I have traveled across the country so many times, I can no longer accurately count. Mostly east to west or west to east: on train, on plane and in automobiles. I’ve been across the top tier of states, the southernmost tier and across the middle. I’ve boon to every one of the continental 48 states and all Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island.
And I’ve gone vertically, too. Drawn a giant Tic-Tac-Toe grid across the landscape. Past blogs have chronicled the trips I’ve made from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada; north along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Nova Scotia; and down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico.
In each of these trips, I’ve learned more about my nation, most of it good, but in a few cases — like the persistence of racism — troubling.
One trip I haven’t blogged about yet I took in 1997 for the newspaper where I worked — up the Hundredth Meridian from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. That line is the mythic backbone of the nation, a dotted fold-line that divides the country in two. It’s just a line of longitude, and therefore imaginary, but this particular line has traditionally marked the beginning of the West. To the east of it, more than 20 inches of rain falls annually; to the west, less than 20 inches.
Of course, the change doesn’t exactly run due north and south; it meanders back and forth over the 100th Meridian, so the drive up its length passes from prairie to plains and back, moving from cotton field to feedlot, from pasture to spinach.
It’s the perfect drive to see the middle of America that is so often forgotten by the majority of us whose attention is too often turned solely to the twin coasts.
If you take a trip up this spine of America, you will see more than a few kine, some goats, some sheep and a couple of ostriches.
To say nothing of some interesting people.
Ah, green grass, blue sky and a yellow line down the center of the road.
Some things have changed since I wrote these stories: Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q is closed; a flashy new visitor center has opened at the Washita Battlefield National Historical Site; and several of the elders I talked to have now passed on. But I thought the trip as a whole was interesting enough to revisit in this blog.
It will take three entries; the first never gets out of Texas.
Mile 0, Laredo, Texas
The planet we live on is divided into 360 degrees of longitude, beginning with the one that runs north and south through Greenwich, England.
Not many of the meridians carry much significance: The Greenwich Meridian has been the one that keeps the world’s time; the 180th Meridian, for the most part, is the International Date Line, separating Mondays from Tuesdays. And the 100th Meridian has traditionally marked the eastern edge of the American West.
It is purely a geographical accident, but the 100th Meridian is where the rain gives out. To the east, crops grow with little help; to the west, there is either dry farming, irrigation, or, mostly, cattle grazing.
I took a week in October to drive up the six states that form the central axis of the country, keeping as close to the meridian as I could, but occasionally detouring east or west for interesting sights.
The trip begins in Laredo, Texas.
The 100th Meridian enters Texas just to the west of the border town of Laredo.
The city’s downtown looks more like Tijuana than any other American city I’ve seen. There are the narrow, uneven sidewalks; the old storefronts with overhanging eaves, whose windows are filled with carefully lined up watches, wedding dresses or toys. The streets are narrow through the old part of town.
Laredo was first settled in 1755 and the Woolworth’s looks at least that old.
There are a bunch of border crossings in town, and the lines of people move constantly through the archways; maquilladores flourish across the border and the employees move from one country to the other.
North of the old part of town, Laredo looks more like any other Western American city. Along the interstate that pushes north are hordes of strip malls, Wal-Marts, Popeye’s chicken franchises and home-repair discount supermarkets. Every 1.6 miles, there is a McDonald’s.
U.S. 83 heads northwest out of town and soon crosses the 100th Meridian, then paralleling it in its march to North Dakota.
As soon as you leave the city, you begin to see evidence of the uncertainness of the geography, as you move from farms to ranches.
The prairie doesn’t turn instantly to plains: There is a wide, undulating transition zone.
First, surrounding the city are “winter gardens,” where tomatoes and other vegetables are grown for places that can’t. But as soon as we leave the garden area, we hit the chaparral, where there are hundreds of ranches in the scrubland filled with mesquite, juniper and, most of all, purple sage, which turns patches of the chaparral into an inky lavender.
But as soon as you hit the tiny town of Asherton, the ranches give way once again to agriculture.
Mile 89, Crystal City, Texas
During World War I, the small community of Crystal City tried an experiment: to grow a winter crop of spinach. In only a year, spinach became the area’s principal crop. There was a “spinach boom.” People talked of “green gold.”
