I recently took a road trip. It was right after Halloween, and I drove from Panama City Beach, FL, to where I live in Colorado. For anyone else, I think the roadtrip would have been drudgery, but I had plenty of time, new tires on the car, and an interesting itinerary. I went along I-10 by New Orleans, up 45 through Texas, and then headed up 287 to Childress, TX, where I took 83 north up through Kansas. I took this route partially based on the book Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen (which is a very handy book for those quirky road trips) and partially because I wanted to go someplace empty. Having recently been laid off, I wanted the emptyness to fill me up, and with the book telling me that there were plenty of gas stations along the way, I had the confidence to do so.

Saw lots of cool stuff, saw lots of emptyness, and, believe it or not, took only one wrong turn the whole trip. This was in Texas, where I was coming out of Canadian, TX, where 83 and 60, cojoined for many miles, split off. By the looks of the map, it seemed that there would be a Y in the road, and huge signs telling me which way was 83 and which way was 60. Well, I got distracted at Canadian, partly because of the name, which seems a little singular for Texas, and partly by the pecan trees everywhere, and partly because of the river. The river, apparently, in addition to being wide and lined with red sand, was a big watering place back in the day. There were also three bridges, the one I was on, the railway bridge, and the no-longer-used iron bridge.

So I’m rubbernecking like crazy (we don’t really have bridges where I’m from or any need for them), looking at everything, amazed at the sudden relative lushness of the town (and imagining as I always do whether or not I could live there), and following the curve of the road up and out of town. I’m headed a little east, I figure by the direction of the sun, but that’s okay, backroads in America tend to squiggle and bend, but all of a sudden, I see a naked sign for highway 60. Where was the 83? Oh, man, I was headed straight for Glazier, Texas. It was only five miles out of my way, but still! I turned around, right in the middle of the highway, and headed back to the intersection I’d missed.

Which was, oddly, a turn from a left hand turn lane off the highway. Now, how did I miss that? I missed it on account of the river, and the beautiful sweep the road had made coming out of the valley. Gawping. That’s what I’d been doing. Well, no harm done, I was on 83 and headed north. Gas stations every so often, as promised. Not much to look at but blue, blue sky, tons of grass (golden brown), and wind.

I sang to the radio, I thought in the silence, and had myself a pretty good time. One thing that’s allowed on road trips is soda, so I had plenty of that, and my new favorite, sun chips. Yum!

Headed up 83, I was very tempted to vere off and go to Dodge City, so I could “get the hell out,” but I kept going straight. Up past Garden City, which is, I think, a location for lots of stockyards. I don’t remember those, though I do remember a plume of smoke from somewhere, rocketing to the sky. I could never figure out where it was coming from because the land dipped and bent so much.  But Garden City was also my exit to Holcomb, so I took it.

Took it wrong, as it turns out, because I went straight through Scott City which has, by golly, a nice little town center. I found myself on a road headed west, which, it turns out, took me right downtown to Holcomb. I drove around for a bit, amazed that the town was so small, and decided to fill up at the gas station before I got arrested for vagrancy.

But why Holcomb? That’s where it gets weird. Holcomb was the setting for a series of murders some time back, which were documented in the book by Truman Capote called In Cold Blood. I had read this book a few years ago, and then saw every version of the movies made from it. My favorite version is the first one, starring Robert Blake, because not only is it stark, it was filmed on site. My short lived obsession with the whole matter probably wasn’t healthy, though the book was very fine. I had never read anything so descriptive that moved so briskly and held me in its thrall. Capote was a genius with this book, and it gripped me from the very first page.

One thing that always puzzled me about the book, though, was how he could have talked to everyone in town. The book gives that impression, and I wanted to know, how was it possible? A friend had joked to me that I should go there, and I want to send him the receipt from the gas station just to prove that I was!

So this town. It had three schools, a gas station, and no grocery store. No lie. Main Street had two of the schools, and there was a new school at the edge of town. Maybe there was an old bar or two, some kind of supply store, but mostly the town was houses strung along the railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere. Holcomb seemed to have linked up to Scott City, which had more of everything, so I knew they wouldn’t ever starve. But it showed me that yes, Capote could have interviewed everyone at that time. Starting with people who knew the Clutters, which is the family that got murdered. The town is that small, he could have talked to everyone.

I did not go looking for the Clutter farmhouse, because I thought that would be too creepy, even for me. I did go to the gas station. I needed gas. It was one of those places that serves as a clearing house for whatever you might need. It had the gas for sale, groceries (I discovered) inside, and, of all things, a butcher shop. Now why they would need a butcher shop with Garden City so handy, I will never know.

Kids came and went, there were plenty of kids from the high school next door. I wasn’t worried about being spotted as a Capote reader because according to Bruce Bryson (who wrote The Lost Continent and who also went to Holcomb for the same reason I did, I found out) the book In Cold Blood is banned from the town, and anyone under a certain age has not read it. So there I am in the gas station, and I have to pee. You fill up with gas, you get soda, you pee. Those are the rules. So I ask.

The nice young lady behind the counter directs me to the bathroom. There is only one and it is down a cinderblock corridor with a plywood door at the end. There are lockers, there is the bathroom to the right, and to the left, there is the butcher shop. I’ll say it was a butcher shop, because there was a large, steel table sitting on a tile floor, knives on the walls, a counter pass-through leading to the store, and blood draining into a drain on the floor. There was also a five gallon plastic bucket filled with bloody rags. I don’t mean blood-stained rags, I mean bloody rags. Dripping over the edge and on to the floor. And the bucket was sitting outside in the narrow corridor, next to the metal lockers. Not, as you might expect, in the butcher shop. I’d never seen anything like it. Most, hell, all the in-house butcher shops are freezing cold and hospital clean. Almost as if they’re cutting up plastic meat that has no blood in it.

So I use the facilities, which were old and scary (the mirror had turned yellow around the edges), and wash my hands, thinking surely it wasn’t that bad. But yes, when I went out, it was. Blood oozing into the drain in the center of the floor, the door wide open, no meat in site, and that bucket, with bloodwet rags flopping over the sides of the container, dripping on the floor. I don’t know if it was the door wide open or the bucket of bloody rags that got me more. I wasn’t worried, really, a few germs only makes you stronger, and the blood’s gotta go somewhere, right?

I’ve seen plenty of small towns where there’s only one place to go to get everything you need. I used to hang out in the grocery store next to my best friend’s house. (Grocery stores are cool, man!) I’ve seen blood before. I’ve seen the evidence of an animal being dressed in preparation for eating. It was just strange. My life is rather more urban than this. That’s my first thought. For a town that has never read its own book, it seemed a tad bizzaire. It was like all the history of the town, whether known, read, or remembered, had swirled together in this little backshop butcher’s. It rather hit me that even though the town had ceased attenting to it, there was still blood everywhere. Which was not what I thought I’d find in Holcomb.