This is the fourth extract from Toad’s Road-Kill Café - and we’re still in Texas. It’s a big old state, and it takes up a sizeable chunk of the book.
Buffalo Gap has a population of 499. It’s a charming little town set either side of a twisting lane, its houses huddled under a dense canopy of shade trees. I had ample time to get a feel for the place as I crawled along, stomach rumbling, hoping to find a breakfast of some sort. Even when I’m ambling my way across the wilds of North Yorkshire I pride myself on driving like a farmer. Here in America, where the speed limit drops to 25 and sometimes 20 in town, it’s probably a useful skill. Not that there’s much traffic to distract you. At that speed you spot things you’d never see if you drove through town like the average European, at around 38. Things like Lola’s, for example.
Lola’s might best be described as a shack, certainly as seen from the road: a tiny place with one square window and a little door, wedged between a rickety-looking tin-roofed building and a squat timber house with a hitching-rail outside the front door. I’ve always said that if I ever get to build my dream home in the country that’s one feature I’ll definitely have: a hitching-rail. You never know who might happen by. Come to think of it, I might have a well, a pump, a barrel of water and a metal dipper too. Why spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar?
A single pick-up truck was parked outside Lola’s, its front bumper kissing a bleached tree-stump that marked the edge of a narrow, dusty sidewalk, and I could’ve sworn I saw a man walk in through the door. There was no indication that it was a café: it just looked as though it ought to be.
Remembering my injunction to myself to boldly go where a travel writer must – and spurring myself on with thoughts of all the fun I’d had as a result of venturing into Toad’s – I pulled up and investigated. The sign in the window said CLOSED, and I was just about to return to the car when I saw that the door was slightly ajar. I shoved it open and looked inside. One oldtimer in faded dungarees and one mailman in a short-sleeved shirt were sitting at a little wooden table under a low ceiling drinking coffee from styrofoam cups.
“Is it open, or not?” I asked.
The mailman looked up from his paper. He was only in his late thirties, but he had the relaxed look of a guy who’d got where he wanted to be in life and wasn’t in a hurry to get any further. I know that look: as a rat-catcher - this was when I was young and impulsive - didn’t I have a job that half the population of North Lincolnshire would’ve died for?
“Sure,” he said. “Come on in.”
“What did she do, forget to change the sign?”
“No, she’s closed Mondays. Leaves us the key so we can fix ourselves a drink.”
I suppose I looked a little taken aback. The oldtimer shifted in his seat. “I wouldn’t have anywhere to go otherwise,” he explained. “Here, grab yourself some coffee” – he pointed to a machine by the deserted counter – “and stick a coupla quarters in the jar there. In fact, you can get me a re-fill too. Plenty of cups by the jug.” He handed me his empty.
If there was an award for just missing characters, I’d already be well in the running at this point on my travels. First the octogenarian helicopter pilot looking for company, now the woman whose House Rules and Guidelines for Survival were written on the wall where no-one could miss them.
· We do not specialise in service – wait on yourself.
· You eat what we tell you to eat – unless you’re a regular.
· This is not a Country Club, and you do not pay Country Club dues – so don’t boss us around with that Country Club attitude.
· Do not even think about leaning back in our chairs.
Yes, the mailman agreed as I set the cups down on the table, she’s quite a gal. Pity she’s out of town today. You’d like her. Then he asked me where I was heading.
“Well, I’m heading north. I haven’t any particular route in mind, except I want to avoid Abilene.”
“That’s a smart move. Abilene ain’t a nice place at all. Here” – he took a fresh paper napkin and borrowed my pen – “Lemme draw ya a little map. I drive all those county roads. I can show a real neat detour.”
Not only did he know all the minor roads of the district, but by golly he was going to cram them all in on my paper napkin if he could. He’d already covered half of it with a confused network of farm tracks, railways, crosses and arrows and even one set of roadworks, when he got distracted by the M word. It was my own stupid fault for mentioning my interest in history.
