Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Version of the Emerald City

The Wizard of Oz had his Emerald City; I have the Tolk Station. Looking to the east from our back yard or from my walking path around the pasture, Tolk is a continuous presence on the horizon that makes me think of the city of Oz; mysterious, full of lights, and always changing.

Tolk Station, for those of you not from Muleshoe, is the coal-fired, steam-electric generating station located between Muleshoe and Sudan off highway 84. Completed in 1985 and named after Roy Tolk, who was president and chairman of the board when Southwest Public Service Company (prior to becoming Xcel  Energy) built this facility. The plant uses coal from Wyoming which is low in sulfur, which is environmentally desirable. The coal comes to Muleshoe by train, 110-120 cars at a time, from the Powder River Basin. In fact, on my recent trip to Wyoming we saw a coal train humming along and were just sure it was headed for Muleshoe. As wrangler Tommy and I were riding one of those days at the Vee Bar, he told me that the strip mines in Wyoming are taking the initiative to reclaim those coal-mining areas, replanting and rehabilitating the land, just so you know that coal mining doesn't always have to be a bad thing.

While the Emerald City evokes visions of green, Tolk is full of yellow and white lights that are always on the horizon when the sun goes down and enveloped in steam in cold weather from the heat produced by the processes going on at the plant. I always enjoy looking in its direction because it never looks exactly the same. And while a power plant doesn't sound like a particularly beautiful sight, it has its own charm when viewed with an open mind. To borrow a line from Ray Stevens, everything is beautiful in its own way.

So let me share with you what I see when I look toward Tolk:

Okay, so this shot is not from my back yard, but from Highway 84 on the way to Lubbock one day in December. And while daylight cancels the twinkling lights, even like this it has its own unique look about it.

And neither is this shot-from my back yard, that is. We drove  up to the plant early one morning to take a closer version from a slightly different perspective for a friend who wanted a picture of Tolk for her son-in-law who works there. But I think it is an interesting picture, so I thought I might as well include it.

But I have saved the best for last. I came home one afternoon and the setting sun was hitting the plant just right, and this is what it looked like. So I rushed in the house and managed to get the shot before the light changed. I think this is a striking image.

Our flat landscape and striking sunrises accentuate the subject matter, but Tolk is always a familiar and pleasant sight for me.

I will end with a funny story about another, older power plant  here called Plant X, which happens to be in the vicinity of the tiny town of Earth, Texas, about ten miles east of Muleshoe on the Plainview highway. I have no pictures of Plant X and can't see it from my house, but the story goes that when it was built they couldn't seem to come up with a name for it, so it was labeled Plant X kind of by default. A visitor was asking  why was it called Planet X-if you say it casually and sort of fast, it does sound like Planet X, sounding a bit like science fiction. This person was told very emphatically it was PLANT X, not Planet X. The next question was where was it located. Without realizing how it would sound, the local who was defending its name said, with a straight face, that  it was about five miles from Earth...

More information is available about Tolk at

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Green Grapes

I grew up eating green grape jelly and green grape cobblers. In the Spring Daddy would pack up and head down to the Brazos river bottom or some neglected pasture of a friend to pick wild mustang grapes while they were still small and green, before they had a chance to make seeds and ripen to their customary purple color. He would come home with a five-gallon bucket or two full of bunches of little green marbles and then set up shop in the middle of the kitchen with his buckets and Mother's empty bowls and spent the afternoon de-stemming the grapes. Their deal was that he would pick and clean the grapes and Mother would make jelly and freeze grapes for pies for the coming year. Not a bad arrangement.

Sometimes he might watch something on TV while piling up cleaned, de-stemmed grapes which Mother would cook and turn into jelly, but mostly he would talk and tell stories of when he and his family, going through hard times, would subsist on things like the green grapes and dried wild apricots and plums, making do with what was available wherever they might be at the time. They went through one period of homesteading in various places and barely making it until the family finally settled in Olney and Vance, Daddy's father, had actual jobs so they didn't have to wander around. I know there is more to this story than I remember, and I didn't have the foresight to write things down, and now, of course, Daddy is gone, along with anyone else who would remember the family history. But he was good at making a major production of things like picking the grapes or churning homemade ice cream or eating watermelon or flying a kite, and so while I may not remember the whole story, I do remember good times with Daddy. And of course, that was the reason for making everything a major production; making memories.

I remember Mother would cheat just a bit and put red food coloring in the jelly, thinking it looked more appetizing or more appropriate, I guess,  if it actually looked like grape jelly. When she finished, we would have a whole section of the pantry full of little shiny paraffin-topped jars of this beautiful clear red jelly. Remember the grapes were not ripe, so this jelly was very tart and full of sugar, and we loved it. I don't remember eating much store-bought jelly unless we ran our of grape jelly and had to wait till the next Spring and the next picking for more. She also made fig preserves, which were good, but that is another story.

We also had the green grape pies, which were Daddy's real love. He grew up eating them, a good memory out of  the poverty of his childhood, I guess. So when we moved to Muleshoe and planted two red flame grape vines from which I could pick grapes without having to leave my yard, I took up the habit of also making green grape pies. I have to pick the grapes just as they are ripening or the birds will do it for me, so most of my grapes are green and tart also. I just don'thave to deal with seeds. I have never tackled the jelly part, but the cobblers are easy. The hard part is that blasted de-stemming. Well, it's not that hard, just tedious and time-consuming. Hmmm, could that be another reason Daddy set up shop in the kitchen, so he would have someone to talk to and help pass the time? He was pretty smart, my daddy.

Sitting under my grape arbor in the evening with a few cats lounging about, the dog napping, and someone to talk to, not a bad way to pass the time, either.

And it is grape-picking time now.

