“Let me ask you something: are you a happily-married woman?”
I had made the mistake of nodding and smiling at the disheveled man trying to fix something under his car’s hood in front of the 7-Eleven. I was just walking by, heading in to get some cash, buy a newspaper and pay for gas, and I — generally a friendly person — nodded and smiled when he looked up at me. When I came out, he was still staring at the engine of his broken-down car (which might well have been a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice, favored vehicle of Beltway snipers…). He looked up when I came out, smiled, and stepped suggestively in my path to ask me in a “sexy” voice if I was a “happily-married woman.”
“Yep! I sure am!” I said enthusiastically and kept walking. I saw his eyes look down to my ringless left hand which I tried to cover quickly with the newspaper. He watched me, twenty feet away, there in the gray overcast mist, pump $15 worth of gas. He looked kind of pissed off that I hadn’t fallen for his charm and had blatantly lied about being married. Maybe I should have chatted with him — maybe he worked for those nice Gallup people and was just taking a survey. But … no. Nice to know I’m still considered a desireable female, if only amongst both the over-65 set and the on-his-way-to-the-Methodone-clinic (if-he-gets-his-sniper-car-to-run) set. Just another stupid thing in the course of a day that most people wouldn’t even think about but which depresses me and makes me realize that, like Bridget Jones, I will die alone and be found three weeks later, half-eaten by a German Shepherd.
That $15 of gas was to get me out of town for a while, hoping, perhaps, to at least throw the German Shepherd off the tracks.
I drove north up I-75 until I got to McKinney and then headed west. I didn’t feel I had escaped the suffocating clutches of the Dallas “metroplex” until I was past the winningly-named Prosper and had passed through Celina (pron. suh-LINE-uh). Celina is famous (even to ME, a person who has about as much time for high school football as I do for chatting up junkies in parking lots) for having a football team with the longest unbroken winning streak … I don’t know … EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD or something. Anyway, right outside of Celina, fields started to spread out and all traces of the noisy, crowded big-ass city I feel less enchanted with every day were well behind me. The turning point was the big rolled bale of hay painted orange and black like a big smiling jack-o-lantern. It made me laugh. I need to figure a way to incorporate more hay into my daily life.
It’s been raining for the past week, so everything was green and fresh-looking. So much GREEN. Even the empty black cotton fields that had recently been harvested looked alive. In some places there was water standing in furrows, and the effect of whizzing past these shimmering rows cut into the ground — at an angle, on curving roads — is sort of like drinking a triple espresso and spinning around and around with your eyes open — feeling kind of sick and kind of dizzy, wondering if this is what an epileptic seizure feels like. Except that you’re going 70 miles an hour on a tiny two-lane black-top with cows grazing serenely off in the distance. And there’s not another human being in sight. It was great.
I drove through the little teeny town of Tioga. It’s famous for only one thing, really: it’s the birthplace of Gene Autry. I pulled into the post office parking lot to consult a map and thought how my father would have appreciated getting a card postmarked from Tioga.
Just past Tioga is Lake Ray Roberts. I became more and more intrigued by the lake as I crossed each successive bridge. The water was as gray as the sky, and sticking up out of the water was an entire forest of leafless trees. It was weird. Black stubs and stumps and sticks standing lifeless in the water. Kinda spooky. I kept thinking of Carnival of Souls for some reason.
I was entering the Cross Timbers region — a strip of heavily-wooded land that stretches from Oklahoma through at least half of Texas. It’s a part of the state that was the site of much Indian … um … “activity” and along which the Chisholm Trail ran. I’d never seen this part of the state — in and around Montague (pron. MON-taig) County. It’s amazingly beautiful — rolling hills with trees in the foreground and lush prairie land stretching out in the distance. It was exciting nearing the top of each hill and seeing the first glimpse of what lay spread out ahead and below. We don’t have the spectacular fall colors that other places have, but, even so, the colors were pretty impressive: the greens, golds and muted reds of leaves, and the soft greens and purples of grasses. Everything looked very soft. Soft, calm and rolling. I really didn’t know there was any place in Texas that looked like this. Before this, all that “Montague County” meant to me was the name of a nearby county you see flashed on the screen during tornado warnings.
