Tandem, An American Love Story

The forecast week of sunshine was cut short. Just as well, we were both getting sunburned; maybe this deluge will drown some mosquitoes. Right. The rain hit hard in early afternoon. We tried to wait it out at a state park but gave it up after an hour.

Out into the liquid sky smothering Mustang Island; the subtle warm colors of the wet sea grasses and salt-marsh waters, the egrets and shore birds too, were beautiful wet, and so the rain was not as hated as expected.

A child almost died near here in a house fire when the firefighters couldn’t get past the iron bars on the windows. Fear of crime almost cost the family dearly. We still see lots of gated security developments, as we have all across the South. White people are afraid of Black people and Black people are afraid of White people. Whites commute great distances to live far from Blacks and the segregation that laws could not change, gets worse. It seems such a shame, and the costs for all of us are so high.

We decided to stop in Kingsville to check out a local festival-of-lights. When we got to the Oasis RV park, the owner/host told us the camping was free to us. These Texans again! Turned out she comes from somewhere in New England. She said many Texans (like Washingtonians) are from somewhere else. Maybe that’s why they’re so friendly. More diversity leads to more openness to strangers?

Today we were told about a man who won the lottery somewhere. He had so much trouble with his relatives fighting over his money, that he just left home. Now he passes through this area twice a year on his mountain bike pulling a tiny trailer with all his worldly goods. He spends all his time on the road and seems content. Nobody knows where the money is. I like that story. There is justice in it, and we understand why he is happy.

At the festival we saw a dancing troupe of five men and five women in costume doing traditional Mexican dancing. The steps reminded us of Appalachian clogging. Our first real taste of Mexican culture, and we like it.

A Texas story. A rancher was telling Claire about his spread.

“You see those snow-capped mountains you can barely see the tops of way out to the west?”

Claire followed his expansive gesture.

“Well those mountains are on my ranch.”

Claire looked impressed.

“My ranch goes all the way up north to the Hill Country around Austin and all the way down south to the valley of the Rio Grande.”

Claire was now looking very impressed.

“Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if my ranch don’t go all the way over to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Claire was looking really impressed by this time, and the big Texas rancher was on a roll.

“Why, ma’am, my ranch is so big,” he pushed his ten-gallon hat back on his head, “that it takes two hard days to drive around it in my pickup truck.”

Claire looked up at the big Texan, batted her eyelashes and said, “I had an old pickup like that myself once.”

We met Dean Swift who now lives at the Oasis. He rode his bicycle from Longview, Washington to here via Oregon, California, Arizona and New Mexico. That was three years ago and he is still here. He had a heart attack a few months ago, and doesn’t seem to be doing the things he should be to get back on his feet. He smokes and drinks a bit.

He was very excited to talk to us about our trip. He wants to get back on the road. His eyes sparkle and smile when he talks about it.

Dean looks older than his years. He’s another Vietnam vet who’s had it hard. Who knows what demons sent him this way. He has a good support group at the Oasis, and that is probably what made him stop traveling.

About some of the seemingly lost souls I tell you about. I think the nature of our travel method puts us in the way of people we normally would not meet; people none of our friends would normally meet. That may make it seem as if I am seeing a negative America. I’ve thought about that a good bit, and I don’t think I am. These people are all around us all the time, we just don’t see them. That doesn’t mean they do not exist. They do.

I point these people out to you to make you (and me) appreciate just how good the throw of the dice was to us. That’s part of what this trip is about for us; love of life, and thanksgiving, always thanksgiving. A thankful life is a fulfilled life.

Not all these people are as desperate as they might seem at first. Dean has his moments of joy. He laughs. He’s content to a degree. He’s very resourceful and proud of it. (He told us to look in the dumpsters along our route for food that is out of date, but still good. He swears the meat is okay as long as you cook it well.) He took the role of mentor to us and gave us some good information about our intended route, which is the reverse of his route to from Arizona. He even gave us a water key to use on spigots that don’t have a knob; for an emergency he said.

Flash forward: Two years later, as we traveled America in Turtle, our motorhome, we looked for Dean to return his water key, and tell him of its adventures. We learned he had died suddenly days after we left. We still have his water key.

The Turtle Chronicles

Rode 80 miles the next day, most of it through the King Ranch and desolate. We were told at the RV park last night to ride far from the edge of the road because there were wetbacks traveling the parallel railroad tracks and they would jump out of the bushes and attack us. (Wetbacks are illegal Mexicans seeking work) “These are desperate people,” they told us, “they’ll kill you in a minute.”

About 40 miles out we were riding alone, no other traffic, when we saw a group of six or seven; they were walking the middle of the tracks, beside us, carrying gallon milk-jugs of water. They had a good 15 miles of walking ahead to sneak past the U.S. Border Patrol’s checkpoint. We waved and smiled. Some looked away from us in fear, but others waved and smiled back as they trudged on up the tracks. They looked tired, not dangerous.

