An illustration of an orange and brown airplane flying over an art-deco building reading "Amarillo Air Terminal" with several old-fashioned cars out front
Illustration by Nadia Radic

Tabula Rasa

A Pampa native grows homesick for his hometown

by Bill Cotter

I left Texas once. It was in 1973, when I was 8 years old. I don’t remember much about that day except for the sharp musk of jet fuel near the gate at Amarillo International Airport. My mother, sisters, and I were waiting to cross the tarmac to a plane that would take us out of Texas, where we’d spent our entire lives. We were headed to Iran, halfway around the world, where my father had taken a new job.

I spent the long years away thinking hard about how to get back to the Panhandle town of Pampa, where I’d grown up; and Amarillo, 55 miles to the southwest, where my parents and grandparents were from. I would even settle for Dallas, where I was born, or Houston, our last Texas home before we flew to Tehran. But as time passed, my ideas about the Texas I yearned to come back to had shifted to a steep nostalgia linked to memories of the land: the hard spring rains that revealed the faint glimmers of flint arrowheads, where none had been before; the catchable horny toads that sunned motionless on caprocks; the mudcats and water moccasins that slid though the brown waters of the creek that meandered through Palo Duro Canyon, where my cousins and uncles and aunts spent long, hot summers. There was also the Stuckey’s where my granddad bought me my first pocketknife; the squat, spherical tanks of chemicals at the plant where my dad worked along the highway outside of Pampa; the frail statue of a tiny white deer farther along the same two-lane highway on the way to Amarillo. These quiet images formed a delicate mantle of peace in my mind, one I could retreat to whenever disquiet rose.

It took me almost 25 years to find my way home again. After three years in Tehran and Ahvaz in the mid-’70s, I spent a decade in Boston, plus shorter stretches in Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans, and elsewhere. Each year that passed added to the feeling—the certainty—that I belonged in Texas.

I finally made it back to Texas for good in the summer of 1997, after a botched attempt in the ’80s. I had been living on the edge of Las Vegas and was at the end of a long year trying to cut it as a professional poker player. The desiccating heat of the place, a case of undiagnosed acid reflux, and an unrequited crush on my roommate’s sister all finally confederated as a sudden desperation to flee that lonesome city. But where to go? Not Boston—the toughest years of my life had been spent in the frozen road-salt despair of the Hub. Not New Orleans, where I had suffered an even sharper and more hopeless one-sided crush. Not the West Coast—I’d developed a fear of earthquakes. And, of course, not New York.

At dawn, I packed my un-air-conditioned Toyota with the few things I owned—a camera, some poker books, a good frying pan, a woolen dreadnought coat I’d worn in the frigid casinos, the remains of my winnings, and about a half-dozen shoeboxes full of 50-cent pieces. I set out east. A full day later, I hit Austin, where a smattering of aunts, uncles, and cousins had moved over the years, and which seemed a logical place to settle. When I hit the city limits, I heard on the radio that Princess Diana had died. A set of feelings I’d never experienced got hold of my throat: a sense of longing for a place I’d never been mixed with grief for someone I’d never known. I pulled over on a caliche-swept breakdown lane and cried. It was over quickly. I found the way to my cousin Ann’s apartment near the University of Texas. We sat on her porch and talked about the royals. She smoked, the temperature rose, the swampy air stagnated. I wondered if Austin was where I should be.

After a few days sleeping on a couch across town at my Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Steve’s place, I found a studio apartment at the corner of 46th Street and Airport Boulevard. It was next to a train track, an operational railroad spur. Twice a year, a train carrying elephants and lions and giraffes owned by a circus passed by. I would stand at the end of the balcony and watch the menagerie, thinking everything was OK, that it was right to be home, and that I would never leave again. As the Austin years passed, seeming to accelerate as I got older, my earliest memories of my home state stayed hidden behind the palisade of my long years away. Recently, I felt the need to tease these memories out somehow. I knew if they were anywhere, they were in the Panhandle.

In early March, my wife, Krissy, and I set out from Austin with the GPS set for a hotel in downtown Amarillo located in the vicinity of the old Santa Fe building and the Amarillo National Bank building—two features of the skyline that have not changed in my lifetime. I’d made the roughly nine-hour drive to Amarillo a couple times, and as towns and landmarks slid by, a stark, pinging emptiness opened between my lungs. I knew exactly what this old feeling was, and where it came from.

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Around 1986 or ’87, when I was in my early 20s, I lived in a group home, a crooked, four-story Victorian firetrap in the Little Brazil section of Allston, Massachusetts. I’d been sent there following release from a long stretch in a hospital where I’d been treated for depression. The years in the home were mostly quiet and dull, but sometimes flecked with cadmium-red crises. A good friend there, James, lost his mind, and in the basement of the home intentionally injured himself. The mood in the home grew perilous, and the manager was worried the other residents might commit similar transgressions against themselves.

