Texas Adventures, Part 1, aka, The Great All Hail West Texas Road Trip

(Originally published here in the Mountain Goats fan forum on May 27th, 2013.)

Hello y’all!! Some of you may remember me saying in a thread somewhere that I had to drive through Texas for work and I would be visiting some Mountain Goats locations. Well I did just that and now I have things to show and tell you.

As soon as I entered Texas on Monday afternoon, I put All Hail West Texas into my car’s CD changer and vowed not to remove it until I crossed the state line into New Mexico. For the most part, I held up my end of the bargain, though by the end I was kinda at the point where if I heard “Source Decay” one more time I was sure that I would decompose. The only time I listened to non-AHWT material was during the tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings. In all I’d call that dedication.

My whole point with driving through Texas was originally to follow my vow to take a different route to New Mexico every time I had to drive there for work or pleasure, which happens a couple times per year. I’d never been to the areas of the country along the I-20, so I decided to take a route down US and State highways parallel to the I-20 corridor. This would coincidentally take me along several AHWT destinations and it seemed like fate was nudging me in a particular direction, so I ran with it. Also, it seemed like a great opportunity to try to gain some insight into this album, which has haunted me ever since I first heard it.

So, Monday night I stayed in a town called Tyler in east Texas. It’s a cute little college town that I wish I’d had more time to spend getting to know, but I had one week and (I kid you not) 666 miles of Texas to traverse. I stayed in Tyler with a musician and she invited friends over and we all jammed together. They asked me if I knew how to play any songs and as I thought through my catalogue, the options were limited and I was not sure if “Best Ever Death Metal Band” would land too well. Not wanting to offend, I played “Rockin’ Rockin’ Pet Store”. Lo and behold, I discovered that a few of the people there were Mountain Goats fans. Already my time in Texas was auspicious! Imagine, meeting a Mountain Goats fan!!! In Texas!!

The next day I continued on my journey to Denton. I arrived there just as hell itself rained down from the heavens. I was certain that death was imminent, as I waited to lunch with my friend at a TGIFriday’s (tried to convince her to take me literally anywhere else but c’est la vie). I made it through alive, survived TGIFriday’s food, and drove around Denton for a bit. It’s an extremely boring town and I didn’t see much going on outside of the two colleges (University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University). I hear it’s an interesting town, so perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Anyway, I stayed that night in Lewisville, which lies between Denton and Dallas. The only thing I learned from visiting Denton: Denton is clearly not in West Texas, which for some reason never registered with me.

Wednesday morning I took off for Dallas at an ungodly early hour to make it to Dealey Plaza and miss the famed Dallas traffic. I only hit traffic during the last few minutes of my journey, which I count as a win.

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DFW Airport, to which She came on the redeye, +1. Denton, where a death metal band never settled on a name, +1. Dallas, in which blues are had, +1.

Dealey plaza was pretty cool. The tourists really did mill about, and minions flowed all about. I talked to some dudes about conspiracy theories and did some investigating of my own (I have my reasons). My conclusions are not relevant to this post so I’ll spare you.

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Milling about Dealy Plaza, +1.

After visiting a JFK museum and a holocaust museum, I hit the road outta Dallas right after the morning rush stopped. I had to make it from Dallas to Midland that day, which with my route was approximately a 6.5 hour drive without stops.

I was pretty on track, and even stopped a few times to record some songs at rest stops along US-180. About 4 hours into my trip, my fuel pump went out, about 4.5 miles east of a town called Anson. I got a tow into town and discovered I’d be stuck there overnight (and even better, it would cost me almost $1000 to get it fixed).

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West Texas, +1.

So, with no other options and a dangerously depleted repository of ca$h, I checked into a bargain-priced room on Commercial Ave. and set myself up for the night. Given that this town had a population under 2500, even the bargain-priced room was pretty okay in terms of quality, save for the dead bugs that littered just about every surface in the room (no live bugs, though, that I detected).

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I walked down to the corner store just before nightfall, but not in my bare feet because there were no sidewalks and it didn’t seem like a great idea.

Jones County was a dry county so I couldn’t purchase B&J, and I couldn’t find St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, so I made do with what I had. I purchased my sundries and when I came back I spread out my supplies on the counter by the sink…

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…and looked myself right in the eyes.

