Real nostalgia is hard-earned. The world is full of new products made to look old; machines or sweat shops, rather than time, now create that fashionable “distressed look.” Close inspection of these items reveals a definite lack of character. The veneer may be there, but something does not ring true. Still, there is good reason for the faux history. We tend to forget that life “in the good old days” was more demanding than it is today. If you think the traffic snarl downtown ruined your day, try driving a car without air conditioning in the Texas summer. Then arriving at a house without air conditioning. A house much smaller than the one you live in now, with furniture handed down from your grandparents rather than purchased at Weir’s and boasting a television with two and a half good channels. By good, I mean channels you can see and hear, regardless of the quality of the content.
We whine about the state of the economy and America going to hell in a handbasket only by ignoring the obvious. The march of progress is real. In terms of physical comfort, our lives are immeasurably better than even one generation ago; any further back is not worth the comparison. But that is not to say nostalgia is misplaced. Say your dad liked a Big Red and a moon pie growing up and gets a little weepy over them whenever your mom caves in and lets him indulge. Big Red and moon pies still hold their own in the absolute sense; your dad’s memory of them, however, supercharges the experience. Which makes sense because when your 12-year old dad had a Big Red and a moon pie it was the best thing about his day by a country mile. Today’s 12-year old might have a Big Red and a moon pie when he visits the grandparents and think “pretty good.” At the end of the day though, the delicacy has a tough time standing out in memory banks also storing ESPN’s Top Ten list in high-definition, the neighbor’s new Porsche and the high-school lifeguard at the country club in her new bikini.
Larry McMurtry, the patron saint of Texas literature, grew up with your 12-year old dad and lived to write about it better than anyone else. He is the Rosetta Stone for translating what the “the simple life” meant for 1950’s Texas and most other places. McMurtry’s Texas began in his hometown of Archer City in the central northern part of the state, just shy of the Oklahoma border and the county seat of Archer county. The town is better known to readers of The Last Picture Show (and its sequels) as “Thalia” and to fans of the movie as “Anarene.” There really is a Thalia, Texas, but McMurtry did not grow up there and it did not have a high school in the 1950’s, so I guess he just liked the name. The Empty Nesters enjoy time travels so we decided to see if the wind still pushed tumbleweeds through the streets McMurty made famous.
Few people pass by Archer City accidentally. The town is 25 miles southwest of Wichita Falls, sitting at the intersection of State Highways 25 and 79 and approximately 12 miles west of the more regularly traveled US Highway 281. From Dallas we ran a loop that started on I-35 to Denton, taking 380 west through Decatur and Jacksboro, then 281 North until SH 25 west got us to Archer City. On the return we headed north on SH 79 to Wichita Falls, turning back east on the combined SH 287/82 and following SH 82 to I-35. So a full day (322 miles total) in short grass country. We came back in awe of how pitch perfect McMurty was in describing his country.
We took our lunch stop in Decatur, a worthwhile destination on its own. The downtown square is lively, centered around a stately courthouse. We were saving our calories, so we skipped Rooster’s Roadhouse and Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes, each of which looked enticing. I loved the fact the square had a barbershop; I imagine all sorts of valuable information could be gleaned there. It is important to get a weekly hair cut so your hat size stays consistent. You can put that consistency to good use at Biggar’s Hat Store, a custom maker of cowboy hats. The work is done on the premises; for those who take their Texanness seriously, Biggars is a must. I am guessing Abilene, the pool-shooting, big betting rig foreman who makes time with young Jacy Farrow in Last Picture Show would wear a Biggars’ Hat on the weekend.
Vintage shoppers will have their opportunities; of note was Harris Music, a guitar and vacuum shop that meets an unusual combination of human needs. But the true stars of downtown Decatur can be found in its collection of woman’s clothing boutiques. Historic buildings with high, restored tin ceilings and hardwood floors display the classic and the quirky.to great effect. I am no fashion critic so I can only judge based on Mrs. Nester’s reaction, which was overwhelmingly positive. Although there are six or seven similar stores, we particularly enjoyed Ivie Grace and Simply Coco. In any event, a couple with sharp eyes and decent instincts could leave the square with sparkling new duds, a great hat and a musical vacuum.
I did not slip in the “saving calories” comment earlier for no reason. On the way out of town, the Nesters notched another Texas Monthly Small Town cafe. At the Whistle Stop Cafe we obliterated the meager food savings we had accrued, but no regret involved. The food was great and the ambience was better. The restaurant occupies a portion of a well-preserved motor court and gas station. Legend has it that the outpost served as a Bonnie & Clyde hiding spot. Modern day regulars are of the friendlier variety. The waitresses were welcoming and the customers understanding that they need to share their slightly famous cafe with the world.
