A year ago I was recuperating in the Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas from a gall bladder removal. Because of complications following surgery, I was confined to intensive care for two weeks and then bed-ridden for another two weeks. When I was finally able to sit up on the edge of the bed, I was horrified to discover that I was unable to walk. After three weeks of intensive supervised physical therapy, I was discharged, walking on my own power. For the next ten months I devoutly concentrated on dogtrotting whenever and wherever I had a chance to do so. Then on July 5th, the one-year anniversary of my self-admittance to the Emergency Room, I found myself breaking into a full sprint. The joy I felt was overwhelming.
I prefaced this journal just to illustrate what all I had gone through the previous twelve months in preparation for a good summer trip. Now I was ready to pack it in and take off while recollecting in my mind Ray Charles’ classic number Hit the Road, Jack and Willie Nelson’s twangy On the Road Again. It was the height of summer when I left on July 28th as I recalled my weather-worn adage: “If you can’t stand the heat, get the heck out of North Texas.” I did just that, motoring north by northwest on my favorite road to higher and cooler elevations. My destination was Reno for “Hot August Nights”, a four-day classic car celebration and Donner Lake to visit Bill and Lynn Botkin at their vacation chateau.
As I entered Wichita Falls, U.S. 287 was now an elevated freeway marching on T-shaped piers above the old highway. All that needless construction for the sake of a few minutes saved! Ironically, all the traffic lights on the old 287 had always been synchronized so you could drive straight through at 35 mph without stopping. And to add insult to injury, I imagined there were plenty of disgruntled retailers along the old highway that were significantly deprived of stop-and-shop business. Such was the inevitable result of so-called “progress”.
The one thing I loved about old Hwy 287 was that I could chase mile-long Burlington Northern coal trains on their way back to the inexhaustible coal fields of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming on what, in the parlance of railroading, was called a “dead end” run. The tonnage of coal extracted from that basin and hauled to points east and south would stagger the mind as several fully loaded “coalers” passed me headed to the port of Houston where the combustibles were to be shipped up to the voracious northeast.
Even though I had the A/C running, the glaring west sun was taking its toll and all I could think about was a cool motel room on the 50-mile stretch to Vernon. It was a long road that had no turns. It was mid-afternoon when I finally pulled into the Best Western Village Inn, so I asked the desk clerk to call ahead to their affiliate motel in Childress (about 60 miles up the road) to see if there was a ground floor room available. Son-of-a-gun, they were all filled up on the ground level, so I opted for my favorite room 127 next to the ice machine.
I unhooked the velocipede and biked over to the railroad tracks in hopes of seeing a freight train rumbling through. It was a depressing scene with a derelict grain elevator and abandoned loading docks. I pedaled up Main Street touring a tranquil but healthy-looking downtown (no boarded-up store fronts) with very little traffic to bother me. When I got back to the Inn, I took a dip in the cool pool which felt so refreshing considering the temperature was hovering around the 100 degree mark. An evening in Vernon would not be complete without ordering a take-out dinner of delicious but decadent chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy from the next-door eatery, “Norm’s” Catfish Restaurant.
As I was picking up my order, I asked Norm how the name of his establishment came about since it was obvious his menu offered a wide range of entrees other than catfish. He gladly replied, “One day back in 1954, after having one heckuva day fishing, I was driving around with a load of catfish iced down in the bed of my pickup when I saw this place was for sale. I jumped on it like a chicken on a June bug. The first years I specialized in catfish, but when customers started asking, ‘You got anything besides catfish?’, I decided it was time to expand my menu. As they say, the rest is history.” As I retired to my room, I thought, “That was an interesting bit of local color.”
After checking out, I filled up at the comer Conoco station for a modest $1.40 a gallon and headed west still train spotting B N “coalers” until stopping in Childress at the United Super market for some comestibles including a large vine of healthy Thompson green grapes. Potato chips and soda pops had never been on my road munchies menu. I continued on my favorite highway past a smattering of pump jacks resembling huge mechanical grasshoppers that were still gainfully ciphering oil from beneath the Texas soil. I loved Hwy 287 because it afforded me the dichotomy of effortlessly driving on a four-lane divided highway combined with intervals (30 to 40 miles apart) of cruising down the main streets of small towns with a minimal number of traffic lights. For me, it was the perfect way to travel.
