We gassed, braked and steered our way through the backroads of Milam County. With Olle reading the map and Chris keeping the pick-up steady 65 at the wheel, we soon found ourselves in Downtown Texas, Texas. We’re on the hunt for a little-known honky-tonk that we’ve heard tell of for a long time. We don’t even know its name, so we call it the “Dream Place” because it sounds to us like the ultimate honky-tonk.
When we’re finally there, there’s not even the rubble of an old beer-joint. Not a sign of anything close to honky-tonk life: no beer bottles, no grated vinyl stools, and no worn down wooden floors. I guess it will remain nothing but a good story and a dream. A destination too common to be cherished. Chris parks by an old iron bridge spanning across the San Gabriel River and we step out to share a couple of cold longnecks we’ve brought along for the ride. Another loss, another toast. We let the winter sun warm us, and after a quick deliberation, cram ourselves back into the truck and head down to Thorndale.
We come upon Steve’s Place, located on the outskirts of the business blocks on an unpaved road named West Salty Street. The street name alone conjures up all kinds of country. On the other side of the dirt road is an old pool hall closed for renovation—indefinitely by the look of it. The building next door, abandoned and carved out, is barely standing. This is a town in decay, but there seems to be at least a couple of local stores still open for business – a few signs of hope while passing the old Main Street. We park the truck on the side of the bar, right by a stack of barbecue wood.
As we enter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette are singing “We’re Gonna Hold On” from the TV-set standing all dusty and worn on the top of the refrigerator. The old gang of regulars sits at the table close to the wood-fired cast iron heater casually lifting their heads to have a short deliberate look at the three silhouettes entering through the creaky door.
Daylight is fading, and the inside is poorly lit. Dust from the bar swirls in the last rays of light coming through the windows close to the ceiling when Kim comes to our rescue. Lone Star for Chris and Pearl’s for me and Olle. Different joints call for different beers. This is our Pearl spot. But just in case, we happen to have a bottle of the crazy crow tucked away in Chris’ pick-up.
Steve’s Place used to be a mechanic shop back in the 30’s or 40’s, before its destiny as a bar began and concists of no more than two ample rooms which hold the bar’s necessities. In the back room, there’s a path cutting through a pile of junk, leading to two separate washroom facilities, both erratically adorned with torn out nudie magazine pics and old posters that might keep one happy for a while. The main room in the front holds domino tables, slot machines, the bar, and in the corner by the entrance, a fanless griddle for frying $3 Saturday burgers. There’s no jukebox, so the old TV-set serves double duty as a radio, receiving signals through a satellite dish.
The sun brought us a beautiful winter’s day but with the winds now coming from the north, the temperature has dropped from 55°F to 35°F within an hour and we all sit huddled close to the heater. I walk out to get the bourbon for some extra warmth and take the time to check out this old neighborhood. Right across the street from the bar, next to the pool hall, I find a ’64 Cadillac with flat tires sitting deserted in the dust. A painted sign on the wall behind it advertise for hay, grain and feed from Thorndale Merc. Co. This is farm land indeed. Right by the rail road tracks stands six shiny silos in the late afternoon sun, waiting.
I hear a train horn blow and a passenger train slowly rolls into Thorndale. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle still goes through here on its way from Chicago to San Antonio but if you feel the need to head west and jump onboard, you better do that in Taylor, 15 miles down the road. There’s no passenger trains stopping here no more. The sound of the brakes and the steel wheels against the tracks is loud and cuts through the air like a shrill cry. I’m heading back towards the bar, and long before the last railroad car has passed I’m already back in the comfort of the potbelly listening to the train honk its horn a last time before leaving this tiny town.
Kim is fast to bring me a set-up with ice and Dr. Pepper. Not my standard set-up, but it’s what I had the last time I was here, so that’s what I’m getting now. I thank her and send back the soda unopened and fill a cup with enough spirit to go around for the three of us. My friends are in full conversation about old cars and trucks and I notice that one of the regulars is following Chris’ expositions with silent nods. Maybe Chris’ hard earned knowledge about the subject earn some respect around here. The TV-set sound is low and husky and it’s hard to make out some of the tunes. But this one I clearly hear as we pour down the bourbon: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys telling us melodically to “Get With It“.
The place look like it hasn’t been fixed up in at least three decades. I stick my finger in a bullet-sized hole in the wall and old, dried-out cement falls into flakes of sand, and the beer signs are covered with so much dust I don’t think the owner dares to light them up. The only neon sign turned on is a Lone Star Light sign, toggled up like some kind of fly-snapper-cowboy-voodoo altar. As far as I know, there are no ghosts hanging around this joint, except maybe one or two local drunks who’ve survived their own measured time.
Kim comes over with another round of beers and tells us they’re gonna serve some chili coming Saturday and invites us back. She warns us though, Saturdays start early, so get here quick before the food is gone. We told her we’re usually not up to early in the mornings, but promise to drop by later. She also tells us that some Saturdays they serve barbecue and sometimes the owner comes in to flip burgers. We might get lucky!
We actually did get lucky. Behold, late that Saturday afternoon, there stood a tubby man in the prime of his years, flipping some of the best burgers we ever had. Juicy, rare one’s with plenty of jalapeños. True Texas style. They went down really smooth with a can of cold Pearl. But this very night we went on home for some cooking of our own and once again, we walk through the creaky doors, this time towards the dark outside only to leave transient footprints in the dirt of West Salty Street, Thorndale, Texas.
Downtown Texas, Texas is a community established by proclamation in 2009, located about 6 miles northeast of Thorndale, Texas. The area is also known as Apache Pass.
Words & Photographs: C.C. Ekstrom