The Austin Trip – 2003 II

Mercifully, the bottleneck finally broke open somewhere north of Waxahachie. The right lane had been closed for several miles, and as we passed by the critical point of “inconvenience”, we noticed that all they were doing was a patchwork of asphalt on the pavement. To Dodi’s consternation, she said, “Was that all there was?” Yep, it was a pebble in the rifle barrel. I fabricated my own words: “Inbelievable! Uncredible!” I had thought maybe taking an alternate route on old U.S. 77 from Waxahachie to Hillsboro (it paralled I-35). When I presented the idea to Dodi, she simply said, “You’re the driver. It’s up to you.” I said, “Well, since we got thrown off our schedule back there, maybe we should stay on the interstate so we still have a chance to beat the rush hour traffic in Austin.” Yeah, right. In retrospect, the few extra minutes on the old highway wouldn’t have made any difference, and I would have given Dodi a chance to see the splendid courthouses in Ellis and Hill counties. Well, every trip has to have one regret or two, right?

As we passed Hillsboro, I mentioned how they had restored the courthouse to its original design after a devastating fire had gutted it in 1993. A large amount of the funds needed for its restoration were provided by the proceeds from Willie Nelson concerts performed in the area. It was Willie’s home turf. What a great story about people taking care of their own.

As we approached Waco, I noted the Old Dallas Highway exit and told Dodi, “That was known as the Old Dallas Strip where countless bars, liquor stores, and restaurants flourished. The interstate was its death knell. It’s now a ghost road.” We crossed the Brazos River and I pointed out that the skyline had not changed in 80 years. The 20-something storey Alico Building was the lone “skyscraper”, and was now a high-rise retirement home. I said, “The Baptists closed the downtown bars under the pretense of “cleaning up” the town, and everything went downhill from then on – restaurants, retailers, movie theaters – all vacated `Main Street’. Here’s the real kicker. In the 1960s, HUD set up an office downtown (I actually visited their little setup in 1966) to promote Waco as a model city of urban redevelopment. What a sham! I could have fired a canon down Austin Ave. and not hit a sole. HUD’s only legacy was a handful of planted trees. Good gosh, you talk about a worthless government department, HUD was it!”

I couldn’t stop talking about Waco, saying: “You know, I was born in Waco. Now that’s about as Texan as you can get. I have fond memories of that town, visiting aunts and uncles and cousins back in the 1950s. It was a fun town back then, riding the trolley to see a movie and watching trains come through the depot. Now, it’s practically a ghost town. Waco’s only present claim to fame are museums commemorating Dr. Pepper and the Texas Rangers (huh, the ones that slung six-shooters, not the ones that swung baseball bats).

About midway between Temple and Austin, the roadway widened to three lanes and the asphalt surface was as smooth as glass which, along with a brisk tail wind, made the drive seem effortless. “Heck, under these great conditions, even you wouldn’t mind driving”, I said to my companion who wasn’t exactly a highway trucker. Navigating was her preference. My comment brought up a rather sticky subject. She reminded me of a trip planned for New Orleans on New Year’s back in 1976 which ended up a disaster. In Conroe just north of Houston, my VW bus blew its engine. The four of us had to take a Greyhound bus back to Dallas. To make the story short, Dodi ended up having to drive the VW back to Dallas which for her was one horrendous experience. “Where the hell was I? Why did you have to drive it back?”, I asked. “I think you were in Colorado”, she said. I apologetically said, “You know, I don’t even remember you having to do that. What was I thinking? I’m really sorry you had to go through all that. Geemonee, those hazy, crazy days of the `70s.” She comforted me by saying, “That’s okay. We were all a little crazy back then.”

Well, the inevitable finally happened. All our posturing to avoid the Austin rush hour traffic went for naught. Even the doubled — decked freeway through the middle of Austin couldn’t alleviate the congestion. Mind you, I wasn’t concerned about the time lost in traffic. It was the absurdity of the situation — all those pour soles having to endure this mayhem every day. I noticed two high-rise buildings under construction in a skyline that was already dwarfing the largest capital building in the country (actually a couple of feet taller than the nation’s capital – typical of Texas). I commented, “Looks like downtown Austin is doing alright for itself. There hasn’t been a new skyscraper built in the Dallas center city since 1985.”

As we were inching our way along, I asked Dodi, “Just out of curiosity, how much was a bus ticket from Dallas to Austin’?” She replied, “Eighty dollars. So the least I can do is pay for your gas. How much will it be?” I looked at the near-empty gas gauge and did a quick calculation (around $1.36 for about 19 gallons), saying, “Probably about $25.” She said, “That’s great. You saved me a bunch. You run a cheap bus service.” I replied, “That’s okay, ma’am. You made my trip with your good company.” We crossed the Colorado River with the beautiful Lake Austin to the right. What a picture-perfect setting! We exited at Riverside Drive and at the stop light there was a lonesome young man with the proverbial sign hanging around his neck reading: “I desperately need to get on-line.” Just kidding. I said, “Every time I give one of these guys a dollar or two, I tell them, `Promise me you’ll spend this on liquor and cigarettes’.” Dodi gave me a disparaging look. I said, “Hey, they know I’m just kidding. Loosen up.” With that, she reached in her purse and handed me two George Washington’s to give the needy man. I told her, “That was really nice of you. You’re a very generous person.”