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.