Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aliens In Arizona



Phoenix, Arizona

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's hotter in Arizona than in New Mexico. Must be the lower elevation. Definitely a taste of things to come all across the desert, and it's making me glad I stopped walking when I did. When I say hot, of course I don't mean hot in the way that word is understood here, which implies three digit Fahrenheit numbers. Picture the tops of thermometers exploding and lemon-sized drops of sweat popping off your head, like in the cartoons. No, the heat this week has been relatively mild except to a denizen of the northern climes like me. Only in the low 90s. People still jog and bicycle, like the mad dogs and Englishmen they are. As for it being a dry heat, well I suppose that's the case, but then sticking your head in an oven is partaking of dry heat, too.

I explored Phoenix a bit on Monday, visiting the Heard Museum downtown, an extensive collection of Indian art and artifacts. Very informative about the many tribes and the variations in their approaches to jewelry, pottery, and other crafts. What struck me during the tour was how many times the guide mentioned that such-and-such a group had modified its techniques to incorporate materials and tools introduced by Europeans or to make their stuff more commercially attractive to tourists. Nothing wrong with that, but it exploded the impression (in my mind, at least) that these tribes were doing things exactly as they had done them since time immemorial--part of the Rousseauian noble savage myth, I suppose, and an idea they themselves like to exploit. In truth they were busy adapting, like humans do everywhere. For example, according to the guide the Navajos and their ancestors had been making cloth from cotton for a couple thousand years before the Spaniards introduced sheep into the southwest, after which they started raising them and using the wool for which they have become famous. And of course the Spaniards brought horses, too, which many nomadic groups, like the Apaches, took to with the vigor of Scythians. Before that I picture them prancing along on foot like King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, somebody bringing up the rear with sound effects from a pair of coconut shells.

I suppose the underlying message here is that what we sometimes think of as an ancient line of tradition unbroken for millennia isn't that at all--it's just the latest variation in a pattern of continuous cultural evolution, just as in the European world. Nostalgia, bolstered by with religion, keeps people longing for a past that never really existed. Even for the Indians, who without a doubt got the shits put to them pretty decisively, the only thing worth doing now is to move forward. Hence casinos, involving a concept that was largely alien to the mostly-communal societies of the pre-Columbian era, namely, greed for something that belongs to one's neighbor. Of course at this point they're not trying to get each other's dough so much as ours. Wonder how all that will play out.

Speaking of cotton, I wonder how cotton came to North America? It's a perennial plant, so perhaps it existed in the wild all around the sub-tropical belt of the world. It's been used in this hemisphere for at least 8,000 years.

Phoenix has a new light rail system, and I used Michael's pass to ride out to Tempe to sit among the ASU students. Later we went and ate at a place called Poncho's, sitting at a table where Bill Clinton had dined when he was El Presidente. There's a mural of the Man of Many Appetites on the wall, and another of one of his Secret Service guys on the opposite side of the room.

The big buzz in Arizona currently is a new law the state just passed that requires local law enforcement to inquire about citizenship, and gives the state some power to arrest illegals. There's a question as to its constitutionality, involving, I assume, the issue of whether the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over immigration matters. In the meantime the state seems to be counting on what might be called the "hassle factor" to deter illegals from south of the border from choosing to come to Arizona. Look for Texas, New Mexico, and California to take the fallout, and maybe to try to follow suit.

Of course by European standards our immigration laws are still somewhere between lax and nonexistent, but then we are a land filled with squatters, from the first nations who walked across the land bridge from Asia, to the Conquistadors who brought horses and chickens and sheep, to the zany Brits with their Puritanism and their slaves, to all the farmers and cheap laborers who came during the last two centuries. It's pretty absurd to try to close the border now. Anyway, who else is going to work out in that hot sun? Are you?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nukes In New Mexico




Deming, New Mexico

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yesterday I delivered the motor home and the towing dolly to the buyer in Westbrook, Texas. Everything went smoothly. In case you're wondering, I did pretty well on the sale, getting back what I paid for both of them.

Squeezing everything from the motor home into the car was a challenge. I ended up with just enough room to sit in the driver's seat, and since I can't sit anywhere else while driving, that's enough. Right after the sale I drove up to Snyder and got there just in time to have coffee with the boys one more time. Tommy and Lonny where there, as well as George and Mr. Gomez. We talked farming (or rather, they did), and when the subject of turkey farming came up, I was able to contribute from my personal experience.

I asked about the Mennonites in Seminole, and George said some of them were from Mexico, and just spoke Spanish, and maybe German. It seems that some Mennonites settled in northern Mexico generations ago. Now they go back and forth pursuing various enterprises, including the manufacture, assembly, and sale of trailers of some kind. There are several different groups, as I had thought, which might explain why some women had black bonnets and others wore black scarves.

After the party broke up I said farewell to the Boys of Snyder, and said I'd see them again in the fall on my way back to New Mexico. Then I started driving west, through New Mexico, to visit friends Michael and Phyllis Roberts in Phoenix.

Before I got out of Texas I drove through a dust storm, which was blowing all along the route I'd walked just days before. There's so much land under cultivation that when the wind gets strong enough there's plenty of dust to blow, particularly before the cotton's been planted. Couldn't see a hundred feet in front of me for a few stretches. Definitely not walking conditions.

The drive across New Mexico to Arizona is giving me a preview of what's to come when I start back again. The first 150 miles or so west of Hobbs was pretty much a repeat of the last 150 miles of Texas, minus the crops--lots of grasslands and oil wells and very little of anything else.

Then, somewhere between Artesia and Alamogordo, the terrain got hillier and real mountains appeared in the distance, and soon I was up in the alpine hills, complete with steep grades and winding switchbacks. At a place called Cloudcroft, at almost 9,000 feet, there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops, melting from a sudden storm yesterday, even though it was in the 70s today.

Down on the other side of Alamogordo I stopped at White Sands National Monument, a beautiful area of otherworldly-looking white dunes, where I took a short hike. At the welcome center I overheard a park ranger talking to a man who asking whether it was possible to see Trinity Site, some miles north, where they detonated the first atom bomb back in 1945. She was explaining that it was a restricted area, and that there were only two days every year, in the spring and fall, when the public could visit. As a joke I said, "The great thing is that they explode nuclear bombs there on visiting days, and they give you little pieces of dark glass to look through." The ranger, a woman of about 30, said with a straight face that she hadn't realized that. The man, who was about my age and most certainly should have known better, also took what I said seriously.

My mission accomplished, it was time to move on.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Day 118: Perseverance and Repetition




Seminole, Texas to New Mexico line. 23.6 miles/2242 total

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I leave the parking lot of Walmart on the west side of Seminole and climb a hill on Highway 180, heading west to just across the New Mexico line, in Lea County. And when I say just inside, I mean about twenty feet in.

Lots of high clouds and sunshine today, with the wind blowing in from the southwest. It’s already warm, and should get into the low 80s. Rain predicted for tonight.

The west side of Seminole is the business side. I can see a refinery from here, and numerous small oil wells scattered around the fields. Also there are several cotton gins and grain and peanut warehouses. All the way to the state line there’s a succession of such businesses, in contrast to the deserted stretches in the past several walks. Which is not to say that the highway is a beehive of activity—just that it’s got some buildings at regular intervals. In the distance as far as the eye can see are fields and grasslands.

I neglected to mention yesterday that there appears to be a sizable community of Mennonites in and around Seminole. In fact, there are no fewer than three different Mennonite churches in town, each perhaps differing slightly in theology.

The place where all the Mennonites seem to love to go as much as church is Walmart. Sitting in the parking lot for the last three evenings I’ve watched a steady progression of them. These folks don’t eschew all the modern conveniences, anyway. They have pickup trucks, and from what I can see, love to shop. I don’t know if they buy TVs and DVDs and such, but Walmart was literally crawling with them last night when I went in.

The men don’t look any different from regular Texans—maybe they wear their hair short, but then so do most other people. They dress like regular farmers and cowboys. Maybe a tiny bit geekier, I’m not sure. It’s the women and girls who are subject to restrictions. They wear long dresses, big and loose, which come down to about mid-calf. And on their heads some wear small black bonnets and others wear black scarves. The women look serious, like they’re not having much fun. The men just look vaguely peeved, like a Baptist minister might if he were walking down the Vegas strip with his family.

I don’t know what their teachings and traditions are, but the essence of it seems to involve keeping the women folk looking as homely as possible. Which isn’t at all difficult, because I must say that the adult women are pretty ugly. Serious tire biters. Makeup and modern hair styles wouldn’t help much, if at all. I don’t say this spitefully; it’s just a sad fact. The guys are no better looking, to be sure. Maybe it’s from generations of inbreeding. It’s probably just as well that they should stay out of the general gene pool, or at least confine themselves to the shallow end.

This morning at about 5:30 I awoke out of a pretty sound sleep, as I sometimes do, not knowing whether it was dark or light outside. Sleeping in lighted parking lots will do that. I was in the middle of a muddled dream, and when I became conscious I found myself uttering the words, “Perseverance and Repetition.” The words came out of a swirling cloud, as happens in dreams. It’s not profound, exactly, the way it seemed to be in the dream, but it sure does apply generally to the human condition, and particularly to what I am doing. I think maybe I’ll have a coat of arms made up with those words on it. Maybe in Latin, or in the infinitives. To Persevere and to Repeat. Over the image of a flattened coyote, rampant, like in the photo.

Trees around here, I’m told, have probably been planted by someone. They don’t occur naturally much, except the occasional mesquite that gets out of hand. But the trees I’m seeing are mostly in peoples’ front yards or around buildings.

Today I’m thinking of that old song we used to sing, “I’m Going to Leave Old Texas Now.” One person would sing each line, and everyone would echo it. Sort of a campfire song. It seems particularly appropriate today, for obvious reasons.

