Houston is a splatter painting of a city. It’s ten thousand different neighborhoods loosely connected by a confusion of streets and avenues, freeways and farm-to-market roads. Each street offers its own revelations, its own bit of enlightenment. It’s all a little like religion. Or a dim sum menu.
No offense to Austin, but Houston is truly the weirdest city in Texas. If you want to get a sense of that, you need to take a drive along the whole Beltway. An 80 mile loop around the city is also called the Sam Houston Toll Road.
On the south belt, a couple of cows graze in a small pasture, ringed by freshly built subdivisions and a brand new Jack-in-the-Box. That has to be an existential experience for the cows, if cows are capable of existential experiences. Thirty years ago, this was the middle of nowhere. There isn’t a nowhere, not here, not anymore. Just Houston. Miles and miles of Houston.
The west belt cuts through Alief. Alief is young, poor and international. It’s emergent Houston, immigrant Houston. This area ain’t the Stars and Bars; it’s the striped saffron banner of South Vietnam.
Near the horse track, there’s a steak house, built to look like Sam Houston’s Huntsville home. Evidence that if you give a Houstonian a little time, a little encouragement and the right financing, a Houstonian will create something ridiculous.
On the east belt, the Jesse Jones Bridge stands like the skeleton of some humongous sauropod, head forever bent to the Ship Channel. As you attempt to keep pace with the pickups and 18-wheelers whizzing past, take a moment to admire the view from the summit. On one side, the Ship Channel and Downtown sparkle amidst the grime. On the other side refineries and chemical plants as far as the eye can see.
Even if you’re not here to work in the oil business, those plants are why you’re here, my friend. They’re why we’re all here.
You can see the whole of Houston gargantuan skyline from the Beltway. From the Emerald City glitter of Downtown to the Medical Center, NRG Stadium, the beloved and doomed Astrodome beside it, and Williams Tower, looming like an enormous fertility totem in the distance.
When you drive the full loop around Houston, you realize, deep in your bones, that Houston is gigantic, Houston is crowded and Houston has more fast food joints than could possibly be good for us.
It’s a city of brazen contradictions, a riddle wrapped in bacon, deep-fried and served with a side of fresh kale. It abides, without much caring what you think of it.
So next time you miss your exit on Sam Houston Toll Road, just keep driving, take the time to breathe in Houston, you’ll make it back home eventually.