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: “Some drunk took a right-hand turn into a liquor store from the center lane, and I wrecked into him. I broke my neck in four places, probably because I had a bowling ball in the back seat that flew forward and hit me in the back of the neck.” She qualified for permanent disability, but as soon as she was up and around, she applied for the job with Airstream just to see if she could do it. She was not, she insists, a truck driver: “I pulled trailers for Airstream. And let me tell you, those trailers are tough boogers. They used to put us on a track to learn how to corner ’em, and they wouldn’t roll at eighty.”
When May got to Cornudas, the town was only five years removed from the reign of its original owners, a family called Tinnin. It boasted little history, just a year with a post office in the late thirties, which put it on the map, and half a century more as one of the only cafes between El Paso and Carlsbad, New Mexico, servicing nearby communities like Dell City and Pine Springs. The man who sold it to May had been there just six months when he first offered it to her. She says she simply liked the idea of owning her own town and borrowed the down payment from an Austin mortgage banker with a neighboring ranch who wanted somebody at the cafe he could count on to shoo cattle off his runway when he flew in for weekend antelope hunts. Soon May started scraping together material to spruce the place up, like wood bought on the cheap after a lumberyard fire, pea gravel left over from highway repaving, and broken pieces of drainage-ditch concrete that she gathered after a rare area flood and called “Dell City flagstone.”
When she looked up from her labors, she saw the RV park, picnic areas, the refurbished overnight, and an additional one hundred acres that she had bought behind town, but never the diesel-pump truck stop it had all been meant to complement. She’d been too busy running the cafe: “Good help is hard to find out here. Business is mostly truckers and tourists, and ninety percent male, so if you have a girl working in here, things go awry pretty fast, especially when those nice-looking Wal-Mart drivers come in in their starched white shirts. I call ’em the ‘elite fleet,’ and the girls will be all over ’em.” The only employee of any meaningful tenure, sweet, silent Josefina Vasquez, has worked in May’s kitchen for ten years, her stay no doubt enabled by the fact that she won’t learn English and May won’t learn Spanish. But even with Josefina and Don Ziler, the Dell City hairdresser who moonlights two days a week for May when he closes the only beauty shop in Hudspeth County, May never had the free time to make the dream complete.
IN AUGUST, MAY CALLED J. P. KING, THE Alabama-based luxury real estate auction house, to inquire about selling Cornudas. The King people wanted $80,000 up front for advertising and a 10 percent cut upon sale. “If I had eighty-thousand dollars,” she said, “I’d put a grocery store in here, not give it to them.” The point of selling the town was not to go broke. “So I started wondering about eBay. I’d never seen it before, but I’d heard they sold all sorts of things off of there. Then I saw that they were selling Amboy, California. Hell, I’ve been to Amboy a lot of times, and I got a lot more stuff than they got there.”
She approached Samantha Proffitt, a nineteen-year-old equine-science student taking a semester off from Tarleton State University to help out on her dad’s Dell City ranch. Sam’s dad had bragged that she was a computer whiz, and inasmuch as she owned her own laptop, she was Cornudas’s Internet guru. But May’s $1.3 million price tag, based on a mid-nineties appraisal plus the price of the extra one hundred acres and the Palm Harbor home, presented high enough stakes that Sam wanted help. She called another cafe regular, J’Nette Allred, who’d just left a Dallas developer’s office to move to her friend Louis Hegar’s ranch, near Guadalupe Peak. J’Nette had already been envisioning a new business brokering items on eBay for ranchers unversed in the ways of the Web. Noting the limited reach of area papers, J’Nette agreed the auction site would be a smart venue for Cornudas. The two met with May and signed on to broker the deal for a 6 percent cut.
Except for one unfortunate conference at Louis’s ranch, when some of his goats jumped up and down on the hood and roof of Sam’s car, the two women worked well together. They took pictures of the grounds and most of May’s possessions, which May had decided she’d include in the sale, and posted them on eBay with a testimonial on the many and varied wonders of Cornudas. In addition to the land and all the buildings, they spotlighted photos of famous people who’d actually stopped in, like Ronald Reagan, Anthony Quinn, Morgan Fairchild, and Bruce Babbitt; more than four thousand gimme caps hanging from the cafe ceiling; a piece of the Berlin Wall; a rare adult potty seat; May’s collection of native American pottery, prints, rugs, and numbered kachina dolls; the overnight’s six cabins, each now with its own theme, including ones honoring John Deere tractors and Harley-Davidson bikes; and Cornudas’s crowning glory, a pencil drawing of John Wayne autographed by the Duke to “a great American town.” Then they fielded calls from the media and waited the long month for a buyer to emerge.
