The Mythical Land of Texas

December 19th, 2015

The first time I went to Texas it was cloudy and rainy the whole time I was there. I didn’t even see the sun until my flight had lifted above the clouds on the way home. Everyone tells me that this isn’t normal, but for me, that’s what Texas is.

Dear Philip,

I know how much you like to hear about my adventures, so I thought I would fill you in on the latest of my travels. As mentioned in a previous letter, I planned to visited my cousins in Texas over Thanksgiving.

I’ve never really traveled for Thanksgiving, unless you’re counting the stairs from my bedroom to the living room of my parent’s house. I spent a lot of time researching it (see photo below), and Thanksgiving is supposed to be the busiest travel day of the year.

I have a little bit of work to do in the morning, so I head to school. More importantly, I have no food in the house, so I figure I can have lunch in the cafeteria with my coworkers before taking off. It’s a slow Wednesday. The type of day when you’ve mentally clocked out and are physically just keeping the lights on until you can leave without anyone really noticing your absence.

The stuff I need to do takes an hour and the rest of the morning is spent hovering and walking around, trying to look busy. The weather is cloudy and dreary, the kind November is most famous for. The type of day that’s more fun to imagine than it is to experience.

I leave work and stop at home to get my suitcase and do a few last things before heading to the airport. I make the first mistake of my trip and remove my running gear from my bag before leaving. Home is 77 miles from the airport and traffic is the big unknown for me. It’s smooth sailing until mile 44 when I encounter a Wild Road Construction.

Wild Road Construction uses Merge Lanes. It’s super effective! (x_x)

Two lanes of traffic are being merged down into one lane of traffic right before a stoplight. Traffic is literally backed up in two lanes for two miles and it takes close to an hour for me to get through. Of course, I’m in the slow lane, because I’m in the lane that everyone is merging into. I watch two students from my department drive past in the left lane and they don’t even wave.

But things are good! When I get tired of my audio book I switch to Christmas Music and jam out to all the songs for the rest of the ride. When I get to the cities the traffic is light, its just a little before rush hour and any stop and go I encounter only adds a few more minute to my travel time.

When flying I park my car at the Park ’N Go, which is close to the airport, but a little bit cheaper. They have a manger scene on display at the entrance and Bible passages on their tickets. The attendant tells me they are valet parking due to the holiday rush. I die a little inside. The number of people I’ve let drive my car can be counted on one hand. I’m a week away from paying off my vehicle. It’s not that I don’t trust them… I just don’t know that I trust anyone.

I hand off my key and hop into the shuttle van. A handful of others join me. Collectively we’re flying American Airlines, Delta, and United. I’m the cheap skate flying United.

We get to the airport and I look around for a few seconds to figure out which line I’m supposed to be in. It’s difficult because I don’t see any lines. The place isn’t empty but it feels empty. It takes me less than ten minutes to get through security, and half of that was trying to find a bathroom.

The time is now 4:10pm and I have 3 hours before my flight leaves. I get some Chinese food. I sit for a while. Then I sit somewhere else for a while. Typical airport procedure. I’m restless and I need to move around. I walk to the main concourse where all the shops live. I admire the larger than life statue of Snoopy and keep walking along.

I love the feeling airports have. Small clusters of people walking. Everyone talking, lots of people are stressed out. MSP is by no means a dirty airport, but it doesn’t feel clean either. At least not in a “I could lay down on the floor and roll around” kind of way. The PA system is constantly spewing instructions, warnings, and updates. It’s like the setting of a dystopian teen novel. They call for someone with a comically fake name to return to the security desk to pick up a lost item.

The decor slowly shifts from shopping mall to swanky hotel the farther down the Terminal I go. I don’t know if this is a store or just part of the hallway, but it seems like the only way out is through, so I keep walking. The gates down here are empty of people, because everyone is at the bar. There are iPads everywhere. There’s one at every table… no, there’s an iPad at every chair. Some people are using them to order food or drinks, others are just on their own phones, messaging friends or playing candy crush. (Or whatever the new popular game is.)

Even the air here feels expensive which is my cue to exit. I head back through the strange hallway-store and take a right.

I’ve added a couple thousand steps to my fitbit for the day. I need a few thousand more to meet my goal so I keep walking. The stores and restaurants are more spread out along this wing of the airport but they all have iPads. towards the far end, there is a path that takes me all the way across to the north wing, which means I can do a loop and won’t have to retrace my steps.

