“It’s Hell, and I Like It”: On the Uncomforts of Home
ESSAY by Jonathan Baker
I was born and raised in the windiest place in America: the Panhandle of Texas. Amarillo—the largest city in the Panhandle—has an average wind speed of 13.6 miles per hour, beating number-two Rochester, Minnesota (at 12.6), by a full mile per hour. I used to live in New York City, and before that, Chicago—“the Windy City.” But now I’ve come home to the real windy city. Out here, a 13.6 mile-an-hour wind makes a nice day to go to the park. Sixty mile-an-hour winds aren’t uncommon in the Panhandle’s flat landscape, where the wind barrels off the Rocky Mountains and gallops across the high plateau of the Caprock like a team of apocalyptic horses.
After a few years of trembling beneath the cloud-bursting spires of the Sears Tower and the shining, heavenly ziggurat of the Chrysler Building, I now feel pleasantly unsettled beneath the endless, hollow sky of West Texas. New York and the Texas Panhandle have more in common than you might think. Both places seem to stretch on forever. And by virtue of their sublime physical natures—New York in its fullness and West Texas in its emptiness—both give off an unwelcoming, at times even disquieting, aura.
Back in November, when I was still living in Brooklyn, my friend Ryan Culwell, a Nashville singer-songwriter who hails from the Panhandle, came to the city to play a show. Ryan had never been to NYC before, and we spent the day together, walking through midtown and the Village before taking the L train underneath the East River to Brooklyn. When Ryan stood up to play that night, he talked about how he hadn’t expected to feel so settled in such an imposing city. “Today I was standing on the subway platform,” he said into the microphone, “and the train came whooshing into the station and the wind of it rocked me back on my heels. And I remembered the last time my wife and I drove home. As we passed into West Texas the wall of wind smacked our car and I suddenly felt at home.” He paused and stared out into the shadows. “I live in Nashville now. Nashville is comfortable. I have never been comfortable being comfortable.”
I understood exactly how Ryan felt.
New York City perpetually makes me uncomfortable. It’s like it’s the point of the place. The old lyric, “If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere,” could be paraphrased as: “If you can be successful while having your face shoved into a guy’s armpit on the subway, you’d certainly kick ass back in Omaha!” When I was eight years old I visited New York City for the first time, and I instantly felt at home. Here was a place that filled me with giddy fear—a fear I recognized from the High Plains.
In the Panhandle, it is that great, hollow desolation that is terrifying. One’s soul shudders with the suspicion that there’s nothing out here but nothingness. That’s probably why people over at the Cowboy Church drop to their knees and pray with such fury. I don’t blame them. True confession: I myself have prayed for salvation on late nights in my little wooden house perched on the red dirt of the Caprock.
The West Texas wind, as the legend goes, can drive a person crazy. On days when the wind is at its most barbaric I’m reminded of Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel The Wind, in which a young woman named Letty Mason moves out onto the Texas plains and is set upon by the demonic wind—a howling that eventually drives her to murder and suicide. Afraid that the true, stark nature of the plains would reach the wider world, the Chambers of Commerce in West Texas were apoplectic—so Scarborough published the story anonymously. The book was made into a 1928 silent film starring Lillian Gish and directed by Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström (if anyone ever understood existential bleakness, it’s the Swedes). In the movie, Gish’s face echoes the West Texas landscape: vacant, impervious, and breathtakingly beautiful.
But Scarborough’s vision of the plains, while frightening, wasn’t altogether wrong. It’s a strange feeling being back in my hometown of Canyon, Texas. Huddled out on the flatness twenty miles south of Amarillo, Canyon got its name because of its proximity to Palo Duro Canyon, a Martian landscape of red dirt and rattlesnakes. I went to elementary school here; I now live five blocks from the playground where as a boy at recess I tried to convince semis to honk their horns by furiously pumping my arm as they thundered past. It was in this same schoolyard that, on brisk spring mornings, I would fall back into the wind and let it hold me upright.
Georgia O’Keeffe lived in this town once, a hundred years ago. She wrote to Alfred Stieglitz: “The country is almost all sky—and such wonderful sky—and the wind blows—blows hard—and the sun is hot—the glare almost blinding—but I don’t care—I like it. . . [I would] rather live [in Canyon, Texas] than any place I know if I could get to New York sometimes . . . I just want to get out where there is space and breath. . . . I can’t help it—it’s hell—and I like it.”
It’s hell. And I like it. The sentiments of many who’ve tried to build a life on the flatlands.
I’ve been into the little upstairs room in the wooden house where O’Keeffe lived. In that tiny space, I imagined her staring out the dormer window and contemplating the vastness outside. We know she looked out that window a lot, because she painted the roof of the house across the street. The painting doesn’t portray the flat landscape, but with its awkward angles and blood-colored snow, it hints at the isolation the panhandle provokes. The house has a haunted feel to it, an opaque choler; it shrinks away from the viewer, as if hiding from the ogles of onlookers.
