1 Last Blast of Winter Trip – April 1999 Part I

You’re going to think me a little weird, but I had to get out of Dallas because of the heat (not to be confused with my annual escapes in August). It had been one record-setting, three-month spree (January through March) of abnormally warm temperatures for the entire metro-mess. The only trace of winter had been a glaze of ice just before Christmas…big deal. Otherwise, it had been one day after another of a low, glaring, in-your-face sun. Heck, the red-bud trees were blooming in the first week of March. That’s when I knew something was askew. Winter was made so that we could appreciate spring, right? Well, so much for weather-related reasons to leave. I also wanted to take a break from the travails of trying to sell the 1972 Cadillac Eldorado (the “El Dough” as I sarcastically called it), which had been on the market for more than a year. Much to the chagrin of my erstwhile “partner in crime”, Blaine Botkin (he moved back to Tennessee to regroup), I left the El Dough at a high-visual, curb-side parking space with signs plastered all over it saying: “Please Buy Me”. With that, I was ready to escape.

Have you ever started out on a trip and had a few inauspicious events occur that seemed to tell you: “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all”? Well, for the first thirty minutes, the planets didn’t seemed to be lined up. For starters, because of the Suez Canal construction on North Central, I couldn’t find my way onto Northwest Highway (Loop 12 heading west). After several U-turns and loop-de-loops, I was finally headed in the right direction. As for the next omen, if I had left a week earlier, I would be paying 10 to 12 cents less per gallon for gasoline (OPEC had just reduced the surplus). Great timing, huh? And, of course, after just filling up, there was a station right around the corner selling for 9 cents less. The next “bright” spot on my departure was the sudden dissipation of a beautiful cloud cover (it had actually been cloudy for four days), and a shift in wind direction from a southeast tailwind to a head-on northwest wind. With tongue-in-cheek, I thought: “What could be better than starting off like this?” Individually, these innocuous inconveniencies were trite, but collectively they made me wonder: “How bad can bad timing be?” Anyway, I was thankful for two things… the wildflowers were in full bloom with a splendiferous display of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and yellow whatcha-ma-call-its, and the adjacent tracks were busy with B & N coal trains. Yep, there was a silver lining in that cloudless sky.

After a peaceful night at a rest area outside of Esteline, I headed north to Amarillo, and son-of-a-gun if the fickle winds of the panhandle hadn’t shifted back from the south. I tuned in to the semi-blowtorch Amarillo station KMGC to catch some local news. That’s when all those inane and insipid so-called misfortunes of the day before recoiled into oblivion. Mind you, it was Easter morning, and the timing couldn’t have been better (24 hours earlier, timing was my worst enemy). The mentor of all broadcasters, Paul Harvey, came on with his annual metaphorical Easter message – something about a man who, after a protracted arbitration (I can’t recall all the details), convinces a fellow to sell him a cage with two sparrows for two dollars. Having completed the transaction, the man opened the cage door, and the sparrows were free. Now, I’ll admit there may have been something lost in the abbreviated translation, but when I correlated it with the church service that followed, the messages dovetailed inexorably. In short, the pastor’s sermon related the age-old story of the confrontation between God and the Devil…the Almighty offering His Son to Satan as payment in exchange for extricating His people from the Devil’s bondage. The Devil replied, “You can’t be serious. Those ungenerous people will spit on him and drive nails into his body.” And God said, “I give you my Son, and whosoever believes in Him, shall have life ever after.” Satan relented, and His people were free. I’m tellin’ ya’, that was one riveting hour on the radio. Even the choir and organ music was spellbinding.

There I was, the high plains drifter, tooling along Route 287 chasing coal trains, and the true meaning of the resurrection finally hit me. It had only taken some forty years for the epiphany of Easter to really soak in. This particular minister was so dynamic, yet so down-to-earth. He didn’t sermonize with the usual ya-da-ya-da-ya-da about how Christ spilled His blood for our salvation. Instead, he got right to point, relating how life is too precious to waste worrying about past mistakes, misfortunes, or missed opportunities. He went on to say to cleanse ourselves of past dregs that shackle us from being the giving and caring person that Christ gave us the freedom to be. Wow, was he hitting the nail on the head! Then I wondered if I could have been getting the same evocative message sitting next to Mom in the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church. Well, I’ll never know, but I was sure feeling “rejuvenated” as the closing anthem ended the service. Thank you, KMGC.

I made my usual pit-stop at the El Cheapo Pilot Quiky Food & Gas Mart just as Route 287 merges with I-40 on the outskirts of Amarillo. I have never stopped there when the wind wasn’t gusting at speeds that would send an anemometer reeling out of control…it’s uncanny. And, as if by rote, I pulled off at the Ross-Usage exit to use the phone at the handy-dandy Holiday Inn. I tried calling Mr. Amarillo, a.k.a. Uncle Allen Early, but to no avail. Guess they were having Easter lunch at the country club. I reconnected with U.S. 287, making my customary ice-stop at the Dumas Best Western Inn. I’ve always enjoyed intoning the mispronunciation of the town’s name, either ‘dŭmb-ăss (after the people who are so insipid to think they live in the “Queen City of the Panhandle”), or düm-‘ä (as in Alexandre, the legendary author of “The Count of Monte Cristo”). I was just having fun with phonetics, a game I play along the way with signs and names. By the way, I would like to recant that insensitive reference I made to the people in Dumas. Their forbearers had transformed an unforgiving terrain into a rich and viable land. They were the quintessence of perseverance. God bless ’em. (Coincidentally, the afore-mentioned book by Dumas was about a prison escape… am I stretching the abstract correlation with the future yuppies of Dumas a little too far? Maybe so.).

1 headed due west on a straight stretch of U.S. 87 where the land is so flat, I could glance back north through the cargo door window, and see a grain elevator at least 15 miles in the distance. Now, that’s about as flat as you can get. As I approached Hartley, I encountered an “enormous” highway construction project. What had been a simple Y-junction of Routes 87 and 385 was now being contorted into an overpass/interchange of some sort. I thought: “Wow, now Hartley, with two skyscraping grain elevators and a burgeoning population of 3,612, will soon be one of the major traffic hubs of the Texas Panhandle.” The next thing would be a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town. Well, the imagination can go so far.

Son-of-a-gun, if they hadn’t just completed a four-lane divided highway all the way to Dalhart. That was the good news. The bad news was that the forty-foot wide median had yet to be sodded, and a steady wind was whipping up the top soil, creating a “brown-out”. Recalling how I had negotiated several “white-outs” in Colorado years before, I positioned myself behind a “leader” car at a safe and visible distance, watching cautiously to see if and when his brake came on. I’ll have to admit, it was a little hair-raising at times, but the 39 mile stint went relatively smooth. The other really good news was that I had been riding a tail wind throughout the maelstrom. I shuddered to think of the adversity I would have encountered had the winds of fate been blowing head-on.