“I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger's brains with that evil fantasy. But what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, ‘Hell yes, I'm from Texas,’ deserves whatever happens to him.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time
Growing up in Michigan the memories that linger with detail are associated with the cold. Winters felt almost debilitating and the temperatures delivered a physical hurt. Our house was small for six kids and two adults at just over 800 square feet, and heat was not distributed with ducting. An oil furnace, shaped like a barrel, was set in the middle of the hallway near the kitchen and living room. Fuel oil drained into it from a tank teetering on spindly legs atop a concrete pad behind the house. The fuel was then ignited into a fire that heated the metal and a fan blew the warm air across a grating into the house. The warmth was not really expansive enough to keep us from the great chill outside our windows.
Even before getting ready for school, the children gathered in front of that furnace and pressed our rears against the grate. Through the years, an indentation in the metal turned into a curve that displayed a history of our eagerness to avoid being cold, which became, for me, a constant obsession from elementary school until I finally left Michigan. In 1967, a one-hundred-year blizzard moved over the lower part of the peninsula and we watched outside as the snow flew by in increasing thickness and the roads disappeared. The next morning drifts were up to the top of our window frames and we were cut off from civilization. We stood shivering next to the furnace, wondering if we might freeze or starve to death while waiting for spring.
The old oil furnace betrayed us a little more than a decade after my parents had purchased their $10,400 home on a VA loan. A leak spread oil across the floor and one night while everyone was sleeping the hallway lit up with flames. Another late season snowstorm was blowing as my father ran to the back room and got my two sisters and brother out of bed, busted out a window and tossed them crying into the snow in their underwear. My mother and I, foolishly, ran through the flames to the front door and escaped with only singed hair. Our two oldest sisters were not home that night but one was out with friends watching the blizzard descend and decided to follow a fire truck for excitement, which led her horrified to her own home where she witnessed the little structure where she lived being totally consumed by flames in the early morning hours of an April Fool’s Day.
The house, utterly destroyed along with our modest belongings, was rebuilt while we lived in a cousin’s attic, and I still never found an effective way to warm up. Our neighborhood was named, un-ironically, I assumed, National Estates, and was situated in a former cornfield near a Fisher Body assembly plant. The giant structure seemed a dividing line in our little town between the economic good fortunes of automotive management and those who worked the line or provided services to carmakers. The “other side of the tracks,” in our case, was actually, “the other side of the factory.” The facility was known as the Tank Plant because of its massive production of Sherman tanks during World War II. Each little house in our nearby National Estates had a gravel drive, a sapling punched into the front yard, a slab porch, a window box for flowers. The floor plans did not vary.
I hesitate to call our family poor, though, because both my parents worked long hours of labor to provide, but there were too many children and the wages available to my uneducated folks were paltry even in the post-war economic boom. Ma, with her eighth-grade education, was a waitress in a burger joint, and Daddy, who had managed to complete tenth grade before the Depression forced him to quit school and work the cotton fields to help his parents, did factory labor. We ate our share of government cheese, powdered eggs and milk, and on at least one Christmas our family was a charity case for a local church.
I wish that kind congregation had brought a winter coat for each of us. I only recall nylon windbreakers to protect my younger siblings and me from the cold. The memory of shivering uncontrollably at the bus stop while waiting to get to school where there was widespread heating is also an indelible, aching image. Ma told us there was no money for gloves or real winter coats and she suggested we slip socks over our hands to keep our fingers warm, which I did with some embarrassment as I approached my teens. When I got off the bus at our school in the thriving suburb, I walked among classmates in down jackets who had their ski resort lift tickets still stapled on their zippers to let everyone know they had been north for the weekend. I felt each morning as if I were visiting a distant planet of which I knew nothing. As I slid my hand-socks into my pockets I was often asked why I never wore more than a nylon windbreaker in the winter and the best answer that I was able to offer in hopes of avoiding further humiliation was, “Not really that cold.”
Those experiences of near impoverishment and enduring cold were central to my motivation to leave home. When I first started hitchhiking around the country after high school I made my way quickly to California. The concept of 70-degree days in January was incomprehensible to me but was a part of the lifestyle I was imagining as I stood by lonely state highways with my thumb pointing westward. I fell in love with California, as a Michigan boy will do, and have never gotten over my crush. Coming down from the north, I passed through the giant redwood forests that John Muir explored, went along the coast to Big Sur and down to the palm-lined boulevards of L.A. and San Diego, which led inexorably to the famous beaches where the sun’s only absence occurred temporarily as the marine layer eased in off the Pacific. An entire state appeared to be on endless vacation.
