The Labor Day Trip – 2003 I

The more the summer waned into August, the more I became convinced that this was not the year to make what had become an annual odyssey to the Far West, in particular, Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake. Many mitigating circumstances came into play, one foremost being that my Botkin friends in California had rented out their summer retreat at Donner Lake for every weekend through Labor Day. No biggy. It made my decision easier. Secondly, the usual compelling heat of Dallas to drive me out of Sweat City never really materialized, certainly not enough to arouse my bodily fluids to escape to the cooler climes as it had been in the past. Oh sure, the thermometer did reach the century mark a couple of times, but the humidity was relatively low. It was hot to everyone else, but not to me. I just kept comparing it to summers of the past when it was really hot.

However, I did have another option, that is, to spend Labor Day in East Texas. Back on the Fourth of July I had spent a raucous weekend with my architect buddy Louis Thomas and his ex-son-in-law and his new wife. This all happened at Louis’s house near Grand Saline. I must have endeared myself to Michael and Leigh Hernandez. They invited me to a Labor Day cook-out. Now, as I thought about the invitation, it was very tempting. But then, the proverbial turning-point occurred. I had emailed cousin Vivian Rosso in Bailey, Colorado, asking if by chance her parents, John and JoMarg Farris, might be visiting them Labor Day. Sure enough, she wrote back saying her folks would be there to celebrate her Mom’s birthday. With that fortuitous news, I made up my mind to head for Colorado. It would be a short trip, but just enough to get out of Dodge.

The first leg of the journey was a whopping 25 miles to suburban Coppell to visit my long-time friends, Charlie and Judy Lambert. I made it a point to leave in mid-afternoon in order to avoid the usual late-afternoon congestion on I-635. As I headed north on the infamous Central Expressway (few people remember it was paraded on the cover of Life Magazine in 1954 as the first true urban freeway), I anticipated seeing the progress of the “High Five” interchange at Central and LBJ. That’s right, five levels of interchange, instead of the usual four, the highest being a nose-bleeding 85 feet above grade. As usual, Texas had to do it bigger. They could erect ten levels and it still would not alleviate the interminable congestion that has plagued this stretch of LBJ since it opened. And get this! The Master Plan of the Absurd now included a tunnel of express lanes to be burrowed under LBJ between North Central and I-35! Was there any end to this madness? I thought not.

Well, I was able to avoid any traffic congestion, but another slow-down came up when a torrential downpour suddenly deluged the roadway. That was okay. I had plenty of time, and it gave the wipers a much-needed workout and Ol’ Blue a good washing down. I really liked driving in the rain. With the stereo tuned into cool jazz on KOIA FM, it was a very soothing, relaxing drive. I made my way over to Coppell’s Tom Thumb just to park and relax and try to think of any comestibles I needed for the trip. The rain was really pelting down, and me without an umbrella. You know, I’ve never, ever packed one of those rain-repellants in all my travels. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t think of anything I needed in the market, so I kicked back and watched people run helter-skelter through the rain while browsing through a complimentary Dallas Morning News. For some inexplicable reason, The News had been stacking this rack in the mailroom house with free papers – right next to their paybox full of papers! I figured it was a generous self-promotion gesture. Anyway, I was getting spoiled. I was reading The News front to back every evening, especially enjoying news of local interest. Why were they doing that? Some things can’t be explained.

That supposedly symbolized a sport of some kind. I ranked auto racing on the same low level as professional bowling — a complete waste of time. I merged with (U.S. 287 and a mile-long Burlington Northern coal train greeted me headed south to Houston. As I headed north next to the tracks, I noticed that the derelict wooden poles and sagging power lines that once paralleled the tracks had been removed. To me, it was a sad sight. This may sound off the wall but there always seemed to be a correlation between railroad tracks and power poles, like they were inseparable. After all, a century ago, the only means to put up power poles and lines were along the rail lines. There was a romanticism about seeing the power poles next to the steel rails stretching to infinity along a straightaway. I guess I was nostalgic in a way, recalling old films and photos of steam locomotives churning along the rails next to a proliferation of power lines. Now, the rails looked naked, exposed, almost abandoned. I wondered if anyone, anyone out there had any earthly idea what I was talking about. I seriously doubted it.

I traversed over, not through, Wichita Falls since U.S. 287 was now elevated. Another roadside element I missed, besides Burma Shave signs, were the old U.S highway markers. The outline of the sign was cut in a crest-shape mirroring the black outline on present signs. They had black characters on a white field with the narrow top portion allocated to the name of the state through which one was driving. Have I painted a clear-enough picture for you? There was a sense of locality with the old markers. Now, with the interstates swathing across the country, the traveler driving at Mach 1 was practically oblivious to what state they were in. The contagion had spread to the implementation of uniform U.S. highway markers we see today. I couldn’t help it…I was getting jaded with dreary sameness of the American roadside. You know what I mean — the Holiday Inn Express and Super 8 motel boxes along with the fast-food chain outlets. Indigenous areas of America was slowly disappearing.

I bypassed Vernon’s venerable Village Inn and instead set my sights on staying in Childress for the night, just 60 more miles down the road. I checked in at the Best Western, and then biked over to the United SuperMarket for some groceries. On my way back, I saw a hitchhiker with a bicycle, no less. My curiosity got the better of me. I just had to wheel around and talk to the guy. He had an emaciated, weathered body, and looked to be in his 50s. As I talked with him, I found out he had been hitching and biking from Phoenix and was set on making it to Austin. His vocation was a general repairman. I asked, “Did you bike along the interstate? I’ve seen some stretches with no-biking signs.” He said. “Yeah. I had to take some back roads every now and then, but I’m feeling lucky I made it this far.” I just said, “Good luck.”

After biking back to the motel to store some perishables in the handy refrigerator, I took off on the bike again to talk with the hitcher. I was disappointed to see he was not there, but glad that a good Samaritan had given him a ride. I guessed most of his rides were in pickups given he was toting a bike. Back in room 119, I settled in, writing in my journal while watching an Astro ballgame. It was still quite warm outside, somewhere in the low 90s. so I could rationalize having the luxury of a cool motel room. Then it occurred to me that this would be the first night of the long hot summer that I would be sleeping under the sheets with air-conditioning blowing over me. You see, back in May I commandeered a beautiful 3-speed, oscillating fan from Mom’s house. It was close to becoming a Smithsonian artifact when I rescued it from my old bedroom where Mom used it when ironing, the last time being about 10 years ago! I had it near my desk during the day, and next to the bed at night. The inside temperature would be in the upper 80s, but as long there was a breeze over my skin, I was in complete comfort. The obvious savings in the electrical bill were irrelevant compared to how much better I felt not having to make the transition from the heat to the cold A/C.