WRONG TURN IN HICO by Brian Roper

Posted: September 5, 2006 in The Roper Files

FRIDAY September lst 2006…My friend Baird  drives up the previous night and takes me back to Austin for a birthday party. After our previous experience on I-35 (see ESCAPE FROM FORT WORTH) we decide to take a back road recommended by friends. On our way out of Cow-ville we stop and purchase gas and a road map of Texas.

While Baird fills up I unfold the map across the hood and study it like Rommel. Take 377 to 281; go south on 183 into Austin. Simple enough; what could go wrong? We cruise through Benbrook and then later the town of Granbury. Past places where the highway is carved through rocky hills, broken-down farmhouses both occupied and un-occupied, and farm equipment rusting in the hot Texas sun. We get stuck on two-lane highways behind slow-moving wreckers towing disabled rock haulers. Both of us begin to drool like Pavlovs’ dog as we pass a crowded barbeque restaurant. We drive down long barren stretches of highway Bonnie and Clyde must have driven while running from the law.While passing through Hico we can’t take it anymore. We drive past several touristy-looking restaurants; I spot one crowded with pick-ups, obviously a working-mans’ cafe.“There! That one!” Baird swerves into the parking lot and into one of the few parking spaces open. We’re here! Food at last; I’ve had neither breakfast nor lunch. I’m ready.Stepping inside is just too Easy Rider; mine is the single solo ponytail in the building. We’re the only men wearing shorts; everyone else is in sweaty dirty work-jeans. Some of them are actually wearing spurs and I don’t think they were for decoration.All conversation in the dining room comes to an instant halt as everyone turns and checks us out; you could have heard a fire-ant fart.

We sit down as the waitress greets us with a friendly “Howdy y’all!” and hands us menus. Our lunch is both served and eaten quickly; we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Out in the parking lot, I quote Easy Rider to Baird: “He’s Captain America and I’m Billy!” as we share a good laugh, get in his truck and take off.

The joke turns out to be on us later however. As we cruise some completely barren stretch of road, I notice the 281 signs have disappeared as we approach a non-moving line of brake-lights in front of us. Road construction! The narrow road becomes a parking lot in the middle of NowheresVille Texas. Mexicans with flags wave us on slowly; what a job! I study the map as we crawl past a sign that says we are on a Rt. 6. What the hell…?

As I study the map, I discover to my horror that Route 6 takes us to Waco and then guess where? I-thirty-f#@%ing-five !

Doubling back seems infeasible; in between the construction and stopping for lunch, we’ve already burned up three or four hours. We’re too close to Waco. We press on in silence.

As we approach Georgetown (at 4pm on a Friday no less) the I-35 traffic predictably starts backing up, comes to a crawl and then ultimately stops. We sit. We stew. We wait. We broil in the late afternoon sun.

This sucks. It sucked the last time we did it and it sucks even worse now. Our chicken-fried steaks will soon be going south faster than us and here we are stuck on this damn I-35 parking lot.

I try not to think about this. I think of rainbows. I think of flowers. I think about butterflies and unicorns and ah… who am I kidding?

All I can think about is how hard it is to get from Fort Worth to Austin. The train is the cheapest ($46 bucks round-trip vs. a half tank of gas in my guzzler) but the service sucks on its best days (see AMCRAP: RIDING THE SNAILS) Flying 200 miles is infeasible as well. You have to get to the airport 90 minutes early to get through security on time. It would be as slow as Amtrak (and many times as expensive) in terms of hours spent commuting. The price of gasoline spirals upwards annually every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I-35 has been torn up forever, adding to the pain in the ass driving to Austin can be. What’s a person to do?

With both our bladders and bowels howling in protest we finally creep inch by inch into downtown Austin. We stop and go through jerky semi-moving traffic. People torture us by talking on their cellphones as lights change from green to red repeatedly. Despite these assholes, we finally whip around the corner to Baird and Susannahs’ house.

Surprise! There’s no place to park. The yard and driveway are filled with tools and long rusty pieces of sheet metal. Bairds’ landscaping crews are hard at work. We say hello to them as we bolt inside, quickly say hello to Susannah, pet Shelby the family dog and proceed even more quickly to the bathrooms. A few brief minutes later we’re both sociable again. It’s so nice to be off the road and out of that truck.

The work crew in the front yard is busily working on the front walkway; a two-man crew is in the back installing a fountain. The house is surrounded by construction sounds.

Baird and Susannah are not only having a combined birthday party Saturday night, but they are having a backyard luncheon Sunday at noon as well. Needless to say, there’s work to be done.

Work? Screw that…Baird and I bolt out the door and head down the street to Freddies. Like any good bar/restaurant in Austin (or anywhere for that matter) it’s staffed by an array of heartbreakingly beautiful co-eds. There’s an outdoor stage behind the place where a reggae band was entertaining a beer-swilling crowd while we were there. One club sandwich and a steak later, we exit with swollen bellies.

