Monday, April 22, 2013





Flip it over to find Texas! 

     Nancy Appunn and Sue Phillips, two 80-somethings are on a mission: Visit everyone on their Christmas Card List. So far on the western swing of their Christmas Card List Road Trip, they have white-kuckled their way down the Los Angeles freeway, navigated winding switchbacks, passed through sandstone mesas and crossed barren desert landscapes for 6-8 hours a stretch -- often without air-conditioning to give their Honda engine more power
     Along the way, they've seen Renoirs, cactus gardens and Texas-shaped waffles. They've been kept awake by partying cowboys and been stopped by armed border guards. They've peered at photographs of Buffalo Soldiers in Fort Stockton and watched bats fly out of the bat bridge in Austin at dusk.
     And, while the rest of the country was obsessed by the pursuit of bombers in Boston, they witnessed firsthand how neighbors were helping neighbors, victims of another tragedy that sadly was not getting nearly as much press: the fertilizer plant explosion in the tiny town of West, Texas, just miles from Waco where Nancy and Sue were arriving to connect with one more family on their Christmas card list. The fatal blast killed 14, injured 200 and destroyed at least 50 homes.
      Here is Nancy's update of the first part of the Western leg of their Christmas Card Road Trip, from Sue's home in Healdsburg in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country to Waco, Texas:


    Starting out from Sue's home in Sonoma Wine Country, past San Francisco, we hit a beautiful stretch of undeveloped land along the Pacific that is free of billboards and buildings. That peaceful drive is not to last. Heading inland to Pasadena, we encounter the infamous Los Angeles freeway. We white-knuckle it through stop-and-go traffic in the early afternoon. There are no short cuts.
     Awaiting us in Pasadena, however, is more beauty and peace: trips to two of the finest museums in the country --The Huntington and The Norton Simon – thanks to Christmas Card connections.
Exhibit poster available at
George and Sara Abdo welcome us into their home not far from the Rose Bowl. George met his future wife Sara nearby at the Norton Simon Museum when she was curator there. Sara, who paints beautifully herself, gives us a tour of the museum with its outstanding collection of Monets, Degas and Renoirs. She is greeted by all the guards; she still serves on the museum’s board.
     I met George as a seminary student in the 70's when he interned at my church in St. Petersburg. He ended up at UCLA and the Huntington Museum in fund raising and development. He shows us the gardens at the Huntington, a museum that houses an immense library of rare books. A new addition is a magnificent Chinese garden supported by Chinese residents in Pasadena. George grew up in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High. I ask him if he ever wanted to be in the movies. “Yes,” he tells us. “I crossed the Red Sea with Moses when I was child.” That was the beginning and end of his movie career.


The next morning, back on the freeways, we head the Honda south to Newport Beach. After four hours of freeway driving, we collapse in relief at Sue's son Mark’s home. A financial planner, he and his wife Loretta, a dentist, have a 9-year-old son. Lucas is a joy to meet, courteous and willing to give up his room for the night. The electronic world is not yet part of his life.  He loves to read and is into mythology. The TV is seldom on. Affection abounds between Lucas and his parents. I tell Loretta she could write a book on raising children. She laughs, "We've a long way to go yet." That evening we dine at a Vietnamese restaurant where the food is great but the service is so slow that the maitre d' gives us several free appetizers and then offers two extra desserts. But we welcome the leisurely dinner. Lucas against all 9-year-old norms is kept busy with drawings and giggles with his Dad.


Nancy looks out the Honda at the seemingly endless desert.
After a
long, long drive across barren desert, we climb foothills on winding switchbacks that have Sue, who doesn’t like heights, wondering why we have chosen this route. The sun is hot through the car windows. The air conditioner is turned off to give the engine more power. nearly six hours later, we finally reach Prescott where we are visiting Sue’s friend Mary Lou Gorman. Sue and Mary Lou, who it turns out was in the same class as I was at Heights High in Cleveland, reminisce about their friendship. I strike up a conversation with Mary Lou’s son, a Methodist minister who is home for a visit. Church people – I worked for years as the business manager for my church -- love to talk shop.
     In Prescott, we stay in the historic old St Michael Hotel in operation since 1901. It’ll have more character than a motel, Sue assures me.  On the street near the hotel, I spy cowboy hats and boots with spurs. When we walk pass the saloon next to the hotel, a smiling cowboy asks us if we would like to come in and dance. We head for our room, which faces the town square and the courthouse. Before we can drift off to sleep, however, the streets fill with shouting and laughter as the partying in the bars moves outside. Motorcycles seem to be rev up every 10 minutes. We finally shut the window only to be awakened in the early morning hours by leaf blowers (isn’t there a law against this?) and garbage trucks. We reopen the windows to catch the last of the cool night air, but soon the birds are singing and traffic noises fill the square. The people who slept in our room at the beginning of the last century probably thought nothing of the noise outside, I tell myself. They were unspoiled by soundproof insulation and quiet plumbing. If you want a sound night's sleep, beware of "historic" hotel signs.


