On the winding, two-lane state roads of all those heartbreaking Lucinda Williams songs, people pull over and trade tips about spaceship debris. It's like they're wanting a piece of what they cannot have; not so much the physical smithereens of the space shuttle Columbia, but a more elusive, emotional shred. It is, after all, the biggest thing God ever dropped on deep East Texas.
"You can see a shoulder harness," a man walking a chow helpfully advises, pointing west along Highway 103 in San Augustine County on Sunday afternoon. It turns out to be a 13-inch piece of blackened metal, thunked hard into the ferrous dirt, bearing a tiny "Koch & Sons Co." manufacturing label, which reads: "reel, shoulder harness, inertia lock."
You can see some kind of "round doohickey" about half a mile "down the turnoff past the next church," according to the man on the all-terrain vehicle who has been cruising up and down Highway 21, and says he is headed over to the Chinquapin Missionary Baptist Church, where he heard there were pieces of humans found.
Cathy Ryan, who lives over the hill in Huntington, is out for a debris drive with her mother and daughter, and she says they just went down to a creek, a bit down the farm road a ways back, where there "was something that looked like it might have had a window on it." They took a picture of that, she says, because it looked important, but also because it was large, and people are getting picky about the size of the chunk, and whether it's worth pulling the car over to see. "You should go look at it."
Around there, over that way, down this road, in those trees a ways, left at the yard with all the trucks parked in it, no, a little past the gas station, but not past the mailbox. Not just there but: Everywhere. Dotted across, by the latest count, 36 Texas counties, several Louisiana parishes, and some 30,000 square miles along a trajectory that adheres to what astrophysicists know but continues to baffle the earthbound.
Here is Texas in its primordial sense -- sylvan, damp and spooky -- and visually unlike the Texas of songs, presidential ranches and movie cowboys. Here, too, are Texans themselves at their most empathetic, in a part of the state where almost anything is interpreted as a possible message from Jesus or a visit from a UFO or, more often than not, another Piney Woods mystery that can't be fully explained. People here have a need to come out and see the debris as naturally as they'd take a casserole to a funeral supper -- a show of grief, but also a polite nosiness.
These are people who feel a special, perhaps divine, custodial role in the Columbia disaster. They are not about to go down as scavengers or gawkers. They want to help, and cry, and this is why they go out and look.
Edna Murphy stands by the shoulder of Highway 103 and waits for her husband to emerge from the thick woods. She's holding a camcorder. They live in Lufkin, about 40 miles west, and are still trying to get a sense of where Columbia -- the many thousands of pieces of it and its seven doomed astronauts -- met the stretch of earth she knows best, the complicated and beguiling Piney Woods.
"We got up and went to church this morning, of course," she says, "and that was pretty sad. We spent the rest of the day driving all over, just to see what we could. It's a sense of history, I guess."
Dale Murphy tromps out of the brush, wearing pressed denim jeans, a starched white Western dress shirt and a black cowboy hat, and looking like Texas incarnate: "It wasn't much," he tells his wife, pointing to the fluttering yellow tape in the trees. "A cylinder-lookin' deal, about four inches long."
"Where?" says a woman who has just gotten out of her car.
Everyone points to the trees.
Another 20 miles east, off Highway 87 in the Sabine National Forest near the tiny one-convenience-store dot called Milam, three women from Dallas get out of their Chevy Tahoe and gingerly step into what one of them says "is certainly as far in East Texas as I've ever been." They see a man in the trees up ahead, a shape they can barely make out, wearing global-positioning equipment.
"What's back there?" she calls out to him.
He shakes his head.
"I guess he doesn't want us to know," she says.
We stand in the forest and listen, quiet-like, for what reason we can't exactly say. For a brief second the three women take in the enormity of these woods, the way that chirping and rustling can amount to a strange silence and depth. It feels like we might have a moment of reverence here, then one of the women announces she doesn't have the shoes for this. She feels bad about what happened, but she's glad she doesn't have to go a step farther.