So much for murderers and thieves.

I had noticed a cache of gallon jugs of water back up the road and just before the check-point, many empty jugs abandoned beside the tracks. We also saw what looked like a cache of food hanging in a tree. These people have friends. Who knows, maybe the Anglo farmers and ranchers who illegally hire them so cheap.

In a Raymondville RV park, we found a small concrete pad dry enough to put our tent on. Like mosquitoes, distances and everything else, Texas does rain in a big way. They got a foot of rain two days ago and is still flooded. Glad we weren’t here then.

We have been seeing flyers for big band dancing. There is one in three days not far from here. We decided to go to South Padre Island and come back for the dance.

Hard 63 to South Padre Island, much of it into a headwind. To top that off, we reached the Queen Isabella Causeway over the Inter Coastal waterway and there was another one of those signs saying bicycles and pedestrians were not allowed on the bridge — with no alternatives suggested. We always ignore these signs on the principle that we are a valid form of transportation, and as such have a right to use public transportation facilities.

But, today we hit it just at rush-hour and it would not have been much fun. Just then, a pickup pulled in behind us and a very animated man jumped out and offered us a ride across the bridge. He proceeded to load Zippy into the back, packs and all with little help from me.

Claire and I jumped in and rode with Zippy across the bay, enjoying the cruising brown pelicans. He and his wife, who was in the cab with him, moved here from Colorado two years ago. They love it. She has multiple sclerosis and can’t deal with the cold. He was one of those go-for-it guys who love helping other people They dropped us off on the other side. We gave them a card and invited them to Dungeness.

We camped on the water at a beautiful county park at the tip of South Padre. Just north, for miles, are rows and rows of multi-story condos and motels. This county had the foresight to save some of the best beach for those who can’t afford, or don’t like the condo way of enjoying the beach.

Just after dark, out in the bay in front of our tent, people waded the shallows with lights, spearing flounder. It could be Dungeness this time of year, wading for Dungeness crabs.

At sunset there were herons and pelicans feeding and shrimp boats coming in to port, all this framed by palm trees. The temperature something around 70. Tough place to be in late November.

On the second afternoon on South Padre, we visited a thatched hut bar on the beach were the regulars hang out, play bingo and drink beer. I talked with Max who runs a sport-fishing boat during season, and hangs out at the Oyster Bar. He had a high pressure job, decided the stress wasn’t worth it, bagged it and ended up on South Padre years ago. I wouldn’t say he was the happiest man I ever met, but he wasn’t stressed.

Later, we met a couple in the campground, visiting South Padre for the wind surfing; they’d retired early to do the things they loved. They had a nice pop up tent, nothing fancy, but comfortable.

We’re not alone out here.

The next day we rode back to San Benito for the big band dance. We were not allowed to tent camp in the RV park where the dance was held; the best we could do was a motel a couple of miles away. Since the dance would end well after dark, we walked.

The big band was just five pieces. We are spoiled with our 16 piece Opus One in Port Angeles. Still, it was fun to dance to the 40’s era music again. We met lots of Winter Texans (as snowbirds are affectionately called here) who love dancing as much as we do. One nice couple gave us a ride back to our motel. Sure would have been nice if we could have camped there. These places make us feel like second-class citizens, just because we choose to sleep in a tent.

The next day it happened again. We arrived near sunset at the Tropic Star Resort, because we’d heard from friends that the Tropic Star had great dancing to big band music. We planned to camp there and go to the dance.

We were informed by the gatekeeper that he would have to check with his supervisor before letting us in to set up a tent. It took him until well after dark to reach his supervisor and we were told that tents were not allowed. We were not happy. We don’t like riding in the dark but there was the gatekeeper and the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire… We tried at the park across the street. There we were treated very condescendingly by the several Winter Texans we met. They all had upper Midwest accents and long noses to look down at us. And we hadn’t even ridden hard that day and didn’t stink hardly at all.

It was really dark now and our camping hopes completely dashed. I remembered passing a motel a mile or so back down the road. We rubber banded our feeble light to my helmet, turned on our rear light, and with it blinking pitifully, rode off into the inky night. We labored to dodge unknown objects on the bad road shoulder, praying that none we hit were glass.

At the motel a man came to the iron bars blocking the door. He did not open the locked steel bars covering the entire front of the office.

“How much is a room for two?”

“Depends,” he said.

“Huh?” I said. “Depends on what?”

“How many hours you want it for.”

How many hours? Oops.

The thought of strangers arriving in the room next to ours in hourly shifts during the night, drunk and in heat, did not appeal, nor promise much sleep. I had heard about such motels. They are for people married to people other than the ones they go there with, or married couples having a libido crisis. Being in neither category, we pushed on and found another, worse looking motel, not far away. This time there was no suggestion of hourly rates, so I asked to see the room. It was the ugliest motel room I have ever seen. But it was clean. Sort of.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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