ON THE ROAD AGAIN: THE CRASH AT CRUSH

texas-theater-1-20080303180725.jpgThe day’s destination was a town that existed for one day: Crush, Texas. Crush sprang up for one reason — as the site for an elaborate publicity stunt in 1896 devised by a guy named Crush who worked for the M-K-T (Katy) Railroad. His plan was to have two locomotives speed toward each other and collide. For entertainment purposes. A sort of 19th century demolition derby on a really big scale. The plan was to attract a large number of spectators to the so-called “Crash at Crush” — the event would be free, but most people would have to buy a ticket on an M-K-T train to get to the location (an empty field in the middle of nowhere, about fifteen miles north of Waco). I’m sure that even Mr. Crush was amazed when 40,000 people showed up. FORTY THOUSAND PEOPLE. (For that one day, Crush was the second most-populated “city” in Texas. The next day, the population was zero.)

 

Even though he had been assured nothing really bad would happen as the result of the stunt, something bad did happen. A boiler in one of the locomotives exploded on impact, and many in the crowd were injured. Two people died.

 

I found out about this only recently. It is so bizarre and so over-the-top — a happening that seems tailor-made for those fine folks at Guinness and Ripley — that it seems kind of odd that it took me so long to discover it. No one I’ve mentioned “The Crash at Crush” to has heard of it, either. This would make a great, GREAT movie.

 

Anyway, “Crush” was my destination. I knew there would be nothing to see when I got there, but I knew there was a marker, and … what the hell. Besides, it was a good excuse to get out of town and to pick up some kolaches in the town of West. The plan was to get there and back without getting on I-35 (the so-called NAFTA highway which seems to be under constant construction). So basically, I just headed south, with no route in mind, figuring I’d make it eventually.

 

The first tiny town I came to was Maypearl, a popular choice for filmmakers requiring a tiny old-fashioned main street. Well, it certainly IS tiny — I’ll give it that. Not as quaint as I had hoped. Cute but kind of run-down. I didn’t know what to expect, because as I neared the town I was disheartened to see out-croppings of godawful, shiny new homes that looked like they were built from a kit (which they probably were), plopped down onto an otherwise attractive wide open space. Maypearl better watch it — it may be scheduled for gentrification — and those movie people will be forced to look elsewhere.

 

And little did I know, but this area is where the annual Scarborough Faire Renaissance Festival is held each year. Yikes. One of those things in life I just can’t understand is the “Renaissance Festival.” Personally, I’d be MUCH more amenable to watching two trains crash into one other — even WITH the possibility of being injured by flying shrapnel — than I would be to wandering around a hot Texas prairie with people who have a lot of free time on their hands (and who have no Civil War re-enactment to go to that weekend) who LIVE to dress up in very heavy period-clothing with pointy hats, puffy sleeves and jingly jester shoes. Call me a party-pooper, but I see little — if any — appeal in gnawing on turkey legs and mutton-on-a-stick and hoisting seven-dollar tankards of Coors Lite whilst sweaty “interpreters” prance about me plucking at badly-tuned lutes and shaking be-ribboned tambourines whilst cleavage-baring wenches make candles and murmur to one another in concerned tones and spotty accents about the impending daily joust (shows at 10, 2, and 4). But it’s definitely helpful to have discovered exactly where this “faire” takes place — I will make sure to avoid the area at all costs come next Spring.

 

Next was Grandview, an honest-to-God quaint little town which was hopping that Sunday afternoon — people were strolling about happily as some sort of antique fair seemed to be going on along its main street. I would have stopped, but I caught sight of some seriously awful mass-produced airbrush “art” (“Starving Artist Quality!”), so I decided to keep going. I DID note the results of the recent high school football game, written in white shoe polish on the window of a corner store, and I have to say I was a little sad to see that the opposing Rattlesnakes had prevailed against the hometown Panthers. Maybe next time, Panthers!

 

Once I left Grandview, towns seemed to get farther and farther apart. I just drove and drove and drove, past a landscape that seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Little “ranchettes” gave way to vast amounts of land that seemed to go on forever. There’s something very calming about looking out over miles and miles of land that stretches clear to the horizon, with grass and scrubby bushes and the branches of occasional trees bending in the breeze. It’s like looking out across an ocean — a little overwhelming in its hugeness.

