Thanks for staying with the story. This is the last leg of our roadtrip and it started with 135 miles on Interstate 10 out of New Orleans past Baton Rouge and onwards to Lafayette.
For nearly all the route, the roadway is either elevated over swamps or running through what look like impenetrable forests. Although we don’t see it, as far as Baton Rouge the Mississippi River is always close but hidden across the swamps. Rather chilling are the signs at regular intervals at the roadside. They say “Evacuation Route”, a reminder of the disasters that have ravaged this region, including Hurricane Katrina. It makes it all too easy to imagine the thousands upon thousands of distressed families fleeing along this road from the horrendous floods.
After about 100 miles we take a break at the Visitor Venter for the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. To quote from their website, “This is one of eight refuges of the National Wildlife Refuge System which administers a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” The center has extensive exhibitions and a film show describing the work that goes on there. The Refuge is also a major outdoor centre with many activities catered for. Given its mission it was very strange to see that top of the list of activities was hunting migratory game birds.
However, the open road called and we continued to our overnight mid-way stop at Natchitoches. The Holiday Inn Express was in a small complex of similar hotels – Days Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inns – just off the interstate. There was an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) restaurant and a gas station with a small supermarket. We were quite tired after our nights on the tiles in New Orleans so decided to eat at the IHOP as we have eaten at the chain many times and like the pancakes. A quick visit to the gas station revealed that it was licensed, so we were able to get some beer and wine for our room – IHOP is a dry chain. The food lived up to expectations but the pancakes and maple syrup must have added a few inches to the waistline.
The next morning at the breakfast buffet, there were a couple of dozen or so 10 to 12 year old boys all dressed in sports outfits, a junior netball team we reckoned. Some parents and coaches were with them as were some of their younger brothers proudly wearing their own sports strips and eager to be bag carriers for their big brothers. They all piled into a big yellow school bus and a couple of minibuses and set off to their “big game”. For us it was time to cover the very last leg and get to Dallas.
We came to the last State Line of the trip, crossing from Louisiana into Texas. If you ignore Alaska, Texas is by far and away the largest state in the Union and second only to California by population. As was our habit, we pulled into the Visitor Center to see how Texas sold itself to us tourists. There was a large concrete and steel building – Texas does everything a lot bigger than any other State – but once inside there was a sterile atmosphere. The usual personal welcome and older generation counter staff were missing, to be replaced with youngish staff glued to their desktop computers and sitting behind a modern counter with glass panels. Not very approachable. Was this an omen for things to expect over the next couple of days?
Our final hotel was in the centre of Downtown Dallas, chosen so that we should be able to walk to a few places of interest. It was located in Elm Street, of which more later. We approached the skyscrapers and central jungle of high-speed expressways with a little trepidation. But then Elm Street started to appear on the overhead signs and we were at the hotel in minutes. The Crowne Plaza is essentially a lobby with a bar and restaurant at street level, on top of which is a multi-storey car park and on top of that a high-rise hotel. Our room was on the 15th floor with a view out to the west and down to a pool located on an open-air terrace on the 9th floor. We had been warned at check-in that there might be a little noise but that it would stop at 8. In fact there was very large party of twenty-something men and women all dressed in swimwear, and with booming disco music coming from speakers as big as only Texas can make them. It looked like a society event as there was champagne flowing, professional photographers and someone doing televised interviews. More oil money going down the drain??
A quick trawl of the internet showed that most nearby eating places were on the parallel street, Main Street. So I made a list based on some arbitrary review ratings, and off we went. The first we came to was the Union Park Gastro Pub. It ticked all the boxes, looked decent, we were tired – so in we went. It turned out to be a bit of a sports bar but the screens were not intrusive and the sound was turned off. Our server, or waiter, got us our drinks – Pinot Grigio for Margaret and a local wheat beer, Franconia Wheat from McKinney just north of Dallas, for me. He warned us that the portions were large – Texas style – and in the same breath sold us on the idea of some of their signature Buffalo Wings as a starter whilst we chose our entrées – main courses. The wings were actually very good with lots of meat and two tasty dips. My 10oz medium rare steak with frites was top notch and this was just a city centre bar.