I spent my days with my friend Celia, chain-smoking and goofing around, all in a futile effort to keep the background radiation of fear and despair from getting in. We hatched a plan to get out of Boston.

“Where to?” she asked in between long drags of Tareyton 100’s. We were sitting on the porch of the home. It was April. Neither of us were saying what we were thinking, which was, we’re dead broke. Any money we met with went to cigarettes, not speculative travel.

“Amarillo,” I said.


“’rillo. It’s in Texas.”


“Both my grandmothers live there,” I said, sucking on a Winston. “They’ll help us out.”

“How do we get there?”


“The hell.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s easy. I’ve done a lot of it.”

I had—always to escape circumstances I felt would be desensitized by distance. It never worked out that way, though.

“So, we’re starting again, right?” Celia asked.

“That’s right.”

I packed a flight bag with cigarettes and clothes and slipped a straight razor in my boot. Celia stuffed a backpack full of what she thought she’d need. We’d decided to leave our meds behind. After all, if we were going to start over with everything else, we might as well be pharmacologically tabula rasa, too.

We walked down North Beacon Street to the Mass Pike on-ramp—strolled right past the tollbooth serfs—and immediately got picked up by a guy in a station wagon who wouldn’t shut up about how much he loved hamburgers. Eventually, we stopped at a hamburger joint somewhere near Hartford, Connecticut, where he ordered a Reuben. Celia and I hadn’t packed any food, so we fashioned mini sandwiches from the sugar, butter, and soda crackers that were free to anyone. Burger Man took us all the way to New Jersey, then announced we were on our own.

It was fun for a couple of hours, walking along the gravelly shoulder of the freeway talking about Texas and our mental health goals. But then, my feet started to hurt. Celia’s knees started to ache. My hip, her ankle, my neck, her molars, my shins—until we were limping and lurching and bitching like a vaudeville nightmare.

Dusk came. A sign appeared: WEIGH STATION ONE MILE ALL TRUCKS MUST STOP. Ahead of us, on the horizon, a bright sodium arc glowed. A semi with Alaska plates roared past, whipping up a stinging tempest of highway flotsam. We cursed the trucker and jammed all four of our middle fingers in the air. A couple hundred yards ahead of us, well before the weigh station, the truck stopped. Then it began to slowly back up down the breakdown lane. I hid in the weeds. But Celia, fearless, crossed her arms and waited.

“What’re you doing?” I hissed. “He’ll kill us and eat us for giving him the quadruple bird!”

She ignored me. The truck arrived. The passenger window opened, and a voice blared out.

“I’ll give y’all a ride, but I need a favor.”

I’m not at liberty to disclose what happened next—nothing lewd or felonious—but afterward, Kevin, the trucker, invited us to crash in the back of the sleeper cab. I woke from a blackout of exhaustion with a vague sense that time had passed.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Silence. An anxiety that I recognized as psychopharmaceutical withdrawal fizzed in my extremities.

“Get out,” said Kevin, from outside.

I climbed down. Darkness and cold. Celia was standing next to Kevin wearing a coat I’d never seen before. She pointed to a sign 50 yards down the road, bright in the reflected headlights of the truck.

Welcome to Texas.

“I don’t go no further,” said Kevin, climbing back up into his cab. “I ain’t welcome in that place.”

Soon after Kevin drove away and left us alone, a U-Haul driver picked us up. He smelled like low tide. He made me drive. I crossed the Arkansas border into Texas. My unmedicated body and mind clenched in weird effervescence. I fell asleep driving and nearly killed us all.

We got to Amarillo around noon. From a pay phone in Wolflin Village, I called my grandmother—my mother’s mother. All of us kids had always called her Pretty Mama, a sobriquet of her own invention. It had been some 60 hours since I’d had any medication. Celia sat next to me on the sidewalk of the strip mall watching for the driver Pretty Mama had sent to pick us up. I remember very little after that, only that I spent my time in Amarillo in bed in Pretty Mama’s spare room. Pretty Mama brought me Dr Peppers and plates of scrambled eggs and had her doctor write me prescriptions for the medicine I needed. I tried to sleep, but a wakeful twilight reigned, characterized by pangs of wistfulness and the certainty that I had screwed up yet again. Then I was on a plane back to Boston. I thought I’d been on that very aircraft before. I hadn’t, of course, but I was leaving Texas again. This time I was alone.

I was readmitted to the group home in a state of extreme disapprobation. I found out my old friend James had taken his life. I never saw Celia again. A tumultuous decade passed before I made it back home.

