Worlds Away

It’s amazing what distance can do. We’ve pushed past railroads and telegraphs to highways, airports, and smartphones, thinking we can shrink the world into a computer the size of our hand, or reduce the map to just a few hours in a noisy flying bus. But the distance remains as great as ever.

My brother picked me up from a little Idaho town just days before Christmas. It’s stunning how small that place feels. It has a state university, a good hospital, multiple shopping centers, and over twenty thousand residents. My own town has just ten thousand people more, but it seems a dozen times larger.

I’ve spent the past four and half years living in that small Idaho town, and my time there is growing short. I look back now on years of regrets, and lessons learned, and friendships formed, and lots of learning, most of it off-campus. In some ways I’m already starting to say my goodbyes. But just as I’m ready to leave this temporary home, I find I’ve been there long enough that I finally seem to be acclimatizing; that I have gained enough distance from my own home that the differences between the two worlds are finally becoming clear and recognizable.

We drove two thousand miles through Idaho mountains, Wyoming blizzards, Denver traffic, and the pancake-flat lands around Amarillo, finally to leave the DFW metroplex, find some real trees, and cross back into East Texas. It was a long ride, fueled by Mitchell’s music, supplemented by a blues playlist I whipped together, and lots of caffeine. Perhaps those three long days, miles of conversation, and hours of listening helped increase the distance. When at last we parked on the street in front of the house, and Mom and Caleb were standing in the driveway, Moscow, Idaho seemed like a half-forgotten dream.

But as the days began to unfold, I felt like half a stranger. Everything about being back felt so natural, but the very naturalness of it was striking. I spent eighteen years being shaped by this town, by this county, by these people, before I ever set foot in Idaho, and half a decade at a faraway college can give you perspective, but it can’t change who you are. I belong here in ways I never could have articulated until I had gone to a place where I did not belong.

I said that Moscow felt small, despite being roughly the same size. But that’s only if you count population. Nacogdoches is seven times the land area of Moscow. Where Muscovites scrunch together in tall houses in neat rows along tight streets which edge up to the city limits and suddenly end, Nacogdochians spread out along wider roads, accumulate land around even trailers and rent houses, and leave unused acres between neighborhoods shrouded in forest or marshy creek bottoms. Around the Christmas table there was some discussion of a man one of my relatives saw hunting in the city limits. That’s illegal in both cities, but it’s possible in Nacogdoches.

But the difference between the two places doesn’t lie just in the setup of the two towns. These things are just pointers for an entirely different mentality, an entirely separate imagination when it comes to man’s relationship to nature. Towns in Moscow’s Palouse region are all tight, densely-populated little areas, and the rare exceptions are usually farm houses that are often miles apart. But in Deep East Texas, the lines between country and city are blurred, with most farm-to-market and county roads sporting several houses in every mile-long stretch, but often with woods on either side, or across the road, and acres of forest or pasture behind, and a thicket in between. Nacogdoches County never seems to depopulate entirely, but you don’t really have to interact with people if you don’t want to. In the Palouse, unless you live on those rare, secluded farmhouses, you are interacting with neighbors, drunk college kids, and traffic all the time. In the Palouse, man is an intrusion into the wilderness, and the wilderness an intrusion into the civilized world. The two are largely separated by the city limits. In Deep East Texas, the relationship is tighter, blurrier, more symbiotic.

This carries over into a dozen different fields. Because Nacogdoches and the surrounding environment is so spread out, cars are not merely optional, they are necessary. It would take me half an hour to walk from the center of town to the city limits in Moscow. I know because I do it on a weekly basis. It takes almost as long for me to walk from our house in Nac to the closest grocery store. I know because I tried it. Once. In such a world, even the most resource-conscious, ecologically-minded individual can’t honestly suggest we abandon cars. The idea is ludicrous. Our world depends on them. But in Moscow, some of the local hippies think it’s a brilliant idea. After all, the co-op is only a block and a half away.

Speaking of resources, this is also a different world when it comes to that. The agriculture of the Palouse is all crop farming, but Deep East Texas is almost entirely invested in livestock. Well, if you chickens as livestock. But this means that there are thousands, even millions of acres of heavily forested land that do little besides stand as privacy fences between our houses, and shelter wild animals. So what do we do with them? Well, we farm the trees. On a lot of the bigger properties in the area, some of the forest is clear-cut and replanted on a regular basis. But elsewhere, the woods are kept wild for hunters. And in a place where the population is so spread out, and the wilderness is always so close to civilization, there are a lot of hunters.

This does interesting things to conservation in our part of the world. All those hunters want to make sure there will be plenty of game next year, so a solid chunk of the movement to protect Texas wildlife, regulate hunting, and stop poaching, is actually driven by hunters. In addition, all those wealthy businessman who own all the land, including the ones whose lands contain oil and natural gas, are also the ones constantly replanting trees. The hippies might keep the wilderness wild on the Palouse, but in Deep East Texas, where wilderness runs right up to the roadside, and people actually live in the sticks, a lot of the movement to protect mother earth is actually driven by folks on the right.

