For a person who doesn’t really like to drive, I’ve spent most of my life doing it. I’ve had a driver’s license since I was 14. Back in the 1960s in Texas, a teenager could take driver’s ed in school at 13, get a learner’s permit, and then apply for a regular operator’s license after her 14th birthday. Because my Mother was a single parent who worked long and irregular hours and we lived with my elderly grandmother who did not drive at all, it might have been a “hardship” provision that enabled me to do this (now available to teenagers in Texas at 15). I don’t remember. All I know is that I was in the 9th grade and I was the only one among my friends who drove for most of our high-school years.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 303,176 miles of public roads in Texas, more than in any other state. Honestly, I think I’ve driven most of them. From the spaghetti-bowl freeways in the major cities, to the bay area causeways along the Gulf, to the desert routes in West Texas where there are no speed-limits (because there are no cars), Texans have always been deservedly proud of their highways. The roads are generally well-planned and well-maintained and they move people and products across a vast territory where there is little other alternative transport. And of course, let’s not forget all those fabulous wildflowers along the roads in the spring — thank you, LadyBird!
Almost as cheerful and certainly as welcome as wildflowers along Texas highways are some 600 Dairy Queens®, again, more than in any other state. Contrary to popular perception, Dairy Queens did not originate in Texas, nor are they based here, even though they are ubiquitous throughout the State, even in one-stop-sign towns; in fact, the DQ® sign is often referred to as “the Texas stop sign.” Dairy Queen® was actually founded in Joliet, Illinois, in 1940, and has since used a franchise system to expand all across the United States and into over 30 countries. The company has been a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway in Minneapolis since 1998.
The Dairy Queens in Texas are unique because they are organized under the Texas Dairy Queen Operators Council, a consortium of independent franchise owners. That enables Texas DQs to offer their own unique “Texas country foods” menu (including tacos and a chick’n fried steak sandwiches), to do their own local promotions, and to advertise with their own slogans such as “That’s what I love about Texas…” The first Dairy Queen in Texas was opened by a Missouri businessman near the UT campus in Austin in 1946, but the title of “the first” usually attaches to the one established in Henderson in 1950, because it is still there and still continuously operating. Regardless, over the last 70 years, Dairy Queen has become a bonafide “Texas thing.”
My long driving history is also a long DQ history. When I was a child (before I could actually drive), a Dairy Queen was much anticipated on those interminable Texas road trips. In the blistering heat, with the boredom of riding and the nagging angst of “are we there yet,” a stop at a Dairy Queen provided both respite and delight with its cheerful red sign and its promise of curly-Q-topped soft ice cream cones and thick, tummy-filling milkshakes. The DQ sign has been a symbol of comfort and relief for as long as I can remember.
We used to joke that a town couldn’t get a name in Texas until it had a Dairy Queen, but it was absolutely true that it couldn’t get a sense of community without one. Before there was McDonald’s, or even before Whataburger showed up (Whataburger was founded in Texas and is headquartered in San Antonio), Dairy Queen was not just the first, but often the only fast-food place in rural Texas towns — not that anybody there necessarily needed the food to be fast. As Texas writer Larry McMurtry wrote in his 1999 memoir, “Before the Dairy Queens appeared the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk…” (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond) Pretty soon, “down at the DQ” identified the place to meet and greet, to celebrate and commiserate, or to just come on in out of the rain. These days, the hospitality of a Dairy Queen extends even to those of us just passing through.
During the many years when I lived up East and would come home to Victoria, I spent lots of time on highways driving to and from major airports, driving to take my Mother on little excursions, or driving to see family and friends who lived elsewhere. These drives nearly always included a stop at a Dairy Queen, sometimes because it was a favorite location I remembered, sometimes because it was an equidistant meeting place for me and a friend, and sometimes because it was hot or stormy or I just needed a break.
The month we retired and relocated to San Antonio was the very month my Mother turned 85 and was unable to renew her driver’s license. The good news was that I was back in Texas and only 120 miles away, but the bad news was that those 120 miles were on US 87 South, a difficult and dangerous drive on a two-lane highway through the heart of fracking country. Before Eagle Ford, a one-way trip had taken about two hours and, except for occasionally having to pass some slow poke lumbering along with farm equipment, it was not an altogether unpleasant drive. Once the boom hit, however, the trip stretched into about three hours each way and became a harrowing, white-knuckled drive on deteriorating roads in the middle of convoys of tanker trucks and 18 wheelers. As the drive got worse and my Mother got older, I found myself making more and more frequent trips that turned into longer and longer days.
There are lots of DQs along US 87 and they were a godsend, particularly in the last couple years of my Mother’s life when I was making two or three roundtrips a week. Through her catastrophic illnesses, the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, and my own beleaguered spirit, the DQ provided an oasis of relief. The quilt above, named “A Texas Oasis,” has been created from my own photograph of a favorite DQ just off the highway less than an hour away from San Antonio. At the end of a long and stressful day, I would pull in to this Texas oasis, thankful to have survived another trip and determined to reward myself with a burger or a shake.
“A Texas Oasis,” will be submitted for a regional exhibition called “ Sense of Place: Texas Landscape Art Quilts” sponsored by the Studio Art Quilt Associates. If juried in, my work will appear in the show’s opening at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Abilene in September. From there, the exhibit will travel to six other venues throughout the State before closing in a public display at the San Antonio Airport. “A Texas Oasis” recalls a most difficult time in my life and the many hard miles I logged, both literally and figuratively, to get through it. It is also a tribute to the people and places that provide an “oasis” of comfort to others anywhere on life’s journey.
Postscript: I started working on this art quilt last fall, so it has been in progress, often in fits and starts, for a long time. Interestingly, the bulk of it came to completion in these last three months while under stay-at-home orders. I haven’t made any road trips recently and haven’t even visited a local DQ, but once again, this DQ provided an emotional oasis of creative comfort and calm, now through the stress of this coronavirus journey.