Monday, February 23, 2009

Austin was nice...

After a week slaving away in Las Colinas, I drove down to Austin on Friday, not having been there before and having a free night at a Hyatt that is going to expire next Saturday anyway. My compact/intermediate rental at Avis was actually a Toyota 4Runner. I took it for a day or two, but it was totally inappropriate for one person to drive back and forth to an office park. So I took it back to DFW and asked to trade it in. They had a PT Cruiser stowed away for just such a request. "Customer wants trade-in. Give him the ugliest car we have." The PT Cruiser had several assorted nut shells under the seat. I theorize that it had been rented by 30 clowns at some point, and they were all too crowded-together to pick up their shells.

I-35 is the worst highway ever. It is crowded for most of the way down to Austin. When it's not crowded, there's a truck in front of you anyway. The scenery is non-existent. There are these Escalades that do a little Escalade trick I hadn't noticed before. They cruise impatiently about 30 feet behind you. Suddenly, they gun it into the other lane, fly past you, and end up 30 feet in front of you and start cruising again. Nothing to do with going faster; all about being ahead of you.

Waco is about halfway between Dallas and Austin. It's home of Dr. Pepper, which even has a museum: The Dr. Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute. Because nothing says "free enterprise" like a horrible soda that tastes like all the other sodas in the fountain, mixed together and served in a filthy plastic tumbler.

In fact, the drive doesn't get nice until you hit Austin. Suddenly, the bleak, flat farmland turns into some gorgeous hill country. But this isn't about my trip to Austin. This is about my trip back the next day.

A couple of months ago I visited Springfield, MO and on my way to the airport I stopped at a cavern. Caverns are cool. They're all underground and stuff, and they have amazing rock formations that come about when water flow eats away at limestone to form karst caves. As it turns out, there are several of these caverns not that far from Austin.

I started out with a hearty breakfast at the hotel. All Hyatts seem to serve a ham and white cheddar panini with a fried egg on it. Only the one in Austin felt that the appropriate condiment for it was two mini-jars of ketchup. Anyway, it stuck to my ribs.

I headed out towards New Braunfels before cutting across to Boerne (pronounced "Bernie"). There are quite a lot of towns in the area that were settled by German immigrants, with quaint little downtown areas and streetnames like Haupstrasse. They also seem to have a lot of smokehouse BBQ places that were founded in 1946 for whatever reason. I try not to think about it.

I made it to two great show caves: Cascade Caverns and Cave Without A Name. I had my trusty camera in tow, along with a small travel tripod. Both tour guides graciously let me set my stuff up for a minute here and there to take pictures. (Check the links above.) Cascade Caverns has a waterfall inside it, plus a couple of bats sleeping in little holes on the ceiling. Cave Without A Name has a really grand main chamber that's big enough to have weddings.

Covered with mud and sort of sweaty/sticky from the 100% humidity in the caves, I started the drive back to Dallas. I briefly took IH-10 up to Comfort. (For some reason, Texas calls Interstates IH instead of I. Dumb.) I jumped off and hit US-87 to Fredericksburg, then TX-16 up to Llano, where I headed towards Burnet. All the towns are population about 1000 to 3000 around here. They all have a Family Dollar and a Sonic, just in case you need lousy merchandise or lousy food.

I cut across TX-29 towards Burnet, going across a really pretty section near Lake Buchanan. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I figured I could get closer to Dallas before having dinner.

I hit Lampasas and just as I passed the town, my fuel warning light went on. I had about 45 miles left to go. I thought about turning back, but figured I'd pick up gas in the next town. I was making good time, doing 70 or 80 on the straight, well-paved intertown highways. Adamsville was 12 miles ahead.

Adamsville had no gas. And honestly, Adamsville seemed to have no Adamsville. Evant was another 13 miles - should I turn back to Lampasas or push forward? Google Maps showed a gas station in Evant, so I pushed forward. 32 miles of gas left.

I got to Evant and was starting to get worried, but Google was showing me that Shamrock station just down the road on US-84. So I pulled onto 84, and there it was. A Shamrock station about 3 miles away from where the map said it was. I pulled up to the pump. There were three pump handles. Two of them had the hoses removed. The pump's electricity was on, but the station was closed. The credit card swipe had been removed. There was no one around, on a Saturday night at 7 PM. I drove down another 2 miles, to exactly where Google Maps said there was a station. There was no station. I now had 15 miles of gas left, and there was no gas station within 17 miles. I was starting to worry just a bit.

I had no option though. I pushed on towards Hamilton, where I was assured of at least three or four stations. The terrain was becoming hilly. I would push the car to about 60 MPH up the hill, then coast down it to save gas. The PT Cruiser, a car where every last feature was designed to annoy, started beeping more urgently. "I would love to pull over for gas," I explained to it, "but there's evidently no gas for 45 miles on US highways in Texas and Google Maps lies."

I kept pushing on up US-281 towards Hamilton, counting the miles. I did things I knew would be totally ineffective, like turning the radio and the fan off. I had to pee. I was finally within two miles of Hamilton, when I felt the engine seize up and start to slow down. I was going 70. Then 60. Then 30. I got my car off the road at exactly 31.66497 N, 98.13909 W. I was stranded, out of gas, and sitting in an ugly car.

The Avis keychain has a number for roadside assistance. I called it. The Avis guy kept explaining to me that I had called the NY branch and that he would transfer me to TX. I explained that they gave me the keychain and this was the number on it. He assured me that I hadn't done anything wrong, but I had called the NY number. Why does Avis give me the NY number? I don't know. He transferred me to the Texas operator, who told me that they don't help if you've run out of gas. Then he hung up on me.

I didn't have my AAA card, but I called them anyway. I have the number for the NYC area club on my phone, so I reached them and explained what had happened. The operator said I had to call the Texas AAA. I explained that I didn't have their number. She transferred me to another AAA club. I explained what had happened and where I was.

"And this is in Southern California?"
"No, I'm sitting just south of Hamilton, Texas, like I said."
"I can't find the location you gave me."
"Well, I'm sitting right here, look again. Would you like the exact latitude and longitude?"
"I don't find it in Southern California."
"That's because I am in Texas. I am exactly two miles south of the town of Hamil..."
"But what town are you in now?"
"There are no towns here. There is 40 miles of road with one town on it."
"We need a town name, sir."
"Hamilton, Texas."
"Not Southern California?"

It went on like this for a few years, until we got to the point where she asked for my AAA membership number and I didn't have it. She told me that I needed to get it from the NY AAA. She called them with me on the line. I gave my name and address. The other club asked if this was near Albany, because I just called the Albany AAA.

Long story short, we finally got it all worked out. AAA would come by Hamilton to bring me some gas for $7. It was 7:22 PM. I figured at around 8:15 PM, a truck would pull up.

At 8:03 PM, my phone rang. It was the gas station in San Saba. AAA had just called them a minute before to dispatch them. It took AAA 41 minutes just to send out the call for help. San Saba was another 45 minutes away. I stayed in my car because it was cold, even though the sky was brilliantly clear, with more stars than I'd see even in Montauk. Cars and trucks kept whizzing past me. Finally, one of them slowed down and pulled in behind me. It was a cop.

I explained that I'd run out of gas, I was from New York, I felt like an idiot, and so on. The officer was quite friendly, and said that one of the other guys he works with in Hamilton County was a retired cop from New York. They didn't have any gas though. He left.

More trucks and cars whizzing back and forth. Finally, at about 8:30 a truck pulled up behind me. I thought it was the AAA guy, so I got out of my car. It was a second cop, in a cop truck. He opened up his window and I was hit with a blast of cigarette smoke from 20 feet away. This cop said "Hey, I heard there was a guy from New York here. I just retired and moved down here a couple of years ago. Good luck, wish I could help!" Then he took off too.

Finally! At about 8:50 the AAA truck showed up. I was on my way again, making my first stop the gas station in Hamilton. My second stop was Sonic for some dinner. Holy crap, that's a terrible burger. It was just...bad, with that slightly-too-meaty flavor and the fries tasting like they'd been sitting in old oil for a few days. It was a miserable time, because I was still so far away and I knew everything was closed for the next 100 miles, if it existed at all. So, yeah. End of the story is that I continued up through Hico to US-67, and stayed on that all the way until Dallas.

And Glen Rose is about where you start to get Metroplex light pollution ruining the perfect Hill Country night sky.

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