I could go on about the difference between the lands we live in and how we inhabit them, and how that effects our culture. For example, there are no mountains in East Texas, but there are also very few flat places. Where Idaho seems to have tall mountains, flat plains, or else the regular little bumps, like the Palouse hills, we have a constant ripple of big, irregular hills, ridges, creek bottoms, and gentle slopes. And all the high spots are covered in trees. So the Palouse has plenty of high vantage points from which you can look out on wide-open spaces, consider the wilderness before you, or the little urban grid of civilization. But East Texas is just a maze of trees, earth, water, and the occasional house or strip of businesses.

But the differences go beyond the land. Demographics are also telling. As of 2010, Moscow was 90% white. Nacogdoches is barely 50%. Spanish is a curiosity on the Palouse, but in Nacogdoches there are signs in Spanish, businesses dominated by Spanish-speakers, and every ad has to end in “se habla español,” or you simply wont get enough customers. But this is also the Deep South, and the black population is sizable. And this year, that meant quite a lot.

On the Palouse, race issues are something for socially-conscious, cosmopolitan individuals who have traveled the seven-hours-minimum it takes to get to the nearest large city. In Nacogdoches, our grandparents remember Jim Crow, and some of the millennials have biracial kids. If you plan on going to the grocery store, the mall, or a restaurant, or if your kids are going to the public library, playing soccer, or attend any school, how you treat people of different races matters. A lot. “Multiculturalism” is not a pretty word for “look at all these varieties of Northern European and that one Asian guy, aren’t we diverse?” It means you better be fairly progressive, or you may end up offending just about every other person you run into around town.

This year was interesting in that department. Through Facebook, I heard that the Texas KKK was going to hold its rally in Nacogdoches. This provoked a lot of uproar. Some were angry that such “ignorance” (a really interesting term, by the way) still existed. Some were angry that these racists had chosen our town to defile with their hate speech. Some people thought it was just whites showing their true colors. Others were afraid it would ruin Nac’s reputation. And there were a sizable number of people who were not worried about either reputations or scoring political points, but quite simply loved our town and did not want to see parts of it abused, or any of it divided against itself. Within a couple of days, a counter-rally was organized. The day came, the rallies were held, nothing really happened, and life moved on.

Then Ferguson happened. It was astounding watching my white liberal Northwestern friends flip out over this. It was like watching someone get worked up over a disaster in a faraway country. It was all about awareness and how the comfortable rich white people in America really should do something, because don’t we know we’re letting very bad men oppress victims in a place we’re clearly too privileged and secure to care about?

But what if black people are people? And so are cops? Not just skin tones or occupations? Not just victims or oppressors? And what if this isn’t a story you heard on the news, but an issue you actually have to deal with in your town, with your family, with your neighbors? I don’t know that I really believed anything different about the issues involved, but everyone in that discussion got painted with a broad brush by many of my Northwestern friends, and tones got shrill, and somewhere amid the tweeting and instagramming and the Facebook posting, I stopped recognizing any world I knew, where actual racial diversity is an issue, and just saw another stick for the right and the left to beat one another up with.

And if I was disconcerted by that discussion while living in the Palouse, going home was truly strange. Here were people who remembered Jim Crow because they lived it. Here were people who remembered MLK because he was marching in this direction at one time. It wasn’t just mythology learned from TV. They actually had to respond to these guys, to talk to them face to face. Here there are people whose parents grew up in segregation, but who went to school themselves after integration. Affirmative action became cool by the time I was growing up, and we actually have a college in town with multiple races of people applying. The people here saw the evolution from institutional racism into a world where inequalities exist, but no laws can be pointed to, where we are all at least nominally progressive and integrated, but we now have to figure out how to live in a world shaped by two or three centuries of bad blood.

How do you do that? How do you do that when people have names, not just skin colors? How do you do that when confronted with the reality that every “race” has both good, honorable people, and “thugs,” and every type of person in between? Muscovite liberals stand at a distance, and what they see no doubt actually exists. But Nacogdochians live there, and the issues are not so simple, and are far, far more human.

I’m a Christian, and when individual or societal sins become an issue, it’s preachers, rather than pundits, I run to. And that marks another world of difference between Moscow and Nacogdoches. We are two and half hours from Houston, three and half from Dallas, and about two from Shreveport. This area is heavily populated, and it is deep in the Bible Belt. There are radio stations with preaching and teaching from morning until night, and even the famous preachers don’t live that far away. Another station will give you continuous praise and worship music, and those bands tour here. Drive north or south and you will run into a town with a Christian college or university, usually a Baptist one.

The Palouse is different. Idaho is on the fringe of the nation’s “Unchurched Belt.” Moscow has a Catholic church, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, one or two Baptists, a Church of Christ, a Lutheran, a Nazarene, and a handful of campus-oriented non-denominational churches. There is also a small complex of churches in my denomination that is very tight-knit, draws a lot of people from out of state, and totals upwards of a thousand people. They are by far the loudest presence. But add all those up, and it really isn’t much. The college is larger than the sum of all the churches, and many of those churches are fairly middle of the road or left-leaning. They are not exactly the up-in-arms, culture-warring religious right I grew up with. There is no radio station where you can listen to them constantly, and various atheist and humanist alliances are frequently more vocal, and the local Muslim community is just as visible as any of them.

