Fred's road novel is now available at online book sellers. Check out

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guy Clark, Texas Chili Parlor and Mad Dog Margaritas

"I wish I was in Austin at the Chili Parlor Bar, drinking Mad Dog Margaritas and not caring where you are."
                                         - Guy Clark

Guy Clark followers packed the Texas Chili Parlor in downtown Austin on Tuesday and downed copious amounts of Mad Dog Margaritas. Clark died that morning at age 74, leaving a treasure trove of songs such as Dublin Blues, quoted above.

I'd never drank a Mad Dog Margarita. Didn't even know what one was. But I know Guy Clark's music. I  had laughed and cried and waxed poetic with him for about 40 years. And so I had to visit the Chili Parlor. Had to see if anyone else was looking to share their Guy Clark memories and stories. And lean on each other with a little margarita buzz and lament days gone by.

I arrived about 1 p.m. and the place was humming with the energy of a banjo solo. I found an empty bar stool and claimed it. Carter Blackburn was sitting to my left. A Mad Dog, a bowl of XX Chili and a copy of "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72" sat on the counter before him. The busy bartender said he'd never made so many Mad Dogs in one day, ever. And the Parlor had been open only two hours. A waiter, about 60 with a ponytail and thin frame, ordered three Mad Dogs. I asked what's up with all the Mad Dogs. "You don't know?" he shrieked. "Or are you being rhetorical."

The  bartender explains a Mad Dog uses mezcal rather than tequila. I survey the crowded dining room. Mad Dogs are on every table. I turn around and a delivery man with a dolly is standing behind the bar. A stack of liquor bottles, rush order, has arrived. The bartender tears open the top to another case and shortly I'm sipping a Mad Dog. Salty and sour. I clink glasses with Carter, we raise them toward the ceiling and thank Guy for all the great songs.

Carter tells me he once worked for a radio station in Kerrville. He met Guy at the Kerrville Folk Festival, waiting patiently in a long line. But when he was next up, Guy shook Carter's hand and apologized but he needed to step behind a tree for a break. When he returned, Guy said you probably don't want to shake me hand again, do you?

Sipping my second Mad Dog, I scoot over and make room for Kathleen O'Keefe, a Texas music historian and aspiring singer-songwriter working on her first album. She orders a Mad Dog. Another toast. She's got a Guy Clark story, too. Escorted him on stage once not long ago when his vigor was waning. The man introducing Guy is long-winded (not a good formula for writing poignant songs, Guy would tell you) so Guy sits in a chair and waits. When he starts to get up, Kathleen offers a hand. Guy barks, "Don't Touch Me." Apparently, the proud songsmith would not be seen onstage needing help to stand erect. (By the way, Kathleen, that might be a good hook, "Don't Touch Me.")

After more stories and a bowl of chili, no beans, I wander outside in bright light. I find my Subaru, no parking ticket even though the meter expired. I crank the engine and Sun Radio is playing another Guy Clark song: "Our lives were like some old Western Movie." You could do worse.

Roll On, Guy Clark. Roll On, Carter and Kathleen.

Postscript: The Texas Chili Parlor is now celebrating its 40th birthday.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Two small birds have a large impact on the Texas Hill Country

A couple of songbirds nesting in the limestone hills northwest of Austin have payed a key role in keeping a rugged and rural patch of prime Hill Country real estate out of the clutches of developers.

In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services opened the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in response to the bulldozing and chainsawing of ashe juniper and live oaks in Travis County. Without these trees, the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler could go the way of the passenger pigeon. Refuge workers and volunteers maintain a healthy ecosystem focusing on wildlife, plant life and water management.

And nobody turns a shovel in the name of subdivisions or shopping centers.

These native songbirds aren't the only winners in this alliance between environmentalists, developers and the federal government. Carving out the refuge has also created open space for hikers, bird watchers, anyone who appreciates relaxing beside a spring-fed stream for an afternoon.

Visitors are welcome to the 24,00-acre refuge year-round. Admission is free. You can hike a dozen miles of trails, scaling rocky hills to a rewarding vista of the Colorado River. You can sit in a covered observation deck and wait for the warbler or vireo to serenade you with their rapid-fire chatter. And you can join a bird guide on a walk in which you could see dozens of different species.

“We provide a lot of  good places for people to go recreate, which is in short supply in the Texas Hill Country, whether your recreation is for hunting, or bird watching, or hiking, or looking at flowers. And your tax dollars already paid for that," said David Maple, Refuge Deputy Manager.

Hunting is carefully managed through a lottery system after the songbirds have flown south to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

Cow Creek flows through the refuge and crosses Travis County Road 328. Photo by Rob Peoples.

