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Bob Ray Sanders[This book] is more than a journey to explore a part of Texas; it is about friendship, fun, and . . . good food.
— Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Researching places they wanted to see in advance, the trio selected a route that crossed as many creeks and rivers as possible and offered amenable campsites. Not young men, McConal, Lane, and Snyder conquered the harsh environment of West Texas, dealing with blisters and backaches, severe weather and low blood sugar while still remaining friends. Along the way they met unique local characters and visited out-of-the-ordinary sites. With his seasoned journalist’s eye, McConal blends personal interviews and keen descriptions of the countryside they trekked. As he spins the narrative of their journey, local legends, histories, flora, and fauna unfold.
Three old codgers
Were feeling kind of rough
When one of them said
We need to show we're still tough.
We can sit here for months
Dwelling on all our complexes
Or we can get off our duffs
And do a walk across Texas.
Walk across Texas.
With its wonderful sights.
Walk across Texas.
With its beautiful nights.
Texas's majestic sites have always beckoned to me. I spent my childhood in the far regions of West Texas that have won a variety of descriptions, few of which are complimentary when it comes to commenting on the countryside. Those often sarcastic jibes never bothered me because I loved that area and its awesome sunrises and sunsets and the invigorating wild smells of the outdoors that reminded me of a person who has done a hard day's work and taken a bath using a thick bar of old time Lava soap to clean his skin and hidden crevices.
Another reason the arid desert landscape probably did not bother me lay in the fact that I frequently had my head buried inside a book. I learned how to read before the first grade and, as a result, I was one of the most frequent customers of the libraries in Kermit, Midland, and Odessa, towns in which I spent my childhood. I loved reading about people making long walks in Scotland and England. I can remember a book telling about the main character packing a backpack with the barest essentials and heading off for an extended adventure that would lead him through the countryside looking for the solution of some great problem.
Somewhere in that part of my life, I began thinking how great it would be to pack some meat and cheese and perhaps my mother's wonderful brownies and walk across Texas and experience some of its great adventures. I filed that idea in the back of my head for years. Then one day I mentioned it to Sharon Cox, who at that time was assistant state editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I expected that I would get the same negative response I had gotten before when asked if I had any great ideas for stories and I would say, "I think it would be neat to do a walk across Texas and write about the characters I will meet." Sharon, a person who seemed stuffed to overflowing with enthusiasm, surprised me when she said, "Write me an outline of where you want to walk and what kind of stories you think you will find." I did and two months later, my friend Doc Keen and I walked 350 miles across the western regions of the Star-Telegram circulation area. The response was so good that we made a second 350-mile stroll the next year.
After my retirement in 2000, I became friends with Eddie Lane of Granbury, who loves Texas and its outdoor delights as deeply as I do. We made a rather extended venture of following the Brazos River and looking at each one of the river's sixty-two bridges that resulted in my book, Bridges Over the Brazos. We told folks that we drove approximately 4,000 miles looking at the bridges. We were questioned about this since the river is only 900 miles long. Our standard answer to this question became "We got lost a lot." But, the real truth was, Eddie and I both indulged ourselves royally while looking at the bridges and deliberately took many wrong turns that we knew would not lead to a bridge but to some delightful spot of interest hidden along Texas backroads.
One night while we were camped at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park, we had a good campfire going and we began talking about what our next adventure might be. Eddie had wanted to drive the roads that lead from El Paso along the Rio Grande to the Gulf Coast. That sounded fine. But, before the bridge trips were completed, the border became a rather hostile place with immigration and drug problems, not exactly the kind of place that two old codgers should be found camping. I kicked at the logs on the campfire and sparks flew into the air like a busted bottle rocket.
"Eddie, why don't we walk across Texas or at least a part of it? We could camp out along the way and I would write about the people we meet and work in some of the history of the area through which we are walking," I said.
Eddie got up and put another log on the fire. He looked at the stars smiling at us like a busted bucket of neon bulbs. "I think that would be a great idea," he said.
We went to TCU Press with the thought. They thought it was a novel idea and urged us to proceed. I thought that the fact that I am sixty-nine and Eddie is seventy-seven added to the interest of the book. In writing the manuscript, I would show people that there is no reason for people, regardless of their age, to sit on their duffs at home and become couch potatoes. They can and should get out and do something. I would augment that by writing something about myself that I seldom mention. I am an insulin-dependent diabetic and have been since I was twelve. Dealing with that has never held me back. During my professional writing career I made a fourteen-day canoe trip down the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. I have gotten up at midnight and driven two hundred miles to write news stories about a major airplane crash. I completed the two 350-mile walks. Eddie is another good example of not letting age or some of life's maladies keep you parked on an overstuffed easy chair. He has had one severe cardiac episode. Yet, he has canoed hundreds of miles on the Brazos and other Texas rivers. He has taken his grandson on an extended hiking and backpacking trip down the Grand Canyon.
