Chapter 14
Dig We Must
The Tales of Texas

1a - The Mysterious Ski Rack
1b - Wheres the Other Half of That Moose
1c - The Waiter Who Didnt Yall
1d - Scorpions, Scorpio
2a - Diet Soda
2b - Riding into the Sunrise
3 - Modest Magazines
4 - Down to Houston
5a - What Does That Sign Say
5b - Just Follow Your Nose
5c - They Call It the Sunbelt
5d - The State Tree
6 - The New House
7a - Billboards
7b - Billboards Again
8 - Stereo Upgrade
9 - Wineries
10 - Unintentionally Left Blank
11 - CBW in TX
12 - Ice House Radio
13 - Goats and Cotton
14 - Dig We Must
15 - Dan Moody
16 - Dry Heat
17 - Dead Animals
18a - Bookstore Culture
18b - On the Open Road
19 - Weather
20 - Sightings in Bertram and Buchanan
21 - Too Many Birds
22 - Road Hazards
23 - Sightings to and from Houston
24 - The Great Wall of Train
25 - In the Heat of the Day
26 - Bite Me
27 - Bid on This Skeleton
28 - Willie
29 - Rural Countryside
30 - SUV SUX!
31 - Kinky on the Texas Monthly Hour
32 - Strange Yellow Sky
33 - Football is a Serious Enterprise in Texas
34 - Remember the Alamoo!
35 - What's That on the Radio
36 - Trip to Houston through the small towns
37 - Shoe Story, an Austin Anecdote
38 - Unintended Fireworks
39 - Flash Flood Warning
40 - Sin City
41 - Live music in Austin, but in theaters not in clubs
42 - Fear of Overpass
43 - The Big Sneezy
44 - New Texas
45 - Front Ended by the French Fry Mobile
46 - Dirt Farm
47a - Heard at the Texas Book Festival 2008
48a - Texas Book Festival 2009
49 - Central Time Sucks
50 - Temple Texas
51 - Christmas in Austin
52 - Pennants in the Wind
53 - The Road Less Traveled
54 - Texas-size Thunderstorm
55 - Cool Van
56 - Your New House Is That-A-Way
57 - C.S.I. Austin
58 - New MTV Game Show
59 - Equine Technology
60 - Look at That Prairie
61 - Get Your Water Here
62 - Corporate Anniversaries
63 - College Sprawl
64 - Hire These Guys
65 - Preparing for Winter
66 - Careful What You Overhear
67 - Bonnie Raitt
68 - Perfume
69 - Questionable Skills
70 - All-American Day
71 - Read Me
72 - Weird Fog
73 - Overpackaged Food
74 - What Town Was That
75 - Texas Book Festival 2010
76 - Bulletproof Roof
77 - The Oldest Photo
78 - Cheesesteaks Part 1
79 - Cheesesteaks Part 2

Dig We Must

Sept 2000

There is construction everywhere in the Austin area, and I really mean *every*where. It is hard, maybe impossible, to drive down any little road more than a couple miles without seeing a new house or a new road being built.

Buildings is buildings, and they go up much the same way everywhere. But roads, they have a different concept on here. They are widening the highway near our house in preparation for extending the freeway another few miles. This will be a wonderful thing, when done, making it much easier for us to get into other parts of town. Now, to go south into town, we have about two miles of six-lane with five or six traffic lights before we get to the limited-access road. Those two miles routinely take longer than the next ten miles. Pray for freeway.

In the process of widening the road, the first step appears to be to flatten the area on both sides and lay new utilities underground.

Digression number 1: The road system here is structured a little differently, if one is accustomed to the East and the West. I was used to cloverleaf intersections between roads. Not here. In Houston and Austin, at least, the style is very different. The limited-access highway is generally six or eight lanes, three or four in each direction, divided by Jersey barriers and/or median strips. On the outside, there are four or six more lanes of access roads that parallel the freeway. These are lined with businesses, intersect other roads, have red lights, and such. Normal roads. Then every couple miles there is an exit from the freeway to the access road, and an entrance from the access road to the freeway. Or vice versa. Merging happens. On the access road, one moves to the right or left if one wants to turn at the next light.

With a few exceptions, not a bad system. There are a couple places where the distance from the exit ramp (onto the access road) to the right turn lane (off of the access road) is woefully short, and those intersections scare the bejeezus out of me. Accidents happen.

