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Frontier Land

George wasn't talking about the mineral water in the antique cistern specifically. I followed him back up the steps to the clean, bright bottling room in the back of the drinking pavilion. He was talking about the mineral water that comes up out of the properly sanitized wells on either side of the building and flows through pipes into these big translucent plastic holding tanks that looked like giant bottles.

George Pirtle, like most white Texans born a hundred years before him, came here from elsewhere in the South, Kentucky in his case. He spent 30 years working for a big chemical company over on the Texas coast. Now, in his mid-sixties, tall and lean in his bluejeans, he was living here in Mineral Wells and managing the bottling operation of the Famous Mineral Water Co., which meant he was the one who bottled the water, though in the summers when things really got hopping, he got an assistant.

Mineral Wells, Texas. (Sarah Ross Wauters)

_____Fall Travel Issue_____
Party Line (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
The Roads Less Traveled (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)

A century ago, there were more than a hundred wells like this one all over town. They started calling the water crazy back in 1881 when a woman suffering from a mental illness drank the water and, hallelujah, she was healed. So were the sufferers of rheumatism, kidney problems and liver disease, or that was the claim anyway. "Very efficacious in the treatment of all female complaints," according to a bottle label, circa 1889. Crutches and wheelchairs piled up next to the wells.

I sampled the water at the Famous. It came in three strengths with increasing amounts of dissolved minerals -- delicious, virtuous and good-golly-this-better-be-doing-me-some-good. That last was the full-strength Crazy Water itself, chock-a-block full of more than two dozen dissolved minerals, from calcium to lithium. No wonder it promoted sanity.

George pointed to the half-strength Deep Well. "I drink a gallon a day in the summer." On the basis of such an endorsement, I selected a few bottles of each strength for the trip ahead. I checked out the old photographs on the drinking pavilion's walls, from back in Mineral Wells' halcyon days.

According to George, this town was the Fredericksburg of its time, a time when a hundred thousand people a year flocked to little old Mineral Wells to take the waters. Two grand hotels went up to accommodate them all, the Baker and the Crazy Water, with more than 650 rooms between them, the Baker debuting the first swimming pool in Texas and the Crazy boasting a glass-enclosed ballroom that opened onto a rooftop garden. They hosted such luminaries as Judy Garland, Lyndon Johnson, all three of the Stooges, cowboy matinee idol Tom Mix, and Bonnie and Clyde, who were savvy enough to check in under aliases.

Today, the Baker looms empty over the main drag. The Crazy is a retirement hotel. The Famous is the only mineral water company left in town.

"Lots of history here," said George as he rang up my water. "The chamber's working hard to bring back the tourists. Like Fredericksburg. The idea is, people from Dallas don't have to go all the way down there to Fredericksburg when we're practically right next door here in Mineral Wells. I heard they're giving tours now at the Crazy, too. The lobby's beautiful. You should go see it. They've worked hard to restore it."

Two blocks away outside the Crazy Water Retirement Hotel, the main street was under construction. There was a lonely cafe down the way, an empty storefront and, around the corner, an antiques store. Inside, the Crazy's back lobby was vast and dim, rising up floor after floor past galleries of doors, extravagantly grand and half-abandoned, like the setting for a post-apocalyptic dream.

High overhead, a door closed along one of the galleries, an echoing thunk, and then receding footsteps. In the distance, clinks and clanks, and the institutional scent of canned green beans. My Nikes squeaked as I crossed the lobby. By and by, another lobby opened up before me, this one restored so it looked like any other vast and fancy hotel lobby, except it was almost empty. I tried to picture big-haired girlfriends from Dallas clattering through here, past the few randomly scattered formal chairs that furnished the place these days and the three old men, who sat in three of the chairs, bent over, silent, far apart from each other. I gave up. In place of the girlfriends, I pictured Tom Mix, stomping through with a spur-jingling entourage. Much better.

BACK HOME IN D.C., I clanked out through the iron garden gate in front of my Capitol Hill rowhouse to go knock on Arthur's door. He opened it promptly, dressed in his usual white button-down shirt and khaki slacks. In the summer he switches to khaki shorts. When he's feeling really wild he wears something in green. He ordered me to join him on his way to the post office and tell him all about it.

"Not only do I now get Texas," I told him as we reached the end of the block, "I have a better understanding of myself, as an American." We turned the corner and the idyllic white dome of the Capitol came into view. "I had no idea that deep down inside, we're all really just a bunch of Texans."

Arthur nodded. Though we both live in this most American of cities, this city filled with national icons, he was older and wiser and already knew what I had only just realized. That heroic American icon, the good guy who rode across the movie screen's open range, the kind of guy that deep down I wish America could be in the world -- that icon comes from Texas. Until I drove down Highway 16, I had never realized how much of America's perception of itself comes from Texas.

Kristin Henderson is the author of Driving by Moonlight, a memoir.

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