When I made my first trip across the Plains, back in `91, I drove 5017 miles, and I made very slow progress. I was young, I was eager, I had a PhD to write up, I had a half-time post as a university lecturer, and high hopes of an academic career. The more I wrote down in my notebook the better I felt about spending five weeks away from my kids having the best fun I’d had since – well, could anything really compare with cruising around the Wild West in a borrowed pick-up?
I said I was eager. On that trip I pulled over at every Historical Marker on the roadside, and read just about all of them, frequently making notes. You don’t have to spend long on the road in western Kansas to realise that Historical Markers probably rank as number three in their list of products – some way behind grass, but only a little way behind abandoned gas stations, and gaining fast. I never missed one. The odd few that I couldn’t be bothered to read, I photographed for future reference.
I also called at just about every museum, National, State Historical or private, from Holbrook, Arizona, to Baldwin, Kansas, on up to Laramie, Wyoming, and back through Colorado to Shiprock, New Mexico, and Gallup, out on Route 66. I took notes on ploughs, ox-yokes, Indian pots, arrow-heads, six-guns, Winchester rifles, traps, coonskin caps, buffalo-robes and all the appurtenances, domestic, commercial and military, Native and imported, that furnished the needs of westerners, Red, white, black and yellow. I saw re-constructed log cabins, sod houses, tipis, authentic frontier jails, school-houses, pot-belly stoves, barns, garages, dentists’ surgeries, livery stables, cavalry forts, lock-ups, churches, Conestoga wagons, Model T Fords, railroad engines, stage-coaches, scalps, petroglyphs, the very wagon-tracks left in the prairie earth by the emigrants. By the time I’d put a new set of tyres on the car in Flagstaff, Arizona, I had taken to calling at museums and demanding to see the curator so that I could ask what they had that I wouldn’t have seen so far. It may sound ill-mannered and ungracious, but a guy has to protect his sanity somehow – because, whatever the specific attraction of a museum out west, whatever its unique offering to the student of history, you can bet that most of the things on that list above will be there too. And it gets tiring.
So when the mailman broke off from his map-making and said, “You know, so long as you’re in town you really ought to call in at the museum - it’s just around the corner”, I had to restrain myself from lecturing him on the devalued currency of ubiquitous western relics. Being polite, being British, I meekly agreed that it would be un-neighbourly to miss it. I drank up my coffee, decided I could cope with the hollow sensation in my stomach for half an hour or so, and headed for Elm Street.
It’s no great curiosity to find a graveyard out west whose population outnumbers the town it serves. I’ve got an absolute beaut stored up for when we get to North Dakota, for example, a little place called Arena that’s so lonely – well, you’ll see how lonely it is in due course. And because past so frequently overshadows present in this land of speculative ventures, because people so frequently abandon their homes and move on with nothing more than what they can pile in the back of the car, it’s not unusual to find a museum whose collection spills over into outbuildings, basements and adjacent lots, and whose total of collected structures dwarfs the town that hosts them.
People started abandoning their treasured possessions on the Great Plains way back in the overland trail days, lightening the load as the mountains loomed and the draught animals weakened on the thin grazing. Leaving aside the bones of exhausted oxen, the pitiful little gravesites of babies - or the mothers who died bearing them – the most expendable luxuries seemed to be the tokens of a more refined life: the bureaux, the pianos, the books. More than one nineteenth-century emigrant has written of finding excellent reading material along the side of the road, and more than one has marvelled at how little these heirlooms counted for once their owners were sufficiently reduced by hunger and thirst. Later generations, destroyed by drought, or locusts, or plummeting prices for farm products, were equally unmoved by the value their grand-parents had placed on furniture from the old country. So there’s an awful lot of junk to be sifted through, and most of it is in back-rooms in smalltown museums, cared for by perhaps the one person in a town who carries a torch for its cultural history. But I have to say that until I arrived here I’d never seen a museum that so nearly overshadowed a town in its size, its comprehensive representation of what that town might have looked like in its prime.
