Introduction to the 2016 Ten Spurs ...
Standing on the northeast corner of Center and Main streets in Archer City, I pondered my next move. Was I going to stick my thumb out and commit to this hitchhiking adventure? And was I dressed OK?
I remembered a few things from my hitchhiking days more than 30 years earlier, when I lived by the slogan “Have thumb, will travel.” Hoping to make a good first impression, I wore a black T-shirt with the words Archer City Wildcats emblazoned in neon yellow letters, bought the day before at the local dollar store.
I also brought the square of cardboard that came with the T-shirt on which I scrawled my destination, Wichita Falls.
Now all I had to do was hold up the sign and stick my thumb out. I looked across the street at the Wildcat Café, where a cup of fresh black coffee and a plate of fried eggs, bacon and toast beckoned. Ah yes, those distracting Sirens come in all forms.
It was the summer of 2009. I was 53 years old. A husband with two kids at home. I hadn’t hitchhiked since, hmmm.... The best I could recall was one lonesome weekend a few months after graduating from college when I hit the road to see a girl.
I had a job that summer working the night shift in the grimy composing room of the morning newspaper in Bridgeport, Conn., which still relied on clattering linotype machines. Hot lead would yield to cold type, computers, the internet and eventually Matt Drudge.
I was staying at the YMCA, back when they still rented rooms out by the week, mostly to old drunks and recently divorced guys. At night, as I tried to sleep, I could hear muffled sobs and the soul shriveling sound of an old cigarette smoker’s chronic cough rattling through the walls.
After eight weeks on the job, I had to get out of there for a few days or I was going to go crazy. Since I didn’t have a car, that meant hitchhiking. My ex-girlfriend’s sweet and funny roommate lived only a few hours away in Asbury Park, N.J. She’d always been nice to me. I decided to go see her. And that’s all the thought I gave it. Son of Sam dominated the headlines that summer, and I keenly followed the saga of a psycho serial killer causing panic in New York City, just 50 miles down the road. Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” was my soundtrack. When it wasn’t on the radio, I was singing it to myself. Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels. I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels.
I don’t know how I got to telling my classmates and fellow writers at the Archer City narrative workshop about my hitchhiking days. Evenings, outside the Spur Hotel, we’d sit out under the stars, drinking beer and talking stories.
During that 2009 summer, I was taking a graduate-level course on narrative writing at the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism. The course included a week in Archer City, hometown of Larry McMurtry, whose stories seemed pulled from this dusty town two-and-a-half hours northwest of Dallas.
It was taught by the Maharishi of the Mayborn, George Getschow, a University of North Texas professor whose fiery, pentecostal sermons on narrative both delighted and scared the wits out of us. A good story had to be great. A great story ... well, as George the Evangelist would say, we all needed to revise, revise, revise.
I was working on a story about the drought and brushfires that had recently plagued the area, and I’d interviewed some volunteer firefighters. It was a good story, but I wasn’t really feeling it. It seemed like the kind of newspaper feature I’d been writing for years.
Now that I think of it, bringing up my hitchhiking days made perfect sense in the context of a writer’s workshop. The classic narrative structure is a journey. It can be a physical journey — Huck Finn taking off down the Mississippi River, encountering adventures — offering insight into our hero and the world around him or her. It can also be a journey of the mind and soul, a peeling away of the layers of conceit and fear to discover ... what? What’s underneath all that defensive armor anyway?
A few steps outside the Spur Hotel, where we stayed, was a four-way stop, the kind of crossroads that figures in American mythology. It was said that legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for success. There’s also the intersection in the final scene of the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck, is trying to decide what direction to take in his life and one way seems as good as another.
Maybe I was at just such an intersection. Mid-career. Mid-life. The newspaper business where I’d worked all my life — even throwing a route as a boy — was imploding. I had no better idea of where I’d be in a year than Chuck did at the end of Castaway.
One night, as our class mingled with the locals at the American Legion bar, Getschow took me aside. He put his arm around me and, yelling over some wistful, wailing warbler on the jukebox, said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Why aren’t you on the road, hitchhiking? That’s your story, dammit! If I were you, I’d start hitchhiking to Alaska, tonight. That’s your story. That’s your book!”
