I love watching the sky as I drive along Route 98, maybe just a little bit too much. Seems I can’t drive and take pictures at the same time. I have to keep stopping whenever a pretty cloud catches my eye, or drive into one of those darned posts that seem to dot the Texas skyline, a little bit too frequently if you ask me.
I decided this time last year that I was finally gonna do me some travelin’. My momma and daddy were long gone, my son had his own life and me…well I was just kind of sitting around waiting for life to happen to me. Got up one morning and decided that I was gonna make life happen. So I phoned all the utility companies, shut everything off, had all my mail forwarded to my sister’s house, shut my house up tight and with a few necessities; my Kindle, laptop, 10 sets of clothes, etc., I set off on what I hoped would be an awesome adventure.
Today I just wasn’t making good time, because there were just too many darned cute clouds in the sky. I stopped at one of those rest areas by the side of the highway, took out a blanket and just lay in the grass looking up at the sky. It was so clear and bright blue and I lay there clicking pictures of the clouds. That one there to the left was shaped like an elephant with one long ear and a very short trunk. That one down at the bottom right looked like a little hand and a big hand just holding each other. They were beautiful, just beautiful. I guess you can tell I’m fascinated by clouds; I always have been. Never did matter where I was, I always found a reason to lay down in the grass and watch the clouds. I always wondered if God sent those pretty shaped clouds just for me. I’d like to think He did. Anyway, I must have spent an hour or so there and by the time I left there were parents laying on blankets pointing out clouds to their little ones.
It must have been around 5:30 p.m. that evening before my stomach suddenly, and quite loudly, started complaining that it was hungry and I had no idea if there was a place nearby to bed down or to have supper. Seemed kind of like fate when I saw that little sign post up ahead that read, ‘Next Right. Corazon Hermoso 20mi.’ I hoped that town was as beautiful as that signpost said it was. I turned that corner fast and found only gravel, but I enjoyed the sound of it crunching under my tires.
Didn’t take very long to come on Corazon Hermoso. If I’d blinked I’d of driven right past it, but I have to admit it was quaint. My stomach rumbled again reminding me that it hadn’t eaten all day and I poked it twice and promised it some grub as soon as I found a restaurant. I drove another couple of miles inside of town and came upon Willie’s Roadside Emporium. It looked like one of those old train car restaurants. You know the ones I’m talking about? The ones that are shiny and silver on the outside and you can see it for miles around, but this one looked like it had seen better days. Someone had made a very nice effort and planted colorful, eye-popping flowers all around it. The sidewalk was nice and clean and there were two benches by the front door, one on each side. The windows were so clean and shiny I could see myself in them. The place looked a bit worn, but welcoming like a favorite Lazy boy chair with an owner that obviously still took pride in it.
The bell over the door jingled cheerfully as I entered Willie’s and once my eyes had adjusted from being out in the bright sunshine, I found myself looking at one of the most cheerful restaurants on the face of this earth. Here I thought the white and red-checkered table clothes and red leather restaurant seats were long gone, but here they were and looking as new as the day they’d been put in. You could see that they were lovingly cared for. The leather glistened in the sun and I could smell just a little bit of the leather oil as I made my way to the counter.
The person behind the cash register looked up and smiled brightly, “Welcome. I’m Earl! Take a seat anywhere and the waitress will be right with you.” I smiled back feeling right at home.
I found myself a table by one of the front windows so I could look at the sky and soak up the character of the place. The waitress skipped up to my table and introduced herself as Shirley (is it my imagination or is there a Shirley at every roadside restaurant?) and gave me the menu, but then more or less told me what I should eat. It seemed Willie was the best cook in town, so I just took her advice and handed her back the menu without ever opening it. A few minutes later the bell over the door jingled again and in walked what I thought had to be a teenage girl. Round brown face (she obviously spent lots of time in the sun), big liquid, hot chocolate brown eyes and lots of brown hair with reddish tinges to attest the time spent in the sun.
Shirley shouted over her shoulder, “What’ll it be today Mags?” “Same as usual Shirley,” responded Mags.
Did I tell you I also love to watch people? I do! I sat and watched as a few more people came in and Shirley would call out their names and ask them what they wanted and their response was always the same, “Same as usual Shirley.” There was a camaraderie and affection there that made me long for home. I wasn’t looking at a waitress and her customers I was looking at family.
I like to think I have a knack for knowin’ what people work at or like to eat, so I started my little game as I watched each person. Darned if I wasn’t right with most of them. That leather skinned man in the corner with the cowboy hat, that he refused to remove, had steak slathered in mushrooms, jalapeños and cheese, a big serving of potatoes and big yeasty rolls and a huge cup of black coffee. The elderly woman in the corner with the two little ones had roast beef, green beans, a baked potato and a long, cold ice tea, while the little ones each had chicken fries, a big serving of Texas potato chips and nice cold glass of lemonade and strawberry ice cream for dessert.