Krissy and I raced through Central Texas in our rental car listening to playlists on shuffle while marveling at the big sky and the variable landscape it met in a great circle around us. I pointed out features of the passing world that I did and did not remember, and we talked about what we would do when we got to Amarillo. I had no specific goals, but I did want to see if my memories of the Panhandle were really my own. I wondered, as the Hill Country slopes fell behind us and the High Plains opened up, if I had invented these memories, or borrowed them, or otherwise manufactured them from the stories my parents had told me, or from the handful of faded Kodacolor photos that had survived in a slender album from those lost days in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

We checked in at the Barfield Hotel downtown. I remembered this part of Amarillo as long stretches of empty parking lots studded with indestructible weeds baking in the glare of the late afternoon sun, and it heartened me to see this had not changed. We ate dinner in the lobby restaurant, then crashed hard after our long hours on the road.

In the morning we drove through town, found my grandparents’ old houses, and scoped out the alleys behind them. I had spent my childhood in alleyways—my nickname was Alley Cat—looking for salamanders and horny toads, collecting bottle caps, digging holes, making piles of junk. I was glad to see that not much along those minor thoroughfares had changed, either—the weathered cedar fences still leaned with the prevailing wind, threatening to collapse. The gunmetal-gray utility meters poked out of the ground like mechanical cypress knees. Busted glass glimmered everywhere. Only the wrecked Oscar-the-Grouch-style trash cans were gone, replaced by mini dumpsters.

Still, I was somehow unsettled by it all. An ineffable, interior clutching made it difficult to breath, as though I’d swallowed my own fist. I thought hard about this as we drove down streets with names like Lipscomb and Ong. A word finally came, so obvious as to be almost laughable: homesickness.

We drove toward Pampa the next day, the blight and junkyards of north Amarillo giving way to the open persistence of the dome of sky spreading over US 60. We passed through the towns of White Deer and Panhandle, traveling like a High Plains remora alongside freight trains over 100 coaches long. I felt an affirming thrill at the sight of the grain elevators and the little statue of the white deer and the spherical chemical tanks at the Cabot plant where my dad had worked—though all were far tinier than I remembered. Even the old phone poles, capped with cobalt-blue glass insulators, leaned at an angle consonant with my memories of them more than 50 years prior.

In Pampa, I got modestly hustled by a grifter at a Pump N Munch in the center of town. We found the house I’d grown up in, a tiny matchbox version of the brick mansion I thought I remembered. We found Stephen F. Austin Elementary, where I’d been a student. We also found Beech Park, with the concrete drainage tunnels set into a hill. My friend Mark had dared me to enter one of the tunnels one day when it was starting to rain.

“You might drown,” Mark had said.

Mark was my age then, 7 or so. He was afraid his heart would suddenly stop and he would die, and so he ran around with his hand on his chest, always monitoring the old ticker, forever in allegiance to the notion of it all coming to a sudden end. I could stand straight up in that center tunnel and place my palms flat on its rough ceiling. I’d close my eyes and wait for the roar and the deluge and the end of everything, but it never came.

Krissy and I drove on in our rental. We made a quick stop at Cadillac Ranch, with its 10 Caddies mummified in spray paint. We had excellent margaritas but average steaks at the Big Texan. And we dropped in at the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center in Pampa, the site of the old Harris drugstore where Woody had once worked and is thought to have acquired his first guitar. A veritable shrine to Woody and his legacy, the place is crammed full of memorabilia, books, instruments, and even the beneficent spirit of the great man. Michael Sinks, the executive director of the center, and his young student, a Christian folk singer, welcomed us while practicing songs on acoustic guitars. Krissy and I sat quietly. The student asked if we wanted to join in.

“Do you know Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy?’” Krissy asked.

“I think we can work it out,” they said.

I knew what was coming. Krissy, a retired opera singer, started slow. Then she let loose. Awe rose in the face of the young folk singer. And I saw in Krissy that she was—in a way—home again, too.

We checked out of the hotel a day later and made our way back to Austin through Canyon and Lubbock, Sweetwater and Abilene. We listened to the Indie 500 channel on Pandora, dined on sugar wafers and sour-cream-and-onion Pringles and Cokes from Allsup’s, and talked about the notions of home and homesickness. The pain of the latter was real, we concluded; it pulsed like a living thing.

Then we were quiet for a while as the landscape slid by, shifting imperceptibly from High Plains to Hill Country. I thought about the Texas of my childhood, of my ill-fated attempt to come home in the late ’80s, of the breakdown lane on the outskirts of Austin where I cried about Princess Di in the late ’90s.

But mostly I thought about the idea of my real home, in Austin, with my family just across town. I thought about my life with Krissy, inside our little house, surrounded by our books and music, papers and art; where we talk about everything and nothing; where I am safe and cannot be got, either by the faint but irresistible sirens of half-remembered innocence or by the dogged specters of harder times.

I was tempted to look in the side-view mirror for a glimpse of where we’d been, but instead I watched the road ahead, the Austin skyline resolving in the middle distance.

From the June 2023 issue

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