I’m going to leave old Texas now,
They’ve got no use for the longhorn cow.
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range,
And the people there are all so strange.


I didn’t think much about the meaning of the words until I got here. The plowers and the fencers have definitely prevailed, although the long horn cow seems to be doing okay as a variety of breed.

Here and there among the neat and modest farm houses a mighty and out-of-place house arises, showing that someone got some serious money, probably from oil. Here’s one, set way back from the road, that looks like a French chateau. It’s enormous, and pretty striking.

Since this is the last day in Texas, it’s time for a statistical wrap-up. I walked in Texas for 35 days. I came in on February 12 and sixty-nine days later I’m leaving. I walked 734 total miles in Texas, and have averaged 20.97 miles per day in this state. And my overall average daily mileage for the 118 days is up to 19 miles. I reckon that I’m just about two-thirds through the entire trip now.

I got 59 ride offers over 35 days. But I must say that probably 50 of them were from west of Austin. Part of the reason for that is that during the first part of the Texas walk I was on four-lane divided highways, where you almost never get ride offers, and part of it was because I was in more urban areas, and city people just don’t offer rides.

More statistics. I got a total of $6.72 in change from the roads of Texas. Also a Hong Kong 20-cent piece from the early 1990s, which I found down by Austin. Odd, because it doesn't even resemble a U.S. coin.

Another important category is roadkill. Raccoons and deer were tied for the most with 47 each. Third is 45 birds of all kinds that were big enough to count—owls, hawks, waterfowl, etc. Next come 38 skunks, 20 possums, 16 cats, 15 armadillos, 13 turtles, 12 rabbits, 11 coyotes (most of them in the last week), 8 dogs, 4 snakes, 4 things that looked like nutrias, 2 pigs, one frog and one squirrel. In addition, I saw hundreds of mammals, in various states of decay, that I couldn’t identify. Patches of fur on the asphalt. I predict that coyotes will be among the most frequently seen roadkill in New Mexico.

At about a third of the way through the walk I arrive at a place that the map says is Paynes Corner. It’s anchored by a large grain storage facility, and it has a sand and gravel yard. In the distance are perhaps fifteen modern-looking houses.

At the halfway point I pass a gigantic complex called West Gaines Seed and Delinting, which also has a peanut storage warehouse. It consists of seven or eight enormous buildings, about three hundred feet by seventy-five feet, sheathed in vertical sheet metal siding, painted gray or blue. The whole thing is about a half mile from one end to the other.

With two miles to go, in the distance I can make out the yellow and red colors of the New Mexico welcome sign. In the foreground is the Texas community of State Line, consisting of two open gas stations and two closed ones and a few other crappy structures. On the north side of the highway is Hester’s Self Serve. I think I met Hester herself when I stopped in there earlier. She was about five feet tall and a hundred years old, and was holed up in a little booth, behind bulletproof glass. But she couldn’t hear anything from in there, so she kept having to open the door and come out.

As I approach the border of the tenth state on this journey, I think back to when I entered the second one, Indiana, in September. At that time I wondered if the people in the new state were going to be different merely by virtue of living on the other side of an artificial political line. Of course in some respects they must be—they pay different taxes, go to different schools, perhaps see themselves differently based on their state’s reputation and image. But in the most basic human terms, they were the same. So many myths and fears abound concerning people from "other" places. It's part of our unfortunate tendency to slip into paranoia when faced with the unknown.

It might be that New Mexicans, since they are not taught that manufactured Texan mythology about their supposed heroic fight for freedom and independence, think differently about themselves. However, the eastern half of New Mexico, from the Rio Grande, once was part of the Republic of Texas, and even after Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona became part of the U.S., Texas sought to exert some suzerainty over New Mexico and Arizona (at one time combined and called simply New Mexico). They were both slave territories which the Confederacy tried to control. So eastern New Mexico might carry some awareness of its history as part of Texas. But I have sensed, from visiting New Mexico before, that New Mexicans are more comfortable with their mixed Anglo, Mexican, Indian, and African American ethnicities.

At long last, at 23.6 miles, comes the billboard that says, “Welcome to New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment.” And I step over the line at 4:51 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time and prepare to be enchanted.

This marks the end of this portion of my walk across the country. I will now take a break until fall, when I plan to pick up right here at the border. This will not be my last blog posting, however, and I invite you to stay tuned. I still have the long trip back to Michigan ahead of me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 117: Seminole

Eastern Gaines County to Seminole. 21.2 miles/2218.4 total

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It’s overcast and foggy as I walk west on Highway 180 from eastern Gaines County toward Seminole, but the fog is burning off slowly, and it promises to be mostly sunny, with a high in the 70s. Right now it’s about 60.

Today is my penultimate day of walking before my break. The plan for tomorrow is to walk to just the other side of the Texas-New Mexico line, still a few miles short of Hobbs. It will be a little longer than my usual walk, and will accomplish my goal of making it out of Texas. I figured all this out yesterday when I drove into Hobbs.

Yesterday in Seminole I talked to the proprietor of an antiques mall who used to be a cotton farmer and also ran a cotton gin. He told me that Gaines County is the top cotton producing county in Texas, and also the top peanut producing county. He didn't say in the country, or the world, or the galaxy, so it was a more modest claim than some I’ve heard over the months as I’ve walked through cotton country.

Apparently one of the preferred ways to grow both cotton and peanuts around here is in circular fields. They start with a quarter section, which is a half-mile-square piece of land. Ordinarily that would be 160 acres, but with a circular field it comes to 130 acres. This enables them to set up quarter-mile-long irrigation lines that travel around from an axis at the center of the field. The corners outside the field, which are about seven acres each, are usually planted in some feed crop, like wheat, which needs less water. I’m sure this is done in a lot of other places, but it strikes me as ingenious and efficient. Another thing he said is that Gaines County has the best underground water supply in West Texas, so the water can be pumped with a minimum of mechanical power. Good water, not too deep, with some natural pressure to it.

With all that in mind, I’m now beginning to observe the circular fields and the corner sections as I walk along. There’s plenty of regular square planting done, too. Another thing I’m observing is piles of sand that look like dunes along the roadside. According to Tony in Lamesa these dunes were created by sandstorms, which can get pretty bad around here, especially in March. Between the pale red tilled fields lie long expanses of untilled land, perhaps never broken, dotted with mesquites and sagebrush.

Like all farmers I’ve talked to so far, the man in the antique store loved talking about his crop—cotton in this case—and could have gone on for hours about it. Of course that’s true of many people in many occupations. It’s the case with me in fact, and my own professional specialty—state tax law. I would be more than happy to discourse on the subject for hours on end, with a wistful twinkle in my eye, but for the fact that I can’t find anybody with the stamina or interest to listen for that long. On the few occasions I converse with people at length on this journey, I try to work it into the conversation. “So, what’s your sales tax rate here in Texas?” I’ll ask, and they'll answer. “And that’s a combined state and local rate, isn’t it? Well, in Connecticut we didn’t have the local option, but . . . .” And I generally lose them soon after that. But I keep trying. Maybe some day I’ll hire a toady, like the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Big Lebowski, and make him listen and nod and act interested and ask the occasional question. “So tell me, Pete,” he’ll say, “does the sales tax exemption for 501(c)(3) organizations apply only to purchases by such groups, or to sales by them as well?” Until then I’ll continue to walk the roads of America, looking for the person who knows almost nothing about state taxation but has the burning desire to learn. I imagine I’ll be on that search for a long time, like a knight errant looking for the grail.

As I reach the top of yet another long steady incline, I can see, at a distance of eight or nine miles, the water tower of Seminole. Otherwise I am rolling along in the middle of an undulating sea of grey-green grass and red-brown earth.

I mentioned last time that I was observing more white pickup trucks around here than I am used to seeing. Because I have nothing but time on my hands, I decide to conduct a semi-scientific test, and watch the first one hundred trucks going by in either direction to see how they break down by color. I count only full-sized trucks that look like they're for personal use. After about four hours I complete the test, and the results are 51 white trucks and 49 of all other colors. What makes it unscientific is that I don’t know how many white ones are manufactured and offered for sale versus trucks of other colors. If half of all trucks made are white, then my test doesn’t prove anything in terms of the preferences of local drivers.

Another thing I notice that I think is significant is that of those one hundred trucks almost none of them are old or beat up. In fact, only about five of them look as if they had been made before 2000. That indicates some level of economic comfort, I think. In other parts of the south (and in Michigan, for that matter) it’s common to see vehicles that are old and falling apart. I wonder what happens to the old ones when they trade them in? Maybe they send them to Mississippi.

At the intersection of Highway 180 and Texas Route 1429 are the beginnings of the outskirts of Seminole. Houses now appear regularly where there were virtually none before, spaced about a quarter of a mile apart. These farmhouses are set back about two hundred feet from the road and are mostly one-story ranches. Idle farm equipment sits in the large yards and sheep, goats, horses, and some cattle graze in the pastures between them.

As I draw closer to the actual city limits of Seminole the farmhouses give way to yards filled with oil drilling and cotton farming equipment, as well as auto junkyards.

Highway 180 curves off to the right a bit and here’s the first sign welcoming me to Seminole. It says “Seminole, Gaines County, #1 Oil Producer, #1 Cotton Producer, #1 Peanut Producer, #1 People Anywhere!”

