The Eyes of Texas in Oxford (Instagram photo by Wescott Eberts).
Admission -- I can be kind of a crappy planner. Just ask my ex-girlfriend, who sometimes had to go behind my back and talk to my mom to make sure that certain trip plans would get done.
It's a remnant of a past self, but a remnant that occasionally re-surfaces. Like my planning for the trip to Oxford. Offered a place to stay several weeks ago, the idea of going gestated and marinated in my brain, but it wasn't until PB mentioned that several friends were going on Wednesday that it turned absolutely serious.
With confirmation of a ride on Thursday and accommodations, the only remaining obstacle was a ticket. Solved by PB's friends, who had an extra. Sometimes, life just comes together, no small feat considering the length of time most had been planning their Oxford adventure.
I'm a lucky guy.
North from Austin up I-35 to Waco, where the churches begin to outnumber the people. East from Waco through the cow pastures of east-central Texas, overrun in many places by noxious weeds. Through the Lone Star State's bible belt, home of small towns with their pockets of grinding poverty. To the piney woods of east Texas, where churches still outnumber people and Donut Palaces are ubiquitous.
Outside Tyler, two church signs in a row by the side of the road, then a sign for a concealed handgun class.
"At the church," someone jokes.
Shreveport. More casinos. A weathered gas station attendant points us to the nearest liquor store, the deep lines etched into her face the signs of hard living. Next to the register, a keychain breathalyzer. By the door, Swamp People hats. Somehow, it all seems so Louisiana.
Mr. Thrifty Liquors, home of discounted Arbor Mist, a packed parking lot, security guards experienced on this day in removing loitering visitors, and raised eyebrows at the purchase of Maker's Mark, perhaps the finest liquor purchased in the store for some time, at least judging by the surprise of the clerk. It all seems so Louisiana.
Monroe, a city known for a high crime rate, especially assault and larceny. A stop at Chik-Fil-A, including the purchase of sandwiches for the evening and the morrow, the latter of which are eventually consumed 24 hours later with little to no ill effects.
On the drive home, one remains in the bag in the backseat, the subject of repeated jokes and suggested science experiments. The consensus becomes that the salt contained therein could preserve the sandwich indefinitely.
South at Vicksburg, headed to spend a night in the decaying town of Port Gibson, one of the oldest settlements in Mississippi, the site of a key defeat for the Rebels against the Union, and a town that now seems stuck in another era.
Upon arrival, a zombie totters in a crosswalk encased in the shadows cast by a tree blocking the light of the nearest signpost, the creature's destination, origin, and intoxicant of choice unknown.
Someone cracks that if zombies invaded Port Gibson, no one would know for months. That the town is too backwards to even know about bath salts.
The former slave quarters loom in the back of the 150-year-old home, along with the old kitchen, which were known for burning down in those days. The ancient floorboards inside bear the mark of years, the tread of feet long departed, of lives come and gone, perhaps forgotten, leaving only a tangible yet ungraspable presence of their passing.
There's something haunting about the history of the place, but the bed is welcome after a long day in the car and stories swapped over Miller Lites and bourbon.
Early morning in Port Gibson. Cool enough that the humidity lies dormant as simply that extra hint of coolness from the moisture in the air, as the fingers of summer slowly lose their grasp and slide again into the abyss otherwise known as fall in the South, ever with the promise of a spring return, fists clenched and ready to throw the flurry of haymakers and uppercuts that are summer.
I walk outside to take a picture of the slave quarters and a shiver passes down my spine -- my first encounter with the Deep South, with such legacies, face to face. A heavy weight of the past that I can only suppose is like the humidity of a Mississippi mid-summer day, when the angry sun bears down in concert with the suspended water particles, heavy all like the ball and chain.
Across the street, a long-abandoned building with cracking plaster exposing the bricks, a secret never supposed to see the light of day, an utterance never meant to pass through lips and into the world, the marks of time slashed across the building that have removed the skin lying over scarred welts from a cat o' nine tails, weathered wooden doors assaulted by the elements and bottles of Cobra malt liquor in paper bags thrown into a gap between stairs and door all while desperation and hopelessness and poverty lie thick in the air like the sticky-sweet stench of booze left festering.
Other antebellum houses, once proud, now decayed and decaying. The memories linger, the haunting reminders still clear, though the opulence has long since faded.
A mural by a lamppost with a banner that proclaims Port Gibson as a Real-Life Postcard. On the mural, a sign for the Peanut Butter and Jelly theater, whatever that is. What appears to be a former slave, accompanied by the script, "What is is/This freedom." Another poignant reminder of the past, as if there needs be another.
