“In the covered wagon days, if a baby was born in Texarkana while the family was
crossing into the Lone Star State, by the time they reached El Paso, the baby would
be in the third grade” - Wallace O. Chariton
Pregnant Pit-bull. Those That Give. My Own Guide. A Big Piney Cowboy Rhinestone Bend. Prada and Children Who Mark Their Territory. Star Struck. Accidental Poisoning. Remember?-Probably Not. Water Walking. A Mosaic Family. Busted Twice. Almost Mobbed in Dallas. A Brazen Rescue. More Stars than Hollywood. Herr Bandera Leads to the Web. Buffy Finds a Baseball. Chocolate Ribs. Texas Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.
I sat on the floor of the RV, a big bowl of spaghetti in my lap, my bare feet rubbing the belly of a pregnant pit-bull; the over-sized television was frozen on “Pet Cemetery”. This was the narrow but cozy home of Peanut and Samantha, who’d insisted on putting me up for the night. They’d arranged the booth’s pillows on the floor for me to recline on, saved up some hot water for me to shower with, and provided me with a pair of Peanut’s shorts to sleep in since they ordained my clothes too uncomfortable. Peanut was a mechanic at the garage where my van Chief Joseph convalesced, having conked out in the Texas border town of Del Rio.
Earlier that evening as I was wrapping myself into the cocoon of my Coleman sleeping bag, Peanut pulled up in his truck with his buddy, pounded on my door, and said his wife Sam had would not allow me to sleep in the cold, she had pasta ready for me. So they whisked me to the RV park, proffered the cushy chair in front of the big screen TV amid a swirl of cigarette smoke, and provided a puppy-bloated pit-bull to prop my feet on. Dizzy, I looked around. Sometimes it’s those with the least who give the most.
Those That Give
A year before, when I was in Port au Prince, I spent the night in the tent camps near the collapsed Capitol building during a hurricane. A young Haitian couple took me in, their little tent barely big enough for a high bench which doubled as a bed and a small adjacent space where they kept a few boxes of belongings. Water rushed over the concrete floor as the storm tore at the fabric ceiling and walls. I was happy to be out of it and thankful to settle on the wet floor and get some sleep. But the couple insisted I take their tiny bed, while they slept in the running water. When I argued politely they asked if I would make them sleep on the floor as guests at my house. I admitted no. So they won and gave me the bed, they were proud to give me the bed, and huddled in the cold dark below to wait out the storm.
Another Haitian family I stayed with took all the clothes they could gather and folded them onto the hard wood to provide a mattress for me. They shared their meager supply of food. It took me a while to realize it made them feel good to have something to give, and it was a difficult lesson to learn that grace and humility reside in honoring the giver with acceptance. It is still hard for me. But there are people like this everywhere; I seem to meet them often. Peanut and Sam are these people. They take those in need off the street out of the cold and help them with what they have. People like this are common in Texas.
My Own Guide
I’d originally planned to write this Post over a big table I could spread out on, somewhere I could open up the various tourist guides, pamphlets, and books I’d accumulated, refer and borrow from them, and piece together an amalgamated, other-inspired view of the state. But I left all my books at a friend’s house in Victoria, and won’t rendezvous with them again until Oklahoma City where they were sent ahead. Thus I must try to work this up without their help, relying on memory, impressions, and pictures. Maybe that’s how it should be.
A Big Piney Cowboy Rhinestone Bend
Texas is a very big state, a redundant cliché. But it is very, very big. Glancing at the map certain cities seem close and they are, relative to the state’s enormous frame, in reality they are often hundreds of miles from each other, and my initial strategy to tackle the behemoth fell flat on its 1969 face. At its longest it stretches 800 miles across, and at its widest nearly the same. Texas can swallow France; it’s more than twice the size of Japan. Thousands of square miles of sun-drenched beaches line the Gulf, rugged mountains filled with wildlife border the Big Bend, thick forests carpet Piney Woods, and endless prairies shelter cowboys and ranchers, prairie dogs and oil pumps. There are volcanic landscapes, and gleaming modern cities with vibrant music scenes where women wear rhinestones on their jeans.
