It's that time of year again. Byron is competing at the Barbecue Cookoff and has bunged us a couple of tickets. We're going along partially because it's his weekend with the kid - Byron's son, my stepson - and there's probably a limit to how much fun Junior can absorb from such an event whilst his father is busily setting lumps of meat on fire, so we're going to pick up the boy and whisk him back to the safety of his room and his games system. The Barbecue Cookoff is ordinarily part of the annual Stock Show & Rodeo, which is nice because it means we get to see the cows; but this year the event has been moved to a different site for some reason, one without much in the way of available parking. The plan is that we park at the AT&T Center, which is where the Barbecue Cookoff has been staged up until now, and we take a shuttle to the new site which is two miles away. The shuttles have been specially laid on. There must be a reason for this new, somewhat laborious arrangement, but neither Bess nor myself can work out what it might be.
This whole thing about parking then taking the shuttle seems like a pain in the ass. Bess looks on the map and notices that the site is about ten minutes walk from the Jack White Park Trailhead, or that's how it looks. The Trailhead is part of a greenway which follows Salado Creek south towards the old Spanish Missions. We've both been along there before, and it makes for a pleasant walk through a largely wooded strip of land away from the noise and traffic of the highway. So that's the box we're ticking.
We park at the Trailhead, oblivious to the fact of an empty parking lot suggesting that no-one else considered this seemingly obvious shortcut. We cross beneath the interstate, then a smaller railway bridge, and we follow the creek. We can hear stadium country in the distance and the smell of barbecue faintly smokes the breeze. Stadium country is country and western without the redeeming features, more X Factor than Hank Williams; but in its favour, it can always be heard at great distance and as such provides useful navigational information to the occasional questing wanderer.
'It can't be much further,' Bess suggests.
Sixty seconds later, we notice that the music now seems to be behind us. We look to the source, to the eastern line of trees, and the possibility occurs to us that we're on the wrong side of the creek. We turn around and head back for the interstate.
'Maybe if we head up that way,' I suggest, pointing.
'That's along the highway,' Bess says. 'We won't get very far.'
We're both looking at the headquarters of the Lucifer lighting company, which is at least on the same side of the creek as the Cookoff. The grounds of the Lucifer lighting company slope down towards the water, and there seems to be a path worn into the grass, so again we head off.
'That always struck me as a funny name for a lighting company,' says Bess. 'Like Beezebub plumbing or Satan parcel delivery.'
'You know Lucifer means light bringer?'
'Actually I'm not sure, but it's something like that. Luce means light in Italian, so…'
'Well, the fallen angel - I guess he was supposed to be pretty hot after all.'
Approaching the railway bridge, the path takes us into a labyrinth of reeds, dried stalks of Arundo donax, an invasive species which can grow up to twenty feet in height and does well in really shitty, contaminated soil. It's one of those things which thrives around industrial estates and places you probably don't want to go, and the earth beneath the bridge is accordingly decorated with flattened beer cans and burnt patches. Forward progress becomes difficult.
'I'm having my doubts about this one.'
'Let's turn back,' Bess sighs. 'I don't feel like getting assaulted today. I suppose at least we tried.'
We return to the car, and grudgingly drive to the AT&T Center where the parking lot is already filling and we have to pay ten dollars on top of the Cookoff ticket price. We follow the crowd on foot, everybody drawn to the point from which the shuttle will depart. Everyone is wearing a Stetson and my head feels suddenly naked. I'm overdue a haircut, that being one sin for which a Stetson usually compensates. I've been meaning to buy a new hat for some time. My current Stetson has had a lot of use and is consequently so old, crappy, and distressed that it could pass for the cover of a Nine Inch Nails record.
The shuttle arrives and we all pile on. It's actually a school bus, the large yellow kind as driven by Otto in The Simpsons. I've never been on one of these buses before, and yet they are universal to the experience of almost everyone I know. The interior is cramped and crappy and it feels as though someone will almost certainly bring either a goat or chickens on board at any moment.
