Stories from a Wanderer – Scouting the Trail

The latest exploration of my new environment here in Texas had a clear destination and a specific task. The destination was achieved and the task completed; and yet somehow, the trip felt more like a scouting expedition.

With the weather above 100 for several days in a row and hotter temperatures promised, I decided to double-down on the heat and head west. With a nighttime temperature in the mid ‘80s and a forecast across the top half of the state for 105 or more, I decided the most comfortable place would be my car anyway. With a full tank of gas, a fully charged cell phone and a large cup of ice – I left the reassuring hazy greens of the Cross Timbers ecoregion and set out for Abilene and the Central Great Plains.

The drive on Interstate 20 is a straightforward affair, with the landscape becoming more austere once past Mineral Wells. Much of the scenery is objectively ugly, with boom-and-bust business billboards, parking lots and repurposed buildings crowding the frontage roads. The many miles of huge wind turbines is rather fascinating and I am always awestruck by their size. I happened to pass a single blade being transported by a semi-truck. It must have been three stories tall and half a football field long.

Once I arrived in Abilene, I sought out my destination: the “Frontier Texas!” (with the exclamation point) museum. I could not find it. I can’t explain exactly why, except that sometimes I was on the wrong street and sometimes I was on the right street looking the wrong way. It took me some time to realize that the north and south numbered streets run parallel to each other, rather than being divided by a central main street. I think perhaps it is a place where people made roads in line with a non-conformist vision that suited their own unique, practical purposes. This is very Texas and not a bad thing.

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Since I was lost, I decided to explore downtown, only to discover that the city’s landscape is so flat and its buildings generally so short (except for churches and a few outliers) that “downtown” is elusive. There are charming roadside sculptures along the main drags – whimsical buffalo, flamingos, a dog, abstract figures at play, all well worth exploring. Sculpture is a prominent part of Texas public spaces.

I quickly forgot I was lost and realized that what I was doing was scouting.

I did, at last, find Frontier Texas! It is a manageable, thoughtfully curated overview of the West Texas frontier from pre-historic times through the present that clearly and consciously attempts to show history from multiple perspectives. The opening and closing movie presentations are engaging, as are the interactive hologram video presentations. I spent more than an hour in the museum, and I could go back three or four more times and see something new to think about with each trip.

At various points during the day, I learned of a number of museums and historic places I would like to visit: the Grace Museum, a collection of local and “wild west” artifacts and photographs; the Swenson House, the 1910 mansion of a prominent Abilene family; the Morgan Jones Planetarium; Buffalo Gap, a small town within the Abilene limits that includes Buffalo Gap Historic Village, a curation of historic buildings; and the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. I learned that the city is home to dozens of sculptures that allude to children’s literature, and I look forward to a treasure hunt one day soon.

For my return trip through the oscillating heat waves of late afternoon, I took U.S. Highway 180 through vast open countryside and small cities that were new to me, including picturesque Albany. It is the Shakelford county seat, and as such it is home to a spectacular, gleaming, historic courthouse on a square. I stretched my legs there in the silent and empty heat.

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Otherwise, my return was uneventful, except for some spectacular views from the public picnic sites I’ve come to appreciate on Texas highways. At one point, I found myself stuck nervously behind a semi with two gigantic slabs of granite that were slipping side to side and front to back within their massive chains as we wound around turns and over hills. It reminded me, in a way, of the less picturesque drive that began my day. West Texas is a place where people come to work, to move things, to build things, to transform things. It has a functional beauty and I look forward to returning there.

greta ode
Greta Ode is currently enjoying “tiny house” living in Weatherford, Texas. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is an editor and contributor to Tandeta Journal. Her work can be found on Substack at “Ramble, Bramble.”

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