Finding America

Amarillo, Texas is five hundred ninety nine miles from Houston. Located in the panhandle of the state, it is the last major stop before leaving the Texas and entering New Mexico. Travelling by car, if all goes well, it can be reached in a little over nine hours, not including the reality that just getting into the outskirts of Houston may sometimes require an additional hour of driving. With stops for gasoline, breaks for food, and so forth it is more likely to take anywhere from ten to to eleven hours of hard driving through one small town after another before reaching Amarillo. 

I’ve gone through Amarillo many times, usually around dinner time after driving all day long. I’ve generally viewed the city as little more than a stopping point on my way to other places. In more recent years I’ve actually breezed through the place to get a few more hours of daylight driving because the conveniences in smaller towns farther along my route have improved greatly over the years. I have known of Amarillo, but I have not really known Amarillo. 

For our recent trip, we decided to actually spend some time in the city just to learn a bit more about the place. We found a great campground, dropped off our trailer, and drove almost immediately to a local attraction that has become legendary. In what was once a field on the outskirts of town, a local artist created a modern work of art by burying several Cadillacs nose down in the ground. The vehicles form a kind of modern day Stonehenge as they silently sit in a perfectly arrange row as though some force greater than mankind had placed them there. It was no small feat to create the exact angles by which they peek from the ground or to make certain that they would forever remain steadily symmetrical.

Over time the attraction became a kind of mecca for graffiti artists and ordinary tourists who try their hands at painting the iconic vehicles with the fluorescent shades usually found on railroad cars or highway overpasses. The city of Amarillo has expanded so much that the art that was once in the middle of nowhere is now ironically in the middle of modern day strip malls and road work designed to bring humans to neighborhoods that are cropping up like flowers after rain on a desert landscape. We almost drove past the scene because we expected it to be in a more isolated part of town. It has become a kind of freak show of sorts, as tourists park by the side of the road and walk to a gate beyond which trucks sell food and drink. The Cadillacs themselves have become defaced over time with layers and layers of multicolored paint. One might say that it continues to be a work in progress.

Our next destination was to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, located just outside of Amarillo in a little town called Canyon. Decades ago we had attempted to camp in the park on a blistering hot August day. At that time the place was still quite primitive, and still mostly unknown. We pitched our tent in an area where we were virtually alone, save for the critters that were in abundance. A visit to the bathroom revealed strange insects of very sort, including huge scorpions roaming freely. When many of wild things began to invade the interior of our tent we gave up and instead found a room at a hotel in Amarillo, never really considering that we might one day be lured back to the spectacular place. 

On our return to Palo Duro Canyon we found a park whose facilities had been expanded to include hookups for recreational vehicles as well as tents. There were multiple camping areas that were filled with people and a very modern visitor center that provided breathtaking views of the canyon as well as historical information. 

We were enchanted by the majesty of the place and drove the length of the road that led deeper and deeper through the dusty red outcroppings and into a kind of reverential escape from the outside world. I would not be exaggerating to say that in many ways the canyon was like a natural cathedral where nature itself gives glory to the majesty of creation. We decided that it was a place to which we would most definitely return one day to spend some time listening to the wind whistling through the glorious setting that seems untouched by humans even as people quietly pitch their camps or hike along the trails. 

It was dusk by the time we returned to our RV park. A cool breeze greeted us as we settled into our trailer for the evening. This was our last outpost in Texas. We had already seen so many wonderful sights that we had never before taken the time to experience. In the morrow we would cross over into New Mexico and make our way to Albuquerque where we had almost as little experience as in the Texas towns that we had most recently visited. 

Ours was a grand adventure designed to find the offbeat, too often unexplored parts of America. We were purposely looking for quirky destinations, and beauty created by nature. So far we had been quite successful in our quest. We were learning that every place is interesting in one way or another. By moving slowing rather than blasting past at seventy five miles an hour we were really seeing the people and the landscape in ways that we had never before done. We were learning the value and importance of parts of our country that had always before been only markings on a map. We were learning about different points of view and different ways of living. Finding America was a glorious experience.  

They Try Harder

When I was a senior in high school Texas Tech University offered me a full ride scholarship. My mom could not imagine sending me so far away from home, and insisted that she would not allow me to accept the offer. Since I was still only seventeen years old I had to defer to her decision. Besides I knew nothing about the place, and did not feel drawn to attending school there.

Eventually I would quickly ride past the campus now and again on my way to some place else. For some reason I never really took enough time to learn more about the school, and so I remained mostly impressed. It was only when I took a group of students for an extended visit there that I began to see the university’s possibilities. My pupils and I were wined and dined by the administration, and I was quite impressed by the programs and financial assistance that they were eager to offer my kids. 