I get that. I feel like that house sometimes. It’s hard not to feel watched on the High Plains. Everyone is so goddamned visible all the time. In an attempt to camouflage themselves amidst the openness, Panhandle folk have developed a culture that’s the opposite of the myth of the American West’s “rugged individualist.” The people here resemble one another in uncanny ways.
At DFW airport, traveling home to the Panhandle from the Big Apple, after leaving my New York gate with its cornucopia of humanity—turbans and mohawks and headscarves, people desperate to express their individuality—I could always spot the Amarillo gate before I checked my ticket. Everyone waiting to fly to the Panhandle had the same haircut, the same posture, the same accent; they even held the same conversations (about the Dallas Cowboys, mutual acquaintances from church, the brazen malevolence of Democrats).
All this uniformity might be seen as a form of moral camouflage. In New York a person can indulge in all kinds of sinfulness, but in these wide-open spaces, it’s hard to get away with anything. Perhaps this explains why West Texans are obsessed with morality. Americans have associated visibility with morality ever since John Winthrop declared in 1630 that the new Massachusetts Bay Colony would be “as a city upon a hill”—able to be seen from great distances. Amarillo is no city on a hill. But it might as well be; you have to drive a long way before the city dips under the horizon.
Like the landscape, the uniformity here can be unnerving. The houses of Amarillo mirror the sameness of their inhabitants. In the Amarillo of the twenty-first century, neighborhoods of identical homes march ever southward toward the open plains. Going for an evening jog among these McMansions, I find the streets vacant of people, and the houses move past in eerily duplicated syncopation. Sometimes I wonder how people know which house is theirs.
By contrast, in the early nineteenth century the New York State Legislature instituted the “Commissioner’s Plan of 1811,” otherwise known as the “Manhattan Grid Plan,” which razed the hills of Manhattan and laid out identical blocks across all but the oldest part of the island, numbering the streets and lettering the avenues. Critics denounced the plan, lamenting that it would create a rigid sameness among the inhabitants. But in the land of the rarely-visible horizon, where one hardly ever feels watched, the blocks have taken on unique characters and lives. The corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue bears very little resemblance to 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.
Maybe because visibility is thoroughly blocked and befogged by skyscrapers and busses and teeming throngs, New York is a city of misfits. It’s the place where individualists from every country in the world go to hole up. This is one reason why the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was so visually arresting. Not because the buildings were beautiful—they weren’t. But in a city of misfits, they were the biggest oddballs of all, towering clumsily over the other skyscrapers, neither as shiny as the Chrysler Building nor as legendary as the Empire State nor as elegant as the Woolworth Building.
In Manhattan, in Union Square, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I can climb the steps by the George Washington statue and see nothing but people. People upon people upon people, all the way down Broadway past the Strand Bookstore to where the old avenue doglegs at Grace Church. Here, in this great city, anything could happen. Planes could crash into towers. I could get mugged. Or I could fall in love. That unpredictability? That’s my idea of safety. In the city I am snuggled up in an infinite blanket of possibility. Each instant brings a new universe, a new drama, a new cast of characters. In Manhattan, there’s a sense that any moment could bring that thing I’ve been searching for. New York City is an enchanted place, a fearsome paradise where a man can look for salvation and never feel watched in return.
This constant presence or lack of visibility, then, helps explain how these two places, so dissimilar in landscape yet so similar in their terrible majesty, are inhabited by people who could not be more different from one another. New York City is brimming with invisible people yearning to be seen. And the Texas Panhandle is populated by visible people trying to blend in. But just as it’s possible to embrace your anonymity in New York—to fall into the sublime muchness of it—it’s possible on the Caprock to let the emptiness overtake you, and to feel full. Out on the barren plains, far from civilization, you can turn a circle in the firm ground and be absolutely sure no one is watching you. You can know that you are the only person for miles around. It’s scary. It’s hell—and I like it.
Still, the ideas people build their lives around in the Panhandle—family, community, faith—are not empty words. They form a wall against the wind. Almost without realizing it, I’ve replaced the isolation of New York City with something resembling happiness. In fact, by and large all of my friends in West Texas are happier than my New York friends. But my New York friends would never trade with the plains folk. And the funny—or sad—thing is, I would go back to New York tomorrow if my son, the coolest and kindest person I know, weren’t here in Texas.
But for now, I’ve made a home out on the flatness, struggling daily against the wind. And though I don’t feel at home among them, these flatlanders are still my people. The pull of family is stronger than we know, and despite the wind that’s constantly trying to blow me into the next state, I’ve set down roots here. I may have fancied myself a ramblin’ man, but these roots have always had a hold on me. They’re long enough to stretch across a continent, and strong enough to poke up through the sidewalks and subway tunnels of Manhattan.
And they’ve pulled me home.
Jonathan Baker (MAPH’12) was, until recently, the assistant to the editor-in-chief at W. W. Norton & Company in New York. He’s been schnockered in Chicago, bamboozled in Brooklyn, and mugged in Moscow. He now lives in Canyon, Texas, where he writes crime novels. Jonathan’s previous essay for Colloquium, ‘Alternations of Light and Shade’: Spectroscopy and The Woman in White, can be found in Issue 2.