Seminole, with a population of 5,910, takes its name from Seminole Wells, which was a watering area near here when they were establishing the town back in the late 1800s. That gets me wondering about why the Seminole Indians were in Texas, since I associate them with Florida. So I check out the Seminoles on the internet and find some interesting things. I won’t launch into a whole discourse on Seminoles, but in a nutshell here it is. They were originally Creek Indians who were encouraged by the English to go into the Spanish territory of Florida and wreak havoc on the local tribes there, which they duly did, establishing themselves as the dominant group and absorbing some local indigenous Florida tribes into their ranks. Gradually their ties to the Creeks weakened for various reasons, and they began to be considered a separate tribe. “Seminole” was a Creek word meaning pretty much "people who went off and did their own crazy thing," which is what they were. The Seminoles began to acquire a number of African people among their numbers, in some cases as their slaves and in some cases as runaway slaves seeking refuge among them. These became known as Black Seminoles. This brought the enmity of the Americans, who in that part of the country hated and feared nothing more than runaway slaves, and for whom the idea of black Indians was a sort of double anathema. They began to want the Seminoles eliminated. The U.S. fought them around 1817, and Andrew Jackson enhanced his military reputation by killing Seminoles. About twenty years later they were deported from Florida and sent out west, as were many other Indians. During that time some of them opted to go to live in Mexican Texas, then later in Old Mexico, and groups of Seminoles went back and forth for some time thereafter between Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. So there were, or had been, Seminoles in this part of West Texas around the time it was officially settled.

The Gaines County Courthouse is ugly. There’s no getting around it. From one angle it looks like a hospital, and from another a high school, but from every angle it is ugly. This is because although it was built in 1936 it was “restored” in 1964, about the time when U.S. public architecture was going through one of its worst periods so far. On the outside it’s got the aluminum window frames and turquoise panels next to the windows that are two of the wretched hallmarks of the era. (I know I keep going on about the architecture of this period, and I can’t help thinking that it has something to do with the junior and senior high schools I attended. On the whole I had a pretty good time at those places, but I remember even back then thinking how hideous they looked.)

The rest of downtown Seminole is nothing special—I checked it out yesterday. Nice enough, but with the usual vacant stores and wide empty streets. I'm headed for Walmart, where the real action is.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 116: White Pickup Trucks

Lamesa to Eastern Gaines County. 21.5 miles/2197.2 total

Monday, April 19, 2010

I’m leaving from vast and underused parking lot of the Dawson County Senior Citizen Center in Lamesa (there can't be enough senior citizens in the entire county to fill the lot), heading west on Highway 180 into eastern Gaines County, about halfway between Lamesa and Seminole.

It’s cloudy and cool, probably in the low 50s, with temperatures going up into the 60s. The clouds are arranged in subtle layers of pale blue and pink, giving the promise that later they will lift a little and let in some sun.

Even though its downtown is pretty empty, Lamesa seems like an economically viable place. As I go through the west end, I pass progressively nicer houses, first just some modest brick bungalows, then an upper middle class subdivision next to a golf course. That’s the second golf course I’ve seen in Lamesa, and it's a pretty good measure of the economic condition of the city. Poor and depressed areas don’t indulge in bourgeois recreations. Or, as Robert Duvall put it in Apocalypse Now, “Charlie don’t surf.”

One last factoid I should mention in connection with Lamesa. According to the Wikipedia article I read last night, it is widely considered to be the birthplace of chicken fried steak. It may be that the Germans and Austrians who came to Texas had something to do with this, due to the similarity of chicken fried steak to Wiener schnitzel. Same general idea—breaded tenderized meat, pan fried.

I took my new friend Tony up on his offer to have coffee at his auto repair shop, and at 8:00 this morning I showed up and spent an enjoyable hour chatting. And, just in time, his wife showed up with a box of donuts, so that worked out well. We talked cars, mostly. I saw a nicely restored white 1956 Cadillac in front of the shop, which (except for its color) reminded me of presidential motorcades from my youth and funerals and Nixon in South America. I commented on it, and we fell to talking about various classic cars, and how many nice old car bodies there are here, waiting to be restored. I had a bit of an ulterior motive in joining him for coffee, too. I noticed this morning that I needed water in the motor home, and I figured I could use an outside faucet at his shop to fill it up. And he proved to be very obliging on that score. But I think I would have gone anyway. Having these talks with the likes of Tony and the boys of Snyder reminds me of how starved I get for human companionship on this solitary journey.

One of the things I never fail to mention when I’m talking to people at length about my experiences on this journey is my discovery (or rather confirmation) of the fact that people are pretty nice and decent and willing to be helpful, no matter where you go in this county. For that I believe we can thank the relative prosperity, order, and liberty we enjoy up and down the socioeconomic ladder, compared to many grimmer places in the world (although I don't usually share this opinion with casual acquaintances). No bandits waiting to descend from the hills; no barbarians at the gates. Things could always be better, of course, I don’t deny that, and our economic system could use a great deal more work--an overhaul, in fact. My own person and property have been respected wherever I’ve gone so far. True, this may owe itself to the fact that I’m a fairly well-dressed white man of advancing years, who presents no threat to anyone, symbolically or otherwise. In that I am fortunate, since I certainly haven’t earned that status.

There are those, even among the readers of this blog, who take a darker and more melodramatic view of things, and see danger lurking behind every bush and across each new state border. I don't think I could approach life with such a narrow stance. If I did, I would never have undertaken this project.

I try to preach this message on the road because I believe it to be an antidote to the right-wing hysteria that fills the airwaves and has seeped into the fragile brains of so many. Republicanism, after all, is a sort of amalgam of fear of outsiders, hatred of those who are different, and selfishness in all its other forms. Yet I meet people daily who are undoubtedly Republicans who, on a one-to-one basis, behave with admirable generosity. If I can somehow convince them that others—from different regions, races, groups—conduct themselves the same way they do, they may be inclined to fear them less.

Out here in the country west of Lamesa it’s all cotton fields and the occasional oil well. And I’ve noticed that the vehicle of choice is the white full-sized pickup truck. Probably half the trucks are white. The brand doesn’t matter—Dodge, Chevy, GMC, Ford, Toyota—the truck has to be white. I suppose that’s because they’re better in the heat, but they sure do show the dirt. I can imagine a news story about a robbery in West Texas, where they’re describing the suspect as a white man, about five feet ten, with a pot belly, wearing a t-shirt and a ball cap, and driving a late-model white pickup truck. That wouldn’t narrow it down much.

Tony told me I’d pass several gins between Lamesa and Seminole, and not much else. I come to the King Mesa Gin, at about two hours into the walk. He says the gins were busy into March with the cotton from last year’s harvest, which was late and in some cases didn’t get picked until January. To me the King Mesa Gin seems like an oasis of buildings in the middle of nothing, but the truth is more the reverse—the “something” is what’s growing, or will grow, in these vast fields, without which there would be no gins or equipment or white pickup trucks.

I see a large herd of cattle at about the halfway point, perhaps a hundred of them. When the cow closest to the fence catches sight of me she turns and begins running, along with some others. But today I'm prepared and immediately begin singing “Werewolves of London.” On the howls, they all stop and stand still and look at me, bewildered. I think Warren Zevon still has the power.

Well into the walk I leave Dawson County and enter Gaines County. I can feel the road going gradually uphill amid the sagebrush and furrowed fields. Gaines County was named for James Gaines, a signer of the Texas declaration of independence. This is the last county in Texas on the route I’m taking.

Toward the end of the walk I begin to see some small patches of blue sky, as the wind shifts around and blows at my back from the east.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 115: It's Always Something


Western Borden County to Lamesa. 21 miles/2175.7 total

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Leaving from Highway 180 near Texas 1054, heading west into the City of Lamesa (pronounced La-MEE-sa).

It’s cloudy here, but it was sunny in Lamesa when I left. Warmer than yesterday, and it'll probably get into the low 70s. I expect these clouds to break up and thin out in a few hours.

Traffic is even lighter today than it was yesterday, this being Sunday morning. It’s just me and the cattle right now. Some are looking at me from fifty feet away or so, and can hear me. Cows are indifferent to vehicular traffic, but a person walking down the road always catches their attention. I try singing to them, and since I’m in the wide-open spaces of Texas, I try an old Jimmie Rodgers song, “Waiting for a Train.” They turn tail and trot away from me. Guess they only like the Warren Zevon stuff. Or else I’ve lost my touch.

I’m still climbing gradually uphill. Lamesa, at 2992 feet, is about 700 feet higher than Snyder.

During today’s walk I’ll pass another milestone, of sorts. By the time I finish I will have exceeded the length of the Appalachian Trail, which most people agree is 2,169 miles. In noting that I don’t by any means liken what I’m doing to walking the AT. On the contrary, it gives me pause to think that through hikers on the AT walk, over a six month period, the same distance I’ve covered in almost eight months, and under much more rigorous circumstances. They’re lucky if they do fifteen miles a day. Sort of puts things into perspective.

After an hour and a half I leave Borden County and enter Dawson County, named for Nicholas Mosby Dawson, who fought in the Texas revolution. Dawson is quite a bit larger in population than Borden, with about 15,000. Oil and cotton are what it’s all about here.

At about seven miles I reach the top of a long hill and come out on a plateau. As far as I can see are plowed fields. No hills in the distance. It’s mostly cotton. I think they’re going to be planting over the next two weeks or so. The rows are mounded up, with troughs between the rows. That, I presume, is to catch the rain and prevent runoff, and to keep the plants from rotting. But maybe there’s another reason.

They’ve had more than the usual amount of rain here in Texas so far this spring, and that’s good news, although farmers will find something to complain about in just about anything. Too much rain, not enough rain, crop prices, not enough heat, too much heat, equipment prices, you name it. It’s never quite right. If the streets were paved with gold, they’d say it was too bumpy a ride. As Rosanne Roseannadanna said, “It’s always something.” When I was having coffee with the boys on Thursday, it was raining. One of them was complaining that as a farmer you couldn’t get anything done when it was raining like that. I thought, well what kind of rain do you want, exactly? But I think I know already. It would be rain that fell only in the middle of the night, not too heavily, and on a regular and frequent basis.

