by Michael Mooney
Chris Aultman’s Dodge Ram fishtails out of the American Legion parking lot, slapping a white wave of rocks through the air. In the truck our knees jam together. Four across in the back. Three in the front.
Within minutes we’re on the back roads. It’s a purple night. A soft trail of dust billows behind us. Barbed wire fences, dandelions and sleeping cows glide by the open windows at 15 m.p.h. And once the lights of Archer City glow faint like candles on the horizon, the truck stops and everyone piles out to gather around the ice chest like drovers around a campfire.
These people of Archer County still hitch their wagons to the customs and traditions of the Old West. Boys still wake before dawn to chase stray calves on the prairie and men still bore deep holes and fix tilting derricks in the oilfields. And horses clop along Center Street through the Town Square, undaunted by the 340-horse-powered modes of transport roaring by.
But modernity threatens. The asphalt thickens. Wichita Falls spreads from the north and Fort Worth looms in the east. The suburbs can’t be far off.
Here on these dirt roads that expand around Archer City, Rams, Silverados and F150s replace painted ponies, chuck wagons and longhorns. Here, on these back roads, where their trucks trace the chalky trails Archer City grandfathers once drove, the spirit of the Old West clings to them like the ever-present clouds of dust swirling in the air.
Back in the truck, gravel from the old road grinds beneath the tires; the truck barely visible under a full moon. The blue light from the face of the stereo, the only light in the truck, casts a haunting glow on the riders’ faces. And the music of Hank Williams resonates through the speakers, reminding a few of the lonely hearts that there’s hope at the end of the long trail. “Tonight I’m gonna see my machez amio.”
Everyone in the truck sings along.
“This is the best part about this town,” Mike Carriger says. He’s thirty-six and wide-eyed. He wears jean shorts and off-brand tennis shoes. Earlier he was at the American Legion two-stepping with any woman who would. Just like a young cowboy about to head out on the drive.
Carriger had invited myself and four others to go backroading tonight. We were strangers—in Archer City for a three-week writing course centered around the work of the town’s Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s books, set in similar places to Archer City, are filled with scenes of lonely cowboys in honky-tonks trying to satiate their thirst for women, music and beer before heading out on the trail. In Horseman Pass By, McMurtry’s narrator, Lonnie, describes life in another West Texas town:
About every two doors there would be a bar, dim and dark inside, but pouring loud talk and hillbilly guitar music out on the sidewalks of the town….The guitar player was picking as loud and fast as he could, till finally the bar girls and drillers and truck drivers and wild cowboys, and all the men and women beering and living in the cool, dim leathery booths turned their heads to listen and clap…and on the dance floor the dancers hugged and whirled in the blue darkness and the smoke. The only ones who weren’t having a good time were a few lonesome-looking boys at the bar. When the musicians went off to drink beer, the jukebox flared up and played hillbilly dance music the rest of the time I stayed. It played old songs by Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells, and it was cold, cold hearts in the darkness, with dancers bumping into each other and going on to dance some more. Those that didn’t dance sat in the booths and drank from the sweaty bottles of beer. It was no more work and no more lonesome, and all the honky-tonk angels living it up.”
After leaving the bar in Archer City, the men don’t have a trail to turn to. So they turn to backroading. And Carriger, like a cowboy inviting a wanderer into camp, is quick to ask us city folk along for the ride.
Aultman keeps the truck on a slow pace. He glances in the rear view mirror to check if Boots, a black and white half-lab half-pit bull, is still in the bed. He seems to know a good dog keeps the herd close, and Altman, like the cattle drivers of old, yearns for the sort of companionship that Boots can’t provide.
Altman’s sense of loneliness sobs through the speakers.
It’s the voice of Charlie Robison; “I’ll see you in Houston, if I ever get out that way. I’ll see you in Dallas, but I won’t have long to stay. If you’re ever out west, son, and you’re feeling like slowing down, I’ll see you around, ‘round my hometown.’”