By 1933, the Crystal City Cannery was producing 10,000 cans of spinach a day. In 1945, Del Monte took over as primary processor; it now produces an average of 2 1/2 million cases of spinach a year.
In 1936 the Chamber of Commerce held its first Spinach Festival and crowned its first queen and Texas Governor James Allred proclaimed March 16-21 as “Spinach Week” and Crystal City as “the world’s largest spinach shipping center.”
But the chamber of commerce wanted a symbol and found one in Popeye the Sailor Man. They arranged with Elzie Segar, the comic strip’s creator, to use Popeye to sell spinach and a “life-size” statue — if you can say that about a cartoon character — was erected, which now sits on a pedestal in front of City Hall.
“Let us give three rousing whoops for Crystal City,” wrote Segar.
Crystal City has its Spinach Festival every year on the second weekend in November in honor of its “Patron Saint” Popeye. The city of 8,000 grows to 50,000 for the three day event.
Spinach, though, is no longer even the main crop. “We grow onions in the summer and cabbage in the winter,” explains the woman at City Hall.
There are also murals all over the building, including a giant cowboy, Mexican vaquero and a large crocodile. I don’t know what the croc is doing there, but there are some peccaries behind it, and an Indian on a horse with a spear and his head hanging low. Also a Jesus and an American flag, some campesinos and a woman in a graduation gown. It’s quite an iconographical salad.
But not all of history is rosy for the town. During World War II, a Japanese internment camp was built here, which at its peak, held 3,374 people, mostly Japanese American, with a few German and Italian families added, held temporarily as potential immigrants.
Mile 128, Uvalde, Texas
Uvalde, Texas, is best known as the home of John E. “Cactus Jack” Nance, vice president of the United States under the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt.
The irascible Nance, who had been a powerful member of the Senate and House, termed the job “the first demotion of my life,” and said that the vice presidency “ain’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”
These gavels, along with his canoe, hunting rifle, official papers, tons of PR photographs and some very nice oil paintings made by his wife, are on view at the Garner Museum on one of the shady back streets of Uvalde.
About 30 miles north of town, a state park has been named for Garner, in the spotted green canyons of the Texas Hill Country. The park, along the Rio Frio, is bumper to bumper with visitors in the summer, but on an October morning, it is nearly deserted, save for one family swimming in the icy clear water of the river, which is lined with bone-white cobbles eroded from the limestone hills.
Farming has given way once again to grazing land, although most of what chews the tough dry grass are sheep and goats. Central Texas is the Angora wool and mohair center of the nation.
“But we don’t eat mutton,” explains the volunteer at the park information desk. “You know, there’s a historical antagonism between the cattlemen and the sheepherders. That hasn’t completely disappeared.”
“Oh, but it’s changing a little,” says her colleague in the office. “You can buy sheep meat in the H.E.B.”
The H.E.B. is the local chain of supermarkets. It is short for its owner’s name: Howard E. Butt, a major figure in the area, whose name you keep running across for his charitable donations.
If my name were Butt, I’d name my store with my initials, too.
Mile 260, Menard, Texas
The land flattens out by the time you reach Menard, Texas. The town was founded in 1858 and was once — this is a litany in the Plains states — prosperous. Now most of the old stores on the town’s main street are empty.
Burnham Brothers specializes in predator calls, but they carry all kinds, from turkey to mouse calls. You squeeze them, hammer them, blow into them and rub them together, to make the variety of squawks, wheezes, yelps and chatters that will bring your desired prey into the sights of your 12-gauge.
Outside of Burnham Brothers, the towns main income comes from sheep manure, according to Coby Phillips, who works behind the counter.
“My father used to work in the hardware store, and now I work in the same building,” he says. “It was his first job and this is mine.”
J. Morton Burnham is “recognized as the father of predator calling,” says the catalog. In 1952, his sons started up the business using their father’s know-how. They sold it in 1991 to its present owner, who supplies predator calls to the world. They have mechanical calls, cassette tapes of animal calls, and most recently, they have added 60 digital animal calls.
The catalog lists a Coyote Howler, which looks something like a child’s toy trumpet, a Buck Grunt Deer Call, a Coon Squaller, a Mini-Squeal and, Phillip’s recommendation, a Mini-Blaster, which has variable pitch and is “the best for calling coyote and bobcat.”
I am taken with a slate and wood turkey call and ante up the purchase price of $13.95.
“This is one of the top three turkey hunting areas in the world,” Phillips says.
Phillips was born in Menard and can’t imagine leaving. “Many young people do leave, but a lot come back when they are older,” he says.
He has a long list of reasons to stay, despite the generally depressed economy.
“The town is small, so everyone knows everyone else. There’s no crime to speak of and a good school system with small classes. My high school graduating class was 22.”
He was a Menard Yellowjacket.
And in the winter, “There’s only a week and a half out of the year that’s freezing.”
Mile 317, Ballinger, Texas
Near Ballinger, Texas, I start seeing fields of cotton. The fields are completely white with it, looking almost like snow.
Like many of the small towns — this one has a population of 4,170 — there is not much of note.
However, there is a giant high-tech steel cross on the rise overlooking town and a bronze statue of a cowboy in front of city hall. Like many such city halls, the building is the most impressive architecture in the county and and built of sandstone.
When I tune in the local radio station, the newscaster tells me there is some controversy in the city over the community center, which is sometimes used on weekends to hold dances.
Several neighbors have complained about the noise.
“Curtis Jennings appeared before the city council and said he felt past city fathers did not build the community center to be turned into a beer hall and dance hall.
“He told city councilmen that the music went on till almost 1 in the morning.
“Councilman Jerry Willingham said he felt 10 p.m. should be set as the time to shut down activity at the community center. Mayor Rudy Hoffman instructed them to set guidelines and make recommendations for the next council meeting.”
Big, white, puffy cumulus clouds are moving across the sky like a marching band.
Mile 373, Abilene, Texas
Nothing says Texas like a good, thick steak in a sleazy tin-sheathed dive.
Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q and Steaks in Abilene is just off the interstate and just the ticket. Ribeye is sold by the measure: from three-quarter inch (for sissies) up to 2 solid, meaty inches.
The ceiling is patterned tin sheathing, punctuated by six slow-moving fans. The walls are in need of a good scrubbing and are covered in a variety of neon beer signs. A piece of a Texas flag is framed at one end of the room and the 17 tables in the front room are lined up under plastic tablecloths. The chairs are a grab bag of ’30s oak office furniture and ’50s kitchen dinette moderne.
Racks of potato chip bags hang on the counter next to the cash register and the menu is hand-printed on posterboard above the bar.
One old sign says “Beer 5¢” and just under it, “Dancing girls,” but the beer is the normal price and the closest thing to dancing girls are the jeans-and-T-shirt waitresses who hustle from one end of the painted concrete floor to the other.
The owner of this establishment is Timmy Harlow, who looks to be somewhere between 69 and death. His white hair and gaunt body look like that of an old, worn-out cowboy. His beach-ball gut is largely covered by his red apron, but from behind, he has no shape at all: a thin, tubular body with neither shoulder nor hip nor waist. His jeans hang low on his frame and stay up only the way crew socks stay up on skinny shanks.
In actuality, Harlow is 49 years old and a worn-out former beer distributor. His Lone Star franchise fell through in the oil bust of the early ’80s and Harlow, always a hard-liver, had to drop out. There were divorces, some hard times and an inspiration.
So, he opened this restaurant in the former beer warehouse. The building still looks like a warehouse — or at least the back of it does: a utilitarian cinderblock box with “Harlow’s” painted its length.
But in front of that, he has built a kind of garden, with trellises made out of unfinished wood and lots of climbing vines. You have to walk through this little paradise before you get to the fried onions and potatoes with sour cream.
There is a back room, also. It is fitted out with aviation memorabilia in honor of nearby Dyess AFB. There is also a shrine to Chuck Yeager, who has been known to eat here.
Yeager, in fact, so enjoyed the homemade honey ice cream that he asked Harlow for the recipe. Harlow said he wouldn’t give it away, but would trade it for one of Yeager’s flight suits. The suit now hangs near the front of the room.
