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Entries in Texas (19)


Blue Highways: Eagle Flat, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapDon't you ever feel like you just want to get rid of all the clutter in your life?  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) presents the desert as minimalist, which gets me to muse on the clutter and complexity in my life, and how I might use the desert as an inspiration to simplify.  If you want to see the spare and barren place in Texas that inspired all of reflection, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.

Book Quote

"Somewhere near Eagle Flat, before a rider-against-the-sky horizon, I stopped to rest from the buck of sidewinds.  Annual rainfall here averaged less than seven inches, and the Rio Grande to the south often ran dry before it crossed the desert.  Spindly ocotillo stalks, some twenty-five feet high and just coming into orange blossom, bent under the north wind.  Creosote bushes had cleared dead zones by secreting a toxic substance from their roots to insure whatever moisture fell they would get....

"Between the creosote and stony knobs streamlined by gritty winds grew grasses in self-contained clumps and cactuses compacted like fists.  Everything as spare and lean as a coyote's leg.  Under that sprawl of sky and space, the minimal land somehow reduced whatever came into it, laying itself austerly open as if barren of everything except simplicity.  But it was a simplicity of form - not content."

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 9

A vista near Eagle Flat, Texas. Photo by "omd31473" at American Greetings Webshots. Click on photo to go to site.

Eagle Flat, Texas

I wish I were like the desert as LHM describes it.  Not the dead zones created by toxic creosote secretions in a desperate attempt to capture water.  Nor do I want to be a spindly ocotillo plant, or other spiny desert plant that lures one with beautiful blossoms but can pack a sharp stab if one gets too close or touches them.  I've met people like that in my life, have been hurt by a few of them, and I don't want to emulate them.

What I'd truly like to emulate at this stage in my life is the minimalism and the simplicity that the desert teaches.  I live a life of plenty, at least for me.  My wife and I both work, which in the economy as it stands as I write is a good thing.  We are busy people, always doing things.  Our calendars are packed with work things and events, public service, and entertainment.  My wife is more busy than I am usually, with her journalism, her radio work, and her presidency of a national women's journalism organization.  However, I often go 4-5 days a week without getting home until eight or nine at night.  I belong to a group that eats once a month with men who just got out of jail and are in a halfway house, a bit of normalcy and generosity that we hope they can carry with them and perhaps keep them from going back into jail.  I get together with friends.  My wife and I like to do cultural things together.  I stay at work often later than I need.  I manage to fill my time without even knowing how.

Our house reflects our lives, because we are not in it much.  It is cluttered and difficult to clean.  We don't spend the time we need to cull the things in our life down to what we need.  We get frustrated with it, but we continue live our lives and wonder when we'll ever get to making our home more manageable.  We keep bringing in more stuff, which we have to find room for.  We keep scheduling events, and the chores go undone.

Sometimes we have trouble communicating, because we are so involved with things that it limits the time we can have discussion together.  It has led to some difficult times between us.  The clutter of our lives makes it easy to get distracted from the hard things we should discuss.  In the past couple of years, frustration with this state of our lives, along with professional worries, lead me down a path that was destructive and hurtful.  It was a time of pain and guilt, and a time I exacerbated due to my actions.

My thoughts and feelings have also been a welter of complexity that in many cases hasn't served me in good stead.  I tend to be a sensitive person emotionally that overthinks things, puts two-and-two together when it doesn't add up in reality, and blames myself for pretty much everything.  When I perceive someone's hurt or pain, I make a great effort to help or to fix it.  I prop people emotionally, or at least try, and spiral downard if I can't do anything about it.  At the same time, I minimize my own emotional hurt and pain, and convince myself that I am a net cause of hurt and pain and inadequate to helping others.  Counseling, and the advice of friends, over the years has convinced me intellectually that I am being unrealistic if I think I'm the holder of all the bad in the world.  Emotionally, I'm still trying to get there.  Thankfully, my wife is taking this journey with me and we are moving forward, together.

I wrote before about how some have found stability through removing themselves in some way from the world.  I can't do that.  I'm drawn to it in some ways, especially during hard times, but that feels to me like just a reaction, not a lifestyle.  But I do look to the desert, and LHM's words remind me that the desert offers a lesson.

