All Along the Highway

As we leave the desert behind the radio crackles into coherence. A deep male voice exhorts us to dig into our pockets and contribute to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. A lone voice crackling in the wilderness, I think.

All along the highway on the plateau before the hill country wildflowers bloom: swathes of bluebonnets intermingled with red and yellow.

We stop for lunch in Ozona, a small big town in the Edwards Plateau region on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. Hunters  come to Ozona in search of white-tailed deer, javelina, and game birds. Ozona is the county seat of Crockett County, named for Colonel Davy Crockett, a hero of the Alamo.  We drive through the town looking for a steak house Katie once ate at and remembers hungrily but it is nowhere to be found. The streets of the town are deserted on this Sunday, faded tatty shuttered shops are strung along the main street fanning out from the civic center—gracious and impressive buildings, solidly built of stone. The Café Next Door is the only non fast-food place we can find off the freeway. We expect it to be full of travelers like ourselves, but it is choc-a-block with families out for Sunday lunch, dressed up a little, probably coming here after church. The little girls have bows in their hair, some of the men wear clean bright shirts, mostly red, with their black jeans and skinny black ties and polished boots and Texan hats. People are eating big, but we delicate and discerning city girls order toasted cheese and salad. The sandwich has been heated, but the cheese resists melting, its plasticity and psychedelic orange hue pronounced by heat. We don’t say anything to one another, we are hungry and wolf the sandwich down. But later, as we drive through an expanse of nowhere Katie, says, out of the blue, “That cheese was scary.”

In Harper, where there are at least six churches including Wild Ride Ministries, we are greeted by a billboard: Hunters Welcome. The main business in town seems to be taxidermy. Outside of town we pass a ranch where an extraordinary sight hurtles me out of Texas and back to Africa. The grass is brownish, the landscape savannah-like, as though on a safari we cruise past African gemsbok, eland, gazelle, kudu, springbok. Later I discover that there is a price on each exotic animal’s head, and if you are prepared to pay the price you can come in and kill it. It will cost you, for instance, upward of $12,000.00 to bag a kudu, though you can get a Springbok for half of that. Mostly hunters come in groups, most often family groups. The Lone Star Ranch Exotic Hunts pays tribute on their website to the Best Group Hunt of
 2013, The Wood Group: “truly an amazing group of Hunters. Their enthusiasm and kindness were unmatched.  They had such a great time together that it was a pleasure to be a part of their hunting adventures.
 They did not waste one moment from the time they arrived at the Ranch to get in the woods and start hunting.  They had a mission to fill their freezers with meat, and within no time they were putting the smack down on Elk and Buffalo.”

Not every shoot costs money. In addition to the usual packages the Ranch offers Hunts for Hope, complimentary dream hunts 
for children battling terminal illnesses. There is a photo of children posing in front of a zebra they have killed.

In the town of Frederiksburg, with its lovely stone buildings that seem to have been eerily transported from an earlier European era, we are again craving tea and so return to the Old German Bakery and Restaurant. On the way out to Big Bend and Marfa we had delicious bratwurst and sauerkraut and a pork cutlet that was even better cold the next morning in the motel at Marathon watching the sun come up. Over the blackboard menu in the Bakery there was a montage of photos, some showing a part of the town invisible to a passer-through: faded walls, deserted streets, graffiti; other photos and cuttings showed cavalcades, monuments, and John Kennedy’s face cut from a German newspaper. The bakery is closed this Sunday, so we wander round a back street and Katie shows me the Sunday houses and tells of how she stayed there with her mother and father when they were both still alive. These are small weekend houses that the ranchers and farmers built in the late 1800s so that they could spend a night or two when they came in to town for church and perhaps to party. They are small houses, craft houses meticulously constructed out of local materials, now mostly rented out to tourists. Katie’s voice softens as she tells me about these houses.

We find a cup of tea at a Biergarten where two young girls in their sparkling twenties are taking their grandparents out for dinner or lunch in this Sunday mid-afternoon, and have to shout a lot, and at the table next to us, a party of retirees, just off the coach, are checking out the town on their i-phones, comparing maps and statistics.

North of Frederiksburg we pull in to a Wildflower Nursery, and walk through fields of blue, fields of red, whole fields like oceans, like we are swimming through a diaphanous red sea, light as air. Yoke Sum, in Marfa, had shown us the seed packets she and Derek had purchased here. She is going to take them back to England to plant in her garden, where, if the bluebonnets grow, they will become exotic rather than native. Here, although native, they did not sprout spontaneously along the highway. It was Lady Bird Johnson who was largely responsible for getting rid of the junkyards and billboards that graced the highway system, replacing them with native plantings, through her support for the Beautification Act of 1965. Before this road trip if you had tossed to me the words Johnson and 1965, and asked me to say whatever came into my mind I would have said Vietnam, napalm, and the Civil Rights Act (of the previous year). That word, beautification, it slightly churns the stomach and curls the lip. Botox and pansies, landscaping and real estate, Sunday best, veneering.

Yet Lady Bird’s legacy is substantial, her campaign for national beautification was linked to environmental concerns, to improving urban decay and pollution as well as to preservation of natural wonders. As we swim through the crimson air of the poppy meadows in the flower fields I remember hiking through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, one of the most spectacular stands of old redwoods in Northern California. And as we hit the highway again, pondering the shiftiness of terms like foreign and domestic, native and exotic, I feel grateful for the way her legacy lives on, in for instance the infelicitously named Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 which requires that at least 0.25 of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.

As we hit the highway again, on the home run to Austen, the deep male voice greets us again on the radio, still pitching persuasively for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Although it induces a degree of squeamishness, this exhortation to charitable giving, I nevertheless feel grateful; not only does this Society fund a great deal of research it also is generous with information and support. Still, I think, probably a lone voice crackling in the wilderness. Then the voice segues smoothly from leukemia to climate change, actually to the fiction of climate change, to a rant about how our President, his voice sneers on this word, President, how our President, Obama, is hobbling and dictating to the EPA, preaching an alarmist philosophy that bears absolutely no relation to reality. He claims that the planet is heating up, says the voice, and where does he get this information? I ask you where does he get this information? I can tell you where he gets this so-called information, he reaches into the air and pulls statistics from nowhere, out of the air, that’s where, out of the air. We realize we are listening to Rush Limbaugh, the most-listened-to talk show host in the country. I guess, with all those listeners, he might raise some money for research that will come my way. Oi vey.