In my home state, people know you could be talking about two different parts of Texas depending on where you put the inflection and pauses when you say the words “West Texas.”
If you’re speaking of West Texas, you’re talking about endlessly flat plains where you might see a fair number of tumbleweeds as you make your way toward New Mexico.
If you’re speaking of West, pause, Texas, well, you’re talking about a tiny little town of about 2,800 people.
To the uninitiated it was once barely a blip on the radar as you traveled along the I-35 corridor that runs from north of Dallas-Fort Worth down through Waco, Austin, San Marcos and San Antonio, all the way down to Laredo at the Mexican border. It’s just one of a countless number of tiny towns along the way that might have a gas station or Sonic for passers-by in need of a pit stop.
To Texans like myself, used to traveling that strip of highway, it’s THE pit stop. You may really want something to drink or need to use the facilities in Hillsboro or Waco, but you’re going to hold out the extra 15 minutes until West because it comes with something extra special: kolaches, delicious little danishes born out of the Czech heritage so celebrated in that tiny community.
Now the rest of the nation knows West as that city outside of Waco that was devastated by the explosion of a fertilizer plant Wednesday night. As of this writing, CNN said the death toll stood at 35 souls, with more than 160 injured.
Dozens of the injured were transported to the trauma center at the Waco hospital where I was born. Countless homes, an apartment building, a school and nursing home were flattened by the blast. Residents and even emergency officials were evacuated under threat of a second explosion and kept out due to chemical fumes.
I first found out about the explosion from my mother, who was watching breaking news coverage on one of the Dallas television channels, about 90 minutes north of West. She texted information to me for a good half hour before CNN, MSNBC or any of the other cable channels picked up the news.
Unable to see the video coverage and first-hand accounts, I didn’t have a good sense of the magnitude of the situation until I received the following from my mother: “They’re saying 60 dead, 100 injured so far. Not official.”
The initial death toll turned out — at least so far, thank God — higher than a still-staggering number, but I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes filled with tears as the updates came pouring in over my phone.
But still, even one death as a result of this devastating explosion cuts at the heart of most Texans. Along the I-35 corridor — and maybe throughout the entire state — West is the most well-known town of its size in Texas.
It’s not JUST a pit stop, it’s beloved by the people of its state. West is an integral part of Texas culture, just like really spicy food, fields of bluebonnets in springtime and a warm smile to a stranger. In my family, it’s a crime if you pass through the town and don’t stop to pick up a variety of treats to share with everyone back home.
West is also an anomaly. Not many cities or neighborhoods in Texas have such strong cultural ties to another part of the world — at least not to the extent that Western New York does. Many Texans are simply Texans. I have to go back several generations before I can even find an ancestor who came from another country.
But West is Czech to the core and they celebrate that heritage with their annual Westfest on Labor Day weekend and by sharing the delectable sweet treats with all of Texas’ road-weary travelers.
My heart breaks for what the citizens of this small Texas town are going through ... but it simultaneously swells as I see those same travelers, who once only briefly stopped in West, now head to the rural town for a longer stay, bringing with them food, supplies and a helping hand.
Features editor Danielle Haynes was born in Waco, Texas, and grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. Contact her at 693-1000, ext. 4116.