A Lone Star Holiday, Part Three

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Josiah Wilbarger. Lone survivor of a Comanche raid on a surveying party near Austin, TX, 1833.

Our final push into Austin was a dash through the heart of Comanche Country, a trip that only a few sleeps ago would have invited certain death.  The Comanche, “Lords of the Southern Plains”, were not an outfit to be trifled with, given that they ran the Apaches–no slouches–out of what became Texas, turned the mighty Kiowa into a vassal tribe, raided deep into Mexico for slaves, and were fierce enough, fighting from horseback, to forestall settlement and development of Texas by nearly 100 years.  They were among the first to acquire horses from the Spanish, practiced animal husbandry, and were able to send raiding parties on 400 mile paths of destruction in country without much water.  The first whites who broke out of the trees in east Texas, and onto the southern Plains, encountered Indians who fought from horseback–a new development.  And they fought hard for what had been theirs for hundreds of years.  This was a new and startling turn for westbound settlers, who were accustomed to the tactical advantages provided by the horse, and natives who went about on foot.  Ultimately, the ferocity of the Comanches led to the creation of the Texas Rangers, the rapid development of better firearms, and a legitimate respect, if not fear, for the power of the Comanche Nation.  And of course it ended when Quanah Parker, son of Cynthia Ann, who had been captured as a young girl and raised as a Comanche, finally brought the last haggard bands into civilization.  Quanah, who went on to considerable success and celebrity, deserves his rightful place in the pantheon of true American heroes, and if we are to nurture any healthy suspicion of mindless government in our children, or promote models of selfless leadership in difficult times, we should include studies of Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and many others, in any core curriculum.  But that’s just me.

As we drove through that hard mesquite and cactus country, full of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, scorpions and biting flies, certainly much overgrown since the Comanches roamed it and vast herds of bison kept it down, I tried to think the land back again, to imagine a line of horseback, pissed-off, and painted Comanches watching us from a ridge line.  It’s a hard exercise, and one that demands a kind of stillness, which was not a luxury we were provided on this trip.  But even without that stillness, it was fun to look out across the hill country and imagine the way things might have been once, to pay some measure of respect to the Comanches who had it, and to those early Texans who fought to make it their own.

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Quanah Parker, Last Free Chief of the Comanches

Eastbound then.  Through Mason, Texas, and on, still deeper into the hill country where it was hunting season, past enormous ranches completely encircled by eight foot deer fences, where hunters tore off the highway and off through magnificent gates, hauling four wheelers and side-by-sides.  It is a different kind of hunting in that country, where hunters talk about “leases”, old ground they’ve paid to hunt on for generations, and where I assume the herds are managed privately.  And judging by the number of road-killed deer between Eden, Texas, and Austin, the deer population is doing quite well.

And finally the outskirts of Austin.  Modern American cities, it seems to me, while certainly unique in specific aspects, are remarkable now largely for their homogeneity.  This will have proud defenders of municipal identity up in arms, I’m certain, but from where I’m sitting, the suburbs of Austin don’t look any different than the suburbs of Chico, California.  It seems that what distinguishes large cities these days, more than anything else, is weather and politics.  And in that sense, Austin, which shares a logo and certain identity traits with Portland, Oregon–“Keep Austin Weird”–is winning in the weather department.  We came into Austin from the northwest, skirting the edge of Lake Travis, and navigated our way along the stop and go traffic of the Bee Cave Parkway until we arrived–after crossing, I might add, a road known as Comanche Trail, which begged a few historical questions–and finally into my sister’s driveway in upscale Austin, where her dog Russell greeted us and, to his credit, didn’t bark at the calamity of our rented van.

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A Dash For the Turkey, Downtown Austin.

My sister has four kids, and hosts recovering heart patients from places like Mongolia, so Wendy and I were lucky to find ourselves put up in the Fibrillation Suite which, in all seriousness, was a terrific room in a lovely home.  And it was here, in my sister’s home, with her four amazing children, her husband Peter, and my mom–who had done the smart thing and flown to Austin–that we were able to shake off 1962 miles of road dust, put up our feet, and think about being thankful.  Almost.  My sister is also a strong believer in itineraries, and the weighing dread in the back of my mind was the knowledge that on Thursday morning, against my will, against the various complaints of a body with no shortage of painful miles on it, we would be running the five mile Austin Turkey Trot.

