I think I’ve made my peace with Texas.
My semi-truck ride rumbles away, leaving me standing, slightly dazed, on a stretched-out length of road, the sun just come up, warm, over the dusty, trash-strewn shoulder. There’s a cracked bus-stop sign on a metal pole, the letters faded and peeling. 553. Weekday service only. It’s Sunday. I’ve been on the road two days. It takes me an average of nine days to cross the country, and I’m holding myself to that. That leaves me seven days. Seven days, and Texas already! Heck, at this rate, I’ll be home in no time. Across the road from me is a truck-stop, a stone’s throw away is the highway. Behind me is a ribbon of street: no sidewalks, peeling houses boarded up, some of them not. Beyond that is a field of grass, a stand of trees, a tangle of bushes. In the east is the sun. The sky, of course, is all around me. Not a thing to block it anywhere. A great swirling lid, a bright and open clearing. And it’s warm. Warm!
I have been handed a day with nothing in it. I make for the stand of trees beyond the houses, grateful to feel the residual cigarette smoke coming off my sweater to blow away with the wind. I feel tired, weak, a little loopy- I need to sit, and breathe the good dry air, and eat some almond butter on a piece of my GF bread, and take a shit in the bushes, and pull out my maps and thumb through them, and read another yellowed page in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. I push aside the tangled trees, looking for a small clearing, hidden from the road. I see ahead a sort of tilted wooden shack, and make for it. It’s falling apart, the roof slanted down, the rough planks popping off the sides. The ground is littered with old mason jars, lids rusted through, hundreds of them, as if it had been a sort of pantry once, here in the woods behind the boarded-up houses. The light slants gently through the trees. It’s perfect.
I toss off my pack and pick my way through the debris, fascinated. Glass jars upon glass jars, and there’s other sorts of trash, too, none of it recent. A doll’s head, a red-rusted tin of paint thinner, a conch shell, a pair of tortoiseshell glasses minus lenses. The plug from a car cigarette lighter, the plate from an old door-lock. What was in all these jars? I wonder. And where have the people gone? I gather up some of the debris and line it up on a board, along the wall of the shack. What better thing to do with my day, than sift through this small piece of Texas? What better way to know the world, than to be an archeologist of its vacant lots and forgotten woods- someone’s untold story, left to crumble and grow wild?
Later that day, I have eaten, rolled out my bedding, and made a sort of nest among the trees. I go for a walk, along the blowing highway overpass, to stretch my legs and see what there is to see. Not much. A fierce car-wind. A mcdonald’s. The place where the sidewalk end and the desert begins. And there, a woman’s belongings, strewn in a sort of circle among other sorts of trash. Rhinestone hair barrettes, underwear, pajamas, nylons. All of it spilling out of a weather-stiffened duffel bag. As if someone had stolen a woman’s bag- from her car, maybe, she was traveling and stopped for a moment at the truck stop- and rifled through it here, in the desert. The waste of it seems a little obscene. Maybe those were her favorite pajamas. The rhinestone hair barrettes, still in their slip of plastic, were for her daughter. On the way back to my wooded clearing, I buy a coffee cup of hot water (25 cents) at the truck stop for the last of my dried pea soup. I eat it, sitting, gazing out across the grassy field. A gentle breeze blows, and I am more grateful for this warm weather than I can even express. The trees are mostly bare (deciduous? Even in this balmy place?) but the undergrowth is leafy, unfamiliar plants with small thorns and some sort of creeping vine. After eating I lay down to read about the teeth of caterpillars and the fluidity of birdsong but I fall asleep instead, a sort of peace washing over me, in this secret Texas clearing, so far and yet so close to other people, houses, mad rushing cars, the trampled open desert.
When I wake it is dark. I check my watch- seven o’clock. I roll over onto my side. Can I fall asleep again, sleep until morning or an approximation of morning? No. I am suddenly awake. Bright-eyed. Restless. A walk, then. A walk to see what there might be, far past the highway, down this dark stretch of road. I pull on my shoes and start out, following the edge of the field, the lights of cars sweeping past me. I pass the truck stop, a hand car-wash, a sort of school. At a bingo hall, all the world’s elderly circle, looking for a place to park their cars. As I walk, the buildings stretch farther apart, like small boxes tossed upon the sprawling skin of the earth. Between them are long stretches of dark: gravel shoulder or an expanse of trampled grass. I walk faster. It feels good to walk, and maybe if I walk far enough, I’ll reach a sort of town center, a stoplight, a dark-windowed bookstore. Something. I pass, slowly, the high school. I pass and pass the high school, with its rambling grounds and blank, distant buildings. Finally the high school is behind me. I pass the darkened openings to half a dozen neighborhood streets, the entrance to a sort of college. “Event Tonight”, says a plastic sign. What event? Should I go? What would I have to pretend? Would there be hors d’oeuvres? Deviled eggs, maybe? I keep walking. The night sky arcs above me, dusty with light pollution. Eventually I reach a stoplight. There is a donut shop, closed, and an ice-cream parlor, run-down, streaming with teenagers. The teenagers climb out of their fancy cars, hip-hop music blaring, and go in to get some ice-cream. An auto parts store. This is all there is. I’ve walked for an hour. I turn around, and walk back.
Back at my camp, I pull off my shoes. It’s late, and I’ve worn myself out, enough to sleep again. I brush my teeth in the dark, spitting into the weeds, and worm down into my sleeping bag. It’s cool, now, and it feels good to be in my little nest. I fall asleep, and sleep until sunrise.
Sometimes you don’t know where the bus goes, but you just have to get on it. A bus appears, somewhat magically, at my cracked and faded bus stop. I board the bus and watch out the window as it lurches, seemingly at random, through faded, sunlit neighborhoods. Finally we are at a transit center, and there is a commuter train, waiting. I board the train. It goes to Dallas. In Dallas, at the station, there is another train, this one to Ft. Worth, which is where I want to go. I board that train, and watch as all of Dallas’ backyards pass me by. By the time I get off the train in Ft. Worth, much of the day has passed. The train station is, of course, right across the tracks from the catch-out spot- a sort of crossroads, different train lines intersecting each other from all directions, clanging and crying and switching tracks, and then pulling off into the night, east, west, north and south. In the middle of it all stands a tall brick tower, with windows, dark and motionless. I walk by, casually, and then turn off into the neighborhood. I can’t go there until after dark. I find some bushes in front of a church and stash my pack behind them, shrug my shoulders like I’m just out on a walk. I’m hungry, and I’ll need some more water. The neighborhood is somewhat industrial, shadowy, and night is falling. Strange men shuffle along the sidewalk, here and there, and turn the corner out of sight before I get the chance to be paranoid. And anyway, why would anyone follow me? I’m obviously a dude. Or something.
Ahead is a little Mexican restaurant, warmly lit. I duck inside. A teenage girl behind the counter chats with another girl in one of the booths. An older woman, maybe their mother, sits off to the side, folding napkins. The three banter back and forth. I look at the menu and order the “bean nachos”, for four dollars. The girl behind the counter takes my money. The girl in the booth opens her paperback.
“How do you like it?” asks the girl behind the counter, pointing to the other girl’s book. The other girl shrugs, and closes her book. It’s Twilight, the trashy vampire romance. Of course.
“I only just started.” She says.
“It’s great.” Says the girl behind the counter, by way of explanation. I sit down near the window, with a giant plastic tumbler of ice water. After some amount of time the girl comes out, and sets an enormous platter of food in front of me. It’s what amounts to four crispy taco shells, broken in half, smothered in refried beans, and then buried under several pounds of melted cheese. There’s also a little dish of jalapeños, and a basket of homemade chips, tasting slightly of rancid peanut oil. I shrug my shoulders and break off half of one of the taco shells, taking a bite.
I haven’t had cheese in weeks. And suddenly, here I am, with a sort of pizza made of beans and corn, buried in the stuff. I can’t believe how good it tastes. I wonder if I just got lucky off the menu, or if they somehow intuited exactly what I wanted to eat. I didn’t want real nachos! I wanted a plate of melted cheese, with broken taco shells underneath! With a basket of chips on the side!
I finish my food and tuck a tip under the plate, leaving the girls to their vampire banter. Outside the world is satisfactorily dark, and I head back towards the tracks, stopping on the way to buy a gallon of water and one of those little chocolate covered mints at a dusty, brightly lit convenience store. I dodge more strange, shuffling men (one of them walks with a limp, and I realize I’ve seen him twice already) until finally, I am at the edge of the yard, a stand of trees before me, waiting. Prime hobo habitat. And I am the North American Hobo, come to roost for the night.
The trees are thick with trash. A moldering shoe, a flattened duffel bag, a lord of the rings DVD. A roll of trash bags- I need trash bags! I reach down to grab a few, and suddenly realize they have been urinated all over. Of course. I wipe my hand on my pants, irritated, and squat on my heels to survey the yard. The trees are alright, but I still feel exposed- a good place to watch for trains, maybe, but not good enough to sleep in. I cross the tracks, stopping to duck my head inside an old, broken shed, filled with beer bottles, and then find, on the other side, just one tree- where a tall fence meets a concrete wall, the tracks on the other side. Good enough. I unroll my ridgerest and park, to see what there is to see.
Trains come from the north, and blow to the south. Trains come from the west, and blow to the east. Trains come from the east and turn, heading south. Trains come from the south and turn, heading east. But no train, no train at all, goes west. And of the other trains, none of them even stop. I pull out my rail atlas again, and study it. I pull out my train directions and study them. And then I realize- the train I want doesn’t come to this junction. The train I want goes through a yard north of here- a sprawling, brightly lit yard, with strange, random departures and inaccessible mainlines.
All this time, I have been staring at the branches of the tree in front of me. They reach down and touch the ground, making a little space between the tree and the wall. I lift up a leafy limb, and see a dry, open cave inside- flat and dirt-floored, and just big enough for my ridge-rest. I have found the perfect sleeping place! Tired, I scooch inside, pulling my things in after me. It’s amazing in here, and suddenly I’m six years old again. The only trash is a small portable TV, wrapped up in a mud-crusted pair of blue jeans. I push them towards the back of the cave. The concrete wall has ornate arches cut out of it, and through them I can see the underpass below. A car drives by, now and then, and the limping man, incredibly, shuffles by on the sidewalk, but other than that there is no sound. I fall into a restless sleep, waking every time a train blows past, seemingly on top of my head. South, south, south. East. North. Not stopping. Not stopping. Not stopping.
In the morning, I think, I can try and get to that other train yard. Or, or- I could just hitch-hike. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I could even hitch a ride to a westernly crew-change point and get the train there. Or I could just hitch all the way home, I think, pulling the sleeping bag hood over my face to shut out the lights of the trainyard- how bad could it be?