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.
I immediately leaped into a nearby convertible to drive Devadanam along the path for video footage. A sour-faced woman in a security-type outfit marched out of the office building and up to our car.
"Ummm, can you tell me what y'all are doing here?" she asked.
I bit down on my cigarette filter and threw it into reverse. I think Devadanam was still hanging halfway out the car.
"Official newspaper business, ma'am!" I exclaimed, flooring it. "We'll be on our way now!"
It's like that opening scene in Office Space. The one where Peter is bumper-to-bumper at morning rush hour and he sees an old man with a walker making better time on the sidewalk than he is. It's funny because it's true. And it's true because you live in Houston. Admit it. At times, your daily commute is just plain absurd.
At times, you've probably wondered if there isn't a better way of traveling around town. You've found yourself idling along some interstate, crawling at a fraction of the posted speed, and you've cried out to the heavens, "Ye gods! I could walk there faster than this!"
We, too, have had that meltdown. That is why we decided to see if, indeed, getting from point A to point B could be faster without a car. But for this Cannonball Run, we needed the meanest freeway in town -- at the ugliest time of day. The choice was obvious.
In 2003 (the most recent year tabulated), the Katy Freeway led all local highways, with more than 1,500 traffic-slowing incidents, according to an annual report by the Houston TranStar Partnership, a joint venture between transportation and emergency management agencies. For the 6.3 miles between the Beltway and the Loop, TranStar recorded more than 3.4 million hours of annual congestion -- or roughly the equivalent of being forced to watch Alexander 19,429 times.
On an average day, the Texas Department of Transportation says, more than 219,000 vehicles drive on this tortured strip of pavement. Moreover, since Interstate 10 is a "land bridge" between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, a good portion of those wheels are on large commercial trucks -- more than any other roadway in all of Texas.
Artee Jones, the executive public information officer for TranStar, says that I-10 West tops his list of ever-congested roads.
"It's a combination of things," he explains. "One, unlike many other cities around the country, Houston has several major employment centers. Out on the Katy Freeway, we have the West Houston energy corridor. In addition to that, we have the communities and the home-building-type activity sprouting up throughout."
He adds, "And then we have the construction activity -- the reconstruction activity -- taking place on the I-10 Katy Freeway." Which is no small factor.
At a current budget of $2.4 billion -- nearly double the initial estimate -- the Katy Freeway reconstruction is the largest and costliest road expansion in Houston history. The project broke ground in June 2003 and will run until the end of 2008. For the most part, the current 11-lane highway will bulk up to 18 lanes. Groups such as the Katy Corridor Coalition aren't fans of the expansion design.
"A lot of people are going to lose their homes, we're going to spend a lot of money, [and] we're going to increase the pollution over there," says Polly Ledvina, spokeswoman for the coalition. "And instead of having 11 lanes of congestion as we have now, we're going to have 18 to 20 lanes of congestion in the very near future."
With concerns about flooding, noise, pollution and effectiveness in reducing traffic, the coalition filed a federal lawsuit in September 2002. Two years later, a judge ruled that the citizens' group failed to prove its two main assertions: that state and federal transportation agencies didn't disclose health consequences of the freeway widening and that the agencies didn't evaluate possible alternatives.
One of the coalition's biggest disappointments is that the current freeway plan seems to have shut the door to the possibility of a Metro rail line along the Katy corridor.
"Metro wasn't at a point where they were pursuing light rail on I-10 at that time," says Raquelle Wooten, spokeswoman for the freeway reconstruction project. "And you have to appreciate that, you know, TxDOT has its mission and vision, and Metro has its mission and vision, and they were on two different planning horizons."
The Cannonball Run had its own mission and vision. We hatched the idea over booze, and at subsequent "planning sessions" more booze helped us clarify our plan.
We decided the key was assembling unnatural modes of transport. This experiment needed to be one part science, two parts theater of the absurd.
"How about an ostrich?" one friend suggested. "How about a fan boat?" said another. Over e-mail, we kicked around even more outlandish possibilities. Visions of pogo sticks and hang gliders danced in our heads. We wanted to get riding lawn mowers, Greek chariots and hot air balloons into the mix.
Reality (and sobriety) eventually kicked in, and some options obviously had to be discarded. Where would we find an elephant, camel, yak or rhinoceros -- much less an Iditarod sled?
Could one really do the caterpillar break-dancing move for more than a few dozen feet? And how hard is that on the rib cage?
Sure, being shot out of a cannon sounds great in theory -- but when you take a moment and put pen to paper on the logistics of it, it's not the easiest thing to arrange, especially beside a major interstate. Future scientists hopefully will stand on the shoulders of our research and reach these Dadaist heights. They might also have better luck mocking I-10.
According to TranStar records, at 8 a.m. on a typical day, the Katy Freeway inbound traffic from Barker-Cypress to the Loop slows to a 27.5-mph drip. This adds up to a 30-minute commute for about 14 miles of road. On January 13, when we went up against the Beltway 8 interchange, we had visions of breakdowns, tow trucks, pileups, mayhem. We hoped for this because we were racing rush hour or, more precisely, Margaret Downing in the "control group" pace car -- a dark blue Mazda Proteg covered in Houston Press banners.
Unfortunately, for our purposes, traffic was not the terminally fetid wretch of a parking lot that it usually is. Even with the banners blocking Downing's passenger-side windows, causing her momentary panic, she still zoomed down I-10 to Gessner in two minutes and 15 seconds. Naturally, the one time we needed a little gridlock, we couldn't get it. If we'd waited just a half-hour, we would've been racing alongside a freeway clogged up like arteries on the Atkins diet.
Our other motorized contender also had trouble getting off the starting blocks. George Flynn lost valuable seconds at the outset of the race when a stoplight to the west turned green and heavy traffic on the feeder road halted his progress.
"Finally, there was an opening," he reports. "The throaty carbs kicked the cycle into solid acceleration. There were solid gains until the broad glow of red brake lights dazzled me long before the Gessner intersection and the finish line...
"There must be a back way," he thought. "I angled in and downshifted at the first driveway -- and suddenly felt the rear-wheel traction break free from the pavement, almost losing it into a kiss-the-asphalt dive.
"What could have caused that kind of slide? I stopped, looked back and instantly recognized the line of brown smeared from my tires: horse manure. Only seconds fresh. Somewhere near the finish line ahead, there was the muted sound of an animal -- a stallion that, as heard through my helmet, wasn't really neighing.
"No, this was a horse laugh."
Meanwhile, Mosi Secret glided across a Cost Plus storefront on his Segway and -- with the open space -- seemed as confident and quick as he would for the entire race.
"I quickly realized that the mile-long race would be a dangerous tightrope act," he notes. "No longer was I concerned with finishing first. The top priority was finishing alive. Black James Bond was in survival mode. I screamed a couple of times. Fuck keeping it cool. I had the grip of death on those handlebars and my hands were freezing."
John Oates looked about as graceful on his skateboard as a three-legged ballerina. He'd place his foot gingerly on the board like he was wading into scalding water, tremble unsteadily for a moment and hop off. His pal, Daryl Hall, wasn't doing much better on the Rollerblades. Hall got caught in the pack of Oates, Secret and the rickshaw, which was too wide for them to pass on the sidewalk. Further ahead, Pesto bounded down the pavement on stilts and darted in front of a yellow school bus full of children.
Beyond them, the leaderboard found Josh Harkinson in first place, coasting on the Schwinn. He looked almost relaxed -- even as land tanks growled past him like savage Minotaurs.
"There [were] a lot of road hazards," says Harkinson. "It was a tough time out there because these bastards out here in their cars won't stop for you when you cross the parking lot entrances. And with these 1950s-era foot brakes, you don't have the best control over it."
Argonn, with Butler riding, reached a brisk gallop by the Oshman's strip mall and began to put the heat on Ramey.
"I was going at a more leisurely pace... when I decided to turn around again," Ramey reports. "The horse was about ten feet behind and coming fast. My options at the moment were outrunning it or being trampled under hooves and left for dead on the freeway, so I turned the iPod to Oakenfold, did the kick early and sprinted until I was out of the horse's trample radius.
"Now I could see the Shell station. My knee hurt, but I kept going," she recalls. "Josh was still ahead of me, but I was gaining on him. I had the horse beaten. I noticed a series of puddles coming up and knew they would mess with Josh."
Future historians will forever debate what happened next and whether Harkinson deliberately took a fall. Literally feet from the white ribbon finish line, Harkinson's bike seat tilted backward and he swerved, ramming into a highway sign for Texas Representative Dwayne Bohac. This allowed Ramey to shoot past and finish first -- with a winning race time of seven minutes, five seconds. Harkinson picked himself up and crossed next, followed by Argonn, who celebrated his bronze finish with a poop.