I thought he was pulling my leg.
He stared back at me. There was no twinkle in his eyes.
At that moment, inside the American Legion Hall, I decided to go hitchhiking. Sure, I was afraid. Hell, I’d never pick up a hitchhiker. Anyone who did must be crazy.
But Getschow was right about one thing. What was I doing here?
At 8 the next morning, at the crossroads of Main and Center, I stuck my thumb out.
Amazingly, five minutes later a car stopped. I opened the passenger door. A young guy, mid-30s, a little beard stubble, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and an expression not that different from Getschow’s look that said: What are you doing here?
A cup of black coffee cooled in a cupholder. A lit Marlboro rested in his hand on the steering wheel. As we pulled back on the blacktop, I told him I didn’t think anyone would pick me up. He told me he hadn’t seen a hitchhiker in years. He didn’t offer any more explanation for why he pulled over. I told him I was with the writers’ group staying at the Spur Hotel and explained what I was doing. I thought it sounded foolish, but he nodded like it made sense.
A few miles down the road he opened up. His family had owned a ranch in the area for several generations. But with all the vicissitudes of cattle ranching, including periodic droughts, it had gotten harder to make ends meet. His father finally lost the ranch to the bank. Now, instead of cowboying, he rode herd as head of a maintenance crew for an apartment management firm in Wichita Falls.
Thirty minutes later, he let me off in a Wal-Mart parking lot on the outskirts of Wichita Falls and wished me luck.
It wasn’t even 9 yet. Hell, at this rate, maybe I should go on to Alaska, I thought, and immediately pushed that idea out of my head as I imagined calling Sharon and explaining to her how I’d decided to hitchhike around the country for two or three months and to give the kids a hug for me. As much as I’d always loved the idea of Huck Finn, I wasn’t about to “light out for the territory” with so many responsibilities at home.
I got a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart and then decided to buy a bottle of water in case I got stranded. The temperature was already in the mid-80s. I looked at a map I’d brought with me to figure out my next move.
My eyes settled on a dot about 30 miles southeast of Wichita Falls, with the German-sounding name of Windthorst. After living for two years in Germany, I loved visiting German towns in Texas. That was my plan. I just needed to get to U.S. 281, about a mile east of the Wal-Mart as the crow flew. I walked there in about 30 minutes, wishing I’d bought two bottles of water.
Once again, I didn’t have to wait long. A man about the same age as the first driver stopped. He had his son in the passenger seat, so I hopped in the back. Again, I told him I was hitchhiking for a story and asked him why he’d picked me up — especially with his son in the car with him.
He didn’t have a good answer. Just that I seemed OK. He talked a lot. He’d been laid off — along with millions of others that spring as a deep recession hollowed out the economy. He was taking care of things at home while his wife worked. He loved the idea of what I was doing but thought it was very unsafe. Again, I thought, what was I doing here?
He dropped me off in Windthorst at the crossroads of U.S. 281 and State Highway 25, which I could take east back to Archer City — only about a 20-minute drive. But what was my hurry? Why not have a look around? I didn’t want to get back too soon.
I soon learned that Windthorst was known for St. Mary’s Grotto, an outdoor shrine paid for with money sent home by 64 World War II service members from Windthorst. All of them made it back home safely. It was a reminder of how much small-town America contributes to war — then and now. Windthorst, with fewer than a thousand people, lost one of its own in Iraq. Sgt. Gary Johnston, a 21-year-old Marine, was killed in 2007 by a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad. The son of dairy farmers, he played football and other sports for Windthorst, even playing part of his senior season with a broken arm.
After a few hours of walking around and getting a sandwich at the general store, I decided to head back. I crossed 281 over to Highway 25 heading east to Archer City, and stuck out my thumb. I figured I’d be back home in 30 minutes or so.
Two hours later, I was still waiting. The thought crossed my mind to call Getschow to come get me. But what kind of ending would that give my story? I’d boxed myself into this and I had to finish.
