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.