March 20, 2005

Travel Notes: San Angelo, Texas

Out here a dry creek bed is called a “draw” and a dry waterfall is called a “pouroff” and either of them can kill you in flash flood season. This is the land of prickly pear growing in the meadows and among the juniper hills--of self–domesticated deer grazing with the goats--of wild turkeys bobbing along the roadside--of a ewe and her lamb nuzzling an oil well pipe. It’s fossil country, too, with hobbyists’ cars stopped along the roadway cuts where layers of limestone are exposed from the prehistoric inland sea that also made this oil country.

You know you’re in deepest America when a flat, vacancy–plagued town called Eldorado tries to cheer itself up with satirical public events: the Elgoatarod--a parody of Alaska’s dogsled Iditarod--and a sign announcing meetings of the Eldorado Olympic Bid Organizing Committee. (Scroll down to Jan. 2005 if you click that Elgoatarod link.) But things are livening up because a polygamous, fundamentalist splinter group of Mormons is moving there. The Elgoatarodians are hoping the media attention will help their race.

The next town down the road is called Eden. I wonder what’s going on there? But we didn’t feel motivated to go and see.

Instead we went to the Caverns of Sonora, which uses for publicity a quote from a great speleologist that they’re “the most indescribably beautiful caverns in the world—their beauty can’t possibly be exaggerated—even by Texans.” Well, guess what, folks—it’s an exaggeration. The supposed beauty (which I have to admit many people do perceive) consists of chamber after chamber lined with thick yellowish translucent incrustations deposited by mineral–laden water. It's like walking through a cheesecake that has been tunneled by mice. The formations take various shapes, from the familiar stalactites and stalagmites to a whitish slide that looks like frozen milk. Of course people keep finding real–world shapes in them, so the guided tour consists mainly of looking hard to try to recognize a butterfly, a teacher’s finger pointing at the butterfly, a pineapple, E.T., the Statue of Liberty, and so forth, among the rocks. It almost goes without saying there’s one that supposedly looks like the Virgin Mary—why her and not any other human being, I don’t know--and the tour guide expresses wonder at how nature unaided could possibly have created such a shape without miraculous intervention. It reminded me of the Virgin Mary on the grilled cheese sandwich, which brought $28,000 last year.

Independently, I discovered the following formations: a Giacometti sculpture of a walking man, a dirty mop, and a fist with its middle finger upraised. I didn’t bother pointing them out to the tour guide.

I much preferred the short stretch at the end of the tunnel where the incrustations had been stripped away. The walls were clean bare limestone arches like Greek catacombs.

After spending most of the warm, humid tour trying to keep children from touching the rocks, going off the trail, sitting down in the trail, or running ahead, we sat gratefully on a bench in the cool breeze outside. Ads on the bench advised us to call for fence repair, dirt construction, well digging, and bail bonds--“fast, friendly, and confidential.”

Next day we drove north to San Angelo because the guidebook said there’s a downhome restaurant with great pie there. And it was true, and 65 miles is not too far to drive for a great slice of $1.50 pie when there’s nothing else of interest for a handful of counties around. The restaurant was even signless, adding to its cachet.

San Angelo looks like the set of the beginning of a slasher movie, before anything has happened or anyone suspects. It’s loaded with civic improvements that no one uses: sculpture in the park; a riverside walk where you can watch herons nesting in the trees; a pedestrian bridge with commemorative tiles. It’s the wool and mohair capital of the U.S. and the home of the nation’s last windmill manufacturer (one of three in the world). It’s got a bordello museum in what was a real bordello till 1946, and a military intelligence training center at Goodfellow AFB, and one of its best Mexican restaurants is called Mejor que Nada—“Better than Nothing.” As we walked through the park, an ice cream truck was maddeningly repeating “Turkey in the Straw”—a great touch for the soundtrack. On the main street, upgraded with antique stores and boutiques, several merchants proved to be more interested in denying the existence of their bathrooms than in attracting possible customers, of whom they were obviously in need. The unfriendliest storekeepers we’ve met in eight years in Texas. Almost the only unfriendly storekeepers we’ve met in eight years in Texas.

The guidebook says that San Angelo is much more livable than Midland, Odessa, Wichita Falls, or Abilene, because of its diversified, non–oil–based economy. The awful thing is, I believe it.

That was the motel part of our trip, the first two days, and from then on it was tent camping and a lot more fun. I’ll tell you tomorrow!