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I flew into Abilene at night and tried to rent a car that I could drop off in Fort Worth. Not everyone wanted me to do that. It was late and the small airport was quiet. I found one agency with a car that could be left in Fort Worth, but its plates were expired. "Expired back in October," said the pleasant woman, biting a wide mint patty. "Sittin' out there since then."
I went to another counter. I didn't see anyone. I looked around, and then something behind the counter caught my attention. The agent, a woman around 30, was asleep on the floor. I noticed her shoes neatly arranged on the counter, which was, I suppose, a way of telling customers she had turned in. She sensed my presence and stood up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "I got to catch a nap whenever I can," she said. "Some folks prod me awake with their foot. Ain't that cold?"
After being assured that I could leave the car in Fort Worth, I asked her to direct me to Sweetwater, and she told me the way to Highway 20. "Go 45 miles and be sure not to blink," she said.
"Are you going back to sleep?" I asked.
"I'm up now," she said.
The next morning I wandered around Sweetwater, admired its pleasant neighborhoods and numerous churches. The streets had cast-iron manhole covers that said DO NOT MOLEST, a useful general remark. I stopped in a cafe for breakfast, and when my waffles came, they were embossed with a map of Texas.
These waffles take us to Texas pride, which is not fixing to die. The so-called chauvinism of Texas, which I find to be a hearty pride of heritage, is a booming and immodest thing. It brings grand rejuvenating powers to its citizens. Texas is an oasis of undamaged egos, a place where Birkenstocks, oat bran, foreign films and Saabs spontaneously catch fire and then smolder grimly in an alien climate.
I gave Buster a call. I wanted to find out when he was coming to town with the horses to practice in the Nolan County Coliseum. "You better come out here and help me," he said over his truck radio. "If you-all want me to come to Sweetwater tomorrow and help you, you've got to help me today."
I missed a turn heading out to Buster's place and pulled into a ranch yard to ask for directions. It turned out to be a large breeding kennel for chihuahuas, and when I got out of my car, they swarmed toward me at ankle height, driving me back inside. I decided I had better find my own way.
Buster's ranch is in the middle of some of the prettiest land I'd ever seen in Texas, winding caliche roads, deeply cut red-banked riverbeds, country that looked pink and green in a certain light. I complimented Buster on his property. "It's outdoors," he said, "all of it."