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Texas | Trips

Recollections of
a Road Trip to West Texas

by Ana Astri-O’Reilly

At last, the long, grueling Texas summer is over, although it is still rather warm outside. Gone are the hundred-degree weather and the apathy and death wish that come with it.

To find a respite from the oppressive atmosphere of Dallas in the dog days of summer, when it feels like having cling film wrapped around your body, my husband and I go on road trips around Texas. We use different criteria for choosing our destinations. Sometimes it’s a city, like Austin or San Antonio. Sometimes, a place a friend recommended. Sometimes, a cardinal point - just because. This time, the starting point was a magazine clipping that fell from my secondhand travel guide to Texas. The article was a review of a family-run restaurant in the town of Turkey, in the Texas Panhandle. It wasn’t the food that interested me but the location. I looked it up on Google Maps and then planned the rest of the trip west of Dallas based on that information. Then, I added places whose names caught my imagination and were located in that area.

We found that once we’d “done” the cities, we felt the need to explore the state in depth, go to remote places no one in the city has ever heard of. We wanted to see and feel the real Texas; the reality we privileged city-dwellers don’t see: the devastating effects of droughts; how the oil industry has changed the landscape; the never ending life cycles; the peace of the countryside; the friendliness and innate kindness of country folk, their Old South gentility.

Accordingly, we headed west. The first stop was the town of Mineral Wells, home of the Baker Hotel. This once magnificent hotel was popular among Hollywood stars of the 1920s and 30s for its mineral baths. Nowadays, this beautiful building is derelict and surrounded by chain-link fences. The town’s historical center was somewhat gloomy. Nothing remains of its former splendor. Half the storefronts are boarded up, colors are fading, and paint is peeling. A pall of listless resignation hangs over the town. Even the Church of God was boarded up, an ominous sign.

We pushed on to Wichita Falls to spend the night. The hotel’s receptionist recommended a Greek restaurant. Our waiter was a very friendly college student. My husband’s British accent never fails to arouse admiration and our guy was no exception. He was excited to hear that Sean used to play rugby because he too played at college. They compared positions on the pitch. My strong, 6’ 8” husband was a hooker (no, not that kind), the slender waiter was a winger. They didn’t have much in common except their love for the game. He bought Sean a beer “on the home team.”

West Texas road trip

Photo courtesy Ana Astri-O’Reilly

We left town in the morning. A town called Memphis took our fancy and decided to stop and have a look around before continuing to Turkey. It was about noon and the sun was shining relentlessly. The center of town was deserted. On the patch of scorched grass outside the courthouse were a handful of vendors behind trestle tables, languidly fanning themselves. A good ol’ boy was manning a smoker. There was a promise of barbequed ribs in the air. It was a fundraiser for war veterans. I wondered whether anyone would show up at all. We never found out as we were soon on our way.

Round the back of the courthouse I found what I was looking for, a Civil War memorial. It was dedicated to the sons of Texas who lost their lives between 1861 and 1865. There is a Civil War memorial in most towns around the state. The inscriptions are more or less similar and they may or may not have the effigy of a Confederate soldier. Historical and political considerations aside, I admire the way generations of Texans continue to honor their heroes and are proud of their history.

We continued west along straight roads that seemed to stretch to the confines of the world. We were now stepping into oil country. Nodding donkeys fought for space with grazing cattle. A few pumped lazily away but most were eerily still. Like cattle, the pumps were herded together.

We spotted a roadrunner. By the time I stopped yelling “Roadrunner! Roadrunner!” and got my camera, it was already gone. Then I said something along the lines of “now we need to spot tumbleweed for a full Texas experience” We didn’t have to wait long.

Tumbleweeds and dirt devils were very common. At the time, Texas was suffering a terrible draught. Some local folks told us that it hadn’t rained since July 2010. It was Labor Day weekend 2011. The fields were scattered with fire scars and patches of blackened earth. Entire rivers had become ribbons of dry red dust. Ranchers were selling off their cattle for beef because they couldn’t feed them any longer and beef price was good then. At least two straight weeks of rain were needed for the winter grass to grow but rain didn’t look likely.

The contrast between the big city and the countryside could not have been bigger, and not for the obvious reasons. In Dallas, the economy was thriving: shops and restaurants were full, it almost impossible to find parking outside the mall at weekends. We were not aware of how bad the situation was outside our bubble. Texas was hit by the worst draught on record and the countryside bore the brunt. Agriculture and the livestock industry sustained billions of dollars in losses, which in turn affected the economy of small towns.

We finally reached Turkey and cruised the main street up and down. The restaurant we were searching for had closed down. In a way, it seemed like we’d been searching for El Dorado, that mythical place that fascinated the Spanish explorers and took them on wild goose chases. Turkey looked like a ghost town: empty streets, boarded-up stores; a sight that we had become accustomed to by then. The statue of a turkey provided the only cheerful note. Contrary to what I thought, the town got its name from the birds that used to roost nearby and not from the country of Turkey. We drove on south to Matador, another intriguing place name that conjured up romantic images of bullfighters.

As it turned out, the town of Matador was named after the extinct Matador Ranch and was established in 1891. It had nothing to do with bulls and red capes. It is also the seat of Motley County. We stayed at the Matador Hotel, run by three West Texas sisters, Linda, Caron and Marilynn, all retired school headmistresses and administrators. They ran the place like clockwork. The sisters lovingly restored the 1915 building to its former glory, furnishing it with family heirlooms, furniture bought from neighbors and artwork from local artists. Our room had a railway theme and was dedicated to their uncle Bill, who used to work for the Cotton Belt Railroad.

The following morning, beckoned by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, we made our way to the dining room, where we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked breakfast of stuffed tomatoes, sausage, strawberry soup and eggs at the communal table. There were two other couples, one from New Mexico and one from El Paso. Conversation was a bit stilted at first. Hushed comments peppered with the scraping of knives and forks on plates. The dynamics changed when one of the sisters sat down with us for a chat. Actually, it was an interview for the local paper. It is such a small town that hotel guests made the news, she told us with a broad smile.

“So where are y’all from? Y’all have an accent”, she said, smiling, as she settled, pen and notebook in hand. A Brit and an Argentinean in the middle of the Texas countryside. That sure is news around here.

“What brought you to Matador?”
“Its name.”
“Pardon me?”
“Well, you see, we partly planned this road trip based on place names that sounded intriguing.”

We told them about Mineral Wells, Memphis, Turkey and the magazine clipping. Everybody listened politely. I could imagine their puzzled thoughts coming out of their head in speech balloons: “Who plans a trip like that?” “What?” “Where did they go? I’ve never heard of those places.”

After the other couples had been interviewed, we talked about the town. Our landlady confirmed that Motley was a dry county, which means that no alcohol can be sold or served in public places. The sisters, however, had applied for a liquor license in the hopes that things would change now that the conservative old guard, adamantly against alcohol, was gone.

With a knowing smile, she said that despite their public opinions, many an old-timer had liquor cabinets in the privacy of their homes. “And, oh, by the way, the woman across the street is a bootlegger” My jaw hit the table; a what!? This neighbor brings in alcohol from other counties and sells is on the sly. I pictured a middle-aged woman furtively unloading six-packs in the dead of night, looking over her shoulders and speaking in hushed tones.

We set out on this journey not to see great natural wonders - there is none in these parts - or fabulous man-made structures but to experience the heart of Texas that beats beneath the surface.

And we found it.

© Ana Astri-O’Reilly
February 1, 2014 guest column

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