Up the Natchez Trace, the ancient road that once connected Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville Tennessee, a road used by Native Americans and European fur traders and then modernized by Thomas Jefferson, which helped foster the development of towns like Port Gibson.
Today, it's commemorated with the parkway and the trail, most of which, from Port Gibson to Jackson, lies completely undeveloped and outside of cell phone reception. The Trace is off the grid.
Early morning fog hangs in the fields, in the openings in the forest, more ancient than the Trace itself. The fog, the legacy of the South, of slavery and secession, shot through at intervals by sunlight, by advancement, by the breaking of old traditions. By hints of modernity, even in the undeveloped Trace.
Out of the Trace and around Jackson, the capital and largest city in Mississippi. North to Batesville, where Longhorn fans mob a gas station and we stock up on ice, water, but not Vitamin Water Energy. This is important, because the absence is distressing, the previous night of sleep too short. On such a weekend, small distresses lay heavy amid the thrill of travel.
East to Oxford.
We head to the media parking lot, in the shadow of Vaught-Hemingway stadium. An Ole Miss fan ambles over, curious how a group of Longhorn fans secured such a spot. He's friendly and jovial, that unique combination of good old boy and salt of the earth. We invite him to the tailgate next year in Austin and share a few stories. His hospitality is not an anomaly -- it's the way it is in Oxford.
A tent village amongst the old-growth oaks. Inflatable Colonel Rebs. Chandeliers, flower arrangements, linen tablecloths, excellent food. In many ways, the Grove resembles most tailgates around the country, just concentrated in a small area, then elevated with those unique Southern touches and the welcoming hospitality that is so completely Southern as well.
The people are friendly and helpful, as advertised. Many Ole Miss fans walk by and welcome us to Oxford, offer their hopes that we enjoy ourselves. Only one low-level taunt in the student parking lot of the apartment building where we still the night. Otherwise, it's nothing but "Hotty Toddy."
The ladies of Oxford, as pretty as advertised, with their sweet Southern charm and graceful acceptance of compliments. Most in heels or wedges, smiles concealing whatever pain they may feel while walking around the Grove. We joke that they must take classes on how keep their hair perfect in the humidity, how to walk in heels. There are remarkably few falls given the treacherous conditions -- drunkenness, walkway edges, the roots of the giant oak trees.
These ladies are professionals, dressed to impress in their heels and skirts, with no particular concern for wearing the Rebel red and blue -- there are green dresses, black dresses, polka dot dresses, nude dresses. The surprise? Cowboy boots for the more practical, more country girls. Commonplace in Texas, their presence here in Mississippi is unexpected.
The Longhorn ladies hold their own. The favored combination of skirts and cowboys boots not outmatched by the Oxford finery, the effort level perhaps elevated a notch by the competition.
There are friends, co-writers. A random encounter with Inside Texas recruiting analyst Eric Nahlin. A reminder of beers owed, with full payment to be made at a later time. Half of 40AS and his lovely better half and beautiful baby, walking past and hailed down for a conversation. Billfromlaketravis and his girlfriend, in matching seersucker pants and skirt (Bill was wearing the pants).
Texas fans everywhere, resplendent in burnt orange. A shocking number -- hardly outnumbered by Ole Miss fans. They mingle freely and easily with opposing fans who are most certainly not the enemy, but rather an excuse to take in a scene unrivaled anywhere else in the college football world.
The Walk of Champions. Two hours before the game, the team marches through the Grove to accept the adulations of fans. Upon their passing, drinks fly in great parabolic arcs, the contents jettisoned from the red solo cups for which the Grove is known, dousing the crowd packed around the walkway.
I turn to a gorgeous young Ole Miss coed at the tailgate and ask her if it's normal. She says it is, and we both agree that taking in the game covered in the stickiness and beer and mixed liquor drinks is no way to live. There appear to be few females in that particular crowd and it's a rare undignified moment for a fanbase that conducts itself with unusual class.
On a day that was a marathon and not a sprint with the 8:15 pm start time, it's a tribute to both fanbases that there are few, if any, highly intoxicated persons wandering through the Grove prior to gametime and no noticeable conflicts between Texas and Ole Miss fans, who mingle amiably the entire afternoon.
Ole Miss fans get to the stadium early, with many in their seats 30 minutes before the game. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium isn't the most imposing venue in the SEC, holding just more than 60,000 students, but the sight of 50,000 Ole Miss fans waving their red pom-poms in unison is an impressive sight, and they are at full throat to start the game.
