September 4th, 2007


Tower Country

Around the third hour driving out of Lubbock, the mind tends to wander. The countryside is flat and brown and dull, and the road is straight for long stretches, and often there's nothing to hold one's interest or attention. On one such trip Bonnie actually had to shake me awake.

"You've got to stay alert out here," she warned me, scanning the horizon nervously. "This is tower country."

"Tower country?" I was new to this part of Texas.

"It's the cell phone towers," she advised me quietly. "They're pretty shy, but every so often they cause trouble."

Once I looked for them, of course, there they were: tall, truss-built isoceles monsters, only one or two of them visible at any one time, usually some distance off the road, peering curiously at the traffic from behind the cover of some trees or a bluff. They were perfectly still, clutching the ground tightly with their tentacular guy lines, but there was something distinctly predatory in the way they watched our progress.

"They're so spread out," I observed. "They give each other a wide berth, don't they?"

"Oh yes," confirmed Bonnie. "Towers are very territorial. They need a wide range for their hunting grounds."

"Hunting?" I swallowed, wondering what 200-foot tripods liked to eat.

I found out soon enough. We came upon a line of highway streetlights, tall poles with a single lamp cantilevering out on a graceful neck that stretched over to illuminate the paved surface. To my surprise they were marching along the verge of the road in a more-or-less orderly line, pausing from time to time to bend down and graze on the fringe vegetation. They honked and hooted to each other in a social way, and some were always scanning the treeline while others foraged.

But their sentries were not alert enough. As the road passed by a thicket, a tower charged out of cover. Its bellow shook the windows of my Prius, and its thundering footfalls made the road jump and buck as I passed only fifty feet away. The streetlights bleeked and scattered, all save one hapless forager that was swiftly knocked on its side by the tower's rush.

I stepped on the gas and the scene quickly passed behind us, but I will never forget the 'light's metallic shriek as, still writhing, it was gathered up in impossibly thin guyline filaments and brought up to the cluster of organs topping the tower that much have passed for its head. I did not see the resulting feast, but the splintering sound of aluminum tubing lasted well after the hunt had passed out of our view.

And then, all was quiet. The normal sounds of nature returned. Birds flew overhead, and armadillos scuttled across the road. Just beyond the shoulder, road reflector poles would pop up out of the tall grass, survey the scene, blink their one orange-red eye, and then drop back down out of sight with a kind of chirping sound. You would never know about the carnage just down the way.

Later a kind of moaning ululation filled the air, and the ground began to intermittently shake again. Bonnie groaned.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"It's mating season," she replied. "The males can get a little skittish right around now."

"Males?" I asked, puzzled. "They have gender?"

Bonnie nodded. "It's easy to tell them apart."

We came over the hill, and the differences presented themselves immediately. Two males were fighting over the right to approach a female. The males were taller, and their antenna-organs were placed high enough that they looked like high pointed crowns.

The male towers hooted and growled at each other, shuffling their feet as they circled in an open field. Then, as if on some unheard signal, they charged each other. Their crowns locked, not unlike the horns of bighorn sheep, and they twisted and pushed and snorted and howled in their efforts to overbear the other.

The female observed this entire display without taking action, although she did seem to wrap herself tightly in her own guy-wires and make a kind of whistling noise. The purpose of this was not understood by me, and I was glad for this curious scene to pass out of my rear view mirror without learning which tower would prove victorious, and how it would choose to claim its prize.

"Do towers ever stalk people?" I asked timidly.

"Who knows?" Bonnie responded. "There are no confirmed reports, but people are always disappearing out here with no ready explanation."

"Oh." I was clearly not comforted by this answer, and Bonnie patted my arm soothingly.

"Don't worry," she told me. "To them, people are so small as to be practically beneath their notice. Towers are after larger prey."

A few miles outside Comanche I saw that she was right in a most spectacular way. Hunting in a pack, a group of towers had cornered a radio mast. This enormous structure was almost a thousand feet tall, perfectly straight and slender, with muscular guylines and a great beacon flashing warning and distress on its top. The towers spread in a loose circle around the mast, sometimes charging in for a sally at their prey's ankles, then nipping back out to avoid their gargantuan quarry's retribution. Once a tower was a bit too slow, and the tentacles of the mast took it up and threw it like a rag doll. The mighty monster seemed unstoppably strong, but then I noted that it was limping, with one of its footings mangled by a successful rush, and its earth-shaking bellows were growing steadily weaker. I knew it was only a matter of time before the towers would topple their prey and begin to feed.

As we drove away I saw the power transmission line towers circling about, watching the scene and keeping their distance. I knew these fellows would not dare to approach while the cell phone towers were feeding, but they might step in after the pack had departed. In a day, I felt, there would be nothing left of the radio mast but a concrete foundation and a mass of static on the AM band.

"And what about the towers back in the big city?" I asked.

"Oh, don't worry about them," Bonnie replied. "They're perfectly tame. Nobody would stand for the kind of trouble they get into -- not where there's lots of people around. But out here, out in Tower Country, nobody notices and nobody cares."

Eventually we rolled back into Houston, and I for one was glad. Whether they eat people or not, I don't like the way the towers watch me go by, out there where the country is empty, and the real is somewhat less so.