On a drive through the Hill Country and up to West Texas, Coach falls in love with the land all over again.
This might be a Frenchman's first look at North America. The perpetually frozen Northern altitudes give way to the first key into the continent's interior: the St. Lawrence Seaway. He'd see at a glance the heart of the once-great French Empire: Quebec City, Montreal, and the chain of rivers and lakes that Samuel Champlain knew in his heart would be the key into this once dark and forbidding world. What strikes me, from seven miles high, are the great spaces (even at 500 mph) that appear between cities once you get inside the Eastern seaboard. A continent besieged with traffic, pollution, and doubling populations is still so vast that an hour can pass in a 757, and I could just as well be looking down at the steppes of Russia. But at 35,000 feet, it's still an abstraction; like looking at an atlas.
I've grown to hate the car. Any idea of driving anywhere north of Golfsmith on Hwy. 183 is vigorously avoided. However, I had to drive to Colorado. I discovered, within two hours, that it isn't the driving I despise, but the hellish I-35 corridor and the massive clogged artery that is traffic within 50 miles of Austin.
The drive to the Central Rockies is 1,100 miles, two 550-mile days. It's one of the few routes where you can't take an Interstate. Almost the entire drive is, by necessity, on fast but virtually empty state highways. I opened the windows 20 miles out from Leander and realized it's not the heat that keeps my windows closed all year: It's the hellish roar of those damn trucks.
I'd forgotten why I settled for life in the Texas Hill Country. At about the time 183 reached Lampasas I remembered. This is beautiful country. These sparsely settled primal hills are what Austin looked like, only a few years ago, exactly where I now live -- along with thousands of people, traffic lights, and shopping malls -- a few minutes out of town in West Lake Hills. Today you have to drive 80 miles to see the Hill Country, and if you're young, this is something you should do. My kids know only the Austin of urban Bee Caves Rd. As the Hill Country gracefully ends, initiating a vast plain that stretches to Central Canada, I wonder what a traveler from France would make of this: long-civilized Europe has nothing for a vacationer to use as a frame of reference.
The Texas Panhandle is often derided as a God-forsaken place, but this is my second visit and the raw, desolate beauty of the land and the open Western hospitality of its residents again surprise me. At the end of the first day I spot a driving range out on the empty prairie south of Amarillo. The wind -- with nothing to block it within 2,000 miles -- is howling. I tell the ball guy I want to work on my wind shots. He sees my loaded car -- I clearly wasn't from around there -- gave me an extra token (free), offered a West Texas golf wind tip, and wished me luck. I could live here in Canyon, an annual 4A March fixture in the Erwin Center. It seems like a nice, friendly, clean place. I like the wind.
Starting north of Amarillo, there's a 100-mile stretch, up to the New Mexico border, that's as pristine and unsullied by the 20th century (or the 18th for that matter) as anywhere I've ever seen. The land goes on forever, the horizon rarely broken by even a telephone pole. Hwy. 87 is built upon the long-gone-to-ground bones of the millions of buffalo who once covered this land. I stop at a tiny historical marker (something I'd never do on the Interstate) outside of Dalhart that pays some small tribute to these long-gone beasts and the forgotten Indian tribes that made this place their home. This spot would've looked exactly the same 300 years ago. This is the Texas of our imaginations.
What, I wondered, would a native of Florence make of this drive, all done in one day and only a tiny piece of America. Italy has its beauty, for sure, but this America, the southern terminus of the Great American Desert, must inspire awe and some glimpse of understanding about the American experience that so sets us apart from the distant places where our grandfathers and their grandfathers before them called home.
Parting shots: Many in Austin, myself included, were hot on ex-Northwestern coach Gary Barnett to replace John Mackovic. In fact, many with the power to influence these decisions considered Barnett their first choice. I just watched Fresno State -- not the basketball team! -- beat Barnett's Colorado, in Boulder, beginning another season in a most disastrous fashion. Colorado turned the ball over five times and was as flat as a well-pounded chicken fried steak. Had Barnett come to Austin, people would be recalling, with affection, the good old days of King John.