A beach store at South Padre Island
Artillery Row

Texas Spring Break in a time of Coronavirus

There’s nothing like the outbreak of a global pandemic to put a dampener on everyone’s plans

March is usually about life coming back to America after the restrictions of winter. The month’s calendar is full of sporting events—including the hugely popular March Madness college basketball tournament—festivals and conferences. Most significantly it includes Spring Break. This is a vacation period for universities and schools associated with extensive gatherings and students partying riotously in the country’s warmer climes. Americans from all walks of life often take time off too.

But this year’s Spring Break party coincided with the COVID-19 Coronavirus establishing a foothold in the US. Aware of the lockdown spreading over Europe, and with people starting to voluntarily self-isolate in Austin, the state capitol, where I am based, I decided to take a Spring Break road trip across Texas while I could. I also wanted to see how the virus was impacting outside of the Austin bubble.

A patriotic water tower in a Texas town

The more popular option for a road trip across Texas tends to go east to west, or vice versa, often as part of a coast-to-coast road trip. Intrigued by the shape of Texas on the map, I decided to start from the state’s most south-eastern point at South Padre Island—a famed Spring Break location—next to the Gulf of Mexico and close to the Mexican border. From there I would take a diagonal line to the far north western corner of the state in the great square slab that, when you look at a map, seems bolted on.

The choice wasn’t entirely random. It’s a route similar to that taken by the Texan writer Larry McMurtry, which he described in his book “In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas.”

Mission Espiritu Santo. The Spanish Missions in Texas comprise a series of 26 religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic orders to spread the Catholic doctrine among area Native Americans, but with the added benefit of giving Spain a toehold in the frontier land.

“There are times when one just feels like driving,” McMurtry wrote. The second biggest state in America after Alaska, which doesn’t really count when it comes to taking a spring vacation, as much of it a vast and uninhabitable tundra, Texas was made for road trips.

I left Austin on Sunday 15th amid reports of city officials considering shutting down bars and restaurants and limiting public gatherings to no more than 250 people. Mass was happening at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Austin, although the churches had closed in San Antonio, an hour’s drive to the south. There were reports of people driving up from San Antonio to go to church in Austin.

Preparation for a beach wedding after sunrise at South Padre Island.

Despite the uncertainty and unease pervading the city, after a breakfast of tacos and coffee, I was in good spirits as the highway headed southeast. Gigantic Stars and Stripes flags and Texas flags—the latter’s lone star on a vertical blue stripe abutting a horizontal white stripe above a red stripe giving the state its nickname of the Lone Star State—each as big as a house, billowed in the wind at the likes of car stores by the roadside.

Flicking through the radio channels, many were dominated by reports on COVID-19. On one channel I got the haunting melody of the Eagles’ Hotel California: “Mirrors on the ceiling / The pink champagne on ice / And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” The last line sounded unfortunately prescient.

A beach store at South Padre Island

Entering South Texas, the flavour gets increasingly Mexican. It feels like there is a tangible change in the air (which may have been literally true in my case, as I was getting close to the Gulf Coast just off to the east.) At the town of Refugio, I pulled over for a late lunch at Guadalajara Taqueria, the latter word being the Spanish for a place that specialises in tacos, burritos and other Mexican dishes.

Close to my table a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe hung on the wall. On the far wall hung a picture of a tiger looking straight at me, surrounded by images of traditional Mexican life, and adverts for Corona Extra beer, a Spring Break staple while also now a brand name forever changed by association. The special was shrimp soup with rice. A TV played Mexican gameshows, while a sign pointed to the Baños—restroom—for customers.

Ranch entrance

Continuing south the radio channels became more conservative. There was less about COVID-19 and more about the problems with transgender pronouns. In a gas station rest room, I washed my hands flanked by two younger Hispanic-looking guys. We might as well have been preparing for brain surgery. After doing the anti-Coronavirus recommended 20 seconds, as I was drying my hands one of the young guys was still rubbing away.

The sun had set as I arrived at Padre island by crossing the two-and-a-half-mile-long Queen Isabella Causeway bridge over the sea. I spotted a couple of bikini-clad spring breakers by the roadside, but the streets were unusually quiet. At Clayton’s, “the biggest beach bar in Texas”—its parking lot is as big as a football field—the DJ played to a deserted dance floor. A security guard said it had been busier the night before. At Bar Louie next door there was a bit more going on until the police turned up to tell the DJ to pack up.

Long road through bare area of South Texas

“Has Spring Break been cancelled,” a lady in a bikini holding a margarita asked one of the departing policemen. He offered a sympathetic smile before moving on.

Leaving in the morning, I passed shrimp boats moored in a harbour and pickup trucks by the water’s edge as their owners started a day of fishing. I deviated from McMurtry’s route that had headed north, instead heading west to skirt the Mexican border following the so-called Texas Tropical Trail. My plan was to loop north eventually after exploring the border area. But after passing the border town of Rio Grande, everything appeared monotonously dry and dull—not much to write about here, I thought—plus I was increasingly aware that the clock was ticking and there was still a huge amount of Texas northward to get through.

