Leaving Abilene for college after a Christmas vacation 15 years ago, I noticed somebody had blacked out the letter “P” from one of the many bumper stickers I’d affixed to the tail of my beloved clunker. It read: “Doing My Part to iss Off the Radical Right.” My father later admitted to having marked out the “P,” afraid I’d get shot on the highway (as if his permanent markered omission could hide the overall sentiment).
I grew up in Abilene—the buckle of the Bible belt—wearing T-shirts that read, “I Asked God and She’s Pro-Choice.” I took classes from gay teachers and read books by the Beats. My librarian parents were always bringing things home—Rolling Stone, Utne Reader, Spin. It was in the Austin Chronicle that I first read Michael Ventura’s column “Letters at 3am.” Even after I left home, my father continued photocopying Ventura’s weekly musings and sending them to me, hot off the Xerox.
I think what struck me most about Ventura’s essays then was that they seemed to reflect the complexity of the world I knew: They didn’t treat West Texas as a monolith of oil-grabbing, gun-toting evangelicals. When he talked about living on 14th Street in Lubbock (“an isolated, hedonistic, country-western-folk-music-Zen-rock-&-roll honky-tonk/monastery”) I felt understood. Ventura even has an entire column inspired by girls driving a “can car” around Lubbock bearing the bumper sticker: “Sorry We Missed Church, We Were Busy Learning Witchcraft and Becoming Lesbians.” Hey, I thought, that could have been me!
In the forward to his selected essays, If I Was a Highway (Texas Tech University Press, 2011), Ventura makes his own best case for his works’ continued relevance: “America is written about and reported upon largely by people in our major coastal cities who rarely go anywhere else in America until after something happens. Not that the coastal cities are less American than the heartland; but they’re a different America …” In these essays, published over the last 25 years, many originally in the Austin Chronicle’s “Letters at 3am,” Ventura paints a portrait of America, and Texas in particular, that eschews stereotype and sensationalism for a more textured exploration of what it means to live in this vast space between.
If I Was Highway has no obvious organizing principle to speak of. However, Ventura’s essays adhere to a kind of cascading logic where, for example, a meditation on a Texas Panhandle shrine leads into an essay from six years earlier about Ventura’s encounter with a priest at Chimayó, N.M. (“His brown skin is deeply lined, and it’s as though he has been carved out of dark heavy wood.”) He then goes forward eight years to a drive he took to the Very Large Array of radio telescopes near Los Alamos where he explores the incredible, transformative power of human invention. He says, “I get crushes on towns the way I get crushes on women.”
And while the frame of these essays is often a trip Ventura is taking on a lonely highway in his green ’69 Chevy Malibu, the heart of the book lies in West Texas, in Lubbock, where his thoughts always return. Ventura is a Texas transplant (a Yankee, no less), though we won’t hold it against him. He ended up in Lubbock by chance in the ‘70s, living in a house on 14th Street with its rotating crew of now famous musicians and artists: Joe and Sharon Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Jo Carol Pierce, and Terry Allen, to name a few. Back then, though, they were just Texas young folks sitting around in a circle playing music, drinking and smoking, talking big talk: “At night one of the women would make cornbread and beans, and the table was a door laid down on crates, and we’d all hold hands a moment in silence before we ate.”
These magical days in Lubbock reappear throughout the book in different permutations as Ventura, like an old Merry Prankster, continues to relive the wilder times now become mythic. Ventura is at his best when nostalgia is present in large heapings, telling us how Butch Hancock played them a song about bluebirds that came to him in a dream (“If You Were a Bluebird” has since been recorded by everybody). Or how “the elephants walked through Lubbock, and Ely and I joined the circus … and he came back months later with a song about being locked in a boxcar with the Queen of Spain.”
Ventura’s memories of Texas bohemia flesh out for me the images of my own parents— my father hitchhiking through the South in his cowboy boots before he got drafted during Vietnam; my mother’s father confounded to near insanity when he called her college dorm and someone picked up the phone singing “Alice’s Restaurant” (my mother’s name is Alice). When I was introduced to Joe and Sharon Ely at a book release party several years ago, I became tongue-tied. I wish I’d told them their songs and stories helped me understand where I come from. Because, as Ventura writes in his essay, “Music of the Dare,” the big lesson is that “culture has no center. Not New York, not Los Angeles, not anywhere … in ’73, there wasn’t any better place in America to hear music than that house on a low-rent street in Lubbock, Texas.”
But the resonance of Ventura’s essays is not only in his descriptions of quirky and vibrant artists, the type who live everywhere in America if you look hard enough. He also offers important insights into the hopes and disappointments of rural dwellers as he drives us through dying Panhandle towns, their beautiful county courthouses as empty as many of their storefronts. In “Red State Blues,” he understands why the strangers in a diner show him, a liberal outsider, such contempt: “These rural people are not stupid. They’re furious. Time has passed them by and they don’t know why. They’ve done and been everything they were taught to do and be, and it’s come to nothing.”
In one of my favorite essays, Ventura drives into an empty Lubbock parking lot after dark to see an Elvis impersonator—flashing disco lights, costume, karaoke machine—who is dancing and singing his heart out to a row of empty fold-out-out chairs, beneath a sign advertising a chance to get your photo taken with Elvis for a dollar. Ventura asks, “What concoction of gall and madness could drive anyone to give such a performance, in such a place, on such a night? What unspeakable loneliness?” But he doesn’t make fun of this Elvis, nor does he pity him exactly. By the end of the essay, he sees himself: “… he was a reflection of me, and many like me, taking our secret fantasies public. On an empty Lubbock street in the dark.”
Ventura moved back to Lubbock in 2004 after living in L.A. for 20 years (“I’d been Hollywood-broke but pretty soon I was going to be broke-broke.”) Some of the more recent essays in If I Was a Highway tell new stories about getting old and how places change and learning to say goodbye, which for Ventura often happens via a road trip. Don’t feel sorry for him, though. I think he ended up in the right place, considering that “Plains, rocks, rivers; mountains, mesas, deserts—these speak languages that I can feel if not understand.” And personally, I sleep better knowing he’s nearby thinking his thoughts and writing them down, because, as Ventura says about his friend George but I would say about Ventura: The man “radiates a sense that ideas are living things, wild animals to be trailed and chased; sometimes to be killed and eaten; often simply to be watched in their natural habitat, where, if we are still enough, they will come to investigate us, rather than the other way round.”
A Fulbright Scholar and Dobie-Paisano Fellow, Mary Helen Specht’s fiction and essays have been published widely, including in The New York Times and Night Train, where she won the Richard Yates Short story Award.