Wednesday 28th Oct – New Orleans to Montgomery – 354 miles

My time in New Orléans had come to an end and it was time to hit the road. Finally the rain had stopped enjoyed a beautiful morning with bright blue skies, which made a lovely change from grey. Left New Orléans with a smile on my face as I got another free coffee, no idea how coffee shops make money here. If you ask for a plain black coffee there is a good chance it will be on the house, unless I have developed a charm when ordering coffee I am not aware of.

I left on highway 90 quickly out of the city into the green marshes of the Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge and then across a long bridge to the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. Both areas are very quiet and offered great views while going over huge bridges.

The houses were well spaced out and prepared for flooding as they all stood on large stilts with a boat docked nearby or stored in-between the stilts.
I passed into the state of Mississippi around this time, which I would drive across it’s most southern part in the next couple of hours.

After coming through these two areas as and over the Bay of St Louis, the road ran along the seafront with white sands and great views out to the Gulf of Mexico. There were grand houses of mainly colonial style with large wrap around porches lining the road on the other side of the road. The occupant would have some greats views of the sea front.

There was a battle going on as the locals fought sand continually to stop it making it across the road. I saw loads of people, plus sweepers and diggers loading trucks up with the offending sand all along the seafront road.

It was a beautiful drive, but a little slow with one lane and a 40 mph limit plus lots of traffic lights. At Biloxi I hit the interstate 10 and then the 65 for a blast north into Alabama, before coming back off to smaller roads. The scenery changed quickly with rolling hills and the roads flanked by high trees, the blue skies were no more as the clouds returned. The tree leaves were just starting change into autumnal colours as I drove along empty roads.

Alabama seemed pretty sparsely populated, with out the mega farms of Texas, but with miles of rolling forest. The pick-up dominated as vehicle of choice, almost every time with a large burgundy letter A in italics on the back of the car. Alabama don’t have a NFL football team but they do have pretty much the best college football team in the country and people are fanatical about supporting them.

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When near towns on this ride the amount of billboards for lawyers was higher than I had seen before, a very untrustworthy looking person with heavily whitened teeth telling me to call now. I think designed by the same company who made the second most popular advert, politicians imploring me to choose or vote for them, equally untrustworthy.

A very enjoyable long drive today but after three nights out in a row I was knackered so didn’t explore Montgomery. Where there are motels, there are fast foot joints, I had a choice of about 10 restaurants within a short walk just popping my head out of the door.

I went for Klaxbys for some chicken as I hadn’t heard of the chain before. As I made my order the girl behind the counter cut me off halfway off with “you sure do talk funny” and attracted attention of some of her colleagues so they could all listen to me order together. The chicken meal was a little disappointing.

I spent the evening trying to watch TV but finding it almost impossible, when I turned it on I flicked through 18 channels before I found anything that wasn’t an advert. Most of the TV that was on was just people shouting at each other. Didn’t matter what about politics, cooking, sports just find a couple of people with different opinions and get them to shout at one another for 5 mins before we can go back to more adverts. For a country that makes some fantastic TV it’s day-to-day stuff is awful.

I also wanted to check the lyrics of a song that I had heard a lot when in Louisiana, Calling Baton Rouge by Garth Brooks. Whenever it came on everyone went nuts. While it’s a catchy tune the lyrics they seemed a little dubious. It didn’t really sound like a heartwarming love song to me it sounded like a song about a drunken trucker with a possible statutory rape case on the near horizon. I think the lyrics confirm this.

Sunday 25th Oct – Baton Rouge to New Orleans – 81 miles

I left the vile pit and opened the front door to more rain, heavy driving rain. Before leaving Baton Rouge, I had a drive round the leafy campus and went to a traditional post-game brunch spot. However it was a little too popular as a queue snaked round the building. I popped over to another online recommendation, City Pork a deceptivily named vegan deli. I jest, there was a lot of ham. Taking the advice of the server I tried biscuits and gravy for the first time. Delicious. A thick gravy with lumps of mystery meat over biscuits which seem to be a bit like a scone with lots of black coffee.

