March 4, 2017
The location for this weekend is Marshall, Texas, a town with some history of note but perhaps also somewhat underappreciated by its residents. More about that as we move along.
I left Nacogdoches three days ago with instructions from local bicyclists for avoiding the worst of the traffic. The original first night’s destination was the small town of Timpson, which according to my research had a mom-and-pop motel. However, I discovered it had since closed, forcing a detour to the neighboring county seat town of Center, Texas. The net additional distance was about nine miles by the most direct route. But I was warned not to take that road due to narrow shoulders and loaded lumber and oil trucks.
In typical fashion, I only partly followed the advice I was given. The route I selected was a mixture of the locals’ suggestions and my own reading of Google Maps. I set off on an auspicious note, appreciating the lack of traffic and noise (US-59 in Texas is a very busy truck route), if not the hills. At least I’m in much better shape than when I left Brownsville nearly a month ago.
It was then that technology nearly cursed me. I had made a point to sign up for service with a rather expensive major mobile phone carrier because I knew I would need to be connected almost everywhere. And my research showed the only place on my planned route I would be in a significant “dead zone” would be a roughly 30-mile section of southwest Arkansas. But that assumed I would stay on the planned route, which wasn’t the case from Nacogdoches to Center, Texas.
Google Maps is a serious navigation tool, as good as a dedicated GPS unit—but it depends on having cellular data service. Without it, you get no routing or directions, only a static version of the last position and a nearby area map at the point where service is lost. That seriously cripples my navigating ability, to the point that I can guess where I’m supposed to go but not necessarily know where I actually am.
I won’t say I was quite lost, but neither was I found. A couple of guesses about turns brought me to a town I could have reached directly in 12 miles instead of the 30 I actually rode. From there, I could take a more direct road that didn’t depend on mapping. The upshot was that I rode a total of 52 miles rather than 36. At least I saw some pretty country—and climbed at least four hills that would be considered serious by any cyclist’s definition, in addition to numerous others that were less steep.
The next day’s trip was to Carthage, Texas, and the home of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. It would be hard to think of country music without Texas, and Carthage (and East Texas in general) holds the origins of an unusual number of country stars. Most notably, nearby rural settlements were the boyhood homes of singing/acting cowboy Tex Ritter and “Gentleman” Jim Reeves. At the museum you can spend a couple of hours learning about their lives and accomplishments, as well as the prolific contribution to country music by musicians from all over the Lone Star State. What attracted me was an authentic 1950s jukebox where you could freely select songs that were once staples of the radio airwaves and honky-tonks. There was a time in my youth when any tavern worth its salt, even in the North, would have a jukebox with Jim Reeves’ smooth baritone rendition of “He’ll Have to Go.”
Yesterday brought me 29 miles further along to Marshall, Texas. My research led me to believe there was a lot to see, and I was in a hurry to arrive early on Friday afternoon so that I wouldn’t miss some of the interesting places and people often unavailable on a weekend. Apparently I’m now one of those people. A notice about my trip was posted on the Facebook page of the local bicycle club, and that produced several phone calls. One was from a reporter from the local newspaper, who interviewed me from the side of the road (after moving well away from the noisy trucks), and who later rendezvoused with me at the edge of town to take photos. The result was this item in the local news section: https://www.marshallnewsmessenger.com/news/2017/mar/04/cyclist-stops-in-marshall-on-cross-country-self-jo/
I was also able to connect with someone from Wiley College, one of the original historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs), founded in 1873 to provide higher education to recently freed slaves who were excluded elsewhere. As such, Wiley has a rather long and storied history, popularized in the 2007 film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington as Professor Melvin V. Tolson, who in the 1930s brought fame to the college by competing, and sometimes winning, against much larger and better-known white universities.
I was fortunate enough to be escorted around the campus by an uncommonly personable student, Brandon Legrand, a senior accounting and computer technology major from Wichita, Kansas. And through his eyes I came to understand the appeal and advantages that a school such as Wiley can offer.
