Today was a very good day.
It started with an early morning drive north through Austin and then beyond, up to Liberty Hill. The Austin morning rush hour was pretty intense, Interstate 35 bearing a strange resemblance to the BQE on a Monday morning. At one point, nothing was moving, which was terrific, let me tell you. Still, I had pushed back my first interview to 10:00, so I had plenty of time.
Once I made it through Austin, I continued to the Route 29 exit, headed west and noticed immediately that there was a whole lot of nothing up ahead. Well, not nothing. But, let's just say this was quiet country, flat open land with a healthy smattering of new building going up. It felt good to finally move off the more urban trail and get out to the Texas countryside. I had some time so I drove around and looked at houses, checked out a dollar store, got some gas and picked up a cup of coffee. New houses were priced in the $230’s or so, which I found hard to believe. Who would live out in the middle of nowhere at those prices? Where do they work, earn money, I wondered?
When it got close to 10:00, I followed the Mapquest directions and headed for my first stop, which I found easily. Up a long gravel driveway, across a small bridge, over a dry brook-bed, I parked the car under a large oak tree. As soon as I shut the door and threw the bag over my shoulder, I looked up and saw a tall man in a cowboy hat strolling down the front walkway toward me. Big smile, white mustache. I knew this was the guy I'd been talking with over the phone during the past few days. This was Hollis Baker.
Instinctively, I figured I was in for a special time with Hollis and his wife, Alice, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. My introduction to Hollis came via emails with Antoinette Griffin from The Senior Source. She told me I'd be in store for something great. She wasn't kidding.
The Baker home was a beautiful, simple dark wood - wide open inside, almost cabin-like. Alice was waiting for us when we walked through the door and then, the three of us sat for a bit at the kitchen table and drank coffee together. After a few minutes, Alice slipped into the kitchen and returned holding a plate full of fresh chocolate chip cookies, which she placed in front of me and Hollis, so I was feeling pretty happy after that long, traffic-filled morning drive. The three of us talked about all kinds of things, but I didn’t want to get Hollis tired before the interview. I worry sometimes about these kind of pre-interview talks, for fear of the person spilling all the "important" stuff ahead of time. A silly concern, obviously, since there's nothing better than relaxing conversations with good people over chocolate chip cookies. Who could complain?
"Let's save something for the interview," I joked and, at that, Hollis motioned for us to move to the sitting area in back of us.
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After we finished the interview (see "Tapping The Resource" for an excerpt), Hollis told Alice he was going to take me on the fifty-cent tour of the grounds. As we walked outside onto the front porch, we visited with a few of the twelve cats he and Alice have taken in over the years. (That's Freckles there on the right). Then we headed for the golf cart Hollis uses to get around the property. What a joy it must be to have land like that, where you can look around at the trees, soil, rocks and flowers and know every square inch of it is yours. As I sat beside him, it was fun to watch Hollis navigate the cart over the dirt path, often coming within a centimeter or two of a tree trunk. I had to pull in my leg a few times, but Hollis seemed unfazed, completely familiar with every inch of the layout. I pointed to what I recognized as a smoker, old and rusted, sitting by the edge of some brush.
“That thing,” Hollis laughs. “Could never get that one to work just right."
He then told me about his special brisket and, the more he talked about it, the hungrier I was getting.
As we drove to other spots on his land, each location came complete with a good story. That’s what I like so much about Hollis, he's filled with stories and knows how to tell them with his unique style. He's an excellent writer, I forgot to mention. During our introductory phone calls, we shared blog addresses, so we had a chance to read a bit of one another's writing ahead of time. Check out Hollis' blog at www.hollisbaker.blogspot.com.
Our last stop on the tour was the green house, where I noticed two or three of Hollis' signs leaning against the side of the building. One sign, in particular, grabbed my attention and we moved it together so I could get a better look. Hollis is a humble man, but I was able to catch just a glimpse of the talent he's so hesitant to show. I asked if I could take a photo of the sign before leaving so he promised we'd come back after going into town.
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Alice gave me the front seat and the three of us started our car tour of Liberty Hill, which reminded me of what I thought Andy Griffith's Mayberry would look like, only smaller. As we drove around, Hollis and Alice filled me in on some of the Liberty Hill history and the current town goings-on. "Settlers figured, 'okay, so this is what the whole country's about - Liberty.' And then, they looked around and saw that hill over there," Hollis chuckled, as he pointed to the right. "So ... there you have it, then. Liberty Hill." (By the way, I smiled when I saw the town's main newspaper; they actually have two. Check out the line below the masthead on the right. Click on the photo to enlarge it).
We stopped at a few places to see some folks they knew, but since they weren't around, we decided it was time for lunch, or, as Hollis and Alice referred to it – dinner. I like calling the mid-day meal "dinner," since I’ve been trying to eat my larger meal earlier anyway. It works to put me in the proper mindset and I need all the help I can get.
The Hobo Depot. “Best Chicken Fried Steak In Texas” Hollis had said earlier. We walked into a small, diner-like place. A few tables were set up on the right – filled with happy, well-fed customers. As soon as Hollis and Alice walked in, people turned to say hi to them. A table with four men, all with cowboy hats, turned to visit with us as we sat down. Hollis was like the mayor and Alice the first lady. It was fun to watch; I could tell the townspeople genuinely liked both of them.
When it was time to order, it didn’t take long. I hadn’t had chicken fried steak since my days at Emory in Atlanta, so I figured, "Why the hell not? Great time for another go-round." Hollis ordered a half portion. “You can handle a full one, right?” “You can always take some home," Alice added. So, there it was. And you know what ? It really was great. A treat. But, here's the thing about fried anything, for me. After two or three bites, there's really no place to go, you know what I mean? It’s that rich and heavy. I get the same reaction from foods like lobster newberg and pancakes with syrup. The mashed potatoes and gravy were good, as were the green beans. Finally, I was eating something authentic in an authentic Texas town. But the best part wasn't the food. It was being there with the Bakers. Alice, by the way, ordered what the Hobo Depot people call a taco, but it didn't look like any kind of Taco I had ever seen. She wanted me to take a taste of it, moving her plate toward me. It was great.
After dinner, we continued the town tour and Hollis wanted me to see the sculpture garden he'd mentioned earlier. Alice stayed in the car and read a bit while Hollis and I took a look around. Stupidly, I forgot to charge the camcorder batteries and didn't have my still camera with me, so I was only able to get a few seconds worth of pics. And then, it was over to see Troy – that was a treat, too. The man is something like 88, I forget his age. And he goes into this kind of office every day - it's sort of a chamber of commerce. Hollis explained that Troy's not paid, but he accepts donations from people who pass through town, looking for all kinds of information, which Troy is so pleased to provide. I would call Troy Liberty Hill's ambassador of good will and I think he'd approve of and be honored by such a label. And people actually do drop in throughout day and say hi to him. He liked the company, I could tell. Every once in awhile, he’d reach out and touch my arm as he was telling me something. And he wanted Hollis and me to stay, but I knew Alice was in the car reading and that it'd probably be best to make a move to leave. Hollis' wink signaled he was aware of the same thing.
And that was that. It was time to go back to the house, snap off a few photos of the sign leaning against the green house and then ... preparation for the trip north. Of course, Alice was sure to supply me with a bag of extra chocolate chip cookies which certainly came in handy when I hit the Dallas rush hour traffic hours later.
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You know what? If I could blueprint what I would call a perfect day for a trip like the one I'm on, this would've been it. As I make my way out to other parts of Texas and then up to Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska over the coming weeks, I think it's important for me to venture out more; get away from the cities. It's time to mix it up a little.