Although there is ample space for nature lovers to explore, not all of the hills and canyons, arroyos and meadows are open to the public. Protection of the birds is paramount. Still, only an hour drive from Austin, it's comforting to know a wild and protected landscape has survived the nonstop march of civilization.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ghost Ranch, green chile stew and the lure of New Mexico

Two degrees below zero, I pushed the white Toyota across the mountain pass south of Chama. The moon had just set in the west and the sun was poised in the east, just below the horizon.

After seven days in the Land of Enchantment, reluctantly, my wife, Diane, and I rolled southeast to Texas. I'm a sixth-generation Texan. My ancestors floated across the Atlantic and landed in Galveston Bay before the Civil War.

But I'm ready to move on. Here's why.

Windswept red ochre mesas near Santa Rosa, topped with soft white frosting like a birthday cake. A truck stop in Clines Corners with a friendly waitress who kept the hot java coming.

Two days and nights walking downtown Santa Fe. The state capitol at ten p.m. - backlit by street lights reflecting off a blanket of snow. Blue Corn CafĂ©, with locally brewed beer and a bowl of green chile stew. Dashing into a street vendor's warm hut, rubbing hands together for warmth and coming out with a multi-colored knit hat. Georgia O'Keefe museum featuring her landscapes of Pedernal, a 7,500-foot prominent mountain top that has been trimmed flat by a divine hand.

Then north to Ghost Ranch, former home of Georgia O'Keefe. Hiking the trails up into the nearby foothills until the icy path forced us back. Then northbound on US 84 to Echo Ampitheater, a geological marvel with it's sheer sandstone cliff that has eroded into a semicircle. Shouting hello, waiting a second, then smiling as the word circles around and comes back again and again.

The Rio Grande gorge, a deep cut into the high plateau that stands testament to the power and beauty of water and time.

Further north to Chama. Fresh grilled trout at the High Country Inn. Crossing the Great Divide, trudging through calf-high snow, exploring a 50-acre tract with a small cabin for sale.

Instructing the real estate agent who is now a new friend to keep looking for us, because we will return.

So we drove 800 miles home to Cedar Park in one day. Now we wait for an opportunity to return, not just for a week, but for months at a time. To our mountain cabin we've yet to find or build.

New Mexico beckons.

Roll On.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Homemade huckleberry pie. The Snake River Canyon. A Supermoon and Saddle Tramp. Robin Williams and Charlie Daniels. The KOA campground in Twin Falls. All these things coalesced one extraordinary summer day trekking through Idaho.

Returning to Texas from Washington State August 11, a little road weary but eager to immerse myself in the Mountain West, I disappeared into a landscape where space and time connect.
Leaving Winchester State Park, I followed the Salmon River on US 95. An acrid smoke from nearby forest and brush fires hung low and obscured the countryside. The swift and cool river was flanked by charred grasses and blackened tree trunks. An ominous morning until I stumbled into Fiddler's Creek Fruit Stand in the tiny community of Lucile. Using a plastic fork in the parking lot, I devoured two pieces of locally-baked huckleberry pie, chatting with a woman who had ridden her bike from Virginia. She departed 90 days ago. Destination, Portland, Oregon.
Continuing southbound, I waved at the cyclist with saddlebags hanging on both sides of her rear wheels. She looked about age 35, brown-skinned from long days in the sun. And from that point, the smoke lifted.
High on huckleberry pie, I turned west at Cambridge on state highway 71. The road narrowed and twisted up and down like a corkscrew until I was looking down a steep descent - the Snake River Canyon. Like all the mighty western rivers, this one has been choked by modern dams. This concrete monster is called Brownlee and it impedes the cool water's progress before releasing it into Hell's Canyon. A local man said I could drive into Hell's Canyon on the Oregon side but it would take all day. So I had to settle for wading into the river and splashing my face. And more huckleberry pie.
Backtracking up the steep climb, I often craned my neck, overlooking a haunting and majestic landscape I may never see again.

Cow tipping in Idaho on state highway 71 near the Snake River.

Just outside of Cambridge, I stopped to grab some photos of a cattle crossing sign. The top bolt had broken and the black silhouette of a cow with a yellow background was upside down. A local rancher stopped and said, "Cow tipping in Idaho."
A rancher named Bill Noah, age 91, stopped to check on my welfare. We laughed about the cow tipping, then he delved into a half-hour monologue on his life and ranching. Another rancher stopped in the eastbound lane. Between him and Bill Noah, the highway was blocked,
but nobody was coming and nobody cared anyway.
The man asked us, "You boys 'bout got if figured out yet?"
Bill Noah concluded the conversation about some comedian named Williams who had taken his own life. "What's this world coming to?" he asked. I offered no answers because I don't think there any.
Down the road I rolled, those characters now in the rear view mirror and burned forever into my subconscious. And inasmuch as I hate interstate driving, I merged onto I-84.
Boise was traffic tie-ups, construction barrels and detours. I cleared the maze and pushed the pedal to 80, intent on making time to my next campground, Malad Gorge State Park.
Not one to embrace all things digital and electronic, I enjoyed satellite radio on my trip. My favorite DJ, Jim Ladd, was at the helm on the Deep Tracks channel. Jim played a philosophical set, poignant songs about life and eternity. A requiem for Robin Williams.
More miles clicking away at 80-plus and Jim signed off with Saddle Tramp by Charlie Daniels, circa 1977. 
"You may be here today but you're gone tomorrow. Ain't no strings on your boot heels or your heart." I gulped the words like huckleberry pie.
Then an orange-yellow orb appeared on the eastern horizon. A moon brighter and bigger than any I had ever seen, close enough to reach out and touch. A phenomenon called the Supermoon in which the natural satellite appears closer to the earth than any other time of the year.
With the moon glowing and growing brighter, Charlie kept singing about an unfettered life: "Saddle Tramp how many people watch you riding by like a thundercloud across the Arizona sky, and wonder if they're looking at a mighty happy man, or just a lonely breeze that drifts across the endless desert sand."
Fueled by all these things; huckleberry pie, the Snake River, the old rancher Bill Noah, struggling with the death of Robin Williams, Saddle
Tramp and the Super Mooon, I missed my exit and was 30 miles down the road before I realized it.
Then my eyelids felt like man hole covers. I limped into a KOA in Twin Falls, which does not count as camping. But I found a tiny plot in a crowded campground, pitched the tent and celebrated with a shot of cheap Canadian whiskey. Later I woke to soft rain on the tent roof. I rolled over and went back to sleep.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Book and a Beer

A tale that splashes your face with salt water and a stiff breeze. Enjoyed best with a foamy pint.
In 1834, a Harvard student recovering from an eye malady signed on board a 90-foot brig called the Pilgrim. Without any nautical experience, he sailed around Cape Horn to California, then home to Massachusetts.

The college boy naturally caught hell from the crusty sailors. Quick learner that he was, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. survived the trans-ocean ordeal and wrote a travelogue, Two Years Before the Mast. Literary scholars have compared it to Moby Dick.

I'm 55 pages into the voyage. As in all great books, I want to savor the journey. Thus I find myself rereading pages. My favorite scene entails a chase in which an unidentified ship, armed, showing no colors, stalks the Pilgrim.

"The vessel continued in pursuit, changing her course as we changed ours . . . .  All hands remained on deck throughout the day and we got our firearms in order; but we were too few to have done anything with her, if she had proved to be what we feared."

The Pilgrim escapes by out-maneuvering and sailing with no lights throughout a moonless night, and the crew is ordered to keep perfect silence.

More drama: The Pilgrim sails through an ice storm at Cape Horn. Dana later mourns the loss of a beloved sailor after two terrifying words echo across the bow - "Man overboard." That same day, the captain auctions everything in the dead man's sea chest, clothes and all, including the chest itself!

You can purchase Two Years Before the Mast online for about the price of a pint at a local tavern.

And for exposing me to this gripping sea saga, special thanks to brother Chuck, expatriate Texan serving a life sentence in the San Francisco Bay area. (No , not at Alcatraz. It's closed. Rather, East Oakland.)

A final note: Last weekend, I found in my mother's library a hardback copy with illustrations, printed in 1947. Mom's gone, but she left us great books.

Roll On. Sail On. Read On.

Fred A
Cedar Park, Texas

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adieu, old friened

Farewell to a Dictionary

Her spine is bent. Her skin, wrinkled and faded. But inside, the words still ring true.

About thirty years ago, my parents, Charlie and Betty, gave me a hardback edition of "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary."

It was in celebration of my first published short story in the Mark Twain Essay Contest sponsored by a truckers' tabloid.

Maybe it was a not-so subtle hint, a new dictionary for a new writer. But I took it as encouragement, and have relied on it while writing newspaper stories, blogs, poems and novels.

And she never let me down. She never misspelled a word, or muddled a defintion. Before spell check, she was keeping the i before the e, except after c, for me.

Alas, she shows her age and is ready for a bookcase back seat. And although she still holds great command of the English language, our vocabulary continues to evolve - many words have been added since the early 1980s.

The new kid on my desk is "The Oxford College Dictionary." She is off to a fine start, helping me for instance with "hors d'oeuvre," which sounds much more refined than "snacks."

But before I deliver the grand old dame to the recycling bin, I had to look up one last word.

Infallible: adj  incabable of error . . . not liable to mislead, deceive or disappoint.

Roll On.

Fred Afflerbach, The Southpaw.
Cedar Park, Texas

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

                                                  LEFT ARM TAN
What's all the fuss about this Chicago-area truck driver whose face on the left side shows advanced wrinkling from sun damage?

Sheesh! Dangling your elbow out the window and getting a left arm tan has long been a badge of honor for long-haul truckers.

The first time I heard the phrase, "left arm tan," was back in the early 1980s. I was driving my dream rig, an '82 Peterbilt, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

An anonymous voice on the CB radio said he was just toolin' along working on his left arm tan. He was, of course, alluding to draping your left wing out the driver's window in a carefree manner.

In both the recent news story and in my road novel, "Roll On," it's the grandchildren who first notice the left arm tan, or left side of the face tan.

Here are some comments from "Roll On" in which the kiddos are amused by their two-toned Grandpa Truck.

"Grandpa, your arms are different colors . . . .  One's brown like Miss Sanchez and one's white like Miss Churchill."

"You look like a zebra with one stripe."

"You look like opposite man. A man who has opposite color arms for doing opposite things. This one's for talking on the CB to truckers who sound funny."

"And this one's for shifting big gears—rumm, rumm."

 Austin singer-songwriter Dale Watson celebrates this solar-induced phenomenon in his CD, The Trucking Sessions Volume 2.

"If I was a truckin' man, I'd be a gear jammer with a one-arm tan..."

 Just for kicks, I did an internet search, typed in "left arm tan." And up pops a Fort Worth band — LEFT ARM TAN — with a hard-driving country sound. Here's what the Fort Worth Star Telegram said about 'em.

"You can see the prairie dust whistling past an open car window as it blasts down a wide open highway. This is hang-your-arm-out-the-window music that nourishes your soul."

 Last spring, I dressed up like a trucker for a costume-golf tournament party and smeared my left arm with some sort of instant tan gunk that comes in a tube.

My left arm remained orange for a week. Wouldn't come off with Ajax.

 Below are website links for:

 Left Arm Tan:
 Dale Watson:
 The story about the Chicago driver:

Roll On, friends, but you might want want to grease up that left wing with a little sunscreen.

The Southpaw - Cedar Park, Texas.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Great Road Trip Great Book Store in Austin

July 9, 2012

The best $1 that I've spent in a long time is a book by Pete Davies called "American Road."

Imagine a 1919 caravan of 46 trucks, early model Macks, Dodges, Whites and Packards, rolling 3,200 miles from Washington D.C. to San Francisco.

A couple of the Macks were chain-driven.

The convoy wasn't just primitive trucks, though. It included a blacksmith and machine shop on wheels, five General Motors ambulances, 11 passenger cars for military officers, and nine Indian and Harley-Davidson motorbikes that scouts road. (Er, make that rode.)

And they carried some sort of pontoon trailer that they planned to use as a ferry to cross the Missouri River at Omaha.

Expecting the heavy vehicles to often bog down in the mud roads, trip planners ordered a custom-wrecker. This $40,000 tow truck "looked like an iron box bolted onto the back of a huge scarab beetle."

What was the purpose of such an ambitious undertaking? A U.S. government and military public relations campaign for interstate roadbuilding.

"This trip was an adventure, a circus, a public relations coup and a war game all rolled into one," so reads the inside book jacket.

And guess what young officer joined these gypsys? Dwight D. Eisenhower, future WW II hero, U.S president, and the man who pushed the advent of the interstate highway system that we use today.

I found this great road story-history lesson at Recycled Reads - 5335 Burnet Road, an Austin Public Library Book Store. It's a great place to find treasures like "American Road." Books cost only $1 or $2 and it is run by volunteers.

Here's the website: www.recycled

Roll On.

The Southpaw Cedar Park, Texas.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The rain in Houston this Saturday did not dampen our spirits at the Brazos Bookstore where I read from my road novel, "Roll On."

I like to point out at these events that these old-time truckers are folk heroes, the descendants of mappers, trappers, traders, sailors, cowboys, and riverboat men. These misfits are always seeking something beyond the horizon. 

I share their wanderlust. And isn't that what reading and writing is all about?

Although we did not fill the house, manager Jeremy Ellis and his staff made us feel at home. Thanks, you all.

This independent enclave is a great place to browse for treasure such as  "Travels with Charley" by John Steinbeck, or pick up some Texana or children's literature. And they have a unique piece of artwork made from books. It's shaped like their logo, a howling wolf or coyote, but it's a large, hollow stand that they have filled with mostly hardback classics and other works.

I stood there, transfixed for about five minutes.

Special thanks to my Aunt Mary, cousins Margie and David, friends, Susan, Katy and Bob Reed and former Cedar Park mayor and longtime associate George Denny. (And of course you, Sweetums.)

Read On everybody. And if you are in Houston, read on at the Brazos Bookstore, a great place to refuel the tanks before heading back on life's highway.

You can the Brazos Bookstore on the web at:

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Roll On” is the story of Ubi Sunt, a longtime, long-haul trucker. He drives an early model Peterbilt that looks like a Sherman tank, but is named after the war ship, Old Ironsides, because it's indestructible. Ubi represents the innate yearning to travel that for some is a mild case of wanderlust, a mere itch that is scratched with the annual road trip. For Ubi, it’s an incurable affliction.

The wheels to this narrative are set in motion after Ubi buries his wife, his anchor during thirty-five years of trucking. His first trip back on the highway takes him from California to Philadelphia to visit two grandchildren and his only daughter. Remembering missed birthdays, holidays, and high school graduation, the daughter plans to let the air out of the old man’s tires. If you want a relationship with these kids, Daddy, settle down. Drive local. Whatever. But it's my way or the highway.

Headed back east, Ubi notices subtle changes to the American landscape are now more dramatic. Homogenized cities lined with fast-food and hotel chains are linked by jammed toll roads. Gridlock. And this new generation of truckers is in such a hurry with their twin-turbo, 600-horsepower diesels that they never learned the code of the road. Probably wouldn’t change a flat for their own grandmother.

There are more potholes along the way, too. A truckers' strike looms like diesel smoke hanging in the air over a crowded truck stop. Investors have broken up the family-owned company that for three decades Ubi has hauled furniture for. The network of grand warehouses - liquidated and replaced by cheap rental yards with portable offices in industrial parks.

Ubi’s transcontinental trip celebrates the freedom of the open road, puts the reader in the shotgun seat. Trucking across the Painted Desert, the Black Hills of South Dakota, lush Minnesota, and through the breadbasket into the gritty northeast, you will meet his old friends and some new characters. In the literary tradition of escape and return, and journey to enlightenment, Ubi faces tough choices. The highway is home but the road is changing.  

This book would appeal to anyone who enjoys travel, transportation, geography, or is interested in family dynamics. The reader will see America from the point of view of an old school, independent trucker via the windshield of a big rig.

The author, Fred Afflerbach, is veteran of a twenty-plus-year career owning and driving diesel rigs, traversing forty-eight states and several Canadian provinces. In his mid-forties, he enrolled in night classes at Austin Community College, sometimes parking his rig several blocks away and hoofing it to class. At age fifty, he earned journalism and English degrees at Texas State University. Writing for Central Texas newspapers, he was won several Texas Associated Press awards.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Oakland to Austin riding a Greyhound

Eons of erosion have carved these boulders into an eerie landscape near Wilcox, Arizona.

Goodbye, California.

44 hours on the road
2 nights sitting up sleeping
4 states
15 stops
1,900 miles
Looking out from a Greyhound window seat at San Francisco Bay, this wave of patriotism washes over me like breakers on a California beach. The skyline makes my chest heave with national pride. Skyscrapers huddled together on the shore are monuments to what we do well — build. And the bay itself was a blue canvas. Sailboats tacking, commuter boats docking, barges idling and waiting their turn at a pier. San Francisco has been labeled a laid-back city, but on a late July afternoon, crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland, I saw a bustling community. Americans working hard, not for a dream, but for reality.

I didn't choose bus travel over air flight expecting to be coddled, so rolling south on U.S. 101 I was surprised that the bus delivered a smooth ride. Smooth enough for a former long-haul trucker. Then a loud man who boarded in San Francisco started yelling from the back, "I love you all . . .we're all going to heaven," and launched an unintelligible rap. After a visit from the driver during a brief stop in San Jose, he quieted down and we reached Gilroy, the garlic capital. The driver turned east on 152 and climbed Pacheco Peak, ears popping to the summit. We passed San Luis Reservoir, a large lake with no marinas and no houses jutting out from the shore. Only a few campers and hikers and fishermen were visible. It was a big, empty lake near a mountain summit. Peace on earth.

Down the road a piece, I'm daydreaming and taking notes when suddenly the big road, Interstate 5, appears and we merge, southbound. Northbound lanes are jammed as if L.A. is evacuating. Zooming at 75 m.p.h., we cross brown fields, some scorched by fire, and one still smoldering. But others are under cultivation.  A sign says L.A. 224 miles. Another sign decries water curtailment for agriculture, predicts a California dust bowl. We stop for a food break at Coalinga Junction. I choke down a convenience store sandwich and chat with the driver about the engine and life on the road. He says the loud man settled down after taking his "meds."

Back on the interstate the bus approaches Tejon Pass, also called The Grapevine. Carved through the Tehachapi Mountains, it's an infamous grade, one that is legendary in trucker lore for burning up engines on the ascent and burning up brakes and causing deadly wrecks on the descent. I hear and feel the automatic transmission downshift twice. The big Detroit diesel labors and the vehicle slows to a crawl. We slither through a man-made canyon, deep cuts into the mountain's chest. Topping the summit, the bus points downward and hurtles along the mountainside. Although the driver took the curves and descent a little too fast for me, he does a good job and we have no trouble. We arrive in L.A. about 9:30 p.m.  

