The Evolving World
Burning Man 2009
 
Thursday morning, I woke just before dawn. I pulled on my shoes and went wandering through the rocks. Wow, what a rush. I climbed and wound my way through the twisting paths around the big stones. For a moment, I wished I was ten years old again, exploring the ancient rocks and having adventures.
Breakfast was an apple and a can of V-8 Juice. A long-eared rabbit watched me from about 10 feet away. There were special campsites with concrete slabs to set up telescopes. The park had a series of markers representing the planets and their relative distances apart. It must be a great place to take scout groups. The park was supposed to have showers, but I couldn't find any. I did find some other campsites, much more interesting than where the RV's were parking, and wished I'd camped there. It was a place I promised I'd visit again.
I poured a canteen of water over my head to wash my hair. The Sun was just barely up when I left the park. I waved to a pair of cops coming down the lonely 2-lane road. Horses grazed in the grassy pasture. I pulled back onto 180 and drove into Deming, New Mexico and found Interstate 10 one more time. It was 100 miles to El Paso. The interstate was a long, lonely, straight road, the sky above streaked with clouds. The land was broad and flat, though mountains loomed in the distance. I found an NPR radio station out of Las Cruces and listened to some Mendelsson tunes. It was, apparently, his 350th birthday. There was a long line of vehicles queued up at the Border Patrol checkpoint.
 
Exit 135 pointed towards Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and I thought of a friend living on her farm up there. There was a bridge over a river, and I suddenly found myself crossing the Rio Grande. About 110 miles from the City of Rocks I crossed the border into Texas. Four more miles put me in El Paso. That was where I pulled off the highway. 
I had the idea of going to the international border and crossing into Mexico, just so that I could visit Mexico. I even brought my passport. However, I turned off the road too soon, and found myself in the middle of a college campus. I drove around the side streets, finally turning into a Circle K store on Mission Street across from the Jesus & Mary Roman Catholic School. Gas was $2.37 a gallon. Two homeless guys had a long conversation about what brand of beer to buy, at 9 AM. Driving around to get back on the highway, I found myself on a road parallel to the river. Mexico was just yards away. There was a tall fence along the road, to keep out illigal immigrants, but it only went for a quarter mile or so. There were long stretches along the river with no fence at all, nothing to keep someone from crossing over into the United States.
I had been told it took the better part of an hour to go through El Paso, but even stopping for gas it only took me about 45 minutes. A billboard advertised an upcoming show with actor Edward James Olmos. Traffic thinned out as I pulled out of town. The speed limit on the interstate was 80. Some folks must have gotten carried away with it. I passed two different cars pulled over by highway patrolmen withing 1/4 mile of each other. I set the cruise control for just under the speed limit. I made a pit stop at a roadside park. Inside, the roof over the bathroom was left incomplete on purpose, partially open to the sky. Several semis sat parked outside.

Back on the road, mountains appeared ahead, towards the north. To the south, I could see the green Rio Grande valley, lush with farms and croplands. I'd been shadowing the Rio Grande on Interstate 10 ever since Las Cruces. Not quite a hundred miles from El Paso, the interstate turned  east, away from the historic river and into the vastness of West Texas. Past rolling sand hills, I headed towards blue and ash grey mountains.

At mile marker 102, traffic funneled off the highway to a Border Patrol inspection station. When I got up to the checkpoint, the patrolman gave my venicle a close look-over. He asked where I'd been (Nevada), what I was doing there (camping), and who I was camping with... Forty thousand friends? I said I went there for the Burning Man festival. "Burning Man festival," he repeated, his face completely without emotion. When he was sure I was an American citizen, he let me get on my way. I was concerned about the weather in West Texas, but honestly, it wasn't that hot out. Temperatures were in the 80's. The sky was busy with clouds. Interstate 10 is a straight shot to the West Coast and back, and traffic was busy with semi trucks on long hauls. A huge land yacht with the brand "American Dream" passed me. A hawk flew low across the road.

Right before Van Horn, coming over a steep hill, I went over a county line and crossed back into the Central Time Zone. My watch had still been on Arizona time, but crossing the line it suddenly went from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM. I started seeing signs for the nearby McDonald Observatory. I had been looking for the turnoff for Interstate 20, and was surprised to see it was only 32 miles away. My map made it appear much further away. I passed a gas station and wondered: if nobody sells leaded gasoline anymore, why do we still call it unleaded gasoline? Why not just call it... gasoline?

About 300 miles away from the City of Rocks, I turned onto Interstate 20. It was 114 miles to Odessa. Once I got on I-20, hills mostly gave way to flat prairie, the West Texas I remembered from my youth: a vast, empty land. It looked like rain clouds were lining up to the south. At mile marker 28, the shell of a bar and grill rose out of a vacant field. The radio station I was listening to started playing "American Pie," and I remembered singing it at the top of my lungs the first time I drove into California. When I passed Pecos, it looked like there was rain had off to the north, and the highway was taking me straight towards it.

I kept seeing signs for places I'd heard of all through my childhood: Kermit, Rankin, Wink, Andrews, Crane. There was only one place I wanted to see that day. At the Kermit exit, there was a roadside rest area. A sign warned the next rest area was 121 miles away. It was after 3 PM Central Time when I went through Monahans. The sign for Sandhills State Park reminded me of the school field trip we took there way back in 6th grade. I wished we'd gone on more field trips. Just before 4 PM Central Time I stopped in Odessa for some gas ($2.43 a gallon). I thought of my pilot friend when I passed the turnoff for the Commemorative Air Force Museum. Blue skies appeared ahead. It looked like I'd driven past the line of storms. The highway was lined with oilfield businesses, machine shops, huge oil tanks and parts warehouses. The radio was playing an REO Speedwagon song as I drove through Midland, home of the Petroleum Museum. I was back in the Permian Basin. All the time I was growing up, TV weathermen would give the forecast for the Permian Basin. I came up to a bunch of wind-powered generators. They seemed to stretch away in a line off to the north.

 
When I crossed the Howard County line, I really started to get excited. I was back in the land where I was born. Ahead, the escarpment of South Mountain came into view. I pulled off at the first Big Spring exit. First thing right off the interstate was a place I remembered vividly. I pulled over at the main gate to the city airport, and stopped so quickly I accidentally ran over a bottle in the road. It popped and cracked under Satori's wheels. Years ago, Webb Air Force Base dominated that whole side of town. All through my childhood, I can remember the jets flying overhead every few minutes, 24 hours a day. This was the end of the runway, were Air Force jets took off and landed. People used to park here and watch the jets as they passed right overhead. It was a thrilling and frightening sight. Almost 9,000 pilots had trained at Webb over the years. Now, it's just an airport entrance.

As I came into town, the road split into two one-way streets, 3rd Street headed west, and 4th Street headed east. When I was a kid, it seemed like it took a half hour or so to get across town, but in just a couple of minutes I found myself already downtown. At Gregg Street I pulled over and parked in front of the Howard County Courthouse, unchanged in 34 years. To the east was a brick building where the Woolworth's used to be.

I was saddened to see the old Ritz Theater was closed, the marquee taken down. I had heard it split into a twin theater in an attempt to make more money. There used to be a jewelry store next door to the theater. When the store closed, the theater bought it and added the space to its lobby. That was where I stood in line to see "Hey There, it's Yogi Bear." That's where I saw "Zeppelin" and "Planet of the Apes" and the first movie I ever saw alone, without any adults: "Pinocchio."The Ritz had a stage, and curtains that opened and closed for the feature film. Across the street was the big bank where I stood to wait in the shadows for Dad to come pick me up from the movies.
 
To the west was the old post office building. When I was in 5th grade or so, the post office moved to another building, so the county library moved in. I remembered there used to be a big mural over the teller booths, and there was some concern about preserving it when the library moved in. (They did.) In the years I was gone, the library had moved to another bank building a block from the Ritz. Now, the old post office was the seat of the district court.

