Sep 132008

Hurricane Ike has me reflecting on my first trip to Houston. It also happens to have been my only visit to Houston, but I’m sure someday that will change.

It was a year after I graduated from college, the year I decided to go see all the Cal football games. Southwest Airlines had been running a $99 fare sale, so it wasn’t too expensive to keep hopping across large sections of the country to see the out-of-town ones. Of course, that’s what it was: “hopping.” Southwest proved itself completely useless to me as an airline given its inability to transport me across multiple time zones without landing six times and making me scramble around for a new seat after each one.

This trip took place during those dark years of Tom Holmoe’s reign as Cal head coach. The Bears didn’t win often that year, but when they did win, I was there. Including when they beat the University of Houston at a game in the Astrodome. I remember the stadium feeling vastly bigger than it needed to be. I also remember there being beer vendors hawking cans of Budweiser, which stood out for a few reasons. For one, the Pac-10 is a dry conference, so I’m not used to there being any beer at football games at all. Secondly, even down the road at Oakland Coliseum, where there is beer, there are no beer hawkers (you have to get up to get your own). And then, even when there are beverage vendors roaming around either stadium, they never sell it in *cans*. I may routinely excoriate stadium security policies, but I don’t feel that *all* their efforts to limit tempting and potentially lethal projectiles are necessarily misplaced…

After the game I remember driving around the Houston beltway with some other Cal fans, looking for a place to dine. With one car heading around the loop in one direction and the other heading off in the other, it’s fairly amazing that we ended up at the same restaurant, which was a Joe’s Crab Shack. Joe’s Crab Shack, as I learned from the inflight magazine, is a brand of restaurant owned by a large chain that largely saturates the South. There are a few near the more northerly places I’ve lived (apparently there’s one in San Francisco), but apart from this Houston trip I’ve never had occasion to go to one. I do remember, these 10+ years later(!), having had blackened-chicken fettuccine and really liking it. Perhaps it’s time to go back?

But that was Saturday. I’d arrived on Friday, because thanks to Southwest I’d had to allow the day to fly across the country. I got there late afternoon, rented a car, and then drove out to Galveston. For years and years I’ve had a map of the United States hanging on my wall. I often daydream about what different spots are like, and when I planned this trip to Houston I got to wondering what that little nearby dot on the Gulf Coast might be like. I’d never seen the Gulf prior to that trip, and since it was only one thumbnail away from Houston (about how far San Jose appeared to be from San Francisco) I decided to go check it out.

Galveston sits on a narrow sandbar of an island. Cutting across it on the main road I passed all sorts of 100-year old Cajun style wood buildings, with slatted shutters and Haunted Mansion geometry. It was nearing sunset by the time I got to the beach and discovered the free ferry that connected the island with the isthmus next to it in lieu of a bridge. It was a lovely ride in the soft growing dark, with porpoises splashing along in the wake.

Heading back north on the interstate I pulled over for a pit stop at the busiest McDonalds I’ve ever seen. A local high school football game had just ended, with the home team having won by a certain score that entitled ticket-holders to a free Big Mac. It was very festive as the whole town converged at this restaurant in the middle of a highway I otherwise thought was in the middle of nowhere.

But it wasn’t the middle of nowhere; it was one of many places where people were living, celebrating, and mourning that day. For this wasn’t just any weekend, but the weekend of Princess Di’s funeral, which was beamed into my hotel room at two in the morning.

That’s the thing about travel. You can move all about the world as much as you want, but you’re still always part of it.

 Posted by at 6:53 pm

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