But the first week I saw little, devoting time to nursing Chief Joseph, as I did much of the second week. His illness turned out to be my fault, well over a thousand dollars could have been saved, and all that time too, if in a groggy haze I’d not poisoned him with diesel fuel one dark morning in Marfa.
Prada and Children Who Mark Their Territory
Leaving New Mexico, which now seems long ago, I crossed at El Paso, chowed down taquitos, and scurried past the war going on just over the border. It was a grey day, and it rained a little, and the road to Marfa seemed a vast blur of mostly sodden browns, trains and tracks and cows. Time passed slowly; marked by the tick-tock of old wooden telephone poles leading at long last to what some would consider Shangri-La. It appeared like a mirage out of the low clouds, a Prada store, conspicuously housed within a single cube building in the middle of nowhere. Bags and shoes were visible through its dusty windows; its awnings read Marfa, the name of a little town known for its eccentric character. This store was an anomaly meant to announce and confuse; it was a gate.
Well-known for its galleries and art festivals, for its size Marfa may have the greatest concentration of artists in Texas. I met two of them, surreptitiously recommended through the electronic ether by a friend back home. Buck and Camp live in a Church and its rectory they purchased 10 years ago and transformed into an artist’s dream castle. Their big back yard is filled with sculptures and tables and well-chosen native plants, presided over by a little trailer that must be fun to hide in during a thunder storm. The home is full of art and books, a sure marker of brilliance since these are two of my favorite things. Camp is the artist, carving and painting wooden sculptures or wall pieces in the Church studio next door. Buck designs websites from her home computer. They’ve been with together long enough to match each other, though they look nothing alike.
They have several children, I forget how many, it was hard to tell because they were always moving, either charging around the backyard, sniffing at my pants, nuzzling for attention, or exploding out the door in a furry cannonball for their evening walk. One was probably a coyote. At sunset in the velvet almost-light as they marked territory with steamy sprays, Buck and Camp told me a little about Marfa. They talked of the artist community and how the distant cobalt mountains kept the climate relatively cool. I learned from them that Texas is mostly private property, and the town of Marfa is confined to its current size by the giant ranches surrounding it. According to them, this is the best place to live in Texas.
As I traveled I noticed this as a recurrent common opinion, that wherever a Texan lived, it was the best spot to be. I have rose-colored sun-glasses on, but Texans wear them dark blue with big white stars on each lens. They can be standing on the dustiest patch of scratchy scrub and look around with their hearts welling into their throats and while hitching up their jeans emphatically pronounce they’ve made it to heaven. There’s something powerful and magnetic in this belief. When I crouched down and peered at the distant cliffs shimmering with morning and the way the staunch land seemed to hold them to the ground, I could see it too, Eden. However, it’s an Eden not to be walked in the nakedness before the Fall, here you must bring your boots, lots of sunscreen and a hat, a big bottle of water, and possibly a map. And don’t believe what you think you see in pictures with lots and lots of sun, Texas can be strikingly cold here.
I woke up with frost sealing the inside of my windows white; I peeled back its filigree with the edges of a beer can I found on the street, and hoped the Chief would start. Peering at myself in the review mirror I saw a shaggy face crested by bed-head, I was a questionable creature, swarthy even. When I stopped at a gas-station, a suspicious border patrolman with a cowboy hat asked if I was on foot. I pointed at the van, glad to have “The Good in America” emblazoned on the side, and he smiled. Then in my grogginess I made a fatal error, poisoning the Chief with diesel. Unaware, I could feel him lurch as he loyally trudged the many, many miles over the top of the Big Bend where I saw a lynx, deer, and a group of turkeys; the various border patrol stations let me pass without even glancing inside, I was surprised, but they allowed the Chief to wheeze over the Pecos River and trace the edges of Mexico, to finally collapse in the border town of Del Rio. There he flattened in a cloud of white smoke.
Luckily a nearby auto dealership took pity on me, hauling my van into their garage, and spent the next 3 days trying to resuscitate him. Tom and his crew at Brown’s did their best. For all of their efforts, for staying late each night and laboring over what they believed was my faulty carburetor, seals, and hoses, they charged me a total of one hour for labor. Truly, the Good in Texas, but still the Chief would not run.
Remember? – Probably Not
In the meantime, I rented a car from Enterprise with money I didn’t have. They gave me a great deal, and I sped to San Antonio to pick up a carburetor where I scored again. Even though it was several weeks past the warranty, they allowed me to switch it out for free. I’d been to San Antonio once before, but all I remembered was a blurry night in a giant bar called Midnight Rodeo, attempting to line-dance around what seemed like an enormous wooden track. The sites I saw were boots, belt buckles, jeans and cowboy hats. I wished I’d seen the Alamo. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
San Antonio means the Alamo, and the Alamo is a Texas symbol for freedom. Several hundred years ago, the Spanish were the first Europeans to make their homes in the area, creating missions, including one at San Antonio, to guard against the Native Americans, and then the French whose strength was growing in Louisiana. But their biggest threat eventually came from the growing flood of land-eager settlers pouring in from the United States. Mexico won its independence in the early 19th century and included Texas territory in its borders. But population pressures continued to grow until an American revolt was successful against the Mexican government. The Mexican President Santa Ana personally led an army to quell it, resulting in a two week siege at the Alamo where the settlers were defeated. They regrouped under Sam Houston and formed a new republic, before knocking the Mexican forces back across the Rio Grande.
I was standing where nearly 200 Texans died, including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, repelling 2 overwhelming attacks before being finally engulfed. Perhaps I’d expected something larger for such an iconic legend, but the fortress is small and it’s apparent it could not be defended for long. But it served to pull the Texans together. Remember the Alamo? And largely because of this battle-cry Texas is the only state that was once its own republic, its own country. The Six Flags are not just a series of amusement parks, they also stand for the six flags, Spanish, French, Mexican, Republican, American, and Confederate, that rose over this varied land.
There are few violent echoes remaining at the Alamo, now colorful flowers ring its grounds, key chains and mugs are sold from carts, children play in the grass. Hard to imagine a great battle or bloodshed or sacrifice, I succumbed to ice-cream on the corner, then perused the River Walk only a few steps away where the low afternoon sun tripped lazily over the water, stirring ducks to paddle for the bridge’s shade, inducing patrons at its banks to order another glass of white wine. I wished I had more time there, I wished I had a girl to sit across from me as the light faded, our hands touching, the smell of the river, the air fluttering through the leaves. I wished many things. I wished the Chief would be fixed when I returned. But I couldn’t linger, I’d been invited to dinner and a comfy trailer to crash in.
A Mosaic Family
Since there was no point in driving the shrubby miles back to Del Rio where the shop would be closed, I opted to stay at Jim Taylor’s house in the small town of Seguin for the night. I met him last year, when I worked briefly on a sheep ranch in New Mexico. I had a big beard then, long hair, was wearing white and covered in all the stains associated with delivering lambs. Now I looked very different, short hair, a 7 o’clock shadow, and instead wore jeans and a Captain America T-shirt. Jim’s the pastor of a church called Mosaic and via email, kindly invited me to stay in his luxurious RV on the property and chill with his family. The girls are home-schooled by their mother Lynda, all of them are briskly intelligent and well-rounded, and they’d prepared a hearty Texas meal for me. We talked about books, some of my experiences, and they showed me their study stations and rooms.
Jim walked me through the church and medical facilities they’d set up, these were designed to take care of the less fortunate in the area. It’s a beautiful facility. One thing that struck me was his view on Christianity, he said it was important to model Jesus, this was the best way to worship him, and that we need ideals like him to pattern our lives after. That’s certainly true.
I had to be at the dealership at 7:30 am so I left before 5 and in a very un-Jesus like way got pulled over for speeding…twice. I deserved it. Especially after shivering on the roadside, undergoing various tests and then being let off with a warning by the first officer outside San Antonio. The second stop was in the no man’s land near Del Rio. With the sun coming up, and no cars on the road, I was tired, listening to the radio and so used to the Chief screeching warnings at me that I didn’t even notice I was over 80mph, lulled by the smoothness of the rental car and the lightness of the accelerator. But someone else did, in a brown car driving the other way.
That uniformed someone stepped out of a movie like a skinny Tommy Lee Jones, with Sam Shepherd’s moustache, and JP Morgan’s famous red nose to shelter it. I wasn’t going to get off twice. He told me if I continued going that fast I’d probably kill one of his deer…then dug through the back of his patrol car looking for a clipboard and I knew I was sunk. He told me I could tell my story to the judge if I wanted to. I admitted I didn’t really have a story to tell.
Almost Mobbed in Dallas
The guys at the Del Rio Dealership gave up and handed the Chief over to the only garage they felt was capable. The new garage struggled heroically to get me on the road, and that’s when I stayed with Peanut and the Pit-bull. On Friday I decided to rent another car and jam up to Dallas for a HelpMob organized by the inimitable Mike D. Merrill, a well-known blogger and marketeer. We stained benches and wove willow through fence frames at a local ecological preserve. Afterwards I met up with my high school buddy Heathe and his son, we pounced on Austin under the pulsing music of 6th street and its towering glass monoliths, his wife drove up and joined us for Thai food and martinis before we all sought sanctuary at a nearby Marriot where they had procured lodging. The married couple got one room, their teenage son and I another, who by the way, with his hand attached to his buzzing iPhone, can sleep through anything.
A Brazen Rescue
Back in Del Rio the next day, the auto shop declared it would take a total of nearly $1700 to fix the Chief. Heathe left after work and heroically drove 10 hours round-trip and all night from the gulf, to pick the Chief up and transport us back to his home town Victoria, where he had a mechanic he trusted. The mechanic deemed me the culprit of the Chief’s ailments, flushed the system, and charged me $300 instead of $1700. I was back on the road after a few days of pizza, Peyton’s homemade Texas chili, American Idol, and their athletic and fun high schoolers doing hand-stands against the wall and bench-pressing each other.
More Stars Than Hollywood
Heathe also took me out to his land-lease several times, a hunting property, where he and other families brought trailers and built a central compound. It was here I realized something else about Texas, there’s a tangible feeling of safety and security built around a common identity, a nearly fierce loyalty. I got the feeling that whatever happened in the rest of the world, Texans would protect their own, they would take care of business; they would get things done. I’ve never seen so much state pride, the Texas star decorates many of their homes, some houses have more than one, some of those have the Texas state flag as well, and some of those have two. There are more stars here than in Hollywood.
Herr Bandera Leads to the Web
I had only a few days to see they state, so I blasted out of Victoria for my 6th and what I hoped was my last crossing through San Antonio to the Texas Hill country. In the past I’d been among the pumping oil fields of the northwest, I’d driven through the green country of east Texas several times, I’d been in Houston for a wedding, seen the inland gulf and the border lands near the Big Bend over the last week, I’d flashed through several of the state’s largest cities. But this was the place everyone told me I must see. I’d have been gravely disappointed to miss it.
Bandera is a cool little town on the Texas Hill Country Trail amid rivers and dude ranches. By the time I arrived it was night; I pulled an urban camping maneuver and slept at a gas station, then searched for WiFi at daybreak. The town has a true southwestern feel, full of spurs, covered-wagon buffets, and turquoise. When I left I followed the river through amazing country, past tall gated ranch signs and undulating forests. The summers here would be gorgeous. I ended up in the old German settlement of Fredericksburg and walked its quaint streets as the sun set.
