I got most of my work done at the Muleshoe Public Library, so I really didn't get to post about my time in the town itself.
The very first store I went into was the Williams General Store, specifically to buy socks. I met the owner, a very friendly lady named Dawn, and she showed me their sock selection. I was pleased to have more than one choice at all. It's very unusual to have a specialized store in a town of 4000 to 5000 people. (A quick note: Yes, it's called a "general" store, but it focused on outdoor apparel as well as athletic gear.)
After I picked out a couple of thick Thorlos, Dawn and I chit-chatted a bit. She was very curious about my trip, and I asked her a few questions about life in Muleshoe. Then in walked Steve Friskup, her cowboy church pastor and proprietor of a line of cowboy hats (the hats take up an entire wall of the store). We shook hands, and Dawn explained what I was doing. Again, friendly chit-chat.
[I want to step out of the story for just a second. I'm making a big deal about this because it's highly unusual that the very first person I come into contact with is so nice and talkative. Usually, I have to fish for hours, that is meet a whole bunch of people, before I find one person who is willing to just talk. I have a suspicion that while the backpack is partly to blame, so are the times. Back to the story.]
Dawn invited me to leave my backpack while I wandered around town. Again, very thoughtful and perceptive. I accepted and asked about food. Dawn gave me the low-down of the town's food options, and my ears perked up when she said you didn't even know what you were ordering half the time at this one place. Cha-ching. I thanked her and headed off for said place.
Taqueria Guadalahara. There were just Mexican-Americans inside. Or maybe just Mexicans, I don't know. The waitresses had the usual huddle-up to decide whose English was good enough to handle the gringo patron before one came over. I ordered one gordita and one taco. While the taco tortilla didn't seem homemade, the gordita certainly was, and both went down like lemonade on a hot day. I ordered some sopapillas afterward which were a little hard for my taste. What's up with hard sopapillas? I swear New Mexico's got a monopoly on good, soft sopapillas. Still, hot sauce was served with the meal, and there were already two or three hot sauces on the table! Boy, they had my number. Overall: 4 out of 5 stars.
I then wandered off to the library, did some work, and headed back for the Williams store. When I got there, I met Roger, Dawn's husband, another friendly face. They informed me that their pastor offered to put me up in a motel! Done. This happened to coincide with a little money tightness, so it couldn't have been better timing. Roger helped me get settled there.
On the way over, Roger asked me, "Have you met any other homeless people in your travels?" Huh, was my first thought. I said that by and large I haven't met many people out on the road, but I knew that we were on separate pages, maybe even in different books. I had to straighten this out.
This isn't always the easiest thing to get across. I'm homeless like a scuba diver is a marine animal. The lifestyle serves the project but isn't a permanent thing. But given the duration of what I'm doing, it's a fine distinction.
One thing that's worked is the line, "I get paid to do this." When I'm talking with people, much of what I say either doesn't get heard or doesn't get internalized. This line cuts through all that. When I've shared this line with people I've met, some have literally bounced, like I slapped them with the words. I decided to go in this direction.
I told Roger about the columns, which nearby papers were running them, about deadlines and invoices. I could see comprehension on his face. He didn't mention "homeless" again.
The night was fine. As usual, I got suckered into too much TV. ('The Office' is really good stuff.)
In the morning, I went back to the library to get work done. Oddly, I had a date in Muleshoe. The night before, my dad's friend from long ago called. Joyce Shoup found out about my trip after my time in her home town of Turkey, Texas. She had written a few emails to me earlier, but this time she called saying that her niece and brother who lived in Muleshoe would be happy to host me for dinner. I wasn't about to turn down dinner and good company.
The first people I met were my dad's friend's niece's husband and son. This, as you might imagine, was a very loose connection. I want to point out that this wouldn't be at all unusual in Africa because of their social structure, but the question remained: would it work in Texas?
Yes, like a charm.
I met Rudy and Reese, the latter giving up his shotgun seat. We chatted while Rudy drove us to Joyce's brother's home. When I got there, I met the whole family: Cliff (Joyce's brother), his wife Jimmie, Annette (the niece that Joyce called and Rudy's wife), Cheryl, and Bruce (the latter three being siblings). I also met John, the physical therapist! They were a very friendly bunch. We ate dinner, and I asked each questions about their lives.
After a few people left and dinner was settling in our bellies, Annette asked the casual, "Did you go to the local paper?" I said I had and reluctantly told them that the editor snubbed me. Annette's first reaction was "Where's the phone book?" She called people for ten minutes, and at the end of it, she announced that a member of the paper was coming over and that the local news crew (a family operation) would be over as well. "Thank you" didn't seem enough, but I said it.
In half an hour, the house was crowded with media. Terry Brewster of the paper and her high school shadower Roper Kerby came (It might not be appropriate to put Roper's whole name, but let's face it: he's got a fantastic name. I put it up there with Ferris Bueller.); Magann Rennels with Channel 6 and her son Gilrobert Rennels showed up as well. Lots of friendly banter (the crowd loved teasing Roper) and tons of questions ensued.
I was most impressed with Mrs. Rennels. Without the aid of any kind of notes, she shot question after question at me while her son filmed us in the dusk. Amazing!
These goings-on lasted well into the evening. When things were finally wrapping up, I was still planning to hike a few miles out to get a head start for the next day. After all, I'd spent a day and a half in Muleshoe. Then Annette stepped forward and offered to let me crash on her and Rudy's couch. I hesitated, still thinking of miles. Magann intervened and said, "Matt, I'm going to be your mom on this one. Stay with Annette." So I accepted.
When Rudy and I showed up at the house (Annette and Reese had taken off before us), I thought the evening was over. Nope! Reese asked if I knew chess, and I said that I did. Apparently, no one in the house knew the game, and he'd been curious about it for a while. So I gave Reese his first chess lesson!
I've been teaching chess since I was a Peace Corps volunteer, so I have my methodology down. Reese was a natural player, so together, we had a really successful lesson. Later, I spoke with his parents about the lesson, and both said basically the same thing: "We heard you asking him question after question after question, and he kept answering them all. We thought 'whoa.'" Later that evening, Reese asked his mom if she would learn the game so they could play together.
I haven't met a chess player who's ever remembered the exact day they started learning the game, but in Reese's case, it's easy: April 14th, 2010, the 75th anniversary of Black Sunday, the single worst day of the Dust Bowl. What a day for a panhandle kid to learn chess!
I hiked out the next morning with a hug from Annette, a handshake from Reese, and breakfast and a handshake from Rudy. It was a really nice visit.
I like to think about the people I've met while I walk, the freshest memories always in the forefront, so it was a little surprising to see Cliff pull up in his truck. Cliff stopped smack in the center of the road like it was a parking spot. He told me, "I thought you'd be right about here." He wanted to make sure I didn't need anything, and I told him I didn't. "Well, okay then." He wished me luck and turned around and took off. What a family.
All in all, I'd say my Muleshoe visit far exceeded my expectations.