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.

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