Still, it was a campus that was a long way from home. It had taken us almost thirteen hours to travel there in a drafty bus in the middle of winter. I’ve rarely been so uncomfortable in my life and somehow the thought of making that long journey back and forth for four years still felt a bit unsavory. My hesitation was challenged by an offer from the school to fly any of my students to and from the campus if they genuinely wanted to attend, and were willing to work hard to keep their grades in order. I was impressed by the school’s willingness to do whatever it took to recruit the best of my students. It reminded me of their earnest offers to me back when I too was deciding where to earn my college degree. it seems that Texas Tech genuinely wants to make it possible for any deserving student to attend, no matter what obstacles seem to stand in the way.

This past spring my grandson, Ben, decided to accept an invitation to attend Texas Tech. I was excited for him, but still a bit worried about the distance. I needed to feel better about how far from home he would be, so when my husband, Mike, and I were planning a vacation to the western reaches of Texas, we put Lubbock, the home of the university, on our route. It was indeed a long drive but a doable one nonetheless. What really sold me was a more intense examination of the campus. 

Texas Tech University has a beautiful design and an attention to detail that gives the entire place a welcoming feel. Ben will be majoring in Communications and the administrators wisely placed him in a dormitory directly across the street from the Communications building. He will be in a cohort of students with interests similar to his, and already counselors have reached out to him and to his family to insure that he feels welcome from the first day he arrives. 

I got a very positive feeling as we drove and walked around the sprawling complex. It is like a little city in and of itself. Best of all it is an incredibly friendly place. Everyone seems to want to talk and be helpful. The whole place reminds me of those old Avis rental car commercials that assured customers that the company would always try harder. Since Texas Tech has often been in the shadows of the two biggest state schools, The University of Texas and Texas A&M I think they realize that they have to go an extra mile to attract students. The long distance from so many parts of Texas only adds to their need to offer something a bit more than students might get elsewhere. I get the idea that that something is personalization.

While Texas Tech University is quite impressive, the city of Lubbock itself is rather underwhelming. It does not have the charm of Abilene or the things to do found in Waco. It feels as though Lubbock would be just another small town were it not for Texas Tech. it actually reminds me of some of the small suburban towns that encircle the metropolis of Houston. It boasts many of the same stores and a similar vibe. For some that might actually be an attraction. I know that many today enjoy a slower pace of living and Lubbock certainly has that, at least until the students arrive each fall.

i recall a time many years ago when we were passing through Lubbock on our way to Durango, Colorado. We stopped early one morning in a small cafe for some breakfast. At a table near us were three men all decked out in western wear, complete with fine leather boots and cowboy hats perched on their chairs. They were gentlemanly enough to know the importance of removing their hats inside, so I found myself straining to hear their conversation. They certainly had the classic west Texas drawl but their words would have been at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was apparent that they were discussing some fine philosophical point and that they were indeed professors enjoying a morning seminar of sorts before going to teach their classes. These were no ordinary ranchers or farm boys!

Lubbock is an interesting city. it is almost improbable given where it stands, but nonetheless a center of learning whose reputation only grows as time goes by. If you want to know about climate, or alternative energy sources, or agribusiness, or engineering or medicine, you might want to attend Texas Tech University. It is a place filled with possibilities because in itself it seems as though it should have been impossible. 

I feel good about sending my grandson to Lubbock. I even feel a bit of “what If” when I think of how I might have gone there. it’s obviously a place where good things are happening every single day. I’m glad we took the time to visit because I was able to see that there is a world of potential in being at a school where everyone seems to work just a bit harder to help young men and women achieve their dreams. 

The Blessing

Texas is a huge state, and much of it is filled with wide open spaces, especially in the western regions. The flora becomes sparse the farther west one travels, with on the fittest, toughest plants able to survive without intervention from humans. Water is precious and the fauna is wild and often lethal. It takes a special kind of spirit to tame the wildness where blistering heat and blizzards and tornadoes coexist in the same cycle of the seasons. Nonetheless there have always been adventurous souls who grow weary of the rush of city life and strike out in search of adventure and quiet. 

Thus it was with Charles William Post, an innovator who brought breakfast cereals to the tables of American households. Much like today’s barons of wealth, Post dreamed of creating new ways of living, and in that spirit he purchased a swath of land in west Texas, and built his own town which he not so humbly named after himself. His intent was to to create a utopia, and so he invested great sums of money in building sturdy and beautiful structures in his town. He hoped that Post, Texas would become the site for West Texas A&M. He dreamed of founding a kind of paradise in the desert that would attract thinkers like himself. Sadly, his efforts failed to take root in the ways he had hope, so now Post, Texas is just a small town on the road between Abilene and Lubbock. Often travelers simply whiz through on their way somewhere else, taking little note that it was once meant to be a kind of shangri-la. 