Towering over downtown Big Spring was the Settles Hotel. It closed in 1980. The neon letters had been taken off the big sign on the roof. At street level, the doors and windows were boarded-up, and a fence erected around the base. Across the street from the Settles was the old State movie theater. That was where I saw horror movies with my friends Junior and Jesse Torres. When Becky was in high school, she got the job of painting the lady's rest room. It had a big round mirror, so she painted the wall to look like a face with the mirror a huge, staring eye. It had closed for a while, then reopened in 1970 as the CR-70 Theater. The last movie I saw in Big Spring before moving to Oklahoma was at the CR-70; it was an Elvis Presley movie. The theater was closed and up for sale.

 
Next door to the CR-70 was Poncho's Newsstand. I have fond memories of Poncho's. They seemed to have every book in the world in there. That was where I bought my first National Lampoon and my first Famous Monsters of Filmland. Poncho's was closed as well. The whole downtown area seemed to be deserted. I did a u-turn on Main Street with no opposing traffic at all. There seemed to be some construction to redo the curbs and intersections, the kind of public works projects towns do to try and get more people to come downtown.
 
I passed an empty store and realized that used to be the Zale’s jewelry store. I went in there once when Clark got his watch fixed. A vacant lot sat on a corner where an office building used to be. It was up a narrow flight of stairs in that building where I found my first head shop, where I bought my first peace button. I remember black light posters and the smell of incense. I drove up Scurry Street. The road climbed up a hill past the rambling building that used to the public library. I remembered scampering up and down its many steps. Now, it was part of the local historical society. I used to ride my bike down that hill, coasting, sometimes with no hands. I got so I could get on my bike, ride it, turn it and stop it with no hands-- not that there was anyone else around to prove it. I went everywhere by bicycle in those days.

I passed the newspaper offices of the Big Spring Herald (formerly the Daily Herald.) Up the hill, I passed the health food store Mom used to get vitamins and health food from. It was good to see it was still there. Across the street was the old boarding house where Clark & Becky's friends used to live. The old stone gas station on the corner was gone. I passed 14th Street, and there I was. My old stomping grounds. The house I grew up in was long gone, moved a few blocks away, as was Mrs. Terrell's 2-story white house on the corner. In their place was one big grassy lot. Growing up, Scurry Street between 14th and 15th Streets was my world. Something wasn't right...

When I pulled up into what was left of the driveway, my Dodge Caravan barely fit between the curbs. There was no sidewalk left. Walking around the lot, I only found pieces of the bricks that had made up my house. The bank across the alley had bought the land to make a parking lot, only after getting rid of the houses they never made the parking lot. It was just dirt, with patches of scrubby thin grass. Mom and Dad worked so hard all those years making the yard green and lush, and it had all reverted back to prairie. I couldn't get over how small the lot was. When I lived in that house, I used to marvel at how big the rooms were, and how lucky we were to live in such a spacious house. Standing on the scrubby grass, I couldn't figure out where it would've gone. There wasn't enough room for the home of my childhood. We had a side yard-- where would it have gone? We had trees in the back yard. Where was the back yard? We had a detached garage in back, big enough for two cars-- where was the room? I have vivid memories of running full tilt across the front yard, all the way from the side yard over to the driveway. Now, I could cross the space in just a few steps. The vegetable garden we had on the farm was bigger than the lot the home of my youth once stood on. This was my world... and my world was dinky.

1970
2009

At last, I understood. I understood why Dad was so insistent on moving from Texas to the family farm in Oklahoma. There was no room to grow here, no room to spread out, nowhere to grow. I guess when we moved to Oklahoma, away from every friend I'd ever had and everything I'd ever known, I had felt a little resentment. I couldn't figure out why we couldn't just stay where we were, just keep living in that huge house. But now I know. Dad had worked hard for years working towards the day when he could leave the hot, dusty land of West Texas and return to the fertile ground of his youth. He just wanted to be happy. The mansion I remembered from my childhood... never was. It was a stunning, humbling revelation.