Here is a portion of the world where minimalism is not a luxury or a fad, but a necessity.  Life exists in balance.  In the desert, any plant or animal that exceeds its alotted portion will wreak untold havoc upon the rest of the ecosystem.  Any plant or animal that falls short will suffer personal consequences - it will go hungry or thirsty, or in the worst cases die.  Each plant and animal does what it needs to survive.  No more, no less.  It is a simplicity that I would do well to emulate both in my actions and in my thoughts and feelings, to simply accept myself as I am and be satisfied with that person in all my glories and all my faults - the blossoms and the spines.

The paradox, as LHM points out, is that the desert shows that simplicity of form does not mean simplicity of content.  It is in the letting go, the search for a simpler life, the search for harmony, and the desire for inner and outer peace that allows us, when we find it, to understand the complexity and the beauty that is us and our lives.  So, as I sit writing today, in my cluttered office in my cluttered house, I have Hildegard von Bingen's music playing in the background - her complex melodies underscoring the simplicity she desired of her daily life in a 12th century convent and her simple desire to be closer to God.  My house is situated in a desert gussied up by civilization, but at its heart still a desert and therefore, if I look, a further example of simplicity that can inspire me.  It was here long before humans showed up, and it will be here long after we, our dramas and complexities, are gone.  It has reached some kind of universal understanding that I cannot fathom, but that I can strive to understand if I set aside or at least minimize my complexities for a while.

Musical Interlude

In the spirit of how I wrote above, I made a video of pictures I took in West Texas, specifically Big Bend, the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains.  Unfortunately, the video didn't turn out as well as I'd like - my video software on my desktop is not as good as it could be - but the music is from the same Hildegard von Bingen album I was listening to as I wrote.  The video will give you the sense of the desert out there.  I'll upgrade the video when I get access to my laptop - which is with my wife on a trip right now.

Addendum:  Evidently, if you're in Germany you can't see my video with the Hildegard von Bingen music as it's been blocked.  So, below is a silent version.  Find Hildegard's O Vis Aeternitatis, put it on, and watch the video.  Sorry - but evidently one just can't put music to a video any more and post it on the web.  What is the Internet coming to?

If you want to know more about Eagle Flat... you will just have to be content with the minimalism that the desert has to offer.  There isn't anything  in Eagle Flat but the desert, which is in the spirit of this post anyway.  Take some time, if you can, to sit with Hildegard von Bingen or in silence, even if it's only for a minute.  Take away the complexities of life and enjoy the feeling of being.

Next up: El Paso, Texas


Blue Highways: Balmorhea, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Clidk on Thumbnail for MapAn oasis, properly defined by Merriam-Webster, is a fertile or green region in a desert, or something that provides relief, refuge or a pleasant contrast.  Balmorhea, in my experience, qualifies as an oasis even if William Least Heat-Moon doesn't recognize it as such as he drives through.  Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Balmorhea is located, and enjoy our drive through West Texas while it lasts.

Book Quote

"The land rose steadily, then at Balmorhea the highland mesas became the eastern ridges of the Rocky Mountains.  Interstate 10, the only way west, differed here from a two=lane simply by extra strips of concrete - there were almost no towns to bypass.  And so, like the locomotive, Ghost Dancing lapped the miles across the Apache Mountains and Devil Ridge and onward.  Bugs popping the windshield left only clear fluid instead of a yellow and green pollen-laden goo of woodland insects; it was as if they extracted their colorless essence from the desert wind itself."

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 9

Artesian spring fed pool at Balmorhea. Photo at Texas Parks and Wildlife Division site. Click on photo to go to host site.

Balmorhea, Texas

The things that one can find in West Texas are varied and surprising.  Balmorhea is a case in point.  I will again refer to a car trip my wife and I made to Big Bend National Park.  We were there for probably a long weekend - maybe five days or so.  The first trip we made there, we camped in the Chisos Mountains, but the second trip we couldn't get a campsite there so we stayed in a campsite down in the desert just north of the mountain range.  While the Chisos, even though they are situated in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, surprisingly have some alpine elements in their higher elevations, the weather is cooler, and there are facilities there where one can shower and refresh, down in the desert the facilities are more rudimentary and the weather is hotter.  We hiked in the desert quite a bit on that second trip, and the terrain and feel was very different from the mountains.

