Thursday, February 25, 2010


Marion, Illinois.

February 25, 2010

I’ve been saving this for a “slow news day,” perhaps a walk where nothing worth noting occurs, but now is a good a time as any to throw it out.

As you know, from time to time I observe things on the road that I can’t quite explain, as hard or as long as I might contemplate them. The silverware conundrum, for instance. Kerry the wandering bum said the spoons were from drug users, but that only accounts for some of the spoons, and doesn’t explain the forks and knives. Then there's the single child’s shoe phenomenon, about which I have a theory, but which still sort of puzzles me. And the localized events, like the West Terre Haute Mass Turtle Dieoff and the llinois Baby Garter Snake Dieoff.

Well, here’s something I’ve been observing throughout the walk, from Michigan on down, for nearly 1700 miles. It has to do with the behavior of drivers.

When I am on a four-lane road that has little or no shoulder, requiring me to walk on or close to the edge of the oncoming lanes of traffic, most cars coming toward me in the outside lane will move over into the inside lane or at least go about halfway over. Police and other emergency vehicles invariably do this. But sometimes cars that are coming toward me in the outside lane will not move over even when there is no traffic in the inside lane and nothing else is preventing them from doing so. They just refuse to give up the outside lane, even though I'm in it. Let's call them Refuseniks. But that's not the curious thing. The phenomenon is that at least 80% of the Refuseniks are women. Women of all ages and ethnicities.

I know men tend to drive bigger vehicles than women do, like fat pickup trucks with wide outside mirrors. And men also tend to drive faster than women do, so they’re more likely to be in the inside lane to begin with. But the Refuseniks are persons who are already in the outside lane and coming toward me, not those in the inside lane. And I’ve observed that men tend to move over, and women tend not to move over, no matter what size vehicles they’re driving.

I regard moving over, when it is possible to do so, as an act of courtesy and safety, and I appreciate it. But since the phenomenon of refusing to move over is such a heavily gender-specific one, I cannot automatically conclude that the high percentage of Refuseniks who are women are discourteous or unsafe drivers. However, they are behaving differently, based on their gender.

We're told that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It's possible that this planetary divide exists behind the wheel, as well. I'm just not sure why, although I have a couple of theories. Perhaps the readers have some ideas.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Primum non nocere

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Walmart parking lot, Hempstead, Texas.

Things have come to an abrupt halt due to multiple mechanical problems with the motor home. I suppose I am overdue for this, since until now everything has gone very smoothly, with the exception of the frozen water situation after Christmas.

Yesterday while I was coming back from having the propane tank filled in Waller, the brake pedal started going to the floor. My first thought was to add brake fluid, if only as a temporary fix, but for the life of me I can't find the master cylinder. I even had a "brake specialist" at the local Auto Zone try to find it, and he couldn't, either. He was very nice and friendly, and apologetic, concluding with, "Sorry I couldn't hep ya, Bubba." The problem is that there are so many extra systems in a motor home that something is probably covering it up. People say, "well it's got to be right there in front of the brake pedal somewhere." And I agree--so find it already.

But that's not the only thing. For some time the engine has been running rough and gas mileage going down, and yesterday I figured I'd try for the "cheap fix" on that, by putting in some tune-up parts myself. So I replaced the distributor cap, rotor, spark plugs, ignition wires, and for good measure the air filter. All afternoon I labored on the beast, cursing myself the whole time for having even untertaken the task, given how many years it's been since I've worked on a car. And even back when I did, my knowledge was limited. When I finally got the last plug and wire changed and started it up, it ran even rougher than before. The timing is off, or something. I had evidently violated a precept of the automotive version of the Hippocratic oath, primum non nocere--first, do no harm.

Then this morning as I was taking something to the car I noticed that hot water was spewing from the drain and pressure valve of the water heater, located on the outside of the motor home near the door. So that's shot, too, and must be replaced. For this job I have a guy making a house call this afternoon over here in the Walmart parking lot. (The above photo was taken east of Houston a few walks ago, and not here at Walmart.)

After several calls to local mechanics I found one who would work on the brakes and engine. It's Tommy, from TAT Automotive. But there's a problem. Tommy won't get to it until next Monday. He's not the only one I checked with who will be glad to work on it, but can't get to it right away. But he's the closest to Walmart. So unless I get lucky with another phone call or two, I may be looking at taking the motor home to Tommy.

All that leaves me with some new options. I've always planned to take a break and go to Michigan for a week or ten days for R&R and to do my taxes, but I'd figured that for mid-March. Looks like this might be the time. I don't see myself staying in Hempstead for another week.

That's all for now. As someone said, more will be revealed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 92: Concrete Heaven

Day 92: Cypress to Hempstead. 19.2 miles/1687.8 total

Monday, February 22, 2010

I’m at Bauer Road and U.S. 290, heading down the access road for a few miles until I get to Business 290, which diverges a bit from the expressway and goes through a few small towns—Hockley, Waller, Prairie View, and Hempstead, my destination.

It’s cool and cloudy, in the upper 40s. The forecast calls for it to get into the low 60s, but I’ll believe that when I see it. After two days of walking in a t-shirt I’m back to wearing several layers and putting my hood up.

After two miles I pass a gravel yard. The almost perfect conical piles of gravel, sand, and stone, poured out from an elevator of some kind, remind me of photos of the Pyramids. And I marvel at the technology that makes these piles possible, just as people marvel at the Egyptian structures. I always get a kick out of those who say that the Pyramids and Stonehenge and things down in South America must have been built by aliens, because they just can’t figure out how they were done. I know a lot of that is just fodder for places like the History Channel, but it seems to me that we should be concentrating our efforts on figuring out exactly how the ancients accomplished these tasks instead of concluding, like a bunch of children, that it must have happened supernaturally. I'm assuming that the way the Pyramids were built was one block at a time, over a very long period, with very long ramps, lots of slave labor, and probably some beasts of burden, like maybe elephants. Likewise Stonehenge, except for the elephants. Tedious, but no mystery. And yet they can fill hours on those channels with so-called experts scratching their heads like chimps and coming to no conclusions. What a showcase of modern stupidity in the face of ancient ingenuity.

The other piece of that absurdity is that people would think aliens, were they able to get here, would spend their time constructing silly things like Pyramids, given their level of technical expertise.

A few miles into the walk Business 290 diverges from the expressway, and I take it. I come upon a herd of Texas Longhorn cattle. These guys are carrying racks almost as wide as the cattle are long. Amazingly long horns. A few weeks back I saw some of what I thought were longhorns, but they evidently weren’t.

Business 290 of course was 290 before the expressway was built. It goes along the railroad tracks with towns spaced about five miles apart, just like most of the U.S. highways. Hockley, the community I’m passing through (or bypassing) now, was established by George Washington Hockley, in 1835. That’s about all I could find out about it, except that A.J. Foyt has a ranch around here somewhere.

A word or two about road surfaces, from the point of view of the long-distance walker. Concrete is the hardest surface, of course. Most of yesterday and the day before I walked on concrete. As you drive you don’t notice much difference between asphalt and concrete, but over a twenty-mile distance walking on concrete will tire out the legs and feet more than the slightly softer asphalt. Walking on dirt and grass are softer yet, but often they are uneven surfaces, filled with bumps and potentially ankle-turning holes. Hard packed dirt, with no stones or trap rock, is probably the ideal surface to walk on, unless it’s wet. Today I’m walking on asphalt mostly, here on the edge of the outside lane of Business 290, a lightly traveled four and five lane road. Actually Astroturf would be the better, I think, but they don’t use it for roads.

On the way into Waller I’m joined for a half mile or so by a friendly yellow and white dog, who accompanies me into town, stopping regularly to sniff and urinate on light posts. He lets me pet him, then wants to play. But his days are numbered, I fear, because he has a habit of loping out into the road with no regard to whether there’s traffic. Eventually he ambles off behind a building.

Waller is in Waller County, but it’s not the county seat. That’s Hempstead. Waller’s a town of a little over 2,000. The county and the town were named for Edwin Waller, one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Waller was a big cheese in the early Texas Republic. He was chosen by President Mirabeau Lamar (author of the poem “The Daughter of Mendoza”) to lay out the grid for the new capital, Austin. He served as its first mayor. Waller was still around when Texas seceded from the union, and signed the secession ordinance, too.

The town stretches for a mile or so on both sides of the highway and the railroad tracks. A succession of one and two story buildings, a grain elevator, two hardware stores, a bank, and three antique store/flea markets. But no pocket knives. Anything of commercial value in Waller is probably up by the expressway, a half mile north.

Ahead of me about a mile or so is something I haven’t seen much of for a couple of months—a hill. It’s a slight rise in the road, that’s all. I know that Houston’s highest point is about 125 feet above sea level, and that Austin’s elevation is about 500 feet, so I am going gradually uphill. On the other side of Austin the elevation will climb much more dramatically, and by the time I get to New Mexico I’ll be at about 3,200 feet.

One of the billboards of which I’ve seen a number since I got into Texas reads, “Budweiser. El autentico sabor de Texas.” Which reminds me that there are, as you might imagine, a lot of Mexicans in Texas, about 36% of the population. I say Mexicans rather than Hispanics, because I assume almost all the Hispanics hereabouts are from Mexico. Which makes sense, since Texas was Spanish and then Mexican before it was part of the U.S. So some were here already. But of course the majority have arrived relatively recently. Coming back home.

The clouds have dispersed and the sun has come out, but there’s no way the temperature is going to reach 60. It might be in the low 50s.

