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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Leaving Lubbock

After packing up the van and drinking two cups of coffee, I was off at 6:30am. Or so I thought. The very last thing I did was grab my cell phone from the back of the van...and it wasn't where I thought it was. I went back inside the house to look around, I went back to the van to look around (always a chore!) and couldn't find it. I was losing time now, as it was already past 6:30am, past the comfortable time limit to make it back to Cove in a reasonable time.

I almost panicked, but in the end I found the phone in the van, in the corner of the right sliding door. It must have fallen there as papers were hiding the black little device. Whew. I was finally on my way, at 6:57am, with temperatures in the mid 20s and a thick fog covering the roads.

I made it out of Lubbock with no hassles, gassed up for $2.79/gallon at the Chisom Rest stop on US84, and headed south. I had planned on driving US84 to I-20, but then 40 miles later, in Garza County, I drove through the pretty prairie town of Post (elev 2605'; pop: 3817) and its old facades. This town is known for its Old Mill Trade Days which is held the first weekend of every month.

I stopped only to photograph the old movie theatre, and took a left (east) on US380. Desolation was the first thing that came to mind, as if I left civilization when I got off US84. Oil pump jacks, cattle ranches lined with rusty barbed wire and golden, rolling prairies passed me by.

It was too early to take it easy and I had a good six hours left of driving, but I did try to stop to read the historical markers along the route. This part of US380 is the Texas Plains Trail but the section was more hilly and scenic than just Plain. Even the fog gave an aura of mysticism. It's hard to imagine that this area in the 1870s was raft with Indian wars, between Union Troops and the Comanche. If only the old buildings standing could still talk!

There were a few abandoned towns along the way that made me stop to photograph the ruins. One town that quickly caught my eye was Clairemont, an old oil town just west of Jayton in Kent County. No posted town name identified the remains, but four buildings at a T-intersection with TX7 stood abandoned: the old Kent County courthouse, the jail (the iron bars were still on the first floor's windows), a general store and an old post office. The courthouse and jail were first built in 1895. A fire in 1955 destroyed the courthouse.

A long-standing drought eventually claimed this small town. Most residents now live in Jaynton due to more water. The nearby Salt Fork river lived up to its name: it was too salty for consumption and the water ran dry. By the 1950s a serious drought made any remaining residents leave for wetter pastures.

There were a few more such dead or dying small towns along this route. But once again, where were the people? I saw no one in the streets, in the yards. All I saw were Angus cattle chewing their cud or horses grazing, lazily turning their heads to glance at passers-by.

Every town was worthy of a few photographs, whether it was due to the old buildings, the rustic old vehicles in the yards, the 1930s theatres off the town square, or old gas station with old pumps. There weren't so many historical markers here but I took my time reading things, taking pictures. Some of the smaller towns had post offices no bigger than a train wagon. Most homes were wooden and peeling paint, or had yards littered with old farm junk. I didn't see one diner or cafe along this route.

US180 was part of the southern route of the old Butterfield Trail. It rode through this part of Texas. The Salt Fork of the Brazos River and two other offshoots of the Brazos/ Red River also meandered through this gently rolling terrain, banked by red cliffs of sandstone and cottonwoods. I could see the river's bottom. This river is known for its Class II and III white waters, but what I saw looked rather tame. Further north and the river is tamer coming out of the Caprock escarpments. It runs 175 miles through mostly quaint and sparsely-populated lands.

I passed the towns of Aspemont in Stonewall County, a small town of around 900 at 1781', then turned right (southwest) on TX283 toward Stamford (elev 1614', pop 3374) and its pretty metallic large-scale figures of a dinosaur, dragonfly, centipede and a fly, all made from rusty car and engine parts. Talk about Roadside curiosities! These weren't in any of the books I checked out but they were worthy of a stop. I was slowly leaving the Texas Plains as the elevation descended into gently rolling hills.

The counties in the Texas Panhandle are all gridded and rectangular. I wasn't going to drive into an oddly-shaped county until I was south of I-20.

I continued on TX280 to US 180, which here turned into the Texas Fort Trail, driving now eastward into Albany (elev: 1414', pop: 1922) with more rustic buildings. This town was large enough for several touristy restaurants, although it wasn't nearly as scenic as I thought it would be. I was clearly no longer in the Great Plains as the hills of North Texas came to view and more decidious trees popped up along property lines.