I might have been one of those people who hardly noticed Post were it not for the fact that one of my classmates from high school lives there. Dee Holland and I passed each other in the hallways of Mt. Carmel High School for four years. I noticed her because she was incredibly beautiful, vivacious and she had one of the loveliest smiles I had ever seen. She and I never had a class together save for the all girls religion class of our senior year. We each had our own little circle of friends, but the school was just small enough that everyone knew of everyone else in one way or another. I thought that Dee was delightfully full of life and I admired her from afar, but never got to know her very well. 

Facebook may have its flaws but when it comes to reuniting people, it does its job quite well. Once I had my own account I began to search for people with whom I had lost contact for many decades. Along the way Dee and I became friends in a way that we had never been when we were young. I liked her posts, her philosophies, her sense of humor and the evidence of her kindness. She became one of my favorite people, and someone I regretted not getting to know earlier in my life. Sometimes we would joke and “talk” late at night, and even though there was something unreal about our means of communicating, I felt more and more comfortable with expressing myself with Dee. 

I had joked that one day I might travel to Lubbock, and that I would stop in Post to have a real visit with Dee if I did. When my grandson, Ben, decided to attend Texas Tech in Lubbock this fall, I knew I wanted to see where he would be living for the next many years. We planned our vacation route with Lubbock as a destination, and I schemed to add a stop in Post to see Dee as well. 

I was thrilled when Dee said that she would be around when we passed her way. We agreed to meet at a local restaurant called George’s for lunch or brunch. We drove from Abilene in a driving rain that was perilous at times. There were moments when we literally could not see the road, but there was no place to pull over and stop, so we simply said some prayers and moved slowly forward with the other souls caught in the same storm. By the time we reached Post the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. Somehow it seemed to be right in keeping with how Dee always made me feel whenever we conversed on Facebook. She has a way of shooing away the darkness and dreariness of life.

I saw Dee from across the room and she was as beautiful as ever. The smile that I remembered from high school was as lovely as it had always been. We talked as excitedly as two teenage girls, so elated by our reunion that someone might have thought that we had been best friends forever. I felt so comfortable and free to be with Dee. None of the teenage angst that we had both once endured impeded our joy.

My intent had been to treat Dee to lunch but she quite sweetly insisted that she wanted to welcome us to her home by paying for our meal. So we sat and talked a mile a minute while Mike just smiled and let us catch up on the fifty years that had passed since we were teens. It was magical for me because somehow Dee and I had a connection that had taken us to similar ways of thinking even as we had lived almost unaware of each other for so many years. I understood that we were kindred spirits who had traveled through the vagaries of life and somehow survived with our spirits intact. 

Dee gifted me with a pair of earrings that she had designed, a treasure that I will enjoy for many years to come. We hugged and said our goodbyes, but somehow I knew that our time together is not yet done. It’s a long way from Houston to Post, but I hope that we will meet again at George’s and I will have the opportunity to enjoy the company of Dee in person one more time. Our visit, though brief, was a highlight of my vacation, a time that I will always remember. Dee reminded me how so little matters other than the love we find with the people who pass through our lives. Such times are a blessing.

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. 

One Taste and You Get It

A year ago we used our trailer as a means of taking a short trip during the pandemic without making contact with other people. Everything we needed was self-contained in the twenty-one feet of space that encapsulated our little world. We only momentarily interacted with others when we stopped for gasoline. Otherwise all of our needs were handled inside the trailer that we pulled behind our truck. We carried our food and drink in there, slept in there, took potty breaks in there. We were observers without being part of the crowds that we viewed from the safety of the front window of our truck. We enjoyed a liberating experience without risking our own health in the process.

This year we are fully vaccinated and feeling a bit more secure about returning to a more normal state of contact with folks outside the confines of our home. We decided to be a bit more adventurous by planning a longer trip, but we still wanted to keep the safety of the little bubble known as our trailer. We planned an adventure that would take us across west Texas to New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. Because we’ve outgrown twelve hour driving days, our journey would be slow and steady and allow us to really take time to see the places through which we passed. Way back in February we plotted a route, made note of service stations to insure that we would always be fueled, and made reservations at campgrounds along the way.  