I enter Prairie View, population 4,410. Prairie View is home to Prairie View A & M University, a traditionally black school of about 6,300 students, the second oldest state college in Texas. All of that lies about a mile to the north of where I’m walking now.

On the way into Hempstead I pass a place called Frazier’s Concrete Heaven. And if there’s a concrete heaven, this must be it. On both sides of the building is a vast Elysian field of items made of concrete and plaster—statues of gods and goddesses, nude men and women, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, lions with their paws on balls, huge pineapples, birdbaths, fountains. A bronze fireman in full regalia, a weeping angel prostrate on a gravestone, a soldier saluting. Gargoyles, horses, benches, tables, little Mexicans with sombreros, deer, gorillas, sea serpents.

Then I enter Hempstead, population 4,691. Hempstead was founded in the 1850s as a railroad town. Later it became famous for its watermelon crop, and in the 1940s was the largest shipper of watermelons in the U.S. Billy and Angela Dilorio were known as the Watermelon King and Queen. The town still holds an annual Watermelon Festival in July. I notice as I walk into town that Dilorio’s produce market is still alive and well. No watermelons now, of course, unless there are some concrete ones down the road.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day 91: Riding the Serpent

Houston to Cypress. 20 miles/1668.6 total

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leaving from the parking lot of Walmart on the northwest side of Houston, in the area called Fairbanks, heading out U.S. 290 through Jersey Village, Satsuma, and Cypress.

It’s overcast but warm, in the 60s already, with the temperature expected to get up into the low 70s. It’s misting and raining lightly off and on, but should clear up later in the day.

I’ll be walking along the access road next to Highway 290 all day. I thought about taking another day off and seeing more of Houston. There’s an art museum I’d like to visit. But I think I’ll leave Houston behind now and get started toward Austin, a city that interests me more. I did spend a day off exploring the city, and of course walked through it yesterday, so I think I’ve given Houston a pretty fair shake. Still, it’s so vast that I know I can’t have done it justice.

Walking along next to a small patch of woods right by the road, I happen to look in where there’s a path, and see a small collection of tents in a little clearing in the middle about fifty feet in. There’s a fire going outside one of them. I realize there are people living in this copse. The area is strewn with trash and shopping carts. Houseless people. I see them everywhere, sitting or standing by expressway exits, begging, sometimes sleeping. Today they're not out. I guess they wait for the weekday traffic. Right now they’re having Sunday brunch, I expect. I have no desire to disturb them, so I back out quietly.

I’m walking facing the eastbound access road now. The noise of the traffic is loud and incessant. I’m walking by buildings devoted, abstractly, to “business”—insurance companies, banks, places whose names offer “solutions” or “innovation.” Chunky two and three story glass enclosures, empty on this Sunday morning, their parking lots clear. Places with nicely landscaped lawns and good quality trees and bushes in the spaces between the sidewalks and the lots. Business. It’s a rather arid reality, not urban, or suburban, or rural. Just business. “Where does Daddy work?” “Daddy’s in business. He’s a businessman.” Hyman Roth, the businessman. “And I said to myself, ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.’ I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business.”

Of course there are houses, too. Brand new luxury apartment and condo complexes, golf courses, instant neighborhoods of new large houses, their backs to the highway. Their tall hip roofs pop up dark and clean above the noise abatement fences and hedges. And there are plenty of places along here that exist to serve people, especially during their leisure hours. Restaurants, stores of every description. All new stuff. Nothing built before the 90s, and most of it built after 2000. Mile after mile of it. A generation ago, before the six or eight lane expressway and the access roads, I would have been out in the country here. But, like the railroads a century and a half ago, these big highways stretch civilization out into the hinterlands, supplanting the old dusty reptilian squatters with new shiny eager beavers from the city, come out here to get away from it all—to work, play, live, drive, eat. Thus has it ever been.

Meanwhile the highway undulates like a giant serpent, its back arching every couple of miles to let exit and entrance traffic travel under it, waving along until it comes to the a cloverleaf, where the multitude of lanes and underpasses and overpasses splay out in all directions and seem to gyrate like the tendrils of an immense Medusa before settling down again into a dependable straight course.

I’ve officially left Houston and I’m going through the community of Jersey Village. Back in the 1930s one of the residents raised Jersey cattle. In the 50s it incorporated, with a few hundred souls, and in the 80s things began to take off. Now it has 6,880 people, and is growing fast. Satsuma is along here, too, but it’s all the same except for the signs on the water towers.

Now I’m in Cypress Falls, home of the Eagles. Next I come to Cy-Fair High School, which I think stands for Cypress-Fairbanks. The school is enormous—much longer from one end to the other than a high school has a right to be, for the sake of the students. Cypress is another exurban town that blew up into a major suburb, starting in the 1980s, and now has a population estimated at around 46,000. It goes on for mile after mile.

Better than 15 miles into the walk and the expressway is still filled with vehicles and lined with big box stores, cinemas, medical centers, eateries—all the upper middle class amenities. I feel at home. Let the houseless people in the bushes eat biscotti and drink Starbucks coffee.

I stop in Buc-ee’s gas station and convenience store, which has just about anything a traveler could wish for. The sun has come out warm and the place is packed with people zooming here and there. On the Buc-ee’s sound system a woman is singing, over and over, “You don’t bring me anything but down.” They do love to complain.

I’m going past a gigantic outlet mall. Behind it are vast villages of McMansions. “Buy Now!” The signs scream. Fair Oaks, Post Oak, Oak Pointe, Leisure Lake, Lake of the Lakes, Oak of the Oaks.

Almost imperceptibly the terrain rises as I trudge west.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 90: Houston Skyline

Houston. 20.7 miles/1648.6 total

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I leave the Wendy’s parking lot near the intersection of U.S. 90 and I-610, heading southwest into the center of Houston, then northwest up and out of the downtown, on a sort of parabolic route through the city. I’ll be within the city limits for the entire walk, as far as I know.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning, expected to get into the high 60s this afternoon, with clouds coming later in the day.

Off in the distance the Houston skyline is barely visible through a cloud of brownish gray smog. Houstonians have done a great deal to earn this air pollution, expanding and growing their city and its highway system, and fostering the petrochemical industry that feeds the economy. Some of them are almost proud of their poor air quality, sort of like being proud of the way your armpits smell after doing a heavy day of work. And they resent the intrusion of the EPA into their affairs. “Don’t mess with Texas” is the motto here.

This part of 90 is still lined with industry and heavy equipment—drilling pipes, truck trailer lots, truck repair shops, and the occasional gas station and restaurant.

I’m now pushing through to my next milestone, which will be the one hundredth day of walking, probably in a couple of weeks. I’ve also figured out my probable route through New Mexico, whenever I get there. Originally I toyed with the idea of going through Albuquerque or Santa Fe, but after spending part of the afternoon yesterday looking at maps I’ve concluded that would be too great a detour. So I’m going through New Mexico across the southern tier, so to speak.

About half a mile past I-10 I turn off of 90 onto Market Street. I go east into a residential area of small shabby houses, mixed with small automobile-related businesses, welding shops, and so on.

For twenty blocks I walk through a succession of Mexican neighborhoods, past the Bill Martinez Elementary School; the Resurrection School; the Denver Harbor Multi Service Center, a recreation facility and park; the Centro de Neuva Vida Asamblea Apostolica.

Down on both sides of the intersection of Market and Lockwood there’s a large old cemetery, filled with uneven and unattended graves from long ago. It’s the Historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery, according to the sign. Apparently there was once a cotton plantation here, and at some point African Americans organized this as the first black cemetery in the city. Some of the graves were lost when Lockwood Street cut through the middle of the cemetery. Here’s Annie Clay, born in Louisiana in 1850, died in 1920. And Joseph her husband, and their granddaughter. And Maggie Armstrong, 1878-1918. Gone But Not Forgotten.

I turn south onto Lockwood to cross Buffalo Bayou into downtown. I pass Southern Crushed Concrete, a large yard filled with piles of aggregate, stones, dirt, and broken concrete. They sell and collect used concrete, in different grades and sizes, from one-inch pieces all the way to chunks a foot or two across, called rip rap. Some of you probably know what rip rap is, but this comes as news to me. It's the kind of thing you see on man-made embankments and breakwaters and the like.

I turn west on Navigation Boulevard, continuing toward downtown. They’re having elections in Texas soon, probably the primaries. There are dozens of campaign signs along the boulevard. People running for judge, county offices, congressman, governor, you name it. Larry Hinojosa, Bill White, Javier Valenzuela, Olin Boudreaux, Farouk Shami, Rick Ramos, Beverly Melontree, Sheila Jackson-Lee.

In front of Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church and school there’s another old cemetery, enclosed by an iron fence. I look in and see the grave of Fritz Liek, who died in 1873 at the age of 13 years, a student for the Catholic priesthood. And an effigy of what has become my favorite saint, St. Michael the Archangel, with his foot on Satan’s head, his sword ready to pierce his neck.

I make a left on Jensen. There’s an interesting purple tunnel under the railroad tracks, but I stay up at ground level and walk across the tracks. Then I turn onto Franklin, where a great number of the city’s homeless are gathered, lounging about. Probably “homeless” isn’t the right term. Their homes are here, under the expressway bridge, and in various nooks and crannies of Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Houseless is more like it. They eye me warily. Am I one of them, with my baggy sweatshirt and vest full of bulging pockets? Why am I on foot, they wonder? Just a pain in the ass tourist with a lot of gear? Do I represent competition for scarce resources or potential resources of my own? They seem confused.

I go past the brand new twenty-story plus Harris County Courthouse and the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, which I assume means the jail. What looks like the old Harris County Courthouse, a hundred years old or more, is undergoing extensive renovations, with scaffolding all around. Maybe they’re going to turn it into a museum.