Eddie's love of the outdoors came early in his life. He recalled being reared in Toledo. "I really didn't do any camping then. But, we went to vacant lots and played all kinds of sports, and just being outdoors became very special to me," he said. It was also in Toledo that Eddie developed a life-long love for fishing. He still has the first rod and reel and tackle box that he bought when he was eight years old. He used it for hours in a tiny pool called Heckie's Pond. "For bait we would walk in the shallow water for a few minutes. When we walked out there would always be a few small leeches attached to our legs. We'd pull those off and use them for bait," he said.
So began our plans for our great adventure. We considered several routes including following Interstate 20 from Fort Worth to El Paso. But, that route, as well as several others, would involve walking along highways that are thick with traffic. We studied our maps and finally decided on a route that would follow Highway 70 from north of Perryton in the Texas Panhandle south to Highway 180 and then back to our hometown of Granbury, a distance of 450 miles. We liked this route because the traffic is not particularly dense and the highways have well maintained shoulders on which we would be walking. Both of us are walkers, having about a three-mile-a-day average. So we knew that we would have to increase our mileage considerably to hit a fifteen-mile-per-day average that would lead us home in thirty days. Unfortunately, our training began in what became a record-setting heat wave that blistered our state. I admit that, during many of those days when the temperature boiled past 100, I wondered just what in the hell I was doing out walking an hour and a half in preparation for a 450-mile hike.
Some people offered discouraging remarks to us when they heard about what we were contemplating. But, we kept on training. We also began looking for a third person to go with us. We found that person almost by accident early one morning when Eddie and I were giving a speech about the book about the Brazos River bridges. During that presentation somebody asked us what our next project was going to be. We mentioned the walk and the fact that we were looking for a third person. Norm Snyder who was in the audience came up afterward and said, "I want to be that third person."
Snyder is sixty-two, an outdoor enthusiast and retired from IBM. He loves camping and wanted to increase his knowledge about Texas, where he has lived for the past twenty years. I had known Norm for several years. He and I attend the same church and for two years had worked together as volunteers in building houses in the Hood County Habitat for Humanity chapter. We both share some common interests and, since at the time, Eddie and I did not have a great number of volunteers for our third person, we made a quick decision. We immediately named Snyder a member of our expedition. Norm turned out to be much more than a driver ... he walked the entire route after I suffered a back injury early on the walk, which caused us to change our plans considerably.
As the days drifted by and our training walks increased in mileage, I began researching other walkers. I read about a 400-pound man who was walking across America. He said he hoped he would not weigh 400 pounds when he completed his walk. I read about Dean Strickland, thirty-nine, a country singer who walks to his gigs, carrying his suitcase and guitar. He has found people to be very helpful. He has only been robbed twice. That reminded me of the two walks I made with Doc Keen. The only problem we faced on our treks came from an angry cousin of mine, who threatened me with bodily harm because I did not eat lunch with him and his family when we walked through their town. I told him that the town had 350 people who had attended a lunch in the city park, held especially for Doc and me. He still wanted to give me a thrashing.
I read about Grandma Gatewood in The Whole Hikers Handbook. Gatewood, after rearing eleven children decided she would start hiking. She did. When she was sixty-seven, she walked the entire Appalachian National Scenic Trail from Georgia to Maine. She became the first woman to walk the 2,000-mile course in one season. She didn't like expensive gear. She carried her few essentials, which included cheese, dried meat, bouillon cubes, powdered milk, raisins, nuts and crackers; a sweater, a jacket, a scarf, an army blanket to sleep in and a plastic curtain for shelter, inside a homemade denim bag with a single shoulder strap.
I read about the great John Muir who walked thousands of miles in our nation's wilderness areas, living like the animals for which he developed an intense love. He carried his entire backpacking gear in the pockets of an aging wool overcoat and when he became cold in the mountains, he found warmth by clearing a small space and then dancing all night to keep his blood flowing. And, there was John Wesley Powell, who lost his right arm during a battle in the Civil War, but led the first boating expedition down the Colorado and Green Rivers in the 1,000-mile run through the Grand Canyon. He became a folk hero, mapping the hostile land and chartering its wild rivers, sampling its archeological ruins, and unlocking its geologic mysteries.
