Thursday, July 6, 2006 | I am a veteran of Willie Nelson’s Eighth and Last Annual Fourth of July Picnic. It was, to this date, the longest day of my life: July 4, 1980.
Willie had made it the eighth and last annual because the thing had gotten too big. The picnic was at his golf course, near Bee Cave, Texas, which is southwest of Austin, at the end of an eight-mile stretch of farm-to-market road. By 1979, 30,000 people were showing up, and there were logistics and traffic problems. About that many showed up in 1980, in the middle of a historic Texas heat wave. I was sent by the paper to write a story about the picnic, and I described the traffic as “trying to move 1,000 pounds of cottage cheese through a soda straw.”
I don’t think there will ever be another day like it, but Willie sort of lied about it being the eighth and last annual. Apparently, he’s had one every year, but not at Bee Cave. A couple of years ago, he moved the thing to the Fort Worth Stockyards, which stirs in me a cold, unbridled fury for a couple of reasons. The Stockyards are easily accessible from not one, but two, interstate highways. On the Stockyards grounds are several air-conditioned restaurants and saloons, including the cavernous Billy Bob’s Texas, in which is air conditioning and full plumbing.
At Bee Cave, there was a 7-Eleven, and a couple rows of port-a-potties from which snaked long, hot lines. Some picnickers in a hurry used a nearby phone booth as a urinal, which I discovered when I stepped into the booth late in the afternoon to phone the paper.
It was 105 degrees outside the booth, 130 inside, and, as best as I could judge, acrid.
At the same time, I feel a rush of pride. No one is going to spend the longest day of his life at the Fort Worth Stockyards version of Willie’s picnic. No one will still be wondering, 26 years later, what, exactly, it does smell like inside a three-foot-square, 130-degree urinal. Since the Bee Cave picnic, I have never been in traffic that bothered me, even getting out of Mission Bay on July 4 when the fireworks are over. There are compensations. There are badges and battle ribbons.
The New York Times was at this year’s picnic, because part of it was celebrated, in the week leading up to July 4, at a truck stop called Carl’s Corner. The truck stop sells a type of vehicle fuel called “biodiesel,” mainly to truckers, but Willie owns some cars and tractors that also run on biodiesel. Willie has become the national champion of biodiesel, which is a mixture of alcohol and fats, greases or oils, either vegetable or animal. He likes it because biodiesel production uses farm products, such as soybeans, and Willie has been a farmers’ advocate for two decades.
The Times quoted Willie’s wife, Annie: “It didn’t take him but a minute to figure out how much sense it made for family farmers.”
Carl’s Corner gets its biodiesel from its own plant, one of nine operated by Hawaii-based Pacific Biodiesel, which converts recycled cooking oil into the diesel fuel. The company says any diesel engine can burn the fuel with little or no modifications. They like to say that when Rudolf Diesel was manufacturing his first engines, they ran on peanut oil.
In the Midwest, many gas stations sell gas that is cut with 10 percent methanol. Carl’s Corner, and other outlets, sell conventional diesel that is cut with 20 percent biodiesel. The new fuel is advertised to improve performance in several ways, including engine efficiency, reduced emissions, natural lubricity, and a nicer exhaust odor, which the company says smells like french fries.
It’s another interesting step in the planetary transition to a next era of transportation technology. But I don’t think exhausts that smelled like french fries would have helped any on Bee Cave Road in the traffic jam of July 4, 1980.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.