Gun store to the west of Austin

I decided to cut back north-eastward to pick up McMurtry’s route running directly north. To get there I found myself crossing an even more desolate landscape. Nothing but a long straight road threading through mesquite-dotted scrubland, the monotony broken by the occasional ranch entrance. This was self-isolating country, for sure. There little chance of COVID-19 here, but I was glad to reach the northbound highway attended by civilization, even with its inherent risk of the virus. Self-isolation is lonely stuff, especially in Texas.

Texas cities rise dramatically out of the flat horizon, each like an Emerald City. So it was as I approached San Antonio, home of the Alamo, where legendary frontiersman David Crockett and a bunch of rebels perished heroically fighting the Mexican army. On the radio, presenters announced the Texas governor was limiting group gatherings to no more than 50, sporting events were being cancelled and students were being told not to return to universities after Spring Break.

Bluebonnet flowers by the roadside

Further north, good grazing country with cattle heading to their watering holes flashed by, as did an assortment of roadkill—skunks, racoons and armadillos—and the blue bonnet flowers that bloom this time of year. They were planted to beautify the state’s highways under the direction of Ladybird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Baird Johnson.

By the end of a long day’s driving following a night of broken sleep in my car at South Padre, accompanied by news about COVID-19 on the radio and in messages on my phone throughout the day from friends and family back in the UK, my initial good cheer at the journey’s start had taken a dent.

Main street in the town of Llano

But the next morning my spirits rallied amid the pretty rolling hills to the west of Austin. I pulled over at the Provident Arms gun shop. Despite years spent in Texas, I’ve never been into a gun shop. I’ve always been torn between being half intrigued—having been in the British Army—and being half repelled after my last tour in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t open for another 20 minutes. I got talking to a man waiting in his pickup truck. He said he owned an AR-15, and AK-47 and a 45 mm pistol and need ed some ammo.

“All the other stores are out,” he said. “I’m not worried about the Coronavirus but clearly others are. I just want some ammo for the wild boars around where I live that tear up the crops.”

Pushing north I passed Llano, “The deer capital of Texas,” with its gun and taxidermy shops. On the radio a man announced, “a rendition of the national anthem in honour of those who serve and have given their lives for the country.”

In teetotal Abilene—known as the buckle of the Bible Belt with its three bible colleges—I pulled into Larry’s Better Burger Drive-in with its peeling turquoise paintwork.

“Don’t be put off by the décor,” said the main in the parking lot by me. “It’s the best burger you’ll ever eat.”

“I’ll vouch for that,” chimed in another man.

“The same old grill is used,” my neighbour added, “that’s the secret.” 

Driving out of the city, I pulled over at an open-air store set up by a junction selling Donald Trump merchandize. The proprietor, Tony, explained he drives round the country, setting up at rallies, fairs and by the road, and that business is good. I asked him how he thought the president was doing reacting to the Coronavirus.

Horses and a homestead by the roadside

“I think he is doing great—he stopped those flights from China coming before anyone else did,” Tony said. “This whole thing is going to be a reality check for many people, and that could be a good thing in a way. Now they might stop bickering about small things and come together. We need to come together to deal with this.”

Back on the road, two radio hosts discussed whether the Coronavirus might be a form of God’s judgement for America’s sins ranging from pornography to “the killing of innocents” (abortion).

On another channel, a reporter interviewed a man who said he was buying ammo in case of mass panic breaking out in the country.

Entrance to a ranch with dead coyotes

Next lay the vast open stretch of the Panhandle—that great square slab on the map—its giant ploughed fields stretching to the horizon, accompanied by the nodding ant-like heads of oil diggers at work.

I passed through Happy, “the town without a frown,” according to a welcoming billboard, followed by Snyder, “Voted USA Today’s 48th best city in America.”

Beyond Amarillo I entered the High Plains of Texas. The countryside became hillier, with mesas on the horizon—real John Wayne film country. I hoped to reach Texline before sunset, but it was darkening with an hour and a half still to go. Huge intimidating clouds blanketed the horizon. A flash of lightning broke out over where I estimated I was heading for. I did a U-turn to go find the nearest rest area marked on my road atlas to spend the night just as the rain began to fall.

Gunsmith and Texas flag in town of Paduca

In the morning—after a very chilly night in the car—I set off just after 6.30 a.m. Heading due north, on the left of the road it was still dark with stars in the sky, while on the right the black sky gradually turned blue toward a lightening horizon.

On the radio a report said that West Texas crude oil was down 11 percent to $24 a barrel and the stock market had tanked again.

Finally, I passed through Texline, population 507, and reached the state line with New Mexico where the time zone changes from Central Standard Time to Mountain Time. The sun was out but a typical chilly Panhandle wind was blowing. About 1,240 miles of driving lay behind.

An American football field at a high school. Most schools in Texas have shut because of COVID-19

Back at Texline, I pulled into the Front Porch Restaurant. A group of old Mennonite farmers were leaving, the women wearing white caps pinned to their hair (the Amish wear black caps, one woman explained to me). They looked in that age group most at risk from the Coronavirus.

“We plan to hunker down,” an old lady said. “We might get out occasionally, just don’t tell the children.”

Truck filling up with corn in the northern Panhandle area of Texas

I breakfasted on pancakes and hash browns in an empty café other than the owner. Then I set off for a long drive straight back to Austin. On the way the radio reports on the Coronavirus didn’t get any better. It was only Wednesday, but a lot had changed in three days. Spring Break was definitely cancelled, along with much else.

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