Our first stop was the gallery operated by faculty member, artist and coach Eddie Ray Watson. An engaging gentleman of about my own age, Watson has used his considerable talents in several fields and on a variety of levels. The first was as a gifted athlete, a college football player at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, as well as for Ottawa of the Canadian Football League, and then as an award-winning high school coach. His friends include dozens of famous professional sports stars of the past 40 years.
But what is most notable today about Watson are his paintings. They’re colorful, topical and almost instantly accessible, capturing people and events in ways that delight the eye. They are a who’s-who of black personalities and history, making their subjects live in ways that go beyond the images themselves. He proudly displays a letter on White House stationery containing a personal thank-you from Barack Obama for a series of drawings he did of the former president and his family.
As Brandon continued his tour, the answers to some of my anticipated questions became apparent. I asked him why he didn’t attend college closer to his home, such as at nearby Wichita State. He answered that his original goal was to attend the University of Kansas, but a visit to Wiley, and the offer of a considerable scholarship, made it seem a better choice.
Everywhere we went, people recognized Brandon and either shouted out greetings or came up and said hello, sometimes embracing him. The affection was unforced but palpable. And so it wasn’t necessary to ask directly what was the appeal of a historical black college—it’s not so much about racial identity or social justice or a larger sense of mission. It’s simply the personal contacts and a feeling of belonging. For most of us, that’s what we build our lives around.
That same sense resonated that evening in a different way. I received a call from David Holloway, a local resident and member of the bicycle club in Marshall. He said he was getting together with a group of interesting friends that evening and asked would I like to come join them. Of course I said yes.
David was kind enough to pick me up at my motel some distance south of the downtown area. I met him, his family, and his sister Amanda who was visiting from Houston with one of her adopted children. From their beautiful restored historic home, we proceeded to their friends’ house, who for reasons that will be apparent I will not mention by their real names.
One tends not to think of East Texas as an international destination, and in general Texas has a largely undeserved reputation as insular and unconcerned about the rest of the world. That would be an inaccurate impression. David and Amanda were raised as the children of an Air Force officer posted at several foreign bases, including some years in Greece. And somehow they developed an affection for Eastern Europe.
Their friends, both socially and as members of an evangelical church, have connections with Ukraine, Russia and the mostly unknown nation of Moldova, independent since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Through a series of coincidences and connections, they have ended up in Marshall, both as legal and undocumented immigrants. And as a result they have very much made themselves part of the local community.
Amanda’s connection is a personal one. Over the past half-dozen or so years, she has sponsored and adopted a series of orphans from the former Soviet republics, not infants but teenagers who faced extremely uncertain and potentially grim futures after being forced to leave orphanages in their home countries.
David has more of a social and business interest. “I like folks from all over the world, and these are good people. They’re fair and they work hard. They catch on really quickly and they fit in.”
Our host, whom I’ll call “Misha,” came to Texas three years ago from Moldova with his wife and daughter, requesting refugee visas that have yet to be issued. Technically, they do not have legal status. “Back home, if I worked hard, I got nothing,” he told me. “Here if I want a guitar or a computer, I work for it and I buy it with the money I make. I like my life.”
I asked if he were concerned about a threatened crackdown on illegal immigrants. “I’m not worried,” he insisted with a smile. “We like it here. This is where we belong. We’ll find a way to stay.”
Again I sensed another contradiction about Texas and Texans. They are not xenophobes, ignorant of and resentful about the rest of the world. They respect anyone willing to come here, work hard and fit into their communities. I strongly suspect that if Misha and his family ran afoul of the immigration authorities, people like David, Amanda and their friends and neighbors would go to some length to see that justice and the right thing were done.
The view from the bike seat on a back road in a pretty but hilly portion of the Piney Woods of East Texas:
Statue of Hollywood singing cowboy Tex Ritter at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage:
Extraordinarily talented artist, athlete and coach Eddie Ray Watson at his gallery in Marshall:
Some of the art on display at Watson’s gallery:
A section of a stained glass window at the Wiley College Chapel: