I would like to preface this travelogue with a brief account of what motivated this trip, which incidentally, began on August 15th. Eight months earlier, brother Franz was in town, and announced his daughter Leslie’s nuptial bond was scheduled for September 2nd, 2001. “What great timing,” I said, and added, “I was planning on tripping out to Donner Lake and Tahoe. I can linger in Paradise, then cruise over to Santa Cruz. Count me in, bro.” I remember saying to myself, “Early Boy, you’ve just made one long-term commitment. Hope you live so long.” I prayed that I would.
The journey couldn’t have started on a more fortuitous note. My first stop was at the residence of Charly and Judy Lambert in Coppell, a grand 23-mile stint. My friend was just starting a roof extension over the back kitchen door. I donned my carpenter’s belt, and away we went, sawing, nailing, measuring, leveling, and plumbing until we had a framework erected by the tried-and-true method of “eye-ballin’ and crotch-scratchin”‘. It had been a hot, steamy, ice water-chugging afternoon, and I loved every minute of it. Charly and I exchanged an old-fashioned handshake on a job well done. He then gave me the supreme compliment: “I couldn’t have done it without you.” And all I could say was, “What a great way to start a trip.” I really meant it. It was a serendipity.
Judy cooked her usual scrumptious supper (a chicken casserole). I reciprocated with a stack of Texas Highways magazines and a polished frame for a small self-portraiture I had given them on an earlier visit. As we savored our afternoon’s accomplishment, I was inclined to say, “Charles, you are Bob Vila incarnate, with all the improvements you’re doing on `This Old House’. I can’t wait to start on the roof extension over the front door, and, by the way, see that terraced landscaping finished around the front entrance walk.” I had some vested interest in the latter two “improvements”, since I had contributed a quantum of design sketches for Charly to mull over. Yeah, you might say the Lamberts and I had a bartering system going, an unspoken give-and-take relationship. Well, I certainly took advantage of their offer to stay in the guest room – the heat and humidity were too much to bear in Ol’ Blue. It would be my first and only night as a house guest.
The “Julia Childes of Coppell” cooked a bountiful breakfast for me, so much that I had to give some scraps to “Hok” and “Jasmine”, their two beloved canines that they had retrieved from the jaws of death at the dog pound. It was just the two of us, since Charly had long been gone on some job commitment. Judy and I have an easy time conversing with each other, especially when it comes to our common Indian bloodline. I have to admit, we did get somewhat vociferous and adamant about the exploitation and degradation of the Native Americans that has taken place over the last century. “Hey, what the heck do a couple of Injuns like us know? We are as “white-eyed” as the rest of them,” was all I could say, in a relatively condescending way. I left her with a good hug and a lot of thanks for a beautiful twenty-four hours.
I was hoping to find some alternate route over to Hwy 287 to avoid the grind on TX 114, but that proved somewhat hopeless. Judy had shown me a detailed map of the area, which would have led me into a nightmare of congestion through Lewisville, Flower Mound, Frisco, and Justin. What a sad state of affairs. It would have been a beautiful drive twenty years ago. Now, according to Judy, the little towns had been transformed into a conglomeration of urban sprawl, so despicably typical of North Central Texas.
I literally floated over Wichita Falls on the new elevated portion of Hwy 287. What a grand view! I thought of all the zillions of times I had driven through the town and never actually seen it. Now I had an unlimited panorama of a city that I still didn’t feel worth seeing. For some inexplicable reason, “The Falls” has always been one of my least favorite places to visit. It was just a place to “stop for gas”, and now, it wasn’t even that! To my best recollection, the seeds of my anathema were sown back when I was on a mission to render all the great Texas courthouses (in the early 1990s). To my dismay, I had discovered that Wichita County had, as one local put it, “done over the old courthouse in a `modrin’ style.” Well, that was enough to turn my stomach, and turn me away from any visits to downtown, or any other part of the city for that matter.