There is also a wall full of dinner plates signed by celebrity customers. Among the 40 plates, I spotted George Strait, Clint Black and Lori Morgan. Many of the names are less luminous — at least, I didn’t recognize them; probably local radio personalities.
The clientele was a mix with on one hand, well-to-do slummers in their “stone” colored chinos and Oxford-cloth shirts and on the other hand a few broad-bellied men with scraggy goatees and glassy eyes who looked like they just got off the construction site, or more accurately, had stopped on the way for a six-pack or two.
It’s a very Texas mix.
The mesquite broiled ribeye, by the way, was juicy and delicious.
Mile 492, Crowell, Texas
Crowell is one more dried up little town in the flat plains of northern Texas.
Most of the buildings along the downtown highway are closed up. There is little traffic through the town as I step into the M and M Family Restaurant across from the courthouse and order my breakfast.
“Two scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy and your largest orange juice.”
“I’m sorry, but I just ran out. I mixed up a whole gallon this morning and it’s gone.”
“That’s OK, I’ll have water then.”
I find out from three retired farmers who are lollygagging in the M and M that the whole land is thirsty for water.
“All there is in the wells is briny, so we can’t use that to irrigate,” says Abe, who is about 65 and has gone through two heart surgeries and is on the waiting list for a third. He wears a straw cowboy hat and a white shirt.
“The government has a brine reduction project with a pipeline that runs from Guthrie and tries to impound the briny runoff from wells, to reduce the saltiness of the Wichita River so cattle can drink out of it,” Abe says.
“But don’t give this gentleman the idea that we don’t like it here,” says Joseph, who is in his late 50s and seems a little more cosmopolitan than Abe. He turns out to have once run the local newspaper.
“What do you like about it?” I ask.
“Everything,” Abe answers.
But the conversation seems to center on the disasters.
“The problem here is it’s always too hot, too cold, to dry and too wet,” cracks Abe. “The weather is too irregular to make a regular living.”
And the weather is the constant topic of conversation — that and government policy.
The biggest weather they ever had was a tornado in April, 1942. It killed 11 people and tore straight through town.
“That tornado was the biggest thing that ever hit this town,” says Joe.
“I wasn’t here for it,” says Wendell, “But I got here the next day.”
Wendell is 92 and talks slowly. He is also wearing a white shirt, although it is now a couple of sizes too large for him, and a ball cap.
“It took the dome off the courthouse and took off three of the clock faces. One dial was left, but the works was blown out.”
“No, you can’t count on the weather,” Joe says. “We normally get 24 inches of rain a year, but in 1941, we had 40 inches and there were lakes all over.”
But the usual problem is not enough, or at least, not at the right time.
“It’ll rain all around us and Foard County won’t get any,” says Abe.
In the flat country around town, they tell me, the main product is cattle and wheat. A bit further south there is also cotton, but they don’t grow it anymore in Crowell.
“It’s the boll weevil,” says Joe.
“Deliver us from weevil,” says Abe.
“They got a weevil eradication program and it’s the best thing the government spends money on,” he continues. “Maybe one day, they will eliminate the problem — now I’m not saying they’ll ever completely get rid of it — but maybe they’ll reduce it enough that you can make a living with cotton again.”
He doesn’t sound convinced, more hopeful than anything.
As for government, Wendell says the only real non-agricultural industry in town is a company that makes “gimme” caps, but they are feeling the pinch from Mexico.
“I don’t like talking politics,” he says, “But you can hear that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot spoke of.”
The roadside weeds are drying in the October sun. The sunflowers have passed the flower stage and a spattering of black seedheads dot the tan grass. Clouds blow quickly across the sky, leaving racing dapples of sun over the fields.
With the car window down, you can smell the damp straw in the fields, the wet earth and the smell of the cattle as they go by in a truck. Once in a while, the rhythm is broken by the smell of a roadkill skunk.
Just north of Crowell is the Pease River, where Cynthia Ann Parker was stolen back from the Comanche Indians in 1836 after 24 years of living among the Indians. Her Indian son was Quanah Parker, the greatest of the Comanche leaders. His name meant “fragrant.”
And the next town on the route is named after him.
Next: The Central Plains