This town was the gateway to the ole West. In Texas, there are about sixty five towns that tell you they are the ‘Gateway’ to the ole something – in letters seventy feet high, so it is said by NASA you can see them on the moon and get a real homelike sensation – failing to note, however, that calling the town ‘a gateway’ really means that it’s nothing but a piss stop for folks with their hearts set on getting somewhere else. But as I have said before you get the impression at times that the guide book is grasping. In Texas, The Interstate rates as an attraction in itself: families will send postcards home to their loved ones that say “We’re on the Interstate!” That’s 30,000 glaring concrete miles with a vista of telegraph wires, pylons and over carriages, cleaved between green banks and rocks covered with a thin layer of cactus weed; road signs overhead like banners; a sparkling succession of broken lines disappear under the bonnet of your car like ticker-tape or sticks of gum. For the first 30 miles all of the cars travel alongside you – all at the same speed, so it feels like you’re going real slow & the arrowhead of a great migration; we are new souls full of purpose and borne upon the wave of simple sunny optimism, or hope in its early Christian form (before they discovered America). This goes on for a while; the cars drop back, or disappear into the mouths of canyons or tunnels up ahead like wind-up toys, they turn off and never reappear from the other side of signs that say “Welcome to Wonderful Waco!” and then list a bewilderingly small population.
So we rolled on back into town in time for the nine o-clock news and after all of that it was not as though the town was waiting breathless for news of our safe return, in fact I had begun to suspect that we could have perished on the mountain and it wouldn’t have made the six-o’clock news next morning or even the seven-ten mini news update brought to you by Demerol, which is entertainment news mostly, and which yesterday spent six minutes interviewing college football players about a muck-up day incident with a greased pig. HILARITY as you can be assured INSUED.
In the clear Texas morning light I was feeling a little more kindly disposed toward the man who had driven us off the mountain and so allowed him to shout me a craptastic Texas diner breakfast with the coins we had scavenged like cheap-skate carrion birds from between the rocks while awaiting our doom. I mean could there be anything more awful than the sight of a waffle crisped into the shape of the State of your nightmares and the implications which come with being served a child-sized tub of light yoghurt alongside a pre-packaged apparently Swiss bagel, and filtered coffee with a peel-back lid.
Outside there was a family of umpteen children like babushkas in evidently hand-me-down clothes (and even the parents seemed to be dressed in versions of the same thing: checked shirts, shorts, brown sandals and fanny packs) toddling around with bewildered expressions directly related to the ice-creams which they had been gifted. It was an overcast day and a weird town in which nobody really ever expects to enjoy themselves; even the penguin on the side of the ice-cream shack looked bewildered if not traumatised by his ice-cream, as if wondering how the fuck it (looking like the bloodied sawn-off horn of a unicorn) was supposed to make up for the millions of square miles of melting ice bergs now drip drip drip dripping like an air-conditioner and forming a warm dirty pool at his feet, and what the fuck an Arctic animal was doing at all deep in the heart of Texas.
Now the birds in some bizarre pre-feasting ritual were hurtling themselves vertically out of the trees. The spaces between the trees began to fill up as though there was a black lake silently rising from below. The scent of the Spur became a desolate one, the scent of pine boxes or rooms cleaned out after someone has died there. At this point it became obvious to me that we were in a pretty bad fucking way, and all the bad words that could have been said, screamed or spat at that fucking gent and all the fuckwits like him the world over simply got swallowed up in the dark, echoed back thin and tinny. But I could not find the words to swear. In fact all I could really think of was the ‘Wuthering Heights’ song,
Oh it gets dark, it gets lonely / On the other side from you
I pine alot, I find the lot /Falls through without you …
Too long I roam in the night
I’m coming back to his side to put it right
I’m coming home to wuthering, wuthering
Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home–
I’m so co-o-o-ld, let me in-a-your-windo-o-ow
Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home–
I’m so co-o-o-ld, let me in-a-your-windo-o-ow
In fact since I was basically dead and had no care for the good opinion of my sickly-looking companion I may even have sung and danced it along the wiley road according to the 1970s pseudo historical-floating sleeve fashion, while the wind did, in fact, go wuthering around the pines, it got dark, it got lonely, and I was so fucking cold that my voice wavered on the word.
Finally – finally – finally – another vehicle appeared, probing headlights first, from around the bend. It was an old beat up panel van with white-walled tires; two young guys in front.
“We need a lift.”
“Sure,” said the guys. “Open it up.”
There were six Indian guys packed inside it, on a carpetless floor, with a slab of Budweisers open. It would have been a rollicking ride back down the spur except that I felt so tired, and Chip, in his lunacy, was pushing his scabby knee against my leg.
We had reached the top of the spur – cruised for an instant into a flood of untempered Texas sunlight and a clear view across the vast rolling plains of dry hideous weed and coyote traps – then began twirling down again.
We were cruising at 10mph under the safe advisory speed when I felt the back wheels begin to slide across a spray of fine gravel – and then just like that the car drifted over to the edge of the road, and tipped over onto its roof. All of the change went flying at me like bullets, the glove box cracked open and the tapes flew out, then as we hung upside down strapped into the seats the car continued to slide down between the trees for about 40 metres, until it came to a stop against a bank of velvety pine needles, at which point it occurred to me that arguably all pines trees are inherently lonesome. They do not have leaves but needles and they spread their branches in rather a standoffish horizontal fashion. So there you are.
We were hanging upside belted into our seats peering back up the hill. Now a trail of obsolete plastics and useless coins marked our trail from the road into the piney woods, shining and absurd like leprechaun money amongst the rocks and pine needles. Chip took his belt off and went crashing down to the roof; I put my hands up and manoeuvred my legs out and performed a weird kind of hanging handstand, and then we had to crank the windows open and slither out on our stomachs.
The car had dragged a great mass of damp dirt and pine needles down the hill. For a while we lay rescuing random objects from the roof of the car. In this careful magpie manner we managed to rescue a few cassettes, a pair of trainers and a single glove; then climbing back up to the road Chip began picking change for the Laundromat out of the pine needles because he said we might need the money.
Taking stock, the only water we had was the filthy fag-water in an old Coke bottle we’d been throwing cigarette butts into; and now it was about six o-clock. Night, as they say, was falling fast. How literally night falls in Texas – like theatre curtains – but on the Spur night didn’t fall from the sky as much as climb up from the base.
We waited and waited on the road. I don’t know how long we waited. We had not passed another vehicle on our way up or down, only evidence of them, like an armadillo smeared across the road, or a splatter of feathers, but in an act of faith, in a civilised country, we waited by the roadside never doubting that help would come. It did not suit me that I should die like this, moronically, on a mountain, especially when there was so little sense in me being there in the first place. If Chip had been some kind of star footballer or promising cadet – sure, the movies could make something noble and tragic out of that, I guess, but there was little about him that hinted at anything other than a lonely masturbator, complexion milky with the blue glow of gaming computer screens and Saturday nights spent in Batman pyjama bottoms. He had that undeniable scent that boys have when they don’t wash their clothes, like the stems of broken weeds. I couldn’t believe his own family would to mourn the loss of someone so unattractive. If we perished together here they would be tempted to guess that we were dating, just to redeem the misery with romance; and I hated him for it.
Now Tripp or Chip was talking shit, trying to make plans, to calm himself, to be a man, or what have you, and I resented every fucking word. I smoked all of the cigarettes we had left and made a point not to offer him one. After an incredibly long time he got the idea and went over to wait for a car coming from the South, looking like a dog who at last had given up on the ball, which, if you know dogs, can only mean they are moments away from death.
Finally I heard a car coming from above us. Chip stood waving so his big unclean shirt flapped and he looked like a scarecrow. Then a glossy new midnight blue SUV with a huge glittering front drew to a stop. There was an oily reflection of the yellowish sky and the black tree tops in the windows.
The driver was a huge man in a collared shirt and navy suit jacket; his fat florid wife lay sleeping in the seat beside him. The whole car gleamed with new fine leather, glossy speckled wood finish, an odometer the size of a grandfather clock; a little paper pine tree dangled from the rear vision mirror, flipping in the breeze, and they were playing some pleasant twangy voice who rhymed wrong, song and so long…
We made our pleas. “Our car has gone off the mountain,” we said. “Can you give us a ride back to town?”
