Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
Last week landed us in Texas. We popped out of southern Mississippi and across the Louisiana lowlands. Charged into a thin band of spring thunderstorms, the wind setting each roadside tree whipping in the ecstasy or agony of motion. Dropped ourselves into Houston, the fourth largest city in America. A staggering 6.3 million people churning around the oil and gas industry’s epicenter.
We were looking for an easy way west. Passage to the open and ranging land beyond the plains. A way that wouldn’t take us across Oklahoma or within swinging distance of a spring snowstorm. We aim to be in northern Colorado by mid May, but there’s bunch of country between now and then. Most of it is Texas.
I charted a route through the heart of it, strung it through the cities where I knew we’d have a place to park the truck. Places where our people live.
Stephanie and David left Knoxville five years ago. Wound up in Houston on the whim of a big oil recruiter. They’ve been there since, working and getting their toes into the city around them.
The marks of explosive growth are everywhere. New buildings and box stores, homes and highways. Oppressive traffic. Last year, the place saw its population swell by 156,000 people. Imagine it. It’s as if the entirety of Kansas City packed its bags and headed for Houston.
It’s a place that has no time for zoning. Long strips of fast food and pawnshops sit one street over from quiet and established neighborhoods with green grass and Porsches in the drives. Conservative mid century homes share the same live-oak-lined streets as massive, multi-million dollar mansions. It is a testament to the power of humanity. The abandon of money.
We got a quick tour. Wandered the winding and shaded paths of the Houston Zoo with our daughter on my back. Let her talk back to the howler monkeys and the sea lions. Got treated to some of the best food we’ve had in weeks. Donuts and jalapeno klatches. Tacos and barbecue. A wave of delicious beer.
The city’s highways carve it into quadrants, and the realities of traffic and time mean the locals rarely stray from their neighborhoods. Each is a city within a city, rich with its own restaurants and stores. Nothing is within walking distance, but a 20-minute car ride and six miles will get you whatever you need or want. From the driver’s window, it could be any megacity in America, the fine grain of the place buried under a layer of chain stores and new construction. No more Texas than Los Angeles or Atlanta. We stayed a day, then moved west again.
We made a stop in Giddings at Stephanie’s behest. Parked the truck downtown and wandered through the door of the City Meat Market. This was the Texas I had expected to find. Hoped for. That great and sprawling estuary where the south and the west end their flirting and meet at last.
Florescent lights glowed through the hanging smoke of an open grill, the walls painted with burnt wood and slow cooked meat. Good lord, the smell of it. Earthy and deep. There are no menus. No glowing hostesses or bubbling servers. No hidden kitchen. Just a line through the back where you pick your meat and sides and they serve it all up in a bundle of rosin paper with a couple of slices of white bread.
The brisket’s tender as a Betty Crocker cake. You could eat it with a spoon, but it’d be an insult to your fingers. The smoked sausage is rich and complex in flavor. The beans spicy enough to break a sweat over your forehead and bring the blood to your cheeks. It’d be heaven if you could get a glass of sweet tea.
The City Meat Market is a cramped spot. The restaurant has been in this building since the ‘60s. Locals sit on folding metal chairs at red patterned tablecloths and endure our presence with practiced patience. When we leave, we step outside into the wind and watch the traffic huck down 290, headed for Austin. The smoke of the City Meat Market hangs on our clothes and mixes with the sweet smell of a coming spring rain.
I stand there on the corner and eye the town as I’ve come to eye every town we roll through. Paint it with the same question I’ve been asking since we left Knoxville.
Could we live here?
This is more than a long break from our working realities. More than a wild roam around the continent. We’re hunting out where we want to spend our next handful of years. Trying on parts of the country we’d never get to know otherwise. Running our hands over the soft lines and jagged edges of it. Feeling for home.
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