TEXAS: Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain

My hosts in Lubbock strongly recommended that I drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and if I could, see the show performed at the canyon on the history of Texas. I was hoping to get considerably more distance covered on the way to Oklahoma City, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to see the second largest canyon in the United States after such a wonderful experience at the first. I figured I would go through the park, take a look at the canyon, and hopefully get a bit more driving in before camping for the night.

For reasons I still cannot and probably will never be able to understand, I managed to click the wrong address on my phone. I then proceeded to follow the directions to that wrong address. For two hours.

Silverton PopulationWhen I finally realized my mistake, I began to head north, feeling like I was too far out of the way to back-track to the park now. I carried this thought for about 20 minutes, until I pulled over by the water tower in Clarendon. It was after 3PM, and it would take me at least two hours to drive back over to Palo Duro. If I drove there, I’d get to camp there and see the show, but then have to drive a full five hours the next day. If I kept going to Oklahoma City, I’d get a lot more mileage in and have an easier day, but I’d probably end up at an overpriced roadside motel if I couldn’t find a campground. The first choice was appealing, but the second sounded so much easier in the long run.

I thought for a moment, then looked up at the water tower. Screw it.

I made great time to Palo Duro Canyon, and managed to get a decent campsite, plus a dinner and show ticket. I sat next to a pair of women from Long Island who were on their way to Colorado. One of the women in particular truly exemplified the Long Islander, including the thick accent. She was talkative and blunt, and I absolutely loved her. “I never cared much for history,” she said, “because it was always about men and who cares, ya know?”

I said goodbye to my dinner guests and took my seat in the outdoor theater. Nestled right inside the canyon, the backdrop for the stage is the canyon wall itself, with brush and bushes for theater wings. The musical is called “TEXAS” and I was told by several Texans that it was a great show. I was excited to either see a good performance or learn a lot about what it means to be a “great show” in Texas.

Palo DuroAs the play begins it is still light out, and a huge chorus of 50-60 people dance out onto the stage. They sing a mashup of various country and American classics (Home on the Range, et al), interwoven with a main refrain that uses the word “TEXAS” to end every other line. Because the back of the stage is open, men on horseback ride by carrying the Texas flag. It is like any family-friendly musical, with the better dancers out in front to perform while the better singers belt on the side. There’s that one girl in the chorus who smiles extra big all the time, and the kids moving across the stage as a group because they’ve all been given the same marks to hit. Most of the performers were white, but one black cowboy caught my eye, mostly because he seemed to be the best dancer among the men. After five years as a dance major I can’t help but guess a man’s sexuality by the way he dances, and it’s the only time in which my personal “gaydar” is anything but sub-par. I briefly wonder if it’s a form of discrimination to judge orientation based on dancing, but I’m pulled away from this thought when I hear them sing “…where the women are happy and never complain! TEXAS!”

The show continues. It is a fictional story, but the idea is that it could be the story of any of the panhandle settlers in the 1800s. I briefly think I’m going to get an infusion of old Mexican culture when they introduce what seems to be a prominent hispanic character, but her storyline is wrapped up within the first 20 minutes and we never see her again. At one point a native chief appears, but only in the “we are proud people and the white man is destroying the land with their guns and use of contractions” capacity. He only appears twice in the show, and the second time it’s in a magical dream-state-native-healing scene.

The StageAll that said, it was a generally entertaining show. The incorporation of live horses and full-sized carriages was a lot of fun. There were a few quality lines, including a man refraining from certain language because “there are women, children, and baptists present,” but if you’d like to know what he thinks of it simply “watch the south end of the northbound bull.” As darkness settled in the canyon, I started to realize that they were intentionally lighting the canyon wall behind the stage. The first act ended with a surprisingly poetic use of Beethoven’s Ninth to aid in character development, followed by a bright lightning flash and sparks to split open a large tree near the canyon wall that, until this moment, I thought was real.

Before we left our seats for intermission, two actors came out to give a short speech. They began by asking all of the veterans to stand and be acknowledged. It seemed a little out of place to me, but I suppose (especially in Texas) there is never a bad time to honor veterans. After the applause the actors explained that this show has been running every summer for 48 years, and they always use the same method to call people back from intermission: the dinner bell. They also have a tradition of giving away a souvenir dinner bell to the person who has traveled the farthest to see the show that night. In the decades that they have been doing this, they have never given the bell to anyone in the United States. They announce the name of tonight’s winner, a Bulgarian man. They also let us know that they are accepting donations for their scholarship program to help pay the actors, and that they have two Shakespeare shows every summer in addition to TEXAS.

After intermission the show continues, and at a certain point I have to stifle my giggles. The title song about the state. The two men after the same woman. The town dance in the middle where some trouble happens. The disagreements between cattlemen and farmers. The questions about what the railroad will bring when it comes to town. The dream ballet.  The unnecessary inclusion of excitement when printing the title. For the less musically literate, this is a spot on description of the musical “Oklahoma!”. Except, you know, TEXAS.

