On a road trip from Phoenix to our new home in the Carolinas, we pulled over just before Albuquerque taking a last look back knowing we would not feel the mystic warmth of the desert wind again. But adventure and Texas were ahead of us. Depending on your route, it can seem like you are in Texas for a lifetime. We choose the shortest route across the Panhandle. Already tired of I-40, we jumped off on State Route 287.
The vast openness of the plains lay before us. It was only broken for occasional windmill farms, a lonely oil well, and fields of crops to the horizon. Perhaps it was the nothing that made it somehow special. Small towns like Claude, Goodnight, Memphis, Vernon and Okla Union dotted the route. Most were not pretty places; I began to think of them as the Ribs of Texas. They stuck out like once vibrant places picked over by time and chance.
There was no better example than Memphis, TX. This town once had six banks, three hotels, and seven newspapers serving as a commerce hub and trading center for the vast agricultural farm needs. Now it looked virtually abandoned, a once proud hotel, mercantile, retail shops, hardware stores all shuttered. Only the county courthouse still had life in it. Memphis still looked picturesque. The streets were tree lined, even the empty buildings still held dignity in their loneliness. Memphis looked like it wanted to could come to life again but, it had not.
I could not help but wonder. What happened here? Was I looking at a dead past or a future opportunity? Memphis seemed like such a perfect answer to the high cost of living on the coasts. Here you could buy a house, here there were places to start a business, or even a new type of economy. One based on still present agriculture and fueled by a business to business mentality.
We stopped at the Barbeque Diner for lunch. It had a lot of cars in front so we ventured in. Serving was buffet style. The waitresses wore their age and deep Texas drawl with a smile. The Asian owner stood behind the cash register. I looked around and knew the waitresses knew what happened here, the Asian owner did, and certainly the four older ranchers sitting at a business table with pressed jeans and wide hats knew. I wanted to ask, but respected their dignity too much to do so. I did not want to open a wound.
Some scholars say the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) started by government in the mid 1980’s took farmland out of production killing many small towns like Memphis. Their conclusion was the only way for young people to adapt was to rent a U-Haul and head to a city. I left Memphis turning again onto Route 287 heading toward the next Texas rib and hoping the scholars were wrong.