Houston, We Have a Problem

A week before I arrive at my uncle’s house in the Houston area, a cousin posts to my Facebook page: “How do you look in camo?”  I don’t know what she’s asking about—hunting? guns?—so ignore the message.  Maybe I should have done an Internet search.

Camouflage Pants

My father’s family is German and they drink – and celebrate life – like The People.  Oh, and apparently they are like Hobbits when it comes to holiday meals.  I arrive the week after Thanksgiving to my Uncle Ken and his wife, Carola, preparing “Second Thanksgiving.”  Now, lest I be seen as judging here, let me inform you I am all about this new holiday.  I will eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy any time of year!

My uncle and cousins live scattershot in the northern suburbs of Houston (although one cousin recently moved to Western Massachusetts, to the chagrin of some of his family).  However, they are actually native Californian born and raised, just like my dad, on the beaches of San Diego (though full disclosure, my uncle is . . . [wait for it] . . . a New Yorker!).  They have adapted quite well to Texas, which, incidentally, was a country before it joined the United States.  This fact explains much about the state and is something, I suspect, many residents might regret.  But I digress.

Sara, the cousin who Facebooked me, greets me on the back patio of Ken’s house with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  “Do you wonna ryde?” she asks placing emphasis on the last word.

“Ryde?” I ask back, searching the other cousins’ faces for help.  None offered.

“You’re in Texas, boy, do yooo wonna RYDE?!”

I have no idea what she is talking about, but figure this city boy is up for whatever my Texas cousins can dish out.  “Hell, yeah!” I say back.

“He wantsta ryde, David” she says to her husband, a tall Wisconsin transplant.

“Well, then, we’ll have to get him some camo,” David says back to his wife.  Then to me, “Do you have any camo?”

“Camo?” I’m starting to feel like a parrot.

“Camo, boy, camouflage clothing.”

“Why are you referring to me as ‘boy’?” I wonder to myself.  Then as if seeking to impress, I respond, “Why yes, I have a camouflage hat . . . and gloves!  Are we going hunting?”

The cousins snicker at my response.

David says, “No, we are not going hunting, but our 10 year-old daughter bagged her first boar just last week. Show him the picture honey.”

A blonde-haired small person walks up and shoves a phone in my face, “Here.  See?” she tilts her head to one side and smiles.  There on this pre-tween’s cell phone is a picture of her with a dead pig, tongue hanging out to the ground.  The little blonde one’s eyes are large and wide, and she grins from ear to ear.  Now I’m a little nervous.

Dinner is an opportunity to catch up with this side of the family whom I have not seen for a while.  It amazes me that time goes by so quickly and then—pow!—we’re all decades older.

My uncle asks, “What do you want to see in Houston?”

“I plan to attend a service at Lakewood Church tomorrow morning. I hear it’s the largest in the country.”  Everyone at the table knows the church . . . and has an opinion about the preacher.

“Oh, that’s Joel Osteen’s church.  It’s nyce, but a little too New Agey for my taste,” Carola comments.  “I need God in my church.”  She and my uncle suggest another church, in their neighborhood, that is like Lakewood.

After dinner, the cousins and I head over to Sara and David’s house a few miles away, cruising in a literal caravan of SUVs.  Sara rides with me to ensure I make it.  She comments on the way, “I’m glad it rained.  It will keep the dust down tonight.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a wide smile on her face.  “The entire state has been in a drought for most of summer and fall.”

At the house, chaos ensues.  Sara sets about finding outfits for the gang, giggling to herself the whole time.  David sets the kids up making Rice Crispy Treats, although they would rather “ryde” with the adults.  “Kids don’t ryde after dark.”  I pet the dogs as I watch the whole process progress.

All Terrain Vee-hicles

Once the Treats are setting in the fridge and the kids are set up with a movie, cartoons, guns or something, David pulls out two All Terrain “Vee-hicles,” also known as four wheelers, out of their garage.  These are what we will be “rydin’” tonight.

Sara secures enough camouflage clothing for everyone in the party to be dressed head-to-toe in the stuff.  With each layer I pull on, she chuckles, points, and then takes a picture.  First the pants, “Oh, my gawd, look at our cousin everyone.  I have to take a picture.”  Snap.  Next, the jacket.  “Ha ha ha” she laughs.  “Now look at him!”  Snap snap. “I’m uploading this shit to Face-book.”

