MAY CARSON, THE FIVE-FOOT-TWO-inch, no-bull-suffering, onetime Airstream trailer test pilot and present owner of Cornudas (population: 4), never had but one dream for her little map dot an hour east of El Paso, and that was to install a couple of diesel pumps and turn the place into a proper truck stop. At least that was the idea when she bought the town for $140,000, in 1982, after stopping in for what was supposed to be a quick burger on her way to drop a trailer with a dealer in a town she can’t remember. Her inability to get in and out of the cafe with just lunch may be one of the only times in her life that she has failed to do exactly as she intended.
Cornudas then wasn’t too different from Cornudas now, a wide spot on U.S. 62/180 and the hub of a far-scattered ranching community. It was mostly cafe, plus two pumps of lead-free and a group of 6 twelve-by-twelve cinder-block rooms for tired truckers that a longtime visitor referred to as “an overnight.” It has grown during May’s stewardship, gaining a gift shop, a six-stall RV park, three rent houses, four picnic areas, and one palatial Palm Harbor Masterpiece home, but May never did quite muster the funds or the energy to complete her vision. And now, after fighting off con men and cancer, after seeing her kitchen blown off by a leaky gas line and her foreign-tourist business dry up post-9/11, and wondering, time and again, why some people aren’t born with enough sense nor manners to know not to relieve themselves in her parking lot, she has gotten tired. “I think I might like to move to Costa Rica. I could open a B&B down there and live out back of it. Of course, I’d landscape it myself. And it might be good to get on the beach and relax for a while.” At 67 years of age, May Carson has a new dream: “I want somebody to put an umbrella in my drink.”
She had one foot practically lolling in the Pan-Am surf on Monday morning, October 20, the day bidding was scheduled to close on an eBay item identified as “West Texas Town for Sale.” A few months earlier, May had determined that the quickest route to the tropics was down the information superhighway, and with the help of two computer-savvy women who frequent the cafe, she had posted her town on the Internet’s leading auction house for a minimum bid of $1.3 million. The month-long listing had brought 65,000 hits and four hard offers, and about an hour before deadline, a handful of family, friends, and restaurant regulars were collecting to watch May get rich.
SINGLE-OWNER TOWNS, TYPICALLY THE playgrounds of high-rolling eccentrics, need to have a hook, some kind of commercial reason to exist. The plan is not always prudent—the $65 million that Steve Smith has spent trying to turn Big Bend’s Lajitas into a Texas Palm Springs looks more every day like the $20 million Kim Basinger spent in the early nineties trying to make Braselton, Georgia, into Hollywood, Georgia—but the right match of idea and location can stand on its own. Kit Patterson, the owner of Luckenbach, governs his town as an outlaw-country mecca, his every official act guided by the vision of his grandfather Hondo Crouch. “Hondo bought it in ‘71, and shortly thereafter the federal government shut down the post office,” says Patterson. “Suddenly there was no more need for anybody to come to town. So Hondo came up with zany ideas to keep it going, like holding a Luckenbach World’s Fair or appointing himself foreign minister. He’d declare war on somebody, anybody, then surrender and demand foreign aid.” Hondo’s scheming didn’t produce in the way of pesos or francs, but it did inspire a decent tourism business and the hit song by Willie and Waylon that both fed, and fed on, the Luckenbach myth. Nearly thirty years after Hondo’s death, tourists still get “back to the basics” in Luckenbach’s general store and beer joint every weekend, and when they do they bring their wallets. Alas, the present cornerstone of the Cornudas economy, a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and a grilled green chile, might not justify a million-dollar outlay, even if, as May boasts, “I’ve had people who’ve been to the Dallas Hilton come in and say my food is better.”
Still, a scaled-back version of the truck stop in May’s dreams might. There are two key factors in her truck-and-travel-stop equation, says Dallas Musgrave, a 21-year vice president of operations at Rip Griffin Travel Centers: traffic and isolation. With sixty miles of nothing on either side of Cornudas, May is teeming with isolation. And though her traffic numbers aren’t near what a full-blown truck-stop would expect—just 1,800 vehicles roll past the cafe each day, as opposed to 13,000 at the least-frequented Rip’s—a smaller “c-store” ( c for “convenience,” in industry parlance), catering to tourists like the roughly 210,000 annual visitors to nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park, makes perfect sense. A couple of billboards, which Musgrave says account for 30 percent of Rip’s business, would also help: “She could put ‘If you run out of gas, don’t blame us.’”
And if a new owner wanted a Hondo-like legend to sell with the gas, he could do worse than the indomitable May. Her compact frame is primarily hairdo (she matter-of-factly calls it “Texas Big Hair”) and shoulders (she’s built like a much shorter, Godfather-era James Caan), and even as she approaches seventy, she exercises her abs each morning “until it hurts.” When she was diagnosed with cancer, in 1984, the radiation therapy laid her out worse than the disease, so she ditched the prescribed treatment and cured herself with a vegetarian diet and greasewood tea. Thirteen years before that, she was nearly killed in a car crash on her way to a job wrapping meat in a Bakersfield, California, supermarket: