I headed west on T X 71, stopping at Bee Cave (you gotta love that name) for a quick fill-up. Back on the highway, in the short span of 30 miles, I passed a concentration of four more picnic areas, all with spectacular panoramas of the rolling Central Texas Hill Country and a sprawling, meandering Lake Travis. I hooked a right driving north on U.S. 281, passing through the picturesque burg of Marble Falls and eventually parking for the night at one of the pleasurable wayside picnic areas. I relaxed in my easy chair, munching on a Big Whopper while listening to the chirping crickets and watching the flickering fireflies – two of nature’s enjoyable experiences that have long since vanished from the urban scene. Come to think of it, grasshoppers have also have been eradicated by urbanization, leaving the fire ant and cockroach as the only two indestructible critters left in the cities. As I reposed in the van bed under a comforter and blanket (the temperature was in the low 50s), I thanked The Lord for a safe and beautiful trip, so far.
The next morning afforded me yet another cool and cloudy day of pleasurable driving as I pulled back onto Hwy 281 and headed north through Burnet, all the while still enjoying the picturesque Hill Country. The stretch of U.S. 281 from San Antonio northward to just south of Stephenville basically paralleled I-35, but was undoubtedly a much more pleasant drive (and more scenic) than battling the horrendous traffic of 18-wheelers and NASCAR belch fires on the interstate. I felt like I was at peace with the world, cruising effortlessly down an unimpeded, two-lane, broad-shouldered highway.
About 25 miles farther, I stopped in Lampasas to look up Vernon Gaston, my erstwhile mailman at the Bend East Community, with whom I had gained a good friendship over several years. Vernon had a gregarious personality, and I always looked forward to meeting him at the mailbox house to have a few laughs and engage in stimulating conversations, ranging from politics to sports. He had one favorite comedy routine in which he pretended to be back in the post office sorting area, making a gesture of tossing a phantom parcel and yelling, “Hey, Phil, don’t drop this one. It’s labeled ‘Fragile’.” Geez, I really missed ol’ Vern.
Lampasas was a town of about 12,000 souls, laid out in a simple right angle grid, which made it that more easier to find his residence. His wife answered the door, and after introducing myself as her husband’s favorite client, she told me, much to my disappointment, that Vernon was in Germany helping to deliver mail to the U.S. servicemen and women. I had to say, “That’s so like Vernon, going abroad to help our troops.” She thanked me for the compliment, and I left feeling a little let down not seeing my ol ‘ buddy, but at the same time, having good thoughts about my friend volunteering his services where he thought he was needed.
After patronizing a deli at a local grocery to purchase several pieces of mouth-watering, chicken-fried chicken thighs to munch on, I continued north on U.S. 281 for 30 miles to the tiny town of Evant. From there I hooked a right and headed east on U.S. 84 for another 30 miles until stopping for one last fill-up in Gatesville, the judicial seat of Coryell County. I just had to cruise by and revisit the magnificent 1897 Beaux-Arts (with Romanesque details) courthouse, which happened to have been my first aquarelled courthouse in a succession of forty more delineated temples of justice.
I continued east on Hwy 84 for 35 miles until I caught sight of the “imposing” skyline of Waco, which had remained basically unchanged for 75 years ever since the erection of the lone focal point for miles around, the 25-story, brick-veneered ALICO Building (now a converted high-rise refuge for the elderly). Back in the mid-1950s, Waco was the quintessence of a city that had imploded itself, that is to say, the predominant Baptist population had decided to reinstate prohibition within the city, thereby “exterminating” the intolerable night clubs and ultimately, like the proverbial domino effect, led to the closing of all restaurants and movie theaters in the downtown district. Lest sounding too dramatic, it was the town’s Armageddon.
I exited off I-35 at Valley Mills Drive, which the locals referred to as “The Highway” with scores of retail outlets, restaurants, and a few movie houses that had made the mass exodus from downtown over the course of more than 40 years, leaving the city center as a virtual ghost town. It was a short drive to Aunt Pattie Rose’s residence, a stately two-story English-Tudor style house in a mature neighborhood just west of downtown. Departing from my usual routine, I had called ahead from down the road in Gatesville so as to “warn” the Trippets I was headed their way. Ordinarily, I preferred surprising my friends on the road, thereby not giving them a chance to get out of town before I arrived. But since my aunt was a lady of the utmost propriety, I wisely decided a considerate phone call ahead was a better part of my discretion.
We had a congenial reunion of sorts in the kitchen with Pattie Rose sipping a gin martini and uncle Harry enjoying a scotch and water. Shaking hands with Harry was like putting your hand in a vise – he had hands as big as a picnic roast, reflecting his hereditary upbringing as a ranch and farmhand. We sat around the breakfast nook table, enjoying a delicious dinner of corn beef and cabbage. After recounting my eventful trip through the heartland of Texas, our conversation reverted to talking about my son Ted and his family who had become “relatively” close to the Trippets, always stopping in Waco for a thoughtful visit whenever they had a chance. I retired to Ol’ Blue parked behind the house in a graveled area leading to the garage with pleasant thoughts of reuniting with Pattie Rose and Harry.