It’s a world apart. Christianity dominates here, despite a major state university being smack dab in the middle of town. Every “ethnic group” seems dominated by church-goers. There are black churches, Spanish-language churches, white-dominated churches, and mixed-race community or campus churches. Big churches are counterbalanced by small churches, and for every mainstream Baptist church there is a tiny cult out in the woods. When we switched denominations, I didn’t even know that “Presbyterianism” existed, but the Nacogdoches area has quite a few Presbyterian and Reformed churches, from PCUSA to Cumberland Presbyterian to my own denomination. There are two Catholic churches in Moscow–one on campus and one off–but there are four in Nacogdoches. And that’s deceptive, because the entirety of Idaho is in the Diocese of Boise, but the diocese that encompasses Nacogoches could fit easily in one of the Diocese of Boise’s six deaneries.

We are quite simply more churched. Which is not to say we are godlier, or more holy. Where there are more people who profess, there is, after all, more opportunity for hypocrisy. But Christianity does pervade the culture in a way it simply does not on the Palouse. So when someone from the Palouse talks about fundamentalists or the religious right, they are talking about something small, and on the fringe, and in dialogue with many other points of view, including an almost-dominant secular world. But when a Nacogdochian talks about it, were are talking about what is almost the majority. The moderates of Moscow would be the left of Nacogdoches, or so it seems. And the humanists that sometimes dominate the U of I campus seem like the crazy fringe here in Nac.

There are other differences, too. Nac has a large population of wealthy people and large population of poor and working class people with almost no true “middle class.” The vast majority of Muscovites fall into that middle class, with their “poor” mostly being lower-middle and their “rich” being mostly upper-middle. So socio-economic distinctions seem to matter less there. Then again, a lot of Moscow’s middle class seems less down-to-earth than some wealthier Nacogdochians I have known.

Recreation is also different. Deep East Texas is filled with lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, and watering holes. Swimming, boating, and fishing is a way of life. We are also just a day’s drive from the Gulf Coast. Moscow is dominated by hills, the creeks are few, far between, and frequently small. The largest lake in the area is not much bigger than some cow ponds I have seen. The ocean is at least seven hours away, across mountains and desert. So hiking seems to replace swimming, and fishing or boating means going quite a ways out of town. Also, they have a winter with actual skiing. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Cuisine is different, too. The Palouse seems to be big on soups, and breads, and pastas. A lot of fairly bland, but servicable stuff. Spicy food is a curiosity. East Texas takes Mexican, homestyle cooking, soul food, Cajun, BBQ, and whatever else we can get our hands on and tosses it all together. I’ve seen a lot more picky eaters on the Palouse, but the pickings here are generally more diverse, frequently far spicier, and meat takes up a far larger portion of the plate. Seafood is also more common. And we have crawfish. Some Muscovites I’ve known had never heard of such a thing.

There are also different attitudes when it comes to occupations. Nac is friendlier to people in the oilfield, hosts a lot more truck drivers, and logging is still a thriving business. There are still a fair amount of farmers, academics, and people in service professions, just like Moscow, but Nac does seem to have a more traditional blue-collar tone. Which may add to the difference in the way Nacogdoches and Moscow seem to experience socio-economic distinctions.

All this came home in a big way during church last Sunday. Back among people who spoke with a drawl, ate Mexican food, and had all survived Houston traffic at some point in their lives, everything took on a different tone. Large chunks of Scripture spilled across a congregation where being Christian was commonplace, but believing and living these words meant everything. We partook in a Lord’s Supper that included wine in a place where many Christians were teetotalers. Afterwards, we had a fellowship meal, heavy on meat, including venison. When we left, we all drove, many of us out of town.

But more than anything, what I carried away that day was the realization that these people believed in a sovereign God who was a God of love. That love included every person, black or white, whether they spoke English, or Spanish–or something else–and regardless of whether they were rich or poor, regardless of whether or not their sins were the respectable kind that can be easily hidden or passed over in polite society. These people believed in a God who was coming to rescue every corner of Creation, from the deepest wilderness to the heart of Houston. They believed in a Christmas that meant salvation.

This is not to say that people on the Palouse did not believe in such things. But it was striking to me how much I could see it in the world and the faces that were familiar to me. It was striking that I found it so much easier to believe myself. In this part of the world, a part I had explored, and defined, and was familiar with, it just made sense, because it all fit together in a certain way.

When I was younger, I learned about “worldviews.” These were systems of belief or thought that separated Christian from secular humanist from Muslim. They were coherent, and shaped largely but what you were taught, and what you worshiped, if you worshiped. But one thing being so far from home taught me is that worldviews are far more complicated than a set of propositions you are taught to believe. They can’t be summed up easily in doctrinal statements or in party platforms. People are not so simple.

A worldview is messy. It can be shaped by how close together your houses are, how many people live out of town, and whether you can stand on top of a hill and see the world laid out before you. It can depend on whether “farmer” means “wheat and legumes” or “chickens and cattle.” “A hearty meal” means different things to different people, and “the fringe” is determined by the “mainstream.” How you spend a fine summer day may depend on how much water is in your region, and how far it is to the nearest city. Wealth and poverty are relative, and just as the rich and poor are defined differently in different towns, so they act differently in each unique circumstance. And national politics means different things to different parts of the nation.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t change what is absolutely true. People are people. They eat, drink, sleep, breathe, play, laugh, cry, marry, kill, forgive, hold grudges, age, and die.Good and evil are universal, right and wrong are universal, truth and falsehood are universal, beauty and ugliness are not simply social constructs, and the LORD alone is God. But it does mean that the world is far bigger than we can understand. We cannot pretend to take God’s perspective and stand outside our own definition of normal and our own understanding of how the world works. You and I can both subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and both vote along the same party lines, but as long as you live in your city, and I in mine, our worldviews may be nothing alike. We live in different contexts, and have a different story.

That is why generalizations can only take us so far. In the world of connectivity, easy travel, and easier communication, we can pretend the world is easily definable, but it’s not. A choice is never as simple as the politicians want to make it, a mystery is never so easy the academics can wrap their heads around it, and people are not so homogeneous that the philosophers and the psychologists can divide them up into categories and explain them away. We are made in God’s image, so we are creative, but we are creatures, so we are limited in strange and interesting ways.

At the end of the day, we can be humble and accept that, or we can try and force the entire world inside our heads, sit in the throne of God, and claim total objectivity–which is to say, total omniscience. We can pretend that the world is simple, that we understand it, and that the guy who disagrees with us is just pigheaded. But if we do, we will soon find ourselves either restricted to a very narrow corner of the world where we can remain sane, or adrift in an ocean that we do not understand, and that seems to have no place for us. The world is big, people are diverse, and universal truth has to touch down in places where limited people live, work, worship, mourn, and celebrate.

The details matter. Praise God for the details.

Advertisements

Four-Wheeled Stereos

The engine revved as I pressed slowly down on the pedal, trees flying by as I whipped back and forth in the low hills of East Texas. A goat clipping away at grass near the roadside leapt into the air and charged away from my passing SUV. The summer sun beat down while the canopy stood strong above me, shading the better part of the road. Here to there. A to B. Driving.

Pop the hood and I will scratch my infantile beard and thoughtfully appear to consider the twisting coils of metal, plastic, and rubber snakes. Ask me a question, and I will point at the large blocky thing in the center and say, “That’s the engine.”

Likewise, I can’t tell you about makes and models and manufacturers, or even what shiny color of what sexy motorbeast I might prefer. But stick me behind the wheel, and my eyes light up. I can’t give you a zero-to-sixty on any of the cars I’ve driven, and I don’t have the vocabulary to tell you how it handles. But I know fun. Give me the keys, and I can feel the fun.

I have not owned a car for two and a half years. I do not drive, and the little college town in which I reside has no need for cars. Everything is in walking distance.

During that time I have listened to far less country than ever before. Without wheels, without road, I need no radio. I spotify my music from a safe corner in the house, on my tame little laptop. And when you’re sitting there, plowing through the oldest books from the hardest classes, and your ADD is acting up, and the birds are singing, and you can’t help but want to fly out that window like a maniac and run screaming into the hills—in those times, the lyric-centered, steady-rhythmed deep peace and shallow grin of a country song just won’t cut it.

Now, as I stagnate in my chair or on my couch or bed, I don’t stop listening to country. I still plow through albums and formulate playlists and occasionally pull up our local station’s online app to keep up with the times. But my play queue is slowly filling with blues rock, selective rap and hip-hop artists, and the occasional Disney song. Older funk and rock-and-roll leak out of my speakers, and Irish reels by Aussies and Boston Yankees begin to make my foot tap. But George Strait and Montgomery Gentry, Eric Church and Little Big Town, they all drift quietly to the back.

But the moment I stepped off the plane and back into the sweet, wet air of East Texas, something changed. Southern lilts and country tilts in the rhythm of residents of this fine state started working on me like a drug. Big pines leaned over my head and whispered rumors of sacred songs I had forgotten. And finally the moment came when momma put they keys in my hand told me to run an errand.

Twangs and trains and country livin’, broken hearts and rednecks, wild parties and foolish youth and old wisdom blended and shook up and spilt from my speakers like the call of the wild and I was off. Windows down, radio up, across Starr and University, around the Loop, through back roads and brick streets and into driveways from the wrong direction—all to the sound of a guitar. Fiddles came from time to time to remind me of my roots, and banjos burst on the scene like a long-lost cousin. Somewhere in the air a steel guitar let me know where I came from, and I croaked and yelled to an old song with a Darius Rucker twist.

Fifty-five, forty, fifty, forty-five, thirty, and twenty in a school zone. Don’t they know what I am doing here? This is country music on the radio. None of this slow stuff, I drive with a steady lead foot. There’s something about turning tires and the quiet rumble of any old engine that calls for country. Or maybe it’s the wind flying past, and the cars on the road, and all these trucks driven by Aggies, Longhorns, and Lumberjacks. Whatever it is, I can’t get behind the wheel and stay on any pop, rock, or hip-hop station. The radio’s on, and it’s Texas and Nashville, Southern voices and the backwoods brogue of a down-home drawl. The car and the radio, it’s all one instrument, and I know how to play it.