Looking north on Scurry, I could see downtown and the spider-shaped water tower built in the 1960's. It had been considered a radical design at the time. That stupid, ugly old warehouse was still across the street. Where's the justice in that? I got back in the car and pulled down 14th Street to Gregg. This was the street the high school used to drive up and down on ringing a big bell whenever they won a football game. Football isn't the unofficial religion of West Texas. It is the religion of West Texas. The movie "Friday Night Lights" was more like a documentary for me. Gregg Street was the main north/south street through town. Highway 87 goes down Gregg Street, headed towards Lamesa to the north and Sterling City to the south, making it usually pretty busy. There was construction on Gregg that day, so traffic was especially hectic.

Cowper Clinic and Hospital, where I was actually born, a block from my house, had changed its appearance since I saw it last. It used to have a sound-muffling wall of ornamental bricks  the front. I think it had since been removed to make room for parking. Gone was the Jimmie Jones gas station at 15th and Gregg. The big flood retention hole in the ground along Gregg Street was still there, overgrown with trees and bushes.
 
The Safeway store was gone, but other businesses had taken over the building. There used to be a tall Safeway sign out front that lit up our backyard at night in different colors. It was gone. Out behind the Safeway, there used to be an old Addams Family house up on the hill. It burned down when I was in first grade, I think, but behind it was a wooded gully with lots of little paths and hiding places. I called it the Wilderwood, and it was the site of many childhood adventures. The thick growth of the Wilderwood remained.

 
Going south on Gregg Street, I passed the building that used to be the Super Save, the convenience store I used to ride my bike to. I remembered when Dr. Pepper was 15 cents a can. The laundromat my Mom used to go to was gone, as was the Mrs. Baird’s Bakery. The 7-11 was still there; I fondly remembered Toby's, the mom & pop store that used to be at that location before the land got bought out.
My eyes darted from one side of the road to the other, looking for landmarks or anything familiar. At last I came to the Veteran's Hospital. I think the landscaping out front had changed, but otherwise it was the same. I crossed the overpass to where the Highland Shopping Center used to be. I don't know what it's called now. The Highland Center had a TG & Y store, a Furr's Cafeteria, and a card shop where I used to get Peanuts greeting cards back when I collected everything Peanuts. Next door, there was a bigger motel on the site where the Ponderosa Motel used to be. Me and Dad used to stop there after I got out of school for "coke and coffee." (What kind of coke? Dr. Pepper.) I got to swim in the pool there one summer. It looked like Furr's was still there.
 
To the west across Highway 87 was the huge parking lot that was put in for the Gibson's department store. I used to take my film there to be developed. When it first opened, I wondered why people thought paving over acres of land was better for the Earth. Now, the Gibson's store was closed, and the wide of expanse of concrete sat empty.
 
A white house sat at the top of South Mountain. I remembered when they built it, back when I was 6 or 7. My parents took me up around the mountain for a visit. I remember it had a big picture window that seemed like you could see all the way to Lubbock. Those were the days you could walk up to a stranger’s house and say, “Hey, nice place. Mind we come in and take a look around?” –and they would let you!

I drove south on 87. I passed the old barn-shaped restaurant that opened about 1967. Up the road was the old bowling alley that reopened as a dreary petting zoo with a concrete giraffe out front. It had eventually turned into (I think) a veterinary hospital. The highway was a lot more developed than I remembered. Of course, I remembered back when it was just a 2-lane road leading out of town. A modern dam held back the waters of Cosden Lake, hiding its waters from the highway. When they expanded the road to 4-lane, construction was halted because of ancient Indian artifacts found near the lake. I remembered going swimming at the country club there a couple of summers. The highway went by the city park. I was headed someplace that meant a lot to me.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church & School was founded in 1961. I started first grade there in 1963. It was my school from the first through the sixth grades (except for a few months when Dad was assigned elsewhere). I turned my car down Hearn Street. There used to be a sign for the church at the turnoff, but it was gone. I headed up a little hill towards Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. To the left before you got to the church was a trailer park. People parked their mobile homes there and lived for years. I remembered when the trailer park was first built. The streets were named after when they were put in: January Street, March Avenue. Now, it was an RV park, the streets renamed unoriginal titles like Rodeo Drive.
 

