WanderlustBy Sam Lepore

Subject: Wanderlust 2000.16 - Van Horn, Texas
Date: Mon, 24 Apr 2000 21:15:34 -0700

    Whereas yesterday was a kicking duck, today was just ducky. Barely a breeze, morning temperature near 70, and a pleasant moistness in the air off the Rio Grande (and the large Amistad Reservoir nearby). Even with a clear sky, the temps stayed in the 80s for a comfortable ride.
    Surprise of surprises, the River City Donut Shop is entirely non-smoking. I reluctantly got used to being in half smoky non-smoking sections throughout most of the south, and in the tobacco states the non-smoking "section" might be only one or two tables, but I never expected this in a cowboy state. Now I'm not preaching to those who smoke, really, I'm not. It's just that those of us who still have sense of smell prefer not to have it become roadkill on the nicotine highway.

    While not claiming to have been everywhere in Texas, it is beginning to feel like I am running out of places I haven't been. North of Del Rio, right on the bluff over El Rio (Grande) is the state historical museum of Langtry, preserving the saloon/courthouse of Judge Roy Bean. It's been 20 years since I've been here and dang if it hasn't changed a whisker. But then that's what a preservation is for. There is a more recent visitor's center that is very nicely done, and while I don't often recommend tourist stops, I do this one. They actually let you go into the old saloon, so it seems real. If you do visit, also go down the end of the one street off the highway. Notice the successive ruins of faded businesses showing exposed stucco adobe from some century past. The road ends at the bluff and the view is inspiring.
    They may have been here when I last visited, but I learned two interesting things from the displays. First, Langtry would have been semi famous even without the Judge and his shenanigans. The second transcontinental railroad was joined in Langtry, cementing the Huntington fortune and preserving the monopoly of the "Big 4" railroad owners in San Francisco. It is claimed there was a "silver spike" driven into the last rail, similar to the golden spike in Utah, but the story is unconfirmed. Also similar to Utah, the exact location of the track is unknown because it was torn up some years later (and you can't even visit the site like you can at Promontory).
    The other notable item is my discovery that I am not the only one who thinks Texas unsettled. Two hundred years ago the Spaniards named this entire region El Despoblado, which means "the unpopulated zone". They believed it was impossible to establish outposts here.

    The land has been changing slowly but perceptibly since Laredo, getting more arid and gradually increasing in altitude. Suddenly I realize we are at 3,000 feet elevation. It appears as though a hand drew a dry line decreeing "all trees stop here" and poof we are back on the high plains where sage and cactus keep respectable distances from each other to claim what ground they can. I must be a westerner because the land looks "right" with flat top mesas on the skyline and weathered crumbled cliffs visible from 20 miles away. Yes, it is scenic, but is again the land where there is much to look at and nothing to see.
    In the midst of this panorama, quite literally 50 miles from nowhere, I wave and nod in admiration to a group of bicyclists making their way south. As difficult as it may be for me to endure the elements, all I have to do is twist my wrist, and carrying a few extra pounds of gear is unnoticeable. They are pedaling, and carrying their entire life and possessions on packs hung off their axles. No pedal, no go. Wow.
    But then that leads to thoughts of how we all have become so serious about our play. Everything is specialized, high tech, and full of determination. We may have grown up from being children, but we merely applied adult resources to the 'toys' we enjoyed as kids - and in some cases made it more serious than fun. On the other hand, it is good to see adults doing what they enjoy. I can remember when I was young, no adult and most certainly no young adult would ride a bicycle when a car could be used. It was unmanly ... maybe we have grown some after all.
    Technology has not only changed our lives, but I believe it has determined our geographical resiliency. When horses were the primary means of travel, towns or at least way stations were about 20 miles apart. It is obvious that metric has changed when you look at Nevada or west Texas. Many cars have a range of between 200-300 miles, so it is natural that towns find a need to fill somewhere around 100 miles from a larger city. Sanderson, Texas has no reason to exist other than it is at a crossroads and is about 100 miles from other cities south and east. Winnemuca, Nevada is another that comes to mind as a "nothing special, but in the right spot". Towns that tried to grow solely on road traffic or used to exist within 40 or 50 miles from a trip starting point have withered without any other redeemer, like a natural resource. They are "too close"; people pass them by. How will this change in so many years when we perfect the transporter beam and repeater sites need be only every 1,000 kilometers?

    Up though the Texas Mountain Trail and past the "Texas Alps" (yes, that's what they call the one mountain range), I quickly came to I-10 and aimed for the next 100 mile town, Van Horn (~100 to Ft. Stockton, ~100 from El Paso). Traffic was typical on 10, trucks and tourists. Then I saw a sight that made me think: mating season. Four pairs of towing-towed vehicles were traveling together. A volkswagen towing a volkswagen, a pickup towing a pickup, a jeep (cherokee) towing a jeep, and a sedan towing a sedan. Mayflies of the interstate.
    Van Horn is a cheap-motel town ... consider that the Motel 6 is twice the price of those on motel row! Cheap motels are favorites of a segment of touring riders. I could tell I chose well, because the parking lot in front of my room was branded with the footprints of previous motorcycle centerstands. Horses recognize a good corral.
    One last note, after umpteen times of passing through Van Horn, I finally ate at Ex-Esquire Higdon's favorite mexican restaurant, Chuy's. And I met Chuy. Beyond being an institution since the 1950s, the place is a shrine to John Madden who stops here often enough to have his own (very wide) chair painted with his name across the back.

331 miles
Del Rio US90 TX118 TX17 FM3078 I10 Van Horn
Sam Lepore, San Francisco

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