Perhaps it was a mistake to pose it as a question. I could see the man considering. In Texas, thoughts cross a person’s face like the shadow of clouds. His eyes flickered across the his obese recumbent wife, as though she was the picture of loveliness, of innocence in sleep, then he looked at us – our wild, disarrayed, dirty clothes, our hands full of cassettes, loose change and a single glove – as though there was no limit to the shit which we in our deranged youth would steal.
It was clear as day he thought we were murderers. He said, “Sorry, no room,” and just like that the window slid up and the break released, we stepped back as he rolled away – he had never taken his hands from the wheel. We watched the big glare of his red tail lights disappear round the bend and once they vanished we were in total dark.
As I was saying there are a lot of places in Texas and the States generally which boast of having only a single lonesome pine but which arguably have more than one pine, an accompanied pine, if you will. One of these places in Texas is the famous Piney Woods region in East Texas, where as has been discussed previously there are a multitude of pines… enough to constitute a wood. Following the U.S. 287 I run on into Groveton which also has its Piney Woods and its unsealed Piney Woods road which runs on into Piney Creek Road and then V B Woods Road and finally roads that have desisted in having a name at all. There were a great number of pines there. But what I was looking for was the archetypal rustic ‘lone pine’, an unkempt stretch into Nowheresville with a rusted unhinged gate collapsing into the dust and perhaps a skinny rabbit nibbling dried horseshit.
So I was kicking along one fine Texas day under a full blaze of infernal sunshine (it was so hot the last town I passed Thru days before had their “Fire Danger Today 🙂 ” signs out) far enough out in the rustic regions that the google street view car can beam back only pixelated images, and has little else to capture other than its own shadow, radiant skies, and unnameable unmanned steampunk-style drain pipe holdings. There was a graveyard’s vista of telegraph poles loping alongside the road where both the painted yellow lines and the tarmac itself had faded to a tea-stained brown supposed to be nostalgic. There are 79, 535 miles of public highway in Texas. I walked for some time. Then along came a shitty box shaped car driven by a lanky college student with one of those sunny Texas names, Tripp or Chip (I forget which) entirely unsuited to his virginal outlook. He said, “What’re you doing out here?” and I said “Looking for a lonesome pine. What’re you doing out here?” He was just driving along on a Spring break for no reason that either he or I could see. So he decided we could go looking for pines together and was going to drive me up a piney ridge called precipitously Black Spur or Black Horn.
In Texas, the road signs become less friendly the farther out you go: from “Drive Friendly- the Texas way” they had changed to “Don’t Mess With Texas – $500 littering fine”, “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You!” and the dark simple scripture of “Maintain Your Vehicle”. Of course, a roaming ranger was unlikely ever to pass by this way; there were three T-crossed-poles or radio towers at the very top of the spur which looked like a tableau of the crucifixion, enough to remind you that motoring crimes would be left to be punished by the ultimate judge out here. Tripp or Chip had arguably not had his self-esteem propped up enough in elementary school and accepted my silence while we drove with the equanimity of a pasty lanky kid used to being ignored by the pretty girls; instead we listened to the radio as he mounted the spur and occasionally swapped song titles and misinformation about the artists. For instance he was quite interested to learn a long and not entirely factual sexual history of the young blond Elvis which I extrapolated by listening to the early numbers he shared with Wanda Jackson and the Browns. It was of much interest to Chip or Tripp that in his Aryan youth Elvis always looked despondent.
Chip or Tripp’s car was an old boxy beery brown thing that had been ticking since the early nineties; everything inside was vaguely sticky and furred with the collected lint and dust of his early years. There was a pile of loose change turning green in the centre tray and a tape jammed in the player. I could hear other cassettes rattling in their cases in the glovebox every time the car swung wide round a corner. We mounted the Horn in swift, sexy rings – at successive turns the radio spluttered out and the pleasant crooning of some huckster turned into an alien wavelength or FBI scramble, then came back again – the higher we climbed the space between the songs and the scramble lengthened until in the end it was just white noise and I had to flick it off.