By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
I've read that you can see Westheimer from space. I've also read that it is the longest commercial thoroughfare in Texas. I've always thought of it as the soul of the west side of Houston. For all of these reasons and a few more, I thought it would be a good idea to walk it, all the way.
Not from the Loop to Midtown, nor from the Beltway either. By "all the way," I mean just that -- start from where the No. 53 "Westheimer Limited" Metro bus turns around at West Oaks Mall and Highway 6, and then pound the pavement of the entire 16-plus miles, eight zip codes and three U.S. congressional districts, all the way to where Westheimer gives way to Elgin in Midtown.
You might be asking yourself why someone would take on such a challenge. The day after the slog, awaking with blistered feet and sore to the bone, I was wondering the same thing myself. I doubted anyone else had done it, for starters. I also did it because I wanted the physical challenge. I have recently lost about 20 or 30 pounds, and while I'm still no Lance Armstrong -- I could probably stand to shed about 30 or 40 more pounds -- I felt my relatively svelte self needed a test. I just hoped my thighs wouldn't chafe, and thanks to Dr. Atkins, they didn't.
But above all else, I wanted to see if I would gain any insights into H-Town's soul. Westheimer, more than any other thoroughfare, embodies Houston's car-enamored, zoning-free ethos, a damn-near 20-mile phantasmagoria of strip malls, storage facilities, restaurants, big-box retail, office parks, apartment complexes, strip clubs, malls, supermarkets and the occasional church.
Everyone I told about my plan thought I was crazy, and the day before the hike, I realized that it would probably be wise to take some company. But who would be foolish enough to join me on such short notice? Geoffrey "Uncle Tick" Muller, that's who. Like me, Uncle Tick is a walker. One time I ran into him on Richmond on an August afternoon, and he said to me, "So, Mr. Lomax. I didn't know you were a pedestrian." And he was a musician without a real job, so I figured he might not be as encumbered as most. I was right. We arranged to meet on the Westheimer Limited at about 9:30 a.m. He would catch it in Montrose, and I would climb aboard in Greenway Plaza.
The fateful morning came and I packed a shoulder bag with a notebook, a camera and a tape recorder. My wife dropped me off at the bus stop, admonishing me to drink lots of fluids and laughing at my travails to come. I got aboard the bus, and no Uncle Tick. Shit, that boded ill, as did the trek out. It took about an hour to drive out there...How long would the walk back be? And there seemed to be lots of people getting on and off this bus quickly, people eager to pay a dollar rather than walk this monster even a quarter-mile. I was planning to go 64 times that far.
Just before the end of the line, the doors opened and someone in a parking lot next to the road shouted my name. It was Uncle Tick. He had missed the bus, but he'd persuaded his girlfriend to drive him out. It was on -- we started our long march at about 10:30 a.m.
Sex, Beer and Death on the Edge of Town
Immediately, a tragedy. Literally a hundred yards into our hike, we came upon a black Camry that had hit the median and overturned. A few gawkers lined the streets, bored cops stood around and a couple of wreckers idled nearby, all while a paramedic crawled into the crushed car to extract the passenger. Was this an omen of some sort? Time would tell.
The outer reaches of Westheimer are peculiar. There are no sidewalks, and plenty of vacant land, so Tick and I trekked down a series of faint trails through thigh-high grass. We made an odd pair -- I'm about six inches taller than Tick, who is as slight as I am beefy. We both carried shoulder bags, wore sensible shoes and repped H-Town with our headgear -- an orange vintage Astros hat in my case, a black gangsta cap that read "Houston" in Gothic-looking script in Tick's.
Way off in the distance, Williams Tower taunted us. At this remove, its 900-plus feet looked like about six inches. This was a daunting sight, especially since it marked only the three-quarter point of this death march. Tick told me about how all the friends he talked to thought he was crazy, too, and that he had been privy to some wagering. "I hate to say this, but somebody bet that you would only make it to the Beltway," he told me.
The weird thing about this stretch was the hyper-abundance of sex shops. You'd think there would be more of these way down on the seedy Lower Westheimer strip, but there were at least as many out here on the Republican end, too. (One of them even boldly posted not one but several signs in its window for an anal lube called Moist.) One strip mall out there was anchored with a head shop/porn emporium at one end and a Christian bookstore called Rejoice at the other.