Into view comes what looks like the tallest building in the city, and maybe in the state. But there are several just about as tall, so I don’t know. I pass the Magnolia Hotel and the Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, built in 1893. It’s such a pleasure to be in the midst of all these tall buildings, with the occasional shorter and older art deco skyscraper. One such is the Gulf Building, built in 1929, about thirty stories high. Then there’s the 1925 Niels-Esperson Building, an example of the Italian Renaissance style. These little guys hold up well next to their newer cousins. The decade from 1925 to 1935 was probably this country’s best for public architecture. The 1990s and 2000s have been pretty good, too, but in a much different and more streamlined way. Somehow we got our heads out of our asses architecturally, where they had been pretty much from WWII until the mid-1980s. During the horrible 50s and 60s and 70s we couldn’t seem to combine functionality with elegance to save our lives. Buildings looked like concrete bunkers, or plastic and aluminum tinker toys, or spaceships, or just plain linear rectangles like the World Trade Towers. Then somehow people began to figure out how to add curves and other flourishes to all that steel and reflective glass, at least some of the time. Color is still critical and they sometimes get it wrong, with bad black and grey structures that look like they’re covered with soot.

Houstonians have a damn nice downtown going for themselves, I think. I head out Prairie and up Bagby, past the aquarium. Up at the corner of Bagby and Franklin is a little park with a statue of George H. W. Bush, that old Republican apparatchik, facing the downtown that his pals in the oil business built, with as much help as he could give them.

Franklin goes northwest. I pass under I-10. There’s some gentrification going on here, with lots of new apartment and condo complexes on the street. Middle aged white people on bicycles ply the pavement, a sure sign of the upper middle class creeping in. Behind the new housing lurk some of the old shabby one-story houses, though. Franklin turns into Washington and on I go.

Eventually I get onto Hempstead and head northwest up and out of the inner city. Hempstead, with railroad tracks on one side and light industry on the other, pretty much completes the symmetry of today’s walk, which began heading southwest on Highway 90, the same type of thoroughfare.

Then I take Clark off of Hempstead, cutting north up to the 290 expressway. Clark turns into Hollister. The neighborhood changes abruptly. It’s now white collar businesses on a shady boulevard—banks, telephone companies, computer places--big buildings again. Up at 290 I go a couple of blocks to Tidwell Road and Walmart and the motor home.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 89: Garbage Mountains

Crosby to Houston. 19.3 miles/1627.9 total

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I’m heading out from the intersection of U.S. 90 and Crosby-Dayton Road in Crosby, going out across the wide median between the two sides of the highway, to the eastbound lanes so I can walk facing traffic. The median is pretty soggy, and I manage to get my feet soaked. But it’s a bright sunny day in the 50s, expected to get into the low 60s, and I should have plenty of time for them to dry out.

Today’s walk will bring me to within spitting distance of downtown Houston, on the east side at the intersection of Business 90 and I-610, the beltway around the inner city.

After a mile or two I get off U.S. 90 and onto Business 90. The intersection with Texas Route 2100 here will be as close as I come to downtown Crosby, a town of 1,714 settled in 1823 by a guy named Humphrey Jackson over on the San Jacinto River about half a mile west of present-day Crosby. The town got its present name from a railroad man (surprise!) named G.J. Crosby.

I continue to enjoy the cappuccinos from the push-button machines in the convenience stores. They're everywhere. I’ve learned to keep the button pushed for longer than the machine says to, then to pull the cup away when the water comes out at the end, and top it off with regular coffee after the foam subsides. The prevalent brand is now Folger’s, rather than Community Coffee, which dominated throughout Louisiana and into East Texas. Community is a New Orleans-based company, and its coffee, both regular and cappuccino, is good, and became my daily companion throughout my long trek through Louisiana. However, I must say that I prefer the taste of the Folger’s cappuccino, and also the fact that so far the machines have been better maintained. Sometimes the Community cappuccino machines were in need of cleaning, and the coffee had a slightly moldy taste.

Business 90 takes me out into the quiet two-lane country. I come to a historical marker about the aforementioned Humphrey Jackson. He was born in Ireland in 1784 and came to this country in 1808. He settled on a sugar plantation in Louisiana and served in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Unable to manage his plantation without the use of slavery, which he opposed, Jackson came to Texas in 1823 to join Stephen Austin’s colony and settled on land at this site, which as it turned out wasn’t part of Austin’s colony, but did later join it. He was elected to serve as alcalde of this new district. In 1833 he died when he was hit by a falling tree while clearing land.

Soon I cross the San Jacinto River, several hundred yards wide. This marks the outer edge of the urban area, Houston’s Rubicon.

Let me tell you what’s on my mind this morning, since that’s pretty much what the blog is all about. I’m thinking of taking a break from this walk at some point. Not permanently, but for longer than just a week or ten days. Maybe for a season or two. I’ve gone over 1600 miles, which is probably halfway. The physical part is no problem; I’ve long since proven to myself that I can do the whole walk, and I'm probably in better shape than I’ve been in for years. It’s the mental and emotional fatigue that’s becoming difficult. You all remember what Yogi Berra said about baseball, quoted here in a previous post—that it’s ninety percent mental and the other half is physical. I find that applies equally to this walk.

What’s most difficult to deal with is the isolation, which is inherent in the project. I have the laptop and a cell phone, of course, and am in daily contact with my wife, but I miss seeing her and being amid the comforts of my home. Some time away is good; too much time away is not.

I say all this having only been gone for about five or six weeks this time, but knowing that I have four full months of walking to go yet. So I’m thinking of stopping when I get to Austin or maybe to the Texas-New Mexico border. Then again I could change my mind.

Not a whole lot of excitement out here on Business 90. A lot of business. It's widened out to five lanes and is crawling with trucks. Factories, tire stores, gas stations, places piled high with wooden pallets, the Champion Paper Factory, a place called Union Tank Car. Co., a gigantic yard filled with shipping containers stacked five high, forming huge walls of metal off of which the whistles of the freight trains echo. And in between these behemoth undertakings, everywhere, are tiny Mexican food stands, wagons, and restaurants. Taquerias. Pupuserias.

I’ve gone about 15 miles, working my way into Houston. Walking parallel to the railroad tracks, past pastures, junkyards with mean dogs, broken down houses, brand new warehouses, pawn shops. BNSF and Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern engines pull hundreds of cars. Far off on the horizon I can now see the Houston skyline. City skylines are like signatures. Some are famous and recognizable and other are not. I don’t know the Houston skyline, but it’s looming ever closer now, reminding me that this is the largest city I have walked through. Bigger by far than Memphis or New Orleans. In fact, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., with a population of over 2.2 million.

To the north of Business 90 is the low mountain range of Houston’s landfill. In a landscape otherwise flat as a pancake these hundred foot hills of trash stand out, mostly covered over by sod and crisscrossed with truck trails. Over on the west end of the range the garbage is still uncovered, gradually being flattened and compressed by huge bulldozers, birds flying overhead. Millions of plastic bags. I’d love to be able to spend a few hours checking out all that garbage.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 88: He Will Not Hurt Us

Ames to Crosby. 21 miles/1608.6 total

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's another clear sunny day as I set out from next to the railroad tracks in Ames, heading down through Liberty and Dayton, to a spot a little east of Crosby. The first half of the walk will be through these small cities and their outskirts, and the second half will be in the wide open spaces.

The temperature is in the low 40s, expected to get into the high 50s. It got down to around freezing overnight, so it will take some time to warm up.

Very shortly after I begin I leave Ames and enter Liberty, population 8,033. Liberty calls itself “The First City on the Trinity.” That’s the river on the west side of the city. Liberty claims to be the third oldest city in the state, by which I think they mean the third oldest settlement of Americans in what was then Mexican territory. The area was settled by Spanish people in 1752, then in 1831 it became a mostly Anglo city, called Villa de la Santisima Trinidad de la Libertad, meaning, I believe, City of the Most Holy Trinity of Liberty, a bit of a compromise, perhaps, between the interests of the Mexicans and those of the Gringos.

I take the little spur off U.S. 90 into the city center. According to its water tower, Liberty is the home of the Panthers, which I guess is their high school football team. At the corner of Main and Sam Houston stands the Liberty County Courthouse, vintage 1930, a limestone building looking the very picture of the art deco-influenced public architecture of that era, with a nice stylized eagle above the front door, and bas-relief carvings of long horn cows and a train engine and a wagon train, intended to depict the economic underpinnings of the county.

Inside it’s not fancy, but has nice tiled floors. Out on the lawn is a monument to William Logan, the first sheriff of Liberty County, who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, the decisive battle of the Texas war for independence from Mexico.

I go past the courthouse and around the First Methodist Church, a handsome light brown brick building dating from the 1950s. Then down to the City Hall and past the Park Theater, now called the Liberty Opry. The plaque in front of Immaculate Conception Church says this block was designated for Catholic use in 1831 by the Mexican government. In 1846 the Methodists built a church here, but they moved to their present site and the Catholics took this block over again.

Between the railroad tracks and Highway 90 runs Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, which isn’t too shabby as King Drives go. Actually, there’s nothing on it except for a couple of warehouses.

Out past the edge of Liberty I go over the wide high Trinity River, and out onto an alluvial plain, mostly flooded now. The wind is blowing over the water and into my face at about ten miles an hour, adding to the chill.

I see lots of CDs on the side of the road, mostly homemade ones, but here’s something I rarely see. It’s an old 45 rpm record, broken, but with the label intact. It’s Dinah Washington singing “Harbor Lights.” On the B side she’s singing the Hank Williams song, “Your Cold Cold Heart.”

