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Del Rio TX, Jan 28-Feb 6, '08.(Open sky, blackbush, cactus, yucca, fun food and friendly Tex-Mexicans.)
Spanish missionaries named the place San Felipe Del Rio (Grande). Native Indians and Spanish settlers drew water from free flowing springs into a crude irrigation system. American know-how later built canals--an oasis in the desert. The springs still work, but it's more than water that gets folks here today--an Air Force Base and a National Park Service Recreation Area. Warm winters bring the snowbirds. For me it's the big open space hundreds of miles from urbanization.
Del Rio is on a high desert plateau of broken sedimentary stone with just an inch or so of poor soil for cactus, blackbush, and yucca here and there. Daytime the sun is hot. Wind, if there is any, blows across it full force with no land features ot trees to moderate. When the sun lowers, air temperature drops abruptly. The night sky is a full 360 degrees of dense black with specks of light, brilliant from edge to edge, a live planetarium.
A town of 50,000, Del Rio supports good American style shopping and services, supermarkets, major car dealerships, a most efficient 10-minute oil change, lots of banks (for the land boom happening) and a Walmart. The charm is, it's a border town, half the folks are spanish speaking Mex-Americans and the friendly flavor of Mexico comes right across the river.
The HEB, a chain out of San Antonio, is a walmart of supermarkets, very big and very cheap. There's no competition. The checkout lady asked how my Progresso canned soup and stew (a premium soup brand that works well for camping) compared with back in NY. Like Walmart not only home office advertising is proud of being the cheapest, but the minimum wage staff as well. I paid 2 for $3 for a nearly $2 can at home and the product offering was exceptional, over a dozen items including a chicken gumbo with sausage (New Orleans, remember?) and other stuff I never saw before. The guy ahead of me paid with pesos and her computerized register calculated the exchange.
The restaurants are small and cheap, with an active takeout window, and a limited offering that features the burrito, whatever can be put into or on a tortilla (corn or flour). There are fried meat plates as well, with refried beans, guacamole. Weekends, there's special food for the holiday. You remember the barbecue chicken at Rincon (aromatic!) and pork on a skewer from the little cart on the beach in Luquillo (we went back for more). Here it's carnitas (rough pork in a big pot) and menudo (a mild red pepper soup of beef tripe, pork feet and hominy). I passed the carnitas, but came back on Sunday for more menudo. Served with a chunk of lime and fresh chopped onion and chile verde, it's to die for! The locals have it for breakfast. A lone Long John Silver offers (the sign says) "American food."
First day, I drove across the dam and got into Mexico the long way round, starting on a dirt road with longhorn cows a little too close to the right of way. Aucuna, sister city to Del Rio, 22 km. Some buildup on the outskirts, crummy commercial structures with faded signage, old pickups, men in shirtsleeves at a food cart, waiting. Later some manufacturing, warehouses, a hospital, and a residential enclave of colorfully painted cinderblock homes with iron window grates. At the restaurant for breakfast (pesos 47.30, about $10) I spotted a well off senor in a beige linen-cotton suit. George and I toured the modest "plaza comercial," found an oldstyle VW beetle they still manufacture here.
Seeing that suit started me looking for juego de un hombre in the shops and department stores, boosting my Spanish but with no material result. In town I parked for an hour and a half at a meter, did some work while I waited for a store to open. "El Mundo del Tenis" turned out to be a zapateria! Getting out was a problem. Not frontera or costumbres, as my Babelfish suggested, but puente (gate). Guy in a gas station made a road sketch for me, with arrows showing the way. That happened in Del Rio, too. They're very helpful giving directions, like in PR, where more than once someone would say "Follow me" and go out of their way to show me to someplace. Must be a Spanish thing. Photo ID isn't enough anymore, they want a birth certificate PLUS ID, or a passport. Bad for business. Will stop nobody serious.
TA says you learn a lot from people you meet at campsites. And I did learn from him to rock pile the garbage can lid against the nighttime racoon. And other stuff. But his mind isn't subtle. In reality the energy is working the other way. People derive a unique benefit from meeting strangers where they can talk about themselves. Name and where you're from is a start. It always happens. Where you've been, what you do. If the listener is available there's more to tell, and if encouraged, the most revealing personal matters are soon out. They've told the story time and time again, but with a stranger who's never heard it there's the opportunity to live again in the retelling. Maybe better. Steinbeck writes about it in the book I told you about. It's not such a bad book after all, if you skip the social politics. I'll loan you my copy.
I met Tom with just a towel on him. He's a young 20's on his way from working on a farm in Vermont to a cannery job in Oregon. His folks are in Wallingford (CT, you know the place) where he grew up and he drives a decent small car. He had gone for a dip on the beach (brrrrr!) when I looked for him. Later, on the way out, he's heading for Big Bend to stop and see a friend who lives in a ghost town. Maybe we'll run into each other there. But I won't be going that way and I'll miss the rest of it.
Fred is campsite host, a volunteer job that gets him a free site with electricity, water and dump connection for his modest RV. He comes down from Colorado October to April for the weather. I could learn about it at volunteer.gov. He recently suffered a pulmonary embolism, phoned 911, the rangers came first. They treated him at the hospital here in Del Rio. He acted OK, and did not appear more vulnerable for the experience. Able to ride his bike better now than before, a result of the blood thinning medicine they put him on. Marge says you live here six months in Texas, and pay no state tax at home.
Had lunch with TA and Marge at an upscale restaurant in Aucuna. My suggestion. They walk a lot for health so we walked a mile each way across the dumb bridge at the border in a fierce wind. Besides, they were warned about taking a car. It was sweet of them to let me come along. The war was over before TA had a chance to knock down any Jap zeros in the Pacific. He worked industrial sales and made his home in several parts of the country which he learned to know well. Marge was an army wife. Helped Panama girls with English and personal hygiene working with some nuns outside the Zone. Got lost on a bullet train out of Tokyo while her husband was in Vietnam with no yen and almost no Japanese. They lost their respective spouses not long ago and have been together 3 years.
Marge remembered I needed a picture for the webpage. Brought her camera over just as two new visitors came in. A German couple in an unbelievably high tech motor home and a single guy on a scraggly bike outfit. He was on his way from one odd job (pedaltaxi in Miami) to another (Seattle, not sure what). We had fun at that. Gute reise!
The bike guy liked the view so I let him pitch his tent at my site. TA brought over some chicken for him, which he cooked on his Coleman along with rice-a-roni he had. I gave him my knife to cut up the chicken and charged his cell phone for him. He phones his crowd when he crosses a new state line and they pass the word around. Most of his overnights are in a field someplace alone. He said he was happy to have some people around to talk to. Made little headway yesterday with the wind and got blown into the travel lane a few times.
It's Thursday. Breakfast at Chinto's and tried the pork rind. Ranger talk at 10. Everybody got the word about the exotic zebra mussel, a nuisance species they're worried about. Coffee all around from an oldfashion pot on a wood fire and sweet cakes of all kinds the regulars bring. The 14-day camping limit is just on paper. Most looked like they were here for the season. Got tickets for a Mexican brass ensemble Friday. Saturday I'm looking at more menudo. I'll leave Sunday heading South. I love it here but the road pulls me along.
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