Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 101: Saratoga of the South

Briggs to Lampasas. 21.8 miles/1878.1 total

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Here I stand on a hilltop with an almost 360 degree vista, heading north on Highway 183 through Lampasas, and then a few miles past the city, to another deserted spot on Highway 183. There’s nothing to speak of between here and Lampasas, or thereafter, but the gray-green hills, covered with evergreen bushes and oaks. And the barbed wire, of course.

It’s another beautiful day, mostly cloudless, in the high 50s, heading for the low 80s. A gentle breeze is blowing.

Increasingly, the men I see in this part of Texas look like Randy Quaid with a big blondish-white handlebar moustache. And of course a cowboy hat. Randy Quaid is a Texan, and he looks more Texan than most Texans do. No mistaking him for a pointy-headed member of the eastern liberal establishment. Shit no.

The soil of the hill country is thin and rocky in many places, which makes it difficult to cultivate. With that in mind, I guess the best bet has always been to raise animals that can eat the grass and don’t mind stepping around a rock or two—cattle mostly, and goats and sheep to a smaller degree. The Europeans who came to New England found rocky soil, too, but were confined to their little area by their small numbers and fear of the unknown—Indians, forests, and so on. So they laboriously took the rocks out of the soil and built fences with them and did the best they could for a hundred years or more, until they knew it was more or less safe to go west. Back then the "west" was no further than what is now the western ends of Pennsylvania and New York, and maybe Ohio. But as soon as they could do it, they deserted their poor New England farms and left. The people who came out here, in the mid-1800s, must have been comparatively sophisticated about the conditions they were going to encounter, and must have had cattle in mind all along.

I come to Watson, which like Briggs is marked only by a small sign with its name on it. There’s the tiny Chapel Hill Methodist Church, which looks like it could hold no more than about 25 souls. Past that is the Watson Cemetery. I cross the road to take a look at the dead of Watson. I see Elliotts, Coxes, Jubys, Smiths, Morgans, and, not surprisingly, a number of Watsons, including J. Ed Watson, who lived from 1880 to 1980, and came to within less than a month of reaching the century mark. Next to him lies his wife Verlie. The name J. Ed Watson strikes me as quintessentially Texan.

Up at the northern end of Watson is the Kifaru Exotic Animal and Bird Auction. The next auction isn’t until May 1 and 2, and there appear to be no beasts in the pens in back. God only know what kinds of ridiculous out-of-place animals they deal in here. It’ll probably be because of a place like Kifaru that the Malthusian plague everybody fears will be loosed on the earth—monkey-borne Marburg virus, or something.

On the other hand, the history of the earth since mankind has inhabited it, and no doubt before that, has been characterized by the moving of species from one place to another—by birds, on the backs of mammals, in spores that blow for miles and miles—so what the hell. Europeans brought rats and horses and mosquito-borne malaria and syphilis and all kinds of plants to the New World—species we know and love today, like cotton and coffee. At one time camels roamed the southwestern desert in the U.S. And it went the other way, too. The rest of the world got tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, cacao, and any number of other wonderful plants from North and South America. Good thing no one got their shorts in a knot about the importation of alien species back then. Who knows what the Europeans would be doing now, with nothing to smoke, no chocolate, no sauce for their pasta, no spuds. With little else but booze and herring, the Dutch, I’m sure, would have lost the will to live long ago.

Sometimes I think humans have a pathological need to get worried and upset about things over which they have little or no control—species traveling from one part of the world to another, species going extinct, glaciers melting, cows farting methane into the air. Bill Bryson, in A Walk in the Woods, talks about the demise of the American chestnut tree, which was all but wiped out by a fungus during the first few decades of the twentieth century. He calls it a “tragedy.” When I heard it I thought, “No, that’s not a tragedy, Bill. A tragedy is a form of rhetorical drama, of Greek origin, in which the extreme actions of a usually noble human hero are juxtaposed with the actions of the gods or with forces of fate or nature, and where the hero’s ambition or flaw causes him and others to come to untimely ends. Oedipus Rex is a tragedy; Doctor Faustus is a tragedy; Hamlet is a tragedy. The demise of the American chestnut tree, on the other hand, is merely an example of one species of plant succumbing to another.” But that’s just me being a stickler for details.

Perhaps closer to a tragedy is our human insistence on imagining that we can keep things the way we think they were when we were kids, or when our parents were growing up, at the same time as our numbers and our appetites are increasing in such a way as to render even such an ambition, much less its dubious achievement, a ludicrous impossibility. Not only is it a waste of time, but it interferes with our enjoyment of what we’re in the middle of right now and makes us feel unnecessarily guilty about our future.

Well, I’ve had four ride offers so far today, and it’s only noon. The road is lightly traveled, and those who travel on it tend to go a long way, so they’ve probably seen my car parked off the road a few miles back and figure I’m going for gas, or something.

At a little over halfway I enter Lampasas County, and see a billboard for the first time today. This one says, “Experience Historic Downtown Lampasas.” And I did experience it, yesterday. First I visited the handsome 1883 Lampasas County Courthouse, built of limestone in the Italianate and Victorian styles, with three stories topped by a clock tower, and red mansard roofs. Inside, the courthouse is strictly functional, with courtrooms on the first and second floors and smaller rooms on the third, probably used sometimes as jury deliberation rooms. And on the walls of these rooms are photographs from Lampasas history—floods, building projects, judges, sheriffs.