Mother's Pie Crust and Green Grape Cobbler Recipe


3/4 cup Crisco
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold water

Cut Crisco into flour and salt. Gradually add water. Roll out crust and cut into 2 inch-wide strips for bottom of  9x13 inch pan. Cut remaining crust into 2 inch-wide strips for the top of the pie. (To make it fancier, like Martha Stewart might, cut crust into shapes with a cookie cutter.)


5-6 cups grapes, washed and stemmed
1 stick butter
1-2 cups white sugar, depending on ripeness of grapes-less sugar for more tartness; more sugar for sweeter

Pour grapes over crust in pan. Sprinkle sugar over grapes. Dot filling with pats of butter. Put crust on top of everything. Bake at 400 degrees for an hour or until crust turns golden. Eat when cooled enough for your taste.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hard Times at the Concession Stand

We managed a short trip to Muleshoe South, a.k.a. Kingsland, Texas, at Lake LBJ last week. Colten and I went to a neighboring town to see "The Karate Kid" one  night.  The show was good, but the concession stand was a story in itself. We made the decision to go too late to make the 6:45 feature, so we ran some errands and waited around for the one at 9:30 and basically had the place to ourselves.

The first thing wrong was the big sign in the ticket booth instructing us to buy our tickets at the concession stand inside. So the manager must have cut out one job to save on overhead. Then we decided to buy refreshments, which I usually don't like to do since everything is so ridiculously overpriced. But we wanted some sort of diversion till the movie started since we had not managed to kill enough time browsing in Wal-Mart next door. Colten asked for Milk Duds and was told all they had left were the three kinds of candy displayed on top of the counter.  So instead we ordered a small popcorn, to which the girl replied they were out of small bags and would we take a medium? Later I wondered why someone didn't suggest just half-filling a medium bag, but none of us thought of it, so we took a medium bag of popcorn which would have fed Spain's World Cup soccer team. You can't have popcorn without something to drink, of course, so we decided to split a large Coke. As the girl puts ice in the cup, she asks if would we take something else since they were out of Coke. Out of Coke?  Is she serious? So I had no choice but to ask, "Are you going out of business or what?"

"Last weekend was our big Twilight weekend, and we sort of ran out of everything," she says as if that should make it okay.  "Our supplies come in on Thursday."  

And of course this was Wednesday night. Apparently they have never heard of Sam's or Wal-Mart where one can buy candy and popcorn bags and such all on their own. Or what about calling their supplier and asking for an early order?

Then this girl asks in her best concession-stand trained manner, "Would you like anything else?"

Anything else?  Gee, let's see.  What else do you not have?

So off we go, pausing at the butter dispenser, which happens to be almost empty-big surprise-and go into the theater, which we wound up sharing with four other people to watch the movie.

As I said, the movie was entertaining,  but by the time little Will Smith was doing a right nice Rocky imitation and winning the kung-fu tournament against all realistic odds, we were freezing to death and shivering in our seats. That's how the manager could cut some of his overhead: adjust the blinkin' air conditioner to warmer than needed for hanging meat. 

No wonder businesses go under these days. No one knows how to manage.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

July 4th in the Shoe

The Fourth of July is a big deal in Muleshoe. This year the weather was cool and rainy, which was a nice change from the sweltering heat of most years, and it didn't seem to keep people away.  Well, my crew didn't venture out, but part of that was job responsibilities, travel weariness from a return trip from Sedona, Arizona, and late-night class reunion sleepiness. Heavens, it was a class reunion for me at the parade and afterwards at Carolyn's store, where she was set up for booth vendors inside this year. I saw many, many former students who were kind enough to stop and reintroduce themselves to me in the event I didn't remember them. They don't believe me, but I really do remember them. The face, although matured from when I first knew it,  is always familiar; it's the names I misplace. I always enjoy seeing how the kids have grown up, and they always do, even those I had  my doubts about! But that reunion aspect of the holiday I always enjoy, rain or shine.

The rain was nice enough to stop for the duration of the parade, which was 25 minutes long this year. I guess our parades will never be what they once were, with bands and horses and all kinds of floats, but this was a nice parade. The cheerleaders were out in force marching together, lots of kids on bicycles, four-wheelers, and other vehicles, a good number of floats, business vehicles, antique cars, trucks, and tractors, and a good number of family floats just for the fun of it. We even had a group of mules and horses this year, which to me makes it a good parade. The EMS and fire trucks came through last, lights blazing and sirens blasting. So in all it was worth braving the weather to watch.

Everyone then filed into Carolyn's to get away from the weather, which had changed to wetter by the end of the parade. That is where I saw so many familiar faces. Kids took mule rides across the street despite the rain. People also took refuge from the rain down at the west end of American Boulevard where Williams Brothers' General Store had a tent sale going on. The Mule Putt was open, but I confess I forgot to drive down there to check on the miniature golfers and the mule shoe pitching contest. But I did think to drive by the softball field where the rain had not dampened anyone's spirits. Families and teams had their own tents up for spectating and tailgating, and the games were moving right along.

Colten had put on our own little fireworks display the night before in our driveway. Nothing huge but entertaining enough for a pleasant evening at home with the grandkids. But now it was time for the big show down at the park. Some of us crashed before dark, but those of us who braved the night and found a spot to park for good viewing were much rewarded for our efforts. The rain had stopped by then, the breeze was calming down, and the show was spectacular.

Sunday morning at the Methodist church we wore red, white, and blue and sang patriotic songs. Julie Cage read a thoughtful article about the American flag, Corky Green gave some historical background before reading the Gettysburg Address, we honored our veterans and active soldiers, and I suspect I was not the only one moved enough to shed tears of American pride.

Muleshoe is a nice place to be on the Fourth of July.