And there I waited for more than three hours in a cramped, yet clean, terminal. People wearing sweat suits, old jeans and t-shirts, slouch in the hard plastic chairs. Their luggage is sprawled across the tile floor, piled against walls and stacked in aisles. We all looked tired. Most of us kept to ourselves. Finally a door opens, we line up, and the bus for Phoenix fills up. But nobody tells us. We just stand in line like sheep. Frustrated, I approached a kid, about 18, who was next in line when they closed the door in his face. I asked what happened. "Full," he barked, his voice ripe with indignation. So I ask around the terminal, my voice now ripe with indignation, and find the shift supervisor on the dock outside. That was sorry service, I bark, leaving at least 25 people standing in line with no explanation or notification when we could expect to depart. I tell him he should at least apologize for the delay. He doesn't say anything back, but grabs a microphone like it was a CB radio and announces Greyhound is sorry for the inconvenience and another Phoenix bus will soon board.

 An hour later, I scrunch into a seat on the overflowing bus and I'm thinking I wouldn't treat a dog the way Greyhound treated us. I'd like to give that supervisor a one-way ticket on a slow bus to Tombstone, or Death Valley, standing in the back. No A.C.

Rolling eastbound on I-10 about two a.m. The Greyhound hunkers down for another mountain pass. A sliver of moon hangs in the sky ahead. I look back and catch a sea of lights. Adios, City of Angels. I doze, but never feel like I'm sleeping. More like being hypnotized. And when the bus stops somewhere in the desert I stagger into a truck stop/travel center and ask the man behind the counter where I am. Ehrenberg, Arizona, he says, a map dot just across the Colorado River which is the state line. Rolling again, more nodding off, and I'm fully awake about 60 miles outside Phoenix. The young woman next to me, about age 19, is headed to Laredo to visit friends. She slept with her head against the window almost the whole way.

Early lesson on going Greyhound. Not all buses are created equal. Although the Oakland bus had ample leg room, these seats were built for people five feet tall, or shorter. Legs bent all night, all morning, and I'm cramping up. So a few times I stretch them into the aisle. Nobody's moving about so it seems okay.

Phoenix. We switch buses because the A.C. played out crossing the desert last night, although it was not uncomfortable. Unlike L.A., the staff gives us preferential treatment and ensures that folks who got bumped last night in L.A. are boarded first. Still, there was no time to dally. Man next to me is big as a Sumo wrestler, says he's going to court in Tucson, spreads his legs, pushes me against the window and snores, mouth wide open

Tucson two hours later and I'm willing to beg, shine shoes, for coffee. I find a vending machine that serves hot Java. Price $2.50. It's been 25 years since I've seen that little glass door close, a paper cup drop and catch hot coffee streaming from above. (One time, coffee poured down before the cup dropped. What a mess.) And unlike that acrid, stomach-wrenching coffee of those bygone days, this big cup hit the spot. A coffee snob for years, I was grateful for what I could find and relieved that I had found a fix.

A dapper man at the Tucson terminal stands in the parking lot. Squinting into the morning sun, he closely watches us unload. We pull out a half hour later and he's still there. Circling the lot, I look out the plate glass window. He walks to his car, alone. A rendezvous unfulfilled. Mother, brother, lover? Who was he waiting for? Or was he in law enforcement, and acting on a tip he was stalking a fugitive. Let your imagination finish the story line.

We have a fresh driver. Third one since leaving the Bay. One Black, one Hispanic, now an Anglo, and he's a big old boy. Like the other two, he's top notch with customers and handling the equipment. Now a leak from above. Brown water dripping from the ceiling. Doesn't smell, so I just grab a napkin and wipe and wipe for miles. A man in the seat in front of me wedges a paper towel to the mess and clogs it up.

East of Tucson we climb more mountains and puffs of popcorn drift across the blue sky. The desert is mystical, magical; how the thorny scrub brush, yucca and some grasses can cling tight to this sand and gravel, put down roots and not blow away is fascinating. Now transmission lines stretched from what looks like a succession of goal posts scar the expanse. A hub cap, 40 yards off the road, halfway up a steep hill. The town of Benson, dusty and dotted with mobile homes and trailer parks. Cattle on the right with ribs protruding. Climbing again through Texas Canyon where the marvelous work of Father Time and Mother Nature unite to offer a visual treat of boulders that hang from above and defy gravity. The popcorn clouds crash into a distant mountain top, look like surf and spray pounding rocks at a California beach.

Next stop, Lordsburg, New Mexico. Drew's Barbecue, an authentic, Texas-style joint. Only three out of about 50 passengers eat there. The others—McDonalds. The man working the pit is from Victoria, Texas, near my dad's hometown of Yoakum. One man from the bus eating with me says he just gut out of the penitentiary. Bank robbery, he says, but can't complain, had three good years before getting caught. I'm not sure whether to believe him. Barbecue is not bad, like the coffee in Tucson, road fare demands a cast iron stomach or tons of Tums.