'You must have seen that in Mexico though,' Bess says.
'Not really. The buses seemed a bit scary and confusing. I took coaches out of the city but that was different.'
'Mostly businessy types. I caught a Pesero in Tula but there was no-one with a chicken on there. It was a bit freaky because I was just following what everyone else did, and no-one seemed to be paying when they got on, so I sat down and assumed you were supposed to pay when you got off. Then the next few people who got on paid the driver, making me look like an arrogant cunt tourist.'
'What did you do?'
'I paid him when I got off and tried to explain that I was a clueless gringo. He didn't seem to care that much.'
We head off and I think about Mexico, and then crazy school bus drivers described by Henry Rollins in his spoken performances. Thankfully our guy just seems to be doing his job. We take a side road I've never noticed before into what may as well be open country, and yet we're still in the middle of the city because that's how San Antonio works. We are surrounded by scrubby fields of cacti and we pass stables with horses stood around.
Finally we arrive. We get wristbands and find a map posted on an information board, from which we learn that Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em have a concession just a little way further along the main thoroughfare. The place is packed.
Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em is the name of Byron's barbecue team, apparently taken from a song by Ted Nugent. I have no idea when it all got started, but he's always been a good cook. Apparently someone at some point told him he should compete in barbecue competition events, so he did, and in doing so acquired a whole team of helpers, crew, hangers-on, or whatever you want to call them.
'So what do the rest of those guys do?' I ask my wife, because she's telling me the story. 'Do they just hang around and maybe pass him an onion if he needs it?'
'Pretty much,' she tells me. 'Byron does most of the actual cooking. They turn things on the grill while he's doing something else, or they stand around and make sure the beer is drinkable.'
'So it's really Byron who wins the competitions?'
'Yes, but to his credit he's never really been about personal glory in that way.'
It transpires that Byron has a rival team formed from Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em dissidents who felt sidelined by his superior cooking ability, despite his repeated emphasis on everything having been a team effort, even when it wasn't. We're better than this, they apparently cried out. We can barbecue as good as any man, and no more will we stand in the background occasionally handing a tomato to some superstar…
We find the concession and we have wristbands which grant admittance. There's a marquee and a bar. The barbecue trailer is at the back, a huge open-sided thing on wheels with Byron and a couple of others working away. We find Junior in a caravan next to the trailer. He seems glad that we've arrived, but we have to tell him that we're not leaving just yet seeing as we only just got here. We talk to Byron and Robert and have sodas from the bar. One of the bartenders wears a hat resembling a turd, specifically a furry cartoon turd with a smiley face. It's not that much of a surprise.
Having found our bearings, Bess and I take a walk. There are a couple of stalls selling hats around the corner, including Stetsons. It takes a few tries but I find one which fits my apparently massive head, and it's only twenty dollars. I buy it and feel that the journey has been worth my while. We wander a little further but come perilously close to where some band are still belting out the stadium country by which we forged our earlier path. We head back to the Wack 'Em & Stack 'Em concession.
Just outside the concession I pause to read postcards pinned to a board. They're from little kids, all addressed to Byron and mostly thanking him for buying their cow or pig. I get the impression that in most cases, the cow or pig in question has been hand-reared by the child who wrote the card.
'Did you see this?' I ask Bess.
'Oh yeah,' she says. 'He does a lot for those school 4H clubs.'
'Horticulture, husbandry, and a couple of other Hs.'
'But it's like agriculture and stuff?'
I take another look at the postcards. It seems like these kids put a lot of love into raising their animals. 'They know what Byron does, don't they, why he's buying their animals?'
This is one I'm just going to have to keep from thinking about too hard, given that I already know where meat comes from.
Byron appears, jovial as usual. We shoot the breeze for a couple of minutes, wishing him luck with thrashing the dissidents in the upcoming competition. He horses around as is his way, a man truly in his element.
Then we gather up the kid, and head home.