Last Thursday, I set out on a little journey to Goliad, Texas, to take pictures of the many old, closed down gas stations along the way – a fascination of mine. I began the journey from Floresville, heading south on State Highway 181. This is one of my favorite drives – gentle hills like frozen green ocean waves and little cracked and rusty 20th Century towns along old railroad tracks. I never get tired of it. With a full tank of gas and Willie Nelson singing about an angel flying too close to the ground, I headed to this very old part of Texas under a giant, gray blanket of clouds that covered the sky all the way to the horizon.
It was a warm and humid day. A sub-tropical haze lay over the land like lace. Every time I got out to take a photograph, the windless air draped itself upon me and I would be sweating by the time I got back into the car. The humidity filtered all sound from the earth. It was as if I was behind glass, merely observing the day – not taking part in it. From this vantage point on the outside of Time, I was able to grasp decades in a single glance. The gas stations looked like the faces of old stone mute giants – buried to the neck, frowning, wincing at the decisions made by each generation that played about them. One gas station’s door was open – not moving in the dead still day – as if it wanted to tell humanity something very important, but couldn’t because it’s vocal chords were buried.
At Kenedy, I turned onto Highway 239 and drove through sleepy, sleepy ranch land. Cows floated two or three inches above the ground on which they were grazing. Time slowed greatly, only speeding up when I’d see a oil yard – carved out of the lush green land and occupied by tankers and portable buildings. More oil rigs had popped up since I’d last been down the road. Trucks hurried in and out of the oil yards and rigs, and my little digital clock on the radio spun like a slot machine. Willie was singing was singing Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. It’s a time slowing tune, and countered the speed of the oil business. But it’s a short song, and the clock ran like a stopwatch when it ended, only slowing down when I saw cows again. Over and over – oil fast, cow slow.
All along the way to Goliad, there was a sign that read “Independence Trail.” The bulk of Texas’ battle for independence from Mexico was fought in this territory. Texas is big on its history. Its the only state in the Union that requires students to take a state history course and 8 out of every 10 barrell chested, red-necked and goat-teed fellas fillin’ up their pick-ups over at the newer, bigger gas stations of Texas will take a deep breath and blow it out with accompanying words of pride over the fact that Texas was once its own soveriegn country, then they will take another deep breath and tell you to never forget it! The ghosts of such a rich history as Texas’ frequently visit Earth. They hang out on our little planet like it’s a bar on the edge of Heaven, and give their bar-stool testament so often it’s impossible for Texans to forget their history. Don’t get me wrong, they will tweak the hell out of it, even flat out lie about it, but a Texan cannot forget their history.
And in a town so old as Goliad – established by the Spanish in 1749 – it’s only ghosts that fill the spaces between the living in Goliad (Population 1,900). Spanish ghosts, Mexican ghosts, Texan ghosts, American ghosts spin, swirl, backflip and moonwalk from one giant oak tree to another, stoned on the free and plentiful refills of ecto-plasm an old town like Goliad offers.
I parked at the town square and walked around. Time had slowed to its slowest pace thus far on my journey. I could hear the giant oak trees growing as I walked under them. The humidity still blanked out all man made sound. Goliad is the country seat of Goliad County, and in the middle of the town square stood the giant, ancient courthouse. It’s high spire was always on the edge of my vision as I walked by businesses with names like the “Hanging Tree Gift Shop” or the “Hanging Tree Restaurant.” I crossed the street to the courthouse which was totally surrounded by oak trees. I felt a pleasant narcotic calm under the oaks’ canopy – felt the tectonic plates shift ever slower, far below the Earth’s crust as ghosts took part in their communion among the trees’ branches.
Down the street, a pudgy man in shorts walked in the middle of the street. He flipped and flopped as he lurched and looked to be in no hurry to get wherever he was going. A few ghosts fluttered about him like sheets on a clothes line. A lady sat in front of a little clothing boutique – smoking, watching something on her ipad. A bald man paced back in forth on the phone. I breathed slower and slower. I could have stood there for eternity – I was certain – until I felt an odd sensation. Oh, I’m hungry, I thought after a few moments of curiosity over the feeling. Ah, I’m still mortal, time still moves. Before I left, I noticed just the slightest beam of energy connecting me to the fat man, the smoking girl and the phoning man. I liked them, for no reason what’s so ever. Man, I thought, if only more of us – at one time – could see the connection we all have to each other! If I could only buy the world a Coke!
Before hitting the Dairy Queen, I drove out to the site of the Battle of Coleto Creek. During the Texas Revolution in 1836, Colonel James Fannin and his men were surrounded at Coleto Creek by the Mexican army. After an intense battle, the Texans surrendered to the Mexicans. Mexican dictator – General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – ordered all the captured soldiers to be executed. On Palm Sunday, the 350 or so prisoners were marched out to a field and shot. Colonel Fannin was shot last, after being forced to watch his men die. It takes a while to kill 350 people, I thought, I wander what was going through Fannin’s mind as the shots were fired. I could’ve of swore Earth’s core went cold then and there. But a across the road, a brand new Ford pick-up pulled into the driveway of a house with a TV satellite mounted atop it. Nope, Earth still spun and I was still within the time frame of my life. Ever so faintly, tick…tock…tick…tock.
I headed back to Goliad on Highway 59. A sign appeared every now and then that read “Senator Lloyd Bentsen Highway.” Senator Bentsen had a long and distinguished political career in Washington, rising so high in the party to be the running mate of Michael Dukakis in the presidential election of 1988, and Secretary of Treasury under President Clinton. Yep, Texas was so proud of its son it named one of its roads after him. But another sign appearing at even intervals along the road read “Future Interstate 69 Corridor.” I set my speedometer to the 75mph limit and floated along the smooth, straight future federal pavement.
The car ahead of me was going exactly the same speed. The distance between us stayed the same as we sped down the road. The topography remained the same, small green trees and green grass. Everything was the same for so long it felt like nothing was moving. Then it finally happened. Time stopped. I was suspended in a vacuum where time used to be. In this void, I lost all sensation, but my mind was free to wander the entirety of the Universe. I saw Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s ghost holding his hands up, saying, Aw, shucks, they’re renamin’ my damn highway. Then I wandered up to a giant supernova, then over to a super-massive black hole that was sucking in so many bright and shiny stars. I tip-toed just before its event horizon to see where everything was going – when I find the words, I will tell you what I saw. I leap frogged from galaxy to galaxy for a while. When I took a break to catch my breath, I noticed Colonel Fannin standing alone in some dark matter. He jerked constantly as if he was suffering from Cosmic Parkinsen’s Disease. But as I drifted nearer it was clear to see he was still jerking to the rifle fire that rang out in eternity as his men fell in front of him, forever. I got right up to his face and stared into his mind. Fannin looked at me – his mouth hung open for some time before he spoke. I think, said Fannin, I think…I…
I saw taillights ahead. The car ahead of me had slowed. Time immediately filled the vaccum. I felt the air coming out of the vents and heard Willie singing about a train called The City of New Orleans. The car ahead of me steered around the remnants of a blown out tire from an 18-wheeler. A couple seconds later, I swerved around the ripped pieces of rubber. My stomach growled as I re-entered Goliad. I was back in Time, mortal again.
I stopped at a few more old gas stations on the way home. They were boarded up, overgrown with grass, paint peeled off their cracked walls. But the sun peeked out of the gray clouds just before sunset. The ghosts were easy to see in the sunlight. They were just killing time as cars and trucks raced down the roads. The ghosts gazed into the future of all the racers. I, of course, couldn’t see what they saw, but none of the ghosts looked like they were seeing something they’ve never seen before.