Driving and Biking in the Big City

Archive for March 2013

Wildflowers and Kool-Aid

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Suckle 3I start at the gully behind my house where the Indian Paint Brush blooms today and has every year for the 15 years since I’ve lived here. Last year, a neighbor planted Bluebonnets, and they’ve sprouted in clusters this year. With its Bluebonnets and Indian Paint Brush, the gully looks just like a scene from Lady Bird Johnson’s highway dream of beautifying America with wildflowers.Bluebonnets

I take a right at the bridge and travel beside the clover along West Lake Houston Parkway until I am surprised by an Amaryllis in full bloom, growing wild next to a neighbor’s fence. It’s a beautiful, neon pink shining through the thorns and undergrowth. Unexpected beauty in the rough.

I come near the dead end of this popular, well traveled parkway where the traffic has died down into my neighborhood. A patch of clovers mark the median between city bustle and quiet suburbia. I’ve found a couple of four-leaf clovers at this patch and know I could find one again if I wanted to break the pace of today’s bike ride.

I mark many of my trails by paths with patches of clovers – some where I’ve found four-leaf clovers and others where I’ve had no luck. I typically think I can find another if I’ve found one in a patch before, and that’s been my experience since I was a young girl who looked for four-leaf clovers and caught honeybees in mayonnaise jars. Today, I enter the greenbelt behind my next-door block and pass quickly beside two, three, patches of clovers where I’ve had good luck.Amaryllis

I bike down a half mile or so and beside many unlucky patches before I come to the neighborhood swimming pool where many of the clover patches over many years have been lucky for me.

Four-leafWhen I enter the archway of thick trees that make Ghost Road so cool any time of year, I catch a scent from my childhood that reminds me of grape Kool-Aid. I know that it’s the wildflowers, perhaps the honeysuckles that drape lavishly along this way. But there are far more flowers along my path than the yellow dangling bulbs I used to pick as a child. The kids from my old neighborhood would pinch the bottom off the yellow blooms, pull the skinny stalk through the bottom of the bloom, edging out a single drop of sweet nectar that we would lap up – sometimes until we made ourselves sick.

“Buttercup, who’s your friend,” we’d say to each other when we’d find a patch of wild buttercups growing in the fields. And, for whatever reason, we thought that simple statement was an invitation to push the buttercup into our friend’s nose, leaving a smattering of yellow pollen that I presume looked enough like butter to start the tradition.

????????????????????Later in life, I would walk similar paths with my young daughter and son in tow, showing them the same tricks of nature that I’d learned as a kid. Here are the blooms that will become dewberries someday. Look out for the stickers that shelter the red then dark purple berries. Don’t pick the red ones; they are too tart. Don’t eat too many without washing them or they will make you sick.????????????????????

I show my kids the flower we called angels breath; another that looks like a bride’s bouquet. My mom had specific names for all of the flowers, but I could never remember many of them. She also knew the types of birds and trees and could pick them out specifically while I, even as a grown woman, know only a few of the simple names from my childhood and then the colors. The purple one that hangs down; the tiny yellow ones that sprout everywhere. I searched everywhere for blue flowers as a kid, and, today, it seems like there are more colors than ever. More shapes, more sizes. And the smell, when combined for whatever reason, reminds me of grape Kool-Aid. No single identifiable fragrance but the combination of many.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 30, 2013 at 11:56 am

When home is colder than the big city

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Andy dog and a butterfuly

Andy Dog photo by Big Johnny

Disclaimer: This is really a sad and violent blog today. It is dedicated to my sweet Andy Dog who ran the roads of Kingwood anytime he got the chance. He was a hound’s hound, sometimes running until the pads of his feet bled on the concrete. I watched him run right into the path of many cars. He was wiry and fast. Once, when just a puppy, he jumped out of the window of my truck, slipped out of his dog collar and ran the roads of a strange neighborhood. We were always lucky.

But, as we all know, luck runs out quickly and when you least expect it.

It happened for a neighbor and her sweet Princess this week when Princess was killed by a hit-and-run driver just a block from my house and on the very last leg of my commute home. It was far enough ahead of my car that I couldn’t quite tell what was happening. I saw the pet owner run from the grassy area of the gully and just fall into a clump on the side of the road. It was only when I pulled my car up beside her that I could tell it was a woman and her dog. I didn’t know her but knew the dog, Princess, and had seen them walking all the time. Princess was a small little white dog, Jack Russell-looking. I believe the pet was killed pretty instantly but her body was still beautiful and fully intact.

I reacted instinctively. I know it surprised the owner because it surprised me, too. I just parked my car, jumped out and ran to help. We were both wailing and hovering over the dog to see if we could do anything. We spent about an hour, just crying and angry. I was holding the owner while she held Princess. It’s really shaken me up to watch the sweet thing die like that. I can’t get over it. Then, I can’t forget the carelessness of the driver who was going so fast and didn’t stop.

