In a tight bend on the Rio Grande sits an almost-ghost town named Langtry, Texas. It is an almost-ghost town because it has a unique roadside attraction and some scenic real estate overlooking Mexico that make the town worth living in to local Border Patrol agents and the proprietors of the tourist shop across from Judge Roy Bean’s old saloon/courthouse/home. Unless you are driving the scenic route from Far West Texas back towards the heart of the state, there’s little reason to pass within two hundred miles of Langtry. And if you don’t keep an eye out for it, you’ll blow by the single turnoff at eighty miles an hour on the cacophonous chip-and-seal pavement.
But if you do stop in Langtry, you can stroll the creaky saloon from when Judge Roy Bean was The First Law West of The Pecos. Ponder a time when people enforced the law of the land according to their mood, held court drunk, paused raucous pool games to serve as jurors, hosted boxing matches on an island between Texas and Mexico in order to evade gambling laws.
And then you can walk down the dead-end street that ends at a steep cliff overlooking the Rio Grande, squint at the fissure in the rock on the Mexico side that gave this place its original name–Eagle’s Nest–tiptoe into abandoned houses and walk coolly past the sporadic few which are proudly occupied. Across the nearly-dry riverbed, there is a different lingua franca and law of the land. Where I stand, the world is quiet. Wind whispers through the ocotillos and the mesquite trees, its song through the thorns cooing the memories of love that hurts to remember and hurts to forget. There’s a ghost beside me, the absence of a soul to share these sights with. The pronghorn in the Trans Pecos high plains make me jealous, grazing solo yet securely in range of the other.
Back towards the invisible heart of town, I step into an old adobe home, left in a sighing state of repose as if the owners went to work one day and never came home. There are clothes in the closet, calendars on the wall, everything intact thanks to the forgiving desert air and the lack of trespassers in this faraway map dot. It is disorienting to step into a building that served as a sturdy home for so long when home is such an elusive concept. Similar buildings in places I’d like to live cost more money than I’ve made in my entire life, yet this one sits empty in a town forgotten by time.
Outside, Hank is sniffing through debris in the front yard. A car horn honks and I wonder if perhaps the house is less abandoned than it seems. A Dodge pickup pulls around from the house across the way which is visibly not-abandoned. I run to grab a mask out of my truck and prepare for a scolding.
“You don’t need that thing to come talk to me,” the gruff elder Texan hollers from his driver’s throne.
I walk towards the truck.
“What do you think of ol’ Langtry? That house has been empty probably thirty years from what I hear.”
“Are you born and raised around here?” I cut to the chase.
“No, I reckon I’m a bit like you. Drive around all over Texas, never take the interstate. I passed through here one day on my way back from Big Bend and seen the For Sale sign. I gave that old boy a call, sounded like the guy who inherited it was up in Boston someplace and didn’t even know where the hell Langtry, Texas was, right! They wanted fifty grand for it. I said that wouldn’t work and offered ‘em twenty five. I’ll be damned if they didn’t take it!”
I studied his house, a Texas adobe with white stucco and a pitched tin roof. In Marfa it might be worth ten times that much. It was right next to the old Langtry schoolhouse, with stately cacti and bougainvillea in the yard.
“Do you live here full time?”
“Oh, hell no. I live down in Leakey. This is my little escape, whenever my wife needs a break from me I come up here for a few days.” He chewed on his unlit cigar, eyes glistening with sun damage. On his head was an Army Air Corps cap, on his dash, a Keep America Great cap and a Holy Bible. “Anyway, what the hell are you doing down here? Not many people pass through this place.”
“I’m headed back to Fort Worth from Big Bend. Taking two lanes all the way.”
“Mind if I make a suggestion?”
“By all means!”
“Take the River Road along the Devil’s. It’s the purdiest drive in Texas.”
“Oh, I’m already planning on it!”
“I knew I liked you. You’re sitting at a solid four, four and a half out of ten right now, son.”
“A passing grade, right?!”
He grabbed his cigar and laughed. Hank trotted back to me from a foray down the dead-end street.
“Is your dog a catahoula? My wife’s Cajun, we raised them for many years.”
“Yes sir, he is! Mostly, at least.”
“Great dogs, stubborn as all getout but sweet as can be.”