Long story short, on our way out we drove into Balmorhea.  My wife remembers that we drove out of the Davis Mountains and into a kind of valley that looked like a hot dry dusty plain.  And then, there was Balmorhea.  We had heard about the state park and the San Solomon Springs, and we were hot, dusty and hadn't had a shower in five days.

I'm not sure I truly understood the meaning of the word oasis until I gazed upon the pool at San Solomon Springs.  The water looked heavenly and after a quick shower that got the physical grime off of me, I jumped into the cold waters on a hot day and felt almost spiritually cleansed.  A section of the spring fed pool, closed off to casual swimmers but available to divers, had a lot of underwater plant and fish life, and to see an aquatic ecosystem in the middle of an otherwise pretty barren desert was quite amazing.  I think we spent a couple of hours there, before drying off, jumping into the car and heading off toward home in San Antonio.

But as I said, West Texas is full of surprises.  Go out to Marfa, located about 50 miles to the southwest of Balmorhea, and there you will find an old air force training base converted to the headquarters of the Chinati Foundation, which houses the art works and collection of Donald Judd as well as other artists and which brings artists-in-residence from all over the world to teach and create.  In Marfa, you'll also find the Marfa Lights, strange lights that appear near the mountains to the south of town and which nobody has been able to explain.  Some say the lights are ghosts, some say they are caused by atmospheric effects, and some even say they are of extraterrestrial origin.

Or go into the Davis Mountains.  In Fort Davis, about 30 miles southwest of Balmorhea, you can find WPA and CCC architecture and art, as well as some country that will really remind you of the old West of the movies.  The McDonald Observatory hosts Star Parties, where you can go and learn about constellations, look through powerful telescopes for Jupiter, Saturn and other planets, all under a dark night sky unsullied by large city ground light.

It was in this region that one of my most magical and astounding wildlife sightings occurred.  Driving around the Davis Mountains, my wife and I saw an eagle sitting on a fence post.  As we slowed down to try to get a photo, the eagle dropped down to the ground, and then to our astonishment slowly took off with a large snake in its talons.  It flew directly over our hood - I don't know what I would have done had the eagle dropped the snake on the hood or the windshield but the aftermath would have probably involved me having to change my pants.  But the eagle soared about 5 feet above the car, across the road, and over a low line of scrub trees on the other side.  My wife and I sat slack jawed for what seemed like five minutes, before we looked at each other saying "can you believe that!" and "I wish I had the camera ready."

Yes, West Texas seems barren if you fly over it, or look at it on a map or Google Earth, but if you go there, you will find amazing and magical things as well as some scenery that will remain with you the rest of your life.  If you find yourself ever in El Paso, it is well worth a drive to Balmorhea for a swim or into the Davis Mountains to take a look around.

Musical Interlude

Back to some Texas music.  Gary P. Nunn is an established Texas singer-songwriter, and his song What I Like About Texas is a nice tribute to a state with a lot of culture.

If you want to know more about Balmorhea

Balmorhea State Park
Encyclopedia of Earth: San Solomon Springs, Balmorhea Balmorhea
Texas State Historical Association: Balmorhea
Wikipedia: Balmorhea

Next up: Eagle Flat, Texas


Blue Highways: Fort Stockton, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapTopping 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.

Book Quote

"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

Paisano Pete, the official mascot of Fort Stockton. Photo by spacemanspiff at Click on photo to go to site.

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.

Musical Interlude

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

City of Fort Stockton
Fort Stockton Historic Site
Fort Stockton Pioneer (newspaper) Fort Stockton
Tour Texas:  Fort Stockton
Wikipedia:  Fort Stockton

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
Wikipedia: Buffalo Soldiers
Youtube: History of Buffalo Soldiers

Next up: Balmorhea, Texas


Blue Highways: Western Crockett County, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapLet's pull off the side of the road for a minute in a remote and barren area of West Texas.  Turn off the engine and let the van cool.  The wind blows gently against the van, but we'll walk out and away and begin to see and really listen to what is around us.  We'll find life, nature, the universe and everything and we'll be fully aware of it as it begins to seep into our consciousness the longer we stay, watch and listen.  The road beckons, but for a moment, this is where we need to be.  Click on the map thumbnail to learn where it is.

