We arrived in Archer City. It was just after midday and hot in the bright sunshine. The sky was devoid of cloud. As we parked the car, colour drained slowly from everything around us.
We left the car in the town’s main square. In front of us was the large stone courthouse in the middle of an ocean of grass, and behind was the facade of the Royal Theater, the cinema that features so often in scenes in “The Last Picture Show”. No one was walking around and only six or seven motor vehicles were parked in front of businesses that looked bereft of customers. Vehicles rolled along the east to west highway, but only as often as they did in “The Last Picture Show”, the movie which, today, is Archer City’s main claim to fame.
Once you ignore that the film was shot in stunning black and white, Archer City still looks a lot like the fictional Anarene in “The Last Picture Show”, despite the passage of time (the film is over forty years old). The few streets and blocks which constitute downtown have a worn-out, rundown and spartan appearance, and the wide streets, the low buildings and the flat surrounding countryside are the perfect environment for the strong winds that feature so often in the film itself. Shacks, sheds, silos and small storage facilities, most of which are made with wood or corrugated iron, occupy plots among the houses, but, because private land lies around such structures, a sense of space and spaciousness prevails. Often, however, the private land is cluttered with junk, scrap or discarded household items. To the west of downtown is a residential area that looks just like the area where the high school football coach and his bored and unappreciated wife might have lived. The untidy gardens behind the wire fences speak of inertia and a lack of ambition. One place resonates with aspiration, however, a small but attractive boutique hotel in the centre of town. But the hotel opens only by prior arrangement.
We called at one of the few places in town serving food and drink, The Wildcat Cafe. Two men aged about sixty-five sat at separate but nearby tables. They were dressed in levis, checked shirts, leather boots and cowboy hats. They sat passively most of the time, then one man would lift to his lips a mug full of hot coffee and the other a large glass of iced tea. Every so often one of the men spoke to the other, about an incident on his ranch, about the lack of rain (the waitress who served us said that Archer City had had only 40% of its normal rain for two years), or about a horse that had gone lame and would have to be put down. The other man listened and made a sound in his throat to confirm that the information had been understood. Both men spoke slowly, with a drawl we heard very often during the days ahead. But when the men spoke they did not look at one another. A waitress topped up their drinks, the drinks of two old timers who had probably been coming to the same place at the same time day-in-day-out for years.
Other customers were few in number; there were eight altogether. A group of four customers, two women with a boy and a girl aged about nine and thirteen respectively, tucked into burgers, French fries and onion rings with lots of ketchup. The adults drank iced tea, the children cola. They were locals. The remaining customers were passing through, just like us.
I would not like to live in Archer City, but was very glad we had seen the place. You can tell why it was chosen for location shots, even after all the years since “The Last Picture Show” was made. I liked the few landmark buildings that remain in the small downtown (the landmark buildings include a gas station where highways 79 and 25 intersect), and the wooden and the corrugated iron structures that stand elsewhere, not least in the vicinity of the tall water tower. Behind the cinema facade is a large hall, the Texasville Opry, which is used for the occasional concert or theatrical production. Two or three times a year, Archer City bustles with life when people descend on the settlement to enjoy something cultural.
Not far from the courthouse is a large secondhand bookstore. I hope the bookstore does some business when the region’s city slickers arrive for events at the Texasville Opry. The bookstore was shut when we visited, but, when I peered through the windows, it was obvious that tempting treasure lay on every shelf. On the square in front of the courthouse is a war memorial of recent pedigree reminding everyone that the United States has engaged in many conflicts since the end of world war two.
We drove to Abilene via Olney (where a sign read, “Join the NRA now”), Throckmorton, Fort Griffin, Albany and Hamby. It was a pretty run all the way, an enormous wind farm between Archer City and Olney notwithstanding, with every settlement having something of interest (for example, Throckmorton has an imposing courthouse). However, it was in Albany, the prettiest settlement of the lot, where we stopped the longest, partly because an excellent drugstore along Main Street serves glasses of very cold and refreshing lemonade at its soda fountain. The lemonade was just what we needed because the temperature had risen to almost 90 degrees fahrenheit.
Albany is the administrative centre for Shackelford County. It therefore has a large and, in this case, very attractive, courthouse in the middle of a substantial square; many landmark buildings along Main Street, most of which provide accommodation for businesses that seem to be economically buoyant (although, to be economically bouyant, most businesses depend on visitors who come from much larger cities for breaks in the countryside); and, on the south-east edge of town, Old Jail Art Centre. But, because of the lack of rain, the flowers and the shrubs around the square had not been watered. These were worrying times in central, north and west Texas.