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.

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