I passed the house where the priest used to live, and around the corner I heard the sound of ... children? I had not expected to see anyone at the school, but the parking lot was full of cars. Out on the grass were groups of kids playing football and soccer. Parents sat along the sidelines on folding chairs. A coach yelled out instructions. I didn't understand. Was the school open again? I got out and walked around. 
It was wonderful to walk back up to the school once more. I'd gone up and down those steps a thousand times. We pitched pennies against those steps back in 4th grade. The doors were locked, but I looked in through the windows and saw the hallways I knew so well. It was thrilling to see they had christened the cafeteria Father Beasley Hall. I knew Father Beasley well. He was the priest at my First Communion and my Confirmation. During the 6 months we lived in South Dakora, Father Beasley wrote to us. He retired when I was in 6th grade and was replaced by Father Bill, but it wasn't the same.
 
I walked around the school building. I remembered when they built the cafeteria. Everything was the same, including the sand burrs in the grass-- ouch. I looked into the window of my old first grade classroom. It was in that room, sitting across the aisle from my best friend Gary Stevens, that we were told President Kennedy had been assasinated. The whole school walked over to the church to pray.
Around the back of the school was a brick structure. It must have been built after I left Texas. It closed off the of the school, but I could look in through the gate at the interior. Bare ground lay where there used to be grass. Trees sprouted around where the flagpole used to be. It used to be an honor to be one of the kids choasen to take the flag up and down.
 
Raising the flag, 1969
6th grade girls, 1969
I walked over towards the convent where the sisters lived, now empty. The trees in the yard beside the church had done well. I remembered the day they were planted. First grade? Second grade? It was all a blur. The front doors of the church were locked. They were always open when I was a kid.

I stopped to talk to some of the parents on the sidelines. They said the school was still closed, but catechism classes were regularly held there. The kids on the playground were from other schools. They used the playground because it was big enough for the Little League teams to practice. There were also regular masses held in the church. The parents seemed amused to meet someone who when to the school when it was still open. (Some of them might not have even been alive when the school closed in 1984.) I also must have looked --and smelled-- pretty wild after a whole day on the road. I pointed out the house where Pat Keller lived before he and his family moved away in the 5th grade.

I drove around Vicky Street. I remembered when the first houses were built on that street. Turning north on Parkway Road, it looked like the greens of Cosden Golf Course had seen better days. There were still golfers out there, braving the high grass and sand burrs. I saw a building on Wasson Road that used to be a convenience store. I remembered getting a Batman ring out of a coin machine there. When the Batman TV show first came out, having a Batman ring was the height of fashion. Turning west on Wasson Road would have taken me where the Air Force base used to be. I visited friends there when I was a kid, riding on the Air Force busses from the school to their little houses with postage stamp yards. In 1977, Webb Air Force Base closed, and Big Spring’s population dropped from 35,000 to 25,000. That and the oil bust had devestated Big Spring. That turnoff also would have taken me to Scenic Mountain, where we used to go on the Fourth of July every year to watch fireworks. I turned right on Wasson and went to the city park. The park had been there for a long time when it was renamed Commanche Trail Park in the 1960's.

I passed the studios of KBYG radio. My brother's friend Jim Strickland was a DJ there, and I remembered visiting one holiday when he was on the air, surrounded by shelves of 45's, piled floor to ceiling. Was all the music digital now? I used to enter all the contests. One time, I won a Peter Max poster. The park brought back lots of memories.

I found the playground where I used to play in the little pillbox house at one end. The pillbox had since been removed, but the jungle gym remained. I found the swing where Dad used to push me higher and higher until it seemed like I'd go into orbit. I drove around the city pool, now closed, where Mom used to take me on hot summer days. They had baskets in the office where you could store your clothes while you swam. I was never so scared in my life as the day I jumped off the high driving board. The pool seemed a quarter mile deep back then. The candy machine there had Zero candy bars. That was the only place I ever ate Zero bars.

