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A Down-to-Earth Travel Adventure

May 18, 1986|Zan Thompson

This is the summer, the travel agents have told us, that people have abandoned their plans for a trip through the Grecian Isles or a camel ride to see the light show at the Pyramids. European travel is off, with even England feeling the pinch.

So it's back to Lake Winnipesaukee, to the house at the beach or the cabin at Arrowhead. Mostly, it seems to be the summer when people will take a motor trip inside the boundaries of our own country. Motoring has a lovely, fusty sound and I see a family in a touring car with father driving and mother beside him, wondering if she stowed the butter safely in the picnic hamper. In the back are the children, asking, "Are we there yet?" with every turn in the road and the dog the only one who seems really relaxed.

This is a time when I wish I could slip a cassette in this space that holds the column so you could hear a tape made by Marty Erck, a young friend of mine who lives in Santa Monica. He is a tall, good-looking man whose tennis tournaments have taken him all over the West and across the United States. He is cosmopolitan, easily at home in new places. And like most of us, he has seen his country almost entirely from five miles up in an airplane.

His mother, Jean, my friend and former neighbor who now lives in Houston, was coming to California for a two- or three-month stay and Marty flew back to drive out with her. As soon as they were in California, Marty recorded the tape telling me of their trip.

He has flown the miles between here and Houston perhaps a hundred times since he was graduated from Stanford and his parents moved to Houston, always oblivious of what was going by beneath him.

He flew into Houston to the airport in the north city and as he started down the jetway, the stewardess asked pleasantly, "How long will you be in Houston?"

"About 15 minutes," Marty said and walked off the airplane, through the airport and to the parking lot and his mother's car.

Let him tell it. "At 3:30 in the afternoon, mother and I started out for Los Angeles. We went through a part of Texas I had never seen before and it turned out to be the best part of the trip. In the late afternoon and early evening, we drove across the widening land. It was soft and green from late rain. After a few hours, we came to the Texas hill country, where I had never been. I could see why President Lyndon Johnson had loved it so and talked about wanting to go home to it. At sunset, we reached the Pedernales and I saw why Johnson had been so homesick for his beloved river.

"In the town of Navasota, they were celebrating Nostalgia Days, in honor of Texas' Sesquicentennial. Everyone in town was dressed in costumes of 150 years ago. We came to Fort Stockton, a town built up around a fort in West Texas which had been built there to take care of the stagecoaches and covered wagons that were moving West in those days. The fort was shut down after the Civil War, but the town kept growing slowly until the early part of this century, when it boomed with the discovery of sulfur and other mining products.

"Fort Stockton is also a truckers' stop, and the motel where we stayed was right next to one of those huge truck stops that dot the major interstates of this country and are filled with 18-wheeler trucks that spend the night there. There were about 50 of these big things lined up in a row and a huge restaurant, a huge repair shop and a store where truckers and travelers such as we could stock up for the trip ahead.

"In the hills of West Texas we went through a town called Fredricksburg that was really interesting to me because when I read Michener's 'Texas,' he spent a lot of time talking about the German influence. This whole town is made up of Germans. Every store had a German name and every restaurant said, 'and beer garden.'

"The Lutheran church there could have come straight out of Europe. It was a profound experience to see that undiluted influence in that small town right out in the middle of Texas. We crossed into New Mexico and Arizona. We went through Phoenix and continued West. Mom was now thinking about stopping, but I kept thinking, 'We're almost home.'

"Phoenix is the same distance from Los Angeles that San Francisco is. We were in Phoenix at 6:30 and I thought we were almost home. I never would have dreamed of leaving San Francisco to drive to Los Angeles at 6:30 at night but from Phoenix it seemed like no problem."

He tells us a great deal more about a trip, which obviously meant a great deal to him: "In general, the trip was spectacular. We saw some absolutely gorgeous country. At this time of year all of the desert country was green and all of the wildflowers were out. It was really beautiful. It was something to see. I highly recommend that everybody drive this country at one time in their lives."

Happy summer, everybody.

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