Dressed and ready to go, I climb onto one of the ATVs with Sara in front, driving.  The whole scene feels like a combination of Deliverance and National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, but all that changes as we hit the trail.  The quads are great fun; in no time we are splashing through mud puddles two feet deep and ducking under branches.  If we stop suddenly, my helmet slams into the back of Sara’s like a cartoon.  We both laugh.

After a time, Sara asks, “Are you ready to DRYVE?”

“Drive?  Me?  Yes!” I yell back through the dust-covered helmet.  She jumps on back and, I swear, crosses herself.

Driving an ATV is an interesting experience.  The brake is where you think it would be, by your foot.  However, the gas “pedal” is under your thumb on the steering column.  It takes some getting used to, and the first ten to fifteen minutes Sara and I crash helmets constantly.

All Geared Up! (Before the Mud)

Sara is intent on getting me stuck in the mud.  “It’s a right of passage,” she yells in my ear as we dive into a deep puddle, which nearly covers the four wheeler to the mud flaps.  I lift my legs to avoid getting my boots wet.  She laughs.

At some point, the other ATV with Dave and cousin Kimberly, comes to a complete stop.  They are at the edge of what appears to be a vast interior mud puddle.  It takes up the entire width of the dirt path and rounds the next two corners.  Dave gets off his machine and approaches on foot.

Seeing this, Sara jumps off the back of the ATV I’m driving and into the driver’s seat of the other one.  She guns her thumb and the quad rushes headlong into the brown muck.  Mud and water fly in all directions.  Dave and I watch as Sara and Kimberly bob left, then right.  They stop, apparently stuck, then get unstuck.  Steam rises from their engine, but they make it to the other side.  Sara gets off, removes her helmet and lights a cigarette.

Dave walks back to my quad and climbs on the back.  “Ok,” he says.  “Follow them exactly.”

“You want me to drive . . . through that?” I yell back.

“Yes, you can make it!” he says. “Gun it!”

I look at Sara who now has a camera in hand and push my thumb as hard as far as it will go.  The ATV jerks forward.  We leap into the puddle.  Dave’s helmet slams into mine.  The four wheeler sinks slightly, then gains traction.  Water and mud pour off the back wheels as we bob left, then right.

Then, just as Dave yells, “Keep gunning it!” the machine sinks lower and stops moving forward.  “Reverse, hard!” Dave yells.  I do.  No movement.  Only mud and goop fly up—straight up—and rain down on us.  I notice Sara jumping up and down on the opposite shore while the flash from her camera lightens the dark night.

“Again!” Dave yells.  I do with the exact same result – mud everywhere.  I feel it seeping into my boots and down my neckline.  He climbs off and we use a winch to pull the vehicle out of the mud.

Sara continues to laugh and snap pictures.  “I’m Facebooking this shit!” she says dragging on her cigarette.

Once on the other side, I laugh.  So does everyone in the quadravan (that’s a four-wheeler caravan).  It is one of those I-have-never-had-so-much-fun-in-my-life laughs.  You know the kind where you laugh so hard your stomach hurts and you can barely breathe.  “Let’s do it again!” Sara screams with her fists in the air.

“I have to go to church in the morning,” I say laughing.  We push on into the cold, muddy night.

Back at the house, well after midnight, I strip off my muck-covered gear and wonder if I will make it to Lakewood in the morning.  I am exhausted and filthy.  Mud has worked its way down the front of my clothes practically to my waistline.  Cold and smelly!  I strip, shower and head off to sleep in the 10-year-old’s bed (I feel for kids who have to give up their beds for guests).  That night I dream of dead pigs and mud.

Photo Friday

I have mentioned before that, photographically speaking, I have a thing for telephone poles, signs, and electric wires.  They form amazing geometric shapes against wonderful natural backgrounds.  Here, set against an amazing sunset in Austin, Texas.

Electricity against Texas Sunset

The Great, Big, State of Texas

Driving across Texas takes a long time.  After all, it is a large state.  The second largest after Alaska and the second most populous after, uh um, California.  What stands out most about Texas, at least while driving, are the trucks.  They have pickups here so large; they are twice or three times the size of Dusty, my Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It feels as if I am in a compact driving along Interstate 20.  Not only are they large, but these Silverados and Ram 1500s have special names such as “Texas Edition” or “Lone Star Edition.”  I’ve never noticed a “Golden State” release or “Empire Edition” of any car.

