The Summer of 1998 Part I

What a great idea, Bubba. Let’s caravan out to Reno. Yeah, right. Mr. Botkin was still gambling on the Mississippi when I hightailed it out of the Dallas oven on Thursday, July 30th. To the utter consternation of my neighbor, I was packing two blankets and a down for the bed, plus some sweaters. The mercury had reached 100 degrees or better every day since the 4th of July. “David,” I explained, “I’m headed to the high country, you know, up above six-thousand feet…trust me.” I’ll have to admit, the packing of one’s winter paraphernalia with beads of perspiration forming on the forehead always seemed somewhat incongruous. Nevertheless, experience is the ticket.

As usual, I dove into the shade of The Village Inn in Vernon, 180 miles west of Dallas, about 2 pm. Enough of that inferno for one day. The country-side was depressingly parched. After checking in, I immediately disengaged the bike from its mooring on the rear tire shuttle, and take off to discover the megalopolis of Vernon, Texas. There’s no better way to acquaint oneself with America than on a velocipede, betwixt and between driving and walking. There really wasn’t much to see….I was just curious to what I had missed all those years. The courthouse is a nondescript Federal-style block of masonry (obviously not on my esteemed edifice list). But hey, there was still M.E. Moses Variety, Ray’s Crankshaft and Axle, Jo Beth’s Western-Style Beauty Salon, and a myriad of other enterprises flourishing on Main Street. All is well in Vernon.

As I was securing my restored Austrian Puch to the back bike rack, my next-door guest was strolling by and commented: “Now there’s someone who really enjoys life.” All I could respond with was, “Thank you, Ma’am. I hope you’re right.” In deference to Mississippians, I thought that was quite an astute observation. It sure made my day. I thought to myself: “Was that a propitious portent of things to come?” What did lie ahead after the first day on the road?

Oh, Blaine boy, have you left Dallas yet? I doubt it. Sure enough, Mr. Unpredictable called me at the motel, saying he was still “gaming on the Big Muddy”. So much for the caravan. Two doors down were people from Missouri. I talked with the gentleman about my license plate collection, crediting myself with having an embossed, maroon-on-white “Show Me State” plate. His vehicle sported those “picture-postcard” plates that are popping up like so many cheap paintings. His slackened reply was, “The state made us buy these plates – for more revenue. I wish I could still buy those old plates.” The Mississippians were packing up, so I couldn’t resist asking them where they were headed. “It’s our first trip out west,” he drawled. “We’re goin’ to see that Grand Canyon.” With tongue-in-cheek, I admonished, “Take my advice. Stop before you get to the edge of the rim. It’s a long drop down.” He quizzically nodded.

Ah yes, there was Norm’s Catfish Restaurant, adjunct eatery to the Village Inn, home to the best chicken fried steak…”So tender you can cut it with a fork.” Big Norm was stationed behind the cash register, I mean, he was huge. It was obvious his menu was not strictly piscatorial. “Are the catfish jumpin’ tonight?”, I facetiously asked. “Son, we got plenty of ‘Norm’s-Catch-of-the-Day’ on tap.” Thanks, Norm, but I got my mind made up. “Just make sure the gravy is spread length-wise, not cross-wise,” I requested. My gastronomical splurge of the trip was replete on the first day.

Cruisin’ along U.S. 287, chasin’ and racin’ coal trains, with the Harley-Davidson’s roaring past me on their way to Sturgis, South Dakota, I betcha. Gee-mo-nee, those Harley Hogs gave me goose bumps with their noise pollution. Seems like they’re only comfortable going Mach 2 with their hair on fire. All of a sudden I wanted to follow those wild machines all the way to the Badlands. But then I knew I was as free as they were, wingin’ it to my own destination…Reno Casino and Donner Lake.

Hark! Is that the Seven Cities of Gold I see on the horizon? No, Lo and Behold, it’s only Amarillo. The tallest structure within a 350 mile radius – the First Bank of Whatever – rears its 1970-ish style head as a cynosure above the Panhandle plains. Then I remembered this was the site of the Oprah Winfrey beef versus the beef industry confrontation several weeks before. That really put her on the map. And she thought Chicago was the Windy City. In Amarillo, a Texan must be careful not to spit in his own eye. I’ve got to hand it to her, she was bearding the giant in his own den. This was absolute cattle country. Back in the 1880’s, the famous Glidden barbed wire literally reconstructed the way cattle should be brought to market. The long trail drive succumbed to the protected feed areas. By 1890, Amarillo was one of the largest cattle-shipping stations in the world. That’s a fact. Well, in your face, Oprah. “Beef, that’s what’s for dinner.” Just kidding, Oprah.

I met Uncle Allen at our usual rendezvous at the Holiday Inn. We shuttled across the street to MacDonald’s for an afternoon libation. Well, what great timing that was. He extracted a letter he had .just received from Pattie Rose, my dear aunt in Waco. At first I was a little curious as to why he would want to share a personal letter with me. After he finished reading, I understood… the majority of the contents was a reportage of “The Kid’s” day-long visit with the Trippetts. I was overwhelmed at how much they enjoyed their time with Ted and the family. “Gee-mo-nee,” I thought, “How nice it would be to get a letter like that.” Well, after all, I’m just a nephew…the Rodger Dangerfield of the Early clan. But, it still made me proud of my offspring. It made me realize that one’s children make it impossible to regret the past…they’re its finest fruits. It just made me feel so good that Ted was so much a part of the family.

It seams like every time I visit Amarillo, I leave with a little closer bond with “Uncle” Allen. Just forty-five miles to the next ice stop at the Best Western Dumas Inn. The gasoline prices were escalating in direct proportion to the elevation ascended – it’s uncanny. I caught up with a coal train and gave a friendly wave. The engineer responded with a blast from his horn. I encountered the same freight after I made a quick stop in Dalhart. Again, we exchanged greetings. “Oh wow,” I thought, “I hope he’s enjoying this as much as I am.” He must think I’m one crazy dude, dawdling along at 50 mph, just to wave at him and watch his locomotive barrel down the tracks. I fantasized about a bunch of engineers gathered around a table in a dispatch office, swapping stories about their travels. Then one of them interjects, “Hey, any of you guys ever noticed a blue Chevy van (with a crazy dude) chasin’ and racin’ us all over the states out here in the west? He must be one train nut.” (I don’t think the term “aficionado” would be in their parlance). Oh, how I would love to ask one of those engineers; “Hey, didn’t that just make your day, having a nut like me chase you down just give you a wave?” I’ll always wonder.

I cruised toward the halfway rest area between Clayton and Raton, with a splendiferous sunset behind the extinct volcanic Capulin Mountain. As usual, Ol’ Baleau was in a stratospheric cruise control at 6,000 feet, as if the engine was in neutral. With all vents open, I had natural air conditioning. It was fifty miles of sure bliss. The Harley Bunch roared past me one more time. Another rush from the roar of their cycles. Then came a convoy of RV’s, fifth-wheelers, SUV’s, and whatever coming the opposite direction…it was like an evacuation from the Rockies. I couldn’t believe it. They were all headed to the inferno. I’ll have all of Colorado to myself. What an absurd apparition. I rested at one of my favorite stops, and watched that coal train roll by…. was it the same engineer?