Texas (mostly), April 2003

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Travelogue: Texas (mostly)
April 2003

By Roger W. Reini

WORK IN PROGRESS

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16th | 17th | 18th | April 19 to 25 (Part 2) | April 26 to May 2 (Part 3)

Introduction: Tuesday April 8

I have decided to start my travelogue a few days early. This vacation on which I am about to embark is one that I feel is well-deserved. Things have been hectic at work for some time now, and I am feeling the stress. There's a lot going on, and I'm at the point where I'm fed up with it. I need this time away from the job. There was a Wall Street Journal article 2 weeks back that pointed out the need for vacation. I'm just following the article's advice.

This trip to Texas was originally supposed to be a trip to California. I was to have taken the train to Los Angeles this Friday, then driven up to the San Francisco area for a week, then driven back to the L.A. area for a week and a half. While there, I would have attended at least 3 baseball games: San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. I'd bought the tickets for them, in fact. I'd also picked up recent guidebooks and maps for my trip. But I got concerned about the high gas prices in California – gas is currently $2.25 in the San Francisco area and not much less elsewhere in the state. And I'd be doing a LOT of driving. That, plus the costs of the hotels, train tickets and rental car, caused me to pause. I could drive home for less cost, although I might regret it when the time comes to turn in the lease car. But I have a strong suspicion that I'll be able to take advantage of an early turn-in deal on the car in a few months. I also woke up one morning with the thought that I should not go to California. I wonder what will come of that thought, if anything? We shall see.

Anyway, those things caused me to decide that I'd rather drive to Texas than take the train to California, at least right now. So I changed my plans, incurring a fee for canceling my train tickets and forfeiting the baseball tickets. I also announced my plans on the 1981CCHS mailing list, hoping to force a date for another Un-Reunion. There hasn't been a groudswell of support for that, at least not yet. We'll see about that, too. And that brings me to today, as I begin to pack and plan my route.

I want to make a return visit to Ted Drewes Custard Stand along old Route 66 in St. Louis. I'm strongly considering travelling Route 66 throughout Illinois, or the portion south of Chicago. I did both last time. I enjoyed making the drive and enjoying that banana-flavored concrete (that refers to a very thick dairy dessert, not cement).

Thursday April 10

My day started out as a regular work day, for I put in a normal day. I did arrive a little early, which allowed me to leave a little early. It was full of meetings, and I was doing some scrambling to make sure I'd taken care of everything that needed taking care of before I left. I hope I did.

After I arrived home, I changed my clothes (or my pants, at least) and loaded up the car with my stuff – guitar, cameras, maps, satellite radio receiver, iPod, etc. I did an e-mail check, and then I packed up my computer and put it in the back of the car. By 4:12 PM, I was ready to hit the road. And hit the road I did.

My destination for this evening was the Holiday Inn Express hotel in Portage, Indiana, located near the intersection of I-94 and the Indiana Toll Road. As I left town, I was listening to Sonny Eliot's weather forecast on WWJ. The forecast was for favorable weather conditions, and that's exactly what I had. The drive to Indiana was sunny, at least until the sun went down. There was a lot of traffic near Detroit and Ann Arbor, which was to be expected. Fortunately, it thinned out west of Ann Arbor. As I traveled west, I tuned the satellite radio to the BBC World Service and listened to their continuing coverage of the war in Iraq (should it be called Gulf War II?). For a while, I listened to Fox News's coverage, which had a much different tone than the BBC (now there's an understatement).

When I passed through Kalamazoo, I decided to stop for dinner at the Steak & Shake restaurant. The "steak" stands for steakburger, while the "shake" means milkshake. And that's what I had: a steakburger, a shake, some fries, and some cottage cheese. I read the copy of the Detroit News that I brought from home. Afterwards, I set back out on I-94, but I put aside the satellite radio in favor of listening to the music on my iPod. The iPod is an MP3 music player by Apple, and I had bought it in preparation for my California trip. Although I wasn't going to California, it would still prove useful on this trip, and future trips, and any time I wanted to play a CD from my collection. I had loaded the iPod with many of the key CD's from my collection – all of the Beatles, all of the Bangles and Tracey Ullman, some of the Byrds, etc. I'd set up a playlist of all the Beatle songs on the device – 505 tracks in all. By setting the player to randomize the selections, I would be assured of getting tremendous variety. A song from "A Hard Day's Night" might be followed by one from "The White Album" and then one from "Live On The BBC", and so on. And it was this playlist that had my listening attention on I-94 from Kalamazoo to Portage (Indiana, not Michigan).

By 8:20 PM, which was actually 7:20 PM Central, I had arrived at the Holiday Inn in Portage. I was in time to catch the 3rd period of the opening game of the playoff series between Detroit and Anaheim. They were tied at 1-1 through 2 periods. They were tied 1-1 through three periods, then through one overtime, then through another overtime. The game was entering its third overtime, and I was getting tired. But I managed to stay awake until the bitter end. And a bitter end it was indeed, for Anaheim scored in triple overtime to take the first game, 2-1. What a heartbreaker!

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Friday April 11

I woke up around 4 AM, which would have felt like 5 AM and a normal work day awakening to me. But I wasn't going to work, so I just lay there for a while. That didn't work, so on went the TV. While flipping the channels, I came across a repeat of the Dating episode from "Tracey Takes On...", so I decided to watch the rest of it. It was a good one when it first aired in 1999, and it was still good today. Then I showered and watched a weather forecast. By this time, the breakfast bar downstairs had opened, so I went down and treated myself to a waffle, some apple juice and two hot Danish pastries. Yum!

It was shortly after 7 when I checked out and proceeded to return to I-94. I stopped to fill up the gas tank before hitting the freeway. I was concerned that I would run into some rush hour traffic, and I didn't want to run out of gas. The reports on all-news WBBM told me my concern was well-founded, for they warned of backups on 80/94 from Calumet Avenue to the Bishop Ford Freeway. My route took me right through this area, and they were right; the traffic was very slow through that stretch. I wondered if I should have made last night's hotel reservations for somewhere past Chicago, say Joliet. That would have let me miss the rush hour traffic. But eventually, the jam on 80/94 and the Tri-State Tollway eased, and I set off on I-80 towards Joliet and Route 66.

