Learning About America In Unexpected Places

We left Waco, Texas a bit soggy and a whole lot wiser about its wonders. It was July 4, and our next stop was Abilene, Texas, yet another place that I had never seen. I had often imagined it as being like a movie set for a western, with dusty streets and hitching posts for horses. I’d known several people who had attended Abilene Christian University who were hardly quintessential cowboys, so I wondered exactly what I would find in that far western part of Texas. My only clue was in the old song that touted the town as “the prettiest place” that the lyricist had ever been. I found it difficult to believe that a place tucked away in the almost desert like environment of west Texas might ever be described as anything but rugged and untamed. 

What I found was a place with a purposeful plan for incorporating both nature and art into a taming of the harsh elements in that part of the country. It was indeed a very pretty town blooming with flowering trees and plants in the esplanades and along the sidewalks. Someone or some group had made a great effort to landscape the highways and byways in an effort to create a kind of oasis in the desert like climate. 

Everywhere I looked there were works of art, sculptures and murals that delighted the eyes. It was like a fairyland of artistic endeavor and I almost giggled with delight at the creativity that transformed the streets into green spaces. It now made sense to me that so many of my highly artistic friends had traveled to this distant place to earn degrees in the visual and performing arts. 

Sadly because of the national holiday virtually all of the museums and attractions were closed for the day. Otherwise there would have been many wondrous things to see. Instead we simply drove around virtually deserted streets taking note of how lovely they had been made by the work of the artistic community. 

We have a habit of visiting every university that happens to be along our travel route, and so we made haste to go see Abilene Christian University. It was a much larger and more impressive campus than I had imagined, and it continued the theme of beautification that we had seen downtown. Even without many people wandering along the pathways it had an inviting atmosphere that helped me to understand why so many have such great memories of the time that they spent as students there. Even in the great heat of the day it felt cool and tranquil. 

Nearby the school were lovely neighborhoods and a medical complex that would rival those in most major cities. I was struck with how nice it might be to live in such a place which was a far cry from being the rough and tumble western town that I had imagined. 

Eventually we made our way to the ruins of an old fort that once stood as an outpost for settlers making their way into territory that must have felt wild and untamed. The fort had been the site of conflicts with the native Americans who were disturbed by the influx of people intent on taking their land as though it was actually up for grabs. There were stories of commanders who went crazy under the heat of the sun and the stress of their responsibilities. All that remains today are crumbling structures abandoned long ago. 

We had planned to take the walking tour through the ruins, but a huge sign warning that rattlesnakes were alive and well among the remnants of that human experiment, sent me scrambling back to our truck. it was brutally hot and I had no desire to walk through knee high weeds wondering if a slithering creature might cross my path. I decided just to read about the once active military post, and leave the hiking to more adventurous souls. Just viewing the site from the entryway kindled my imagination enough for me to understand how harsh life must have been for those who braved the area in the long ago. It also made the transformation of the town into a pretty stop along the western-leading highway even more impressive. 

The presence of the railroad was a constant as we traveled farther and farther away from the more urban areas of Texas. I understood the importance of the “iron horses” in the development of places like Abilene, and I had mixed feelings about what might have happened there as those native to the area fought the newcomers in an effort to keep the land that had once been their domain. The story of the westward expansion of our nation was not nearly as simple and epic at it has sometimes been portrayed. There were many false assumptions and misunderstandings being made that led to bloodshed that should have been unnecessary. Luckily most of the discussions of that time have become more and more even handed over time. Historians are being honest about the theft of land and culture that was all too often imposed on the native Americans in all parts of the country. The ruins of abandoned forts speak to a complex time that we must honestly face as we attempt to move forward from the mistakes of the past. In many ways, I saw that in places like Abilene truth is encouraged to flourish without varnish and creative excuses for misdeeds. 

I’m glad that I finally saw Abilene, Texas. I think it is important for each of us to spend time along the back roads of America and in places that we might not ordinarily think to go see. We learn about our country, its history and its people when we go to such places. We get to see how we humans deal with both progress and the past. It is an eye opening experience that everyone should take the time to seek.