Thursday, May 29, 2008

Heading north

Later this morning we'll be throwing the suitcase back in the truck and heading north towards Wisconsin. It's been an interesting few days here in east Texas. Wound up being here longer than originally planned due to the Younger Daughter's car blowing a head gasket this past Friday. She'd been hoping to nurse that Ford Tempo along for a few more months (it only had 235,000+ miles on the odometer) but no such luck. So instead of just being here for the weekend, we stayed longer to drive her around to banks, car lots, her insurance agent, and the garage where the tow truck driver had dumped the Tempo. (Slight digression -- had the rare experience of seeing an honest mechanic. Instead of trying to persuade her to spend a ton of money on an engine rebuild the man told her to junk it, which is what she was planning to do anyway but it was still nice to not have the garage owner try to persuade her it was fixable.) She managed to find a used Chevy Cobalt that is now the newest and nicest car she's ever owned, so she's happy.

Our visits to shade tree mechanics and various car lots was not exactly the type of tour itinerary the local chambers of commerce would probably recommend for visitors to the Texas pine forests, but it was interesting. Got to see several very sad looking downtowns, the courthouse squares that once were the center of economic and community life for towns like San Augustine and Hemphill but now just look abandoned. San Augustine's is actually healthier looking than some I've seen (Jasper's is like the aftermath of a disaster; completely ringed by vacant buildings with not even a bail bondsman or a lawyer's office to be seen), but even in San Augustine there's one entire side of the square lined with empty store fronts, and quite a bit of the rest is occupied by "antique" stores. I don't think there's anything in any of the buildings on Hemphill's square -- maybe an insurance agent, but that's it. No stores, not even a coffee shop that people with business at the courthouse might stop in before or after going to pay for license plates. It's not as derelict looking as the Jasper square, but not by much.

It's a shame from a historic preservation point of view, of course, because those empty decaying buildings are often quite interesting -- much more fun to look at than the basic metal pole shed that gets thrown up these days when Family Dollar comes to town. Nothing against Family Dollar -- I'd rather shop there than at the Evil Empire -- but they don't exactly have the 21st century equivalent of McKim, Mead & White designing their stores. Not that Family Dollar would ever locate on a courthouse square; Family Dollar, just like its bigger box competitors, wants to be on a busy street or highway and not tucked away where there's less vehicle traffic. It's an old pattern, of course. This country is full of town sites where communities dried up and blew away when traffic patterns shifted. In Hemphill you can even date when the shift away from the square began -- there's a very nice 1960s brick bank building done in a kind of futuristic heavily influenced by the Jetsons style that's oriented toward the highway that bypasses the square about two blocks to the east. It seems likely the Texas DOT re-routed the highway circa 1960 to bypass the square instead of looping around it, and businesses began mutating towards strip development instead of being centered on a square shortly after.

So what happens when people start doing less driving? Good question. They're still not going to be walking to the local town squares, not in rural areas like this one. The YD tells me that when she first got here last fall and asked about where to shop, she was told most people in this area go to Jasper (~45 miles away) to shop at the Evil Empire because the Brookshire Brothers store in Hemphill isn't very good. Having been in that Brookshire Brothers store exactly once, the only problem I saw with it then was it's a whole lot smaller than the Publix I'd gotten used to in Atlanta, but perception is everything. And, given the love affair Texans seem to have with both trucks and driving, gas is going to have to get much, much higher per gallon before they start re-thinking driving anywhere -- one of the problems we ran into while car shopping was that 90% of the used vehicle inventory on most car dealers' lots was trucks. Big trucks. Full size or better trucks with quad cabs and dual rear wheels.

I would love to know how people are managing to buy those vehicles. Texas is not noted for high wages in general and the cost of living doesn't seem to be appreciably lower here than anywhere else in the country. YD pays as much in rent here as she would for a comparable house in Omaha. Maybe it's more creative financing, like with the strange schemes the mortgage industry developed to fuel the housing bubble. Or maybe the reason those quad cabs are popular is that for more and more people the trucks are becoming their primary residence. I have a lot of days when I wonder just how average people, the ones who fall someplace close to or below the median household income for the U.S., manage to survive.

In any case, the Texas phase of the vacation is about to end. Did not get to do the one thing I had hoped to while here -- confer with the owner of the sawmill house -- as he's on a fire detail somewhere out west this week, but that can always be done via telephone or e-mail. Overall it's been a nice visit with YD, and, if the weather forecast wasn't for 90s with humidity to match, I'd say I hate to leave.

The news has been on in the background as I've been getting the morning caffeine fix while typing this, and I am tempted to do a rant about feckless weasels like Scott McClellan (as in "where were your balls when they would have done the country some good?!") but I'm not even going to do a link. Anyone who's reading this and is interested has either already done his or her own rant, or simply doesn't care. Besides, it's time to get dressed, throw the suitcase in the truck, and hit the road.


  1. Safe travels!

    I did a brief stint for the convention and visitors bureau in my hometown (small 2k pop.). It was incredibly frustrating to see how the mainstreet was decimated by the edge of town mentality.

    And I find myself wondering how people are managing financially. Alot.

  2. west, texas is divided by the rail road tracks and the main streets are main and the other one is oak...the family dollar i work at is on main..and the dollar general is on oak...population of 2,000 and we have 2 dollar stores..
    i'll have to do another west, texas posting for you so you can see what the houses go for here...30 years ago when i first moved here, you couldn't find a house to buy or had to build...if you could get someone to sell you a lot...
    now..there are empty houses all over the place, for rent and for sale..and more fecking big ass trucks than you can shake a stick at...have fun and drive carefully...

  3. Lovely post. My Aunt lived in a small town in the Piney Woods. I loved visiting her place as a kid.

    Good traveling.

  4. I sympathize on the engine: I broke my block on my commuter car about a year and a half ago.

    One of the best ways to get a real feel for an area is to visit the shade tree mechanics, used car lots, etc. Visiting the local businesses (as opposed to the chain stores) shows what an area is really like. And it will usually, despite things like old downtowns and sad looking businesses, give one a very positive impression of the people.

    And will it feel good to be back to realistic temperatures?


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