Note: This excerpt is from a work in progress. If all goes well, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas will be published in 2017. That gives readers plenty of time to read the first two editions The Dakotas and Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma available online by clicking on these links, and at bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83 and directly from the author.
This takes place in May 2010 in the Rio Grande Valley.
By Stew Magnuson
On my way out of Zapata the next day, I set out to find the ruins of a gas station that was once on Highway 83 before the Falcon Dam inundated the valley.
A souvenir store owner had tipped me off about the building, which he said was near on old fishing camp about five miles west of 83. He gave me detailed directions on how to find it, so after driving a few miles I left the comfort of the paved highway and took off on a gravel road, getting lost for a bit, but eventually righting myself until I come across the fishing camp.
I can’t find anything resembling an old gas station so I start to drive through the ramshackle collection of aging campers and mobile homes shaded by gnarly old trees. It’s not long before an old man in a red pickup truck intercepts me near a boat ramp. He rolls down the window.
“What ya looking for?” he asks. He looks a little miffed, and I realize that maybe I shouldn’t be here.
|Jack Cox Jr., May 2010|
I tell him my story and he listens carefully as we both get out of our vehicles. He sizes me up and decides that I’m not a threat. They have been having all sorts of problems with drug smugglers and for all he knew, I could have been someone here to meet a boatful of dope coming over the lake, he explains. They have been known to fly helicopters over the border to see if the coast is clear.
“People round here sleep with their guns loaded by their beds,” he says.
His name in Jack Cox Jr., and his father once owned the fishing camp, which has been here for some fifty years. The old gas station is just a few yards past the camp entrance and over a fence. It’s marked “No Trespassing,” but it shouldn’t be a problem if I just want to hop over and snap a few pictures, he tells me.
Since I introduced myself as an author, he wants to know what I’ve written. It just so happens I have copies of my first book in the trunk, and he wants to buy one.
“There ain’t much to do out here except read,” he says.
There are only three full-time residents in the camp, and he’s one of them. He sold the property four years ago, but part of the deal with the new owner was that he could stay there for five years rent free.
He invites me back to his house for a cup of coffee.
Out front of the white mobile home, I’m greeted by a shaggy white dog and a friendly cat, who has just brought Jack a dead bird as a present.
Inside, the mobile home is not what I expected. It is decorated with African art: masks, textiles, carvings.
“I managed a hunting camp in Somalia on the Jubba River for five years,” he declares.
“You did what, now?”
I’m glad I grabbed my notebook.
Jack takes a seat in a chair, while I sit on his sofa and fumble for a pen. He’s eighty-one years old, he tells me. Fox News is on mute. I would expect an elderly widower’s mobile home to be a mess. The room is cluttered, but clean. His coffee table is covered in magazines: The Weekly Standard, National Geographic, Smithsonian. He tries to peg me as a liberal, Washington, D.C.-based journalist. I tell him I’m a radical centrist. That seems to confuse him.
“It means I’m in the middle and I get to argue with everybody.”
Fortunately, the conversation turns away from politics and to his days as a big game guide.
“I was an elephant hunter and a safari guide,” he continues, first giving me a quick version of his life story.
He grew up in Midland, Texas, where he was a friend of Larry L. King, who would go on to be a journalist, author and the co-writer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Like many in that area, Jack joined the oil business and worked for Rogers Exploration as a “seismic man.” The company sent him to Australia, Tanzania, Brazil and Bolivia for years-long stints.
He married twice, both times to Australian women. His second wife died fifteen years ago. He is still in contact with his first. Back when he was a young man in Midland, he was in love with a high school classmate. But a fighter pilot from the nearby Air Force base stole her away. A lifetime later, the Air Force officer passed away, and Jack and his long-lost love are at last together. She lives in Sweetwater, Texas, and he travels there quite a bit to see her. She hates the fishing camp.
“I got her in the end,” he says with a smile.
He doesn’t mention any children, and I forget to ask. Some kind of journalist, I am.
He was in Tanzania working for the oil company when the opportunity to run the hunting camp in Somalia presented itself.
He pushes himself up from the chair, walks to another room and returns with an album.
