The Long Haul to Wyoming, With McMurtry at My Side

For the past three summers, Francis has put in five weeks from mid-June to mid-July at the wonderful Teton Valley Ranch Camp in Kelly, Wyo. At the end of the session, either his mother or I fly west to attend the baccalaureate rodeo and closing festivities and bring him home.

This year it was my turn. Normally, I’d do a quick three-day turnaround, but this is no normal summer. It’s early yet, but our end of the world is literally overrun with day-trippers wandering the streets of the towns with the stunned expressions-as the lady of this house puts it-of displaced Kosovars, the men especially. The Sunday of the Fourth of July weekend, I drove up Sag Harbor’s Main Street; the thoroughfare was packed, the sidewalks crowded with people just standing around, but with this extraordinary look of vague expectancy on their faces-as if they’d heard (or been told) that Christ was having a drink in the American Hotel and they were waiting for Him to appear.

Most have been drawn here by the media frenzy that seems to have proclaimed “the Hamptons” as this year’s “it.” Can there ever have been an “in place” in which people have to work harder to have fun-if that’s what they call it? This has become a tourist mecca without tourist attractions. Well, next year young Ms. Della Femina can include a map of the homes of the rich and famous in her Hamptons guide; that’s the sort of thing people of her background and breeding do to places they claim to “love.” Anything for ink or a buck! Then, on top of the tourist infestation, slather a thick impasto of New York manners, and New York “attitude,” and the coarse chest-thumping of a self-styled Manhattan “meritocracy” to whom sunlight is never more beautiful than when it gleams on embossed gold or silver plastic, and you have a recipe for Hell. I decided to head west early, to see part of that other America where 225 million Americans live who don’t know from Puffy Combs.

I plotted an itinerary that would combine Proustian revisiting with new discovery. That would take me to a couple of places I’d never been and wanted to see, as well as to places remembered from boyhood, places I was curious to see as they are today. For the last few years, I’ve been wondering, for example, whether the intervening half-century has been kinder to Duncan, Okla., where I drove a bulk cement truck for the Halliburton Company in the summer of ’54, than it has been to me. Or, to put it differently, to see which of us, after 50 years, has turned out better.

On July 12, I flew into Dallas-Ft. Worth, picked up what in Texas is called a “rent car” and headed northwest, to Archer City, to say hello to Larry McMurtry and see the bibliophilic miracles he has wrought in his old hometown, which the end of the oil boom and Wal-Mart had all but finished off until Larry moved back and undertook to transform Archer City into “Book City.” Archer City is the model for Thalia in the trilogy comprising The Last Picture Show , Texasville and Duane’s Depressed , published at the end of last year. I had brought along the latter, recommended to me by my oldest friend as one of the best novels he has read in years, a judgment I’m here to tell you I concur with. Indeed, for any man approaching 60, and any woman who wants to understand what happens to men as they pass through that climacteric, in this day and age, it is indispensable-as valuable and wonderful to those of a (our) certain age as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral .

For the first hour or so, I drove pretty much due north through unprepossessing flat country, but thankfully out of the sprawl of the Metroplex. I reached the intersection of State Road 281. The sign indicated Archer City to the left, Bowie to the right. A resonant turning: because Bowie, Tex., is where, in 1906, my late father was born. I thought briefly about heading east, but didn’t: Bowie had no significance for my father; it was merely a place he’d mention before going on to talk about Ft. Worth, where he grew up. If it meant nothing to Pop in his lifetime, what could it mean to me now? I turned west into McMurtry country.

It’s pretty amazing what Larry’s done. I found him unpacking cartons containing the contents of a London bookstore he’d recently bought and he took me around, through the five buildings in which books are housed in logical groupings. (He’s currently negotiating to buy the abandoned jail, to house mystery and crime.) It reminds one how essential to a civilized life are secondhand books; it points up how uncivilized New York has become, a city that offers perhaps a half-dozen good used bookstores (where once there were a hundred!) to a population of eight million.

I recommend a visit. The country air and the sight of all those books’ll do you good. But if you’re a book-lover, you better have someone lash you to the mast like Odysseus, or the McMurtryian Biblio-Circe will get you. After an hour I had to flee, or I’d be there still, making piles of books I can’t live without, but haven’t enough lifetime left to read.

I headed northeast, back toward Duncan, 120 miles away. En route I crossed the Red River; on the farther, or Oklahoma side, was a Catfish Restaurant, a lonely-looking kind of place. That night, in my room, I would read the passage in Duane’s where the eponymous protagonist himself goes to the Red River, maybe a few hundred yards from the bridge I’d crossed, to a place where an old man used to sell fishing lures. Uncanny.

A few miles further on, a billboard leaped at me out of a stand of trees, to alert me that a “microsurgical vasectomy reversal” could be mine simply by dialing a Houston number. Houston lies some 400 miles south of where I then was. I marveled at what impels Americans to set up businesses where they do.

