Aw, the Lone Star State. The road has never looked quite so open, the air been so dry, or the landscape so much like a cowboy and indian flick. We stop at a farmers market just by our hotel before leaving Austin - breakfast tacos and flu-busting fresh fruit juice mixes to get us on the road. I've offered to take the first stretch, but my brain has turned to mush, and I feel much like an exhausted klutz. Husband luckily takes over, and I'm asleep in minutes. Yawn. We arrive in Bandera a couple of hours later - we're headed for the Silver Spur Ranch, just 9 miles outside of the town, and just in time for lunch. The website has promised us three hearty meals a day, and they certainly do not disappoint. There's barbeque chicken, potato salad, grilled potato, mixed veg, bread and green salad. Yum yum. We eat lunch in a big mess hall, with a whole bunch of English tourists - they're all here for the day, though most of them seem utterly terrified by the horses, so I can't quite imagine why they're at a ranch. Their bus is parked right outside, and sits on the whole day, as if desperate to get away. Soon enough, we're saddling up. I've only been horse riding a few times in my life - probably less than ten, definitely less than twenty. I've always thought it's quite a fun thing to do, but have generally not liked how moody the horses are about carrying people around, and therefore how skittish I feel on them.
This time however - and I think this may be because I had my newly purchased (but pre-worn) boots, and hat on - I felt strangely confident.
My horse and I just seemed to get along. His name is Whiskey, and is an Appaloosa, which are best known for their colourful leopard-spotted coat pattern. He didn't like any of the other horses, and was very keen to let them know that. Our ride was slow, plodding along, not wanting to frighten the Brits in our group. The Texan landscape was thrillingly beautiful - much like back home - dry, sparse, with rolling hills. Often the trees made it hard to see more than a few feet in each direction, and I wondered how the cowboys of yesteryear managed to navigate through them. Or tell when the Indians were on their trail. After our ride, we settled back in at the ranch house. We were to be two of only four guests - on a ranch that can sleep up to ninety!
But feeling the way we did, we were more than grateful to have the place mostly to ourselves - and to nab the great big leather couches right by the fire. Where I promptly fell asleep. Between us, we seem to have turned into nut-house. Husband's flu gets worse by the hour, and I'm feeling worse for wear with a tummy bug. Can you say EXHAUSTION?! 28 October 2012 Breakfast is served at 8.30 sharp. Somehow we make it in time. Scrambled eggs, bacon, potato mix and blueberry pancakes. See what I mean about hearty meals? Luckily my tummy has settled - I'm going to need all this energy food! I nap (yes, again), and Husband wanders around the room, trailing a loo roll. He's got quite a case of the sniffly nose. I'm starting to feel like we both need a holiday from this holiday. Gosh. We get back on the horse. Literally. There's definitely something about being up on a horse. The air must be clearer up there. I feel the best that I have all weekend, and Husband admits he does too. The fresh air, the solidarity, the communion with nature? This time, it's just the two of us and the ranger. We get to ask more questions, take more photos, and break it into a trot. It's amazing to feel the power in this animal as he hauls both himself and me up steep inclines. And it does make for quite a thrill - the ground here is hard, caked over, like old salt. The path is full of sharp rocks and loose stones, and is slippery in a lot of places, but somehow this horse keeps his hold, and Whiskey keeps on plodding along. By the end I want to take him home with me.
My appetite's up by the time we get back - horse riding is hungry-making work. Once more we sit down to a hearty meal - an exceedingly scrumptious meatball spaghetti, with broccoli and green salad on the side. After lunch we treated to a chance to try out roping - which is quite a tricky thing to master, I must say. But very fun. I'm loving all this cowgirl stuff.
What's that you say? Is it nap time? Why yes it is. After another nap (yip, exhaustion - I swear, it's a real thing, ask any celebrity), we head into town with Jay - one of the managers here. As we are now officially the last two guests on the ranch we're being treated to a trip into Bandera, for some local music and burgers. Bandera sure is one small town, with a population of around a thousand people, and with a main street less than two miles long, bar-hopping becomes quite an easy and fun thing to do. We start at the 11th Street Bar, with drinks, some live country music, and some wonderful elderly couples doing the two-step to the music. These are proper cowboys and cowgirls, not a single one of them wearing their hats with the slightest bit of irony. Unlike us.