In the middle of the wetlands I leave Liberty and immediately enter Dayton, population 5,709. Dayton was originally called West Liberty, and was part of the original city of Liberty. Gradually it became known as Day’s Town, after a prominent citizen, then Dayton, which became its official name in about 1885.

Dayton was the site of a claimed UFO sighting on December 29, 1980. Two women and the seven-year-old grandson of one of them were driving home when they saw a huge diamond-shaped object hovering at about treetop level, expelling flames and emitting significant heat. They got out to take a look. The grandmother, a born-again Christian, thought it was the second coming of Christ, and told her grandson, “That’s Jesus. He will not hurt us.” The joke was on them. The heat became so intense that it hurt to put their hands on the car. The object then moved higher in the sky and the three got back into the car and went home. But Jesus had put the hurt on them big time. The next day all three began to experience nausea and diarrhea, and soon developed skin lesions and experienced hair loss, all symptoms similar to those of radiation poisoning, or perhaps chemical contamination. Except that they pretty much got better. Eventually the women sued the government for 20 million dollars (because they had seen some military helicopters around the diamond-shaped object), but the lawsuit was dismissed based on the government’s testimony that it did not have a large, diamond-shaped aircraft in its possession. Nor, I imagine, did it have a Jesus in its possession.

To me, the telling fact is that these things always happen in the BFE parts of the country, where people are already somewhat addle-pated just from their cultural environment. "That's Jesus." Or not.

About a mile and a half after I enter the Dayton city limits I begin to climb up and out of the Trinity River basin, toward the town. There’s a historical marker entitled the Runaway Scrape, about the flight of Anglo settlers along this route in 1836, after the Battle of the Alamo. Colonists abandoned their homes and sought refuge in East Texas and Louisiana, assuming they would be slaughtered by the Mexicans. Then they got news of the victory of Sam Houston’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto.

One of the things to keep in mind amid these stirring tales of the Texas war for independence is that they were fighting in part for the right to own slaves. The Mexicans had outlawed slavery in 1829, but the English-speaking Texans were granted a one-year extension. Then in 1830 the president of Mexico ordered all slaves to be freed. This pissed off the noble, freedom-loving, white Texans, and the result a few years later was armed rebellion. Of course the long-range plan in the minds of many was for anschluss with the U.S. as a slave state, which eventually happened.

So for at least 5,000 black people the result of the Texas war for independence was that they could kiss their own independence good-bye.

A little west of Dayton I pass a pasture where a huge black Angus bull is grazing near the fence. Due to my success yesterday I try a little singing, and start in on Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me.” The bull turns his head slowly and gives me a look, as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding. That crap might work on those young steers, with no balls and nothing to do but prance around all day, but I am totally unimpressed."

I stop at the Racetrac gas station to get a couple of things, because this will be the last store of any kind for the rest of the walk, some twelve more miles. Then it’s out into the countryside.

Soon I come to another historical marker. It’s about the town of Stilson, the place the map says is supposed to be here. During the late 1800s a railroad guy named O.H. Stilson set this place up and advertised for people from Iowa to come down and farm the area, which many did, including some Swedes. The town thrived for a few decades, then began to decline when the population gradually began to move to Dayton. The post office closed in 1925, and rural mail delivery out of Dayton took over. Now there’s hardly anything left, except for this marker.

A few miles on down, at a wide spot in the road, an old man is selling elaborate bird houses. He has several of them on the hood and roof of his vehicle. I ask him how much they are selling for and he says $95 each. He doesn’t want to put his window down when I approach, so I have to shout. I realize he’s probably afraid of me, a guy on foot with bulges in his sweatshirt. And he also knows I won’t be buying one of these huge birdhouses and walking off with it. So he gives me the bum's rush.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 87: Centennial Penny

Nome to Ames. 20.9 miles/1587.6 total

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras. I’m leaving from Nome, going through a couple of small places to get to the equally small city of Ames.

It’s clear and sunny, and the temperature is in the high 30s, expected to get into the low 50s. Let’s see if it makes it. There’s a strong cold wind blowing in from the west.

I spent the day off in Beaumont yesterday, and I can tell you that the city is alive and well, especially in the western and northern sections, where every imaginable big box store and chain boutique and restaurant line the affluent boulevards.

I went into the center of the city and visited the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. It has a very small permanent collection, including an Andy Warhol rendering of a Mobiloil sign, a couple of things by Robert Rauschenberg, the Port Arthur native, and two or three paintings by Paul Manes, a Beaumont native. Also they were having an exhibition of a private collection of African American art, including some very nice paintings from the 19th century and a contemporary one I particularly liked called “Dancing,” by Elizabeth Catlett.

Next I went to the American Fire Museum, filled with artifacts of the history of firefighting—old horse drawn wagons, hand pumps, nozzles, early motorized fire trucks—along with explanations of the various innovations as they came into being. Very nicely done. Beaumont, since 1969, has been the home of the American Valve and Hydrant Manufacturing Company, a major maker of hydrants.

Well, back to today. It’s going to be a day of walking in the country. Gradually the tall southern pine trees have become more prevalent. I’ve left Jefferson County and have entered Liberty County.

Here’s a find. A one hundred year old penny. A 1910 Lincoln penny—only the second year they made them. And it’s in good condition, with the lines on the sheaves of wheat clearly visible. The only trouble is that it’s been nicked quite a bit on the obverse and around the edges from being run over, which pretty much shoots its value down. Still, a great find.

The road has narrowed from four lanes to two and the pine trees have closed in on either side. And that, other than the penny, is the only thing worth remarking on so far. I guess it’s time to break out the iPod.

About halfway through the walk I enter the City of Devers, population 416. I see a new road kill species—a pig. A baby feral or wild pig, just a tiny thing, with black hair. At first I think it's a puppy, but then I get a look at the nose and feet, and sure enough, it’s a piglet.

And speaking of dead animals, as I walk into the 2 G’s Country Store and Exxon Station, out front by the road is what looks like the carcass of a wolf or a black German Shepherd. It makes me think of the black wolf that stalked Meriwether Lewis. It’s been there for some time, and only the head, with pointed ears and nose, remains intact and recognizable. Sort of like a very dirty dog-skin rug. The Indian proprietors of 2 G’s don’t seem to care that it’s there, right where cars and trucks turn in to the pumps. Maybe where they come from when a dog dies it stays in the spot where it died until the vultures and crows finish it off. Well, here too. Still....

Outside the store I go around to the porch on the south side and stack a couple of plastic milk crates and sit in the sun, drinking coffee and trying to soak up some heat. The dead dog is about fifty feet away. I’m still wondering whether it’s a dog or a wolf, but I don’t really care to check it out further. Whatever it is, it’s canine, and in a week or two it will be gone.

About twenty white faced cattle are grazing in a pasture west of Devers. Just to see if I still have the touch, I start singing “Werewolves of London,” and sure enough, those damn cows come up to the fence where I’m standing. Not walking, running. As I continue along they follow me, all the way to the end of the fence, a thousand feet down. I missed my calling. I should have been a cowboy.

I enter the next town, Raywood. This one doesn’t have a population on the sign, probably because it’s unincorporated. There are a few things going on here, nevertheless. Three gas stations, a rice storage place. A great big fruit stand. Scott’s Country Cookin’ Barbecue.

Nearing the end I enter Ames, population 1079. Ames has Cookie’s Soul Food Kitchen and Wickliff’s Gas and Grocery. Only there’s no gas. Ames is a mostly African American city, just as Devers and Nome are mostly white cities, but that’s about all I could find out about any of them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day 86: The Long Goodbye

Beaumont to Nome. 20.6 miles/1566.7 total

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I’m heading out this morning from the parking lot across from the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Beaumont, through the city and out Highway 90 to the small city of Nome.

It’s much warmer today. Partly cloudy, expected to rain later in the afternoon, but dry now. Temperature is in the mid 50s, expected to get into the mid 60s. This is more like normal for this time of year around here.

I go past the large Beaumont Public Library, downtown branch, and north up Main Street. The streets are cavernous and empty, which I would expect on a Sunday morning.

Here’s a green copper sculpture of four men, slightly larger than life-sized. They’re wearing suits and look very 20th century. Underneath it says “Men of Vision” and it honors Vic, Sol, Ben and Nate Rogers. They were brothers from a family that come down to Texas from Chicage in the first half of the 20th century and founded an optical company and dealt in real estate. And they got involved in civic things. They probably had something to do with the Texas Energy Museum, in front of which this sculpture is located, or perhaps the next door Art Museum of Southeast Texas. If I were planning things out more carefully, I’d like to visit both these places. But it just happens that I’m here on Sunday morning. Maybe I’ll get back here.

I walk past Bowie Street and turn west on Crockett Street. The first block of Crockett is brick, and blocked off to traffic. It contains a string of fashionable restaurants and bars. There’s nobody here at this hour except me and a guy who is checking the ashtrays under the outside awnings for smokable cigarette butts. He ignores me as I pass, intent on his work. Well at least somebody's downtown.

Even the parking lots of the huge central churches are quiet and mostly empty. At Orleans and Liberty there’s a beautiful block-long art deco building called Kyle’s, most of it empty.

Here’s the federal building and the First Methodist Church, rivaling St. Anthony Cathedral in its dimensions. Down by Broadway and Forrest I go by Congregation Temple Emanuel. The congregation began in 1887, and this building was built in 1923. Rotund and solid.

Although it has its share of vacant lots and empty storefronts, downtown Beaumont looks like it probably bustles during the week when the courts and banks are open, then closes up tight after dark, which is pretty standard for many American cities.