A first down for the Rebels and a punt give the ball to the Longhorns, but another punt returns the ball to the home team before Bo Wallace fails to identify Texas sophomore middle linebacker Steve Edmond dropping into the flat. Edmond fulfills the talk about his excellent hands, snagging the pass easily and then showing some athleticism to find his way into the endzone, quieting the rowdy crowd.
The crowd has a noticeable impact on the Longhorn playcalling -- each first down through much of the game results is a run call and it's clear that Bryan Harsin wants to ease David Ash into the contest to help him acclimate to the first hostile environment encountered in the 2012 season.
When Harsin does unleash Ash, the results are more spectacular than any offensive performance in recent Texas history.
Yet, every time it seems that the offense is ready to completely shut the door on the pesky Rebels, the defense gives up a big play, especially through the air, which was completely uncharacteristic of essentially the same group last season, which didn't give up long touchdown passes the entire season until being sliced and diced by RGIII at Floyd Casey.
Eventually, the explosive Texas offense buries the Rebels under a rain of Ash bombs to Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin, an offensive line mostly dominating at the point of attack, and hard-charging running backs, from the starters down to DJ Monroe, Johnathan Gray, and Jeremy Hills, who punish Ole Miss opponents at every opportunity.
Similarly punishing are the Texas defensive linemen early in the game, hitting Wallace early and often, with Kenny Vaccaro then essentially delivering the killshot to the ribs. While Wallace stays in the game, he walks gingerly off the field after nearly every possession thereafter, appearing by the end as if he would not take another quarter going against that Longhorn defense for any amount of money.
By late in the third quarter, most Ole Miss fans have departed to either break down their tailgates in the Grove or work on winning the after party, leaving a large contingent of Longhorns to revel in the road victory.
On a trip to the concourse at the start of the fourth quarter, as Ole Miss has the ball, the crowd reaction seems to indicate a big play by the Rebel offense -- one of the loudest outbursts after halftime. Instead, the PA announcer reveals it was the second interception of the night for Quandre Diggs, one of the high points in a relatively uneven performance.
Such was the evening -- cheers befitting the home team reserved by the end for the visitors by the visitors.
By the final whistle, the 10,000 or so Texas fans, very few of whom left the stadium early despite the blowout, drown out the Ole Miss band with the Texas fight song. Then, in a perfect end to my first road game as a Longhorn fan, I belt out a triumphant Eyes of Texas at the top of my lungs with all the similarly jubilant burnt orange faithful laying claim to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as the Texas flag waves near the endzone. It is a scene to behold.
Perhaps aided by the cool of the evening, I get chills. There's always something special about singing the Eyes after any big victory, but doing so in an opposing stadium, letting another fanbase know, on their own turf, that the Eyes of Texas are upon them? That's a unique feeling.
An early morning sunrise in Oxford. Smart student living apparently includes parking lot littering. There's trash everywhere. Fast food containers. A broken bottle of pre-mixed
Oxford recedes into the rearview mirror, giving way to the gently rolling hills of Mississippi, verdant still in late summer.
Sleep, sweet sleep, through the morning. Through Mississippi, Arkansas.
Lunch in Texarkana with the church crowd at McAlister's Deli. Two splashes of burnt orange in a sea of Sunday's finest, with two more heathens less prominently displaying their allegiance.
Four worshippers who had paid their respects at the altar of football the night before. At peace with our own higher powers.
Wildflowers by the side of the road outside Mount Pleasant, Texas, conjured up from the earth by the recent rains.
More rain, steady rain. A band of it from the Mexico border, through San Antonio, Austin, Waco, the entire I-35 corridor to the Metroplex, moving slowly north, a steady, not-quite-soaking rain that kindly falls gently enough so as not to inhibit the steady march homeward.
Rain all the way home, past the Czech Stop in West, kolaches topping off the weekend's poor diet. YOLO, no? A diet to come.
Rain to the doorstep in Austin. Rain on Friday at departure -- 68 degrees. Rain on return -- 68 degrees.
One weekend. Roughly 24 hours spent on the road. Only 18 hours spent in Oxford, but memories enough for a lifetime. A vocal chord-destroying rendition of the Eyes of Texas with 10,000 other Longhorn faithful in the most friendly hostile environment imaginable will make those. The Grove, packed to the gills, will make those. Laughs with good people will make those. A look into the ever-brightening future of Texas football will make those, defensive lapses aside.
All of a sudden, it's good to be a Longhorn football fan again.
Hook ‘em, from Austin to Oxford and back, and all points in between. And a Texas-sized thanks to all those wonderful Ole Miss fans. Y'all, and the Grove, were as hospitable and impressive as advertised.