Paradise, Texas

In Paradise: A Pilgrimage in Seven Stages


How to reach Paradise? This question has plagued mankind for millennia. In fact, the ancients largely despaired of entering heaven, which they knew was reserved for the gods and the semi-divine, or in the case of the Egyptians, those whose souls were so bereft of sin that they weighed the same as the feather of the goddess Ma’at. Most mortals anticipated a miserable afterlife as a shade in Sheol, Apsu, or Hades. Then, around 3000 years ago, Zoroaster revealed that the righteous would be resurrected in a perfect world at the End of Time. Hebrew prophets, Jesus Christ and Mohammed would all confirm this in the centuries to come.

In fact, the prophets got it wrong. To get to Paradise you take the I-35 north from Austin, Texas for 121 miles, then turn west for 60 miles. A few short turns and a 15 mile stint westwards on the TX 114 and you’re there.


I set out for Paradise in the autumn. Even before I had left it had started slipping away, disappearing into the empty space on the map beneath Fort Worth. I could find Glen Rose, visited by UFOs last year, and my eye kept returning to Hico, where the bones of a false Billy the Kid lie beneath the dirt. But Paradise scuttled across the paper like a microscopic spider, concealing itself among the cartographic lines and dots. But that was OK: I liked this elusiveness, this sense of not knowing precisely where I was going. Indeed, no sooner had I set out than I took a wrong turn, but I kept moving regardless. I knew I would reach Paradise, so long as I did not lose faith. Besides, the wrong road had the same name as the right road, so I had to be on the right track.

And out there, in a field, hazy like a mirage: a rusting metal Loch Ness monster, loops of the sea lizard rising out of the dirt, planted by a farmer driven to visions by the vast sky, the ocean of land—or, perhaps, simple nostalgia for a nice holiday in Scotland.


On any pilgrimage there are way stations, and en route to Paradise, I stopped in Glen Rose. Before the UFOs came the town was known primarily for the fossilised dinosaur footprints running along the bed of the nearby Paluxy River. I’d seen them; they weren’t very good, just a few indentations in the rock under water. Big city folks had spirited the best ones away to a museum in Austin decades ago.  Since my last visit however, change had come to Glen Rose, in the form of a brand new park populated by artificial dinosaurs.

The car park was abandoned. The cavernous, air conditioned gift shop was also abandoned. And the park of artificial dinosaurs was itself abandoned. For an hour I wandered alone amid life-size, plaster replicas of tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops and various other giant lizards, all painted in psychedelic colours. Nothing moved, nothing roared: it was fantastic. Best of all was a herd of ultrasaurus which the information plaque frankly admitted had probably never existed, but here they were, roaming the Texas dirt in search of food. They were moving north, towards Paradise…


On any pilgrimage there must also be temptation. I found mine next door, in the Museum of Creation Evidence. Creationist-bashing is very fashionable nowadays; it makes people feel as if they are righteous warriors of the enlightenment and not just bored meat waiting to die. I however was drawn to this museum by the very lure of bad knowledge, the promised seduction of the heretical. This is what I learned:

  1. Before the Flood the world was sheathed in a magenta membrane.
  2. There was a 10th planet which shattered when God unstopped the fountains of the deep. This is the source of meteorites.
  3. The composition and pressure of the atmosphere were different, causing living things to grow bigger and live longer
  4. Humans lived alongside dinosaurs. The museum had a fossil of a human footprint inside a dinosaur footprint which proved this decisively.

And yet, doubts remained. This museum was too heretical for me. Its director, a man with wild hair and a very woolly cardigan was plainly a renegade: these exhibits and explanations represented his personal, private interpretation of the story in Genesis, cooked up in the apocalyptic heat, amid the dust and rocks… After all, how can you really know if that’s God whispering in your ear and not one of those other voices that sometimes come to those who spend their lives beneath the infinite azure sky?


On any pilgrimage there must also be those who do not make it. And indeed, in the museum car park an ancient man and woman were both baking to death on the backseat of an old Chevy. Their son and his Thai bride were inside, studying an oil painting of children frolicking with a Diplodocus. The son plainly thought his progenitors were on their way out of this world, and sought to expedite matters.

But it was growing dark, and who enters Paradise in darkness? So I drove to Granbury where for hours I watched TV in a cheap motel. But the world it portrayed—berserk with forced laughter and titillating violence—seemed distant and disconnected from me. Nor did I want any part of it.


When the suicide bomber presses the button to transform himself into a blizzard of hot flesh and bone chips he knows that the Paradise into which he will awaken contains exceedingly comfortable divans, abundant food and drink and many full-breasted, black-eyed houris in whose arms he will experience love ‘a hundred times greater than earthly pleasure’.

For those of us raised in the Judaeo-Christian tradition however, Paradise is more difficult to envision. Christ says very little about it in the gospels, while Dante’s Paradiso is one of the great unreadables of the Western canon. Hell, on the other hand, is easy to imagine. But Hell isn’t in Texas. It’s in Michigan.

Paradise, Texas is no less difficult to describe, not least because there’s so little of it: a few streets dumped by the side of a road; a bleakly functional box of a post office; a gas station; a real estate agent; a café; and that’s about it. Perhaps a clearer image will emerge if I explain what isn’t there—a common enough tactic for evoking Paradise.

Across Texas the citizens of even the dullest towns scrabble to define their homes as some kind of place. They sell T-shirts and erect bizarre monuments. In Earth (pop. 1109) there’s a giant sign outside the town with a painting of the globe alongside the words Welcome to Earth. In Hutto (pop. 7401) there’s a sculpture of a hippopotamus downtown where a hippo went on a rampage through the town a century or so ago, allegedly. Junction (pop. 2618) has a tree made out of deer skulls. Even Andice (pop. 25) sells T-shirts with a picture of the General Store on the front.

But in Paradise, there was nothing, not even a Welcome to Paradise postcard. There was no desire to draw anyone’s attention, only silence, only boredom. And in America, where every freak and mutant is keenly aware of the commercial value of his abnormality, this was remarkable. (Not that the citizens of Paradise are freaks or mutants, of course). It was almost as if the inhabitants were making a strenuous effort not to notice their town’s name, almost daring the outsider to comment, so they could reply: Oh, so you just realised the town’s called Paradise? Think that’s funny, do you, retard?


Then I saw it, the one act of revolt against this conspiracy of obliviousness: the Café Paradise. Inside, a woman in her thirties and a wizened old man in overalls and a baseball cap had been sitting in silence forever. I sat down to join them, whispering a request for coffee. Dust floated down, landing gently upon our heads and shoulders, as if we were three old stone carvings in an ancient cathedral. This perfect quietude was only disturbed when the woman asked if the old man had ever leapt off a burning battleship. He confirmed that he had, during World War II. Then she looked out of the window and told me that the bonnet of my car was open. I had just driven over a hundred miles without noticing. She didn’t laugh at me. They don’t do that in Paradise: they’re Churchgoers, good people, simple folks. The kind Europeans fear.

She asked what had brought me to Paradise. Having walked along their two streets, and seen the little box houses, the absence of anything much, I was too embarrassed to say: the name. ‘Just passing through’ I lied. That sounded plausible. Paradise was no kind of destination, we both knew that. I finished my coffee and left. She didn’t charge me. I drove away, leaving the inhabitants of Paradise to endure that little slice of eternity they had chipped away from the cosmos. The rest of us will just have to wait until the resurrection.

Another Magazine Spring/Summer 2009

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