I finally had to stop for gas at one of those ubiquitous Qwik-Stop mini-marts for a “reasonable” $2.83 a gallon. Fortunately for me in my disabled condition, all pumps were now equipped to handle debit cards, which saved me having to hobble all the way into the store to pay my bill. I couldn’t help but remember it wasn’t that long ago when you could pull into a genuine service station (now a rare Smithsonian artifact) and have the choice of either “self serve” or “full serve”, the latter option I would have now gladly opted for if the service was still available.
I continued north on Hwy 281 through the picturesque Hill Country of central Texas, negotiating little towns on the way such as Blanco, Johnson City (named after Lyndon’s ancestors), Round Mountain, and Marble Falls – probably my favorite stretch of highway in the entire state. About 75 miles north of San Antone I stopped in Burnet at what else but a H.E.B. market for some groceries and then headed east on TX 29 for some 35 miles to Georgetown, sadly seeing the beautiful Hill Country disappear in my outside mirror.
At the junction with I-35, I hooked a left north onto my beloved (?) interstate that mercifully took me only thirty minutes to make my second midway stop at the Days Inn in Temple. The desk clerk remembered me (after all, it had been only four days) and said, “Welcome back, Mr. Early. Your reserved room is waiting for you.” The man’s congeniality was quite something. I retired to my room where I watched ESPN SNB (Sunday Night Baseball) while munching on delectables from the H.E.B. deli. I felt very relaxed and contented with having spent a glorious weekend with my family, not to mention a few new friends. “Turn out the lights, the party’s over”, as Dandy Don Meredith liked to say near the end of a lopsighted ABC Monday Night Football game.
The next morning was spent loading my paraphernalia into Ol’ Blue for my final leg of the journey. Then I again took advantage of the complimentary misnomered “Continental Breakfast”, this time opting for a bowl of crispy com flakes instead of the stale raisin bran that I had at the previous stay, reinforcing the old adage: “Once burned, twice learned”. As I was turning in my key at the desk, it suddenly occurred to me that this was probably the last time I would be checking out of a motel, after 26 years and almost 200,000 miles of meandering about the country. Because of my dependence on the walker, I figured it was about time to hang up Ol’ Blue’s bridle and spurs.
There was no other alternative but to take I-35 north to Waco (fortunately, for only 35 miles) where I exited onto northeast bound State Highway 31 through the pastoral Texas farmlands and the peaceful little town of Hubbard (pop. 1676). Some 60 miles later (from Waco) I made my final stop for gas in Corsicana and then headed north on the less-congested I-45 (compared to Interstate 35) that was the main artery between Houston and Dallas. From the outset I noticed that there was considerably less truck traffic, due in part to the creation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the mid-1990s that opened the floodgates for 18-wheelers to flow in and out of Mexico at the border town of Laredo at the terminus of I-35.
I glided northward with a brisk south wind behind me making the drive seem effortless. About halfway to Dallas (from Corsicana), I scooted around Ennis (pop. 12,110) located in Ellis County renown for its highway patrol hiding like snakes-in-the grass poised to pounce on unsuspecting over-the-limit speeders. Not taking any chances, I eased through the “speed-trap” county at a leisurely 60 mph (10 mph under the speed limit) and soon came within sight of the imposing skyline of “Big D”. Several miles within the city limits, Interstate 45 became elevated allowing me to look down on the seedy south side, composed mainly of industrial buildings, low-income housing, and toxic land fills – the extreme opposite from the prestigious “North Dallas Forty”.
As I approached downtown Dallas on the raised roadway for the umpteenth time, I still couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the dramatic view of the up-and-close cluster of skyscrapers that somewhat resembled a scaled-down lower Manhattan. It was mid-afternoon as I continued north on Central Expressway, thereby excusing me from the inevitable 5 o’clock rush hour traffic, even though North Central had recently been expanded to four lanes each way. I eventually pulled up in front of Apt. 415, and after checking out the odometer reading, it was apparent that I had driven exactly 600 miles on the trip – 287 miles south and 313 miles north. I thanked The Lord for a safe journey home.