I was thinking about driving all the way to Childress, but at the last second, I turned off at Vernon and stopped at the Village Inn. Something inside me intuitively said, `”You better call ahead.” Sure enough, the desk clerk (after calling the Best Western in Childress) informed me that all the ground-floor rooms were taken. Whew! That was one good turn I had taken. After checking in, I unhitched the bike and took off on a two-mile journey to the United SuperMarket. I pedaled back through some seedy residential areas, and thought, “These people may appear poor on the outside, but I bet they’re doing okay in this little burg.” There was an aura of serenity and security about the neighborhoods – no fences, no walls, just a lot of front porches and open windows, like every house welcomed you. What a contrast to the North Dallas Forty and its euro-trash mega-houses with their cold, uninviting facades. You know, there’s still an admirable quality of lifestyle among those of lesser means.
When I checked the thermometer in the van the next morning, it read 89 degrees at around 9 o’clock. It made my stay inside seem very worthwhile. I had a feeling that was as warm as I was going to feel for the rest of the trip. It was off to Amarillo through the “C-towns” as I call them – Chillicothe, Childress, Clarendon, and Claude. The rhythm of those names always conjured up a theme or title to a C & W song. I made my usual pit-stop at Pilot Gas at the junction of I-40 and Hwy 287. I noticed a RV with Colorado tags; so I approached the owner as he was pumping an untold amount of petrol into his leviathan. “Where you people headed?”, I asked. “We’re going down to Padre Island for some sand and surf,” he replied. They were from Colorado Springs, and he added that this was their first trip to South Texas. I couldn’t help saying, “Once you’re down there, you are going to feel like you’re a long way from home, believe me.” He gave me an understanding nod. That was a refreshing interlude.
There were two other RVs in the adjacent parking lot with Louisiana plates, but they were able to pull out in the nick of time to escape my interrogation. I saw them headed west on I-40, so I figured they might be on their way to Colorado. “Maybe I can catch them on the road ahead somewhere,” I thought. A pattern was starting to evolve – a thirst for conversation along the highways and byways. I figured it would be at least a two week drought of not seeing anyone I knew, so I was ready to pull out all the stops (and stop at all the pull-outs?). Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I was hoping I’d see the RVs from the Bayou State at my midway rest area in NE New Mexico.
When I pulled into the Sierra Grande Rest Area, I was disappointed at not seeing the Louisiana RVs. However, my letdown was quickly soothed by, first, just being there safely, and second, being able to see every star in the galaxy. The Almighty also had an encore – a magnificent display of heat-lightening far off on the eastern horizon… it was simply captivating. Then nature and machine blended together with the passing of a coal train as its headlights disappearing over a distant rise. I sat there in my easy chair, gazing out through an open cargo door and thinking how peaceful the world seemed to be. The thermometer had dipped down to 56 degrees, and I was intoning to myself, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Or does it? Only the miles ahead would tell.
Just as I was about to retire, the “peacefulness of the world” was shattered by the roar of a convoy of motorcycles rumbling into the rest area. They were definitely not a bunch of groupies on putsy Jap cycles – this was a true grit Harley-Davidson ensemble. I watched them as they retreated to a secluded corner of the area. I could barely make out a glimmer of lights, and I wondered if they were engaged in some off-road ritual. I was just itching to go over and talk to them. “Okay, Early, here’s your chance to reach out and touch someone, again. Just go for it,” I rationalized. Darn, if I had just remembered to bring my chain necklace and black-leather jacket. I sauntered over in their direction, feeling like I was wandering in to an enemy camp. I introduced myself as “a common man in a Chevy van,” and that was enough to elicit a bunch of handshakes. My first question was: “You guys been up to Sturgis?” (for the uninitiated, that’s a town in South Dakota where about 200,000 motorcyclists gather annually). That inquiry seemed to have really gotten me into their fold. One bearded gentleman answered, “Yea, we were there all right. It was some kind of happening. People from all over the country were there.” I couldn’t help but mention, “You know, there used to be such a thing as van rallies back in the 60s and 70s. It was a big deal back then. Those days have long since been gone.” Several of the `”members” said they remembered those days. Then, I just had to add, “I’ve got a cycle of my own, hitched to the back of the van, only it just has pedal-power.” They all got a chuckle out of that. Geemonee, they were a fun group!
