Close Enough for Highway Work
June 1, 2003
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Beaumont is on the eastern edge of Texas, 25 miles from the Louisiana border; to drive there from Los Angeles you first cross California, Arizona and New Mexico, and when you finally get to El Paso, Texas, you are still not halfway to Beaumont. If you are driving a truck through El Paso you might hear Poppa Smith on the CB inviting you to take the $10 trip to Juarez, which includes bus fare, six beers in a bucket and two shots of tequila. “Kick back and relax in Juarez. Kick it down to Channel 31.” You had to wonder how many fledgling trucking careers had been wrecked by that little ten-dollar investment.
Anyway, I managed to resist those old Juarez border town temptations and made it to Van Horn, Texas; left out of there the next morning on a good plate of huevos rancheros and four cups of coffee and figured if I did make Beaumont by nightfall I would have done a good day’s work. Little did I know. All across the West Texas butte-and-flatland country the temperature kept falling and a rain set in. I had the illusion I was going to drive out of this but it kept getting worse and it all caught up a little past Fort Stockton, where it got colder by the mile and the rain turned first to heavy snow and then into ice.
It was threatening to freeze over and a few cars overcorrected and went sliding off into their private miseries, but it never quite iced the road surface except on the bridges, where you would back off and glide over it. It slowed you down and you had to stop a few times to break the ice buildup. Had to bash it pretty good to get it off the mirror brackets and then to be a little more careful busting it off the windshield and the lights. And once the truck got all iced up like that it wasn’t easy to climb up there and find something to hang on to. It would gather on the leading slope of the big wind deflector up above the windshield, that curved face of the double-deck sleeper up there, and once in a while get so heavy that big plates of it would break loose and come crashing down past the windshield and shatter on the hood. Miami was starting to sound not all that bad.
A couple of truckers were discussing ice on the CB. One had years ago hauled a flatbed load way up there west of Duluth, Minnesota, and it was freezing up like this only ten times worse and when he got on the scale at the chicken coop he was 10,000 pounds overweight, and that miserable person behind the desk, only he didn’t call him that, had made him get under that trailer with a two-pound sledgehammer and knock the ice off until he was legal. He said if the roads are frozen it don’t matter ‘cuz they can take more weight anyways but that argument don’t cut no ice in a chicken house. Took him three hours, he said, but at least he didn’t get a fine. All he got was a lot of work, three hours late, and a bad chickenbleep taste in his mouth. It is there to this day.
It warmed from San Antonio to Houston and the upstairs ice cut loose like someone dropping window panes on the hood; the rig was no doubt viewed as a real menace there, showering broken crystal on innocent freeway travelers. And then the road cleared and the sky cleared and I came upon the Houston skyline in sunset, dramatic like Chicago’s, the cluster of towers giving purpose to the many miles of low buildings around it, and I circled it to the right and then curved to the left and plunged right in, came out the other side, passed a gigantic brewery bigger than most oil refineries, through a stunning multi-level freeway interchange with intertwining trajectories of highways flying in all directions, like the concrete tracery of a monumental aerial battle.
Drove for a while and found a motel room and fell right to sleep. Woke up to a warm rain and headed back out on Interstate 10 without breakfast. A state sign reads PROPERLY SECURE CHILDREN -- IT’S THE LAW. Once east of Houston you cross the Cedar Bayou, your first encounter with that bayou word, and then Mont Belvieu, and you get the feeling that Houston is the meeting place of Spanish and French, a median point between New Mexico and Louisiana. The road here also changes, from concrete to asphalt, and it smooths out enough that I can finally drink the foam-cup coffee from the motel’s “continental breakfast,” meaning you get a doughnut with it. And at milepost 800 the rain stops, and a billboard says, UNDER 18? GOT TOBACCO? YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE IS WHAT GETS SMOKED. Texas is not messin’ with those child smokers, nohow.
The Trinity River is high, as are most of the rivers along this tour; you rise on the bridge and get a good view of the surrounding wetlands, which are woods most of the year. You get a sign for Gator Junction and see a lot of birds flying, especially ducks, with geese higher up. The sign at the weigh station says CLOSED, always a welcome word. You see horses grazing in a pasture ankle-deep in water.
Things get intense through Raywood, Nome, China, Beaumont: fast and heavy traffic on both the main and the side roads, your lane a slim corridor through a sustained flurry of oncoming traffic, billboards and businesses: mobile homes, swamps, forests, a power station, the Vidor City Limits, Truck and Equipment Repair, Delta Downs Casino, Waffle House, Barbecue Depot, Texas Stop Sign Dairy Queen, Seetack Homes, banners and flags and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ; home centers, mobile home movers, Looby’s, WhattaBurger, a flea market; Autoworks, Greenway Motel, Pam’s Antique Co-op, Freightliner, Deweyville Left Exit One Mile. And Conoco, Burger King, Exxon, Chevron, McDonald’s, Shell, Waffle House, Crossroads Market Basket, Baskins, Field’s, Radio Shack, Family Dollar, Mauriceville Next Left, Get Away - Get A Lot, Grand Casino, Voushata Used Boats - We Finance. A billboard with a big picture of a guy who strangled his wife and got away with it, offering a $10,000 reward.