Texas-size Trucks

As for driving, however, there is not much scenery.  West Texas is mostly flat, dry desert that is a hotbed of mining and oil production.  The landscape is pierced by flaming pipes, oil wells, and the ever present “iron horse,” which exists to pump black crude out of the dusty earth.  One would think that gas would be cheaper here than any other place in the country, but it’s not.  In fact, it is closer to California prices than to many others states in which I have filled up.

Industrial Texas

My goal is to reach the town of Yantis where my aunt Barb and Thom have set up homestead, about 90 miles east of Dallas.  I will cover 600 miles in one day, not much less than the entire 773 mile-width of Texas.  South of there in the northern suburbs of Houston, live my uncle and his family.  I will visit these sets of relatives, then continue on to the Deep South.

To pass the time while I drive, I engage myself in several activities.  First, I make phone calls. My father had called a few days back and left a message of bells, gongs, clicks and a dying chicken (remember he lost his voice box to cancer some years back).  Normally, when I return his call, I fill him in on my side of things.  This time, I just quack at him for five minutes:

“Quack, quack, quack,” I say.

He responds with bells, “Bing, bong, ding.”

“Quack quack, quack quack.”  I hear him laugh with no voice.

After several minutes of this, I simply hang up.  No goodbye, just “Quack, quack,” then click.

This, and the relationship my father and I maintain, brings a certain amount of joy to my life and a smile to my face.

After I have called practically everyone in my contact list, even those people I either shouldn’t or have been asked not to, I play a game of “I Spy” and try to find out-of-state license plates.  I start watching the backs of the trucks.  Texas.  Texas.  Texas.  Texas.  Oklahoma.  Texas.  Texas.  Texas.  I give up that game.

I then get lost in my own thoughts.  Even the radio I turn off, so it’s just the road, other hardtops and me.  Miles start to tick by, as do hours.  I fill up once or twice at large truck stops where the Macks refuel.  Here I find Walmart-like facilities which have products of all kinds: food, coffee, truck parts, hats, hunting gear, replicas of oil wells, plus showers.  Loudspeakers announce, “Number twenty nine, your shower is ready.”   I consider, briefly, the idea of taking a rinse – just for the experience – then reject it based on the mental idea of what might be found on the floor of one such facility.

After what seems like days, I approach Dallas.  The highway moves from two lanes to four, then six.  The speed limit drops by 10 MPH and an HOV lane (high occupancy vee-hicle – I’m pronouncing everything with a southern accent in my head now) appears.  Suburbs, manicured lawns, overpasses, strip malls.  Then, sparkling skyscrapers in the distance.  They scream: “Come visit, you’ve never been!”  In fact, my only experience with Dallas is the television show and layovers at DFW.

Farmland in East Texas

There is not much traffic – or many small cars for that matter – in Dallas and soon everything happens in reverse: the highway returns to four lanes, then two.  I turn off onto a country road, indicating I am closer to my aunt’s house.  Just another 60 miles or so.  In this state, one can haul ass at 70-plus MPH on these roads.  I do.  The landscape is now rolling hills, beautiful ranch homes, white farm fences and trees – lots of them.  East Texas is prettier than West.

My Aunt Barbara lives on a golf course in the middle of farmland.  The road leading to her development makes me question whether I am on the right path.  Alice, my GPS, indicates all is well.  As I get farther back, the roads are named “Private Road 1970” or “Private Road 56” abbreviated to PR 1970 or PR 56.  Alice thinks this means “Puerto Rico” and pronounces this at each turn.  “In 200 feet turn left on Puerto Rico 1970,” she exclaims.  I snicker at the technical glitch.

Texas is in a drought and has been most of the summer and fall.  “Our lake is down eight feet,” my aunt says as we climb into her golf cart for a tour of the surrounding lake, golf course and housing development.  To my aunt’s chagrin, I bring my camera.  We stop at the lake front.  “See how far down the water level has fallen?” she asks pointing at those lines that droughts cause on a lakeshore.  I bring my camera up to my face in preparation to snap an exposure or two of sunset over the lake where tree stumps have been exposed.  To me it looks like swamp land, interesting, photogenic.

