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The Intrepid Walker's Guide to Houston: A Sole of Houston Forerunner, Circa 1975

The Last American City: Douglas Milburn's second pedestrian guidebook to Houston, written in 1979, when pedestrianism here was truly heroic.
The Last American City: Douglas Milburn's second pedestrian guidebook to Houston, written in 1979, when pedestrianism here was truly heroic.
Offcite.org

(Part one of a planned series...)

As the Preacher says, there's nothing new under the sun, and it turns out I was not the first Houstonian to write about adventures on long walks and/or bike rides in the Bayou City.

More than 30 years prior to my first adventure (a 16-mile slog down Westheimer from West Oaks Mall to Bagby), Douglas Milburn and Eli Zal beat me to the punch with their 1975 booklet Intrepid Walker's Guide to Houston. (Tom Richmond supplied the photos; he went on to Hollywood where he was director of photography for the films Stand and Deliver and A Midnight Clear, among others.)

In truth, my work and the Intrepid guide varied somewhat in approach. Zal and Milburn, a former Rice roommate of Larry McMurtry who went on to edit Houston City magazine and run the lysergic Magellan's Log blog), set out to write a guidebook, albeit one that aspires to literature. (I still don't know what the Sole of Houston series is, exactly.)

Zal and Milburn confined themselves to Montrose, downtown, the museums, the parks along Buffalo Bayou, Rice, Broadacres and Glenwood Cemetery.

After my first trek with Geoffrey Muller, David Beebe and I spent much more time scouring Houston's more touristically neglected roadways, though not ignoring our more famed and salubrious Inner Loop hoods.

By 1979, Zal had left his native Houston, and Milburn carried the torch alone with The Last American City: An Intrepid Walker's Guide to Houston.

Douglas Milburn, at center and bearded with cigarette, smokes and convokes with Rice students at a 1969 antiwar gathering.
Douglas Milburn, at center and bearded with cigarette, smokes and convokes with Rice students at a 1969 antiwar gathering.
Rice.edu

From what I can gather without seeing a copy, that work seems to be of a broader geographical scope. And some years after that book, Milburn would also find spiritual solace on Houston's edge in another remarkable piece of writing -- a grueling one-day automotive circumnavigation of the entirety of "Houston," a place he attempts to define and contrast with the rest of Texas.

Also, their walks were much less physically demanding than ours, but in other ways the Intrepid guide and the Sole series shared a similar goal: to use a walking tour as a spine to connect a few more or less random, obscure tales and sights of old or new Houston, and thus to reveal the city to be as truly interesting as we know it to be.

We each took a pointlessly deliberate approach....Or was it deliberately pointless?

In their dedication, Zal and Milburn had this to say:

This guide being a modest attempt to humanize Houston streets and neighborhoods by opening them up to foot-powered exploration and discovery, we dedicate it to ANN HOLMES, who in her writings for the Houston Chronicle has done so much to point out this city's potential for human and humane living.

The guide goes on to expound the authors' "theory of cities," that they are organisms born to grow and grown to die, and that they develop distinct personalities along the way.

They believed Houston was the only great American city where that personality was still developing, that there was a great chaos of creative energy flying around here unchanneled and unharnessed as a wild river. In other words, they wrote, Houston was still a frontier city wherein the people could yet make of it what they wished.

Intrepid's tours begin downtown. Predictably, the first sight they commend -- the Albert Thomas Convention Center, which then was home to a "strangely neglected" Space Hall of Fame and a replica of Thomas's Washington office -- was torn down many years ago, or at least drastically repurposed as today's Bayou Place.

And we will get to more of that first walk, and the later ones, in posts to come.

For now, here is a bare sliver of examples of 76-year-old Milburn's wit and wisdom, taken from "Texas A to Z," just one of the 4,500 Web pages on his staggeringly enormous, wide-ranging blog.

On Texas art:

Texas paintings fall into three groups: those that depict bluebonnets, those that depict horses, and those that don't depict horses or bluebonnets. Any commentary beyond this is just asking for trouble.

  On Austin:

Central Texas city 163 miles west of Houston, population 345,890, heavily infested by students, aging hippies, legislators, dellionaires, and a remarkable variety of camp-followers. Though it prides itself on being "cool," Austin is nothing if not the essence of "cute," from the moderately scaled variations in elevation ("hills") to the various quaint effusions of "culture" centered primarily around The University. Austin is where Texans--who, remember, are either baffled or threatened by Houston--go to get away from Texas. It is also where Houstonians go to get away from Houston.

On Galveston:

An island and a city 47 miles south of Houston, population 61,902. Texas has two islands--Padre Island is where you go to sun. Galveston Island is where you go to sin. Which means most visitors don't realize Galveston has one of the great surviving collections of Victorian architecture in North America. Galveston is the only real "walker's" city in Texas.

And last there's his definition of Houston, in which he expresses an idea I also once assayed with far less coherence and elegance in an Austin-Houston pissing match with Austin Chronicle founder and publisher Louis Black:

Southeast Texas city, metro population 5,000,000, for whose inhabitants this list was compiled. One of only two large U.S. cities named for famous Americans, the other being of course Washington, D.C.... Many factors have set Houston apart from Texas -- humid climate, a huge seaport (what do cowboys care about the ocean?), and too much non-bluebonnet art, a large and politically active gay community, the state's only "smart kids" school (Rice U.). The clincher of course is the Johnson Space Center. From the Alamo to astronauts is one big leap, and it's one that the rest of Texas still hasn't really made.

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