The first ride

beach
On the Gulf Coast beach at Biloxi, Mississippi.

MY WIFE’S INITIAL visit to the United States was very surprising to her. “How clean,” she remarked as we walked through downtown San Antonio on our first night, having just driven up from Laredo. I think she meant “how orderly” because Mexico is clean, but sometimes it’s not too orderly, part of its romantic, chaotic charm.

It’s not that she was some provincial bumpkin who’d never been anywhere. She spent six months in the mid-1990s in Spain doing postgraduate studies in civil engineering in Madrid. She took advantage of that opportunity to travel all over Europe in her spare time.

But she had never been above the Rio Bravo until we drove up there in 2004 a year after our wedding. Before the trip, she was fond of saying that she had little interest in visiting. Hadn’t lost anything up there, she repeated with a smirk. There was a strain of anti-Americanism in her family.

All that changed immediately when she saw Texas … and Louisiana … and Mississippi … and Alabama … and Georgia. We drove in our little Chevy Pop, which is something like a Geo Metro. No AC, no stereo, no power steering or power brakes or power windows, no power anything. It was the first car I purchased in Mexico.

We spent a couple of nights in San Antonio, strolling the Riverwalk. There was a side trip to Bandera where we ate barbecue on the main drag. It was followed down the street by root beer floats. There’s no root beer in Mexico.

We drove on to Houston, my old home town, for a few more nights. We visited with a few of my previous coworkers who were still wage-slaving on the Houston Chronicle. Then on to New Orleans for rides in the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and beignets at Café du Monde abutting the river in the French Quarter.

We hired a carriage, horse and driver for a romantic ride. Though she has seen Paris, New Orleans made a big impression on her. We walked the sidewalks of the Garden District. We ate oyster po’ boys.

The stretch from New Orleans to Atlanta is a long, mostly boring haul. We spread it over two days, spending the night in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the sticks of Central Alabama. The best thing about that night was a fried-catfish plate at a nearby restaurant. Alabama knows how to fry catfish.

She’d never had fried catfish. She’d never had oyster po’ boys. She’d never had a beignet. She’d never had a root beer float. She was happy. And her opinion of the United States changed forever. She was in love with the food, the shopping (Target in particular) and even the people, especially Southerners.

Southern people are genuinely friendly, unlike the famous (feigned) friendliness of Mexicans who grin and hug you to death if they know you and cast you a stone-faced glare if they do not.

A Mexican’s face is a mask, and so is his smile. — Octavio Paz.

We made it to Atlanta where we stayed about a week, visiting my mother, doing more shopping, more eating, and then we headed south, mostly repeating the route north but with briefer layovers.

The trip had begun the first week in March, so the car’s lack of air-conditioning was not a problem. But we almost got nailed on the return drive in mid-March, just one day, the leg between Houston and the border at Laredo. We sweated a bit. Ironically, on entering Mexico, things cooled off. There are mountains.

My wife returned a changed woman. Before she loved only one Gringo. Now she loves them all. She wants to rent a home and stay in the United States for months at a time. She wants to eat po’ boys and barbecue and beignets and catfish every day. She wants to roam the aisles of Target with a debit card and a smile.

Other trips followed, but it’s been six years now since we’ve been above the Rio Bravo, and she’s unhappy about that. Maybe we’ll return some distant day, but only the Goddess knows when … or if.

We haven’t lost anything up there.