Homefolks: A Drive North

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At this year’s holiday dinner the subject arose of travel distances. A nephew born and raised in East Texas is now in the Navy, stationed for the moment in Groton, Connecticut. On a visit north, his parents were amazed to discover that a trip from Groton to Boston, say, or from Groton to New York City didn’t entail half a day’s drive. Although in my younger New England life I often found such journeys incomprehensibly long and exotic, now I’ve spent nearly half my life in a state where driving two hundred miles to visit family, or five hours to get to the beach, seems virtually routine.

So people in Texas naturally don’t think a thing of driving from Austin to Fort Worth for Thanksgiving or Christmas (or work!), except that the journey generally entails one of the harshest punishments known to travelers: the dreaded trip up I-35, made worse by holiday traffic. How many components of terrible can one straight shot up a freeway entail? I’m glad you asked.

To begin with, there are the requisite number of speed traps along every stretch, especially in areas where the speed limit changes abruptly. Annoying, but merely a gnat spiraling around an otherwise peaceful room. After all, sheer numbers reduce your odds of being the one caught in the trap.

Secondly, most of the scenery is not that much to look at. Far from the bucolic vistas and dense pine forests that made our trips to Nacogdoches bearable back when Floyd’s mother still lived there, the stretch from Austin to Fort Worth along I-35 is pretty darn unattractive. While there are still a few ranches along the way, most of what there is to look at is comprised of the ugliest portions of small cities like Temple and Waco. True, the steady stream of eighteen-wheelers manages to block out most of the landscape and force you to keep your eyes steadfastly on the road straight ahead; we can be grateful for such small favors, I suppose.

Of the traffic most of us would prefer not to speak. Myself personally, I believe the I-35 corridor has been left largely ridiculous by Texas legislators who have always loathed Austin for its liberal leanings. After all, even our Dallas-Fort Worth lawmakers are only subjected to the commute every couple of years, and I’m sure most of them fly back and forth, remaining high above the nightmare they probably think of as a “freeway.”

On a good trip, the bumper-to-bumper hordes travel somewhere between 75 and 80 miles per hours the whole way. At least the misery is short-lived, and with a little practice you’ll hardly ever miss the Hillsboro split where you aim to the right for Dallas and left for Fort Worth. Unless it’s dark. But what is life without adventure? The speedy criss-cross of three or four lanes of traffic gets your heart rate going again, just as the journey’s end is in sight. Now, if all that swerving has caused any harm to the kolaches you picked up in West, that’s a different story. I believe you can litigate if that happens.

In and of itself, however, the traffic is no more annoying than a wasp in the house. Remain alert, keep your wits about you, and you’ll probably come to no harm. But let’s extend the traffic conversation for just a moment.

If you took a survey of twelve million five-year-olds and asked them what would happen if three completely full lanes of traffic suddenly and without notice became two lanes of traffic, I predict you will get responses that are roughly, oh, 100% accurate. Because even a five-year-old knows the answer is, “You will have nothing but a solid mass of unmoving vehicles and steadily increasing aggravation, no matter how thoroughly you tried to steel yourself ahead of time for that very possibility.”

See, there’s where the Texas legislators laugh themselves into hiccups every time the insanity of the I-35 corridor between Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth comes up in conversation. If they didn’t think it was simply hilarious, we would have an adequate freeway between those urban centers by now. After all, construction crews have been working on long stretches of that route since I arrived in Texas in 1984. If Southern California highway crews can add a few lanes to the 405 practically overnight while 900 million vehicles drive by them every day, why can’t Central Texas crews manage to do the same?

It’s all about prejudice against Austin, I’m telling you.

Fortunately, over Thanksgiving Floyd experimented with an alternate route to his brother’s house outside Fort Worth. He came home pleased to report that while the drive took four hours rather than the three required for an ideal drive up there (an ideal drive taking place in approximately one of every twenty trips), the peaceful driving conditions and beautiful landscape made the sacrifice totally worthwhile. So when it came time for us to travel up there for Christmas, we took to the back roads so I could judge for myself. What follows is mere meander.

From Austin we headed north up Route 183, which puts you out in the country just a minute or two north of Leander. Basically, there is a whole lot of not much, most of it fenced.

DSC_0004We passed miles of what appeared to be ranches – clusters of cattle, horses, or goats – nothing gigantic in scale except the distances between ourselves and the horizon. Signs advertise bulls for sale, or pecans. Now and then we came across a town, like Hamilton.

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Like many of the small towns we drove through, on this stretch of road Hamilton has a gas station, a cafe or two, several struggling small businesses and some that have given up the struggle. It also has the Hamilton County Courthouse, not the last one I’ll be showing you today:

DSC_0009This is a classic Texas county courthouse, in my mind: an imposing 19th-century structure set in the middle of the town square, with rows of storefronts on all four sides. I instantly envision horse-drawn wagons, women in long dresses, and a fight breaking out in the saloon. Nowadays, of course, there are often attorneys’ offices right on the square, which seems sensible.

DSC_0019Floyd told me the streets are broad around town squares in order for a horse-drawn wagon to be able to turn around. And that seems sensible, too.

Mostly what we saw was countryside. There were acres of parched grass, plowed fields, and fields as green as spring. When we make the trip next May for Mother’s Day, I’ll be able to fill you in about what grows here. Could be anything from peppers to cotton.