On the other side things feel more open and well lit. There’s a children’s play place with another statue of Snoopy.

I finish my loop without much fan fair, there’s no finish line or cheering committee. It’s a little disappointing. Back at gate E5 I find a seat and shed my extra fleece layer. It’s 6pm so I still have some time before boarding and someone had the gall to place a Caribou Coffee store right across the hall. It’s too late for caffeine, but…

I order a decaf mocha because I’m an adult and I’m on vacation. Now it’s time to kill some time before my flight.

I’m not in a good mental state for reading or writing so I take some time to come up with some facts about Texas.

  1. Texas is so large that it is actually it’s own state.

  2. Due to it’s large size, Texas is home to the largest population of native Texans.

That’s all I am able to come up with.

Our plane is brand new, hot off the assembly line. The stewards carry off what looks like a 30 pound silica gel packet with the words “do not eat” stamped all over it. It’s nice to know that everything is new, presumably that means everything is also safe. Though, it also means that none of this equipment has a reliable track record yet. :/

New is great, but that 50,000 mile warranty for engine replacement isn’t going to be of much comfort if they stop working at, say, 30,000 feet. The captain reassuringly tells us that we’ll have a “mostly smooth ride.” I don’t know what that means. It’s like a bus driver coming on the PA and saying the trip will be “mostly accident-free.” Thanks. I wasn’t really worried, but now I’m wondering if I should be.

The flight is uneventful and almost as boring as Focus (staring Will Smith and that blonde actress.) The new model for plane entertainment is BYOD, which is actually awesome. I can just watch the movie on my iPod with my own earbuds.

The Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, or IAH, is apparently very nonchalant about which gates planes should use. We land, dock, and exit at Terminal B, but my cousin, let’s call her Marie, is at the United terminal, which is supposedly Terminal C. It takes me a few minutes to orientate myself and I hop on the closed-circuit subway which waddles over to Terminal C. This is where luggage gets picked up and there are glass walls, glass doors, and things that look like exits in every direction. It takes a few minutes but finally I find my way outside I see my cousin’s van. I climb in in we’re off!

It’s dark as I look out the windows on the drive, but I get the sense that this part of Texas is very flat. Beyond that, it doesn’t look that much different from Minnesota.

We’re driving to The Woodlands, which is a heavily populated area with the feel of a northern resort. Every street is lined with 50 foot tall trees and thick undergrowth on each side. You’re basically driving through a forest, except on the other side of the trees are houses, shopping malls, Walmart, or fast food joints. But like the elusive Bigfoot, you never see any of them.

The streets have names like Wandering Oak Dr., Tangle Brush Dr., and Hickorybark Dr. There’s also Panther Creek Dr., but I don’t think Texas has any Panthers, unless a Carolina sportsing team is in town. They have something against straight streets, especially in residential neighborhoods, which seem to be small clusters of houses lined by trees on the outside and accessed by roaming loops of road. A satellites view actually makes me think it might make for a neat coloring book.

Every house is two stories tall, which make them all look big, but they don’t have basements, so they probably aren’t any bigger than houses back home. Marie’s house is a split level house, so we have to go up a half set of stairs to get to the front door.

The house is warm in inviting. Earth tones and hardwood floors decorate the upstairs. There’s an L-shaped couch that silently begins calling my name the moment I see it. Pretty much every room with a chair also contains a television, though it’s difficult to determine if that is cause or effect. I am given a quick tour of the house and it’s occupants. The bedroom I’m staying in is the size of my living room back home and my roommate for the weekend is a white and black cat named Eggnog.

Besides Eggnog, they also have two dogs and a bird. I haven’t seen some of my cousins in maybe 10 years and it’s really neat to see them in their natural environment. My cousin has a teenage daughter, let’s call her Micki, who’s glued to her iPod touch like it’s the most interesting thing in the room. Let’s be honest, it probably is. A quick survey of the room: a few pieces of artwork, a plant which may or may not be real, a tv playing old episodes of That’s so Raven, and a birdcage with a blanket over it. Yeah, I’d be on my iPod touch too.

Micki spends most of her time on Instagram, stalking strangers and using the messaging features that I didn’t even know existed. After the tour I let the couch seduce me and I watch the TV with Micki for a little bit before deciding it is time to sleep.

The room I’m staying in is big, but the bed is small. I need to lay at an angle to fit, but it’s comfy.

