The drive west was so picturesque through rolling hills replete with sap-green mesquites contrasted against the darker live oaks and scrub cedars. I passed through Mineral Wells where the erstwhile venerable Baker Hotel stood in mute testimony to its glory days of the past when Presidents and celebrities once patronized the premises (usually in their private Pullman railroad cars) for the soothing and medicinal mineral waters. Now, the 1920 brick tower stood all alone with boarded up doors and windows, and weeds sprouting up through the sidewalks. What a depressing sight!
I continued west on Hwy 180 through Palo Pinto, Caddo, Breckenridge, and Albany (another courthouse gem in my collection). There, I came to the proverbial “fork in the road”—a choice of whether to continue west to Snyder or head southwest to Abilene and chance seeing my long-time friends of 30 years, Don and Beverly Wright. I opted for the latter and split off on TX 351 for about 25 miles to Big A. I made my way over to the Wright’s neighborhood south of downtown and stopped at Albertson’s to make my phone call. Beverly answered with, “Come on by. We’d love to see you. All we have to offer is leftover stew.” Oh, that was music to my ears. Actually, I prevaricated somewhat, saying I was at a crossroads in Albany. I rationalized my half-truth as being a matter of courtesy to give my host a little breathing room before I arrived. It also gave me time to relax and contemplate the journey up to that point. Admittedly, I had used that ploy many times before on overland trips.
After a half-hour layover in the parking lot, I meandered over to 2134 River Oaks Circle. I parked in my “reserved” space under the grandest of all oak trees. It turned out to be a most enjoyable evening. The leftover stew, to me, was a moveable feast. I commented to Don that I, according to my Birth Certificate, was born in a sanitarium — the Central Texas Baptist Sanitarium in Waco. I said, “It’s true. I had to manifest the original document to apply for Medicare. Does this mean I was born in an insane asylum?” Don assuaged my fears of being a nuthouse case from my inception by saying, “The term `Sanitarium’ was originally assigned to institutions in the 1890s and early 20th Century that treated patients afflicted with tuberculosis. Even into the 1930s, it was still an accepted moniker for hospital.” I said, “Thanks, Don, for the reassuring info.”
I then presented them with a framed watercolor print of an Indian Chief in full regalia with the title of Along the Washita. What exactly did that title mean, we all wondered. It didn’t take long for two college graduates to discern it had to be the name of a river. I said, “Call it intuition, but doesn’t `Washita’ sound like it could be in Oklahoma?” Well, Don, with his indefatigable curiosity, got out his trusty Atlas. Sure enough, after a minimum of scanning, we pinpointed the Washita River winding its way across half of the Sooner State before emptying into Lake Texoma. Don and I exchanged high fives for our great detective work. We finally called it a night, and I slipped under the covers, again thankful for a most gracious evening.
Don and Beverly had already walked the neighborhood before I was up and about. They were extremely health-conscious, which explained why my bowl of cereal was floating in 0% fat soy milk (actually, it had a palatable vanilla flavor to it). I thanked them for hosting me on such short notice, and headed for the city center. As I traversed west to east and south to north, I could swear that Abilene had the smoothest asphalt streets anywhere. I parked across the street from the well-preserved red-brick railroad depot and snapped several photos. Then I unhitched the velocipede and pedaled around an almost vacant downtown. A good barometer of how bad business was in the center city were the banks’ operating hours — 9 AM to 3 P.M. Why should they stay open longer than necessary when most of their business was transacted at branch offices in the suburbs which stayed open until 6 or 7 P.M. I fled the city morgue in haste.
I headed north on U.S. 277 to Anson where I was caught totally unawares by a dramatic view of the Jones County courthouse on the main axis into town. I couldn’t resist photographing the imposing edifice with its prominent clock tower. I guess I had rejected the courthouse because of its austere 1910 Beaux-Arts style. Well, you never know. Maybe someday I’ll get inspired to render courthouse number 42. I was back on U.S. 180 on a 60-mile trek to Snyder past a plethora of cattle and a few pump jacks. I was really in West Texas now.
From Snyder, I headed northwest on U.S. 84 up and onto the Caprock where countless majestic wind turbines were toiling away on top of endless mesas. It was quite a sight. A single railroad track offered one meager freight trundling out of Lubbock. I was now on what we used to call the Old Slaton Highway where we would make beer-runs to Pinkies Liquor Emporium on the outskirts of town. I made a U-turn to go back and see the old establishment. Well, the building was vacant and dilapidated. What had happened? I peered through the glass front, remembering the raucous times of I.D. checks after driving ten miles for a six-pack of Bud. Yeah, those were the halcyon days alright.
I merged onto Loop 289 which completely encircles Lubbock and found a comfortable parking space in the shade next to a Holiday Inn. The sun was at 5 o’clock high and the temperature was getting mighty toasty. I strolled into the lobby and found a pay phone to call Dudley Thompson, my good friend and ex-professor at Texas Tech. It was April 14th, and as the phone was ringing, I had my fingers crossed, hoping beyond hope they were home from their South America trip. I had called Doc Sasser (my other ex-prof) a week earlier who said they were due back the 14th or 15th. When I heard Dudley’s voice, I breathed a sigh of relief. He said they had gotten back the day before and were still suffering from jet lag. I said. “I understand. Would it be alright if I parked in your driveway for the night? I’ll come over about dark-thirty and just stay in the van and not bother you. If not, I can always spend the night in Wal-Mart’s parking lot. He obligingly said, “Nonsense, you’re always welcome in our driveway. However, there will be an overnight fee of $15.00. Just kidding. Come on over and we’ll have a short visit. We’re pretty wiped out.” My gosh, I was so relieved that they were home.
There was still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I called my transplanted lady friend from Denver, Mickie McGee. Again, to my relief, she answered the phone, saying, “Sure I want to see you. Come on by.” Geemonee, I was batting a thousand so far, finding friends at home. I made my way over to her house which was only three blocks from the Thompsons. We had a pleasant reunion, agreeing that we were both born 70 years too late, when I would have reveled in the Golden Age of Railroads and she would have regaled in wearing stylish ankle-length dresses. We exchanged e-mail addresses and I left with a big hug.