Under the Light of Western Skies

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Coffee Time with Jack Kerouac

Good morning from Under the Light of Western Skies. Here you are out on the deck to start the day. Ok, Maybe it’s not morning, but as you sip your rusty coffee, how about musing a bit with a classic Jack Kerouac passage about the West.

SaltFlatCafeNoelKerns

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Larry McMurtry, “Dalhart”

Larry McMurtry, “Dalhart”

open-road-3

I curved back down to Dalhart through the wind the trailherders bucked, and the last few miles, with the lights twinkling ahead of me on the plain, were among the best of the trip. It only remained to perform some acte symbolistique to give the drive coherence, tie the present to the past. I stopped at a café in Dalhart and ordered a chicken fried steak. Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating chicken fried steak. The café was full of boys in football jackets, and the jukebox was playing an odious number called “Billy Broke My Heart in Walgreens and I Cried All the Way to Sears.”

The waitress was a thin, sad-eyed woman with hands that looked like she had used them to twist barbed-wire all her life. She set the steak in front of me and went wearily back to the counter to get a bottle of ketchup. The meat looked like a piece of old wood that had had perhaps one coat of white paint in the thirties and then had had that sanded off by thirty years of Panhandle sandstorms.

“Here,” the waitress said, setting the ketchup bottle down. “I hope that steak’s done enough. There ain’t nothin’ like steak when you’re hungry, is there, son?”

“No ma’am, there ain’t,” I said.

***

You look over a passage of Texas prose like this from McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave and you’re tempted to just dismiss it as a piece of nostalgia from long ago and far away in your childhood or your sister’s husband just talking about back home last Thanksgiving. But then you look again and knowing this is Larry McMurtry writing you start noticing the details. Look beneath the outside and see what a passage like this is made of. So, why’d McMurtry order the chicken fried steak at the café? This café? In Dalhart, panhandle of Texas? A symbolic act? Really? The waitress (not “server,” by the way). Thin, tired, hands like a barbed wire handler? Are we supposed to like her? And the steak. My goodness. Does it look like something you’d eat?

Well, yes, yes, yes, to all the above. And if you’re from back east, let’s just say be careful what you say otherwise.

But clearly, McMurtry (and the speaker is McMurtry, not some character out of his novels) is of this place in location and in time and not of it. “It only remained to perform some acte symbolistique,” he tells the reader—you. French=sophistication, for both him and you. But then he answers the West Texas “waitress’s” question with “No ma’am, there ain’t,” and you see two different worlds presented.

By the way, so “Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating chicken fried steak.” ‘Got any comments on that?”

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Paul Varner

 

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