I recently took a trip to Texas to do research for a project currently in development. Now, I love visiting Texas – Austin, Texas that is. This was an adventure into Northwest Texas, Lubbock in particular. I had expectations of what I would encounter and what I might learn, but I was pleasantly surprised by the people I met.
My trip started off with a short hour plane ride from Austin to Lubbock. Descending shortly after we ascended, I had only a little time to review the landscape that I would call “home” for the next couple of days. It was dry, dusty and sprawling. The thing about Western towns is that they grow out, not up. I didn’t really understand this concept until I drove to “downtown” Lubbock. The city has a population of about 240,000, so I expected some sort of center city. Instead, I was greeted by six-lane wide roads, strip malls (with great food!) and large trucks (think F-150 with every addition possible from stripes to big grills). The official “downtown” area is a collection of the only 5+ story buildings in town, all built before 1980.
I stayed in a hotel alongside one of the highways that ring the city – it was surprisingly quiet. In fact, the whole time I was there, I was never stuck in traffic. A benefit of the six-lane roads, perhaps? I learned from a Lubbockian that there is a development/construction cabal behind the scenes that is driving a significant amount of economic growth from upscale housing to rezoning traditionally poor neighborhoods. It is certainly a city undergoing changes. And that is what drew me to visit.
I wanted to get a sense of Lubbock beyond what I had read and watched, so I decided a trip was necessary. In all the research one may do on Lubbock, no one lists Lubbock as a destination spot. Despite an awesome Buddy Holly museum, there isn’t a lot to do in Lubbock, something I heard from most people I talked with. In fact, that was often their first question to me: Why did you come here? Or, if I mentioned my writing project, they would say “Really? Lubbock? You want to write about us?” I was struck by their incredulity – was it really that boring here? Or was this some sort of Texan hospitality/modesty? I did come across a few people who were happy to talk with me about Lubbock and didn’t seem at all surprised by my visit. These were the people by whom I was pleasantly surprised. These were the people who made this trip worth it and gave me motivation to continue my project.
Naturally, I headed to the best used bookstore in town (and one of the better used bookstores I’ve been to). In addition to the incredibly great reading/hangout area, there were book recommendation lists lying around, encouraging people to try something new. They also have a return policy where you can return the book for half-price and use that as a credit on your next book (and yes, I bought a book to read while I was there). It was a great place to meet some locals and fade into the background as they discussed their book purchases, their families, and if I had been there longer, their whole life stories. There is something transcendental about the transactional: people really open up over a cashier’s counter.
I am guilty of that transactional outpouring, that gush of personal information to a complete stranger, who then becomes an incredibly familiar stranger in short order. Cue Gatsby’s Coffeehouse. I am drawn to good coffee like a compass needle to the North. I found good coffee, a spot of greenness in the relatively brown surroundings, and an incredibly familiar stranger (now acquaintance) in this coffee shop, and it helped me crack open Lubbock and really dig into what I was experiencing and seeing in my short time there.
A pot of coffee later, I had wrapped up an incredibly intellectual conversation about the state of women’s rights in Lubbock, and more broadly across the country. This is what I came to Lubbock to discover – what is the state of women’s rights? Specifically, reproductive rights. My pre-trip research did not fail me, and I was only further disheartened by the conversations I had. There is not much in the way of progress in this area in Lubbock. Now, I spoke with and was referred to several different women focused on moving the needle and making a difference in Lubbock. While the progress may not be as evident as other parts of the country, there are good people in Lubbock who want to and are working to make a difference. I do not want them to be left out of my discussion. I am not interested in painting one singular picture of Lubbock – I knew, like most places, it would be complex and full of differing thoughts, passions and opinions.
The non-people part of my research was on the geography, the architecture and the weather of Lubbock. The physical space. That lead me to beautiful neighborhoods, with all sorts of houses and yards. I think neighborhoods are a great way to understand a place. From the American flag on display to the children’s toys in the driveway, houses bear the personalities of their owners.
I found myself roaming these streets, walking the sidewalks, wearing my shoes down a dusty path. Hoping to pick up the trail of someone’s thoughts, trying to catch my characters as they paced ahead of me, just out of reach.
I left on a cold, rainy morning, where the heavy fog pressed against my windshield for 100 miles. All along the way, these beautiful cotton fields followed me. Lubbock is the largest contiguous cotton-growing landscape in the world. See? The things you learn about the country when you travel freely. I am grateful to the people of Lubbock who spoke with me and shared their thoughts about my research, and for those who impacted my writing without knowing. If you are ever traveling through West Texas, I recommend Gatsby’s Coffeehouse and Hester’s Books. You can tell them I sent you.