4/30/2012 - Minute Maid Park in Houston

The second leg of my journey takes me away from the familiar West Coast to the deserts of the Southwest and further on to the unfamiliar (at least to me) ranges of Texas and beyond to the Deep South.  As Samwise Gamgee once said: “This is it… one more step and I will have gone farther than I’ve ever been from home,” and that is exactly where I found myself as I left Albuquerque, NM heading east into regions I’ve never been to before.

Crossing the desert to get into Phoenix, Arizona, I discovered that the A/C in my van didn’t work. Of course, the high for that day was 104 degrees.   With the windows rolled down and the vents open in back, I could just barely tolerate the heat wafting up from the asphalt beneath as I drove the 300+ miles from San Diego to Phoenix via the southern route.

In Phoenix, I was able to stay several days with my Uncles and hit the Diamondbacks game with both my cousins.  Chase Field (or BankOne ballpark as the locals still call it) is a beautiful stadium in the heart of downtown Phoenix.  It’s most notable feature, at least from my perspective, is the massive air conditioning system that keeps the entire stadium a pleasant temperature even when the retractable roof is open.   I got to enjoy the clear Arizona sky while watching the Dbacks put up a good fight against the Phillies.  While the home team had their share of home runs, the Phillies blasted more balls over the fence and into the stands, handing the Diamondbacks a home loss (5 to 8).

After my visit to Phoenix and a quick side trip up to the Grand Canyon, I headed off to New Mexico via the I-40 highway.  The heat had subsided over the duration of my stay in Phoenix (even a rainstorm had blown through) and I was able to make the journey in relative physical comfort to Albuquerque where I was able to meet up with an old friend Rhett Skelton and his new family who put me up for the night.  Unfortunately, the Albuquerque Isotopes weren’t playing but I did enjoy the short time I spent in ABQ and loved munching on the culinary contributions they’ve made to Tex-Mex cuisine.

My stay in New Mexico wouldn’t be complete without another side trip to Taos to see another old friend: Scott Plumlee: jewelry designer, author and fellow traveler.  Scott will be hiking the Appalachian Trail at the end of May and it is my hope that our paths cross again in the duration of this crazy road trip.

However, the trip to Taos was a usurper of valuable time and in trying to take a short cut to get to Texas, I got myself lost on the back roads of that area and fell into the speed trap of a small town cop.  One $118 ticket later, I was on my way to Texas and not looking back.  When I finally stopped for the night, just across the Texas state line, I got to witness the beauty of a lightning storm on the range.  Without obstructions like trees and hills, the lightning snaked out of the sky and burnt its mark into my retinas.  The flashes were frequent and sallow yellowish color, to which I eventually fell asleep in the back of my van.

In the morning, I found my drive to Dallas (my first destination) to be rushed but uneventful.  I hadn’t covered nearly as much ground the night before, and thus had to hustle across 400 miles in order to make it to the Rangers game in Arlington that evening.  Between the time zone change and the miles of uninterrupted Texas range, the drive was tedious to say the least but I reached Fort Worth a couple hours before game time.  Once with spitting distance of the game, I connected with my friend Alyssa who lives in the area and we both went on to the ballgame.

Alyssa and I immediately agreed that Ranger Stadium at Arlington looks more like a horse racetrack than it does a ballpark.  Being a game on Sunday night, the stadium was packed and celebrity co-owner Nolan Ryan was in attendance.  Texans take their sports seriously and Rangers fans are no exception.  Amidst the sea of blue and red, I didn’t see a single Tampa Bay jersey or hat and the ballpark was sold out.  Of course, we took the obligatory walk around the concourse to see the food vendors, merchandise and to people watch. The “boomstick”, a $26 hotdog made big enough to satisfy 3 designated eaters stole the show.  The people who bought the “boomstick” displayed it proudly and we took a few snapshots of them to record for posterity.

Once the 7th inning stretch rolled around, Alyssa was nice enough to explain the significance of the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” which was played _before_” Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and she even explained the obscure Pee Wee Herman reference as well. Unfortunately, the Rangers couldn’t get the better of the Tampa Bay Rays, losing a close game that captivated the fans up until the final out of the 9th inning.

The next morning I left Dallas-Fort Worth and headed south to Houston.  I’ve discovered my GPS has a habit of being very optimistic when it comes to estimating travel time.  A four-hour drive is never just a four hour drive, but I made it to Minute Maid Park in time for the Astros-Mets game.  On the drive, I caught up with the storm I had been chasing since Phoenix.  The rain cooled things off and made the trip more pleasant.

My impression of Houston was that everyone there was extremely polite and overly nice, almost to an excess.  Granted I only spent a few hours there, but nevertheless I was impressed.  The Astros beat the Mets, 4 to 3 in a late game rally and I really enjoyed sitting in the top deck, watching the sun set over the dusky Houston skyline on a warm spring evening.  When the game was over and the traffic subsided, I hit the road once again, this time with my compass pointed toward New Orleans.