Rumbling along, the landscape is now a tabletop. New Mexico highway sign: Continental Divide 4,500 feet. No majestic, snow-capped mountains, just endless desert with distant jagged peaks.

 Near Las Cruces, the Rio Grande Valley is a wide and green ribbon littered with dairies. Countless cows, corrals and milking stations. Animals living on top of each other. Hay bales stacked to the ceiling in massive open barns. Now pecan and almond orchards. The river is the giver of life in this parched land, but I wouldn't want to live downstream or downwind from those dairy farms.

El Paso. A view of American smelters and Mexican shanties and confusion at the terminal. I caught up with the bus that left me in L.A. and had ten minutes to board. Otherwise, a long wait. Now I'm standing outside, waving my ticket, watching the driver inside the bus count heads. I make the cut, board and squeeze into one of the few open seats. A gaunt man with leather skin and grizzled face climbs on. His carry on luggage — a plastic trash bag.

The meek, the humble, the poor, liars, criminals? misfits. These are my traveling companions.

Near Sierra Blanca, about 80 miles east of El Paso, we pull into the check station and four Border Patrol agents climb aboard, pistols on hips. An air of gloom descends. Many riders slump in their seats. One family of four that looked Hispanic must know the drill because they immediately pull identification from wallets and purses. The agents ask for passports, ask many of us if we're American citizens. I stand up to look outside because I hear something rumbling under the vehicle and two of them yell at me, "Sit down!" But a man in the back stands up, complains, "Hey, they're searching my bags." The agents are ticked off at him for getting up. We're supposed to stay seated. They tell him to grab his bags from the overhead bin and usher him outside for questioning. He returns in ten minutes and we roll on, but for several miles, he launches epitaphs down the bus aisle, says they asked him if he had a job, if he had ever smoked pot, been arrested.

Second all-nighter, on the road to San Antonio, and I'm okay with sleeping sitting up. It's like meditating. At dawn we make Junction, about 120 miles from the Alamo City. Two young folks, one with a flat-billed cap, rush in and find an electric outlet near a booth in the back and plug in some sort of electrical gadgets. (Many riders played video games.) At last, San Antonio and drizzle on the windshield and damp roads, but no rain for our dry state. I'm scheduled for a three hour wait in San Antonio but jump ship when I hear last call for another Austin bus. I grab my bags from the cargo bay below, show my ticket and in no time I'm on I-35 in a plush bus with window curtains and wide aisles that makes me want to see if John Madden is aboard. Like I said, all buses are not created equal.

I nod off several times and suddenly we are pulling into the Austin terminal. A half-hour later my wife Diane wraps her arms around my neck. I feel on my back the eyes of a man who rode with me across the desert and stands near the door. Diane and I walk away holding hands. I glance over my shoulder. He stares out the window.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

California Calling. Fred takes a run to the West Coast

Coffee thermos brimming with hot java, Caterpillar diesel purring under the floorboard, road atlas at my side, I recently returned to California in a friend's eighteen-wheeler. It had been 25 years since I visited the West Coast.

Rolling down Interstate 10 from West Texas to Arizona, I found the desert still haunting, especially at twilight. Out in California, I rekindled my love for the Golden State. It remains a wonderland of geology and biology. Crowded, yes, but her natural beauty rises above the teeming cities, smog, and jammed highways.

The journey began in San Antonio where I joined old friend Dana Caputo and his '95 Freightliner powered by a 435 horsepower Caterpillar. Dana has logged almost 1.2 million miles in that rig, same engine. We loaded in the Alamo City and Corpus Christi, my hometown, but there was no time for sentimentality.  With a full rig, we ran across the Edwards Plateau toward the Chihuahua Desert. From Kerrville to Ozona to Sheffield, about 200 miles, the road sliced through the heart of the limestone hills. Rock walls on both sides of the road sometimes blocked the low-hanging sun. The truck weighed about 70,000 pounds, so Dana had to drop a gear or two or three on some of the steeper climbs. Still interesting how the rigs hunker down for the climb, and the four-wheelers whizz by. But overall, we could run about seventy. We slept in the double-decker sleeper in Van Horn that night, about 120 miles east of El Paso, and for the first time in months, I felt cool air blowing across my skin.

Up at about 5:30 the next morning, I caught a strong buzz on thick truck stop coffee, white lines in our headlight beams, and a sunrise over my right shoulder. Because the interstate takes a northwest angle and follows the Rio Grande between Van Horn and El Paso, I enjoyed pink and blue hues in the side mirror and out the window. The landscape before us was also waking up. Jagged mountains appeared on three sides like eerie silhouettes that guarded the desert floor. Gargoyles. But soft and oval-shaped hills often broke up the horizon. Some resembled ice cream cones.

