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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Out In The Bright Countryside With The Ghosts Of Hemingway And Dean Moriarty

It is only a week until my sojourn in Austin comes to an end, so today I wanted to do something vaguely touristy and explore a little in the heat.

I was considering two things: heading out to the National Museum of the Pacific War, or heading out to Driftwood to The Salt Lick for some barbecue. It was an easy choice. Here's why.

I've always had a thing for PT boats. Supposedly the museum has one of the only fully-restored PT boats in existence. I had to see it, or more specifically, I had to see the engines.

I admit it. I've always been something of a gear head. Supposedly my first word was car. Classic cars, muscle cars, cigarette boats, snowmobiles, I'm positively type-A when it comes to all of them.

So while I despise war, I've always had a fantasy of piloting an 80-foot PT boat under the full moon and listening to the roar of not just one but three supercharged Packard V12 marine engines putting out 1,500 horsepower apiece. Those monsters could guzzle 5,000 gallons of 100 octane aviation fuel in one night of operations, and were so loud that many times the crew would not hear enemy fire until it was close upon them in the thick darkness.

I once saw a Packard V12 at a classic boat show at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. It was inside a 30-foot Hacker Craft and was like a piece of sculpture. When the owner lit her off at the end of the show, the exhaust shot a plume of water 20 feet.

I'm ever grateful that I was able to side-step war completely. I remember vividly the eerie feeling of signing up for the draft at the tender age of 16 and resolving in my mind that if the worst happened, I'd make sure I'd be the commanding officer of a 110-foot Coast Guard Island Class cutter because it was the closest thing to a PT boat. To this day, I still find them to be a thing of beauty.

When I was young, we had a Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. Above the water line she looked just like any other sedate family boat. But tucked away in her engine room were twin 350 Chevy V8s. Much of the season was spent at "cocktail" speed, but each spring my Dad and I would take her for a shake-down cruise when she'd come out of storage. A quick tune by the yard mechanics and we'd be shooting down the bay. The delicious guttural roar of those engines at full throttle would fill my spine with electricity as the wind screamed through my hair. That sound is still deep inside me to this day.

So if I was going to take such a long drive just to ogle a few Packard V12s, I thought I'd better check things out first online. Boy was I glad I did. The engines weren't even in the boat.

That meant barbecue, baby.

Somewhere on the way out to Driftwood as the countryside began to stretch out before me, I started thinking about the trip back home to New England. The next adventure. It seemed to energize me, as if motion is truly in my blood. Sometimes I feel like the ghost of Dean Moriarty.

Blasting along the back roads, for some reason I thought of my favorite passage in Kerouac's On The Road.

. . . and to further the unbearable confusion, Dean rushed out the next moment and stole a car right from the driveway and took a dash to downtown Denver and came back with a newer better one. Suddenly in the bar I looked up and saw cops and people were milling around the driveway in the headlights of cruisers talking about the stolen car. "Somebody's been stealing cars left and right here!" the cop was saying. Dean stood right in back of him listening and saying "Ah yass, ah yass." The cops went off to check. Simultaneously a cop rushed in and said a car stolen from downtown Denver was parked in the driveway. People discussed it in knots. From the nearest window I saw Dean jump into the nearest car and roar off, and not a soul noticed him. A few minutes later he was back in an entirely new car, a brand new Plymouth. "This one is a real beaut!" he whispered in my ear. "The other one coughed too much -- I left it at the crossroads...saw that lovely parked in front of a farmhouse. Took a spin in Denver. Come on man let's ALL go riding."

I hope someday to see this scene on the silver screen. I think it's hilarious. And obviously, it's time to do some riding myself.

One thing I know I'll miss is the light. There's something magical about the sunlight down here in Texas. It's higher in the sky, whiter, and brighter. When you look off in the distance, you can even see it hold the heat.

As I came over the hill into Driftwood and caught my first sight of the legendary Salt Lick restaurant, more bits of fine writing popped into my head, describing that special bright heat so well, from my favorite novel, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Some of my favorite passages:

I saw Madrid come up over the plain, a compact white sky-line on the top of a little cliff away off across the sun-hardened country.


We touched the two glasses as they stood side by side on the bar. They were coldly beaded. Outside was the summer heat of Madrid.


Down-stairs we came out through the first-floor dining-room to the street. A waiter went for a taxi. It was hot and bright.


We sat close together. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white.

It was very hot and bright as I pulled in, and I could almost feel the shutter click as my mind took a mental photograph of the chalky soil blowing dust through the parking lot in the bright light.

The Salt Lick is a giant operation. At first I thought there was a wedding going on -- there were so many cars. I soon learned that's just a normal weekend crowd at this destination. It's a beautiful spot, set on a vineyard, with expansive fields and stone walls and stone buildings. I could smell the hickory barbecue smoke from inside my car.

As for the food, again I don't want to be a food critic. I'll say it this way: so far, my favorite ribs were at Interstate Barbecue in Memphis, my favorite brisket was at Smitty's in Lockhart, and my favorite sausage was at Black's in Lockhart. This place gets the award for best overall setting. It's gorgeous. Even the pit itself has style.

Hem would drink himself tight and Dean would have a field day in the parking lot.

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