But eventually the errand ends. I go home, park the car, and turn off the beginning of some old song about “time to kill.” Time is killing me. I’m called elsewhere, and my four-wheeled stereo of speed and sonic bliss will have to wait a while. Inside, the house is quiet and my little laptop is sitting patiently. I have words to write, a challenge to meet, and I can’t do that on a highway. So I set the keys on the counter and head upstairs to peck away at the keyboard. But hey, I don’t head back to the land of the pedestrian for two weeks. And there will be errands to run for days to come. I’ll drive.

Homecoming

A place is more than a dot on a map. Any writer worth his salt, and some worth considerably less, can tell you that. A place is a setting, it can act like a character, and it shapes the story around itself. A place has a soul.

I hit the ground on Saturday night, and knew I was halfway there. Houston is not exactly East Texas, just the messy front lawn that leads up to it. It’s filled with people from a hundred backgrounds, doing a hundred things, packed into a hundred locations that sprawl out in a tangled web of concrete and asphalt. All the cars are big, and in the pick-up line at the airport, the drivers were all a bit jovial, with a comic edge. The workers directing traffic were laughing and calling across the lanes, smiling as they shouted at drivers and blew sharp whistle blasts. Up the sidewalk from me a couple of little girls ran squealing towards their pawpaw, and down from me a couple of fashionably dressed young women were doing the “hey girlfriend!” routine.

The road north of Houston stretches on for quite a ways. I spent those long miles and winding hours making conversation, slipping quickly and easily back into Henry family life. There’s lots of joking there, lots of poking fun, a little intellectual conversation, lots of eating, bluntness, laughing, and when we stop for dinner, distraction by means of football. By the time the night had faded and we entered the old Nacogdoches city limits, I already felt at home.

After three days without a full night’s sleep, exhaustion fell on me like a heavy blanket, and kept me down. The morning came quicker than I would have liked, but there was family there, an excited dog with self-esteem issues, and a whole green wooded hill that hadn’t gotten the memo about Fall. We hopped in the truck, which was parked by our own private jungle complete with vines and monkey grass and a creek, all beneath a canopy of Southern pine. Up we sped through nicer neighborhoods, onto the loop with the trees right up by the shoulder, over the creek and around town past gas stations and watermelon stands and well-kept businesses. Ahead rose a newly built wooden white church, the chapel my people have come to call home. The post-construction ground around it is still dusty and muddy, not yet covered in a carpet of green, but the building itself and its immediate surroundings are beautiful.

How do you capture holiness? Is it a well-told Sunday school lesson by a humble man with a thick accent? Is it the people that greet you with warm smiles and ask about your life whether you’ve been gone three weeks or six months? Maybe it’s a worship service with people who visit from sister churches just for fun. Maybe it’s Scripture spoken on all sides, or God’s sovereignty and mercy towards sinners poured out with eloquence. It could be a fellowship meal where families sit mixed together, blended into one household beneath the Messiah’s roof. Then again, it could be the kids that help clean up, unbidden. Whatever it is, you can find it in my church.

The sun-drenched skies of East Texas are beautiful, and ever acre of earth below is filled with activity. We visited a friend’s property in a nice subdivision. Here, as at the church, the ground around the slowly forming edifice was torn up and devoid of grass. But the house rising above the red dirt and white sand was worth it. The living room is brilliant, high-roofed and with an open kitchen separated only by a bar. Beyond a broad doorway there is a high-roofed porch bigger than some houses, looking down a hill into trees and another house. The homes of East Texas are all like this, sprawling things made at least partly of brick, always ranch style with some personal twist. And always with big trees and gardens so fruitful they require constant taming.

Later, when we managed to pull my brother away from the Cowboy’s game, we took Dad’s truck down to the theater. As we made it out of the neighborhood and a down a hill covered in old pasture land, Queen rocked on the radio. The song ended quickly, and by the time we turned onto University Drive, Stevie Ray Vaughan was cranking out “Pride and Joy.” Texas Blues right there, a soul in music.

It’s hard to capture the soul of a place. It’s got so many facets, so much shifting ground. To me, East Texas just seems alive. There are colleges, big and small. Restaurants spring up, get popular, and become chains. Neighborhoods are crowded with newcomers, and factories, small farms, and small businesses are always hiring. On every corner there’s a church, and though every one is different, despite the rough patches, we all get along surprisingly well. From the woods to the gardens, from the to kids to the towns, everything is growing. It’s a place of life, a place I’m proud to call home.

It’s good to be back.

The Exiles

At the beginning of the 1760’s, the American world was being torn apart and sewn back together. For the better part of a decade New France had been at war with the British colonies. It was here that George Washington first saw battle along the bloody frontier. For the first time, every British colony from Massachusetts to Georgia stood united against foreign invasion. They were proud Britons, and proud Americans.

