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.