I was also smiling because the dream ballet is where things really started to pick up. Or rather, when things started to catch fire. One of the nightmare aspects displayed during the dream ballet was the prairie fire, in which a ballerina en pointe takes the stage in a costume covered in flowing pieces of red, orange, and yellow fabric. As the Prairie Fire herself proceeded with her dance attacks, small fires sprang up in the brushy area behind the stage. Flickering orange light hit the sides of the theater and a (stunt)man ran across the stage, lit up completely in actual fire.

The show came to a close, the poor characters got money, the rich character had a change of heart, and absolutely everyone got married. The actors came out for their curtain call and a voice on the loudspeaker encouraged the crowd to stick around for “Our Tribute to America.” Of course I’m staying.

The transition is seamless as the encore music fades right into the tribute music. Everyone has changed costumes so that they are now all red, white, and blue. There is more dancing, and patriotic songs. There are smooth scene changes as they change subjects. The voice on the loudspeakers tells us to remember the “first responders, police officers, firefighters, and of course the men and women of our armed forces.” A woman in black comes out to do a mournful dance as she accepts the folded flag of a dead soldier. The children come out and say the pledge of allegiance, and the entire audience stands. It starts to become a bit much for me. Spotlights follow men on horseback as they gallop across the back of the stage carrying the American and Texas flags. Fireworks start. And we’re talking about a lot of fireworks. As they start with the first verse of “America the Beautiful,” scenes of beautiful American landscapes are projected onto a stream of water behind a cowboy on a horse holding the American flag. I’m not making this up people.

Most amazing to me is the excessive use of fire and water. Texas is in the middle of a three-year drought. I haven’t been allowed to start a campfire in 1500 miles. I met a woman in New Mexico whose town was out of water. I see signs everywhere warning people not to light fireworks. I’ve been told to conserve water and be careful about fire for weeks, and here is a show that lights it’s entire open-air backdrop on fire, only to douse it in high-shot streams of water and fireworks 20 minutes later. But I suppose it’s America, so, priorities. I wonder what the Bulgarian thinks of all this.

TreesThe tribute ends, and the name TEXAS is projected on the canyon wall. On stage stands a single American flag waving so perfectly in the breeze that I honestly wonder if they’ve got a wind machine on it. Yes, it was excessive. By the end it was almost a parody of itself. And I start to wonder how expansive the musical theater scene is in the area around Amarillo. This may be it. It might be that the jazz concert I saw in Lubbock is the exception, not the rule, and Texas is just as uncultured and backwards as I’ve always been led to believe. If that’s the case, it could be a sad state indeed for those interested in theater in the panhandle. It may be too much for a yankee like me, but there’s a gay black cowboy with a song in his heart living in Amarillo. And for him at least, even in Texas, there’s TEXAS.

As for me, I went back to my campsite to set up my tent in the dark. It had been too hot and windy to set it up before the show. I got ready for bed and before turning in, I looked up at the sky. It had become my nightly routine in the desert, and my nightly disappointment. Every night I looked up hoping for stars, and every night all I saw was the bright shine of a nearly full supermoon. But this time, the moon rise was delayed by the high canyon walls. I looked up to see a sky full of stars, and even a bit of that fuzzy swash that makes up the Milky Way – the kind that’s so dim you can only see it if you look just off to the side. I stared up at the the greatness of the universe and smiled. Under my breath and without meaning to I quietly replied, “Texas.”

Texas: It’s Not As Bad As You Think

Texas State LineLet’s face it: I was terrified of Texas. As previously mentioned, I was pretty sure it was just a giant, flat, boring expanse of hot sand waiting to murder me. Maybe not that bad, but I was sure I’d at least get an unwarranted traffic violation if not an unlawful prosecution for murder. But I figured it wouldn’t be America without at least a little Texas, and set my route to go through the panhandle. By my math I would have to spend at least two nights in the state: one in Lubbock and one in Amarillo. I only had one loose connection with this section of Texas. The parents of my mom’s friend’s sister’s partner live in Lubbock. I may have that train wrong, but suffice it to say they are close enough to me for an introduction to seem reasonable, but far enough away that I had no knowledge of them before this trip. My ideas about Lubbock were even worse than my thoughts on Texas, due to a rather scathing song by The Dixie Chicks.

NeighborhoodGeorge & Katherine were absolutely lovely. They are very old, very retired, and very sweet. I parked outside their house and noticed that despite the hot weather and the three-year drought, every one of the big, beautiful brick houses on the block had a large, green lawn. I’d been told that maintaining a nice green lawn is a point of pride in Texas, so this wasn’t so much of a surprise but a pleasant affirmation. George asked if I was okay with my car on the street, or would I rather park it out back. Considering they lived near the end of a cul-de-sac in the nicest neighborhood I’d seen since Beverly Hills, I told them I was fine on the street. Katherine showed me the guest room with the four poster bed and chandelier, but said if I didn’t like it there was a second guest bedroom across the hall I could use.