The first leg of the journey took us through places in Texas that I had never before visited in earnest. We began by spending a couple of days in Waco, Texas, the home of Baylor University and the now trendy Magnolia dynasty of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Heavy rain almost perfectly coincided with our arrival there on a Friday afternoon. We had managed to outrun the worst of it on the road, but our plans for visiting outdoor sites of interest were quickly dampened. 

Waco has a great deal more to offer for a fun time than I had imagined. The university itself is quite lovely and worth a tour. In our case we stayed in the truck and just drove around due to the frequent downpours. Nonetheless we found the campus to be enchanting and inviting. Not far from the university are lovely homes evoking the kind of elegance that is often found in older sections of a city. The styles reminded me of the turn of the century into the 1900s when there was a sense of forward thinking before the horrors of two world wars, an economic depression, and a different worldwide pandemic. I could almost imagine the ladies in their long white dresses and broad brimmed hats strolling down the avenues.

Among the places established in Waco during that time was the Dr. Pepper factory which is now a museum that was open for tours on the day we were there. We found it to be a delightfully fun experience to learn of the history of that iconic drink and soda waters in general. Who knew that they had once been thought to be medicinal? The exhibits were fascinating and took us back to a time in our youth that seemed so fun and innocent. Our tour concluded with a root beer float in the soda shop where we spoke of Saturday evenings as kids when such a treat brought us great joy. 

The Magnolia complex was virtually across the street from the Dr. Pepper Museum and the license plates on the cars that filled every available parking space told of people who had traveled from all over the United States to get a look at the place made famous on HGTV. With rain coming down in buckets we only drove by long enough to take photos and for me to attempt to explain the phenomenon to Mike who was puzzled by the sight of individuals standing in long lines while the rain doused them. I actually saw the episode when Chip revealed his idea to Joanna, so I felt a bit of excitement in seeing how nicely things had come together. I suppose that if there had been sunshine and I had been with other women I might have enjoyed spending some time there. I knew better than to drag Mike along to a place where he would have been miserable.

We instead went to the Texas Rangers Museum which had a kind of chilling effect on me because it ended up being mostly a collection of guns and saddles and boots used by the officers at various times. There were disturbing accounts of the misuse of authority in the ranks of the rangers as well. Perhaps the inky skies and the relentless rain had darkened my mood, but I felt uncomfortable in the place and we left rather quickly. I used a kink in my hip as an excuse for leaving. Instead we sat in the car enjoying a homemade lunch while the rain continued to pour overhead.

We had gone to West, Texas which is often known as the kolache capital of Texas, earlier in the day. A kolache is a type of pastry derived from Czech culinary heritage. It is a sweet bread-like creation filled with various fruits, often in combination with cream cheese. They are delightful temptations and the best of the best are said to come from The Czech Stop bakery which is housed behind a Shell service station in West. Sadly the crowd at the Czech Stop was little better than the one at the Magnolia complex. The line of people waiting to purchase the famous delights was far too long for my taste, especially given that the shop was tiny and nobody inside was wearing masks even though less than half of the people in Texas have been fully vaccinated. I was not willing to risk my health, or that of someone else, just to determine if the kolaches were indeed the best I had ever eaten.  

We drove around town and saw numerous places advertising kolaches. We stopped at a small shop that also sold pizza. That should have been a clue that we were not going to find kolache nirvana there, but we purchased four that appeared to be up to speed and eagerly rushed to the truck to try them out. To our grave disappointment we found them to be terrible. They were cold, stale and the fruit filling was runny. After a few bites we literally threw all of them away and headed over to Slovacek’s, another popular kolache destination, which was on the way back to Waco. 

The line at Slovacek’s was far shorter and the store was big enough to allow for social distancing which the patrons were pleasantly following. The kolaches were definitely good, but in truth I have found better ones in Ellinger on the way to Austin. I did, however, get a “Jak se Mas” sticker to put on the back of our trailer which delighted me even more than the kolaches because of my own Czechoslovakian ancestry. Nonetheless, Mike and I both agreed that the best kolaches we have ever eaten used to be made by a group of Czech ladies who had a tiny shop on Telephone Road in Houston. Our quest to find the best kolaches in Texas will continue as an excuse for trying these wonderful Texas treats.

We enjoyed our short time in Waco and realized that it is a much more fun place than we had imagined. The rain prevented us from seeing the fossils of dinosaurs and creatures of long ago or strolling through the lovely park and zoo in the center of downtown. It is a place that I have ignored for all of my life, but one to which I would enjoy exploring again on a sunny day. I never really understood why anyone wanted to go to Waco but now it makes sense. Take one taste of Waco and you will get it.

Next stop…Abilene, Texas, a truly pretty little town. Stay tuned tomorrow.