And on intersections that are really popular, where the access road and the lights would be horribly jammed, they will sometimes build a separate ramp just for that exit, from one freeway to another. These are called "fly-overs" locally, because they are taller than the surrounding buildings. The paper sometimes lists the heights. One that we take a lot is 88 feet above the ground, dwarfing the six-story hotel next to it. And, yes, they're scary as hell, too. But they contribute a certain sweeping majesty to the beauty of our urban spaghetti.

Digression 2: The traffic lights here, too, are a little different from what one is used to in the Northeast. Where two major roads cross in a four-way intersection, the lights will go all four ways, one at a time. This isn't universal, but it's almost always true. You get used to it. If you just miss a light, it will be a looooooonnngg time before you move again. Several minutes. You and your groceries will both have aged a little before you get across that road. You might as well put it in park and relax.

Given the way people drive here, this is the safe way to schedule the intersections. For instance, running yellow lights is a popular sport here that will be only too familiar to Bostonians. Still, even with such precautions, accidents at intersections are very common. Two of the top five most dangerous intersections in Austin, measured by frequency of bad accidents, are within three miles of my house, and I have to go through both of them every morning on the way to work. Very carefully.

Digression 2.5: People here may drive badly, and impatiently, but they do drive slowly. The speed limits here often mean something. Back in Massachusetts, most of the time on 495 you had to go 77-78 just to get into the left lane, and 80 if you wanted to stay there. Any slower and you were a hazard to navigation. In Austin, if the limit is 65, the fastest car on the road is going about 70. Maybe on some bad days, 75. Fifteen miles over the limit here would be very conspicuous, and you'd get a trooper's autograph.

Digression 3: How do you widen a road? First, flatten both edges out a hundred feet or so, then lay new utility lines, then re-grade, then repave. But the machines they use to do this! Yikes! Like Paul Bunyan's chainsaw. These are very large yellow machines on treads with large snouts sticking out, like the business end of a chainsaw. They slice into the ground and spit the dirt -- and solid rock -- out both sides on conveyor belts. The trenching machines come in three basic sizes: long and skinny, long and wide, and short and fat. The long and skinny ones have a snout fifteen to twenty feet long and one to two feet wide. They can cut a trench, for pipe or cables, more than ten feet deep. The short-fat ones have a circular snout, so they can't go very deep, but the swath is five feet wide. Maybe they are used just to eat the first few feet of rock near the surface. The long-wide ones are about twenty-five feet long and three feet wide. And they all eat right through the solid rock that is all over this area. Austin, just to digress for a moment in the middle of the other digression, is entirely built on limestone. Most of it is nice, white limestone, fairly soft as rocks go, but that's not saying much. Even soft rock is harder than most substances that we come into contact with daily: wood, drywall, most plastics, the cardboard and tinfoil that our cars are made from, asphalt, melamine, etc. Under that there are layers of very hard, very dense gray limestone, and, in some lucky places, granite. There are no basements in Austin, if you catch my drift. These machines eat right through these layers of rock and spit out pieces from softball-size to motorcycle-size. Remember putting the guy through the chipper in "Fargo?" You could put a rhinoceros through one of these. For sheer destructiveness, if you get in their way, Bullwinkle's Metal-Munching Moon Mice have nothing on these beasts.

End of several digressions. Where were we? Ah, construction.

Well, one of the stranger signs of hyperactive new construction is new kind of plant growing out of the ground: the PVC pipe-and-tube plant. This is a large plant, usually six feet high and three or four feet in diameter. It consists of six to twelve black and red tubes sticking up out of the ground. They range from about an inch in diameter to about four inches, I think. The tops of all the tubes are cut square and covered with caps or tape.

We decided that these were underground utility access lines, sprouting up where new construction *will* be sometime in the near future. On some new roads, these plants appear every couple hundred feet, just where driveways will go in when the pasture is finally turned into subdivision. I guess that, when one is cutting a new road, it pays to run tubes for all the utilities underground, and then just pop them up where they will eventually be needed. The caps and tape are to keep creatures with too many legs from taking up residence.

There's a smaller variety of the PVC plant that grows around telephone poles in some areas. It's yellow, with only four to eight stalks, typically, and they're narrower, only one to two inches. I guess that these are future homes for cables and fibers to salve our insatiable appetite for bandwidth. Bits and bits, yum, yum.

This is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, by population growth. How one views that high growth rate depends on one's point of view:

- thrilling, for the real estate developer;
- ruinous, for the old residents who used to have a nice little college town here;
- ossifying, for the commuters parked in traffic that thickens every day;
- choking, for the environmentalists, or for just anyone who enjoys breathing.

Copyright (C) 2000, 2001, 2002, Richard Landau. All rights reserved.