 

I stopped at an old house that had one of those historical marker signs pointing to it. Those plaques are rarely very interesting — in fact, the information is usually instantly forgettable — but it had been deemed “historic” by somebody, so I figured it was worth a look. It was a large, two-storey saffron-colored stucco house that looked like someone’s idea of what a 1920s house in California probably looked like — designed by someone who hadn’t actually ever seen a 1920s California house. Stucco. A big yellow, stucco house. In the middle of nowhere. With an amazing view. Quite the eye-catcher. Wonder if someone still lives there? Wonder what they think of strangers traipsing all over their grasshopper-infested yard to go read a historical marker? Wonder what that marker said? I read it, but it was pretty dull. I think a rich guy was involved. One usually is.

 

Throughout this leg of my drive I was surprised to see so much hay. Hay everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I bet I coulda gotten me a really good deal on one of those big round bales of hay. I even had to drive daintily around a big-ass hay-hauling tractor at one point, an imposing piece of machinery complete with two smiling kids perched up on the top — if it had had handlebars, that’s where they would have been. It must be great growing up on a farm (at least it is in my romanticized view of rural living). And I was surprised to see quite a few goats along the way. Who knew? But no sheep. Never sheep. Texans don’t like sheep! (Wasn’t there a lot of name-calling and hissy fit-throwing between the strong-jawed, robust cattlemen and those nancy-boy sheepmen way back when those things seemed to matter?) So … no sheep. Pity. Personally, I like sheep. I thought I spotted some weird-looking little animals (not sheep), but they turned out to be plastic reindeer left over from someone’s Christmas display. I’m all for importing a few reindeer, by the way. Ranchers here really need to diversify. Even after that whole emu debacle in the ’80s. Cattle are so YESTERDAY.

 

I knew I was nearing Hillsboro, and I was bracing for it. Hillsboro has become the home of a million outlet stores — all clustered together, as if that’s a good thing. So convenient for the bargain-obsessed shopper! I pass by that hideous mess whenever I go to Austin — can’t miss it because it’s right there off the highway, sitting there sullenly, like a bloated, toothless killer whale — and I always grimace. People travel from hundreds of miles away just to go slobber over the great deals on socks or belts or dickeys or whatever at the J. Crew Outlet Store. Or the Baby Gap Outlet Store. Or the Faberge Egg Outlet Store. Like the Renaissance Faire, it’s a “lifestyle destination” that I just don’t get. I don’t understand the compulsion to shop. And — even worse — the compulsion to shop in a soulless, airless enclave of sand-colored buildings that might as well be the village in The Prisoner. Aren’t there better things to do than travel for three hours to buy a pair of jeans that are discounted exactly the same amount of money you just spent on gas to get there?

 

That was all I’d ever known of Hillsboro, so it was a bit of a shock when I saw the REAL Hillsboro — the older part of town, far away from the outlet stores. The town square is completely charming, and the Hill County Courthouse is very impressive.

 

Hill Co. courthouse

 

I remembered seeing the smoldering ruins of the courthouse several years ago on TV. It was almost completely destroyed by a massive fire on New Year’s Day in 1993. Its restoration was in doubt until Willie Nelson (who grew up in Hill County) helped raise a good chunk of the money to rebuild it.

 

So, of course, the next stop HAD to be Abbott — Willie’s hometown which was a few miles away. Wow. The sign boasts a population of 300. I think, perhaps, the sign lies. That’s one little bitty town. Two churches and maybe one little storefront. And a water tower. That water tower should have a big picture of Willie on it, because he’s the only reason anyone’s ever heard of tiny Abbott. I think he still has a house there. A few years ago he was ticketed by police in the area when they investigated a car that looked to be abandoned along I-35. They found Willie inside asleep, unable to complete his trip because he had been … um … indulging in some of what the police found inside his car’s ashtray. Haha. I bet you ANYTHING those cops asked Willie to sign autographs. And I bet Willie signed them — happily. I believe the case was dismissed. The Power of Willie.

 

I was getting close to Crush. I knew it was three miles south of West (yes, a town called West … in Central Texas), and I was about three miles north of West — I could practically smell the kolaches at the nearby Czech Stop — the famed bakery/convenience store/gas station in West which is the traditional half-way stop for travelers driving from Dallas to Austin. After enjoying a cream cheese kolache and a frighteningly wondrous cherry-cream cheese bar, I felt rejuvenated and ready to head to Crush. (Although, this being my first massive infusion of sugar in a couple of months, I feared I might pass out from insulin shock.)