It strikes me that the biggest difference between these cotton fields and those along the Mississippi River is the size of the fields. With no way to know who owns what, I'd still venture to say that the individual farm size is much larger here.

At the intersection of U.S. 180 and Texas Farm Road 176 is the community of Key. On one corner is a large collection of farm implements. On another is a Baptist church. On a third are a couple of tin-roofed farm buildings and an abandoned house. And on the fourth, where I’m sitting, is the Key Mercantile building, a white painted peeling place with a broad porch held up with rough hewn cedar posts. Of course it’s closed, and when I look in the window I see that it’s been cleared out long since. The pumps out front show that the last price at which they sold gas was $1.25 a gallon. There’s a working soda machine, but I don’t have the right change. I sit and rest on a bench on the porch.

The internet says Key reached a high population of 75 in the late 40s, and it’s been downhill ever since. No official population is listed, but I estimate it at around twenty, if you go out to a radius of a mile or so.

I imagine that a century ago it wasn’t uncommon to be born and live your whole life and die in a place the size of Key, going into a “big” city like Lamesa maybe once a month for supplies, and to raise a little hell.

In the ditches, along with beer bottles and other junk and the bleached bones of animals killed last year, bloom a variety of wildflowers, varying in size and shape and color, but always presenting a feast for the eyes. Oranges, yellows, purples, pinks--varieties in the dozens. These are flowers I’ve come to admire but whose names I won’t ever learn. I’m just not that interested, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to pursue the matter to find out. I do know blue bonnets and Indian paintbrush. And I know that many of the rest have interesting names, like dog piss and cat’s meow and wolf tooth, but I’m content to appreciate them the way the other animals do, without naming them. And if it turns out the other animals do name them, they can keep those names to themselves.

After ten miles through this flat, tilled earth, with only the county roads, lettered and spaced one mile apart, to mark the passage of time and distance, U.S. 180 merges with U.S. 87, and takes a turn to the north into Lamesa.

On the outskirts of Lamesa I come to a working drive-in movie theater, a rarity. It’s called the Skyview. The two movies that are playing are current ones—Clash of the Titans and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so I know they’re open at least some of the time. It’s one of fourteen working drive-ins left in Texas, according to Wikipedia. The same source says that Buddy Holly once performed on top of the concession stand at the Skyview.

I enter Lamesa, population 9952. Unimpressive, spread out and filled with one and two-story buildings. Off to the right is the high school football field. I can see its lights. A church spire pops into view. I pass the Spike Dykes Ford dealership. That sounds like the name of an edgy girl group—The Spike Dykes. Or maybe Spike Dykes and the Fister Sisters.

I stop for a long chat with a guy named Tony, through the window of his pickup truck. He'd seen me back on the other side of Key and offered me a ride. He rounded the corner here in Lamesa and said, “Well I see you finally got here.” We ended up conversing for quite some time. I told him what I was doing, and he asked good questions, like how many miles I got to a pair of shoes. Tony’s from Lamesa, and runs a car repair place or a body shop, I forget which. He told me that Dawson County and neighboring Gaines County, which I’ll reach tomorrow, are the two largest cotton-producing counties in the country. (It’s funny, but I could swear I’ve been through other counties that have made the same claim.) Tony also confirmed that the average cotton farm out here in West Texas is a lot bigger than it is east of here. Here a 640-acre section, one-mile square, is considered a fairly small farm. Tony invited me to come to his place of business for coffee tomorrow morning. I may take him up on that.

I wend my way into the center of town, where the Dawson County Courthouse sits on a very shady square, surrounded on all four sides with wide brick streets, perhaps restored to their original appearance. The courthouse itself is undistinguished, made of brick and very functional, perhaps dating from near the founding of the city, which was in 1903. About three-quarters of the storefronts around the courthouse stand empty.

There's more blue sky than clouds now, as the afternoon wanes. The motor home is in the parking lot of the Dawson County Senior Citizen Center, waiting patiently.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 114: Yes I'm Sure


Eastern Borden County to Western Borden County. 20.4 miles/2154.7 total

Saturday, April 17, 2010

There's no town anywhere near where this walk begins or ends. I’m leaving from the intersection of U.S. 180 and Texas Farm Road 516, heading for U.S. 180 near the intersection of Texas Route 1054.

It’s cloudy and sprinkling, and the wind has shifted around and is coming from the north today. The temperature is in the 40s, only expected to get up into the mid-50s.

I needed to get back on the road after two days off in Snyder. You can only have so much fun, after all. I think Little Red and Tighty Whitey are in agreement on this. From the standpoint of the pursuit of pleasure, staying another day in Snyder wasn’t going to do the trick. In another half a day I would have been on the verge of serious depression. Even Little Red had to agree that walking would be more fun.

Which is not to say that I didn’t have a decent time. I made some friends. In fact, this morning at about 8:00, as I was making breakfast, someone knocked on the door of the motor home. I get so few visitors I couldn’t think of who it might be. Maybe the Walmart people, running me off after three nights, who knows? Hasn’t happened yet, but I always half expect it. Well, it was none other than my pal Tommy, the twin, wondering if I was going to walk, and if not, would I like to come and have coffee with him and some friends. Apparently Tommy's fulltime occupation is having coffee with friends, which as far as I’m concerned is about as good as it gets. Reluctantly, I told him I was going to try to give it a go out on the road, but that if I changed my mind, I’d see him at Jaramillo’s this afternoon. He said he’d be there.

I did have coffee with the boys again yesterday. In the morning I drove down to Big Spring, about 50 miles southwest of Snyder, to see what was down there. And really, it wasn’t much. Even though Big Spring has about twice the population of Snyder, it isn’t as busy, at least not right downtown. In fact, downtown Big Spring is so decrepit and empty and rundown that most of the second-hand stores have pulled up stakes, although there were a couple left.

I got back up to Snyder just in time for the afternoon get-together. Tommy was there, as well as George, and a couple I hadn’t met named Dave and Susan. But Lonny and Mr. Gomez and the other guy were still whooping it up down in Piedras Negras.

I’ll definitely try to roll through Snyder and see the boys again after I come back to sell the motor home. Oh, yeah. I didn’t mention yet that I sold it. Not the prospect I though I had, but another man who saw the signs and dropped by on Thursday morning. In the afternoon he came back again, with his wife, and said he'd buy it. I asked him if he could wait for another week or so until I get into New Mexico, and he said okay. So after I get to Hobbs I’m going to deliver the motor home to him. And unless he pulls out, that’s taken care of.

In fact, without trying to do so, I managed to sort of vet the potential purchaser. While sitting around with the boys, I mentioned that I’d sold the motor home to a guy in Westbrook, a town on I-20 about 25 miles south of Snyder. Dave asked me what his name was, and when I told him he said, “Ah know that feller.” And he described him to me pretty accurately. Then he said, “Yeah, he’s a good ol’ boy.” Which I think is a good thing, at least in this context.

If this were a clear day I’d have a gorgeous view of some mesas and ridges of hills off to the west. As it is, visibility is about half a mile, and I can occasionally catch glimpses of the prominences, pale and grey, in the near distance.

This is a particularly desolate walk. There’s nothing at all along the way, with the exception of Gail at near the halfway point, and that’s nothing at all, either.

After about three hours I enter Gail. Although it’s the county seat of Borden County, it’s not even an incorporated town. Just a spot on the road. Maybe a century ago it had some promise. I read that its population was over 700 at one time. Today there are about 190 people in Gail, out of a total of 789 in the whole county. The county is about 900 square miles, so the density is less than one person per square mile. There are many more cattle than people here.

There's the Caprock Café, long since closed, filled with junk. Another old store, about a block down, is festooned with junk on all sides, like a yard sale that got away from itself. The Coyote Store is a going concern, but it's closed on Saturdays and Sundays. However, there are two soda vending machines out front, which work, and I use one.

Across the road from the Coyote Store is the Borden County Courthouse, a one-story building about the size and shape of the elementary school I went to in Drayton Plains. It appears to have been built in the 1930s, with a few art deco touches in the decorative concrete pieces. I suppose it’s more than big enough. Off to the side of the courthouse is the old Borden County jail, a building about fifteen feet square, which a plaque says was built from local limestone blocks, and was escape-proof. It dates from the 1880s. The calaboose. Borden County, says another plaque, was established in 1876, and named for Gail Borden, Jr., the inventor of condensed milk. Well, we know that already.

There’s a tiny post office next to the courthouse and a few dozen houses scattered around. The woman who cut my hair in Snyder told me that Borden County is wealthy, from oil and cattle. You wouldn’t know it to look around here. But she did mention that it has its own school system, at which I expressed surprise. She said it’s a good school system, and that they take people from outside the county. Down the road, sure enough, is the entrance to Borden County High School, home of the Coyotes. And it appears to have a lighted football field, and from where I stand, about a quarter of a mile away, it looks pretty new.

A motorist asks me if there’s a gas station in Gail. I happen to know the answer to this question. There is not. She grimaces, and says she’s on empty, heading for Big Spring, about 40 miles south of here. I tell her that there’s gas about 30 miles either way on Highway 180, in Snyder and Lamesa, but that’s it. She’s distressed, of course. “Are you sure there’s no gas in Gail?” “Yes, I’m sure.” Unless you want to siphon some out of a pickup truck. Good luck.

When I told the boys the route I was taking from Snyder over to New Mexico, George kind of smiled, and said, “Well, you’ll see some nice country going that way.” The other guys laughed. Then George said, “And that’s about all you’ll see.”

