The Road, Part I: Barreling down Stink Highway

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Downtown Muleshoe

This launch into this new life began in earnest at 8:15 this morning when I slid behind the wheel of the Hedgehog (my 2010 Kia Soul. Please hold the gerbil jokes. Thank you.) and rolled onto U.S. 183 in the steamy July air.

Seven hours later, I could tell I was close to Muleshoe. It was seeping through every crack in the Kia.

I’m on my way to Colorado, where there’s a little log cabin waiting for me in the San Juan Mountains outside of Pagosa Springs – that’s where I need to whip my novel into shape this summer so it’s ready to ship off to a pair of agents who said they want to see it (more on that in a later post). It’s an 850-mile drive, much of it through some of the most mind-numbing countryside ever to be coated with blacktop.

I’ve made this drive many times. The Texas leg never gets better. I take 183 northwest through Lampasas and Zephyr and Brownwood, then hop on Texas 84 into Flatlander country. Curl around Abilene, zip through Sweetwater and the aptly-named Wastella, weave through what passes for traffic in Lubbock, then brace yourself for a solid hour on Stink Highway.

This is treeless, dry country, where every farm has a little swirly pack of pet dust devils. I would call it hopelessly featureless, except for its one defining, nose-curling feature: The delicate perfume of a half million flatulent cattle crammed into vast feedlots.

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The business end of the cattle business

It’s a singular stink, and even in a flat, windy countryside, it lingers and sticks to everything it touches. It’s an airborne cocktail of ammonia and cow bowel that hits you like a wet slap. Roll down the car windows, even for a few seconds, and you can feel your nose hair melting.

East of Houston where all the oil refineries sprouted, the locals call the skin-peeling chemical air “the smell of money.” In this part of Texas, this olfactory gift from cows’ netherparts is the smell of money throughout the greater Muleshoe-Bovina-Lariat area. Keep your windows rolled up.

Which brings me back to Muleshoe. I needed gas and a good stretch after 450 miles, so I stopped in Muleshoe. Somehow, I always stop in Muleshoe (town motto: our flies will swallow your flies whole). So this time I decided to get the T-shirt.

I passed the hollowed-out downtown strip with its boarded-up theater and pulled into the Dollar General. No luck. They sent me to the Lowe’s grocery, which had a lovely selections of “What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield” shirts, but no Muleshoe Mules merchandise (of course they’re the Mules).

I asked a couple of employees: what does happen in the cornfield? Blank looks.

They sent me down the street to the much fancier United grocery, where the parking lot was packed with F-150s and Tundras and Suburbans. The United is shiny and cool and has Sunny D on sale for 97 cents this week (it’s on the endcap between aisles 6 and 7. And they have red. You’re welcome).

I find the shirt rack and grab my black Mules T-shirt. I’m walking to the cash registers, Mr. Austin in my Austin City Limits festival T-shirt and I-just-got-off-the-hike-and-bike-trail sandals, the guy from Hipster City stopping for kicks in their dripwater town.

I get in line. Ahead of me, a woman with a cloud of gray hair and a lavender pantsuit is writing out a check with agonizing slowness. The cashier smiles at her, patient. When the woman scans the check with a bony finger, checking her work, the cashier keeps smiling. Then she calls for a carry-out and within seconds another employee is pushing the woman’s basket to her car. Because they take care of their seniors in Muleshoe.

When I pay, the cashier tells me to have a great day. And I can tell she means it. Outside in the parking lot, gray-headed men in suspenders and feed lot caps are hanging out next to a battered pickup, talking in that musical Panhandle twang, in no hurry to do anything except catch up with an old friend. On the radio, the deejay for Q101.5 is asking everyone to go to the flapjack fundraiser this Saturday at Applebee’s to help a local man who’s fighting cancer.

I get back in the Hedgehog and realize that during my jaunt through Muleshoe, I stopped noticing the smell of the feedlots.

Go Mules.

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$12.99 at the United. Worth every penny.