By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Dawn arrived quietly and, with it, an unusual group. Some shook hands and exchanged hellos in front of the plain-looking office building. Others warmed up. A nervous adrenaline lingered like foggy breath in the cold air.
A man in a leather jacket and 3-D glasses, one of the first to arrive, hopped on his motorcycle and fired up the engine. Behind him, a younger man in a full tuxedo coasted in circles on a Segway scooter, testing his balance at 12 miles an hour. An attractive twentysomething pinned a marathon number to her shirt, stretched a little and ran sprints on the grass.
Daryl Hall and John Oates look-alikes -- they of "Maneater" fame -- came out to participate as well. The former had on Rollerblades; the latter carried a skateboard; neither one looked like he could carry a tune, even lip-synching. While a former bike messenger took laps on a 50-year-old Schwinn, a guy dressed like a Venetian gondolier assembled his rickshaw. The rickshaw rider slouched nearby, sipping from a martini glass despite the early hour. I stood on the corner, keeping one eye out for police and the other for the horse trailer that was threading its way through I-10 traffic.
We'd come to this parking lot on the Katy Freeway eastbound feeder road to stage an experiment in alternative transportation. We'd come to emancipate the Houston commuter from seat-buckle bondage. We'd come to race morning rush hour. And with traffic on I-10 moving so slowly, we thought we just might win.
This was our Cannonball Run.
We had feared bad weather might kill the experiment. The rain had arrived at midnight like a tub faucet but had given up after an hour. The mile-long stretch of racing sidewalk along the freeway from Beltway 8 to Gessner Road seemed dry enough.
At a quarter to eight, Pesto crept out of the brush. His stilts wobbled four feet above the ground, and he wore red-and-white-striped pants, a long-beaked Carnival mask and a pirate's hat. He was a playful, ribald mute who showed a penchant for chasing after Julia Ramey, the marathon runner.
Finally, the horse trailer, a 30-foot-long rig, pulled up near the office building's front door. Heads turned and knees shook as Argonn, a gray stallion, swaggered out of the back and into the fray. But this big beautiful beast did not travel alone. His sidekick, a donkey named Snowbunny, wanted to follow him out, a bit too eagerly. The donkey slipped and crashed to his knees on the parking lot pavement and had to be loaded back up. Our competitors grimaced, knowing that, just like in a cheesy action movie, Argonn had a fallen partner, a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
I thought the balance was tipped in Argonn's favor. The curbs, driveways, grass, mud and whizzing traffic on this vicious feeder-road terrain were obstacles, but I was sure he could surmount them. Only a true creature of the Wild West could handle himself on I-10. Since every experiment, even a crudely unscientific one such as this, requires a hypothesis, I put my money on Argonn. Maybe Secretariat was a distant uncle or something.
That we had a horse at all was, in fact, a minor miracle; our first arrangement with different stable owners fell through just 14 hours before because of the weather.
Finding a horse in such a short time was difficult -- maybe not as difficult as hiding a body or teaching a parakeet 50 Cent lyrics, but no cakewalk. The first few stables we called seemed suspicious when asked about renting horses or "any other animals you can ride." At the last minute, Cecilia Butler, a chipper, obliging woman from Cypress Trails in Humble, signed on.
As the competitors lined up, Argonn was pooping indiscriminately all over the starting sidewalk. The horse eyed George Flynn, who refused to back down, revving his motorcycle onto the grass and frightening the animal.
"The stallion had already shown its disdain for all things mechanical," Flynn sneers. "Fifty feet out of the trailer, in full frontal disgust for this diverse crowd, it halted and emptied its bladder in a [hailstorm] of contempt. Now the fleabag was into a tense circular prancing, probably trying to decide if my helmet was indeed hoof-proof
"I was raising my rpms to keep from stalling out because of an admittedly ragged idle," he continues. "If [Argonn] can't take it, too bad. There's bound to be a glue factory somewhere in greater Houston."
Intrepid documentary cinematographer Steven Devadanam approached Argonn with a camera, but the stallion had no comment and simply gave off a stoic "hate the game, not the player" expression. Then he pooped some more.
By this point, we'd stirred up some curiosity among the workers at the office building. Every few minutes someone came to a window and stared down at us, perhaps wondering if they should call the FBI. It was definitely time to go.
At 8:07 a.m., I pulled out a cheap toy pistol and triggered the start of the race. Fittingly, the caps didn't fire; the gun just made a pathetic click-click-click, so I had to yell "Go!" instead. The group slogged through the mucky green lawn and thinned out on the sidewalk straightaway.