I am driving into the heart of Texas — hot, parched, and ragged, but still a heart of the geographical sort — with my husband. Fortunately, we both like road trips and are from the same part of the world (i.e., West Texas); otherwise, this trip could be problematic.
How could I ever explain this country to a stranger? How could I ever explain my ridiculous love of it, my amusement by it? I don’t get it, myself, so there’s no way I could explain it.
But anyway, we drive north toward Buffalo Gap, which is a little south of Abilene. Outside Austin, the land flattens and the trees and vegetation grow more sparse. You might call it deeply unattractive if you hadn’t spent most of your life here.
Fine. Go ahead. Call it unattractive. We don’t. How could we? The West Texas topography we come from — stark, flat, mesquite-studded — makes this landscape look lush and rolling by comparison. Our eyes have developed differently from an outsider’s; the world will always look different to us. So, we understand the native appreciation of subtleties in the landscape that have led a cemetery we pass to be named “Mountain View” and a nearby church to be called “Hillside Baptist.” (Were the Anglos who settled this harsh, unforgiving territory hard-eyed realists or blithely tenacious optimists? I’ve never quite decided. But intermarriage has always been frequent between these two groups, which may explain a lot.)
You see, growing up in this landscape changes you forever. You see a gentle upward curve in the landscape? I see a hill — or maybe, if I squint my eyes, a mountain. Yes, a mountain! You see a flat-topped anomaly on the horizon (called mesas in these parts)? I see a gorgeous site for my dream house. You see a scrubby little bush on the cracked, dry earth and I see the beauteous place I want to build a treehouse. (Never mind the fact that the only time I climbed a tree, I got stuck and couldn’t get down. As I recall, the branch was several hundred feet in the air; given the size of trees in my neighborhood, though, I’d guess I was a good five feet in the air. But never mind. Dreams of the treehouse variety die hard.)
My husband and I stop for the night. We eat a perfect steak at a legendary restaurant. The next morning, we return to the car and head to West Texas. He drives. I navigate. Unfortunately, we have very different views of what my duties are. He thinks I should be scrambling around on my iPhone like some kind of high-tech fiend — or a simple handmaiden of the driver like, say, that obnoxious little twit, Siri. Well, too bad. I am busily writing down notes for my blog and am not in one of those whatever you want, sahib moments.
The driver gets grumpier and grumpier, since he’s evidently taken a wrong turn. So he starts looking at his iPhone while going a billion miles per hour. This is very dangerous, I explain to him at the top of my lungs.
He pulls off the road, sulkily, and begins punching directions into his damned iPhone. I pick up a map from the floor — an actual paper map, which I trust more — and tell him we need to retrace our steps. He ignores me, frantically pressing more buttons.
This is what is wrong with 21st-century life, I am thinking. Too much technology! Too little human communication! I decide not to reveal my philosophical conclusions just now.
We’re going the wrong way, the driver says. We need to go back where we came from.
I blame the lack of signage for our problems, I say.
That’s the second thing I blame, Mr. High-Tech says.
We pass a car with a soapy message on the back window: Till Death Do We Part.
I object to its use of “we.” He insists it could be correct if you interpret the message in a certain way: We Will Be Together Until Death. I say it should be: Till Grammar Do We Part. He says I am being too rigid.
Around us, the landscape stretches on forever, flat and desolate and brown.
We don’t need an iPhone or a map. We are clearly headed to West Texas. Oh, yeah. We are going home, even if we don’t live there any longer.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about West Texas
Next time you’re in Abilene, stay at the Elegante Hotel (formerly an Embassy Suites). By the time we had our free drinks (each!) at happy hour and a free made-to-order hot breakfast in the morning, we figured our stay was almost free. Your hubby would be thrilled!
BTW — most people consider Abilene to be part of West Texas…
Meant to say FOUR free drinks each. Sounds much more impressive that way!
Ruth, I love your writing. You can write about anything and I’ll find it pure bliss to read.
I’m giggling at the car scene. So typical! It’s incredible (and a little more than scary) to me that my husband thinks he can drive and “glance” at his iphone simultaneously.
Ah, West Texas. A drive you think will never EVER end.
Donna is right. I don’t know how you do it. West Texas, a place I will never go, especially after reading this post. But, you had me riding right along with you in the car.
I think road trips are the most intimate way to travel with a spouse or with children. Thanks for letting us join you in the car~
I think we’re all formed in some way by the landscape we grew up with. It gets under your skin.
Add me to the chorus of people who love your writing. In this piece, you make me understand perfectly why you love a homeland that many others might find hard to like.
From one West Texan to another: Amen.
Sounds like a road trip my husband and I would be on! LOL
National Geographic’s September 2012 issue has a photographic feature on the Dust Bowl and West Texas.
I always loves when Jamie makes an appearance in your stories. About west texas: you might enjoy Let’s Pretend This Didn’t Happen, by Jenny Lawson, about the sameish area of Texas.
Here I am, a Texan, wearing a sweater in August in luscious, green Oregon and feeling homesick for those vast stretches of brown. Texans CAN see beauty in special ways. Like the fields of dead broomweed in Williamson County in the winter — that particular gray was my uncle’s favorite color. Thank you, Ruth!
I’ve been in this coastal swamp for so long I’ve forgotten what a horizon looks like. Give my regards to the land of the high sky.
I miss it
I just returned home from a road trip through North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Similar landscapes to your description of West Texas. I find these flat, dry “big sky” areas interesting to pass through or even visit, but I always wonder “How do people live here?” It seems like a different country. What do these folks have in common with someone living in a slum of Brooklyn, for example? In any event, the one redeeming thing about traveling through ND and MT is that eventually there are mountains which poke straight up out of the flat gray landscape.
You are a brilliant writer and you’ve done an excellent day’s work with this one. I have a fascination with West Texas due to all the cowboy shows I grew up on living in Houston. Every time I’ve been out that way, I always find myself scanning the horizon for one of my heroes. For several years, my ex-husband and I would spend the week between Christmas and New Year at the Indian Lodge in Fort Davis. It is a magic place.
On our Texas road trips, certain places evoke memories so deep they must be stamped into our DNA. Yet still (one of us) will take the wrong exit nearly every time, provoking the other one to mutter a helpful, “Typical!” Our memories of west Texas are rooted in the many geology field trips we took in college. When I drive through those wide spaces, I see reminders of friends, shared laughs and deep conversations held so long ago. It can be a magical landscape if you look close enough.
What the others said about your wonderful writing – Ruth. Ginormous fan here in Michigan. Not ginormous as in a thousand pounds (though I could stand to lose a few), but ginormous in a creepy, “I’m your biggest fan” sort of way.
“Beautifully bleak” is the phrase that kept coming to mind while reading this. Like the pictures I take of snow-covered, desolate roads here in mid-January. Just gorgeous to my Michigander eyes.
I’ve driven through west Texas just three times in my life and I would do it again in a heartbeat, if I had the chance.
Your driver was mentioned on my BBC radio a few weeks ago: (“There’s been some very interesting research on this” — the therapeutic effect of writing experiencies — “by James Pennebaker.”)
I enjoyed reading this article in the Statesman, today.
Having grown up [mostly] in Wichita Falls, your comments about the landscape resonated with me.
When I first watched The Last Picture Show–which was filmed in Archer City, about 20 miles behind our house–I was taken by the scene in which Sam the Lion [Ben Johnson] took Sonny and Billy fishing at a stock tank. The camera slowly panned the tank, including of course the mesquite scrub, the trompled-down bank and the rusting barbed wire fence which ran into the water. The desolate effect was heightened by Bogdanovich’s use of black and white film.
Sam–who previously had owned the land in presumably better times–told the boys that he still liked to “just come out here to get a little scenery”, adding that “It was too pretty a day to spend in town”.
The audience erupted in laughter.
I, however, could distinctly recall evenings drinking beer with high school friends in cars parked at Lake Wichita, where we could admire the reflections of the lights of faraway oil rigs on the other side of the reservoir. It seemed magical, and indeed we shared with each other our dreams of someday being able to own a place on the lake. (I doubt any of us really thought we’d ever realize those lofty ambitions, but the alcohol influenced us to aim high).
Since then I’ve traveled to see a lot of glorious vistas, but still think of my years in Northwest Texas as the prologue for this avocation. As you correctly point out, “our eyes have developed differently from an outsider’s” which is why I’d rather drive than fly to Colorado, and why I appreciate those like you who share this aberrational “world view”.
It was a nice article. Thanks
Love your descriptions. Almost makes me want to go to West Texas.
Ah this scenario has played out on drives I’ve taken with my husband too. Usually Siri butts in at some point.
I love your descriptions of West Texas too. I’ve never been.
I’ve finally figured out that West Texas intrigues me only in part because of its subtle or not-so-subtle desolation. Mainly amazed by the staunch dedication of those who have chosen to remain there for generations, I wonder if an outsider could ever fully penetrate that mindset.
You interwove that subject with the travel experience in a clever way.