The fourth and final customary August trip began on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Robin dropped me at National Airport and I flew to DFW, then on to Lubbock. Met Jack at 3:00 outside the terminal, hopped in his blue Subaru. A buddy of his, Wes, was in the back seat, and was riding with us part of the way, to pick up his now-fixed car in San Angelo – five days earlier it had broken down. In no time we three were chirping like magpies. Wes works in the same treatment facility, the Ranch at Dove Tree, as Jack. We stopped briefly in Post, Texas (regular readers know that although I understand that it’s not necessary to add the state name, I always hew to local custom), to pick up shakes and malts at Holly’s, a traditional drive-in with car hops. Total quality – we like Dairy Queen, but Holly’s was a step up.
We arrived San Angelo about six, found the car-repair shop, said goodbye to Wes, and headed east 85 miles to Brady, Texas, home of the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off. I’ve been judging since 1991, 24 consecutive years, and Jack was headed for his 7th competition. The big Texas sky was full of little storm cells, and it was a fascinating array of cloud and light. We arrived Brady, checked into the hotel, and made fast for – where else? – a nearby barbeque called The Spread. No goat that night, but some splendid smoked turkey, jalapeño sausage, and sides. Mandy, one of the owners, remembered us from 2013, and we had a nice chat. I was full, but needed some exercise, so pounded out some miles on a bike at the hotel, then clocked out.
Up at six Saturday morning, back to the gym, then out to the kickoff event, the judges’ brunch in Melvin, Texas, population 189, 18 miles west of Brady. It was so great to be back with a bunch of good ole boys (and, this year, five women judges), long friends all the way back 20+ years, people like Jim Stewart of Lubbock, Kinnan Goleman from Austin, and my original Brady host, Kim King. We ate well that morning, listened to the guidance for rookie judges, and headed out. Most of the group headed to Richards Park on the edge of town, site of the event, but I stopped briefly at the West Sweden Cemetery, halfway back to Brady. I first visited a decade earlier. The ground was overgrown, but the headstones told some stories: of a settlement that seemed to have begun in the last decades of the 19th Century; and mainly of the brevity and unpredictability of life back then – lots of infant mortality, and plenty of lives ended after just a few decades.
I arrived at the cook-off just before 11, and ambled around, admiring cooking rigs and encampments of varied design and comfort. Paused to visit with a couple of teams. Lots of the people who attend or participate in the cook-off have a family connection to this little town of 5,500, folks like Frank Brawley from Houston, Texas, grandson of Houston O. Brawley, who long operated a dairy farm just west of Brady. Back at the shady judging site, I yakked with veteran judge Eddie Sandoval, part Comanche, part Hispanic, and a total character; with John Johnson of Lubbock, Texas; with some rookies, including Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly (now there’s a job!); and with Paul McCallum, a fellow judge from the 1990s who had returned after years away. Paul grew up on a station in far western New South Wales, Australia, and is another interesting fellow.
At two it was time to stand and deliver, or in this case to chew. First event was “mystery meat” judging, and this year it was rabbit, one of my favorites. There were some truly wonderful samples, moist, tender. The mystery meat judging, now in its fifth or sixth year, is a bit more permissive, and there was some creativity in sauces and preparation. At three, and already feeling a bit full from 40+ rabbit chunks, we began the main event. I was captain of table two, and we four (including Jack) were a good crew, disciplined, fair-minded, and sober (well, mostly; some of us were enjoying a Coors or two). It’s a lot of work, but we got through it in about an hour, with a high degree of unanimity in our 1-to-7 scoring. No sevens, no ones, and a lot of twos and threes. Jack and I agreed that the best of the rabbit was tastier than the best of the goat. But we kept that view to ourselves!
We hung out for a bit longer, but were in the car and pointed northwest by 4:45, happy to keep tradition alive in the Heart of Texas. It is an awesome experience, and I am so glad that it’s an indispensible end to summer not just for me, but for our son. When I’m gone, Jack will carry on the Britton judging tradition. And perhaps his son.
The ride back to Lubbock was fast. We paused at Sweetwater, Texas, for a Dairy Queen shake, and were home by 8:45. Took showers, tuned in some football, and were asleep around ten.
We were up at seven Sunday morning, Jack over to the gym, and me out on his Trek mountain bike, north to the huge Texas Tech campus, past the big new stadium, remembering that the Lone Star State is a windy place. Sixteen miles was plenty that morning, back for a shower and over to Jack’s favorite coffee place, J&B. Sat outdoors, enjoying a jolt and a good chat. Headed to the car wash, then to an early Asian lunch at Pei Wei. Passed the afternoon lazily, watching golf and yakking, then drove to dinner at Chuy’s, a favorite Tex-Mex chain.
Jack had to work Labor Day, so he departed with a hug at 6:25. I waited until first light at seven, then took the Trek back out, feeling stronger than the day before, back toward the Tech campus, north into some neighborhoods. After 14 miles I stopped at Starbucks on University Avenue for a big coffee and a donut, then east on Glenna Goodacre Ave., named for a prominent contemporary sculptor. The area had been redeveloped in the last several years, and on earlier trips I had seen a lot of walk-up apartments for students, but further east were some wonderful two-unit and single family homes in Western farmhouse and craftsman styles, a very agreeable neighborhood.
Back to the house, shower, change, and at ten I met Samantha Kelly, one of Jack’s friends, who kindly agreed to drive me to the airport. Sam is a second-year law student at Tech, and we hit it off instantly, chirping at high speed in the car, at J&B for a second day in a row, and on out to the airport. I have long been partial to women lawyers, and those aspiring to be, and Sam was a quality example. I look forward to getting to know her better on future trips.
It was Labor Day, and I thanked the people who served me for working on a holiday. Halfway from Lubbock to Dallas, one of the flight attendants who I thanked when I boarded sat down next to me and offered a handful of cookies and packaged snacks. “You’re the only person who thanked us,” she said, and we had a nice chat. I told her I worked for American for 22 years, asked about her work and family. It was a nice T-t-S moment. On the flight back to Washington, I thanked all the flight attendants, and one of them replied, “I’m just grateful to have a job.” A good attitude, for sure.
By eight that night I was home, on the night before the first day of school. Summer was over, and it was a wonderful season.