I passed through Estelline that at one time had a thriving town square, but now was on the endangered species list. I pulled off at a rest area just beyond town where I opted for a short lunch break. I couldn’t believe my ears – the dieseling of big rigs and the groaning generators of RVs was almost deafening. So much for the “rest” in that particular rest area. I crossed the Red River, which was barely a trickle in the red sand making me wonder how such a small stream could just 200 miles downriver fill up almost 100 square miles of Lake Texoma. There had to be a lot of tributaries downstream, wouldn’t you think?
Crossing the Red River was always a milestone in that I felt I was “officially” entering the Texas Panhandle. I cruised through Claude where I visualized Paul Newman swaggering down the sidewalk toting a six-pack of Lone Star in the 1960 movie classic Hud. Now the landscape was so flat (how flat was it?) that I could see distant grain elevators and the headlights of an oncoming B N coal train miles down the track. The endless flatness was exacerbated by the procession of fence posts and power poles that seemed to march into infinity. I finally had to say goodbye to the Burlington Northern tracks as I merged with west bound I-40.
I made my usual stop at Pilot Gas just east of Amarillo with its share of RVs filling up their voracious 55- gallon tanks and getting at best 8 mpg. Seeing those gas-guzzling leviathans made me feel like I was driving a Honda Civic. About five miles up the pike I stopped at the Holiday Inn where I called uncle Allen Early (he was actually my dad’s first cousin) hoping to rendezvous for our usual mid-afternoon coffee break. I was disappointed when there was no answer, so I hooked ’em on west and said goodbye to the Lone Star State and hello to the Land of Enchantment. Although I was still running the A/C, I could sense the pervasive heat outside, whereas I scotched the idea of spending the night at a rest area.
I eventually exited at Historic Rout 66 where I cruised Tucumcari’s notable “motel row” that was enriched with colorful and imaginative marquees such as The Blue Wallow, The Aztec, Do Drop Inn, and Sleep Inn Heaven. It was late afternoon and their parking lots were apparently filling up with patrons. I thought, “Good for the Mom and Pop motels that were successfully hanging in there despite inevitable competition from the giant motel chains on the circuitous interstate bypassing town.”
Regardless of my empathy with the main street motel owners, I decided to check into a modest one-level Best Western Inn. As I entered the lobby, I raised my palm and gave a salutatory “How!” to a life-size eponymous Indian. Just for the fun of it, I rhetorically asked for a ground floor room to which the lady desk clerk with a stunned expression replied, “Sir, all the rooms are on the ground floor in case you didn’t notice.” I guess I deserved that retort.
The next morning, I took advantage of the complimentary Continental Breakfast (a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice sufficed), then checked out but not before bidding a farewell “How!” to a woodpecker’s dream, “Chief Tucumcari”. I continued west on the monotonous I-40 until stopping for gas outside of Santa Rosa at one of those ubiquitous prairie-swallowing truck plazas. As far as I was concerned, the proliferation of trucks and concrete was a blight on America’s landscape. At the present, it was estimated that 10 per cent of this country’s land was paved over with concrete or asphalt. Now that was depressing.
For the next 60 miles I climbed almost imperceptibly more than 1,000 feet to Clines Corners, an irresistible tourist trap for unwary out-of-state motorists. The adobe-clad emporium was chockfull of tasteless southwestern and “Injun” trappings that were being perused by dozens of patrons. The one redeeming article in the whole place was a 10 by 15 inch crocheted map of the United States depicting the locations of all the original Indian “Nations”.
It was mesmerizing and I should have bought it, but I didn’t. Nor did I buy any petrol at the price-gouged pumps (20 cents per gallon higher than in Santa Rosa) having the prescience from past experiences to know that there was a correlation between increases in gas prices and rises in elevation (Clines Corners sat at an elevation of 7,000 feet).
I literally coasted down 2,000 feet in a span of 65 miles into Albuquerque where I made a quick exit at the foothills of the Sandia Mountain Range. I stopped at a Denny’s Restaurant to call cousin (once removed) Marshall Farris, but got no answer. I wasn’t all that disappointed since I was still in the traveling mood, but I still would have liked to visited Marshall and his wife Joan to regale on the time I set up a makeshift office in their garage (with a space heater to keep warm in the dead of winter of 1997) while designing his brother John’s house on a site overlooking the Rio Grande River and the Duke City. It was the best of times with crisp microwaved bacon and jellied toast awaiting me every morning.