The next morning, I head north through Shoreacres and La Porte, marine-land communities along the estuary of the Trinity River and the Gulf of Mexico. The pungent aura of salt water and oil refineries permeate the air, and the fishing water is murky. This is where people enjoy living? Yep, this is home to the swamp fishers in their trolling flat-bottom, high rear-engine, one-foot draw marine capsules. It is at these moments that I fully appreciate the Colorado Rockies, and the clean air and clear waters.
I have to negotiate the Houston Ship Channel by way of an antiquated, two-lane, circa 1920 tunnel that is barely wide enough to accommodate Mr. Ford’s models of “the future of travel”. But, before I get sucked into the tube, I pull off onto a wayside area where I can stop, get out, and look up at this mammoth suspension bridge under construction, which appears to be about two-thirds complete. What is so absorbing about the whole scene is the busyness of all the construction cranes, temporary forms, scaffolding, and tie rods that go to make up a collage of all the construction trades working in tandem. It’s a beautiful sight, more often than not, a far more captivating panorama than the finished product. With the channel and its opposite banks being practically the same elevation, plus the clearance requirements for the tankers and freighters, the length of the entire bridge is astronomical (something like four to five miles). Add to that, four lanes each way, and you got a world record for the amount of cubic yards of concrete poured in any one project. That’s Texas-size.
I squeeze through the “chunnel” and emerge on the other side, feeling like I should have my umbilical cord amputated again. The only way east is on the stupor-inducing I-10, flat as the proverbial pancake, and still reeking with fumes from J.R.Ewing’s refineries. I stop in Beaumont to make a call to Ann Meitzen, my daughter-in-law’s mother. There’s no answer. I figure she’s at the country club, playing either bridge or tennis. I hightail it north on old U.S. 287, the same highway on which I’ve journeyed as far north as Glacier National Park in Montana (not to mention the countless trips to Denver). About ten miles outside of town, I exit onto U.S. 96, which leads me into the lush piney woods of East Texas. Now, this is pleasant driving. The malodorous Gulf plains finally succumbs to the chlorophyllous scent of evergreens. I reach Newton in the late afternoon, just in time to photograph the Second Empire courthouse that looks as if it had been built twenty or thirty years earlier. I encounter a transplanted Cajun from neighboring Louisiana who exclaims: “You gotta see the Christmas lights they put up on this courthouse”. I can imagine…it’s become a Texas courthouse ritual to string tens of thousands of incandescent all over the town square at this time of year. The king of the Christmas courthouse displays has got to be Harrison’s county seat of Marshall, situated about 150 miles due north of here. They boast to be able to connect together 250,000 multi-colored bulbs, outlining the courthouse and the square. Well, I’m not hanging around here for their lights to come on. There’s still a few precious daylight hours left, so I mosey on west on U.S. 190 until I reach Huntsville, where there’s one more Holiday Inn to recline behind.
It’s Saturday, December the 3rd, and it’s mom’s 80th birthday. So, I figure today should be the fifth and last leg of my little odyssey. It’s just a whip stitch down Texas 30 to the: Grimes county seat in Anderson, one of the smallest in population in the state (est. 320). The seat of government is a charming Italianate structure sited on the axis of Main Street. After photographing, I visit the “downtown” antique store, the proprietor of which is a very congenial middle-age woman of portly dimensions. The interior is crammed with the usual bric-a-brac, ranging from the jaded red and white Cocoa-Cola sign and long-neck Shiner beer bottles, to ancestral rocking chairs and family portraits (the latter being valuable only for its antiquated frame). My curiosity is only slightly fueled by the objects d’art, but even more so by conversing with Ms. Lilian, with questions like: “How long have you been here?” “Is
there enough tourist traffic to sustain business?” “When’s the last time Main Street was paved?”. She assures me that they’re doing just fine, thanks to more and more people seeking out and buying more and more memorabilia, mostly for the nostalgia, a few for the monetary gains. I’m just as curious as to how a county seat, representing such a small populace, be justified in still administering county duties. I’m wondering out loud, “What do all those county employees do eight hours a day, five days a week? Ah-ah, I venture a guess: “Hey Joe Don, why don’t ya’ see if the grass needs mowing again ‘long Farm Road 2129″…or “Nadine, would you run one more tabulation on the parking meter collections”. In this age of down-sizing and mergers, it’s comforting to see the small-scale operations still in business. Paradoxically, it’s the governmental over-load that the majority wants to see de-emphasized. Inevitably, the jurisdiction of many of the smaller counties will overlap, resulting in the amalgamation of a number of adjacent county seats. But, the temples of justice shall endure, thanks to the ‘70s Preservation Act. I’m having one great time talking with Ms. Lilian, and she’s quite impressed that I’ve ventured out of the way to photograph their modest courthouse. Well, I realize I’m carrying a surplus of my ’94 calendars, so I retrieve one from the van, and offer a complimentary copy to her. She gratefully accepts my gift, and I’m in Ol’ Baleau ready to hit the road, when here she comes, running up to my window and presenting me with a T-shirt emblazoned with a replica of the Anderson Courthouse. She laid it in my arms through the window and said, “It’s an even swap”. With that, I headed north, reflecting on three hours of a most memorable time with a gracious lady in a off-the-beaten-track town that refuses to die. This trip seems to get better and better. I’m loving what I’m doing and feeling that it matters – how could anything be more fun.
I arrive in College Station, home of the Almighty Aggies of Texas, around noon, and fortunately find my ex-Texas Tech classmate at home. Rodney Culver Hill has become one of the premier design professors in the college of Architecture at Texas A & M. One aspect of his teaching philosophy is to have his students sit in a circle on the floor in sort of a yoga position, and indulge themselves in deep meditation relating to the design challenge at hand. He swears it’s working, and I believe him. Sound a little off the wall? Well, that’s Rodney for you. His elevator never did go all the way to the top floor, but what can you expect from a guy who names his son, Bunker? You got to love him. Although abbreviated, we have a great reunion. I head northeast on U.S. 79 to catch I-45, a straight shot north to Dallas. The doldrums of the interstate is quickly alleviated by switching on the TV and tuning in the ABC affiliate in Dallas. What great timing…the telecast of the inaugural Southeast Conference Championship football playoff game from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. I believe it was Tennessee versus Florida. Anyway, the game is exciting enough, but the crowd noise is deafening – the decibel meter is going ballistic. And the picture is crystal clear, eighty miles from the station…holy reception. I’m getting away with violation number such and such: no TV screen shall be visible facing the driver of said motor vehicle. Have no fear, my dear, I’m driving with split-vision – right eye on the screen, left eye on the road.
I roll up to Apt. 1115, and give thanks for a safe trip home. I call Mom to wish her happy birthday, and make plans to do a celebration lunch the next day after church. I can’t wait to get my roll of film developed and start water-coloring more courthouses.