The drive from Decatur to Archer City is uneventful. Green turns to brown and the cars and houses become rarer. By our arrival mid-afternoon on a Friday, the square was empty. The landmarks from the book and movie were the pool hall, the diner and of course, the theater. Only the theater remains, but the buildings recall McMurtry’s haunts. The theater exterior has been preserved from the movie, which was filmed in town. Of course, movies are not regularly shown anymore (Studio Movie Grill did air The Last Picture Show a few years back when its pop-up theater came to town); occasionally the building gets used for a small concert or other public event. Despite the occasional celebrations, Archer City is still Thalia or Anarene.
In other words, as far as time travel is concerned, the trip was a smashing success. WIth very little imagination, you can place yourself back in the 1950’s. The march of progress has not been as insistent in this part of the world. The wind is a constant presence; the vehicles a constant procession of well-used pick-up trucks. Most of the commerce we saw came from roughnecks ending their shifts, preparing for a lubricated weekend. Wringing a living out of the earth or the creatures that roam it was tough 60 years ago; it is no less difficult today.
There must be a strength that comes from that life; everyone we met seemed a lot calmer than people you run into in Dallas. People don’t hurry to fill gaps in the conversation; if nothing needs to be said, silence will do just fine. They also don’t look down at their cell phones quite as much. I get the feeling they measure their worth in something other than Facebook likes. Admirable to be sure, but there is no escaping the drabness of life on the plains. As I said, brown is the dominant color scheme and function definitely holds sway over form.
Appearances can be deceiving. There is one large enterprise downtown. McMurtry’s renowned book shop “Booked Up.” A sprawling complex houses a lifetime collection, hundreds of thousands of volumes from the rare to the sublime. The collection is technically all for sale. From the prices Mr. McMurtry was asking, however, I had the impression he has no real urgency to dispersing his finds. As a result, I could have wandered around Booked Up for days, thumbing through obscure volumes that the great McMurty had found worthy in one way or another. The irony could be weighed in tons. Barnes & Noble is about all there is left in the big cities; dominated by children’s books, calendars and bestsellers, its selection pales in comparison to Booked Up. Indeed, McMurtry used to operate Booked Up in Washington D.C., but the cost of operating it in fancy environments led him to return the store to his hometown. So if it is literary culture you want, you have to travel to a town that defines the concept of nowhere.
That is not all. The book and the movie revolved around a mostly unseen high school where Jacy Farrow was the object of every boy’s desire and her boyfriend Duane the object of every boy’s envy. In fact, the salesperson at Booked Up appeared in the movie in the Archer High School Band. Archer High produced both McMurty and Angela Kinsey of The Office fame, a ridiculously high celebrity quotient for a school that size. Archer City High is being torn down, which is sad. Its replacement, however, will be a state-of-the art 21st century facility made possible by the huge royalties earned from the windmills that cover Archer county. After all those years of leaning into the wind to stay upright, the citizens of Thalia have found a good use for it.
Maybe the idea of small towns as cultural landmarks is spreading. On the way back we made a brief stop in Nocona. Nocona was once home to Justin Boots and a variety of other leather goods manufacturers. Some of the smaller manufacturers remain, but the loss of Justin should have sunk the town. Instead, downtown is being revitalized in a huge way. At the center of the downtown effort is Pete Horton’s huge vintage car collection, resting comfortably in an immaculately restored Ford Dealership. It turns out that Mr. Horton and his wife Barbara are behind the work going across downtown.
Nocona served as a fitting bookend to our day. Peter Horton is a local-boy oilman turned extremely rich guy who is keeping his town and a way of life alive. In Texasville, the sequel to Last Picture Show, we learn that Duane struck it rich in the oilfields and remains in Thalia. It is no stretch to imagine Peter Horton as a real life Duane. Maybe on a Friday night he takes Barbara for a spin and to the theater in one of his gorgeous early 50’s convertibles, looking for all the world like Duane and Jacy so many years ago.
Summary: Nostalgia of the hard earned kind at the Royal Theater on the square in Archer City, Booked Up to fill your soul, the Whistle Stop Cafe in Decatur to fill your stomach and the Horton Car Museum in Nocona to put a huge smile on your face. Get out there, Nesters!