Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
Photo courtesy Rebecca SchoenkopfWe weren't in Nashville anymore. We knew this, like getting smacked in the head with a raw steak, because of the frost in the air. Oh, don't get me wrong; Nashville had snow on the ground. I'm talking about the waitresses in the Texas roadside diner where we had stopped. Whole minutes crept by while they puttered with buckets of lemon wedges before finally turning around to fulfill, wordlessly, our polite request for the day's fifth cup of coffee to go, please, ma'am. We and our sexy big hair were not welcome in the truck stops of central Texas. Let me just be clear: your female Texans are evil whores.
Roxy and I had flown to New York the day after Christmas to pick up a car and bomb it back across this big ol' country of ours in time for New Year's Eve. But storms in the Panhandle had jammed Route 40, and then storms in Shreveport threatened Interstate 20. So we turned left at Louisiana and right at Texas, flying across the godforsaken I-10, where they apparently find it perfectly acceptable to put their towns 467 miles apart. Washington, D.C., is home to the country's least romantic people (if you don't count the residents of Irvine); think of Bob Packard, and you've got the ethos. But they've managed to build themselves one hell of a romantic view. Though the Capitol is blocked off for President-elect Numbnuts' inauguration, the beeline between it and the Washington Monument is the kind of vista that hushes your chattering mouth. We hooked up with Peter Loge, a Hill veteran and director of the Justice Project, an outfit aiming to ensure fairness in executions. "Fairness" and "executions"? Baby steps, I guess. We had margaritas at a "Mexican" restaurant and then hit an Irish pub, where Flogging Molly and Nelly Furtado were on the box and a buttoned-up Irishman was playing an intense game of pool —like HB's Surfin' Congressman Dana Rohrabacher hanging out at the Harp Inn in Costa Mesa. Except for his buzz cut, this guy looked nothing whatsoever like the Surfin' Congressman, but I was unable to shake the creepy feeling. Loge dubbed him Dana O'Rohrabacher, which was hella funny if you were there.
Loge is really waggish and un-deadly-serious, especially for a guy whose life has been spent fighting for noble causes. Bono, take note!
We got the futon in Loge's loft, a former carriage house paneled—badly—with cheesy faux oak on the ceiling by a senator who stayed there in the '40s or '50s while his front house was being remodeled. That senator was Joseph McCarthy: good fighter against the dirty Commies, bad handyman.
Virginia is for lovers. I don't know that personally, sadly, but the Georgian mansions that dot the main road (at least after one has passed the creepy Pentagon) do have a certain and-the-rivers-ran-red-with-blood kind of elegance to them. With the snow quieting the hills and valleys, thoughts of barefoot revolutionaries with dysenterous stomachs, walking on their gangrenous feet while their officers stayed warm and cozy in their tents, no doubt heated by burning slaves for firewood, are inescapable.
Through the Appalachians in southwest Virginia, one enters probably the second most beautiful state in the country (after Orrin Hatch's Utah): Tennessee, which rolls on forever. Even in winter, with the grass yellow and the trees nude, the freshness of it all is shocking. For a city girl, the clean air is liable to bring on a lethal case of zits.
Must! Have! Smog!
Knoxville's downtown is deserted after 5 p.m., but the area near the college —sports bars and Taco Bells—showed a glimpse of neon, like a fast debutante in the 1890s flashing some ankle. We settled into Charlie's Sports Grillto watch the West Virginia/Ole Miss game. Sadly, Charlie's was bigger on the inside than we expected and had the feel of a chain. Roxy and I disagree on many things—her idea of fun is stopping and taking a picture in front of each new state sign, and my idea of fun is not stopping and taking a picture in front of each new state sign—but we are completely simpatico when it comes to eating. Down and dirty: the more potential health-code violations, the better. But Charlie's, despite its cleanliness, serves up a plate of what Roxy called "really fucking good ribs," and the rib-eye steak was perfectly fatty. Plus, the salad had actual bacon on it.
Happy, we headed on to Nashville, where we circled around Opry Mills—the natural progression of historic landmark (The Grand Ole Opry) into giant stupid mall. In Opry Mills—Fashion Island, watch out!—they sell speedboats. We were scared and got the hell out. In Nashville proper, the cute, dumb cops will let you make a U-turn in the middle of the street after directing you toward the section where the locals drink. Walking into the Broadway Brewhouse is not a whit different from walking into Costa Mesa's Pierce Street Annex, except that the boys in Nashville hold their liquor better and don't grab at you.
Well, some of them do. Will was handsome, and he emitted a constant movie-star smile. But it quickly became apparent that the penis pressed against my thigh had been placed there on purpose to inflame my passions. A subway rubber! In Nashville! Also, he was dreadfully stupid—in a bad way. Roxy got the scoop: he was drunk because he was sad, and he was sad because the love of his life had gotten knocked-up by someone else three months ago and then aborted the baby even though Will wanted her to keep it, and then Will had accidentally knocked up a different girl, so his life was getting complicated. Obviously, the solution was to stick his dick into a brand-new girl on her way through town and see what ensued. Third time's the charm. Lock up yer women!
So we found us a group of tall, rugged pilots who blathered on about planes and flying but had the grace to stop when it became clear I was no longer listening. They escorted us to Trace's, with its white fairy lights and linens on the tables. We love Nashville, even if it did kill country.
Driving into Memphis for lunch, we tried to avoid downtown as long as possible, instead driving through the crumbling, black outskirts. The Centennial Baptist Church had been burned down. It stood, gorgeous and ghostly, its windows boarded and its doors deserted. We lunched on the gay corner of town (literally one corner); the Rainbow Club and the restaurant that served basmati rice were dead giveaways. We'd made bad time from New York to Nashville, even at a steady 90 mph, so it was two nights of trading off sleeping in the passenger seat while wrapped in my late grandmother's mink.
Mississippi is famous for its white people who hate everybody and its black people who hate everybody right back. But in Jackson, they pride themselves greatly on their cultchah, importing art and dance (Michael Flatley was a coming attraction, leaping feyly across a billboard) and generally being civil, if possible. At the Shoney's off Exit 96-B, we sat next to a woman in her late 60s with the most beautiful hair—it was gigantic, silvery blond and shellacked like a 1970s decoupage—and her husband, a mustachioed man in his 40s who mumbled. When I asked the lady for a light, she turned on some Southern honey for me. "It's just terrible having a cigarette and no lighter, isn't it?" she clucked.
"Yes, ma'am," said I, jovially. "I believe that's the Third Circle of Hell." The woman's eyes flew wide open, and Roxy gasped. One does not say "hell" to a Southern lady. I may as well have wiped my ass on her tablecloth. She didn't speak to us again.
It was at the hip-hoppenin' Texaco next door that we hit our stride; I think I had three new boyfriends before we got our change. And were they helpful? Well, honey, they drove back twice to express concern with our route. Oilmen all, they said their workers were heading into Shreveport because half the city was out of power; we would be much safer heading down to the I-10. And thus, Louisiana. The I-55 empties out in La Place, where Roxy grew up and where someone in the mid-'80s brought a black caddy to the golf tournament at the country club. The caddy was allowed to carry golf clubs, but he wasn't allowed to enter the establishment, and he had to drink his water from a plastic cup while sitting on the ground under a tree.
But Louisiana's lovely, even at night and at 90 mph, especially with Lucinda Williams in the CD changer, plaintively naming off the towns as you flash through them. And at 3 a.m., we were into Texas. I have little use for Texas. I thought it would be a thousand miles of cowboys, but I was sadly deluded. We rolled into a truck stop in San Antonio at 7 a.m. to shit, shower and shave, but we had to settle for coffee, a shower and Ex-Lax. The truckers across the counter were delighted to have two young women nattering at them, but the waitresses were surly, never even giving us menus, and the woman in charge of the showers made us beg. "They're for truckers only," she said. "Men truckers only." She eventually gave in, but we had to work for it. Each shower is its own spacious room, with a commode area and a giant shower stall. It costs $6 and is worth every penny. So is the Ex-Lax, which finally kicked in in El Paso, but that's a story for another day.
We'd made excellent time to San Antonio, so we rumbled into town, where Nebraska and Northwestern were clogging up the parking spots for the Alamo Bowl that day. (When we hit Nashville, we ran smack into the Music Bowl; at Memphis, we were just in time for the Liberty Bowl. Southerners love their football. Whoo-ey!)
We found the Princesita Beauty Salon (Hispanics make up 55 percent of San Antonio), where the ladies asked if we would mind if they finished their tamales before giving us the manicure and big-ass, Southern-lady hair we so desperately craved. (I ended up a perky frapp of Angela Davis and Little Orphan Annie.) Linda Luz Trevino, the blond and cuddly proprietress, had been a mechanical engineer at Kelley Air Force Basebefore inheriting her aunt's salon and retiring from the service on a herniated disk. Meanwhile, Santiago, who lived upstairs, came down to chat. He took me for coffee while Estella finished Roxy's nails and told me about the other big-haired girls he'd known. Most beloved was Donna from Houston; she was troubled and battered but the sweetest girl ever. He nursed her back to health with copious amounts of the Bible, but she left him for a big cowboy. "As long as she's happy," the shlumpy Santiago said, "then I am happy." He bought us two tacos for the road and waved us off before setting off in search of another distressed damsel. Vaya con Dios, Santiago.
Do not take the I-10. For the first 50 miles or so out of San Antone, it was lovely and interesting, and there was no litter. But then there were six hours of ugly, the women at what few truck stops exist were mean, and the cigarettes were $4 (but that might have been the price just for us). Texas was a bust, man. Even the truckers rarely waved back. And were there cowboys? No, there were not.
We slept in actual beds in Las Cruces, New Mexico, having hauled ass from Nashville in only 36 hours. In the a.m., heading west, we began a freeway relationship with John, a longhaired cutie from Fox Studios, complete with lipstick digits on the passenger window. In Tucson, Roxy took him shoe shopping while I hit a Kinko's (you can always find one near a college) and typed this up, a day past deadline but a day ahead of schedule on the road. Tonight: Palm Springs or Barstow for New Year's Eve; y'all will know when I know.
CommieGirl99@hotmail.com. Happy Inauguration Day!
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