I wrote this piece some years ago for my mother, but it never saw the light of day. I have pulled it from the dustbin and reworked it a bit in honor of my father. Yesterday would have been his 91st birthday, if esophageal cancer hadn’t killed him. For reasons that will become apparent, my timing would have been better if I’d rewritten this in his age-90 year rather than age 91. Still, better late than never, and I think it would have pleased him. Whatever road he’s on now, I hope he’s with Mama, and I wish them happy travels.
Some places stick in my mind, sights, smells, sounds, and the feeling of air on my skin. U.S. Highway 90 West from San Antonio is such a place. I haven’t traveled it for many years, but the memories are strong today as I sit in the living room of my New Jersey home.
A highway, of course, isn’t one place at all, but a long series of places. U.S. Highway 90 West cuts across the lonesome landscape of West Texas, connecting far-flung towns as surely as it connects memories of my journeys covering a span of years.
Travel on this highway must start early, before dawn. Why? Maybe because you know it will be hot in West Texas later and you want to cut down on the exposure. More likely it’s simply because early starts are always part of the script for every real adventure.
It’s 4 a.m. in San Antonio, and I’ve just awakened. I quickly dress in clothes laid out the night before and grab a cup of coffee or a glass of milk, depending on my age in this particular incarnation of the memory.
I pick up a suitcase or an ice chest and head outside, being careful not to let the screen door slam. The neighbors are sleeping, and I don’t want to awaken them. It’s still and cool out here as I wait for the womenfolk to emerge. This time I’m waiting for my mother. Another time it was my sister, my wife, or my daughter. At one time or another, I’ve waited for them all.
I’m in the car now. Over the years, it was a black Dodge Coronet; a blue Plymouth Fury; a pale yellow Triumph Spitfire; a red Chevy Vega; a silver-on-blue Suburban. Different times and with different companions, but the memories meld.
Not much traffic at this hour on Highway 90 in San Antonio.
We pass the exit for Probandt Street and there is the site of the old Mission Stadium, former home of the San Antonio Missions minor league baseball team. Once I attended a night game here with my father. I’m wearing a road-gray baseball uniform with blue iron-on letters across the back that spell “Colts.” It’s not a real Little League uniform because my mother wouldn’t let me join, so my only Field of Dreams is in my own back yard. I’m proud though, until a group of real Little Leaguers in real uniforms wonders openly that they’ve never heard of a team called the Colts. Now I feel a little self-conscious.
There’s a man under the grandstands, and he’s renting seat cushions. I want one, but Daddy says no. Outside the stadium and visible from my seat is a billboard that advertises Lone Star Beer. Atop the sign is a giant rotating longneck bottle. At my tender age, I find it more fascinating than the game.
With a crack like hickory on horsehide, my mind snaps back inside the car, this time the Chevy Suburban as it travels west past Loop 410, leaving the lights of San Antonio behind. In this memory, my wife and children slumber while I keep a sharp lookout for deer.
We reach the small town of Castroville, and as I drive, my mind is walking through the hills with my sister and parents. There’s a metal water tank and I get the bright idea of chunking a rock at it. It makes a sound like a bullet skipping off a boulder in a Roy Rogers movie. Everyone, including some strangers, looks up, startled, and I slink away to hide.
Lights up ahead, and in my mind I’m riding shotgun in a yellow Triumph Spitfire as it pulls into the town of Hondo, home of the Hondo Owls, arch-rival of the Devine Warhorses. My father played football in Devine and never tired of telling everyone about his glory days on the gridiron. Now I tell the Triumph’s driver — who happens to be my best friend from high school — about the letter sweater my dad carefully stores in mothballs.
Time shifts again, and now I’m stopping in the red Chevy Vega to eat breakfast in Hondo with my new wife. It’s the first day of our honeymoon, and we laugh about the stuffed owl with blinking electric eyes that watches our table as we eat scrambled eggs.
Years later, I would motor straight through Hondo in the Suburban, smiling to myself when Mary turns in her seat and tells yawning children the story about a restaurant and its mechanical, stuffed bird.
By now it’s full light, and it’s empty out here. But I’m a Texan and I like empty. Empty is all a part of Texas and being Texan.
We pass through D’Hanis and Sabinal. Uvalde is next, and memories place me in the back seat of an old black Dodge with my mother and grandparents. I don’t know why they made me come on this dumb ride, but I see people selling honey at roadside stands. Uvalde is famous for honey, it seems, and I want to buy a bottle, but the grownups say no. Why did we come here?
Now riding with my wife and kids in the Suburban, I notice that the towns are becoming fewer and farther between. Uvalde seemed a last outpost where things felt civilized, and I remember an earlier time, riding westward in Daddy’s old Plymouth Fury and looking at this same landscape, imagining I’m on the moon.
We pass through Brackettville. John Wayne filmed “The Alamo” at a replica village constructed here. Signs advertise it on the way in, urging us to stop, but Daddy knows it’s a tourist trap and always refuses.
Finally, here’s a “big” town. It’s Del Rio, a gateway city to Mexico. We don’t cross the border because Mama is as fearful about Mexico as she is about baseballs and bats. I hear her say that if you get into a simple fender-bender over there, “they’ll toss you in jail and throw away the key!”