I stopped at the amphitheatre and ran up to the top row of seats. I remembered going there one summer evening and watching a production of "Harvey." It hadn't changed at all. Years later, I looked around. The Sun was getting low in the sky. Time was not on my side. I hopped down the stone seats and I left the city park, passing the site where the old Jet Drive-In used to be. It's just a weed-packed field now.

I turned east on Marcy Drive, going under the underpass next to the Veteran's Hospital. I remembered the hot, dusty summer they dug out underpass, backing up traffic. Down the road, I passed a closed gas station I visited the day it opened. They rented a searchlight for the occasion, and I rode my bike in the dark all the way over from 14th Street. I missed the turn for Goliad Middle School, formerly Goliad Junior High, but I did find my way over to the high school. So many familiar streets, so many empty buildings, so many houses up for sale. There were lots of places I would've liked to visit, but it was getting late in the day, and I had miles to go before I slept.

 
I made my way across town to the interstate. I found the overpass where the words CURSE YOU RED BARON! stood defiantly in 6-foot high red letters for years. My brother said he knew the person who painted that grafitti, but he never revealed whom. The words were long gone. It was within sight of the shopping center where I got the Halloween mask I used for so many years. I rode my bike all the way across town to get it. Now, all the stores were closed, the signs dark and rusty, the parking lots cracked and dotted with weeds. This was my home town. I loved this place.

I guess I was in shock. It disturbed me to see Big Spring like that. When I was growing up, Big Spring was a vibrant, living city. Now, it was run-down, empty, hollow. Turning back onto the interstate headed east, past the "Camlot Inn" (?) motel, I thought of Wupatki and Pueblo Grande. Once, they were vibrant centers of life, where the Hohokam lived for generations, raising children, living their lives... but something happened, and the people left, leaving the empty structures behind for Nature to slowly reclaim. The Hohokam were "the ones who had gone before" ... but this time, we were the Hohokam. We were the ones that left.

I should have felt really sad... but then, driving down the interstate, I thought of the kids playing on the grounds back at Immaculate Heart. It was nice to hear kids playing on that playground again. I thought, as long as there's the sound of children at Immaculate Heart, all was right with the world.
 

Outside of town, I was struck by the number of wind powered generators. There were literally hundreds of them, spreading out all the way to the horizon. It made sense to put wind powered generators there, however, since West Texas really blows. The wind, that is. 
Night fell during the long ride to Abilene. My plan was to spend the night at Abilene State Park. As it turned out, Abilene State Park is nowhere near Abilene, and the Sun was down for an hour and a half before I finally pulled into the camping area. It was raining. Following the road around a curve, the headlights fell on what I thought was a coyote. He stood up, and his legs seemed long for a coyote. That was when I realized it was a deer. The headlights panned left, and it wasn't just a deer, it was a whole family of deer-- six of them, standing in a line like they were waiting for a bus.
I found a spot on the "wagon wheel" which surrounded a squat building with restrooms. There were no showers at those restrooms, but I was so tired I didn't care. One other tent was my only neighbor at the wagon wheel. Lit by lantern from inside, the light soon went out. I was exhausted, but I managed to call home and call in an LJ voice post. I had been on the road for 14 days. It seemed like a lot longer. Supper was a can of peaches. I left one window open a crack to let in fresh air. A constant drizzle of rain came down from the dark skies. I stretched out in the back of the van. With the constant patter of the rain, it took me a long time to fall asleep...
 
  
 
LINKS 
Comanche Trail Park 
Big Spring, Texas 
Webb Air Force Base 
Permian Basin 
Abilene State Park 
El Paso, Texas 
The 1969 Graduating Class of Immaculate Heart of Mary School 
All original content copyright 2009 by Tim Frayser. If your image appears on this site, and you'd rather it didn't, drop me a line and I'll remove it. Pictures appearing on this website are for personal use and are not for sale. 
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Introduction  Day 1  Day 2  Day 3 
Monday  Tuesday  Wednesday  Thursday  Friday  Saturday  Sunday 
Day 11  Day 12  Day 13  Day 14  Day 15  Epilogue