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I ducked behind the drapes when I saw the moon begin to rise…

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…gathered in my loose ends, switched off the light…

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…etc.

I decided to abandon my plans to visit Midland since I already had a nonrefundable room booked in Fort Davis. By the time I left Anson on Thursday, it was almost 5pm and I had a 6+ hour drive ahead of me, so there’s that. The drive was pretty okay. I could really feel the blues in a lot of these towns I passed through; most of these places looked just completely run-down and abandoned, with loads of boarded-up buildings and completely desolate streets. I could really feel the desolate nature of AHWT coming to life in my heart. I remember “Pink and Blue” coming on while driving through a particularly depressed town and shedding a few tears just because it all felt so futile.

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Coming back to Midland, I hope you don’t mind, +1. Not coming “back” exactly, and not using 128, -2.

I arrived in Midland just as the sky was beginning to darken. I learned the following things about Midland: 1) it’s the childhood home of George W and Laura Bush, 2) the whole town smells like cigarettes and crude oil (or cat piss, the two smell shockingly similar), and 3) Midland is a pretty big city. It has skyscrapers. It has a population of 111,147. A hundred thousand people!!! If I wasn’t pressed for time I would have spent more time there, it seemed like a lot of fun. My original plan had been to stay with a friend in Odessa, but I was pressed for time after losing a day in Anson so I couldn’t stop. I decided to just pass right through Odessa, which, in retrospect, is still too much time in Odessa. What’s wrong with Friday Night Lights-ville, you ask? Well, talk about feeling the blues. That place has seen way better days and they are far out of sight. No skyscrapers there.

By the time I neared Jeff Davis County it was raining steadily and it was pitch black. I was tired and road weary. I was sick of that stupid album. I had almost run over a snake. Things were bad and I just wanted to get to my room in the hotel in Fort Davis and sleep. I did, of course, stop to get a quick pic:

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Toyahvale, +1. Night, night comes to Texas, +1. Headed south INTO Toyahvale, not north FROM Toyahvale, -1.

At this point I can literally recite all of AHWT in my head and keep almost perfect time. I discovered this when I turned down the music to pay closer attention to the signs and found that I had kept near-perfect time from halfway through “Jeff Davis County Blues” all the way to the second verse in “Blues In Dallas”.

After a short rest, I took off at the break of dawn toward the Mexican border and Big Bend National Park to do some sightseeing. I’ve been to just about every state in this country and the most beautiful places I’ve seen goes about like this:

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona
2. Glacier National Park, Montana
3. Southwest TX
4. Oahu, Hawaii

On the road south from Fort Davis, I only passed one town (Marfa) in the entire three-hour drive to the border town of Presidio. The whole drive was just this stunning mountainous land completely free of pollution and mostly free of development and just so freaking rural, I mean, more rural than I’ve ever been and I’ve been pretty freaking rural.

Presidio was awesome, Mexico was cool, the drive along TX-170 (which runs along the Rio Grande) was kill-me-now beautiful. Am I the only one that wants to die when they see beautiful things? Because how can it get any better? Ha-ha-ha. Anyway, Big Bend National Park had a $20 entrance fee so I just drove the perimeter for a bit, then headed up to Fort Davis in the early afternoon.

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Jeff Davis County, +1. BONUS: the world shines as I cross the Jeff Davis County line, +1.

After two nights in a cheap motel / I head north from Toyahvale / switch to 285 in Pecos / head up to Red Bluff (+1). I want to mention that none of the locations he mentions in that song are actually in Jeff Davis County. Pecos (which is home to the most repulsive Travelodge I’ve ever visited and that’s saying something) and Toyahvale (which is a cool town, has a sweet state park with a giant natural freshwater pool that they call a “desert oasis”) are in Reeves County. Midland is in Midland County. Red Bluff is in Loving County. I mean, not to be a nitpick, but where does Jeff Davis County come into play here? I didn’t even see a police station in Fort Davis, except for the Texas Highway Patrol office. The only place in Jeff Davis County besides Fort Davis and the adjacent Davis Mountains State Park is Valentine, a town consisting of 172 people as of the 2000 census.

But who am I to say.

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Switch to 285 in Pecos, +1.

Red Bluff is actually not much more than a reservoir and a trailer park. I almost missed the sign on 285-N pointing me toward Red Bluff, but I took the turnoff and began a really genuinely dangerous journey to the reservoir. Now, I’ve taken my car through some pretty unforgiving terrains before, and despite the fact that my car is a 2007 Ford Focus, it’s always come out a winner. Driving down the 2 mile road to Red Bluff was the most certain I’d ever been that I’d finally written a check my car couldn’t cash. I was certain I wasn’t making it out of there. There were potholes LITERALLY BIG ENOUGH TO SWALLOW MY CAR. I drove about 7mph down the stretch of road past oil rigs and oil storage tanks and oil derrick after oil derrick. Heading in, I never saw another soul on the road besides two oil tankers that were really struggling with the terrain.

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Head up to Red Bluff, +1.

By the time I reached the above sign, I was getting base survival reactions out of my body. Everything happening on the other side of that sign screamed “NO GOOD”. Thoughts flashed through my head along the lines of “this would be the perfect place for the world’s largest meth factory or a Cartel hideout, because it’s so inaccessible” or “the government isn’t stupid enough to keep aliens in Area 51 or Roswell, they would keep them two miles down a nearly inaccessible road in west Texas and then they’d indefinitely detain any humble Mountain Goats fans that stumble upon the location on a self-discovery road trip”. I tried following the turnoff to the actual reservoir, which was 3 miles east, but a few minutes of inching down the turnoff road (inching being the fastest I felt safe traveling given the condition of the road) and I decided it wasn’t worth the hour-long drive.

When I made it back to the Red Bluff road after exiting the turnoff road, I was greeted by two big white pickup trucks. They were just sitting there by the sign. I waved at them and turned down the road back toward the highway, and they followed me. I’m not going to make any assumptions about whether or not they were intentionally following me, but I will say this: they stopped about 100 feet from the intersection with US-285, watched me turn onto the highway, then turned around to head back toward Red Bluff. I got some real bad vibes from that place and I won’t be going back ever again and I would advise anyone reading this to heed my words.

Red Bluff is just 8 miles south of the New Mexico state line. I had three days before work and no plans, and since I had no place to go, I drove up to New Mexico, and fixed my eyes on the rearview when I crossed the state line.

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Drive up to New Mexico, +1.

I actually ended up going to Carlsbad Caverns, which was cool. I was headed up to Carlsbad proper to look for a bargain-priced room, but right about that time, I heard on the radio that a line of tornadoey storm cells was headed right for Carlsbad and Roswell. Tornadoes are my biggest fear (besides allowing myself to be loved) so I did some math and if I booked it up to Roswell right at that moment, not only would I make it to the UFO Research Museum before they closed, but I’d be off the road before the storms hit. However, then I wouldn’t have time to take the first exit to 128, which meets up with US-285 several miles south of Carlsbad. If I waited in Carlsbad for the storms to pass, though, I wouldn’t be leaving until after 6 and as far as I could tell there were no vacancies in Carlsbad (being Memorial Day weekend and all), and no viable rooms in Roswell, which meant I had to drive up to Albuquerque to stay with a friend (I had to head north anyway).

So I headed up to Roswell (and snapped this picture,WARNING: CONTAINS FRIGHTENING STORMCLOUDS), learned about UFOs, then got to ABQ in time to go see a 10:00 movie.

Tonight I’m in Santa Fe and tomorrow I start work in rural northern New Mexico. I can’t yet put into words my new insights into All Hail West Texas, but as of two weeks from now I’m going to be in the mountains for almost three months with limited electricity, limited cell service, and sporadic access to internet. Also, very limited capacity to listen to recorded music, though I’ll be performing all summer. Luckily I can play many of the songs on All Hail West Texas on guitar so I may survive. The point is, I’m going to have a lot of time to do some thinking and I’m sure I’ll be able to reserve a bit of mental airtime for All Hail West Texas, and when I emerge with rifles from the haystacks at the end of summer, perhaps I’ll emerge with an essay about All Hail West Texas, so if/when that happens, everybody act surprised. If I get desperate for some Goats up in the mountains, I know for sure that I can at least entertain myself with the content between verse 2 of “Jeff Davis County Blues” and verse 2 of “Blues In Dallas” in near-perfect mental replication.

Editors note (April 3rd, 2017): I still can’t write anything about this album. I’m still scared of Red Bluff but no longer afraid of tornadoes. RIP 2007 Ford Focus.

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CJC

Freelance human being.

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