Field Notes: El Paso to Corpus Christi
By Michael Kew
(Below is unedited stream-of-consciousness recorded during my drive across Texas in September 2012. I’m sure there are several errors. By no means is this meant be a comprehensive narrative or study of the Lone Star State—rather, a simple trace of long interstate miles fueled by truck-stop food and caffeine. Also, the italicized song titles are what was playing on the car radio at the times of note-taking.)
So far, Texas is pretty boring. Flat fields of brush and sand with distant hills, similar to Arizona and New Mexico. Very desolate, nothing of note for miles. Cloudy, dreary sky. Windy. Bridges over washes, also called arroyos.
Between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn at 4:20 p.m. on 9/13. Pastel desert, mountains, more flat fields, Sierra Blanca Mountains, everything is muted from the overcast. Few cars. I passed through a U.S. inspection station and the guy asked if I was a U.S. citizen.
“Have a nice day.”
How did he not know that the garbage bags of clothes in my car weren’t full of drugs?
Speed limit on the sign says 80 mph.
Who owns all this land? As far as the eye can see. Nothing but power lines, occasional sign of ranching, some cows, railroad. Near Van Horn, the terrain became more mountainous but still treeless. The town has just 2,500 residents but major hotel chains, fast food, even a KOA. An oasis on the interstate.
Alongside the road outside town is a narrow paved frontage road, like a bike path, but I didn’t see a person on it anywhere at any time. It’s surprisingly chilly for September, very windy, cloudy, almost need a jacket. Normally boiling hot here.
Passing Michigan Flat, which looks pretty damn flat. To the north, I can’t tell if it’s rain or dust clouds. Twenty-two miles to Kent. Flashing Exxon sign: Tire Shop. Diesel. Burritos.
Near Kent, the clouds are smothering the hills and leaking onto the fields. Drizzle soon became hard rain and I had to slow considerably with the poor visibility.
No cars in front of me, none in back, for as far as I can see, which is for miles out here.
Little rectangular metal signs along the road: Drive Friendly, Buckle Up, Maintain Your Vehicle.
Shell station in dreary Fort Stockton, near dark, drizzly, 56°F (weather was hotter back in Santa Barbara; Seattle is in the 90s; a heat wave there). I asked the Mexican clerk if $5.99 for a six-pack of Lone Star Beer was considered cheap.
“Yeah, for a six-pack.”
“Is it any good?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, “because I only drink Corona, Hornitos, and Jägerbombs.”
In the Motel 6 room, my dinner was spicy beef jerky and Lone Star. Every vehicle outside was a full-size pickup.
In the morning I went to the nearby Wal-Mart. Outside was a guy inside a huge stuffed panda bear costume with Coca-Cola garb, and a Cheetos tiger dude handing out Cheetos. Health. Inside, at the samples section, an old man said to me: “Hey, it’s free stuff! I love free stuff! Lookit them san’wiches over there.” He was eating a piece of white cake.
Plateaus are trippy. Like hills with their tops sliced off. How do they form? Big one outside of Fort Stockton. Windmills on top. Drizzle, occasional rain, low dark clouds. All the rest stops are well-maintained and have free wi-fi. Passed DOT trucks picking up pieces of tires.
Twenty-two miles to Ozona.
The earth is in layers. Only one station on the FM. The road cuts through the land. Entering Hill Country, just drove up a long incline. Really windy.
Stepped out of the car in Ozona and smelled the fresh air. It reminded me of Johnny Cash lyrics in “Hey Porter” —
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first
Cause I can't wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks alot,
and I didn't mind the fare.
I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.
Ozona not looking too plush. Who lives out here? A memorial to David Crockett stands at the south end of Ozona’s main square. After the town, the land flattens—nothing but fields, low trees, electricity poles.
Al-Qaeda bomb threat, the University of Texas at Austin. Friday morning.
On the radio: agri-business update. November rough rice, 20% gain to 15.29; November soybeans up nearly 7 cents, at 17.54; Chicago wheat, December contract, nearly 25 cents up, 9.27. “You’re listening to the BSA Radio Network.”
Lots of big Ford pickups, some muddy and battered-looking, dudes in cowboy hats. Women employees in the Chevron shop were talking about the high school football game between Sonora and Wall, how the schools bang heads. “I’m gonna get tonight off work for sure,” the fat white one said. “I already requested it from my other job.”