“No!” pleads Barbara.  “They’re ugly.”  I go for the exposure anyway.  “No!” she pleads again, this time stepping on the gas, which causes the golf cart, and me, to lurch forward.  I miss the shot.  We round a corner, practically screeching as we do, to a wooded area, then to a putting green, well out of range of the lake.  “Oh, look, there are some deer; take a picture of them,” she says pointing to some long-legged rats.  I point and click the camera in the direction of the wildlife.

Thanksgiving with Barb and Thom is a relaxing and adult affair.  For the three of us we have two turkeys plus all the fixin’s.  One of the sacrificial birds has been smoked and is basically black and shriveled.  “This is an area favorite; people wait in line for days for these things,” Thom claims carving the dehydrated carcass.  I’m skeptical, but upon closer examination and mastication it lives up to its reputation.

“You have to promise me you’ll come back when the lake is up.  It’s much prettier and you can take all the pictures you want then,” Barbara says as I prepare to depart for the next set of relatives.  “Ok, I will,” I say back.  As I leave, it starts to rain, then storm.  The state is finally getting some needed precipitation, just as I have to drive 200 plus miles south straight through the worst of it.

President’s Day

Today is President’s Day in the United States – a national holiday honoring George Washington.  Enjoy the photo of GW from Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Washington in Stone, Mt. Rushmore

Photo Friday

West Texas sunsets are beautiful.  The light has a way of dazzling off whatever structures are nearby.  Here, in Marfa, Texas, the sun set over a building and railroad tracks.  I love how the light reflected off the tracks and painted the building and crossing guards in silhouette.

West Texas Sunset (Marfa)

The (Many Kinds of) Marfa Lights

Driving Southeast on State Road 90, I pass a storefront in the middle of nowhere.  It surprises me because I have seen nothing except telephone poles and border patrol trucks since entering Texas.  Then, suddenly, shoes and handbags whiz by out of the corner of my eye.  “My mom might like those,” I think to myself as I slow and turn the car around.  Alice, my GPS, screams, “Recalculating!”

Prada Marfa

Prada Marfa is not open for business, and the stilettos and leather clutches are not for sale, at least as far as I can tell.  The building is hermetically sealed and looks as though it was manufactured somewhere else and fell off the back of a truck here, just off the highway.  The emporium is, in fact, a whimsical art installation and just one of several strange sights I will encounter in West Texas.

Tony, the man in the Lure t-shirt I met in San Francisco, suggested I visit Marfa on my way through the Southwest: “It’s a cool little art town in the middle of nowhere that’s a great example of minimalist art.”  I have no idea what “minimalist art” is but am always up for an adventure.  From California to New Mexico, everyone I encounter who knows Marfa says great things.

Marfa Courthouse, in Trees

As the sun sinks low on the horizon, I arrive in downtown, a scant 30 or 40 buildings.  No reservations mean I am scrambling to find a bed for the night.  But the sunlight and buildings distract me.  I follow them in my camera lens to the town square, which is dominated by a large, beautiful courthouse.  The exterior is pink and white and reaches higher into the clear evening sky than any other in town.  The Fire Department building is also pink.

El Paisono, next to the courthouse, is the largest hotel in town and they offer me a room with one queen bed for $80/night.  Earlier, I was surprised by, and declined, the $175 per night fee at the Thunderbird, an updated Howard Johnson’s a few blocks from downtown.  This is the middle of bumfuck after all, even if Marfa is a great example of minimalist art.

Nandos: A Welcome Open Sign

Most of the restaurants and galleries are closed on Monday and Tuesday nights, an unfortunate accident of my timing.  I dine at a local dive called Nandos Mexican.  The locals are, um, colorful.   Good ol‘ boys in blue jeans with supersize belt buckles tip their oversized cowboy hats at each other with a “How y’all doin’ tonight?”  For the most part, they ignore the city slicker with the camera sitting at a booth all alone.

After dinner, I drive twelve miles east to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, a rest-stop-style facility the town has erected for this specific purpose.  Several people, including my massage therapist in T or C, tell me, “You HAVE to see the Marfa lights – no one knows what they are, even the Air Force can’t figure it out.”  Strange lights?  Sign me up!

