After three long weeks down deep in a hole, I had to get out of town yesterday, so I opened up the DeLorme Texas Atlas & Gazetteer (now almost completely unusable as all the pages have become detached from the ironically named “perfect” binding). Where to go? I chose Gun Barrel City, about fifty miles southeast of Dallas. How could one NOT go to a place called Gun Barrel City?
After a stop for some coffee to go, I took another look at the map to make sure it was Hwy. 175 I needed to take, and I made some notes into a small micro-cassette recorder my brother had given me for Christmas. I usually make illegible scrawls into a little notebook as I’m speeding along, but I decided to up the technological ante and chatter self-consciously into a tape recorder instead. (I have a terrible, TERRIBLE memory, and if I don’t make some sort of notation about something, I’m never going to remember it.)
I felt better right away, getting out of town and just driving. Not even really having anything to see. Just driving. Just moving.
I got off the highway when I saw a sign for Combine. I remembered I’d catalogued a book a couple of years ago by a guy from Combine — a place I’d never heard of. I figured it might be a nice little farming community, so I headed toward it.
On the road to Combine — somewhere around Seagoville — I saw a weathered gray shack with an awkwardly hand-painted sign out front that said “Catfish Corral.” The Corral was attached to another weathered gray shack, presumably the residence of the catfish corralers. It didn’t appear to be open, but it’s definitely a place I wouldn’t mind trying sometime. I’m a sucker for any business that has the word “corral” in it.
Combine (pop. 1788) has a lot of very big new houses plopped down on huge lots. In the middle of nowhere. I realized that this must be an up-and-coming haven for people who commute to Dallas. I didn’t really see any businesses, but I saw a lot of space. I pulled into a parking area of what looked like a closed-down café to look at my tattered map. As I was about to drive off I saw little signs for a “Pickin’ Porch” and for “Dominoes.” I’d like to think that old-timers who grew up in the area before the interloping commuters moved in still gather there on warm nights with their guitars and fiddles or sit in the shade on a hot afternoon and play dominoes.
Farther along the road, obviously on the other side of the tracks, everyone seemed to be out on their riding mowers. One guy in his early 20s, shirtless and covered in tattoos, seemed to be bonding with his son who was sitting with him on the seat of the riding mower, helping to steer. It was very sweet.
No other sign of life. Combine seemed kind of dead. Nothing going on down the road in Crandall, either. Nothing happening in Scurry. Just a lazy Saturday afternoon.
People were few and far between, but flowers were shaking in the breeze every acre of the way. Wildflowers were in bloom all over the place — sudden outcroppings of yellow and pink and orange and purple sprang up everywhere. I passed countless patches of bluebonnets all day long.
In the midst of this, a Wynonie Harris cd was playing in the car, and he was singing incongruously about New York City (“New York makes you do things you swore you’d never do … New York makes you do things no one would understand … New York will make a man out of a woman and make a woman out of man”).
By the time I got to Mabank (pop. 2151) I was getting thirsty and decided to stop at a Dairy Queen. Inside, there was a table of three elderly men, all of whom were in jeans and western shirts, boots and straw cowboy hats, sipping coffee and gossiping. I’ve seen these men in every Dairy Queen I’ve ever been in. It’s very comforting seeing these old guys. In this case, one of them appeared to have no neck at all but had a rather prominent hunchback (or, at the very least, an advanced case of dowager’s hump). As I walked past their table, I heard one of the men reciting the lyrics to Kaw-liga, and I wanted to stop right there and sit down at their table. I smiled to myself and saw that one of the men had seen me. He looked a little surprised, but he smiled back, probably wondering what I was thinking.
Diet Coke in hand, I stepped outside and walked to my car. It was such a beautiful spring day — sunny, warm, and windy. I wondered if I’d ever find someone who wanted to take these little drives with me.
I headed for the main street, thinking it would be picturesque. For some reason I thought Mabank was one of those quaint little communities Hollywood location scouts had discovered. I thought wrong. Nothing to see here, folks.
And, as it turned out, there was nothing to see in Gun Barrel City (pop. 5145), either. Oh dear. Let’s see, I saw a Sonic drive-in and a couple of churches (“Have the hot waters of life hard-boiled your heart?”) (YES THEY HAVE!). And then miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of strip shopping malls. The parking lot of the Wal-Mart was so packed it was positively throbbing. That made me feel a little queasy.
I discovered from the Handbook of Texas citation that the city’s slogan is “We shoot straight with you.” Cute. I kept driving around looking for the “old” part of town, but as the town wasn’t even really developed until the 1980s, there IS no “old” part of town. A place called “Gun Barrel City” should be OLD. I want to see Festus walking into a saloon, not Ashlee popping into the Verizon store for a new cell phone faceplate.