After some time it grew apparent to the French that the war was being lost. King Louis XV, expecting to be booted from the continent, sold the portion of New France west of the Mississippi to his Spanish cousins. A year later, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris would end the French and Indian War, and the remainder of the French lands in America would be left to the British.

It took some time for the Spanish to adjust to the new situation. No longer was there danger from encroaching French settlements in the north and east. The buffer state of Texas was unnecessary, as were presidios all along the frontier. In 1772 the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, sent out the New Regulation for Presidios. In the order he called for all Spanish subjects in the missions of East Texas to pull back to San Antonio.

Generations had risen and faded since Father Margil’s miracle on the banks of Lanana Creek. The settlers had long ago forgotten whatever lands they had come from. Their homes were here, their farms and ranches and small towns. They had been raised in East Texas soil, had found love there, had raised children of their own, had worshipped there, had scratched a living out of that ground, and by now it had as much claim on them as any Spanish politician.

Antonio Gil Ibarvo was among these natives. He was born in Los Adaes in 1729, in that portion of the Sabine Country that Americans later tacked on to Louisiana. When he married his wife, Maria, they settled a place they called “Rancho Lobanillo,” a hard day’s ride from Nacogdoches. In 1773, when the Governor sent soldiers to force the East Texans off their land, they rallied behind Ibarvo, naming him their leader. When they reached San Antonio, he petitioned for their return. After some time, his request was partly granted. In September of 1774 they founded the town of Bucareli on the west bank of the Trinity River.

Four years passed. The British were at war with themselves, the colonists fighting for their freedom against a tyrannical parliament and the king that stood behind it. Spain declared war on King George’s forces, but the people of Bucareli were already fighting a war of their own. Flooding and Indian raids ruined crops and laid waste to the town. In 1779, without government permission, they quietly left the settlement behind and passed into the forbidden east, to what may have been the only remaining European structure in East Texas: the mission at Nacogdoches.

The town soon began to thrive, far from Spanish oversight. Here in the wild woods they traded with Caddoes and Frenchmen, and the newly arrived Cajuns. As the years wore on, the victorious Britons of America would spread their Union westward, founding state after state. Outlaws and refugees of every race and creed would find a hiding place in the country east of the Sabine, where Ibarvo was born. But here, in Nacogdoches, settlers and immigrants would find their gateway back into a civilized nation. In time, Spain named Ibarvo lieutenant governor, commander of the militia, and local magistrate. They had no choice but to acknowledge the pueblo that would not die, the exiles that would not leave. Nacogdoches was here to stay.

Into the West

I was raised in green country. Miles of woods in every direction, and grassy pastures where the wood ends. My home is the land of azaleas, and my childhood involved plucking massive amounts of honeysuckle and scarring my face on Mom’s rose bushes. Everywhere I looked, there was plant life. We lived in a land where gardening did not mean convincing the right plants to grow, it meant cutting the wrong ones back. I’m still not sure I didn’t live in the Garden of Eden.

The first time I remember heading west, I was disturbed by the lack of vegetation. The farther we drove, the less trees there were. Everything seemed so barren and lifeless. There was no green, only brown. It was eerie, like some sort of wasteland out of a book. I just couldn’t understand.

But like the characters in those stories, we kept going, because there was something on the other end. We are nature lovers, my family, so more often than not we were driving towards beauty. The Grand Canyon stretched on for miles, and cave after cave was plundered for memories by a sudden swarm of Henrys. We saw mountains and dusty plains, and Enchanted Rock rising bald and smooth above the world.

When we weren’t searching for the Chisos Mountains or another national park, we were headed to the cities. San Antonio captured my imagination like few cities before or since. Austin and I have a love-hate relationship. Amarillo made a good, though brief, impression. Waco and New Braunfels gave flavor to my understanding of Texas. Dallas and Fort Worth had quite the presence, and the shores of Galveston still hold a grey and sandy place in my heart.

All our trips west were adventures, and the strange, endless stretches of dry roads in shadeless country always led back to their beginning. After each departure into the wilds of the empty spaces or the wonders of the urban world, we would return to our own little garden city.

One day, that changed. I went farther west, beyond our borders, beyond the plains, and beyond the mountains. There, in the cold northwest, I stayed for months. Hills stretched on for an eternity, and the color of the world was wheat. If you walk at night in town, you can pretend there are enough trees, but they end at the city limits. In the Inland Northwest, trees belong in the mountains or the cities, and nowhere in between.

The thing about places is that they grow on you. They harbor you, give you a refuge when you need to rest. They host your friends and a million parties, dances, adventures, and conversations you will never forget. They are the setting for the stories that changed you from who you were to who you are. If you stay there long enough, they become part of who you are.

The Northwest is not home, though now holds a warm place in my heart. But it has changed something. When I look out into the endless skies, I don’t see bareness. Instead, I see a world cleared of distractions. It is a place where you are not caught in the little things, but see the whole landscape in one grand sweep. Sometimes you just need to walk towards the horizon and see it stretching out ahead of you.