Some call East Texas the Pine Curtain, and not always as a term of endearment. Even people from small towns elsewhere have a sense that everything south of Interstate 20 and east of Interstate 45 is either physically or culturally impenetrable, unto its own, beyond some invisible line where iced tea is delivered to your table already sweetened. Fate could not have picked a more likely place to open a new government X-file, with local and federal agents of every conceivable stripe (even the state's tobacco-and-beverage officers are being assigned Columbia hunt duty) combing a haunted, lonely land.
Right now it's the rainy season (45 inches a year on average), and the ground sticks to your boots. In spring, foliage will bloom up over the shuttle debris, surrounding it in thorns. Chiggers and mosquitoes arrive with the dripping summer heat in the high 90s. The search area could even stretch into what's called the Big Thicket, in ever-mythic Texas parlance. It is a common assumption around here that there's much already hidden that's never been trod upon, including old railroad depots and early freed-slave communities that sprang up after the Civil War. Underneath all that remains traces of a bloody history linked to French and Spanish settlements and the Mexican War of Independence.
Deeper still might lurk evidence of East Texas's oldest native communities, some of which go back 6,000 years. Outdated schoolbook lore speaks of the Nacogdoche, a Caddo tribe, and a leader who sent his two sons on opposite tracks through the woods, each setting up a community: Nacogdoches in what's now Texas, and Natchitoches (pronounced "Nacka-dush," where "Steel Magnolias" was filmed) farther east, in Louisiana.
The forests were virgin and primeval for millennia, until the railroad came in the 1870s and the lumber industry boomed, creating much of modern East Texas. By the 1930s, almost all of the Piney Woods had been cut down, so much so that lumberyards fed their remaining mill houses into the saws and left. The U.S. government acquired some 2 million acres during the Great Depression, establishing three national forests; still, this accounts for only about 10 percent of the woods -- the rest is privately owned, much of it maintained by the timber industry.
The ever-widening big-government search effort is welcomed and aided by locals, who are willing to set aside the region's deep sense of private property. East Texans are now tourists in their own back yards: On the radio, residents are urged to suspend the Texas notion of finders keepers ("Just because it's on your property doesn't mean it's yours," went one announcement Sunday). One woman complained to the Associated Press that her brother's pickup truck had been seized because he transported a piece of smoking debris that had landed on her grandfather's 350-acre farm south of Nacogdoches.
The urge to assist is overwhelming early efforts, where every person in a Federal Emergency Management Agency jacket is surrounded by a dozen onlookers. Kim Peese, a FEMA spokesman, told the Houston Chronicle that there were early disputes between local and federal officers about who was in charge of the precious chunks, which are now a matter of hometown pride. "These things happen when you have people with big hearts who want to help. Sometimes you get too many cooks in the kitchen."
Thus, each piece of roadside litter leaps out at you. There was much excitement this morning along U.S. 171 across the Louisiana state line, about an interesting-looking slab of what turned out to be the lid from an ice chest.
"Better safe than sorry," says a man who'd pulled over to look at it, and you could sense the disappointment. The first question along the debris trajectory is whether or not you yourself heard it, saw it, and best of all, found it.
Driving along the area thought to be most strewn with parts of Columbia and its crew this morning, where the trees cast a stroboscopic shadow dance on the asphalt, it is easy to imagine why so many people think of these parts as a lovely, if unremarkable, place that the world forgot. Green Army helicopters roar over the still waters of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, where spikes of long-drowned pines peek through the surface.
Five years ago this month, a rare meteorological event called a "straight wind" blew monstrously across the Sabine and Angelina national forests and toppled 4 million pine trees in an instant. The weird part was no one heard or saw 4 million trees fall over. A few trailer homes were squashed, but the only person killed had in fact suffered a heart attack. A postman traveling a dirt road near Shelbyville recalled turning around and just seeing the trees lie over in the wind. It took several hundred Forest Service employees six months to assess the damage and sell off millions of dollars in lost timber. Just another Piney Woods story that was filed under "X."
Moments of remoteness are interrupted only by East Texas's modern banality. A detour down a dirt road to look for shuttle debris seems like an adventurous trek through a deeper part of the Piney Woods, far from the action, but, looking up, you see a towering red square above the trees: It's a sign for a Jack in the Box restaurant.
