Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Sunday, January 18, 2009


Houston was to be the Stop of Amazing Coincidence. This we knew, in part. And the rest we discovered on our arrival. But more on that later.

So, driving to Houston was fine.

You know - nothing unexpected. And the exact same route, almost mile for mile, that we had driven from Tucson to Tampa. We are intimately familiar with the 10. We're nearly on a first name basis with some of the rest stop staff. They have good orange juice at the Visitors' Stop on the Tampa/Alabama border. Fresh squeezed. Good maps, too.

It was a looong drive, one which took, as expected a day & a half. We covered 767 miles in about twelve hours, and we spent the night at the Pear Tree Inn in Lafayette, Louisiana. When we were pulling into Lafayette, calling around on to hotels listed in the GPS, we rang the Pear Tree and were quoted one price. But then when we got to the desk, they said that it was an internet rate and that's not the 'drop-in' rate. However - TRAVELLER'S TIP: the receptionist at the front desk, somewhat sotto voce, explained that if we simply walked across the lobby to the computer & printer, and went to Roomsavers.com, and looked up the Pear Tree Inn in Lafayette, Louisiana, we would be able to download & print a coupon, redeemable at the Pear Tree Inn in Lafayette, Louisiana, which offered a better rate than either the walk-in rate OR the online reservation rate through their website. $39/night! So, all you money-grubbing Gullivers, all you parsimonious Phineas Foggs, take note - and not just of the website, but of the fact that, often, you can walk into a hotel, go right to their 'business center,' right onto their computer, and print out the coupon right on site.

So, feeling very satisfied about ourselves, we unloaded the car, washed our faces, fed & walked the dog, and headed out to a perfectly fine, truck-stop kind of diner at the TA Travel Center #161, at exit 101. You know the one.

The next day, we covered the final 217 miles to our Craigslist rental and were every bit as satisfied as we might have hoped. Situated on Heights Boulevard, in the up-and-coming, if not already up-and-come, neightborhood of Houston Heights, the home of Steve Ouellette, his partner John, and their dog Foster, is a very comfortable, brick home complete with carport, green lawn to the side, metal-framed gazebo and granite Greek discus-thrower to greet you on your arrival. In the back are two carriage houses, both of which he rents, one on a regular basis and one to transients like ourselves. Essentially a one bedroom apartment, complete with a separate living room, hardwood floors, complete kitchen, cable TV & wi-fi, we were back to homestyle living for a couple weeks. It was very comfortable, and Steve & John were perfect hosts, even supplying us with wine for the night & fresh coffee beans and a grinder for the morning.

NOW - here's where the Amazing Coincidences begin. But first, a little history.

Flashback to two years ago. Your humble correspondent was taken by his morning jog past a parking lot each day, wherein he noticed a gaunt, dusty, and very sad looking dog lying underneath a shrub. He was there the first day. He was there the second day, and I bought him a Subway sandwich, which I fed him through the fence. The third day, seeing him again and convinced that he was indeed homeless and in bad need of medical attention, I couldn't take it. I took a company rental car and, armed with another Subway sandwich, I found a way into the parking lot, whereupon I proceeded to lure him into the back seat. Why didn't I blanche at the notion of bringing a stray pit bull into the back seat of the car, I can only explain by way of my own dog, Diego, back home and the fact of his early life on the street.

Here are some photos of him, when I took him in, and the shape he was in.

I took him to the local shelter. But they don't adopt out pit bulls. If he wasn't claimed over the weekend, he'd be put down. So, I took him to a couple vets before I found one that would not only treat him for the severe malnutrition and dehydration, begin de-worming, and give him some antibiotics, but who would also agree to hold him for the weekend while I looked for a rescue organization. Many phone calls and referrals later, I made a fellow named Dana Blankenship at Scouts Honor, a local Houston rescue & fostering organization. Dana called the vet and, after consulting with them on his general health, agreed to take "Cheech" (as I'd been calling him) in.

As I kept in touch with Dana, over the rest of the tour, I learned that Cheech had acclimated to his foster home very well, making a great recovery. And, ultimately, he was adopted (and renamed "Chuck") by a young woman - who actually lived in Houston Heights, not far from Steve Ouellette's home where we stayed, two years later.

Here he is after his recovery.

My contact with Dana proved to be particularly valuable to us later on as it became clear to Angie and me that Diego, with his increasingly difficult behavioral problems, simply needed owners with a better skill set than we had to offer. Much time was spent on the phone with Dana, with their trainers, with their vet, and after much, much grief, we ended up putting Diego on a plane to Houston. It was the worst day, in July of 2007, and it was only alleviated by the knowledge that - if our ultimate purpose in Diego's life - was to get him from point A to point B, then we were glad to have played that role. Diego later was sent to stay at Spindletop Pitbull Rescue - a place which has been described to us as the "witness protection program" for dogs, because they work with many difficult cases - ex-fighting dogs, dogs who've been abused - and they don't list their physical location. They have 70 acres in the country, about an hour north of Houston. They work with them intensively. And if they decide the dog simply can't be trusted to be adopted out, then the dog lives out its life in a safe environment there. They don't take in animals from private individuals - only fostering organizations. And they're considered a last, best hope for some dogs.