This year's drive on 66 would look very familiar to me, for I had driven it just last year. However, the weather this year was much better. Last year, I had to contend with heavy rains; this year, the skies were nearly cloudless. This allowed me to stop in Wilmington at the Launching Pad restaurant and get what I hoped would be a good picture of the Gemini Giant in front of the place. As I cruised down 66, I saw a disturbing sight ahead. Emergency vehicles had completely blocked the northbound lane. A car had gone off the road and into a ditch, and it had set the grass on fire. Firefighters were laboring to put out the grass fire. I saw no ambulances; perhaps they'd already taken the injured to the hospital. As I passed through Funks Grove, I decided to visit the sirup facility (that's how they spell it) and try some of their famous wares. While I waited for service, I could hear whom I presume was one of the owners tell her customers that the sap wasn't running well this year. But I had no problem buying a half-gallon and a pint. I'd save the half-gallon for home and consider using the pint down in Texas.

Down 66 I went. I stopped at the Dixie Truck Stop to visit the restroom. I had eaten there last year, but it was too early for lunch today. So I pressed onward, duplicating my path from last year. When I got to Springfield, though, a choice beckoned. The road split into two here, one following the classic route and another following the road as it was aligned during 1926 to 1930. The choice was easy; since I'd never taken the 1926-30 route, I would take that today. It took me past the state fairgrounds and the old state capitol. I wished I could have taken a picture of the capitol building, but I couldn't get a good view of it, not without stopping and getting out of the car. Perhaps another time. But now, I was getting hungry, and I decided to stop at a restaurant called the Spaghetti Shop. It specialized in Italian food served quickly. I had a lunch combo of lasagna, two slices of garlic bread, a salad and a pack of cookies. It was quite good, especially the bread. Afterwards, I took some pictures and video in front and set back out on the road.

This version of Route 66 generally followed Illinois Highway 4, though with some detours. One detour had me travel a section of road paved with bricks dating from 1932. A few others took me down some narrow old concrete; another had some high, square curbs. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a Model A running on that pavement. I knew to expect these after reading about them in the guidebook to Route 66 in Illinois that I bought last year. There was a time where I got lost for a short time. It was along that brick-paved stretch. The guidebook said to turn right at the stop sign, then continue until the next intersection with a numbered highway. I turned, but I didn't see any intersection within the prescribed distance. Something wasn't right, so I turned around and got back on the brick road. There was a stop sign at the end of the brick road; that was the one intended by the guidebook. Perhaps the guidebook needs to be updated. Eventually the 1926-30 section of Route 66 joined back up with the main section, and they traveled on Highway 4 until it intersected I-55. Having taken both routes, I think I prefer the more popular route. There are a few more sites to see there. Still, I'm glad I took both paths.

Now I had a decision. If I wanted to stay on 66, I'd take the frontage road. But now, speed was becoming more important. I wanted to get to Ted Drewes, and I wanted to hurry to that evening's destination, the Holiday Inn in Forrest City, Arkansas. So it was bye-bye 66 and hello I-55. It was time to lead-foot it at 65 mph (or slightly more).

The drive to St. Louis passed quickly, though I did encounter some traffic on the bridge entering St. Louis from Illinois. I followed I-55 to I-44 to Arsenal, where I exited the freeway and found my way down to the Ted Drewes stand. Last year, I had some trouble finding it, but not this year. But before I went there, I stopped at a nearby Arby's for two things: an order of curly fries, and a chance to go to the bathroom. I didn't know if the custard stand had restrooms (they did), so I wanted to go to some place that I knew would. Having done both things, I took the back alley to the custard stand. It wasn't as busy as last year, but it was doing a brisk business. I ordered a strawberry concrete, then sat down on a nearby bench to enjoy it. The bench was a little rickety but was in no danger of collapse.

After I finished most of the concrete, I took what was left and went back on the road. It was back on I-55 for a run to Memphis. Unfortunately, traffic south of town was quite heavy, and it slowed my progress. The XM radio kept me company; I listened to BBC, Fox News and the Fine Tuning music channel. Onward I went. I saw a billboard advertising a pizza buffet at Pizza Inn. I passed that restaurant by, but the idea stayed with me. Pizza for dinner sounded very good to me. When I encountered another Pizza Inn in Hayti, I knew where I'd be having my dinner. It was pretty good, and the service was good. There were two TV's in the restaurant; one was tuned to Fox News, and the other had CNN. Thanks to their news crawls, I could keep up with what was going on. By the time I'd finished, it was dark out. I'd finish my drive to Forrest City at night. Two more hours of driving took me into Arkansas, to the intersection with I-40, and eventually to Forrest City. I checked into the Holiday Inn and almost immediately went to bed. That was a long day. Had I stayed on freeways in Illinois, it would not have been as long of a day, but I'm glad I did drive old route 66.

It is possible that I may have ridden on old 66 as a child when our family would drive up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from Texas. But I suspect that I-55 had begun to take over by then. Unfortunately, the only family member who would have known (my father) passed away over 10 years ago.

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Saturday April 12

My long drive of 630 miles yesterday allowed me to sleep until 6 AM. After using the bathroom, my first priority was to check my e-mail. I resorted to a cell phone connection to retrieve it. My service had nationwide long distance at no extra charge, so it was no problem to dial up my ISP in Detroit using the Detroit number. I had thought that accessing my e-mail via the Web, then filtering out the spam messages, would have sped up the process. Unfortunately, it didn't. It would have been faster to download the garbage and delete it later. Less than 10% of the mail was worthwhile. And after I packed everything up, I was ready to hit the road for the home stretch. 6:53 – I left. 7:20 – I stopped for gas and some snack foods at the BP service station in Brinkley. The old Best Western Inn was still there. That was a preferred stop for our family when traveling to Michigan. Around 9, I was taking the loop around Little Rock; I could see downtown and the capitol building in the distance. I-30 had a lot of construction south of town, which slowed me some but not too much. A combination of the XM radio and the iPod playing Beatle songs accompanied me through the remainder of Arkansas and into Texas.

In Marshall, I attempted to stop at a McDonald's for lunch. I had a notion of ordering a 10-piece McNugget meal. Unfortunately, they were out of Sprite, and I didn't want to drink anything with caffeine, so I left without ordering. Tried going to a nearby Wendy's but left there after deciding I really didn't want to eat there. I wouldn't have lunch until I arrived in Nacogdoches and ate at the Cotton Patch cafe. I had a steak, a baked potato, some sauteed mushrooms, a Caesar salad, and some Sprite. It wasn't bad – not the best I've ever had, but far from the worst. As I left town, I saw that the Hot Biscuit restaurant was back in operation. When I'd last passed through here 2 years ago, it had closed down. If I'd known it was open again, I'd have eaten there. Perhaps on the way back, I'll go there. But I had to go on. I stopped for gas in Lufkin then resumed my journey.

During the 4 o'clock hour, I arrived in Houston. The drive down the Eastex Freeway was smooth except when I got right downtown, when it got busy. The construction at the I-10 interchange didn't help things. Now ordinarily, I would turn off onto the Gulf Freeway to head home, but not this time. No, I would be staying in town near the Astrodome – a Studio Plus hotel (Extended Stay America's top-line chain). I had some difficulty getting to the hotel due to construction in front of the hotel; the road was closed. I had to drive through the parking lot of the Holiday Inn to get there. But I made it, checked in, and unpacked the car. The room faced north; I had a view of the swimming pool, the back of the nearby Toys R Us store, and the Transco/Williams Tower off in the distance. The room had the kitchen and bedroom areas separated from the main room by small partitions, but it was still a studio room. The TV was connected to the city cable system rather than relying on its own dish for channels. That would allow me to watch the new local 24-hour cable news channel (on channel 24, appropriately enough), if I wanted. I set up the equipment for my satellite radio, not knowing if it would work. Without a view of the southern sky, I'd have to rely on repeaters for my signal. Would it work? I checked the signal meter on the radio in the car, and it told me I was getting a good signal from a repeater. The radio would work in my room.

I needed to stock up on some food and necessities, so I needed to go to a grocery store. I had many to choose from. There was a Kroger Signature store on OST, a Fiesta on Kirby and another Kroger store a bit farther north on Kirby. There was even a Rice Epicurean Market at Kirby and Holcombe. But my destination tonight was the Central Market on Westheimer at Weslayan. That is an upscale store with a tremendous variety of produce, meats, bulk goods and – it's hard to describe. But one thing it has is the best wasabi-coated peas I've found. Naturally, I got some. I also bought a spiral-sliced honey-glazed ham (not Honey Baked), some locally produced root beer from Saint Arnold, a bottle of Sprite that came from Mexico, something from the salad bar, a bag of Charles Chips and quite a bit more. When I came back to the hotel, I had to use the luggage cart to bring up all of the bags, although I could have done it in 2 or 3 trips without it. That enabled me to have supper – a ham sandwich, along with the Mexican Sprite. It tasted pretty much like American Sprite. I ate to the accompaniment of Milo Hamilton, Alan Ashby and the Houston Astros on the radio as they called and played the game with St. Louis. Unfortunately, the Astros would lose.

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Sunday April 13

It was Sunday, a day for me to sleep in. Actually, every day on vacation is or should be a day to sleep in. But Sundays certainly are, for sure. And I did sleep in, laying down and popping in and out of sleep until 7 o'clock, when I finally got out of bed. I has a dish of cereal for breakfast, along with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. Well, it was freshly squeezed when it went into the bottle that I bought at Central Market. And it tasted just fine to me.

I still needed to get a few things from the store, so I went out to the nearby Kroger's on Kirby. This was not the Signature store I mentioned earlier; that one was on OST. This one looked like it used to be an Albertson's store – that chain pulled out of Houston last year and sold a lot of its locations to Kroger. While there, I got some dish detergent and laundry detergent, along with a Sunday paper. Then I went up Kirby to the Borders store at Alabama. When I got there, I was surpised to see that it wasn't open yet. It opened at 10. Ordinarily, the ones in Detroit would have opened earlier, I think – or was that the Barnes & Noble on Haggerty? Anyway, I went across the street to the Whole Foods Market for a bit. I picked up a box of tissues made from recycled paper then went back across the street to the Borders store. While there, I found that they had the new Harry Potter DVD at an OK price, and that they also had two things I was considering getting as birthday presents for my sister: a new biography of Steve Earle, and a new DVD of his, too (she's a fan of his). But I didn't get anything, for I figured I could wait on those. I went back to my hotel room and prepared lunch: another ham sandwich. I turned on the TV to the NASCAR race and sat down to eat my lunch.

When I was driving in yesterday, I was debating whether or not to cut over to the North Freeway via the North Belt and visit Fry's Electronics. I didn't then, but I decided I was going to go there today. So after I finished my lunch, I set out for another road trip. I drove down Kirby to the South Loop, passing the new Reliant Stadium and the Houston Texans' practice facility across the street. Traffic wasn't bad on the Loop today, though it did stack up a bit when I encountered a wide load being moved. I zoomed around up to the North Loop and diddy-bopped up the North Freeway until I came to the West Road exit, the exit for Fry's. When I got there, I found that the lot was fenced off. There was only one entrance into the lot. The nearby Compaq Outlet was gone, and the nearby Big K-Mart was closing. In fact, today was K-Mart's last day in Houston. I went into Fry's and looked for the Harry Potter DVD. Last year, they had a tremendous deal on it when it came out, and I expected to find a similar deal today. But all I saw was the regular price of $22.99. They didn't have anything else I wanted desperately, so I ended up not getting anything there. In years past, I would have stocked up on blank Super VHS tapes, but not now (thank my DVD recorder for that). I planned to return to the Borders on Kirby and pick up the disc, along with the stuff for my sister. I did get the stuff for my sister, but I forgot the Potter DVD. I couldn't complain too much, for I'd picked up a couple of science fiction magazines and a book looking at the Beatles from a formal musical perspective.

It was back to the hotel to read the paper. On one of the back pages, there was an ad for Fry's. They did indeed have a special deal on Harry Potter: $14.99, limit one per customer, the same as last year. But it was too far away for me to go back and get it. Argh! Now what did I want to do for supper? I definitely did NOT want ham. I looked in the Yellow Pages for ideas, but I didn't need them to come up with two ideas: Fuddruckers, and Pappadeaux. Pappadeaux won out, so I went to their location on the South Loop. I ordered the opelousas (blackened catfish). It came with dirty rice, but halfway through the meal, I found it was dirtier rice than normal: I found a small bug crawling in it! Now if I were a participant in a show like Survivor or Fear Factor, I might expect to eat bugs. But not in a regular restaurant! I complained to the waiter, who offered to bring me a replacement side dish of dirty rice. That was fair compensation, I thought, so I accepted the offer. I saw no bugs in the fish, so I continued to eat that part of the meal. I finished the finish and the garlic bread, then boxed up the clean dirty rice, paid my bill and went back to the hotel. I wonder if I should have complained to Marvin Zindler?

The rest of the evening was spent finishing the paper, watching LA play San Francisco on ESPN, playing the guitar for a bit, then calling it an evening and going to bed.

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Monday April 14

I'd last showered on Friday morning in Portage, so I was due. And when I woke up, I showered. That would have been a tremendous feat to shower before I woke up – to do so without help, I should say. Actually, I had breakfast first, then checked my e-mail, then showered. Now what was I going to do today? I had an idea of wanting to take Westheimer all the way from beginning to end, from its intersection with Elgin Street near downtown to the end of FM 1093 in Eagle Lake. And so, I set out on my trek. I took Old Spanish Trail to Fannin, then turned north. Traffic was rather heavy there due to construction of the light rail line from downtown to Reliant Park. In fact, it made getting around rather difficult. I was forced to make an unwanted left turn on Braeswood and loop around to get back on Fannin. But once I got through there, I had a fairly smooth drive through Hermann Park, then onto San Jacinto (the northbound lanes of Fannin) until I reached Elgin. I then took Elgin until it turned into Westheimer, and I got to see all of it. Near its eastern end was the intersection with Montrose. That area used to be the center of Houston's gay community, and it still is as far as I know. Farther along, you pass Shepherd and Kirby and River Oaks. West of Kirby is Chuy's, a good Mexican restaurant. I've eaten there twice and might yet do so again. I ate there when it used to be Boardman's seafood restaurant 20-plus years ago. Many of us walked there from Lamar High School while we were attending their speech and debate tournaments. Continuing on down, you pass St. Luke's Methodist Church (I can remember their Sunday services appearing on channel 2), Highland Village and the Central Market, then the West Loop.

Past the West Loop is Post Oak and the Galleria, in the area that some call Uptown Houston. There's a shopping center with a Barnes & Noble bookstore, a CompUSA, an FAO Schwarz and other stores. I visited the bookstore and computer store but passed on the toy store this time. While I browsed, I'd set my camcorder battery charging via my car's battery. I didn't get anything, though I did see Marvin Zindler's biography. Onward and outward on Westheimer – past the Galleria area, past Evans Music City, past what seemed like an endless array of strip malls, restaurants and gas stations. I saw that the original CompUSA location in town was still in business; I remember when it was called SoftWarehouse. That was a long drive from League City. I passed the Sam Houston Tollway, a.k.a. the West Belt. I passed Highway 6 and saw the West Oaks Mall. Then the development started to thin out. Before long, the road was known more by its number, FM 1093, and suburbia gave way to farm and ranch lands. I drove through the small towns of Fulshear, Simonton and Wallis. It was in Wallis that I decided to forego the last 17 miles of FM 1093 and instead head up Highway 36 to I-10. It was lunchtime, and I was hungry.

As I tooled along on I-10, I came upon the huge Katy Mills shopping center. I exited there, thinking I'd find someplace good for lunch. I found it at Fuddrucker's along the outer ring road. Their burgers never fail to impress me, and that was true today as always. I ate my lunch while reading the morning paper. Afterwards, I debated whether or not to go inside Katy Mills. I decided not to. However, I did briefly visit a nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter, thinking to get some mailing supplies. I had to mail the gifts to my sister, and I was considering mailing some things back home to myself so that I didn't have to carry them around with me. But I didn't get any, for I decided to wait until payday tomorrow. So back on I-10 I went. I turned on the Old Time Radio channel on XM and listened to some of The Stan Freberg Show, then put on a newscast at 2 PM.

My travels took me back to the Galleria area, so I stopped in there for a bit. There was a new Apple Store there; it turned out to be similar to the fairly new Apple Stores in Detroit. As I'd just bought my iPod and some accessories for it, and as I wasn't immediately in the market for a new computer, I didn't find anything in there that I wanted. The same was true elsewhere in the mall, which had grown significantly since my last vist, as a new wing with Foley's and Nordstrom had recently opened. I left there and headed down to Richmond via Post Oak, where I popped into the Best Buy and finally picked up the new Harry Potter DVD (widescreen, of course). I also got a 10-pack of DVD+RW's for a great price. By this time, I was tired, and I went back to the hotel room.

