I took a road trip with my dogs this afternoon on some back roads in Grimes County and stopped late in the afternoon at Holder’s for a cheeseburger basket. I visited with Bobby Holder, the proprietor, and remembered my first visit two years ago and the story I wrote shortly after a second visit. I’ve seen Bobby many times during the past couple of years but never had a more memorable visit than the first. This story is from my manuscript I’ll Call It Like I See It. Thanks for stopping by…enjoy…
TEXAS HIGHWAY 105 – MY LESSON IN LIBERALISM
Texas State Highway 105 starts five miles inside the Louisiana border between Orange and Vidor. It’s one of the countless farm and state roads that make up the highway system of a state that stretches almost a thousand miles from east to west. If you’re headed to El Paso from Beaumont, pack a lunch. Or, better yet, a couple of lunches. But, whatever you do, don’t take SH 105.
This well-traveled road claims fewer than two hundred miles but passes through seven counties: Orange, Jefferson, Hardin, Liberty, Montgomery, Grimes, and Washington. Many of the miles consist of winding four lanes, and the rest are very good, crooked, two-lane routes. I lived 18 miles north of Highway 105 when I was growing up in the loblolly piney woods of Grimes County. Now, on a good day, I can walk to that road from my home in the little village of Montgomery. It runs smack-dab through the middle of town and is a favorite commuter connection from Houston to wherever people drive to escape the interstates that are frequently at a standstill. Long lines of school buses and parents picking up children from the nearby elementary and middle schools create our own version of traffic jams in the middle of the afternoons during the week. Two stoplights move everybody along in an orderly manner, but I avoid that stress whenever possible. On Friday afternoons, the traffic gets heavy earlier because the weekend wannabe Hell’s Angels bikers leave their day jobs and immediately head west on 105 from the cities and suburbs. I think they must carry their bandanas and jeans with them to work so they won’t have to go home to change clothes before they hit the road.
My parents and grandparents made many trips on SH 105. My grandfather referred to it as “one hundred five” when he talked about how to get from his home in Richards to Beaumont to visit his daughter Lucille and her family. “Just take one hundred five all the way,” he’d say whenever anyone asked him how he drove the distance. My dad motored the twenty-five miles from Navasota to Brenham on 105, where the road ends, on his visits to Austin every summer. He took me with him whenever he could. At Brenham, we picked up the major highway from Houston to Austin, SH 290.
I didn’t process the names of the roads we drove then, and my perception of distances beyond Navasota to the south, Crabbs Prairie to the north, and Conroe to the east was that other lands were far, far away. I was certain that Brenham must’ve been a magical kingdom because it was the home of the Blue Bell Creameries, and everyone knew they made the best ice cream in the state. Founded in 1907, the company was named after the native wildflowers that grew with heedless abandon in the surrounding countryside. I didn’t realize that when I was growing up, though, and I probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. All I knew then was that the Dutch Chocolate from Mr. McAfee’s drug store couldn’t have tasted any sweeter than it already did on the cones that were two scoops for a nickel.
The day before my sixty-fourth birthday was a magnificent Texas day. The temperature was perfect, the blue skies were clear, and my dogs, Red and Annie, were in high spirits. I decided to drive west from Montgomery on 105 to Navasota, the place where I was born. I loaded the dogs in the back seat of my pickup and turned left at one of the two stoplights in town.
I didn’t have to drive more than a mile to find the scenery that I love. As soon as I passed Old Plantersville Road, I began to see the patches of bluebonnets that make 105 spectacular in April. At first, they were scattered in with the reddish-orange Indian blankets and the pale pink buttercups and only appeared on the sides of the road. Then, the patches grew thick with the deep blue that is the mature color of the state flower. A few minutes more, and I saw a ranch with a sea of bluebonnets in its pastures, and it reminded me of the dazzling Caribbean ocean without waves. I knew it was a good day to be on the road.
Five miles to the west of Montgomery, I made my first stop in Dobbin, which has no traffic lights but does have a cowboy roadhouse called Holder’s, which is owned by a proprietor of the same name. Bobby Holder doesn’t look like a cowboy, though. He wears faded blue overalls and a dark T-shirt beneath them. He resembles an Appalachian mountain man with hair the color of charcoal mixed with some white ash tightly pulled down his back in a long ponytail. His thick mustache is the same shade of black and white. A plain, unfashionable baseball cap completes his look. The first time I saw him, I labeled him in my mind as a hillbilly hippie, right-wing extremist, and all-around Bad Guy. That was a few visits ago.
The restaurant is as interesting as its owner. The building is ancient and consists of three distinct areas visible from the small, gravel parking lot. The weathered wood building has a steep rusted tin roof that promises a larger space than is visible from the parking area. A little log section to the right is clearly the barbecue pit. Smoke rises from the flue and drifts occasionally into the middle porch space, which is open-air and the place where four stained, wooden tables with benches accommodate the “eat-in” customers. (Feel free to carve your initials on a table. Everyone else does.) To the left, a window for ordering is surrounded by the handwritten menu that’s written on a chalkboard tacked to the wall. The tiny kitchen is behind the ordering window, and the smells of cooking barbecue mix deliciously with the aroma of burgers frying on the grill while you wait patiently for service. A sign under the window warns: “If you’re in a hurry, go to Houston.”