Book Quote

"Driving through the miles of nothing, I decided to test the hypothesis and stopped somewhere in western Crockett County on the top of a broad mesa, just off Texas 29. At a distance, the land looked so rocky and dry, a religious man could believe that the First Hand never got around to the creation in here. Still, somebody had decided to string barbed wire around it.

"No plant grew higher than my head. For a while, I heard only miles of wind against the Ghost; but after the ringing in my ears stopped, I heard myself breathing, then a bird note, an answering call, another kind of birdsong, and another: mockingbird, mourning dove, an enigma. I heard the high zizz of flies the color of gray flannel and the deep buzz of a blue bumblebee."

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 8

Vista in Crockett County, Texas. Is this similar to what William Least Heat-Moon saw when he pulled off the road? Photo at Click on photo to go to site.

Western Crockett County, Texas

I suppose this post is an extension of the last post on quests, in a way.  I was struck by William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) quote above where he turns off the road in a remote part of Texas (Google Earth image is my guess of the location) just to see what was there.  It takes him a while to clear his head of the ringing in his ears from the motor of Ghost Dancing and the other road sounds while he drives.  Once that happens, he really begins to see and hear what's there.  What he begins to see and hear are the sounds of life all around him.  It reaffirms that even in the most remote places, the planet is alive and we simply have to open our senses to it to understand that life on the deepest of levels.

I had a similar experience myself, many miles south of Crockett County.  I may have briefly written about this before but I'll write about it again because it was a very important and spiritual moment for me.

My wife and I had made a trip to Big Bend National Park.  It became one of our favorite places to go because of it's variety and some special moments we had there.  On the western side of the Chisos Mountains, the road drops precipitously off a mesa down to a desert plain below.  From the top of the mesa, one can see nothing but the desert and little speckles of desert plants.  But as one looks, the eye is arrested by the site, almost directly in the center of the plain, a large cottonwood tree.  It is so large and out of place that one cannot gaze on it and wonder why it is there.

My wife and I took the Chimneys Trail to some rock formations and the direction was toward this tree.  I convinced her to see if we could reach the tree but after about a half hour of hiking across desert we realized that the distance was deceiving.  Reluctantly, I turned away.

Some months later, I was offered to go on a weekend camping trip with a colleague to Big Bend again.  He liked to hike, so I told him about the tree.  He was game to try.  We arrived near Big Bend one evening, and slept in the car by the side of the road, and in the morning made the drive to the Chimneys Trail.  We set off down the trail in the morning.  The desert was quiet, as if it were awaiting the sun with trepidation, and all the animals were in their holes to sit out the heat of the day.  When we reached the Chimneys, we set off across desert.

My quest was to reach the big tree, because it was there.  And in fact, the quest became almost like the hopeless quests one reads about in literature.  After about an hour of hiking we reached a shallow arroyo and went across.  Then after 15 minutes, another arroyo, a little deeper.  This pattern continued.  The next arroyo was deeper still, and harder to find a way out of.

Five arroyos we crossed, with the last being the deepest.  It was like a small canyon.  Every time we would crest an arroyo, the tree stood beckoning in the distance, a shimmering green beacon.  The last arroyo was very near the tree, and it almost took us a half hour to find a way up the other side and out.  When we reached the top, there was the tree.

But again, obstacles.  The tree was surrounded by the thorniest, impenetrable desert brush I have ever encountered.  We looked and looked around this thorny hedge but could not find a way through.  I was about to dejectedly give up when on a whim, I went to the edge of the arroyo.  The tree was right at the edge of the dropoff, and there, perilously close to the drop, was a small trail that went through a little tunnel in the brush and to the base of the tree!  We made it!

We sat under the tree.  The shade was nice and it was cool under the tree in the mid-day heat.  We looked out over the arroyo which stretched away on each side of us.  We were a little hyped up from our exertions but slowly, as my companion's eyes started to droop and he began to nap, and I became more attuned to our surroundings, I started to experience, and I mean really experience, the small ecosystem sustained by that tree all around me.  While walking through the desert, all I could hear was wind.  But under that tree, I realized I could hear not only wind rustling the cottonwood's leaves above me, but also the occasional drip of water condensing off the leaves.  I could hear insects of all kinds buzzing nearby.  It was quiet, punctuated only by my companion's occasional snore.  The tree literally buzzed, there in the emptiness and heat of the desert, with palpable life.  Because of it, I don't think I ever felt more alive.