Inside, is an envelope, and inside the envelope is a brochure for the camp. It’s fifty years old, but it looks like it was printed yesterday. He was there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s—back when well-heeled men could live out their Hemmingway safari fantasies—for a price.
He shows me black and white pictures of the kills.
“My first lion,” is written in pen on the edges of one. Jack and some other fellow is squatting next to a lioness, holding her mouth open, smiling. Jack is young, his black hair slicked back, a broad, handsome face. It’s startling to see him as a young man.
“Those were good times,” he said, showing me another picture of two guests he identifies as members of the Kennedy administration.
“And the women …” he trails off. Smiles. I can see that he’s remembering one of them, maybe more. I don’t dare interrupt his reverie.
“I closed up many bars in Nairobi,” he continues as I look at a series of pictures of dead elephants, gazelles and such. That was back when the Italians ran Somalia. Once the colonialists left, the “whole country went to shit,” he says. That was the end of the hunting lodge on the Jubba River. He went back to being a seismic man for the oil companies, although he did spend a couple years trying to grow cotton in Australia.
“Money never was the thing, you see. But I wish I had saved just a little bit more of it.”
He’s heading up to Sweetwater that day to see his “lady friend,” as he calls her, so it’s time for me to go. He really wants me to see the old gas station before I leave. So we head back outside where he lets me take a few pictures of him as the cat curls around his leg.
“It’s been a good life. I’m not a religious man, but I wonder what the adventure is on the other side.”
* * *
WARNING: YOU ARE ENTERING FEDERAL PROPERTY. DO NOT ENTER. NO WEAPONS ALLOWED. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. I.B.W.C.
Well, Jack said it’s no problem. So I climb over the fence where the signs are hung and walk a few feet back among to find what remains of old Highway 83 and a gas station.
The filling station is a yellowish-pinkish shell. It looks as if the waters have come up several times to wash away everything but its walls. The roof is gone, but a beam that once held it up to keep the sun and rain off motorists filling up at the pumps still stands. Someone else has ignored the sign and taken potshots at the beam, leaving a half-dozen bullet holes in the concrete. Mesquite and prickly pear are growing around it.
The old road itself is gravel and disappears into the vegetation. I poke around for any relics from the old days—an old bottle, a sign—there’s nothing but pieces of corrugated steel. A cluster of cactus bulbs has somehow taken hold on top of the wall. I wonder how it can do that.
I imagine the gas station in its heyday. If it ever had one. It was unattached to a town—a good ten miles away from any of the now submerged villages. I see the cars pulling up for gas and water on hot days, parents yanking Coke bottles out of the pop machine for their kids, the attendant wiping the dust and bug juice off the windshields.
Included in the $47 million the federal government spent to construct the Falcon Dam was $3.5 million allocated to improve fifty-five miles of Highway 83, and to relocate several miles of it to the north. The Texas State Highway Department did the work. The unflooded sections of the road and bridges were widened from eighteen to twenty-four feet and graded to eliminate the “rollercoaster effect,” as one newspaper described it. Care was taken to construct the new sections far to the north beyond where the lake was expected to rise. Work was finished before the dam was dedicated in 1953. Slowly, the Rio Grande waters swallowed up the villages and the old highway. I wonder if they left any of those old federal shield signs standing. I can picture bass swimming around them now.
One of the first dry spells after the dam was built exposed the five abandoned villages and their buildings. The feds decided that the structures were hazardous and bulldozed them, leaving nothing but foundations. Yet the gas station sitting out here survived.
Taking a picture of the highway as it emerges from the mesquite, I notice there are car tracks in the gravel. I doubt the ghosts of old U.S. Route 83 left them there, so I’m not going to push my luck with the Border Patrol, a drug smuggler, or whoever has been driving back here. I don’t linger.
This encounter with Jack Cox Jr. occurred in May 2010. A little more than a year later, my attempts to reach him failed. His phone was disconnected and a letter came back to me “Return to Sender. No Forwarding Address.” Attempts to track him down online have come up empty. If anyone knows the whereabouts or fate of Jack, please contact me.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com