Trip to Houston through the small towns
When I drove to Houston this weekend, I took little back roads all the way through small towns that I've heard about and seen on the map. These are the little villages in the gaps between the main roads, those blank spaces on the map circumscribed by the thick red and black lines. Crossroads, stop signs in the corn. Remember the bus stop in the cornfields in North by Northwest? Maybe a light or two on the main street in the bigger towns. A square with the courthouse in the center and stores around the rim.
A friend from work grew up in these towns. He and his father told me about some of them. They're small enough that everyone knows everyone, and has known all your family for generations, and there are not that many different family names in the cemeteries. The small towns have two churches, one Catholic and one Lutheran. This part of central Texas was settled by Germans of both persuasions. Up in the northern Midwest, if Garrison Keillor is to be believed, it's mainly shy Scandanavian Lutherans. Here it's mixed. So I was prepared to see a series of two-church towns.
(Unless you have a detailed map, these roads and towns aren't there at all. Fortunately, computerized maps based on census data include a lot of detail. I use the New Evil Empire's "Streets and Trips," which is pretty good.)
Smithville is not a small town. A gentleman I met told me how the small town in this area are structured, religion-wise. His theory is that the small towns in this area have two churches, one Lutheran and one Catholic, because the entire area was settled by German immigrants of the two persuasions. Not true here. Too big. This is not a one-horse or two-church town. Three Baptists, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and at last on the edge of town, a Roman Catholic.
On the way to the next town there is a scenic overlook. A hill. In this part of Texas, a hill? At least a hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. At the top just a loop of road surrounded by boulders to keep you from parking on the grass, three or four picnic tables, a helluva nice view in all directions. And the inevitable modern-age security camera. The rocks were lava, which is peculiar in this area that I thought was sedimentary, and spotted with moss in red and green. Why is there lava on top of this hill? Unless I misclassified the rocks, which I don't think I did, they looked black, burnt, with holes that appeared to be gas bubbles. Have to check the geologic map for this area.
Corn. Fields of corn. All uniform height, four to five feet, depending, topped with tassels and little ears down below.
There is a four-arch truss bridge coming into town, over the Colorado River. No, the other one. This is not the Colorado that cut the Grand Canyon, just a little Colorado River that runs through central Texas. Around Austin we have the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, to control the dams, lakes, reservoirs. Yes, confusing to newcomers.
The town has a large central square a lot like Georgetown, Texas, with a stone City Hall or Courthouse in the middle. The periphery, however, has a lot of empty storefronts, sorry to say.
This is a large town, overall. Three lights on the main road, and at least one on a side street that I saw during just a quick run-through.
Out by the highway entrance -- no, not the interstate, just a two-digit road, still lots bigger than the four-digit road I'm on -- among the line of gas stations is "Honey Bunny's" shop for women's apparel, it says. Ms. T. has called me "Honey Bunny" ever since she saw Amanda Plummer do it in Pulp Fiction just to piss off her boyfriend. Sorry she wasn't there to see it, so I photographed it for her.
Now this is a small town. Not even a stop sign. No parallel side streets. A one-church town, Lutheran in this case. I notice several small octagonal structures, wood frame, maybe eight feet tall plus a conical peaked roof, six to eight feet in diameter. Giant coffee cans in the fields, but whitewashed wood. In Utah, I would have thought they were small silos for grain storage. Down here I think they're pump houses, but I'm not sure. They're too far from the road and too close to the houses for me to go politely to look.
And then there is the lodge house. "Sons of Hermann, Lodge 152 (1896)." Sons of Hermann? Hermann? Wait a minute. Well, it's a German neighborhood, so the name is not implausible. And George Hermann ("the great oil, cattle and land baron George Hermann") gave a lot of land, now parks, to Houston, which is only sixty or seventy miles away. A little web research tells me that this is a fraternal organization that has life insurance, children's camps, dance schools, and retirement communities. Life insurance? Yes, that seems to be the mainstay. The lodge says it is "a not-for-profit fraternal life insurance company" on its web site. Never heard of this sort of lodge before. An odd coincidence: the one lodge I saw was lodge number 152. The organization has 152 lodges. But, alas, it is only a coincidence because the numbers are not contiguous. Still, a life-insurance lodge....
Fayetteville is a real town but a small one. Much smaller than Smithville or LaGrange. No lights. Still has a central square surrounded by stores. But the center of the square is not the big stone courthouse one expects. This town has a small wooden building, a whitewashed wood cube, two stories, with a widows walk and a clock tower. And an octagonal gazebo large enough for about twenty-four standees. The wood building is up on stone blocks about two feet. You see this a lot in central Texas, but I keep forgetting to ask why. I assume that it's for termites, but I'm not sure. Sometimes it's concrete blocks instead of stone. Like this old post office in a little town called Andice, west of Georgetown. It was up on two courses of concrete blocks. And rickety as hell, and the sides pocked by hail. Ms. T. has the guts to go into it. I didn't. Thought I might fall through the rotting floor. But I digress.
The stores around the square had only a few empty storefronts. The open ones were pretty typical: a bank, a restaurant, a saloon, a general store, and six antique shops. Yup, typical.
The four-digit FM (Farm-to-Market) road from New Ulm to Frelsburg is zig-zag zig-zag zig-zag zig-zag. Can't get up a reasonable head of steam. Imagine a plan of fields laid out on a strict north-south-east-west grid. Then build a road that goes northwest-southeast.
This is the town that a friend told me about, from which his family comes. They've been there for half a dozen generations, which probably means around the time the town was founded. It hasn't grown much. One four-way stop sign. Fewer than ten buildings total; and, as advertised, exactly two of them are churches.
Past town there is a small field containing Black Angus cattle and white egrets, about twenty of each. An odd and beautiful juxtaposition.
This is the first place that I have noticed Spanish moss hanging from the tree branches. It's very common in Houston and humid places like that. I guess this is the transitional zone.
Cat Spring is a just a crossroad, a two-way stop instead of four-way. This is an area of big trees, unlike Austin, and greener than Austin. It must have more precipitation here and more humidity as I get nearer to Houston, which is very humid and almost coastal. The upside of the increased water is that everything is greener and you can grow anything. The downside is that, well, it is humid all the time. There is a business sign in front of a house: "Pressure Washing, Mildew Removal."
It is amazingly windy the whole way. There are whitecaps on the farm ponds.
One animal you see here that we don't see around Austin is burros. We have goats. They have burros.
Finally I get back to the interstate at Sealy. But I can't get phone service. For the last twenty miles before the interstate and the first twenty miles on it there is no Sprint PCS service. Instead I get "Digital Roaming," which I have never seen before. Gee, their coverage map shows 100% coverage over that area, but that doesn't seem to be entirely realistic. As David Mamet said, "It's not a lie. It's a gift for fiction."