Feral Dog, I-10 and I-610 Merge, Houston, November 17, 2002
In Houston, the freeways are so ubiquitous and there are so many of them that a dominant feature of the natural landscape, a great deal of parkland, exists where the freeways intersect. In most cases, these aren’t traditional cloverleaf interchanges. They tend to interchange both horizontally and vertically: roadways sweep high over each other, and the addition of HOV lanes, separately built, running parallel to the regular freeway, often above the median, results in a complex disintegration of space that leaves pieces of land that often resemble fleurs-de-lis. Because the growing season is nearly perpetual, the rainfall steady and profligate, these swards are lush and they include not just grass and shrubs planted by T-DOT but tall stands of trees.
Into these, highway crews descend to mow, to prune, to replant. Houston has perhaps the best highway parklands in the nation. They are constructed to be looked at, to be seen as the constituents of an interrupted green narrative in the peripheral vision. High curbs separate them from the roadway shoulder, and unless you have a high pickup truck you’d best not try to get into them. Most people wouldn’t, anyway. The wet rains make the soil sodden, spongy at best, a quickmud concealed beneath the greensward.
If you want to take the risk, you should ‘scope out your terrain well beforehand. Reconnoitre the ramps when the traffic’s not too bad-- early afternoon on weekdays. On Sunday mornings, early, you can slow your car enough to nose cautiously over the curb and park.
Down the hillsides there’s an irregular declension from civilization to wilderness. At the apex of the long triangle between the arc that calls you to bear left to go west on I-10 and the more efficient double-lane to go east and Downtown, the grass is intertwined with the shards of wrecks: plastic, metal, glass. In the early morning, if you turn back eastward, you can see it sparkle under the green, as it takes the angled sunlight of 7 am. Where the shoulder ends– what there is of it, mandated by federal regulation– the cheap thin blacktop layer has crumbled and mixed with the residues. Below that, about 10 feet down the hill into the declivity, the grass is dense and pristine. Walking away from the sharp angle is simultaneously walking in and down. Before you there’s a stand of tall sawgrass, live oak, dense wild shrubbery thick enough to be impassable.
Turning back to watch the shadows of the high lane, noticing that the dew had dried where the sun had struck but the inner shadows were still wet, I saw a dog moving uneasily, obliquely, from the highway to the woods.
He was large and barrel chested, mixed brown and black, with a thick businesslike head. From a distance he observed me; his stance, the gravity of his stare, told that he’d been doing so for some time, watching as I swept the terrain the way an evidence technician might, watching as I lifted the heavy metal camera on its high tripod and sidled awkwardly a bit to the left, a bit to the right. He’d seen me as I put on and took off the black cowl and peered into the ground glass. He wasn’t unnerved, and he wasn’t capricious; he wasn’t waiting to fawn. He took me in the way coyotes do, the way foxes do, in places less civil and bounded.
He behaved as if this were a small part of his territory. For a moment it wasn’t clear to me that I wasn’t prey. He was large enough for it. When I moved toward the camera, parallel to him, he remained quite still. He knew the way things stood: he’d placed himself between me and the car. When I headed back up the incline, he startled late, and moved quickly and decisively to the side, leaving me room to pass. While I was up by the shoulder, he took the opportunity to lope down to the camera. When he moved from the shadows, I recognized him. He was a Rottweiler, a purebred, without collar, in middle years, strong, lean but not starved. As I headed back down, he turned and trotted into the brush.
To an Easterner, or to a visitor from Europe, Houston's landscape logic escapes. Immediately to the west of that multilane, multilevel intersection, with their back windows right up against the roadway, there's a string of buildings that hints at America's travail over the past few years. There's Fairway Medical Technologies, a manufacturer of high-end medical tools, and Transtech Medical Solutions. Next to it is the Loan Modification Center of Greater Houston. Across the street is The Forum at Memorial Woods, a high-rise "graduated living facility" servicing "seniors" from independence to full-on nursing, with dementia and Alzheimer's "neighborhoods." Next to that is a franchise modeling academy that's legendary for its hard-sell to girls hoping to hit the big time. A few years ago, this particular branch sponsored an "open casting call" for the Disney network; the crowds were treated instead to a marketing campaign, and the Better Business Bureau dropped its rating to an F. Girls in Houston need glamor, attractiveness, poise, and The John Robert Powers Academy will sell them the secrets. Up the street is The Women's Resource Center, which "expands opportunities for women and girls to become independent, productive, and financially stable;" that's where you go after you've been flimflammed.
Cut directly eastward, though, to the other side of I-610, and you're in the lush greenery of the Houston Polo Club; tucked up almost underneath I-10, the Katy Freeway, is the Memorial Park Hunters, where young equestrians train in English riding and steeplechase. The next street east is Crestwood Drive, where the houses range from mock-modernist to mock-Tudor, and are crammed into small lots that belie their million-plus valuations.
Perhaps the Rottweiler strayed from that neighborhood-- some time ago, judging by his demeanor. Heading west, through the lush growth of Memorial Park, through the Polo Club grounds, he skittered across the Katy Freeway, ending up in that wilderness pocket, where the squirrels and rabbits were unwary and there was roadkill to forage in the early morning hours.