Then there are the countless stories of our pioneering forefathers and mothers. They came to the West in wagons packed with their belongings and families. Often because of a lack of space in the wagons, family members trudged behind them, wearing old brogans that had been split repeatedly from the rocks and ragged escarpments over which they walked. Those people averaged ten miles a day, so historians say.
So when looking at all of those stories, I figured, why couldn't three old codgers like Eddie, Norm, and me walk at least fifteen miles a day? A final argument in favor of the walk came from the knowledge of my two previous walks. I knew that when you get close to the people and to the country by actually walking across the land, you make discoveries that are hidden from those who speed across the land in motorized vehicles.
We saw some of this when the three of us drove our route in August. The country then still lay browned and burned by the recent drought that had clamped hard on nature with its dry jaws. But, as we drove, I saw things that I knew we would enjoy looking at and observing more closely. Places like the washing machine museum in Mineral Wells and the old county courthouse in Palo Pinto. Stories from the past echo vibrantly in these structures. Like I always can hear the booming voice of the late Sam Cleveland when I drive past the Palo Pinto courthouse. I covered several trials that Cleveland, known as Mister Sam, prosecuted and always felt relief that I never had been subjected to his commanding cross-examination on the witness stand.
We drove through Stephens County where the odor of a recent pasture fire still hung heavily in the air. We saw the marks from the fire that had scorched trees and left long streaks of black on the countryside like an old pair of black shoes that had been poorly polished. We looked at the lingering eyes of coals in some of the tree stumps. During a stop for a drink of water, Norm talked about his background. He served in the air force twelve years and worked around the world in radar maintenance. He spent his childhood in West Virginia. The family property bordered a forest.
"When I got out of school each day, guess where I disappeared to?" he asked with a faraway look in his eyes. He also told us about his love of skydiving and SCUBA diving. "When I was a small boy, probably in the fifth grade, I decided that I would become a skydiver and a SCUBA diver. The small town where I grew up had an army/navy surplus store where I found a parachute. I bought it and took it home. My father immediately made me cut the lines off of the canopy. He quite correctly deduced that I planned to jump off of something. I hadn't formed an exact plan at that point in time, but that was exactly what I had in mind."
He smiled. "Since there isn't much clear water in West Virginia, SCUBA is not common and both ambitions went on the back burner. I spent a lot of time with my scout troop. And, that led to another interest," he said. That interest was sailing, which came as a result of Norm's pragmatic, engineering mind. He devised a way that two seventeen-foot aluminum canoes could be lashed together with six feet of freeboard between. Part of his parachute canopy became the sail. "We had a canoe catamaran," he said. I could just imagine the wild adventures Norm and his buddies must have had.
We continued west through rugged pastureland with cattle trying to find grass as they grazed with their heads looking like they were attached to the ground. We drove through oil country and saw several antique drilling rigs that had been dragged to the pasture and left for nature to take care of. One looked like some aging monster from outer space, with all of its wires and cables and rusting steel girders. Cattle stood in a nearby grove of mesquites, switching their tails slowly at flies landing on their sides and backs.
We reached the country known as West Texas and saw huge clumps of tumbleweeds or Russian thistles. I remembered having to cut these weeds from fencerows when I was a youngster living in Midland. Leave them alone and maybe in two years you wouldn't have a fence because the weeds trapped the sand that blew in that area and soon the fence would be totally covered.
We pushed on through Dickens County where we saw a flock of wild turkeys eating grasshoppers beside the roadside. The birds suddenly burst into flight and barely sailed over the car.
We crossed the Red River, a stream that flows in a color like its name, looking like somebody had spilled a giant bucket of blood from a slaughterhouse. Back in the distance we saw something we had not seen for months in our country, rain clouds. We kept driving and ahead of us a giant blue sheet appeared as rain emptied from the sky.
We drove through Perryton and reached the Oklahoma border and we stopped at Mike's Red Barn that had brightly painted signs advertising beef jerky and ice cold beer. We climbed from the car to stretch our legs. Several trucks were parked in spaces around Mike's and another business across the road.
"Norm, we are only forty miles from Liberal, Kansas," said Eddie.
"Damn," said Norm. "And this is where the walk is going to start? Damn." He answered his own question.
We wanted to get a picture. I walked to a pickup and asked the driver if he would mind taking our picture.
"No, I'll be glad to," he said. Eddie explained the workings of his camera and the three of us stood together.
"What's this for?" asked the man, built solid and wearing suspenders.
"Oh, we are going to make a 450-mile walk from here," said Eddie.
Excerpted from A Walk Across Texas by Jon McConal. Copyright © 2008 Jon McConal. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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