The Buffalo Gap Historic Village contains, not necessarily in this order, a courthouse, a jail, an 1875 log cabin, a doctor’s office, a post office, a barber shop, a railroad depot, an art gallery, a carpenter’s shop, a blacksmith’s shop, a wagon barn, a print shop, a chapel, another post office more modern than the first, a Texaco service station, a schoolhouse, a Marshall’s house, a trading-post, and a general store converted into an exhibit hall for local artists. And that excludes the outside exhibits, which are several. Clearly, I should have persevered in my search for a substantial breakfast.
They start you off with an appetiser, a twenty-minute video presentation on the history of Texas in general and Buffalo Gap in particular. And for that alone I am grateful: I learned a few things about Texas which had escaped my attention. For example, having struggled to hold in check my amazement at the abundance and variety of wildflowers that have illuminated my peregrinations along these Texas byways, I now find that the whole thing is a put-up job. The state department responsible for such matters, I learn, dumps 40,000 lbs – that’s around twenty tons – of flower-seed along its verges every year. Thinking about how many lettuces I can grow from a packet containing perhaps 15 grammes – and, the depredations of gastropods notwithstanding, later having to give away ninety per cent of the resultant produce – my mind staggers. But just as I manage to conjure up a picture of a fleet of trucks distributing said mountain of seeds, I am hit with a corollary statistic. They’re coming thick and fast, and I’m jotting them down in my tiny pocket notebook in the pitch dark; but trust me: I’m sustaining the level of accuracy and legibility you would expect a former scholar to afford to such weighty matters. The corollary statistic of which I speak – and I promise I’ll get off my high horse in a moment – is that the seeds have to be scattered along one million, two hundred and fifty thousand miles of road; and, there being at least two verges per highway, they probably scatter them pretty thin.
As I digested that lot, I was assailed by more. Did I know – the video commentator is by now casting around for alternative ways to impress upon me the vastness of his home state – that if you peeled Texas off the map and rotated it along an axis described by the northern Panhandle (I hope you’re still with me: I at least had the map up on screen) Brownsville, currently on the Gulf Coast, would be in Canada. So that means - my mind’s in overdrive - that South Padre Island would be somewhere in northern Minnesota. Hey, give it a try, I say: it’d be an awful lot less attractive to the drunken students who descend on it every Spring Break, and the residents might thank you for that, even as they rush out and buy their snow-chains. It’s an impressive piece of geographical speculation, although since the original Republic of Texas claimed territory stretching as far north as Wyoming it wouldn’t really be any great shakes.
After the commentator had numbed my sensibilities with this barrage of psephological trivia, he started on local history. The first settlers, it seems, came to these parts in 1875, lured by the fact that the buffalo migrated through the gap in the hills that gave the place its name. For a brief period the county seat was here, and the population reached 1,800. But when the Texas Pacific railroad pushed its shiny new tracks through Abilene rather than Buffalo Gap, the county seat went with them and the game was up. It happened all the time on the frontier, where rival speculators who had invested money in neighbouring settlements would lobby the railroad with all kinds of incentives. Sometimes a town that was by-passed would up and move itself to the trackside. Others languished; many died. Go to the State Historical Society headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, for example, and you may ask to see the Dead Towns Index, a catalogue of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of townships that were surveyed, named, in many cases constructed, and finally abandoned. It’s how fortunes were made and lost.
After the historical scene-setting, the tour. I’ve sort of pre-empted the tour, with that exhaustive list of the buildings that make up the collection, but the wonderful thing about a museum like Buffalo Gap is that, having the space to grow, they keep cramming things in. Beautifully preserved things like the dentist’s chair - and instruments of torture – but also wonderfully decrepit items like the old piece of farm machinery so heavy that it had collapsed the front of the wagon it stood on. There it was, at rest, under a cedar tree that probably pre-dated the entire town, both wheels splayed inwards at forty-five degrees and half their spokes missing, a monument to the unpredictability of the ageing process. And there, around the corner, nailed to the grey, bare, wooden boards of an old farm building, was an enamelled sign advertising a long-vanished brand of chicken-feed: LAY or BUST.
If you’ve never done this kind of museum in the West, Buffalo Gap is as good a place to do it as any. But don’t make my mistake: try to hit town when Lola is open for business – officially, that is, with the lady herself in residence. And write and tell me what she’s like. I’m kind of curious.