Down on the Farm: Confused in Austin
Last week, I flew into Austin, Tex. for a funeral and innocently rented a car. Nobody warned me that as a Minnesotan, I was unequipped to drive in Texas.
Last winter, I rented a car in New Zealand with the steering wheel on the right side, a car which you drive down the left side of the road. I adjusted to those formidable quirks in about thirty minutes. But after four days in Austin, I still got royally lost, confused and disoriented every time I left the hotel.
There are Texans who want their state to leave the Union. They should realize that their highway system left the Union decades ago.
Highway 183 runs through Austin. It is what you would think of as a normal freeway. Three lanes run in each direction. Running parallel to the freeway are frontage roads, which also can be as many as three to five lanes. The frontage road which flanks 183 is called Research Boulevard.
Here is where it gets weird: The frontage roads, or "access roads" as they call them in Dallas, or "feeders" as they call them in Houston, or "gateways" as they call them in El Paso, only run one way, the same way as the main highway. And traffic moves as fast on the frontage road as the freeway itself.
Every two miles or so, the main road lifts up while traffic on the frontage road is forced by a light to stop.
At this point, you have three options:
Option one is to stay in the left lane and make a U-turn beneath the underpass. This is called a Texas Turn. There is one in Fargo they call a Texas Turn, but it isn't a true Texas Turn because it isn't a U. It's merely an L.
If you happen to be in that left lane, you will make a U-turn. The curbing makes it impossible to change your mind. Within seconds, and with no stoplight, you will whirl beneath the underpass and go in the opposite direction at full speed. If you want to make a left turn onto a side street, you use the lane second to the left.
When the light turns, be prepared to be startled by oncoming U-turn traffic which meets you on your right as you go under the underpass. It is disconcerting to have traffic meet you on the right when you aren't in New Zealand. In Texas, it happens several times per drive.
Then it gets even more confusing: To turn onto any side street, you must first exit onto Research Boulevard.
The Google people said, "Merge onto Research Boulevard." So, as soon as I saw a sign for Research Boulevard, I merged.
I did so 12 miles too early. Turns out, US 183 has multiple exits onto Research Boulevard spread over the many, many miles that the two roads are braided together!
Once you figure out the main artery system and actually get on a side street, you are in for more treats.
Despite the relatively flat Austin geography, all of its streets gradually curve. As far as I can tell, most of them form very large circles.
If you remain on Stonycreek Road under the delusion that by staying the course you are actually getting somewhere, you would be wrong. Just like the astronomers say about the universe, going straight ahead on an Austin street will only get you right back to where you started from.
If you drive in Austin, I have decided, you'd better know where you're going or you're not going to get there.
If you see a restaurant on the left side of the road that you long for, give up on getting there before you die of starvation.
If you want to try, go two miles ahead, take a U-turn and come back towards the restaurant, making sure to slide sideways six lanes long before you see the joint.
Don't be surprised, however, if you never see the restaurant again. Many of them are mirages. You can see them from a distance, but they disappear close up.
One good thing: The stoplights in Austin are so long that you can take a nap and recover your courage to plunge forward into the unknown.
As I was lost on some segment of Research Boulevard last Saturday, I came across two young men who waved Texas flags and displayed posters urging that Texas leave the Union.
I honked my horn in support.