But first on the itinerary was a fantastic viewing of National Geographic’s Jerusalem, my first 3-D movie experience, in the Bob Bullock I-Max in downtown Austin.  And we were able to tour the Texas History museum, where archaeologists and restoration experts are rebuilding, in public view, La Bellewhich sunk in Matagorda Bay, in 1686.  Over one million artifacts, many of which are also on display (including weird things like rat skeletons) were recovered from the shipwreck, and we spent a glorious several hours touring the museum.  After the museum, we took a quick stab around the edge of the University of Texas, within range of the shooter’s tower, where my brother-in-law nearly ran over a jaywalking bum–also, notably, a bum of certain big city bum-homogeneity, up to and including the magnificent hair–who smiled a crazy bum smile as he continued across the street giving us the middle finger.  (Also, quickly, I have a good friend who has developed, after years of close study, a theory of bum-tectonics, which is that earthquakes may actually be predictable by noting the larger migration of bums within municipalities.  But that is another story.)

And how does the rest of this go?  You already know.  Football in the back yard, where the three dogs made up their own team and specialized in illegal tactics like clipping, blocking in the back, and piling on.  X-box, gun handling, and night vision lessons in the pantry with my nephew–my dear mum who wrestled, and lost, her first round with the pumpkin pie, but who managed a fantastic comeback victory in the second round.  Kids shrieking.  Kids, and adults, getting in trouble for throwing the football in the house, snarky commentary about various historical family dramas while both the Cowboys and Longhorns were pummeled on television, a 5 mile run through downtown Austin which, I am proud to say, Wendy and I finished in an hour, without the need for medical intervention.  A ham with the best bourbon glaze I have ever tasted.  A chance to read quietly in the Fibrillation Suite, while the kids were–did I mention this already?–shrieking.  And finally, the turkey dinner at a historical family table my sister rescued heroically from ignominy.  And it was those moments that made 4000 miles of round trip driving, through blizzards and haboobs, through shady tweaker haven truckstops and seedy motels, through cotton country larger than the island of England, worth every mile.  We can never get these moments back, can we?  And there may come a day, when we are wedged into a corner of the Happy Acres day room, drooling in our own laps, surviving on a thin diet of blanched memories, when we would give anything we have for just one more Thanksgiving with our families.

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Get back in the van? Are you out of your mind?

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A Lone Star Holiday, Part Two

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Melrose, New Mexico

On a theme of Billy the Kid, Muleshoe, and The Chiminea Debrief…

We made Santa Rosa, barreling through snowfall so heavy it made me dizzy, performed a flawless locked-wheel skid at the entrance to the Santa Rosa La Quinta Inn, dumped our gear without ceremony, then headed back out into the storm to find some food.  Road hunger can become a debilitating condition, inducing near mania, and after some skirting around the icy streets of Santa Rosa, we managed to find a Subway buried inside the TA truck stop, where lot lizards in dirty pastel stretch pants were playing video games by the front door, eyeballing marks, a female trucker at a food court table was loudly announcing to her table guest that she had found Jesus while hauling bath towels through Nacagdoches, and a Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Deputy was pretending to shop for pretzels while surveilling three tweakers near the hot dogs.  It was not surprising then, days later, on our return voyage, when a tweaker–likely in the early stages of a meth psychosis–came creeping around the gas pumps, and our mini van, pretending to need gas for a phantom car somewhere down the road.  I had been watching his clever casing routine for some time, which included a plastic gas can prop, and a head first, waist deep, dive into a garbage can.  When he finally came to the driver’s window–slinking in from the rear–I had my Glock in hand and was fully prepared to put a tight group into his chest for God and Country.  I also invited him to go somewhere else, quickly, if he enjoyed his life.  He was apparently happy enough with things as they were, and scurried away, which is likely the best decision he has made in some time.  A quick word on this:  America is the land of opportunity, and possibility, two of the reasons we find it such a lovely place.  But with opportunity and possibility come unsavory, and sometimes dangerous, things.  If you are planning a cross-country trip, please don’t do it unarmed.  Don’t even think it.  I’m not interested in what the laws might be, either.  Laws that deny you the basic right to effective self defense are to be ignored.  They are, in my humblest of opinions, evidence of corruption in government and popular moral debasement.