The plan was to drive down to New Orléans via some back roads through the wetlands, but the amount of rain falling and flood warnings meant a change of plan. I didn’t fancy the interstate, so slowly drove down route 61.

The poor conditions meant the drive wasn’t much fun but even if it had been dry I don’t think this would have been the most scenic of routes. There were continuous shopping malls and car parks along the side of the road for most of the journey.

Before long I was in New Orléans or the Big Easy, driving past the Super Dome on my way into the French Quarter. I had a nice stay ahead at the Hyatt for three nights and was very much looking forward to no driving and spending some time in the city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

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After a bit of time blogging and relaxing at the hotel, I thought I would explore the famous Bourbon Street on my first night. It was still pouring outside plus it being a Sunday night meant the street wasn’t heaving however there was still enough people to have a bit of atmosphere. With a particularly strong downpour I jumped in the nearest doorway, to pretty tacky bar. I asked for a beer and was given three as it was 3-4-1 hour, a surprise which meant I stayed in the bar for a bit longer than expected. That gives you an indication of the type of street it is.

I found a few more bars as I worked my way down the neon light strip and was repeatedly told I was saying New Orléans wrong. You should pronounce it New Or-linz, so now you know. I came across a famous jazz bar called Fritzels which had some awesome jazz musicians performing and sat very happy to be there, if slightly damp. They performed Enjoy Yourself (it’s later than you think) which is a song I really love.

The night continued with a trip to the oldest bar in America, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. A building that looks as though it might fall down at any moment. I also tried the local cocktail of choice, a sweet strong lime flavoured drink called a Hand grenade. Yuck.

Day two, I had planned to do a swamp tour but the continued downpour meant they were cancelled. So I planned a little stroll round the French Quarter, the most historic part of the city. Walking down Royal Street, which is filled with shops selling high-end art and antiques along with bars and restaurants. Popping in here and there for a snack or a coffee and some respite from the rain.

The food in New Orléans is a big part of trip there and along with other cities that have a historic mix of people means great food. Gumbo, po-boys, beignets, muffalettas and loads of seafood are everywhere and delicious.

The French Quarter is a very picturesque part of town with lovely old buildings. It is also one of the few places in the world that you will see elderly people wandering round with half yard plastic glasses filled with cocktails before noon on a Monday.

As I strolled I caught little parts of different conversations as I went by, a couple notable. On a parade of high-end stores, a couple of homeless people were sat in a doorway. There are a lot of homeless people there. A security guard very apologetically was moving them on “I’m real sorry, I know it’s bad weather out there but you can’t stay here” the response from the gent on the ground made me laugh out loud, “this ain’t bad weather. I delivered Chinese food in a hurricane before!”. Unfortunately I didn’t hear the security guard’s response to this. The other snippet I heard was more worrying, as two teenagers greeted each other I heard “Man you’re fast, when he pulled that gun you were just gone!”.

The second evening I was looking for more music which meant getting up to Frenchman street. What fun it was, the music was fantastic high quality rock, soul, jazz and funk in neighbouring establishment. I decided to walk back, not far really and the rain was finally subsiding. However a couple of people told me the area was a little dodgy and for a couple of blocks unlit. Halfway along the dark patch two guys came out of alley just in front of me. Straight away I tensed up and tried to walk taller, which was met with a very meek voice “oh god, please don’t fight us, which was an amusing relief for me.

Day three, it was still raining a little but not too hard. The swamp tour still didn’t look great though. I got out of the french quarter with a walk through the warehouse district, popped into the second world war museum which was surprisingly good.

Wandered down the bank of the brown and swollen Mississippi river, before hoping on a trolley cart up to Louis Armstrong Park.

My last evening was all about a band I’ve liked for the last for the last few years, Rebirth Brass Band. They play every Tuesday in music club called the Maple Leaf Bar. It was the first bar in the city to reopen after Karina. They didn’t disappoint, the place was jammed and they were great.

Saturday 24th Oct – Austin to Baton Rouge – 427 Miles.