By mid-afternoon the clouds have lifted somewhat, and the hills in the distance are coming into sharper focus. Grey, brown, green, purple. Red earth. Occasional cattle. Little mesquite trees. Barbed wire fences.

I’ve seen almost no roadkill today, either, even though there must be plenty of wildlife around here. I suppose they’re less likely to be killed on the road because there’s so little traffic.

Off in the distance three or four deer scamper through the brush, and I catch glimpses of their white tails bobbing up and down. And that's it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Boys



Snyder, Texas

Friday, April 16, 2010

Yesterday I took a day off while it rained. I would have taken it off anyway, but the indolent side of me always feels less recrimination from the industrious side when there's a good reason not to walk. Picture two little Petes, one on each shoulder, like in the old cartoons. The good Pete has wings and a halo, and earnestly says things like, "You've got to keep up the pace. There's a long way to go. It's what you're here for, after all." The bad Pete is red, with horns and a tail and a pitchfork, and he sneers, "Aww, don't listen to that chump. Turn the alarm clock off and relax. Treat yourself. Live a little." That's on a normal off day. Yesterday the bad Pete was greatly aided by the fact that it rained almost continuously, from morning until the middle of the night, leaving lake-like puddles where once there was dry land.

Today the choice was tougher, but still I'm not walking. Although it's not raining as I write this, more rain is almost certain throughout the day and into the night. The good Pete started strong, getting me out of bed pretty early, with "Look, it's not raining right now. You can't sit around here in this little town forever. So what if it sprinkles a little? Since when does that mean you can't walk? Remember all those gloomy days in Indiana in the fall before you got too lazy to walk in the rain? What about Yazoo City? You survived that and you were better for it. Walking in all kinds of weather builds character. Don't be a wimp." Then the bad Pete interrupted from the other side, hopping up and down and pointing to the little angel. "Who put that putz in charge, anyway? You were miserable up in Indiana! And as for Yazoo City, you swore after that you'd never walk in the rain again if you could help it. Anyway, show me the schedule where it says you have to be on the road today. Well? Right. There isn't one. You're doing this for fun. Fun. Have you forgotten the concept entirely? Nobody's holding a gun to your head, although I'd like to shoot that self-righteous little bastard on your other shoulder." Eventually the two little Petes met somewhere around the back of my neck and began duking it out, so I brushed them both away and went to check out the five-day weather forecast. Tomorrow the chance of rain is only 30%, and it goes down after that. So I've committed to one more idle day. Little Red, as I've affectionately come to think of him, strutted away in triumph. He knows the angel will come back later in the day, when I'm bored and depressed, to tell me he told me so. But he doesn't care. Little Red lives in the now. And if it the rain doesn't materialize during the day, the angel will be there with, "Nice going, dipshit. You wasted the whole damn day, for what? Because you were afraid of a couple of drops of water? Jesus Christ." Hey, that's how my angel talks.

It wasn't time to do laundry yet yesterday, but I did go to get a haircut at a little barber shop just off the courthouse square in downtown Snyder. The sign outside said "Specialty ... Men's Haircare." Two women manned the chairs, a Mexican and an Anglo, each approaching, or perhaps having reached, middle age. It was one of those places where you looked at the people who were cutting hair and thought, "Do anything to my hair except what someone did to yours." I got the Anglo, and about halfway through the very normal haircut she was giving me, an old guy came in to sit and gossip and sort of flirt with her. I felt like I was in Floyd's barber shop on the old Andy Griffith Show, with Floyd being a woman (not a real stretch when you think about it). The two of them chatted, and my barber clipped on. I was telling her my deal, and just happened to be mentioning that I'd read that this was the home town of Powers Boothe. She nodded, and then the old man said, "Powers Boothe! I knew that boy the whole time he was growing up! Good kid. He wasn't really from here in town. His folks lived out in the country." Well, this time I was determined not to miss an opportunity to find out a few more things that had been on my mind (although he didn't have any more to say about Powers Boothe). After the haircut he invited me go with him for a cup of coffee with a group of his friends, and I accepted.

It seems that almost every day this guy, Tommy, has coffee at 2:00 p.m. with a few old retired guys (including his twin brother Lonny) at Jaramillo's restaurant, a place that looks very much like a Big Boy, except that it specializes in Mexican food. So I followed him over (actually it was just up the street from Walmart), and we went inside and he introduced me around the table. Besides Tommy and Lonny, who are 71, there were three others. Tommy introduced George by noting that he was a Czech, as if that signified something. I nodded agreeably, and told him one of my sons-in-law was part Czech, so that sort of cemented a bond between us (a bond that would grow stronger when he let it slip that he was not, like some of the others at the table, a Republican). We talked a little about the proximity of Germany to the Czech Republic, and how back when his people came over they were probably all mixed in with the Germans. I'm pretty sure Tommy mentioned that he and Lonny were German, and were from Hermleigh, born and raised. "Hermleigh!" I said. "I walked through there!" We talked Hermleigh history. "The Roscoe, Snyder & Pacific Railroad," I said. Tommy nodded. "Yep. The RS&P."

The other two guys at the table were obviously Mexican, the younger one named something like Appolario and the older being introduced simply as Mr. Gomez. From the looks of it he was the oldest guy there, and for that reason was being treated with a bit more respect, or perhaps mock respect. There followed some friendly conversation, which included a bit of loud talk, on account of the fact that certain people were half deaf.

I spent an enjoyable hour with these men, learning about the local cotton industry (two of them had worked in gins and as farmers), and finding out a bit more about those wind turbines I've been curious about. For instance, a lot of the turbines aren't hooked up to the transmission lines yet. The installation got ahead of the rest of the process, so they're sitting idle now. Also, it takes about one acre for each turbine, I guess so they don't pack them too close together. And, contrary to what I'd thought from looking at them, the turbines do rotate with the wind, and the blades even turn somehow to catch the wind. Tommy said some people think they make the cows sick and that they expose people or things to electricity, but he didn't really believe that. I said that for sure those high voltage power lines buzz like hell when you walk under them, and that maybe that was the kind of thing people were talking about. But we both doubted that the turbines, which only generate electricity and send it somewhere else, would act the same as the overhead transmission lines. Tommy, like me, was more or less in favor of the turbines.

Tommy's twin Lonny had been a barber. All he said to me was, "You don't look like you just got your hair cut." Toward the end Tommy (who sounded to me a lot like Slim Pickens) told me he was glad to discover that people from the north, or east, or wherever I was from, were pretty much just like people were down here in Texas. He said I didn't even have that weird way of talking that he thought folks up there had. I said I'd been down south for a few months, and that maybe I'd lost a little of my accent.

Two or three of the guys were leaving in the morning for a trip to Mexico. They're going down to Piedras Negras to spend a day and night. Partying, I guess, with the senoritas.

Now it's almost 11:00 a.m. on Friday and it hasn't started raining yet. In fact, the sky looks lighter now than it did when I got up. Oh well, I guess there's always the one TV channel I can pull in to keep me company. And lots of reading to catch up on. And at 2:00 I'll stop in to Jaramillo's to see if some of the boys are there.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day 113: A Booger To Build


Snyder to Eastern Borden County. 21.5 miles/2134.3 total

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Today I walk out of Snyder and due west on U.S. 180. At the beginning of the walk I’m enjoying the comparative urban bustle, because in two or three miles I’ll be out in the rolling plains with nothing but the occasional cow and those little gas-powered oil wells and the hills for the rest of the walk. Here at the outskirts of the city it's oil-related businesses--drilling equipment, mostly.

It’s overcast and humid, with rain expected, and the wind blowing again from the south, moving the clouds along, sometimes opening up patches of pale blue. It feels like it’s in the low 60s and won’t get a whole lot warmer.

After an hour I come to a place called Union. I know this partly because I saw it on the map, and also because the Union Baptist Church is right here on the highway, along with another smaller church. There are no signs welcoming me, with or without population numbers. On the internet Union gets one of those virtual push pins on a map and that’s it. It does appear that the heart of Union, such as it might be, lies a few blocks to the north, but it’s a pretty sure bet that that heart is barely beating. Probably the Roscoe, Snyder, & Pacific Railroad had a stop here. There’s a defunct restaurant called Little OJ’s Bar and Grill, and a very faded round metal sign that might have stood in front of a gas station fifty years ago.

In the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s not going to be much else to talk about today, I should advise my readers that I have been busy devising an exit strategy for the walk. Anticipating that by the middle of May the weather in southern New Mexico will be getting hot (and I will be getting tired), I’ve been thinking that that would be as good a time as any to take a break until fall or winter, when I can return and finish up the last third of the journey.

With that in mind I’ve decided to either sell the motor home (along with the towing dolly) or store it down here somewhere. I would prefer to sell it. To that end I bought For Sale signs in Abilene, and have put them in the windows on either side, listing my cell phone number and a few particulars. If it does sell during the next few weeks, I’ll look for another motor home in Michigan. I’d like to get one that’s a bit different inside. This one has a queen-size bed in back and a dining booth up front that converts to another bed, for one or two short people. There are many configurations available, and I’d prefer something a little smaller, with perhaps two single beds and a couch.

Yesterday I got two responses to my For Sale signs, one semi-serious and the other somewhat more so. The second was from an old man who saw me parked in Walmart parking lot last evening, and stopped in to look the motor home over. He said he liked what he saw, and wants to buy it and live in it. He said he’d be happy to give me a few more weeks to walk before he takes it. It sounds almost too perfect, so I’m not expecting it to pan out.

If I don’t sell the motor home I can store it. I know of a place in Abilene where I can store it cheaply for as long as I need to if I don’t find any other such facility between here and where I finally stop.