Dinner tonight was a Marie Callender's TV dinner (Swedish meatballs). I stayed in and listened to XM's 60s on 6 channel; their CQ USA request program was playing a lot of Beatles tonight (not that there's anything wrong with that – nothing at all wrong with that). Later, I wrote the checks for most of my bills, as payday was tomorrow and the bills would soon be due. They could not wait until I returned to Michigan. Then it was time to relax. I alternated between reading Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" and that book on the musicianship of the Beatles, and I continued to do so when I turned on the TV for two games, Astros vs. Giants and Red Wings vs. Mighty Ducks. Sadly, both games turned out badly. The hockey game didn't end until midnight, and the Wings lost. They're down 3-0 in the series and are on the brink of elimination.

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Tuesday April 15

Today was tax day. But my returns were done some time ago. So I didn't have to scramble to fill out my return or plan on a late trip to the post office. The only thing I had to mail were my bills, and I could do that downstairs at the front desk. And when I went down to pick up a paper, I brought down my bills. I also did the dishes because they needed doing.

Now what was I going to do today? I wanted to get a measuring cup and a jar opener. Those weren't among the kitchen supplies provided by the hotel, and without that jar opener, I'd have a jar of hot sauce that would never be opened. I couldn't allow that to happen. I'd also have a problem preparing those packets of macaroni and cheese without a measuring cup. So I thought that I would visit a nearby Wal-Mart. This Wal-Mart was on South Post Oak, close to where the South Loop becomes the West Loop. I found the cup and the jar opener, and I also found a new pair of blue jeans. I had problems paying with my debit card, though; at one register, the card reader wasn't working, and at another, some of the buttons didn't want to work properly. But I eventually got things straightened out. One thing I didn't find was a new TV Guide; I could only see the old ones available. So I needed to go someplace else. That turned out to be the Borders bookstore at Meyerland. They had a new TV Guide. I meant that literally; they had a single TV Guide. Of course, I picked it up. I looked around the rest of the store, seeing what I could see. In the religion section, I saw a book by Dan Patrick, "The Second Most Important Book You'll Ever Read." I'd heard this book mentioned on the radio yesterday. Now this Dan Patrick is not the ESPN commentator, although he used to be a sportscaster. He used to work for channel 11 when I was in high school. Now he owns at least one radio station in town. The book is a testimony to Christ, an inducement to the reader to read the Bible (thus the title of his book).

It was near lunchtime, and as I left Meyerland, I noticed a Mediterranean restaurant across the street. But when I went in there, I found it specialized more in pita sandwiches, and I didn't feel like a pita sandwich. But there was a Souper Salad a little bit farther down in the shopping center, so that's where I ended up going. It was good. For one price, you get a salad bar, soup, breads and dessert (drinks are extra). I missed out on the taqueria by one day; it was to open tomorrow. I've wanted something like this in Detroit for years.

My next destination was the Houston Camera Exchange on Richmond. I wanted to get some polarizing filters for both my SLR and my video cameras. Those cut down on unwanted reflections and help improve the quality of any photos you take. I took Rice Avenue up to Richmond, passing through the city of Bellaire and past Bellaire High School. It had to have been remodeled since I was there last (for debate tournaments), for it looked a bit different to me. Unfortunately, the camera store didn't have what I was looking for, not for the video camera, anyway. My next destination: Evans Music City, where I wanted to get a capo. That's a device that allows a guitar player to transpose a song into different keys yet keep the same fingering. They didn't have the one I was looking for. Neither did they have any Rickenbacker guitars, and they used to have quite a selection. I wonder if they stopped carrying them? The same could be said of the Guitar Center on Westheimer. No Ricks there, and they didn't have the capo I wanted, but I decided to try one they had. After a visit to the Barnes and Noble across the street, it was time to go back to the hotel for a bit.

What did I want to do for supper? I was getting itchy for Mexican or barbecue – more specifically, Laredo's or Joe's. But I'd be down that way soon enough. Also, I think tonight would have been shrimp night at Joe's, which meant that it would be busier than usual. But I remembered that Goode Co. Barbecue wasn't far away, and so I decided to try it out. They had both indoor and outdoor seating, the outdoor seating being large picnic tables underneath an awning. But when it's not too warm out and there's a breeze, then it can be comfortable out there. I found that out for myself as I ate my baked potato topped with chopped beef, washed it down with a bottle of St. Arnold root beer, and watched the traffic alternately zoom and inch by on Kirby. The potato was of decent size, but it must have been smaller than Joe's, for I was able to finish it with ease. That, or I was hungrier, or I hadn't drank as much. The meal was OK, though Joe's is still tops. Then it was off to the Central Market again, mainly for stuff for cooking pasta tomorrow night. Naturally, I got another bag of wasabi peas for consumption in Michigan.

This is the first time I've ever stayed in another part of town for an extended length of time. Naturally, whenever I've come down here in the past, I've either stayed at home, in the Clear Lake area or somewhere else in the southeast part of town (Alvin twice, Hobby Airport once). Two years ago, I did stay at a Holiday Inn in Rosenberg, but that was only for a day. But this portion of the trip is the first time I've ever stayed somewhere else in Houston longer than a day. And so far, it's worked out well. I wanted to do this because I'd be closer to any sites and places I wanted to visit. Ordinarily, I'd have to drive at least 20 miles just to get to town, but not now.

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Wednesday April 16

Another morning, another breakfast, another shower, another run for the morning Chronicle – ho-hum. But considering the alternative was a shower, picking up the Free Press and Wall Street Journal from the porch, then heading off to work, I was not going to complain. Now today, I had a feeling it would be a housekeeping day, so I had to be sure and leave my room in a timely fashion. So I set out on today's trek by heading to Hermann Park, the home of the Houston Zoo, the Burke Baker Planetarium, the Museum of Natural Science and Miller Outdoor Theater. I'd been to all of those when I was younger, mainly on school field trips. Well, the Miller Theater trip wasn't technically a field trip, 'cause it took place in the evening (the premiere of "Treemonisha"). Many students were following in my footsteps today; I recall seeing buses from Humble, Lamar Consolidated, Alief (or was it Aldine), and HISD. I didn't visit any of those attractions, though; I parked near the famous statue of Sam Houston at the northern entrance to the park and decided to examine it more closely. I'd never inspected it close-up before. It had been dedicated back in the 1920's. The general was mounted on his horse, facing north but pointing to the east-southeast, presumably towards the San Jacinto Battleground. The statue was aligned with the Mecom Fountains to the north and the Jones Reflecting Pool (undergoing renovation) and some other monument to the south. I took a few pictures, then went back to my car to swap the still camera for the video camera, returned to the statue and took some video.

