Sarah Hepola

The slow and uncertain
process of filling it in

A trip to the Penny Grave

The road back from a road trip can be a drag. I’d taken three luxurious days to drive out to West Texas, drawing a crooked line to the left corner of the state, but I was returning to Dallas in one long afternoon, a mostly straight line along the bright blue vein of an interstate. I’d planned a few stops to stave off boredom. A breakfast-taco joint near the Fort Stockton train station. A Brownwood cafeteria with killer chicken-fried steak whose entryway hung with photos of high school football players gone pro. And then there was the Penny Grave.

I learned about the Penny Grave on TripAdvisor, which led me toward a site called Texas Escapes, which is how I ended up taking an hour-long excursion off US 67 to a desolate spot in Comanche County. The trek would have been much faster if I hadn’t gotten lost, wandering down three unmarked gravel roads before finding the right one. Even my GPS was growing skeptical. Like, maybe turn here? Nothing but abandoned shacks and empty roads around here.

I think about stretches like this when I hear about the overpopulating planet. No room, no resources, people on top of people. That’s city life, but country life? Miles and miles to stretch your legs. I have driven across the U.S., and it is filled with wide open spaces, abandoned by everyone but animals and stubborn mesquite trees. I’m fascinated by the secret worlds of empty pastures.  Does nothing happen here? Does everything?

The Penny Grave is the supposed gravesite of a three-year-old pioneer girl who died on the trail in 1870. No backstory, no context, but the sad tale goes that she died here and so was buried here. Over the years the site became a beacon for people passing through, who began to place pennies on the gravestone in commemoration. “You will never see anything like this again,” read one review I’d found online.

I grew up in Texas, complaining about the heat, and the conservatism, and why on earth my mother would not give us cable. But I was so far removed from the state’s real brutality, its squinty eyes and parched thirst. I spent my adolescence tucked away in an air-conditioned living room watching sitcoms, snuggled in blankets even during the summer months. I own two pair of cowboy boots, one red and one turquoise, and I bought both in a vintage store in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles — that’s how Texan I am. Even my cowboy boots come from someplace else.

But driving across the state, and wandering off the well-traveled corridors, has placed me closer to the past. Imagine this trip in a covered wagon; I can barely manage it in my 2013 Honda. How tough and unsparing such a journey would make a person. Hard to believe anyone was ever nice back then. I often think of Larry McMurtry lines when I’m driving through the Great Plains. This one about the pioneers, from his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: “They did stare into the emptiness and start the slow and uncertain process of filling it in.”

I was about a mile and a half on the gravel road when I spotted what had to be the Penny Grave. A pile of white rocks and random keepsakes by the side of the road. I had imagined something slightly more, well, grave — but this being America, and this being Texas, the site was surrounded by empty Coors Light cans, plastic flowers, and stuffed animals that had been soaked by rain only to bake again in the sun, their fur acquiring a slick, matted look. A teddy bear in aviator sunglasses holding a large wheel in his hand dominated the pile for no reason I could figure except that someone thought it looked cool. I found it tacky, but then again, maybe the aviator bear was exactly the kind of symbol a three-year-old girl would choose for herself. Once, when I was three, my mother let me dress myself for preschool, and I chose a sequined leotard I’d nicknamed Sparkle Plenty.

There were two gravestones covered in pennies. One read, in a shaky font that appeared to be index finger dragged in wet cement, “Who is the little girl, age three?” The other was neatly chiseled by machine, the kind of headstone you’d find in a proper cemetery: “Little Girl Age 3 Name Unknown Died 1870 Moving West.” I pulled out my wallet, fished out a few pennies, and placed them on the pile.

Look, I don’t know if she’s really there. I find it unlikely that a random gravesite has endured for 150 years. And why? And how? I find it far more likely that a story began in a saloon one day, and a legend grew out of it, and kept growing and growing. But for whatever reason, travelers like me have been making this pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere for years, paying tribute to some anonymous spirit, some idea of loss and hardship, a little girl who died on the way from here to there.

The day was searing hot, late July close to 3pm, and I was wearing jeans and a tank top and flip-flops dusty from the short trek across the road. I did a tree pose on either side, bare foot braced along inside of my knee, to sweep my feet clean of gravel, and then I tried to stand solemnly for a moment paying my respect. To who? To what? It was hard to be serious with that silly aviator bear staring me in the face.

Three years old. I used to work at a daycare in college, and my favorite ages were three to five. You can watch their personalities blossom, but they still want to cuddle. After seven, I’m done with them. Earlier than three, I’m not sure what to do with them. I volunteered in the newborn ward of the city hospital, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to swaddle the babies, but later I realized the mothers didn’t know either. Nobody knows how to do something until they’ve done it.

I heard a sprinkler system kick on. That was weird. Who was watering this empty pasture? At this blistering hour of the day? But there it was, the percussive tschk-tschk-tschk. That loud steady rattle.

Wait a minute.

I backed away from the grave slowly, one dusty flip-flop at a time, my eyes sweeping the perimeter for snakes that never did show. Whatever was lurking in those mesquite trees, whatever was buried under the pile of rocks, had issued a warning to trespassers, and I took heed. My heart was a high pitter-patter as I got back into my car, where no rattlesnakes could reach me, casting a nervous glance in the back seat to make sure I was alone, and then I barreled home, to my air conditioned carriage house with no cable but Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime.

You never know how to do something until you’ve done it. You never learn a place until you go. I am a lousy Texan, but I am getting better.