January 26-30, 2015
We set off the morning of Monday, January 26th to begin what would be a number of long days of driving. Our plan was to put in ten hours plus to Las Cruces, New Mexico, then twelve hours to Houston, Texas for two nights with Stephanie and Lee, a short six hour drive to Mobile, Alabama to visit James and then a final ten hour drive home to Charlotte.
It would be a chilly blustery day of driving, but luck favored us with a tailwind and given the fairly flat nature of the terrain, our mileage was better than our usual average of 25.5 mpg. It had been quite some time since we’d last traversed the endless miles of desert that comprise this part of the country and as we’ve found in Death Valley, the stark nature of the landscape soon begins to reveal a subtle beauty that is hard to describe.
This is a land of metallic colors; rust, beige, ochre, brown, and bronze, offset against tall blue skies, often with immense cloud formations filling the horizon. Mountains rise steeply from the desert floor, except where time and nature have worn them down to smooth obstacles to be navigated. We drove on, stopping only to fill the car with gas and for our planned dinner in Tucson, at the last In-n-Out we’d encounter as we made our way east.
We arrived in Las Cruces around 7:00pm and checked into the Best Western Mission Inn. Chosen primarily for its location not far from the highway and its acceptance of pets, we discovered a charming old school motel in what must have been an older part of town. Our room was a delight, large and furnished in a western motif, with tile everywhere, even on the custom made wood nightstands and dresser.
Up pretty early the next morning in anticipation of the twelve hours to drive to Houston, we packed the car and went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, included in our rate. Increasingly, every middle range hotel chain is offering a free breakfast and they range from ”Fahgettaboudit” to “I’ll have seconds”. This one was in the second category. Even though served in chafing dishes, the eggs were hot and fluffy, the sausage juicy and fresh. We ate like we’d be crossing the west Texas desert. Oh wait, that is what was in store.
I’d last been through here in 2008 when J.B. Doug, and Evan helped me drive my two cars from L.A. to Charlotte in 44 hours. On our first day that trip, we drove through El Paso at midnight on Saturday and didn’t leave Texas until midnight the next day, 24 hours in one state. It would seem just as big this time around. Did I mention it was a long day? To put it simply, it took us three tanks of gas in a 25.5-mpg car to make that drive and those would be our stops, getting gas, filling up the coffee mug, grabbing a quick bite it at a McDonalds. We often order the grilled Sweet Chili Chicken McWrap, which at 305 calories and 11 grams of fat is a fairly healthy fast food option.
We pulled into Houston around 8:00 pm and were warmly greeted by Stephanie, whom we’d not seen in a couple of years since her move with Lee from Charlotte. He was teaching a class that night and over a few beers and some homemade soup she caught us up on the changes that had occurred in their lives, most of them good ones. Lee arrived later that evening and we plotted out our agenda for the next day, primarily to take a tour of the new Student Center at the University of Houston where Stephanie is employed, see a bit of the town and importantly, engage in our never ending quest to drink fine craft beers.
And that is how it played out. A colleague of Stephanie’s, the Associate Director at the Center, gave us a comprehensive tour of the remodeled center, adding to the long list of student-focused buildings I’ve visited throughout my career. This one is nicely done and while one can always quibble with some of the design decisions, in the end it is a building that will serve its intended population for years to come.
As we left campus it was time for a bite to eat and of the range of options that Lee presented us with, Vietnamese sounded the most interesting. The University is located within the inner ring of Houston’s downtown area and the Vietnamese quarter is close by. We made a beeline for Lee’s favorite option in town, Les Givrals, a very casual place, with a line out of the door, a good sign for hungry eaters. We ordered two Chargrill Bbq Porks With Pate (Bahn Mi) and a side of spring rolls to split, each Bahn Mi running just $2.50. With drinks the total tab came to just $17.14 and I can honestly say it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.
Momentarily full, we drove over to Eleanor Tinsley Park for a walk along the Buffalo Bayou. It was a gorgeous winter’s day, mild temperatures, blue skies and just the right amount of physical movement to build up a thirst that would be quenched not long after by a stop at the St. Arnold Brewing Company. Self-described as the oldest craft brewery in Texas, the large tasting and eating area very much resembled a German beer hall, a welcome sight to our eyes. A ten-dollar cover charge buys you an eight-ounce taster glass good for four beers, essentially two pints for five dollars apiece.
The beers were quite good and the food passing by the table on the way to waiting diners would have been worth a try if we hadn’t just eaten and weren’t planning on doing so later on.
We finished up our beers and drove over to campus to pick up Stephanie, then made our way to The Hay Merchant, another local hangout for our two friends. We’d got there in time for happy hour which offers thirty of their draft beers out of nearly 100 taps for just three dollars each, making for a truly happy hour. We ordered a round of Sweet and Spicy Pig Ears and the Hay Merchant’s Simple Hummus, both good ways to soak up the couple of pints apiece that we consumed while making conversation with a couple of Stephanie’s co-workers.
Reasonably hydrated, we left The Hay Market and drove over to Chuy’s for dinner. This Texas born chain is famous for their authentic take on Tex-Mex cuisine and provided us with a taste that comes closest to what we look for in this type of restaurant. The Margaritas were cold, strong and reasonably priced, the food ample and nicely prepared. I don’t recall specifically what we had to eat, but there was plenty of it and including drinks, our tab for four came to a shade under $100. Not bad for a filling tasty dinner out.
We’d started the drive home in good fashion, a couple of long days at the wheel, a pleasant night in an old school motel and now a visit with old friends in a new town, drinking good beers, eating delicious food and catching up on lost time. Sometimes it doesn’t get any better.
University of Houston Student Centers: http://www.uh.edu/studentcenters/north/
Eleanor Tinsley Park: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Tinsley_Park
St. Arnold Brewing: http://www.saintarnold.com/
The Hay Merchant: http://www.haymerchant.com/