Day 12. TX: caverns, ranches, hills, hicks
The flickering neon of the motel sign outside my window woke me around 6.30. When I got up two hours later, all was eerily quiet for a Monday. The six-lane highway that ran through the “village” was empty, but it was a public holiday I suppose. Across the road was a place called Grandma Daley’s and I could see shiny things glistening in the morning sun spread out on the forecourt. It was a craft shop of sorts, and had a host of bird boxes, plant stands and candleholders outside. Many incorporated an outline map of Texas or the Lone Star flag in their design.
On the door was a hand-written notice inviting customers to leave money and a description of what they had taken in the mailbox. It didn’t look like it ever opened. The sign emphasized that on no account should anyone enquire at the shop next door. I picked out a small bird-box with a Lone Star roof. It didn’t have a price on it but other similar ones were $13. I checked my pockets. I had one twenty, a five and two ones. I stuffed the five and two ones in the envelope, scribbled down “Texas Star” on a scrap of paper, and hurried back to the car. I had every intention of sending the other $6 later in the post, but I didn’t want the police to catch me before I got the opportunity.
Two sights were marked in red on my map along the next stretch of Interstate, the Caverns of Sonora and the Davy Crockett Monument. The caverns were a little way past the town of Sonora itself and up a country lane. I went in to the lobby-cum-gift shop. Some folks were milling about, but nobody serving at the till. The choice appeared to be between a 90-minute and a 3-hour guided spelunking. I didn’t have the time for either tour, I just wanted a quick look and then be off so I spent a couple of minutes looking at the display of stalactite photos instead. The Davy Crockett Monument was far more suited to speed tourism. It was a statue on a green, right on the side of the road. You didn’t even have to get out of your car.
The sun was scorching outside, and my car felt like an oven. The situation was not helped by the malfunctioning air conditioning. Driving along with my window open was like putting my neck under a hand drier. At Sheffield, I turned off to Dryden where I could pick up a county road that would allow me to approach Fort Davis from the south. A few miles out of town, I stumbled upon TX 2400. I checked my map and found it. It was marked in gray. Gray for scary. It was a road into the middle of nowhere. I checked my gas and water supplies, steeled myself for the wilderness and took the turning. This was ranching country. There was nothing but land. No buildings, no gates, no crops, no cars. I drove for thirty miles and saw nothing. Not even a cow, let alone another person or car. The only clue to life was the barbed wire, one entrance to a ranch, and the telegraph poles. Here in the back of beyond, America’s infrastructure was astonishing. Forty miles of perfectly maintained paved road, the same in telegraph and electrical wiring and presumably the same in underground pipes, exclusively for the benefit of one homestead.
I had lost all radio on both AM and FM. It came back briefly, and I was able to hear the story of the Texan trucker who had just received an award from the state for completing 900,000 miles on the road without a single accident. Then it went again. The silence didn’t last as the rain came down, making me regret laughing at the flash flood warnings I’d seen earlier. Soon a river was flowing down the side of the road and lapping onto the tarmac. At Alpine, a small market town, everywhere was shut. It seemed like hours since I had come across anyone else as I took the scenic route up to my final destination of the day.
Just past an RV site on the way, amusingly called The Lost Alaskan, I did see some people. A car was parked at the side of the road, with someone crouching next to it. From a distance, it looked like they were changing a tyre, and I slowed down to see if they needed help. As I got near, the body uncoiled, sprang up, and came into focus just in time for me to see a woman yanking her drawers up. She had a pair of binoculars around her neck and, as I passed, pretended that she was surveying the countryside. I watched in my rear view mirror, as she lifted her skirts and whipped down her knicks again once I was safely down the road. Two cars passed in quick succession on the opposite side. She’d be in for a right old game of Jack-in-the-box if she didn’t hurry up and finish her doings.
Fort Davis lived up to its billing of being a one-road town, and that road was deserted too. It was 5 pm and, as promised, the Old Texas Inn had closed for business for the day. I found the staircase at the side and climbed it to find that the door was locked. I went back down and looked through the ground floor window and then tried the door at the top of the stairs once more. Nothing. As I was rummaging in the car for the phone number, a woman appeared behind me and asked if she could help me. I explained the situation and she asked me if my name was Kevin May because they’d been expecting me. She told me I was lucky because by rights she shouldn’t have been there as they usually closed at 4.30.