Outside on the lawn of the courthouse several historical markers tell of interesting events. One was the so-called Horrell-Higgins feud. The Horrell brothers—Tom, Mart, Merritt, and Sam—were apparently your basic lowlifes, known throughout the region for criminal activities, including cattle rustling and murder. In 1876 a guy named Pink Higgins accused the Horrell brothers of stealing his cattle, and on January 22, 1877, Pink Higgins shot and killed Merritt Horrell in a saloon. This began a feud between the Horrell family and Higgins and a few friends of his. There was a shootout on the town square (probably on the spot where the marker now stands), in which one man on each side was killed. A couple of years later Tom and Mart Horrell were killed in their jail cell in the town of Meridian by a vigilante mob. This left only one Horrell brother, Sam, who took the hint and retired to Oregon and died of old age. This sounds less like a feud to me than the systematic extermination of a family of miscreants.

But the standout thing about Lampasas is that is was the site of several mineral springs, which became quite an attraction and turned Lampasas into a spa, which at one time had a 200-room hotel. I visited one of the old springs last evening. It’s just an old fashioned swimming pool, built of limestone in the 1870s or 80s. It smells vaguely of sulphur, and empties into Sulphur Creek. People came to take the waters, which were considered curative and very healthy. The spa flourished until the end of the century, and earned the town the sobriquet “Saratoga of the South.”

All of which makes me wonder why spas like that have pretty much ceased being meccas for people seeking good health from the waters. I guess it’s because, with the advent of indoor plumbing, people began to become cleaner in their own homes, and didn’t need to go to mineral springs. In other words, it wasn’t the minerals in the water that were curative, it was the fact that people were taking baths more often. Back in the middle of the 19th century it wasn’t common to bathe much at all. One imagines that well-to-do people who came to Lampasas and Saratoga and the great spas of Europe smelled a hell of a lot better when they left than when they arrived. And they must have been healthier, too, for having washed the funky grime off themselves—the parasites, the staph bacteria, the crud. No wonder it was curative! Not to mention the stimulating process of taking off all those clothes, getting naked (something people rarely did back then), putting on bathing suits, then afterwards dressing in clean clothes. Even though the men and women at spas bathed in separate facilities, when a couple got back together they must have found one another much more attractive. A salutary process indeed.

I enter the city limits of Lampasas, population 6,786. At the bottom of the hill, where U.S. 183 crosses U.S. 190 (with Ft. Hood military base 27 miles to the east), is the Saratoga Motel. From my vantage point up here at the top I can see pretty much the whole of Lampasas—McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, the water tower, Hoffpauir Ford, the ridge of hills to the north beyond the city.

I’m about three or four blocks west of the historical downtown, but since I’ve seen what there is to see, I won’t walk though it today. Somewhere downtown is the office of Jimmie Don Aycock, the Texas state congressman from around here. "Howdy, Ah'm Jimmie Don Aycock, and ah wunna be yur ruprusunnative in Austin."

I do stop at Skinny’s Fina gas station store for some refreshment. I’ll give Skinny’s my business today because they were kind enough to let me fill the water tank of the motor home last evening, and (unbeknownst to them) to dump a large bag of trash in their dumpster. Thanks, Skinny.

After I get north of the city, Highway 183 heads off to the northwest again, this time going slightly more west than north. Up here it’s not a four-lane highway with no shoulder, like it was south of town, but a two- and three-lane highway with rather wide shoulders. Wide enough to drive on, as a matter of fact, which a number of drivers insist on doing, using it to pass on the right, notwithstanding the solid white line between the shoulder and the real lane. Interesting.

I’m getting more ride offers than at any other time in Texas so far—eight today, and only five before today. I appreciate the offers and have a hard time turning them down. Somehow, in the three seconds or so I have to talk to the people, I manage to make them understand that I want to walk, in response to which they invariably say, “Oh, you’re exercising!” Yes, I suppose I am.


Billie Bob said...

It’s a wonder that people didn’t leave the spa sicker rather than healthier. I mean, the thought of all that “funky grime—the parasites, the staph bacteria, the crud”…all floating up off their bodies and forming a nice green tinted scum on the top of the water in the pool. What an attractive image…Makes you want to jump right in. “Hey kids, let’s take a refreshing dip! Now don’t pee in the pool...”

Billie Bob said...

And by the way, nice blog entry. You were in quite the loquacious mood. It was dang good reading material. The grey-green landscape you describe is something I can envision, having been in the area a few times. But its red rock west just up the road, and lots of it.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Regarding that scum, the pools were built over what they called "bubbling springs," and the fresh water continuously precolated up from the ground. The water overflowed into the river through window-like holes in the limestone sides of the pool. And if Hemingway was right, and the scum also rises, I imagine it stayed pretty clean.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Oh, and thanks for the encouraging words, as always. If I ever write a book I want you to do the reviews on the back. You can pretend you're from the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the San Jose Mercury News or the Christian Science Monitor.