In my mind, west Texas evokes scenes of austere loneliness … of stately cacti daring to be touched, a tumbleweed blowing, wheeling endlessly in through the center of a deserted town. Cowboys on horseback, and leather boots, lariats and spurs.
In my mind, west Texas is a wild, untouched place – the epitome of a Western-genre film. But, as are so many beliefs we get from watching movies, this is disappointingly untrue.
Oh, it is certainly wild there. But, in an unexpected way. It is not uncivilized, or savage. It is not primitive or barbarous, but instead untamed, or perhaps, mostly uninhabited. The beauty here is more of the stark variety. Live oaks, pecan trees and Desert Willows stand straight and solemn, swayed only by the tease of the wind. These are not the trees I was used to in the Midwest – trees that grow so thick and close together that every group of them is a close and quiet verdant forest. No, here it is the lone pine that reigns in majesty, for it has managed to live here where it is dry; too dry for most trees to live. And so it is a symbol of strength and the west’s unwillingness to be broken.
The towns we drive through in the west of Texas are cheerful and friendly. There aren’t many department stores, nor chain stores, really, there are almost no stores at all. Mostly local businesses thrive. There might be a Walmart on the outskirts of town, but there is nary a Saks or a Chanel. The fashion is different; not behind the times, but existing outside of Hollywood red carpets and teen magazines. It is unlike what I see in Paris or Houston or Brussels. There are more rhinestones here, and everything definitely has a cowgirl or cowboy bent. But, instead of being kitsch, it almost seems empowering – a citywide celebration of the roots of the community and I am almost ashamed that I don’t belong.
We end in San Angelo, Texas. Not as far west as we’ve been, but a pleasant gateway between the lights and city of Austin or San Antonio, and the stark emptiness of cities further west – the last outpost of familiarity before plunging into the chill of the desert. Here, the trees are more plentiful, the land less heartless. A soothing mixture of the green of the leaves and the murky blue of the few rivers and lakes combine with the brown of the area surrounding the city, creating a small, welcoming oasis.
Here in San Angelo, the Concho River hums along softly, pouring into Lake Nasworthy. The downtown’s tallest building is a graceful 14 stories, presiding over the antique stores, cafés and shopping in the streets below. After dark, these little shops’ lights wink into darkness, and the live music bars light up the night. Local country, rock, or a visiting band plays as partners stand up to two-step and twirl around the wooden dancefloor.
It is here in this joyous abandon of dancing, in this peek into the pride in their community, their roots here in this western place, that even a Michigander like me can see that the west is still wild. There is an untouched freedom, a rampant, untamed heart here in this last outpost to the west.