I biked around Loop 610 to fall in love with Houston all over again

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There I was, this puny human body on a bicycle in the huge Union Pacific rail yards on a Sunday in late December not far from the creosote cancer cluster.

I had decided to cycle around the 610 loop late last year, a bit of a tribute to the annual trek of the late and legendary Chronicle columnist Leon Hale in his older years. Except he drove the freeway and I clung to feeders and mops, usually a few blocks away.

He was in his 70s when he started traveling and I’m only 44. For me, the trip wasn’t so much a “driving test” to prove that I could still handle the hustle and bustle of this city. It was more about making sure the hustle was still there.

And after two years of the pandemic, I wanted to feel part of it again.

In the rail yards of the Greater Fifth Ward, northeast of Houston, that’s where this whole wacky idea seemed the craziest to me, and I felt the dumbest. Ahead of me, train cars were slowly climbing a switching station, steel grinding on steel, the global supply chain in all its terrifying power, slowness and strangeness – all the Cheetos, the IKEA beds, the plastic pellets and everything else we consume, on its arduous journey to our doorsteps.

Meanwhile, huge machinery was hollowing out Hunting Bayou for the Harris County Flood Control District and I tried to pass by following its grassy straightened banks, where stacks of shipping containers and the mound of a dump stretched to the horizon, and there was simply no going around without a car.

If Loop 610 is a clock, I was at 3 a.m.

For 20 years as a writer and editor, I tried to bring a spirit of optimism to my work, even when the subject matter was grim. The past five years of drought and floods, industrial explosions, pestilence and blackouts have exhausted me.

But in this marshalling yard, a strange feeling came over me. I was no longer afraid for my limbs or for my sanity. I was overwhelmed with a sense of wonder, even joy.

There was so much to lament, of course – the burden of all this infrastructure on the people who live nearby, how it cuts off part of the city from the rest, and how most of us don’t even know that the huge machinery is there.

If we want a different kind of city, however, sometimes we have to put our bodies where they’re least welcome, and what’s weird is how beautiful the city looks when you do that.

Using my phone, I cycled to a secluded metro station along the tracks, caught a bus to Settegast, and was transferred home to resume the journey the following week.

“I don’t know y’all but I care”

Later the southeast side of Houston – it’s 4 on the clock face 610 – I walked through colonnades of mature oak trees on streets lined with 1950s houses, the occasional art car or yard full of windmills, apartment buildings and more sprawling warehouses, then Telephone Road’s taco trucks, convenience stores and Gulfgate Mall.

At NRG Stadium, football fans flocked to see a Texans game.

I was at 6 o’clock, in real time and on the 610 dial.

With the help of a few police officers, I tracked down the site of the Astroworld festival tragedy that had shaken us all a few weeks earlier. The posters and cards had been soaked and dried several times but I could still see the words. “Rest in peace. You didn’t deserve this. “I don’t know you all but I care.” “To the bravest of haters, may you find peace.”

A few yards away, I noticed a group of five people holding hands and speaking in tongues. One of them prayed in English for God to cast out the devil.

At first, I found the prayer unnerving. The people who suffered and died in Astroworld have nothing to be ashamed of. And to what extent, really, did the devil influence the root causes of the disaster, such as the planning and management of a fenced area?

Yet these were people praying on a Sunday for people I presume they had never met. In their own way, perhaps they too were saying, “I don’t know all of you, but I care.”

Golden streets and sparkling arches

It took me four Sundays to cycle the loop, and that included a big cheat sorry Leon between 8 and 10 on the 610 clock face.

I took my bike on Metro’s Uptown rapid transit line, which is basically a train but on wheels. I had waited for years for this line to open, but when it finally launched I was still following a strict COVID quarantine. As I boarded, the driver encountered a motorcyclist who refused to put his mask on his nose. Eventually, the rider stormed out swearing.

I hung around the door to speak with the driver as the bus rumbled through the golden streets of Post Oak Drive with its newly planted oak trees, Whole Foods Market, luxury hotels and gleaming steel arches.

The bus driver told me he’s not going anywhere more on his free time, even though it’s his job to move people around the city.

“Besides work, I order groceries and just visit a friend or two at their house,” he said.

His view of the world around him resembled what New York Times columnist David Brooks would later write: America is collapse at the seams. Accidents are more frequent even if traffic is down. Murders and drug overdoses are on the rise.

I told the driver we had to keep hope alive, but I could hear the uncertainty in my own voice.

There he was, older than me and working on a Sunday with people who wouldn’t protect his health by wearing a mask. On the Astroworld site, the message on the poster read, “I don’t know y’all but I care,” but to the driver, the world was full of belligerent people.

We turned over the 610 loop into an elevated bus lane between Uptown Park and the Northwest Transit Center. From up there, I marveled with the driver at our speed over the winding bayou through Memorial Park and the incomprehensible vastness of Houston beyond.

Bound together

As I prepared for the final leg of my run in January, I looked back at Hale”conduct test” columns for information only. He was not the kind of writer to mix his wisdom with his humor. The reader had to find it. In one article, he wrote how much fun it was that the odometer would measure a different length for the same trip each time.

I wondered why it tickled him. Perhaps he was struck by the fact that this road he was using as a sort of motionless tape measure that circumnavigated our sprawling, amorphous city had no real measure. Its meaning is in our minds, not in kilometers. Or maybe he just found it funny that his odometer was flashing. Who knows. Hale got you guessing.

Kind of like this town. It’s one of the many things I missed during the COVID lockdown.

After two years, I was about to step out into the world beyond my laptop screen. I was tired of feeling frozen and vacuum sealed. I wanted to roam the cavernous rail yard and posh Uptown streets, admiring the familiar and the unexpected, the massive structures and the quiet moments, all in one breath.

Hale had spent his life making the voices of ordinary people heard in the Chronicle. He drew a great circle around this city and insisted in his handcrafted prose that we are all connected to each other.

As loud and ugly and even terrifying as Loop 610 can be, there’s something comforting about its embrace.

We all use the 610 at one time or another, our lives unfolding in passing lanes, stuck in rush-hour claustrophobia, rambling along feeders.

The beauty of the Loop is that it belongs to everyone. Even a guy on his bike, riding around its contours with no particular place to go and nothing more to prove beyond the fact that he’s still alive.

Mankad is the op-ed and letters editor at the Houston Chronicle. You can submit a letter at houstonchronicle.com/opinion/submit.

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