In this way, two reluctant road warriors melted in the November sun. Every time Ray threatened to get on his way, he’d toss out one more line and start another ten minutes of dialogue. The conversation was not deep, but it held a depth that hinted at the shared loneliness between us. “I’m on my way up there to Ozona to see the Leakey High School boys play in the seven man football state championships. I been preaching so long, I knew some of their granddaddies.”
“That’s really something isn’t it. What’s their mascot?”
“The Eagles! They ain’t playing against Ozona but that’s where the championships are this year, cause of the virus and whatnot. I reckon I’ll run the old River Road, grab a burger, and go watch. I coached football in Sugarland for twenty years. If the game gets ugly, I’ll get up and leave. No sense in sticking around for that.”
“I get that. Don’t want to watch your buddies get beat up too bad. Maybe they’ll put you in at QB if they need a shot in the arm!”
He laughed what I soon realized was Ray’s signature laugh. An eye roll, a downturned smirk, a twirl of the cigar. Just the right amount of bemusement. He can’t let you think you’re too funny, lest it stroke your ego or show how much he enjoys the company. In this world where earnestness is cringey and candor is excruciating vulnerability, we have come to speak a dialect that is so loaded it is little wonder that we feel misunderstood at every turn. There is a sliding scale of coolness and irony that we must hide behind, a shapeshifting inclusivity that hinges upon what car we drive and which part of ourselves we show to the old man across the street. For some reason, an hourlong fat chewing with a complete stranger is far more acceptable than answering a coworker’s “How are you?” with anything other than “Good.”
“You ride them bikes out in Big Bend?” Ray eyed my bikes on the back of my truck.
“Oh yeah! I rode the Ore Road in the National Park and the big mine loop in the State Park.”
“That’s good exercise, you can see a lot of country that way. You know, I end up having cyclists stay with me pretty often out here. It’s one of the only towns they pass when they ride this stretch of road going cross-country.” Indeed, I’d ridden quite close to here a decade prior, but I had no clue what was around the bend I didn’t follow. When you grow weary it becomes harder to absorb the extra miles of a detour; as the body sighs with exhaustion, curiosity is one of the first feelings to shut down.
“And of course one day we had some old boys from Austin over there at that school, makin’ a movie about the border wall. They come to town asking the few of us what we think, I don’t think they got the answers they were lookin’ for.” Ray laughed the Ray Laugh, and continued. “I told ‘em I’m in favor of it. Course I’m not gonna watch the damn thing, but I might be in it.”
Three days prior, I was on the side of a lonely Texas highway several hundred miles away, tearfully prodding at my darkest wounds with my therapist via Facetime. Clinging desperately to terse text messages before plummeting out of cell service once again, thoroughly broken of my rambling facade, ready to hang my hat someplace and be loved. Hoping the lashings were coming from a place of care in some convoluted way. After two lonely days deep in the desert and with four hundred miles of blacktop ahead of me, this fleeting conversation about nothing meant absolutely everything.
Two souls battered by the worlds they were shaped by, striving for connection with the words they have. Looking for the end of that long white line, in Ozona or in California or God Knows Where. There are definitely no lines on Torres Avenue, just plaintive bullshitting set to the polyrhythmic clatter of a diesel engine. In a windswept desert, a steering wheel salute or an hour long chat in the street can feel like a precious sip of water for the desiccated soul. It provides a balm for that aching desire inside of us, that fierce need for company. Someone to share the toils of human settlement, and then someone to understand what we mean when we use our words to speak.
For one hour in Langtry, it was the shared audience for spoken word, eardrums to receive the twangy plucks of vocal cords. The subject didn’t matter, so long as it was agreeable. I understood my role was to listen and respond, to throw softballs down the middle that Ray could hit out of the park. I hadn’t used my words in a couple of days and it felt good to talk a little. Never mind that I was burning precious daylight and signing myself up for hours of dark driving in deer country.
“Well, here’s my card. I answer my phone if I hear it ring, and that’s about it. If you ever find yourself back in Langtry, give me a call. I’ll leave you a key, you can stay at my place. I like you well enough.”
“Wow, Ray, I really appreciate that. I’d love to stay down here someday. Can I send you mail at this address?” It was a church in Leakey, Texas with a P.O. Box for a mailing address.
“Sure thing, it’s only two of us who ever check the mail. Write me sometime.”
“Anyway, I’ve gotta head out to get a burger before the game.”
“It’s great to meet you. Have a good one!”
“Travel safe now.”