“Y’all goin or stayin?”
It seems to me that Texas is always one or the other. Goin or stayin. Brown historical markers spring out of nowhere along the highway, plopped in front of miles and miles of oil rigs and windmills. Ranch gates of all shapes and sizes, some ornate, some wood, some metal, some plaster, blister out of the ground in front of barren landscapes. Like everything else in Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains, and San Angelo State Park (home of the official Texas herd of Longhorns), and the turtle wandering across the road that we hit, and the dead baby bird on the pavement near the theatre, seem to come out of nowhere.
There are either gas stations everywhere or a sign that says no gas station for the next 123 miles. There is no gas by the sign. We drive the 30 miles back to El Paso, returning to the outskirts of a town boasting a long history of border patrol.
We camp in what used to be a reef, which is now the highest point in Texas, where we walk through a canyon called Devil’s Hall, and can’t believe how beautiful it is. How borderless it feels.
We drive through the rest of the Permian Basin, where there is nothing but oil. Somewhere in Texas, we start listening to CDs twice. We don’t plan on it, we don’t even remark on it, but something about the enormity of the state makes it necessary to abbreviate distance.
Things are either one thing or the other – no grey area between. And because of this we decide that southeastern New Mexico is just another part of west Texas. These two areas slide into one another, massive trucks that tailgate before passing, going 100 mph, barren land that seems ravaged by oil rigs – the whole expanse assaulted by pumpjacks dispassionately pounding the earth, hell of a metaphor for loveless entrance, destructive wanting. We drive past the fields of oil rigs for hours and I hate it and I also know that we are driving a car that is using oil. Towns are dedicated to big rigs and huge flatbed trucks, pothole-riddled roads and ironically broken gas pumps. We are one mudflap girl away from a mental breakdown.
The trauma of West Texas abruptly ends when we find the oasis that is San Angelo State Park, instantly transported to summertime, like a drought ending right in front of our eyes. Birds are calling in dozens of songs, crickets jamming, the air finally warm, the sun setting in try-ever-flavor sorbet.
In the morning, we talk to two rangers who love the land, who want to tell us how it takes bison about three days to make it around their pasture, who keep their sunglasses on and highlight maps for us. Central Texas is all lush greens and abundant wildflowers, looping roads showing off new colors at every turn: bluebonnets, poppies, something pink and something yellow, and I don’t have time to look them up, let alone look up from the road before we hit the turtle and I am crying and driving and having trouble breathing, remembering again the cost of getting where we want to go.
We fly past tangled willow-y trees, cacti, and cattle, until landing in another Williamsburg – Austin, that is. In Austin, we see art but we also see glossy industry, and it turns out it’s all the same. Food is more expensive than we hope, and we end up spending too much on tacos and margaritas. We see art that makes us laugh and think, and we see a mosaic of old saloons and shiny warehouse coworking spaces and everywhere neon. We stay up late, we eat salad out the back of the car. Austin is full of people I recognize but don’t want to go through the motions of saying hello to. When we do talk to someone we know, the person he is with makes it clear that they don’t want us moving there – we don’t tell them we didn’t want to anyways.
In Houston, we see family and whirl through the loop, being treated to food and laundry and night jasmine in a backyard, a real bed, the momentary comfort of stability we haven’t had in weeks. We admire the bayous and share homemade drinks in a beautiful backyard. And it’s a modern city, it’s so far from the Permian, so far from the dead turtle in the middle of the road, so far from the hand-painted yard sign praising “THE ONLY PRESIDENT IN 30YRS WITH A BACKBONE” but you can’t look up into the Twilight Epiphany without thinking about how we frame things. A state is still a whole ecosystem. The oil on fire in the old shipyards came from somewhere, and y’all really does mean everybody.