I arrived in Duncan in early evening. I had two landmarks in mind: the Century Motel, right there on Highway 81, where I put up in ’54, and Goodner’s Family Steak House, where I ate most every night. I passed by the old Halliburton plant, where a few of the familiar red-and-gray cement carriers were parked, but it all had the feel of old age, when the skin has lost its bloom and the legs have gone. This is no longer a headquarters town, or a company town, not the way it was 45 years ago, when all the workers assembled in the town park for the Fourth of July picnic, and to hear founder and chief executive Erle P. Halliburton deliver a fulminating stemwinder on the subject of the evils of trade unionism. Times change, and so do companies: Erle P. handed over the reins, and so in time did his successor, Preach Meadors. The guys in suits took over, and moved the headquarters to Dallas, and everyone bought houses in the Park Cities and joined Brook Hollow and Dallas Country Club, because you knew oil was going to $50 a barrel, maybe even $100.

Except it went closer to $10. The only thing that done worse, as Erle P. might put it, is the damn unions. Gone from Duncan, too, is the Century Motel, where the most intense loneliness I ever experienced eventually gave way to the awareness that solitude can be as amenable a companion as any, provided you have a book with you, but “Goodner” is still a name to be reckoned with in town, although the old steak house has given way to a less luxe establishment of roughly the same name that serves “Early Bird” chicken-fried steak. No doubt because the family put what they earned off me the summer of ’54 into sound investments. That night, I check the phone book. I have no kin (Owsleys-my paternal grandmother’s side) left in these parts: My engineer cousin Bill is gone, and so are Uncle Buddy up in Chickasha, and his wife Aunt Julia Buddy (to differentiate her from Aunt Julia Seitz, down in Dallas) to whom I drove for lunch one Sunday: home-cooking and a tour of Uncle Buddy’s collection of war bonnets.

The next morning, before heading for Hutchinson, Kan., some 400 miles northwest, where I wanted to look at the famous golf course, Prairie Dunes, I visited with Danny Talley, who with his wife, Bonnie, owns Lindley House, the delightful B&B where I overnighted. We talked a bit about Duncan; then Danny, whose son is driving for Halliburton, just as I did, talked a bit about how towns like this can only offer $10-an-hour jobs, because they’re unable to attract high-tech employers. Which led to an exchange of views about what happens when the arithmetic finally catches up to the Amazon.coms and all those other companies representing tens of billions of market value and no “iron in the yard.”

Driving into Kansas that morning, I reflected on Duncan and the notion came to me that, just as the Heart of America had to drag itself out of the desperate situation of the 1930’s by defeating an Axis composed of Germany, Japan and Italy, maybe we’re going to have to do it again-only this time the Axis will comprise Wall Street, Hollywood and the Beltway. And I thank my late father for what I used to curse him for: those three summers when, instead of letting me hang around Piping Rock, he sent me off to Satsuma, Fla. (twice), and Duncan to work at manual labor with people who thought Yale was a kind of lock.

In Hutchinson, I stayed in a Comfort Inn, in a $60 room with all the charm, and at the same elevation, as the Führerbunker in Berlin. I watched the All-Star game, shedding a tear when they brought Teddy Baseball on in a cart, remembering the first time I saw him hit in the flesh, against Joe D’s Yankees in the Big Ball Park back in ’47. Never a man whose appearance at bat caused “the writhing pitcher” more anxiously to grind “the ball into his hip,” as Thayer’s famous poem puts it. I ate Mexican takeout, regretfully turned the final page of Duane’s and was up betimes and out of there: to check out the nearby Wal-Mart and then make for Prairie Dunes, the great course carved over a 20-year period out of the windblown, thicketed sandhills by Perry Maxwell and his son Press. They lent me a cart and I made a quick circuit of the course, and it met my every expectation: as “linksy” in look and contour as any I’ve seen in the British Isles (only playing it will tell about the turf qualities and pace) and-from the look of the rough-as lucrative a golf-ball concession as any pro in America enjoys.

On I speed now for Boulder, Colo. On this 400-mile leg, I began to recover what I lost years ago: a sense of how utterly huge this country is. Vile as man is, he’s merely another small presence in a huge landscape. For rumination, you really can’t beat Interstate driving; the highway stretches dead ahead and you eat it up at a steady 835 m.p.h., because out here, the speed limit is 75 m.p.h. and gasoline costs a buck a gallon. This is long-haul country, trailer-park country, with grain elevators standing in for temples. I pass Russell, Kan., proudly advertising itself as the home of Bob Dole, and I half-expect to see a giant flaccid member, sculpted in the manner of Claes Oldenburg, outlined against the prairie sky to celebrate erectile dysfunction’s favorite son. On a trip like this, you mark your progress in small but intensely meaningful ways: At Oakley, Kan., I will depart central standard time and move into mountain standard time. Changing the settings on wrist and dashboard will be a big event. A taste test has convinced me that the Hardee’s chicken-Swiss-bacon sandwich with Crispy Curl Fries ($5 all in) is tops in the taste department, so that’s the pit stop I look for.