On the way back we walk underneath one of Austins’ seventeen gas-lit “moonlight towers” constructed in the early 1880’s during a string of grisly serial killings.

In the 1880’s chambermaids and house servants of various races were being killed, usually while walking to or from their home of employment. The towers were constructed to light the dark streets at night. The killer was never apprehended and sometime around 1885, the killings mysteriously stopped. Three years later, the Jack the Ripper murders began. The Ripper took delight in sending Scotland Yard taunting letters in which he would reveal details about the crime only the killer would know. Sometimes he would include a swatch of clothing from his victims, and in one particuarly grisly package he included a portion of his victims’ kidney just in case there was any doubt.

But in one of these letters, he used a bit of very non-London slang. A reference was made about how the police would “fiddle and fart around” while he was at work under their noses. At that time “fiddle and fart around” was exclusively a Southern American bit of slang. A theory was formed that perhaps Jack the Ripper was an American.

Of course 130 years later all of this is conjecture and nothing can be proved now. But somehow the “moonlight towers” have survived and are a subtle reminder of Austins’ less than pristine history. The one we walked under worked until recently when it was struck by lightning.

The UT Tower where Charles Whitman picked off Austin residents with his Dads’ hunting rifles 40 years ago graces the cover of this months’ Texas Monthly magazine.

The house where he shot his wife  is right down the street from Baird and Susannahs’ place. Driving by, I’m shocked only by how small the place is. It’s tiny; no wonder he went nuts. Two people packed into that little box? Small wonder he went over the edge.

SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 2nd…I get up hours before everyone else as always. I tiptoe downstairs to make coffee and make out in the dim pre-dawn light human shapes asleep on the couch. What the hell? Forget grinding coffee beans; I go back upstairs, take a shower and retire in Bairds library with a stack of unread books until I hear everyone stirring around the house. Baird comes in and tells me two friends arrived during the night while I was asleep. Susannah has a long list of things that need to be done before the party. I volunteer my services to help. We are sent out with a list of things to buy.

First stop is Home Depot. Of course they don’t have what we’re looking for. The Customer Service guy sends us to the Other Store, on the other side of Austin of course.

“Look for the Best Buy; it’s right next to it!” We drive and drive. We hit the exit the guy told us to look for. We spot the Best Buy. No Home Depot.

We drive around the entire strip mall, which is completely identical to every other strip mall in the continental US. No Home Depot.

Back out to the highway. We spot another strip mall. We drive to it. No Home Depot. We loop around and spot a third strip mall, exit and finally spot a Home Depot hidden behind a WalMart. This is on the complete other side of the highway and the Best Buy is NOT visible from here. We debate the pros and cons of going back to the first Home Depots’ Customer Service Counter with a couple of ax handles in our shopping cart and doling out a few directions of our own.

After finally procuring the needed items, the liquor store is next. We buy two half-gallon bottles of Souza tequila and a case of bottled water. Done and doner.

We detour by Austin Books where I purchase Johnny Ryans’ THE COMIC BOOK HOLOCAUST and Peter Bagges’ APOCALYPSE NERD #1. Since we are having catered Mexican food for dinner we diversify by having lunch at a Thai place on Guadalupe Avenue whose name I’ve already forgot.

We return to the house and spend the afternoon cleaning up the backyard. Baird and Susannah have just returned from a two-week tour of Europe and one week later they’re throwing two parties and running a weekend hostel for directionless souls such as myself. The backyard is filled with two weeks worth of dead leaves and construction debris; our work is cut out for us. We work up a sweat and a appetite.

A few hours later, we load up the vehicles and get ready. They’ve rented a party barge on Lake Travis at a slightly hard-to-find location, so we caravan onwards to the lake.

Susannah wants a funeral/ wake theme for her 40th birthday party and has instructed everyone to dress in black. We wrap the barge in black crepe paper and have to carry the ice and drinks down a steep incline between the parking area and the barge. The guests trickle in one carload at a time, long past our scheduled take-off time.

Finally we take off across Lake Travis, which is down 30-odd feet because of a two-year record drought. I watch fish nibbling on food tossed off the boat, and then go to the upper deck with a bottle of water and stand with the slightest of breezes blowing on me while I stare out at the water, hypnotized.

Then I have a really morbid thought; the last time I was on a boat (which was 15 years ago) I was with Baird and a recently departed friend of ours (“SB”).  We took “SBs” parents’ huge sailboat out on Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth late one moonlit summer night. Not knowing how to process this thought, I return to the lower deck and get myself a plate of chips and queso cheese. The kids discover the IPod hooked up to the barge sound system and Green Day plays “American Idiot” over and over loudly while I attempt to converse with Bairds’ parents.

Returning to the upper deck I can’t help but notice how attractive all the ladies look in their low-cut black “mourning” dresses. As it usually happens at parties like this, the only women that will talk to me I discover quickly are all married. Rats! The story of my life. I return to the lower deck and bury my sorrows in a plate of Mexican food. I should weigh 300 pounds, but don’t.

Drifting around the lake after dark I stare at the huge egotistical weekend getaways on the lakeside. It costs me $200 a month to air-condition my modest three-room apartment back in Fort Worth; I look at the massive Spanish-style houses and the ones with the big Roman columns out front and wonder how much they spend.

Hours later the barge docks and I help load all the non-consumed beer and food back up the steep incline to the parking lot. We weave up and down the dark winding roads that surround the lake back into town.

Two more relatives join our happy hostel tonight. Baird and I are assigned to sleeping on their L-shaped couch in the living room while Susannah and two female relatives share the master bedroom. Shelby the dog thinks this slumber party is the greatest thing in the world; her tail wags in approval. Baird and I do not share her enthusiasm, but drift off to sleep anyway.

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 3rd…I awake pre-dawn wrapped in a blanket ;the sound of snoring fills the house. Something is tickling my feet; is Baird playing footsie with me?

I look down and see Shelby ( who has the most peculiar appearance of smiling) wrapped in a ball near my feet. After tossing and turning for a while I give up on sleep. Since Baird is still asleep, I don’t want to run that noisy coffee grinder (groan) so I decide to take the dog for a run, get some exercise and let everyone sleep instead of lurking around the house and waking everyone up. Shelby doesn’t have to be asked twice; she’s always ready for a walk. We bolt out the front door and down the street.

We stroll down the streets of Austin, occasionally passing cute girls out walking their dogs. I’ve got three hours to catch the Amtrak later that morning and dread the thought of being cooped up on the train. I need a big breakfast and coffee before I go.

We arrive back at the house with perfect timing; everyone is starting to stir. Coffee beans are ground; one pot after another is rapidly consumed. Susannah lays a grocery list on Baird and we depart for the nearest store. I make him detour by one of the local taquerias, where I get three egg-and-potato tacos. Yes!

It’s only 8:30 in the morning and the traffic is already slow and thick enough to not let Baird and I out of the taqueria parking lot. I joke with Baird about the “F” in Stephen F. Austin standing for Stepin Fetchit Austin, but he’s not in a laughing mood. The traffic lets up and we visit the nearby grocery store where we quickly obtain the requested items. After dropping them off at the house, I eat my tacos, grab my bag, say goodbye to everyone and Baird drives me to the Amtrak station.

Is the train there? No. Is the ticket window open? No. Someone tells me I have to phone for reservations. Great!

We walk outside where I call the 1-800 number on a pay phone and get a robot voice. I answer its’ questions only to have it tell me I’ve missed that days’ train. I protest and it offers to connect me with a human agent. I repeat the answers to the same questions with the human agent who finally issues me a boarding pass number. She also tells me the train is running 75 minutes late. Baird takes me back to the house for a cup of coffee. We return to the house, which fortunately is nearby and drink an additional cup of joe. Baird takes me back to the station again and drops me off. Just as soon as he drives off, someone comes out and announces that there’s going to be an additional 45-minute delay. So now the train is two hours late.

Inside the terminal I pay a robber-baron 75 cents for a Dr.Pepper and look around at the unhappy faces. I’d rather stand in the hot sun than mope around with this festive crowd and return outside. Back outside I scope out the Austin skyline, which is dotted with cranes. Half the buildings are old and historical, the other half shiny glass monoliths that look like matte paintings from ROBOCOP. Looking over at a two-story building next to the Amtrak terminal, I notice a door on the second floor that drops off to nowhere. I thought those only existed in Munsters or 3 Stooges episodes. Walking around the terminal, I notice large portions of the buildings around it covered in Mexican gang graffitti and think about the time the train dropped me off here at 1am, five hours after the scheduled arrival time. How comforting.

The train finally shows up. We lurch through Hackberry County Texas at varying speeds. Sometimes the tree branches are a green blur, othertimes we slow to a crawl.

We stop a various points to let freight cars go by. We stop for reasons unknown at towns that literally are not on Texas maps and wait for imaginary passengers. Hours later we roll slowly into Fort Worth, three hours after the scheduled arrival time. Snails On A Train came close to being the title to this blog, but I resisted.

It’s raining in Fort Worth. If we weren’t in a record two-year drought I would find this depressing, but it’s nice to come home and turn off the air-conditioner.

Said it last time and I’ll say it again: it’s easier to get out of Austin than it is to get into it. And even that’s a pain in the ass.

br

September 2006

 

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