By Lowell Brown
The dusty pickup plunges into the July night, and soon the lights of this tiny West Texas town are gone, replaced by a serene darkness unknown to the urbanites packed side by side in the truck bed. The truck wobbles over the gravel roads, laboring to gain traction with every turn like a roller coaster climbing its first drop, and we struggle to grasp something stable. Wheels churn, spewing rocks and dust behind us as the pickup lumbers on and on into the darkness, steered by a 20-something cowboy who may or may not be inebriated.
So this is backroading, I think, as the balmy breeze ruffles my hair.
To my right is Erik Calonius, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned nonfiction author and ghostwriter extraordinaire. Behind me is James Donovan, a literary agent and author of the Custer biography A Terrible Glory. And just in front of me, his back pressed against the truck bed door, is Hampton Sides, who, if his Americana is any indication, regularly winds up in situations like this — comical, mildly daring romps through the rarely seen frontiers of modern America.
We’re all in Archer City, Texas, as part of a weeklong class on narrative journalism. The Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism offered the class here each summer for years, long enough for it to form its own mythology. This is the land of Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove whose used bookstores fill up most of the downtown square. Writers leave this one-stoplight town transformed, I’d heard, inspired by the land or the books or the shadow of McMurtry himself to become real storytellers — beacons of the craft of artful nonfiction.
I came here hoping that was true, desperate to revive my writing life and break bad habits after nearly a decade as a newspaper reporter. I figure backroading is a good start because it’s everything I’m not — impulsive, exciting, even a little dangerous — even if part of me wonders what the hell I’m doing out here.
The driver turns a corner and a dust cloud fades into blackness.
Perched at the junction of two state highways, Archer City is two square miles of town surrounded by a vast expanse of oilfields and ranchland where Kiowas and Comanches once roamed. Named for Branch T. Archer, a leader in the Republic of Texas, the town was known mostly for its cotton crops and livestock dealers until an oil boom in the 1910s brought an influx of residents. Today, Archer City is home to about 1,800 people, and most outsiders know it more for its Hollywood alter ego than its flesh-and-blood reality.
Larry McMurtry, an Archer County native, helped create this alter ego after living the reality. Born to a ranching family in 1936, McMurtry immortalized the Archer City of his youth by using it as a model for the town of Thalia in his fiction. Hollywood invaded in 1971 to film the movie version of his third novel, The Last Picture Show, celebrating the real-life Royal Theater and cementing into pop culture an image of the town that endures today, one where the bleakness of the landscape is a metaphor for the lives of those inhabiting it.
Over the years, the town has attracted an assortment of writers seeking inspiration. College students from UNT and City College of New York now make regular trips, and local innkeepers say others come on their own, drawn by the lure of McMurtry or his bookstores. Spurs of Inspiration, an anthology of UNT students’ experiences in the 2005 Archer City class, is filled with page after page of student writers transforming themselves here. One of them, Mike Mooney, now writes for Village Voice Media and will have his work appear in two Best American anthologies in 2009. George Getschow, the professor who leads the Archer City groups at UNT, says Mooney found his voice in McMurtryland.
The wandering hill
The next day, our first real day of class, we caravan to Idiot Ridge, a spot on the open prairie where McMurtry grew up with his grandparents. The family ranch is still there at the corner of McMurtry and Loftin roads, two gravel paths that meet about 12 miles south of Archer City. It’s the landscape McMurtry observed as a boy, a landscape that would stir his spirit and haunt his prose. It’s the setting of his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, and it was here he conceived Lonesome Dove, the story of aging Texas Rangers who, bored with the frontier they helped settle, embark on a cattle drive into the untamed North.
As we step from our cars, the sun is heavy, the air thick. We scurry to the shade of the McMurtry ranch house. “You come to a place and soak up the scene,” Erik Calonius tells us as we gather around the porch. “You think about what your characters were thinking and feeling. As your brain processes this, the voice comes out. The voice tells you the story and gives you its rhythm, its music.”
I look back over the prairie and can almost see horses galloping over patches of prairie grass and past scraggly mesquites, their hooves jabbing the bone-dry earth as they carry Gus and Call to Montana. The vision is strong, and some of the tension drains from my shoulders. The spirits are here, it seems, and I long to be haunted.
I came here with a bankrupt spirit, drained by a job I’ve lost passion for. One day about a year ago I realized that I felt nothing for my work. It’s just something I do, like brush my teeth or wash the dishes. I write news that people read during breakfast and forget by lunch. It’s a daily head exercise, asking nothing of my heart or spirit. It’s formula, not art. There’s no hint of music.
The landscape at Idiot Ridge lingers in my mind later that afternoon when I reach the Spur, an 80-year-old hotel on the Archer City square that lodges hunters of both rare books and wild game (dove, quail, deer, turkey and wild hogs are favorite targets here). I climb the creaky wood steps up to my second-floor bedroom and record my thoughts in a journal:
From the ranch house, you can barely see the cars going up and down Highway 281 a mile away. The two-lane asphalt highway differs wildly from the bumpy gravel roads that cross the McMurtry ranch.
I pause to flip through McMurtry’s Roads, a travel narrative, and my eye catches a page where he writes about growing up in a “dirt-road world.” “Highway 281, a paved road at least, was there, but we didn’t use it much,” McMurtry says. “It seemed like a road for others, not for us.”
Two roads. The longer I consider the Frostian notion, the more it speaks to me. I pick up my journal again and lay my feelings bare on the page — how my work is lifeless and timid, how I don’t feel like a writer, how I don’t know which road my career will take, how I hope Archer City holds the answers. The thought of sharing it all with a roomful of strangers makes my neck muscles tighten again, but I know I have to do it if I expect things to change.
We gather around the long glass table in the hotel lobby that evening, and I’m one of the first to read. It’s over quickly. I lift my eyes to my professor, George Getschow, and brace myself for his response. It’s my third class with George, a former Wall Street Journal writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting, and I’ve learned to respect and fear his blunt critiques. Letting George edit your stories is like going to the dentist, you know it’s in your best interest, but it doesn’t make it feel any better.
George is intrigued, though. To him, the two roads are opposing styles of journalism: one swift, smooth and plagued with traffic, the other slow, rough and less traveled. “You came here on the paved road,” he says. “It will be interesting to see which road you leave on.”
All my friends are going to be strangers
As I get to know my seven classmates, I realize I’m not the only one struggling with my creative identity. Their essays, read aloud in class, also reveal self-doubt and confusion, a longing to find a muse. But we quickly learn that however we think of ourselves at home, in Archer City we are The Writers, an organic and unified body, spoken of in half-curious, half-distrusting tones as one might talk of The Mafia. Some locals, especially the politicians, worry about how we’ll depict the place. “There’s only so many stories you can write about a blinking stoplight,” Mayor David Levy tells me over breakfast one day at the Wildcat Café. Besides, Larry McMurtry did them better 30 years ago.
Others, especially the young roughnecks and cowboys, hang out with us, share stories on the porch of the Spur or beers at the American Legion Hall, the town’s only bar. But most still seem to have trouble with the idea of Archer City as any kind of Mecca. “If you grew up here, you wouldn’t find much inspiration here,” resident Carol Lewis, a 1964 Archer City High School graduate, says with a laugh. “But Larry did. He had that writerly outlook that nobody else in town had.”
McMurtry’s uneasy relationship with his hometown is well known (and some say overblown). Judging from the big-city newspaper clippings, his acceptance seems to rise and fall like the stock market. Cybill Shepherd nude in The Last Picture Show? What a degenerate! Winning the Pulitzer for Lonesome Dove? That’s our Larry! Co-writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain? Don’t ask! “The town resents Larry to a certain extent,” Sue Deen, McMurtry’s sister, tells us one day during a gathering at her Archer City home. “They also resent the stores.”
“The stores” are Booked Up, McMurtry’s mammoth used book business that spans four warehouse-like buildings on the town square. McMurtry, who has lamented growing up “bookless,” has worked for years to turn Archer City into a world-class book town in the vein of Wales’ Hay-on-Wye. In 1987 he opened the Blue Pig here with Deen at the helm before changing the store’s name to Booked Up, a moniker then shared by the now-defunct Washington book store he co-founded. Booked Up’s massive inventory — somewhere north of 400,000 volumes — attracts booksellers, collectors and curious out-of-towners, but locals rarely set foot inside. “People don’t read and they don’t know what [the stores] are,” Deen says, her voice tinged with dismay. “Or maybe it’s just small-town stuff.”
Whether locals like it or not, Archer City today is synonymous with McMurtry, who lives here part time in a former country club. His book ranch dominates the downtown real estate. Icons from or inspired by his work — the picture show, the Dairy Queen, the Lonesome Dove Inn — are everywhere. And year after year, writers, aimless and thirsty, journey here to drink from his well.