I’m out on U.S. 90 now, saying the long goodbye to Beaumont, which drags on for several miles of fast food joints and small businesses.

Well out into the country and almost halfway through the walk I leave the city limits of Beaumont. I come to a cemetery called the Claybar Haven of Rest Cemetery and Crematory. Here the graves are American style, and the dead have mostly English names. I sit on a pink marble bench that reads “Balcom” across from Mrs. B, who died a few years ago, and is waiting for Mr. B. to join her. He’s probably in no hurry. So much grief has filled this piece of ground. So much sadness. Sometimes I feel that more than the peace of the place.

The railroad tracks run parallel to Highway 90, and at least four long freight trains have passed this afternoon, all heading west. At 15 miles I enter China, population 1112. The smell of cow shit greets me. A child’s bicycle lies half-submerged in the ditch. The sun shines brightly, and I think I’m going to beat the showers that are moving in slowly from the west.

The name of this place comes from the fact that the railroad water stop in the late 1800s sat in a grove of China Berry trees. A post office was set up under the name China Berry, and later the name was shortened to China.

I stop at the Snappy Mart Exxon station. Inside as the Indian guy is ringing up my drink I am tempted to say to him, “When you came here all the way from India did you expect to end up in a place called China?” I don’t. He bobbles his head pleasantly and says, “Have a good vun.”

Here’s Mr. Snip’s barber shop. The center of China lies a block north of the intersection and there are a few streets of houses to the south. Out in front of the Church of Our Blessed Lady of Sorrows there’s a little brick serenity garden, nicely planted with bushes and low trees. I take a seat on the bench and relax. A sign in front of me says “In Memory of Uncle Earl Kibodeaux.” I raise my diet Coke to Uncle Earl.

The sign at the other end of China is exactly like the one I passed when I entered the place a couple of miles back. I’ve noticed that they do that in Texas, at least so far. They use the same sign to designate the end of the city limits, with the population on it, as they use at the beginning. This is potentially confusing, especially if you aren’t paying attention and happen to miss the first sign. You’ll think you’re entering a place when you’re leaving it.

The change is coming in pretty well in Texas so far. I have found $1.18 in three days, about half of that today. Change and silverware. And a few hand tools. Not much road kill yet.

Very near the end of today’s walk, at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Texas Route 326, I see the sign that says I’m entering Nome, population 515. The internet says it was a stop on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad called Congreve Station back in the 1860’s, but when they discovered oil in the early 1900s and people started coming in, the name got changed to Nome because the influx reminded them of the Alaska gold rush. A bit of a stretch, if you ask me. Despite its rather small population, Nome incorporated as a city in 1971.

And that's it. A rather uneventful day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day 85: Empty Beaumont

Bridge City to Beaumont. 20 miles/1546.1 total

Saturday, February 13, 2010

I’m in the wide median of Texas Route 87 just south of the Rainbow Bridge, heading through Port Arthur and then to Beaumont.

It’s overcast, with no rain predicted for today. It’s in the high 30s, expected to get into the high 40s. Maybe a little sunshine later.

Almost immediately I pass the Golden Triangle Veteran’s Memorial Park and I go in to have a look. It’s a collection of military hardware—a tank, a big gun, a helicopter, an anchor, a jet fighter—plus a miniature Statue of Liberty. In the middle of this arsenal of democracy are the names of the local people who have served in various wars, and the names of those who died. The Golden Triangle, by the way, is the area of Orange, Port Arthur, and Beaumont.

Across the road from the memorial is a large refinery or petrochemical plant, I’m not sure which, spewing out lots of steam, so much so that it creates its own weather along this part of the highway.

On Route 87 heading to Port Arthur I pass a succession of little one-story buildings--the Club Jaguar, a small Masonic Lodge, a little bar painted turquoise called Los Tres Reyes, a place called The Trilogy, and one whose sign says "Las Chicas Sexy, Opening Soon."

Right before I turn off of Texas 87 I pass the First Baptist Church, a brobdingnagian red brick structure sprawling out in all directions. Boy, these white Baptists sure do build ‘em big.

I realize I’m only skirting the outer edges of Port Arthur. I will say that it is the hometown of Janis Joplin and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. There is probably something in honor of these people downtown, but I will miss it. Port Arthur is a city of about 57,000, and was once the center of the largest oil refining region in the world.

I head north by northwest up Texas 347. I go past a large hideous high school, dating from the 60s, with the linear design, aluminum trim, and colored panels that were all too prevalent during that unfortunate era in public architecture.

Up past the high school the neighborhood is tidy and residential, with live oaks growing in the middle of a boulevard running off the highway.

Out here on the road I take comfort in things that used to repel or bore me. Walmarts, half-mile-long strip malls containing beauty parlors, jewelry stores, Radio Shacks, dentist’s offices, Chinese restaurants. Large car and truck dealerships filled with gas-guzzling mega-pickups and nobody gives a damn whether they get good mileage or not.

I cut across busy 347 to Greenlawn Memorial Park. It’s mostly English-style graves and headstones, with a scattering of French above-ground vaults. And some large mausoleums, too. One that’s particularly prominent is the Costello tomb, consisting of a vault on a raised marble platform, with vividly colored statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I mean these statues look like something out of an old Disney cartoon, they’re so bright. Entombed here is Fatima Costello, who was born in 1949 and died in 2003, and next to her is space for Mr. Costello, who evidently put this huge deal up in his grief. Across the little paved road is another Costello tomb, this one containing the old folks, Bob and Dorothy Costello, born in the 1920s.

In more modest graves there are Whites, Lambs, Laceys, Trahans, and a Guidry or two. And Shirley and Vernon Shexnayder, like that priest in Crowley. Since my cousin tells me it is a Belgian name, I wonder if it has a German version, as well, and I think of Emmanuel Schikaneder, the Viennese who wrote the libretto of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute.

A few miles up 347 I go through Nederland, a suburb of Port Arthur, with about 17,000 souls. Nederland was settled by Dutch people in the late 19th century, and two of the prominent families were named Rienstra and Doornbos. We have plenty of both up in Kent County, Michigan. Today the mix is more local, with Cajuns and Anglos. According to Wikipedia this area has lots of refinery workers and has been heavily pro-union.

In mid-afternoon I enter the city limit of Beaumont, population 113,866. Beaumont has been around since the 1830s, and like other nearby towns was built on lumber, rice, cattle, and oil. I’m still a long way from the center of the city. In fact, it’s more bucolic here than it has been all day. There’s a cow pasture or two, and an armadillo is nosing around in the shallow ditch as I pass. It lets me get pretty close before shuffling away.

I take the cutoff from 347 onto Texas 380, also known as Martin Luther King Drive. A little way down is Lamar University, with over 13,000 students. It is part of the Texas state university system. Sure enough, it was named, in 1932, after Mirabeau B. Lamar, the 2nd president of the Republic of Texas.

I pass the Dishman Art Gallery at the edge of the campus of Lamar University. It’s amazing how many art museums there are tucked away in universities and cities like Beaumont and Orange, sort of off the beaten track of the art world. And they often have a work or two by someone who is world famous, as sort of the jewel of the collection. The Dishman is closed, so I won’t be able to check it out.

There’s some guy named Farouk running for governor of Texas. I’m seeing his signs along here. His full name is Farouk Shami, and he’s a millionaire from Houston, running for the Democratic nomination. Don’t know anything more about him than that.

It has warmed up and the sun is out here in the late afternoon in Beaumont. After Lamar University and Lamar Institute of Technology there’s an empty space along 380, which is almost an expressway here. Beaumont, the good and the bad of it, is laid out as if they had all the room in the world when they built the city. The streets are wide and the spaces between the large downtown buildings are wide, made even more so by the vacant lots that have been left from demolition. You can almost picture tumbleweeds tumbling down the streets.

Beaumont is the birthplace of Johnny Winter. Johnny and his brother Edgar. Johnny, the insanely thin tattoo-covered albino virtuoso, who just might be the Paganini of the electric guitar. What he lacks in elegance and subtlety and soul he makes up for it in pure speed. I think his collaboration with Muddy Waters in the late 1970s, during which he produced and played on three Muddy albums and toured with him, was some of his best work. Playing with Muddy Waters forced Johnny to slow down a bit and pay attention to his phrasing instead of just playing as many notes as possible in the time allotted. Muddy mellowed him out, I think.

At nearly 20 miles I arrive at the junction of 380 and U.S. 90. Instead of going west I go east on 90 toward downtown Beaumont, where the motor home is parked in a large vacant lot next to the railroad tracks. On the next walk I will go west on 90, after I’ve toured the center of the city.

The streets of Beaumont are quiet. I could walk down the middle of Highway 90. There’s some activity at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica. St. Anthony is a big red Italianate church, very grand, with four massive gray marble columns across the front. In front are three sets of bronze double doors. Above the doors is the inscription “MATER ECCLESIA, PORTA CAELI.” Mother church, gate of heaven. I tell you, the Catholics know how to roll. None of those converted store-front churches for them. If you’re going to claim to be the church, you’ve got to be bigger than any of the rest, even the Baptists.

St. Anthony was founded in 1879, and this church was dedicated in 1907. It became a cathedral in 1966, and a minor basilica in 2006. They’re having Saturday afternoon service, so I don’t venture in.

From the steps of St. Anthony I can see the motor home, a couple of blocks away, across the Italian American Society Piazza.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day 84: The Yellow Eye of Texas

Louisiana Welcome Center to Bridge City, Texas. 19.7 miles/1526.1 total

Friday, February 12, 2010

I park in the Welcome Center on I-10 and head west for the bridge over the Sabine River and into Texas, where I will go through Orange and Bridge City.