Prosecco and cacti in Tucson
     Another hot day’s drive to Tucson through the endless desert dotted with sagebrush and flanked by mountains. The sun is brighter here due to the low humidity and I find myself squinting even with sunglasses. It's hard on eyes used to the green of Florida. 
     Outside Tucson in the foothills of the mountains is a gated development  where the Schneiders live. Brenda and Sue met in cooking school in Paris about 30 years ago. Brenda treats us to a lunch of pea soup, couscous salad, green beans, a homemade carrot cake and sparkling conversation with her husband Ben. We while away the afternoon in single pursuits and gather to sip Prosecco on their patio decorated with succulents and blooming cacti. There’s a peaceful view of the mountains over the golf course. We talk of books and tell stories over hummus and veggies and retire to the dining room where Brenda has prepared Cornish hens, noodle kugel, asparagus and a delicious salad with strawberries. Topped off with a fine red wine and flowerless chocolate cake with whipped cream. (Did I mention that Brenda and Sue met at a Paris cooking school?) Into the night, we discuss how old people are portrayed in movies these days, how early immigrants adapted, how Johnny Mathis is still great and how vinyl records are to be treasured. When the wine runs out, we head to bed.


     In the early morning Tucson is cool and crisp and Sue and I head out after a big breakfast of French toast, bacon, sausage and fruit. Brenda is the ultimate great cook and there is no slipping out of her house with a piece of toast.  Once out of the city the traffic moves on Route 10. The tailored cactus gardens of saguaro and flowering yellow trees are behind us and the desert, hot and dry, stretches out ahead with dark sandstone mountains lining the edges. We have eight hours on the road ahead of us. We lighten the moments by playing Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, the Hawaiian singer, and hum along.
   While eating lunch at a rest stop that faces Mexico, we wonder what we would do if an immigrant came up out of the bushes. He could have our food, but the trunk is too small to smuggle him, we decide. A good thing because further down the highway we are pulled over by the border patrol armed with guns and dogs. Yes, we are citizens and no, we don’t have anybody with us.


     In Fort Stockton, Texas, where we stay overnight, we tour the town and visit the old fort where soldiers were stationed to fight the Indians. We see photos of the Buffalo Soldiers, black troops recruited after the Civil War. Blacks were not allowed to serve in the regular army.
     The next morning we continue our journey to Austin. The desert is endless, sandy stretches that numb the senses. Sagebrush and occasional lakes that really are mirages. For relief, we stop in the town of Fredericksburg, founded by Germans. The main street with its restored buildings retains the German flavor with bratwurst, schnitzel and beer in the restaurants and Lutherans in the churches.
Route 10 across Texas cuts through sandstone mesas exposing layers of sediment built up over the centuries. For a brief moment, I dream of stopping to search for fossils and precious stones with a hand pick. But Texas goes on and on. Trained eyes might see life in the desert but none is visible to me. As we near Austin the greening begins to warm the landscape. 
     In Austin, we are visiting Andri Lyons, her husband Ralph Smith and their two boys. Andri is the same age of my daughter Liz. When they were 11-years-old, they decided that their mothers would like each other, so they invited us to a tea party. Sure enough Ionia and I are good friends to this day. Since then Andri and I have exchanged Christmas cards every year. Sometimes she includes a gift.
Nachos, avocado dip and Margueritas await us and we dive into conversation. Xan and Ardy, 8 and 10, are, like Sue’s son Lucas, into Greek and Roman mythology. Ralph gives us a quick tour of Austin downtown and the 6th Street music mecca. He shows us the bat bridge in town where folks gather with a bottle of wine at dusk to watch the bats fly out.


     On our way to Waco to meet up with Alethea Bateman, we stay overnight at a motel. At the free breakfast, I make waffles in the shape of Texas.
     Alethea Bateman and I met in the theater at the University of the South at Sewanee. The Fantastics was playing. "That's my son, Giles. He's the lead," she said.  "Oh, I said, that's my daughter Liz singing with him."  We looked at each other, then at our kids singing. Wouldn't they make a great couple?  We set out to make that happen. I visited Waco; she came to St Petersburg. Giles and Liz had other plans.  Even though we failed, Alethea and I kept in touch, sending each other Christmas cards and swapping book club lists.  
     The heavy rain makes driving to Waco a scary trip. Visibility is nil. When we finally arrive, we find the Batemans gathered around the TV for news of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, just a few miles away. Alethea's husband Piers is calling employees who live in the area to see if they are okay. Daughter Laura arrives to share lunch with us but is busy on her phone arranging housing, clothing and food for the people who have lost their homes in West. Piers tells us that Waco and West are small towns and that they always take care of each other. The TV reports the Red Cross came to West to help with housing but the families had already been taken in by their neighbors in nearby towns like Waco.  



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