Monday, May 21, 2007

The Country Highways

Four trips to Dallas this month ...

On the first of these trips, I wanted to reach Dallas as soon as possible, so I didn't take my usual back-country route. Instead, I took I-35 to save 30 minutes. It was the usual, nerve-wracking journey you expect on I-35, but it was fast. I made it to Dallas in exactly three hours. The next day I again took I-35. I made good time till I reached Temple. Then traffic slowed to a crawl, due to a multi-car pile-up. As a result, I lost the 30 minutes I might have gained, and then some. So I swore never again. Never again would I travel I-35, the Highway of the Damned.

On my second trip to Dallas (this time accompanied by my wife), I took the country highways from Austin to I-45 (a freeway not nearly as intense as 35). It was a great drive, very relaxing, with better scenary than usual due to the recent drought-ending rains: great expanses of grass filled with wildflowers, lush green cornfields, trees thick with leaves, cattle, horses, goats, even a few llamas, and the red-brown Brazos and Navasota rivers running fast and high in the sun. And the towns—Taylor, Thorndale, Thrall, Milano, Rockdale, Hearne, Calvert, Kosse, Groesbeck, Mexia, Richland—with their frame houses, 19th century brick downtowns, courthouses, gas stations, railroad yards, schools, football fields, churches, VFW halls, cemeteries, and Bar-B-Q stands.

Your food choices are better on these roads. You see the same fast-food places that line the Interstates—McDonalds, Taco Bell, and so forth—but not as many, and you see more locally-owned, mom-and-pop places. You can spot the better places by the number of cars in the parking lot at mealtime, especially the number of cop cars. There were four DPS cars packed in with all the other cars in the parking lot of Zapata's in Taylor one morning, so we knew it must be good. Inside, it was busy and noisy, the waitresses were friendly and kept your coffee cup full, the migas were tasty, and the salsa hot as Hades. Just the way you want a Mexican breakfast. On the return trip through Mexia, we lined up for the lunch buffet at the Drilling Rig, where western movie lobby cards hang on the rustic walls and the tv stays tuned to the Weather Channel. We greatly enjoyed the filet mignon, also the peach cobbler. Every time we travel these roads, we discover new eateries, locally owned places with better food than you could ever find at the big-name places on the Interstates.

On two of our recent trips back from Dallas, we stopped at a fruit-and-vegetable stand on the east side of Rockdale. The old lady heard us drive up and came out of her trailer house. We bought a watermelon and tomatoes from her the first time, and the second time another watermelon and a dozen fresh eggs from the farm next door. Both times, we spent no more than four dollars, money kept out of corporate hands.

The speed limit is 70 on these roads, till you reach a town, where it drops to 55, then 30. It’s easy to forget and keep going 70, especially if the town is miniscule. I forgot to slow down in one of these towns on the return trip last Thursday, and—whoops!—there he was in my rearview mirror, the DPS trooper with his flashing lights. I pulled over, feeling sick. "Just what I need," I said, "a speeding ticket."

“Where you been?” the young trooper asked as he took my driver’s license.

“Been up to Dallas. Now we’re headed back to Austin. Been dealing with a death in the family.”

“Sorry to hear that. I’ll just give you a warning.”

I thanked him, he wrote out the warning, and we wished each other a good day.

And it really was a good day, all things considered. My heart was heavy with the loss of my father, but we were in the country with the wildflowers, and the red-brown Brazos and Navosota were brimming, and the cornfields and pastures, green from the rains, stretched towards home …

Next week we return to Dallas, for my father's memorial service on Tuesday, May 29, 1 pm, at the Columbarium at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.