Cover of "Blue Highways"

Cover of Blue Highways

Last weekend, Patti and I were in Austin visiting friends. Like most folks when traveling, we usually look for the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B. For us, that meant going down I35 from Dallas to Austin. Usually takes us a little over three hours. And, we have good company along the way — loads of 18-wheelers and faster cars looking to maintain ownership of the left lane. You know, that’s the lane that most of us are supposed to use for passing only.

But, on I35, if you want to get somewhere quickly, you get in the left lane and just hustle down the highway. Unless you are experiencing car trouble, you’ll never see that right lane the entire trip. Right lane is for wussies, at least here in Texas.

So, after our visit, we thought we would do something a bit different and go home by another way. Rather than going directly back to Dallas and home in Murphy, we were going to see JD in Ft. Worth. So, we skipped I35 and headed out on 183 north and west of Austin. Went to Lampasas and then north on 281 through various small Texas towns into Ft. Worth — about 160 miles maybe.

Cover of "Never Die Young"

Cover of Never Die Young

On several occasions over the years of our marriage, when we’re in the car together, Patti and I joke about going “home by another way.”  The first time I ever heard this term was around 1987. Patti was already familiar with this expression from Matthew 2:7-12 and her Christian upbringing. Me — another story. We were living in suburban Maryland and I was working in downtown D.C., but we were headed up to a family reunion in Maine. At that time, James Taylor had just released his new album “Never Die Young.” For me, there was just something refreshing listening to James Taylor as we drove through the Berkshires headed to Maine. It’d be a little like listening to Springsteen, driving through Jersey, or Willie driving through Texas, or the Beach Boys driving along Pacific Coast Highway, I guess.

As we listened to the song driving up to Maine, I asked Patti about the story behind going home by another way. She’s much more knowledgeable about things Biblical than I am. She told me about the verses in Matthew about what the three wise men did after they visited the Christ child. They were supposed to report back to King Herod, so Herod could find the child and kill him, but instead, the wise men went home by another way. And, sho’ ‘nuf, as we’re traveling through New England, JT sings about the Magi and going home by another way.

Charles Kuralt

On that particular trip, listening to the JT song kinda reminded me of a book I read when I was much younger. It was ‘Blue Highways‘ by William Least Heat-Moon. Very cool book about interesting people the author met and sights he saw when he decided to take a trip across America and shy away from any interstates in favor of the back roads and little-known towns. And, going home by another way reminded me, too, of Charles Kuralt when he did his CBS show ‘On the Road’ many years ago. Even as a kid, I could never pass up Kuralt’s stories from the road. In fact, Kuralt and his stories are largely the reason I decided to go into journalism when I was in college.

Plus, there was a Sierra Club book called “On the Loose” about two young men who hiked throughout the western landscape. The photos, by today’s standards, are a little weak, but the way these two young men interspersed photos of hiking through the Sierra Madres and the deserts with quotes from Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Homer and other authors is truly inspiring.

To that end, when in college, my friend, Bill, and I used every spring break to take a trip. One year, we hitchhiked across the Southwest. We had 10 days and decided to head west from San Marcos, Texas for five days and then try to get back in five days. Saw some very interesting things on that trip, and met some very interesting people — the most memorable fellow was a guy we met in a bar in the New Mexico hills near Cloudcroft who had just been released from prison and had some fears about going directly back home. We made it all the way to Phoenix before we decided we had better head back.

On another trip, Bill and I took his sports car and drove from San Marcos to Cheyenne, Wyoming. We, again, met some very interesting people and saw some neat things, like the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado. At that time, Coors was not available across America; it was available only as far as one day’s drive from the brewery. So, only a small part of Texas got Coors beer, and San Marcos, where we were in school, was dry. And, there were other sights along the way, too. We also went through Holcombe, Kansas to see the Clutter home, which was the basis of a very popular book back then, “In Cold Blood,” by a then promising writer named Truman Capote.

So, the other day, as Patti and I drove from Austin back toward Dallas on the back roads, there were things we saw that are worth celebrating.

Like I said, we took back roads. So, that meant that in these small towns we had to stop at the red lights and occasionally there was more than one per town. Consequently, once we left the Austin city limits, we did not see one 18-wheeler on the road, not one until we got near Ft. Worth. That, alone, was reason to take the back roads for every trip from now on.