It’s cold. Earlier this morning before the rain stopped it was coming down as snow flurries. I understand other parts of the south got snow, too. Now it’s overcast and about 35 degrees, probably the coldest day I’ve had so far on this journey.

I’m trying to keep a low profile here on the expressway, where pedestrians are prohibited. I’m way down in the ditch now, and heading toward an abandoned car on the side of the road, so everyone will think it’s my car, and after I pass it they’ll think I’m going to the next exit to get help, or whatever.

Except for the heavy traffic, this is a very safe bridge to walk over. The shoulder is almost two lanes wide, giving about fifteen feet and some rumble strips between me and the oncoming cars.

At 1.6 miles I reach the center of the bridge, halfway over the Sabine River. I am now in Texas, leaving Calcasieu Parish and entering Orange County. And for my friends who understand the reference, let me say, GOD DAWG! I JUST GOT INTO TEXAS!

Just a few feet before the state line I stop to pick up my last money in Louisiana, a quarter. Shortly thereafter I pick up a quarter and a dime, my first Texas money. And, in what might be a sign of some kind, the sun comes out for a few seconds, like the big yellow eye of Texas. (That's what Lewis Carrol might have called a "portmanteau" phrase--combining "The Yellow Rose of Texas" with "The Eyes of Texas," both of which I've been singing as I go, to the limited extent that I can remember the words.) After a little over three miles I get off the interstate and down onto the Highway 90 business route, without incident.

It’s time for a Louisiana statistical wrap-up. I entered Louisiana on January 11 and I’m leaving it on February 12. I walked 20 full days and two partial days in the state, for a total of 407.1 miles, the most in any state so far. I averaged 19.8 miles per full day, including that 12 mile day I had in New Orleans. I found $10.28 in change, plus a dollar bill, easily the most of any state so far. I got 18 ride offers, a little less than one per day. After I got down out of the Florida Parishes and New Orleans and into Cajun country the ride offers became more frequent.

And now the all-important road kill numbers. Here I must say that there were hundreds of animals I didn’t count because I couldn’t identify them. Possums led the way with 70, followed by 61 birds. I counted mostly larger birds, like egrets, ducks, one pelican, hawks, owls. There were many little songbirds I didn’t count because I wasn’t sure they’d been hit by cars. Next came 39 raccoons, 22 rabbits, 14 cats, 13 armadillos, 9 turtles, 8 dogs, 6 skunks, 5 minks, 3 frogs, 2 nutrias, 2 squirrels, 2 groundhogs, 2 snakes, 1 deer, 1 rat, 1 beaver, 1 mouse, and 1 otter.

And to the State of Louisiana I bid a fond adieu. Like each new state I enter, I entered Louisiana with some trepidation and uncertainty, but after a few days began to feel right at home there. I hope the same thing happens in Texas, because I’ll be here for a hell of a long time.

At a little over six miles I enter Orange, a city of approximately 19,000. Orange’s early wealth was built on the timber industry, and it later became a deep-water port. I walk by Lamar State College of Orange. The name Lamar is big in Texas history. I don’t know specifically who the Lamar of Lamar State College is, but a guy named Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar was the 2nd President of the Republic of Texas, from 1838 to 1841. Later he wrote a poem called “The Daughter of Mendoza,” a minor league ode that continues to make it into anthologies of American poetry. Probably its best verse goes like this:

How brilliant is the morning star,
The evening star how tender,--
The light of both is in her eyes,
Their softness and their splendor.
But for the lash that shades their light
They were too dazzling for the sight,
And when she shuts them all is night—
The daughter of Mendoza.

Well, back to Orange. Its streets are wide. I pass the First Baptist Church, which from a distance I thought was the city hall or the county courthouse. It’s a big broad brick affair with a silver dome on top, looking more like a public building than a church.

Down the street there’s the beautiful W. H. Stark House, a sprawling Victorian job painted two shades of green, and across from that is the modern white Stark Museum of Art. I go inside to check it out.

The Stark Museum was started by Henry Jacob Lutcher Stark, 1887-1965, and his wife Nelda Stark, who died in 1999. It contains much of the private art collection of these two, including paintings by N. C. Wyeth, Albert Bierstadt, Georgia O’Keefe, paintings and sculptures by Frederic Remington, and sculptures by Charles M. Russell. Also some Audubon engravings. Everything is around the western theme—cowboys, Indians, landscapes, and so on. Very nice. Food for the soul on this cold gray day.

Henry Jacob Lutcher Stark was the grandson of H. J. Lutcher, a wealthy timber baron, so he had plenty of money to spend on art to enrich his native Orange. On down the street is another domed building, the First Presbyterian Church, a gigantic pink marble Greek Revival building dating to 1912. This was originally the Lutcher Memorial Church, dedicated to the memory of old H. J. Lutcher himself, who had just died. The place is locked, but the stained glass windows in front have a Pre-Rafaelite look to them. The marker out front says they were prize-winning windows from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The dome is topped by a copper cupola.

I pass the Dies Building, containing law offices. One of the lawyers is named Martin Dies. I’ll bet he’s a descendant of Martin Dies, Jr., the red-baiting Texas congressman who started the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I pass out of Orange, past smells of Mexican food and fried chicken. Little by little the culture of a state emerges, often subtly. I don’t know if this indicates anything, but at the gas station where I just bought a cappuccino there was a rack of magazines up by the cash register, and at the top, next to Seventeen and Teen Vogue was a copy of Combat Arms magazine. Something for the boys.

Over the second of four bridges for today, I enter West Orange, and the sign says the population is 4,187. A memorial garden is filled with bronze vases full of brightly-colored artificial flowers (and, as I discover later, glow-in-the-dark crosses). No Louisiana-style French vaults here. I stop in to check out the surnames. Mostly Anglo. White, Kelley, McKinney, Beulah Mae Teal and Raymond Lewis Teal. [I wondered whether this was the same Ray Teal who played Sheriff Coffee on Bonanza, but the dates didn’t match when I looked him up. I also found out that the actor Ray Teal was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan.]

The temperature has hit 40 degrees according to a bank sign. I begin to cross the third bridge of the day, which goes into Bridge City, population 8,651, a city so named because it has bridges on both sides of it. Actually it was called Prairie View until the Rainbow Bridge was finished in the late 30s. The one I’m on now crosses Cow Bayou, and the eastbound side of the bridge, on which I’m walking against traffic, is low, whereas the westbound side arches up more than thirty feet higher. Not quite sure what’s going on here, but maybe they’re going to replace this low piece with another like the high one, so watercraft can go under.

Bridge City is a fairly young community, mostly laid out here along Texas Route 87. It has interesting goose neck street lights leaning over the street from the west side. At about 15 miles I pass the Walmart where I’ll be staying tonight, and head into the wetlands and marshes outside of town toward the last bridge of the day, the Rainbow Bridge. This is one of two bridges, like the last one, but these two are much higher. The Rainbow, the older of the two, is a cantilever bridge finished in 1938. At 170 feet it's the highest bridge in the state. The northbound span, completed in 1990, is called the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge. It’s a cable-stayed bridge, a little lower than its neighbor, and it’s the one I’ll be walking across, which is good, because I wouldn’t walk on the Rainbow Bridge.

There’s a wide shoulder on this bridge and it should be no problem. I begin my steep ascent. Off in the distance are several refineries, lights beginning to twinkle like miniature city skylines in the late afternoon. I see a pelican taking off lazily over the marsh below me. At the top I look out over the Neches River and at the Gulf of Mexico to the east. Far away in front of me I spot the motor home, parked in a turnaround in the wide median between the two sides of traffic. It’s about a mile away as I begin to descend the 150-foot span.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Day 83: The Middle Way

Sulphur to Louisiana Welcome Center. 21.2 miles/1506.4 total

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The car is parked in a vacant lot at the corner of Lewis St. and Highway 90 in Sulphur. I'm heading down 90 to where it merges with I-10, and then a couple of miles to the Louisiana Welcome Center just this side of the Texas line.

Today will be my last full day of walking in Louisiana. My reconnaissance this morning indicated that I should be able to walk across the I-10/U.S. 90 bridge over the Sabine River into Texas on the next walk. It’s a wide bridge with an ample shoulder. The only trick will be not to attract the attention of the police.

Sulphur is a fairly tidy older industrial town, perhaps along the lines of Clawson, except for that ubiquitous southern tendency not to do a great deal in the way of zoning. Zoning isn't the whole problem, really. There’s zoning, all right. Here it appears to be mixed use commercial and light industrial, and in a few blocks it will be residential. Where the trashiness comes in is from the lack of enforcement (or maybe even the existence) of what we would call building codes. So yes, this is commercial, but if one of the businesses is burned out or the roof falls in and they take their time demolishing it, or if the business is being run out of a broken-down trailer, that’s fine. Similarly, when a place is zoned residential they often don’t care what kind of dwelling is on the property. This morning I went through a neighborhood of mostly trailers and modular houses where several people were living in school buses. Old yellow school buses, with wooden stairs going up to the back doors. And the utility companies apparently will hook up lines to a school bus. Also, in the south generally, I think they have a couple of subcategories of residential zoning we don’t have in the north, like Slave and Master.

There’s not much between Sulphur and Vinton, the only town of any size I’m going through today. So for the next twelve miles or so I’m out in the country. A few miles into the walk I make the acquaintance of a fellow traveler, who is on the other side of the road, walking but hoping for a ride. I passed him earlier, but we meet at a gas station where we’ve both stopped.