The next morning I’m up before anyone else. So I take some time to explore the kitchen and back porch. It’s not too long before everyone else is up after making coffee my cousin helps me make two small apple pies.

Oh, I should introduce a few more characters. Let’s call Marie’s husband Brad and their adopted son from Ethiopia, Sol. Sol is a mechanical genius who disassembled all of the family’s bikes for parts. He shows me his new moped, which is, as far as I can tell, a 150cc motor bolted to a three wheeled frame. It rides a few inches off the ground and gets up to 30 miles per hour. I’m told the seat is made with pillows and jackets and is wrapped in a shower curtain. I don’t know what’s more impressive, that he made this by himself or that he hasn’t killed himself with it yet.

Brad and Sol head to Kassie’s house to start cooking the turkey. I’m not on chronologist but it’s already past 10am and I realize I have no idea what the eating schedule is going to be like today.

Micki just got her learning permit and drives Marie and I to Kassie’s place. She’s still needs more experience behind the wheel, but she’s already driving better than most people who aren’t me, so that’s a great start.

We get to my other cousin’s house. It’s a single story building with lizards on the walls and a live snake above the front door. The first thing I notice upon entering is it smells like dog. I’ll later be introduced to the pets. The first is a four-foot-tall black great dane named Jack who wears an old grey hoody and has no concept of personal space. The second is a much more reasonably sized brown dog whose breed and name I never got acquainted with.

We take the pies to the kitchen where I meet the rest of my cousins. The small dining room table contains a large tray of sliced red and green peppers with dip and a tray of crackers and cheese. Let the snacking commence.

Brad and not-introduced-yet Tim are cooking the turkey on the grill because it’s too big for the oven. Everything else is in a queue to be cooked in the oven.

The football game is on the living room, but I head to the bedroom which doubles as the gaming room because I brought along Mario Kart.

I’ve been playing Mario Kart longer than some of my cousins have been alive. This would be a point in my favor, except they have been playing it since they could pick up a controller. We play Double Dash, because it’s the best, and a couple of my cousins are pretty good. I can hold my own, but I have to work to win. It’s fun. Tons of fun.

We play for a while, and then break for a bit to do other stuff. I try to hop around from one group to the next. This gives me a chance to talk and see everyone.

The grill runs out of propane, or at least that’s the rumor. So it delays eating time for a bit. Good thing we have peppers!

Turns out the snake I saw above the front door doesn’t belong there. Someone else sees it and they move it or get rid of it or something. I’m relaxing on the couch and don’t feel like moving when it all goes down.

Not all of the Texas family is able to be with us, so we write their names on pink solo cups. If they can’t be with us in person, at least they can be with us in Sharpie®.

When it’s finally time to eat the food is FANTASTIC. The turkey is great. Everything is delicious. Green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, and biscuits. There’s 4 types of pie. I fill up a plate with real food and then fill up a plate with pie. No point in waiting. The formal sit down and eat only takes about 15 or 20 minutes, and we are all hungry and eat quickly.

After supper the kids are playing some stupid shooting game again and I have to persuade them we need to play Mario Kart Wii. We finally get it going and play a couple rounds. The game is vastly inferior to Double Dash. Micki joins us after a while, but it’s after 6pm and she has a shopping trip planned with friends. She plays a few rounds and I am surprised with how good she is. Everyone said she was good, but she’s blowing me away… and she’s using the wheel. Which seems impossible. She beats me on Rainbow Road in a close finish of a race. I’d love to keep playing but we’ve been told it’s time to go.

We pack up the gear with the speed of a professional pit crew and are quickly on our way home. There’s drama over how many bags of leaf Micki gathered in the back yard. Honestly, the only indication of raking are the full bags of leafs, beyond that it is tough to tell any yard work has been done. Micki claims 17 bags of leaves. Marie says she only bought 10 bags, so 17 is just out of the question. I have a photo on my phone of the backyard. In the photo you can make out about 12 distinct bags for sure, but it’s far from conclusive evidence.

Counting the bags is important because it will determine how much money exchanges hands for shopping later. I count 16 bags later and take photographic evidence because I know you’re going to ask for proof when I write you.

Marie and I walk the dog around the road loop several times when we get back. It’s nice to chat with her and we talk about all kinds of things.

The next morning I am greeted by Eggnog who loudly complains I am not feeding him. He’s a loud cat and sounds a little bit like Snoopy when he cries.

I’ve never made french press coffee before, but I’ve been told with no uncertain terms, that I am welcome to anything in the house and I don’t need to ask. So I start boiling a pot of water on the stove and Google how to work the french press machine.

It works pretty well and my cousin is thrilled to have hot coffee when she gets up. We have to go pick up “hot mess” Micki who has finished her all night shopping spree and is waiting at a friends house. It’s a 45 minute drive to get her, but it doesn’t feel like it takes long at all. We’re on the freeway for a ways and then we’re in another tree lined neighborhood on Dude Street and then we’re pretty much there.

We find the right house and a gaggle of girls and children head out to the street. Marie gets out to greet the mom, I stay in the van and watch the stray dog who is running around the neighborhood having the time of his life.

Micki is wearing a sweatshirt that reads “hot mess” and red pants. She doesn’t look tired, but she’s apparently been up all night and she may have accidentally touched some spit on a stone bench. It’s hard to say. I’m only getting bits and pieces here.

This family is making gingerbread waffles and invites us to stay but Brad left his meds in the van and we need to get them back to him before he has to leave. I wish I could make up these types of plot twists, but it turns out I don’t actually need to.

Back home we deliver the tired girl to her room and the meds to the man. Then we take the dog for a walk… well, we take the dog that can walk for a walk. The other dog is still on bed rest.

I’m really regretting leaving my running shoes behind at this point because these trails are phenomenal. I would totally be trying to run every morning if I just hadn’t unpacked my gear.

Marie and I have been talking about coffee and beignets all day long, so that’s our next stop. We also need to get pico for breakfast tacos tomorrow. I’ve never had beignets before but they are delicious. It’s basically deep fried dough covered in powdered sugar. What’s not to like? I have four of the six we ordered.

We grab another coffee for Kassie and slip a Starbucks zarf on it so they don’t see where we really got it from.

We’re at a small strip mall which like everything else, appears to be in the middle of an isolated forest. The mall has mistletoe trees planted in front of it. It’s crazy to see mistletoe in nature. It’s apparently a real plant. The trees are young yet, maybe 10 to 15 feet tall. I’m not sure on mistletoe protocol, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room under the trees for kissing at the moment.

By the time we get to Kassie’s it’s after 2pm. I grab some leftovers from the fridge. It feels like it should be 10am.

The afternoon is filled with a lot of laughter. It’s good to be able to hang out with my cousins and talk and laugh. It really helps me relax and feel like I’m on vacation.

We go for a walk to the nearby island. I hear there are snakes, turtles, and alligators around these parts, but we don’t see any thing except a lot of mosquitoes and gnats. For whatever reason they don’t bother me, but my other cousins get a lot of bug bites.

That evening Kassie puts up her Christmas Tree and I help with the lights and fluffing out the branches.

It’s dark and it’s time to leave. Marie needs her meds so we head back home. We chat for a little bit, but Marie goes to bed. I take my notebook and jot down a few things about the day. The notes are not nearly thorough enough, but it’s all I can do. I ask Micki a little bit about her day and what she does.

I learn some valuable things. She’s not willing to jump out of an airplane and Mikey is a butthead and we don’t want him to win ANTM. ANTM is on season 22 or something like that, which doesn’t seem possible, but who am I to tell them they’re wrong. It’s also important to know that a burglary happens every 16 seconds… if you trust this TV commercial.

Micki joins me on the couch and turns on Impractical Jokers. We watch for an hour or two which is fun. I don’t want to be the one who gives up first, but I also don’t want to regret staying up so late. I eventually cave and head to bed.

The next morning I’m up early and make coffee again. Still not sold on the french press, but it’s good and I have the hang of it now. When Marie gets up she makes breakfast tacos. They are delicious. I know you’d love them Philip and we’ll have to make them next time you’re in town. I’m actually thinking I should make a bunch and try freezing them, they’d be great for quick meals in the morning.

I help cleanup dishes and the counter afterwards. It’s a lazy day and Marie has come down with a cold. We watch a TV show which is basically a compilation of YouTube videos. It gets old after a bit, but it’s just a relentless stream that’s difficult to turn off.

We’ve heard that The Good Dinosaur is getting some mixed reviews and we decide we need to go see it. We invite Kassie and her son, and the rest of the family is going to go too! Kassie comes to pick us up and we head to the theater. It’s a big place. We get our tickets and popcorn and head to the large theater. It’s a large theater. Stadium seating and it can seat 596 people. The audience is only about half of that.