I had enough focus that after college up in Michigan I got possession of a battered Jeep pickup and drove back to San Diego and entered grad school. Money came from doing yard work but classes were boring and I lasted only one semester. Studying indoors under the leaden gray skies of Michigan was less challenging than resisting a run through Balboa Park or an afternoon walking along Mission Beach. Eventually, though, I knew I had to get serious about the future, which prompted a not-very-cogent idea of trying grad school in literature at Arizona State. A solitary semester in Tempe guided me to my first radio job in the White Mountains, which ended prematurely when the copper mines started firing people after prices fell. Two of my fellow DJ announcers and I got into an old Ford Falcon pickup truck and went east looking for work and fun. There was not much of either but it was the beginning of a journey that, eventually, brought me to Texas, and the extreme heat and drought that I have grown to hate as much as the cold.
I do not believe the people who claim to lead this state have found a calculus, or even searched for one, to determine the dangers of high temperatures, overdevelopment, and diminishing water supply. There is surely a point on the bell curves of consumption and growth and heat where those three dynamics intersect and human tragedy ensues, or maybe it’s already happening and going mostly ignored. Even as the fires start, and crops falter from a lack of rainfall, Texans act as if their environment is asymptomatic. No politician can expect to continue to hold office by asking for sacrifice from builders or produce growers or homeowners wanting to water their lawns. The plot to our future horror show has already been written and we seem to be sitting complacently in an audience, watching the screen as if there were nothing to be done.
In the Hill Country of Central Texas, known for freshwater springs, rivers and reservoirs, water has become dangerously scarce. The Pedernales River, which runs past the LBJ ranch, has stopped flowing below Johnson City and has sent zero water into the Highland Lakes. The Llano is also not moving beyond its namesake community. Lake Travis, the water supply for Austin and many surrounding communities, is at 40 percent of optimum or about 50 feet below normal conservation pool levels. The shrinking supply is not just being consumed for foolishness like watering lawns but is also rapidly evaporating in the lingering 100-degree-plus daily heat. Rainfall totals for 2023 show just over 14 inches of the average 35 plus received annually, and there is no perceptible end to any of these severe conditions.
The lake will keep dropping and rivers running dry because developers are paving neighborhoods, driveways, and parking lots and creating impervious ground cover that prevents aquifers from recharging properly with the return of rain. Meanwhile, the newcomers have not stopped their pilgrimages to our nearly unlivable land. Neighborhoods seemingly fall out of the sky overnight and into the brown and dead pastures and homes or apartment complexes are built along canyons with dying vegetation. The city of Austin experts estimate that about 60 percent of structures in the region are now standing in the Wildland Urban Interface, where nature and the city connect, and that is causing great dangers. What happened in Hawaii is much more likely to transpire in Texas where moisture is dissipating in our record, unrelenting desertification. Earlier this week, a wildfire in Cedar Park, an Austin suburb of 77,000 people, destroyed a large apartment complex.
As the drought deepens, the risks also amplify. Only 800,000 people lived in this region during the drought of record in the 1950s and there are presently more than 3 million making this their home with an estimated 150 more each day wanting to dip their straw into the community drink. The current environment is almost unlivable, and some people are leaving. My friends Gary and Gay had to evacuate their Hill Country house a dozen years ago when the wind and a fire ran up the canyons to their home near the Pedernales River. The experience put an end to the patience of Gay, a native Texan, who got behind her husband’s idea to retire to his hometown in Michigan. The soft rains consistently come to them there as a form of grace and their backyard grows unfailingly green and lush. Droughts and wildfires are fairly improbable when living surrounded by great lakes. Although the politics of their idyllic German town are no less stifling than what they left in Texas, climate change has moderated their winters to be more tolerable and the water in the Cass River Valley keeps flowing, unfrozen, through the dead center of winter.
I did not get taken by those great waters of Michigan. Our father drove us to nearby lakes for weekend swims and, although we lived just over an hour from the nearest Great Lake, I never saw one until I hitchhiked to Port Huron when I was eighteen. The leviathan ore freighters and the sailboats and vacation houses set by those beaches were only photos in magazines and stories in books. As everything around me in Texas turns to brown and dies, and I am forced off my motorcycle and bicycle indoors by the heat, my mind drifts northward for a summer escape. I will bicycle the long, flat farm roads and hope that the weather in Texas has broken before I return.
I lit out for Texas 48 years ago and fell in love with its myths and culture and history. There were motorcycle roads unridden, mountains in the west to hike, Mexico minutes across the friendly river, music in the air, and gentle winds that warmed and cooled lonesome souls. I cannot turn my head sharply enough today or filter my hearing to avoid the discomforts of this state in the year 2023. Teachers are oppressed and leaving by the thousands, razor balls paid for by taxpayers kill people in the Rio Grande, police and soldiers turn the border into a militarized zone, books are being banned, the summer sun tortures workers who are forbidden by edict to not take water breaks, taxes and tolls are slowing the advance of the young, and the same bad actors keep getting back their jobs in government.
This damn place is breaking my heart.
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