A startling feature of this bit of my drive was the dizzying amount of dead furry animals in and off to the side of the road. Skunks, raccoons, possums, some large thing with feathers, and something REALLY big that I tried not to look at, but which was covered with at least six buzzards. In fact, the buzzards seemed to be following me. They probably figured I’d be squishing something tasty soon that they could nibble on as an appetizer before night fell and the roadkill smorgasbord REALLY began.
Having passed through little towns I’d never heard of (Valley View, Era, Rosston and Forestburg), I was nearing Saint Jo when I came across an unexpected field of art. The first thing I noticed was four or five yellow VW Beetles lined up (an homage, one assumes, to those Cadillacs Stanley Marsh III planted — tail-fins out — in the Panhandle). Next to the cars were large structures made out of what looked like pipes, including some shaped like saguaro cactus. Just set out in a field, with no explanation. I’m sure it’s probably some crazy-ass local junk-collector or something — the area wacko. But it was cool. I’d love to find out who did this stuff.
Saint Jo was quaint but run-down. There was a saloon there boasting that it’s been around since the 1880s. I’d’ve loved to have stopped, but sashaying into a “saloon” at 2:00 in the afternoon — unaccompanied by my husband to whom I am “happily-married” — would probably be a bit unseemly.
Next was Nocona — my randomly-picked day’s destination. Nocona — named after the Indian chief who was married to Cynthia Ann Parker (the “white woman” who was kidnapped by Indians and who gave birth to the half-white Indian chief Quanah Parker) — is famous for its cowboy boots. It is the original location for the Justin Boot Company. I think Justin moved the company to Fort Worth, but his sister stayed in Nocona and started her own boot company. Both brands are hugely popular. (As a sidenote, I believe every man should own a pair of cowboy boots, and they should be worn often. There should be a LAW.)
Nocona is a small town — maybe 2,500 people. The first thing you see coming into town is the boot factory in a very cool-looking, small, almost Deco brick building with a wonderful, simple, streamlined red sign. And, well, that’s pretty much the highlight of the town. Except for the water tower that had a hole in it and was spewing, much like an oil well gusher. I watched it for the longest time, but no one else seemed to pay it much mind.
I thought I’d look for some out-of-the-way place to eat, but the only places I saw were a Sonic Drive-In and a Dairy Queen. I decided on the Dairy Queen, the nerve center of every small town. It was PACKED. At 2:30! Inside was wall-to-wall geezers. I love listening to old guys holding court in these small-town coffee klatches where everyone knows everyone else, and all the conversations seem to have a life of their own and hop from table to table. I heard conversations ranging from a bad knee acting up again to rain in nearby Wichita Falls to a malfunctioning thermostat to David Letterman’s nightly skewering of Dr. Phil (I found that last conversation pretty amusing). I’m sure I just missed talk of the Cowboys game and the Governor’s race. 70-year old men smoking like chimneys, drinking vats of coffee, gossiping and wearing gimme caps — this, to me, is life in a small town.
Having reached my destination, I began my way back home — a pleasant, but somewhat dull drive. I DID see a roadside picnic area in which four picnic tables were set under four miniature oil derricks near Muenster (these, like the bale-o-hay jack-o-lanterns made me laugh out loud). I also saw a Piggly Wiggly (!) in Gainesville, a pasture in which LLAMAS were gamboling amongst the cows, a forlorn handwritten “Jesus Saves” sign nailed to a dying tree, and a car speeding down the road with two huge American flags attached on either side. (Doesn’t this flag-thing cause considerable drag on a car? Those damn flags must play havoc with the mileage. I was thinking about this the other day when I heard some geese flying overhead. Those geese were loud — and they never stopped honking. Doesn’t that cause drag, too? Couldn’t those birds make better time and expend less effort if they kept their mouths closed?) When I got to Sherman (birthplace of Buck Owens!), I turned south and drove back toward Dallas along good ol’ I-75. As I hit the Dallas suburbs — especially around Plano — I started feeling less happy. All those people. All those stressed-out people fighting their way through rush-hour traffic. My hometown.
Sign me “Stressed-Out in Big D.”