You can’t all of a sudden escape a big city such as Houston. It’s not like a prison, where the prison is on one side of the wall, and the free world is on the other. It’s more like a prison where the prison is on one side of the wall, and a minimum-security prison is on the other. Then there’s another wall, with a juvenile detention facility on the other side.
Houston’s boundaries are wide and blurry; Houston has no respect for “city limits” and it’s hard to tell where the thing ends. If you’re determined to escape, you must do so gradually. Greenway Plaza is less intense than downtown, and Westchase might be a less concentrated form of urban than the prior two, but all of them still are pure Houston. Sharpstown? Meyerland? Bellaire? Semi-suburban but still the city. Sugar Land? Missouri City? Just a couple of fancy tails plugged into Houston’s butt; outside the city limits but spiritually very similar.
Eventually, though, if you’re persistent and possessed of a full gas tank, you reach the end of Houston and even the end of its magnetic pull. For me, that ending doesn’t happen until I pass through the gaggle of red lights making up Rosenberg, heading due west out U.S. 90-Alternate. Suddenly the gas stations and truck rentals and dollar stores and pawn shops and taquerias and salvage yards fade from view, replaced by thousands of uninterrupted acres of cotton or corn or rice or soybeans, extending to the horizon on land as flat as a billiards table.
As the big city recedes in the distance of your rear-view mirror, something funny happens. You might’ve just tooled through East Bernard (perhaps wondering absently why there is no West Bernard and why East Bernard is on the west bank of the San Bernard River when no town whatsoever lies on the east bank). You’re still subconsciously in Escape from the City Mode and thus driving 83 mph and approaching the pickup in front of you at a fairly rapid clip, when all of a sudden – the pickup pulls over onto the berm and slows to a crawl. Startled, you slow down a little yourself as you pass, looking over to see whether the truck’s engine caught on fire or something. The driver looks at you and just waves.
Eventually you realize the driver was pulling over specifically so that you could pass him more easily. What the hell, you think. That never would happen in Houston, and not within the pull of its magnetic forcefields, either. That’s pretty much the opposite of what would happen in Houston.
What is it about the country? you wonder as your head west all the way out to Hallettsville, where you turn onto State Highway 77. You turn again on FM 422 (that’s Texas lingo for “Farm to Market Road” 422). Things escalate. Only light traffic, and maybe one out of every three drivers actually appears to be waving to you. Or more accurately, kind of saluting you with either their forefinger or the first two fingers of whichever hand is not gripping their steering wheel. That’s not the kind of finger salute you get in Houston.
At first you just stare in total surprise. Next time you pretend not to have noticed. After awhile you start returning the salute. Then you worry that you waited too long to salute back, and what if they didn’t see you and thought you had your head up your ass? So you start trying to guess which drivers are going to salute, only you salute first. Ha! Who’s friendly now?
When you turn off onto the county road where your deer lease or farm or country relative resides, you notice that most of the drivers of passing vehicles now are giving you the full-on wave. As if they know you personally, or appreciate that you’re roughing it here in the outback just like them. Or something. The feeling builds. What is it about the country?
Eventually when you’re on the road, you’re waving first, to everybody, so that they won’t feel like you’re not a Texas Friendly sort of person.
Later on, when you head back to the city, you begin to feel that magnetic pull, and you consciously will your hands to retain their grip on the steering wheel, and maybe you stop looking into the faces of the drivers going past.