If you’ve been to New York or Chicago or London, then you would find the Downtown Dallas skyline a real disappointment at close quarters. They do look a bit more impressive at night when lit up but during the day there are few buildings that make you look twice. We had a look around on the way back to the hotel but, with a few exceptions, Fountain Place for example, they didn’t really impress.
Later this year will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and we were in Dallas where it happened. The next morning the obvious thing to do was to see how the assassination is commemorated, where the “Grassy Knoll” is, and whether the Texas School Book Depository still standing. Well, we didn’t have far to go, everything is just a few blocks along Elm Street. We stopped at a corner and were immediately approached by a man who went straight into a spiel as he handed us two plastic wrapped packs of historical information, mostly reproductions of newspapers of the day, covering the assassination. Our first thoughts were that we were about to be ripped off, but gradually it became apparent that he was totally genuine and in exchange for a fair amount of local knowledge and the package we only parted with $10 which seemed very fair.
We were next to a museum shop attached to the nearby Sixth Floor Museum. The penny gradually began to drop. The building opposite was the actual Texas School Book Depository and the museum was on the sixth floor of that very same building, from which, it is alleged, the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal bullets. We went into the shop to visit its café, have a coffee and try to take things in. The first thing we learned was that the museum was not open until midday and the second was that this was a very mediocre museum shop for an event that shook the world when I was in my twenties. I still remember sitting in a flat in St Andrews Drive in Glasgow shared with three student friends and watching the television news. We were all stunned. Nothing like this had happened in our lifetimes, at least not whilst we were aware of real world events.
A couple of blocks away was the Old Red Museum which housed the Dallas Visitor Center. It seemed like a good place to visit whilst we waited. Once again we found a Visitor Center completely lacking in a welcome or any charm. There were plenty of leaflets but the staff behind the counter behaved as though we were interrupting their real jobs. Questions were not encouraged and, on being asked anything, only offered monosyllabic responses. We decided to give the Old Red Museum, which specialises in the history of Dallas, a body swerve.
On a plot of land behind the museum stood a memorial to JFK. It had been erected by the City of Dallas with the full support of Jacqueline Kennedy who commissioned the sculptor. It took the form of a cenotaph – an open tomb. In the centre was a low flat block of stone inscribed on two sides with JFK’s name. This was surrounded by four high stone blocks with two openings to give access to the inscribed stone. It felt like a memorial that may have been appropriate in the mid sixties but which has somehow lost its impact in the C21st. But it was still very moving when you thought about why it was there.
We then crossed over to the Dealey Plaza, the scene of the assassination. The plaza had been constructed in 1940 to recognise George Bannerman Dealey, a publisher, civic leader and major contributor to the development of Dallas in the first half of the C20th. It is spread over two blocks and stretches between Houston Street and the tunnels under the main railway tracks. On the northern edge of the plaza sits the slightly raised piece of land that has become known as the “Grassy Knoll”. In front of the Grassy Knoll is the part of Elm Street that slopes down to go under the railroad. And on the road surface there, are two white crosses indicating where the presidential car was when the bullets stuck. In a rather macabre way visitors queue up to be photographed standing on one or other of the crosses. For those of us able to take a more sombre view of things it was very moving to realise that we were at the very point where the tragedy had happened.
After a decent pasta-based lunch in an Italian restaurant catering for the business community, we returned to the Sixth Floor Museum. The lady manning the ticket desk said “”You two look like young seniors”. Our faith in the Texan welcome was immediately restored. In a well thought through move, the entry price included the use of an audio guide which not only took you round the museum but also added a lot of factual information. We boarded a lift that took us to the infamous sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The exhibition is one of the best of its kind. It covers everything from the world situation when Kennedy became President, through his years in office and then, at great length, deals with the fateful day itself, and the aftermath. It is all done in excellent taste and makes no attempt to pretend that the true reasons for the assassination has been solved, nor that all the perpetrators of the crime have been identified and brought to justice. The actual scene around the window where Lee Harvey Oswald set up his sniper’s position, and from which he fired at least some of the fatal bullets, has been recreated and is protected by a glass screen. It is quite riveting to realise you are actually at the scene of events that really changed the world.
The whole story was so movingly told that the only thing we could think to do was to go back to our hotel room and have a quiet, contemplative drink.