I awoke late at 9:30, a couple hours later than planned after sleeping through my alarm at 7am. This was a result of the dirty sixth, makers mark and the Irish. I guess I could take some responsibility for it as well.

I hit the road at just after at 10, hoping to get to the state capital of Louisiana, the Red Stick in time for the game which kicked off at 6pm. To achieve this I broke my rule of using interstates between destinations. Turned out this worked in my favour.

I wasn’t aware of the storm that was enveloping Texas. A town not too far north of me was hit with 20 inches (50cm) of rain over the weekend. The downpour was consistent for the whole of the ride, the only brief respite to the pounding drumroll on the windscreen and roof was as I passed under bridges.

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Interstates are great to get places quickly although not very interesting, combined with driving rain, big trucks, limited visibility and a cracking self-inflicted hangover meant even the bugle couldn’t cheer me up.

I powered on flanked by endless advert imploring you to fill up or to call now or to eat this. Along the way I passed through Houston, a huge city. In fact the fourth largest in the US of A. Miles of roads crisscrossing over one another.

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Before too long I passed into Louisiana and quickly noticed two main differences, bumper stickers changed from either a Texas-based sports team to either the LSU Tigers or New Orléans Saints stickers. There were fleur de lis’ everywhere. Secondly gambling is big business, there are endless signs promoting this casino coming up soon and the limitless happiness the will result in turning off at the upcoming exit.

The last 20 miles or so were quite interesting as we drove along a huge bridge over continuous rivers and wetlands.

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As ever I was happy to arrive at another Airbnb, found the key under the mat and realised that I had made a mistake. It was a disgusting place, but I didn’t have the energy look for something else. A word of warning, only go to places with a few reviews. I didn’t have many options due to it being game day, it was so disgusting.

I called an uber and made my way to Tiger Stadium, the home of the Louisiana State University Tigers football team. They play in the 9th largest stadium in the world with a capacity of 102321 people (a college amateur team!). Even in driving rain and against 2nd tier opposition the stadium was very busy.

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The stadium is nicknamed Death Valled and traditionally is introduced as “welcome to Death Valley, Chance of rain: Never”, lies. The football was fine, the chanting was good but the band I think were the most impressive as halftime. So many people are so carefully choreographed while playing was very impressive.

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I left a little early as I had enough of sitting in the rain and found somewhere warm for some food before retiring for the evening back to my vile pit, which was at least dry.

Thursday 22nd Oct – San Antonio to Austin – 102 Miles

After three days of intensive driving and not too much else I was thankful for a more relaxed day with only a 100 miles up to Austin. After a spot of breakfast in the hotel, which again was served on paper plates with disposable cutlery. So far I have only seen a real plate once since arriving in the states. Bin bags full of paper plates, polystyrene cups and plastic cutlery must be thrown away just from just that hotel, why America? Why? Do you hate washing up that much?

Before checking out I wandered round the Alamo, the setting of a famous military defeat with about 200 Texans being killed by the Mexican army. However this inspired loads of other Texans to join up to the army and relatively quickly slaughter the previously victorious Mexicans. A small fort remains which as my friend Tim mentioned isn’t that inspiring as far as old buildings go.

Had an amusing time in Starbucks, there seemed to be a general sense of chaos behind the counter, my request for a real mug lead to a guy disappearing into the store room for a long time. Looking around the room at people who were all having the coffee in-house, they all had disposable cups, again, why America? The chap finally reappeared with a mug he said “you know last night I had a red-haired man come in and I thought he was from Scotland, I asked him and he said yes! And now you come the next day, two people from Scotland in two days. I tell you what that coffee is on the house!” Result, free coffee, which I decided was fair compensation for being called Scottish.

I had decided to stop in Lockhart, a small town with a big BBQ reputation on the way up to Austin. Much checking of reviews went into deciding which BBQ joint to visit. You can’t visit them all. In the end I went for Blacks the oldest BBQ pit in Texas.

