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Friday, 22 July 2016

Free sample chapter, Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

Somehow, in the rush to prepare for my Nebraska book tour, I forgot to write a post about the launch of this book, an account of my long drive up the Hundredth Meridian from Mexico to Canada, and back. So I offer here a sample chapter from west Texas. To see more about the book - or to buy it -  visit or, if in the UK,

Leakey, Texas

My road followed the Frio River, a delightful water-course lined with flower-filled meadows and dotted with small ranches or farms. At the little town of Rio Frio the water ran right across the road and I stopped the car to walk through the cool grasses along its margins, then paddled in the deliciously chill water, digging my toes into its sandy bed.  My mind filled with romantic notions about selling up and buying land out there… but the rumbling in my stomach soon brought me back to earth. It was getting on for lunchtime. 

It’s one thing to say you’re never going to sully the temple of your body by eating at One Of Those Places, but it’s quite another, when you’re out on life’s highways, to stick to your own rules. When it comes to FRDs – Family-Run Diners – there’s no way of telling what you’re in for other than to suck it and see. It grieves me to say it, but I have eaten some excruciatingly awful food at Midwestern Mom and Pop joints.   

   So why, you might wonder, would I screech to a halt outside a shabby little place called Toad’s Road Kill CafĂ© in Leakey, Texas (pop. 401)? The answer is simple enough. I was starving. As I approached  the door I was brushed aside by a large man in a crumpled suit. He looked alarmed – and I could see why. Close behind him was a small, skinny, agitated woman with a dish-rag in one hand and a vicious-looking knife in the other. ‘I don’t have no New York Jack cheese,’ she shouted as the man hurried to his car and clambered in, ‘and I don’t have none of that Parma ham, and I don’t have no rye-bread rolls either, so git!’

   As she went back inside I stood in the doorway, eyeing the patina of grease on the counter, the pile of old magazines by the back door, the several empty tables strewn with fading menus and grubby salt-cellars. The proprietor – the skinny woman who’d just seen the fat gent off the premises – was now standing over a little table by the counter, calm as you please, somehow managing to chop onions while she read the day’s paper, her steamed-up glasses perched on the end of her nose. She looked like most people’s idea of a grandmother. A modern, feisty grandmother, that is: jeans, sneakers, and a less than reverent attitude to people she didn’t like. Maybe the clue was in the sign above her head: ‘God Bless John Wayne’. 

   There were only a couple of customers in the place, two elderly men in work-clothes, their broad, callused hands clasped round a matching pair of sandwiches which dripped mayonnaise and disgorged splinters of bacon and dribbles of ripe tomato as they raised them to their mouths. ‘Sit yourself down, stranger,’ said one. The other grinned. ‘She makes a darned fine BLT. Jest ain’t so keen on these city slickers with their fancy diets.’

   Ten minutes later I was munching a truly splendid BLT of my own - it seemed the only thing to ask for, under the circumstances - and poring over a map of Texas with Toad’s reading glasses perched on my nose. ‘Here, try these,’ she’d offered when I realised mine were out in the car. And then, because I couldn’t resist asking her, she told me how she got her name. ‘Goes back to when I was a baby. I never learned to crawl. Just hopped about the place like a little toad. Been stuck with it sixty years.’ 

   The guys at the other table had just about finished eating. The first one wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. ‘Guess you’re new to Texas,’ he said, and held out his hand. 

   ‘Yes, I’m from England. Just passing through.’ 

   ‘Name’s Bob,’ he said. Here, at last, was my chance. I took a deep breath, reached out to him and uttered the line I’d been rehearsing since I first dreamed this trip up.  

   ‘Call me Slim.’ I’d always wanted a nice cowboy kind of name and, being blessed with a fast metabolism and a slender frame, this was the one I’d long had in mind.

   ‘How’s that?’ Bob asked, cupping a hand to his ear.

   I could already feel the steam starting to leak out of me. I clenched my abdominal muscles again. Might as well face it, I thought, you’ll never make a liar. ‘Slim,’ I said.

   ‘Jim, huh? Hey, same as my buddy here.’

   At which point I gave it up. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Alan.’ And then, reminding myself that you can’t win `em all, I thought I might as well try another line I’d always liked the sound of.  ‘But you can call me Al.’

   They asked where I was heading. If I had a destination in mind it was Junction, by way of Telegraph, which they agreed was a ‘purty liddle place’. ‘But,’ I added, ‘I’m not in a hurry, really. I want to see as much of this country as possible. They told me Texas was all dust and tumbleweed, but look at it.’

   ‘Oh sure, it’s real purty round these parts.’

   I learned years ago that the straightest way into a stranger’s heart is to praise his children, his livestock or his homeland. I learned it twenty years ago in my rat-catching days, when I was doing the rounds of farms, smallholdings and out-buildings in North Lincolnshire. It worked fairly well with garden produce too.

   ‘By heck,’ I’d say, ‘that’s a fantastic patch of rhubarb you’ve got there.’ 

   ‘Aye. Not bad, is she?’

   ‘Not bad? Mine’s all thin and – why, it’s hardly worth picking.’

   ‘Well, you want to try some of mine, lad. Go on – take a few sticks. I’ve plenty of it.’

   The same went for cabbages, tomatoes, green beans, strawberries, farmyard muck, puppies, young cockerels  – anything you care to think of, according to the time of year.    And here in Toad’s place, true to form, once we got to talking about how wonderful Texas was, they were away. And before long Bob was telling me that he’d spent his working life up north – somewhere in Wisconsin – and had finally saved enough to retire to the place he’d dreamed about. ‘I got a little cabin back there a ways.’ He gestured vaguely in the direction of Cottonwood Creek, which I’d crossed on the way up from Garner State Park. 

   ‘Sounds great,’ I told him, looking as wistful as I could. I don’t know why I bothered to affect any sort of look, really, because I was to find that westerners put very little effort into being the way they are. Theirs is a casual kind of hospitality. The door’s always open and the coffee pot’s generally on the stove. It’s up to you whether you walk through and help yourself.

   ‘Listen,’ Bob said, ‘if you’re not in a hurry, why not come up to my place there and take a look around.’

   ‘I’d like that. Be nice to see some of the country after all that driving.’

   ‘I built a bunkhouse for my grandchildren when they come to stay. No one there this weekend.’

   Bob was spending the afternoon in town. He and Jim had a spot of fencing to see to out at a friend’s place, and we agreed to meet up later. I told him that to kill a little time I’d take a ride up to Camp Wood on the eastern fork of the Nueces River. Bob corrected my pronunciation. ‘We say ‘Noo – ay – says,’ he said – pretty much what I thought I’d said in the first place.

Later that afternoon I met up with Bob, stashed a change of clothes in his truck, then followed him round the corner where he said there was a good place to park my car. ‘Ain’t nobody going to take it from here,’ he said. ‘Not from right outside the sheriff’s office.’

   It wasn’t many miles to Bob’s place, but it was quite a ride. ‘County grader comes down here once a year,’ he told me as we splashed across a ford, skidded over loose rocks and ground our way up a steep-sided gulch cut out of the limestone. ‘They stir the gravel around some, and that’s all you get for your taxes.’ He stopped the truck, got out and opened a gate. ‘Another flood now and I’ll just have to wait till next spring before they fix it.’ 

   He had a twenty-acre spread set in the valley between two spurs, and running up the side of a wooded mountain. It cost him $15,000. ‘But that was three years ago. There’s nine realtors in this town – lotta people retiring out this way now – and the one who sold me this parcel of land, she’s been back more than once. “I can double your money for you – if you’re thinking of selling.” But it suits me fine. Only have to spend twice as much to get another patch.’ He had a couple of neighbours within half a mile, their houses just about visible amongst the trees, and a couple of horses down in a piece of pasture. He had a feral cat that came by to be fed from time to time, a woodpecker that tried to steal the cat food, and a selection of humming-birds and scarlet cardinals flitting about the eaves of his house. 

   The house itself was prefabricated, styrofoam panels pinned to a wooden frame and all sitting on a concrete base. His porch was supported by stout cedar poles he’d taken out of the wood. Indoors it was dry and warm, adequately furnished, but there was no stove.  ‘Do all my cooking out there,’ he said, pointing to a makeshift barbecue pit and grille set right into the earth. ‘Guess it’ll be steak for supper. Again.’

   We gathered an armful of sticks and dragged a few fallen branches up to the pit, lit the fire, and then sat on the porch drinking beer. ‘If we’re real lucky we might see a white-tail deer,’ Bob said. ‘They come down to browse sometimes.’ From across the valley the sound of a car door slamming, and a man’s laugh drifted in. I wondered how he got along with his neighbours. 

   ‘That guy?’ He glanced in the direction of the noise. ‘We had a little misunderstanding when I first came out here.’ He smiled. ‘Remember that gate we came through? It’s on his land, but I have an easement through it. A right of access, deeded at the Land Office.  First time I came along I found him putting a lock on it. 

   “Why, you don’t need to come through, do ya?” he says. 

   “Oh yes I do,” I  told him. “I bought that land through there.” 

   “Well, I aim to keep this locked, all the same.” 

  “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just use my master-key.”  

   “Master key won’t do you no good. It’s a combination lock.”! 

   “You seen my master key?” And I took out the fourteen-pound sledge hammer.’ Bob crushed an empty can. ‘We get along real good now.’

   The thing about his neighbour, he told me later, was that he got edgy certain times of year. ‘He generally hires a couple of Mexicans when he has a job to do around the place.’

   ‘You mean illegals?’

   ‘Yeah, wet-backs. Everyone does. You won’t get anyone round here to work for minimum wage.’ We had the fire blazing now. He threw on a log.

   ‘So, you know about this,’ I asked, ‘and you’re a new-comer, right?’


   ‘That means everyone else around here knows about it.’

   ‘Oh, sure.’

   ‘And that means the sheriff’s going to know too.’

   ‘Course he does.’

   ‘Does he ever feel like doing anything about it?’

   ‘Not unless there’s some kind of trouble. Otherwise he figures it’s none of his business.  Besides, once they’ve done the job the Mexicans move on.’

   ‘Where to?’

   ‘I’ve never asked.’

   But then the canyons round here have always been home to outlaws. The Texas Hill Country was for a century a natural haven to anyone on the run. According to Bob, there are still one or two old-timers around who rode with the Newton gang back in the 1930s.    ‘Harmless bunch, really. Held up banks with a shotgun, but they never had more than bird-shot in it.’ His own father had been out this way in the old days, not on the run exactly, but certainly looking for adventure.

   ‘It’s one of the main reasons I’m here today,’ Bob said. ‘Dad was thirteen, my uncle fifteen, and they wanted to be cowboys. This would be – oh, about 1900, `cos he was fifty when I was born, and that was 1937. Hopped a freight in South Bend, Indiana, and wound up herding cattle in Frio canyon.’  He laughed. ‘He came home around 1904 or 5, but he never stopped talking about this country and how purty it was. Soon as I was coming up to retirement and scouting around for a place to buy, I just naturally wound up here too. Just wish I’d made it a hundred years earlier. Guess that’s another bit of my dad I’ve got in me. `Cos he was an ornery old cuss too. 

   ‘He farmed our spread till the 1940s and never had a tractor on the place.  Right up to when I left home I was still taking a team of horses and a buggy into town to fetch the groceries. Six miles each way. Turned over a load of potatoes one time when the team bolted. We did try to get Dad to use a car, but it didn’t work out too well. I remember one time he wanted to get the thing out of the barn to drive somewhere or other, and we heard such a commotion – banging and shouting. We ran outside and there he was, with a two-by-two, whacking the rear end. “Godammit! I said back up – d’you hear?” And after he’d given it a few cracks he got in and, d’you know, the darned thing backed up right away!’

   The fire was glowing now, the smoke all driven off. Bob threw a couple of beef steaks on a grille and perched it on top of the hot coals. ‘Dad was a hard man in a fight. We had a neighbour. Said our beagle pups were disturbing his livestock. They weren’t doing any such thing, of course. He just didn’t like them being around. But he came raging and storming and told Dad they had to be shot or he’d get the sheriff on the case. I was six years old, and I loved those dogs. There were two of them. Well, Dad just listened to what the guy had to say, then told me to go to the house and fetch the shotgun and three shells.  I was in tears, of course, but when Dad told you to do something, you didn’t question it. I brought out the gun and Dad loaded it up, took aim at the dogs and cocked the trigger.  Then he looks at the neighbour and says, “You want these dogs dead?” and the neighbour says, “That’s what I said,” and Dad says, “Cos I’ll kill `em both right now. That’ll take two shells. Then my boy here’s got another one in his hand.”

   “Oh?” says the neighbour. “Yeah, that’ll be for you,” says Dad. We never heard another word about them dogs unsettling any livestock.’

   As soon as we’d eaten I started to feel drowsy. There was a fat moon rising over the pine-trees, and despite the sudden coolness in the air, a few cicadas were starting to chirrup. In the bunkhouse Bob showed me the kitchen, a fridge full of soda-pop, a shower, and pointed to a mound of bedding in one corner. ‘Grab a mattress and make yourself at home.’

   Later, as I lay on my bed up against the window, I could see him move about his house.  On the ground between us, every blade of grass, every little rock, every fallen pine-bough was illuminated by the piercing light of the moon. When I looked up it was so bright it almost hurt my eyes. In the end I had to draw the curtain across the window before I could get off to sleep.


A pox on schedules. I could have stayed longer up at Bob’s place. We were getting along well, but time was ticking by and I had to ‘haul ass’ as they say. Five thousand miles in twenty-eight days takes some doing; and I needed to find a way of covering the distance and make time to spend in places like this. This was day five already, and I was barely 150 miles up the road from the border. I needed time to dawdle, and I needed time to stare into space like I had last night when the moon was rising over the hillside. How else do you achieve even the vaguest intimacy with a landscape? I even needed time to make mistakes, to confront road-blocks like Highway 1472. Of course, just as I was running all this through my mind, Bob came in with some coffee and told me about his friend Arnold. 

   ‘Yeah, it’s a darned shame he’s not here today, `cos he never can find enough people to take up.’ 

   ‘Up where?’ 

   ‘Up in his helicopter. He just loves to fly that thing. And he can’t seem to persuade anybody to go with him.’

   ‘Why’s that?’

   ‘Oh, because he’s eighty-seven years old, I guess. It kinda puts people off.’

   If I thought about that long enough, I could understand it.

   ‘But if you were around tomorrow he’d be real pleased to meet ya.’

   Another conundrum. They seemed to be cropping up at regular intervals. Was I failing as a travel writer by turning down an opportunity to take a flip around the hills with a man who probably learned to fly before I was born? And was it good manners – or simply good sense – to agree that it was a damned shame he was out of town today and point out that, regrettably, my schedule didn’t allow me any latitude in these matters? 

   One day out of Laredo and I was being reminded that once you slow down and let things happen, endless possibilities reveal themselves. I could probably spend the whole month in this part of Texas and never run out of things to do – and write about. It makes you wonder how much you can ever know about any place you pass through. What did Thoreau say: that an area within a ten-miles radius of home – within a day’s walk, twenty miles – was all you could ever hope to know in a lifetime? I can’t argue against that. My kids used to quiz me about where we would go for our Sunday walk. ‘Snuff Mill Lane? I’d suggest. ‘Beverley Westwood?’ ‘Nah,’ came the answer, ‘we’ve been there. We’ll stay at home.’ You can’t explain to a ten-year-old that no two days are the same in any one piece of country, that the weather’s always changing, and the light; that the trees don’t stand still, nor the grass, least of all your particular mood, the people you run into. With kids you just wait for them to grow up a little. But where does that leave most adults and their obsession with novelty? The Dominican Republic, Peru, Tuscany, Texas.

   Bob took me back to town. At the sheriff’s office we shook hands, promised to write, and he watched me get in the car. In the rear-view mirror I could see him wave across the street to some guy he knew, and as they approached each other and stood in the middle of the road Bob gesticulated vaguely in my direction, no doubt telling him about the visitor he had last night and how I missed a golden opportunity to take a helicopter tour of the Hill Country.

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