It was late spring break, 9th Grade, and I was sitting alone in the living room one evening. A bunch of my friends left earlier for a Colorado ski trip that we couldn’t afford. So, it was going to be a long week for me and I was pretty upset.
Uncle Mac dropped by unexpected and stepped into the living room. He was dressed in a heavy winter parka, hiking boots and grasping an empty Jansport frame backpack. He smiled big and had that crazy wild, “let’s go hunting grizzlies without weapons”, look in eyes.
“Wanna go climb some mountains?” he blurted out.
“What, now? Where are we going climbing the middle of the night in Texas?” I snapped back.
“West Texas!” he smiled.
This had me baffled. I remember driving west with Uncle Mac for hours and hours and hours on our way to a hunting trip. The only things I remembered seeing were tumble weeds, dry desert land, oil wells and rattle snakes. I mentioned that and he smiled.
“It’s out past all that! And it’s really beautiful. You won’t believe it.”
“I don’t believe it now,” I argued.
But I was looking at a week of tedious TV, boredom and feeling sorry for myself. And Uncle Mac wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So I stuffed the back pack he gave me, grabbed a warm jacket, hugged Mom, jumped into his truck and we started out I-30 W – heading for the Guadalupe Mountains. It was 8 pm.
Uncle Mac told tales, embellished and improvised history, hollered and made up crazy lyrics to country tunes on the radio as we passed the night.
Then we exited the Interstate and started down a long straight state highway, the high beams illuminating the only thing visible in that emptiness – the two lanes of asphalt and tar in front of us. We were barreling down the road when, without warning, Uncle Mac turned off the headlights! Everything went dark!
I screamed, “Hey, not funny!”
But he slowed the truck and exclaimed, “Look at the stars, Tommy!”
It was crazy. But they suddenly appeared out of nowhere, millions of them, as if they hadn’t been there until we got far enough away from one reality to see there was another one entirely. Obviously, it had been there all along. I just couldn’t see it. Now, it was so dark, it was like being suspended in a field of sparkling lights.
He smiled and pulled over into a Picnic Area off the highway. And we slept in the pick up for a few hours till the sun came up.
That next morning, we’d been driving down the state highway for a couple of hours looking out at miles and miles of narrow two lane and dry fields of burnt orange dirt and tumble weeds in every direction. And, even though I knew they were still there, I thought about how the stars hide behind the day. A tiny structure appeared in the distance down the road – a cabin or a shack. It was the only thing we’d seen for hours. It took a while, but we finally got close enough to see it was a small café sitting at the intersection of our highway with another two lane highway.
The place sat, all by itself, looking like something left over from the Dust Bowl Thirties – a tiny wood-framed shack, dirty pealing white paint, a single gas pump (Regular), a couple of pickups, a VW bus and a Mercedez Benz parked on the gravel lot and a beat up sign over the one window that read, “Last Chance Cafe and Gas”.
Uncle Mac said, “They have the best biscuits and gravy anywhere around!”
Not surprising, I thought, it was the only thing anywhere around!
About a dozen people were inside the café – some families, a young couple, cowboys, farmers, “city folk” – a strange mix of people really. But it was the only place around. Uncle Mac talked to me about people living a hardscrabble life, about money, oil and poverty, fear and fortitude, about my friends and connecting with people everywhere, and being too preoccupied with myself to see what’s right in front of me. He could get fairly pedantic with these philosophical conversations – downright pretentious. But then he launched into one of his jokes. Even our waitress sat down at the table to listen.
“So, this plumber decides he wants to play the mandolin. His friends all tell him it’d be too difficult for him. That he ought to stick with fixing pipes and things. ‘Music is a fine art requiring disciplined skill AND creativity.’ But he defies their advice and finds a mandolin teacher. After just one lesson, the plumber quits and announces he’s figured it all out. He’s a master mandolinist! And he sets himself up in the middle of the town square to show off his skill. Takes out a pick and starts to pluck just one note. He’s got his finger on one fret and is just plucking the same note – over and over and over. ‘Plink, plink, plink, plink…’
“And people start to notice this annoying sound. Like someone’s stuck or something’s broken. Just ‘Plink, plink, plink, plink…’ Until finally, one bold guy walks up to the plumber, grabs hold of the mandolin neck and muffles the sound!”
“The guy yells,’What do you think you’re doing?’ And the plumber says, ‘Playing the mandolin’
“You’re destroying the mandolin,’ the guy argues. But the plumber just smiles back, ‘Not at all – I’m a master.’
The guy can’t believe what he’s hearing and asks, ‘How are you a master when the mandolin players I’ve heard are playing melodies up and down the neck and you just play the same sound over and over?’
The plumber smiles, ‘Simple’ he said. ‘They’re all looking for this one note!’”
We all laughed; though I’m not sure we all knew why… But that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. We took our time with breakfast and talked to a couple who’d just been to Guadalupe Peak and hiked the Range. About two hours later we finally got up to leave.
“Have a great day,” my Uncle told the waitress.
“It’s the only kind we make around here,” she laughed. “Be sure to stop in on your way back.”
And we started down the highway, as I thought about stars and people and searched the horizon for mountains in the desert.