We left Fort Worth in blazing sunshine, well rested after a relatively early night, and headed out of the city north towards Oklahoma. We'd decided to travel to Rowlett, north east out of Dallas and slightly out of our way, but it was something we felt we should witness.
For those of you who might not really associate Rowlett with anything, as we didn't before the events that occurred just as I arrived Stateside, a bit of background might be useful - Rowlett was one of the towns badly damaged by tornadoes in late December. Now I appreciate this seems a little ghoulish, but it's something we might never get the chance to see again so we decided to visit.
As we drove out of Dallas, the towns quickly drop in scale until they become largely single story and sprawl out to their limits as only a country the size of America can allow. Approaching Rowlett, everything seemed entirely normal. No trees were out of place, everywhere was open and there were people and cars on the street. We drove around, trying to find any sign of the devastation we'd seen only a few days before on the news. Surely no place could repair itself that fast?
Then we saw it. We drove up a single street and the destruction was entirely apparent and complete for the most part. Houses were in tatters, many had the internal arrangements exposed and individual rooms hung open from the first floors of many of the buildings. People were scrambling over debris, collecting belongings or sorting through wreckage and the emergency services were driving around supporting where they could.
As we drove around the streets, what was most shocking to me was how focused the damage was - some houses were reduced to kindling or even less, whilst their neighbours might have only lost a few tiles or have a couple of smashed windows. I've never really witnessed the scene of a natural disaster, but the raw power on display here, the sheer destructive energy was over-awing. Reports indicate that up to twelve separate tornadoes hit different parts of Texas, killing eleven people and destroying some 600 homes. Much of the area is without power, as electric companies are afraid that turning the grid back on will cause explosions and fires. It really is a desperate situation.
So what was most incredible, even more so than the actual scenes of ruin we encountered, was the will and spirit of the people. Most that we saw were helping to clear up debris or sift though piles of possessions, some were coordinating the clean-up operations and handing out emergency supplies - in a scene that made both Nick and I feel pretty awful, as we slowed down to pass a vehicle, a lady pushing a cart looked up at us, smiled and asked us if we needed any water. There was no crying that day, although I suspect we were lucky, but we saw no wailing or scenes of despair. Just a community drawn together by adversity and committed to helping each other get things back in shape - we even heard a few laughs and saw children playing amongst the ragged shells of their homes. It was genuinely humbling and a poignant reminder of what people are capable of even in face of the worst tragedies.
We left Texas in a reflective frame of mind, and watched quietly as the scenery changed around us yet again. Patches of field and trees slowly disappeared as we entered Oklahoma, replaced with rolling plains of yellow and deep blue skies. Buildings crept away slowly and suddenly we were looking at nothing but the surrounding countryside. The sun began to set and, following another epic drive by Nick, it was night as we arrived into the deserted streets of Oklahoma City. It's the last Sunday before everybody returns to work, so we'd expected to find things quiet, but as we drove around looking for somewhere to stay or eat, we barely saw a soul.
Finally, we spied a large group of young people converging on a convention centre and careful investigation (Nick asking someone) revealed that they were all heading to one of the closing events of the SMC, or Student Mobilisation Conference, a Christian organisation committed to supporting college students with their faith and providing an outlet for young people to connect and have fun whilst engaging with Christ (that's my synopsis, but please feel free to google StuMo if you're interested). Needless to say, we had to find out more.
After finding a hotel in the still empty downtown of OC, we headed back to the convention centre. A quick wander around and some sweet talking of the extremely kind lady on the gates (thanks Carol!) secured us entry and we walked into the main auditorium to find 2,500 college students sitting in the dark, watching a concert - we'd arrived in a break from the singing which quickly resumed - the subject matter should be obvious, but needless to say it's incredibly hard to rhyme 'hosanna' or 'hallelujah' in the context of the modern pop song. The music, in all honesty, wasn't that bad - provided by the Jeff Johnson Band, it was that brand of easy rock that wouldn't sound out of place in today's Top 40 (although the lyrics definitely would).
Although a little dumbstruck by the experience, we stayed until the end, through brief talks, more songs, videos highlighting Kaleo (a Christian spring break alternative) and testimonials from StuMo members. What was most impressive, other than the sheer weight of belief pouring off the audience, was the production values. StuMo must be very well funded as all of the entertainment was delivered with a professional and contemporary sheen that puts much of my university life to shame. The band was particularly impressive, with lights, lasers and sound editing that would have easily qualified them for major London venues.
We walked out with the crowd as it left, and despite a couple of unsuccessful attempts to find out where they would be heading that evening (another lesson from this trip is that a 36 year old man should never ask a group of 19-20 year olds where they're heading - confusion abounds), we decided to go for a drink in a local bar. Which was absolutely dead. They served a massive array of draft beers, and I do mean massive, but the fact that it was the last Sunday before everybody goes back to work means that I also mean it was dead. The barmaid advised us that a place across the street might be better - she also gave us some rather enigmatic advice about how to reach the 'actual bar', which turned out to be one of the best tips we'd been given thus far.
The 'actual bar' was reached via a staircase at the rear of another equally tumbleweed-y bar to the one we'd just left. But as we arrived upstairs, it was clear that the downstairs is merely a cover for a much more lively location. The upstairs bar was packed, smokey and with loud country music being played at the far end. It had amazing atmosphere and we settled right in. We got talking to a guy called Steve, who was a Grade A douchebag, so I stuck Nick with him and started talking to the couple next to me. They were great, and once I'd explained that we'd spent too long with Steve already but were far too polite (and British) to tell him to pound sand, both of them kindly told him for us.
But the best part of the night was yet to come. We eventually got talking to a guy and his brother, sat at the bar stools next to us. His name was Mike and he was an ex-Navy Seal, out for a few drinks with his bro before returning to work at the Veterans Association the following day - we explained about our trip and our experiences thus far and this formed a kind of bond of brotherhood between us. Somehow, and neither Nick nor I can quite remember how, this resulted in us being driven outside the city to Mike's house where we had some drinks, petted his awesome Irish Wolfhound (not a euphemism) and discussed our experiences in Texas, particularly at the gun range. THIS resulted in Mike fetching probably the most terrifying arsenal I've ever seen in one place - it included a sniper rifle, an assault rifle, a hunting rifle and handguns, in what appeared to be a seemingly unending collection. We had flak jackets put on over our heads, mine being the one Mike brought back from Afghanistan, riddled with bullet holes marking the spots where he'd been shot in the back, the steel plates pockmarked by Taliban AK47s.
I had to talk to Mike about all this, and gun control in the US in general, because it was so different to my own experiences and expectations. He was actually remarkably stoic and even empathised with my point of view, but it seems that we would never get to agree that he didn't, indeed shouldn't, need to own guns like this, regardless of the Second Amendment or his desire to protect his life, family and property. Mike's brother was less receptive to my arguments, at one point asking if the long-haired, slightly tipsy (it's remarkable how sobering being handed an assault rifle can be) Englishman if I was 'FBI'.
At this point, as the thoughts of a hasty exit ran through my head, I realised I hadn't seen Nick for a while. Turns out, when we finally got him to open the locked door, he was asleep on Mike's bathroom floor. This was cue for us to leave with what turned out to be our only option - reckless though it may be - a fairly well-oiled Mike driving us back to the hotel. He kindly (and safely) did so, and we parted on good terms - so thanks, Mike, for an evening I don't think I'll ever forget.
Tomorrow is Kansas - speak soon and don't play with guns.