We replaced an air hose in El Paso and rumbled through Texas Canyon, a lunar landscape with oblong and oval-shaped boulders hanging in precipitous locations that defy gravity. We snubbed the tourist trap called "The Thing" (some sort of fake mummy, I heard) and visited an old haunt called the Tucson Truck Terminal. The TTT took me back to my days on the road, late '70s through mid '80s, and is about the only truck stop I found on this journey that isn't part of a large chain.

We spent the night in Phoenix, visited a sports bar with enough flat screen TVs to watch every game of the San Francisco Giants 2010 championship season at once.

Rolling again the next day, we crossed the Colorado River, looking wet and cool as it flowed through sand and gravel marking the state line between Arizona and California. The next two days, we unloaded near San Bernardino and in Los Angeles. A homeless guy on Crenshaw Blvd. got kicked out of a McDonald's for trying to access the restroom. Then up 101, Ventura Highway, like in the old pop song by America.

The drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco was always special. And it holds its charm more than a quarter-century after I last drove it.

Endless, steep, brown hills and mountain ranges marched past on the right. The Pacific Ocean played peek-a-boo through fog banks on the left. We rolled through Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo. The cool Pacific air was invigorating. You don't get weather like this in Central Texas until mid-October.

Then we slipped into the Coastal Valley; auburn hills on both sides bracketed the highway. The Freightliner hummed along at fifty-five because that is the statewide speed limit for trucks.

The long, flat valley was decorated with endless vineyards and almond and fruit tree orchards.  Row after row, these farms stand testament to the efficiency of irrigation. Almost everything else was dry, everything but those verdant fields connected by miles and miles of water lines.

Once we hit San Jose, the traffic backed up and the land changed from open, rural and agricultural to urban, cramped with tight neighborhoods and high-reaching office buildings. And I caught glimpses of the south end of the bay on my right. That night, we had a nightcap with another long-time trucker named Buck. He has been a contractor, owning his own rig, since the early '70s. Buck and Dana said the owner-operators who haul furniture, movers, are an endangered species, down by about two-thirds since their heyday in the early '80s. Like sailors on the San Francisco docks, we traded yarns, recalled some of the colorful characters that a transient occupation attracts, and lamented the good old days.

When I lived out of a diesel rig, countless kids and parents approached me at rest stops, truck stops, motel and mall parking lots. The children wanted to blast the air horn and have their picture taken. But the adults often yearned to take a cross-country trip in a big rig.

Traveling in a truck is special because you get a bird's-eye view of the landscape through that windshield, seven, eight feet above the pavement. Imagine riding on the roof of your car. Trucking also adds another dimension to travel. You are hauling, moving, transporting goods. Unless you are running empty, called deadheading, there's a different sense of purpose than your typical family vacation. People I have moved coast-to-coast often said upon my arrival: "We sure are glad to see you."

Next, the ride home. I say adios to old friend Dana and catch a Greyhound. Oakland to Austin, two all-nighters on the bus in a 42-hour trek.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Living out of a rig.

How many consecutive days, weeks, months can a cross-country trucker sleep in his rig before he gives in and rents a motel room?

It started innocently, up in Buffalo, about 1982. My forty-four foot trailer and my wallet were both empty. Loads were scarce. It looked like it would be at least a week before I would be rolling again, earning revenue, so I was reluctant to draw an advance to rent a room, about $30 a night, when I could sleep in the bunk for free.

So I camped out in the corner of a mall parking lot for the weekend, spent a little money watching "Honeysuckle Rose."

It took almost two weeks to fill my trailer, loading little shipments spread across several northern states. By then some sort of stubborness had set in, and I don't know why, but I wanted to keep the non-motel streak alive.

Maybe there was one reason I shunned old Howard Johnson and Motel 6 with its bath towels thin as Handi Wipes and the extra three bucks for the TV key that you had to insert in the side of the monitor.

You load, unload, all day, drive a couple hundred miles that evening, check in at the front desk nine or ten p.m., check out at six a.m. It's not worth the money, or trouble, to lug the suitcase to second floor, unpack, go through the whole rigamaroll, when you can park it, kick off your shoes, crawl in the bunk grab some ZZZs.

A shower? Brushing teeth? You can do that for free in the truck stop in the morning. What's a little body odor at night? Hard work never smelled bad to me.

So, I made it a few more weeks, taking showers in truck stops, and felt empowered. Keep the streak alive, just because ...

Don't know when I broke down, splurged on a room. Maybe it was when the old GMC broke down. But sleeping in a rig was like camping out to me. You could read in the bunk by the overhead light, get the logbook updated, check the road atlas.

Of course, if you've been drinking coffee while driving late that evening, you had to take a preventive measure or risk waking up at three a.m., kidneys on fire, and face the long walk to the truck stop restroom.

Still, that streak was fun - odorous, perhaps - but invigorating. One man. One truck. Parking in the rest areas, vacant shopping centers, empty lots, eating food purchased at a grocery store rather than a restaurant; it felt like what Woody Guthrie would have done had he been a trucker.

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