Sunday in Houston was our day to drive around and see a little bit more of the city. We had a beautiful day for driving: Almost eighty degrees, blue skies, and a light breeze coming from the west. In a week, that light breeze would become a deep chill that would sweep across the South and ride up the east coast, dumping snow and freezing rain everywhere. But for the moment, there was no sign of nasty weather.
Becca and I got up early to grab more Starbucks breakfast – again, the most convenient option – and get some rations and gas for the next long drive to Memphis. Then we took advantage of the washer and dryer at Becca’s sister’s apartment to take care of a week’s worth of laundry. Once her sister and niece were up and ready to go, we all piled into her car and took the short drive to Hermann Park, a beautiful 445-acre greenspace in the middle of the city, with museums, theaters, trails, and plenty of room to relax.
We headed into the Houston Museum of Natural Science, one of Becca’s niece’s favorite museums in the city. There we visited an exhibit about Ramses, the Egyptian pharaoh, which was cool despite the museum leaving out quite a bit regarding the use of slave labor in ancient Egypt. They had an actual mummy in a glass case, which I enjoyed. You bet I wanted it to spring up and smash through the glass and start screaming or something. I’m sick like that.
The museum housed plenty of other exhibits as well, including a gem room, an exhibit dedicated to space travel (due to NASA’s presence in Houston), an animatronic display dedicated to the wildlife of Houston, and – of course – plenty of old dinosaur bones. If you go to Houston, I suggest taking a look around this place. Even if you come from a city with a famous natural science museum – New York, for example – every museum is different, and Houston is no exception.
After spending a few hours in the museum, we realized we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Becca’s niece introduced us to the wonders of Chuy’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant which I thought was local to Texas but – as I would later learn – has locations all throughout the South. The vibe felt very homey, and the fajitas were not messing around. Today was our day to sample Houston’s most notable cuisine, and while getting Tex-Mex at a chain seems like cheating, it was fantastic and I have no regrets.
We drove around the city a bit more and found ourselves uptown near the Galleria, the ritzy shopping and upscale residential part of Houston. We thought to go into the mall and look at all of the fancy shops, but the traffic getting in and out of the lane to the parking lot alone seemed insane. So instead, we went to the Memorial Park Mall down the road, which while not as fancy as the Galleria had plenty of stores to keep Becca’s niece busy for about an hour or so. We didn’t feel great about going into a mall on the day after Christmas and during a spike in the pandemic, but we were all masked up and had all of our defensive mechanisms against COVID in place, so that helped.
The Memorial Park Mall was a microcosm of Houston, with folks all wearing Astros gear and tanned from walking about in the ever-present sun. I, of course, wore my Mets hat, feeling a little disappointed when I didn’t draw any sympathetic stares. (I saw folks in Yankees hats and wondered how they were holding up living in the territory of their biggest rival team.) We went into all of the stores that drew Becca’s niece’s attention: Claire’s, Lush, Francesca’s, you name it. If it appeals to a preteen girl, we shopped around.
After spending a good amount of time at the mall, it was time for dinner, so we made our way to the original Goode Company Barbeque on Kirby Drive. Becca and I shared a half rack of ribs and a pulled pork sandwich, paying a fraction of what it would cost in New York for as much food. Of course, it was delicious; I intended to eat good barbecue while in the South, and Goode Company does some of the best in Houston, from what I was told. This small joint on the side of the road churns out some of the best-tasting barbecue I’ve had. I come from the home of the original Dinosaur Barbecue, the only place up north that does meat like they do it down south. Goode Company held up to my standards, and may have even surpassed them.
To cool down our mouths which were burning from the heat of the barbecue, we drove over to Amy’s Ice Cream, an Austin-based ice cream chain with one location each in Houston and San Antonio. The vibe feels like a Cold Stone Creamery, or – if you’re from Brooklyn, you know – Ample Hills. I got myself a white chocolate scoop with cookie dough mixed in, because I’m nothing if not ten years old at heart. The four of us sat outside in the warm night eating our ice creams, something I never thought I’d do in the month of December. As I’m writing this up in New York, it feels like it’s -10 degrees outside, so the thought of eating anything cold right now makes me shiver. But down in Houston on the night after Christmas, when it was still about seventy degrees and crystal clear, ice cream seemed like the perfect treat to cap off our stay in Houston.
I enjoyed our time down there with family; it seemed like closure. For months leading up to the trip, I’d wondered how the visit would go down. Would I feel like a stranger? Would anything feel awkward? Of course not, I’ll say in retrospect. Even after years of only knowing Becca’s Houston family through FaceTime and texts, feeling like I was part of the gang came naturally. They welcomed me in and her niece treated me not like a long-lost uncle, but someone she’d known for a long while. And of course, Becca was over the moon to see her sister and niece again after so many years. It all felt so special just to spend so much time with them. After all, we’d driven far and wide to make the trip. Of course it was special.
We said our goodbyes before tucking into bed, since Becca and I would be leaving on our ten-hour drive to Memphis early in the morning. Her niece clung to us like she was hoping we’d bring her along. But we promised that either we’d come back soon or we’d find a way for them to come visit us up north. As we went our separate ways, Becca and I tried to figure out a time when we’d make another trip like this. Between trying to navigate the end of this pandemic, saving up money for a house, making big moves, work, and all sorts of other obligations, we weren’t too sure. But we knew we’d see our family again soon. Definitely in less than five years, for sure.
On the next edition of The Great Southern Escapade, we return to the road, heading towards Memphis and a wild night with the blues. Thanks for reading.