March 7, 2017
Welcome to Texarkana, a city in two states. The dividing line is State Line Avenue, on which I currently sit in a motel on the Arkansas side. But last night I walked across the road and had dinner in Texas, and I mostly spent my time in that state today. After nearly 700 miles and more than a month, tomorrow I will leave the Lone Star State behind, and continue into Arkansas. It will not be without some regret. Texas is full of surprises and overall has good people, despite what sometimes comes out of the mouths of their elected representatives. Their pride (not the political rhetoric) is contagious.
The most notable difference between the two states in this location is the alcohol laws. Bowie County, Texas, is still partially under the legacy of Prohibition and the confusing provision of the Twenty-First Amendment that allows states and local governments to preserve their own laws on this subject. The situation has been relaxed over the years to the point where you can buy beer and wine in most stores, and be served liquor in bars and restaurants. But you can’t buy liquor in Bowie County to be consumed elsewhere.
On the other hand, Miller County, Arkansas, is happy to take up the slack. The east side of State Line Avenue is a proliferation of liquor stores that cater to residents of both states. Curiously, however, the Arkansas liquor stores are closed on Sunday, when the traffic reverses and Arkansans can at least buy beer and wine (but not liquor) on Sunday in Texas. No one ever said North American alcohol laws made a lot of sense.
Texarkana itself is a city in need of transformation. Only very recently has there been any effort to restore the historic center. Instead the shared adjoining downtown in both states is eerily quiet, with numerous empty storefronts and very little sidewalk activity. But the region is not particularly economically depressed; in fact, population has experienced moderate growth. It’s a near-classic example of the hollowing out that occurred in many American cities from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Outside the city center, there is prosperity, but the kind that is still centered around the automobile and unfriendly to those who move by other means, including bicyclists. And there are outlying neighborhoods with attractive homes and surroundings. The area’s largest hospital/healthcare center occupies a deeply wooded campus just north of Interstate 20 that would be the envy of any university.
So it may be just as well that I had other activities to occupy my two-day stay in the second largest city (after Shreveport, Louisiana) in the region known as Ark-La-Tex. Plus, I’m happy to have almost all of the city behind me as I resume my journey northward.
Earlier, I had an interesting day’s ride as I left Marshall, Texas. I’d heard from Jerry Harp, a bicyclist and retired hospital administrator in Linden, Texas, who says he “adopts” (I might say “highjacks” in the better sense of the word) touring cyclists. Along with several people in Marshall, he strongly recommended the historic town of Jefferson, and he agreed to meet me there and be my guide.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a town of 2500 that has been so elaborately restored. Originally, Jefferson was connected via steamboat to the Red River and ultimately to the Mississippi River and New Orleans. For hundreds of years a huge logjam known as the Great Raft raised the level of adjoining waterways and allowed navigation. During the middle of the 19th century the town was a major shipping point for Texas goods that helped support the Confederacy. One of its later residents was Claudia Taylor, who grew up in Jefferson, moved to Austin, invested in a radio station and married an obscure former school teacher and Congressional aide named Lyndon Johnson, becoming famous as First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson.
An elaborate and fanciful story explains the end of Jefferson’s heydays. Supposedly railroad magnate Jay Gould expressed interest in connecting his rail network to the town’s port. When local business leaders rejected Gould’s advances, he is said to have had the river logjam removed, thus lowering the water level and leaving Jefferson no longer navigable for steamboats. Instead he laid his railroad tracks to the more obscure town of Dallas to the west, which became the transportation hub of Texas.
In truth, the story depends on a lot of hyperbole and a selective reading of history. The river logjam removal was one of the early projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has continued to modify river navigation throughout the country in the ensuing years.
Apparently the revival of Jefferson as a tourist destination began in the 1970s, spearheaded by members of the gay community from Dallas who came, purchased older homes and opened antique shops and bed and breakfasts. They were followed by others, and tourists now converge on Jefferson during all months of the year. The kitsch may be spread on a little thick in some places, but it was certainly worth a stop.
I had been dodging raindrops all day, so I accepted a ride in Jerry’s pickup the 17 miles up the road to his home town of Linden, Texas. Linden is a more typical Texas town, a more honest and less touristed place, but it has its own history. There is some dispute as to his birthplace, but it is agreed that influential ragtime composer Scott Joplin spent a portion of his youth there. Another artist born in Linden was blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. And later the town was the birthplace and boyhood home of Don Henley, founder and longtime member of the Eagles. The town has constructed a music theater that brings well-known artists to play regularly.
Jerry said he had met Henley. I asked if the rock star had done much for his hometown. “Nowhere near as much as he’d like to,” was his reply. It seems Henley had grown up on the wrong side of town and was still not particularly appreciated by some of his once better-off neighbors.
I spent a pleasant half-hour at Jerry’s home, talking with him and his wife and enjoying some of her homemade banana pudding. I committed a small gaffe when he asked earlier if I liked banana pudding, and I said, “Not so much.” But I quickly changed my mind when the bowl was placed in my hand and the fork was in my mouth.
Unfortunately it was growing late and my hopes of evading the rain were fading with the daylight. Jerry gave me a ride out to the highway, and I was forced to set off for the 13-mile pedal to my overnight town of Atlanta, girlhood home of comedian Ellen DeGeneres and pioneer African- and Native American aviator Bessie Coleman. The raindrops accompanied me for almost the entire trip, but the temperature (about 60 degrees) and my high-tech rain gear made the trip at least tolerable.
In the garden of the historic Excelsior House Hotel in Jefferson, Texas:
The architecturally significant House of the Seasons in Jefferson:
Jerry Harp, my guide in Jefferson and Linden, Texas, has a sense of humor:
I’m not sure I’d want to belong to this club:
A wet day in Linden, Texas: