Prairie Dog Town was the one thing that excited me about moving to Lubbock. I went there before visiting the Buddy Holly Center or sampling the local barbecue. I went there because I thought prairie dogs might help me understand West Texas.
Three years ago, at the end of July, my parents and little brother flew out to Iowa to help my wife, Marta, and me move. They hauled our furniture into the moving van and boxed up everything we’d accumulated over five years of graduate school and in the three months since our daughter was born. A week later, we arrived in Lubbock, where Marta was to start a teaching job. We were sweaty and road-weary, but no matter: the next day, I announced that we were going to see the prairie dogs.
“I’m so excited!” my mom said.
My mother and I are the prairie dog enthusiasts in the family. We like the idea of their underground homes, the fact that they have their own barking language, and, of course, the very notion of all those rodent families creating a community together just out of sight.
When the four of us pulled up that afternoon, though, we were disappointed. There wasn’t much to see: a small sign explaining the prairie dog’s habits and habitat; a plaque commemorating the Lubbock civic booster who started the town; and a low brick wall facing a barren field bereft of grass. This animal preserve may be Lubbock’s fifth-most-visited tourist destination, but that day there were only a handful of visitors. They threw Ritz Crackers and Wonder Bread to the prairie dogs, and when each snack landed, the dogs raced toward it. Otherwise, the animals seemed bored and overweight. It was like being let into someone’s living room to observe him sitting on the recliner eating pizza and watching bad TV.
“So this is Lubbock,” my brother joked. I didn’t laugh.
That first year was hard. Our daughter wouldn’t sleep through the night, and we made few friends. Windstorms shoved dust up through the windowsills and under the front door, while the dry air chapped our lips and left our throats scratchy. Everything, everywhere seemed to be painted with the same beige brush. I missed the crop-patterned hills of Iowa.
I also sometimes missed the days before our daughter’s birth. My mom had made motherhood look easy. When we were kids, my dad worked all the time, so she virtually raised three children herself—while working part-time and finishing her doctorate. She had a large group of smart and funny mom friends who took turns watching us so each of them could go for a jog. I had always assumed I would inherit her motherly ease just as I had inherited her blond hair, her quickness to cry, and her odd love for prairie dogs. But then my daughter was born, Marta and I moved to West Texas, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I loved my child with a fierceness that scared me, but I had never felt so alone.
When Marta and I strollered our daughter through our new neighborhood, our arms linked, people stared. The parents we met at the park were polite, but never welcoming. People assumed I was Marta’s sister or friend, and sometimes when we told them we were married, their faces fell. I felt that we didn’t belong in this town. Then I felt melodramatic. How could someone not belong in a town?
One day in October, I pulled something in my back from carrying our daughter. The flashing pain scared me, so I went to see a chiropractor, a large woman with raccoon eyes. When I explained what had happened, she asked what kind of birth I’d had.
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t give birth to my daughter, my lesbian partner did.”
I felt silly adding the “lesbian” part. The chiropractor, though, just looked confused. She told me to lie down on the plastic massage table so she could realign my ribs.
“Breastfeeding can be hard on the back, too,” she said after a while. “How do you feed her?”
I was about to explain that if I didn’t give birth to my daughter, I also couldn’t breastfeed her, but I’d already explained myself once, and I didn’t have the energy to do so again. Sometimes people just don’t want to understand. So I pretended I hadn’t heard her question. She cracked and pulled me, and when I left, my back was better, but I felt worse. During the car ride home, I started to cry.
I cried a lot that fall and winter. Ducks filled every lake in town, the sycamore trees in our neighborhood gleamed white against the blue sky, and sometimes Lubbock was beautiful. But most of the time I cursed its wide openness. I like to think of myself as adaptable; I was born in Dallas, moved to the Midwest when I was one, and then to Florida when I was twelve. When I left home, I moved every couple of years—to three foreign countries, four different states, and two islands. Yet living in Lubbock was the first time I’d felt stranded.
When my parents came to visit that spring, we decided not to return to Prairie Dog Town. Instead we went for barbecue and to the Buddy Holly Center. Holly, a Lubbock native who had died in a field in Iowa, was a strange but comforting connection between where we were now and where we’d been before.
Walking out of the museum, my mom brought up Waylon Jennings, who was supposed to have joined Holly on that ill-fated flight.
“It’s good he didn’t die with Buddy Holly,” she said.
“What?” I said, laughing at the seeming non sequitur. “Why’d you say that?”
“Because then we wouldn’t have called you Waylon before you were born.”
I’d forgotten that story: how my giddy parents-to-be, recent transplants to Texas, had watched Waylon Jennings sing on TV and decided to call my fetus-self Waylon. That was my name until I was born, a girl.
I’d forgotten, too, that my mom had also taken care of her first child in a Texas city where she knew no one. Because my dad traveled so much for work, my mom was sometimes alone with me for weeks at a time.
“I loved you more than I thought possible,” she told me. “But I was lonely.”
A year after our first visit to Prairie Dog Town, I finally returned. Two friends from Dallas came to visit, and I drove them over with a warning not to expect too much.
But when we pulled up, the town was alive with movement: baby prairie dogs scurried near the low wall and romped in the dirt. Their parents popped up from holes with gusto. One of the pups ran up to its mother, and she stood straight as a sentry and gave it her teat.
“They’ve given birth,” I said, stating the obvious.
At one point, a leashed dog—an actual dog, not a prairie dog—appeared near the end of the town and one prairie dog began to bark. Then they all joined in.
“This is not what I expected from Prairie Dog Town,” one of my friends said.
“Did you think there’d be a general store and little buildings?” his girlfriend joked, and we all laughed. It’s something about the word “town.” Towns call to mind roads, storefronts, and rows of houses. Just as the word “family” often calls to mind a father and a mother, two kids, maybe three. But families are not always what we think they’ll be, and neither are towns.
I took my daughter to Prairie Dog Town a few weeks later. She was starting to walk by then. Marta and I were starting to make some good friends. We had a new tomato plant out back that my mom had bought us and plans to start a garden that year. Outside it was greener than when we first arrived, or at least greener than I remembered it being. The cactuses bloomed peach and rose and the skies were so blue it hurt.
My daughter stood along the perimeter wall of Prairie Dog Town and pointed at everything as if it were new—and I suppose it was. One of the smaller prairie dogs, a baby now almost grown, approached us expectantly. His fur was mottled and patchy like a newborn sprouting its first head of hair. My daughter pointed and laughed. I laughed too.
Underneath us, the prairie dog families went on with their lives. The secret of this town is that its heart lies far below anything we can see. You just have to trust that it’s there and, eventually, it will be.