Washington and Points West
Sat August 9, 2008 4:06 pm

To readers:

Whenever I don't post for several days, you can assume the reason is that I am doing real work--the difference between blogging and real work being that the latter has deadlines that take precedence. When I got back from Washington, I immediately wrote a story for the September issue, which will be out in two weeks, about John Weaver, the former chief strategist for John McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential races and the onetime executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. I interviewed him in Washington, and he talked on the record and with astonishing candor about Bush, Rove, McCain's strengths and weaknesses, the current McCain campaign, and his concern for the future of the Republican party ("Parties that oppose immigration end up on the dust heap of history.") As soon as I turned in the story, my wife and I took a long weekend to drive through what I call Larry McMurtry country--the great emptiness bounded on the north by the Red River, on the south by Highway 380 that runs from Denton to New Mexico in almost a straight line, on the east by Highway 281 between Wichita Falls and Graham, and on the west by the Caprock. This was my territory for a future Texas Monthly story on the best small town cafes. We made stops in Jacksboro, Archer City, Burkburnett, Haskell, Seymour, Knox City, Electra, Vernon, Quanah. It will be awhile before I eat another chicken-fried steak.

The landscape here is very plain. Driving out of Wichita Falls to the southwest, we traveled for an almost an hour without encountering a waterway. Not a creek did we cross, much less a river. It was south of Seymour, 54 miles, before we crossed the Brazos. In the stream bed water stood in disconnected pools. I thought of this area as "Larry McMurtry country" because it is the land of the big ranches--the Waggoner, the Four Sixes, and the Burnett--but much of it has been converted to farmland. Mesquite is still thick in many places, but in others the pesky water-consuming bush has been uprooted, piled into clumps, and torched. You don't have to be an economist to deduce that farming is more profitable than ranching these days. I was surprised to find cotton this far east on soil that looked pretty hardscrabble, but there was plenty of it, and when I got back to Austin, a friend who goes hunting in this area said that cotton is being grown north of Amarillo. Apparently new strains have made this possible. We didn't see a lot of cattle, although the incredible heat--109 degrees one day--probably made them take refuge in the brush.

There is a lot of oil up here. To get to our territory, we had to drive through the Barnett Shale play--yes, I know, it's gas--and towns like Jacksboro were doing a thriving business in oilfield services. The national Democrats profess to love the middle class, but they have never figured out that energy production is a jobs bonanza for truck drivers, pipe haulers, hardware store owners (rentals of cookware for meals served on the job site), and tavern operators, to name a few. The oil fields west of Wichita Falls are aging--the holding tanks are rusting, some pumpjacks are idled, others have been partially dismantled--but new production, identified by blue pumpjacks, is spreading out. There must be a lot of money in these fields, because we saw CitiBank branches in tiny towns. But I don't think it trickles down from the landowners. In the towns, the housing stock is old and weathered. Most of the towns up here look as if they are barely holding on. Even on the courthouse squares, at least as many buildings are vacant as are occupied.

The only interesting landscape in this area was the Crowell Breaks. Coming out of Benjamin (pop. 209), the county seat of Knox County, Highway 6 angles abruptly upward, and at the crest of the rise, we looked out at a semicircular red vista of eroded promontories and bluffs. This was a complete change in less than a mile of driving. Eons of flooding by the Red, Pease, and Wichita rivers laid down the soil and it has been worn down ever since. By standards of Arizona and New Mexico, the Crowell Breaks is much less dramatic; the height of the formations, which are occasionally streaked with a thin strip of white, is rarely greater than 50 feet or so. Still, it represents a welcome change from the nearly flat farms and pasturelands to the south and east.

I looked for indication that residents were aware that a presidential race was going on and found none. Not a single bumper sticker or yard sign for Obama or McCain, or any other political candidate, for that matter. I did see American flags everywhere; in one town (I failed to record which one) a small flag had been planted at the corner of every intersection all the way through town. I also saw businesses with Biblical verses on the door.

The proportion of smokers in this part of Texas is like Mack Brown's winning percentage. We stopped to sample the Whistle Stop cafe in Electra. There were two dining rooms, one with a vaulted ceiling and one with acoustical tiles stained with water. The smoking room was the nicer one, and it was full. After we were seated, two tables in the non-smoking room were occupied. This was the only place that even bothered to separate smokers from non-smokers.

There is another reason why I refer to this as Larry McMurtry country. It is the setting of his first novels and the subject of the most memorable (for me) chapters of In a Narrow Grave, his book of essays on Texas, published exactly forty years ago. If you haven't read it, make it your mission to do so. Some of it is dated--the Astrodome, now long defunct, takes up an entire chapter--but it fits McMurtry's purpose, which is to juxtapose the old Texas against the new, and to explore his own feelings about what he knows is about to be lost, forever. That sense of loss still hangs in the air above the red brick streets of Electra, around the splendid courthouse in Archer City, and at the town cafes where old men gather for breakfast, as they always have.

After granting that "the rivalries of manners are more intense" in California, McMurtry writes:

Texas is almost as intense, but much less dizzying. Society here is divided, but it is not yet fragmented to a degree that would raise difficulties for the novelist. The state is as that stage of metamorphisis when it is most fertile with conflict, when rural and soil traditions are competing most desperately with urban traditions--competing for the allegiance of the young. The city will in, of course, but it's [sic] victory won't be cheap--the country traditions were very strong. As the cowboys gradually leave the stage and learn to accommodate themselves to the suburbs, defeats that are tragic in quality must occur and may be recorded.

I started, indeed, to call this book The Cowboy in the Suburb, but chose the present title instead because I wanted a tone that was elegaic rather than sociological. Nonetheless, I think it essentially that movement, from country to subdivision, homeplace to metropolis, that gives life in present-day Texas its passion. Or if not its passion, its strong, peculiar mixture of passions, part spurious and part genuine, part ridiculous and part tragic.

However boring Texas might be to move to, it is not a boring place to be rooted. The transition that is taking place, and the situations it creates are very intense. Living here consciously uses a great deal of one's blood; it involves one at once in a birth, a death, and a bitter love affair.

From the birth I expect very little: the new Texas is probably going to be a sort of kid brother to California, with a kid brother's tendency to imitation.

The death, however, moves me--the way of life that is dying had its value. Its appeal was simple, but genuine and it called to it and is taking with it people whom one could not but love.

The last, the affair of the heart and blood, is really more physical than would have seemed possible, with a land so unadorned, but the quality of one's intimacy with a place seems to depend as little on adornment as the quality of one's intimacy with a woman. One should not, perhaps, call it a bitter love affair--merely one that has become a little too raw, too real, too stripped of fantasy. The time may have come to part or to marry, but for myself, I put no trust in either alternative. Parting would not leave me free, nor marriage make me happy.

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