Thursday, April 8, 2010

Day 108: Into Abilene

Lawn to Abilene. 21.6 miles/2028.5 total

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Here at Highway 84 and County Road 162 there's dust in the air from newly-plowed fields. I head north in the direction of Abilene, where I'll almost reach the center of the city.

Today’s the kind of day every walking day should be. There isn’t a cloud in the deep blue sky. It’s in the low 50s, expected to get only into the high 60s. A light breeze is blowing from the west.

I’m going past a huge spread called Kington Farms. It goes on for a mile or more. Many acres under cultivation, growing winter wheat, and a ranch where they have Angus cattle. And God knows what else.

Yesterday I visited the Grace Museum in downtown Abilene. It used to be a luxury hotel, the Hotel Grace, built in the early 1900s. It fell into disuse and was gutted and extensively vandalized, but not long ago someone decided to restore it and turn it into a museum. So they fixed up the lobby with the original colors and mission-style furnishings. They found one intact ornate capital at the top of an interior column, and from that they made a mold and recreated dozens of capitals from plaster.

On the first floor is an temporary exhibit of John James Audubon prints and paintings—probably about a hundred items. The second floor is devoted to a children’s museum. And on the third floor is the Abilene Historical Museum, with lots of old local memorabilia and historical information.

One interesting item from the city's past is the Abilene Epileptic Colony, a state institution begun at the turn of the last century. Seems hopelessly old fashioned now, but back then it was right on the cutting edge. Get those epileptics all in one place and see what the hell happens, I guess. Back then the thinking was that lots of fresh air and hard work was the best thing for epilepsy. Good hard work provided more or less for free, that is. Then in the 1920s they began experimenting at the Epileptic Colony and other places with a new drug called Dilantin, and that began to transform the treatment of epilepsy. After the 20s the colony started taking in retarded people in addition to epileptics and changed its name to the Abilene State Hospital, then later to the Abilene State School. I think it still exists, although it must be overdue for another name change. The unofficial motto of mental health planners is, "When in doubt, change the name."

Right before Highway 84 merges with Highway 83, I see a sign that suggests I am in, or near, a place called Tuscola. It lies a few miles from here. “Tuscola” is a faux Indian word invented by Henry Schoolcraft when he was naming some of the counties of Michigan. I couldn’t find any versions of how this Tuscola came to be named, but I’d bet that some folks from up north had a hand in it.

I begin to pass small subdivisions of very new houses, advertising country living with city amenities, with names like Mountain Shadows Ranch. The multi-gabled hip roofs of the McMansions are thick in the distance. Small, newish shade trees grow in the yards.

As I enter the city limits of Abilene I step off the highway and start walking along the access road. A few miles later, as things become more urban, I turn north onto Buffalo Gap road, to head up into the center of the city. Buffalo Gap lies about 12 miles south of here, and once was the seat of Taylor County. But when the railroad bypassed Buffalo Gap in favor of Abilene in the 1880s, they lost the seat.

After I turn up Buffalo Gap Road it’s all city. Not big city—small city. Wide boulevards and stores piled on top of stores, haphazardly, with no thought of arrangement. Big Lots, Alfredo’s Mexican, Power Shack Gym, doctor’s offices, a drive-through Taco Bell, then maybe a few houses filled with people who probably wish they lived somewhere else that isn’t so noisy. Then a 1960s church, all cinder blocks and steep pitched roof, then more houses and more stores and repeat, like an endless tape loop. Throw in a school every now and then, and some dinky afterthought business, like Lucille’s Flowers and Gifts, in a little house with a broken sign out front. One of those small businesses the statistics say will probably fail within the first five years, and good riddance I say. Because the average person doesn’t know jack shit about running a business. So they cheat on taxes, underpay their employees, stiff their suppliers, and then wonder what’s happened to this country when a person can’t start a business and get rich. They whine, and then go out of business. They're my least favorite kinds of capitalists, because they can’t be unionized, give no benefits, are exempt from practically all workplace laws, can’t be regulated, and they offer nothing you can’t get somewhere else cheaper and better and colder and fresher.

A bunch of school girls—they look like maybe freshmen—are running up the sidewalk toward me. I give them the sidewalk. Girls’ cross country team, or something, getting some spring training. Their t-shirts say “Cougars.”

Numbered streets start. This is 35th, counting down. I’m headed for 3rd. Every half mile or so at a busy intersection the neon signs and junk start and then taper off to houses again.

At about 18th Street I begin to go by the campus of McMurray University, a Methodist institution. Most of the buildings are built of blond brick and date from about the middle of the last century, including the handsome neo-Gothic chapel-auditorium. Above the doors is a cross, and above that appear four words of inspiration and admonition: “TEMPERANCE KNOWLEDGE REVERENCE PATRIOTISM.” The last one seems out of place. Temperance I know has always been a hobbyhorse of the Methodists. It was they more than any other group who took this country into Prohibition. Knowledge, well, that's sort of what you'd expect a university to be shooting for. Reverence, yeah yeah. It is a church-related school, after all. But patriotism? Isn't that the last refuge of scoundrels? How do they square that with the others?

At 14th street I turn right and take a detour over to Butternut Street before continuing my northward jaunt toward the center of the city. Butternut is old urban. These stores used to be something else before becoming what they are now—mattress stores, antique stores, dollar stores, gun stores, payday loan stores. And, to a pretty great extent, empty stores. I think this is my favorite part of a city, this pre-downtown desolation of one-story mostly defunct businesses. Slanting forward in 1950s modernity, trimmed with aluminum. One can’t help but wonder what’s next for a street like this. There’s no rebuilding here. These places have used up their nine lives. I see a future of vacant lots. People have cars, and they'll go out to the malls and to Walmart. They'll never spend money here, except in these little last ditch specialty shops.

The handful of tall downtown buildings is now visible a few blocks to the north. That'll be for tomorrow. Right now I'm headed for 3rd and Elm and the end of the walk.

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