When I left the park, I got on Main Street heading towards downtown. I could see where the road had been narrowed for the rail tracks. It was not possible to take Main Street all the way in, for it was closed off underneath I-45. I went west a block to Travis and took that in. Seeing the development up in what's being called the Theater District took me by surprise a bit. I saw a club called Cabo, and I saw the second Aquarium (the first is in Kemah at the Boardwalk). I left downtown on Congress, which took me past the main post office (no doubt busy last night with tax returns) and the Amtrak station before becoming Washington Avenue. It was a major highway many years ago but has definitely seen better days. I took that out to where it divided into Katy Road and the Hempstead Highway, then took Katy Road to where it turned into the westbound feeder road for the Katy Freeway, then took that to the Ikea store at Antoine. Did they have anything I wanted today? No, they didn't.

When I left Ikea, it was nearly lunchtime. Where to eat? How about 59 Diner on the south side of the freeway? Now why would something on I-10 be called 59 Diner? It so happens that the original 59 Diner is located very close to US 59, where Shepherd turns to Greenbriar. This was the second location. As you might guess from the name, the restaurant has a 50's diner theme. I had a chicken fried steak sandwich for lunch. When it was time to leave, I saw that freeway traffic heading westbound was rather heavy, so I decided to take the scenic route: Memorial Drive. This took me through some very nice areas (fancy houses, wooded streets, etc.). After a small detour and a mixup thanks to some badly-placed signage, I found myself nearing Town and Country Village. That was a shopping area that had been around as long as I can remember, though it had clearly been renovated in recent years. On the corner was a Washington Mutual bank, which ordinarily would not concern me but for two reasons: one, I needed some cash, and two, they advertise surcharge-free ATM's. They were not engaging in false advertising, I soon learned for myself. I noticed a Wolf Camera store. Remembering that I still wanted those polarizing filters, I stopped and went inside. They appeared to have what I wanted, but I went back out to my car to check the sizes of my lenses just to be sure. Then I went back inside, picked out the two that I wanted (polarizing filters for 37-mm and 49-mm) and proceeded to check out. The salesman said that there was a buy two, get one free deal on, so I qualified for another filter. I selected an ultraviolet filter for a 49-mm lens. Once I'd paid, I put the filters in the car with the cameras, then proceeded to walk around the shopping center until I came upon the Barnes and Noble. I was in need of a trip to the restroom. Once that business had been handled, I looked around, saw some things I might want later but didn't want then. So I left, then proceeded back to my car, but not before taking a quick gander inside the Randall's Flagship.

My next task was to look for mailing boxes. I wanted to mail a package to my sister (her presents) and prepare one for myself (the peas, the blank DVD's, etc.). The first place I encountered on my drive that could help me was an Office Depot on the Katy Freeway feeder road, between Town and Country Center (not to be confused with Town & Country Village) and Memorial City (it's the place to be, they always say or used to say). I found three boxes and some tape, and I was set. By this time, I felt like returning to the hotel for a breather. But traffic on the freeway was rather heavy, so I just stayed on the feeder road until it turned into the West Loop feeder road, at which point I took Memorial all the way into downtown, where I got a better view of the new Aquarium restaurant. There's also a Ferris wheel nearby, and it's visible from the freeway. The Hard Rock Cafe is downtown, as well. I found myself on Smith Street heading southwest to an eventual intersection with a spur of the Southwest Freeway, which took me to the freeway itself, then to Greenbriar and Main Street.

My musical accompaniment today was the iPod and its continuing random playback of Beatle tracks. But after 200 such tracks (out of 502!), I felt it was time for a change. So somewhere on the Katy Freeway feeder road, I set the iPod to playback the Bangles' new CD, "Doll Revolution." The title track "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution)" is a song that deserves to be played loudly and often. Back to my travels: I rode down Main Street to the intersection with Murworth. Back in 1987, I had taken a picture of the Astrodome from this location. Now, such a picture would no longer be possible, for Reliant Stadium and the Texans' practice facility would block the view. But it would make a good before and after picture, so I manuevered myself into position for taking one. Having grabbed the pic, I stopped at the Fiesta Mart that was nearby. I hadn't been inside Fiesta in years, not since they left Webster. Didn't see anything that I desparately wanted, so I left and returned to the hotel. On the radio (tuned to KLVI in Beaumont), the host was speaking with the author of a new book about the 1947 Texas City explosions, the anniversary of which was today.

I stayed in the rest of the day and evening. Tonight, I'd prepare pasta for dinner; it wasn't too bad. I used Al Dente pasta (from Whitmore Lake, Michigan, of all places – that's not far from where I live) and some basil pesto sauce from Central Market. The Astros and Giants game was in a rain delay; I would have seen this game in person had I kept my original California vacation plans. "Enterprise" was on tonight, so I made sure to watch that. Once that ended, it was back to the ball game until 9:30, when it was time for hockey and game 4, Detroit at Anaheim. Detroit had to win this game or they'd be eliminated. The score was tied through two periods. When the Ducks scored in the 3rd, things looked bleak. Then Fedorov scored late in the period to send it into overtime. Unfortunately, I could no longer stay awake. I had missed significant chunks of the game asleep on the couch, so I went to bed, hoping that they could pull it out.

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Thursday April 17

As soon as I woke up, and after going to the bathroom, I turned on the computer and dialed up the Free Press website. Did the Wings win? No, they didn't. Swept by the Ducks, their season was over. No Cup parades this year. All over Detroit, fans are undoubtedly saying, "What the [censored] happened?!?" Hopefully, the Pistons can provide some playoff excitement, for once they're out, we're stuck with the Tigers, who have won only one game so far this year to date.

For a change, I went out for breakfast this morning. I didn't have to go very far, though, only across the street to the Holiday Inn. I had one of their skillets, in which potatoes, some vegetables and breakfast meats are topped with eggs (or in my case Egg Beaters) prepared to your request. It was pretty good and made for a filling meal, along with the glass of apple juice. When I went back to my room, I finished reading the paper (or most of it), then took some sections of it and stuffed them inside the box I would soon mail to my sister. I sealed the box, addressed it, then got ready to leave for the day.

First stop: the post office, Astrodome Station. It's not located inside the Dome, but it's fairly close by. I had to fill out a customs declaration form before I could mail the package. I'm accustomed to doing that, but normally I have a supply at home, and I'd fill it out at home before going to the post office. Not so while on vacation. But it didn't take long, and the package was on its way to the Middle East. Then it was up Kirby all the way to where it turned into the Allen Parkway, and the parkway from there all the way into downtown. I felt like spending a few hours downtown and seeing some of the newer sights. I'd gone downtown in the early 80's (1984) and taken many pictures then, and I was going to do so again.

My first thought was to park south of Memorial Drive in some Theater District parking area I'd seen earlier. But when I got there, I saw it was reserved for police and jurors only. I had to continue into downtown; I ended up parking near Bayou Place, built inside what used to be the Albert Thomas Convention Center. My first stop was Tranquility Park with its cylindrical fountains. I took some pictures and video there. I could see the new Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, built on the former location of the Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hall. I walked around City Hall, a building that to me has always defined what a city hall should look like. That's no doubt because I grew up near Houston and was constantly exposed to it on the newscasts. Several groups of students were milling around the building; presumably, they were on field trips studying government. I remember traveling downtown to visit the county courthouses in 1980 as part of my government class's field trip. I saw two TV news trucks, one from News 24 Houston (a 24-hour cable channel devoted to news, and conveniently located on channel 24 on the dial) and one from Fox 26. When I first saw it, I was thinking it was from Fox 2, a Detroit station, but it wasn't. That wouldn't have made any sense.

Next, I spent a little bit of time in Sam Houston Park, home to many historic buildings that were moved here from their original locations. It was quite a contrast to see these 19th-century buildings and then see the late 20th and 21st century buildings behind them. From the historic buildings to one of the newest attractions in town: the Downtown Aquarium was my next stop. This was the second Aquarium restaurant in the area, the first being at the Kemah Boardwalk. And like the Boardwalk, there was an area for some arcade games and amusements (more on those later). As I left the area and walked along the Preston Avenue bridge (the oldest bridge over Buffalo Bayou, according to an information plaque nearby), I wanted to visit Old Market Square and Allen's Landing, both historic parks in downtown. Houston grew up around Old Market Square, and Allen's Landing was where the Allen brothers landed and founded their city. Old Market Square, by itself, wasn't all that exciting, though there were some classic buildings in the area, including some that wouldn't be out of place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. As for Allen's Landing, well, I never made it there. Construction on Main Street and the new rail line made it impossible to reach the park. So I ended up walking back to Bayou Place. My walk took me near the courthouses – past the old Rice Hotel and its wide covered sidewalks, now home to restaurants and other stores.

At the intersection of Smith and Capitol streets, there were several police cars stopped, their lights flashing like crazy. This was a "police situation". Five officers were bent over a man down on the sidewalk. A crowd had gathered around. From across the street, I could hear the man telling the officers to get off his head. I could also hear him curse them. Eventually, they picked him up by his arms and feet and put him in the back of a patrol car. His destination: jail, I presume. I continued onward, cutting through a nearby park, where I saw a choir singing, though I could not hear them. At last, I saw my destination: the Hard Rock Cafe. I was rather warm and in need of a place to sit down and cool off. The Hard Rock Cafe fulfilled my needs quite well, and also provided me with a nice hamburger as well as some ice cream for dessert. I admired the guitars on the walls, including a rectangular one of Bo Diddley's, and sat next to an outfit that belonged to Alice Cooper. My meal took an hour or so, and then I left and headed back to the Downtown Aquarium. I was going to participate in the tourist trap and ride two rides. The first was the Ferris wheel. I think this was the first time I'd ever been in a Ferris wheel. As I got into the car by myself, the car leaned towards the side where I was sitting. I hadn't counted on this. Then the wheel began to turn. Up and down and around. I had the video camera running and could see a traffic jam on southbound I-45. Suffice it to say I was not the most comfortable up there. I'm not one who enjoys going to amusement parks. Once the ride ended, I was glad to get off and proceed to the next ride, the Shark Voyage. This was more to my liking: a train ride around the area, with an extended stop inside a shark tank built inside the old Central Water Works building. I got some great video in there of sharks, rays and a nasty-looking sawfish. The train continued around and pulled some hokey stuff on us riders: apparently, a great white shark had gotten loose. When we came to a pool area, we "found" the shark – water gushed forth, people got wet, and the shark's head appeared. You could say it was a poor man's version of the shark attraction on the Universal Studios backlot tour. Then we returned to the starting point.