His name is Kerry, and he’s coming from Gainesville, Florida, headed for his home in Alaska, by way of California. He’s carrying a small backpack and wearing several layers of clothing. He’s missing about half his teeth and smells like booze already at a little before noon, but he’s not drunk. There’s no comfortable motor home waiting for him at the end of the day—just whatever shelter he can find in the town he ends up in, or maybe a spot beside the road. Kerry tells me he’s 63, and just enjoys being on the road. Says he was in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, and now he’s headed to the Gulf coast of Texas to stay with some people.

He tells me he was hauled in by the cops between Crowley and Jennings the night before last, and held in handcuffs for an hour while they checked him out, finally letting him go. I tell him that might be because of the serial killer in Jennings and he says he knows, that the police told him all about it. He was walking late at night to stay warm because it was too cold to sleep. For all that he's generally complimentary about the way the cops treated him. Evidently he's had worse.

We talk about finding things on the side of the road—tools, knives, money. He says he found $360 and some weed in a Marlboro pack once. I can’t beat that, with my pennies and nickels. I ask him about the metal silverware and he nods right away. He says the spoons are from people cooking dope. "When you see a spoon you’ll see the syringe a little while later." I’d thought of that already, and I say it makes sense for the spoons, but how does he explain the forks and knives? He shakes his head. “I have no idea.” So the mystery continues.

Kerry tells me to avoid Albuquerque, that there are gangs of Indians who don’t like white people, and not to go there after dark. I tell him that I never walk after dark anyway, and ask him about Santa Fe. That’s a nice city, he says. "Clean." I’ve been to both cities myself, but not on foot, of course. I agree with him that Santa Fe is nicer than Albuquerque, and I take his advice seriously, even though I’m not going to be walking around at night and staying in shelters, like him.

Something about Kerry just sort of broadcasts the fact that he’s a potential victim, drifting from town to town, whereas I don’t think I project quite the same image. More teeth, less baggage, perhaps more clear-eyed determination, and no hanging around bars late at night, all of which help to increase my safety. So far, so good.

Still, the idea of a person being truly on his own, with nothing but what he's carrying, is part of the freedom I romantically envisioned when I first began to contemplate this undertaking. But I guess that freedom comes at a cost—being rousted by cops and targeted by thugs and having to wonder whether you’re going to be able to sleep or have to keep walking.

I suppose it’s fair to say that I’ve chosen what might be termed the Middle Way—something between the unencumbered open road with nothing to lose and the potential for a world of pain on the one hand, and the Griswold family trip to Wally World in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster on the other. Maybe leaning a little toward the latter. But I’ll take it.

At eight miles I take Louisiana 388 off of Highway 90 into Edgerly. There’s an old rice dryer (which I know to be such because it’s located at the end of Rice Dryer Street). It looks like a skeleton of its former self—a huge empty ruin of a building, made of concrete and fifty feet high or more, with mostly windowless walls covered with dead vines and a few empty windows at the top, like black eyes. Cattle now graze in what used to be a parking lot next to the dryer.

Otherwise, Edgerly is nothing to speak of. I’m back out on U.S. 90. Finally at about 13 miles I get to the edge of Vinton. There’s something that looks like that rice dryer in Edgerly, looming high over the town. Vinton is a town of about 3,300, and is the birthplace of bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who lived here and in Orange, Texas, just over the state line.

This area, between the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers, was once part of a literal no-man's land. It lay in the disputed boundary between the Louisiana territory just bought by the U.S. and the Spanish lands to the west. In 1805 negotiations broke down and both countries agreed not to settle the area, called the Rio Hondo Territory. So all the settlers were cleared out and relocated. Things didn't change much until after the Civil War when a guy named Seaman Knapp came down from Iowa with a bunch of fellow Iowans, to get involved in the lumber business. Around the same time the Louisiana and Texas Railroad decided to build a line from New Orleans to Beaumont, Texas, which ran right through here. That's when things began to take off to the limited extent they did. Vinton, Iowa was where Seaman Knapp had come from, and hence the name.

Most of the town lies to the south of Highway 90, down by I-10. I stop at the Circle A Mini Mart to see if they have coffee. But nothing doing—they have half a pot that’s been turned off for a long time. So I go on to the Texaco station, where I have better luck—they have the super sweet cappuccino I have become addicted to lately.

Vinton has a dusty little downtown going, and at least one more gas station on 90, a Citgo. Then it’s back out to the countryside for a few more miles, where the road stretches straight ahead without curving.

I go by a small herd of cattle, perhaps fifteen adults and eight calves scattered around. I begin singing “Mister Bad Example” and they do just what they did last time, gathering together and clustering around the fence right in front of where I’m standing, looking at me. Ordinarily cattle run away when they see or hear me coming. I start singing another Warren Zevon tune, “Carmelita,” just to see what happens. They like it, and begin mooing back at me. Well, one of two things is going on here as I see it—either cattle like Warren Zevon songs or they like my singing voice (which I assure you is not good, at least from a human perspective). Perhaps I’ve found an audience. Next time I’ll try some Bob Dylan and see what they do.

At 18 miles I get to where Highway 90 merges with I-10. Before crossing over the expressway I stop in at the Lucky Longhorn Casino for one last video poker session in Louisiana, and quickly win a dollar. I think I’m ahead now for this state, and I’ll settle for that.

I begin walking down the access road on the right side of the expressway, until it curves away in a different direction. Then I go down into the wide ditch on the edge of I-10. Eventually I spy another road running parallel to the highway, and walk through fifty feet or so of woods and climb a fence to walk get to it. That road soon ends and I’m back walking through the weeds in the ditch, past the truck weigh station. At last, after about another mile, I get to the exit lane from the Welcome Center, where the motor home awaits.

Day 82: El Anglo Loco

Iowa to Sulphur. 20.2 miles/1485.2 total

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I depart this morning from in front of the post office in Iowa, heading down Highway 90 to Lake Charles and over the lake into its twin city, Sulphur.

It’s about 40 and cloudy, heading up only into the high 40s. The thunderstorm we had last night has passed over and brought this cold front behind it, with a stiff breeze from the northwest.

I’m facing a problem I didn’t think I’d have after New Orleans. There are only two bridges across Lake Charles, and they are both on interstate highways. U.S. 90 merges with I-10 just before the bridge I have to cross, and although the bridge predates the interstate system, having been built under Governor Earl Long, it’s not meant for pedestrians. A narrow four-lane job that is treacherous enough for vehicular traffic, let alone for a walker. So I’m forced to hitchhike across the bridge and resume the walk on the other side.

There was really no way around this other than to have planned out an entirely different route across western Louisiana, or to take a long detour. So today will become the fourth time I’ve had to ride since I started the journey. The first time was when the Cairo chief of police made me get in his car for the last half mile or so of the insanely narrow Mississippi bridge from Cairo, Illinois to Missouri. Then a DeSoto County Sheriff’s Deputy in Mississippi decided I couldn’t walk on Highway 61 and drove me about three miles down the road. Third was the Huey P. Long Bridge across the Mississippi in suburban New Orleans, a distance of about two miles. With today’s ride of three miles the total will come to about 9 miles of riding. Not bad, I guess, but of course I wish I could have walked it all.

And to make matters worse, I may also have to omit walking across the Sabine River, between Louisiana and Texas, in a couple of days. The alternative there is to take a fairly long detour out of Edgerly which I really would rather not take. I feel like I’m on a bit of a slippery slope here. But this is not a pedestrian’s country we live in, as I’m finding out. And from the point of view of the builders of the infrastructure, why go to the expense of putting in a pedestrian walkway on a bridge when that walkway will hardly ever be used? To spend an extra few million to let guys like me and the occasional cyclist get across wouldn't be fiscally responsible.

Walking out of Iowa I go through a neighborhood of trailers in various states of disrepair. I’m looking around to see if Michael the Archangel is still lurking about the streets of Iowa. But no sign of him. It's been two days, and he’s probably moved on east of here.

Well, the Saints won that Super Bowl, as everyone knows by now, and the State of Louisiana is jubilant. Yesterday on my off day in Lake Charles everyone was wearing Saints t-shirts that said Super Bowl XLIV Champions. The shirts must have been bought on faith before the event actually happened. It occurs to me that perhaps the greatest contribution of the Super Bowl to our nation is that it teaches lots of otherwise ignorant people how to read Roman numerals.

The first seven miles of today’s walk are through nothing much. Now at about nine miles I enter the corporation limits of Lake Charles, a city of over 70,000--the largest in Acadiana. It's called the Festival Capital of Louisiana, since it has over seventy annual festivals. The Europeans who started the city were French, but it was a Frisian, Daniel Goos (namesake of Goosport, just to the north), whose timber business in the mid-19th century made Lake Charles take off.

A mile and a half later I take a left onto Louisiana 14 to go down to the Highway 90 business route through the center of the city. This morning’s clouds have disappeared and it’s a bright sunny afternoon, although still cold.

At the Citgo Food Post all the windows are covered with black iron bars, making it look like a jail. This is not a good sign, I'm thinking. The neighborhood doesn’t look too bad to me, but then I’m walking through on a Tuesday afternoon when it’s too cold for most of the locals to be on the street. The few people who are walking are dressed like Eskimos. It’s definitely the poor side of town. And wouldn’t you know it, this part of Route 14 is called Martin Luther King Highway.