After a drink there we pop in at The Long Horn (so named for the cattle around here, which have very long horns) - this place is dingy, dark and wonderful. The characters in here are classic, and we're soon at the bar, listening to their stories and jokes, with big smiles on our faces. Our last stop is at the Chickin Coop for burgers. A long-haired guitar player croons into the microphone. As the burgers arrive our host jumps up - he's received a call from one of the other wranglers from the ranch - she's totaled her car driving into a deer. He dashes off to go help out. He's a real nice guy. Our drive back to the ranch is a slow one. We've always been aware of the deer on these roads, all across America, but now it's hit home. In the half-light of dusk we see them along the roadside, ears just peeking through the long grasses, only feet away from the road. 29 October 2012 Up at 6am. We've found ourselves at a bit of a crossroad. The next two night's accommodation are not booked. The road could take us anywhere, but we have headcolds to consider, and exhausted bodies. Where we really want to go - Santa Fe - is a good ten to twelve hours away. Can we make it given our current health and lack of energy? Or will we find ourselves in some grimy motel along the way? Or worse still, sleeping in the car alongside the road? Hmph. After a quick breakfast Jay suggests we pop out to the corral to see the horses being fed. The sky is just beginning to lighten, and the horses appear ghost-like in the hazy light. Each is hooked up next to its feed-bucket, pawing at the ground, nostrils flared, ready to eat. These are some hungry beasts. It's pure wonderment to see them unsaddled.
The donkeys and goats are also out to be fed. I can't help but chuckle at the goats - they sure are silly animals. There's one old one with arthritis who struts up to the feed with such a funny gait that I'm almost in tears with laughter. Shame.
We pack the car, say our farewells, snap some pics of the longhorns, and we're off.
Today is going to be a long drive. Luckily the landscape is beyond beautiful - hilly, with rough green shrubs to start, and then the flattest you have ever seen.
By the time I take over driving the road is so perfectly straight and flat that it disappears in front of my eyes - becoming a slick oil painting on the horizon, the approaching cars nothing but smudgy blurs.
Late in the afternoon we cross into New Mexico, and into Mountain Time Zone. The speed limit suddenly drops - it's only the Texans who like to drive fast it seems.
We drive through Roswell - it doesn't make much of an impression, and while it had been an option for an overnighter, we're glad to give it a skip. I feel like we've seen every kind of desert today - this morning when we left, it was dry, but there were trees, the harsh scraggly trees of the desert, but trees. As the day progressed the hills stopped rolling, and disappeared into the ground, and with them, the trees. After that, there were shrubs, still green. And then, later still, there was just grass, with stubs of plants that may have once been shrubs, and the land was even flatter than before. It seems unreal, dreamlike, surreal, a fantasy land.
The sun starts to set. The long shadows make the landscape look more and more like home. I tell Husband to put on songs of Africa. It's a mean balance between happily tapping along to the music and keeping the tears from brimming over.
Mountains rise in the distance - the sun silhouettes them perfectly. It looks more and more like home. The car feels deathly quiet, even with the loud music from home drumming out a steady heart-wrenching beat. The tears win, and brim over. My cheeks are soon lined in water marks. It's funny how much Africa gets under your skin, how no matter how far you are from home, you can still feel it, digging through to you, calling you home. That setting sun, those dark silhouetted mountains, the plains of grasses, it calls, it howls, it'll always pull you home. I know I won't be able to resist that pull for long. Husband gently wipes away tear drops from under my chin.
Santa Fe is nestled in a gradual valley, shimmering in the dusk. The sky is that dark blue, the darkest blue it can be before it turns black. We'll be staying here, for a while, nestled in this valley. Time to rest, to recover, to refuel. Oh, and to do the laundry.