Next to the two-lane blacktops, just inside the fences next to the roads, there were endless small patches of yucca plants reaching heavenward. And, earlier, when we drove from Dallas to Austin on I35, we did not see one yucca plant on either side of I35, so it was very refreshing to see them adorn the back roads. Some of the plants were just a dozen or so here and there, but occasionally, we’d see what looked like an entire field of the plants. To see the flesh-colored blooms that adorn these cacti almost fill an entire field was like looking at a field full of skin moisturizer.

There were some things that were unique to most of the very small towns we visited. For example, the smaller the town, the easier you could see the stores selling graveyard monuments either on the square of the town, or somewhere along the main drag. Loads and loads of monuments. For all I know, there must be a ban on cremation in small towns of Texas.

And, rarely did we see a Shell, Chevron, BP, Valero or other national gas station. We did see our fair share of Billy’s, Bobby’s, Gene’s, Hank’s and Bubba’s — guy names. No kidding, yes, a Bubba’s. Same thing for the stores. No Wal-Marts, Targets, JCPennys or Kohl’s even. Stores had the female names:  Nancy’s, Beulah’s, Kittie’s even. Gotta be a gender thing.

Most of the folks with jobs along this route were ranchers or farmers. Loads of rolled-up golden hay, ready to be taken to other parts of Texas where cattle and horses can feed. The other reason you know you’re near farmers and ranchers? Just look at the used-car lots, which, like graveyard monument stores, appear to be very visible to the average driver. No sedans here, nosiree, certainly no hybrids. But you can see any make or model of truck in their lots. Nancy, Beulah and Kittie must go to the bigger towns to get their cars.

Every town has its own donut shop, or two, or three. About those obesity statistics, uh. And, I lost count of all the barbecue joints. As for their names, well, see the names for the gas stations above.

In between the cities, there were plenty of mesas along the way.Loved seeing the mesas. Expected to see smoke signals from Cochise or Geronimo as we passed by them. Alas, no smoke signals. And there was no Lone Ranger, nor platoons of dark blue, wool-uniformed cavalrymen on horseback chasing elaborately decorated Indians, shooting at them with Colt .45s. I still hold tight to loads of childhood images.

After awhile on the road, reality set in. We hit Granbury, on the outskirts of Ft. Worth. We saw a Target and a Best Buy. Soon, we arrived at our meeting spot and JD was waiting for us. While JD and Patti were greeting each other with hugs and kisses, I sat in the car for a moment, imagining that there was a white-haired, craggy-faced older man riding in our back seat on the trip to Ft. Worth. Periodically on the four-hour ride, I could hear his New England-dialected voice whispering the following in my ear:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood —

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads converged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

My wish for you is find your way home by the best way for you. For me, home by another way has made all the difference.

English: Antonio López de Santa Anna

Santa Anna Image via Wikipedia

Folks, earlier today between taking care of chores around the house, I watched a recent movie of “The Alamo” — not the John Wayne version, but the version with Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid.

One moment, I’m washing dishes and Travis is rallying the Alamo troops to defeat the onslaught of Mexicans. Next moment, I’m starting a fire in the fireplace and the Mexicans are climbing the walls of the San Antonio mission. I’m cleaning trash off my desk and Davy Crockett, as the sole male survivor of the Alamo, is sitting on his knees encouraging Santa Anna to surrender. Remember, it’s a movie.

Among the final scenes of the movie, Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) captures Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto near what is now the Houston ship channel.

Now for most of us, our interest and knowledge of Santa Anna pretty much stops there. If you’re like me, you assume that Houston took Santa Anna as prisoner. Put him on trial, maybe. Perhaps hanged him. Maybe. For me, I really stopped thinking about him once he was captured — till today.

Turns out that after he was captured in April 1836, acting Texas president David G. Burnet and Santa Anna signed the Treaties of Velasco: “in his official character as chief of the Mexican nation, Santa Anna acknowledged the full, entire, and perfect Independence of the Republic of Texas.” In exchange, Burnet and the Texas government guaranteed Santa Anna’s life and transport to Veracruz. Back in Mexico City, however, a new government declared that Santa Anna was no longer president and that the treaty with Texas was null and void.

For the next several years, the Mexican general was in and out of the government. Sometimes he was in favor, sometimes not. By 1855, even his allies and friends had had enough of him. A group of liberals overthrew Santa Anna’s government. He fled the country. He was tried for treason in absentia and all his properties were confiscated by the Mexican government.

In exile, Santa Anna lived in Cuba, Columbia, St. Thomas … and, ironically, the United States. In 1869, 74-year-old Santa Anna was living in exile in Staten Island, New York. He was trying to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City. During his time in New York City, he is credited with bringing in the first shipments of chicle, the base of chewing gum. He failed to profit from this, since his plan was to use the chicle to replace rubber in carriage tires, which was tried without success. Thomas Adams, the American assigned to help Santa Anna while he was in the United States, bought one ton of the substance from Santa Anna. Adams’ experiments helped to found the chewing gum industry with a product that he called “Chiclets“.

Later, Santa Anna was given a general amnesty, and he returned to Mexico, where he died in Mexico City on June 21, 1876.

So, in the end, the bloodthirsty Mexican general, known as the Napolean of the West and responsible for killing defenders of the Alamo, was known indirectly as the father of chewing gum.

Last week, I went for a couple days down to Houston to visit my mother. Since last June she has been back and forth between hospital and skilled nursing facility.

Well, it’s a little over 240  miles between our place in Dallas and Houston. For Patti, a three-hour drive. For me, four.

Since Patti was staying behind to take care of some things in Dallas, I decided to forego the radio and take my iPod to listen to for the ride down there. Lately, I seem to notice when I see other drivers with their earbuds. Made sense. Rather than change radio stations routinely passing in and out of range during the trip, I could have all my favorite artists playing away while leisurely driving down to the Bayou City.

It was truly a spectacular drive. Along the way, I saw all the usual roadside signs, telling me that McDonalds and Exxon were at the next exit, signs talking about Jesus being the answer, signs suggesting we stop for barbecue at Bubba’s, Rudy’s or various other male proprietors. Apparently, EEOC has not yet received enough complaints from the Trixies, Bettys or Beulahs who would like to name a barbecue place after themselves.

And there were the porn notices, too. For example, just outside Dallas, heading south on I45, there is a “gentleman’s club” called Wispers. Of course, my first thought was, “Dumbass. Whispers has an h.” But as I passed the empty parking lot, I reminded myself that folks who go there probably don’t give a hoot whether the name is spelled right or not. Silly me.

Also, I particularly liked the billboard with the Biblical scripture that extolled people to turn away from pornography. And, that billboard was about 30 yards BEFORE you got to Jim’s Adult Video Emporium.

Bluebonnets along a Texas road

But, in addition to the iPod, there was one thing that made the trip memorable throughout the distance. Texas bluebonnets and other wildflowers, like Indian Paintbrush, were in full bloom. In this state, the bluebonnets bloom in Spring on the embankments and medians of the freeways of Texas roads and highways.

When they bloom, they are truly glorious in their beauty. It’s as if during the Winter, God comes down to Earth and sprinkles the roads with the seeds for these majestic flowers to bloom to everybody’s delight in the Spring. In the past, when I’ve traveled over Texas roads, I have stopped to just watch the bluebonnets sway tenderly in the wind.

There is a place on 290 near Brenham, Texas, between Austin and Houston, which is known to have bluebonnets blooming all around that city. Mostly on weekends, you will see the embankments around Brenham with all sort of “dents” in the wildflowers, where adoring parents have planted their children for pictures in the flowers. Happens all the time in Spring.

In this one particular spot near Brenham, there are several acres of bluebonnets. If you quickly glance at this particular spot while driving by, you would swear that there was a lake in the middle of that field. Do a double take and you realize it is bluebonnets.

Lady Bird and her legacy

Bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers have been around for ages. However, whatever your thoughts of LBJ as a president, perhaps his greatest gift to America was his wife, Lady Bird. While occupying the White House, Lady Bird made it her mission to plant the wildflowers everywhere and increase the beauty across America they bring year after year.

After leaving the White House, Lady Bird continued her commitment to spread wildflowers wherever possible. Wherever Patti and I have lived, we’ve tried to plant bluebonnets at our homes. In some locations they did well. In others, like Ohio, unfortunately, they did not like the cold.

As I moved further south along I45, past Huntsville, there is a huge statue of Sam Houston, an important Texas history figure. This statue is approximately 100-120 feet high, so it’s no small statue. It’s right beside the freeway. And, there were the bluebonnets cascading across the embankments and median like so many vowels, consonants and syllables spread in beautiful calligraphy across a blank page.

If you have the chance to drive across any of Texas’ main roads during the Spring, you will not miss the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes.

Thank you, Lady Bird. What a truly magnificent legacy to have.