One of the things you learn to truly hate on a drive like this, however, is N.P.R., upon which you’re thrown by the absence these days of good country music, thanks to the ascendancy of no-talents in black hats like Garth Brooks, the Robert Wilson of country-western: pure bullshit masquerading as “art.” It’s O.K. to cruise along listening to Respighi and Bach and Vaughan Williams, but sooner or later the talking heads kick in. You develop an unholy fear of David Sedaris suddenly coming on, a man who makes Christopher Buckley sound as funny as S.J. Perelman. And there is worse in the wings: the existential musings of land-grant teachers of creative writing.

It isn’t until about 100 miles east of Denver on I-70 that I see my first Land Rover, praise be to God, and-even better-it’s a wreck, being shuttled on a flatbed wrecker. But I have also seen something I wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago, which will become increasingly evident when I’m in Wyoming: at tiny country airports, which typically house single-engine putt-putts used by ranchers to check cattle and energy folks to survey pipelines, there are private jets. Westward the course of empire wends its way, they used to say. Now, it’s inward the course of “Second Homes,” rolling in from the coasts, like a thick miasma: the dense green fog of Alan Greenspan’s wealth creation.

Fear of future NPR exposure impels me to buy, in Boulder, tapes of Annie Proulx’s wonderful Close Range: Wyoming Stories . Ms. Proulx will sustain me from the Wyoming-Colorado border nearly to Jackson Hole. The view from the Interstate is like Ngorongoro, a sea of vegetation broken here and there by dots: ruminant herbivores, but not, however, wildebeest, antelope and buffalo. No, these dots are Polled and Whitefaced Herefords, Charolais, Santa Gertrudis and Black Angus, with only the odd herd of bison to summon implications of a past as wild as Africa’s. Later, in Jackson, hooked on Proulx, I buy her book, and read, “Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere … Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.”

I am bound for Encampment, Wyo., site of the A-Bar-A Ranch, where I passed the summers of ’48 and ’49 with my family, two of the four happiest summers of my life (the other two were ’46 and ’47 in Nantucket.) In ’49, my arm was in a cast, broken by falling on the curb while wrestling in East 80th Street with a Buckley classmate over the honor of a girl. I saw that classmate the other day in Southampton, at the Bathing Corporation. He has a new wife, I gather. We greeted each other warmly, but neither of us asked the other whether, looking back over 50 years, we now think a woman is worth a broken arm.

After a breathtaking drive down the Medicine Bow National Forest, I put up at the Platt Ranch, right across Route 230 from the A-Bar-A. The owner, Ron Platt, is fourth-generation on this land. The way the Halseys, Toppings and other East End families are. He runs cattle on it, and an outfitting business which I intend to patronize next year, so that Francis and I can learn to fly-fish together, which seems like a pretty good thing to be done together by a father and son more separated in years than used to be normal. I visit with Ron, and the others staying in the B&B they run out of their lodge: Leroy, who sleeps all day and mixmasters all night out where they’re widening the highway, and a family of three-grandfather, son and granddaughter-from Littleton, Colo., whom I refrain from asking the stupid inevitable questions.

The next morning, I have coffee with Ron Platt’s wife, Mayvon, a Utah girl who looks 30 years younger than her age, and she points to a distant, squarish ocher blur at the base of the mountains a good two miles distant and says, “That’s what’s happening here now!” I squint and make out that the speck is a house. Her voice carries the same dudgeon you hear in Sagaponack, L.I., from longtime owners looking at the 20,000 square feet of piss-elegant faux -shingle some Bear Stearns cretin has just dumped down on the adjoining lot. I enjoy my hour with Mayvon, there’s no cable here, but she reads good books, and writes, used to dance with Ballet West; Mozart is playing on the stereo. Exactly the sort of person of whom there are probably tens of millions between the Ohio River and the Sierra Nevadas who have only one thing in common: The twerps who run the New York media don’t believe they exist, and are too busy running between publishing and launch parties to find out.

I go across to the A-Bar-A. As I negotiate the eight-mile “driveway” that leads to this best of all working “dude” ranches, I look down at the seat beside me and what I see makes my heart sing: The readout on my cell phone says “No Service.” At the ranch, Bob Howe, the general manager, is the soul of hospitality-I’m claiming “alumnus” privilege, because this isn’t a public hotel with visitors free to hang around the lobby and gape-but wants to be sure I don’t interlope. I assure him I hate the media as much as anyone and will respect his guests’ privacy. This is a place where people keep coming back: One nonagenarian regular recently celebrated his 58th consecutive summer here.

And so on to Jackson, arriving late afternoon. I’ve been rereading Texasville , which strikes me as being as fine a comic novel as Vile Bodies . Larry McMurtry is as masterful as Evelyn Waugh in his command of this idiom. I microwave a burrito, crack a Diet Coke and settle down. The journey’s over. I’m looking forward to the morrow: to rising early to catch the British Open before going over to Teton Valley Ranch Camp at the hour they admit parents. What I don’t know, of course, is that at roughly the time (M.S.T.) I take my burrito from the zapper, a terrible business is taking place in the shrouded sky off Martha’s Vineyard. And that, having seen much of this country in its best estate, I am now about to see it in its worst. The Fourth, naturally.