Unfolding the Map
Topping mesas, we see a golden light in the distance. Is it a golden city of Cibola, such as we discussed a couple of posts past? No, it's Fort Stockton, but if you've driven a long time it could just as easily pass as a golden place when you're hungry and tired. To see where Fort Stockton, and its history of the West you've probably never heard of, is located click on the thumbnail of the map at right.
"From the top of another high mesa: twelve miles west in the flat valley floor, the lights of Fort Stockton blinked white, blue, red, and yellow in the heat like a mirage. How is it that desert towns look so fine and big at night? It must be that little is hidden. The glistering ahead could have been a golden city of Cibola. But the reality of Fort Stockton was plywood and concrete block and the plastic signs of Holiday Inn and Mobil Oil.
"I found a Mexican cafe of adobe, with a whitewashed log ceiling, creekstone fireplace, and jukebox pumping out mariachi music.... At the next table sat three big, round men: an Indian wearing a silver headband, a Chicano in a droopy Pancho Villa mustache, and a Negro in faded overalls. I thought what a litany of grievances that table could recite. But the more I looked, the more I believed they were someone's vision of the West..."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 8
Fort Stockton, Texas
About two years ago, I made the 5-6 hour drive each Sunday evening from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Lubbock, Texas. I was working in Lubbock at Texas Tech teaching political science, but my wife was living in Albuquerque. It was part of my weekly ritual of driving home on Friday night, staying the weekend with her, and then driving back to be to work on Monday. It was tiring, but also nice. The drive was long but easy, with about a third of it on Interstate 40 and the rest through mostly uninhabited areas of New Mexico, and then sparsely inhabited areas of upper West Texas.
I especially liked driving at night after turning off the interstate toward Fort Sumner, New Mexico. On nights before the moon had risen, or nights of no moon, it was almost completely dark save for the occasional car headlights coming at me. When I reached an area where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks paralleled the road, train headlamps shone for miles ahead of me and I would see them coming at me for at least 10 minutes before the train actually reached me. And, like LHM says above, the lights of a town like Fort Sumner or Clovis would set the sky aglow for miles - a beacon toward which I would aim my vehicle, promising riches like a bathroom, road food like sodas, chips, candy or something else to keep me awake. As the miles between me and these oases in the desert dwindled, I'd listen to music on my IPod, which sometimes would surprise and even scare me a little when the perfect song would pop up at the perfect time. Once, I saw a freight train making an emergency stop on tracks paralleling the road between Fort Sumner and Clovis. I though for a moment that I saw water pouring from the side of the train, and realized that I was actually seeing sparks from the locked up wheels of the train showering out from underneath the rail cars. It was pretty amazing.
My trips through West Texas some many miles south of Lubbock, in the general area where LHM is traveling, was a lot like my trips through eastern New Mexico on my way to Lubbock. Largely uninhabited and sparsely vegetated. Few trees. The main challenge driving such areas is to maintain ones attention as the miles of road blur together. An event like topping a mesa and seeing the glittering lights of a city provides a little rush of excitement, a little bit of adrenaline, and is a welcome relief from the miles of loneliness and boredom that may have set in. At least I had an IPod so I could maintain my attention through music. At the time LHM wrote, IPods were still in a distant future - the desktop computer was only just being conceived as a possibility.
I have been through Fort Stockton twice. The first time I blew through on the freeway with my wife after a camping trip at Big Bend. The second occasion was a gonzo trip I made with a 70 something neighbor lady who needed to deliver a van to a non-profit organization in Guanajuato, Mexico that she helped direct from the U.S., and I jumped at the chance to make that trip. On that trip, we drove through downtown Fort Stockton and I think we stopped for some lunch at a local restaurant. I did not see a similar diverse group there - mostly Hispanic Americans - and I don't remember anything overly remarkable about the town in my brief time there.
However, I have become aware that Fort Stockton was largely garrisoned in the years after the Civil War to protect settlers from the Indians. The garrison in Fort Stockton was, at its peak, 87 percent African-American. These were the famed Buffalo Soldiers that Bob Marley immortalized in his reggae tune. Known for their bravery and as fierce fighters, their stories have largely been lost in the annals of the history of the western U.S. We don't think of the West as being more than the white cowboys, ranchers, and even lawless and dangerous citizens that gave the West its enduring popular legacy. But in fact, many African-Americans went West to escape slavery, and to carve out new lives away from the overt racism of the South and the implicit racism of the North.
I wonder if the man LHM describes as "a Negro in faded overalls" was a descendant of one of the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Stockton, or descendant of slaves brought to Texas, or if his heritage was of a later arrival in Texas? It's an interesting snapshot that LHM presents - the first inhabitants of Texas represented by the Indian, the men brought in to not only till the land for the masters but also to fight the Indians represented by the Negro, and the group supplanting both of them, as well as whites, as the biggest population of the Southwest in the Chicano. They may recite a litany of grievances of the past, and perhaps they will address those grievances as the face of our country's future.
That minority groups might recite those grievances loudly from a position of greater power drives a lot of the extreme political discourse and punitive policies toward immigrants and government redistribution of wealth in our country today. I was reading an article by Kathaleen Roberts in the Albuquerque Journal on February 23, 2011 which profiles the Buffalo Soldiers and their pivotal role in securing New Mexico and helping it become stable enough for statehood. The article makes the case that if New Mexico hadn't had these African-American soldiers in its territory, all trying to prove themselves in the wake of slavery, and who evidently often fought when white soldiers fled from overwhelming numbers (their ferocity earned them their nickname from the Cheyenne, who considered an angry buffalo the most fierce thing they could face), New Mexico might not be celebrating its centennial next year. The article makes the argument that the West was a lot more colorful than we are led to believe by our understanding and depictions of history. Perhaps we should remember the debt America owes to peoples of many different ethnic heritages in its creation and expansion, and not sanitize history in political attempts to uphold ideological biases to meet certain ends.
It's not a Texas music video, but it seems appropriate given my topic above - Bob Marley's tribute to the Buffalo Soldier.
If you want to know more about Fort Stockton or Buffalo Soldiers
Next up: Balmorhea, Texas