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It’s pretty flat, as far as huge expanses of terrain go; just gentle slopes that offer views of the next gentle slope. We kept exclaiming over the traffic we’d traded in for the traffic we were having to endure.

In Lampasas we stopped at a little bakery for breakfast tacos and donuts. The breakfast tacos were pre-made and easy to pass on, but the donuts were warm and insanely scrumptious. Floyd and I went on down the road with the bag propped between us, spilling donut glaze down the front of our shirts, one of us moaning at the sheer yum factor. If I had a metabolism I would live on donuts. The interior of the car took on a mouth-watering aroma. The countryside looked nicer and nicer.

It must have been about three hours into our sojourn that we faced the sad necessity of entering onto I-35 and leaving pleasant vistas behind.

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We made a quick trip past the tall buildings of Cowtown and headed for the suburbs where all the road construction not happening on I-35 appears to be taking place. If you haven’t made the drive from Fort Worth proper into Euless for a while, you’ve really missed out on some fun. New lanes and crossovers are being invented on an almost daily basis. On your way home from work you might easily drive right past your own exit and end up at the airport, or maybe in Oklahoma.

Most people who miss their turnoff do the right thing and proceed to the next exit, where they may or may not be able to navigate a U-turn and get back on the freeway. If they have an hour to spare, they might stay on the feeder road – which is now one lane of traffic waiting to make a left turn up ahead at an intersection that lets three cars through per green light. Other people prefer to stop as soon as they miss their exit and back up, opting for almost certain death rather than facing the prospect of trying to get back on their once-familiar route. I imagine a fair number of people simply keep on driving until they find a reasonable-looking town, get with a real estate agent, and call home to tell their spouse the family’s new address.

On this trip, doubtless fortified by all those donuts, Floyd drove us unerringly to his brother’s house, where we did our best over the next three days to consume a minimum of 30,000 calories apiece. The journey may be arduous, but once I’m there I could linger for days. My sister-in-law really knows how to put on Christmas, with every room and surface decorated

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and more delicious things to eat than you can imagine. We always have fun together in her kitchen.

DSC_0058I’m sure you all had a fabulous array of holiday desserts. We had about six different kinds of cookies, four kinds of pie (pumpkin, squash, pecan, and buttermilk), home-made toffee, and cinnamon crumb coffee cake leftover from breakfast. Fourteen dessert choices for fourteen diners – you have to love the math.

It was good and cold in north Texas over Christmas. I felt sorry for the ducks who stop over at the big pond behind my in-laws’ house. But last year’s weather was straight out of a storybook: as we sat down to dinner – can you believe? – a snowstorm.

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It would have been perfect, had it not been for the fact that my mother-in-law was just out of the hospital and Floyd’s sister was still in the hospital. Why a virus would go after two perfectly nice women at Christmas time, I do not know.

This year we may not have had a picture postcard, but we did have all of us together at the house, no one ill, and that was a whole lot better.

When the day came to return to Austin, we got a later start than we otherwise would have. Blame the garbage disposal. You know how they love to turn on you when the house is full of company. So Floyd and his brother replaced the old unit while my sister-in-law and I worked on an evilly difficult jigsaw puzzle. We all made headway.

It’s difficult to predict what I-35 traffic is going to be like, especially in a year like this when Christmas falls on a Wednesday. You just can’t tell when people will decide to go home. So we took a chance on I-35 and encountered bumper-to-bumper traffic right at the Hillsboro junction. My cell phone indicated speeds between 18 and 34 miles per hour all the way back to Austin. Insert sad face here.

There was only one thing to do: get the heck off the freeway and settle in for a longer but far more enjoyable ride through the Texas countryside. So we did. Before long we reached a town called Gatesville, where the Corvell County Courthouse soars high above the town square, on a rise of land that lends true gravitas to the structure, as if the eyes of Liberty and Justice really were watching.

The wires of white Christmas lights radiated out from the top of the courthouse. A number of Texas town squares are famously lit up throughout the holiday season.

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In summer it’s a real taste of the past to visit these old buildings. Although they are all air-conditioned now, even without air conditioning, their placement on the highest point of land meant that a breeze would be going through the building much of the time. While it may have been plenty hot, the interiors of these structures are much more bearable than you’d expect when only the wind and building design are cooling things off. It’s the kind of building in which transom windows slant open over every doorway, and corridors provide a straight shot for even the slightest wind to blow through.

The four sides of the town square were typical: storefronts, legal offices, and almost-audible sounds of hoofbeats and creaking wooden wagons.

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I always intend to set aside an entire day to make the journey, so we can stop at every interesting shop, square, and vista. This year, it’s a firm resolution to do that on a spring day when wildflowers are in bloom and the hill country is about as beautiful as a landscape gets.

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It was a five-hour drive home, which is arduous in my book, but it would have been five hours on the freeway in any case. At least on this trip we’d chosen our fate and were able to watch the scenery rather than being focused on the rate of speed at which we were about to be struck from the rear by a distracted driver who hadn’t noticed that traffic had come to a sudden standstill. Instead we were traveling through countryside where time itself seems to have come to a standstill.

Totally worth it.

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