“How did you survive your upbringing?” asked a journalist friend in Washington, who knows I’m from Colorado City. But my hometown (inexplicably pronounced Col-o-RAY-do) wasn’t always so mean-spirited, or so reactionary.
In the 1950s and ’60s, my father ran the local newspaper in C-City, as it’s called. My brother and I grew up there. Those were the years the state began its inexorable shift toward the Republican Party, which my father resisted editorially with the tenacity of a yellow-dog Democrat — someone who would sooner vote for a cur than a Republican. Mitchell County was among the last of the counties on the High Plains — think the straitened circumstances of “The Last Picture Show,” not the romantic sweep of “Giant” — to abandon the Democratic Party, more than a decade after my parents sold the newspaper and left town.
Our county was so reliably Democratic that when it sent its man to Congress in 1934, George Mahon was still there 45 years later, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The memory of how the New Deal saved rural Texans from starvation was still fresh. When Mahon finally retired in 1979, an equally conservative Democrat, Kent Hance, defeated George W. Bush to take Mahon’s place in Congress until 1985. He was the last Democrat to represent my hometown in Washington.
In 2016, Donald Trump got 81 percent of the vote in Mitchell County, the most lopsided victory in a presidential race since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He carried every Republican on the ballot with him. In 2020, Trump got 84 percent. In a single generation, GOP voters became the straight-ticket yellow-dog voters, with every statewide office held in a vise grip by the likes of Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, our indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton. And Colorado City had Mayor Tim Boyd.
I don’t know Boyd, but I know his type. Thanks to my masochistic habit of reading Facebook posts by a former high school classmate, I’m familiar with Boyd’s brand of right-wing meanness and belligerent patriotism wrapped in Texas swagger. As C-City townspeople were under a boil-water order and freezing in their homes, thanks to the spectacular failure of the state’s oil-and-gas-dominated power grid, my classmate’s Facebook friends fantasized — as did Abbott — that the failure was caused by green energy and ranted about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a favorite target of the right.
Colorado City was no shining city on a hill, but it was a decent place to grow up in, especially if you were Anglo, as most people were. Its middle class included everyone from struggling cotton farmers and mechanics in overalls to merchants, lawyers, doctors. Churches were full on Sundays, civic clubs busy. Most of my friends from high school went to college; a few made it to the Ivy League. The quarterback on our football team became a professor of comparative literature at Auburn.
Those trajectories are unlikely now. Mitchell County’s population has dropped by 20 percent. It is more racially diverse (40 percent Hispanic) but also poorer and even less educated than the rest of Texas. Less than 10 percent of residents over the age of 25 have a college degree. Twenty percent live in poverty. Most of the locally owned downtown businesses — the corner drugstore and the supermarket and the department store where we bought my long white gloves for the senior prom — are long gone, replaced by shops selling trinkets and secondhand goods. It’s an old story.
Birds of a feather flock together when given a choice. But small towns are more like families — you don’t have the luxury of choice so you try to get along somehow. My father’s liberal leanings were known to all, but his friendships spanned the political spectrum. Among his best friends was a Republican oilman, one of the few truly wealthy people in town. The tolerance and good humor that characterized that friendship is also hard to imagine now, not just in my hometown but anywhere I’ve lived since: Washington, Seattle, Austin.
My hip, curated world in Austin has more agreeable politics, but in a sense is as circumscribed as the West Texas I fled at 17 as if my pants were on fire. I don’t have any Republican friends. I don’t know anyone without a college education, anyone who hasn’t shopped at Whole Foods. All the birds I hang out with have feathers like mine. It’s exactly the same for my former classmate — there are no birds of opposite feathers in our separate worlds.
What I miss the most about a small town — the only thing, really — is the sense of us all being in something together. Clearly a foreign concept to Boyd. When a farmer in our church lost his arm in a cotton gin accident — a second job he’d taken because his farm was failing — church members heard about it within hours and went to his family. When my father was laid up with a heart attack, his West Texas newspaper friends came to put out the paper until he recovered. When our town withered under a savage drought in the 1950s, everyone was affected — every cotton farmer, every farm implement dealer, every Main Street business, every livelihood. Only the bank prospered. My strongest childhood memory is the day the drought ended, in a deluge of rain that my parents assured me would change everything for the better.
Ironically, every county in Texas is in something together now, with essential services in disarray and our so-called rugged individualism a national joke. My daughter’s family of four, including a 2-year-old in diapers, just walked in the door after being marooned for 50 hours without power or heat in their affluent northwest Austin neighborhood. Because I still have electricity, two close friends are bunking in my garage apartment and my ex-husband is in the guest room. We got our own boil-water notice Wednesday night because drinking water for a city of a million people is now unsafe. We’re melting snow to flush toilets. We’re out of vegetables, which pleases the children, because grocery stores are out, too.
When this is all over, my former classmate and his friends and I will resume our vehement disagreements on Facebook, which will soon include who and what are to blame for this catastrophe, and my estrangement from my hometown will remain as unsettling as before. I don’t know how to undo that, or the dispiriting way that Mayor Boyd made our little town famous.
My father would have hated that and written an editorial demanding the mayor’s resignation. He was always a town booster. But he also chafed against smallness and meanness, and in the end, he and my mother moved away, too.
None of us looked back.