By this time, I felt like returning to the hotel, as I'd been on my feet and walking around for nearly 4 hours. Once I got back to my temporary home, I hooked up my laptop, checked my e-mail, made the first notes about today's adventures, and opened up a bottle of water. As I rested up, suppertime approached. What to do? I had not yet had Mexican food on this trip. I also hadn't visited Laredo's, either. I was planning to wait to go there until I checked into my hotel in Nassau Bay, but the hankering was getting too strong. But this was rush hour, and traffic getting there would be horrible. So Laredo's was out. But what was in? I drove around for a bit. I went to the Barnes and Noble on Holcombe for a bit – I saw a Chick-Fil-A restaurant but didn't want to go there – I drove through the Rice Village area but saw nothing that appealed to me – that is, when I could see anything, what with the sun glare; I passed by Pappasito's and almost went there, until I saw the parking lot was almost full; I briefly considered, then passed on, James Coney Island and IHOP. It was beginning to look like microwave macaroni and cheese for supper. Then finally, I decided to bring home some Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was all right, though it was quite messy.

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Friday April 18

The events of yesterday had me tired enough to go to sleep at 10 if not before. But I woke up in the middle of the night around 2 and couldn't get back to sleep. So I read for a bit, and that did put me back to sleep. When I woke up again at a more reasonable time, I noticed that the back of my left heel was sore. Probably from yesterday's walking, no doubt. I decided that I was indeed going to have lunch at Laredo's today. I stayed in this morning, doing some computer work and listening to a 1980's concert by the Beach Boys on 60's on 6 XM Radio (promoted as the last recording of the original five members). The concert ended after 10, so that's when I packed up and left. I knew the way; I could almost get there blindfolded. But when traffic started backing up on the Gulf Freeway at FM 1959, I thought I'd better get off and try Highway 3. I suspect many were heading down to Galveston for the day. After a while, Highway 3 backed up, too, so I took El Dorado to El Camino to Nasa Road 1 (gassing up at the Shell on Upper Bay Boulevard) to 146. Southbound traffic was backed up on 146, too, also for Galveston, presumably (there or the Seabrook or Kemah waterfronts).

I had my usual fare at Laredo's, the Special Dinner of enchiladas, beans and rice, a taco, a tostada (somewhat soggy today), a tortilla chopped with chili con queso, and a little bit of guacamole. To drink, a large glass of water. To nibble on, some tortilla chips and hot sauce. All just like I remembered it. I wonder if I'll be enjoying these meals on future visits, for the restaurant is endangered by plans for the widening of Highway 146. Nothing has been finalized, but businesses on the west side of the highway are endangered, to be sure.

When I left, I went across the bridge to Kemah and to their fairly new Wal-Mart Supercenter. I needed to get a cooler, for I had some foods that I wanted to keep when I changed hotels, and they needed to stay cool. Wal-Mart had plenty of coolers. They also had plenty of ice packs, so I got 3. Then it was back into town by way of Highway 96 (still an easy drive across League City) and I-45. But I wasn't going back to the hotel just yet, although I'd noticed some soreness in one of my leg joints. No, I was going to visit a store in southwest Houston that specialized in foreign-standard TV's, DVD players and appliances. I went across town on the South Belt, paying $2 for the privilege, then took the Southwest Freeway up to Hillcroft. When passing by Westwood Mall (once known as Westwood Fashion Place, I think) and the home of KPRC channel 2, I remembered that those were almost in the country at one time. How times have changed. I found the store and went inside. The DVD players were region-free but did not automatically convert output to the NTSC standard. Still, I noted their model numbers and promised to look them up for DVD+RW compatibility when I got back to the hotel (one model was compatible, while the other one was much less so). No prices were on display. And frankly, I don't think I'm in the market for one just yet. I haven't found any foreign DVD's that I had to have – not yet, that is.

Afternoon was something of a down time for me. But knowing that I would be leaving tomorrow, I pulled out the suitcase and began to pack a few things. I would have until 11 tomorrow morning to check out, so I could afford to be slow in packing. A little after 5, I decided to head for Meyerland and the Borders store there, finding some place along the way for supper. I went up to North Braeswood and took that over. It would turn into Beechnut and take me right to my destination. And as I neared my destination, I saw an IHOP and decided to have supper there. I selected German crepes, hash browns and bacon for supper. The food was edible, though I've had better. In fact, I've had much better. The bill worked out to $11 exactly, $11 that could have been better spent in restrospect. I won't be hopping for that IHOP again. Then it was across the West Loop to Borders, where I found some of what I wanted quite easily. But I had a hard time finding the local interest section. The signs said it was downstairs, but I could not find it there. I looked upstairs for it but couldn't find it there, either. One of the clerks said it was indeed upstairs near the History section. After a great deal of searching, I found it in the History section. It was unmarked. Only the common subject matter of Texas tipped me off to its being the local interest section. But after all that runaround, I did find the book I wanted, a new one on the Texas City explosions of 1947.

When I left, I took a short drive down North Braeswood, which eventually intersected South Braeswood. The drives took me through well-maintained residential areas, with Brays Bayou separating the two divided highways. The area struck me as a combination of Detroit's Outer Drive and Hines Drive. When South Braeswood ended at Bissonnet, I turned onto that street and headed back towards the hotel. 8 PM was approaching, time for my weekly online chat. Supper had not been particularly filling, so I found myself hungry for something else. I stopped at a Wendy's on South Main for a chicken sandwich combo and brought it back to my room. The sandwich was all right, though I've had better fries. 8 PM rolled around, and I started the chat. I also turned on the TV to follow two stories, one being the Astros-Brewers game and the other being the Laci Peterson case. She had disappeared around Christmas while pregnant, and foul play was suspected. Today, the authorities in California announced that her body and her baby's body had been found washed ashore, that her husband had been arrested and would likely be charged with their murders.

This portion of the trip is nearly at an end. Tomorrow, I will pack up and leave this hotel, then proceed down to Nassau Bay to check in at my hotel down there. I know exactly what to expect there, as I've stayed there twice before. I can now consider visiting friends who live down that way. And I've seen and done most of what I wanted to do in town, though it's possible and maybe even likely that I'll come back this way for something. Would I do it again? Sure. Would I stay here again? Quite possibly, for the location wasn't bad at all.

Move on to Part 2... 

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2003 R. W. Reini.    All rights reserved.

Written by Roger Reini
Revised April 20, 2008