George & Katherine suggested a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner. It’s a chain restaurant, but Katherine said it started in Lubbock so it doesn’t feel like a chain to them. The local college was having a free jazz concert, and the three of us arrived just after the second song was ending. The theater was freezing cold, but the music enjoyable. The band seemed to be composed of both current and former students, and mid-way through a jazz cover of a Christina Aguilera song I was forced to consider my preconceptions about Texas, and about Lubbock. When one thinks about chilly jazz concerts one usually does not think Texas. But I suppose there’s a market for that sort of thing everywhere you go.

We get back to the house and George turns on the news in the background. It seems there’s an abortion bill being pushed through the Texas legislature, but it’s being filibustered by a woman I hadn’t heard of before. Neither George nor Katherine were very aware of the bill until now, and George looks it up on the computer. According to the article, the bill would make abortion illegal in Texas, though it would do it through roundabout means. Katherine expresses disapproval of such a thing, saying that on an individual basis you just can’t decide that sort of thing for someone else.

Blue DotIn the morning I awake to find both of my hosts out on the back patio, watching their turtles. They have a small but flourishing fenced-in garden, and a few years ago they bought a few box turtles to control the snails. Those turtles gave birth to a few more turtles, and since they are kept in by the fence, protected from predators, and likely to live an average of 50 years, George and Katherine now have over a dozen turtles wandering through the garden. George bought some cat treats that the turtles seem to like, and if you hold one out they will come up to eat it right our of your hand. George identifies them by putting a small dab of colored paint on the shells, leading to names like Blue Dot and Yellow Dot. It occurs to me that all of the turtles are likely to outlive my hosts, but I don’t bring it up.

I talk with George and Katherine for awhile. She remembers visiting Carlsbad Caverns as a young girl, and I ask if she remembers the Rock of Ages tour. As I begin to describe it, she nods her head with recollection. They both lived in Roswell for some time, but left in the 1960s when the installation of a missile site seemed to make the town too good of a cold war target for George’s tastes – especially after one of the missiles blew up in an accident. He says that back in those days, there was no alien paraphernalia in Roswell. “Back then, when the government told you something, you believed it,” explains George. “The government said it was a weather balloon, so that’s what it was.” He tells me that shortly before witness accounts began to surface and people started to raise questions, the Roswell economy had flatlined. As far as George is concerned, the “alien pub” is what saved Roswell.

Buddy HollyI tell them I’m going to the Buddy Holly Museum later, and Katherine explains that most Americans don’t realize the impact he had, especially in Europe. She tells a story about when her and George traveled to England once. People would hear their Texas accents, find out they were from Lubbock, and ask if they knew Buddy Holly. This was especially humorous to her since Buddy Holly had already died. “When was this trip?” I ask. “Oh, it would have been about 1996,” she tells me.

We go to Einstein’s Bagels for breakfast. Sitting there, George makes the casual but astute observation that this seems to be the place for ladies to come sit and chat. Katherine and I look around and we realize that there are no other male patrons, and that most of the women are gathered in groups of five or more.

We go back to the house, take in a few more minutes with the turtles, and I head out. I tell George and Katherine that I now regret planning such a short time in Lubbock, as they have been so nice, and Katherine had found so many other nice things for me to do in Lubbock if I had the time. She hugs me and says I’ll just have to come back.

I make it to the small but interesting Buddy Holly Museum. I didn’t realize what a direct influence he had on both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As in, they are called The Beatles because his band was The Crickets. Among the museum items are the glasses Holly was wearing when he died. It’s amazing how little damage there is. A small crack and some scratches. They look like a prop from a movie. I suppose I always thought of plane crashes as fiery explosions, but in the end humans are fragile, and it doesn’t take much.

Across the street is a statue of Holly, as well as a wall of fame celebrating musicians from Lubbock. Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks isn’t there, despite achieving a greater level of fame than most of the others. However this may have more to do with the rule that inductees must be present at the ceremony (excluding the deceased), and Natalie Maines has made it clear she’s not wild about coming back to Lubbock. However her father, producer and musician Lloyd Maines, is represented on the wall, which is some small consolation.

Me and BuddyTwo other women were admiring the statue while I was taking pictures, and one asked if I would like her to take a picture with me next to the man himself. I say yes, and go to hand her the camera. As I pull my hand away I snag the wrist strap, yanking the whole thing straight down towards the pavement. The woman is concerned, but I tell her it’s fine, I’ve dropped the camera plenty of times. She takes the photo and hands the camera back to me.

I went to take a few more shots, which is when I realized the real extent of the damage. The end of the lens had been smashed, and it takes very little time for me to realize it isn’t fixable. I look on my phone for the nearest electronics store, and it seems Best Buy is my only option. I’m not a huge fan of Best Buy, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s also harder to up-sell a woman who walks into your store asking for the exact camera she has in her hands. They didn’t carry the same model, but I got the closest thing. It’s a step down from my old one and a little inferior, but it will have to do. I will consider it my sacrifice to the gods of Texas for thinking so little of Lubbock.