She showed me up to my room and I asked her about the saloon across the road. She strode across the living room area at the front of the inn and pointed out at it. She told me that it was there but that it was closed on Mondays. I queried this and told her that I had specifically asked the man with whom I’d booked the room about somewhere to go for a drink. She said she didn’t understand because he knew perfectly well that the saloon didn’t open on Mondays. I asked her if there was anywhere else to go and she told me that there wasn’t. Her final happy tidings were that the television wasn’t working at the moment after it had been blown up during a recent electrical storm.
I was more than a touch pissed off. I had been lured here under false pretences, notably the availability of food and booze, and now I was stuck. Against all hope, I went out to explore. I walked over to the saloon and it did look very definitely closed. A little down the street, I saw a souvenir shop and went in to buy some postcards from an Indian woman there. I asked her if there was anything to do in town. She told me about a burger diner that stayed open until 9.30 and gave me directions. She also suggested the scenic loop. I asked her what that was and she beckoned me behind the counter and out into a little garden at the side of the store where a man in his fifties who looked like an archetypal Native American was gazing at the horizon. He had bronzed skin, dark eyes and beneath his open necked shirt he was wearing myriad beads. His wrists were bangled and his silver mane was tied neatly back in a ponytail.
It came as a surprise when he opened his mouth to find that he spoke like a Rotarian, with perfect middle-class diction. He reconfirmed that there was nowhere to get a drink in town, but that the scenic loop was well worth seeing. He gave me labored directions and informed me that it was only 74 miles round and that it came right back to Fort Davis. Sat next to him was an old lady, whom I assumed to be the grandmother of the family and who had been staring at me with a fixed grin since I had stepped into the yard. She asked me where I came from. When I said London, she screamed and clasped her hands to her head. It wasn’t clear what this signified. Most probably, in the absence of knowing what to say, it was a random sample from her collection of miscellaneous reactions.
Next door was the town’s supermarket. I needed some booze for later, something to calm my excitement after the treat of another gratuitous 74 miles sitting in the car. The shop-girl asked if she could help as soon as I walked in. I said that I’d just come for beer and went to the fridges at the back. When I went to pay, she wanted to know where I was from cause she knew it sure wasn’t Texas. I explained myself and she expressed some surprise at my ending up in Fort Davis. Rather rudely, I concurred.
I set out on the scenic loop, which wound past the McDonald Observatory and round the back of Mount Livermore. In all fairness, there were some spectacular vistas. Approaching a bend, I could see a lay-by that appeared to jut out over the valley below and so I signalled to swing over. I don’t know why I bothered as I hadn’t seen another vehicle for over half an hour, which made me all the more surprised to see a station wagon already parked in the lay-by. The driver’s door was open and wistful country music could be heard as I got out of my car. Sat on the wall by the car was a woman in her thirties. She was wearing a small, leopard skin dress and dark glasses and got up to turn the music down as soon as she saw me. She went back to staring into the abyss below with that stricken air of someone who has just found out that her husband’s been screwing his secretary for the last year and a half. She’d come to the right place if she wanted to be alone, and I had no business disturbing her.
It was still not yet eight when I got back to Fort Davis. Although nobody had mentioned it, I’d noticed a Mexican restaurant in town that had a sign advertising live music that evening. Optimistically, I parked the car and walked the 200 yards down to it. I might be able to get a drink with my meal, I fancied, and I was right. I had the choice of Coke, homemade lemonade or coffee. With only five other people in the restaurant, I was served very quickly. By live music, they meant recorded music played on a stereo by musicians who were alive when they had committed it to vinyl. Even eating slowly, I wasn’t able to eke the food out beyond 9 pm.
Some kids and a couple of adults were larking about in the living area when I got back to the Inn. I’d been told that there was one more family staying the night. With the briefest of courtesies, I whisked myself through and into my room. By ten, the noise had gone and it looked as if the coast was clear for a cigarette. I ventured out of my door. The living area was in darkness but the balcony door was ajar. I looked around for something to wedge it open. I found a book and laid it carefully on the floor. As I was crouching to put it in position, a voice from the darkness made me jump out of my skin: “Can I help you?”
It was the mother of the family that were staying. When I’d gathered my composure, I explained that I had just stepped out for a smoke. She beckoned me towards the chairs at the front and introduced me to her husband. She was Karen, he was Jeff. I pulled up a seat and interfered with their peace. He was a large man, born and bred on a Texan ranch. She was about a third of his size with a voice like Ed McDonnough in Raising Arizona. Her pet phrase was something to the effect of “that sure is mighty purdy”. They never used each other’s names; he called her mama and she called him lover.
Despite describing themselves as quite well travelled – though they’d never been further east than Missouri – I think that I must have been the first non-American that they’d ever met. Karen perched eagerly on the edge of her chair, intent on every word that came from my mouth and it didn’t take long to flummox her. Talking about the differences of driving in the US and back home, Karen had no idea what I meant by roundabout. Jeff had heard of them; he thought that there’d once been one in Lubbock but “they closed it down after some college kids went and got stuck on it, going round and round for about three days”.
The night was still and quiet. Despite my earlier reservations, this new-found company was making me more disposed to Fort Davis. I explained how frustrating my trip had been to date. I’d hoped to find conversations easy to come by, but so far had had difficulty even tracking down somewhere that was still open for food and drink in the evenings. Jeff laughed and said that was what small town America was all about and one of the reasons why they loved it so. Although they’d been living in San Angelo, they now wanted to move back to Fort Davis and were staying in the inn while they looked for a home. It was where Jeff had grown up, and they wanted similar childhoods for their two kids where they could be taught not to cheat, steal and lie which they thought was all that you learnt if you were raised in the city.
Karen was pleased that I’d included the purdiest part of Texas on my itinerary, and wanted to tell me all about where else I should see in the hill country. I had to point out the limitations on my time and illustrated it by saying that only 48 hours before I had been almost 1000 miles away in New Orleans. Jeff shuddered at the mention of the name: “I don’t even want to hear about that place, let alone go there. The thought of all them cities makes me feel ill.”
He recounted that when he was a boy on the ranch, he had learnt to ride a horse and shoot a gun before he could walk and talk. When he was sent to school at the age of five, he was astonished to find himself in a class of 20: “I didn’t realize that there was any such thing as another 19 kids in the whole world.” His education later took him on to Alpine, which he clearly viewed as a teeming metropolis. And he felt downright overwhelmed when he went off to college in Lubbock, recounting with horror a party that his room-mate took him to during Freshmen’s week where “there must’ve been 50 or 60 people all in one room.”
I didn’t want to upset him further by telling him about life in London. I’d already shocked them with two bits of information about home: the price of gas and an unarmed police force. Jeff said that there was no way that he’d go into an unfamiliar town or city unless he had his firearm with him. Sensing my discomfort at this, he reassured me that the most important thing was to respect guns. If you were brought up with them, you understood the damage they did. It worried him that people had guns who only knew about them from films. Bruce Willis might be able to take a bullet in the shoulder and be swinging a punch with that arm two minutes later, but that didn’t happen in real life. As long as the wrong people had guns, he wanted one too and valued his license to carry a concealed weapon as highly as I did my passport.
They didn’t like the state of modern America, with its drugs, its teenage pregnancies and its litigation culture. Everyone was now out for themselves and all sense of community had been lost. They were thankful to be retreating back to country life and explained that as soon as they’d found the right plot of land they were going to have an off-the-shelf house shipped in. I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard them correctly. An off-the-shelf house? Surely even Texan shelves weren’t that big. In a matter-of-fact way, as if he were talking about picking up Corn Flakes from the store, Jeff described how you could get a pre-made house constructed to your specifications and trucked to where you wanted it. They were only single storey but went up to 35’ by 90’ in size and came with all fittings and furniture inside. All you had to do was sink four concrete pillars on which to stand the legs and then they tied the building down with cables like guy ropes. You then plugged in your electricity, sewage and water and you were away. It took a good minute for my mouth to close again.
It was 1 am when Karen noticed the time and ushered Jeff off to bed. They had to be up at five to get the kids off to school. We’d built up such a rapport that I almost volunteered to be up in the morning to help them. Then again, perhaps not. I promised to meet them for breakfast at eight instead.
25% of the way there: cumulative mileage 4811