A few miles past Union I’m hailed by a guy up on a hill, standing next to his pickup truck. He thinks I’m someone else. I cross the road so he can see and hear me, and we end up talking for a bit. I tell him my deal, and he tells me his. His name is John. He’s an old retired oil worker who now goes places for a few weeks each year to help build Baptist churches. He’s going to Wyoming this summer. After I tell him I'm heading for California he says, “I’m not remembering too well these days--what’s the name of that city in California down near old Mexico?” “San Diego?” I offer. “Yeah, that’s it. We went out there one summer to San Diego and built us a church. It was a booger to build, too. Then the minister turned around and asked us if he could tear it down, 'cause somebody wanted to buy the land for three million dollars. I was on the committee and I said ‘Sure, tear it down.’”

We exchange a few more pleasantries and I get back on the road. Afterwards I think of all the questions I could and should have asked him—about oil wells and wind turbines and purple sage.

The prickly pear cactuses are back, amid the mesquite and some spiky grasslike plants that grow in clumps about two feet in diameter, out of which sometimes shoot stalks topped with white flowers. I see another type of cactus, which I think at first might be the jumping cholla Roberts warned me about, but on closer examination it appears thinner and less fuzzy. And it's not jumping.

About a third of the way into the walk it starts to rain, the drops coming in almost horizontally with the strong south wind, hitting the left side of my face. Time to take out the poncho. For the rest of the walk it rains off and on, usually for no more than twenty minutes at a time, and not particularly hard.

I enter Borden County. I will be going about seven more miles, but won’t reach Gail, the county seat, until the next walk. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the population of this entire county is only 729. I see no houses anywhere. What’s interesting is that there are three counties in Texas with even smaller populations. Still, Borden County is the tenth least populous county in the United States.

Some of you might have noticed the affinity between the name of the county and its seat. In fact, both were named in honor of Gail Borden, Jr., the man who invented condensed milk, after whom the Borden brand took its name. Before he did this he was a surveyor and newspaper publisher here in Texas, and served as Customs Collector in the new Republic of Texas, until his removal from that post by none other than Mirabeau B. Lamar, third president (and author of the poem, “The Daughter of Mendoza”). Lamar replaced Borden with a crony, and caught some hell for it.

Borden began experimenting with the whole condensing thing in the 1840s, but not initially of milk. His first product was a mixture of condensed beef broth and flour that he marketed under the name “beef biscuit pemmican.” In 1850 the U.S. Army endorsed this product. (And why not? It combined the shit and the shingle into one cracker.) Arctic explorers used it too. Borden moved to New York (where he had been born) to concentrate on marketing his invention, but it eventually fell through and he lost nearly everything. The world wasn't ready for meat biscuits. Luckily he had also been working on a process to condense milk, and that became a smash. He started the New York Condensed Milk Company, which got a big boost during the Civil War. Borden became a condensing fool, working on ways to condense coffee, tea, meat, cocoa, and fruit juices. But milk, of course, remained the big earner.

Somehow Borden feels like a good name for this vast empty square of land, which must contain more cows than humans. Contented cows (even though that was a different brand). And for that matter, contented people.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day 112: Where The Buffalo (No Longer) Roam



Inadale to Snyder. 20.8 miles/2112.8 total

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I’m leaving beautiful downtown Inadale on Highway 84, heading west by northwest to Snyder.

It’s partly cloudy, with a strong breeze blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. At the moment it’s in the low 60s, and should get up into the mid-70s.

I’m on a plateau. Around me, as far as the eye can see, are plowed fields and wind turbines. Noticeably absent right here are prickly pear cactuses. Lots of mesquites, but no cactuses. I’m impressed with how, taken out of context, this could be the flatlands of Indiana, complete with the turbines. The mesquites, not yet leafed out, could be boxelders or some other junk trees. Oak trees and scrubby pines are visible in the distance around the little farm houses. I guess this is a habit of mine. Pretending I just opened my eyes and was wondering where I am.

After a couple of hours I veer off of U.S. 84 to take the business route into Hermleigh, which I enter at 7.7 miles. This town seems to be devoid of any consumer-based businesses, with the sole exception of a Fina gas station with an Allsups convenience store out on the highway, about a quarter of a mile from the center of town. The population is around 300. Nevertheless, Hermleigh's past is a bit more glorious. It was started in 1907 by two land owners, R.C. Herm and Harry Harlin. Originally they were going to name it “Hermlin,” after both men, but the post office said that was too close to Hamlin, another place nearby. (This seems like an oddly picky attitude for the post office to take, considering that there are duplicate Snyders in Texas, and two of some other places, too.) At any rate, the townsfolk settled on Hermleigh, a rather poetic choice. The place actually had its own newspaper at one time, which if you could see what I see now would amaze you. But then, there was a time when newspapers were much more common. The railroad went through, too, which of course meant something. But here’s a factoid out of left field: during the second decade of the 1900s the town briefly changed its name to Foch, to honor Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French hero of World War One, but reverted back to its original name shortly after the war. Notice they don't do that kind of thing any more. Probably just as well. Towns would be renaming themselves after winners on Dancing With the Stars.

Hermleigh does have its own schools, though, and still has a post office. The team name is the Cardinals, which is written proudly in red on the water tower. The streets of Hermleigh, like those of Roscoe yesterday, are utterly quiet. And why shouldn’t they be? It’s midday, school is in session, and there’s no reason to be driving around here. House after dreary house goes by, stuccoed, paint peeling, until I get to the main intersection, where I turn left and head to that Fina station. So much for Hermleigh.

Much later I leave Highway 84 and get on U.S. 180, taking that into the outskirts of Snyder, population 10,783, and begin a long slow ascent into the center of the city. I pass the Purple Sage Motel, advertised on a billboard several miles back. Although Snyder has about the same population as Sweetwater, it gives the impression of being much more viable, at least if the number of extant commercial establishments is any indication (and I think it is probably the only indication worth mentioning in this context). Here there are more motels, more gas stations, more car dealerships, more shops. To be sure, Snyder appears to have its share of closed up places, but the downtown, where you typically expect the devastation to be worst, is alive and well. There’s more money here, for sure.

And for what it’s worth, Snyder has the distinction of being the home town of Powers Boothe, certainly one of the very best cowboy/bad guy/tough guy actors to come down the dusty trail during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Snyder also is the home of Western Texas College, a two-year vocational school. I pass a sign that says, “Scurry County, Where Oil Flows and Cotton Grows.” That probably sums it up. The few houses I see from the road look better than anything I saw in Sweetwater, too.

A historical marker tells about the Roscoe, Snyder & Pacific Railroad, a short line that connected to the Santa Fe and Texas and Pacific. It was started in 1909 by Winfield S. James and H.O. Wooten, the father of Ina, after whom Inadale was named. Ah yes, the old RS&P.

In the center of town there’s the modern, avant garde Scurry County Courthouse. It’s about three stories high, square and completely windowless, faced with red granite sheets like the one in Sweetwater, with doors on all four sides, a flat overhanging roof, and concrete accents. It’s late now, but I’ll definitely check it out on my next off day. At the corner of courthouse square is a statue of a bison, next to a historical marker telling about J. Wright Mooar, 1851-1940, champion buffalo hunter. Born in Vermont, he came west at the age of fifteen. In 1876 he killed a rare albino buffalo, one of only two known to have been killed in Texas. Its hide was displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Old J. Wright Mooar was personally responsible for killing over 22,000 buffaloes, a record probably unsurpassed. Holy shit. A one-man extinction crew. But here on the plaque they’re bragging about it. It makes me wonder why they don’t have a statue of him here, instead of one of his victims. I think it must have been Mooar who coined the phrase, “The only good buffalo is a dead buffalo.”

So this started as a buffalo hunting area. A guy named W.H. Snyder began selling supplies and general merchandise to buffalo hunters and got the place named after him. Then once all the buffalo were out of the way, the cattle ranchers started fencing the place off. And that's pretty much how it went. I heard a story on the news recently about a rancher somewhere in Texas who was raising buffalo for meat. But they kept straying into his neighbor's ranch, because buffaloes don't really respect barbed wire fences, and generally just trample them down. So one day this happened for the fifth time or so, and he called to ask his neighbor (a cattle rancher) if he had seen any of his buffaloes on his land. The guy said yes, and that he'd taken care of the matter. What he did was to shoot 55 of the guy's buffaloes. So let that be a lesson to any of you would-be buffalo farmers. J. Wright Mooar didn't spend all that time killing all those buffaloes so you could bring them back.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 111: Windmill Country





Sweetwater to Inadale. 21.3 miles/2092 total

Monday, April 12, 2010

I’m leaving from Walmart parking lot in Sweetwater, heading through the city, then through the smaller city of Roscoe and northwest on U.S. 84 to a place called Inadale, a distance of 21.3 miles.

It’s completely overcast, and there’s a chance of rain, with the temperature in the 60s, moving up to about 75. The clouds are moving fast though, and nothing is certain. In any event the long range forecast is for chances of rain just about every day for the next week.

I encountered some nice people on my day off in Sweetwater yesterday. Down at the laundromat there were several Mexican men washing their clothes—men probably far away from their homes and families like me, but unlike me, here to make money and send it back to Old Mexico. These guys dress more like cowboys than the Anglos do—western shirts with snaps, boots, cowboy hats. I also had a conversation with a young Sweetwater policeman, who stopped behind my car in a parking lot to ask where I was from in Michigan, because he's originally from there, too, from Gaylord (Sweetwater is actually a step or two down from Gaylord). Like another Michigan guy I met in Austin, this man was in the military down here and afterwards decided to stay. And he has developed a twangy Texas accent to go with his decision to stay here.

In some way the name Sweetwater makes you think it’s a sort of famous place, but really I think it's nothing much beyond the charming name. It does have a decent laundromat and a pretty good sized bookstore. And a Walmart, of course.