It’s a blizzard of words and colors whipping by, overlaid with a constant loud chatter on the CB. It’s reality in the form of a high-energy video game cranked up to manic level. The Eastgate United Pentacostal Church, the exit to the Port of Orange, the Victory Bible Baptist Church, Moore’s Storage, Van Huis Machine Works, Burr’s Barbecue, Budget Inn, and the bridge over the Cow Bayou. The Jean Lafitte RV Park, with a picture of a pirate with a patch over his eye. Whatever terrible deeds Jean Lafitte ever did or dreamed of, you would think that he never expected the magnitude of it all would someday bring him to have his picture above an RV park.
You cross the Sabine River thinking this is like the east coast down here, dozens of towns strung together into a borderless continuity, whatever separate identities they have hidden behind a long fence of billboards. Louisiana Welcome Center. Weigh Station 3/4 Mile. You are back on concrete, riding a very rough double causeway over a watery roadbed; a sign says “Sulphur Next 3 Exits.” A driver says on the CB, “There go my buddy, Rusty Zipper,” and he is cut off by another guy with a more powerful radio playing a clear trumpet solo of the last chorus of “Dixie;” he comes on and says, “The South will rise agin.”
At Lake Charles you are past the flurry of small business and you see from the high vaulting bridge the workings of big business, refineries and chemical plants, railroads and barges, none of which feel compelled to put signs out. There are long trains of tank cars down there like the coal trains that come out of Montana. An exit for Opelousas Street, an exit north to DeRidder and Shreveport on US 171. An unmarked white Ford Crown Victoria passes you with red and blue lights on top and lettering on the back that reads “Fugitive Unit;” doesn’t say what state it’s from and the glass is dark so you can’t even see the fugitive. And after crossing a lot of county lines in Texas here you come to the border of Jefferson Davis Parish, and then Lafayette Parish and Acadia Parish. You pass Lake Charles, Jennings, Crowley and Rayne, all mentioned in Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” his epic rock ‘n roll remake of “The Wabash Cannonball.”
You are abruptly in the country, with cattle grazing and power lines running along, and large waterbeds that could be rice paddies or maybe fish farms. An aging concrete grain elevator sits about a mile away. A sign advertises Chef Roy’s Frog City Cafe, and another says “We Priests Have a Happy Life -- Join Us. Contact Your Local Bishop or Pastor.” You pass an old rig hauling a carnival ride; the load is coming apart from the punishment of the highway and a large metal panel is dragging, the driver either not knowing or not caring or not wanting to stop without some room on the shoulder. A driver on the CB is bragging that he has a gas mask and a survival suit “so when that shit goes down I’ll be the last one walking around, and I’ve got five more suits for the womenfolk. We gonna survive.” Sounded like he was looking forward to it. The other guy says that 80 percent of the motels and convenience stores are owned by Al Qaeda. Eighty percent. They gonna try’n gas us all.
Another driver comes on and says the weather report is that San Antonio is due for nasty snow and freezing rain, and I’m glad I wasn’t a day later. A sign near Lafayette invites you to visit Avery Island, home of Tabasco, and reminds me of the couple who had “been together so long they were on their second bottle of Tabasco Sauce.” The maker is not without his detractors, after he introduced the big swamp rat they call the nutria into the country. You pass the Atchafalaya Swamp -- not many words with five a’s in them -- and then you are up on the real causeway, riding ten feet above the water on concrete pilings on two parallel roadways; a sign says Lake Bigeaux and you pass an exit to Whiskey Bay. The median is kept as open water but the surroundings are sometimes bog and sometimes lake, a huge and complex waterway here where the Mississippi finds many paths to the Gulf, besides the one it’s supposed to take through New Orleans.
At Baton Rouge you can select the easy option of taking I-12 above the Big Easy and go through Ponchatoula to the north of Lake Pontchartrain, or I-10 through downtown Nawlins; I recommend I-10 but this time I take I-12. The sun is shining, the road is smooth and the traffic is running at 70, and soon you are higher ground with tall Southern pines on both sides. Signs to Colyell and Tangipahoa and to the Baptist Pumpkin Center, across the Tchefuncte River, past the exits to Bogalusa, St Tammany, Lancombe and Slidell. You pick up I-10 and cross into Hancock County, Mississippi on another high bridge with a great view of another vast swamp. And then you pretty much cruise. It’s a long green fairway through the forest, the road inland of the interesting coast line, with the occassional very tall billboards sticking up over the tops of the trees.
On the way into Mobile you catch a sign for Lambert’s Cafe, “The Only Home of Throwed Rolls,” and an invitation to visit America’s Battleship, the USS Alabama. It’s a dramatic downtown and then you are launched out over the water on a long viaduct and you see the great ship and the miraculous blue-green gulf. Back on land you cross the Styx River, not as dramatic as the River Styx but close enough for highway work. Somehow when they were dividing up the coast line Louisiana and Florida managed to short-change Mississippi and Alabama, and you are in Florida before you know it; but still 600 miles from Miami. You cruise through Pensacola and put up in a motel in Marianna, and you have an easy ride of it into Miami on Tuesday.