Imagine every Texas roadhouse you ever saw in western movies, put that in high-definition, surround-sound, Blue Ray, 3-D with the appropriate eyewear, or whatever, and you can begin to picture Holder’s. Bobby is quick to mention to anyone who’s a newcomer that Hollywood discovered his place last year, and he has a framed newspaper article to prove it. When a film was shot on location in the Houston area, the crew made a stop at Holder’s and a local reporter penned the story that immortalized the restaurant. The picture hangs on the wall to the left of the ordering window and occupies a place of prominence among the vast array of wall art vying for attention. I could have easily missed it in the midst of an extensive collection of frightening heads of longhorn cattle with varying horn sizes from small to huge, an “audition” sign for waitresses for Hooter’s that consists of two very large holes for women’s breasts, all the brightly colored Texas license plates ever hammered by inmates of its legendary correctional institutions, high school football schedules for the Montgomery Bears for the past few years and assorted photos of satisfied customers. The sound of country music legends blares from speakers in a large, mostly vacant room behind the front porch eating section.
My first trip to the restaurant was with my partner, Teresa, last month during the week we moved to Montgomery. We were driving home from Navasota on SH 105 and noticed it from the road and thought it looked intriguing, so we stopped.
When the cook brought us our cheeseburger baskets, I asked her about the restaurant.
“Bobby owns it—he’s the guy in the ponytail. He does the barbecuing himself, and sometimes he handles the grill, too. He takes a lot of pride in his place here,” she said.
“It looks like he’s trying to expand and add entertainment in this space,” I said.
“Yes, he does all the work himself, so it takes a little while,” she said.
“How long has he been working on it?” Teresa asked.
“About five years,” she replied. “Can I get you gals anything else?”
We shook our heads, and she left us to our meal. I suppose it’s possible to get a bad hamburger in Texas if you go to one of the chain places that are the same in every state. But if you get a burger at Holder’s, you’ll never think of hamburgers in the same way again. The ground lean beef is cooked perfectly with the right amount of seasonings. The lettuce and tomatoes are fresh, and the onions mixed with mustard add a flavorful kick. The melted American cheese oozes to the corners of the toasted old-fashioned buns that are just the right size. The French fries are homemade and piled high. You’ll go away, but you won’t go away hungry.
That first visit was memorable for more than the food, though.
The morning after we ate that first time at Holder’s, Teresa and I talked about our projects for the Texas house. We had decided to paint several of the rooms a different color and needed to buy the paint from the local hardware store.
“Have you seen my billfold?” I asked her when it wasn’t in its place next to the kitchen stove.
“No,” she said. “Did you look in the bedroom?”
With that, we began an exhaustive search through the house and outside. We looked in the truck. No wallet. I tried not to panic, but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought of all that was lost. Since we were traveling from South Carolina to Texas and cash was a concern, I had over six hundred dollars in my wallet, and that was a whopping amount of money for our budget. All of my credit cards, driver’s license, everything that held the clue to my financial identity were in that billfold, and I didn’t have it. What in the world had I done?
“When was the last time you paid for something?” Teresa asked.
I tried to think. The last time I could remember paying for anything was the food at Holder’s the afternoon before. I told Teresa that we needed to drive back to Dobbin to retrace our steps, but neither of us expected to see the money again. I felt physically sick.
We had barely backed out of our driveway when my cell phone rang. It was Claudia, the realtor who handled the purchase of our home in Montgomery. She told me that Bobby Holder called her and said he found her card in a wallet that I had left in his restaurant the previous evening. It was the only phone number he could find to try to contact me to let me know that it was safe. An overpowering feeling of relief poured through me, and I felt like I could breathe again. Teresa and I were ecstatic, giddy at the bullet we’d dodged. We glided west on 105 to Holder’s.
When Bobby handed me my wallet, he was almost apologetic for having to go through it to look for a number. “I saw all that cash, and I saw the South Carolina driver’s license. I knew how I would feel if I were this far from home with no money, cards, or anything else. I worried about it all night.”
I offered him a reward, but he refused to have any of that, and I took a second look at this man whose character I so quickly judged by his appearance less than twenty-four hours ago. I have always been proud of my liberal leanings with their ostensible lack of labels, but I realized with shame that I was guilty of the very prejudices I loathed. Bobby and I were different, all right, but I was wrong to assume that made him incapable of good.
“You have a customer for life,” I said. “Even if you didn’t have fabulous food, I’d be back. I owe you for more than you know.”
I’m glad I stopped at Holder’s today on my birthday eve. The cheeseburger basket is as fabulous as the first one. Bobby isn’t in the café today, but the country legends blare on from the speakers in the back room, and somehow the back end of the Thunderbird Convertible seems the perfect décor. I was right. It’s a great day to be on the road, and Red and Annie are ready to ride after polishing off the last of my fries.