The Road Back

by Christopher Dow

It’s funny how you can see things so many times that you don’t see them anymore. Take the stretch of I-10 between Houston and San Antonio. I first traveled it in the late 1960s after I moved to Houston to go to college. My best friend and roommate, Ditto, was from San Antonio, and every so often, we’d go there to visit his family or friends. I didn’t know the road well, then, and certainly there wasn’t much to see. From the highway, most of the towns along the way exhibited little more than a sign, an exit ramp, and maybe a gas station or two.

Because of the relative austerity of the highway, I tended to exaggerate certain features beyond their actual importance. Take the old motor court, for example. It was a row of half a dozen rectangular, two-room structures made of cement blocks, probably built between the world wars. Lined up just past the service road, it was old and abandoned when I first saw it, and its emptiness and dilapidation made it mysterious. I couldn’t imagine anything taking place there but shady dealings in the past or hauntings in the present. Indeed, it had a reputation as an only recently defunct bordello.

A person’s first few years away from home are incredibly formative. Ditto and I shared adventures and experiences that have remained alive in my memory and helped shape my understandings of the world. But even in the midst of growth comes waning, and Ditto and I drifted apart. I moved in with different roommates, and he left for Austin. We saw each other infrequently during the next couple of years, then lost touch entirely.

I still drove that stretch of road, though. During much of the 1980s, I had monthly business in the Alamo City, and I drove that part of I-10 a couple of hundred times. I watched the small towns grow and begin to peer through the forest and farmlands until they showed faces to the highway. And I watched the old, abandoned motor court take on a new life as a depot for decorative Hill Country stone bound for Houston. But its renaissance was short-lived, and as the 1980s ended, the little line of lonely rooms again was deserted.

By then, though, I no longer really saw it. I’d driven this highway so often that the sights became routine, and I came to mark my passage only by the small but growing towns along the way: Columbus, Luling, and Seguin. Maybe that was because development gave them a larger stance on the countryside, eclipsing the smaller, more intimate features. Or maybe it was because of the way travel was changing. Air conditioning and stereo sound systems have conspired not simply to make the occupants of vehicles faceless to one another but to make the countryside equally unknown. I probably spent my last hundred trips so glazed with familiarity that only a new shopping center or commercial development sprouting on farmland beside the highway could shock me into awareness of the terrain through which I sped.

Since 1990, I’ve driven I-10 west of Columbus only a dozen times or so. I don’t remember much about those trips—I’d seen it all before. Too often. But in the late ’90s, that changed. Once again I left Houston and drove to San Antonio, but this time, the road looked different. No, not different, exactly. I was seeing past the old familiarity to a time when this highway was, for me, an entirely new experience. And there, visible beneath the recent development, were many of the older features I remembered so well, waiting only for recognition.

In particular, I noticed the old motor court. There it was, looking very much the same as when I first saw it thirty years before, abandoned and mysterious—and now, I realized, historic. Somebody ought to do an archaeological dig there. Surely beneath the loam lies a wealth of information about the culture of American travel before four-lanes made intercity trips so quick and so anonymous.

I was in a mood to dig up the past. After some detective work, I’d found Ditto. He was back in San Antonio, and I was on my to reunite with him after a separation of twenty-five years. I wondered what I would find. Would he be like the old motor court, a little more overgrown but still in character, or would he be like a parch of forest that had been cleared for development—recast and unrecognizable?

At last I pulled into Ditto’s driveway. I got out of the car and peered toward the screened-in porch. Someone stood within and stepped out. It was my friend. As we greeted and looked each other over, it seemed to me he’d not only grown a weed or two, but he bore traces of a few cleared forests, as well. Nothing is simple, especially after it has some history. But I recognized the terrain. Even if I hadn’t seen it in a long time, it was still familiar. Right then, though, I wasn’t thinking of any of that. I was just feeling the past, present, and future meld in my heart as we embraced and said hi.