Houston is a deep city. It’s a place that can offer up some strange wonders if you’re willing to get off the freeway and wander about in the bits that aren’t necessarily recommended for wandering. That’s how I found the lost, lonely chapel of Nancy Buquoi Adleman. It’s a beautiful piece of urban scrubland sanctuary.
I found it hiking down White Oak Bayou south of West Road on the way to an out-patient appointment on Gessner. Normally I stick to the streets for safety when I do one of my “we only have one car and I’m too cheap for a Lyft” multi-mile hikes to someplace I need to be, but the last time I was out that way I noticed horse tracks leading down the bank as I crossed the bridge. So this time I struck off on the west bank of the bayou.
Along the way I noticed on the far bank there was an enormous white cross. I collect pictures of roadside crosses in Houston. My favorite of these is the one honoring Krysta Rodriguez at the intersection of West Road and Highway 6. The 13-year-old was killed by a drunk driver there in 2010, ironically less than a few hundred feet from a liquor store. Her family set up Krysta’s Karing Angels to combat drunk driving.
This cross was weird, though, because it wasn’t anywhere near a road. It stood among tall weeds and sunflowers about a half-mile from any regular driving spot. I figured maybe somebody drowned there, and resolved to check it out on my walk back.
One of the things I try to do with roadside memorials is leave flowers, especially in the spring when a modest bouquet is takes only a few minutes to put together and discarded drink containers can be used as vases. A lot of these tributes are tended more than you might think, and I like to believe that stumbling across a random token of caring might make it a little less painful for those left behind. I was tying together some baby’s breath and morning glories when I finally made it to Adleman’s chapel.
I’d never seen anything quite like it, and like I said, collecting these memorials is kind of a sidequest for me. The more elaborate ones like Rodriguez’s will have plaques or decorations, but Adleman’s is next level.
The white cross is taller than me, but unadorned. It sits on a floor of bricks, most of which have been engraved. I spotted one with a personal favorite Bible quote of mine, Isaiah 40:31…
But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not be faint.
Other bricks were simple declarations of love from friends, family and coworkers. On either side of the floor were two stone benches for meditation and prayer, which is why I refer to the place as a chapel and not just a memorial. Off to the side, in the bushes, is a stone bearing Adleman’s birth and death date. It’s elaborate enough that I wondered if I was actually treading on a grave.
I wasn’t. I found out later that Adleman is buried in Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery. The 48-year-old mother of three had been jogging in 1997 when she was attacked, raped, and strangled with her own shoelace. Arthur Lee Burton was arrested for the crime, found guilty and sentenced to death. He maintained his innocence at his trial and claimed that he had been slapped and browbeaten into falsely confessing. A new punishment trial was granted on appeal in 2002, but ultimately handed out the same sentence. He is awaiting execution.
Presumably Adleman’s chapel is located where she was attacked. News reports mention only that she was jogging along a secluded trail near a bayou in west Houston. There’s certainly no other reason I can figure out to have the memorial so far away from where anyone might see it.
The secluded spot clearly doesn’t get a lot of attention. Grass grows between the bricks and Adleman’s stone was almost overgrown with weeds when I found it. The out-patient treatment I’m receiving involves some communal with a Higher Power and a step about service, so I got to work as a matter of therapy. My grandfather’s old jacket worked well enough as make-shift gardening gloves to remove the thorny weeds and fallen branches. I only cut myself once or twice. It took about ten minutes to get the chapel into shape.
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It really is a very nice place, with the low hum of the Beltway in the distance and the babbling of the bayou alongside it. Bees wove drunkenly among the colorful flowers, including the ones I left in an Ozarka bottle on Adleman’s stone. Meditation came easily there with nothing for hundreds of yards in either direction to distract. That’s probably why Adleman liked to run there. I hope wherever she is she likes the stones that have been set in her name. I certainly do.
I recently got to be part of a panel with editor Margaret Downing and the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Mintz at a high school writing club, and one of the things they asked was about travel. I remember telling them that Houston is such a big place that you don’t really need to leave the city to find mystery and wonder. There are thousands of amazements like Adleman’s chapel lying about for people who get out of their cars and take the time to really absorb the city. You truly never know what magic and loss you’re going to find.
The lonely chapel of Nancy Adleman rests on the west bank of White Oak Bayou between West Road and Philippine Street. If I ever have cause to revisit my list of places in Houston perfect to just go and think, it’ll be No. 1. This summer, why don’t we all try to get out and explore a little bit. Let me know any hidden treasures you run across.