The ugliest place on earth lies between two places that are always, inevitably, far more appealing than this one. The only reason to ever visit this place is to get to one of these other places. If the ugliest place on earth becomes a destination it loses everything ugly about it and then there is little reason to see it at all.
It starts about an hour west of Austin, Texas. Or an hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico; an hour east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a place that is many places, places without names and often without any people in it. When I discovered it I was on I-10, the highway that runs from California to Florida, clear across the southern tip of the United States. It’s West Texas, it’s coal country Pennsylvania, it’s eastern Oregon, it’s Southall outside of London, it’s Dharavi in Mumbai. It’s all the places of the world that the world has selected to fit this category. For me, it was West Texas.
Texas is often noted for it’s massive size, for the seemingly endless swath of time you can spend just travelling from one end of the state to the other. On I-10, it is just under 1,000 miles end to end; a third of the entire country ocean to ocean. But what is seldom mentioned is what happens to the landscape as you make this trek. On the eastern edge, bordering Louisiana, Texas is a swamp, green and lush but thickly green not crisply green like in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest. Leaving Central Texas, most easily identified as Austin, you enter Hill Country and you are for the first time assured that you are distinctly in Texas now. The rolling hills are a quiet kind of yellow, sanded and scorched but not quiet desert country, and they are dotted with a combination of Southwestern Prickly Pears and more lush Fragrant Ash trees. It’s a quiet back and forth that even the most nature-resistant traveller can’t help but take note of.
Eventually, we come to the towns. Again in a wholly unique and uniquely Texas manner each town looks exactly like the one before it yet either by their individual nature or their cumulative volume they tell a story as big as the state itself. They all look as if they once offered large promises and aspirations for new residents and in a funny way, even in their dilapidated states, they still preach that gospel of possibility. Each town’s colors tend to mirror the part of Texas they inhabit rather than complement or balance them out. The further west you go the more yellow and scorched the gas stations and houses, always a few boarded up, look. The entire towns are always very low to the ground, almost as if to appear born straight from the earth itself. But compared to parts of the country far more lush and irrigated, these places are entirely man-made. There is no soil to seed or tree to tap. For a house to stand in these towns it must always be in battle with nature; trying to cool the unbearable heat and quench the thirst of the air and inhabitants alike.
These towns start out separated by about fifty miles but become far more infrequent. They do not grow in size, they do not offer more for the long distance traveller and for this reason what they do offer becomes more and more valuable. The convenience store you passed two hundred miles back until you could find a more recognizable chain becomes more than welcomed by the time you get around Van Horn, Texas. It’s not even convenience anymore, it’s dinner. For many, this is the ugliness in full force, travel becoming survival. But baseline survival can be an incredibly rewarding style of travel. It can make the unwanted, embraced and the ugly something to marvel at.
There’s certainly something voyeuristic about viewing your travels like this, embracing beauty in “ugliness” and finding other people’s daily life as a form of survival. Part of it is truly the burden of necessity with so few routes to take you the full 1,000 miles and so few reasons to seek out these places as destinations in their own right. To combat this approach to West Texas or any of the other ugliest places on earth while still maintaining this openness and appreciation for that which makes it worth at least passing through, try to think of the destinations you get to on this route (New Orleans, Austin, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, Los Angeles) as much as markers of how far you’ve traveled as destinations to get to. These in between places, particularly the “ugly” ones are more reflective of you—neither here nor there, unknown and often unknowable—than the cities or landmarks you think you’re seeking out. Be like the low yellow houses of West Texas and mirror your surroundings rather than cover them up. You might be surprised how much beauty you encounter.
By Jake Sorgen