Back in the van, I sat in the easy chair, thinking how unjustified my trepidations of intruding on their privacy had been. I had asked them if they were going to “bed-roll it” for the night there. Nope, they were intent on movin’ on down the road, to exactly where, they weren’t quite sure. So, I sat there, watching the Harleys roar off into the night, their indubitable sound and flickering headlights slowly diminishing over the distant rise. I couldn’t help but wonder where they would end up for the night. Now that was being adventurous! As I lay there in the sack, gazing up at the stars, it kinda made me feel like I was staying in a Holiday Inn. Travel lets you to appreciate what you have.
The next morning, I noticed one of those stretch-Dodge window-vans had just pulled in with Alabama plates. It was like a water balloon had been punctured – out gushed four couples of geriatrics, stretching their limbs and taking photos of each other. “Well, let’s pull out one more stop,” I thought. “‘Bama’s finest senior citizens couldn’t be any more intimidating than last night’s `Wild Bunch’.” I strolled by the group, and asked a gray-haired gentleman, “By any chance, you people headed to Colorado?” He replied, “Yep, we’re on our way to Colorado Springs. We just got a week to see some things.” “I wish you had more time.” I said, and added, “It would take a month to see everything. But, you just take your time, ya’ hear? It’ll always be there when you want to go back.” I was wondering if I might see them down the road again. Fat chance, I thought.
I spent a pleasurable afternoon in Raton, biking around the downtown, and in particular, the area around the classic, southwestern-styled railroad depot. It was sad to see it in such a deteriorated condition, but at least, it was still a “working station.” There were actually people in the waiting room, some reading paperbacks, others simply biding their time before the arrival of AmTrak. I approached a family man and asked, “Where you people headed?” “Ohio,” he replied, and added, “We come out here regularly, rent a car, and drive up to the mountains. It’s our getaway from the flatness of back home.” I commended him on taking the train (he said it was so much more pleasurable than driving). I felt like a kid again, hanging around the station, waiting for the train to come in, just to see who was getting off and who was getting on. I did that when I was a 6-year old in Waco, waiting along the tracks for the next choo-choo to come around the bend. I was at such an impressionable age then, I couldn’t help but be enchanted with trains.
I toured lst Street which ran parallel to the tracks. The once prominent street was now lined with buildings that seemed to weep from neglect. As a mute testimony to their survival, the construction dates (1912, 1914, 1918) were still visible, etched in stone on the erstwhile proud facades. One particular building was a five-storey edifice which, during the golden age of railroads, was obviously the grand hotel of Raton. Now, it was as extinct as the dinosaurs. It reminded me of so many other towns in the west that had seen its “Front Street” fall into decay because of the demise of passenger rail travel. Towns you probably never heard of, like Battle Mountain, Nevada, and Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Back in those simple and innocent days, you can bet the kids were at the depot every day, just to see who would get off the train. I’m sorry, but I do get depressed when I think there will never be days like that again.
Ol’ Blue galloped over Raton Pass like it was a Texas Panhandle pancake. At the summit, the grandiose view of the Colorado Rockies didn’t seem to take my breath away as it used to. Was I getting jaded? Oh, I hoped not. When negotiating La Veta Summit west of Walsenburg, I was reassured that the Rockies still had me in its grasp. I stopped in Fort Garland for gas, and there was a sight to behold on the other side of the pump. It was one of those stretch-Dodge vans, only this one was really “loaded for bear.” It had so many outlets on its sides that it could cause a short-circuit in a KOA campground. The top of the van was strapped down with all sorts of gear and two canoes. And it was towing a flatbed with two ATVs on board. I noticed they had Kansas plates, so I asked, “Where have you guys been?” “We’ve been in Alaska for two months,” he replied. Then he said, “My wife and I and our two best friends have been planning to do this for years, and now we finally got to do it. It’s been one trip to remember, that’s for sure.” I had to ask, “How was it like being up there with the midnight sun?” He said, “We weren’t that far north, but it was strange seeing a sunset at two in the morning.” Wow, was that something else or what? It made my little journey seem like a drive down to the corner drug store. My perspectives seemed to be changing every day.