A small piece of bark lay on the ground next to the trunk.  I took it and put it in my pocket.  I still have it to this day.  We stayed about an hour, and then refreshed, and with new life, we set back on our trek to the car.  I have no idea how far we hiked that day, but I know that for one hour, it was one of the few times in my life I was not distracted by anything and was fully engaged in my environment.  In a way, I had undertaken a quest, reached my goal, and found enlightenment from whatever you may call it.  God?  Nature?  The universe?  Whatever it was, I was reminded that there are things that are more beautiful and more powerful than me.

I'd like to think that, on top of a broad mesa in western Crockett County, that LHM experienced something similar.  Just after the quote above, he takes an inventory of the life that he can identify in what is supposed to be "barren" land.  He finds a lot of life around him.  He remarks that even though some might call it a land that God forgot, that someone still put barbed wire around it.  Barrenness is only an illusion, in my experience.  We can find importance and meaning, and even the trace of those who have gone before, pretty much wherever we go.

Musical Interlude

Here is an extended set of Lubbock music legends The Flatlanders.  The song I really wanted in this Texas musical interlude was If You Were a Bluebird, but I couldn't find a decent video of it being performed - either the song was cut off at the beginning or the sound was bad.  So, If You Were a Bluebird is at the end of this video.  Despite its length, it's worth watching Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore tell a story and you get two songs for the price of one - which is this case is free!  So what's not to like

If you want to know more about Western Crockett County

Crockett County
Texas State Historical Association: Crockett County
Wikipedia: Crockett County

Next up:  West of the Pecos, Texas


Blue Highways: Eldorado, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapOur quest continues.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is on a quest for answers, understanding, and to be in touch with his country.  I am on a quest to map his trip, and in a life sense, to be happy and fulfilled.  You, Littourati, each have your own quest you are following.  To see where we are on our current quest, click on the map thumbnail at right.

Book Quote

"Straight as a chief's countenance, the road lay ahead, curves so long and gradual as to be imperceptible except on the map. For nearly a hundred miles due west of Eldorado, not a single town. It was the Texas some people see as barren waste when they cross it, the part they later describe at the motel bar as 'nothing.' They say, 'There's nothing out there.'"

 Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 8


"Welcome to Eldorado" sign in Eldorado, Texas. Photo by Billy Hathorn and hosted at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host site..

Eldorado, Texas

What's in a name?  If you live in a town called Eldorado, or El Dorado, then a lot.  It reflects the Spanish roots of a country, the United States, that outside its Southwest area largely focuses it's historical past on English colonization.  The term El Dorado is used as a place name for many towns in the United States and stands for the hopes and dreams of the other settlers of this country, the Spanish and mestizo explorers and conquerors that combed the Southwest looking for their own version of the American dream.

El Dorado was the legend that fueled the exploration of the Spanish across South and North America.  It was said that somewhere in the interior of both continents, cities could be found that harbored fantastic riches.  In these cities were gold, and minerals and gemstones, that exceeded the wildest dreams.  In South America, while the Spanish tended to pursue El Dorado, in North America they sought the Seven Cities of Cibola, first reported by shipwrecked explorers such as Cabeza de Vaca and the Moorish Estevanico (Esteban).  In the Southwest, the Seven Cities were thought to be the Zuni pueblos, where mica windows in the adobe buildings reflected the setting sun's light such that the cities seemed to gleam radiantly from afar.

In some reflections I have been reading, the authors have challenged me to reflect on my life's "quest."  To me, a quest is a desire to find something and claim it as one's own.  We quest for many things.  To the Spaniards tramping around the Southwest in hostile environment and territory, the quest was to find fabulous riches.  Finding those riches would not only make the Spaniards happy (they thought), able to live the life of their dreams, and receive the fame and importance due them but also justify Spain's investment in the New World.  Later, American explorers of the Louisiana territories and the Southwest, and their business and political backers, reworked this idea of the quest into American "Manifest Destiny," which justified American settlement under the idea that it was God's will that the United States should spread from "sea to shining sea."  While it undoubtedly laid the seeds for the economic powerhouse that the United States has become, a country that has literally been an El Dorado for many of its citizens, it also allowed for those same political and economic leaders to justify the subjugation and persecution of the country's Native peoples. 