Folly and glory
Our second morning I wake before 8 and head downstairs for pancakes at the Wildcat, the diner across the street from the Spur. The café is filled with old men in cowboy hats, some chatting, others reading the Wichita Falls paper and nursing cigarettes. The ranchers and oilfield workers have already eaten and gone to their fields to toil out another 105-degree day.
I find a booth near the door and sit down, trying not to notice the locals noticing me. Buster, an older man wearing a ball cap and black apron, arrives with a pot of coffee within seconds. Someone later tells me he used to be the town manager.
“How was the first day?” Buster says with a smile. “Hot?”
“It was hot,” I agree.
After breakfast, George tells the class to find an image that speaks to us, one that points us to a universal truth, and spend the day writing about it.
“This course is about connecting to the wellspring,” he says. “It begins with an image, the doorway to perception.”
Emboldened by my creative spark on Idiot Ridge, I’m sure I can come up with something. I amble down the street and enter whatever building I see — the public library, McMurtry’s bookstores, the Royal Theater — but nothing screams “universal truth.”
Don’t panic, I tell myself. Something will speak to you. I drive to the Lonesome Dove Inn and the cemetery on the outskirts of town, then to the Catholic Church in Windthorst, a dairy town several miles east. Nothing. I turn south on U.S. 281 and head toward the Ridge, hoping lightning will strike twice. I take Loftin Road to the ranch house and turn left onto McMurtry Road, stopping at the overlook to survey the land and wait for direction. After a few minutes, the air inside the car is steamy, and I realize the afternoon is almost gone.
We have class tonight and we’re supposed to share insights from the day, but I have nothing to show for my travels. I consider driving farther down McMurtry Road but decide I don’t have the energy. The road is too narrow to turn around easily. I shift my car into reverse, turn my head over my shoulder, and drive backward toward the highway.
Another morning, George sends us out on a different mission: Gather real dialogue from the locals and use it to write a scene. “Dialogue lets readers experience reality by placing them in a conversation,” he says. “Do a lot of eavesdropping.” It seems simple enough, but I quickly learn that it’s hard to eavesdrop as an outsider in a small town. At Oodles, the grocery store, all eyes fix on me as soon as I walk through the door. I spot a man making small talk with a clerk as he orders meat from the deli and saunter over, pretending to survey the Little Debbie selection.
“Can I help you?” the clerk asks me, her tone suspicious.
“Nope, just looking.”
It dawns on me that I have to buy something so I grab some chocolate milk and off-brand cookies and get in line, unable to hear the banter going on between the clerk and customers in front of me. I fork over $1.50 and march out the door, leaving the chit-chat at Oodles forever unrecorded.
Back at the Spur, I decide to put off the dialogue exercise and try again to make progress on my essay on roads. For the next hour I stare at my computer screen, pausing at times to type a few words before deleting them in disgust. The deadline weighs heavily on my mind. I’m supposed to read something to the class tonight, but how do I write an essay on inspiration when I no longer feel inspired? I try again but my computer freezes before I can type another word. I hit a button to reboot, but an empty screen stares back at me.
The computer is dead. What little I had written is gone. Any semblance I had of holding things together crumbles. A scream rises from my chest like a volcano, and it takes all my strength to suppress it. My stomach churns like a washing machine. I throw my body onto the bed and feel an urge to dig myself deep inside, as if everything would be better if I could disappear inside the mattress.
“It’s like somebody turned off the spigot,” I tell George when we meet for class that evening, trying to explain my lack of work. I say it with a smile, hoping to mask my gloom.
“It’s okay,” George says. “Everyone has off days.”
What about off years? I think.
Later, we retire to the porch of the Spur, where a few local cowboys and ranch hands join us for beers and conversation. I stare across Center Street at the blinking stoplight, lost in my thoughts.
“So when are you going to snap out of your funk?” George says, startling me back into the moment.
“What do you mean?” I say, turning toward him.
“You’ve been hiding in your room.”
I had, sort of. I’d been so focused on my writing that I’d turned in early a few nights — early being a relative term with The Writers; 2 a.m., maybe — to work on my essay and missed some outings with the locals. I explain this to George, but he isn’t satisfied. “Being around the locals is part of what this is all about,” he says. “We’re submerging ourselves in a culture.”
He’s right, I know. Narrative writing is largely the art of hanging around. Somewhere inside the lobby, the voice of Willie Nelson sings about a whiskey river. I sit back in my chair and try to relax, listening to the conversation ebb and flow.