Sweetwater also has the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup every year, in March. As near as I can tell, a rattlesnake roundup consists of a bunch of crazy bastards going out into the hills and getting hundreds of hapless semi-hibernating snakes, bringing them to the county coliseum, then skinning and eating some while doing tricks and making odd displays of bravado with the rest. Yeee-ha. Still, I’m sorry I missed it.

Back in Brownwood (which has its own rattlesnake roundup) I got to talking to a guy who told me about a friend of his who holds a number of Guinness World Records in connection with rattlesnake-handling antics, like putting the most live rattlesnake heads in his mouth (something like 10 or 15), and being in a bathtub with the most rattlesnakes (close to 200, as I recall). (That latter makes me think of a scene from The Big Lebowski. "Nice marmot.") I guess he's been bitten a few times, but it sort of goes with the territory. I think his mother holds the record for having the most snakes growing out of her head.

I walk up Lamar Street to Broadway, toward downtown. Downtown is strictly for the courthouse, the lawyers and bail bondsmen, the cops, and a few municipal employees, and that’s it. With streets wide enough for a 747 to land and make a U-turn. Sweetwater does have an interesting-looking old municipal building, from 1925, which seems to marry Spanish colonial and art deco elements.

The Nolan County Courthouse is fairly new, however, dating from about the 1980s, looking like a fortress, faced with sheets of polished red granite, punctuated with grey smoked-glass windows. In the lobby is a collection of vintage Winchester rifles, probably 60 to 70 of them, arranged in a round glass case. A sign says it's part of the J. Paul Turner Collection.

The historical marker out front tells about the county, giving a somewhat sanitized version of the Philip Nolan story, then going on to talk about the railroad coming though and the present-day economy, based on cattle and cotton and other crops.

There’s also a monument commemorating the W.A.S.P. (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) program, at Avenger Field, a little west of the city, which was a World War II program where women were trained to be pilots. Bottom line—they trained but didn’t really get into combat, then were forgotten for a few decades, until someone decided to recognize them as military veterans.

Almost immediately west of the courthouse business tapers off to almost nothing except for a few auto parts places. It never ceases to amaze me how many auto parts stores a small town can support. I’d expect two, maybe three, not counting junk yards, but there are probably at least six in Sweetwater. Even dinky Cedar Springs, Michigan, which has nothing worth visiting downtown now that the 88¢ Store has closed, has three parts stores on its main street, not counting the one that burned down last year. I expect someone to tell me that I have been naively ignorant of the fact that auto parts stores are the number one way to launder money, or something. Auto parts stores and those impossibly tiny used car lots, which always remind me of the place where Janet Leigh traded in her car before going out into the desert, in Psycho.

On out Broadway I pass an old drive-in movie screen. Interestingly, there’s another one over on the east end of town. Vestiges of the former greatness of the place, I guess, before the interstate made it just as easy to zip into Abilene or Big Spring as to stay home.

After rejoining Interstate 20 for a few miles, I veer off onto Business U.S. 84, heading for Roscoe. I read that Roscoe sits in the middle of the largest wind turbine field in the country. Lots of turbines—thousands of them--begin to come into view, as far as the eye can see. The immediate economic benefit to the locals is that the power companies pay between $5,000 and $15,000 annually to maintain a turbine on your property. I’ll tell you what, if I had a big spread here in Nowhere, Texas, I’d say, “Put as many of those bad boys on my land as you can fit.”

I enter Roscoe, population 1,378, another town along the railroad line. Roscoe has what most places of this size have, which is to say, nothing much. A couple of Mexican restaurants, a post office, a grain co-op, and a few houses. The Roscoe Grocery is gated and locked up, and the only gas station is operated by the co-op and doesn’t have a convenience store. I go into El Mexico Lindo restaurant and get a coffee to go. I'm the only customer at 12:30 on a Monday afternoon. For all I know there might be something else around the next corner, but I’m not going there. I’m heading out to Highway 84.

One of the things I haven’t talked about yet is the Mexican music on the radio. It’s usually at the high end of the dial, around 106 or 107. And since I’m usually at the low end, looking for public radio stations, sometimes I veer a little over to the left to check out the mariachi music, or whatever kind of folk music it is exactly. It reminds me a lot of Polka music, partly because of the frequent use of the accordion and the similar rhythms, but also because of the incredibly amateurish quality of many of the recordings. I’m amazed by how often the singers are just awful. Sincere but bad. The musicians are usually okay. It was the same with the Polish guys when I used to listen to the New Britain station on Saturday mornings. It reminded me sometimes of the Shmenge Brothers from SCTV. I’d think, man, this is going out on the radio, for God’s sake. Has anybody ever told these guys how bad they are? But the Mexicans are even worse, and pretty consistently so. In fact, if someone told me that singing slightly flat was a special characteristic of Mexican folk music, I would welcome the news. It wouldn’t make it any easier to listen, but at least it would be an explanation.

West of Roscoe the land is flat, no longer hilly. Lots of freshly plowed fields, as well as cotton fields with leftover cotton plants, and always the windmills, near and far, like huge white trees. This area I’ve been walking through for the past several days, and will be in until I reach New Mexico, is called the Rolling Plains. Right now as I look around I could imagine myself in the Arkansas Delta, or even in Indiana.

I pass the sign saying I'm in Wastella, which seems to extend for about an eighth of a mile, and includes a house, something that once was a small store, and on the other side of the road, an unpainted clapboard shack with empty holes where the windows and doors once were. It looks so old that Philip Nolan himself might have built it two hundred years ago. Wastella was named for someone's daughter (poor girl). It had a post office once, but it closed in the 1930s. It had a population of 13 in 1990, but I'm guessing that it's less now.

At 19 miles I leave Nolan County, and after spending less than half a mile in Mitchell County, enter Scurry County, where I soon arrive at Inadale, my destination for today. It appears slightly larger than Wastella, although it supposedly had 8 people in 1990. It was named after another daughter, Ina Wooten, whose father was a railroad owner. (I wonder if he's the same Wooten who built the hotel in Abilene?) A couple of tiny houses and a large farm building (maybe a small cotton gin), all battleship grey, on one side of the road, and on the other side a single house and something that probably was a store before the Second World War. And here's where I'll pick up tomorrow.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Day 110: Behind The Sun



Merkel to Sweetwater. 21.7 miles/2070.7 total

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Today I begin at a spot just west of Merkel, heading west on the access road parallel to I-20, through the small community of Trent and on to the southern edge of Sweetwater. It's going to be one of those days when I just put my head down and walk. Nothing much going on but the wide rolling plains and gradually increasing elevation of the Big Country. The line of hills topped with windmills is off to the south, and will probably be with me for most of today. Otherwise it's mesquites, cedars, grass, dirt, and cattle.

The weather is good again. A cloudless day, in the 60s now, heading up to the low 80s by this afternoon. A steady breeze blows from the south.

At about an hour into the walk I take Business I-20 through Trent. Trent has a water tower, one of the older kind—a slim cylinder with a conical top like a coolie hat. The Trent city limit sign says its population is 318. In these little towns sometimes pickup trucks come at me so impossibly slowly that I think they might be stopping to offer a ride. Then when they get up close I see that the driver is just an old farmer who habitually drives twenty miles under the speed limit, not comfortable with anything that goes faster than his tractor. He passes and keeps creeping along, weaving a little, and I realize it’s a good thing he’s going so slow and that he’d be a danger to himself and others if he went any faster.

I’ve been wearing a pair of Nike running shoes that I boutght in Hammond, Louisiana back in January. They’re the best shoes I’ve had so far—just the kind for my type of traveling, with thick cushiony soles and lots of comfort on top. What I'm doing isn’t hiking in the classic sense, it’s just walking, and mostly on hard surfaces, at that. Shock absorbency is what’s needed more than foot or ankle protection. From the top and sides the shoes look as if they’ve barely been broken in. But on the bottoms, in the center of the soles, where the pads of the feet hit the ground about 37,000 times a day, they’re getting thin. I think they have about 800 miles on them, which is above average. But a good rule of thumb is, when you can feel little half-inch pebbles under your feet they way you would if you were wearing leather moccasins, it’s time to change shoes. So, reluctantly, I think I’ll have to retire this pair.

I have a new pair of shoes waiting in the wings, but the break-in process is always a bit tedious. Even if the feet are absolutely comfortable, every different pair of shoes causes slight variations in the stresses and strains on the legs, knees, hips, ankles, and means an adjustment. Comfort almost always comes, though, after a hundred miles or so and maybe a few blisters.

I go up Main Street in Trent, toward the post office. There’s a bank building here, which is closed because it’s Saturday, and absolutely nothing else that would ever be open. I think there might be a gas station up by the expressway. And that’s it. Oh, except for the high school. Yes, they have a high school here, and the name of the team is the Gorillas. The Trent Gorillas. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school team with that name. Go Gorillas!! Gorilla Power!! Gimme a G ….

Well, little Trent has had more than its due, and it’s time to get out of here. Soon I’m back on the access road. I pass, for the hundredth time down here in the south, a field with a dozen or so old cars and trucks from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. They’re probably not much more than bodies, but still, anyone who’s looking for vintage autos bodies to restore should come down here.

Soon I leave Taylor County and enter Nolan County, whose seat is Sweetwater. The county was named for Philip Nolan, who was a bit of an adventurer down here in Texas. He is described as a "horse-trader and freebooter" (or “filibuster,”), that is, a sort of buccaneer who leads unauthorized military expeditions and tries to foment revolution. Nolan came to this country from Ireland as a teenager. Here he fell under the patronage of James Wilkinson (a rather shady military man, who figures prominently, as a villain, in Frances Hunter’s novel about Lewis and Clark, To the Ends of the Earth. Wilkinson’s reputation at the time was tarnished by his association with Aaron Burr, who was most certainly a freebooter, and a would-be king.)