If you stick to the main roads, you see lumberyards, Tyson and Perdue chicken processing plants, shacky liquor and bait stores and the occasional hair salon. As goes rural America, antique shops owned by old ladies seem to propel the economy. Some of the portable roadside signs have arranged their plastic letters into the usual grammar of undaunted America: WE PRAY FOR THE FAMILYS says the one in front of a Mexican restaurant. (WE WILL DEAL, in front of a Nacogdoches furniture store, upon reflection, probably refers to furniture.)
There are towns on the everyday road map (Patroon, Etoile, Aken, Milam) and some that aren't (Ragtown, Lout, Goober Hill).
Fanning out to the east, as Columbia did, from the fast-food-franchise towns of Lufkin (pop. 35,000) and the college town of Nacogdoches (pop. 30,000), there are modest acreages and farms with red-brick ranch homes and satellite dishes in the yard. Largely, this is the part of the world that has turned to manufactured housing. A double-wide and a single-wide on the same lot constitute a family estate.
Some lots are already characteristically littered with the stuff you move to the country for: machine and appliance parts, cars, broken swing sets -- randomly occurring yard art from which you could assemble your own spaceship, and might, one of these days, if the Lord don't come first. Had the shuttle come apart a minute or two sooner, it might have littered the flatter prairies of an altogether different Texas a couple hundred miles northeast, surrounding Dallas.
If it had blown apart a half-minute before that, government officials and media would now be acquainting themselves with the more sparsely populated dusty flats of West Texas and the panhandle horizon-benders near Lubbock, which is roughly 500 miles from the Piney Woods. On foot, inch by inch, Texas begins to seem more stubborn than wondrous.
"We're like a secret out here," says Shawn Kilmer, sitting in the San Augustine Dairy Queen. "Nobody cared about East Texas until Saturday. Y'all just landed here out of nowhere like pieces of the shuttle. It's gonna take the government a long time just to figure out where they are before they find all the stuff they're looking for."
A Japanese camera crew has also decamped in the Dairy Queen. They report today that they have footage of police officers, debris and a tractor parked by a fence. They aren't sure what else to take pictures of. How many ways to zoom in on a small piece of metal sitting on a patch of grass? Kilmer decides to help, cross the language barrier: "Y'all been to where they found part of the astronaut in Hemphill?"
What is now referred to in shorthand as "the torso spot" is 15 miles east, on a narrow farm road in Hemphill. The torso has long since been removed, but two rescue workers hammered together a wooden cross and perched it on the spot. The Japanese have seen that. "Then I guess you keep lookin'," Kilmer says.
"I suspect," Edna Murphy says, still looking for something to get on video and send to her kids, "that they'll be finding pieces of it for years. Hunters will come across it here and there. And that's probably the pieces of it that people are going to keep to themselves."
Looping back around to Nacogdoches late today, it becomes evident that the search will last a long time, but the limelight might not. Two National Guardsmen stand in front of the Ken's Minit Market on Highway 59, next to a pair of orange traffic cones. Between the cones is a scattering of a dozen pieces of Columbia. There's a round pulley-type wheel with wire spooling out from it, and wires, and small chunks of metal white with char.
The guards are pulling 12-hour shifts while the government gets around to claiming it. Thousands of people have stopped by.
One woman says that a couple weeks ago, the roof over the Minit Market gas pumps blew down in the wind. "The paper came out and took a picture," she says, giggling. "That's what's usually big news."
Big news is leaving Nacogdoches. Downtown, where the streets are brick-paved and the old movie theater has been shuttered, the doorman at the restored Fredonia Hotel snaps a group photo of another Japanese news crew and bids them a wistful goodbye.
Across the street, next to the Mason Lodge, in the back parking lot next to Commercial Bank's drive-through lanes, one of those distinctly American traditions is taking hold, the ground-zeroing, the Oklahoma Citifying of certain tragedies: People are leaving teddy bears and flowers and hand-drawn Magic-Markered messages on poster board. But there's nothing left here. The government came and took away a rectangular slab of metal that had landed here, leaving yellow tape as a gesture, and the TV satellite trucks drove away.
For a day it was the locus of East Texas debris catharsis.
Now it's just a bank parking lot, albeit one that gets lots of flowers.