Now, an educational moment for you. BBQ in the southern states of America is big business and there is much debate and dispute over which style is best. Different regions have different specialities, cooking techniques and serving styles, however they are all joints of meat cooked very slowly indirectly by smoke at a low temperature. It is nothing like BBQ we have in the UK which would be called grilling over year, directly over a high heat. Generally the tougher cheaper cuts of meat are used, ribs, brisket and pork butt. In Texas they use a lot of beef (brisket and short ribs) often with a simple salt and pepper rub.

Blacks wasn’t too busy as I think I arrived after the lunch rush. I loaded up on some sides (massive rookie mistake, stick to the meat!) You had the choice lean or fatty brisket, the fatty was amazing. The sausage was average, but all in all I was very happy to be there.

After a drive round the very postcard picturesque town, it just needed some white picket fences I made my way up to Austin where I had two nights. The Airbnb was great, within walking distance of a number of interesting places and only short uber to the central part of Austin.

That evening I went to the best Honky Tonk in Texas and had a very fun night at the Broken Spur. They also served world famous fried chicken steak, in my opinion not much to write home about, I’ve had better KFC’s. However the dance hall was great, I got chatting a group of Brit’s who were working at the F1 race. One of the guys was from Bedford, it’s a small world.
A lady with a microphone and a few other older Texans ran a little lesson on how to do the texan two-step and after a couple of beers most people were up and dancing to country music provided by a great quality band.

The following morning I was up and ready for one of the main events of the trip. A visit to Franklin BBQ, arguably the best BBQ in the world. Due to its reputation it only opens at lunch from 11am and is open until it sells out. It always sells out, so people queue for hours to ensure they get some. I arrived at 8:30am and there was probably already 60 people in front me. The people at the front of queue probably got there before 6am.

The atmosphere in the queue is a mixture of hopeful excitement and confused, with “what am i doing here?” being asked a lot. Most of the people near me were tourists and I got to chat with a couple of guys from Orlando who had a flight home in the afternoon. People brought chairs, music and cool box’s full of beer. During the queue one of the BBQ’s employees checks on how much you going to order and try’s to work out where they can cut the queue off so people don’t wait for no reason.

We finally got to eat just before 1 pm, I took the recommendation of the employee who recommend a kind of tasting option, with brisket, beef rib, pulled pork and a sausage. It was rubbish. Only kidding, it was fantastic. Really, really good. Everyone agreed it was worth the wait, and I had enough left for some in the evening. The two beef items were so, so tasty.

After suffering from a bad case of meat sweats I made my way to visit the State Capitol building in the afternoon. A very grand building in the centre of Austin, I said hello to Bubba.

In the evening I made my way to the infamous dirty Sixth in the centre of Austin, a road flanked by load of bars from dive to sophisticated and everything in-between. I bumped into some Irish guys and drank whiskey. It turned into quite a late night.

Wednesday 21st Oct – El Paso to San Antonio – 574 miles

The longest drive in a day lay before me, El Paso to San Antonio. A 574 mile journey along-side the Mexican border, taking the interstate 10 before moving on to route 90 all the way to San Antonio.

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I was rewarded for my 6am start with a swift exit from the city out on to the open road and glorious daybreak. The sun crept up behind some distant mountains, the road was empty and the speed limit set at 80mph. I’m afraid the pictures don’t really convey the size and space of nearly all my views today, but I tried.

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The GMC and I are targeting breakfast in Marfa, 190 miles away before 9am. However along the way I changed time zone and lost an hour, my early start ruined by a move from mountain time to central time. Imagine living right next to a time zone border, it must be incredibly frustrating.

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Then still on the interstate I was pulled into a border patrol checkpoint. Border patrol vehicles and buildings were a common sight. The US spends a lot on keeping Mexicans out, I would make an unusual looking central American so didn’t think it would hinder my progress. I was wrong.

All vehicles on the interstate 10 were required to pull over and be checked. I think all you had to say in response to the initial question would have been yes, but that would have been a lie.

Border patrol man: “American citizen?”
Me: “no”
BP: “so you’Re a foreigner?”
Me: “yes, a British citizen”
BP: ” really, got anything to prove that?”
Me: “passport ok?”
“Yes” he had a quick look and said “well this doesn’t tell me anything”

I’m not sure what he wanted the passport to tell him, a nursery rhyme perhaps. So he proceeded to question me.

Are you alone? Yes. What are you doing? Driving to San Antonio. Why are you here? Vacation. What is your job? Recruiter. What do you recruit? People for life Science companies. You need to be more specific! Mainly R&D people for Pharma companies. Really? Yes. Are you alone? Yes. Why are you here? Vacation.
You know this passport doesn’t tell me anything. What visa do you have? I don’t, British passport holders don’t need a visa. I have the electronic approval. Show me it. It’s electronic I don’t have it printed out. Right you need to go and park your car while I check out your story.

So I parked waited 10 min, thought I take the chance to have a stretch. Mistake. Remain in your vehicle, was screamed and much arm flapping ensued, until I stopped being a ‘threat’ and got back in the car. Ten minutes later another chap turned up and said “next time print out your electronic approval, now on your way.”

That was my first lovely experience with the border patrol. Shortly after that I turned on to route 90 and things got really quiet. Just nothing there at all, mile after mile of nothing. However one building popped about 25 miles before Marfa it was a Prada store literally in the middle of nowhere. I googled it later as I was a little confused and found the reason: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prada_marfa

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Marfa is was a lovely little town. Famous for art and being in the arsehole of nowhere. I found a cafe and enjoyed the bucolic atmosphere in their garden with a few coffees and some breakfast, but with the lost hour and border patrol stop it was soon time to hit the road for the remaining 390 miles.

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I decided to aim for the town of Del Rio for lunch, the road to Del Rio was empty. I would like to thank the podcast the Bugle for keeping me alive and sane. Endless scrubby desert and dead straight roads.Couldnt help think this would be a great place to depose of a corpse if you had one in the boot.

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After stopping for a late Mexican lunch in Del Rio, the landscape started to change with trees appearing, then farms reappeared and everything got greener as I approached San Antonio. No crazy hailstorms today but did confuse the parking attendant by driving down the left hand side, which was met with a very confused look.

The hotel was good and within a short walk of the Alamo and the River Walk area. Went to a cool bar called howl at the moon which had some very talented musicians on dueling pianos. I was very happy to have a short drive the next day up to Austin. Also the Spanish for do not disturb amused me.

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Tuesday 20th Oct – Amarillo to El Paso – 447 Miles

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Post pickle juice I woke up early and hit the road straight away. I was soon out in the country side travelling south-west on the 60 through farming country. With names of towns including Hereford, Bovina and Clovis you can probably guess that farms were beef based. Thousands of cattle were penned in next to the long straight road which again was flanked by a railway with mile long freight trains moving along with me. A couple of huge towers could be seen from miles away puncturing the flat landscape. Apparently they are grain elevators, used to store and load grain.

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Managed to get a hundred miles or so done before breakfast before coming across a dinner straight out of a Jack Reacher novel just on the state border. The dinner was busy with old farmers by the looks of it, everyone knew each other. I was greeted with “Well that’s a bit of an accent, where you from then?” by the friendly young waiter. After seeing so much potential steak I plumped for the steak bagel and had a good chat with the guy about the benefits of travel. I don’t think they get too many tourists there as I went to pay he said not to worry and it’s on the house. Great way to start the day!

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I had a another 150 miles to get down to Roswell, the farms spaced themselves out a little and there was more scrub land. Roswell most famous for the UFO incident there in the late 40’s. Little green aliens pepper all the billboards and signage as you come into the city. There is a range of shops selling UFO based souvenirs and a museum you can look around the history of this UFO landing and others. As expected it was a disappointing. However lunch was good at the downtown dive.

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After lunch with aliens it was time to press on to El Paso, down the 285 till Artesia. A good-looking little town who likes it’s football team the Bulldogs a lot jugding by the number of signs and a statue of a bulldog. Other football team names seen today include the Chieftains and the Greyhounds. I turned on to the 82 west and very quickly the farms dried up and there was nothing as far as the eye could see apart from very occasional ranch gates. There was hardly any traffic and the silence was deafening when I got out to take this picture.

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The 82 takes you through The Lincoln National Forest, winding up higher and higher on twisty roads. The car is fine in a straight line but handles about as well as a blancmange. You pass a few ski resorts before the trees suddenly stop and you descend into the desert.

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I was pretty tired by the mid afternoon and very keen to get to El Paso and stop driving for the day. Going south on the 54 you are in the middle of a big plain, flanked on each side by mountain ranges. El Paso is set into the Franklin Mountains right on the border with Mexico and as I approached there was a dramatic weather event taking place. It looked spectacular, the picture doesn’t really do it justice. However I didn’t realise it was soon going to be quite so spectacular once inside it. The the car got pummelled with hail and pretty much cut visibility down to nothing.

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I was a very happy camper once I finally reached the motel, ate some rabbit tacos and passed out thinking about an even longer drive tomorrow.

Monday 19th Oct – Dallas Forth Worth to Amarillo – 347 miles

Apologies but driving road trips are not as conducive to writing blog updates or taking photos as train journeys. Especially when I chose to drive 1368 miles around Texas in three days and two nights off the back of a 25 hour flight.

I arrived into DFW International airport a little late, not a great airport when compared to Dubai and Singapore. Getting past the very suspicious immigration officer with only a few minutes of questions. After finding out I recruited for medical people, he told me I should have gone to Mexico to recruit medical people. I explained this wasn’t a business trip but he didn’t seem to believe me and helpfully reeled off a few local medical schools for me to go and find people at anyway.

There wasn’t any where to buy sim cards in the airport or the car hire centre which was a few miles out from the terminal. With no internet the tomtom system on my phone wouldn’t work. This made for a slightly terrifying first experience of driving on the wrong side of the road, while sat on the wrong side of the car, in an unfamiliar automatic civilian sized tank, all while feeling quite jet lagged while desperately looking for road signs for route 114.

However I was glad I chose to hire the mid-sized SUV, GMC Arcadia. This 8 seated monstrosity would be considered huge in the UK or Singapore. Here though it really is just averaged sized and often dwarfed by other SUV’s and pickups.

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Once I had found my way on to the route 114 more by luck than judgement, things calmed down as this road took me straight up to Amarillo. A place I chose to visit purely on the strength of a Peter Kay cover song. The 114 and 287 would take me through small town America. The two lane highway regularly slowed down as I passed through towns called Decatur, Bowie, Electra, Goodnight and Chillicothe.

As I drove along the scenery which started quite yellow and dusty near Dallas turned greener. The scenery was dominated by large farms in the second half of the days drive. All along the road was one closed business after another, some long abandoned now covered in weeds and others looked like they had finally given up the struggle last week.

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The other main points of interest along the road was a massive amount of blown out tires scattered along the hard shoulder. Really not an interesting point, but the sheer scale of rubber debris gave me something to think about. The road was often flanked by a railway line, with train engines pulling along about a miles worth of freight.

Football (the American sort) is obviously massively important to small town Texas, no matter how run down the town looked there always seemed to be a decent sized stadium immaculately maintained on the edge of the town for the High school team to play on a Friday night. The pressure on these 16-18 years boys must be huge as wholes towns expect a win, with multiple signs throughout the towns saying go Indians, Cyclones, Pecans . . .

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Huge billboards broke up my drive, offering religious advice especially about abortion, places to stay or eat, where to buy boots or ammo. There was a particular restaurant called the Big Texan based in Amarillo that offered a free 72 ounce steak to drivers every couple of miles from about 200 hundred miles away.

I was very happy to find my motel relatively easily in the early evening and promptly dozed off before waking hungry and finding most places in the nearby vicinity closed as it was either too late (9pm) or because it was a monday. I found a sports bar that was open, watched some NFL and a couple of beers with some nachos at the bar. While I was there I heard repeated orders for pickle juice and in the end asked the bar staff what it was, it is what it sounds like. So I tried one. I will not have another pickle juice.

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