Memories push me forward and I’m again riding in the Triumph Spitfire. I’m on a fast spring break trip from college, and there’s no time for a detour into Mexico, no matter how dangerously fun it might be.
It’s cramped in this tiny car with backpacking gear and a set of full-sized stereo speakers two-wire-twisted to the cassette player. How can two human beings shoehorn themselves into such tight confines and still feel so free? But we do feel free, especially when my friend shifts gears to climb another rugged hill as Highway 90 speeds us west to the Amistad Reservoir. I feel free while gazing at boats gliding effortlessly on waters held captive by a dam on the Rio Grande.
The hills are getting steeper. It’s hot and dry. Buzzards soar overhead. Time shifts, and it’s my father calling me his “navigator” as he pilots the Fury and pretends to take my map-reading seriously. Never one to be politically correct, Daddy calls the buzzards “Mexican airplanes.”
The Fury’s air conditioner roars as Mama passes a cup of cool water from the green Thermos jug from front seat to back. Memories ruffle as the wind blows my hair in the Triumph, its engine growling as I downshift to climb another hill. In the Vega, I feel the gentle pressure of my wife’s head upon my shoulder as I push to overtake a laboring U-Haul.
Everyone needs a stretch, and no matter which incarnation of the trip I’m remembering, drivers and passengers always welcome the sign that reads, “Rest Area and Scenic Overlook, One Mile.”
This is someplace special. The Pecos River Bridge and overlook are not on anyone’s Top 10 List, but it’s a memorable spot all the same. It’s almost a requirement to stop and take in the view. There are picnic tables here, and in my memories, it’s always windy.
A steep scramble down from the concrete table leads to a precipice. Bits of toilet paper left by desperate travelers cling to bushes, which themselves cling to the rocky soil. Somehow, surprisingly, such disgusting ornaments add to the ambiance of this lonesome place. We’re a long way from civilization here, because the Pecos River provides the framework for the town of Langtry and the Judge Roy Bean Law West of the Pecos historical site.
The inclination is to keep going because, really, we had just clambered back into the Suburban a short time ago when taking in the view at the bridge, but on the other hand, I feel obligated to stop, because this is a place where legends were made. Outside the visitor center is a nature walk, the kind of place with little plaques labeling all the deserty vegetation. Inside, it’s air conditioned, and there are pictures and dioramas detailing the history of the infamous judge and his obsession with stage star Lilly Langtry.
Armed against the increasing heat with cokes — whether Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, Fresca or Shasta makes no difference because we’re in Texas, by God, and they’re all cokes here — we climb back into the car, it’s the Fury this time, and continue west. The picnic tables at Judge Roy Bean’s site were full, so, riding along, we eat Vienna sausages or sandwiches made from white bread smeared with Underwood’s Deviled Ham.
I thought it was hot before, but I know it’s hot now, because I’m remembering a time riding into Sanderson in the Triumph on a highway that sounds wet because the oil has melted out of the asphalt. The engine’s overheating, and my friend, who knows more about cars and engines than I do, turns on the heater to help dissipate it. That’s fine for the engine, but what about us? We’re dying in here, but it’s oh, so fun!
Heat was my co-conspirator when, in the Fury, I secretly tossed a well-worn comic book onto the catchall behind the rear seat to bake in the sun. I know from experience that the paper and ink will soon start to smell, and that particular odor makes my sister angry and nauseated. She’ll start yelling, which in turn will cause Mama and Daddy to yell at her, and that, of course, is a worthy objective for any little brother. Yes, “cooking funny books” is an important job, but now with the eyes of an adult, I glare into the Suburban’s rearview mirror and snap at my daughter for pestering her little sister and making too much noise.
To the south of Highway 90 West is Big Bend National Park, and no matter which occasion, it was usually our destination.
The young boy successfully navigated his family to Big Bend, where they found heat so intense that they all collapsed on a picnic table and stared at the “Mexican airplanes” circling overhead.
The college buddies arrived and hiked to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. A nylon rope and a piece of black plastic from a construction site was all they had for a tent.
The honeymooners spent their first Christmas together in a Big Bend motel room, where the stalk from a dead century plant served as their Christmas tree.
The small children stopped playing for a time and heard the make-believe story about a cave that a young husband once told his gullible young wife on their honeymoon.
But now it’s time to leave. Years ago my life turned east from Highway 90 West.
After years of lost contact, I know now that the best friend who drove the yellow Triumph Spitfire and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer became a preacher in Georgia.
The beautiful wife, whose brown hair cascaded down my shoulder as she rested her head against it is just as beautiful today, her gray hair cascading down my shoulder when we drive east toward New York City.
The children who once slept in the back of the silver-on-blue Suburban are grown. They’ve all moved away and have children of their own.
The parents who drove a blue Plymouth Fury and who taught me to love the open road have traveled to a place where I can’t follow, though I will surely travel there myself some day.
Life is vastly different now, but thankfully, some things never change.
During my waking hours, the mountains of northwest New Jersey, clad in shades of green, gold or dazzling white, depending on the season, have replaced the gray-brown hills that shimmer in the West Texas heat. But when I close my eyes I’m back in that place where everyone is happy, everyone is young, everyone is healthy, the landscape is wide open and the setting sun feels warm upon my face, as together we travel on Highway 90 West.