I meant to stay with some friends in Austin, but a glance at my navigation was not enough to avoid getting lost. After an hour or so of driving, I saw city lights and stopped at a Whataburger to check directions to the house. But I wasn’t in Austin, I’d somehow made a wrong turn, I was back in San Antonio for the 7th time, the apparent center of my Texas web. That was a 200 mile mistake, and I dutifully made the turn north into the lighted tunnel of Walmart’s, Home Depots, Taco Cabanas, and a competitive racetrack of Semi’s while alerting my friends that I’d be late. They said they would set aside a plate of dinner for me.
Buffy Finds a Baseball
Morning found me at the Strout’s house, and it was already Saturday again. Their precocious kid Sam left a pile of graphic novels for me on the night stand. Downstairs he cornered me into a board game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he won. Then we joined a group of volunteers organized by his step-mother Sunny, who I took to home-coming as a senior, and Sarah Tuchler McElvaney , my sister’s high school friend, to pick up a local hiking trail, a HelpMob for Austin. The kids were excited, scrambling among the thorny bushes for cargo, finding a baseball and rusty window frames. Indeed they wanted to keep on going even after we’d cleaned up a whole section. One of the neighbors came outside to thank us.
I realized as I pushed through the bramble, bending over to pick up the metal, plastic, and paper, that I’d be very familiar with America’s trash by the time this project was over. Generally one finds beer cans and cigarette butts, but never granola wrappers or fruit juice containers. I wonder what that says about the person who throws them.
Dallas was my last stop before ascending 75 up into Oklahoma. Mike D. Merrill tipped me off to a great Texas BBQ in Deep Ellum, where I swallowed ribs and mac and cheese. From there it was another Walmart to park in, and a long day at Starbuck’s in Plano listening to jazz and drinking hot chocolate to Post the Post.
This is only my second state. I have 48 to go. I need to establish a routine to get a handle on this. I need to get up each morning, have breakfast, brush my teeth, and perform a paper towel ablution before starting the day. I need to remember to eat lunch, have dinner then brush teeth and floss before bed. I need to exercise and eat right.
And now I sit in the van finishing this off, Starbuck’s is closed but I think I can pick up the Wi-Fi if I get closed to their windows in the wind. There’s a Walmart up the highway somewhere for sure, and beyond that a corridor of concrete that leads through the darkness to the state line and a dance at dawn. Maybe I’ll get up early, like I normally do, and try to flesh this out some more.
Lone Star by T. R. Fehernbach.Goodbye to a River by John Graves; The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; Waterloo by Karen Olsson; The Long Horns by J. Frank Dobie; A Personal Country by A.C. Greene; Interwoven by Sallie Reynold’s Mathews;
Peyton’s Famous Texas Chili
2 lbs ground beef (ground for chili)
5 large tomatoes; 2 Serrano Peppers; 2 jalapenos; 1 white onion (diced); 2 large cans petite diced tomatoes; 4 cans chili tomatoes; Red Chili Paste; Chili Powder; Garlic
*Put the 5 tomatoes, Serrano peppers and Jalapenos in 6 cups of water. Let boil for 45 minutes. Remove skins and stems as they boil off. Puree in blender. Set aside.*Brown ground beef with onion. Drain and set aside.*Combine ground beef, pureed peppers and tomatoes, diced tomatoes, chili tomatoes, two tablespoons of red chili paste and 2 tablespoons chili powder in large quart sauce pan.*Add garlic powder and adjust chili powder to your taste preference.*Let simmer for 2 hours.*Garnish with shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream
Buck and Camp in Marfa, Tom and the guys at Brown’s Auto, Jack and the guys at Auto Rebuilders, Peanut and Samantha, Michael D. Merrill, Jim and Lynda Taylor and their family, Heathe and Peyton Spence and their family, Butch who saved the Chief, Michelle “Sunny” Strout and Sam the stick-holder, Sarah Tuchler McElvaney, the HelpMob volunteers, Blake Whiteside