"I think it was a triumph of the human spirit," an out-of-breath Ramey declared before receiving the $8 trophy. "And I think it just goes to show that everyone can run to work if they really want to. And, you know, 26.2 miles, they say, 'Hey, it takes four hours -- I'll get to work at ten.' I don't think that matters, you know. I think what matters is that man has beaten beast."
Man may have beaten beast, but car flogged Ramey. For the rest of the day, she fought off a nasty spell of coughing. In "The Mixmaster," a Press article from last summer, Winifred Hamilton, an environmental health expert at Baylor College of Medicine, stood not far from where we raced and summarized why Ramey's "winning" method would probably be a real loser in the long term.
"We are breathing all sorts of particulate matter," she said at the time, standing on an I-10 median. "Some of which goes into the deeper recesses of your lungs. We are breathing toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. We are breathing carbon monoxide and several other combustion gases. We're also breathing probably a little bit of asbestos, a little bit of lead that's still on the ground and is being kept airborne."
The proposed freeway expansion appears unlikely to improve the situation. Matthew P. Fraser, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, recently studied a computer-generated emissions analysis for I-10 between the Beltway and the Loop and found that the projected traffic patterns of 2020 could increase particulate pollution well beyond standards set by the Clear Air Act. Which means that if you took Ramey's advice, you'd get to work at ten along with an increased risk of cancer, brain damage, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. And you'd probably have to shower.
On the other hand, the cool and collected rickshaw rider came in last place, which may explain why so few people opt to trade in the family car for a rickshaw. He defended his position, saying, "When you're riding in style, you know, you just take your time."
Hall and Oates barely nosed out the rickshaw for seventh and eighth place, respectively. Hall accused a "worthless" and "out of shape" Oates of "dragging me down," while Oates complained that they'd given up a three-week gig at Joe's Crab Shack in Kemah to participate in this crap.
Argonn looked similarly disillusioned. "He probably won't breed for a long, long time, he's so depressed," says Butler.
Harkinson shook his head. "It just goes to show, you know, if you're going to ride a bike on the cold, hard streets of Houston, you better make sure it's a well-oiled and well-put-together machine."
He later expanded on that thought.
"Riding a bike on a sidewalk along a freeway, while probably the most direct route to downtown, is also a pain in the ass. Many of the curbs don't have ramps, which means you aren't going anywhere very fast," he says.
He's not the only one lamenting our booby-trapped streets. Rickshaws, stallions and stilts aside, for some Houstonians, our alternative methods are actually modus operandi.
Regina Garcia, who owns and manages El Meson restaurant, started commuting by bicycle seven years ago to have fun, burn calories and get an extra chance to be outside six miles every day.
"When I'm on my bicycle, I really love Houston," says Garcia, a board member of the Bike Houston alliance. "When I'm in my car, I'm bored, I'm stuck in traffic, and I don't like Houston... I'm kind of in a shell." She also teaches defensive cycling classes and says that freeway underpasses are among the Houston landscape's worst hazards.
Even the Segway has its share of local devotees. Take David Mytchak, for example. Mytchak, a 35-year-old software designer for a financial company, got his Segway in December 2003 and has been using it to commute six miles each way from his home to his office near U.S. 290 and the 610 Loop. In 2004, he put just 3,000 miles on his car, dropped a couple of pounds and had only one accident -- when a bicyclist ran into him.
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"The only problems that I've had is, uh, you get a lot of comments. I'd say 90 percent of the populace thought it was really cool. And then 10 percent of the populace was extremely negative," he says. The occasional harassment included honking, middle fingers, shouts to get a car and -- his favorite epithet -- when some dude yelled "dork on a stick" out the window.
"I literally died laughing," says Mytchak.
Curiously enough, we didn't get that reaction. Besides the occasional double take or puzzled glance -- and applause from some guys outside Pep Boys -- rush-hour drivers, for the most part, paid little attention to our "parade of freaks," as Harkinson put it. It's clear that alternative travel carries its own set of dangers.
"On several occasions, I was nearly crushed by people turning off the access road in hulking Ford Expeditions," he says. "The lesson is, don't commute to work in any sort of unarmored vehicle."