaway calf roper. Scooter Fries a renowned street wrestler. And Clint Singleton? Well Clint was Rodeo Champion in 2000 aged just 19. All big stories for the Cowboy Capital of the World and none well told. . . They’re missing a trick in Bandera, so they are.
Outside of town further along 173 towards Kerrville, a big sign outside a huge warehouse-type building caught my eye. “Connecting Cowboys to Christ”, it said. Well, I had to stop.
A gravel drive led to a large carpark in front of a hanger-like building which was – what else? — a church. The Ridin’ The River Cowboy Fellowship is run by some of the nicest people you could meet anywhere. There when I breezed in were ex-San Antonio police patrol Randy Tucker (pictured above), his wife Linda, and her pal Marian Earnest. As I rode across the wide hard stand car park beside the utterly non-church looking building, Randy came to greet me and insisted I come on inside. “We’re a Bible based church,” he explained. When I met her a few minutes’ later, Lynda elaborated: “If it’s not in the Bible, we’re not talking about it, we’re not preaching it,” she said firmly.
Inside, there was a large reception-cum-dining area, the original space for worshiping, I was told. And beyond it, maybe four or five times larger, perhaps the size of a rugby pitch, was the new church — equally cavernous put nicely done with lots of timber and a galvanised metal cattle drinking trough doubling as a full immersion baptismal font. About 550 local people, most of them ranch owners and/or employees and hence cowboys, come every Sunday for scripture-centric worship, led by their pastor, Jeremy Levi. But the core of the congregation is the 150 or so who come every Wednesday evening for Bible study. “We’ve got millionaires in this church and we got drunks from Bandera,” says Randy, by which he means everyone is welcome. And I have no doubt but that they are. He and his wife, and their fellow church worker Marian, were lovely people — full of warmth and with a big-hearted welcome. I just don’t share their faith, but that’s neither here nor there and I didn’t say any of that to them — why would you?
Thus far so, Texas has more than lived up to its stereotype — cowboys and ten gallon hats, Harleys everywhere, churches everywhere and every type imaginable, Bar-B-Q restaurants serving meat, more meat and then some meat on the side with your meat sir! And while Texas is an “open carry” state which means it is legal for over 21s to carry a handgun in a holster without any special permit. I haven’t seen that yet but ask anyone and they’ll tell you that almost everyone in a vehicle has a gun with them in the vehicle, at least in Hill Country west of Austin.