Using Wilkinson’s influence, Nolan made three expeditions into the Spanish-owned territory of Texas, where he traded with the Indians for horses to take back to Louisiana. Each time he had to get passports from the Spanish, and each time it became more difficult. He was not well-liked by the Spanish because they suspected him of fomenting insurrection among the Indians. His last trip into Texas was made illegally, in 1800, when he entered with a few dozen armed men for reasons that are murky. He was killed by Spanish soldiers in March 1801 after refusing to surrender, and his ears were cut off as proof that he had been dispatched. For this he gets a county named after him, and I think I can see why. His complete arrogant disregard for the authority of the Spanish in Texas prefigured the same behavior a few decades later by other Anglos who seemed to believe that it was their right and their destiny to do whatever the hell they wanted in Texas, regardless of who was nominally in charge. Nolan is the perfect hero for this state.

Some of you remember Edward Everett Hale's story, "The Man Without a Country,” written in the 1860s. Hale very loosely based his character on Nolan, and gave him the same name. Later Hale said he had made a mistake, and thought the real Nolan’s first name was Nathaniel, and hadn’t meant to make the historical Philip Nolan the treasonous central character in his story.

Shifting gears, one of the tunes I like to listen to while walking along with nothing else to do is "Key to the Highway." Dating from the 1940s, it’s most often attributed to Big Bill Broonzy, and it’s been covered many times since. I have no fewer than eight versions of it stored on my iTunes—three by Broonzy; two by Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry; one by Sonny Terry solo; one by McGee, Terry, and Broonzy; and the Eric Clapton version from the Derek and the Dominos Layla album. And there’s at least one more Clapton version, as well as plenty of others—Little Walter, B. B. King, and on and on. The thing is, no two are alike. Even Big Bill Broonzy sang it differently, and with different words, from one recording to the next. It always starts the same, with

I got the key to the highway,
Billed out, I'm bound to go,
I got to leave here running
Because walking’s most too slow.


Then things often get different. One Broonzy rendition that might be apropos of where I am now has a couple of verses that go like this:

Run here sweet momma, now,
And help me with this heavy load.
I’m due in West Texas
And I’ve got to get on the road.

I’m going to West Texas
I’m going down behind the sun.
I’m going to ask the good Lord,
What evil have I done?


The thing is, each rendition has something to offer and evokes different things. With Big Bill Broonzy it’s all about the Mississippi Delta and people with one foot in the plantation mud, wearing overalls and work boots and eating fried fish and drinking at little juke joints up on Highway 61. With Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry it’s about the camaraderie and byplay of the two musicians, one on guitar and one on harmonica. They’re doing it as a road show, a vaudeville act almost, like a musical Abbot and Costello relaxing after a long day, complementing one another effortlessly while still each doing his own thing. With Clapton, of course, it’s all about the guitar, the sublime clean phrasing that seems to take whatever he’s doing up into another level of the atmosphere. Some people play the guitar like demons or madmen or bats out of hell. Eric Clapton plays like a choirboy, a saint, an angel, as if he were spray painting heaven with sound.

At ten miles I reach Stink Creek Road, noteworthy for its name if for nothing else. I get what I think is the nicest offer I’ve had from a passerby. A couple of ladies offer me a bottle of water, which I decline, since I just filled mine at a highway rest stop. We get to talking and I tell them the short version of what I'm doing. They leave me with the benediction, “May each step you take be a happy step.”

Nearing the end I enter Sweetwater, population 11,000 plus. Sweetwater is known as the “Wind Turbine Capital of Texas,” and indeed there are plenty of them around. It’s all hills and mesas in the distance and longhorn cattle and bluebonnets in huge thick swaths on the sloping hillsides. In the late afternoon heat and wind their odor comes up at me like I'm walking in the front door of a funeral parlor.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Day 109: Out Of Abilene



Abilene to Merkel. 20.5 miles/2049 total

Friday, April 9, 2010

Starting out from South 3rd and Elm in Abilene, just down the street from the modern Taylor County Courthouse, I'm heading up to take a little walk around the downtown, then west out Highway 84 to a spot about a mile and a half past Merkel.

It’s another sunny day, with a few high cirrus clouds. Temperature is around 60 now, going to 75, with a strong breeze out of the south.

Between South 1st and North 1st run the tracks of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, and the area for about a hundred feet on either side of the tracks is a sort of park, going along for several miles, in which some sculptures are displayed. This greensward is planted with pine trees and other ornamentals.

I turn north onto Cypress, first passing the Grace Hotel/Museum, which I described yesterday, then walking north to the other notable hotel in town, the Wooten. It’s 17 stories, built in 1930 in a relatively unadorned Art Deco style. When it was built it was the tallest building in Texas between Ft. Worth and Waco. Like the Grace, it is no longer a hotel. It’s an office building, and I’ll venture to say it’s nowhere close to being fully occupied. I take a turn around the classy lobby, which has been maintained pretty much as it must have looked back when it was new. Within the Wooten building is the Paramount Theater, maintained or restored to its original charm, now used for film festivals and similar events.

Like Beaumont, a city of comparable size, Abilene has maintained its downtown business district very well, even though not all the buildings are occupied. Up at N. 6th Street is the large modern Abilene Civic Center, and Abilene seems to have an active arts and classical music scene.

I head west to Orange Street, where some of the big churches are located. These are massive, block-square houses of worship—St. Paul United Methodist, First Central Presbyterian, First Christian (Disciples of Christ), and the jewel of them all, the First Baptist Church, done in blond brick in what I think might be a sort of restrained Moorish revival style, its tower looking as much like a minaret as anything else. I expect to hear the call to prayer coming out of it, but instead, on the hour, there’s a recording of a carillon playing “Abide With Me.”

You’d think these Protestant churches would merge, like banks and oil companies, since they’re all selling the same thing, and without a hell of a lot of difference. But of course they think they’re substantially different from one another, and remain handicapped by this conviction.

Across from First Baptist Church is the North Funeral Home, which, according to a sign out front, was once the Laughter Undertaking Company. You can sort of see why a name change was in order, although the latter name was, I'm sure, pronounced “Lauter.”

I’m now heading west out of downtown on N. 1st Street. Out into the Big Country, as they call this particular part of Texas—Abilene and the surrounding counties.

I must say the State of Texas has some of the most handsome and well-designed highway infrastructure—bridges, overpasses, underpasses, and the like--I've seen anywhere. Nicely done with decorative flourishes here and there, including the use of facings that look like blocks of rough-hewn stone. Just some extra little touches that most places don’t bother with.

West of Abilene the land seems more flat than anything else. I know I must be going uphill, but it’s a slow ascent. I enter a bit of the small city of Tye. Here U.S. 84 merges with Interstate 20, so I go down to the access road and start walking there.

It’s beginning to dawn on me that these ubiquitous ugly rough-barked bush-trees I’ve been seeing for several days are mesquite trees. I looked up mesquite on the internet last week, but the illustrations didn’t seem to resemble what I was seeing very closely. However, now I can see a few leaves, and they are definitely mesquites.

I enter the limits of the City of Merkel, population 2,637. I’ll be bypassing the center of town. Merkel was originally called Windmill Town when the railroad came through, but was renamed for a local German guy a few years later.

I pass the Abundant Life Assembly of God. I once knew a guy who theorized that each Assembly of God church was responsible for assembling a different part of God—the left big toenail, the right nostril, one of the teeth, and so on. They operated kind of like automobile sub-assembly plants, and then every ten years or so they’d have a national convention where they’d bring all the parts together and assemble a whole God. Then they’d start the process all over again. I must say that this is every bit as sensible and reasonable—and at least as believable—an explanation of their purpose and activities as anybody in an Assembly of God church would be likely to give.

I stop in to the Merkel Area Historical Museum, located right here on I-20. At first when I go in all I see are several tables of very old people playing dominoes, and what looks like the contents of a flea market or antique store, but with nothing for sale. Evidently the museum doubles as a social center for the over-90 crowd. But the “curator,” a woman named Judy, sees me and begins to show me around. It’s a large museum, all of which I won't get a chance to see because it's nearing closing time. But I see some old military uniforms and memorabilia of Merkelites, lots of arrowheads, old appliances, guns, and the like.

Judy does confirm that I’ve been seeing mesquite trees, and tells me quite a bit about them—how hard they are to kill because of their long taproots, how you can eat the beans and use the wood, and how as a girl she would climb them and get some kind of honey-like substance from them. She also said the fact that the larger mesquites haven’t begun to leaf out yet means there’s going to be at least one more cold spell around here, because mesquites are good predictors of the weather in that respect.

As a souvenir of Merkel I took away two light green glass balls, somewhat nicked and chipped, about an inch in diameter. Several cars full of these balls were being transported by train in the 1940s, to be melted down and used for various glass items, when there was a train wreck in Merkel, causing the balls to spill out along the tracks. Even though the railroad scooped up as many as it could, many more remained, sinking into the ground. As a girl Judy and her friends would go down to the tracks and find them and use them for marbles or in slingshots. As I walk down the road now I’m clicking these balls together, reminding myself of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

As I approach my destination, off in the distance south of the highway I can see a stretch of mesas several miles long, with a hundred or more modern giant windmills running across the ridge. From a distance they look eerily like crosses, especially when they appear to be clumped in threes.

There’s a dead coyote by the side of I-20, grimacing with curved canines. I see what I think are wisps of cotton in the weeds, like back along the Mississippi, but I soon realize they are bits of the coyote’s pale brown fur, sheared off by the wind and by death.