In which Katie, feeling lonely and worn out with Texas already, tries to harness some Lone Star energy for her final push to the coast.
America is a big place. I am a small person. And as predicted weeks ago, I feel like I am reaching the end of my southbound journey here in Texas without having seen much of anything except for cropfields, windmills, too-expensive gas station receipts and a lot of birds that aren’t the birds I am writing about.
At least, it is easy to summarize this journey in such a contrite manner. Forgive me: it’s early, and I’m still getting my caffeine intake adjusted.
The truth is that two weeks ago, I fell more in love with the Plains with every mile my odometer turned. I would redirect my attention from the road ahead of me for dangerously long periods of time, staring out over field after field of round bales with creaky windmills popping out of the dust like giant metal prairie dogs. I stayed much longer than originally planned in both Nebraska and Kansas. At one point, I even threatened to throw my truck into park for the last time right there in the Platte River Valley and push my roots deep into the sandy soil like some sort of invasive grass species. Early morning and late night skies raised a lump in my throat from the Badlands all the way to northern Oklahoma.
But something happened yesterday when I woke up in my budget motel in northern Texas for the second morning in a row. It hasn’t happened once in the last three and a half weeks. But it happened yesterday morning.
I had the realization that my stories were confusing and frustrating me and that I really wanted to go home.
The funny thing about wanting to go home was that I had no idea which “home” I wanted to return to. I would have welcomed teleportation to either Connecticut or western Montana with equal amounts of enthusiasm. I would have settled for the familiarity of places that aren’t quite home but have acted as ports in my life’s storm thus far. The chilly Fenway neighborhood in Boston on a slightly hungover Sunday morning, Bighorn National Forest in central Wyoming’s croaking August heat, that awkward space between the screen and glass doors of my grandmother’s house in Wilbraham, Massachusetts where a warm hug and Thanksgiving aromas greet your arrival, my sister’s couch in Washington D.C…any of those would have worked. But seeing how I was thousands of miles from any of those places, I chose the next best option – a southbound highway.
I’ve become skilled in the art of the 20-minute mad dash pack-up. I like to pretend I’m on the run from the law and that my informant tipped me off that the cops were on their way. The only thing I’m actually on the run from seems to be winter storms and late check-out fees. Most mornings, I’ve left my accommodations in a dusty cloud in my rearview without even knowing where I’d lay my head down that night. Yesterday was one of those days.
I dragged all my crap past the bearded, wifebeater-clad 60-something smoking his sunrise cigarette on the balcony outside my door. Two days prior, he was cause for my concern about the junky deadbolt on my door. He wore those glasses, the big thick-lensed ones with the squarish wire frames that scream “don’t look in the trunk.” But we’d become good neighbors in a 48-hour span and he greeted me with a wave of a Camel and a smile featuring a sparse population of teeth.
My homesickness magically disappeared when I put my key in my ignition. I realized that my truck had actually become my home. My driver’s seat, steering wheel, radio stations, bug-juiced windshield and array of souvenirs scattered around the dashboard were so incredibly comforting yesterday morning. I knew I had to leave north Texas. I had one final reporting stop to make in the area, and then I needed to be on the move again.
I was pulled over on the side of some dirt road between Bowie and Vashti when I decided on Waco. Three hours later, I was following my standard operating Airbnb arrival procedures: drop bags, organize and re-ice cooler, scrub camping cookware, shower, think about dinner. I drove around the streets downtown until I found a parking spot near what looked like a decent array of sports bars, and bellied up to a well-socially-distanced stool under the Packers Niners game with my reporter’s notebook and an appetite for Coors Light and smoked meat. The Packers smashed the Niners and I smashed a $2 draught mug and some chicken while trying to NOT smash my head against the bar as my stories and notes continued to frustrate me.
I woke up this morning and decided that I’m ready for the final phase of this trip. I could hang around Waco for one more day, I could set up in a coffee shop and send emails and continue to over-research and over-report these stories. But it’s sunny and in the mid-70s, and I’m sick of dry land. I’m headed for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico. If you need me, I’ll either be sleeping on a beach or stalking the whooping cranes one last time.