ON THE MORNING OF THE AUCTION deadline, the cafe crowd looked like it usually does: two tables of bikers, another of those sharp Wal-Mart haulers, some area ranchers, plus Dick and Jenny Finney, friends from Granbury who’d braved a blown engine on a flight out of Dallas to make a one-day visit and witness the moment. Table talk was a subdued yet incredulous discussion of the sky-high price of cattle (“My God, $1.08 a pound for fats?”), punctuated by excited shouts (“Five minutes to go!”) from the ladies gathering around the gift shop computer with Sam and J’Nette, now operating under the informal title “sheBay.”
Back in the kitchen, May grumbled about having to cook orders on a hot plate because she’d run out of propane. Typically she goes to El Paso on Mondays and picks up the week’s supplies, but not on a day as big as this. Her daughter Terri and grandson Jeff were in from California, and they waited on diners, while May’s 91-year-old mama, Pauline, who’d been down from Oregon the past three years to help wait tables in the cafe and change linens in the overnight, sat quietly with a scrambled-egg sandwich. They all acted like nothing big was happening. But the Granbury Finneys, thrice-annual visitors here since making a random pit stop ten years ago, couldn’t keep from dreaming aloud about their plans to migrate way south with May. Dick has a standing offer for his business back in Dallas, David’s Mattress World, and all he’s waiting on is a buyer for his house and one for Cornudas.
“We’re going to go to the Osa Peninsula in the southwest of Costa Rica,” said Dick, “where it’s rain forest right up to your yard. Monkeys everywhere, and loads of toucans. Down there you can hire a husband and a wife, and the wife will”—he started ticking chores off on his fingers—”cook every meal, do all the washing, clean your house. And the husband, he’ll do your yard, make you a garden, whatever you need, and you’ll get the both of them for fifteen dollars a day.
“I told my wife that when we get down there I’m going to take up bird-watching. They’ve got the most beautiful double-brown-breasted, long-legged bed-thrashers in the world.”
“And I told him,” said Jenny, “that he’d better be careful. He’s not wired for 220.”
All talk ceased when J’Nette announced that the bidding was over. Of the four hard offers, two had met May’s minimum bid, and although real estate offers aren’t final on eBay (one bid had already fallen out when it turned out to be from a college kid who thought the whole thing was a joke), these bids looked solid. The high was $1,300,200.
May walked around the counter from the kitchen wringing her hands, not sure what to say. Somebody hollered, “May, you’re rich!” and she started giving out hugs, one for everybody in the room. As tears welled up in her eyes, not a common sight in Cornudas, they showed up in the bikers’ and ranchers’ eyes too.
“May, come back here and let me show you your high bidder’s eBay history,” said J’Nette. “These are his Feedback Reviews from other people who’ve sold to him. ‘Payment received within an hour of auction end.’ My God, May, what if you got paid within an hour?” Then she read aloud the next review. “‘Fast payment, good eBayer! Enjoy your GlowSticks!'”
May was shaking too much for any of that to register. J’Nette held a small press conference. “We’ve just sent an e-mail to the last bidder, and we’ve informed him, ‘Do you realize you’ve just bought a town? When do you want to close and where do you want to close?’ Now, by eBay rules, he has seven days to contact us.”
A Harley biker named Henrietta asked if that was “seven business days or seven count-’em-on-your-finger days.” J’Nette said seven days is seven days.
And if it doesn’t pan out? “One option would be to simply re-post on eBay,” said J’Nette, “and we are prepared to do that. Another idea I’ve had would be to move the campaign in the direction of talking to the CEOs of travel-stop companies like Flying J and Truman Arnold’s and see if we can’t get something on their desks in the way of an on-paper description of what Cornudas is all about.” May, still taking it all in, went quietly back to work. But as she delivered a round of burgers and fries to the Wal-Mart drivers, she started to perk up: “I want to ask you something. If you’d just made yourself a million dollars, would you be cooking a burger for someone and bringing it to them?” It wasn’t clear exactly what she was asking.
A week later, there was still no word from the high bidder, and both Flying J and Truman Arnold’s had passed on the chance to acquire Cornudas. But J’Nette had started shopping it to mom-and-pop operators and the town was back up on eBay, again at $1.3 million. May’s dream was still alive.