Tuesday, December 27, 2005


We drive along back roads in east Texas, angling down towards central Texas, through many small towns, some whose names are familiar, others whom I've never heard of before. A quick stop at a Walgreens in early morning took much longer than it should have because of folk buying marked down Christmas decorations on this busy shopping day, December 26. The Walgreen's is in Marshall. Marshall, Texas is closer to the Atlantic Ocean than it is to El Paso on the western tip. El Paso is closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to Marshall. Or so I've been told.

It takes six hours to drive down to Elgin, a small town east of Austin. The piney woods change to live oaks, and there, on the Central Texas plains, one feels and sees mostly sky, sky larger than that seen in places where the rain comes more freely. The live oaks spread sideway, not upward. In such a place, sunrises and sunsets are more impressive, more regularly in one's face. The horizon line is close to the earth, the tree lines are small, the earth itself is less present, but is sparse and low and wide.

This is a hard place for growing things. There is a long, harsh heat in summer and right now a terrible drought. There are foreign intruders like the prickley pears and cedars, the fire ants and killer bees. With so much land, so far from other places, and dominated by an American religious culture that after the Civil War thought all human endeavor was doomed to failure, I think my Texan ancestors found organizing life to be hard and functional.

We had so little time for the beautiful. Our structures were temporary. Our efforts were just enough. Such a place, without for many years middle class affluence, finds a whole culture comfortable with half-shelters and trailor houses and abandoned machinery. To provide order to a place, to a town, to yard, requires a different ethic, or aesthetic, found for example, in the neat country roads of Iowa that have only right angle turns and no curves, or in the well-planted farmhouses of that region with their beautiful plantings of windbreak trees, an oasis amid oceans of corn. Those midwestern farmers thought that good intentions resulted in good results, but they were sitting on the richest soils in the world, with just the right amount of rainfall.

And yet, standing on a hillside outside Elgin, as the stars come out brilliantly, one feels the power of this place. The rough land, subject to heat and too little water, is still sculpture, minimal, clear. The far sky is marred by flashing radio towers. Texas has long been tamed by electricity, and is now in all ways connected to the rest of the country. It is now not a foreign place in its own country as it was until about 1970.

This afternoon I drove down more two lane rural roads out to the Texas Hill Country, avoiding as much as possible driving on Interstate 35, an impossible and joyless experience. In Hay County, I turn onto Purgatory Road, a smaller two lane road that takes one across hills with large patches of worn, weather gray limestone, with dead wood that is also gray, with grasses that are dead from late summer heat and winter drought, with only a spare tree here or there. The road leads toward Comal County. A massive yellow school bus pulled up behind me, and I pull over and let it pass. I drive slower than one should, but take great pleasure in the road named for afterlife difficulty. We encounter no other vehicles.

Soon, I am in the Hill Country, all dusty, holding together to keep alive amid the drought. I am home. Everywhere development is thriving. And such isolation will be forgotten. I imagine Purgatory Road will be wider, with housing additions and convenience stores. But not today.

No comments: