I grew up in West Texas. No comma – not the West with the kolaches, but that vast, mythical, spiritual land the other side of Abilene.
One word. Wesstexas.
You have to admit, it’s got a rang to it.
Driving there and back in about 24 hours this week, I tried to note things new or unusual.
Blown-up, burnt-out tank batteries. Broken-down windmills, wasting the breeze. Dry stock tanks. Motels that haven’t seen a guest since the Reagan administration. Vast pastures where even the mesquite and prickly pear look drought-stressed.
Birds that sweep down so you just barely miss them. A coyote sprinting across in front of me. Just like here, skunks that didn’t make it.
I saw a motel with a magnetic sign out front pitching its strong points, “Pool, cable TV, clean rooms, West Texan owned.”
Hmm. Merely “Texan-owned” or “American-owned” is no longer enough. It had to be “West Texan owned.”
Wide, flat, straight streets with curbs, gutters and sidewalks where nobody walks. Clean, level highways, well-maintained barbed-wire fences down both sides. Guys in pickups, wearing cowboy hats, who know to give you that subtle, lift-the-index-finger wave as they go by.
Contour-plowed farms, land put up well or planted in grass or winter wheat, but probably not cotton – not this year. Those fields, plowed dirt, will probably blow away by next spring.
And nice-looking oilwell pad sites, bright new tank batteries fed by rocking pumpjacks that enable that landowner to keep farming one more year.
There are also hospitals, churches, schools and lots of law enforcement.
These little West Texas towns are few and far between, but they’re still there and will remain. They’re dry, but they’re not dead.
Optimism rears up in odd places. Historic districts, restored buildings, community theaters. Highway signs that say, “Watch for water on road” or “Street may flood.”
On many farms, there’s a newish brick house at the front with a metal roof and cars in the driveway. Nearby stands the old home place – a small frame house, paint long gone, roof a memory, windows perennially open, and the front porch folded down like an eye that closed when the posts fell.
At some point, the house just starts to kneel in submission to the elements. Some have already laid down. Someday they all will.
We don’t like to think about it, but someday, so will we, and probably with less dignity.
Most things look smaller than we remember them. Things we thought were huge – water towers, grain silos, cotton gins, courthouses – look dinky now. The drive-in theater that brought Hollywood to the huge silver screen looks like a 22-inch black-and-white now.
One thing I saw is bigger than anything I remember.
(Note: One of our favorite family vacation memories involved a cut through New Mexico on U.S. Route 60 and a stop at the Very Large Array – an astronomical radio observatory consisting of 27 radio antennas – each more than 80 feet across – in a Y-shaped configuration on the windswept plains nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. If you saw the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster, you saw them. It’s pretty cool.)
I did not, of course, pass by the Very Large Array on this trip, but I did think about it when I saw the Very Large Bull.
He’s actually called the “Bridle Bit Bull” and he was sculpted in steel by an artist named Joe Barrington, who has a gallery in Albany. He’s 22 feet tall and anatomically correct (see photo) with his head up like he’s sniffing the wind.
He’s located on U.S. 380, about 10 miles west of Throckmorton. On a bright, clear morning I saw him from about 2 miles away.
There are quite a few real cows, too, mostly looking for grass.
A quick trip gives you a chance to take snapshots with your mind and heart, as well as your camera. Here’s one.
One of the great things about a small town is that you can turn in almost any direction, take a few steps and you’re out of it.
Even greater is, no matter which direction or how far you go, part of you is always still there.
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.