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He Died As He Had Lived, Billy’s Tombstone, Ft. Sumner, New Mexico

Next morning, the snow melted, we drove south into Fort Sumner, followed a two-lane country road for three miles, and pulled into the gravel lot at the Billy The Kid Museum and burial site.  The signs tell visitors that this is the “real” gravesite of Billy The Kid, which suggests that there are charlatans around faking Billy’s final resting place.  Strange behavior, but certainly no worse than the appalling case of failed robber Elmer McCurdy, who was killed in a shootout with the law in 1911, and whose embalmed remains were found sixty five years later, hanging in a Long Beach, California, funhouse, during filming for an episode of the “Six Million Dollar Man.”  For years, visitors and vendors alike supposed McCurdy to be a wax mannequin.  Alas, it was only Elmer, embalmed and mummified.  Billy, famously killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett, was given a proper bandit’s burial, and was eventually joined by his best friends in life, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard, whose graves make up the trifecta, caged against repeated headstone thefts and attempts to dig up the deceased.  Because it was early we couldn’t get in the museum, but we paid our respects to Billy, and because it seemed to be what people do, I flipped a nickel into the cage, onto the concrete mound entombing young William Bonney for eternity.

And then it was back to the asphalt, a long, empty, gray ribbon stretching into a perfectly flat horizon, the sun rising in our eyes, racing enormous trains eastward, through the streets of sleepy Clovis, and finally across the border into Texas.  I had been studying the map intently and was eager to see some of these west Texas towns, Muleshoe and Sudan in particular, if only because their names have a certain appeal.  The poet Richard Hugo made great poetry out of what he called “Triggering Towns”.  He wrote about Montana places such as Silver Star, which he called the “final resting place of engines.”  Or Helena, “Where Homes Go Mad”.  So, on this trip, we were given the gift of Muleshoe, and Sudan.  Muleshoe?  Are you kidding me?  And in the event, while passing through this center of all things cotton, where every block is a series of tractor dealerships:  John Deere, Case, Massey Ferguson, interrupted only by churches and early bird diners whose lots were full of muddy pickups, where gigantic gins could be seen steaming into the blue sky on the cottony horizon, I learned that Muleshoe is home of the Mules, who won the Texas State High School Football Championship in 2008.  A billboard on the edge of towns says so, and if you know anything about Texas, you know this is important.

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Casey Smith. USMC. 100% West Texas.

And so finally, Lubbock, home of the Red Raiders of Texas Tech, and more importantly, my friend Casey Smith.  I first met Casey at the School of Infantry, on Camp Pendleton, in what seems now like another life altogether.  By some miracle, when our orders came after graduation, we were lucky to be assigned to the same Fleet Marine Force unit:  Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.  We spent our entire enlistment together, in the same platoon, enduring two deployments, and the years of shared hardship, sometimes misery, and leadership challenges, have created a unique and enduring bond of brotherhood.  So it was with great pleasure that we pulled into the driveway of his house on the edge of Lubbock.  We ate.  We fondled his guns.  I played on the trampoline with his kids.  We swung around on the gigantic jungle gym Casey has built, both of us struggling badly to climb the rope, which was a source of no small embarrassment and not a few laughs.  And as the cold Lubbock night settled in, Casey fired up the backyard chiminea, brought out the bourbon, and we sat in front of the fire in a slow rolling debrief, swapping sea-stories, trying to remember names, laughing, cursing the loss of a greater era, polishing our own brilliance and perfection as Sergeants of Marines with the gift of time and distance.  I was reminded, even as I started to slur and see two of everything, that what the Marine Corps does best is build teams, relationships of enduring loyalty.  Any one of us can get our ass kicked alone, that doesn’t require any special skill, but a platoon of highly motivated and exceedingly tight knit Fleet Marines is a formidable thing.  Trust me.  And it carries on, years after most of us have discharged.  By sheer happenstance, while we were talking and feeding the fire, Casey received a Facebook message from another of our former platoon mates, discussing plans for our reunion next year near Houston.  It is a rare thing in life to have, and keep, a friend like Casey Smith.  Some time after our stretch in the Gun Club, Casey joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq, while I was toiling away on the streets of America as a cop.  I remember one morning, sitting in my black and white, watching Santa Barbara bums piss in the bushes by the train tracks, when Casey called me from some plywood call center in Anbar Province.  What I felt was shame, a deep and terrible feeling that if anything happened to Casey, I would never forgive myself for not being with him in that fight, as I should have been, pouring rounds down range, or jumping on a grenade, whatever it took.  Say what you want, that’s as honest as I can be about it, and I am thankful every day that he came home to be with his wife, and watch his children grow up.  But it’s our bromance, after all, so go get your own.

