Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Road Trip Adventure Across America - Part Twelve

“Houston, we have a problem!”
Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13
After a great day with the kids touring NASA’s Space Center Houston and seeing the sunset on the beach in Galveston things changed rather quickly.  It was one of the most dreaded things that could happen on a trip – a compromised debit card.  Johanna called to say our bank informed us that someone was trying to buy stuff at stores on the East Coast.  I had just dipped a toe in the Gulf of Mexico, so I knew it wasn’t me.  After talking with the bank the best option was to go into a branch the next day and get a new card, otherwise I would have to wait a week and get a new card in the mail.  Not gonna happen, my friend.  The only wrinkle was finding a branch in Texas that could issue a new card right there in the branch.  It was a new service that wasn’t available at all branches and one customer service person said that none in Texas could do it.  This had happened to both Johanna and I before and we were able to go into our branches in California and get new cards. This left an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and scenarios about how to get money for gas even if we decided to just go straight home. We wouldn’t get too far without the use of the card.  It had been a long day driving from Winnsboro to Galveston so a good night’s rest was needed.  It could all be figured out tomorrow.

The next morning we got up a little too late but in enough time to grab some free breakfast, albeit very basic, in the motel lobby.  We got on the road quickly after I found online the nearest bank branch, which happened to be near NASA.  On the way out of Galveston Olivia informed me that she couldn’t find her stuffed tiger keepsake she got from the Tyler Zoo and she must have left it in the hotel room.  Geesh!  She had already lost a quilted blanket her Aunt Kim had made for her on the first leg so I was determined not to lose anything else.  We turned around and headed back to the hotel, pushing us even further back.  I was starting to rethink whether we could make it to Carlsbad that day.  It had consequences since it was too late to change the hotel booking without penalties.

I pulled up to the hotel and told Olivia she had to go in by herself and inquire about her lost tiger, which she did, without fussing.  I think my blustering lecture about responsibility actually got through to her.  She told us once she got back that the desk clerk sent someone with her to the room where she found the tiger.  I had hope that was a good sign for the rest of the day.  We needed some good karma. 

I put in the address of the bank branch into the GPS before heading back over the bridge towards Houston.  Sometimes the GPS is a Godsend as it was the only way I could have found Kenneth and Joanne’s house in the dark in Colorado Springs but today it didn’t work so good.  I followed the blue dot and ended up somewhere in the middle of nothing at a crossroads with no bank and only a gas station/convenience store.  As the clock ticked away I called the bank branch to get directions.  It seems that it was right off the interstate and we overshot it by a few miles.  I turned around, negotiated road construction to find the branch.  Interesting to find out that the woman who greeted us and ushered us to a waiting area to be helped by a manager used to live in Simi Valley and was quite familiar with Moorpark.  Small world.  All seemed good until the manager told us that they were not able to issue cards at their branch but she thought that perhaps a branch in North Houston would be able to so she gave them a call and luck would have it they could help me.  She gave them the heads up we were on our way.  We said our thank yous and goodbyes to our new friends.

I had tepid feelings towards the news that perhaps this debit card problem would be ending soon because it wasn’t a sure thing and it was another stop that took us a little off our path but with luck not too far.  At least the branch was also off the interstate and better than going to downtown Houston to the main bank, which was the other option.

It was easy finding the bank and the woman helping us was kind and even willing to be video taped for the inevitable video that will chronicle these exploits.  

 It was a big relief to have the new card in the wallet and just in time as the gas gauge was dipping into the bottom eighth.  Google Maps showed me that we could just go up a mile and catch The Sam Houston Tollway that would take us over to State Highway 290 that would lead to the Blue Bell Creamery.  In my head we could still keep the same itinerary, albeit get to Carlsbad really, really late. 

The toll road was literally the next exit and thus no ability to get gas.  As the gauge kept dipping lower and lower my chest clamped up hoping we wouldn’t run out of gas.  We soon got off the tollway and onto 290 where I was hopeful a gas station would soon be beckoning.  It took a couple of crossroads but we finally found a station and pulled in for the quick fill up…or so I thought. 

As I swiped the new card at the pump and put in my PIN I quickly got the dreaded “See attendant inside”.  I tried again and the same thing.  A few expletives said under my breath later I quickly got the bank on the phone.  After explaining everything to the initial customer service person they informed me that I would have to go into a branch to get a new PIN.  In my trying to stay cordial but can't not ooze anger voice I informed this person that I had no gasoline and was miles from the branch.  As the first line of defense often does I was quickly switched to another, hopefully more helpful, customer service person.  I haven’t determined whether customer service people who are overly nice and upbeat are worse than those who simply don’t care whether you know they really don’t care about your problem.  

I’m not sure what knowledge this new person who came on the line possessed that the first person did not but they told me I could use the card as a credit card without a problem until I could get to a branch to get a new PIN.  I just couldn’t use it as a debit card so no getting cash out of ATM’s.  I would have to be Mr. Plastic until I went into a branch.  I figured I could do that until getting home. 

I went inside to pre-pay just to be safe and the card worked.  Relief.  We could finally get on with the trip with a little peace of mind.  I had some numbers I had researched before starting this leg and I had a vague idea how long it would take to get from one stop to another.  We were still okay if we didn’t dawdle too much at anyone place. 

We got to Brenham around noon and it was easy finding Blue Bell. 

The parking lot at the Blue Bell Creamery visitor center was already packed and we had to park in the overflow parking lot.  The kids enjoyed the old ice cream truck outside the facility.

Bonnie and...

Clyde...the delivery duo?
They had tours every twenty minutes so we didn’t have to wait too long.  We were issued soda jerk caps imprinted with their logo and looked around at the history of Blue Bell that lined the walls of the lobby.

You want nuts on that?

why stop at Arizona?
Finally, it was time.  We kind of felt like Charlie in similar anticipation of seeing Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, though here everyone got a golden ticket…for a free cup of ice cream at the end of the tour in the parlor.

It did have a Wonka feel to it as we saw each station in the process of making the different flavors and treats they make in the factory.  They make everything from scratch, even the cookies in the Cookies n Cream.  We found out that Homemade Vanilla is the number one flavor and they use a heck of a lot of milk from local farmers that’s tested for quality and safety before it’s accepted.  Their ongoing slogan is, “we eat what we can and sell the rest” and as incredible as their ice cream is I know it’s a true statement. You'll have to take our word for it because they didn't allow photography during the tour.

The tour ends at their ice cream parlor where you can get your free cup of ice cream from a variety of flavors.  I went crazy for Krazy Kookie Dough.  Avery and Olivia went for the standards, Dutch Chocolate and Homemade Vanilla. Yum yum!!!

hard to choose

heaven on Earth
Knowing we were short on time I shuffled the kids out and back into the heat of summer so we could try to stay on schedule or at least our revised schedule. On the way out of town I saw a sign for a residential development I just had to take a picture of because only in Texas would you find such a name.  

only in Texas...and maybe Oklahoma
I wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take us to get to San Antonio because we were so far off the interstate and would have to take state and county roads to get to I10.  No time for lunch so I hoped the ice cream and the car snacks would be enough to tide the kids over until dinner.

The route back to the interstate took us through the originally settled part of Texas – what was part of the Stephen F. Austin land grant and where Santa Anna saved his life by giving away Texas to the Texans.  Also along this route – out in the middle of nowhere – was a stretch of road that had antique auction houses one after the other.  There’s somewhat of a town called Round Top that I researched and it seems they have antique festivals throughout the year where antique dealers from all around gather. It was rather bizarre since there was no real town to speak of.  

Round Top, Texas
This part of Texas was quite attractive, with rolling green hills and a large bluff along the Colorado River outside LaGrange called Monument Hill, which was also the site of a state park and home to a tomb for the fallen from battles during the Texas revolution.  The park also has one of the first breweries built in Texas by Heinrich L. Kreische.  It seems the business flourished until his death, when it failed his heirs abandoned the brewery.  

Monument Hill, LaGrange, TX
We finally reached the interstate and headed west to San Antonio.  It was getting late as we reached the city limits where I could see downtown in the distance.  I looked up the times for the Alamo and if all things went well we would have about an hour before closing time. 

Traffic was light and after locating a nearby self-pay parking lot we headed the few blocks to one of Texas’ most revered sites.  I had visited once before while on a shoot for Greyhound Bus video but that was over twenty years ago.  I remember thinking how small the actual building we think of as the Alamo, which is actually the chapel.  The rest is part of the original barracks and fortress.  It began as a Spanish mission and then converted into a fort by the Texicans.  Avery enjoyed the canons and Olivia like trying to figure out the six flags that have waved over Texas.  She was able to get five.  Everybody forgets about France, which once ruled over Mexico.  The six are: Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate and the United States.
We watched an interesting documentary on the history of the Alamo and finally it was nearing closing time.

Fire In The Hole!

figuring out the six flags over Texas

water well turned wishing well

model of the Alamo compound during siege
Before leaving I retrieved the Moorpark Acorn newspaper and a nice family helped take a photo of us in front of the chapel in the glow of late afternoon.  We reciprocated the favor.  Avery took a photo of them as I was using their camera on them.  

NOT an Acorn Newspaper photo contest winner

remember (the no name family at) the Alamo
 With our daily dose of history complete we jumped in the car and made our way through downtown San Antonio towards I10 west.  We passed the famous River Walk (seen from the car), which if we had the time we could have strolled along it but there isn’t much to see except for hotels, restaurants and bars. 

We were all getting rather hungry and so I kept a look out for a Pizza Hut or Pizza Inn.  I wanted to get out into the suburbs and once I spotted an area full of retail I exited.  I needed to get gas and without thinking looked for a Costco for the cheapest gas but it took a bunch of turns to get to it.  Then I reach the pump only to realize they only take debit cards.  Ugggg!  Damn bank!  Damn person who stole my debit card number!  Get back in car and find a regular gas station to fill up,  then a pizza place to fill our tummies.  We settled on a CiCi’s Pizza, which I don’t recall ever going to but didn’t feel like driving around for someplace else.

pizza overload coma

We chose wisely as there was a large pizza buffet that satisfied all of us, stuffing ourselves for the long drive ahead of us.  The sun was sinking fast as the suburban landscape morphed into the southern reaches of the Texas hill country.  Kerrville was the largest town we’d drive through until we would hit Ft. Stockton many hours away.  I had never driven that stretch of road before in my life so I looked at every vista I could see, always interested in the geography and topography of the places I visit.

Kerrville, Texas hills

West Texas sunset
The kids enjoyed their electronic devices as darkness prevented any landscape viewing.  Since we were in no mans land the speed limit surprisingly reached 85 mph – again something I’d never experienced.  It was nice cruising at that speed, which would get us to our hotel a little sooner than expected, or so we hoped.

 I believe it was still dusk when Avery informed me he had to pee.  Of course, we were miles from an exit or any form of civilization so pulling over to the shoulder was the only option.  There weren’t any trees so to speak, only some shrubs but he was desperate so we just walked over as far as we could and I let him empty his bladder.  I don’t even think a car passed by while this was going on.  At least for me this was a better option than stopping at a gas station or restaurant – easy out, easy back into car and on our way.  It would be a little harder if it were Olivia.

Pit (or pee) stop for this leg of the race
Even before we hit Ft. Stockton the kids were asleep.  It was nearing 9 or 10 pm and we still had more than an hour to go.  US 285 would take us past Pecos and Interstate 20 and up into New Mexico and eventually to Carlsbad.  Along that route I noticed a lot of oil derricks and oil drilling areas all lit up.  This was oil country and the heart of what put Texas on the map.  Once in Carlsbad, near midnight, I found the hotel that looked like it was straight out of 1966 and most likely the best hotel back then, not so much now.  The parking lot was full of what looked like oil industry trucks and next door was a yard full of oil industry vehicles.  Checking in I found out that my non-smoking room was not available and they claimed they never got a non-smoking reservation. I had proof but that wouldn’t help get a room when there wasn’t one. The night clerk was nice enough to go see if a room, that was used by oil executives once a month, was unoccupied, but they came back shaking their head so we were stuck with a smoking room, the only one left.  I hadn’t realized that Carlsbad would be this busy of a town.

Econo Lodge, Carlsbad, NM, unique architecture
I really can’t stand the smell of smoke.  I grew up with a pipe smoker and I can smell a cigarette blocks away.  I also went through a fire in an apartment I had just moved into in Dallas back in the day.  I had that smoke smell in stuff for years and no matter how much you cleaned it that smell never went away.  But we had no choice and it didn’t bother the kids.  By the next morning I almost got acclimated but then it was time to leave.  At least we had a bed and a shower and another free breakfast in the morning.  It had been a very long day and we covered almost 700 miles.  Now it was time for a little rest.   Tomorrow we’d do a little spelunking.

(Next on A Road Trip Adventure Across America: Cave exploring, crossing three states and finding Kristin in the dark.)

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