The radio stations are either country, Bible, conservative talk radio, or Mexican. Lots of ads for the film Last Ounce of Courage.
Just outside of Sonora, I swear I saw a surfboard on top of a car heading west.
Basically have seen no police. The road seems to keep repeating itself. I keep saying the same overpasses, the same beige space, cell phone towers, bushes, chaparral, alternating between low hills and little valleys. Texas Peco Trail.
Living on Subway, McDonald’s, beef jerky, Red Bull, and coffee.
“Bubba shot the Jukebox,” “Dixie on my Mind,” “Santa Monica,” “Cowboy Beat,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Navajo Rug,” “Ring of Fire,” “Beer for Breakfast”
On the radio: talk of combining Austin and San Antonio into one city.
Gallon of regular unleaded octane 87: $3.67.
Cases of West Nile Virus reported; 2012 has been the worst year yet.
There is a radio station called KOOK-FM (93.5 FM), a country music radio station licensed to Junction, Texas.
After Segovia, the road descended from the plateau as I was passed by a hay truck.
“Just Good Ol’ Boys”
Outside San Antonio: sand hills, desert valleys, wooded mountain slopes and desert grassland. Piney looking trees (oak?). Nearing Kerrville: woody plants, forested. Buckhorn Lake Resort. Intermittent rain.
“As Good as I Once Was,” “Beer Bait and Ammo”
The number of cars and radio stations increased dramatically the closer I got to San Antonio. Low wooded hills, lots of trees, lots of green. Big Joshua Creek. South into the heart of the city, then onto the I-37, (one of the few freeway hurricane evacuation routes for the southern Texas coast), southbound for Corpus Christi at the end of the road. At 2:40 p.m. I passed the San Antonio city limits.
“Paradise City,” “Pride and Joy”
The clouds were merciful during this drive across Texas. Couldn’t have asked for better weather for this drive without air-conditioning in the car.
“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
Lots of bugs flying around as I drove south. More humid here, hotter, more dairyland, flat and green outside Pleasanton. “The City of Live Oaks and Friendly Folks,” “Birthplace of the Cowboy” on the welcoming sign, where Willie Nelson was once a a DJ. Feels like I hit the tropics here. Air is damp. Rednecks.
Oakville. Brush Pen Hollow Creek. The surrounding terrain is low-rolling to flat upstream and flat downstream and is surfaced by sandy and clay loam that supports scrub brush, cacti, and grasses in the creek’s upper reaches and water-tolerant hardwoods and grasses in its lower.
“Tube Snake Boogie”
9/14 Jackson Landgraf And Lane Nobles
Champion Bull Riders Will Be On Hand Signing Autographs At Billy Bob's Western Wear And We Have A Few Other Guest Like
Bull Fighter Larry "Wildman" Gandy - Bertram, Tx
Bull Fighter Kameron "Backflip" Warren - Hillsboro, Tx
Funnyman Darryl Titman - Seguin, Tx
Free Bar-B-Q!!!!! From G & H Bar-B-Q While Supplies Last!!!
2nd Annual Buckin’ For Boobs Rodeo, 9/15 In Robstown
Benefitting The American Cancer Society.
Rain up ahead, skies darkening, sunshine is gone. Major downpour at 4:43 p.m. Hard to see, pulled over in a parking area, raining too hard, low visibility, dangerous.
Near Mathis, the roads were dry, so the storm is coming from the west.
“Whiskey Wrote This Song,” “You Ain’t Much Fun”
Heavy rain squalls en route to Corpus, minor road flooding, drivers pulled over.
I didn’t know Corpus was this industrial. Big Citgo refinery, car dealerships, hotels, small houses, dingy looking suburbs. I-358, 6:05 p.m. On the road’s right side are freshly plowed cotton fields. Overpass bridges have paintings of swordfish and embossed shells and stars. Lots of traffic. Strip malls, big box stores.
Bumper sticker on a pickup: “Real men work in the oil field.”
Driving over the Park Road 22 connects Corpus Christi to North Padre Island. Beginning at SH 358 in Flour Bluff, PR 22 crosses the JFK Causeway to the island, ending at the entrance to Padre Island National Seashore. Several pickups were parked on the bay beach aside the road. Guys fishing. Sheet glass, golden late-afternoon sunlight. Lots of palm trees.
First morning on the coast—rainy. I drove from the motel (not feeling really sharp, where I drank 11 Lone Star Beers—Mike Doyle had told me that Lone Star is a terrible hangover). Got a tuna sandwich from Subway and headed out to Bob Hall Pier. Campground here. Everything is wet; palms wind-torn. A few people on the beach; puddles, gulls, surf was small and junky but rideable. Met with Wayne Maroney, who’d texted me the night before.
We surfed Packery Channel. Waves were actually pretty fun—clean, some fast, lined-up lefts, shorter, punchier rights that were really crowded. Water was 82°F and brown; sky partly cloudy, sun not too much of a factor but still intense. I ended up south of the main pack, which was much less crowded. Fast and clean. Borrowed a thruster longboard from MDC Surf Shop.
The beach was a line of trucks and cars, people drinking and partying, a Saturday. Drunk redhead in a pink bikini with her drunk friend as I was changing out of my wet trunks: “I’m watchin’!” Then: “I’m a redhead and I’m tanner than you!” I told her I surfed in a wetsuit almost all year and didn’t much care for bronzing.
Wayne, 32, grew up right on the channel, basically, in a condo. He was a boat captain and didn’t really get into surfing till his 20s. Born in Corpus. People have always said he doesn’t sound Texan because he doesn’t have even a slight accent. He works at MDC but is getting his teaching degree in psychology.
He told me how lucky I was about the unusually cool weather in West Texas. Normally, cars overheat all the time; air temperatures can reach 115°F and higher.
“You would’ve died out there, man!”
Random quote: “The thing about southern hospitality is you only know that they’re being nice to your face.”
Serious fishing around here. Lots of people fishing from the jetty, fishing poles poking from truck beds, rod racks on the front bumpers.
Felt great to get some saltwater on my skin after being possibly the farthest I’d ever been away from an ocean, which was probably back in New Mexico.
The culture here seems humble, non-pompous, friendly, down-to-earth, laid back.
They didn’t have the TSA comp today, but they should have.
Book signing and film showing at MDC on 9/15. Characters showed. Scuttlebutt Bar after the event, had a few $2 pints of Lone Star. Had Whataburger around 1 a.m. with Wayne. First Whataburger restaurant was founded here in Corpus Christi, 1950. Wayne said Whataburgers in Corpus are the best, and that the employees are proud.
Crashed on Wayne’s couch; woke with sore back. Didn’t rise until late morning.
Borrowed Wayne’s white Subaru Forester to go surf Bob Hall Pier. Water was much bluer and clearer than Packery’s. Smelled fresh with a tropical zing; waves waist-high and fairly punchy on the inside.
Padre Island National Seashore. The road is ruler-straight and flat, nobody around, grasslands, ominous rain clouds to the west, mud flats, dunes. Parked at Malaquite Beach—birds, dune grass, desolation.
The peace was surreal. Very tranquil. Sandpipers. A few trucks were parked up the beach—families fishing from the sand, sitting in chairs. Oil platforms offshore. Looked like it rained hard a little while ago, the sand pockmarked with countless little rain holes. Thunderstorms and thunderheads offshore. I remembered Wayne telling me how the storms accelerate as they pass down from Mexico’s mountains and head north.
Approached by a park ranger. Nice guy. He thought I was lost (California license plates). I asked about the barrier and he said it was to protect four miles of beach from humans and their cars and dogs and fishing poles and noise.
The parks’s entrance station had perhaps 20 cameras pointing in all directions. Apparently the cameras aid authorities who recognize the stretch of coast as being vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers of drugs and undocumented immigrants.
Drove back to Corpus to go barbecue and drink with the Doyles.
“Hell Yeah I Like Beer,” “Hicktown”
September 17, Monday: Highway 77 north out of Corpus, rain, clouds, cool temps, Hungover—stayed up till 3 a.m. drinking with Dusty and Tre, Marine Corps vets who’d just returned from Afghanistan. We were drinking High Lifes.
I left the house around 7:30. Lots of farm supply stores, tractor dealerships, tool shops. Scenery off the 77, near Victoria: acres of green that soothed my hangover away.
Louisiana in my sights.