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The Legendary Lubbock Debrief Chiminea

I woke up the next morning not feeling well.  I had earned the punishment I was about to receive, which was a long drive through a whole bunch more of Texas, from Lubbock to Austin, while bourbon toxins worked their unholy way out of my bloodstream.  But the road was calling us again.  With much regret, we loaded the dogs, squared away our possibles, bear-hugged the kids, then pulled out onto the 87 South, through Tahoka, Lamesa, and Big Spring, still deep in cotton and oil country, the bar ditches full of cotton bolls blown out of trucks, and pumpjacks working feverishly in the morning sun.  Ahead of us, the Texas Hill Country.

Tomorrow:  Austin City Limits, 5 Miles of Hell, and Pumpkin Pie

A Lone Star Holiday, Part One

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Eastbound BNSF, Near Taiban, New Mexico

Last week we butchered the turkeys. I can admit that I didn’t feel good about it–who would–but it was time. With the deep snow our henhouse simply wasn’t big enough for the turkeys and chickens to live in bird-harmony anymore, given that the turkeys were approaching forty pounds each, and acting like jerks. So, reluctantly–I liked those turkeys quite a bit–I hauled them out one at a time and gave them the most humane death possible. And that’s the way it goes when you are swimming against the depressing national tide of dependency, trying to learn something about life, and death, and make even small strides toward self-sufficiency.  They dressed out very nicely and we now we have two large turkeys in the freezer, next to the elk.  And then we drove to Texas.

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“There’s Always Some Killin’ You Got To Do Around the Farm…” Tom Waits

Here’s a recipe for fun: rent a mini-van, fill it with guns, dogs, food, water, night vision, a trauma kit, and extra blankets for emergencies. Wake your wife up very early and put her in the passenger’s seat. Then drive to Texas. If you live in Texas, this won’t seem like much, given that fully half of the trip is actually IN Texas, but if you are in central Oregon and have mapped a route through Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, central Texas, and finally the city of Austin, and if you add in two blizzards and motels along the way whose advertising slogan is: FREE MARGARITAS WITH FIRST GRAM OF METH, you might develop a sense of scale. Thanksgiving, which is my personal favorite of holidays, is worth it, and so was the chance to spend some time with my sister and her family.  Don’t get me wrong, we could have flown to Austin, but I’m personally tired of warrantless searches conducted by TSA Agents of dubious credibility, baggage fees, delayed flights, and impossibly small seats, all for the privilege of saving time while sitting next to an angry, burned-out, Lamest Generation militant lesbian who sits in your seat, doesn’t wear shoes, is doused in patchouli, and sneezes all over the window.

So we drove. A road trip of this dimension becomes, ultimately, a series of lists. River crossings, for instance: the Malheur, the Sylvies, the Snake, the Colorado. Or weird settlements along the way: Brothers, Helper, Price, Shiprock, Sudan, Art, and Muleshoe.  Or even weather events: wind, rain, snow, icy haboobs, a hole in the sky, or glorious sunshine.  Keeping track of it all while bombing down the highway is a difficult task, and when it’s over much of the trip seems a fantastical blur, but there are always standout moments, still-frames or slow reels of people and places, of conversations, or mere impressions that linger long after the road-hum has worn off.  And for me, who last completed a highway trip of this magnitude thirty years ago, with my dad, in a U-haul van, it was interesting to see again, at ground level, so much of our country.  And it wasn’t lost on either of us that not so very long ago, a version of this same trip took six months or more, that people died and were born along the way, and that when they finally landed there were no hot showers, comfortable houses, or a telephone to let someone know you had arrived.  And I think that was one of my primary takeaways from this trip:  the incredible human industry that has built this country up into a place of such ease and convenience that perspective has largely been lost.  We are never more than three meals away from utter chaos, as natural disasters have repeatedly shown us live on CNN, and it occurred to me, as we drove through the dry land farming country of southern Colorado, or the endless cotton fields of west Texas, that the fragility of our complex system has never been more acute.  We forget, or perhaps we have largely forgotten, the hard lessons of determined vision and tireless work that created all of this ease and convenience, and it seems that we fail to pass them on at a very real, and very considerable, risk.

