In the mountains of Montana, in historic Glacier National Park, there is a highway called the "Going to the Sun" road. It is, without question, one of the most scenic passages in America.
Tours through the park, and up the narrow road, are conducted in unique buses, built in the 1930s by the White Motor Company, and refurbished for use in the 21st century. When the driver rolls back the canvas top of the red bus, the tourists in the half dozen or so rows of the big sedan have a panoramic view of some of nature's most spectacular creations.
Ahead of you are the majestic, snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, to the side are seemingly infinite canyons, with a valley veiled in a mist seemingly miles away.
With a good driver, on a crystal clear late spring morning, you will begin a tour that will take you most of the day. The sights are amazing, and the journey is worth the ride. The secret of success is the driver. A good one can point out the bears in the forest and the white mountain goats hidden in the snow, note the awesome glaciers of another millennium and pause at the reflection in the stone-still lake...all the while keeping their eyes on the road.
A wrong turn, and the whole deal is history.
By now, you have figured out where this is going.
With four regular season games remaining, beginning with Saturday's meeting with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Texas is on the high mountain road. For the first time since 1984, a nationally recognized ranking, the BCS, has Texas as No. 1 in the country.
While percentage points and rankings in the BCS likely will change weekly, the standings for the week of October 24 are significant. What it means is, validation of a program that has worked very hard to get to where it is today.
On a rainy October day in Dallas 21 years ago, a young offensive coordinator at Oklahoma named Mack Brown helped his No. 2 Sooners tie the No. 1 Longhorns, 15-15. That was the last time Texas was ranked No. 1.
In the last 45 years, Texas has been in position to win a National Championship eight times. On five of them, a twist of fate, a weird bounce or a strange set of circumstances, saw Texas denied the crown.
What all but one of those teams had in common with this one was a common thread: they controlled their own destiny.
Over the next four to six games, there will be a defining moment that players will remember for the rest of their lives. Good or bad, they will remember.
A year ago, the nation learned the story of Noble Doss, one of the greatest Longhorns of the Dana Bible era, who has never forgiven himself for a pass that he dropped -- in 1941.
Since 1961, there have been eight seasons where the difference between a title and a dashed dream often came, not only to one game, but to one play.
"You never know," says James Street, who quarterbacked the Longhorns 1969 National Championship team, "when the 'big play' will come. That's why you have to play every play like it is the 'big play.'"
It had been over 20 years since that 1941 Texas team had been on the cover of Life Magazine, and seemed headed for UT's first national championship before a tie to Baylor and a loss to TCU ended the dream. The window of the early 1960s was an era of unsurpassed success for Texas football. Three times, in 1961, 1962 and 1963, Darrell Royal had Texas on the threshold of its first national title. But a TCU team that finished the season 3-5-2 stunned the No. 1 Longhorns in 1961. In 1962, Rice was an abysmal 2-6-2, but one of the ties came 14-14 against Texas, and again Texas was thwarted.
The season of 1963, Texas was set to run the table. The Longhorns had gone into the Oklahoma game ranked second behind the No. 1 Sooners, and after a 28-7 Texas victory in the fourth game of the season, Texas became No. 1. For seven long weeks, they stayed there.
On a gray, cold and damp day in College Station, less than a week after President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, it seemed things were coming apart for the Longhorns one more time.
Texas A&M was last in the Southwest Conference. The Aggies had won only two games all year, and only one of those had come in the Southwest Conference. But with only minutes remaining, Texas A&M was on the verge of the biggest upset of a half century.
With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Texas with its hopes fading, trailed, 13-9.
Tom Stockton, who was a junior fullback for the Longhorns, was the target on a pass that would have taken Texas into A&M territory. But the pass was behind Stockton, and Texas A&M's John Brotherton, a big defensive end, intercepted it.
But as he headed up field, Brotherton realized he wasn't the swiftest runner. He glanced behind him, and attempted to lateral the ball to what he thought was a trailing teammate.
Over 40 years later, Stockton can still see the football, laying on the muddy ground at Kyle Field. Stockton recovered, Texas had new life, and went on to score with only 1:19 remaining. They scored, and won the National Championship for the very first time.
"There are moments that come," says Stockton, "that if you have prepared for, it makes you that much luckier. It may be something so small that it might have gone unnoticed...somebody barely brushes you, or barely tips the ball. It seems insignificant, and in reality, it makes all the difference."
The point the Longhorns have reached in this season is pivotal, because the danger of traversing the road and the mountain really isn't about getting there, it is about staying there. We all know if you are going up stairs, it is important to look where you are stepping rather than at the top...although it is really important to take the time to be aware of where you are going. You darn sure should see the forest before you get blocked out by the trees.
That is why the story of the Red Bus and the mountain is so important. The driver knew where she was headed, and even took the time to enjoy the ride. But she also made sure she kept the bus on the road. And at the peak, the highway was narrow, the safety shoulders were non-existent, and it was a straight drop of over 1,000 feet to the bottom.
It could have been scary, but it wasn't, and that is the key to all of this. The purpose was to have fun, to enjoy the ride, and to stay on course.
Stockton put it another way.
"The interesting thing was," he said reliving that moment when he saw his opponent with the football that could have ended the dream, "I was calm. I knew somehow I was going to get the ball back."
Brotherton was quoted later as saying "It was a stupid play. I saw a maroon jersey behind me, and I tried to lateral...I lost the game."
Stockton remembers it differently.
"I have seen the film, and seen a picture. There was no one else there. I was the only guy in the area besides him."
What Stockton and Street both see in this 2005 team is the attitude that reflects not only confidence, but a bunch determined to be very good and to have fun.
That is the secret of the bus ride through the mountains. The ride is spectacular if you do it right. Most of all, it is fun to be a part of it. These guys are enjoying the game, and they genuinely like each other. With four games left, Texas will be favored in all of them. When you are this far along the road, it is pointless to say, "Don't look ahead," because you just flat do. So Mack Brown has challenged his team to realize that only four regular season games, and fewer than 15 practices remain.
"Play them to a standard," he has said. "If you believe you are the No. 1 team in the nation, go out and play like it."
In 1941, after Texas had lost its chance to play for the National Championship, some of the players and their girlfriends visited an Austin fortune teller named Mrs. Augusta Hipple to find the secret to breaking a "curse" that had kept them from winning at Texas A&M's Kyle Field.
It was then that the legend of burning Red Candles to break a jinx was born. On the occasion of the 100th year of Texas football in 1992, I talked to Mrs. Hipple, and she said there was no voodoo or magic in the breaking of the jinx. In the conversation, she talked about the difference between "healthy ego" and "diseased conceit."
One was a good thing, the other wasn't.
This 2005 Texas team is confident, but not cocky. It enjoys itself, and the players enjoy each other, in a rare form of camaraderie.
History will tell us how it all turns out; of the twists and turns of the road at the top of the mountain. And for the moment, it is important to understand that the trip is not finished.
Its story will be told by a moment and a memory, and the grace and success with which the drive is completed.