I crossed the Hubbard Creek Reservior where the fog floated over the water, driving eastward in Stephens County into Breckenridge (elev: 1204'; pop: 5676) . This town was the largest I had been through since Lubbock but I was losing time now. Its limestone buildings stood tall against the town's center hill. There were actually people walking on the sidewalks. People!

At Metal Gap I turned southward on TX16, a road that looked more like it belonged in Texas Hill Country. Who said Texas was flat? Outside of the Plains that I had recently left behind me, the rest of the land that I sped over was gently rolling...and foggy. This road had wide shoulders and a speed limit of 70mph.

But it wouldn't warm up. My van's temperature read an outside as 26F, and ice that was on my windshield's corners was still stuck to the edges, refusing to let go.
I crossed I-20 at 11:40am, a good hour later than I thought. I was afraid I was going to be late for my dental appointment at 2pm. Or was it 2:30pm? At either rate ny now I knew that had I taken the more direct route of US84, I would have been home within 6.5 hours. The tall oaks and junirper-lined hills made this drive especially pretty.

If I had had more time I would have stayed on TX16 until reaching Comanche and then taking my time toward Cove, but I knew I had to push it. Any time idling in Stephenville was cancelled, as I idled long enough at its lights in town. Stephenville (elev: 1273; pop: 15216) was hillier and prettier and larger than I thought, with major roads crossing through it at every traffic light.

By now I was getting restless. My last major road to get on, US283, seemed to take forever in that traffic, and once I got on that road I pushed 80mph most of the way, surely making the farmers and ranchers in their slow-moving full-sized pick-ups nervous getting right behind them before they moved over to let me pass. If I had gotten pulled over for speeding any time I gained would have been lost.

I listened to my SatRadio and the daily news, with its repeated scares of stocks tumbling on the European market, the Fed rate getting slashed 3/4 of a point (when was the last time THAT happened?), terrorist Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang banger, got 17 years in the slammer, another suicide bomber in Baquba kills Iraqi students, and nominations for this year's Oscars (Atonement, No Country for Old Men, There will be Blood, Charlie Wilson's War and the respective actors in them). Most of the movies I didn't even see this time.

I drove through the small town of Hico in Hamilton County (elev 1027; pop: 1345), and I was taken by a "Billy the Kid" Museum. What was the Kid doing here? Hico has adopted Brushy Billy (William Morrison), an imposter of the real Kid burried further east, as his town and thus markets the connection to tourists. The local town legend is that the real Kid never was killed, but that he died on his way to the town's post office of a heart attack. Hico also sponsors the annual Old Settlers Reunion.

In the last minute I turned east on US84 from Hamilton, gassed up enough to make it another 100 miles (at $2.93 at the town's Fina station) toward Gatesville, then down FM116 into Copperas Cove, then skirted town to get on post. Just before I made it to the west gate I grabbed some mouth wash to rinse out my morning mouth, then spit it out just before reaching the gate. That's when I realized --Shit, the guard may think I'm rinsing my mouth to hide alcohol!-- He looked at me with a sour look but perhaps that was more because I was speeding at 20mph toward the gate rather than the 10mph posted limit. He let me in without scolding me.

A few more annoying red lights and subsequent screams of frustration and I made it to the dental clinic at 2:05pm, wearing the slightly dirty hiking clothes from yesterday and not looking all that fresh. (I looked tired and overslept!)

And to my relief I discovered that my appointment was at 2:30pm and not 2pm, which gave me just enough time to finally use the bathroom; I had been holding it in since just before Jaynton.

I wish I could have taken more time to enjoy the scenery along the route I had taken. It was 70 miles longer than my trip up to Lubbock, which is why in the end I had to beat feet those last two hours. The route took me through some pretty towns and diverse terrain, pass Ghost towns, oil pumps and oil towns, historical stagecoach routes, red sandy creeks, cowboy towns, hill towns, legendary towns. And all that without ever leaving Texas!

But naturally I would have preferred more time to really absorb all these communities. I would have broken this trip into two days and stayed in Breckenbridge for the night. That would have been a nice town to walk around and meet some locals, but alas that didn't happen this time.

Texas really is such a pretty state, and no doubt it's a state of mind.

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