Mags just sat and drank her water and worked on the laptop she’d plopped on her table. Shirley brought my meal to the table with a huge grin on her face, along with the biggest glass of peach tea I’d ever seen. Someone else was pretty good at guessing what people liked to eat and drink. She set the plate in front of me with a grand gesture and told me to dig in. There on my plate sat a mound of juicy arracheras (skirt steak), red rice with olives and a large helping of the most delicious refried beans. Oh you could smell the lemon, garlic and cilantro on the arracheras and the azafran just wafting up from the rice, and the beans…oh my! I felt like I was back in my momma’s kitchen.
I lost myself in my meal. Every mouthful was a memory and a sound from my past. I ate until I was stuffed and wondered if I should order dessert or just go out and sit in my car so I wouldn’t explode in Willie’s.
I know I must have had a big satisfied smile on my face ‘cause when I looked up Shirley was grinning my way.
“Hey Earl,” Shirley called out over her shoulder, “I’m taking a break. I’m gonna go find me a nice table to relax at.”
Earl muttered, “Sure, sure, but serve Mags first will ya?”
I really, really wanted to see this meal that Mags had waited over forty minutes for and thought it must be something that had to be delicately cooked or baked. Imagine my surprise when Shirley presented Mags with a plate of undercooked eggs, underdone potatoes and burnt toast slathered in butter. When I say burnt toast, I don’t mean just crispy, I mean burnt black. Mags picked up a piece of toast, bit down on it, closed her eyes and sighed. I’d never seen such a happy, contented smile on anyone’s face. The look on mine must have been something to behold because Shirley, who’d chosen my table to relax at, was laughing her light blue eyes sparkling with humor.
“You’re probably wondering why it took so long to get her meal ready when it looks like that, aren’t ya?” she asked. “Willie says it takes skill to ruin a simple breakfast and it always takes forever for him to burn the toast just right and undercook the eggs and potatoes in the way that Mags likes,” she said with a grin. She proceeded to tell me all about Mags and her daddy. And how when first meeting little Mags big, tough Willie had taken one look into the eyes of the lost, hurting eight year old girl and had lost his heart. Half an hour later he’d uncovered the story of their lives and learned that her momma had passed a few months earlier. Miguel Alvarado had found living in the small town of Paraiso impossible without the love of his life and had decided they needed to find a new life for themselves. By luck they’d chanced to pass through Corazon Hermoso and stopped at Willie’s Roadside Emporium and had never left.
I heard a soft, slightly gruff voice say, “My turn,” and found a big bear of a man carrying an enormous Dallas Cowboys cup making himself comfortable at my table as well. Willie recalled that she wouldn’t eat what her daddy had ordered for her and eventually, with her daddy’s agreement and supervision, he’d taken Mags behind the counter to show him how the toast, eggs and potatoes should be made. That day Willie had learned that it didn’t necessarily take a cordon bleu chef to bring taste buds happiness.
Chellie Alvarado hadn’t been much of a cook and her breakfasts had always consisted of burnt toast slathered in butter, undercooked eggs and underdone potatoes with a big glass of cold chocolate milk. She had poured her heart into making this simple meal for her daughter and husband. So now whenever Mags was missing her momma she’d make her way to Willie’s and ask for her usual, her momma’s burnt meal. Taste and smell would come together to bring up some mighty powerful feelings and memories.
I sat there for an hour just listening to Willie talk about his beloved town and all the people that lived in her. Afterward he introduced me to everyone in the diner, by name. He’d point each of them out, give me their names and then he’d say, “Hey! Say hi to Miss Beth here. She’s a visitor to our town.” I’d never seen anything like it, but everyone would get up from the table, come up and either hug me or shake my hand. I felt like crying. It felt like family.
The thirty minutes I’d intended to spend in Willie’s Roadside Emporium stretched to three hours and by that time it was way too late to drive and I hadn’t seen a hotel, motel or inn anywhere. Before I had a chance to say anything Mags offered me the hospitality of her home. It felt natural to accept and before I knew it I was following behind her and driving out the other end of town. We drove past a few small farms before finally reaching her little home. It was quite dark out, but you could see all the stars in the sky and an occasional cloud.
I was tired, having driven most of the day and then talking or rather listening the rest, but when Mags offered coffee I couldn’t refuse. Miguel Alvarado was busy at the sink filling the coffee pot with water when we walked in. He must have been 5’7” or 8” and towered over his daughter. He turned and welcomed both of us, a big smile on his face, his eyes all lit up with laughter. You could see all the laugh lines around his eyes and you could tell that he spent a big part of his life just laughing; Corazon Hermoso had done that for him.
We sat up another couple of hours and I learned that both Mags and her daddy were the town’s veterinarians. That had been Miguel’s job before moving to Corazon Hermoso and later when fifteen-year-old Mags had decided to follow in her daddy’s footsteps the entire town had come together to help pay for her schooling at the U. of I. College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, Illinois. It had been a long eight years for Miguel who was lonely without his daughter, but his new family had made sure he was never left alone. Miguel said he’d made arrangements, once, to pay them back and they’d emphatically refused and made sure Miguel understood that there were no strings attached. Family was family and family helped family no matter what. By the time I went to bed that night I’d fallen in love with Corazon Hermoso.
I woke up with the breeze fluttering across my face, the sun warm and bright and for just a minute I couldn’t remember where I was all I knew was that I was happy and content. I made my way downstairs and found that Mags and her daddy were just coming in. Mags had been up most the night with a sick horse and Miguel had been checking leather-faced guy’s parrot. I didn’t ask, I just told them I was making breakfast and started to prepare it as they said thank you with a smile and went upstairs to wash up.
Mags invited me to go with her as she visited her patients that day, almost as if it was understood that I’d be stayin’ again that night. I breathed in the cool, clean air as we bumped along dirt roads and closing my eyes I could hear the crickets, frogs and the river harmonizing beautifully as the water rolled, skipped and hopped over stones in the riverbed. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed the beauty of this little town the day before. I guess I’d only been looking at what was in front of me and not beyond that. The flat dusty land had given way to all this beauty of green lush grass, crystalline water and bright rich blue skies that seemed to go on forever with its fluffy clouds. I felt like I was in a painting.
I spent a week there all told. I saw a foal being born, held a little girl’s hand as her mama cat gave birth to 6 kittens. I had coffee with the leather-skinned guy while Mags checked out his parrot and cried with a little boy when his puppy breathed its last. The entire time Mags and her daddy were there soothing and rubbing a muzzle, whispering encouragement to frightened mares and treating each and everyone as if they were just as important as the last. You could tell that the Alvarados’ loved their work, their patients and their Corazon Hermoso family.
My last day in town was a Sunday and we all went to church together. God’s Beautiful Heart Baptist church was small, but it was large enough to fit in everyone in town. Pastor Mattison’s message was beautiful and once again I felt God tugging at my heart in regards to my own family. When we started to sing, ‘His Eye Is On the Sparrow,’ I felt like crying. I could hear my daddy singing that song with his strong, beautiful voice and when we reached the chorus, I let the song just burst from my heart as tears rolled down my cheeks.
I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me (He watches me) His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches (I know he watches)(I know he watches me)
Lunchtime was uproarious; my face and stomach hurt from so much laughing. They’d set up tables all around the church and everyone had brought a dish to pass. Willie was barbecuing burgers; steaks, arracheras and ears of corn and giving out cooking advice as men and women alike wrote down recipes. At one of the table several men gathered round to watch an arm wrestling contest and I laughed as Shirley beat Earl…again. Doc Huston checked everyone’s blood pressures and pulse and gave free medical advice at another and Millie Pressig gave beauty tips at another. The children jumped and ran all over the place and would go up and hug everyone and were hugged in return. I learned this was a regular Sunday occurrence.
I was content just sitting eating my arracheras, rice and beans with Pastor Mattison and his wife and watching everyone interact. Shirley and Mags joined us, both flushed and laughing and out of the blue Mags asked, “Beth do you miss your family? Isn’t it hard being away from them for so long?” I smiled and replied, “You know I was just thinking it’s time to go home. I miss my family.”
I spent one more night under the Alvarado’s roof, made breakfast for them the next morning and hugged and kissed everyone who’d come by to see me off. I gave my email and my home address to everyone, but I found it was just so hard to leave. I finally gave one last round of kisses and said goodbye.
I knew I was grinning as I drove out of Corazon Hermoso. I’d never spent a happier time, other than when I was with my own family. Being here had confirmed the importance of family and how vital it was to spend time with them and to make each moment count. I didn’t look back as I drove away, because I knew I’d be back, but to tell you the truth I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if that little signpost had magically disappeared. It had felt like that kind of town or should I say it had felt like God’s hand at work giving me a little pat and a push homeward. Well He didn’t have to tell me twice; I drove off happily with my arrachera lunch that Willie had packed for me and my camera at the ready, just in case a cute cloud showed up, and pointed the car towards home.