The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
South by Southwest
From Beaumont, we headed west across the vast expanse of Texas. Interstate 10 brought us to Houston, where we picked up the Southwest Freeway. It was hazy as we drove through the flat plains inland from the Gulf of Mexico, and great white wading birds watched silently as we passed.
In El Campo, we stopped at Mikeska's Bar-B-Q and Smokehouse, where a 'plate lunch' set us back $4.95 apiece and included a healthy pile of pork, sausage, ham, beef, chicken, green beans, potato salad, corn, red beans and banana pudding. The dining room was populated with a menagerie of static wildlife. Five bears, two foxes, several deer, a handful of squirrels, and a wild boar watched us through glass eyes as we ate.
After a blinding drive into the setting sun, we stopped in Sinton, where a billboard announced that Jesus Christ was alive and well at the Baptist Church. Another church marquis posed the question, "Are you grumbly hateful, or humbly grateful?" We were grateful to find a place to rest at Glenn's RV Park. "There's a tropical feel to the breeze," said Mark. "I don't think we'll freeze tonight."
In the morning, Highway 77 again took us southwest. Suddenly, with a machine gun rat-tat-tat, a thick cloud of bees hit our windshield. Their kamikaze raid left such a thick residue on the glass that we had to pull over and clean it off.
"And you know," said Mark as he climbed out, "There's no reason they couldn't have been killer bees. Let's hope they were a lone swarm."
"And let's be humbly grateful we weren't riding a motorcycle," I added.
We continued our journey south through the King Ranch, a ranch so huge you could put several Delawares inside it and have room left over. It includes over 1,250,000 acres and boasts seven towns within its boundaries. One of them is Kingsville, and Kingsville is big enough to be called a city.
In Harlingen, which is at the top of the southernmost tip of Texas, we stopped to buy groceries. When we pulled back out into traffic from a shopping center parking lot, our engine suddenly lost power. We slowed to a halt in a turn lane in the middle of the road, and no amount of coaxing could encourage the NicoVan to move.
It's at times like these, when you can't leave your vehicle without stepping into a rapidly moving lane of traffic, that you find yourself humbly grateful for cellular telephones. Since we couldn't see a street sign from where we were stranded, we called the operator and got the number for the Discount Tire outlet next to us. Mark called the number and asked for their address. Once he had bearings, Mark dialed up the emergency road service we'd signed up for only a few weeks before. The man who answered assured us that help was on the way in the form of La Feria Wrecking Service.
Two hours later, a tow truck appeared. By then, we'd been pushed by a police car into a nearby parking lot. The driver considered the situation and said, "I think it's probably the fuel pump. Now that you've cooled off for two hours, you can probably drive. If you can, it's better than my towing you. If I tow you, I'll have to dismantle the drive axle, and that's an inconvenience, to say the least."
Mark fired up the NicoVan, another wrecker arrived, and, escorted by two tow trucks, we paraded slowly through Harlingen to the Ford dealership. It was our home until morning.
It took two days for the NicoVan's fuel pump to be replaced, largely because one vital part had to be shipped in from Detroit. We stayed in a motel the next night, and the following evening we were finally ready to head south once more.
South Padre Island shares latitude with Miami, Florida. It's known far and wide as a 'spring break' destination, and it's also popular with 'winter Texans.' The reason, as the postcards for sale in the tourist shops proclaim, is the "subtropical temperature all year round." Hey, that's part of the reason we'd come, too.
What the postcards don't tell you is that every hundred years or so, South Padre Island gets really cold. The last time snow fell was 1895, and, lucky us, we arrived just in time for the reprise. For two days, icy winds hammered the coast, and at intervals, we were treated to sleet, snow, and freezing rain.
Then, as quickly as it arrived, the storm left. Suddenly, we were basking in 70-degree weather, and pelicans floated by on tropical breezes. The Gulf Coast had treated us to a perfect example of its Jekyll-and-Hyde climate, and the local newspaper announced that whoever had been hoping for a white Christmas would have to head north.
From here, we'll be heading for San Antonio and then on to California in time for New Year's.
South Padre Island, Texas
December 14, 1997