So, we think we're done with dogs for awhile. Then Butley falls in our lap, another pitbull no less, and I leave Angie to host him for the 'weekend' (which has now turned into a year and a half) to go out on the second year of TWELVE ANGRY MEN. Then, with our little family heading out on the road again this year, we're in constant need of dog-friendly housing, of which were neither of the two company options. So we scanned the Craigslist options in Houston and posted our own ad. We were then contacted by Steve Ouellette, who sent us photos and an address. I check in with him - is he okay with a pitbull? He's fine, he says. He and his partner have hosted many dog-adoption events on their front lawn. Oh really, I reply. Maybe you know a friend of mine, Dana Blankenship, with Scouts Honor. I know Dana very well, he responds. In fact, they're the group that we often host here. Really, I write, that's such a coincidence. Dana was kind enough to take in our dog, Diego.

Here's where the chill of impossible coincidence set in.

Oh, I knew Diego very well, he replies. In fact, the vet who rents the house right next door to me worked with Diego and even housed him for a brief time. I write Dana to let him know. He's as spooked by the coincidence as we are.

Just something about karma, I guess. In any event, we knew we had found The Right Place to Stay in Houston.

So, shortly after our arrival, we were walking Butley along Heights Boulevard, a tree-lined neighborhood with a grassy median in the middle along which residents often jog or walk their dogs. On our way back we happened to stop in front of the vet, right next door to Steve's place. The assistant comes out to see Butley, because she just can't pass up a big-headed lug like Butley (and who can blame her). We talk for awhile, and it happens that we end up going in to see some very new puppies they're fostering and their mom. We meet the vet, Patricia Cooper, mention the connection through Diego and Scouts Honor, and she recalls Diego fondly, with the inevitable tinge of trieste over what a trying case he was. Thankful, though, as were we, that he ended up in a good place after all.

Meanwhile, Butley befriends the new mama (named Cassia), and before you know it, Angie and I are making it a daily practice, on Butley's walks, to stop by Dr. Cooper's & pick up Cassia for our walk, who's thrilled and starting to come out of her shell. Butley has a good time, showing her the ropes of how to behave on a walk. And Dr. Cooper not only gives us some pointers on how to give Butley the allergy injections he's been recently prescribed (another story, don't ask - our dog is allergic to grass and trees - it's like a kid being allergic to Crayolas & Play-Doh) but she also gives us a box of syringes & needles for his injections. Like father, like son, apparently. Only he has to get his every three days.

Much of the rest of our time in Houston was occupied with dog-related activities as well. We had dinner with Steve & John and Dana and his partner Danny. We tried (unsuccessfully) to make contact with Spindletop's owner, Leah, who was predictably shy and still recovering from Hurricane Ike and a separate injury to boot. And beyond that, there was just a lot of rehearsal.

You see, Kate Fuglei, Angie's understudy and a wife & mom who's been away from home for six months, quite understandably made only a six month commitment to the tour. And now that the time has passed, she's heading back to her husband and two boys, one of whom is currently fielding offers from college, when he's not fielding baseballs on his varsity team (and the source of much pride to his coaches and college recruiters). And while we'll all sorely miss her, I'm sure she'll enjoy a triumphant return home, brief though it may be before she's packing lunches, driving to practice, and all the other inevitable motherly & wifely pursuits - pursuits whose familiarity will offer a soft landing for her, I'm sure.

Kate Hampton is her replacement, kindly only requiring us to learn a new last name only, and a welcome addition to the "Seniors' Club" here on tour. And as she's been trying to get up to speed, there has been a maximum amount of rehearsal to help her do so, understandably. She's doing just fine, and I'm sure everyone will enjoy the chance to get to know a new face & a new set of favorite drink recipes.

And so, rolling ever onward, we tip our hat to the locals and saddle up. Tomorrow, we've got 981 miles to go to get to Des Moines. In a fantasy life, we'll be making the whole drive in one day, crashing in Des Moines, and then rising to watch the Inauguration with a cup of coffee and a smile. It'll be a whole, new US of A come 11am on Tuesday.

Do I think we can make the drive in one day, the whole 981 miles? If we just grin and bear it, get up early, stop only for gas & bathroom breaks, and milk the Texas 80mph speed limit for all it's worth?

Yes we can.

Do I think we will?

No I don't.

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