The movie is fantastic. I love it a lot. We all do.

After the movie we take Micki to a friend’s house where she’ll spend the night. She’s practically a nomad, moving from one house to the next, night after night. I say good bye, because I’ll be leaving early the next morning.

The rest of us go back to Marie’s place. We watch more internet-video-tv and chat. When Marie goes to bed, I join Brad downstairs to watch an episode of Game of Thrones from season one. The characters look so much younger just a few years back… and half of them are now dead.

I head to sleep. It’s a short night. My flight leaves at 7am so we need to leave around I don’t even know, but I’m up at 5:15am and packed and ready to go in 20 minutes. These four days have flown past, but they’ve been a lot of fun. I wish I could stay longer, but in a way, I’m also glad to be headed home. It’s just too rainy here.

Brad and I chat about the army and about Korea on the freeway to the airport. I’m headed to Gate C42. Brad thought I’d be leaving from Terminal A. The real reason everyone’s confused about United Airline terminals at IAH is this:

United flights at Houston Intercontinental depart from Terminals A, B, C and E, but check-in and baggage claim are not available at Terminal A. Customers with flights assigned to Terminal A should go to Terminal B for check-in and baggage claim.

Again, security lines are virtually non-existent. I have to wait for one person ahead of me before I am allowed through. Then it’s just a matter of finding C42. It takes me a few minutes to find the right sign and then I follow the path down to the gate. There’s really not much for stores or shops here. I consider getting a coffee, but on my map it looks like it’s a bit of a hike to get to one, and I’m actually mostly awake.

I upgraded my seat to give myself more leg room, but I’m still in loading group five. I wait for almost everyone else before heading aboard. There’s no one sitting next to me, so I move from the aisle to the window seat when we start moving.

The plane has to drive a long way before we find a runway. I begin to wonder if they just plan to drive the entire way to back to Minnesota. That’s a long trip at highway speeds, I can’t imagine making it at airplane taxiing pace. It takes a good half hour or so before we get to our runway. Then it’s take off time.

I’m kinda excited, because I want to see this place from the sky. What I don’t realize is that the low hanging clouds are only a couple hundred feet off the ground. By the time we reach the end of the runway, it’s completely white outside my window. Huh. That’s kinda cool I guess.

We break through the clouds and it’s the first time I’ve seen sun in four days. It’s beautiful. The white clouds look so tangible and the blue sky is amazing. I want to stay here forever… except I’m on an airplane and I’d rather be at home.

The plane passes through one cloud layer and then a second one. We’re flying high (literally) and it’s just a fantastic day.

When we get to Minneapolis there’s snow on the ground and little grids of houses. It’s as close to the opposite of The Woodlands as you can get. All the little ants look like cars from up here. Little models that would be fun to reach out and touch. As if they aren’t even real.

I love my luggage backpack because I can grab it and go. I walk off the plane and head to the parking structure to get a shuttle to Park ’N Go. I don’t need to wait long for one to arrive and I get a ride back to the lot. As we pull up I see them bring my car in from another nearby lot. They drop me off right next to it and I grab my bag and head out.

The car is cold, but seems to be in good working order. It’s tradition that whenever I travel my tire pressure light comes on. It came on when I was traveling on Wednesday and I make a mental note to check it at the gas station on my way back.

I’ve paid in advance, so all I need to do is show the guy my papers and he waves me through. I’m on the freeway headed home and it’s just past 10am.

I stop at a KwikTrip for fuel and food. I totally forget to check my tire, I make a note to stop somewhere else on my way home. The town right before home has another KwikTrip and I stop, but the air pump has an “out of order” sign on it. So I stop at the first KwikTrip in Mankato. There’s an empty black truck blocking the air pump and two vans with occupants sitting nearby. I’m not sure if they are trying to use the pump or making an exchange. I turn back out to the highway and head to another close by KwikTrip. This one has everything working and I find out that my rear driver side tire is about 15 pounds low on pressure. Yikes.

A few minutes later I’m home. Things are pretty quiet, so I turn on some Christmas music and put up my Christmas tree.

That pretty much wraps up my Texas adventure. I hope the details haven’t bored you too much. I will write again, as soon as I hear from you.

Merry Christmas!

- Philip