Nowadays, we often speak of questing in a personal sense - a quest for more enlightenment or personal growth, or to be more in touch with our religious beliefs.  We quest for happiness, for an end to loneliness, for love.  In the process of our quest, we may come close or even find what we seek, or we may forever circle it, not quite reaching the goal we have set.  We might, as a result of our quest, become fuller human beings.  We might also become so consumed by the goal that we lose sight of ourselves, and intentionally or unintentionally cause hurt.

To me, there seems to be two sides to the idea of the quest - a light and a dark side.  These sides are encapsulated in names like Eldorado, Texas.  On the good side, these towns symbolize the very qualities that made the United States the country it is.  People on a quest for land, homes and livelihood found isolated valleys and fertile plains and created lives that might have seemed for many of them the slice of heaven they hoped and longed for.  They built something out of nothing, and in the land and their hard work found the gold they sought.  On the not so good side, the influx of settlers pushed out those who had lived on and hunted those lands for many centuries and pushed them to the margins - a reality that many Native Americans are still trying to escape.  To them, El Dorado means not a golden place, but an ideal that brought greedy and rapacious foreigners to their homes.  I find it interesting that many Native American tribes, when the Spanish came to their villages and pueblos, got rid of them by telling them that fantastic and wealthy cities existed many miles away to the north.  Many Spanish expeditions were led on wild goose chases - even as they explored as far north as Kansas, they were really interested in finding these wealthy cities and not really exploring the country.

There is another example of the not-so-good side of such quests.  In 2008, Eldorado, Texas became a center of controversy and unwanted attention because of a recently-arrived group of people who seek their own version of El Dorado.  A large Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints compound called Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch was built near the town. Their polygamist practices and allegations of sexual abuse led Texas authorities to raid the compound, busing away a number of children.  Many of the women were found to be or to have been underage brides and to have had children before becoming legal adults.  Some members of the compound were convicted of various sexual crimes, but today most of the children are back with their parents at the compound, whose leaders have said they will renounce underage marriage practices.

Many towns and cities in the United States, recalling both the bad and good sides of such quests, are named in the spirit of that which is just over the horizon.  How many?  Here's a roll call of towns and cities called, in one form or another, El Dorado.

El Dorado, Arkansas
El Dorado, California
El Dorado Hills, California
Eldorado Springs, Colorado
Eldorado, Georgia
Eldorado, Illinois
Eldorado, Iowa
El Dorado, Kansas
Eldorado, Maryland
Eldorado, Mississippi
El Dorado Springs, Missouri
Eldorado, Nebraska
Eldorado at Santa Fe, New Mexico
Eldorado, Ohio
Eldorado, Oklahoma
Eldorado, Oregon
Eldorado, Texas
Eldorado, Wisconsin

I don't make any claims that this is an exhaustive list.  I found these towns in two ways - typing "El Dorado" or "Eldorado" into Google Maps for every state.  I also looked at a list of settlements of the United States.  Some of these towns are larger, many of them are unincorporated communities.  This list does not list the myriads of businesses around the country that are given the name El Dorado.  However, 18 towns or cities in various states, most of which are in the Southwest or West but not all of them, with a variant of the name El Dorado is pretty impressive.

As for myself, I am realizing that my personal quest is to be productive, to better myself, to assist my community in any way I can, to love and be loved, to find happiness in my friends and loved ones, and to live a happy life.  Given my past history, which has involved some hard realities, my quest has been quite challenging.  In that way, I am no different from the settlers that created Eldorado, Texas or any of the other El Dorado's in the United States.  I am really no different than anybody else.  I am no different from LHM, who is on his own quest for personal healing through travel in Ghost Dancing around his country and interaction with the people he meets on the way.  Whether I find my city of gold beyond the horizon is a combination of my own desire and fortitude, and the whim of fortune.

Musical Interlude

For your Texas music interlude, a video of Joe Ely singing Tom Russell's song Gallo Del Cielo.  It's the story of a man on a quest, with his golden rooster that will get him there.  As some quests go, he takes it too far, and loses everything.  It's a wonderful song by a West Texas master singer-songwriter.

If you want to know more about Eldorado

Eldorado Success (newspaper) Eldorado
Texas State Historical Association: Eldorado
Wikipedia: Eldorado

Next up:  Western Crockett County