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Which brings me to Utah.  I’m sure that the Greater Salt Lake area has much to offer, though we didn’t see any of it.  It would be easier, I think, to find a sausage sandwich in Medina than it was to find a cup of coffee in Provo on a Sunday morning.  To begin with, there is no Starbucks, and the clerk at the Chevron station skewered Wendy with a Body Snatcher pod-person scream when she asked if they had any coffee.  Contrary to popular belief, the world isn’t fueled by oil.  It’s fueled by caffeine, but asking for caffeine or a decent dollop of booze in Provo may still be a jailing offense.  The night before, at a restaurant boldly advertising that they had been voted “Best Steak in Utah,” I was served a napalmed Top Sirloin, unfit for human consumption, and was unable to order a double Jack and Coke to kill the body vibrations from a 718 mile drive.  I struggled to prevent myself from the indulgence of a Five Easy Pieces moment, and can report true elation in the morning, in spitting snow, when we pulled out of that monstrous, infuriating, 80 mile stretch of walled city known as Logan-Layton-Salt Lake-Provo, with its terrible drivers, weird smells, ruined steak, abysmal whisky drinks, and rude people.  But that elevated mood only lasted for thirty miles, when we steered our flimsy Chrysler Town and Country due east, through Spanish Fork, and up into a raging whiteout blizzard in the Wasatch Mountains and the bleak, jerky and hardtack outpost of Soldier Summit.  We made it through that righteous blizzard by sheer luck, following in the snow-blowing wake of an eighteen wheeler, and descended into Price, Utah, where two wonderful women from a different universe were baking fresh bread in the gas station convenience store.  Real bread, with real hot coffee on the burner, which they were happy to sell, while the wind was blowing ice and snow out of the canyon and the snow fences were disappearing.

East and South then, through Green River and the Subaru Syndicate town of Moab, with its hordes of mountain bike bandits in hilarious mountain bike gear, and on, through Monticello where we ate Burger King chicken sandwiches in a shrieking barbed-wire wind and gave the dogs a cheeseburger each for their incredible patience and long suffering in our service.  The wind had not let up since we first began our climb into the Wasatch range, and out on the high plains it was simply fierce, great balls of tumbleweed skating across the road and sticking in our grille, gusts buffeting the car, blowing us into the wrong lane, teasing the high profile big-rigs who swerved like drunks to keep their vehicles between the lines and out of the ditch.  But we kept at it, already feeling like old road hounds, scooting across southern Colorado, south from Cortez into Anasazi country, and finally into New Mexico and onto the Great Navajo Nation, littered with ransacked single wide mobile homes and collapsing hogans, where native deejays played George Jones and Freddy Fender on AM 660 while cutting-in between songs to sell Cellular One plans in the Dine’ language.  There is perhaps no better illustration of colliding cultures than the Navajo Nation, where old Spanish suits of armor still rust in desert caves and kids in Shiprock dress up like south LA gangsters, complete with decidedly un-Navajo sneers.  East again, out through Farmington and south, through the Jicarilla Apache reservation, past Zia Pueblo in an icy haboob, and into Albuquerque, with its slingshot freeway offramp bridges, and due east on the legendary Hwy 40.  Our goal was to make Lubbock, Texas, that night, for a visit with my friend from the Marine Corps, Casey Smith, and his family, which on any other day might have been a reasonable expectation, but the blizzard had cost us hours, and the wind was rapidly sucking our energy, so we determined to make for Santa Rosa, New Mexico, at just about the time the sun fell out of the sky and we drove into our second blizzard of the day.

Tomorrow:  Billy The Kid, Muleshoe, and The Chiminea Debrief