There in the cool, err cold, desert night, I witness lights way off in the distance that dance just above the horizon.  It’s as if someone is holding a huge Zippo lighter for several seconds, then poof! the light ceases.  Moments pass, then another Zippo goes off to the left or right of the last one.  The highway is easily identifiable, so I see that the lights are not traffic, nor do they look like alien aircraft.

While the lights are interesting, the stars out here are amazing; they fill the sky and touch the horizon in every direction.  With no major towns nearby, they are visible for miles around.  I haven’t seen this many constellations since I was a child and they remind me how small,  and precious, we are in the universe.

THE Marfa Lights (left of red star, highway streak to right)

Driving back into town, the police are out in force.  I watch as blue and red strobes flash on from just beyond the darkness to pull one car over, then another.  I decide it prudent to drive within the posted limits, which is a challenge.   I make it, so far, without incident.

Then, instead of turning right at the only stoplight in town, I continue forward hell bent on a nightcap from Dairy Queen, which I noted on my early drive through town.  Suddenly, a large, imposing truck is on me like a dog in heat.  As I pull into the DQ and get ready to flip the MFer off, I see “County Police” stamped across the doors of the offending vehicle.  “Asshole!” I think to myself, then proceed into the frozen dessert store.

At the counter, a young, big-haired woman in blue overalls takes my order: a medium Oreo Blizzard.

I comment, “You certainly have some interesting police around here.”

“Yeah,” she replies. “Basically, if they haven’t seen your vehicle around here, they will pull you over.”

“I’m from New York,” I say.

“Good luck,” she says with a smile.

I take my ice cream treat “to go.”

What happens next pisses me off.  Back at the town’s stoplight, which really is just a flashing red light over a stop sign, I see the County Police truck has pulled someone else over.  In only the time it took to prepare a Blizzard, some poor schmuck has already been ticketed.  I stop at the stop sign, turn left and am a mere block-and-a-half from the Paisano, when flash! flash! red and blue strobes lighten my rear view mirror.  “What the fuck did I do?” I say out loud.

The officer, a short, fat white dude in a khaki police uniform, waddles up to my window.  Normally I’m peaches and cream with any officer of the law.  I’ve talked my way out of tickets before, but with this guy I’m direct: “What’s the problem, officer?”

“Ya almost rollllled through that there stop sign twiiice,” he says in the worse twang I’ve heard to date.

“I stopped,” I retort.

“Yeah, but not at the whyte liiiine,” he snaps back, sweating ever so slightly.

I look back and see that there is a faded white line about 20 feet before the stop sign and a solid white one at the sign.  He returns to his supersize truck, I assume to write a ticket.

After a short time, he returns and produces a pink warning slip, signed by Deputy Sheriff Dumbass (that’s obviously not his real name, but his signature is illegible.  I double-checked because I had planned to write a complaint to the City Council).

Back at the hotel, the man behind the front desk laughs when I bring up this horrendous incident, “Why did he pull you over: no blinker?  Changing lanes without signaling?  Going three miles over the limit?”

“Not stopping at the stop sign, which I stopped at,” I complain.

“You mean the one with two white lines?” he asks.

His response makes me angrier.  “I think I’ll write the town council!” I say.

“It’s not just the Sheriff, but the whole county,” he says.

I’m just about to make a speech about living in a police state when the front desk receives a call.  I wait around for thirty seconds, then decide my melting Oreo Blizzard is more important.  I retire to my room and gulp down the entire treat before bed.  It sends me into a slight sugar comma and a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, I wake before sunrise.  With just over 600 miles to drive today, I get an early start. I need to make it to the other side of Dallas for Thanksgiving with my Aunt Barb and Thom.  Heading north, which will give me access to Interstate 20, where I can clock a comfortable 80 mph, the sunrise is amazing – pink, orange, yellow and purple fill the horizon.

Sunrise, Marfa (notice white UFO in photo)

Then, off in the distance, I see a strange dot in the sky shining brightly in the morning sun.  At first I think it’s a plane, but it doesn’t move. It may be a water tower, but it’s too high.  When I get closer I see it’s some sort of silver or white balloon, about the size of a small blimp, maybe 400 feet in the sky.  No markings.  No signs indicating what it is.  Just one more odd sighting that disappears in my rear view – the perfect close to my West Texas adventure.