Larry McMurtry greets us wearing a maroon shirt, shorts and New Balance sneakers. With a wave of his hand, he quietly welcomes us inside his Archer City home. Book-lined shelves consume the walls of the main home and “book house” out back, each book stamped inside with a small stirrup, the McMurtry family cattle brand. He invites us to “take a little walk around,” and we giddily spread out to canvass the place.
After exploring the book house where a stack of aging magazines featuring Cybill Shepherd catches my eye, I walk back into the main house and find McMurtry standing alone in the dining room. Panicked for something to say, I spot an old typewriter — a Hermes 3000 — sitting at the end of a long wooden table.
“Is this where you do most of your work?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “If I’m here, that’s where I work.”
“All typewriter, huh?”
“Yep, all typewriter. I never used a computer.”
Someone else walks in and our conversation dies prematurely, but I have to work to suppress a smile. McMurtry calls us into a cavernous living room for a Q&A. He tells us many of the same things he writes about in Books, his just-published memoir, saying that book selling, not writing, is his deepest passion. He talks about his family brand, saying he’s put more on books than his father ever did on cattle.
On craft, McMurtry says he writes about an hour and a half a day, enough to type five double-spaced pages in three drafts. “Regularity is the heart of my writing process,” he says. “Very few of you can just write a few pages here and a few pages there and take a week off and ever accomplish anything. I do think you have to keep your nose to the grindstone.”
McMurtry is often depicted as standoffish and impatient during interviews. But he seems to enjoy his time with us, even offering to sign books and pose for group photos. “I’m very glad y’all could come,” he says before we file out the door. “And I’ll see you around.”
Leaving, I can’t help but think the past two hours were like going behind the curtain in Oz, even if my respect for McMurtry actually grew along the way. Turns out he’s more workhorse than wizard, and his novels, however magical in their maturity, are birthed one letter at a time.
Our last night in Archer City arrives, and we gather around the Spur’s long table for a final lecture on endings. In nonfiction, George says, everything doesn’t always end gift-wrapped with a bow. Fiction writers can concoct whatever finale they want, but real life has ambiguities that can’t be ignored. “I like partial resolutions,” he says. “Sometimes it’s more interesting that way.”
This sparks a class discussion but I stop listening, my mind fixed on George’s words. Maybe that’s me, I think. Maybe I’m a partial resolution. I know I don’t want to leave Archer City on the paved road, but the other one remains a mystery. Maybe I don’t have to have the answers, though. Maybe just deciding to change paths is enough.
As the class disperses, I approach George gripping a piece of paper. It’s a travel feature on Archer City I wrote for a regional magazine five years before. Here for a single afternoon, I’d jotted down notes on Booked Up, the Royal Theater and a few other landmarks and written a story. It was a parachute-job, devoid of feeling or insight, free of human interest. I know what George will say, but I hand it over, undeterred. I’m like a sinner at confession — ashamed, but ready to unshackle the weight of my transgressions.
“It’s the kind of story with the power to live on in the reader’s imagination for three minutes,” George says in his frank way.
“I’d write a different story today,” I say.
“I know you would.”
If New York is a city of things unnoticed, Archer City is a vapor, an enigma as glorious and pedestrian as the native son whose shadow engulfs it. Writers who come here leave transformed — their soul branded like the books on McMurtry’s shelves. They learn to lose themselves in a story here, this freewheeling laboratory of immersion journalism.
“I’m beginning to fear the end of this place,” Paul Knight wrote in his journal as the sun set on his 2005 class. “Not being here. Not having this place to come to. It’s awful and I want to be here forever, in this place of mind.”
Now, in the twilight of my own trip, I feel the same longing to bottle the magic. Anything seems possible here, the future as wide open as the West Texas sky. But I’m starting to think all that doesn’t have to end at the city limits sign. If Archer City is a place of mind, you never have to leave.
The next morning it’s time to head home. I load up my Honda Civic, pull onto Highway 25 and watch as the Royal marquee fades in my rearview mirror. I turn south at Windthorst back onto U.S. 281, which will take me all the way to Jacksboro. From there, I’ll pick up U.S. 380 and travel east back to Denton, where my job awaits.
As I approach McMurtry Road, I can hear something call above the roar of my wheels. Without thinking I slow down, flip on my turn signal, and exit the highway. Asphalt becomes gravel as I make my way toward Idiot Ridge. I accelerate too quickly, and my wheels lose traction and glide uneasily across the rocks. I ease my foot slightly from the pedal, grip the steering wheel tighter, and drive deeper into the sun- scorched plains.