I did like the name of a local candidate for Constable: Billy Jack Valentine. Sort of a cross between a vigilante and a professional wrestler. You don’t mess with Billy Jack Valentine. Ever.
And that, rather disappointingly, was Gun Barrel City.
I bypassed Athens for Corsicana and sped through a little place called Malakoff (did that sign say “Cornbread Festival”?).
As I passed through teeny-tiny Trinidad, I was so distracted by the sudden pleasant mothball-like fragrance in the air that I scarcely noticed the town. Where was the smell coming from? From the town itself? I’ve passed through towns that have their own signature smell (like Odessa, which REEKS of oil and natural gas), but those smells are always unpleasant. This was positively refreshing. I wondered if it was the large truck ahead of me, hauling pipes and belching exhaust. Perhaps they’ve made drastic improvements in the carbon monoxide field. So, I don’t know what’s actually in Trinidad, but I have fond olfactory memories of the place.
Next was Kerens (pop. 1681). The only thing I noted was the little old lady pedaling very, very slowly on a really big tricycle, wearing a clear plastic shower cap on her head. That and a sign on the edge of town with an oddly-placed ellipsis: “Hurry back to see … us.”
Tiny Powell (pop. 105), seemed to be the epicenter of the Navarro County pecan industry. There was a sign for the Bancroft Pecan House: “Fresh Shelled Pecans * Home-Made Peanut Brittle * Rocking Chairs!” Another sign alerted pecan-loving travelers: “Pecans For Sale Ahead — Custom Cracking and Shelling!” I thought a bit about this. Custom cracking? How many ways can you crack a pecan? (Oh, how the professional pecan crackers in my reading audience must be rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in disgust.) I wondered about this enough that I wandered around the internet and came across an article about a very interesting labor dispute in San Antonio in 1938 known as The Pecan Shellers’ Strike.
And speaking of pecans, next stop was Corsicana, home of the Collin Street Bakery. I’ve mentioned this place before — the home of “the most famous fruitcake in the whole wide world, including the known universe and galaxies not yet discovered.” I guess people must like them. I read somewhere that the bakery buys more pecans than any other place in the entire known universe. I decided to stop in — even though I’ve always been disappointed by their cookies and baked goods. But I like watching the clientele (mostly elderly couples who seem to be on daytrips) oohing and ahhing over the free fruitcake samples.
It strikes me that one of the things that I find most interesting — and most calming — about these little trips I take is listening to older people talking. I like the way they talk, I like the things they talk about, and I like the weird sensation I feel when I eavesdrop on their conversations. Somehow I feel that I know these people, and it makes me nostalgic for a life I’ve never lived.
And speaking of the way people talk, while I was in the bakery I heard three words which have very specific pronunciations here:
It’s our way or the highway ’round these parts. Just so you know.
Leaving Corsicana, there are two signs I always notice. One is for a place called the Talent Ranch. It might be a quarter-horse ranch, but I always think of it as the perfect name of a kitschy-but-innocent 1950s equivalent of Star Search, hosted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. There’s also a sign for a place called “That Church.” (I don’t recall seeing a denomination mentioned on the sign, but it appears to be an Assemblies of God church). I always expect to see Marlo Thomas popping out from behind That Sign, surprised and wide-eyed, ready to begin another adventure as a single girl in the exciting whirl of church-going life in Corsicana, Texas.
Heading north along I-45 back to Dallas, one can’t help but notice the bright yellow billboards for Bubba’s BBQ. One of the them always causes me to shake my head in awe, containing as it does the masterful line (no doubt penned by Bubba himself): “You never sausage a place.” You know, Bubba … I never did.
The closer I got to Dallas the more middle-aged bikers started clogging the highway. None of them wore helmets (tsk, tsk), but one guy had on a baseball cap. How exactly does that stay on your head when you’re speeding down a highway at 75 mph on a motorcycle? Chin strap? Bobby pins? Nah — too uncool. Maybe some sort of epoxy? I thought about this longer than was absolutely necessary.
Back in Dallas, I exited on Lamar so I could take a look at Gilley’s, the new mammoth honky-tonk, resurrected and transplanted from Pasadena, Texas to compete with Fort Worth’s Billy Bob’s. Yep. There it was. Nice sign. Yep.
And so … back home, glad I got away for the afternoon, but wishing there had been more to see. Still feeling hard-boiled by the hot waters of life and seriously craving some catfish, but relieved to have had something to distract me from myself for a few hours.