A third neighbor and I just sat with the owner, so upset while time stood still. Eventually, I went home for a box and the other woman got a towel out of her car. We finally moved Princess into the box, taking off her collar for the owner as a keepsake. Then we wiped all the blood off of the owner and ourselves. It was so terrible.

The other neighbor, who was a bit older and more experienced with such tragedies, talked about how people can be so inconsiderate and preoccupied.

“This is our home,” she kept saying. “This is our home; this shouldn’t happen at your home.”

I wonder what would have happened if the driver had stopped. At first, we compared descriptions and considered tracking her down. It was a mom with a car seat for a baby in the back of the car. She was entering the neighborhood instead of leaving. We were crazed and angry. But, in the end, we knew it was over. My neighbor’s four-legged companion was lost forever in a moment of carelessness. It was unforgivable. Nothing more could help.

Here’s the pretty good part, though. When it was all done and the owner finally stood up and wasn’t crying so much, we made incredible human contact with each other and the third woman. I saw her and she saw me. We were unprotected and honest with each other. We hugged like we were part of the same universe, easing each other’s burden just a bit. A real connection. That doesn’t happen very often. We never exchanged names or phone numbers, but I will know them when I see them again. We are kindred spirits. I saw them and know them. They know me.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm

The perfect storm of commuting

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ParkingI’m one of those contrarian commuters who likes to take my vacation days against the grain and when most folks are off the Houston freeways, out of town or at home on vacation. This works really well for me at Christmas holidays and most days during the summer months but is very tricky for spring break.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker estimated there would be 350,000 more people in my path every single day this week and next week – making for the perfect storm of Houston commuting. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo converged with spring breakers everywhere who are anxious to visit the Houston Zoo and Houston Museum District, right down the street from me at the Texas Medical Center.

For instance, there were days this week when I made it from Kingwood to the medical center in 35 minutes, and that’s a 32-mile drive. All week I pulled into my parking spot way before my usual 8 a.m. arrival time, even counting once when I stopping at Starbucks and once to get gas and Diet Seven-Ups.

Interestingly, this was the same amount of commuting time I gave myself as an adjunct professor at University of Houston when I was teaching night classes of news writing, editing and helping to support the content of the “Daily Cougar.” Thirty-five minutes, you say? And I’m a bit shocked myself. The drive was close to the same distance as today, of course, but I was teaching at night and always against the rush hour traffic.

In those early days, driving my silver Chevrolet ES turbo convertible with car seats in the small backseat, I would wait, briefcase in hand, for Big Johnny to hit the door from his day job, and I’d be on the road as the night shift. Hmmm. “Turbo” might be the operable word here. Of course, no one ever minds when the professor is late or even when she’s held up and can’t make it to class. Everyone gets to go home early. No harm; no foul. So perhaps I wasn’t always on time, although I don’t remember timeliness ever being a problem. College professor is the only job I’ve ever had when no one truly cared if I showed up or not. And, in fact, I was the same way as a college student awaiting my professors.

So, let’s take this commuter mentality a step further into my past and the days when I commuted from the big city of Port Neches, Texas, to my hometown institution of higher learning, Lamar University in Beaumont. I gave myself seven minutes from Port Neches to Beaumont and that included the highly volatile Railroad Avenue when a train would always waylay a commuter with its backing and forthing.

By my freshman year at Lamar, I’d basically moved in with my best friend and her aunt and uncle. So, if I’d stayed with Penny in Groves, then I would give myself a solid 15 minutes to make it to Beaumont. I remember thinking what a terribly long commute that was and how I needed to get an apartment in Beaumont as soon as possible, especially after I switched from the bi-weekly “Mid County Chronicle Review” to the daily “Beaumont Enterprise.”

Seven minutes from Port Neches to Beaumont, I say. Fifteen if I were driving from Groves to Beaumont. I can’t believe it myself this many years later as a professional commuter who first commuted to Dallas and Fort Worth from Arlington before I even began the challenge of Houston.

So my slide into work this week was surprisingly easy, but my drive home was very rough – especially if I forgot and shifted into automaton mode. That meant I’d be on Fannin Street and stuck in the long line of stop and go before I realized I hadn’t taken my alternate route – around the bottleneck of U.S. 59 to my favorite parallel of Dowling Street.Cuties on the rail

For those of us who travel the medical center every day, we can forget what a royal pain in the ass of confusion it is for regular folks. And, I must say, we can be impatient with people who don’t quite know where they are going. I try to be considerate, knowing some of these folks are sick and in need of expert medical care. And, in fact, it took me weeks and months to know where I was going when I first joined the medical center traffic. You think I wouldn’t be so arrogant.

