Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day 30: Hallelujah, This is Texas

August 13: Johnson City to Holy Ghost Lutheran, Fredericksburg to Amarillo, and the Route 66 connection

Soundtrack: Redneck Country 92.3, Jeff Foxworthy out of Atlanta, Sunday Drive 93.5

Now we stopped dawdling and laid our wheels to the road and went...we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us. And Texas was achingly endless – Sweetwater and Balinger and Austin.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

Dressed for church and back on the 290, I thought again about the Joads and how they would have marveled at all the porcelain and running water and ease of travel in the air-conditioned HHR. Across the rolling hills, dry with summer, clouds frowned and threatened and preachers prayed for rain on the radio. Dusty creeks and rivers: the San Saba, Pedernales, Concho, and Cooperas lay under rattling bridges in their nearly empty beds.
With old-timey songs about Jesus and roll to be called up yonder, down-home places like Hog Stop Winery, Wildseed Farms, and Rocky Hill (wasn’t that Dusty Hill’s brother?), it was Texas up to the hubcaps on the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. In Stonewall, the limestone and rusted iron were wrought into sculptures and at Fort Martin Scott there were log cabins AND a teepee. Hill Radio 93.5 out of Kerrville played “Talk About Jesus” and B.J. Thomas’ version of “Just as I Am Without One Plea” as all of the Hill Country hit the rolling road to church. Coming into Fredericksburg, the Holy Ghost Lutheran Church welcomed me with a sign at the city limits and I decided to take them up on it.
Among limestone and carpenter gothic houses with porches and verandahs and lean-tos, a streetful of churches rang their bells under prayed-for thunderheads. I was just in time to take a program and a Holy Ghost sticker and find a pew. One of the acolytes looked like Charlie, who lit candles in the Episcopal Church when he was seven; there was a video of about 30 white children playing circle games and singing through their confirmation class. Charlie hadn’t had that many companions his age in Sunday School after St. Thomas Episcopal went “high church,” all the parents scattered to the winds, and we went back to Doug’s denomination, Methodist. The sermon was about forgiveness, seven times seventy, said the young preacher, Bobby Vitek. On the way out, the welcoming committee gave me a bag with a handmade wooden cross and a refrigerator magnet, blessings for the road.
Rain began on the way out of Fredericksburg, but by the time the 290 joined Interstate 10, it was sunny and 81•. Hypnotized by the big road, I missed the turnoff for U.S. 83 and ended up on a 2-lane road to Fort McCavett State Park. In the rolling hills and flatlands on the way to Ballinger (which Steinbeck misspelled), Sweetwater and Route 66 at Amarillo, the Kerrville Methodist Church kept up the inspiration with a "Dixieland Service" featuring “Down by the Riverside,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and a choir of girls singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
At the State Park I heard a woodpecker in a cedar tree and took the left-hand turn to the Fort McCavett Cemetery where soldiers rested in their simple plots with the dear departed of six counties, under shady oaks and pecans. One of the first graves I saw was covered with pictures and toys: Justin Cole Behrens, 1979-1999: “Our Greatest Blessing - We Love You.” A picture showed a blond boy of about 10 or 12, feeding gulls from a boat; there were seashells and a Winnie the Pooh on his stone. Iron fences and pickets marked the family plots: the Burlesons, Treadwell, Crumps, Stocktons, and, a little apart, Duartes, Hernandezes, and Riveras, among others with Spanish surnames. Two centuries of memories rested in this pleasant field, “Asleep in Jesus, Blessed Thought.”
“No pain, no griefs, no anxious fear
Can reach our loved ones sleeping here,” read an epitaph from 1894. I walked about, listening to the birds and recharging on bottled water and Energy Now. There was a restroom in the picnic area next door and I was off in search of a gas station, just like Steinbeck, only north to his south, through “achingly endless” Texas.
Near Sweetwater five of six dozen windmills spun electricity, reminding me of the ones in San Gorgonio Pass on the way to Joshua Tree. Up into the Panhandle, my energy was assuredly not “here and now, ” especially in Happy, Texas, where even the baseball parks seemed have shut down their restroom facilities on Sunday. I pressed on to Canyon, a lovely college town on the edge of Palo Duro State Park, but there wasn’t time to linger for more than gas and a rest stop. Taking in the Canyon and the Texas Pageant would mean driving down into the gorgeous gorge where I had frequently camped with the kids, painted like Georgia O’Keefe, and ridden the now-dismantled Sad Monkey Railroad. It was too much of a detour. I called ahead to Fritch, which promised lakeside scenery and an outdoor musical call Lone Star Rising, but the Lone Star Inn was all booked up.
Instead, I settled for another Days Inn, right off Highway 40, in the shadow of a sign for the Big Texan Steak Ranch where anyone able to scarf a six-pound slab of beef gets it free. I made do with cheese and crackers and swam in an outdoor pool, cleverly hidden from the Interstate, noting a “full-frontal falling star” in the darkening sky. At this point I ran out of pages in the Rand McNally Trip Tracker and began to worry about turning in a painting for the Echo Park Historical Society Auction on time.
I would need to race through the rest of the remnants of Route 66 in two days. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to experience as many scenic icons of the Mother Road as possible in approximately fifty hours. Wheeeeee! I read myself to sleep with the Joads in a room with porcelain sanitized for my protection, reveling in the relative luxury of a modern roadside encampment. For them it was the road of flight; for me it was the way home.