The west used to be a foreign wasteland in my imagination. Now those trips are part of who I am. I can’t picture my life without a San Antone, or a world without a Big Bend. If there were no plains, something good would have been lost. Without deserts or stunted trees, gardens mean little. Dry distances are nothing to be feared. And now, when I think of home, I smile at the thought of crossing the endless, brown miles back into the green.

Small Town Water Meters

For years now, when the sun gets hot and the middle of the month approaches, my dad asks me the same old question. “It’s about time for reading meters. You want to help?”

I don’t always answer yes, depending on what else is going on, but I like to when I can. And it always starts the same way. Early in the morning, when the sky is still grey, the harsh beeping of an alarm or the loud bark of my dad’s voice will jerk me out of a peaceful sleep. Groggy and liable to snap, I grunt my way out of bed and stumble around in search of clothes.

Next I thump down the stairs, where Dad tells me I should eat breakfast, and depending on how fuzzy my mouth feels, I shrug off the advice. He also recommends I fill a water bottle. After a few years, I started listening.

Mt. Enterprise is a little town of about five hundred souls somewhere just across the Rusk county line. Ancient houses and chicken farms radiate out from it like cattle wandering from an untended herd. And after enough hot days in those pastures and woods, I know a thing or two about wandering cattle.

The first hour or so is always the most picturesque. It’s a bit cool, and the dew is still on the grass. This means I get soaked to the bone as I struggle through the weeds after misplaced water meters, but it also means everything feels new and fresh. Thankfully, the first route is usually on the highway headed into town, so a fair number of lawns are well-clipped and thorns and bullnettle aren’t much of a problem.

Reading meters is a simple task, and it starts to take on its own rhythm. The truck moves and then stops. My eyes scan the ground for the nearest square of black plastic or rough concrete. By now each house is familiar and I hardly have to look. There are new buildings though, and sometimes I have to ask Dad where the additions are. Then I walk to the box, bend over or squat, remove the lid and let a series of numbers slip into my head for just long enough to walk back to the truck and rattle them out. My dad takes them down, and we move on to the next meter.

As the day winds on and the sun lifts itself above the tree line, we follow farm to market roads out in every direction. None of the houses flanking the roadsides or the little trailers hidden around curving blacktop corners really deserve the title “ranch.” Their acres certainly count as more than a subsistence farm, and they have more cattle than I would know what to do with, but they are neither vast nor opulent, and few hired hands, if any, count themselves authentic cowboys.

Ducking through barbed wire is fun enough, as is staring down cattle, but that’s not the exciting part of reading meters. That gold medal belongs to the dogs. Most houses have them, especially out of town, and some have several. Though they are occasionally fenced in, virtually none sport leashes. They are free to roam, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I say this as the stranger who invades their territory on a regular basis.

Most dogs are polite, if not friendly. They may grow nervous or bark a little, but only a very few snap to rigid attention and let loose a low, rumbling warning growl. My dad knows which ones these are, and we have the pepper spray to deal with them, if necessary. Then there is the occasional pooch that knows no stranger. Curious and friendly, they walk right up without saying a word and promptly sniff my by now filthy shins. I give these a scratch behind the ears and move on. And I talk to them all.

As the rhythm pounds on and the sun climbs higher, it begins to get hot on top of the humidity, and the sticky thorns and leaves become less tolerable. Some boxes are filled with bees or ants, and others have dirt or water covering up the meter. Occasionally someone is startled by the stranger in their yard. More often than not these folks give a friendly wave and make some variety of small talk. But sometimes a young black lady will look very concerned as I explain just what exactly I’m doing there.

There are, of course, the notorious stops. An enormous, impenetrable thicket surrounded by cars, farm equipment, old couches, and pieces of carpeting has the potential for being the world’s worst snake pit. And I can never remember quite where in the cane and saplings the meter is hiding.

Then, of course, there’s the old Nam veteran, whose chain link fence is topped with barbwire and supplemented a low-lying line of steel that I can testify is very effective at tripping intruders. The gate is barred and has a good three or four locks for which we have the keys. Once I get past there and beyond all the signs about invisible dogs, mysterious cameras, and the holy wrath which has never come down upon our heads, I go to the corner of the quiet lot and read the meter. Nothing much ever happens at that house, but I’m always expecting it to.

We push ourselves hard, and get the meters read quicker than my dad usually predicts. Partway through the day, usually at some point after noon, we stop for a bite to eat. This is probably my favorite part of the day. Sweaty as a jogger in the swamps in high summer, and covered in dirt, scratches, and bug bites, I get to sit down in a cushy chair in the air conditioning and eat some food.

Our usual place, just about the only place, is a Mexican restaurant. Before we make it across the threshold, the owners have recognized my dad and started fixing his sweet tea. I’m a stranger in Mt. Enterprise, a long time observer, but never a participant in the mysteries of the little community. Ergo, I have to remind them that I will have a Dr. Pepper. It’s a tiny little hole in the wall, fairly clean but not showy. There’s a television in the corner with Mexican game shows or Spanish soaps. I can catch half of every fifth sentence, and it amuses me greatly.