 

And … yep. There it was. I headed down the access road of I-35, looking for the historical marker I knew was there somewhere. If I had blinked (or passed out from insulin shock) I would have missed it. The poor neglected marker was LEANING, about to fall over, in a patch of weeds, near a scraggly tree and a rusty barbed wire fence. The railroad was a short distance away. So. Two trains. Crashed. At Crush. Over there. Blammo. As I took a picture of the rather pathetic little leaning marker, two trucks honked at me as they sped past on the interstate. Yes, a bit anti-climactic. Not that I expected to see locomotive debris littering the area, still smoking from the explosion a hundred years ago, but I guess I expected something. I mean, this is just the kind of big-ass, over-the-top, brag-worthy thing Texans enjoy being stereotyped by, and, let’s face it, this sad little marker left a lot to be desired. After I regained my composure from the excitement I turned north to head back toward Dallas.

 

crash at crush marker

 

I ended up on another small two-lane road that cut through miles of cotton fields — the first cotton I’d seen all day. Actually, the first cotton I saw was not in fields but was littered along the road — like wayward chunks of dryer lint. Big empty de-cottoned fields lined the road. I came to a place called Birome where there were dozens of big rectangular things set up in neat rows by the side of the road — the tops covered with green tarps. I realized they must be cotton bales. I turned around and drove through Birome, which consists of an abandoned post office, an old clapboard church, a few houses, and a giant roaring cotton gin (I could see some ginned cotton dribbling down a conveyor belt). I drove back to those bales I’d seen and got out and walked up to them. It was a whole city of giant cotton bales. You could walk between them — it was like walking though a very tight, very surreal hallway. I thought of Catherine Deneuve in that scene from Repulsion — half-expecting hands to pop out from inside those cotton walls and grab me. (“Cotton Walls” … wasn’t that a Sheena Easton song?) Each bale was huge — something like twenty feet long and ten feet high. The size of small garages.


birome cotton walls

 

[Actually, I’ve since learned these things are called “modules,” and they are wrapped up like this, in big blocks, sticks, seeds and all, and then deposited there in the field where they wait to be transported to a gin. Actual “bales” come later when the sticks and seeds are removed in the ginning process and the clean cotton is compressed and baled up.]

 

The cotton is pretty tightly packed — there’s very little give when you poke it. Or lean your whole body against it. Each bale is covered with a special tarp — to protect it from the elements, I assume.

 

birome cotton modules

 

Very cool, in a “Well would you look at that? — I had no idea!” way. (Unsurprising, as my main source of agricultural information has, up to this point, been re-runs of Green Acres, and I don’t believe Hank Kimball ever addressed the subject of cotton-farming in Hooterville.)

 

I pressed on, passing endless bales of cotton sitting patiently and forlornly way off in the distance, waiting to be picked up and taken to a gin. We must be right in the middle of cotton-harvesting. Frequently there would be a denuded atomic winter field to my left and an engorged and full-of-itself puffy cotton field to my right. I have become fascinated by cotton. I must have passed at least five gins all very close to one another. I would love to have a cotton gin tour someday.

 

When I got near the town of Italy, it was getting late, and I had spent almost five hours in the car. I wimped out and got on the interstate for the remaining half-hour or so.

 

I finally caught a glimpse of the Dallas skyline — and that was when the motorcycles appeared. Out of nowhere. Something like fifty yellow, red and blue futuristic-looking fiberglass motorcycles were suddenly everywhere. In front of me, behind me, on both sides of me, zig-zagging dangerously through the heavy traffic of weary and probably hung-over Dallasites returning from a debauched weekend in Austin. All those speeding primary colors — it was like a Mondrian painting smeared across four lanes of traffic. I felt like I was in the middle of an anime cartoon. I half-expected to see Racer X pull up alongside me, give a little knowing and intense round-eyed nod, then accelerate away to join the pack. It was weird. They were SWARMING. And then they weren’t. Freaky.

 

And they all lived happily ever after. Amen.

 

If you’d like to read more about The Crash at Crush, you’ll find more information here .

 

locomotives crash at crush

(Photo courtesy The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas)

 

 


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