It reminded me of writing projects that remained unfinished. Finishing requires some magic combination of faith and fortitude, of which I often seemed lacking. What I’d learned to do was a trick of the mind: Just hang in there for another minute, I told myself. Give it another 5 minutes. That old man who just went into the general store? When he leaves, he’ll come this way and pick you up.
My reverie was interrupted when a pickup truck pulled over. An old man smiled as his white poodle barked at me through the partly rolled-down window. “Don’t worry about her, she’ll just lick you to death,” the man said.
I squeezed in next to the affectionate poodle and thanked the man profusely, telling him I’d been waiting for at least two hours.
“That shirt isn’t helping you,” the man said, nodding to my black and yellow Wildcats T-shirt. “Archer City is our big rival!”
The man was a retired dairy farmer from Windthorst. He was heading home but offered to take me back to Archer City. “I don’t think anybody around here is going to give you a ride as long as you’re wearing that shirt.”
The kindness of strangers. I was back at the Spur Hotel in 20 minutes.
I wrote a story that afternoon, or part of one. But it never seemed quite finished, somehow. I’ve thought about that day of hitchhiking off and on ever since. I thought of it again a few months ago when Mike Mooney asked me to write an introduction to Ten Spurs. What was that little adventure seven years ago all about? Why had I left it unfinished and why did it keep coming back to me?
Over time, I came to understand the lessons of Archer City. Lessons of place. Lessons of immersion. Lessons I learned by hitching rides, listening and observing. Listening was a lesson I’d picked up while hitchhiking as a teenager. People gave you a ride because they were bored or tired. They wanted to talk to someone. Without knowing it at the time, I learned something that would help me later as a journalist: the secret to great interviews was to be a good listener.
I learned a lot about Archer County by listening that day. The first driver taught me not only about the hazards of farming but his own yearning for that kind of life. Just as his family had been displaced a generation ago, the next driver was also displaced by global economic forces beyond his grasp. I had tried to blend in by wearing a Wildcats T-shirt. But the third driver informed me that T-shirt wasn’t much help to me in Windthorst, Archer City’s archrival.
The lessons of Archer City helped me grow as a reporter and writer at The Dallas Morning News. A few years ago, I put these lessons to use while covering the tiny community of West, in central Texas, which had been badly shaken by tragedy. An explosion at a fertilizer plant blew up half the town. Among those killed were 11 first responders, including six from the West Fire Department. The surviving firefighters remained out of sight, in mourning.
After a week or two, most of the media had left. Those of us who remained got to know the town. This was a Czech community, stubbornly self-reliant. They took care of their own and mistrusted outside media. I wanted to talk to the firefighters. To talk to them I had to get to know their home and that took time.
I spent time in places like the local barbershop, where old Sam Pinter would offer a cut but not a wash. His tiny shop was a museum filled with yellowing snapshots, guitars gathering dust on the walls and other mementos from West and surrounding towns, including Abbott, where Sam’s old friend, Willie Nelson, grew up.
My fellow reporters and I had heard about a popular lunch spot where the locals would go for a plate of sausages and sauerkraut with potato salad. We ate there, too. And we quickly learned that the best place to buy the most delicious kolaches was not that spot right off the highway. No sir. It was the little bakery on Oak Street, just a few blocks off Main. The bakery was along the route taken by the firefighters who drove the pumper and other firetrucks to the explosion.
The bakery was close to a drug store, where one of the firefighters worked as a pharmacist. We should try there, suggested the woman who owned the bakery. We did, and he suggested another firefighter for us to meet. Over time, we talked to more than a half-dozen of the firefighters and their families, including the old chief, a Vietnam veteran whose PTSD symptoms, including nightmares, had returned after the explosion.
Some stories arrive right away like that first car at the four-way stop. Others seem to take forever, like those two hot hours standing beside the road in Windthorst. But if you’re a writer, you can’t pick up the phone and call for help. You wait. You stick out your thumb. You feel a nervous excitement mixed with uncertainty. Will I get there? How long will it take? What if I get stuck?
Then, you remember the lesson of Archer City: Relax. Get to know the place and its people. Sooner or later, the story comes.