By the time the salsa is gone and my miraculous apparition of holy shrimp in enchilada form touches the table, a diner or two has joined us. My dad knows them all, and they know him. Some of them recognize me, having watched me grow up one summer at a time. One of them is a gunsmith. That’s not his job, it’s his vocation. He works at some plant or another, but fixes up all sorts of rifles, pistols, and shotguns in his free time. He reloads shells, too, and lets us use his firing range. One of these days I will use his name often enough to remember it.

When lunch is over and my stomach is filled to bursting, we hit the road again. Back before the meter books went digital, there were four of them. We split them up into two or three days, and worked through them one by one. The lines are fuzzier now, but there are still routes. Doing them after lunch makes me slow and lethargic in the summer heat, but once we get to the in-town routes I’m moving often enough that there’s no fear of nodding off. These are less pretty than the countryside scenery, but sometimes more entertaining. People are funny, and there houses reveal a lot of that.

Not every meter belongs to a house. Some belong to gas stations or churches (the East Texas Baptist Convention has a building across from the Missionary Baptists). There’s a fire department, and the Mexican restaurant. The high school’s meter box has a big metal cover with a little lip underneath that keeps it from coming off right. It’s a chore, but I enjoy going through that side of town.

When all is said and done, I’ve learned a good bit about Mt. Enterprise that the locals might never know. I’ve seen every nook and cranny. I know which dilapidated shacks are inhabited and which are not. I’ve seen the inside of pump stations and know how to tell whether a leak is the water company’s responsibility. I’ve crouched beside the corners of every business in the area and spoken reassuringly to every dog, from the smallest yipper to the biggest, meanest elkhound. Sometimes I even know who’s struggling financially.

But all that aside, I really know very little. The names on the mailboxes filed away in my memory have no faces attached, and no stories. The high school has a team, but I don’t know how they’re doing. The businesses have owners who know me on sight as John Henry’s boy, but I couldn’t tell you one thing about them. I’m an observer, an outsider looking in. This small town has plenty of memories that tug at my heartstrings, but I am not a part of it so much as it is a part of me.

My dad has other towns these days. Murvall, South Murvall, Lake Murvall, or some other Murvall. I’m not sure which. That’s a town I’ve never seen. He’s picked up Sacul, too. It has three churches and a restaurant that’s been voted the best mom-and-pop place to eat at in the state by Texas Monthly. There are one hundred and fifty people, one water tower, and a half-dozen bridges across one of the creeks that feeds into the Angelina. I don’t know it half as well as I do Mt. Enterprise, but I guarantee you it does not know me.

Some people spend their lives escaping small towns. I’ve spent my life observing them. I grew up eventually, and did move away. But I didn’t move away to escape them. I moved away to mature, to work the stupid out, and the arrogance, and the dissatisfaction. I moved out so that when I came back, I wouldn’t have to be just an immature observer. I could be participant.

I will probably never live in Mt. Enterprise or Sacul. It is not likely that I will take over the water systems when my dad retires, if he ever does. But I will be sad if I never go back there, just to drive the backroads, here the cattle low, and pet the dogs. I will be sad if I never know the store owners and town crazies as well as they know me. And the day I stop thanking God for those little towns in their quiet counties is a day I never want to see. I may not be from those small towns, but they are mine, and I’m proud of them.

Storm Clouds

They were grey and thick and covered every inch of the sky that could be seen from this little ditch in the hills. Lightning cut a jagged line across the heavens, a crash and rumble following close on its heels. Fat drops slapped my shoulders as I paced across the pavement, the cool air and the temperamental wind painting a smile across my face.

I had gone to sleep in the wee hours of the AM, having trekked across Moscow for an hour twice that night. I was thinking, and wishing my tired head was clear enough to make sense of the thoughts. I slapped some signs and punched some furniture I’d been trying to get rid of for a few weeks. I’d been told it was fun. True, but also a little hard on the knuckles.

I fell asleep, life still stirring my brains, in a creaky bed with no covers. It’s been too hot lately. To top it all off, I’ve got this sore throat that’s receding, but not quite gone.

I woke late this morning, my sinuses killing me. I thought it must be the sickness, though in other respects I felt better than the previous day. It didn’t matter. I had a package to deliver, and I set out to get the job done.

As I made my way towards Main, I saw the black clouds, heard a faint rumble in the distance. The air was alive, and it was changing. The pressure in my head was the atmosphere making its mood known. I watched with excitement as the sky grew dark and the storm began to build. By the time my package was in the mail and my feet were turned homewards, it was in full swing.

I curled up inside as the tin roof sang and trees bent this way and that. Country sang like a voice from home, and the staccato of the laptop keys formed a counterpoint to the shimmering sound of the water around me. It was a dark story that needed to be written in dark weather.

Now the sky is blue and the breeze is cool. The sun shines down like nothing ever happened, and the green grass smiles up at me from my seat beside the window. My story is written, and off to its first editor. My sore throat is all but gone, and this hot chocolate should finish it off.

In East Texas, you learn to be thankful for the sunny days and the storms. The one means freedom to run and play, the other means the trees keep growing, the grass stays green, and the flowers will bloom for another year. We’re all a little better for the gullywashers.