As the empty silver cans begin to pile up in the truckbed, Aultman appears contemplative. Financial issues threaten the family business. There is a history of drug abuse and visits to rehab. A 23, Altman is one of the younger members of the Archer City Volunteer Fire Department. But he dreams of escape. Through all the dust he kicks up around Archer County, Aultman can see the outside. He has a friend that works for the fire department in Lewisville, a suburb of Dallas two hours and a world away. He wants to one day get hired on there, maybe take a few college classes, and build a life in the strip-center and supermarket filled modernity.
When the music is low, Aultman shows the women in the truck the photocopied picture he keeps on the dash. He briefly mentions the baby in the picture is his new daughter, and the information is received with a series of “awws.” At three o’clock the next afternoon, Altman will be buying beer from the only grocery store in town, wearing the same dusty jeans and dirty white T-shirt he has on now.
Mike Carriger is in the backseat, sweaty silver bullet in hand. Between Robert Earl Keen songs he jokes about marriage and divorce the way cowboys might joke about the bronco that just doesn’t take to riders. When he hears that one of the women he was asking to dance earlier was married, he retorts, “A wedding ring don’t plug no holes.”
Dirt roads expand like veins and arteries around Archer City, and on any night the veins are flowing with backroaders, their truckbeds sloshing with coolers of beer. They’re going nowhere in particular. The journey’s only destination is to relive the sense of adventure their ancestors must have felt moving along the vast and empty cattle trails heading northward.
Some teenagers meet at the center of town in the thick, warm night to consolidate vehicles. They all cram into the biggest truck, leaving the other cars safely parked along the closed storefronts. One boy lumbers as he moves an ice chest from the trunk of one car into the bed of the truck. The entire exchange is over in less than two minutes and they are off, back out of town and into the darkness.
An old man eating lunch at Dairy Queen recounts the time he was backroadin’ with his brother and tried to shoot a bobcat. It might have been the alcohol mixed with the steering, or the alcohol mixed with the shooting, but instead of a bobcat, all they killed was the side-view mirror on their daddy’s truck.
Branching off the main square, these ranch roads form a web in every direction around the main square. Most of the roads have no signs. You have to remember to turn left at the tree split by lightning, or right where the fence posts turn green. A few of the roads take the names of the old ranches they once ran up against, like McMurtry road. Aultman claims he could get all the way to Abilene and never have to leave the dirt roads.
The boss of the trail drive is Carl, Mayor Carl Harrelson. He’s the training officer of the fire department too, and has to keep a ragtag, fun-loving bunch in line. He’s on the back roads with a bigger group tonight. They’re greenhorns and they’re excited. They’ve heard stories about cowboys cruising the dusty trails in the middle of the night, singing honky-tonk music and drinking until morning. Now they’re chomping at the bit to take part in their first trail drive.
This group is divided evenly between two pickups, with Mayor Carl’s truck in the lead. He’s pointing out various points on the dark horizon and explaining how interesting they are to see during the daytime. His face is turning red and his eyes are getting smaller behind his round glasses.
A true leader of the people, Mayor Carl bought a final round for the entire bar, bartender and all, just before closing time. Then it was a quick beer-run, a stop at the fire department to gather a group and onto the backroads.
Mike Carriger, the fireman, is in the back truck, the one with the cooler. Conversation in that cab predominantly covers the evils of Hillary Clinton, ambivalent feelings on abortion, and how good Willie Nelson is. It is decided after a few tallboys that he is very good.
In the lead truck, Mayor Carl is philosophizing about his hometown. His days are spent over a hot fryer and greeting customers at the restaurant he has owned for two and a half years, the Onion Creek Grill. In the time when the restaurant is closed, he is writing grant proposals to beautify the downtown area or add lights to the little league field. All of his life, save the two years in Oklahoma as a salesman, he has been in Archer City, where everyone has seen and can quote from the movie version of Lonesome Dove.
The book, written in the mid-eighties, tells the story of a long cattle drive that would have gone right through Archer County. Many of the men of Archer County, like the cattle drivers of Lonesome Dove, head to these wide-open spaces to overcome the “low feelings” they face in their daily lives.
He didn’t tell him all he knew. He didn’t tell him that even when life seems easy, it kept getting harder. Deets liked his work, liked being part of the outfit and having his name on the sign; yet he often felt sad. His main happiness consisted of sitting with his back against the water tank at night, watching the sky and the changing moon.
He had known several men who blew their heads off, and he had pondered it much. It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.
Mayor Carl is beefy, broad shouldered and speaks more in syllables than sentences. In his scuffed-up cowboy boots and jeans, he looked more like one of the virulent Texas Rangers of the Old West than a modern-day mayor who carries more responsibility on his shoulders than he cares to admit.
The mayor has to meet with sheriffs and county commissioners and grievance-toting townspeople. He has to worry about the town’s biggest business. McMurtry’s bookstores, closing and cutting his own business and that of other merchants in half. He has to find the money to fix the cracks in the sidewalks and start up a police department for the city. It’s a big job and sometimes he has to get away from it, escape through the old caliche roads into the Old West. In just a few hours, he can melt away reality and pretend he’s as free as any cowboy on the range.
The Mayor’s truck, now snaking along the trail, gliding from side to side along the road, comes to a stop at a T in the dusty path. It’s a monument to local veterans in the middle of nowhere. “You guys gotta see this,” he says as he opens the door.
But his enthusiasm turns quickly to disappointment when he sees the large stone face-down on the ground. He struggles to lift it, grunting and dripping sweat, but it doesn’t move at all. Standing there in silence, under the moon, they mayor looks terribly distraught, in the way a cowboy might look after returning home after a long day in the saddle only to find his place plundered by rampaging Indians.
“Damn kids.” For a moment, the mayor looks like he’s on the verge of tears.
Not everyone in Archer City goes backroading. Reverend Roger Deerinwater heads the First Baptist Church, one of the largest buildings in town. His favorite movie of all time is Lonesome Dove and he often stays up with his son and watches it in marathon sessions that go through the night. But he does not answer the call of the trail.
“The people here are the same as every other town,” he says. To Deerinwater, backroading is not glorifying some western tradition or escaping the frustrations of a life between two worlds, it’s drinking alcohol. Drinking and driving no less. He cannot condone drinking; after all, he is a preacher.
He tells jokes about members of his congregation hiding twelve packs when they see him at the store. He says they’re just hurting themselves. “Even Jesus loses some battles. We all do. Anyone that says he doesn’t lose is a liar.”
A few rattlesnakes have coiled up on the cool road and Mayor Carl turns up the volume as Kevin Fowler comes on. “The Lord loves the drinkin’ man. He sent honky-tonk angels to the Promised Land. I hear that He can turn water to wine. Any man that can do that, oh He’s a good friend of mine.” The passengers in the truck barely notice as the tires roll over a scaly lump. “Was that a rattler?”
“It’s a flat head now,” the mayor grins.
The town has seen the days of cattle drives. Men would pack up and leave their families, leave their homesteads, escape the menial tasks of everyday existence, and cut across the rugged terrain into the wild and unabashedly vulgar.
That’s what Larry McMurtry’s uncles did. All eight of them left their homestead in Archer City and headed west to the booming cowtonws of the Panhandle, driving cattle and horses up the trail, six shooters at their side, scanning the horizon for rustlers, At night, they’d gather around a campfire, one with a guitar, exchanging songs and stories, drinking away the back pains and sore thighs, savoring the warmth of the fire. These men, like Carriger and Aultman and Mayor Carl, cherish the romantic notions of the Old West like they cherish a smooth, cold beer while drifting into the night.
The kids in town spend their summers with video games or at the library clicking through the World Wide Web on a high speed connection. There are Meth labs taken down every month. Highway 25 is now expanding on the edge of town, a wide concrete trail that will carry trucks and tourists and eventually all the new suburbanites settling into the undeveloped land around Archer City.
But all of that disappears when the truck leaves the paved road. Time falls away on the backroads in the middle of the night. The breeze is just right. The music is just right. All the smiling faces sing and forget about the tensions and stress of modern life. This is where the west lives on.