I’m on Broad Street now, heading west into downtown, which is still a long way off. I pass the first large cemetery I’ve seen in quite some time. Graceland Cemetery, it’s called. The names are a mix of English and French, with a scattering of Italian. Graceland merges seamlessly into Orange Grove Cemetery, filled with more English folks. At the east end is the oldest part of the graveyard, containing some of the early settlers. The old brick vaults are falling apart like they were in St. Louis Number One in New Orleans. Here’s Mary Ransom, born 1841, died 1940. She hung in there.

Across from the cemetery is the Hokus Pokus Liquor Store. On I go, past Chad’s Pawn and a place called Breath of Life. Finally, at DagOstinO’s BistrO, housed in an large old brick house, the neighborhood becomes more residential. Here many of the homes seem to be privately owned and well kept up. A few contain lawyer’s offices, and are nicely restored. This is the Charpentier Historic District, in the vicinity of Broad and Reid Streets.

Here’s a large Spanish-style house with brown stucco walls and green shutters. Then a scattering of houses from around the turn of the century, interrupted here and there by empty storefronts and businesses indicating that the neighborhood is no longer upper middle class, by and large. 915 Broad Street is an elegant mansion with a full two-story porch and fluted columns across the front with very ornate capitals and plain smaller columns running around a cupola on the side. Its next door neighbor has an interesting second-story wrap-around porch that’s suspended at the end by supports through the ceiling.

I pass the First United Methodist Church, a very solid and stolid-looking variegated red and tan brick structure. And a place that looks like it should be a funeral home, but instead houses a law firm: Cox, Cox, Filo, Camel & Wilson, Personal Injury Law. It has an attractive green tile roof, with many gables. Across the way is another law office building, the Ramsay Mansion, from 1885. All these houses must have been the edge-of-town palaces of the early rice, lumber, shipping, and later oil barons of Lake Charles. Thanks in part to the lawyers they’re being preserved nicely.

After this attractive historic district comes the inevitable expanse of vacant lots before the city center. This is pretty typical, in my experience. For those of you familiar with Pontiac, think about Wide Track Drive, the huge empty moat around the cluster of old downtown buildings.

I pass the Children’s Museum. These things are usually nothing but elaborate playgrounds. Why people think children need special museums of their own is beyond me. Let them share the real museums with the adults, and learn to appreciate them. It’s the same with children’s sections of libraries, which sometimes take on the look and proportions of day care centers. Teach a kid to respect and admire a library, not to expect it to be a fun house. People think that if kids sit on tiny chairs and look at oversized illustrated children's books they'll go on to appreciate the printed word as adults. But that's like expecting children who watch cartoons on television to transition to PBS productions of Jane Austen novels.

There are a few sidewalk murals scattered around downtown--paintings on big sections of sidewalk. Some are pretty vapid, but one I like says “Anyone who thinks he is too small to make a difference has never been to bed with a mosquito.”

Down from the corner of Ryan and Kirby is the Italianate red brick Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. All the doors are locked, so I can’t go in, but from the outside it’s quite handsome.

Back down on Ryan I find something called the 1911 Historic City Hall, now an Arts and Cultural Center. It also is Italianate in style with a tall central tower. I go in to see an exhibit of Frederick Remington prints and sculptures on loan from the Remington Museum on the Hudson River in New York. Very nice. Also, on the first floor, is an exhibit of black and white photographs by a local photographer named Lynn Reynolds, a graduate of McNeese State University here in Lake Charles.

Across the street is the large Calcasieu Parish Courthouse, topped with a green dome and looking more imposing than many of the courthouses down here. Inside the rotunda doesn't go up to the dome, but the building is nicely appointed.

Back outside I’m on Lakeshore Drive, heading toward the place where I’ll have to start hitchhiking. On my left is the Lake Charles Civic Center and in front of me are the huge Chase and Capital One bank buildings. Over to the west, on the other side of choppy, grayish brown Lake Charles, are several gigantic casino/hotels.

At the entrance ramp of the expressway I stick out my thumb and wait. After about fifteen or twenty minutes I finally get picked up. A large black four-door pickup truck with a four-wheeled back axle pulls over and waits for me to trot up to it. Inside are four Mexican men, headed west. I share the back seat with two young guys who nervously look straight ahead and say nothing. Only the driver speaks English, as far as I can figure. He offers to take me to Houston, but I manage to explain to him that I am walking, and only want a ride over the bridge because it's impossible to walk over it. He seems bemused, but obligingly drops me off at the Highway 90 exit. This Anglo is loco, he’s probably thinking.

Not long after I get back on Highway 90, I enter Sulphur, a city of 22,000, named for its early 20th century sulphur mine. Sounds like a fun place to work. There are a number of oil refineries, and the smell is definitely that of sulphur, although I'll bet it really used to be something before people got serious about air pollution. There’s even a suburb of Sulphur called Brimstone. How would you like to live there? Brimstone, Louisiana.

Here Highway 90 is called East Napoleon Street. The road is lined with live oaks perhaps fifty years old, which bend toward each other from each side to form a canopy. The businesses are light industry, warehouses, and equipment sellers to the oil industry.

At 19 miles I pass N. Post Oak Road, and the businesses become more oriented toward the individual consumer. A meat market called The Sausage Link, Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant, Kinki’s Adult Gifts, a massage parlor, a Dollar General, Richard’s Fine Cajun Restaurant, featuring hot boudin and fresh seafood. On top of the sign there's a huge, somewhat beat up red crawfish. It looks as if a giant insect has landed.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Day 81: St. Michael Redux

Day 81: Jennings to Iowa. 20 miles/1465 total

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I'm departing from the side of the road a mile or so west of Jennings, heading straight west on Highway 90 through a few small towns to another small town, Iowa.

It’s a cloudless day, in the mid-40s, expected to get into the low 60s. Another fine day for walking.

As you know I have run into trouble with my internet access, and haven’t been making my posts. Tomorrow I hope to spend the afternoon at a wi-fi cafĂ© somewhere in Lake Charles, catching up.

In case you’re wondering, the terrain remains absolutely flat here. It’s just a few miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, and not much over sea level.

I enter the village of Roanoke. I think I’m at the south edge of town here. I pass the modern and large Welsh-Roanoke Junior High School. The Roanoke Phillips 66 station is closed on Sundays, so I’ll have to move on to the next village for sustenance.

That comes about three miles later as I arrive in Welsh, a slightly larger town of 3,300 or so. Its water tower stands off in the distance. And the high school that Welsh and Roanoke share is here. A mile or so in I pass Daigle’s Sausage Kitchen, but it’s closed. This being Super Bowl Sunday, I think it’s sort of a state holiday. Half of Louisiana is sitting in their living rooms getting drunk, and the other half is riding around in their trucks getting drunk. It’ll be good to be off the road before the game starts.

Next town I come to at about 13.5 miles is Lacassine. It’s another small one, along the lines of Roanoke. No one is certain where the name Lacassine came from. It might be an Indian chief’s name, or it might be the French transliteration of some words meaning “hunting ground.”

I pass the sign for St. John’s Catholic Church and a cemetery set far back from the road. By the highway are a bunch of tiny crosses presided over by a statue of Jesus, his arms outstretched. This is one of those anti-abortion displays so common at Catholic churches these days. Under the sign for the church is another sign. It says, “Abortion Stops a Beating” followed by a picture of a red heart. Abortion Stops a Beating Heart. At first when I saw it, driving by earlier, I didn’t see the heart and I thought, “Wow, that’s great. Finally a pro-abortion slogan we can use! Abortion Stops a Beating.” Like the beatings of little unwanted children and the beatings of women who get married to or stay with abusive partners after they get pregnant. Abortion has prevented many a beating, to be sure. Then of course I realized the silliness of my momentary flight of fancy. But still, I like the thought.

It’s getting pretty warm, and turtles are up and out of the ditches, sunning themselves. I see and hear them jumping back in the water as they hear me approach. And speaking of my approaching footsteps, as I’m walking by a cow pasture, singing along with Warren Zevon’s “Mister Bad Example,” instead of running away as they usually do, the cows all start trotting toward me, clustering together in the corner as I pass by, their eyes fixed on me. An audience! Maybe they like Warren Zevon. I could become the pied piper of Jeff Davis Parish.

Nearing the end of my walk I enter the last town of the day, Iowa, and also enter Calcasieu Parish. Iowa is home of an annual Rabbit Festival. Iowa is a community of about 2,700 that developed in the late 1800s as an agricultural town to which a number of Iowans and other Midwestern farmers migrated. Later, in the 1930s, oil became a major source of income.

I am parked in the middle of Iowa, next to the post office. As I leave the Chevron station, where I get another cappuccino, I encounter an older guy with a beard, who asks me the way to Route 167, which I have just gone past. I tell him, and he introduces himself as Michael, “like the Archangel Michael,” he says. I kid you not. Suddenly I feel that I’m being visited by otherworldly forces. We walk along together, and I offer to take him back to 167 on my way to the highway. Michael tells me he’s bipolar, and that definitely explains why he’s talking nonstop at breakneck speed. He’s seems to be off his medication.

Well, in a very short time I get to know a lot about old Michael, let me tell you. He’s been in Texas and is evidently wandering around now. He was born in Hazel Park, Michigan and grew up in Royal Oak. So we’re homeboys. He’s a friendly and harmless little guy, and I suspect that I’m doing the village of Iowa a favor by taking him out of town.

“Pete, Pete, let me tell you about this so-called friend of mine. This asshole. He tells me, ‘Stop talking, you’re driving me crazy.’ He’s my friend but he’s an asshole. Hey Pete. Do you love Jesus?” I say yes, absolutely. It seems like the right response. “Are you one of the 144,000?” I tell him that’s impossible to know at this point.

As he gets out of the motor home he says, “Hey Pete, I’ll see you in heaven.”