Tuckered out cuties on the rail in a photo taken by fellow Port Neches-Groves graduate and now coheart at Texas Medical Center, Pam Taylor-Glass

So, this week, I tried to stay calm while cars in front of me veered all over the road, pointing and almost stopping. Even the parking police created havoc by posting their vehicles halfway inside of otherwise useable traffic lanes.

I love the wonderful mix and match of couples and kids who live in our international melting pot. And, I’m really enjoying my new ride, Clarence. Unfortunately, he lulls me into some comfort zone with his satellite radio, warm seats and sun roof. Before I even realize it, I’m on Fannin, unable to turn around and not finding the comedy channel very funny anymore. Next week, I will try to stay alert and navigate spring break better. As a contrarian, I have to take advantage of the circumstances.

Breaking the rules of the road

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Finger on the bell

Finger on the bell

Like most folks in Texas where sunshine is pretty steady, I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time. At least I’m not a fan on Monday mornings when it’s time to bundle up in the dark and commute to Houston before daybreak. But nine or so hours later, in the middle of March when the weather is just about perfect, I’m an incredible fan. ’Tis the season of longer bike rides and little sweating. These days create a perfect combination of long-legged birds, bushy-tailed squirrels, nose-wrinkling rabbits and an occasional raccoon, deer or even a coyote.

Clarence and I were anxious to speed home today where I would switch from four wheels to the two-wheeled Streak for a long, nature-loving ride, and it was just that. At least it was for the first eight of my 10-mile bike ride.

Of course, I share the greenbelts with more and more travelers these days. Gone are the days when I can expect to take a solitary ride to the lake or the FFA barn without seeing a soul. Kingwood is a growing community of baby boomers fighting more than the loss of an hour this day. The community is filled with golfers, tennis players, bike enthusiasts, joggers, young parents and tweens and young teens who are so self-absorbed that you can watch while the hormones knock them off the straight and narrow.

I am always surprised at the number of folks who don’t even see or hear me coming. Of course, I’ve got my rhythm down and know how close I can get before I warn any dog walkers are baby strollers. I come around them slowly and don’t blow them off the sidewalk like some other bikers. If they appear overly concerned that their dog is going to bark at me or chase me, I tell them that I am dog friendly so they can calm down.

I share nicely and obey all the proper rules of the road as dictated by suburban society. I ride often enough to know where another biker may be coming around this corner or that bend and may be coming too fast or too carelessly for me to save myself even with my cat-like reflexes. I bing my bell, call out, make eye contact. In other words, I drive defensively. I have learned from a couple of bad bike spills and near-misses that running off the concrete and onto the shoulder will cause me to wreck. And, in fact, my achy, breaky body takes longer and longer to recover from a full-on bike wreck.

My biking history also involves some paybacks from my own mischievous youth when some would say I, too, was a bit sassy, preoccupied and prank pulling. In other words, it takes one to know one. Thus, I’m leery about the teens and tweens and never look forward to passing a patch of them. I’m not saying they always sass me or that there aren’t wonderful kids out there. I love kids. But I’ve been whistled at, mocked and called penis head. And, in fact, some 12-year-olds in the neighborhood once strung box tape across the bike path, and I happened to be the next rider to hit it at full speed – knocking my bike for a loop, me on the ground and damaging my next bone scan with suspicious smudges of “early deterioration.”

So, my first bike ride of the Daylight Savings Season ended with a short game of sidewalk chicken that I was determined not to lose. There were three of them, clearly taking up the entire greenbelt on their bikes and completely breaking the rules of the road that require them to pass gently by hugging the right side of the pavement. They didn’t see me at first so I binged my bell softly and in plenty ahead of time for their acknowledgement. They continued to frolic and come closer, so I shouted a “hey” of greeting. They looked up, saw me and went back to ignoring me.

I held my ground. I didn’t take up much space on the greenbelt, but I was not veering to the uneven shoulder where I would certainly take a tumble. Further, I was not going to defer or give up ground. And, in fact, this was not my first game of chicken, having raced down Rubber Plant Road often as the young owner of a used Ford Pinto.

The teenagers looked me straight in the face and kept coming, two abreast, one right in front of me. Ten feet away, then eight, five. I tell you honestly that we were mere two or three feet from each other, almost front wheel to front wheel, close enough to have a conversation when I finally spoke up.

“Are you trying to take me out?” I asked, sounding as much like “The Closer” as “Dirty Harry.” And it broke the tension of the standoff. I guess the teen realized he was going head to head with a middle-aged mother, perhaps past her prime. Would this make him tough or weird? And, in fact, if we continued to tussle, how bad would he look if he discovered what a really huge pain in the ass I can be when I’m pissed off.

He came to his senses and said, “no” and even “sorry” and moved to his side of the sidewalk. I heard some guffawing as I pulled away, finished my ride and never looked back.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 11, 2013 at 6:54 pm